Archive for January, 2011|Monthly archive page

Man, That Swede Can Swing A Guitar Or The Tallest Man On Earth Brings It Back Down To Earth

In Just Fun Stuff, Poetry on January 30, 2011 at 10:08 pm

My friends at the wonderful dvafoto pointed towards NPR Music’s wonderful Tiny Desk Concerts music series. They had recently featured the talented and evocative Jim White’s performance on the program. And as much as I love Jim White, having first his beautiful poetry when I saw the film Searching For The Wrong-Eyed Jesus, (full disclosure: it was while watching this film that I fell in love with Melissa Swingle, then of Trailer Bride, now of The Moaners…I stand guilty as accused!) I was excited to see that one of my current favorites – The Tallest Man On Earth a.k.a. Kristian Matsson has also performed on this series.

Just watch his performance…its simply intoxicating.

He is another musician with a wonderful poetic sensibility, a very unique (though compared to Bob Dylan’s) voice and a style that is so attuned to the public performance that it seems a shame that I have not seen more of him live.

Just lovely music.

Watching Crowley Crawl Or How Incisive Questions Can Reveal The Hypocrisies Of An Imperial Apparatchik

In Israel/Palestine, Journalism, Musings On Confusions, Our Wars on January 28, 2011 at 1:48 pm

This was nothing if not embarrassing – the hypocrisy of State Department representative P.J. Crowley, and the administration and imperial system that he so mindlessly represents, may as well be tattooed across this forehead. The news anchor tears through Crowley like a hot knife through butter, leaving him grasping for more lies and even deeper obfuscations. The anchor’s laugh at the end of the interview pretty much says it all, and pretty much reveals what the common man in these ‘allied’ nations with their billion dollar US military aid programs knows and understands. Worth watching.

My favorite part was this snippet – when asked whether the US Government was talking directly to President Mubarak to express its concerns, Crowley returns with this gem:

Crowley: We want to make sure that Egypt does not interfere with the use of social media, that is a fundamental right as clear as walking into a town square. We are making these points clearly to Egypt publically and privately

Anchor: Beyond social media though, rubber coated steel bullets are being fired, hundreds are being detained in notorious prisons, perhaps we should be emphasizing that more than the Twitter or Facebook issue?


There is hope yet!

I Find Myself Short Of Breath, Gasping For Air Or Fazal Sheikh Redesigns His Website!

In Journalism, Photography on January 20, 2011 at 7:21 pm

From Moksha by Fazal Sheikh

What has always impressed me about Fazal Sheikh is his intelligence and willingness to engage in the complete complexity of the human conditions he documents. There is no attempt to avoid the difficult, or to elide the embarassing. His eye is precise and spectacularly beautiful. His voice is balanced and calm, refusing to use hysteria or sensationalism to distract us. The issues are clearly offered, in their social, economic and historical difficulties, and with no interest in making them ‘entertaining’ or simple. This is absolutely stunning photojournalistic work and certainly some of the finest that is being produced today. Fazal’s eye is unique, his intelligence unencumbered by the need to appease or reduce. Fazal supports his photographs with text, testimonies and personal statements – a trait I love and respect. Fazal Sheikh’s three projects on India – Moksha, Ladli and The Circle, are absolutely remarkable productions, and worthy of having on the bookshelf. The book versions are stunning – beautifully printed, intelligently organized and exquisitely produced.

The Sirens That Sing Our Songs For War

In Essays On Embedded Photojournalism, Journalism, Our Wars, Photography on January 19, 2011 at 9:12 pm

Once he hears to his heart’s content, sails on, a wiser man.
We know all the pains that the Greeks and Trojans once endured
on the spreading plain of Troy when the gods willed it so—
all that comes to pass on the fertile earth, we know it all!

