Thursday, November 27, 2008

Maximum City Under Seige

The terrorists have struck again in Mumbai. The city has been under seige for almost twelve hours, as gunmen armed with AK-47s and grenades have stormed close to a dozen targets throughout India's largest city.

Among the notable locations attacked allegedly by the Deccan Mujahideen are the monumental Victoria Terminus (Chhatrapathi Shivaji Terminus) train station, the iconic Taj Palace hotel, and popular Leopold's Cafe. These symbolic sites were struck because they represent the centers of elite life in Mumbai, where wealthy Mumbaikars, tourists, and Western expatriates mingle. The unprecedented scope of the attacks caught the city completely off-guard, as the gunmen entered into the city from boats that docked next to the Gateway of India.

VT station is where two million commuters come and go every day of the week. This is the primary transit hub for the residents of India's financial capital. The assaults inside this station come two years after a series of six blasts in the first class compartments on trains across Mumbai killed 200 people.

But the scale of last night's attacks went far beyond the crowded railways. Attacking tourist haunts, the Cama Hospital, a movie theater, and the creme de la creme hotels make this strike the most bloody and unusual series of coordinated terrorist actions that India has ever experienced.

Mumbai awoke Thursday morning to the shocking sight of the Taj Mahal Hotel burning and army snipers waiting atop the adjacent Gateway of India for the terrorists to emerge. Commandos attempted to end hostage situations at several locales across South Mumbai. Jamshetji Tata's jewel was crackling with the flames of a war initiated by a mysterious terrorist organization. Along with the Trident Oberoi hotel, the Taj is truly a landmark of opulence. Striking at this symbol of affluence makes an enormous statement. Combating so many centers of power with this new kind of terror sets a horrific precedent for the future.

Mumbai is a powder keg, and this explosive series of actions has shocked anti-terror security forces, whose leader was actually killed in gun battles with the terrorists. The level of planning that went into this operation is astounding, and the security forces need to bone up on their intelligence gathering.

Whether the goal of this multi-faceted operation was to destabilize Indian society, kill Westerners, or free Islamic prisoners, terrorism in India has been taken to the next level. It is baffling to try piecing together images of blood splattered across the floor of VT and multiple reports of middle-class, uncharacteristic hostage-takers. Although Western expatriates are disproportionately represented among the victims of the prolonged agony, many questions have yet to be answered.

Does this operation emerge in the anti-Western ideas of Pakistani madrasas? Has it boiled over from the deep poverty of Mumbai's overcrowded slums? How wide is the terror network that carried out the attack? What is the essence of their message?

My home for nine months has been victimized by political violence. But, my hope is that fear and hatred will not prevail in the city of dreams. While train services are running, stock exchanges, schools, and offices will remain closed on Thursday. The young perpetrators of these acts have caught a city that was not well-equipped enough for attacks of this scope, but the city will quickly rebuild.

Jai Mumbai!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Veteran's Day Parade on Fifth Avenue

On November 11th, the Veteran's Day Parade marched northward on Fifth Avenue, in a patriotic display of support for the various branches of the U.S. armed forces.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Got Khat?

Americans chew tobacco. Indians chew paan. Yemenis chew khat.

Ethiopians, Somalis, and a host of other East African peoples also chew the leafy substance. But, Yemenis are the most hooked – two-thirds are said to be khat consumers.

Khat is a mild stimulant stronger than caffeine but less potent than cocaine. Users feel a buzz that decreases appetite, increases sexual stamina, and hones concentration. It was carelessly enjoyed during wedding parties and holiday celebrations among Yemeni immigrants to the U.S. - from Dearborn, Mich. to New York City.

But that all changed, when federal drug authorities began treating khat users, growers, and dealers as criminals on the opposing side of the drug war. The subculture has been under siege by zero tolerance policies, but the Yemeni community is eager to appear unbothered by changes in law enforcement.

"We don't do that around here. We have come to this country to work 12 hours a day, and there is no time for that. Only back in Yemen, it’s different there," said Mohammed Abdu, 21, who manages an East Harlem deli at East 117th Street and Madison Avenue.

"We used to chew in Michigan, but I haven't chewed khat since 2005. It's hard to get and too expensive," said Abdu. "Plus, it's not even worth chewing if it's dried. In Cali and Detroit, you can't even grow it anymore," Abdu added, mentioning a friend in Michigan jailed for growing.

“If we Yemenis didn't have khat, we'd have other drugs. Better khat than something worse," he said.

