Tag Archives: New York

Turkish Jews: A Spanish right of return redux

15 Oct

istipol-synagogue-istanbulİştipol in Istanbul

When I first came across this idea of that Spain was granting Sephardic Jews Spanish citizenship I was mildly condescending, thinking that it was the most pointless kind of Western guilt for the past and that maybe Europe had better things to think about.

Then a friend sent me this article about the shrinking Jewish community of Istanbul from Young Turkish Jews trickling away from shrinking community from the Times of Israel:

Turkey’s economic boom in the first decade of the 21st century has slowed, and its currency has lost 20 percent of its value against the dollar in the past year alone.

As tuition prices in Turkey’s increasingly competitive universities have skyrocketed in recent years, the quality of education lags behind schools in western Europe, the United States and Canada.

Like many middle-class Turks, Turkish Jews have contributed of the country’s brain drain.

“There’s no doubt anti-Semitism is a motivating factor,” said Louis Fishman, an assistant professor at Brooklyn College who has split his time in the last decade between New York, Istanbul and Tel Aviv. “But there are other groups [in the Jewish community] that are leaving because they’re part of the middle class, they can go to school in the US and get a job abroad.”

T., a 30-something resident of Istanbul who, like other Turkish Jews, preferred to speak anonymously for fear of backlash, works in a multinational company, which he said offers many Turks a means of emigrating with financial security.

“Almost all my friends think about what to do next,” said T., especially after the 2010 and 2014 anti-Israel uproar in Turkey. “Even though we are staying here, everyone is thinking of their next move.” He said that in the past five years he’s noticed a marked rise in Jewish emigration from Turkey.

Another indicator of the anxiety pervading the community is the number of Turkish Jews who have jumped at the opportunity to acquire Spanish citizenship. The vast majority of Turkey’s Jews are descendants of Spanish exiles who were welcomed into the Ottoman Empire.

Earlier this year the Spanish government announced its intention of extending citizenship to descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled in 1492. Shortly thereafter 5,000 Turkish Jews — roughly a third of the community — applied for dual citizenship, potentially opening the doors to life in Europe, according to a recent Financial Times report. [my emphasis]

I don’t know why this idea — that Spanish citizenship would open the doors to life or work anywhere in the European Union — completely skipped my mind; it’s the reason that I got my Greek citizenship (along with a little bit of a more personal tug, granted…)  Maybe it’s because all discussion of the issue was focused on the Israelis that would be granted citizenship and I totally forgot about the only real Jewish community in the Muslim world (aside from Iran) that still exists.

Still, the article gives you enough to worry about in terms of minority life in Turkey: the people who wouldn’t go on record for the writer is just one.  And, I wonder if having dual citizenship is actually allowed in Turkey and if you’re not setting yourself up for trouble.  In 1964, Turkey expelled all Greeks who held both Greek and Turkish citizenship from Istanbul, in such an over-night fashion that it effectively meant confiscation of their property as well.   Next time you’ve found the perfect Airbnb space in Pera or Tarlabaşı, ask the owner if he knows anything about the building’s history.

Below is my first post on “Spanish right of return” and below that a 1964 article from The New York Times article on the Greek expulsions.

Turkish synagogueMembers of Turkey’s Jewish community pray at Neve Shalom Synagogue in Istanbul on October 11, 2004, during a ceremony to mark the official reopening of the synagogue (AP/Murad Sezer)

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A Spanish right of return for Sephardic Jews?

9 Feb

Boy, that’s a wild idea…

And I can’t help but think it’s EU-ish political correctness taken to the point of silliness.  Don’t you folks have a few other things to think about right now?

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“Why make a fuss about Spain’s ostensible effort to atone for bad behaviour, even if it’s about 524 years too late?” asks this Al Jazeera article about the Spanish offer, as it also examines some of the other complexities, ironies and…hypocrisies…behind the whole notion:

“To be sure, atonement in itself is far from fuss-worthy. Goodness knows this world could use more apologies, reparations, and truth-telling – and in fact, 1492 is not a bad place to start.

“That year happens to be rather synonymous with the decimation of indigenous populations in the Americas in the aftermath of a certain nautical expedition, authorised by the very same Ferdinand and Isabella who expelled the Jews from Spain.

