Sunday, August 25, 2013

Insider/Outsider reflections: Fire Pooja at a Fijian Hindu Temple

Entering into a Hindu Temple to observe the closing ceremony of the fire pooja was a sacred and remarkable experience. The eyes is continually captured by the brightly colors which adorn the temple and Gods. The ears are enthralled by the beating of the drums and musical melodies. The body is soothed by the sweet aroma of incenses. The bare feet over the Temple floors becomes a direct testament to the holiness of the Hindu religion. One cannot help but to be awed by the religious sincerity of its believers.  




















They transcend the mundane to enter into an experience with the Supernatural… As an outsider, the closing ceremony of the fire pooja is as strange and peculiar as trying to understand a speaker of a different language. To its adherents it is a very sacred and profound experience. Outsiders, like me have a difficult time comprehending the symbolic language of the fire pooja. We all interpret our surroundings based on the experiences of our specific social and personal contexts. My Christian background, precludes my ability to genuinely interpret and experience the rituals as sacred. This is because Christianity typically interprets such rituals as "pagan" and an "abomination". It is no surprise that people time and time again have come to prejudicially subjugate the beliefs and practices of the “Other”. 

Yet, it does not take a lot of effort to respect and appreciate the cultural diversity of our world. It is critical then that we begin a process of deconstructing the Western mindsets that prevent us from a more peaceful and meaningful coexistence. The diverse belief of a people helps them cope with our social realities and connects them to the Divine.

I was unable to view the actual "fire walking". There were many adherents and observers at the Temple. By the time I made it to a more visible area, I was only fortunate to see one of the person make his final two steps over the charcoal. I am nonetheless content with the observations of this experience. 

I am also curious as to whether the fire pooja may become part of the UNESCO list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The ICH Convention holds that all the practices in the list must not be prejudicial to human rights. Given the body piercings and potential danger of walking over the charcoal, it would be dependent on a strong debate on human rights - freedom of religious expressions. I have pointed out in a previous piece that human rights in its contemporary form is very much a Western discourse. In any light, all this would depend on interest of the community members. I imagine it would also be very polemic at the national level due to the power structure of the Christianity and ethno-nationalism in Fiji. 

I am very grateful to Vinay for his guidance at my first ever Hindu experience…

More videos and pictures here

Recommended reading: Brown, C. H. (1984). "Tourism and Ethnic Competition in a Ritual Form: The Firewalkers of Fiji." Oceania 54(3): 223-244. **From my observations, an outdated source but still useful for the history, symbolism of the rituals


Pooja participants make processions around the main temple shrine, Aug 25 2012

2011 Fire Pooja 

A Response to the "Enigma of Assad Shoman"

Part 1: THE article
Events of history have solidified the Rt. Hon George Price as the founding political leader of the modern nation-state of Belize. Over time historians will gather the works, policies, projects and ideas and comb through them and assign his overall contribution a place in Belize’s relatively young existence. But this essay is about another would-be Belizean political leader, Assad Shoman. Outside of Mr. Price, Assad Shoman in my judgement remains the most intriguing of them all.
I shall not give a chronological background of Shoman since others who are far more familiar with these historical events have already done so elsewhere. Rather I would like to look at what could have been if Assad Shoman had been a Hugo Chavez.
My only two working encounters with Dr. Assad Shoman were in 1989, when the Los Angeles-based BREDAA organization invited and hosted SPEAR for a week-long visit with the Belizean and activist community in Southern California. The following year, SPEAR reciprocated by hosting members of BREDAA in a series of events surrounding international Pan African Liberation Day in Belize.
The Belize Socio-Political Challenge -BREDAA host SPEAR in LA/1989

(Representing SPEAR was Diane Haylock, Assad Shoman and Wilfred Sedi Elrington. A must see video! Topics discussed: goals of SPEAR; nationalism; national identity; participatory democracy; party politics; votes in the Diaspora; dual-citizenship; etc.)
During the 1980’s the organization SPEAR (Society for the Promotion of Education and Research) re-emerged after many years in a dormant state after the principal founders, Assad Shoman and Said Musa, were co-opted into the People’s United Party (PUP). SPEAR was organizing public forums on a regular basis and inviting regional and international activists like Caribbean writer George Lamming and Pan Africanist Kwame Toure (aka Stokely Carmichael) to Belize. SPEAR even ended up hosting the Hon. Min. Louis Farrakhan when he visited Belize in 1986.