The five to six hour khat-chewing cycle is typically enjoyed in the afternoon. The drug induces a comfortable and relaxed buzz. "If you bad in the morning, then you good by the afternoon," said Abdu.

Khat is against the law in the U.S., and a crackdown by authorities makes consumption of the drug exceedingly difficult. But, the many Yemeni immigrants surveyed for this article were loath to suggest that they enjoyed consumption of the drug, for fear of legal repercussions.

Prior to the stricter enforcement, khat was sold freely, in bodegas and cafes from East Harlem to Boerum Hill. Immigrant communities continue to chew, albeit behind closed doors. And peddling the drug has been driven deep underground, conducted by dealers who risk significant jail time.

The drug has disappeared from places such as the Yemen Cafe on Brooklyn's Atlantic Avenue, where construction workers, travel agents, and shopkeepers mingle over chicken loubia and lamb zorbian. Pictures of Yemeni villages and ceremonial daggers on the wall remind patrons of the old country. But, none of the two dozen customers were chewing khat on a recent Monday afternoon.

The manager, who would not give his real name, said that even chewers know their mild addiction is a waste of time. He added that the subject was very sensitive because neighborhood residents were afraid of being arrested.

In 2000, seizures of the product and arrests of the khat dealers in Cobble Hill began hampering consumption.

A rough year for khat importers was 2003, when U.S. drug authorities seized over 45 tons of khat in the New York metro area. According to Erin Mulvey, spokesperson for the Drug Enforcement Agency, the seizures have continued, leading to Somalia Express, the biggest New York anti-khat operation in 2006, which netted 44 arrests.

"The khat crackdown has resulted in a decrease in consumption, especially in New York, which is a hub of khat distribution. Due to law enforcement efforts, a majority of users now understand the drug's illegality," Mulvey said.

Eradication efforts have driven khat prices higher, resulting in a market price that has more than doubled since 2000.

A bundle of fresh leaves includes about a dozen stems and costs about $50. But fresh leaves are hard to find in the U.S. The dried leaves, of inferior quality, are much more common.

Mahmoud, 48, is a Yemeni immigrant from the city of Ibb who works at the same East Harlem bodega as Abdu. He said that khat makes people loquacious but forgetful. Mahmoud also said that abstainers in his hometown are stigmatized as too shy or too poor to afford the daily chewing session.

“I used to chew khat to take tests better and retain information. It's like coffee but stronger," said Mahmoud. "Here in New York, people don't mind the government crackdown. Some people even move to the U.S. to get away from khat, but the last time I chewed, I was 16. When I go back, I'd rather buy toys for my kids or take trips to the mountains than buy khat."

Sitting on a 36-pack of Coors Light, Mahmoud demonstrated how Yemenis relax to the drug and discuss poetry and politics. "If I chew here, I gonna be crazy. You need time to rest afterwards. Working 12 hours a day here, you can't do that," Mahmoud said.

The drug is legal in much of Europe, including the United Kingdom, which has a vibrant khat-chewing community in London. But, it is considered a Schedule 2 controlled substance in the United States, as illegal as oxycontin and hydrocodone.

Many critics believe that khat is a waste of time and money. Khat is often associated with chronic underemployment. While it is only mildly addictive, it can cause gum disease.

The debate over khat in East Africa and the Middle East focuses on both the economic and social costs of the drug. Opponents argue that agricultural resources would be better utilized growing other plants.

Khat cultivation uses an estimated 40% of Yemen’s country’s water supply, but one can hardly blame farmers, who yield up to five times more from khat cultivation than from any other crop.

“Nowadays, khat is just something that you do while watching TV. You do it with your friends at home instead of going to a bar. It’s just like eating these chips,” said Ahmed Jahm, 37, a Yemeni immigrant who works at Wahidah restaurant in Boerum Hill, who was munching on vegetable root chips from the Trader Joe’s on the other side of Court Street.

“People just talk about their store’s problems and whose kids are going to this or that college. But, I don’t chew, ‘cause I have a 14-year-old son, and I have to be a good role model.”

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Election Enclave: the Hasidic Vote in Crown Heights

Audio Slideshow by Gaia Pianigiani and me.

Two days before the election, the Hasidic Jewish community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, is strongly leaning towards John McCain, in contrast with predominantly Democratic New York City. Many members of the Lubavitch community expressed concerns about foreign policy, school vouchers, and social conservatism. Barack Obama's perceived lack of experience and weakness in the war on terror have contributed to the community's overwhelming support for McCain. However, some voters stated ambivalence or indifference towards the presidential race.

