Wednesday, December 29, 2004

The Year the Earth Fought Back

The Year the Earth Fought Back


London — LIKE two bookends of calamity, earthquakes at Bam in Iran and off Sumatra in Indonesia have delineated a year of unusual seismic ferocity - a year, one might say, of living dangerously. Twelve months, almost to the very hour, before Sunday's extraordinary release of stress at the India-Burma tectonic plate boundary, a similar jolt at the boundary of the Arabian and the Eurasian Plates devastated one of the most celebrated of Persian caravan cities. The televised images of Bam's collapsed citadel and the sight of thousands of bodies being carried from the desert ruins haunted the world then just as the images of the drowned around the shores of the Bay of Bengal do today.

But that has not been the half of it. True, these two disasters were, in terms of their numbers of casualties, by far the most lethal. But in the 12 months that separated them, there have been many other ruinous and seismically ominous events, occurring in places that seem at first blush to be entirely disconnected.

This year just ending - which the all-too-seismically-aware Chinese will remind us has been that of the Monkey, and so generally much prone to terrestrial mischief - has seen killer earthquakes in Morocco in February and Japan's main island of Honshu in October. The Japan temblor left us with one widely published image - of a bullet-train, derailed and lying on its side - that was, in its own way, an augury of a very considerable power: no such locomotive had ever been brought low before, and the Japanese were properly vexed by its melancholy symbolism.

In America, too, this year there have been some peculiar signs. Not only has Mount St. Helens been acting up in the most serious fashion since its devastating eruption of May 1980, but on one bright mid-autumn day in California this year the great San Andreas Fault, where the North American and Pacific Plates rub alongside one another, ruptured. It was on Sept. 28, early in the morning, near the town of Parkfield - where, by chance, a deep hole was being drilled directly down into the fault by geologists to try to discern the fault's inner mysteries.

The rupture produced a quake of magnitude 6.0 - and though it did not kill anyone, it frightened millions, not least the government scientists who have the fault in their care. They had expected this particular quake to have occurred years beforehand - and had thought a seismic event so unlikely at the time that most were at a conference in Chicago when it happened. They rushed home, fascinated to examine their instruments, but eager also to allay fears that their drilling had anything to do with the tremors.

As every American schoolchild knows, the most notorious rupture of this same fault occurred nearly a century ago, at 5:12 a.m. on April 18, 1906 - an occurrence now known around the world as the great San Francisco Earthquake. An entire city, a monument to the hopes and dreams of America's westward expansion, was destroyed by a mere 40 seconds of shaking. It was an occurrence possessed of a historical significance that may well be matched by the tragedy now unfolding on the far side of the world.

But, curiously, it turns out that there were many other equally momentous seismic events taking place elsewhere in the world in 1906 as well. Ten weeks before the San Francisco quake there was one of magnitude 8.2 on the frontier between Colombia and Ecuador; then on Feb. 16 there was a violent rupture under the Caribbean island of St. Lucia;then on March 1, 200 people were killed by an earthquake on Formosa; and then, to pile Pelion upon Ossa, Mt. Vesuvius in Italy erupted, killing hundreds.

But even then it wasn't over. The grand finale of the year's seismic upheaval took place in Chile in August, a quake that all but destroyed the port of Valparaiso. Twenty thousand people were killed. Small wonder that the Chinese, who invented the seismograph and who tend to take the long view of all historical happenings, note in their writings that 1906 was a highly unusual Year of the Fire Horse, when devastating consequences are wont to abound, worldwide.

Given these cascades of disasters past and present, one can only wonder: might there be some kind of butterfly effect, latent and deadly, lying out in the seismic world? There is of course no hard scientific truth - no firm certainty that a rupture on a tectonic boundary in the western Pacific (in Honshu, say) can lead directly to a break in a boundary in the eastern Pacific (in Parkfield), or another in the eastern Indian ocean (off Sumatra, say). But anecdotally, as this year has so tragically shown, there is evidence aplenty.

Plate tectonics as a science is less than 40 years old. It is possible that common sense suggests what science has yet to confirm: that the movement among the world's tectonic plates may be one part of enormous dynamic system, with effects of one plate's shifting more likely than not to spread far, far away, quite possibly clear across the surface of the globe..

