Month: November 2009

I Made Two Wishes at Alladeen.com

(The following essay was recently published in Lavanderia literary anthology)

When I was a child, growing up in Los Angeles in the sixties and seventies, I had a Children’s Classics copy of The Arabian Nights.  “Alladin” was one of the last stories in the collection, and one of the longest that wasn’t divided into chapters.  It was also the only familiar story, besides “Sinbad.”  Before I read “Alladin,” I had seen several animated versions and film versions on television.  Alladin had been represented alternately as an Arab youth and as a Chinese youth.  The Alladin of my Children’s Classic(s) is Chinese, so the Alladin of my imagination was Chinese.  I remember thinking it odd that a story about a Chinese boy would be in a collection called The Arabian Nights, but since the Chinese Alladin was familiar, and because Chinese people and other Asians were real people to me, people who lived in the neighborhood, part of my every day experience, it became very easy to hold this picture of Alladin in my mind.   That is also what made that particular collection my favorite of the several titles in the series my working class parents provided: Arthur and his knights, Alice in her Wonderland, Robin and his merry men, Hans Christian Andersen’s tales.  The world of the Nights is the one I preferred for dreaming.  They told the stories of a world I thought I could inhabit and not feel foreign at home.

James Clifford[1], in his discussion of Diasporas in Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century, claims that Diasporic peoples experience “…a lived tension, the experiences of separation and entanglement, of living here and remembering/desiring another place.”  Clifford’s claim speaks to those who have a living memory of places and spaces they have actually inhabited.  Their children live in an in-between space, without direct experience of the longed for homeland.  They become strangers to their parents, strangers at home should they get the opportunity to visit the fields and streets of their fathers’ and mothers’ births, yet they are treated with the suspicion their parents met as new immigrants, foreigners, perpetual aliens in the host countries and new homes.  They are the children of immigrants, outcasts, refugees, and sometimes exiles, sometimes exiles times 10 million. 

When I use the term Diaspora, I attempt to describe the displacement/re-placement of Africans into the western hemisphere, Western Asia, and Europe, and the subsequent movements of black bodies, settling in of black peoples, around the world, people perpetually subject to ethnic or political or cultural cleansing to better fit in or disappear.  Still, the word has never felt quite right to describe this experience that I felt, that I feel, I share with people whom I’ll never meet.  But I still feel connected to them and wonder how connected to me they may feel.  I worry that they will see me as only an American, just another American.  But that’s not what I wished for on the Alladeen site.

The Alladeen.com website takes an unusual look at the movements of black and brown bodies, and the movements of cyber citizens through cyber space.  The designers call us “travelers.”   A web project of the Builder Society (thebuildersassociation.org) and Moti Roti, the site plays with the story of Alladin, that archetype of wish fulfillment and its dangers, and is the web version of a multimedia stage performance and a meditation on late modern human subjects in motion, literal motion across borders, rivers, deserts, seas, and garbage stained landscapes.  It includes a chronology of Alladin sightings in oral tradition, literature and film, from the earliest versions of The Arabian Nights from the Tenth Century in which “Alladin” is conspicuously absent, to the kitschy catalogue of Western Orientalist fantasies frozen in Twentieth Century movie posters.  They remind me that The Arabian Nights that has come down to us in English comes not from their Arab, Persian and Indian sources but more likely than not from Sir Richard Burton, that historical embodiment of British imperialism best known for his quest to find the source of the Nile, and his taste for the black bodies of young East African women and pretty South Asian young men.  His translation of the tales assumed the position as the authoritative version in the English speaking and reading world.  In a sense, we have an English imaginary of an Arab imaginary. 