“This is not to say, then, that the repercussions of centuries-old injustice aren’t alive and well; it’s merely to point out the ironies of an international panorama in which Mossad officials are granted additional homelands in Spain while Palestinians languish in refugee camps for nearly seven decades.”

And just another thought: it could hypothetically mean a minor flood of Sephardic Jews from Argentina, say, or other Latin American countries, looking for better economic possibilities.  But in Spain?  At this particular moment?  I think the days of heavy Latin American emigration to Spain have been put on hold for a while.

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ISTANBUL, Turkey, Aug. 8 —Harassment and deportation of Greek nationals in Istanbul in retaliation for Turkish set­backs on Cyprus was declared today “an open policy” of the Government.

Unless a solution to the strife between Greek and Turkish Cypriotes is found soon, the Greeks here fear that their community, once numerous and prosperous, will be dispersed before winter.

“The pressure on the Istanbul Greeks will be gradual,” said a spokesman for the Foreign Min­istry in Ankara.

Tactic Held Ineffective

Sources close to Premier Is­met Inonu said the Government believed “pressure on Greek na­tionals” was the only way left to Turkey to force Athens and the Greek‐dominated Cypriote Government to accept a satis­factory compromise.

Istanbul’s Greeks have many Turkish friends who believe the new tactic will prove as ineffec­tive as it is harsh. The consen­sus among the Greeks them­selves is that Turkey is using Cyprus as “an excuse to do what they have long wanted to do—get us out.”

This week 58 more Greeks were added to nearly 1,000 who had been deported on short no­tice since March.

New lists are expected within a few days, and the 9,000 re­maining Greek nationals are sure their days here are num­bered. Turkey has canceled, effective Sept. 15, a 1930 agree­ment under which Greeks have been privileged to live here.

There is fear now in the hearts of 60,000 Turks of Greek descent, They, too, complain of harassment, “tax persecution” and ostracism, although Premier Inonu has declared repeatedly that these minority nationals will not be discriminated against.

In the business districts of Istanbul, many Greek‐owned shops may be seen under pad­lock. They were closed on Government order or because the owners were summarily or­dered from the country. Wives and other dependents are in many cases left destitute.

Many Born in Turkey

Every morning large numbers of Greeks crowd into the arcaded foyer of the Greek Consulate to ask help and advice. Some ac­cept an emergency dole provided by the consulate; others are well dressed. Some are old and frail.

Most of those deported so far were born in Turkey, according to the consulate, and many had never been to Greece. They have no particular place in Greece to go, and they say they have no idea what to do when they get there.

Greeks scan the Istanbul newspapers for published lists, fearing they will find their names. When they do, they go to the police to be fingerprint­ed, photographed and asked to sign deportation statements. They are given a week to leave the country, and police escorts see that they make the dead­line.

Asset Sales Difficult

Families of deportees protest that it is impossible to sell businesses or personal property in so short a time. “Few want to buy from us, and no one wants to pay a fair price,” one victim said. A deportee may take with him only his cloth­ing, 200 Turkish lira (about $22) and his transportation ticket.

At first the Government de­nied that these deportations had anything to do with the dispute over Cyprus. AU the deportees were charged with “activities harmful to the Turk­ish state.”

The Greeks have found wry humor in this claim. According to a source close to the con­sulate, the deportation lists have included the names of six per­sons long dead.

There have been 121 deportees more than 70 years old and 20 over the age of 80.

Many charges have been raised against the Greek aliens: smuggling money out of the country, for example, or evad­ing taxes and military duty. The Turkish authorities say the Greeks have invested their wealth abroad and that this has damaged the Turkish economy.

Wealth Put at $200 Million

Turkish estimates of Greek wealth here have gone as high as $500 million. But recently this figure has been reduced to $200 million. Greeks say the Turks “reduced their inflated estimates when they realized that someday they might have to settle for properties taken from us.”

They blame Turkey for not having offered better invest­ment opportunities.

In addition to abrogating the 1930 agreement on residence, trade and shipping privileges, Ankara has suspended a 1955 agreement granting unrestricted travel facilities to nationals of both countries. A number of Greeks caught outside Turkey when this suspension took ef­fect are reported to be unable to return.

