Basketball … Set to Music: The Catastrophic Theatre’s “Small Ball”

Take a second to wrap your mind around this: Basketball musical. Yes, that’s right. A musical that’s about basketball. OK, now that we’ve absorbed this concept, let’s talk about “Small Ball,” the current production at The Catastrophic Theatre.Small Ball poster

Illustration courtesy of The Catastrophic Theatre.

The plot: Michael Jordan has some problems. First off, he’s not that Michael Jordan. Instead, he’s a melancholy journeyman basketball player who’s found himself bouncing around various obscure international leagues. Second, he’s recently become the star player for the Lilliput Existers — yes, Lilliput, the same one from Gulliver’s Travels. But his teammates are each six inches tall. Jordan finds it tough to pass a regulation size ball to a six-inch player (the ball is larger than the player so …) and the team isn’t doing too well. The post-loss press conferences are getting rough.

The Houston Press had a fun read on “Small Ball” following the premier a few weeks ago.

Some of the “Small Ball” cast with Houston Rockets players on opening night. (Photo: Catastrophic Theatre.)

We had a sold-out world premier — complete with the attendance of Rockets players Chris Paul, Trevor Ariza, PJ Tucker, Ryan Anderson, and Coach Mike D’Antoni; writer Michael Lewis (author of several books, but “Moneyball” is most pertinent in this case); and Rico Rodriguez, a.k.a. Manny on the TV show “Modern Family,” who, I learned that evening, is from College Station and a big Rockets fan.

The person that connected basketball with musical theatre? That would be Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, who is also a member of Catastrophic’s executive board and someone who happens to love musical theatre.

We’ve got two more weekends of performances. If you’re in Houston — or will be by May 13 — please consider seeing a show. Tickets can be purchased here.

My friend CS got me involved with Catastrophic in 2016. I’d been to a couple of performances at her invitation but didn’t know much about the company itself. It was founded 25 years ago by Jason Nodler and Tamarie Cooper, first as Infernal Bridegroom Productions, which then as Catastrophic.

Our shows are unique to Houston; our plays feature up-and-coming playwrights and actors with stories that are thought-provoking, wildly funny (with a streak of black humor underneath), and something you won’t see anywhere else in Houston, or elsewhere in the nation, I would bet.

Screen Shot 2018-05-01 at 9.56.53 PMOne of the things that I admire about Catastrophic is our “pay what you can” ticketing program. We want art to be accessible to everyone — regardless of ability to pay. Our suggested ticket price is $40 but someone can “buy” tickets for $0 if they really can’t afford it. Luckily, we also have a number of ticket-buyers who pay much more than that suggested price. Together, we’re building a unique theatre community both within and without Catastrophic.

Another thing about Catastrophic that you might want to know is we have one especially notable alumni: Jim Parsons. Even has he’s found success in Hollywood, Parsons remains a steadfast supporter of Catastrophic.

Mom’s Cooking School: Roasted Eggplant, or Baigan Bharta — With a Surprising Tex-Mex twist!

Eggplant was not high on my list of foods growing up. Slimy and tasteless, I didn’t understand why anyone would want to eat it. My brother and dad were not fans either  So mom would make some for herself and make another vegetable for us.

Eggplants ready for the oven.

But, thankfully, we and our taste buds grow up. Eggplant is smokey, spicy, and hearty enough to be the main part of the meal. And, apparently, the eggplant is actually an Indian vegetable in origin. Hindustan Times journalist Vir Sanghvi writes that, while parts of India’s cuisines are borrowed from other cultures courtesy of trade with the rest of Asia and the Arab world over the millennia, the eggplant is actually indigenous to the subcontinent — dating as far back as the ninth century BC.

“We gave it to the rest of the world,” Sanghvi writes. Even while the Turks, Italians, Arabs, and others have well known eggplant dishes — baba gnoush, anyone? — he says that eggplant is actually indigenous to India. “It appears in all our ancient texts — even our epics — and we have had the first ever name for it: the Sanskrit vrantakam from which the Hindi baingan came. As for the Arabic name of which so much is made, well it looks like Badinjan is derived from the Sanskrit vrantakam.”

