Archive for January, 2009|Monthly archive page

Gaza Diary: January 30 2009 10:33 PM

In Israel/Palestine, Journalism, Photography on January 30, 2009 at 8:35 pm

Are you from Pakistan?

I am not sure how he knew for we had not met nor spoken to each other.

I was just about the get up to leave Al-Awda mosque in Rafah, Gaza when a man sitting behind me introduced himself and asked if I was from Pakistan.

How did he know? Why did he think so? Nothing about my appearance that day – I in my conventional trekking pants and checkered shirt, suggested my background.

How did he know?

The way you said your namaaz, specifically the way I said the final salaams (face turned right, and then left) was different from the way they did it here in Gaza and he had only seen that method when he had lived in Pakistan some years earlier.

Here, the told me, you wait for the Imam to say both salaams (left and right) before the congregations follows.

In Pakistan, we do so at the same time as the Imam.

Yes, indeed, I am from Pakistan – a Kashmiri born in Pakistan in fact.  He smiled, and vigorously shook my hand and said in near perfect Urdu ‘Ap say mill karr bahoot khushi hoey!’ – ‘It is a pleasure to meet you!’

I was taken aback! It was the last thing I had expected to hear – Urdu, Pakistan’s national language – spoken here in the heart of a Gaza refugee camp.

This was back in 2004.  Since then I have met a number of people in Rafah who speak a little Urdu and love to practice it whenever they meet me.

Many Palestinians had been allowed to travel to Pakistan after the Olso accords.  Policemen, doctors, physical therapists, accountants, engineers and others spend a few years in the country and learned a little of the language there.  They had been welcomed there, appreciated the support that they saw in the country for their struggle, and obviously felt at home there.

At a local physical rehabilitation center there was even a small club of Urdu speakers to which I of course was immediately made a member.

And again, on this recent trip, I continue to receive warm welcomes from people when I tell them that I am originally a Kashmiri from Pakistan.  There is a relaxing of attitude, a clear and obvious sense of camaraderie, a dissolving of some of the distance that exists between a foreign photographer and a Palestinian from Gaza. There is a look of recognition and gestures that suggest that they believe that I recognize something of me in them too.  And their struggle and their predicaments here in Gaza.

That since I am a Kashmiri, another region struggling for its identity and liberty, and a Pakistani, a country that has argued for the rights of the Palestinians, and of a Muslim background, that I to some degree understand who they are and what they are.

I can’t say that I actually offer all this to the Palestinians.  But I know that I love to speak Urdu in Gaza for the simple reason that it is the only place in the world where I can call myself just Pakistani – not Kashmiri/Pakistani/American/Swede etc. and not have it become a fact that taints you in the eyes of the other.

Perhaps the Palestinians like to speak it because it reminds them of a time of hope when the new possibilities offered by the Oslo Accords were to be prepared for in Pakistan.  Today none of those possibilities exist as the accords have been betrayed.

But the language they heard as they dreamed their dreams in a far away land is perhaps the only reminder of that special time so long past and the excitement and joys that had accompanied it.

I love to speak Urdu in Gaza.

Gaza Diary: January 24 2009 18:00 PM

In Israel/Palestine, Journalism, Photography on January 24, 2009 at 5:01 pm

The water pipe has many names.

In the balkans it is called a ‘lula‘ or ‘lulava’.

In Egypt and the Persian Gulf it is often referred to as a ‘shishe’.

In Iran it is called a ‘ganja’ pronounced as ‘ghelyoon’.

In India and Pakistan it is called a ‘huqqa’.

In the Palestinian Territories, the Levant, Iraq, Jordan, Greece, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Israel, it is called by the beautiful name of ‘narghile’- a word that has its roots in sanskrit.

But I doubt if it has ever been called a weapon of defiance.

In 2003 I decided to rent an apartment in the city of Rafah, Gaza and document the lives of the people living along the border with Egypt. These mostly refugee neighborhoods were under assault from Israeli armored bulldozers and tanks – all part of the construction machinery being used to build the steel wall along the Philadephia Corridor – the code name the IDF used to describe the stretch of land it controlled between Rafah, Gaza and the Egyptian border.

Today it is the stretch of land that is being used by the Palestinians for the construction of tunnels, and the area the Israeli Air Force concentrated on as it attempted to destroy these tunnels.

One afternoon as I walked around these neighborhoods photographing displaced families, destroyed homes and the bulldozers working the area, I ran into a group of Palestinian men preparing to sit and smoke a narghile.

They had spread out, in sight of a group of Israeli tanks protecting a bulldozer demolishing yet another Palestinian home in the area, a small blanket on the edge of the construction area, but within the 100 meter ‘no go’ zone the Israeli’s insisted on enforcing between the steel wall and any Palestinian building or person.

The men invited me to join them.

I hesitated, knowing full well that within minutes the tanks would approach this group of men and either threaten them or simply shoot at them. But I did.

And sure enough, before we had managed to take our first few puffs of the narghile we saw the tanks starting to move towards us to investigate. We were soon forced to pack and leave.

When I asked the men why they had chosen to smoke there where they were sure to provoke the Israeli’s they laughed. To me it had seemed a careless act of bravado. I suspect that it was also a small act of defiance – to be where the Israelis had warned them not to be.

Last night in Gaza City, I went out for a narghile with some young Palestinians I have come to know while working here documenting the aftermath of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead.

We sat and talked about ordinary things. The Palestinians always ask me the most ordinary questions; how do you spend your time with your wife? What do you do when you are not working? How do you play with your daughter? What games do you enjoy?

In turn, they tell me about their most important aspirations, and I am always struck by the ordinariness of them; The desire to find a good wife. The hope of finding a job that will bring them financial security. The hope of children, many children.

Ordinary things that over a narghile become the thing of dreams. And the water-pipe, a small act of defiance in the face of the incarceration and deprivation of life in Gaza.

An object that enables pleasures still available to the people here; companionship, conversation and the laughter of friends.