More seriously, Ankara re­cently decided to enforce strictly a long‐overlooked law barring Greek nationals from 30 professions and occupations. They cannot, for example, be doctors, nurses, architects, shoe­makers, tailors, plumbers, caba­ret singers, ironsmiths, cooks or tourist guides.

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Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

TIMES: end of Little Italy: “We took it for granted that New York would always be New York.”

10 Oct
Money quote: “…a city that can’t seem to hold on to its most captivating idiosyncrasies.”
I think it was yesterday’s Bodegas piece that may have primed me for this.

Moe’s Meat Market, in Little Italy, hasn’t been a meat market for 40 years. But the floor is still tiled in black and white, the walls covered in porcelain-enameled tin sheets. When the artist Robert Kobayashi, known as Kobi, bought Moe’s and the rest of its building in 1977, he moved in with his wife, the photographer Kate Keller, and installed his studio in the storefront, leaving the walls intact. As a sculptor who worked with tin, maybe he felt an affinity for the sheet metal. Maybe he just appreciated the history.

 Robert Kobayashi in his gallery in 2009. Credit Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times

Over time Moe’s became a fixture in the local art scene, part studio, part gallery, part social space. But now Moe’s is shutting down, one more loss in a city that can’t seem to hold on to its most captivating idiosyncrasies.

In its time, that tenement at 237 Elizabeth Street was alive with history, and Kobi and Kate quickly became part of it.

Upstairs lived Mary Albanese, the matriarch of the building and mother of another Moe the butcher, in his 90s today and still cutting meat at a shop across the street. (“Moe’s just a nickname in the family,” he explained. For what? “Gandolfo.” Go figure.) Down in the basement sat a Prohibition-era wine press and a heavy safe, once guarded by a bulldog named Reggio, who got drunk on the vino and left paw prints in the wet cement floor. (They’re still there, too, the press and the prints, though not the dog.) From the tenement’s open windows, elderly women dressed in black kept eyes on the street while the next generation did the same from sidewalk lounge chairs, their hair in pink curlers.

Mary Albanese standing in front of her butcher shop around 1970.

Bohemian life among the Sicilians of Elizabeth Street was good. Kate and Kobi were embraced like family. Their daughter, Misa, became one of the gang of Italian, Chinese and Puerto Rican kids on the block, and Kobi built go-carts for them to race. The artists who started moving into the neighborhood’s cheap apartments in the 1960s gathered at Moe’s, pulled in by Kobi’s magnetism. The storefront and its back room became a kind of third space, linking the old and new worlds together.

Misa Kobayashi and neighborhood kids playing on Elizabeth Street in the early 1990s. Credit Kate Keller

On a recent night, a crowd came to say goodbye to Moe’s and toast the memory of Kobi. Since his death in 2015, Kate has struggled to keep up with the building. Saying she felt lost on her own, she sold it to a man she calls an “angel” for his willingness to let her and the other tenants (artist and Italian) stay put. The gallery, however, will have to go.

 

At the farewell party, friends and family gathered in the dining room behind the gallery. There was the Dutch performance artist Marja Samsom in a black-and-white checkerboard hat and Susanna Cuyler, a writer who collects the names of people who have died during the year to read aloud on the winter solstice.

People gathered at Moe’s Meat Market on Saturday to tell stories and say goodbye. Credit Benjamin Norman for The New York Times

Talk around the table drifted to memory. The actress Penny Lynn White recounted the dangerous thrills of old Elizabeth Street. “It was drug city,” she said. “You’d go in the deli and there’d be a dead guy on the floor. Then they made ‘The Godfather’ and the street had cachet. That’s when the shops started moving in.” But John Gotti still walked the walk. Of her single memorable brush with the don, Penny recalled, “He said just one word to me as I passed: ‘Nice.’ ”

Kate Keller with Moe Albanese who at 94 still runs the butcher shop across the street from Moe’s. Credit Benjamin Norman for The New York Times

Another former neighbor, David Marshall, recalled how he’d go with Kobi to Mulberry Street on the last night of the Feast of San Gennaro, when the vendors were breaking down their stalls, so they could “harvest all that lovely wood for sculptures.” Kobi scavenged his metal from Bazzini peanut cans, beer cans and the pressed tin that decorated tenement ceilings. Increasingly, those ceilings ended up in Dumpsters as the neighborhood gentrified and buildings were gutted. Many at the goodbye party had already moved away or were just hanging on.