What you’ll need:

  • 3 smallish eggplants, about 8 to 9 inches long
  • 1 medium white onion, chopped (about 4 to 5 ounces)
  • slivered garlic cloves to taste
  • 2 cloves of diced garlic
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
  • 1 dried red pepper
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
  • 1 pinch asafoetida
  • 1 teaspoon dhana jeeru (a mix of ground coriander and cumin seeds)
  • 1 teaspoon jeeru (cumin seeds)
  • 1 teaspoon garam masala*
  • 1/4 teaspoon aamchur powder (mango powder)
  • 1 cup of Ro-Tel (or, if you live in a Ro-Tel deficient area, 1 teaspoon finely chopped jalapenos and about 1/2 cup tomatoes)
  • Chopped cilantro to garnish

*Garam masala typically consists of cumin, cloves cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, and peppercorns. The exact mix of spices depends on the tradition of each house, and is typically passed on from mother to daughter, something I will write about for a future blog post. You can buy it in Central Market or Whole Foods but it will be cheaper in an Indian grocery store. Garam masala is not spicy; it’s meant to give food a deep warming flavor.

Cooking instructions:

Lightly oil the eggplants. Cut slits into the skin and insert garlic slivers to taste. Set eggplants on a cooking rack that fits on a baking tray (line tray with foil for easier clean up) and broil on high for about an hour. Rotate the eggplants halfway. At the end of the hour, the skin should look and feel crackly. Take the eggplant out of the oven — and once you can touch them easily — peel off the skin and take as many of the seeds out. The remainder of the eggplant will have the consistency of thick applesauce. Set aside.

For the masala, heat up the vegetable oil, and add jeeru and asafoetida on medium-to-low heat, until jeeru becomes brown-reddish. Add 1/2 medium white onion and saute. Add the shredded ginger. Add Ro-Tel (or Ro-Tel substitute) and reduce heat to a low simmer; allow liquid to burn off.

Add salt, turmeric powder, dhana jeeru, aamchur powder, and cayenne. (Spice levels can be adjusted, so taste as you go, to see if you want more salt or spice.) Add tomato paste. Then simmer until you see the oil separating, about 20 to 25 minutes. Fold in eggplant mixture. Top dish with cilantro and serve.

I usually eat this vegetable dish with Indian breads, thin rotlis or more toothsome naan, but I can see this vegetable topping rice or even a grain like quinoa. Scoop it into lettuce wraps for a vegetarian, masala-style taco that’s topped with finely chopped radish and parsley. Or, what about using it as the filling for a different take on verde enchiladas?

Hindus & Muslims in Gujarat

I’m cross-posting recent blog entries from my blog Journey to Gujarat here on Parallel Universe. Please sign up for updates to my travels there as soon as they are posted!

It’s been a couple of months since I left Gujarat for America but the images and conversations are still very much with me. I am glad to be spending the summer in the relatively cooler Texas than Gujarat but I try to keep up with happenings there through regular phone or web-enabled conversations with friends and family.

An ongoing theme, perhaps one that is never-ending, is that of the conflict between Hindus and Muslims in Gujarat. The embodiment of this conflict is Narendra Modi, Gujarat’s (Hindu) chief minister, who is blamed with fanning the flames of communal violence in the 2002 riots that claimed tens of thousands of lives on both sides and destroyed Muslim neighborhoods. He is often touted as a possible future Indian prime minister and so much of the chattering among intelligensia is about Modi’s record in Gujarat, and how it should or should not be a model for the rest of India.

A new biography of Modi, written by Indian journalist, Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, is out and seeks to peel back the armor that the CM wears. Modi is clearly contemptuous of any questions that go against the narrative he has chosen, he freezes out journalists who don’t tow the line and has an uber-paternalistic attitude toward his constituents. His supporters say he’s brought prosperity to Gujarat with his focus on law and order and friendly attitude toward business. He’s a polarizing figure either way.