And in the aftermath of the horrors of this last confrontation with Israel, a small act of living life, a small act of defiance.

Gaza Diary: January 22 2009 14:25PM

In Israel/Palestine, Journalism, Photography on January 24, 2009 at 11:58 am

On the Getty Images archive you can type in ‘Gaza Destroyed’ and retrieve over 5,500 images to select from.  If you run the query ‘Gaza Funerals’ you will get back over 7,000 images.  I was unable to check the Corbis archives because at the time of writing this entry their site was undergoing maintenance.  But I am confident that I would find a similarly large number of images for both the queries above. 

The challenge for a photographer arriving in Gaza is that s/he is walking into a place that has been consistently and extensively photographed for decades, and that there are many fine, talented and professional Palestinian photographers who carry out this task for their various agencies.  In addition, some of the best and most talented international photojournalists have also made Gaza the focus of their work.

I have arrived in Gaza in the aftermath of Israel’s most recent military operation against the region, Operation Cast Lead.  And I find that though the scale of this latest venture is larger than anything I can remember from my previous travels to Gaza, its impact and consequences are very familiar. 

The official numbers state that over 1,300 people have been killed, of which it is believed that nearly 400 were children, about 50,000 made homeless, and over 5000 left seriously injured.

I arrived in Gaza just as the cease fire had been declared and I had been immediately struck by how familiar it all seemed.

The day before as I stood on the Egyptian border with Rafah and watched Israeli jets dropping their payload on buildings and tunnel construction sites I was unsure of my decision to proceed.  Cowardice has been my best friend and protected me from many dangers. 

Why would I not listen to it now?

My first trip to Gaza was in 2003.  I then returned and continued to document the situation here, particularly in Rafah, Gaza, in 2004 and 2005.  The settlers were still in Gaza then, and so were activists from the International Solidarity Movement, and the armored bulldozers and their accompanying tanks that were constructing the massive steel wall along Rafah’s border with Egypt. 

Home demolitions were frequent along the Rafah border as bulldozers tore down Palestinian homes to make way for this steel wall.  Tank patrols would terrorize residents living along the border, and there would be frequent firing into these neighborhoods resulting in deaths and maiming of residents.
As a photographer I documented my fair share of funerals, Hamas marches and families salvaging their belongings from the ruins of their destroyed houses. 

And now, as I walk through the devastation in Gaza from the most recent Israeli operation, I am struck by how familiar and how similar it all looks.  My photographs from this morning look little different from those I took back in 2003, 2004 and 2005!  In fact, a simple re-edit of the captions of my previous work and I could convince you that the photograph was taken just yesterday!

The scale is different.  Absolutely.  But the visible consequences are the same as: dead bodies and lost lives; destroyed homes and displaced families; angry funerals and political exploitation; protest marches and armed men promising revenge; physical destruction and families trying to rebuild. 

We have been here before.  We are here again.

As I walk through Gaza with my little camera in hand, and around me scramble some of the world’s finest photojournalists capturing yet more of what we have already known and seen, I am desperately trying to find my own voice to this story.  And it is not helping that I know that in the not too distant future there will be yet more confrontations, and more military operations, and more funerals, and marches, and destroyed homes and displaced lives. 

The cycle repeats itself.

Is there a way to stop the images from doing the same?

Learning To Read

In The Daily Discussion on January 14, 2009 at 1:02 am

On January 10th, 2009, America’s paper of record, The New York Times, ran this piece

A Gaza War Full of Traps & Trickery by Steven Erlanger

I had wanted to write a response to this piece of ‘journalism’, to explore the way in which it had been put together and published on the pages of this apparently fine journalistic outlet.  Instead, Chris Hedges beat me to it. I quote him, speaking about precisely this piece of reporting by Mr. Erlanger,

“In this story, unnamed Israeli intelligence officials gave us a spin on the war worthy of the White House fabrications made on the eve of the Iraq war. We learned about the perfidious and dirty tactics of Hamas fighters. Foreign journalists, barred from Gaza and unable to check the veracity of the Israeli version of the war, have abandoned their trade as reporters to become stenographers. The cynicism of conveying propaganda as truth, as long as it is well sourced, is the poison of American journalism. If this is all journalism has become, if moral outrage, the courage to defy the powerful, the commitment to tell the truth and to give a voice to those who without us would have no voice, no longer matters, our journalism schools should focus exclusively on shorthand. It seems to be the skill most ardently coveted by most senior editors.”

You can read Chris Hedge’s complete piece here: The Language of Death

We will do well to remember that our newspapers today lie.  That wire agencies deliberately obfuscate and modify.  That as our ‘sources’ for news diminish, the ability to control what you read and see becomes easier.  The few corporations that are now in control of our ‘eyes on the world’ are increasingly skewing matters away from the struggles of the weak and, in their desperate rush to rub shoulders with the powerful, representing the views and needs of the powerful; corporations, lobbyists, politicians, demagogues and dictators.

The language and phrases being used require us to read carefully, between the lines and with a sensitive eye towards the meanings and use of words.  We can no longer afford to take statements like ‘Israel has a right to defend itself’ or ‘It is a terrorist organization’ at face value and have to bring to bear on these statements skepticism, a critical eye and the ability to evaluate the complete meaning and political priorities that support such statements and rely on them for pushing forward other agendas.

Mark Danner gave a commencement speech to students at the University of California, Berkeley that is worth reading today.  Called ‘Humanism & Terror (What Are You Going To Do With It)’ He reminds that the power to understand language, to read critically and comprehend language may be the most powerful tools left to the individual in confronting the overwhelming power to obfuscate and confuse that the power barons of our world now possess.

We are living a Huxley-an nightmare as lies are made into truths, as the weak are made into terrorists, as state terrorism is dressed as ‘defense’, as the helpless are transformed into ‘grave threats’, as ethnic cleansing is transformed into ‘security measures’, as a massacre of innocents is represented as ‘a war’.

Read carefully.

