Thursday, May 29, 2003

Long Vacation
I know it has been awhile since my last post--seems to be a little endemic with me lately. I think graduating has made me a little less motivated, but I am hoping the motivation will return slowly.

I am pasting here an interesting, long, but interesting story from the Wall Street Journal about Indians in Antwerp unseating Jews at the helm of the diamond trade.

ANTWERP, Belgium -- In what was once a predominantly Jewish neighborhood near Antwerp's central station, young Indians in Armani suits haggle with Hasidic diamond buyers in long black coats, side curls and skullcaps. Hoveniersstraat, a street once celebrated for its kosher restaurants, now offers the best curry in town.

The orthodox European Jews who established the world's most famous diamond district are being supplanted by Indians -- who, among other things, aren't required by their religion to close their businesses from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
"Many of the Hasidim have failed to keep up with globalization," says Ramesh Mehta, an avuncular diamond trader and one of the pioneers of Antwerp's Indian community, who has helped 50 Indian families set up their own diamond businesses here since the early 1990s.

Indians are among the world's most successful newcomers. They have reinvigorated the jewelry districts in New York and Hong Kong and revived the U.S. motel industry; they are among the programmers of choice in Silicon Valley and Berlin. In the global diamond world, Indians have been so successful that they are challenging Jewish dealers, even in Tel Aviv. About 80% of all polished diamonds sold world-wide pass through Indian hands.

Such a shift seldom takes place without some tension, and in Antwerp, that struggle is happening now. Many Jews who used to trade diamonds in the public hall of Antwerp's imposing Diamond Beurs are so worried about the new competitive pressure that they now prefer to meet clients in the privacy of their own offices for fear that Indians or other Jewish traders will poach their business. Many have changed their manufacturing practices, moving their cutting and polishing factories from Belgium to lower-cost centers such as Thailand and China. And in the retail-jewelry sector, some secular Jews are breaking ranks with the Hasidim and keeping their businesses open on the Sabbath.

"The secular Jews are not enchanted when the rabbis
knock on their doors and tell them to shut down, but they don't
listen," says Henri Rubens, a Jewish community leader and former diamond
trader, who is now in the real-estate business. "Nor are the Hasidim
enchanted by other Jews who put business ahead of religion."

In Antwerp, Indians' share of the $26 billion-a-year
(€22 billion) diamond revenues has grown to roughly 65% from about
25% in the past 20 years, while the Jewish share has fallen to about 25%
from 70%, according to both Indian and Jewish consultants who study the
global-diamond trade.

The new economic power of the Indian diamantaires (as
Antwerp diamond traders are called) has spilled over to the U.S.
diamond market. After gaining a foothold in Antwerp, many of the Indian
traders have expanded their businesses globally, to include California and
New York.

While the Jews try to stem their decline, the Indians
are demanding that their influence in the Antwerp diamond world
mirror their economic might. They want better representation on Antwerp's
High Diamond Council, the powerful body that regulates the city's diamond
industry. In February, the first two Indians were elected to the
council's board of directors, but many Indian dealers dismiss it as a
token gesture -- the board has 20 members.

"We make up the bulk of Antwerp's diamond trade and
yet have no voice on the most important trade bodies in town," fumes
Bharat Shah, an Indian diamond trader. Peter Meeus, the council's
managing director, says it is working hard to change the institutional imbalance.
"It takes time to change old institutions, but there is always room
for improvement," he says.

The stakes are huge. Antwerp, a Flemish port city of
500,000 people known for its hip fashion designers and conservative
politics, is the most important diamond-trading center in the world. About
90% of the world's uncut diamonds , and half of its polished diamonds ,
are sold here each year. The city, which even has a trolley stop called
Diamant, is home to 1,500 retail and wholesale diamond companies and
four diamond exchanges. One of the oldest, the Beurs voor
Diamanthandel, was founded by Jews in 1904.

A New Feel

On a recent day at the Beurs's expansive trading
floor, dozens of diamond sellers line up in front of long rectangular
tables to present their rough and polished gems. Sitting hunched over
electronic scales, wholesale and retail buyers from Tel Aviv, New York
and London peer through magnifying glasses at small piles of diamonds spread
out over white sheets of paper. Many of the traders bargain in
Yiddish. Among the Hasidim and Israelis are a number of non-Jewish traders -- but
in a hall the size of a football field, there isn't a single Indian.