The San Gandolfo parade on a decidedly less prosperous Elizabeth Street, circa 1980. Credit Kate Keller

By the 2000s, the northern end of Elizabeth Street was lined with upscale shops and restaurants with names like Peasant and Trust Fund Baby. It was no longer Little Italy but NoLIta, rebranded by the real-estate industry. The block is unrecognizable. No more mingling families, no more open fire hydrants or trash can barbecues or dominoes on the sidewalk. “Now it’s all transient trust-fund kids,” Misa Kobayashi said.

Some at the party shrugged and said, “New York is always changing.” But one neighbor, Beth Joy Papaleo, put it bluntly: “We took it for granted that New York would always be New York. Then money destroyed it.”

Kobi and Kate purposely never profited from the building, and it’s clear that Kate is pained by the decision to sell. Still, she’s comforted by the thought that the spirit of the place will live on in Kobi’s work, in the colorful sculptures built from the stuff of the old street.

Kate Keller on the last evening at Moe’s Meat Market. Her daughter, Misa, is reflected in the mirror. Credit Benjamin Norman for The New York Times

 

“New York is like a big mystery tour,” Kate said, looking out from the open door of Moe’s. “When we moved here, it was a storybook. I’m from the Midwest. We didn’t have stories.”

As for becoming a part of those stories and bringing together the people who hold the history, she said, “None of it would have happened without Kobi.”

PUERTO RICO Fundraiser: Everybody has to go to this tomorrow; it’s our obligation as New Yorkers

3 Oct

P.S.1 in LIC: October 4th — PR Fundraiser

For everything Puerto Ricans have given this city, as an acknowledgement of the fundamental part of New York’s socio-cultural sensibility and attitudinal fabric that they constitute…  And to stick it to the Orangutan.

Do it for me if you’re my friend, ’cause I wouldn’t be who I am without Puerto Rico.   But I’m too far.  You have NO EXCUSES!  Especially all you Neo-Bushwickites who have displaced them — muah! — tell daddy you need 20 more $ this month.  (Like, if Lena Dunham doesn’t show up, she’s even more shameless than we all thought.)  Go donate and stand outside if it sells out.

Puerto Rico fundraiser James Franco

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Riz Ahmed, Immigration, Suketu Mehta and me, Identity Politics, and Varun and Sidharth’s “shining future”

21 Sep

riz-ahmedRiz Ahmed is the first man of Asian descent to win an acting Emmy Getty Images

Suketu Mehta’ conclusions in “This Land is Their Land” (see: Suketu Mehta in Foreign Policy addendum, whole text) echo some of my points on immigration in Greece, Britain, U.S. and everywhere (see: It’s immigration, “stupid”: the United States’ best-kept secret…streams of thought on a hot Sunday afternoon).

Me:

“It’s when immigrant/migrants/refugees are leaving that you should worry.

“My often-stated opinion that the West has both the resources and the historical obligation to take in every-body that needs and wants to come still holds.  That the European Union’s migration agreement with Turkey marked people fleeing a country in the condition of Afghanistan’s as “economic migrants” was a scandal.  But when you’ve got a problem with Poles — whit-er, better-educated, harder-working, more Christian, cuter, better-mannered and less binge-drinking than you — then you really do have a problem…

polish-scum

“America’s best-kept secret, despite what trailer trash Donald Trump and his crew tell you, is that immigrants are a self-selecting group of already highly motivated people who are connected and aware enough to have heard that things are better where you are.  And they’re not coming to take that from you; they’re coming to improve it.  They’re the A-list crew that crashes your party because they’ve heard your parties are the ones to crash and in the process makes them even more of the hottest ticket in town.  It’s a self-fufilling, auto-re-perpetuating process.

“New York, in other words.”

“Olympian Zeus, king of the gods, will tear your head off if you’re unwelcoming to the stranger — or worse, for a Greek, make you ugly — so you better watch out. He comes in disguise to test you. Like the angels to Abraham.”