What We Are Is Only What We Do

In Israel/Palestine, Journalism, Our Wars on January 11, 2009 at 9:47 pm

Huwaida Araf is a young American of Palestinian descent and a founder of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM). Here is a video of what it means to have the courage of your convictions

In 2003 I was in Rafah, Gaza on the day Rachel Corrie, another brave woman, another member of the ISM, was crushed under an Israeli bulldozer while trying to stop it from destroying the house of a Palestinian doctor along the Rafah/Egypt border.

She, and her ISM colleagues, showed me then too what it means to have the courage of your convictions. I had known her briefly – we would often run in to each other in Rafah, and even shared a lunch one afternoon as we discussed how control of water sources in the West Bank may be determining where settlements and Israeli presence is focused.

Then, as today, the Palestinian protesters were engaged in non-violent resistance to a brutal, maiming, dehumanizing and murderous occupation force.

Members of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) block Israeli tanks accompanying armoured bulldozers used for destroying Palestinians homes along the Gaza-Egypt border - September 2003

Members of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) block Israeli tanks accompanying armoured bulldozers used for destroying Palestinians homes along the Gaza-Egypt border - September 2003 Photo By Asim Rafiqui

I had never met a young woman like her – passionate, committed, sharply intelligent and determined.  She was only 24 years old.

At 24 I was still trying to figure out how to date women!

And they were all young and from many different countries around the world.  And some paid with their lives while fighting for something they believed in, something that gave them a reason to live before it killed them.

Rachel Corrie died that year, and so did Tom Hurndall just a few months later.  Shot by an Israeli sniper he too was 24, young, and committed.  His killer was a Bedouin in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) who was singled out for prosecution despite his statement that there was a policy of shooting at unarmed civilians in effect.

I suspect that there still is.

It is conventionally believed, and the truly ignorant and arrogant will lecture the Palestinians on this, that the Palestinians have not engaged in non-violent resistance to the occupation.

The facts are that that is all that they mostly day.  Every day and all the time.

The construction of the separation Wall has been resisted peacefully each and every day of its existence and these peaceful protests have been met with live bullets, tear gas and beatings.  I know, I have been there.  And yet they continue, despite the threats to their lives.  The Palestinians even went to the highest court that would hear them – the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and presented their case.

The ICJ found that the construction of the wall and its associated regime were in breach of international human rights and humanitarian law.  It also said that Israel was under an obligation to cease construction of the wall, dismantle the structure and make reparation for all damage caused by that project.

That was back in the summer of 2004.

Many deaths ago.

Many disppossessed acres go.

Many lost olive groves ago.

Many lost school days ago.

Many humiliations ago.

Many summary arrests go.

Many settlements go.

Many beatings ago.

Many imprisonments ago.

10 Myths About Pakistan!

In Essays Related To Pakistan, Journalism, Our Wars on January 11, 2009 at 6:39 pm

Mohammed Hanif is a Pakistani writer, best known for his recent novel ‘A Case of Exploding Mangoes’

Just as I had finished posting my recent diatribe against the New York Times Sunday Magazine’s piece on Pakistan, I came across an Op-Ed Hanif wrote in The Times of India that discusses what are the most popular myths about the country.

So, In Mohammad Hanif’s own words, copied here without his or the Times of India’s Permission:

Ten Myths About Pakistan by Mohammad Hanif, for The Times of India

Living in Pakistan and reading about it in the Indian press can sometimes be quite a disorienting experience: one wonders what place on earth they’re talking about? I wouldn’t be surprised if an Indian reader going through Pakistani papers has asked the same question in recent days. Here are some common assumptions about Pakistan and its citizens that I have come across in the Indian media…

Pakistan controls the jihadis: Or Pakistan’s government controls the jihadis. Or Pakistan Army controls the jihadis. Or ISI controls the jihadis. Or some rogue elements from the ISI control the Jihadis. Nobody knows the whole truth but increasingly it’s the tail that wags the dog. We must remember that the ISI-Jihadi alliance was a marriage of convenience, which has broken down irrevocably. Pakistan army has lost more soldiers at the hands of these jihadis than it ever did fighting India.

Musharraf was in control, Zardari is not: Let’s not forget that General Musharraf seized power after he was fired from his job as the army chief by an elected prime minister. Musharraf first appeased jihadis, then bombed them, and then appeased them again. The country he left behind has become a very dangerous place, above all for its own citizens. There is a latent hankering in sections of the Indian middle class for a strongman. Give Manmohan Singh a military uniform, put all the armed forces under his direct command, make his word the law of the land, and he too will go around thumping his chest saying that it’s his destiny to save India from Indians . Zardari will never have the kind of control that Musharraf had. But Pakistanis do not want another Musharraf.

Pakistan, which Pakistan? For a small country, Pakistan is very diverse, not only ethnically but politically as well. General Musharraf’s government bombed Pashtuns in the north for being Islamists and close to the Taliban and at the same time it bombed Balochs in the South for NOT being Islamists and for subscribing to some kind of retro-socialist, anti Taliban ethos. You have probably heard the joke about other countries having armies but Pakistan’s army having a country. Nobody in Pakistan finds it funny.

Pakistan and its loose nukes: Pakistan’s nuclear programme is under a sophisticated command and control system, no more under threat than India or Israel’s nuclear assets are threatened by Hindu or Jewish extremists. For a long time Pakistan’s security establishment’s other strategic asset was jihadi organisations, which in the last couple of years have become its biggest liability.

Pakistan is a failed state: If it is, then Pakistanis have not noticed. Or they have lived in it for such a long time that they have become used to its dysfunctional aspects. Trains are late but they turn up, there are more VJs, DJs, theatre festivals, melas, and fashion models than a failed state can accommodate. To borrow a phrase from President Zardari, there are lots of non-state actors like Abdul Sattar Edhi who provide emergency health services, orphanages and shelters for sick animals.