Courtesy Amandala
BREDAA, which was made up of mostly young students at the time, was both impressed and intrigued. An unofficial working relationship began between the two organizations and we started to broadcast the various recorded SPEAR forums and speakers on the BREDAA-sponsored and produced popular radio show – the Belize Caribbean Pulse, via Pacifica stations in California.
Assad Shoman has written extensively, but his book that had the most impact on me as a young student was Party Politics. This was the first and only time anyone who had actually served inside the so-called Westminister system of government that was engrafted upon Belize by the colonialists, had publicly documented a critique and obliterated this model of governance from a scholarly point of view.
Shoman has also written on land tenureship, which remains at the foundation of Belize’s uneven distribution of wealth among its people and a bastion of corruption by various politicians over the decades.
Yet, despite this intimate understanding of the inherent contradictions, impediments and weaknesses of the Belize system of governance, Assad Shoman never organized a grassroots mass political organization to challenge the system with the goal of eventually replacing it, as some of his mentors had done. Shoman has had a front row seat to some of Belize’s most epic challenges, both internationally and domestically. He made international connections with some of the most progressive movements, organizations and governments around the globe, but none of this was used to build a local political front on the ground in Belize.
I am fairly certain Shoman fully comprehended that he could not change the system by mere intellectual discourse alone without direct social/political mobilization on the ground. None of his idols challenged the status quo and citadels of the privileged by merely being critical of it. The question beckons, what if Assad Shoman had chosen to organize a grassroots political mass movement, how would it have played out, and to what degree could it have changed Belize’s current conundrum?
When asked while on a visit to Los Angeles in 1989 if he had any future political ambitions the reply was, “No, we are not promoting ourselves as leaders of any movement.” Perhaps Shoman’s inhibitions at that stage were reflective of his earlier sting within the blood sport of Belizean party politics, where he experienced both the triumph of winning and the agony of defeat.
My sense is that Assad Shoman made his choices and struggled with how best to have an impact on his country’s political development. He is certainly not alone in grappling with this question. Over the years several political entities/third parties have emerged in the nation of Belize, but they remain peripheral, splintered and lack a nationally recognizable agenda or mass following.
Price’s recruitment of Assad Shoman, who held political views that were radically and diametrically opposed to his mixed-economy beliefs, gave credence to his visionary brilliance. By recruiting Shoman, Price was decapitating any potential for a third political force from the left to rise in Belize. Shoman’s very decision to join the status quo, however, could also be marked as the beginning of the end for any ideas Shoman may have held of challenging the political system. As his tenure in government clearly demonstrated, he had to battle with conformist inclinations and the institutional entrenchment of the “old guard” party hierarchy. In the end he left dejected, wounded and with permanent political scars. Perhaps Assad Shoman’s greatest dilemma was having one foot in the door and the other outside, essentially not fully committing to either. To this end, despite his best efforts, Shoman never came across as completely comfortable in the streets/’hood among the proletariat.
He has written critically of his Party Leader’s lack of any specific political ideology and saw this as an impediment to charting a coherent and unequivocal course for social, economic and political development. On the other hand, it can be equally argued that Shoman’s firm grasp of being an ideologue within a political organization that had no clear ideology, became a political death trap for the aforementioned.
Assad Shoman came of political age during a turbulent period where his socialist views had the best chance of germinating domestically. The entire region was convulsing, and the so-called Cold War had reached a fever pitch between the United States and the Soviet Union. There were other forces at work, including the United States’ policies toward the isthmus and Guatemala’s claim on Belize that made political options seemingly limited. Could it be that these considerations doomed any socialist political ambitions Shoman may have had in mind or entertained? Of course, only he can answer these questions. Nevertheless, there was no visible, serious attempt to explore/organize such a movement within the context of the Belizean experience.