"The Indians don't come here -- they are in their
offices where the really big deals take place," laments Yves Szerer, a
dapper young Jewish dealer.

Mr. Szerer entered the diamond trade a few years ago,
though his father-in-law, a former Antwerp diamond dealer,
advised him to pursue another career. He says he now wishes he had listened to him
and remained in the clothing business, his previous livelihood.

The Jewish diamond trade in Antwerp goes back to the
15th century, when Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal settled in what
is now Belgium. Antwerp's Jewish population grew as Jews fled
persecution in Eastern Europe. The city lost 30,000 Jews to the Holocaust,
and the industry all but disappeared during World War II, but the
population recovered. Today, the diamond district has more than 25
synagogues and several Jewish schools. Large groups of Hasidim assemble on
Hoveniersstraat and talk into their mobile phones, giving the neighborhood the
atmosphere of a modern-day shtetl -- a traditional Jewish village of
Eastern Europe.

But more and more, it feels like Bombay. The Indian
traders began arriving in the 1970s, drawn by the lucrative diamond
business and Belgium's liberal immigration laws. They are also religious,
practicing Jainism, an Indian religion that emphasizes nonviolence,
vegetarianism and respect for all living creatures.

Mr. Mehta says Jain and Jewish cultures share
qualities that make them well-suited to the diamond business: Both value
kinship, hard work and cross-border networking, useful qualities in a global
industry that depends on wheeling and dealing. Most Jain businesses
are operated by families spread across the world. Many of the families
come from Palanpur, in north India, and share the surnames Mehta, Jhavari
and Shah.

Across the street from the Beurs at the modernist
offices of Diampex, a diamond-trading company, Chief Executive Bharat Shah
inspects a small pile of rough gems. "I don't need a magnifying glass,"
he brags, running his manicured fingers across what look like pebbles of
glistening sand. "I can feel the quality." After haggling with a
Hasidic broker, he writes a check and hands him a sealed envelope.
"Mazel," Mr. Shah says -- the Hebrew word for "luck." The expression is as good
as a legal contract in the Antwerp diamond world -- both Jewish
and Indian -- and signals that the agreed price is final and can't be altered.

Mr. Shah, whose family comes from Palanpur, set up his
company in 1982, after he heard about Antwerp's robust diamond trade
from a fellow Jain who had settled here. Back then, he had the equivalent
of about €4 million ($4.68 million) in annual revenue; today it is
more than €35 million. Diampex has joint ventures with a broad
network of cutting, polishing and marketing companies in Bombay, New York,
and Los Angeles, nearly all managed by relatives.

Indians like Mr. Shah gained a commercial edge over
the Jews by sending their rough diamonds for finishing work to
family-owned factories in Bombay and the northern Indian state of Gujarat, where
labor costs are as much as 80% lower than in Antwerp. Even after paying
for transportation there and back, the Indians made out better than the
Jews, who until recently polished and cut their diamonds locally. The
reluctance of the Jews to seek out lower-cost production sites was
partly pride -- many considered themselves artisans and were loath to have
the delicate production process performed beyond their supervision.
It also was partly due to postwar psychology: Many were Holocaust survivors
afraid to part with their assets or send very expensive valuables far

The Indians also proved canny at polishing and cutting
the lower-quality rough diamonds that Jewish traders
typically overlooked, squeezing higher profit margins than their Jewish competitors
and pumping the profits back into their businesses. "We turned cotton
into silk," Mr. Shah says.

Mr. Shah notes that Indians have been trading diamonds
for centuries. India, where the world's first diamonds were
discovered in 800 B.C., provided most of the world's supply until the
18th-century diamond rushes in South Africa and Brazil.