The site also features a lamp visitors can rub.  At the thematic heart of the website are the call center workers who play the role of the genie of the lamp, hundreds of genies granting the tech wishes of callers from the Global North. Now, black and brown bodies in India move from throughout the Sub-continent to Bangalore, exchanging the life ways of thousands of years, or hundreds, for a chance at some of the new money being generated by India’s emergence as a major player in the global tech industries.  As I watched and listened to the Bangalore call center workers whose stories are featured on the Alladeen site, I thought of a peculiar feature we share.  Maybe it isn’t so peculiar.  I have another name, and they have other names.  I chose my name to set me apart from American, from Western.  Which is my “real” name?  These workers create these American personas, their American names juxtaposed to their given names.  They create these names- the companies create these names- to create the illusion of American call center workers for North American and British callers who know that the call center is in India because the story is told and retold and under-told and again retold in the news cycle, depending on the front page, top story currency of economic news and specifically the cleaning out of jobs from the Global North to the Global South. 

Sometimes the call center is embedded in the news about globalization, which becomes a story about outsourcing.  Sometimes it is embedded in a story about telecom, sometimes a story about the robust economic growth in India and China.  Still, besides this news, this representation of the facts of the call center, we the callers and they the call center employees of Bangalore, India, persist in our imaginary game that there are Americans on both ends of the line.  And our wishes come true, those limited, technological wishes that provoked us to call. 

I say above that I liked the Arabian Nights book because of what made it different, and what made it different was that it tells stories that were not that same story that was being told over and over and over again, in school, at church, on television, in the movies, in most of my other books, what Stuart Hall[1] calls the “Presence Europeanne,” ever present, ever represented, always gazing, always the object of a gaze.  So stories about Arabs and Persians, about Asia and the Indian Ocean and the Swahili Coast fired my young imagination, and I felt a kinship with these people.  Whether or not actual Arabs and actual Persians and actual Africans were like these people in the book didn’t matter at the time.  They were closer to me racially.  They were not- white, and that felt like breathing room.  It never occurred to me that I might ever meet Arabs or Persians, and especially here in Los Angeles.  At that time, they were like Jews, people who lived only in books in religion class and history class.  Ironically, these stories taught me that Jewish communities continued to thrive after the fall of Rome, alongside Christian and Muslim neighbors.  They were all there together in the stories, all subject to the same magic from the same evil wizards and curses.

Recalling my own Alladin sightings as a child also reminds me of the “travel” I did in my living room in front of our little black and white television, a quite wide spread “traveling” culture as it is.  Arjun Appadurai[1] challenges the Frankfurt School’s[2] pessimism about mass culture, citing electronic broadcast as more likely to encourage agency rather than mere complacency and simple conformity.  I think he is right.  The electronic media primed me for world citizenship.  In the seventies, Saturday morning cartoons were followed by The International Children’s Film Festival.  This was regular programming.  It was here that I learned there were black people in Britain, and Australia, received confirmation that the Jewish people were neither relegated to Bible stories nor exterminated in Germany, that there were poor white people in Europe that lived in smaller houses than ours, and that English school boys abandoned on an island would viciously turn on each other.  The world was larger than the United States, and if the United States meant rich and free and, ultimately, white, I didn’t feel any of those things, and my parents didn’t feel them either.  I felt closer to those people- those strangers, characters – coming through the screen, including the poor Europeans.  The entire world was becoming my homeland, taking the place of the homeland of my birth to which I have never felt a strong, positive, emotional connection.

Those longings for an exotic space that I thought would be more familiar were a child’s longings, but they were real.  They belonged to a time when I belonged to a time that still looked with naïve hope to the possibilities of the United Nations, and a time when the United States society felt more open to internationalism, and my uncles and their friends, Black, Chicano and Filipino, acted out in my eyes those possibilities.  What did I know?  During the recent presidential campaign, an African American man, older than me, wiry, white-haired and riding a bike, had a brief conversation with me about the political contest, a conversation he initiated while we waited in line at the Chevron on the corner of Jefferson and Crenshaw.  He was quite cynical about the process and the candidates.  He was convinced that the fix was in for the Republicans, and even more importantly for corporations.  The last thing he said to me before I had to give the cashier my attention was that whoever won the election from which ever party, the jobs no doubt would still go to India.  He said America was ready to clean up its mess and call it the success of integration.  Specifically, he said the Black poor were being ethnically cleansed, but in order to do that, the Black middle class was continuing to be culturally cleansed, made acceptable, palatable, made honorary whites. 

