I’m on the program for this evening’s Ignite Birmingham at a downtown restaurant called Matthews Bar and Grill. My topic is Islamic finance and the prospect of starting a credit union in Birmingham to offer fair credit to “unbanked” people — the ones who get fingerprinted when they venture to cash a paycheck.
Should be fun. I’ve met exactly two of the other presenters.
We’re going to see a local production of Romeo and Juliet, staged in the fabricating shed at Sloss Furnaces. The former iron mill, active from 1882 to 1971, has become a Birmingham arts venue.
Elizabeth Hunter’s Shakespearean company, Muse of Fire, has been staging annual Shakespeare plays that draw on the city’s dancers, musicians, comedians, and other artists to swell the scene. The results can be quirky — the witches in Macbeth summoned belly-dancing familiars, for instance — but to me it’s part of the American tradition of appropriating and naturalizing Shakespeare as one of us. And I guess the belly dancers are an extension of the dancing and singing that Elizabethan performers did between the acts of a play, more to keep the audience friendly than to advance the plot. Continue reading →
On Monday, the day after passage of the new health reform law, I received a visit from a friend (call him Vic) who’s perpetually broke. He and his wife (Tina) lived with us at one point when their only other alternative was the street. Now they pay $39 a day to stay at a seedy hotel near the Interstate.
They were supposed to have moved on by now, to have a place of their own. Months ago, a man set aside $1,000 for Vic and Tina to pay a deposit and first month’s rent on an apartment or rental. But Vic and Tina haven’t found a place they can afford, at least not one that Tina is willing to move in to. Vic won’t even look in Birmingham, where rents are lower, because they want to be in a good school district. Their 11-year-old daughter lives with Tina’s parents, and they want her back.
It hasn’t occurred to them to get a cheap apartment for the short term in order to save money. Saving is not a realistic prospect to them. In their entire adult life — Vic is 48 — they have only experienced two conditions: not having enough, and having just enough. Continue reading →
The Birmingham Islamic Society is holding a “green” community dinner tonight: Everyone who brings their own plate and utensils will get a free meal. The idea is to reduce waste from discarded paper and plastic products — and not least important, to dispel any idea that environmental concerns are just another form of Western secularism, and nothing for believers in God to be concerned with.
Friday prayers were unusually free from the noise of mobile phones and pagers. The etiquette of jumma (Friday prayer) requires that everyone listen silently and attentively to the sermon, whether or not one finds it entertaining. Muhammad taught that even whispering “be quiet” to your neighbor will cause you to lose all the benefit of attending Friday prayer; in other words, there is no excuse for talking. And it turns out that, even when the speaker fails to deliver a message of profound spiritual insight, well, there is no lasting harm in listening patiently to thoughts that are not your own. It’s a discipline akin to courtesy, and one well worth cultivating.
Today, though, our imam had to call attention to the fact that people have been texting during the Friday sermons. This, he said, is tantamount to talking, and it really must stop. Those who cannot control the urge to thumb-type had better leave their phones in their cars.
And so it goes, the perennial negotiations between timeless forms of worship and the demands of the day.
I might as well mention that the Islamic center has a wireless router.
One of Birmingham’s best writers, Kyle Whitmire, is leaving the Birmingham Weekly where for several years he’s provided the most astute and most readable commentary on city and county affairs. (Hat tip to Wade Kwon.)
Rosalind Fournier’s profile of Whitmire at b-metro reveals how Kyle’s column got its name, which is “War on Dumb.” Seems that one day he spotted a bumper sticker:
“It said, ‘Let’s win the War on Hunger.’ I thought to myself, how exactly do you win a war on hunger? Do you bomb hunger’s cities? Do you burn its villages to the ground, and kill its women and children? Or, you could just feed people, because that’s what we’re really talking about.
“Not only that,” he continues, with what appears to be his natural state of contained agitation, “but don’t we lose every so-called ‘war’ we declare … on poverty, drugs, crime, terrorism?”
So he renamed the column [“War on Dumb”] with more than a trace of irony. “The name had two prongs,” he explains. “I got to make fun of the infusion of violence into our language, and I admitted to anyone paying attention … that if I declared a war on dumb, I was going to lose.”
Best of luck to Kyle in his next endeavor, and I’m glad that he’s planning to stay in Birmingham.
P.S. If I may be allowed to kvetch, the editorial folk at b-metro need to get their act together. The Whitmire profile was well put together, but the gremlins in the copy were distracting. For starters, take that bold subhed about Whitmire being “the only guy in town will to tell the truth about local politics.” Will to wha-?
Well, you can’t accuse Birmingham’s green builders and architects of thinking small. They’ve proposed coming up with a new standard for cities, which they call the Birmingham Charter. And to convince the world that it will work, they want to transform greater Birmingham into a model of sustainable living.
