Archive for the ‘America’ Category
Paros- Four years ago today I finished this decade-long documentary project about what was then called ground Zero in lower Manhattan. When 9/11 took place in my city, I told myself I would follow the story wherever I could for as long as I could. It took me to Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Hamburg, the Republic of Georgia, Jordan, Iraq, Bangkok, Malaysia, and countless other locales as the “War on Terror” unfolded. I then kept returning to New York City, my home, for each subsequent anniversary.
Ground Zero is now the site of One World Trade Center, a hub for New York City’s tourism industry. The city has been rebuilt where it was thrashed by the largest suicide attack in history. Ground Zero buzzes with curious visitors posting the requisite photos to social media but the memory lays there, heaving with silent grief underneath flowing water and cool black stone.
9/11 unequivocally changed our world. We are living in a less safe, less just world today in my judgement. Freedoms have been curtailed as the United States has evolved into a low key surveillance state in response. Afghanistan is still in a state of war. Iraq has been broken likely irreparably. Then the ‘Arab Spring’ happened. It resulted not in a well spring of democratic growth as many initially hoped but inadvertently acted as an enabling factor for the spread of cancerous salafi-jihadi ideology to the point of holding territory by the most vile of non-state actors.
9/11 must be remembered with calm dignity, not be opportunistically exploited with jingoism or crass populism. A vigil of the spirit.
New York- Milling around the the 9/11 memorial the other day, I looked at one random, small cluster of names engraved above on of the two massive cascading fountains where the roots of the twin towers once intertwined with the earth. Though 9/11 is described as an attack on the United States or an attack on the West as a whole. reading over this small list made it feel as if the mass casualty event in New York was an attack on globalization itself for lack of a better term.
In this sample of victims it jumped out at me that one of them–Ehtesham Raja–was Pakistani. Then scanning across, I read Karamo Baba Trerra which appeared to be a West African Muslim name. Indeed he was Gambian. Then there is Jie Yao Justin Zhao from Guangzhou, China. Then Joyce Rose Cummings. a Trinidadian. The sole American in the frame of my photo is Donald Joseph Tuzio who’d lost his job and was only in the WTC that day to take part in a job-hunting workshop that was a mandatory component of his buyout package.
The diversity in just these five names–two of whom were Muslim–demonstrates that 9/11 was a global event whose magnitude devastated families from the Caribbean to China, from West Africa to South Asia. When I would photograph the anniversaries over the years at what was then referred to as Ground Zero, I was always struck by the diversity of families who arrived to collectively grieve and remember. Al-Qaeda killed Muslims from the beginning. Many of the victims in the East Africa embassy attacks were adherents. Most of the victims of salafist terrorism today are in fact Muslim.
While for me seeing the footprints of the towers evokes a somber feeling, the memorial is a place buzzing with life. Every visitor has a smartphone. People are smiling taking photos as tourists tend to do when on holiday. Then a policeman walks by and wipes the dewy spring moisture off of one particular name as if to honor it. I notice a rose on Mother’s Day wedged into the name of a victim who was carrying an unborn child. A place that once stood as global business incarnate with people from around the world is now host to every imaginable emotion in the spectrum.
New York- It’s such an obvious thing to say but it’s really hard to believe it’s been two solid decades since the Oklahoma City bombing on April 19, 1995. I viscerally remember sitting in the dormitory at San Diego State University when a friend had the news on. He was from Fontana but had Oklahoma roots and was deeply saddened. I remember that one crackpot analyst being so sure that it was Islamist (Salafist in today’s speak) in nature and how incredibly wrong he was.
That vast tragedy overshadowed the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in terms of both the number of casualties and the fact that it forced–for a time–a paradigm shift about how we think about terrorism. With the East Africa bombings in August 1998, the threat of domestic terrorism was once again diminished in the face of an external threat. Al-qaeda with its obscurantist worldview was seemingly more easily interpreted from a national security standpoint than those in league with Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. Those whose duty it is to protect the land from attacks must be analytically agile and intellectually nimble in order to reevaluate the constantly shifting threat landscape.
The memorial is beautiful yet somber. It is a symbol of tragedy and renewal.