In recent decades, thanks largely to the controversial Gaia Theory developed by the British scientists James Lovelock, it has become ever more respectable to consider the planet as one immense and eternally interacting living system - the living planet, floating in space, every part of its great engine affecting every other, for good or for ill.

Mr. Lovelock's notion, which he named after the earth goddess of the Ancient Greeks, makes much of the delicacy of the balance that mankind's environmental carelessness increasingly threatens. But his theory also acknowledges the somber necessity of natural happenings, many of which seem in human terms so tragically unjust, as part of a vast system of checks and balances. The events that this week destroyed the shores of the Indian Ocean, and which leveled the city of Bam a year ago, were of unmitigated horror: but they may also serve some deeper planetary purpose, one quite hidden to our own beliefs.

It is worth noting that scientists have discovered that the geysers in Yellowstone National Park started to erupt much more frequently in the days immediately following a huge earthquake in central Alaska in 2002. There turned out to be a connection, one hitherto quite unrealized, that intimately linked places thousands of miles apart. Geologists are now looking for other possible links - sure in the knowledge that if real geological connections can be determined, then we may in due course be able to divine from events on one side of the planet indications that will allow us to warn people on the other - and so perhaps allow them to prepare, as those in today's Indian Ocean communities never were able, for the next time.

For one thing is certain, and comfortless: on earth, eternally restless and alive, there will, and without a scintilla of doubt, be a next time.

Simon Winchester is the author of "Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, August 27, 1883."

Unceremonious Tsunami

Sometimes, the words just dry up, like the severe droughts. Sometimes, painful images of natural disasters, wars and violence, make one cringing or exhaling indomitable sigh, amidst the barren eyes and the choking lungs. Earth wobbled around its axis of rotation as that devastating earthquake and the following tsunami ripped apart and washed away thousands and thousands of human beings and other animals, the counting is still climbing up with an all knowing alarm. This time around last year’s earthquake in Bam, Iran unfolded, as if replaying its previous cruel destruction this year, but in grandeur stage with leaping ferocity.

For a person with little or no faith in any religion or divine being, this catastrophic episode is a random event, a natural phenomenon, and a small blip in the geological time scale. Seismologists and the geophysicists explain that the Indian plate dived below the Burma plate and lifted it up, causing the colossal tectonic plate fracture that created tremendous amount of energy for the bursting tsunami to tag along.

For a person with devotion to god or goddess and absolute faith in religion, the ferocity of destructions could seem to be troublesome to explain. I talked to such a person just aftermath the breaking news of this grim incident. Like most other faithful person, he was still clinging to his faith strong, explaining away why this could happen to thousands and millions of innocent people. To him and many others, the entire event can be seen as God’s wrath exploding upon the “sinful” mass. For him, “bad things happened” because we’ve all fallen from grace, we’ve all committed “sin” by not obeying god’s commandments. What’s an innocent child had to do anything to “sins”? For this very basic and simple question he had that olden answer, “God works in mysterious way”.

In this modern time, we see those images, instant videos of washing away of men, women and children, hospital morgues and makeshift mass graves filled with dead bodies, in rows after rows, gloomy lights or the setting sun illuminating parts of a room, or a field where the grieving father or mother holding their lifeless baby’s muddy arms, or a desolate husband seating near his wife’s dead body, complete perplexed stare in his eyes, perhaps asking or pleading for the answer to the cause of his misery. All the other aspects of human lives, the on going wars, debates on secularization, dramatizations in Hollywood or Bollywood films or even the victory songs in the fields of sports seem so mundane looking at the rows and rows of bodies waiting to be buried unceremoniously, Hindus and Muslims and Christians and Buddhists and Atheists side by side, in unmarked mass graves.


Mahbubul Karim (Sohel)
December 29, 2004

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Will Her Voice Ever Be Heard?

Common Sense dictates promoting freedom in nations where the dissidents mostly pay heavy price for just speaking out against the rigid theocracy, blatant or hidden injustices and all forms of suppressions. Shirn Ebadi has been a valiant fighter for many decades of her life, even when she was not in the lime light as she is now after receiving the prestigeous Nobel Prize for peace, she was one of the forefront women in the struggle for human rights in Iran. Preventing Ms. Ebadi from publishing her book in the United States is a major blunder and it should be corrected without any delay.