Sharing Culture

In Antwerp, Jews and Indians are so embedded in each
other's lives that many of the Indian dealers speak Hebrew and Yiddish.
It is common to see donation boxes for Jewish charities in the
entrances of Indian businesses, and after a devastating earthquake in the
Indian state of Gujarat in 2001, Jewish diamond traders raised thousands of
euros for humanitarian aid. Jewish dealers know how to fix a
good cup of chai, the sweet, milky tea drunk by the gallon by Indian traders. Most
traditional Indian weddings have a special kosher section, and Mr.
Mehta says he has lost count of the number of times he has been lifted
up on a chair at a Hasidic wedding. A few years ago, there was even a
marriage between an Indian girl and a Jewish boy -- though such close ties
are rare. "We are not a very free society and they are not a very free
society, so we have a lot in common," Mr. Mehta says.

Isaac Keesje, a Jewish diamond dealer who has been in
the diamond business since the 1950s, says the two communities are
bound by a common entrepreneurial spirit and a strong moral code. A
religious Jain is his most trusted business partner. "We don't play golf
together or go to each other's houses, but we keep tens of thousands of
dollars worth of each other's diamonds in our safes and we haven't bothered
writing a contract in nearly 30 years. I only hope my son has a
business partner who is such a mensche," he says, using the Yiddish word for a
good human being.

Still, some Jews wonder if pressure from the Indians
signals the beginning of the end of Antwerp's Jewish diamond
district. In the past few years hundreds of Jews have abandoned the trade
altogether. Mr. Rubens, the Jewish community leader, thinks it is unlikely the
Jewish diamond trade will experience a revival. "We were too
complacent. Now that we realize it, it's too late," he says.

Mr. Mehta says the Indians are philosophical about
their success. He says this is partly because of their strong belief in
the Hindu notion of karma -- the idea that destiny is determined by a
person's actions in a former life. "If we do badly in business, we blame it
on bad karma," Mr. Mehta says. "Bad karma is almost impossible to
break -- just like a diamond ."

Write to Dan Bilefsky at

Saturday, May 17, 2003

Defiant Indian Brides

First, sorry for the lack of posts. I, along with many of my friends from undergrad- me with an MA in International Security and my friends with MD's- are graduating this week and that has resulted in the sporadic postings. Work has also been busy so that has also contributed to the lack of posts.

Anyway, I saw this story in the New York Times on a dowry situation in India and I had to post it. While of course many families are not able to react to ridiculous requests for a higher dowry, it is encouraging to witness 21-year old Nisha Sharma's pro-active reaction to a family's greed.

"The musicians were playing, the 2,000 guests were dining, the Hindu priest was preparing the ceremony and the bride was dressed in red, her hands and feet festively painted with henna. Then, the bride's family says, the groom's family moved in for the kill. The dowry of two televisions, two home theater sets, two refrigerators, two air-conditioners and one car was too cheap. They wanted $25,000 in rupees, now, under the wedding tent. As a free-for-all erupted between the two families, the bartered bride put her hennaed foot down. She reached for her royal blue cellphone and dialed 100. By calling the police, Nisha Sharma, a 21-year-old computer student, saw her potential groom land in jail and herself land in the national spotlight as India's new overnight sensation."

While I love Bollywood and other things Indian, there are too few role-models for Indian women to follow on the national stage. Hopefully, not just girls, but Indians everywhere will take a cue from Ms. Sharma's actions and not let eager and greedy families dictate their lives.

When the police came, the bride's father said, they spent an hour calming the wedding party, giving the groom and his family ample time to escape. To make a show of action, they detained the musicians' bus. Mr. Sharma intervened, and the musicians were freed. Three hours after the brawl, when Mr. Sharma was registering his complaint at the police station, a television crew from the Aaj Tak news channel happened to be at the station. "With the pressure of the media people, the police went to the boy's house and arrested him," Mr. Sharma said. Today the Sharmas had no regrets about their expensive wedding collapsing in chaos. "People say now it will be very difficult to marry my daughter again," Mr. Sharma said. "But I thought, if trouble is starting today, tomorrow may be worse. It could be killing. I thought, let the money go." Unfazed by the loss of her fiancé, Ms. Sharma said that since Monday she had received 20 to 25 marriage proposals, by cellphone, e-mail and letter.