It is a deeply religious country: Every half-decent election in this country has proved otherwise. Religious parties have never won more than a fraction of popular vote. Last year Pakistan witnessed the largest civil rights movements in the history of this region. It was spontaneous, secular and entirely peaceful. But since people weren’t raising anti-India or anti-America slogans, nobody outside Pakistan took much notice.

All Pakistanis hate India: Three out of four provinces in Pakistan – Sindh, Baluchistan, NWFP – have never had any popular anti-India sentiment ever. Punjabis who did impose India as enemy-in-chief on Pakistan are now more interested in selling potatoes to India than destroying it. There is a new breed of al-Qaida inspired jihadis who hate a woman walking on the streets of Karachi as much as they hate a woman driving a car on the streets of Delhi. In fact there is not much that they do not hate: they hate America, Denmark, China CDs, barbers, DVDs , television, even football. Imran Khan recently said that these jihadis will never attack a cricket match but nobody takes him seriously.

Training camps: There are militant sanctuaries in the tribal areas of Pakistan but definitely not in Muzaffarabad or Muridke, two favourite targets for Indian journalists, probably because those are the cities they have ever been allowed to visit. After all how much training do you need if you are going to shoot at random civilians or blow yourself up in a crowded bazaar? So if anyone thinks a few missiles targeted at Muzaffarabad will teach anyone a lesson, they should switch off their TV and try to locate it on the map.

RAW would never do what ISI does: Both the agencies have had a brilliant record of creating mayhem in the neighbouring countries. Both have a dismal record when it comes to protecting their own people. There is a simple reason that ISI is a bigger, more notorious brand name: It was CIA’s franchise during the jihad against the Soviets. And now it’s busy doing jihad against those very jihadis.

Pakistan is poor, India is rich: Pakistanis visiting India till the mid-eighties came back very smug. They told us about India’s slums, and that there was nothing to buy except handicrafts and saris. Then Pakistanis could say with justifiable pride that nobody slept hungry in their country. But now, not only do people sleep hungry in both the countries, they also commit suicide because they see nothing but a lifetime of hunger ahead. A debt-ridden farmer contemplating suicide in Maharashtra and a mother who abandons her children in Karachi because she can’t feed them: this is what we have achieved in our mutual desire to teach each other a lesson.

Edward Said Discussses His Work ‘Orientalism’

In The Daily Discussion on January 11, 2009 at 6:32 pm

Edward Said discusses his work ‘Orientalism’ in this series of video discussions.

This work has recently been denigrated by some.  Most of these critics seemed to have waited until his passing to send out their works.  Sadly all of them actually miss the ideas that are in fact discussed in his book! Instead, they attack what they imagine is Said’s anti-Western stance, which is in fact not at all what the book or his research is about.

His consistent and powerful criticism focused on how political power and political aspirations influences knowledge, art and research and asked us to understand that relationship so that we could better understand a work and the prejudices and/or choices that were made in the production of it.  Said’s criticism used Western works because his principal focus was only the single most powerful political structure of the last 300 years – colonialism.

A structure of control and power that controlled most of the globe at its height, it was and remains an important influence on how the centers of world power speak about the rest of the world, whether it is in movies, theater, poetry, fiction, academic research and of course political discourse.

His writings help us understand how knowledge is created and the many influences that go into its production.  It does not ask us to dismiss the works of the ‘Orientalists’ but to see what may restrict or limit it.  He asks us to read critically, keeping in mind influences and priorities outside the academy that were a definite part in the nature of the works being produced.  And to hence understand the prejudices and inherent limits of these works and scholars.

His second book on the subject, ‘Culture & Imperialism’ continued this analysis into the realm of the creative arts.

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

The Most Dangerous Nation

In Essays Related To Pakistan, Journalism, Our Wars, Photography on January 11, 2009 at 4:32 pm

The obsession with things ‘Islamic fundamentalist’ and ‘Al Qaeda” has been turned into a veritable multi-billion dollar industry and this despite the very little concrete and independently verified evidence to suppor the many claims of underground ‘Islamic/Al Qaeda’ cells and networks.

The Pakistanis are of course very much involved in this business, particular many of our journalists, and intellectual writers who find an easy audience amongst the ‘powerful’ in Europe and the USA.  The vast majority of the claims made by these journalists and writers are of course unexamined, unchecked and what is worse, unverifiable.  They are however writing for papers as diverse as The Christian Science Monitor, Asia Times, Time Magazine, Newsweek and others.  And when they are not writing, they are feeding and ‘guiding’ foreign journalists to where these stories can be ‘excavated’ and supported.

I had earlier written a post called ‘Only Interesting If Its Madness’ about how American newspapers and magazines have found that selling stories about the madmen of the Middle East and Islam is big business because it confirms America’s fears and paranoias and nothing sells better than that.

And the Pakistanis are unfortunately thick in the middle of this business, churning out articles, essays, research and what not based on the most species of information and the most biased of sources.  But it reels in dollars, and convinces otherwise intelligent international journalists and intellectuals who are also of course tied into the entire industry of fear.

But perhaps what worries me most is how little journalistic practice is involved in the writing and publishing of these pieces on ‘Al Qaeda’ or ‘Islamic terror’.  No one is asking about the sources, or bothering to confirm facts. It is as if none of the usual standards of journalism apply.  What matters is that we just rush out and print it.  From Carlotta Gall’s shameless piece on the front page of the New York Times simply regurgitating then Pakistan military government’s claim that ‘Al Qaeda’ had killed Benazir Bhutto at a time when the body parts were still lying around on the streets, to more recent piece on Pakistan by David Sanger suggests that we have now suspended our intelligence and common sense just to get our ‘by line’ printed on the pages of publications.  At no point was there a challenge, a questioning of the source, a scepticism that is crucial to the definition of journalism.

When it comes to Pakistan, no one is asking any questions as long as they confirm that it is ‘mad’, that it is ‘on the edge of an Islamic takeover’ and that it is ‘dangerous’.  And sadly, some of our supposedly finest minds are in on this game, sending out stuff that at times is staggering to read.  We are feeding the beast, perhaps seduced by the easy association with those in ‘power’, with their attention and their ability to make us, small post-colonial minds, feel ‘important’ and relevant.

