& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Art & War

It was Robert Capa’s photograph of The Falling Soldier that changed the perception of people about war photography. Capa shot the photo in September 1936. Wikipedia informs me that war photography began nearly eight decades before Capa’s iconic photograph – in the Crimean war of 1853-56, when Roger Fenton became the first ‘embedded’ photographer to capture the action in Crimea. The entry on war photography claims that first war photographs were shot by a British army surgeon during the second Sikh war in the Indian subcontinent (now Pakistan).  
War photography brought the horrors of the war into the living rooms and on the breakfast table through the newspapers. Photographs such as Eddie Adam’s impromptu shot of General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan shooting a Viet Cong spy on the streets of Saigon, or Nick Ut's photograph of Kim Phuc and other young children running after being caught in a napalm attack changed the complexion of the war in Vietnam, and turned the public opinion decisively against the American misadventure.

(Incidentally, Kim Phuc is now a Canadian, living in Ajax, Ontario).

The Gulf War and the advent of CNN changed not only war coverage but also the media. Technology enabled the horrors of war to be telecast into our living rooms as they happened. Among the most memorable television images of that era are of CNN’s live coverage of the coalition campaign’s bombing of Iraq captured through night vision camera. Peter Arnett, CNN’s reporter in Baghdad, became a globally known journalist. Arnett had also won a Pulitzer for his Vietnam coverage.

The attack on the twin towers, the saturated coverage of the tragedy globally, and the second Gulf War was the beginning of a new era in war photography. For the first time, media’s coverage of the war was regulated, and surprisingly the powerful western media that had set global standards of free speech, acquiesced.

Rita Leistner
In a deeply insightful review (published in Literary Review of Canada, March 2013) of Michael Maclear’s Guerrilla Nation: My War In and Out of Vietnam, Rita Leistner, internationally renowned photojournalist and an author, says, “Humans have always used the most recent technology available to document war – the history of every war has a parallel story of its emerging, dominant technologies. The Crimean War was the first war to be photographed; the Iraq war was the first to be defined by digital cameras and same-day transmission of media by internet and satellite; the Arab Spring changed the game entirely when civilians documented the uprising from within using their own smartphones; today, the World Wide Web is rapidly replacing newspapers and television altogether.”

Rita Leistner was one of the participants at an engaging discussion on Art and War organized as part of the Spur Festival – a festival of politics, art and ideas – last week in Toronto by Helen Walsh and her team from Literary Review of Canada and Diaspora Dialogues.

James Wellford
Michael Kamber was the other photojournalist, and James Wellford, Newsweek’s photo editor, was the moderator.  The discussion was “not just the practicalities and ethics of capturing images in the midst of conflict but also the stories that emerge from it.” When intelligence is mixed with experience and a shared perspective, it results in a scintillating exchange of ideas that is at once enthralling and disturbing because of what is said, and also for what is implied.

Rita and Michael are amazing raconteurs, and James a minimalist moderator who infrequently prodded the panelists to gently guide the discussion into a different dimension (and being a New Yorker couldn't help himself from using the f word at least once during the discussion). Disturbing though it may seem, both the photojournalists agreed that there is a deep aesthetic involved in the depiction of carnage; “people expect to see visually arresting and clinically composed photographs.” Both also agreed that extreme mastery over what was essentially a mechanical craft was essential for success.

Michael Kamber
The discussion was interspersed with photo slides of Michael’s and Rita’s works (mostly in Iraq, but also in other parts of the Middle East and in north and West Africa). Both extensively covered the Iraq invasion and captured the horrors of the war in their own individualistic (and artistic) ways. Nearly a year before the Abu Gharib torture photographs were published, Rita had documented photographic evidence of torture, but couldn’t find any takers for her work. It was only after Associated Press exposed the Abu Gharib torture was she able to get her work widely published. Similarly, Michael also found a lot of his work censored by the US military.

And yet, rather surprisingly, both were not totally opposed to embedded journalism. “Without that (protection offered by being embedded) you couldn’t possibly last till the first afternoon,” Michael said rather impatiently to a question about the ethics of embedded journalism from a member of the audience.
Both reacted differently to the extreme physical and emotional stress they encountered on assignment. “I wanted to shoot everything, without really thinking about what I’d use. You realize that you’re in a part of history that’s soon going to pass,” Michael said, and confessed, “I was terrified the whole time. My hands were shaking when I took the photographs.” (of a soldier who was cut into half from waist when he stepped on a hidden explosive).

Similarly, Rita also confessed to emotional trauma but insisted on returning to the war harbouring the hope that just by capturing the carnage, you believe that somehow you can stop it in some way; that brutality could be stopped or scaled back after the photographs were published. Both also agreed to absolute necessity of protecting the context of the photographs and rights of the subjects of their photographs.

Michael’s photographs from Liberia and Rita’s photographs from the asylum in Sadr city (a Shia suburb of Baghdad) were the images that conveyed – without the necessity of words – the true meaning of war and art.