“So…wooops…there they are. Here they come! They’ve arrived. And they’ve instantly made Greece a more interesting place. And interesting is strong. And strength is freedom.”

And Mehta:

“Countries that accept immigrants, like Canada, are doing better than countries that don’t, like Japan. But whether Trump or May or Orban likes it or not, immigrants will keep coming, to pursue happiness and a better life for their children. To the people who voted for them: Do not fear the newcomers. Many are young and will pay the pensions for the elderly, who are living longer than ever before. They will bring energy with them, for no one has more enterprise than someone who has left their distant home to make the difficult journey here, whether they’ve come legally or not. And given basic opportunities, they will be better behaved than the youth in the lands they move to, because immigrants in most countries have lower crime rates than the native-born. They will create jobs. They will cook and dance and write in new and exciting ways. They will make their new countries richer, in all senses of the word. The immigrant armada that is coming to your shores is actually a rescue fleet.[My emphases]

Was that one of the subtexts or even the skeletal structure of “The Night of…”, the brilliant mini-series and incredible ethnographic essay on New York from HBO for which Ahmed won his Emmy: good, criminally uninclined, son of hard-working Pakistani immigrant parents from Jackson Heights, with …a shining shining future
Sadda bright si (see full video at bottom), gets led to his doom by decadent white girl? or is he a good Muslim boy led astray by Hindu seductress disguised as lawyer who then screws herself in the process?  (I have to admit that the sexual scratch-marks on the back of Ahmed’s character, Naz, that come to light in one courtroom scene put me in mind of the Gita Govinda.)  Or more misogynist than that even: that women — period. — are trouble?

‘The Lovers Radha and Krishna in a Palm Grove’; miniature painting from the ‘Tehri Garhwal’ <i>Gita ­Govinda</i> (Song of the Cowherds), Punjab Hills, kingdom of Kangra or Guler, circa 1775–1780

Some of the frustrating contradictions of identity politics in the Washington Post‘s Riz Ahmed makes history as the first South Asian man to win an Emmy acting award.  If Riz Ahmed wants to not be type-cast as a Muslim or South Asian man every time he gets a role, but to eventually just play a character called “Dave”, then he’s going to need his fans’ help and have them not get apoplectically happy because he’s the first “Asian” (whatever that means) to win an Emmy, but because he’s a great actor who won an Emmy.

In the meantime, tabrik.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

#stopmindborders — the New Neo-Greek recovers his conscience

13 Aug

I hate to throw the term “New Neo-Greek” at you readers who have just started to grasp what “Neo-Greek” means.  I should have explained more explicitly earlier, but I think some of you sort of understand.

The “New Neo-Greek” is first and foremost the Greek of the Crisis.  That should explain most of it.  In an old post titled: “Un Verano en Nueva York”  I wrote, about a conversation between me and one of my favorite waiters on earth at Bar Jamón in New York:

“So a Greek and a Spaniard get together,” the joke goes — and of course these days they compare notes on how fucked up their respective countries have become.  I tell José that I think Spain is salvageable but that Greece seems in danger of just slipping off of the face of the earth at some point soon.  He’s not so confident.  He says people in Spain are “learning to be poor again,” getting used to a life with “un plato de alubias” — a plate of beans — a proverbial Spanish expression for just-bare-subsistence poverty.  He’s probably around thirty and he says bluntly that his generation in Spain is destroyed; that they’re going to hit their late thirties and early forties without any job experience and that unless you’ve got family money, your only option is emigration, like “old-time Gallegos” we both say in sync.  (Galicians in Spain are like Epirotes in Greece, the archetypically emigrating region, so much so that in much of Latin America all Spaniards used to be collectively referred to as “Gallegos.”)

My heart goes out to him and I respect his straight-eyed stoicism and I think he’ll be ok because he seems strong.  As hard as I try, though, my heart doesn’t go out to Greeks of his generation nor do I respect them.  I think they’re cry-babies who would be scared shitless – or worse, think it beneath them — to work in a bar in New York the way José does and that they deserve – richly — to relearn the cultural lessons of emigration and being poor again.  Three decades of illusory prosperity created an unbearable type of human being in Greece, a nouveau-riche culture of entitled provincials, cold, petty snobs who are snobs the way only the truly provincial can be – and I’m talking about Athens more than the provinces…

I’m pained by the genuinely poor and the old and the sick and the heroin addicts who are suffering and dying in Greece…

But that urban, middle-to-upper-middle-class, twenty-five to forty-five-year-old demographic in Greece…they can just go back to washing dishes in Chicago again like our grandfathers did as far as I care.  Let ‘em start from scratch; see what kind of culture they can come up with this time.

