Murder in the Cathedral

When Moustapha Akkad left Syria in 1954 to join UCLA and pursue his dream of being a Hollywood director, with 200$ in one pocket and a Koran in the other, his plans did not include getting blown up by suicide bombers while attending a wedding reception with his daughter Rima in Amman on November 9, 2005. Abdulla’s Jordan, a key western ally in the region (and home of Zarqawi, Michael Myers for the western infidels), had till now not faced any major terrorist attacks in spite of its known support for Israel. The Amman blast, focussing on three major hotels housing mostly western and Israeli tourists, diplomats, businessmen, killed over 60 and injured more than 120, and caused irreparable damage to the Middle East peace process. Rima died on the spot, while Akkad died two days later in hospital.

While Akkad is perhaps better known for the Halloween series of kitschy horror movies, his landmark works remain The Message detailing the life of the Prophet and The Lion of the Desert, a film about the bedouin leader Omar Mukhtar’s resistance against Mussolini, the latter being financed by Gadaffi himself. His last years were spent working on an unfinished project on Saladin, the 12th century leader of the resistance against the crusading Christian world.

Akkad did his graduate studies from UCLA and USC in the turbulent 60’s. After finishing his masters, Akkad set out in his showbiz life with TV shows. His early work on TV reflected his preoccupation with multiculturalism and his efforts to dispel stereotypes. He was able to capitalize on his success as a CBS producer and documentary filmmaker sufficiently to set up his own production house. He produced and directed his first major work, Al-Risalah (1976) with an English version titled Mohammed: The Messenger of God shortly therafter, starring Anthony Quinn and Irene Papas.

This was the first time that a feature film was made in Hollywood about Islam and its beginnings, and made by a Muslim keeping Islamic sensibilities and perspectives in mind. Of course, this had to deal with the hostility of detractors who could not see beyond the Zionistic control of the media and assumed this to be an affront to their religion. After its US release, a group of Hanafi Muslims went to the extent of holding hostages in Washington DC demanding that the film be withdrawn, convinced that a film about the prophet would obviously have portrayed the prophet, heresy per Islam. Despite several attempts to make them see reason (or the film), they did not relent and the film was withdrawn. A re-release provoked threats again, and the film died a quiet box office death. Though this also resulted in an initial ban on the film in the Islamic world, it received acceptance and popularity after Ayatollah Khomeini viewed it himself and approved it to be distributed in Iran. Interestingly, this film was used as educational material for the US troops being deployed in Afghanistan and the Middle East following 9/11 and the “war on terror” so that they have a better understanding of Islam.

Akkad was working on his next big project, The Lion of the Desert when he teamed up with director John Carpenter in 1977 to produce Halloween, a low budget babysitter meets slasher film with a difference, a tip of the hat to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (including Jamie Lee Curtis, daughter of Janet Leigh who starred in Psycho). No one could have imagined the success that this film would have at the box office. The franchise generated seven sequels, none of them notable for artistic excellence or social relevance, but all of them making money.

While often dismissed as inconsequential pandering to teenage pop sensibilities, the Halloween series does address some basic issues about interpretation of morality and gender politics. These films about the masked psycho killer Michael Myers’ return to his hometown of Haddonfield after being locked up in a mental asylum for murdering his sister (her crime – having sex with her boyfriend, his age at the time – six years) play with the eternal theme of male insecurity over their own masculinity in the face of aggressive assertion of sexuality and freedom in women, an anxiety often cloaked with moralistic and ethical overtones. Honor killings are the rule of the day in many countries even to this day. It will remain conjecture whether Akkad had this in mind when he had all the “bad girls” getting killed in the Halloween series, while the chaste heroine lived to generate dozens of me too slasher movie endings.

Omar Mukhtar: The Lion of the Desert was released in 1981. This film will remain one that made a major impression on me as a teenager whose role models were from the 60s and who had to fit into the senseless consumerism of the 80s and 90s. I will never forget the feeling when after Omar Mukhtar is hanged, his round rimmed glasses are picked up by the child, as a symbol of all that he stood for and the fact that his legacy will live on. This film about the Libyan resistance against the Italian occupation in the 20’s and 30’s had $35 million of funding by Gaddafi starred Anthony Quinn, Oliver Reed, Rod Steiger, Irene Papas, and John Gielgud, and is a magnificently told true story of epic proportions. Akkad’s lifelong campaign of portraying the Islamic rebel as one fighting a just war against imperialism and not just a crazed religious fanatic out to spread meaningless terror is aptly served by this film. This film is a must see for its balanced portrayal of the beginnings of the victim mentality that has been gifted to the Islamic world by the civilized European “union.”