New York- Regarding the planned nuclear deal to be reached by late June, Iranian President Hasan Rouhani announced “Today is a day that will remain in the historic memory of the Iranian nation.” Could a statement like this indicate the Islamic Republic is finally falling back into line with the Great Power political order after decades of U.S. estrangement? Possibly. Are there leagues of people who desperately seek to derail such an initiative? Undoubtedly.
Without getting into the granular details of the proposed quid pro quo arrangement whereby Iran will cull centrifuges in exchange for the letting up of sanctions, my angle is how the battle for Tikrit in neighboring Iraq and the coming battle for Mosul factors into this.
Part of what I suspect has changed the decades long game in toxic U.S.-Iran relations is the rise of the Islamic State. President Obama met one of his campaign foreign policy goals by fully withdrawing American military personnel from Iraq (minus those protecting the gargantuan embassy in Baghdad). Guantanamo hasn’t closed and Afghanistan is still festering. Iraq seemed like something of an accomplishment. But when I visited Iraq in mid-2013, it was clear to me that the Pentagon had left behind a fractious mess that was vulnerable to infiltration by non-state groups working to undermine both the Kurds and the then highly divisive Maliki government.
Then we have the twitter-fueled IS takeover of Mosul with a nascent state building to create a salafi-hihadi entity bent on perpetual warfare until an apocalyptic utopia can be achieved. Now as things stand, the Americans and Iranians are working together if purely by default. Notorious militias like the Badr Organization and Asaib Ahl al-Haq have been battling IS with bravado during the siege of Tikrit. Of course, American military planners don’t want to work with Iranian-backed war fighting groups in Iraq. War, however, is not about the ideal. It’s much more often about the pragmatic.
Military planning is constantly a re-evalutation of the lesser of evils on the battlefield. The least worst option always seems better than total defeat. In the Second World War, the Allies partnered with Stalin to defeat the Axis and achieve the near term goals of eradicating fascism from Europe and Pacific. This led to the death of tens of millions of Soviets both in the Red Army on the battlefront and then those who were felled in the Great Terror, Great Purge, ethnic deportations of nationalities collectively accused of Nazi collaboration and the Gulag system. The Cold War and the nuclear arms race immediately followed the Axis defeats.
For the US to preserve what little is has left in Iraq, it will have to work with those it has been fighting in the mid-2000s. This is not to the liking of the Israelis and their vast support network here in the United States. Nor does it please King Salman and the House of Saud who operate in a bizarre realm where the theological and geopolitical are conflated to the detriment of an entire region. In turn the U.S. is supporting the un-imaginitively named Operation Decisive Storm to rout the Houthis in Yemen which sort of proves that the Americans aren’t taking sides in ancient Sunni-Shia fitna. The Israelis and the Saudis have traditionally had a common goal of keeping the Iranians isolated by the U.S. but this paradigm looks to be both shifting as well as no longer sustainable.
I’m not saying the decades of mistrust will suddenly evaporate in a few months time. But the de facto cooperation for lack of a better term on Tikrit may be a prelude to the eradication of IS from Mosul. The Iraqi military simply isn’t up to the task. It has neither the willpower nor the esprit de corps to effectively carry out this mission in my view. One thing endemic to battlefields is that alliances shift with time owing to perceived necessity.
New York- I’ve been delving through my archives of late in preparation for an upcoming series of television appearances the rise of dictatorships mostly in the latter half of the twentieth century. Poring over my stock from Baghdad and thinking about the current offensive to retake Tikrit, it all just seems so utterly unnecessary. How many times can the Republic of Iraq be torn asunder? For years, people have predicted Iraq’s imminent: demise, federalization, breakup, fissuring, and even inevitable unity based on the fact that Iraq has stayed together this long. The central government just seems to plod forward, rudderless, ill adept at maintaining control of the whole of its territory.
Whether Iraq will hold together as a single political geographic entity or can’t stop from breaking up is neither inevitable nor unthinkable. What is not terribly helpful is the sheer polarity of such predictions that often don’t consider the interests of ordinary Iraqis who have been in a state of war or siege essentially since 1980.
New York- With each coming day lately there is a new tragedy being announced by the takfiri evangelists who refer to themselves as ad-Dawlah al-Islamiyyah (the Islamic State). With a campaign noted for executions believed to be taking place in ar-Raqqah Governorate and sieges upon the bastions of religious minorities or anyone is simple doesn’t adhere to takfir practices, IS risked the global public becoming inured to their atrocities. So their latest meme is destroying artifacts and smashing some of the Levant’s most prized ancient sites in parts of Ninewa Governorate under their control.