(Panelists' photographs from Spur website: spurfestival.ca

Monday, March 31, 2014

Exile and Belonging: Stories of Immigrant Experience - II

Rohinton Mistry
Recently, I attended a six weeks program on Exile and Belonging: Stories of Immigrant Experience conducted by Sanja Ivanov of the University of Waterloo at the Lillian H. Smith branch of the Toronto Public Library (Spadina and College).

I couldn’t attend the concluding session because of extraneous disturbances not under my control.

I blogged about the series in February, but the observations in that blog were primarily derivative and based on just one session. The subsequent sessions gave the series new meanings, and new insights.

With each new author the group discussed different aspects of the theme of exile and belonging.

David Bezmozgis

We read and discussed five stories by four authors:  Roman Berman, Massage Therapist and The Second Strongest Man (from David Bezmozgis’s collection Natasha and Other Stories); The Inert Landscapes of Gyorgy Ferenc (from Tamas Bobozy’s Last Notes and Other Stories); Squatter (from Rohinton Mistry’s Tales of Firozsha Baag); and No Rinsed Blue Sky, No Red Flower Fences (from Dionne Brand’s Sans Souci and Other Stories).

Each author deals with the issue of exile and belonging differently, each is steeped in a specific cultural milieu, and each is situated in Canada (in fact, in Toronto – and I guess the Toronto Public Library must have insisted on that).

Each of the story is deeply disturbing, even if it occasionally some scenes in the stories evoke chortles or at least an amused smile (especially Squatter).  

In all the stories, the newcomers are unable to adjust to a new life, a new thinking, to their changed circumstances. They become so alienated that their own people seem alien.
In some cases the – as with Gyorgy Ferenc in Dobzy’s story and the Caribbean woman in Brand’s story – the characters experience mind-bending turmoil and become paralysed with fear and loathing.

In No Rinsed Blue Sky, No Red Flower Fences, Brand describes the transformation thus:

Dionne Brand
“Returning home her imagination tightened the walls of the apartment giving them a cavernous, gloomy look. She would lie on the floor and listen for footsteps in the corridor outside. The phone would ring and startle her. The sound would blast around in her chest and she would pray for it to stop never thinking to answer it. It would course its way through her arms so that when she looked at her fingers they would seem odd, not hers or she, not theirs.”  
And while Dobzy’s story is about the father Gyorgy Ferenc, and his utterly hopeless spiral into a world that cannot exist, a great insight into the immigrant’s perennial dilemma is revealed towards the end of the story when Gergo (the narrator) returns briefly to Hungary. 

He describes his experience thus:

Tamas Dobozy
“It was only many weeks later, when I’d fully realized what it was to lose a country – after I had gone astray in the streets of a city I thought I knew as well as myself, after I’d seen the growth of apartments on the outskirts of Debrecen, after I’d stepped onto the Hortobagy and been unable to shake the sense of infinite distance between the soles of my shoes and the ground they stood upon – that I remembered where I’d last seen the smile Akos had worn at the airport. You see, either everything had changed in Hungary, or I had changed, and what was most disquieting about the trip for me was not only that I couldn’t stabilize my sense of being in the country, but that I couldn’t even fix upon the country I was trying to stabilize myself in relation to.
“The greatest nightmare was that both of us had changed – the country and myself – and that we were constantly changing, which made the possibility of us ever connecting again a matter of complete chance, the intersection of two bodies on random flight patterns, ruled by equations so different there was little chance of us resting, even for a second, on the same co-ordinates.”
As I said, unfortunately, I couldn’t attend the last session and so missed my chance to thank all the wonderful participants and Sonja Ivanov, the amazing program instructor.

Sonja conducted the series with deft competence and confidence, giving opportunities for all the participants to dwell on the subject, giving each of us time to explore and expound on the theme.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

India, Empire and the First World War - I

MJ Akbar
A minstrel is a mediaeval bard who sang songs and told tales of distant places, of real or imagined events from the past. When the European courts evolved under the influence of mercantilism, minstrels lost their appeal and began to travel around, becoming wandering minstrels.

I’m often reminded of the wandering minstrels whenever a public intellectual from India visits Toronto. I get to meet them and hear them talk at the Munk Centre which organizes their visit with a reassuring regularity. 

Romila Thapar, Ramchandra Guha, and Rachel Dwyer, among many others have engaged the Indian diaspora in what may be described as a conversation among the believers. And by that I mean that both the speakers and the listeners are all generally speaking liberals.

MJ Akbar was here a couple of weeks ago to talk on India, Empire and the First World War organized by the Bill Graham Centre for International History.

A minor digression: One wonders whether Akbar should continue to be included among the liberals after his new-found love for Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial aspirant of India’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. I guess many in India and amongst the Indian diaspora who categorize themselves as liberals have found (and are finding) new reasons to support Modi. So, we shall leave the categorization in abeyance for now.