I went to the Green Resource Center last night to find out more. The place was packed, and some latecomers stood outside in the stairwell listening.
James Smith, CEO of Green Building Focus, gave an enthusiastic, rambling address about the Charter, punctuated by video excerpts from architect Karan Grover’s dramatic multimedia presentation at the July conference on green building here in our fair city. The scope of this conference went well beyond nuts-and-bolts topics for builders. It was visionary, arguing for an entirely new philosophy for building cities and living on the earth. Continue reading →
Those of us who live here are apt to forget it, but Birmingham is a powerful symbol to people around the world. We tend to be ashamed of the ’60s legacy of “Bombingham,” but for people behind the Birmingham Charter — Karan Grover, from India, and James Smith, from South Africa — the city represents a triumph. It was in Birmingham that ordinary people, even children, united to defeat an unjust order with love.
We locals often think that our white predecessors had to be shocked out of their complacency by the 1963 bombing deaths of children at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and (what was worse, supposedly) the international attention that this brought. The cynical implication is that it was a concern for appearances that forced white Birmingham to change, or to appear to change.
Attention Conservation Notice:This is about local politics in Birmingham, Alabama, but also about sustainability throughout North America.
Now that the new city council is seated, it’s high time to revisit The Dome, as we like to call it. Despite the strong case against expansion of the city’s convention complex, there is political momentum in favor of floating the bonds and summoning the bulldozers. Mayor Larry Langford actively promotes the project with pep rally techniques (banners, rallies, T-shirts) that evoke his campaign slogan, “Let’s do something!”
Many people, probably including a majority of Birmingham municipal voters, support the dome in the faith that large public works bring prosperity to a community, and that Birmingham has been too slow to perform such works. And when it comes to a project like providing reliable public transit, or passable school buildings, they are absolutely correct. Birmingham has buses that routinely break down or lack air conditioning, and its school buildings often leak, flood, or stink. Investing in projects that solved these problems would bring nothing but benefits.
The Alabama Archives continues its curiously named “ArchiTreats” lunchtime lecture series, and I really want to drive down to Montgomery and attend the one this Thursday at noon.
For one thing, I’m a fan of the speaker, Marlene Rikard (Samford University). For another, the topic is the inescapable “New South” — a concept that was moth-eaten by 1930, yet lives on in present-day political rhetoric, as if it actually meant something. I expect that Dr. Rikard’s talk, billed as “a social and economic view” of the New South, will give us an idea of what it actually has meant. After all, the “New South” (invented, funnily enough, by some of the same people who cooked up the “Old South”) is well into its second century; in fact, its timespan conforms pretty neatly to that of Birmingham, Alabama. And Birmingham is not a young city, not by American standards anyway.
Bring a lunch, if you want, to the auditorium at 624 Washington Street, Montgomery. Drinks are provided free. Info is at (334) 353-4712 or the website.
There’s a Subway on Dexter Avenue if you want to pick something up on the way.
American soldiers torture a Philippine captive as European despots look on with delight (Life magazine cover, 1902).
“Waterboarding” is the latest name for a form of water torture going back to the Middle Ages in Europe, but condemned as illegal and immoral since the 1700s. Banned from Europe, water torture persisted in other parts of the world, including some European colonies, until the mid-20th century.
In the United States, water torture first appears as a means to terrorize slaves. It persists into the 20th century as a routine punishment for African American convict laborers in the Deep South. Most notoriously, it was used by U.S. soldiers on Philippine captives during the Philippine-American War (1899-1902). After that war, the technique shows up sporadically in some domestic police departments as a way to force detainees to confess to a crime.1
The “water cure”: Here’s a description by 1st Lt. Grover Flint, 35th U.S. Infantry, of a typical field interrogation in the occupied Philippines:
A man is thrown down on his back and three or four men sit or stand on his arms and legs and hold him down, and either a gun barrel or a rifle barrel or a carbine barrel or a stick … is simply thrust into his jaws … as a gag. In the case of very old men I have seen their teeth fall out — I mean when it was done a little roughly. He is simply held down, and then water is poured onto his face, down his throat and nose …, and that is kept up until the man gives some sign of giving in or becomes unconscious.… A man suffers tremendously; there is no doubt about that. His suffering must be like that of a man who is drowning, but who can not drown.2
Soldiers and officers called this technique “the water cure,” after a type of alternative health care, popular in the 1800s, in which applying cold water to the body was considered therapeutic. By using this term to name an excruciating torture, the soldiers were making what ethicist Jonathan Glover calls a “cold joke” — a humorless witticism that distances the torturer from his own action by making nonsense of the victim’s suffering.