Not a single major Pakistan intellectual, writer, artist or politician has challenged the story of Pakistan that has been constructed in international media.  Not a single person seems to want to say ‘show me your sources’, or investigate where certain stories have emerged from.  We are all just going along for the ride.

And all this despite the complete lack of credibility that is the real reputation of mainstream American journalism today.  Just read Bill Moyer’s talk about it. For after all, all the main newspapers in the USA, the same papers that repeatedly tell us that they are on the front lines of the democracy and the protection of the citizens of the country that they serve the interest of the public (when in fact they are private, profit making enterprises), failed to ask a single sceptical question of the American administration on its rush to war in Iraq.

An entire intelligence community was bent and mutated to serve the needs to go to war.  It is now a well known fact that evidence was falsified, informers were paid, dissenters were silenced, and lies disseminated to newspapers and journalists to build a care for pre-emptive war against a nation that was not a threat to even its neighbors, let alone the USA.

Some more articulate comments on this issue come from the tireless Mark Danner

Iraq: The War of the Imagination

The Secret Way To War

Or Michael Massing’s work more specifically on the failures of American journalism and the shameless pandering to nationalist and patriotic fervor that led them to ignore facts, distort evidence and simply close their minds to doubts they later claimed they had, so that they participate and profit from the mindless march to war and the destruction of millions of lives and a nation.

Now They Tell Us

Unfit To Print

The End of News

And there are many more pieces of analysis of the failure of American’s so-called ‘best’ newspapers and their finest.

And now, despite this stain on their record, despite the fact that the intelligence community is completely discredited and the administration too, the same papers and their editors continue their march, turning their eyes to Pakistan yet again.  Here is a new piece in this weeks New York Times Sunday Magazine by David E. Sanger called ‘Obamas’ Worst Pakistan Nightmare’.

And just a few lines into the piece, we start to get a good idea of the sources of Mr. Sanger’s alarms and worries.  For example, ‘…members of the federally appointed bipartisan Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism made it clear that for sheer scariness, nothing could compete with what they had heard in a series of high-level intelligence briefings about the dangers of Pakistan’s nuclear technology going awry.’

Sounds familiar does it not? A commission appointed by the very administration that lied to us about Iraq is an opening source of Mr. Sanger’s piece!

A few lines down there is more – ‘By now Obama has almost surely been briefed about an alarming stream of intelligence that began circulating early last year to the top tier of George W. Bush’s national-security leadership in Washington.’

Now, if I am not mistaken, isn’t this again the same ‘top tier’ that promised us chemical weapons factories, nuclear sites, and a 45-minute time line to the destruction of the ‘free world’! All of which by the way were proven to be lies.

You would think that a writer working on a piece will try to find then another set of sources for the ‘fears’ and ‘alarmist views’ that underpin this essay.  Well, no.

The next source is ‘one of the most senior officials in the Bush administration, who had read all of the intelligence with care’ !

A senior Bush administration official who had read all of the intelligence with care.  My, how impressive that sounds.  Senior.  Official. Intelligence.  Care.  All the words that offer us authority and ensure that we may not ask the obvious question – was the intelligence concocted? Is the official much like those who fed us these ‘truths’ about Iraq?

But apparently only I am thinking of these things as Mr. Sanger proceeds unheeded and drops in the paragraph that every American editor’s wet dreams; ‘The Osama Bin Ladin’.  We are told about a ‘secret meetings’ (well, how secret could they have been if knew about them!) with mad Pakistani scientists and Osama Bin Laden! The American officials love this ‘smoking gun’ – to somehow create a link that their target ‘met’ with Osama Bin Ladin – that bogeman who pops up everywhere and anywhere, whenever we need him, where ever we want him.  From Iran to Gaza, from Pakistan to Afghanistan, from Iraq to…..North Korea next?

Eerily similar to the arguments about how some Al Qaeda members had ‘traveled’ through Iraq – arguments that have conclusively been shown to be lies, they are used to istill real fear in the minds of the reader – oh no, there is that supernatural beast Al Qaeda again and so it must all be true and real.  And so here, in this piece, because it lacks anything ‘concrete’, any real evidence, any serious investigation i.e. because it lacks journalism Mr. Sanger has to bring in the ‘smoking gun’ statments to further close the readers mind by overwhelming it with fear and scare the intelligence out of her!

Mr Sanger is fed the right ‘details’ of a meeting by some unspecified American intelligence source, but later quotes George Tenet himself saying that the specifics of the meeting were ‘ frustratingly vague’.  That is, they have no idea what the meeting was about for it could as well have been about the weather.  It may never even have happened other than in the minds of those who imagined it.  Some well paid source maybe?

But that does not stop Mr. Sanger saying that someone had a canister of nuclear material at the meeting!

A meeting about which the so-called intelligence organization knew ‘frustratingly vague’ details i.e. not even if it took place, or who was there, or what little was said, is the basis of Mr. Sanger putting in the sensationalist ideas that nuclear material was present, that trigger designs were discussed.  This does not sound ‘frustratingly vague’ to me, but a writer who seems to have more details than even Mr. Tenet!

And this level of sloppy journalism, in fact, clearly irresponsible journalism continues through the article which is burdened one after another with incredible claims.  At no point does Mr Sanger express any doubts, ask any questions, challenge any of his sources.  In fact, he writes to ensure that we realize that the American sources and their statements are ‘true’ and/or carry ‘more weight’, while the Pakistani responses and sources are ‘shifty’ or ‘questionable’.

This idiocy continues and ends at the article, where in the very last paragraph we have this gem: ‘At the end of Bush’s term, his aides handed over to Obama’s transition team a lengthy review of policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, concluding that in the end, the United States has far more at stake in preventing Pakistan’s collapse than it does in stabilizing Afghanistan or Iraq.’