Well, I have to now admit that I was a little unfair.  The “nouveau-riche culture of entitled provincials, cold, petty snobs who are snobs the way only the truly provincial can be…” still exists, of course, but they have been completely marginalized by a new awareness: of tradition, of “politesse,” of civilized behavior, and of a humanism that I’ll accept the charge of cliché for, but which suddenly seems to have become Greeks’ instinctive birthright again.

As far back as 2015, Roger Cohen wrote in the Times:

Greece has made me think about everything statistics don’t tell you. No European country has been as battered in recent years. No European country has responded with as much consistent humanity to the refugee crisis…

More than 200,000 refugees, mainly from Syria, have arrived in a Greece on the brink this year, almost half of them coming ashore in the island of Lesbos, which lies just six miles from Turkey. They have entered a country with a quarter of its population unemployed. They have found themselves in a state whose per-capita income has fallen by nearly 23 percent since the crisis began, with a tenuous banking system and unstable politics. Greece could serve as a textbook example of a nation with potential for violence against a massive influx of outsiders.

In general, the refugees have been well received. There have been clashes, including on Lesbos, but almost none of the miserable bigotry, petty calculation, schoolyard petulance and amnesiac small-mindedness emanating from European Union countries further north, particularly Hungary.

I might have put off explaining what the “New” Greek is like all at once then, and just kind of refer to it here and there in different posts, because I didn’t feel like there was any one thing that I could hold up as evidence.  Then this #stopmindborders campaign appeared and I thought I had to jump at the opportunity.  I think maybe Greeks would have responded to the migration wave that came into the country in the last few years with decency even if the country weren’t in such a crisis, but it was the waking up from amnesia that Cohen refers too that played the greatest part; Greeks suddenly remembered that they were once one of the planet’s great emigrating peoples.

More at some other time.  Watch all the campaign’s videos though (mercifully subtitled); they’re really moving and worth the time.  Their motto is: “The greatest borders are the ones we build in our minds”

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

My ‘hood: “Finding the American Ideal in Queens” — ‘In Jackson Heights’ from the New Yorker, Richard Brody

4 Nov

Screen Shot 2015-11-04 at 2.23.44 PM(cick)

Frederick Wiseman’s new documentary film, “In Jackson Heights,” is about the very stuff of life—the ability to make a living, to live in safety, to live without fear, to plan for the future. Credit Photograph courtesy Zipporah Films

(Though this photo shows the 7 train passing through Woodside already and not Jackson Heights — J.H. is Queens’ largest historic district; Woodside is not nearly as attractive.)

Frederick Wiseman’s approach to documentaries is so radically interventionist, his personal imprint is so strong in his choice of subject and his approach to it, that he has no need to show himself in the mirror, or put his voice on the soundtrack, or allow the films’ participants to address him and make viewers aware that he’s there. Though Wiseman is never seen or heard, he’s present in virtually every frame by the force of his analytical conception of the events onscreen. In his new film, “In Jackson Heights,” his powerful and far-reaching ideas come through with the emphatic clarity of a manifesto.

All three words of the title are important: the movie isn’t about Jackson Heights, and it certainly isn’t about the essence or definition of Jackson Heights. It’s a record of some people, places, and events that Wiseman found in Jackson Heights—but what he found there is what he was looking for. “In Jackson Heights” is, for the most part, a non-spontaneous documentary, a documentary by design. Wiseman did some filming in the street, in unplanned and uncontrolled circumstances, of things that took place when he happened to be there. But he didn’t put much of that in the film. Rather, most of the film takes place at meetings that were planned in advance. What Wiseman found in Jackson Heights is people talking, mainly in organized, formalized settings that have their pretext and their agenda defined. He finds civic life taking place in public and quasi-public places—houses of worship, stores, storefront offices of non-profit community organizations, and local governmental offices, including the storefront office of the neighborhood’s City Council representative, Daniel Dromm.

