New York- I don’t have much time to do full fledged blog posts as of late but today I was prepping an image for my ongoing #fabledcity street art project, (prints available for sale via paypal) rooting around my archives. While flipping through my catalog looking for chromes of the ziggurat of Ur outside Nasiriyyah, Iraq, the above image struck me. With the pointed desecration of ancient, pre-Islamic or non-Sunni holy places going on in Syria and Iraq, Shia empowerment is directly related to the preservation of the ziggurat pictured below.
In simplest terms, the ruins situated at Ur are safe from IS sledge hammers and explosives because they are so deeply within a demographic region in southern Iraq that is firmly under Shia-majority control. Which historic sites survive this tumultuous period may simply depend on which sect administers that particular area. At the same time, the manner in which the Shia government of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki kept Sunni Arabs constantly disenfranchised ensured that some kind of Sunni insurgency would be rekindled in a post-America Iraq. We just didn’t know it would get this bad. Similarly, the oppression of the Sunni Arab majority in neighboring Syria by the late Hafez al-Assad undergirds the 2011 uprising that devolving into the dreadful civil war we are stuck with today.
These images may appear unrelated but the survival of the latter does have something to do with the rise of the former.
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- I don’t ordinarily post the work of others here on TWD (unless they happen to be close friends) but I am thoroughly impressed by this interview by Jon Stewart of the disgraced former NYT reporter Judith Miller. It is as if in his final leg of The Daily Show, he treading into an area where professional American television journalists fear to and have feared to for years now.
His interview with Miller is both sharp and devastating. She refuses to admit that she bears any direct responsibility for anything having to do with disseminating White House or Pentagon propaganda that led to the war in Iraq. If one looks at the long view, this then led to the emergence of the angry man of Camp Bucca, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. You can draw a line from events in 2002 all the way to the present. The forcible dismantlement of the Ba’athist security state in Iraq in March and April 2003 led to one of the most ominous security vacuums on our planet.
I remember on the early morning of September 11, 2011 as journalists gathered in lower Manhattan for the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I had Miller in my group as we were escorted to the stands from where we would watch the Bushes and Obamas awkwardly stand side by side. I wished Miller, her former colleague Thomas Friedman who said the invasion of Iraq was “unquestionably worth doing,” and other like-minded travelers would atone for what they had written and bear responsibility. I also felt and still feel that they should be stripped of their influential perches in our media landscape beset by ethical frailty and beset by intellectual dishonesty. The Iraq war was unquestionably a failure.
Stewart’s questioning of Miller is righteous in the best sense of that term. Watch below.
New York- Skateboarders Kenny Reed and Louisa Menke have published a handsome edition of their photographs of skateboarding in Afghanistan in 2009 with Vanderbooks of Rotterdam. They will be hosting a book release party this Saturday May 2nd at the Marlborough Gallery’s Broom Street location in downtown Manhattan. Come one, come all!
New York- Yesterday marked the centenary of the 1915 Armenian genocide. Armenians and their supporters in the international human rights arena describe the massacres as a calculated genocide undertaken by the Ottoman military in the midst of the Great War (World War I) in eastern Anatolia whilst many nationalist Turks insist on referring to the murderous episode as the ‘events’ of 1915 with their own narrative of victimhood at the hands of great powers.
In the summer of 1999, I explored some of the remnants of ancient Armenia that reside in the present day Turkish republic. The scant remains of Urartu, the proto-Armenain Iron Age civilization, set my imagination alight at the time. This setting is where I first discovered the highly complex, painful history of Turks, Kurds, and Armenians as a university student. In the days before the rise of Erdogan and the Islamist-imbued AK Parti, Turkey was still steeped in secularist 20th century Kemalism which contained a heavy element of historical denial when it comes to the minorities cultures within Turkey’s borders.
After my tour around Ararat that summer, I continued on to the devastated ruins of Ani, a capitol of ancient Armenia that was rocked by an earthquake in 1319 A.D. from which it never recovered. I had to run around Kars to get permission to visit the place and was escorted by a young English-speaking conscript who made sure I didn’t point my camera toward the guard towers across the ravine where Armenian soldiers gazed upon us. There was even a hostel legend that a Japanese tourist who thought he was immune to the rules was shot by an Armenian (or Soviet/Russian) soldier looking down from a guard tower for attempting to photograph the other side. I never learned whether the story was myth or fact but I didn’t want to find out first hand.