A Bush aide hands President Obama a review of policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan! We may now understand how American foreign policy follies continues from one administration to the next! If the Obama Presidency is being briefed by possibly one of the most corrupt, lawless, discredited, criminal, violent, murderous administration in American history, then our hopes are truly over!

The American journalist’s love of rubbing up to power, to be known as someone with access to the ‘inner’ corridors of power, is perhaps its greatest failing at the moment.  Mr. Sanger is spending all his time in the offices of ‘officials’ and eating too much of the fine cuisine available at fine restaurants that I am sure he is dined at.  In Pakistan he is traveling through the living and dining rooms of the small elite – unable to speak the country’s language, ignorant of her history and her cultural diversity, uninterested in confronting it as a complex entity, Mr. Sanger has produced the classical American piece on Pakistan; sensationalist, fear mongering, officially sanctioned, and fed.

He now steps into the small footsteps of the likes of Carlotta Gall, David Rohde and others who have looked at Pakistan not through their own intelligence, but through the reports and supplied statements of ‘American officials’ or ‘Pakistani Government spokesperson’ or, left largely unsaid, the local journalists and fixers they pay large wads of cash to come back with stories about the mad men with nuclear weapons sitting in mountain caves and breathing the destruction of America with each breath.

None speak the language of the country.  None know the history of the country.  None understand the historical and cultural ties that still connect us to issues and matters in India.  None have traveled outside the sanctioned corridors to report on the nation.  They are blind, deaf and mute, and need others – American officials, Pakistani officials, translators and fixers (official and otherwise) to give them what they need.  And since they are unable to understand the very nation and its dynamics they are supposed to be reporting on, they simply feed the editors what the editors want – the stories to confirm the stories the editors are hearing from the ‘officials’ in Washington d.c..

Children create monsters to help deal with their evolving emotions and fears.

It seems that we are all still children.

What A Tangled Web We Weave

In Journalism, Our Wars, Photography, Writers on January 6, 2009 at 1:12 am

Samuel Huntington, author of the infamous book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, died on December 28th 2008.

In an obituary in the New York Times, a newspaper famous for retrospectively bestowing garlands of respectability onto  the lives of even the most questionable of men, thought it ‘uncanny’ i.e. a reflection of his brilliance, that in that book he had written (predicted?) that ‘Somewhere in the Middle East, a half-dozen young men could well be dressed in jeans, drinking Coke, listening to rap, and between their bows to Mecca, putting together a bomb to blow up an American airliner.’

Huntington’s thesis that the modern world will see inevitable conflicts between what he claimed were separate ‘civilizations‘ with irreconcilable cultural and religious differences, captured the world’s imagination.  There is no doubt that this idea, offered first in an article in the journal ‘Foreign Affairs’ remains perhaps one of the most discussed, debated, celebrated and denigrated political and social constructs in modern memory.  And that is no small achievement.

It would be too easy to label him a hack and dismiss him. He was certainly not that. He was indeed a conservative, perhaps even a religious conservative, but he had the honesty to speak his mind even when it would surprise his erstwhile supporters, for example when he stated that ‘Western intervention in the affairs of other civilizations is probably the single most dangerous source of instability and potential global conflict in a multi-civilisational world.’

So I will discuss him in a slightly different way.

In 1874 Friedrich Nietzsche wrote his essay ‘On The Use and Abuse of History’ a rather dense treatise on the value and dangers of an excessive immersion in the study of history.  I will not go into a lengthy discussion on Nietzsche – I am certainly not qualified to do that, and I want to spare the handful of people who bother to read this blog in the first place.  I will though focus on a few points in Nietzsche’s piece that came to my mind as I was reading about Samuel Huntington.

The entire argument of Nietzsche’s piece is in its first few sentences.  Beginning with a quote from Goethe, ‘Incidently, I despise everything which merely instructs me without increasing or immediately enlivening my activity’, Nietzsche goes on to summarize that ‘…we must in all seriousness despise instruction without vitality, knowledge which enervates activity, and history as an expensive surplus of knowledge and a luxury, because we still lack what is still most essential to us and because what is superfluous is hostile to what is essential.’

The danger as Nietzsche saw it was that ‘…in the historical method of reckoning so many false, crude, inhuman, absurd, and violent things always emerge that the fully pious atmosphere of illusion in which alone everything that wants to live can live necessarily disappears. But only in love, only in a love overshadowed by illusion, does a person create, that is, only in unconditional belief in perfection and righteousness.’

History was then to be studied to serve man, to improve our world and our society, and to help us learn from our mistakes.  The worst that one could do was to become an historically educated man ‘…who believes He has to do nothing other than continue to live as he has been living, to continue loving what he has loved, to continue to hate what he has hated, and to continue reading the newspapers which he has been reading. For him there is only one sin, to live differently from the way he has been living.’

And that is what Huntington became.

His writings have been criticized by many so I will not repeat those here.  The criticisms hinge on the many erasures that Huntington had to employ to create the illusion of distinct and separate ‘civilizations’ and their inevitable clash.  Not the least of the erasures being an acknowledgment of real, lived human existence and the extensive and daily economic, social and cultural interactions taking place between the peoples of the world every moment of every day of every year of  known human history.

But for me personally his greatest mistake was his lack of a love overshadowed by illusion - the ability to see the possibilities of human life and human sharing.  Whether these possibilities ever existed could be debated endlessly, but what matters to me, and what I feel was missing in his thinking, was the idea that these possibilities should exist.  Huntington read the history that he wanted to read.  He found in his readings, lectures, writings and research the antagonisms that he was looking for and that he believed confirmed his world view.

For Huntington, and for the millions who support his world view, something called ‘The West’ stands for liberty, democracy, human rights, religious freedom, tolerance, respect for the individual and so on and so forth.  All that is good in man becomes all that ‘The West’ stands for and represents.  And in opposition to all this stands the rest, ‘The East’, ‘The Orient‘ etc. But much of this belief in Western culture and its supposedly unique values, the values for which Western powers have repeatedly found it necessary to kill and destroy, is based on a very simple, and in fact, concocted construction of the West’s idea of its own heritage.