While SPEAR was attacked by the right-wing elements in Belize’s political establishment in the 60’s and 80’s, nobody seriously believed that SPEAR had the potential or intention to evolve into a mass political movement that could pose a challenge to the two-party system. Indeed, as with the original SPEAR movement of the 60’s and co-option of Shoman and Musa by the PUP, other leaders from the group 1980’s circa were similarly absorbed by the UDP (United Democratic Party). Besides the sinister message of abandonment it sent to the younger generation who were watching, listening and being inspired, it makes one wonder what was the real purpose of the political rhetoric in the first place? None of it gained traction, and some of the proponents appear to have become even apologists for the very same system they had earlier chastised and denounced.
It is reasonable to conclude that Shoman has long given up on any political ambitions where the Belize liberation movement is concerned and has settled into writing and researching in another country. Nothing is mysterious about a person coming to terms with personal fate and deciding to move on with his/her life. I fully respect this right and will defend anyone to freely make that choice. But for the few giants who defied this natural law – Castro, Che, Bishop, Rodney and Chavez, Belizeans are still holding their collective breath waiting and yearning for the emergence of its version of Madiba! We are left to wonder what might have been had Shoman chosen the Chavista path.
PART 2: THE RESPONSE
A response to the “enigma of Assad Shoman” by Rolando
Nuri Akbar highlights the radical potentials that existed in the Society for the Promotion of Education and Research (SPEAR) and the activism of Assad Shoman. He argues that Shoman had a radical philosophy but did not engage in organizing the masses. Unlike the scholars who impressed Shoman such as Karl Marx and Frantz Fanon, Shoman has not pursued a lifelong commitment to mass political activism. I am of the (current) opinion that while Shoman did not engage in mass politics he has nonetheless paved the way for a “Chavista path” that “Belizeans are still… waiting and yearning for”. (To what extent is this true?)
My take is that Shoman is very much engage in the process of decolonization through his writings. While, the writer describes his fascination with Party Politics, for me Shoman’s interpretation of Belizean history in Thirteen Chapters (among his many other works) is a  more radical and meaningful accomplishment for Belize. It is only by taking a critical stance against the miss-interpretation of our history that our perspectives are liberated and broadened.
An important feature of decolonization is to develop an anti-colonial discourse. An anti-discourse seeks to counter the hegemony of the colonial authority. For instance, Shoman highlights the various forms of resistance throughout Belize’s history including the roles played by women. I believe that his Thirteen Chapters now widely used in the schools is a weapon of resistance. Unfortunately, I suspect that it has not been fully understood as such by all its readers. Yet, it is generating a critical perspective and awareness necessary for radical praxis.
The question remains - why did Shoman not engage in radical politics? Why was he hesitant of becoming a communist organizer or of calling himself a communist? I have always been thoughtful about this when encountering articles at the Belize Archives in which Shoman insists that he was not communist. (This also comes up in the above video). In a sense, this is understandable. To be labelled a communist was to be labelled anti-Church, anti-American (and face the consequences). However, Shoman champions these precise issues in his academic works.
I do not agree with everything Shoman "says"; but then again, I am sure he did not expect this to be the case.  His works provides *one* of the most critical perspectives on Belizean history.
I have said that Shoman has in his own way paved “a/the” way suggesting that much remains to be done. There is a critical need for the continued re-interpretation of Belize’s history. Many other scholars have contributed to this revision.  But there is also a need for academics to not remain apolitical. It is imperative that academics champion the voices for the voiceless and play a part in the re-structuring of our society.   
We are all “products” of history. In this regard, Akbar has provided some interesting perspectives by pointing out some of the historical circumstances. I suspect he likely fall short in his analysis. But it is a perspective worthy to be re-posted for the readers. He also poses several stimulating questions. Perhaps, Shoman will be kind enough to render us a biographic publication of his intellectual and political development in the future. *It would also be fascinating to one day get the opportunity to interview him on these critical issues.*
Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it -Karl Marx. 

Click here for pdf version