These ruins once represented the boundary of the Cold War dividing NATO member Turkey and then Soviet Armenia. They were gained by the Ottomans in Istanbul following the signing of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty of 1918 where the Bolsheviks ceded the ruins to Ottoman Turkey. The cultural angle is a humiliating one for Armenians who seek territorial concessions from modern day Turkey as the ruins are visible from Armenia in the same manner as the aforementioned Mt. Ararat. Not having control of these sacred places is part of the larger narrative of the genocide as a mechanism of disenfranchisement. A crying out not universally accepted.
In the hundred years that have followed the genocide, sometimes described as an ethnic deportation of disloyal Ottoman subjects gone awry in the Turkish narrative, relations between the two ethnic nations have still not come to a lasting accord to the benefit of both sides. Though anti-Turkish Armenian terrorism ebbed long ago from its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, the war of rhetorical stances continues. Ani was totally abandoned by the 1700s but it seems to symbolize the purge of the Armenians that would come later during the early 1900s as the people descended from this civilization were mostly purged, never to return en masse. The mountains and the partially intact churches stand. The grievances persist. History seems to be at a standstill on this issue despite a 100 years having passed. Yet life must move forward.
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- As the faux caliphate referring to itself as ad-Dawlah al-Islamiyyah (Islamic State) continues to smash the shared human heritage of Iraq and Syria, the world watches in revulsion with no strategy to halt it. The threat posed by salafi-jihadis to precious sites is nothing new unfortunately. In 2012 and early 2013, a jihadi outfit in northern Mali called Ansar Dine destroyed Sufi shrines and graves to prevent any form of veneration that they believed diverged from the purest monotheism. These groups style themselves as purifying movements that are merely carrying out the will of god as if they have no choice in cultural destruction. The demolition of nodes of Sufi culture in Libya has also been taking place but to far less condemnation globally as it is categorized as sectarian strife for which the outside world has no authority to judge as it doesn’t retain the Sunni jurisprudence of a particular ulama. The head of UNESCO or President Obama condemning a particular act carries no weight among the militants. It likely only further emboldens them.
Egypt, with its plethora of what seems like the world’s most famous ancient sites per square kilometer from the Sudanese border to Cairo, has been spared the large scale devastation occurring elsewhere in the region. Terrorism in Egypt has concentrated on mass casualty attacks on places frequented by Israelis or presently on security forces, most often in the Sinai peninsula.Egypt’s hulking monuments owing the pharaonic period have survived the erosion of time, vandalism eons ago by Islamists (possibly), and hordes of tourists for countless decades. When priceless monuments have been wrecked by salafis in recent years, or Deobandis in the case of the Bamian buddhas, they are attempting to erase the complexity of the lands they temporarily control. Their use of the internet to disseminate these acts is entirely hypocritical but one can be sure they have cherry picked a way to justify doing so.
When I visited the magnificent ruins of Cyrene while taking a break from covering the war in Libya in 2011, they were totally unprotected. I doubt this has changed significantly if at all. Naively, I viewed Libya’s past as being a possible key to its post-Qaddafi future. With places like Cyrene, Leptis Magna and Sabratha situated not far from sprawling beaches, Libya could’ve theoretically developed a nascent tourist industry just south of the EU. Instead, Libya is mired in a factional, fratricidal war with no effective legitimate government. At present these spellbinding sites are under threat. With Cyrene’s proximity to Derna, it may be first on the list.
As I mentioned in a previous post, there is this concept that somehow the plight of human lives and historic places are in some twisted competition for the world’s attention. This is an immense oversimplification of international affairs. It is framed as if the world community has to choose between UNESCO or UNHCR. All these challenges must be met simultaneously. The idea of the issues are somehow at moral parity is offensive to some but the two priorities really aren’t in any acutual competition. Most of this perception comes from media’s emphasis of events.
The ruins of the ancient world have the capacity to surpass the petty politics that isolate and entrap us in the present. These ancient marvels can bridge an understanding that predates our present impasses. Therein lies their intrinsic value to all humankind.