This was followed by the Halloween stint which was active till 2002 (Resurrection) and an unnoticed comedy in 1986 called Free Ride. At the time of his death, Akkad was pursuing his dream of doing a film on Saladin, the Iraqi leader of the Muslim armies during the crusades. Akkad had a belief that the modern situation of Islam and the Imperialistic world was similar to the crusades. Interestingly, Saddam Hussain, who shares his hometown of Tikrit with Saladin, saw himself as a modern day Saladin, (Saladin was a Kurd, but that is a minor issue in politics of convenience, ask Bush any day) battling against the Western forces, to save his people and their religion. Like he had got Gaddafi to fund Omar Mukhtar, there is speculation that Saddam would have been an ideal financier for Akkad’s Saladin.

Akkad’s murder (what else can it be called?) brings to an end a truly Arab truly American life that was spent trying to bring peace and logic to a world that is bent on pursuing the path to annihilation and senseless loss of innocent lives in the name of power and domination and self proclaimed righteousness. His death brought together the themes he had tried to address in his films, horror and murder, religious bigotry of both the Christian and the Muslim world, and the battle against imperialism. One can only hope that his efforts will have woken up some of us to the importance of spreading the message of peace and to the urgency of shedding hostilities and intolerance at our personal and interpersonal levels. One can only pray that his soul rests in peace.
The insanity of bigotry was held up once again in Friday’s protest against the cartoon of the Prophet turning violent (the protest, not the Prophet). And this bigotry is mutual. The freedom of the press can neither be asserted nor denied by republishing or not republishing the cartoon. Similarly, the ire of the devout turned against Hindu establishments smacks of motivation other than religious hurt. Civility needs to return and stand in the way of our march towards the sixth extinction.


(un)swervestuff i wrote just after the BJP led NDA was voted out of government in the summer of 2004

Sunday silent not yet hot afternoon, the shining drug of near-affluence you want to think
Ripening, juices running down dripping fingers wrist forearm elbow,
Longitudinal curiosity laying bare new districts at every turn,
Banishing the nights of sloth, stirring daylight alive, riding February she comes
Stirrings in the warming deep waters, it is time, it is time,
The primal calling serpents maize jackdaws jasmine,
In the yard, the whiteness, a million turning fans, rock throwing powdered sun
Into air, somewhere someone plays or (likely) listens to stride.

Fathers cross and uncross (exceedingly) media mannered, legs and numbers,
Keep the heat away, proclaim selfless servitude, and then some
The river broadens and dries to a halt, no longer coursing through its veins
Fish seeking higher ground, things shall be stilled for some time, for some time to come,
Ferocious nights under moonlit skies, ferocious, the contrapuntal battle
Of the master and his discovery remains consigned to memory, wait,
The searing winds, like a curse seeking its victim, must first flood
Our unwillingness with longing and our indifference with thirst.

Sound of children in playful war, the mothers sit at the back of the lot,
Their whisperings like the sloshing of water tankers taking a tight turn,
One must strain, or know their lives well, to know if it is their lives
Or those of soap opera families that they slice up, taste and screw their faces at,
Behind the bushes, the horrors carried over into the future,
Under the gleaming serene clean green the corpselike cracked earth,
The clouds gather, wash our sins away, wash our sins away,
Wash our sins away, wash our sins away.

The people have spoken, it is time, it is time, the people have.
That done with, it is time for fete and fair and food and wine, come
Stuff your pockets, stuff your mouths, think winter, the people have.
But now it is time. The people can wait, we were away too long…
Like a cold dog, the earth turns, where did we go wrong, (just) where did we
Shed it all? Are we the people? Are we the right? Or left? Or middle, safe and warm?
Oh come, don’t fret, our superheros are at work, the kids all right, now it is time
To fat our calves, sun our backs, and to hell with if the world is mine.

Medical Transcription: The Common Well

Medical transcription is a field where one has to stay on one's intellectual toes every single day. Unlike other careers where you concentrate on a specific field of knowledge (for example, accounting or XML conversion) that changes perhaps once in one or two years, medical transcription, by virtue of its dealing with the human condition, encompasses all areas of knowledge and needs to be constantly updated. You have no way of knowing that just after dictating the pros and cons of congenital malformation screening, the dictator is not going to launch into a letter to the governor on the futility of lobbying with Scots for tort reforms. Just being up on the latest medical terminology is not a guarantee that you will be transcribing 100% accurate documents.

At a recent training session, we tried listing out all the areas of knowledge that needed to be included in a personal program of ongoing education in the field of medical transcription. To the surprise of all the participants, the list grew and grew till it had almost every conceivable subject in it. This aspect of transcription is also what makes it so exciting and so much more challenging than most other IT enabled fields. The most minimalist common body of knowledge for a newbie MT is just about everything there is to know on the face of this planet.

I was fortunate in being walked through my initial days in transcription by mentors whose zest for transcription was paralleled only by their zest for life. I learnt two big lessons from them. The first is that one does not give up till there is even a remote resource yet to be checked out, and when all resources are exhausted, to gracefully acknowledge your not knowing. The other is that one has to continuously strive to excel and to improve.