Growing up in America, the only religious differences that I was aware of was how different we were from the Christian families all around us. We were respectful, learned to bow our heads in silence when prayers invoking Jesus were said — even at secular events. Most people didn’t make an effort to get to know more about our religion (though I did have to dissuade some fellow six-year-olds that no the reason that Hindus are vegetarians is not because we worship cows) but didn’t impede our celebrating Diwali or raksha bandhan either.

Visiting my family in Gujarat is to enter an upper-caste Hindu world. Portraits of Ganesh, Krishna and other gods adorn homes and businesses. The greeting upon meeting people is not “Hello” but “Jai Shri Krishna,” or Hail, Krishna. It would be as if Christians went around saying, “Praise Jesus” instead of “good morning.” It’s not a big deal. Just simply how people relate to each other.

I don’t even notice myself navigating between Gujarati-dominated settings, more Western settings where English is spoken or when Arabic dominates the chatter among Muslims either in the Gulf or India. I was surprised and disappointed at the low level of interaction among Hindus and Muslims in Ahmedabad, however. The people that I spoke to said the separation has gotten more acute in the decade since the riots.

So it was interesting to hear the discussion after a production of “Tales of Tears,” a play about a fictional rape trial set after the riots. The Q-and-A after the play put in stark terms how wary both communities are of each other. Time may have passed since the riots but Gujarat has not moved on.


‘Journey to Gujarat:’ Gujarat 101

I’m cross-posting my recent blog entry in Journey to Gujarat here on Parallel Universe. Please sign up for updates to my travels there as soon as they are posted!

As part of my preparation for my travels in Gujarat, I decided to treat it like I would a reporting assignment, researching as much as I could about the state’s history, politics, economics and sociology. I bought five books, including one novel, written by economists, academics and social workers in order to get a deeper understanding of Gujarat.

photo-12 The first I read is a travel guide, modeled on the Lonely Planet series, edited by Anjali Desai, who it turns out went to UT with my Dubai friend, V.P., and is also from Houston. (How’s that for a coincidence?!) Anjali went back to Ahmedabad after graduating from UT, and has been involved in a number of voluntary organizations there, including Indicorps, an India-wide Peace Corps-type organization that is based in Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s largest city.

Gujarat is located on the northwest of India; it’s not one of the places that most non-Indians know about. It’s an amazingly diverse place, both industrial – once known as the “Birmingham of the East” – and agricultural, the home of both Mohandas Gandhi and Mohammed Jinnah (the father of Pakistan,)  and has India’s longest coastline – 1,600 kilometers (994 miles.)

Its communities range from tribal groups who live in Kutchh’s salt flats, to Catholic communities tied back to Portuguese missionaries from the 17th century, to descendants of royal families whose patronage is related to the Muslim khans who ruled India for centuries. It is also the home of some of the worst Hindu-Muslim communal violence to ever strike India. With the controversial Narendra Modi – who some believe was responsible, at least passively, for the deaths following the devastating riots in 2002 – as chief minister, Gujarat has aggressively developed an industrial and technology-driven economy. Yet agriculture remains a powerful driver, just as it did in the 1960s when India’s green revolution brought millions of Indians out of a starvation existence, a model for many developing countries still.

I fly out to Ahmedabad tomorrow night. My three, obscenely overweight suitcases are packed. My father’s cousin’s sons are meeting me at the airport at 3 a.m. Sunday. The journey is about to start …

Buy my car!

In the interest of being able to get this to the widest audience, I’m posting my Dubizzle ad for my 2009 VW Tiguan. The price is AED75,000. It’s a great car but I’ve decided to sell it in the interests of having maximum flexibility in my nomadic life here in the Gulf. Friends in the U.A.E., if you want to see it or have any questions about the car, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. Thanks!