Odyssey 12.188–91

The confidential CIA memorandum, dated 11th March 2010 and titled Afghanistan: Sustaining West European Support for the NATO-led Mission-Why Counting on Apathy Might Not Be Enough, and made public thanks to the people at Wikileaks,  is quite explicit in recommending that the US administration and military pursue ‘media strategies’ that use the voices of Afghan women in:

…humanizing the ISAF role in combating the Taliban because of women’s ability to speak personally and credibly about their experiences under the Taliban, their aspirations for the future, and their fears of a Taliban victory. Outreach initiatives that create media opportunities for Afghan women to share their stories with French, German, and other European women could help to overcome pervasive skepticism among women in Western Europe toward the ISAF mission…

Media events that feature testimonials by Afghan women would probably be most effective if broadcast on programs that have large and disproportionately female audiences.

There is a tacit admission that the war effort and goals are unclear, and that public support remains low. There is a fear that underpins the memorandum that public support for the war is waning as the war’s objectives remain unclear and its goals appear impossible. The memorandum identifies other strategies that can be used to help bolster public support should a backlash against the involvement of European governments in the war itself. For example, it recommends highlighting:

  • …messages that illustrate how a defeat in Afghanistan could heighten Germany’s exposure to terrorism, opium, and refugees might help to make the war more salient to skeptics.
  • …the mission’s multilateral and humanitarian aspects.
  • … a message that ISAF benefits Afghan civilians and citing examples of concrete gains could limit and perhaps even reverse opposition to the mission. Such tailored messages could tap into acute French concern for civilians and refugees.

It was only a few months later that Time Magazine’s may have obliged the CIA when it offered us it’s egregiously exploitative piece on Afghanistan and the story of Aisha.

I had referred to it as ‘…one of the most blatant uses of photography as propaganda I have seen in a long time.’ Time Magazine’s issue of August 9th, 2010 prominently featured the mutilated face of a young Afghani woman called Aisha, with a headline that said ‘What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan.’

The issue clearly implied, in the wonderfully simplistic, populist, feel-good-America and yet so infantile way as only Time Magazine can, that our military has been placed at the service of the Afghan people to protect their women and their rights.

Reacting to this crass conflation of imperialism and feminism, I argued in an earlier blog post titled The Spotlight Of Humanity Or How We Are Told To Look Only Where They Tell Us To Look that:

The timing of this cover, its hysterically comical association of continued war and Afghan women’s rights are not coincidental. That people still employ this infantile and inane justification for our imperial dreams tells me more about the world of the editorial community running these magazines then it does about anything going on in Afghanistan or in the lives of these women they so seem to be concerned about. With no real reasons for our war there, with no rational arguments for our continued presence there, with no explanations for our continued killings and torture of the civilians there, with no real idea of the goals of our military and advisors there, we can always turn what is nothing more than a sordid and poorly managed military occupation of an increasingly restless and violently resistant population into a feminist exercise.

(Aside: I had given the photographer Jodi Bieber the benefit of the doubt and suggested that she did not know how her work was going to be used. Unfortunately I was wrong, as llistening to her talk about this work suggests that Jodi herself holds many of the very prejudices I had criticized about the magazine article itself for.)

It was only a few more weeks after which National Geographic Magazine offered their version of the same story, complete with the same faux-humanism and typical obsequiousness to the myth of American exceptionalism and moral righteousness that the magazine is now quite famous for.

National Geographic Magazine: Afghan Women

Did Time Magazine and others oblige the CIA consultants? We will never know, but its food for thought. And even more so as other publications continue to oblige us with the ‘humanitarian’ face of the war, carefully excising from our western and civilized eyes the violence that we are in fact inflicting on ‘the other’.

Thanks to the brilliant BagNewsNotes, my attention was drawn to this trio of embedded propaganda produced by three mainstream and popular photographers who have been assiduously and unquestioningly been presenting us with plenty of documentation of whitewashed wars from Iraq to Afghanistan.