Decision NYC link

Selling Obama: Vendors Peddle Politics on the Streets of Manhattan

Audio slideshow by Joe Jackson and me.

Street vendors in Manhattan have been cashing in on Barack Obama's iconic image for months, selling a wide variety of merchandise from t-shirts to posters. November 4 heralds the official end of the election season, but these salesmen are expecting business to continue - regardless of the outcome of the presidential race.

Decision NYC link

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Aggregatr - All The Media That's Fit To Aggregate

Knight News Challenge Project Title: Aggregatr - All The Media That's Fit To Aggregate

Click on the link above to read and rate the proposal that Stefan De Clercq and I submitted for this digital media grant.

Describe your project:

Currently in beta version, is a website that enables users simultaneously to produce and consume all the media that's fit to aggregate. With a customizable one-size-fits-all template, any citizen editor with access to the internet can arrange media topically or geographically on an interactive Drudge-type report. Select, click, drag, and publish news content on the user-friendly layout. With bookmarklets, the site also allows users to send hyperlinks conveniently to contacts on discrete buddy lists.

Aggregatr's strength is in tailor-made reports on whatever domain of news the citizen editor distributes to her readers, friends, or employees. A user's unique amalgamation of links, photos, and videos caters to any issue: African geopolitics, pharmaceutical research, or educational advocacy. One can simultaneously curate multiple reports on different subjects and then distribute the reports to targeted consumers. User-generated examples of news aggregation are the Persian Post, Joe the Plumber's Report, and The Word on Main Street, which reflect the citizen editor's worldview, preferences, and reflexivity within the Aggregatr community.

Beyond a report's URL and RSS feed, news distribution will also be achieved with the PublishNow button, which will embed the report into an convenient email newsletter format automatically sent out daily, weekly, or monthly. The scalable niche markets that are reachable with this technology are endless. Citizen editors can deliver publications in domains where no news compilation existed previously, and the portal's popular Drudge reference appeals to a broad demographic range. On the Aggregatr home page, which is still being developed, users will view stats on the most viewed, most notable, and most recent reports.

How will your project improve the way news and information are delivered to geographic communities?

Heralding the advent of the citizen editor, Web 2.0 has changed the way we communicate news. While transcending the limits of geographically-bound media businesses, Aggregatr best serves under-covered communities in places like the Middle East, India, and China. With Aggregatr, a user can distribute news links from media that are blocked or banned. This delivery package is also critical when there is a lack of news dissemination by the press in restricted areas, complementing the work of citizen journalists as part of hyperlocal news outlets. Often, grassroots media in these international areas lack the tools to be effective as news gatherers and distributors, especially of homegrown news.

How is your idea innovative? (new or different from what already exists)

Aggregatr is a fusion of Drudge Report, Publish2, Daily Beast, and Delicious, with immediately recognizable visual appeal. Today's citizen editor is tomorrow's Huffington guru. Aggregatr is not a mechanical news selection algorithm like Google News. Rather, the application's customized aggregation harnesses the value of human editorial intelligence in the construction of a democratized infrastructure for specialized news. Aggregatr tears down the wall between editor and audience, while synchronizing production and consumption. This completely free way to disseminate news via the link economy epitomizes the power-to-the-people approach. Unique user reports are the primary, distinctive focus - making Aggregatr more than a social news site.

What experience do you or your organization have to successfully develop this project?

The co-founders of Aggregatr began planning the concept as students at the University of Pennsylvania five years ago. Their goal was to produce a web application that would allow every news consumer to publish a personalized aggregation of stories that could be viewed from anywhere in the world. Hence the birth of the citizen editor.

News-junkie Stefan De Clercq is the technical brain behind Aggregatr, which he created as the optimal way for people to share news. Having lived equal parts of his life in three nations, Stefan has honed his software development skills at two start-up firms in Philadelphia. He continues to develop trailblazing interactive features on Aggregatr.

Currently a New Media student at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, Ben Piven was recently a Fulbright scholar in Mumbai, India. He has reported for the Baltimore Sun and Haaretz and has covered Hurricane Katrina, Hezbollah, and the caste system. Ben focuses on the business and marketing aspects of Aggregatr.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Tour de Bronx 2008

These pics by Chikodi Chima and I are from the October 19th bike ride through the BX!
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