The movie runs more than three hours, and Wiseman lets the talk unfold gradually, with respect for the underlying logic of the matters at hand as well as for the passions that they inspire. The discussions that he films involve such matters as fair labor practices, gentrification, the legal ramifications of urban gardening, the push for change in traffic-safety regulations, school redistricting, police harassment of gay and transgender bar patrons, fear of deportation, citizenship-test study, and the laws and norms to pass a taxi-driver test. In other words, the movie is about the very stuff of life—the ability to make a living, to live in safety, to live without fear, to plan for the future.

The problems that Wiseman finds are local, practical, intimate, but the emotions that he films are grand and tragic. One woman’s account, delivered in a storefront meeting, of her daughter’s harrowing trip through the desert after crossing the border from Mexico has the desperate dramatic coherence of a feature film in itself. A discussion in a barbershop, about the suspected role of a planned Business Improvement District in the displacement of local businesses and the takeover of property by major real-estate investors, has the analytical scope of an investigative opera.

Here, as he has been doing throughout his career, Wiseman films people in walks of life that rarely get them in front of a camera, walks of life that don’t often involve public speaking, and he films them talking. It should be no surprise that they have a lot to say and that they say it engagingly. (As I wrote here recently, it’s a pet peeve of mine that educated filmmakers write working-class characters as stolid, silent types.) Most people do; Wiseman cares enough to look and to listen, to take an interest in what they have to say—and to find the wider societal implications in what they say and to put the ideas along with the people at the center of his film.

That’s why, if the end-of-year lists were to be made today, “In Jackson Heights” would be a contender for Best Screenplay. The fact that its dialogue wasn’t written by Wiseman is irrelevant. He didn’t author the words but he authored their cinematic form, the images and the rhythms, the selection and the context, that rescues them from the stream of time and seemingly sculpts them, in high relief, onscreen. Wiseman (who recorded the sound himself) and the cinematographer John Davey find a splendidly simple visual trope to lend the speech of individuals a public and collective identity: filming discussions for the most part without closeups or speakers isolated in the frame, but, rather, with the speakers set in a composition featuring many people together, as if creating a real-life theatre of political discourse taking place on the wing.

Wiseman highlights the distinctions between neighborhood and community. What he finds in Jackson Heights are communities that seem to have little connection. Latino immigrants meet and speak with each other, as do members of gay-pride organizations; an imam preaches to Muslims in a mosque, a priest preaches to Catholics in a church, Jewish congregants speak to congregants during a service in a synagogue. The only significant public gathering that features a diverse group of attendees is a public meeting regarding traffic safety—and there, Wiseman shows only one speaker, the representative of a nonprofit organization devoted to that purpose. The neighborhood of Jackson Heights appears to be inhabited by members of communities who live side by side but, identifying with their groups, seem to have little contact with those who identify with other groups.

But the crucial connections that spark most of the movie’s discussions are provided by nonprofit organizations and by community organizers who work for them. These organizations that play a central role in the film—whether as the very sites of discussions in their storefront offices or during the visits of organizers to the stores and offices of local merchants—come off as crucial gears in the social and political process. For recent immigrants, these organizations are key points of entry into civic life, the engagement with public institutions as well as the insulation that eases contact with organized forms of public power.

These residents and their organizers aren’t solely protesting or venting grievances—though they’re doing that, too, as well they should. They’re beginning to take part in what comes through, in Wiseman’s view, as the essence of American life, which is its political structures and systems. If there’s a theatre of public life that Wiseman finds, these nonprofit groups are the impresarios who provide the stage for residents who, for the most part, are unconnected from and unrepresented in political life—not least because many aren’t citizens and therefore can’t vote.

The absences in “In Jackson Heights” are as conspicuous as the presences—the absence of relations between communities; the absence of the voices of children and teens (I wonder whether filming in schools might have revealed closer inter-community friendships); the absence of the resented gentrifiers themselves; the absence of resentment overall, including from multigenerational residents against relative newcomers there only for a decade or two.