Looking for a great car for the highway and the sand? This 2009 VW Tiguan fits the bill. Excellent condition, maintained faithfully at dealership, all records and manuals intact, driven with care, mainly highway miles. White exterior/tan leather interior. Excellent sound system and navigation system, panoramic sunroof, all electric, bluetooth enabled, 4-wheel drive switchable, excellent handling, fold-down rear seats enable you to load and carry all of your sports gear, or groceries. You won’t find a better deal, or a Tiguan in better shape. This car was designed for dealers to show off all of the Tiguan’s bells and whistles, including its best sound system, sports package and luxurious interior. I bought it new. You can’t get a better package in a Tiguan for a better price. Serious offers only.

Here is the link to the Dubizzle ad that has photos and more details about the car:

A female pioneer in Afghanistan

My story on Roya Mahboob, a young woman entrepreneur in Afghanistan in Newsweek/Daily Beast. Not only is she trying to build a business in a fragile economic environment but she also has to battle cultural and religious norms that don’t support women who seek a place outside of the home.

HERAT, Afghanistan

A 25-year-old female entrepreneur working to help the next generation is also a model for it. Angela Shah reports.

The 25-year-old is at once exhilarated and shy. A woman is not supposed to attract so much attention. Just minutes earlier, a male colleague offered her a word to the wise as he gently pulled down her head scarf to cover her throat and shoulders, exposed from the scoop-necked top she wore, saying: “There are conservative men inside.

On this day in late May, the girls at Baghnazargah High School were getting computers and Internet access for the first time. Mahboob’s IT company, Afghan Citadel Services, or ACS, installed the technology lab as part of a project to help wire schools in Herat, and Mahboob offered welcome remarks as a panel of bearded men dressed in traditional salwar kameez, elders in this community, along with school officials, sipped tea behind her.

Baghnazargah is located in a poor section of Herat and many of the female students come from conservative families. While boys can move freely, and so attend computer tutorials outside of school, girls are only allowed to leave home to attend school. And those girls are, in a sense, the lucky ones: most girls don’t even attend high school. Like most 16-year-olds, Augiza longs to surf the Web, but she doesn’t have an email address. “This is the only way for me to learn the computer,” she says. “It gives me [a] connection to everywhere in the world.”

For students like Augiza, Mahboob is a revelation. Here is a woman less than a decade older than they are who runs her own company and flies in from Kabul on her own for ribbon-cutting ceremonies like the one on this day. She, they can see, has a position of power. Once the men have left and the formal festivities are concluded, the girls congregate around Mahboob in packs of threes and fours asking to take pictures with her.

“You have to show everybody that men and women are equal,” Mahboob says. “Women can do something if you allow them. Give them opportunity and they can prove themselves.”

(Photo by Gabriela Maj)

In a country where the Taliban had outlawed telephones, Afghanistan has quickly wired itself in the last decade. The number of Internet users in the country has grown from 300,000 in 2006 to 1 million two years ago, according to the International Monetary Fund.

“Only 20 percent of Afghanistan is electrified; it’s only 20 percent literate,” says Paul Brinkley, the former deputy undersecretary of defense. “But 60 percent have a cellphone. What does this tell you about the Afghan people? They’re starving for information. You need that more to stabilize this country than all the security things you could do.”

Brinkley, a Silicon Valley veteran before joining the government, founded the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations in Afghanistan in 2010, to link the department’s military operations with economic development. That program led to the Herat Information Technology Program, which started in May 2011 with an inaugural class of seven Afghan entrepreneurs, including Mahboob. The program’s goal is to show the potential of Afghanistan once international forces withdraw troops and treasure by the end of 2014: that, with a little bit of help from the international community, talented and determined Afghans are succeeding despite an enduring insurgency, a frequently inefficient and sometimes corrupt bureaucracy, and a weak domestic economy.

“Roya represents what the majority of Afghanistan wants,” he says. “To stand on their own two feet, to build their own lives.”

Mahboob founded ACS two years ago along with two Herat University classmates with an investment of $20,000, partly through savings from their jobs lecturing at the university and with funds from Mahboob’s family. She owns 45 percent of ACS, with the remaining shares divided among the two former Herat University classmates and her brother and sister.