And perhaps by no small coincidences, there is yet another piece on how the American’s are fighting ‘the good war’ against opium in Afghanistan in the latest issue of National Geographic Magazine where the story so carefully avoids mentioning role of the CIA and the United States in the growth of this insidious industry that the entire piece can’t even hold itself together in logic or meaning. The magazine’s version of Afghanistan’s last thirty years seems to suggest that the USA has never had an involvement in the region, and no hand in its current pathologies, violence, repressions and bloodshed.

National Geographic Magazine: Opium Wars

The National Geographic story excises from its readers awareness the fact that the United States and the Karzai regime are intrinsically linked to the opium growth and trade in Afghanistan. You would not know this from this piece by Robert Draper, but you would only have to look elsewhere, for example, to Tom’s Dispatch where Alfred McCoy, in a piece called Can Anyone Pacify the World’s Number One Narco-State? has a rather different take on the situation;

Opium is an illegal drug, but Afghanistan’s poppy crop is still grounded in networks of social trust that tie people together at each step in the chain of production.  Crop loans are necessary for planting, labor exchange for harvesting, stability for marketing, and security for shipment. So dominant and problematic is the opium economy in Afghanistan today that a question Washington has avoided for the past nine years must be asked: Can anyone pacify a full-blown narco-state?

The answer to this critical question lies in the history of the three Afghan wars in which Washington has been involved over the past 30 years — the CIA covert warfare of the 1980s, the civil war of the 1990s (fueled at its start by $900 million in CIA funding), and since 2001, the U.S. invasion, occupation, and counterinsurgency campaigns. In each of these conflicts, Washington has tolerated drug trafficking by its Afghan allies as the price of military success — a policy of benign neglect that has helped make Afghanistan today the world’s number one narco-state.

And you would certainly not know that our erstwhile ally, the illegal and unelected Hamid Karzai is deeply involved in this business, and yet he remains ‘our man’ in the country. As McCoy points out:

Indeed, opium’s influence is so pervasive that many Afghan officials, from village leaders to Kabul’s police chief, the defense minister, and the president’s brother, have been tainted by the traffic.  So cancerous and crippling is this corruption that, according to recent U.N. estimates, Afghans are forced to spend a stunning $2.5 billion in bribes. Not surprisingly, the government’s repeated attempts at opium eradication have been thoroughly compromised by what the U.N. has called “corrupt deals between field owners, village elders, and eradication teams.”

National Geographic Magazine works hard to blame it all on the Taliban. If nothing else, it is what the memorandum recommended.

What does embedding do to journalism? As Patrick Cockburn argued in a piece in The Independent, it simply distorts your view of the war, it convinces you that the only way to read the situation is through the lens of military action, and that the news is where the army takes you.

“Embedding” obviously leads to bias, but many journalists are smart enough to rumble military propaganda and wishful thinking, and not to regurgitate these in undiluted form. They know that Afghan villagers, interviewed in front of Afghan police or US soldiers, are unlikely to say what they really think about either. Nevertheless, perhaps the most damaging effect of “embedding” is to soften the brutality of any military occupation and underplays hostile local response to it. Above all, the very fact of a correspondent being with an occupying army gives the impression that the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, countries which have endured 30 years of crisis and warfare, can be resolved by force.

And yet our ‘finest’ news publications continue to pursue this avenue exclusively, not even attempting to offer a perspective to either the Iraq or the Afghan conflict from outside the stifling sameness of the view from the military’s gilded window. As I learn that Nachtwey (someone who has determinedly covered America’s wars exclusively from the American side and not even attempted a balanced and journalistic documentation of its conflicts), Tyler Hicks and Louie Palu I can’t help but wonder what forces are compelling their employers to not just produce the same ‘humanitarian’ stories, but also work exceptionally close to eliminate any and all possibilities that we may see ‘the other’ and the horrors being inflicted on them by what is only the most powerful military force in the world fighting only some of the most impoverished and weak people in the world.