Wednesday, May 07, 2003

Flying While Brown

I am pasting below a nice article from the Wall Street Journal discussing racial discrimination on airplanes. I just wanted to note in reference to this peice that is there is a huge difference between being vigilant, and allowing stereotypes to cause one to discriminate against someone based on skin color or appearance in general.

The Wall Street Journal
May 7, 2003

Airlines Have No Excuse For Racial Discrimination

Last month, flight attendants on a New York-bound flight grew suspicious
of a well-dressed, Arab-looking man. He had been ringing his call button
repeatedly asking for water. He sat with his hands in a bag, making
"weird hand motions," according to one passenger, and silently chanting
as if in a trance.

Flight attendants whispered to nearby passengers to keep a close eye on
him. As the plane descended to land, he pulled out a non-English
language book with pictures of angels on it and read. Police met the
plane and questioned the man.

He turned out to be an executive with American Express Co., and passed a
background check. In the bag: "worry beads."

That incident, undoubtedly humiliating for the passenger and downright
unnecessary, illustrates just how much fear there is on airplanes these
days. Now, after two wars, the initial shock of the 2001 terrorist
attacks may have faded a bit, but the fear that many feel may never
disappear. Many of us -- passengers and crew alike -- need worry beads.

The airline experience always seems to bring out the worst in us. There
is tremendous stress, lots of people packed into tight space and, for
some, a fear of death. That was before the terrorist attacks, which
certainly took stress and fear to a new level.

The Department of Transportation recently outlined just how high the
fear level reached in a discrimination suit filed against AMR Corp.'s
American Airlines. The suit paints an ugly picture of harassment of
passengers whose only transgression was appearing Arab. Some of the
passengers were platinum-level frequent fliers on American. Some had
"secret" U.S. government security clearances. One was a Hispanic pilot
for another airline. Another was an employee of American.

Hamdy Abou-Husesin, a U.S. citizen of Egyptian descent, was waiting to
board a Boston-Washington American Eagle flight in November 2001, on his
way to meet his wife for an anniversary celebration. Even though his
boarding pass said "*CLR*" -- meaning he hadn't been singled out by the
passenger-profiling system for further scrutiny -- he was paged to
American's counter and sent for secondary screening. During questioning,
a Massachusetts state trooper got on his radio and repeatedly said,
"He's from Egypt." Despite passing that screening, Mr. Abou-Husesin was
told that the pilot was denying him boarding. He was booked on a flight
to Baltimore.

Much the same thing happened had happened in October 2001 to Maneesh
Agarawal, a citizen of India flying from Boston to San Jose, Calif. He
was screened twice, had his luggage searched, and then was pulled off
the plane for additional questions, according to the DOT. A police
officer told him some flight attendants were suspicious of him because
"he did not make eye contact with them," according to the DOT, and the
flight crew refused to take him. American booked him on a later flight,
upgrading him to first class.

In all, the DOT cited 11 instances of flight crews discriminating
against Arab-appearing passengers. All happened in the first few months
after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when security was still chaotic and
fear was still sky-high.

In aviation, captains have ultimate authority over the ship. Indeed,
federal rules governing aviation hold the captain responsible. But
that's only within the bounds of the laws of the nation. You can't throw
someone off an airplane because you don't like his or her looks. Federal
law also prohibits airlines from discriminating against air travelers
because of their race, color, religion, ethnicity, national origin or

American backs its crews. The airline says it "vehemently" denies the
DOT's allegations, contending that crews were only following directives
from President Bush and the U.S. attorney general to be vigilant in the
months after the terrorist attacks, and were operating in an
unprecedented climate. The airline said that just such vigilance
prevented accused terrorist Richard Reid from igniting a bomb hidden in
his shoes that likely would have sent a wide-body jet to the bottom of
the Atlantic Ocean.

"We are confident that our crew members' actions will be vindicated,"
the airline said.

While discrimination of any kind is abhorrent, you do have to have some
sympathy for the situation facing airline crews shortly after the
terrorist attacks -- especially for workers at American and UAL Corp.'s
United Airlines, who saw their jets and their co-workers crashed by
terrorists. And it would seem even the Department of Transportation does
have some sympathy. The maximum fine the DOT is seeking against American
is only $65,000 total -- pocket change by federal-fine standards. Recent
fines against airlines for violating federal regulations on wheelchair
service for passengers with disabilities were much higher.