Cleansing signs of difference, of regionalism, of ethnicity is fundamental to the victory of the illusion of the very contemporary wish fulfillment that makes middle class Midwestern Americans of us all.  So I watched the college educated Indian woman featured in the cultural specifications section of the Alladeen.com site, dressed sharply in an expensive sari and clearly from a higher socio-economic class than the call center workers, with great interest as she explains the importance of mastering the American accent, of cleaning up and cleaning out the various Indian accents the Bangalore call center workers carry from their homes and farms and cramped city neighborhoods.  But which American accent suffices?  It was funny and exhilarating to watch her and listen to her talk about Americans from an outside point of view.  It made me think of how many Americas there are in the United States.  The workers must learn Standard American English (SAE).  An American English other than SAE muddies the illusion.  That is unacceptable.  These commercial interests require the erasure, the cleansing, and the cleaning out
of American particularities.  That requirement actually erases most Americans to privilege the way of speaking of a relatively small group of Americans.  Can one imagine a United States without its Texan accents, its Californian accents, its Wisconsin and Minnesota accents, its Brooklyn accents, its New Orleans brogues?  These and more are collapsed into a safe, a “clean” American accent suitable for business, news reading and instruction.  Nevertheless, I found it strangely gratifying that the interview mentions the African American accent specifically, even as unacceptable.  It was ironic since so many Americans and others appropriate African American speech styles and sounds.  It is funny the things people wish for. 

My other name is Yusef.  I write and perform poetry by this name.  And it is the name I use at home.  I am a split person, a traveler everyday crossing borders.  I am a call center worker.  My African American accent, the one I grew up with, a mixture of New Orleans and Texarkana Ebonics, has been “cleansed” since junior year in a predominately white high school.  I never noticed it.  My mother and aunt did.  They were tickled by it.  I was devastated.  I rubbed the lamp at Alladeen.com.  When I made my two wishes, I made them as Yusef from Los Angeles.  The first thing I wished for was time.  There never seems to be enough of it.  I made that wish before visiting the call center workers’ section on the website.  First I read the first one hundred wishes, and then I made my wish.  I wondered what number my first wish was. 

When I finished watching the cultural specifications woman talk about helping the Bangalore workers sound “American,” I was overcome with the desire to make another wish.  I thought about the men I listened to as they explained how they needed to change their body clocks to be able to live with the hours the call center demanded of them, the opposite hours of those lives they left at home.  I thought they needed what I needed, more time.  We all need to liberate time, overthrow the tyranny of clocks and schedules, decommission the time clocks in factories and malls and call centers.  I made my second wish.  The memories that flooded back into me, that world out there that I have felt connected to since I was a boy, a boy who grew up in black communities that always abutted and overlapped other non-white communities, and also always had working class white families living in them, filled me with great compassion.  That’s what it felt like.  That’s what I will call it, great, intoxicating compassion.  For my second wish, I wished love, all the love in the world to everybody.  That is the journey I took at Alladeen.com.  That’s what happened when I rubbed the lamp.  It felt true, and it felt clean.


[1] James Clifford is Professor in the History of Consciousness Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz.  He co-edits Writing Culture: The Politics and Poetics of Ethnography and author of The Predicament of Culture

[2] Stuart Hall. “Cultural identity and cinematic representation”, Framework 36, 68-81. Hall has been a leading cultural and critical theorist central to the development of Cultural Studies, particularly the work emerging from the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham, England .  

[3] Appadurai  is professor of anthropology and of South Asian languages and civilizations at the University of Chicago.  

[4] The Frankfurt School, especially the cultural criticism associated with Walter Benjamin and Thomas Adorno, emerged in the 1920s and 30s in Frankfurt, Germany, but was actually centered in New York and Los Angeles (in the person of Adorno) as these intellectuals fled the German Fascist Regime.  Although a great simplification, let it suffice to say that these theorists bemoaned the mechanical reproduction of cultural commodities as in effect devaluing art insofar as it destroys the aura of uniqueness in the original.