Down the line, I was lucky to have come into contact with other people who instilled in me the enthusiasm and passion for the work that has served me well through the years. I have formed a few beliefs and paradigms of my own as I have traveled along. These are all things that probably your mother always told you, but they hold true in every way.

The first thing that an MT needs to keep in mind is that they are a part of a communication process. The process begins with the patient contact and the exchange between the patient and the physician. That communication process has its own rituals, the presenting complaint, the history taking and the physical exam , the lab studies, the impression and the plan. That done, the physician then dictates it for the transcriptionist, where he structures it according to his frame of reference. This is what we get to work with. What we do is put down on paper what the dictator communicated to us, and communicate it back to his office.

The common grouse of many an MT is that the dictation was tough, the audio was poor, the terms were obscure and the grammar was off. But if we look at it as just another communication process, the troubles seem lesser. Think of a person with atrocious Hindi, shouting from across a noisy room about more efficient ways to keep your whites really white. If you give it the attention you would if you were having trouble keeping your whites really white, you would figure it out, right? What made the difference was your desire to know about and willingness to decipher how to keep your whites really white. The same thing applies to the dictation.

What makes a dictation difficult is a mix of factors. On top of the list for MTs in India is probably vocabulary and syntax. Physicians in the US go through the best of education. They usually end up spending a lot of money by the time they have an MD after their name. This education is often reflected in a very large vocabulary and in the use of syntax not commonly used. You wouldn't buy a Ritu Beri outfit only to sleep in would you? The other category of "challenging" dictators are the ESL dictators. These physicians carry with them, apart from their heavily accented pronunciation, the syntax of their own language, which is difficult to understand if you do not know their language. The solution of course is to get a basic understanding of the grammar of that particular language, it surely helps, but it might not always be possible. However, what is possible, especially if you have large volumes of dictation from that particular dictator, is to try and understand the way his mind structures things. It is similar to how we recognize and distinguish a spoof on Shatrughan Sinha from one on Shahrukh Khan, one on Dharmendra from one on Dev Anand.

The other most common factor that makes a dictation difficult is the terminology. This does not always mean medical terminology, although that can be a stumbling block when you start doing superspecialties. (It is like being the member of a secret club with its own secret passwords and code language. But with the wide range of wordbooks, and specialty books available today, searching for specialty or even superspecialty words is no longer the task it was even five years back.) However, this difficulty often comes when the dictation has references to culture or lifestyle. The only way to overcome this is to familiarize oneself with the basic reference points of geography, history, economics, contemporary culture, etc., particular to where the dictator is coming from. The Internet is a blessing in this area, since it makes available to you local flavors at the click of a mouse. However, one would be well advised to keep in mind that the Internet is an unregulated medium and there is no way to be sure that what you find on the net is correct unless you are using reliable portals or websites.

The bottomline is that every component in the field of healthcare documentation is human, starting from the patient to the physician to the MT to the office manager who okays the transcript. The process is one of communication, the contents of which have to do with the human condition, and the tools, language, spoken and written. The possibilities are infinite but all of it have to do with the issues basic to us as a human race. Once we have that in place in our frame of reference, the task of transcription not only becomes easier but also vastly enjoyable and illuminating.

The journey into the world of transcription is an exciting one. The joys and rewards of the journey do not lie at the end of it, they lie along the way. If you keep your eyes and your ears open, you will find that every passing day brings you gifts, be they in the form of new knowledge or words or usage, or in the form of feeling fulfilled at being part of bringing quality healthcare to your kind.

Struck Thursday

Struck Thursday

I struck work on Thursday, early since I was always the first to reach
The kids were setting up wickets on the asphalt, I tipped my hat and
Walked on down the hall, my allegiances firm and centered all right.
Nations are made of the people. Nations win if the people do.

I hold fast my sobriety like a baby as I watch the tires burn high and black
I hold fast my newborn conviction that thy kingdom will come to those who
Pray to dissent and resistance. That the way sold as the way is but
Phoenician bauble at the gates of dawn. I slash. I burn.

Friday night, they told me I was free to go, free to protest, free to speak my mind.
Together we stepped into the night, the cold air like a sword at our throats,
Dreaming of daughters and wives and hot dinners and weeping mothers
Ahead of us, the night waited with her bullets and her justly red blood.

I reached early to work on the weekend. The Directors lots were full by then.
The trolleys were heavier than ever, the canteen was more silent.
What was wrong was what we said, how we said it, and why we did.
In our tongues lay our being. Sold out, the news channels lead you..

I don’t have time, not this Sunday, no, not even the next. Next month is good though.
By then tears would have dried, all anger dissipated compensation commemorated
By then our north would have realigned with the convenience stores of tomorrow
Where our souls sell without our knowing, and language is only media.
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The Story of Parth