But the biggest and most conspicuous absence is homes. Wiseman’s subject is political life in the most classical sense—the polis, the life of the city—and his emphasis on urban dwellers’ struggle for a part in the political process, his vision of what surpasses the boundaries of the self-defined community and reaches far beyond local neighborhood, is the idea of equality under the law, fair treatment by the law—in short, the political ideal of the United States. Wiseman’s humanism isn’t narrow in scope; it’s based on the inextricable connection between personal intentions and desires and the societal circumstances that foster or thwart them, the near-constant impingement of the workings of the law on the conduct of daily life, of the inseparability of personal fulfillment and the quest for justice.

“In Jackson Heights” is about America, about the American Dream; it’s a loving depiction of people who pursue it despite mighty obstacles—and of the dream itself, to live without fear of the authorities, to believe that the government will protect one’s interests fairly, to believe in the prospect of a better life through one’s own labors. But, as Wiseman also makes clear, the system that makes personal progress possible is a legal system of fair and just conditions, not utterly unconstrained ones; it depends not on the rhetoric of boundless possibilities but on the definition of legitimate ones,.

The underlying subject of “In Jackson Heights” is the meaning of the “unum” in “E pluribus unum.” It isn’t, as this year’s Presidential-campaign xenophobes would have it, conformity to some preëxisting national culture that, given the nation’s immigrant origins, it would be absurd to call nativist. The plural is culture; the unifier is the political system itself: devotion to the Constitution, to the rule of law, to the exercise of the rights that it guarantees, and to the responsibilities and protections that it affirms. What Wiseman saw in Jackson Heights could perhaps have been found elsewhere, and what he filmed there may not even be the most salient aspects of Jackson Heights. Rather, what he found in Jackson Heights is, as the film meticulously, intellectually, allusively, yet ardently shows, a crucial aspect of American experience, a working-out on film of the American democratic ideal.

(And here’s what Jackson Heights really looks like, or at least my street and Roosevelt Avenue under the El.  (click on all)

IMG_0946 IMG_0949

roosevelt-avenue-jackson-heights-little-india-micro-neighborhoods-nyc-untapped-cities-brennan-ortiz

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

The Pakistani cab-drivers and Hanuman

15 Oct

Taxi-cabs-New-York-0986

I had a seriously annoying Pakistani cab-driver a few days before I left New York in September.

He saw my “Jai Bajrang Bali” tattoo to Hanuman (for those who don’t know: Hanuman) and he said:

“What that say on your arm?”

I said: “It says ‘Jai Bajrang Bali’”, which is a praise-phrase for Hanuman that I think roughly means: ‘Hail, strong one’ (He’s the patron deity of wrestlers and strength athletes generally and I got it in prep for going back to judo.)

“You know about Hanuman?  You read about him?”

“Yeah…” seeing where this was going.

“You Hindu?”

“No”

“So why you Hindu on your arm?”

“Because Hanuman is important to me.”

“So why don’t you become Hindu?”

“Well,” I said kind of testily, “you can’t become Hindu.  You can observe Hindu practices or show some reverence for Hindu deities, but you’re born Hindu, with a very specific place in the cosmic order, with a varna and a caste and a gotra and its particular deity/deities that you’re devoted to and very particular and varied rites or ritual obligations that you’re subject too.  You can’t really convert to Hinduism…in my opinion, at least, despite lots of white people who think they can.”

Silence.

A little bit out of his depth at this point.

“You Jewish?”

(Of course, right?)

“No, I’m Christian technically, Greek Orthodox.”

“If you Christian, how come you have Hindu on your arm?”

“Well,” I said, “that’s probably a little hard for a Muslim to understand.”

And that ended the conversation.

But I shit y’all not, two days later I had the same conversation with another one.  This one ended more abruptly.  When we got to the part about how one can’t “become” Hindu, he started telling me that Islam is very simple and that to become a Muslim is very simple.  “You want to become Muslim, it’s very simple.”

But instead of saying…

“Yes, I imagine the appeal of all totalizing and authoritarian ideologies has always been their ‘simplicity.’  ‘Come with us — it’s simple…’”

…I just said: “Oh, well then maybe I’ll think about it.”

I don’t think he knew what to make of that one.

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See also: “For Hanuman-ji and the Pakistani cab-drivers: Aditya Kapoor’s beautiful photo essay of a wrestling akhara in Benares

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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