In an industrial-park compound behind high walls topped with concertina wire, the entrepreneurs set up offices in free office spaces with Internet provided by the program and attended seminars on “Business 101″: how to create a business plan to attract investors, how to respond to RFPs, and how to price their services.

A year after the incubator’s launch, some entrepreneurs are still struggling to establish a commercial foothold. But others, like Mahboob, have thrived. Crucially, ACS is making the transition away from sourcing business solely through contracts offered by ISAF and international groups and toward Afghan governments, hospitals, and schools. Currently, the company has projects underway or completed worth $500,000. In the last year, Mahboob has hired three additional software programmers and aggressively sought contracts for projects worth millions.

“What matters is that those Afghan businesses are doing better than before,” says Scott Gilmore, a former Canadian diplomat who founded the nongovernmental organization Building Markets, which recently changed its name from the Peace Dividend Trust. “That is your sustainability.”

A NATO promotional video last year featuring Mahboob attracted the attention of Francesco Rulli, a New York businessman. The Italian-born Rulli is sort of a Renaissance man entrepreneur—one of his businesses is a men’s clothing line in partnership with actor John Malkovich—and he says he was attracted by Mahboob’s spunk.

So far, he and his brother have invested nearly $120,000 to build eight computer labs in Herat schools like the one at Baghnazargah High School. “I sent the first $15,000 and within a week, ACS had built up the first classroom,” he says.

“I have an opportunity to do the right thing,” he explains. “I appreciate the fact that this is a woman with the opportunity to do something meaningful.”

Rulli runs Film Annex, a Web-based video-content farm that allows individuals to create Web TV channels; Rulli profits by capturing and selling user data. He says the site has 30 million page views a day. He and Mahboob recently expanded their partnership to install computer labs in other Central Asian countries, and to develop e-learning and testing platforms for use in those schools. Mahboob’s university classmate and co-investor Fereshteh Forough plans to move to New York by the end of the year to open an office there.

“Let’s give the kids the Internet and let them choose what they want their future to be,” Rulli says. “I have three kids. I know ‘Angry Birds’ is a stronger weapon against the Taliban than anything else.”

Late one spring evening as Mahboob and I enjoyed the breeze at Takht-e-Safar, the mountain-side park that overlooks Herat, she told me: “You know, in Afghanistan, we women are not supposed to go out, run the business, but I don’t agree with this.” The park is a popular retreat for Heratis, but past sundown, it is mainly the refuge of men clumped together on car hoods or blankets. Hidden by the darkness and foliage, Mahboob and I could allow our head scarves to loosen.

“If we can’t prove to 100 people that women have ability and skills, we can prove it to at least 10 people,” she says. “That’s enough.”

Mahboob tells me that she first discovered the Web in high school in 2003, when she saw her cousin in Iran use Yahoo messenger. Her lack of knowledge shamed her. She immediately saw how isolated she had been among Iran’s Afghan refugees and how the Web could connect her not only to Afghanistan but to the rest of the world. So, when her family moved to Herat just across the Iranian border later that year, she enrolled in Information and communications technology courses offered for women by the United Nations Development Programme.

Recognizing technology’s power to connect her to the rest of the world, she pursued a computer sciences degree at Herat University. After graduation she stayed on as a junior faculty member in the university’s computer lab. There she first got a taste of her biggest obstacle in business: she’s a woman.

Slender, 5-feet tall and partial to fashionable tunics, skinny jeans, and heels, curly bangs escape from her headscarf onto her forehead. “When I started working at university, all people were thinking that I am a typist,” she says. “I created websites, databases for them, but they never even mention our names. They mentioned my deputy when he was a man.”

Even today, when responding to contract bids at ministries in Kabul, Mahboob says bureaucrats often openly disbelieve that she is the CEO of her own company. She has recently pitched the Ministry of Public Health for services on an IT contract. “She is a woman,” Mahboob says of the minister. “I hope she will listen.”

Such paternal condescension is fairly common, and Mahboob has learned to navigate around the soft discrimination. But the opposition is also, frequently, more sinister.

One afternoon in late May, Mahboob picks up her ringing cellphone. Without saying anything—she makes a slight face—she pushes the button to hang up the line.

