THE BEAVERKILL — In addition to being the crossroads of two of the world’s most advanced ancient civilizations, India and China, Tibet is home to Mount Everest, the Dalai Lama, some of …
THE BEAVERKILL — In addition to being the crossroads of two of the world’s most advanced ancient civilizations, India and China, Tibet is home to Mount Everest, the Dalai Lama, some of the harshest terrain and climate on the planet, and the hardy indigenous people who have cultivated its hillsides for millennia. It was the opportunity to study those people that drew anthropologist, historian and journalist Barbara Nimri Aziz to Nepal.
Unfazed by the weekly two-hour walk to the local market across a long, swaying footbridge suspended over a deep ravine in the Himalayas, Aziz didn’t like the Jeep ride awaiting her on the far side of the bridge. Local drivers lacking the Nepalese equivalent of a New York State CDL made those rides along mountainside mud roads a dangerous proposition. “Every year, there are a fair number of fatal Jeep accidents,” said Aziz during a February 20 phone interview from her home just outside Roscoe.
Recalling the years she spent as an anthropologist field worker immersed in Nepalese culture, Aziz described a life isolated from family, friends, academic colleagues, Western civilization and modern medicine. It also lacked the most basic amenities: landlines, electricity and running water. “Cell phones and laptops had yet to make their way into popular American use, and the internet had not yet been invented,” she reminded both of us.
Her mastery of the Tibetan language made her a welcome houseguest in many a Nepalese native’s homes, but it didn’t equip her for the stark reality of the simplest living. “Sometimes it was preferable to sleep outside with the goats than inside a crowded, noisy, smokey farmhouse,” Aziz admitted. Besides, neighbors often stopped in to get a close look at the foreign visitor.
Nonetheless, she said she made Nepalese friends with whom she still visits and corresponds, noting that only the other day she received an email from the son of a former Tibetan assistant who was born during her 1970 stay in Nepal.
After 1985, Aziz’s work centered around the history of two rural early 20th-century women contemporaries who defied patriarchal norms, ultimately advancing the rights of women and raising the culture’s collective consciousness. Although their aims were similar, their methods could not have been more dissimilar. One, Yogmaya Neupane, was a deeply religious woman who gained insight through the practice of meditation; her message found expression in bold political poetry. The other, social justice advocate Durga Devi Ghimire, pursued her goals through advantageous use of the court system, raising litigation to an art form.
What these Nepalese women had in common with each other and with women rebels globally, says Aziz, was the ostracism they faced from the society around them. “Rebel women are always unpopular in their own cultures. Their ideas are frequently suppressed, disparaged, dismissed and forgotten. Their lives, too, tend to be lived in some degree of sequestration or marginalization.”
Asked if fearlessness is another common denominator of rebel women, Aziz says, “They must be fearless, of course. But they must be more: they must be daring. They must exasperate societal authority figures into a metaphorical ‘How dare you?’ response.”
Asked how more women can be recruited to the rebel life, Aziz says, “Rebels are made, not born. Little girls must be encouraged to bear witness to gender social injustice, and society must recognize and celebrate their efforts. I recommend the book ‘Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls’ by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo. It’s a compilation of short stories, poems and pithy advice from famous women successful in a variety of fields.”
When Aziz was not doing research overseas, she called Manhattan home. It was there that she earned her chops as a broadcast journalist with WBAI radio. Part of the Pacifica Radio Network, WBAI is a not-for-profit listener-supported station featuring magazine format examination of wide-ranging political and social issues.
Turning a critical eye on one’s own culture may be an occupational hazard of anthropologists. After 25 years, Manhattan began to lose its allure. Aziz increasingly found that urban lifestyle stultifying. “Manhattanites feel compelled to dialogue about recent best-sellers, hit movies and exhibitions. People there are obsessed with themselves and the place itself. That’s arrogance.”
Aziz sought occasional escape with visits to friends in the Middletown, NY area. When she confided to them that she was looking for a new home outside the city, they urged her to “take Route 17 West.” She did. Beside the Beaverkill River, she found the solitude and self-sufficiency she needed to live and write in peace.
Here since 1998, Aziz plans to stay for the rest of her life and beyond. “I’ve already purchased a plot in a cemetery near Roscoe.” Not only does she find the rural lifestyle conducive to reflection and writing, but she was pleasantly surprised to discover ready access to up-to-the-minute information, scholarly research and literature. “The Ramapo-Catskill Library System, offering the resources of its 47 member libraries, is a treasure trove for me.”
About Aziz one thing is clear: a story of daring women is best told by one of their own.
For more information on B. Nimri Aziz, see www.barbaranimri.com. Aziz is the author of six books. Her latest, “Yogmaya & Durga Devi: Rebel Women of Nepal,” can be purchased as an eBook on Amazon.