Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Some notes to family, friends, and fellow Fulbrighters

J--thank you for your note. I've had a chance to do so much here. Janet has been a great travel companion and game for anything. 

Next week we'll study small tanks east of the Mahaveli Oya around the towns Manampitiya, Sewanapitiya, and Welikanda. I visited Welikanda last week and by chance the president was there speaking right as I got off the bus. I was pretty freaked out about the whole scene there (not the president but as an aside you might want to see his 1-yr commemorative music video-it's a hoot) and here's what I wrote my post for that day:

I'm trying to write every day and I'm pretty amazed by the value of the activity as well as the response. In December there were over 16,000 hits. 

I'm curious whether we'll find the same "garrison" type conditions in Manampitiya and Sewanapitiya as I saw in Welikanda. I had read a few lines somewhere about the Mahaveli Project and it's ethnic implications but walking through the terrain is a chilling experience. These days I'm staying in Batticaloa. I have a gracious and well-educated host who is also a community leader. And getting the story of the past 30 years from his standpoint is jaw-dropping. 

Your mission of capacity-building in the universities is so valuable. I 
wonder what you found out in your sessions. I perceive here that our goals for students are much different than here in Sri Lanka. Where we take "broadening horizons" as a kind of bottom line for our students I have not perceived that as anywhere in the cosmos of goals here. I'm only running on evidence from what I've seen. Your perspective may be deeper so I hope you'll tell me your reflections.  

There's a RISD prof, Lily Herman here in Batticaloa. She's brought a group of students to do a 3-week exercise with locals. They're staying at the American Ceylon Mission and working at the St. John's Boys Home. Bringing the RISD approach to teaching (which it turns out I developed in my own classrooms at BU) is a tall order but way interesting to see how she's implementing it. 


A bunch of expat Tamils from all over the world. Some have told me stories of their exile and it's incredibly poignant. Most have kids that grew up speaking English and at least the ones here are affluent and successful way beyond ppl here. But it's very sad. One person told me I speak great English considering that I'm jewish. It was hard for him to grasp that my grandparents came to America! So the world that we perceive as stable, more or less static, etc exists I think only for a small portion of the worlds population. Pretty crazy I think. Also struggling with questions of ethnic hatred which are so pronounced here among everyone. Whoa!!! Our little world of just avoiding the ppl you don't like is turned on its head here. I was with Thavarajah and again he was pulled over. Third time in a week!!!! Police presence mixes up everyone's mind. I started to he under some kind of surveillance??? What kind of operative might he be or have been? And HE jokingly (kind of) said "they're pulling me over because they see your white face and they want to check on the CIA operative who's in the car with me!)!!!!!!! So can you imagine what life must be like in a police state? Or how it felt in Russia or Germany in the 30s? Or China for that matter???? So many things are turned on their head for me and I'm an old guy who's pretty well grounded in experience and knowledge of history. But it just goes to show.....surprising to me how all this goes beyond the surface questions that Jose presented in twelve reasons why he'd never come back to Sri Lanka. The twelve reasons are actually like a litany of plagues. Hatred. Jealousy. Mistrust. Violence. Etc. I've been writing about it in my blog and it gets heavier and more depressing as you go so finally I wrote a little piece tongue in cheek about using design principles to create peace. Who knows???


Janet and I will go into the interior near Polonowurra where we were with Julia. There are a bunch of tanks there I want to explore. Then we'll come back to Batticaloa. My colleague is supposed to bring students here on the 30th & I want to be here for the Sri Lankans and Americans getting together. I have a sneaking suspicion he won't come bc I'm starting to understand that there's a different concept of "opportunity" here. We want our students to broaden their horizons. Students here are expected to pass through and sit at a desk. 


Middle of the night I was thinking about informants and information. Wonder what you've been thinking.

Did I tell you already (sorry if me repeat self) about how everyone I talk to has their like 10-12 amazing things to say about tanks. There's lots of overlap but occasionally I get a bit of something new.

But even with the new stuff there's just so far I can go. And so a lot I have to piece together thoughts from how I interpret the material culture.

So in 2013 I was on top of this rock in Mihintale ("birthplace of Buddhism" in this country) and I looked down at dozens of stupas. Could see all the way to Anuradhapura and my immediate thought was--these stupas indicate ownership. They are a symbol and a tool of hegemony here.

So even like when you took us to the ponsala here in Batticaloa the other day. That place is so much an outpost of Buddhism. In my interpretation part of "staking their claim." And I've seen it in so many other places here.

So i never thought about this as a landscape of hegemony (or hegemonies) but it's so apparent here in the east (but even in Colombo). And besides for the Buddhist assertion of hegemony there's the whole issue of land and occupancy. I am dead curious about what you sense from your peeps in Kattankudy.

But in terms of tanks I got to thinking, what if they were built initially as a way of pre-Buddhist settlers "staking their claim" against the "Yakas." You could even think of the tank as a kind of lawn like they had in England by castles...a clear space across which you could see your enemies approaching. And you could get in a few boats surrounded by water and food if your aboriginal neighbors came up attack or pillage. (Or if Indian invaders came for that matter).

So later the tanks became used for irrigation and this whole narrative of "tank-village-ponsala" got built. But I'm wanting to look past that narrative and imagine an earlier landscape and how tanks played a role in that.

So part of the strangeness of that endeavor is it's about reading beyond what ppl tell me and piecing ideas together just from observing the contemporary landscape--like the way contemporary tanks have been constructed in the Mahaveli region as a way of staking a Sinhala claim on what was Tamil land.

Chilling and interesting. Would love to hear your thoughts about "how can we interpret things from the visual evidence we gather?"

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