Physical threats from anonymous male callers come almost daily. While her own father and brother support her efforts at ACS, many in the conservative community of Herat do not. “They call and call and call, saying ‘I will pay you, too,’ as if I am doing bad things to get business,” she says.

For many conservative men, Mahboob’s having business meetings with unrelated men on her own—a basic of doing business–is akin to prostituting herself: the business men can only be paying her for one thing, and that is sex.

Ahkhtar Mohammed Mahboob says he, too, receives phone calls asking why he doesn’t force his daughter to abandon her business. “It has been difficult for us, for our family,” he says after breakfast at the Herat home he shares with his wife; his daughters, Roya and Elha; and his son, Ali.

“Maybe they will hurt Roya but I can’t change myself or my daughter,” he says, quietly. “This is her time. We cannot stop progress.”

Mahboob used to switch among an assortment of SIM cards to deflect her harassers, but is now resigned to the taunting and threats. For the last eight months, she’s kept the same cellphone number.

“What can I do?” Mahboob asks. “I have to keep working for my company, for my country. We have to stay focused on helping girls.”

Angela Shah is a journalist based in Dubai whose work has appeared in The New York Times, TIME and The Dallas Morning News.

Dubai: ‘Digging Out of Debt’

My latest story is in Institutional Investor magazine, on Dubai reckoning with its debt hangover, three years after it announced it would not be able to pay its debts. Here is an excerpt to the story. The full link is available here for a limited time.




June 2012  •  Angela Shah

IN EARLY APRIL, DUBAI’S MUNICIPAL GOVERNMENT reported that the number of abandoned cars — the symbol par excellence of the once-high-flying emirate’s economic bust — rose by 10 percent in the first three months of this year from the same period a year earlier. But rather than seeing that indicator as a sign that the economy was taking a turn for the worse, leaders attributed the pickup to simple efficiency: The authorities now have three tow trucks to bring in vehicles, compared with just one last year.

The car repo business, with numbers that can be good or bad, depending on how you look at them, is a good metaphor for Dubai’s economic and financial condition. The emirate, which splashed on the global scene a decade ago with a flashy, money-is-no-object development philosophy, only to be brought down by the near-default of some of its flagship companies three years ago, has been quietly getting a handle on its debt problems. Since late 2009, Dubai and its government-related entities have restructured more than $20 billion of bank debt, nearly two thirds of the total, by arm-twisting creditors with a decree that resembles a Western-style bankruptcy restructuring. The emirate’s economy is also on the mend, with moderate growth buoyed by a rebound in tourism and trade.

Dubai may have bounced off the bottom, but it still has a long way to go to resolve its debt problems and return its economy to robust health. Government-related entities such as Dubai World, the conglomerate that set off the crisis in late 2009 by declaring a debt standstill, have rescheduled a large portion of their obligations, but they remain saddled with a massive burden. In its latest report on the United Arab Emirates, issued last month, the International Monetary Fund estimated that the overall debt of Dubai’s GREs — including bank debt, bonds and sukuk (Islamic bonds) — stands at $84.3 billion, or 60.4 percent of GDP. That debt mountain has declined by about $5 billion over the past two years, but the GREs still need to roll over an estimated $14 billion of debt this year.

Fully 10.6 percent of the loans held by Dubai banks are nonperforming, the IMF says, and that ratio could jump by another 5 percentage points this year if the authorities manage to reschedule the debt of other government-related entities. Although the real estate market shows signs of stabilizing, property prices have fallen by about 60 percent since 2008, and vacancy rates range from 20 percent for retail property to 30 percent for office buildings. Dubai is slowly healing, but there is no quick remedy for its troubles.

“The only way for Dubai to fix its problems is to grow the economy and generate income, and trade its way out,” says Neil Cuthbert, a senior partner at the Dubai office of law firm SNR Denton. “Over time it will happen. The interesting question is, how long will the banks be happy to carry on pushing out maturities?”

Continue reading “Dubai: ‘Digging Out of Debt’”