Apart from an utter incapability to understand or appreciate Akbar’s pro-Modi tilt, which sort of tends to cloud my perspective about everything that he writes these days, I must admit listening to his erudition is unquestionably an enriching experience.

Although he was to speak about India, the Empire and the First World War, he deftly encompassed many themes in his talk and focused mainly on the making of the modern Muslim world. For those aware with his works – especially his 2002 book The Shades of Sword – the Conflict between Islam and Christianity, there was a familiar note to a lot that Akbar said that afternoon.

Some of his positions are well-known and have hardened over the years. But his approach of examining history as an interplay between empires that rose and fell over the last millennium, rather than looking at it from the narrow prism of nation states remains unique and compelling.

The breadth of the lecture was wide, sweeping across centuries, spread across geographies, and peopled with innumerable figures; and punctured with innumerable diversions.

In the middle of the talk, he stopped and quoted from Matthew Arnold’s poem Stanza from the Grande Chartreuse
Wandering between two worlds, one dead,

The other powerless to be born

Wikipedia described Arnold, as an English poet from the Victorian era, who wrote this classic to describe the irreconcilable differences between science and religion while on a brief visit to the Grand Chartreuse, the abode of the Carthusian order. 

Akbar used the lines to describe the present world order where the old world of the 20th century is evidently dead, but a new world order is yet to be born.

Another riveting insight: Tracing the west’s global domination over the last five hundred years, Akbar observed that the simple reason was technology. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Gutenberg press (introduced in the same decade) changed the discourse of dominance. It wasn’t just the battlefield where supremacy mattered. Gutenberg opened up a new front – supremacy of ideas. 

And the Islamic world was kept away from this revolution (especially in South Asia) by the trade unions of the khatibs, the scribes, who prevented the introduction and use of the movable type.

Describing India’s strong roots of syncretic traditions, he quoted Mughal emperor Babur, who said one could either eat beef or rule India, one couldn’t do both.

Continued in the post below

India, Empire and the First World War - II

Continued from the post above

It isn’t quite possible to capture an hour’s lecture into a coherent report. What follows are some nuggets gleaned from his talk.  

According to Akbar, the birth of the modern world lies in the collapse of two major Muslim empires – the Ottoman and the Mughal. Both the empires started in the 13th century and ended the 19th century (although the Ottoman ended after World War I, Akbar termed the gap of 60-odd years between the end of the Mughal and the Ottoman Empires minor, meriting no more than three paragraphs in any conventional history book).

The World Wars were so termed not because the worlds were at war, but because these were wars for the control of the worlds, he said.  “At the end of the First World War, Muslims across the world were either defeated or colonized.”

However, unlike the Western paradigm of empires (as laid down by Edward Gibbon in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Holy Roman Empire) which evolved in three stages – rise, decline and fall, the Islamic paradigm envisaged a fourth stage – renewal.

So, post-World War I, when there were no Islamic empires left in the world, the struggle continued within Islam for renewal. Hitherto, Muslims had never equated a change in ruler to a threat to faith. This happened only after World War I when the holy centres of Islam – Mecca and Medina – came under British control.   

There weren’t just two World Wars, there were, in fact, four – the first two, then the Cold War, which ended in with the Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, and then the War on Terrorism, which will end with the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2015.

For the radical Muslims, within a period of a century – from 1914 to 2014 – Islam had successfully defeated three of the biggest powers that the world had ever seen – the British Empire, the Soviet Union and the United States.

Akbar said it’d probably take a century more for the complexities in the Islamic world to work out. If the First World War ended two of the last Islamic Empires – the Ottoman and the Mughal, it also gave birth to two modern models of renewal – again in Kamal Ataturk’s Turkey and Gandhi’s India.

Congress view of Khilafat
Muslims had several options for renewal and among these were Gandhian nonviolence, the Intifada movement of insurrection, Pan Arab nationalism (socialism and Arab nationalism, which reduced itself to Naseerism),

The Khilafat movement that Gandhi launched was the first jihad where the leadership of the movement was in the hands of a non-Muslim. 

In Shades of Sword, Akbar has termed it the peaceful jihad. The unity that Gandhi forged during Khilafat was lost forever when he abruptly withdrew the movement. The Muslims of the subcontinent never went back to Gandhi.

Muslim view of Khilafat
In 1939 Jinnah changed the story – from the future of Muslims in the subcontinent, it became the story of the future of Islam. Pakistan was formed on the belief that religion could be the basis of nationhood. It failed.

India followed the path of modernism which involved following four broad principles – democracy, secularism, gender equality and economic equality. 

According to Akbar, Pakistan and China are not modern societies because they don’t fulfil these four prerequisites of modern statehood.

A video of his talks is going to be made available on Munk Centre's website.

Visuals: http://www.thehistory-project.org/book/index.html