American is clearly not unique in this kind of behavior. A DOT spokesman
says the agency can't comment on possible investigations at other
airlines, but there have been numerous discrimination complaints against
others. In fact, American actually has a far better record than most.
Last year, American had fewer discrimination complaints filed at DOT,
per passenger, than every other major airline but Delta Air Lines.

Today, it's a lot harder to excuse any acts of discrimination. Flying is
a lot safer. The biggest single change that does the most to prevent
hijackings is the installation, just completed last month, of
bomb-proof, bullet-proof cockpit doors. Those reinforced doors mean that
an attacker can't get in, and a pilot should never come out in the event
of an attack. Stabbing passengers won't give you control of the airplane.

Those who are still scared should consider packing their own worry
beads. It's time for civility and respect to return.

Monday, May 05, 2003

India-Pakistan: a path towards peace?

I cannot say that I think peace if forthcoming between the two South Asian neighbors, but I can say that hopefully Vajpayee's third attempt at forging a real and lasting peace between India and Pakistan will lead the two nations towards some sort of framework that has the potential to lead to peace. Amy Waldman's piece in the New York Times suggests
that "Mr. Vajpayee has already made clear that his approach this time will be substantially different from his two previous attempts at peace, which were initiated with high-profile summit meetings." She also notes that Vajpayee reiterated that New Delhi's insists "that Pakistan must end cross-border terrorism to create the right atmosphere for a sustained dialogue." But more importantly PM Vajpayee is not rushing into anything which signals hopefully, a stronger attempt at creating an agreement that works. The Kashmir dispute has been brewing for far too long, and is far too important to the psyche's of Indians and Pakistanis for a quick and fast solution, so Vajpayee's denial of Pakistan's immediate invitation, signals his commitment to taking the proper course and time necessary in creating a strong solution.

This also shows two important things: First, Vajpayee is testing Pakistan and their commitment to stopping cross border terror during the peak infiltration months of May-June. If the decrease in infiltrations remains during these months, it could signal that Pakistan is actually halting its support and actively halting the insurgents they have patronized for so long. Second, offering the difficult hand of peace is much harder, and more symptomatic of great powers than bellicose war-mongering that any third-rate state is capable of. To be a true regional hegemon, or be player in the international system, it is not necessary to highlight military prowess-while it does help to have the prowess as backup-but rather, the strength comes in the ability to wage peace. I hope this initiative is successful.

Here is a link to an article I wrote prior to the Agra summit, and way before September 11 entitled "On a Path Towards Peace." It is interesting to see how things have changed.

Thursday, May 01, 2003

Turner Classis Movies to Highlight Bollywood Starting June 5

Here is a link to a press release on the Turner Classic Movies website announcing that the channel will be celebrating "the world of Indian cinema with a 12-film festival dedicated to "Bollywood" beginning June 5 at 8 p.m. ET. Co-hosted by filmmaker Ismail Merchant, the festival will focus on the prolific commercial film industry that began in India in the early 1930s and has since gone on to create the most-viewed films in the world. The films in TCM's festival, rarely available to American audiences, represent the grandest and most colorful Bollywood films, from tragi-comic melodramas to romances, containing the over-the-top operatic approach to filmmaking, use of color and elaborate choreography for which the genre is known." Among the films being screened are the Oscar winning MELODRAMA, Mother India, the modern and up-tempo Rangeela, and the classic Mani Ratnam film Bombay. The last two were scored I beleive by AR Rahman, the brains behind the hit London musical, Bombay Dreams--According to the TMC website, AR Rahman has sold more albums than Madonna and Britney Spears combined. The reason I highlighted melodrama is because I recently watched Mother India with my mom, and she literally busted out crying every five minutes. Originally from the fifties, Mother India is really from a different generation of film making and the melodrama aside, puts perspective on the role of Indian women back in the day.

I think this is a spectacular thing and Kudos to Turner Classic Movies for celebrating this genre of filmaking, and also in a way, Desis in America.