These concoctions include the belief, to quote the French historian Marcel Detienne from his new book ‘The Greeks and Us’,  not only “…that both the abstract notion of politics and concrete politics one fine day fell from the heavens, landing on ‘classical’ Athens in the miraculous and authenticated form of Democracy (with a capital D), but also that a divinely linear history has led us by the hand from the American Revolution, passing by way of the ‘French Revolution’, all the way to our own western societies that are so blithely convinced that their mission is to convert all peoples to the true religion of democracy.”

And again from Detienne ‘In his Instructions, Lavisse declared that what secondary-school pupils need to be taught, without their realizing it, is that ‘our history begins with the Greeks’. Our [French] history begins with the Greeks, who invented liberty and democracy and who introduced us to ‘the beautiful’ and a taste for ‘the universal’. (Lavisse was an important influence in matters of French education in the 19th century)

These concoctions in other cases also included outright theft, as Jack Goody discusses in his book ‘The Theft of History’, in which he argues that ‘Since the beginning of the 19th century, the construction of world history has been dominated by western Europe.’ and ‘What has characterized European efforts…has been a propensity to impose their own story on the wider world, following an ethnocentric tendency…and the capacity to do so due to its de facto domination in many parts of the world’.  Goody argues that the study of history has to take a new direction and that ‘A more critical stance is necessary….That means…being sceptical about the west’s claims (or indeed Asia’s), to have invented activities and values such as democracy or freedom.’ And so on.

I am reading the book as I write this.  I have to thank a friend, a writer who wishes to remain anonymous, for pointing me to a recent Le Monde Diplomatique article that refers to  both these books.

Jack Goody is a British social anthropologist. He has been a prominent teacher at Cambridge University, he was elected Fellow of the British Academy in 1976 and he is an associate of the US National Academy of Sciences.  Marcel Detienne is a Belgian historian and specialist in the study of ancient Greece. Currently he is the Basil L. Gildersleeve Professor of Classics at The Johns Hopkins University.  He was also was at one time a directeur d’études at the École pratique des hautes études, where he taught until 1998.  He was also a founder of the Centre de recherches comparées sur les sociétés anciennes in Paris.

No light weights here.

How we read the world is a reflection of how we read ourselves.  Edward Said always loved to quote Cesaire’s Cahier d’un retour particularly these lines

and man must still overcome all the interdictions

wedged in the recesses of his fervor and no race has a

monopoly on beauty, on intelligence, on strength

and there is room for everyone at the convocation of


We as individuals are in need of history but that reveals to us the myriad connections, interactions, and pollutions that give our our culture (social, religious, political, human) the complexity, depth, beauty and righteousness we believe it possesses. Even until the end Samuel Huntington was unable to overcome all the interdictions.

He simplified history on the basis of an idea of his heritage, his ‘western’ heritage which in fact is a man made heritage, cleansed of its complexity and eastern influences, including Islamic.  It is a myth that the west traces its heritage to the Greeks and that it’s heritage begins there, exclusive of the rest of the world.  Even a brief review of David Lewis’ book “God’s Crucible’ reveals how deeply Arabic and Islamic thought, ideas, habits and values influenced European thought, ideas, habits and values.   And I will not even begin about China and her technical advances centuries before anything similar emerged anywhere else in the world, including Europe.  His idea of ‘the west’ was based on a false premise, a myth created in the late 18th/early 19th century and since made to appear as definitive and true! And he never  able to incorporate or understand the many challenges to this myth that have emerged in the academies of Europe, America and elsewhere.

His thesis not only simplified the world into a caricature of itself, but it erased histories.  Particularly modern, 20th century American history. The Middle East, Huntington’s maniacal young men in American jeans drinking Coke, are all constructs whose histories has been erased to satisfy a belief in the irrational, inhuman propensity towards violence, intolerance, injustice and repression that resides within ‘the other’.  They do not posses the American attitude.  They do not possess reason. They do not possess pain. They do not possess a sense of injustice. And most perversely, we have nothing to do with them there.

This reductive understanding of violence and confrontation is today being employed all over the world.  One cannot but be surprised at the ease with which Huntington’s ideas have armed the most bigoted and racist nationalist and religious ideologies around the world with an intellectual framework to justify their actions.

The most inhuman of humans, men and women with lives based on violence, expropriation, thuggery, greed and corruption, speaking to us of our vaunted values.  How much they all share and how little we seem to recognize the connections.

It may be easy to ask ‘Why do they hate us?’ and go home convinced that you have separated yourself from the evil.  Or to fall into the seductive trap of believing in the inevitable conflict between ‘Jews’ vs. ‘Muslims’.  But reality is more inter-twined, and the imagined protagonists greater collaborators than we are prepared to accept.  I was reminded of this by a recent piece by Joseph Massad, an Associate Professor at Columbia University, called ‘The Gaza Ghetto Uprising’.

There is no ‘us vs. them’. We are them, and they are us.

My latest photography project in India is about rediscovering the connections between India’s two most troubled communities – the Hindus and the Muslims.  Convinced of their ‘civilizational’ differences, not only did India’s Muslim elite, influenced by European ideas, construct a separate and distinct history and heritage for itself, but insisted that it required its own separate nation.  Millions died, millions more were displaced and today nearly 2 billion people, the residents of India and Pakistan, are held hostage to these same, ancient, outdated ideas.

Maybe Samuel Huntington saw something inevitable in that clash. His history and reading of it would suggest that.  But perhaps if had looked a little more closely into the history of the region he may have found that in fact the clash is a modern construct, a very 19th century construct, and one that was instigated less by irreconcilable differences, but more by the exigencies of the pursuit of political power and by a handful of European educated, elite men.  I will write more about that in a separate post.