Lebanon’s Missing: Photographer Dalia Khamissy Reveals What We Largely Don’t Want To Be Bothered About

In Journalism, Our Wars on January 19, 2011 at 7:38 pm

Dalia Khamissy, in collaboration with Benjamin Chesterton of DuckRabbit, has produced a fine film on the story of the thousands who went missing in Lebanon’s civil war. There is also a podcast where you can listen to Dhalia talk about the work .

Revealing Histories Long Erased And Denigrated: Photographer Aaron Vincent Elkaim’s Attempt To Find Old Truths

In Israel/Palestine, Photography, The Daily Discussion on January 5, 2011 at 4:16 pm

Aaron Vincent Elkaim’s project on Morocco’s Jewish heritage immediately caught my attention not because of the photographs, but because of words that underpin the ideas and ideals of the project. These words immediately suggested a photographer of considerable intelligence and courage, and willing to accept and understand histories that today lie buried under propaganda, lies and sheer hypocrisy.

From The Series 'Jewish Morocco' By Aaron Vincent Elkaim

Aaron reveals a mind that is sharp, and honest, something he underlines in his statement on the Burn Magazine site that recently featured his work:

Protected under the Islamic Principle of Tolerance since the 7th century, they flourished, holding high positions in trade and government.  The Star of David was a symbol shared by all Moroccans, appearing on currency and even the national flag. During the Holocaust, when asked for a list of Jews, King Mohammed V declared, “We have no Jews in Morocco, only Moroccan citizens.”  Jews and Muslims were united by culture and kingdom.

Following World War II, Zionists recruiters targeted Moroccan Jews to populate the new State of Israel. Israel’s expansion marked the beginning of a Moroccan Jewish exodus. 300,000 Jews inhabited Morocco as of 1940; it was the largest Jewish population in the Arab World. Today, less than 4000 remain.

There is no bigoted resort to claims of ‘ancient hatreds’ or Arab anti-Semitism, or falsified histories of Jewish persecution in Muslim lands. In fact, I recently wrote a blog post called Seeing Europe Everywhere, Even In The Unfolding Of Another People’s History, where I question the false histories that attempt to convince us that the Arabs are the new anti-Semites.

Aaron Vincent Elkaim knows his history, and he knows also the tightly entwined cultural, political, social, intellectual and economic environment of the Arab Jews and their deep and important contributions to Arab societies and polity. As a man of Jewish descent, his is a voice truly essential and truly beautiful to find.

But these are inconvenient facts, as demonstrated by the reviews and reception of the works of people like Ammiel Alcalay, whose After Jew And Arab: Remaking Levantine Culture was received with tremendous scepticism and in other instances outright hostility.

After Jews And Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture by Ammiel Alcalay

But works such as Professor Alcalay’s remind us all that is shared and embroiled, rather than the histories that the nationalists and fundamentalists prefer to manufacture. Professor Alcalay explains his intentions about such works in an interview with Al-Jadid magazine:

It always helps to have a dream beyond the constant and unspeakable horrors so many people are subjected to. My work opens new space to forge alliances, even on a small-scale, but with a cold eye cast at the appalling state of things in general. As a critic, activist, writer, translator, and teacher I do have an effect on the way people who encounter me think. It might not be as significant as people in various kinds of life saving professions, but I think it has had an incremental effect in the world.

Indeed, the incremental effects are the long-lasting ones. I can only hope the same for Aaron Vincent Elkaim. These are histories that offer correctives to the nationalist and sectarian fantasies that have been created to justify division, occupation and violence. Whether Arabs or Jews, it is imperative that we begin to take back our lived heritage, our living memories and our genuine histories.

At the very least it is imperative that we begin to develop that ‘…an acute sense not of how things are separated but of how they are connected, mixed, involved, embroiled, linked.’ (Said, Edward (2001) ‘Nationalism, Human Rights & Interpretation’ in Reflections on Exile Granta Books (Page 430)) Projects such as Elkaim’s remind us of this involvement and link.

