Saturday, December 30, 2006

consider this picture, or my own private american religious denomination

Completely unrelated - Roshan has recovered from his trip to New York, and posted a few good pictures.

Almost, but not quite completely unrelated - This post could be said to be (very tangentially) connected to Saddam's martyrdom, so here's my two bits before the main post starts. That's right. Imho, by hanging the man so speedily, he has been turned into a Sunni (versus Shiite) martyr. As if Iraq needed more 'good' news. Now I'm just waiting to read how Thomas Friedman gets it horrendously wrong.

And now, the post.

Consider this picture.

In the foreground, near the bottom right corner of the frame, is a small idol. A blue caped figure of a Black Madonna, with an infant Jesus in her arms. A white infant Jesus. She seems to be standing on a thick carpet of leaves. This path, off Riverside Drive, is infrequented. Near the top of the frame, stuck on to the iron fence that separates the path from the steep fall behind, are two more figures, looking skywards, representations of a Native American man and a woman. Perhaps they are/were supposed to be the Hiawatha and Minnehaha of Longfellow's famous poem. Behind the fence, almost blending into the undergrowth, are two more Indian figures. On the left, is the muscular hook-nosed figure of a warrior in a war bonnet, standing erect, with hand on knife, seeming to look down at the other figure in the background, the fallen bust of an Indian woman. Behind them, the leaf-less trees of December, and then, far below, the grey waters of the Hudson; and the thin dark band of New Jersey shore.

Not in the picture – a plastic gallon milk jug cut into a bird feeder, hanging from tree branches about ten feet above the figures. it was this last detail that convinced me that this strange array of mass produced figures, moulded plaster and plastic, was a shrine of sorts. That the coming together of four Indians, a bird feeder and a Black Madonna on a disused path by Riverside Drive is not random, but sacred for someone.

What sort of a shrine is this? What does it ask us to commemorate?

Consider the Black Madonna. Perhaps remembering the Italian immigrants to New York of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who revere Black Madonnas in their homeland. Perhaps remembering the Polish for ditto reasons. (Check out the Black Madonna of East 13th Street). Perhaps commemorating Afro-American traditions of art, in which the Madonna is, for obvious reasons, black. (Or maybe not so obvious -all the Virigin Mary figures in dominantly dark skinned Kerala are all shiny acrylic cream coloured.) After all, this shrine is only two blocks south of the boundary between genteel (and white/international elite) neighbourhood of Columbia and the rather poorer Black and Hispanic neighbourhood of Harlem. But the detail that completely trips me up is that baby Jesus is well, umm, sort of pasty. In all the images of the Black Madonna I have seen, whether European or African, the Madonna and the child are the same colour. so this new shiny black madonna, this Madonna for the twenty first century, is a sign of racial integration, perhaps. Or more cynically, a shrine to Mexican maids bringing up white yuppie kids, like in Babel.

Consider the Indians. Do these figures represent the Lenape Indians, the people who are popularly remembered as having done the worst ever real estate deal in history by 'selling' Manhattan to the Dutch for goods worth 60 guilders? (The Seminole Indians, who now own the Hard Rock Cafe business, have declared they will buy Manhattan back, 'one burger at a time.') Does it ask us to remember the decimation of the Indians first by diseases from the Europe, followed by the massacres, and the breaking of treaties, that marginalised them, that allowed the white settlers to pretend/believe that they were taking over a wilderness, rather than a heavily peopled continent that they were responsible for decimating? (Read Charles C. Mann on 1491 – America before Columbus). Or does it remember that despite the decimation, the Indians have had an important role to play in the building of modern New York, even if it is due to racial stereotyping? Does it ask us to remember that Mohawk Indians 'Skywalkers', were important in building skyscrapers (and clearing the debris of 9/11) because they are considered to be unafraid of heights?

And just what does it mean for these figures to come together? The Madonna and the Indians? Perhaps it is just homage to Longfellow's strange project of fixing (and distorting) Native American histories into the manifest destiny of white, Christian America? Consider this -

“The poem closes with the approach of a birch canoe to Hiawatha's village, containing "the Priest of Prayer, the Pale-face." Hiawatha welcomes him joyously and the "Black-Robe chief"

    Told his message to the people,

    Told the purport of his mission,

Hiawatha and the chiefs accept their message. Hiawatha bids farewell to Nokomis, the warriors, and the young men, giving them this charge: "But my guests I leave behind me/Listen to their words of wisdom,/Listen to the truth they tell you." Having endorsed the Christian missionaries, he launches his canoe for the last time westward toward the sunset, and departs forever.”

