If New York City were a human being; Times Square would undoubtedly be its heart. It is one of the most recognizable symbols of the United States and is featured routinely in Hollywood movies. Times Square is the brightly illuminated hub of the Broadway theater district, one of the world’s busiest pedestrian intersections, and a major center of the world’s entertainment industry. According to a survey done in 2011, Times Square is the world’s most visited tourist attraction, bringing in over 39 million visitors annually. Its most famous attraction is the New Year Celebration that is attended by hundreds of thousands of people. Since our first night, Times Square was a permanent fixture in our To-Do list. It felt so full of energy and the cheerfulness was infectious. Tourists from all over the world swarmed the place and were constantly taking pictures of anything and everything. We sat on the staircase present there and also participated in the live webcam sessions that are a major attraction for the place. There were added attractions on the Halloween night, i.e. the night of 31st October, 2012.
Our group finally got the dinner that we were supposed to have in an Indian restaurant earlier but had to be post-poned due to Sandy. Earlier in the day, we went up to the office of Open Society Foundation where we had a meeting with Mr. Richter, Associate Director, OSF, and Dr Faisal Bari, senior advisor for Pakistan with the Central Eurasia Project. For the uninitiated, Open Society Foundation is a grant making operation started by George Soros, aimed to shape public policy to promote democratic governance, human rights, and economic, legal, and social reform. The name “Open Society” comes from the work of Philosopher, Karl Popper, who wrote a book titled ‘Open Society and Its Enemies’. During the meeting, we learnt about various initiatives funded by OSF globally and in Pakistan. It was a unique experience, having an up-close view of the work being done by OSF, and how lives of so many people are being affected by virtue of one person realizing that he owed something to the rest of the world.
After the OSF visit, there was an aborted trip to Columbia University for a talk on linguistics titled “From Sacred Sound to Sacred Book: Writing, Scripture, Literature and the History of the Book in North India” by Tyler Williams. There was terrible traffic jam in New York City and we couldn’t reach Columbia in time. We ended up visiting two bookshops and a walk towards the Indian restaurant where we had dinner. It was my first taste of South Indian food and we enjoyed the admirable company of Mr. and Mrs.Shuja Nawaz during the dinner. We learnt about the re-scheduled meetings and what to expect in the next two and a half weeks. We also discovered that on the way back from Columbia, two of the fellows got a chance to visit an unofficial campaign office set up by Obama’s supporters in the Upper West Side of the city and they discussed community mobilization and US electoral system.
It was Halloween night and despite the fact that most of celebrations had been post-poned in the wake of Sandy, New York City had a different vibe that night. Some of us ventured to Times Square and found costumed people all around us. Halloween is a yearly celebration observed in a number of countries on October 31, the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows (or All Saints). There was no trick-or-treating for us, as most of us were past that kind of age. Even then, there was enough to be cheerful about.
To paraphrase that noted journalist, novelist and New Yorker extraordinaire – Pete Hamill – to know New York you have to walk its streets. I took this advice to heart and spent most of my spare time walking around town. It was a welcome change for me as I love walking but most cities in Pakistan (with the notable exceptions of Islamabad and Wah Cantt) are not walker-friendly. I was not the only one to indulge in this activity and was joined by other fellows as we wandered around New York City, exploring it in all its glory.
On 1st November, 2012, we went to Queens area of New York [New York City has five boroughs or Union Councils, namely Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island, Bronx and Queens] to meet with Mr. Udai Tambar at ‘South Asian Youth Action’. South Asian Youth Action (SAYA!) is a secular youth development organization dedicated to South Asian youth. Its mission is to create opportunities for South Asian youth to realize their fullest potential. Since inception in 1996, SAYA has brought comprehensive youth development and after-school programs to nearly 7,700 youth across New York City, and an average of 600 youth each academic year. It was a chance for the young leaders of Pakistan to observe working of a grass-root level organization and community participation in action. It was a delightful session with Fellows asking Mr. Udai questions about the experiences at SAYA, about successes and overall impact on the society. We received souvenirs from there as well and talked to some of the volunteers working there.
Our Next Stop was the office of United Nations Organization (UNO) in Queens. We were supposed to go the “original” UN building but it was affected by flooding and thus the operations were being run from a different building, the one which we ended up visiting. Our contact person there was Mr. Salim Avan, Chief Knowledge Officer. We discussed history and work of the United Nations, role of UN Peacekeeping Missions, the “actual” powers of UN, UN Operations in Pakistan and various other topics related to the United Nations Organization. Mr.Avan mentioned some very interesting statistics, including
- Only 33% of total Peacekeeping missions by the UN have been successful.
- The Most Veto-ed about topic at the UN Security Council is the Israel/Palestine conflict.
- In the last decade of last century(1990s), about 200,000 people were dying each month due to conflicts. In the previous decade(2000-2010), the number is 28,000 deaths per month due to conflicts around the world.
It was an overwhelming experience listening and discussing the above mentioned topics with a serving UN Official and all of us thoroughly enjoyed the experience. On returning to the hotel, some of the fellows decided to visit the observation deck at Rockefeller Center. Later, I and another fellow decided to visit Grand Central Station as well. The day ended with us walking back from Grand Central, via Times Square. It was a fitting end to an enthralling day.
(Note: The topic of this post refers to Times Square, which is also called The Crossroads of the World)
To be Continued…….