My interest in the Middle East began not with its intermittent warfare but with its rich archaeological history. My first trip to the region was to help excavate King Herod’s palace in Caesarea Maritima, not to cover an adrenaline-fueled war. As is my luck, war broke out during that dig between the IDF and Hezbollah. Suddenly digging around the biblical building blocks of the ancients felt somewhat irrelevant.
What they are doing is not complete foreign in contemporary Islam as the state-orchestrated destruction of sites in Saudi Arabia is in keeping with Wahabi ideology that forbids the worshipping of ancestry lest it be deemed a form of shirk (idolatry) that runs counter to the narrowest interpretation of tawhid (monotheism) and is at least partly intended to marginalize Shia religious practices within the boundaries of the Kingdom.
Little to no global outcry has slowed the demolition of holy sites in both Mecca and Medina. The Saudi monarchy has been obliterating history in accordance with its state-sanctioned ideology since the mid-1920s under the auspices of purifying the Arabian Peninsula. Many holy places in Mecca have been simply bulldozed to make way for mass market capitalism. Profit has replaced the physical history of the prophet. In a sense IS is continuing this policy writ large against Muslim, non-Muslim and pre-Islamic sites alike.
In March 2001 when when a Taliban set out to demolish the Hellenist-inflected Buddhas of Bamyan in central Afghanistan’s Shia-majority Hazarajat region, it was speculated that the Deobandi Islamists did so to thumb their nose at the world that isolated their largely unrecognized regime while collectively punishing the Hazara minority who they’d fought to bitterly in Mazar-e-Sharif in 1997-1998. The comparisons to the crime in Bamyan were inevitable. The reported razing of Hatra is but the latest of atrocities against Iraqi, and well pre-Islamic civilizational history of all mankind, following the demolishing of statues inside the unguarded Mosul museum, and destruction at the Assyrian capital of Nimrud and Ninevah.
One of Iraq’s greatest Islamic monuments from the height of the Absassid caliphate is the spiral minaret known as the Malwiyya in Samarra. Along the banks of the Tigris, Samarra sits about midway between Balad and Tikrit–where a large scale offensive is currently under way–in a hotly contested area between the Iraqi state and its allied Iranian-backed Shia militia movements versus IS.
Ostensibly the Malwiyya would not be slated for IS destruction as it represents a pillar of Sunni religio-cultural history, is in no way idolatrous, and does not depict graven imagery. But I’m being far too logical in my assessment I suppose. In its wedding cake-like tiers, it is somewhat evocative of, if not inspired by, a ziggurat.
When the U.S. military barged into Iraq in March 2003, vandalizing Iraq’s Ba’athist history, namely the iconography of Saddam Hussein’s carefully crafted personality cult, seemed to be part of official Pentagon policy. Iraq had been vilified ever since the invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 and the ensuing Gulf War in 1991 that sent Iraqi troops retreating along the “highway of death”where stifled images showed the cruelty of such a precision air war.
Although Iraq, and to a lesser extent neighboring Syria, are thought of as the ‘cradle of civilization,’ this geography has known little other than war and deep, violent internal repression for decades. Iraq’s culture coupled with the civilizational landmarks that remain within its present day geographical boundaries have not been incentivized to be respected. Aside from the well publicized destruction such as that which occurred in the Mosul museum, there has been widespread looting of sites for years to fund criminal enterprises and now outright salafi-jihad. The destruction gets the attention, the looting nets the income.
Thus the IS assault on the country’s treasures in Ninewa comes as no shock. There is also a knee jerk response in social media that if one emotes a deep, genuine sadness for such an immeasurable loss, that one is somehow lessening the ongoing loss of human life in these places. It is as if the intertwined plights of history and humanity are inherently mutually exclusive. This makes advocating for these treasures appear to be a possibly insensitive act.
Preserving Iraq’s vulnerable heritage was never explicitly part of the occupational mandate of U.S. forces in the 8 1/2 years they served in Iraq. Though it would seem Washington has the power, the military power, to stop this vast crime spree, it is not considered to be of paramount importance in the national security interest. Plain and unfortunately simple. Though there are initiatives like the State Department funded Syrian Heritage Initiative, the overall large scale political will is just not there. Iraq is too mired in intractable sectarian and ethnic fissures to do much to save its treasures while the Assad government in Damascus is concerned with solely with regime preservation.