Ah, I am being too cynical. What is not in the picture is that the high ground on which this shrine, and Columbia University are built, was the site of the Battle of Harlem Heights, one of the many battles of the New York Valley Campaign fought between the forces of George Washington and Lord Cornwallis during the American War of Independence. What is also not in the picture is that this campaign was pretty disastrous for the Americans versus the British forces, which kept pushing them back. Harlem Heights was one time when the Americans managed to hold their ground. (And not a victory, as is remembered at the Broadway entrance to Columbia.)

What is not in the picture is that the shrine is located equidistantly between two radically different memorials to the dead. One is the grand (and imho, soulless) Grant's tomb, built for Civil War Hero and President, Ulysses S. Grant. The shrine is also on the same path, and only about a hundred feet or so away is the 'Amiable Child Memorial', a small memorial erected for a child who died too young, and one which has been cared for for the past two centuries.

So here between the memorial to a small child who died too young, and is remarkable only for being remembered, and the massive tomb of a President (the epitome of the high and mighty with whose doings traditional history is concerned); at the site of a battle ground where 'America' (and what it stands/stood for) held out, rather than retreating against the forces of Empire, stands a shrine. In a time when America is Empire, when it has besieged itself, what does this shrine, this space on the side of the road mean?

For me, this shrine stands for all that America has lost, all the good that still tenuously is, and all the beleaguered possibilities that the idea of America still holds out. An America which will acknowledge not just what the American Indians have lost, but what they have contributed (including, as Robert Pirsig and Charles C. Mann have argued, the very ideas of political liberty and individual equality). An America where Sherman Alexie can be just another great writer rather than being sometimes having to be a 'Native American' great writer. An America where black and white (and Indian and everyone else) could truly come together. An America where all will be fed, by the land's abundant bounty, including the birds.

I will worship at this shrine. I will play music. Yesterday, in Brooklyn, I heard the music that I will play. The music of New Andalus.


There was an Indian at the blowout. Not a desi Indian, of which there were several, but an American Indian, who plays on one my roommate's soccer team. We got talking about various things, and told me that it was significant that Columbus sailed in the year that Granada was conquered. By expelling Muslims and hence formally severing ties with Spain's Musilm past and with the Muslim world, the Spanish throne and church wanted new routes, outside the control of the Arab world, to the goods and spices of India and the Far East.

1492. The year that Columbus tried to find the sea route to India and 'discovered' America instead. 1492. Also the year when after the decree expelling the Jews and Muslims from Spain were issued. 1492. The year the world started changing something crazy. In Spain, in the Middle East, in the Americas, in India. what do begin I say of the Portugese attack, beginning 1498, on the Indian ocean world?

Those who were exiled from Old Spain, from their world as it was before 1491, took the music of that world with them. The music that till date, in North Africa and on the Levantine coast, is known as Andalusi. Music of beautiful heartache and perpetual exile. Music that would make complete sense in the Americas, land of exiles; those who fled, and those who came as slaves, and those who became exiles in their own lands. Music of misrecognition; Andalusi music plays in the Arab world, Native Americans are 'Indians'.

Yesterday, at Bam Cafe, the Arab ensemble Turab played with the Spanish flamenco group Gazpacho Andalou. What had been sundered was made whole, and made anew. It was fun, crazy, insane, hand clapping, dance inducing sing along beautiful, and I understand neither Spanish nor Arabic. This is what the invite said -

North African rhythms and folk songs are fused with the spirit of Flamenco when Arab ensemble Tarab takes the stage with Flamenco group Gazpacho Andalú. With Andalusian, Sephardic, Islamic, and Gypsy influences, Tarab and Gazpacho Andalú strive to instate New York as New Andalucia.

New York as New Andalus, where the culture of tolerance (however romanticized) made Al-Andalus what it was (however romanticized) to be made anew in the New World, in New York, in the land which stood for, perhaps still stands for, new beginnings.

I will play the music of New Andalus at the leaf carpeted shrine of plaster and plastic figures, in that space on the side of the road. Call me an incurable optimist if you will, but in times like these, when the world has been going crazy all over again, sometimes all one can do is hope.
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