We need history, but as Friedrich Nietzsche argued, we need it for living.  Samuel Huntington lives, in the hearts and minds of millions, particularly the powerful and the despotic.  That is not a legacy he would be proud of.  But it is the one that we, the rest of us who found something interesting and educational in Huntington’s writings but were not seduced by them, have to confront and address.

Unraveling Bitter Threads

In Poetry, The Daily Discussion on January 3, 2009 at 10:17 pm

The only man I have ever felt envious of was a ‘celebrity’ documentary filmmaker who once told an interviewer that his success was a result of his complete lack of introspection!

Introspection has been the bane of my existence.

I heard Faiz Ahmed Faiz before I ever read him.  His poem ‘Don’t Ask Me for That Love Again’ - sung by the likes of Begum Akhtar and Noor Jehan is famous for its bold challenge to the Beloved (whether this is mortal or the Divine is usually left unspecific) to accept that his social commitment, his sense of moral outrage, is more important than even his love for him/her.  Agha Shahid Ali in his book ‘The Rebel’s Silhouette’ called it ‘revolutionary’.

I did not know that when I first heard it.  But if I ever have to explain how my life fell offs its well structured, predictable, conventional, safe, insular and material success oriented railway track to its current antithesis then I always begin by turning to this poem.

That which was then ours, my love,

don’t ask me for that love again.

Many have tried to explain the unraveling of what had so carefully been constructed for me, particularly those ‘friends’ and ‘colleagues’ who have continued on their paths and are now successful bankers, entrepreneurs, managers and what not.  And I accept that their explanations may be truer than my own. I know that they are crueler.

I however believe that the seeds of doubt about the ideas and views of my life were planted when, just days after I had heard this poem, I saw something that affected me more deeply than I could have then imagined.  The circumstances were so coincidental, between the hearing of this poem and the sight, that I can only look back and weave them into some sort of meaningful event.  At the time though, I had no such awareness

The world then was gold, burnished with lights…

and only because of you.  That’s what I had believed.

I heard a recording of the poem, sung by the famous Pakistani/Indian singer Noor Jehan, in the home of a private maths tutor.  Abdul Rehman was a bit of a rebel, a radical teacher at the boy’s school I attended.  Private tuition was essential because the school fees apparently only guaranteed us corporal punishment and verbal abuse.  You had to pay someone extra to get to the education.

Abdul Rehman loved music and was not shy about playing it while we worked through of exercises and lessons.  I remember him stopping us and asking us to listen to the words.

All this I had thought, all this I had believed.

But there were other sorrows, comforts other than love

The rich had cast their spell on history:

dark centuries had been embroidered on brocades and silks.

A few days after hearing the poem I encountered, while walking back from the local market, 2 small children, no older than 5 perhaps, holding hands and sifting through offal outside a butcher’s shop looking for something to eat.

Bitter threads began to unravel before me

as I went into alleys and in open markets

saw bodies plastered with ash, bathed in blood.

There are moment of one’s life that make such an impression that they become only more vivid with the passage of time.

I have never forgotten those two small children and the gentle way they held each other for support.  Their uncertain steps, their dirt covered skin, their hair of a color that suggested something other than natural.  And those eyes, eyes that cast a look that cut through all the desperately enacted civilized veneer of a middle class society living amongst so much deprivation, as they attempted to figure out what parts of the discarded entrails could be taken as food.

I stopped.

I looked.

I stared.

I remember a feeling of embarrassment at being the only one stopping to stare.

I moved on but acutely aware that I had seen something remarkable and that some barrier had been breached.

I saw them sold and bought, again and again.

This too deserves attention.  I can’t help but look back

when I return from those alleys – what should I do?

That was over 20 years ago, but as Faiz said ‘I can’t help but look back when I return from those alleys – what should I do?’. Those 2 children have never left me.  It is with them that I begin to see the world more clearly, to understand my place in it, to question what passes for ‘life’ amongst the upper echelons of society and to explore the makings of our modern world and why it is the way it is.  Perhaps most importantly, those 2 children, the dregs of Pakistan’s modernity, made me understand a country that I had until then loved unconditionally and defended thoughtlessly.

There are other sorrows in this world,

comforts other than love.

Don’s ask me, my love, for that love again.

(Faiz Ahmed Faiz, from Agha Shahid Ali’s translation)

I am thinking about all this because Gaza is burning.  Hundreds are being killed on the basis of false premises and prejudiced values.  Hundreds are being killed to serve the power aspirations of a handful of powerful people.  Dare we question the obvious? Dare we begin to ask ourselves how we are part of this process where the struggles of the weak have become synonymous with ‘terrorism’, the oppressions of the powerful with ‘liberty and democracy’. I am thinking of all this because each hour our respectable and valued news organizations continue to fill the air waves and the digital highways with a world view defined by the powerful and justifications for mass slaughter and murder that require us to believe that we are on the side of the civilized for as long as we say nothing in the face of this madness.

I am thinking of this because I am thinking of the Palestinians and I am thinking back to an anecdote Eqbal Ahmed spoke about – a meeting between Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Edward Said in war torn Beirut in 1980.  I am thinking about another poet, Mahmoud Darwish, who became a voice of his people and of their suffering.  Faiz gave voice to the best that is in Pakistan, for which he was jailed, tortured and later sent into exile.  The Palestinians too have been permanently been sent into exile.  Or, better if I end this by quoting Darwish himself:

They fettered his mouth with chains, And tied his hands to the rock of the dead.

They said: You’re a murderer.

They took his food, his clothes and his banners, And threw him into the well of the dead.

They said: You’re a thief.

They threw him out of every port, And took away his young beloved.

And then they said: You’re a refugee.

(Mahmoud Darwish)

I envy the man with no capacity for introspection.  It saves him from being a refugee from this world of powers that obfuscate it and manipulate it so that we believe it is a heaven, a civilized place where lives are lived with intentions and actions that serve the greater good.  I am thinking about all this today, yet another today like so many thousands of previous ones and many more to come.  Insha’allah.