Will Her Voice Ever Be Heard?

By Ellen Goodman
Saturday, December 11, 2004; Page A23

BOSTON -- Ever wonder what happened to the State Department's chief of propaganda? The head of public diplomacy was supposed to win the hearts and minds of the Muslim street.

After all that fanfare, the PR seat has been empty lo these many months. Is it possible that no one wants to be chief flack for the gang that couldn't shoot straight?

Let's take the bungled case of Shirin Ebadi, the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. This Iranian dissident is being prevented from publishing her memoirs in the United States because of regulations that prohibit "trading with the enemy."

The enemy? If Iran is one point on the administration's "axis of evil," Ebadi is surely a counterpoint. The first woman ever to become a judge in Iran, she was kicked off the bench when the ayatollahs took over and declared that women were too "emotional" for the judiciary. She was given a job as clerk in the court she once presided over.

At great personal risk, this mother of two became a powerful force for human rights, especially women's and children's rights. She defended free speech and opposed child abuse. She's not only represented the family of a Canadian photojournalist who was beaten to death in an Iranian prison, she is also fighting a death penalty that applies to girls at 9 and boys at 15.

For her work, the Stockholm committee made her a Nobel laureate. The clerics in her homeland, however, prefer to call her "Islam's No. 1 enemy" and "the mare of the apocalypse."

Last year, in her acceptance speech, the Peace Prize winner said that she hoped to "be an inspiration to the masses of women who are striving to realize their rights, not only in Iran but throughout the region." When she decided to write her memoir, it was to "help correct Western stereotypes of Islam, especially the image of Muslim women as docile, forlorn creatures."

By any sane measure, Ebadi ought to be a poster child for the values we hold dear. She is a leader in the struggle against an Islam hijacked by its intolerant wing. But instead of amplifying her voice, we've covered it with red tape.

A law written in 1917 allows the president to bar transactions during times of war or national emergency. It was amended twice to exempt publishers. Nevertheless, the Treasury Department in its wisdom has ruled that it's illegal even to enhance the value of anything created in Iran without permission. And anything includes books.

As Ebadi's would-be literary agent, Wendy Strothman, put it, "If you lift a pencil to help her shape her manuscript so American audiences can read it, you are subject to punishment." The price is 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for an individual or $1 million for a publishing house.

Just how byzantine are the bureaucratic rules? It is perfectly legal to reissue any book already on the shelves in Iran. You could publish, say, the unedited wisdom of the ayatollahs. It's also legal to publish the writing of an Iranian living in the United States.

The people specifically targeted are dissidents still living at home. "She can't publish in her own home," Strothman said. "For us to compound the silence is really shocking."

The Treasury Department says that all Ebadi has to do is apply for a special license. But no American needs a license to publish a book. Neither this free-speech lawyer nor her supporters are going to ask the government for permission.

Instead, Strothman and Ebadi have filed a lawsuit against the Treasury Department. So have several other groups, led by the PEN American Center. They are challenging the regulations that effectively ban writers in Sudan, Cuba and North Korea, as well as Iran. Some are authors of such aid-the-enemy books as the "Field Guide to the Birds of Cuba."

As an international public relations fiasco, however, Ebadi's case is the most dramatic. Prohibiting her memoir because it might in some way aid Iran is exactly as if we'd prohibited Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "The Gulag Archipelago" because it might have helped the Soviet Union.

This remarkable woman has a story to tell. It's the story of an everyday working mother who studied her law briefs in a locked bathroom. It's the story of a brave and harassed human rights advocate in a theocracy. But this is a story that cannot be told in Iran and cannot be sold in America.

This week Congress finally passed a bill to overhaul our intelligence. Now maybe we can overhaul our common sense.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

The Pictures of Resistance

"To quote the words of Shahidul Alam, the man who established Drik and who remains its driving force, "Resistance has been there in different forms and against various established norms -- political organisations, religious zeal, media propaganda and commercialism to name a few." "And throughout this resistance, pioneer photographers have continued their struggles amidst adversities to create an identity for professional photography in Bangladesh," continues Alam. His reference is to the struggle that led to independent Bangladesh and to the people's resistance to oppressive regimes." Read the full article with excellent photos from this The Daily Star Link.