I look forward to the development of Elkaim’s work and only hope that it acts as an inspiration to others.

The Centenary Of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Birth

In Background Materials, Just Fun Stuff, Poetry, The Daily Discussion on January 1, 2011 at 12:14 pm

It is the centenary of a man who can be described as perhaps the single most important, influential and courageous poet South Asia has ever produced. Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s words have become the life and soul of millions, and given solace and determination to all who have, and continue to, fight for justice and humanity in South Asia.

His influence on me has immeasurable and profound. In fact, so much so, that when asked by the Fulbright Fellowship to write what they described as ‘an intellectual biography’, I found myself beginning the story of the idea of my life with one of Faiz’s poems. It is a poem that I have written about earlier in a post called Unravelling Bitter Threads where I wrote that:

I heard Faiz Ahmed Faiz before I 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 realize its significant when I first heard it. But if I ever have to explain how my life fell off its well structured, conventional, safe, insular and material success oriented track to its current antithesis then I always begin by turning to this poem.

Sometimes we don’t realize the ideas and individuals who change our world view and our lives until far after our encounters with them. Faiz was one such voice in my life. This is a good year to begin to get to know his works.

Himal Magazine has just published a special issue dedicated to Faiz and his influence and it makes for wonderful reading

Himal Magazine January 2011

A Very Happy…Er…What Year Is It Again?

In Background Materials, Just Fun Stuff, Musings On Confusions, The Daily Discussion on January 1, 2011 at 11:10 am

Every year at this time of the year my mind turns towards man’s creation of the calendar. Some months ago I came a fascinating discussion about the issue of measuring time in Jack Goody’s wonderful, if dense work, Theft Of History. I share with you here the paragraphs that I looked up last night as the clock struck midnight and signaled that finally 2010, a year that has tested me in ways I had never imagined, has passed and that I can look forward to new possibilities in 2011.

The very calculation of time in the past, and of the present to, as been appropriate by the west. The dates on which history depends are measured before and after the birth of Christ. The recognition of other eras, relating to the Hegira, to the Hebrew or to the Chinese New Year, is relegated to the margins of historical scholarship and of international usage…

…The monopolization of time takes place not only with the all-inclusive era, that defined by the birth of Christ, but also with the everyday reckoning of years, months, and weeks. The year itself is a partly arbitrary division. We use the sidereal cycle, others a sequence of twelve lunar periods. It is a choice of a more or less conventional kind. In both systems the beginning of the year, that is, the New Year, is quite arbitrary. There is, in fact, nothing more ‘logical’ about the sidereal year which Europeans use than about the lunar reckoning of Islamic and Buddhist countries. In is the same with the European division into months. The choice is between arbitrary years or arbitrary months. Our months have little to do with the moon, indeed the lunar months of Islam are definitely more ‘logical’. There is a problem for every calendrical system of integrating star or seasonal years with lunar months. In Islam the year is adjusted to the months; in Christianity the reverse holds. In oral cultural both the seasonable count and the moon count can operate independently, but writing forces a kind of compromise.

The week of seven days is the most arbitrary unit of them all. In Africa one finds the equivalent of a ‘week’ of three, four, five, or six days, with markets to correspond. In China it was ten days. Societies felt the need for some regular division smaller than a month for frequent cyclical activities such as local markets, as distinct from annual fairs. The duration of these units is completely conventional. The notion of a day and a night clearly corresponds to our everyday experience but once again the further subdivisions into hours and minutes exists only on our clicks and in our minds; they are quite arbitrary.

Goody, J (2006) The Theft Of History Cambridge University Press, Cambridge Page 14, 15, & 16

Have a wonderful New Year, where ever you may be, and when ever it may actually arrive in your life.

And for the conventional; A lovely 2011 to you all.