The future of the past indeed looks bleak for the time being.
Barcelona- Today is just another 9/11 anniversary it seems. On twitter, everyone is consumed by Obama’s speech last night vowing to “destroy” the so-called caliphate of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The brutality of al-Qaeda has been rhetorically lessened with foolish tracts saying that Ayman al-Zawahiri disowned Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s movement because AQ 1.0 was put off by IS’s even harsher methods as if there has been a collective forgetting of what al-Qaeda and its allies have done over the years. This is an absurd assertion.
The split is based more on divisive interpretations of salafi ideology, a supreme contest of egos within a very violent subculture, and plain envy. Bin Laden was not primarily a takfiri (one who maintains the authority to declare lesser Muslims or minorities within its reach ‘apostates’) but in his alliance with the Deobandi Taliban he was simultaneously focused on both the near and far enemies. Baghdadi has thus far been more narrowly focused in constructing his personality cult whereby the desired targets of IS’s aggression are the Shia and other related sects and those affiliated with regional regimes they deem worthy of death. To say one group is more ‘brutal’ than the other is a futile comparison. It is far more about the ebb and flow on the centers of power within trends in global militancy than a zero sum game.
Here in Barcelona, it’s Onze de Setembre (National Day of Catalonia), a celebration of Catalan martyrdom that is experienced as hyper localized nationalism. Drums beat, scooters beep and a rivalry in the heart of the first world rages on.
To me, it is simply 9/11.
For a solid decade I would return from wherever I was in the world to New York to document the goings on at the World Trade Center which for many years was referred to simply as ‘Ground Zero.’ For all of the anniversaries I attended in order to document, I did so without accreditation except for the final one–the 10th–when I applied for permission from the Bloomberg administration to photograph the two visiting presidents. That last few years since the 2011 shoot, I haven’t returned to the World Trade Center.
Yesterday here in Catalunya it was in fact the furthest thing from my mind as I hung out with friends at the beach in Barceloneta. Nor did I think about the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud either. Things that I have felt and witnessed and people I once knew who have died have since been enveloped into history as once so viscerally palpable anniversaries have often morphed into more ordinary days as the healing current of time passes by.
We often think of history in a linear form comprised of a 365 day year based on the Gregorian calendar with momentous anniversaries in one-year increments up until the 5th year and in five year increments thereafter (and later potentially being noted in 10 year increments) i.e. 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th anniversaries being momentous and then culminating (for now) at the 10th which forms a time capsule known as a ‘decade.’
But for the people directly affected, is today’s 13th anniversary any less significant than the 1st back in 2002, the 5th in 2006 or the 10th in 2011? History as we live it is a living, breathing organism. Time never does stand still. I may be in the fever of minority linguistic politics here along the western Mediterranean as if Franco died yesterday but I cannot escape the track in which the events that day 13 years ago defined the course of my adult life. Though I no longer rush back to New York to document the day, it will forever remain in my aching heart.
Barcelona- After an egregiously long sabbatical in the chunky, ‘polar vortex’ torn streets of NYC, I finally made it back across the Atlantic. I put plans for returning to Iraq’s Green Line and Ukraine’s chaotic Donbas region on hold for the time being to work on a couple of armchair pieces. As a perennial freelancer, sometimes a sure thing outpaces an unsafe bet and so I’m remaining in the West for the moment.
I brought loads of prints over to do some more photo walls as I had been doing the previous month in Long Island City. In my original idea conceived in 2000-2001, I had wanted to plaster prints up on either side of the Euro-Atlantic community to pique interest in the historical juncture of Central-South Asia in order to bring attention to that region’s political maelstrom by appealing to the public with its beauty. Such was not to be.
As I’ve alluded to in prior posts, those plans were imediately tosed out the window after 9/11 because it was going to involve obtaining an Islamic Emirate visa for Afghanistan which was immediately unrealistic despite my efforts of reaching out to members of the Taliban in Peshawar, Pakistan and Flushing, Queens just before the attacks.
Now well over a decade on, I hope to close that loop albeit under far different circumstances. Below I’ve posted snapshots of my final two projects in the U.S. Hope to do some new ones here very soon…