Recent Blog Posts
- July 25, 2019
If you think you’ve seen enough of conflict, especially the war in Syria, you haven’t. From love of nation and loathing of military rule, from inchoate hope of redemption and improbable determination, indebted to lost friends and seeded in the birth of your child, comes an intimate demonstration of how war happens to you and how it tests humanity.
In the case of Syria, even as news of chaos and battles recede, it takes an exceptional story to return us outsiders to that battlefront. One headstrong woman’s remarkable work has actually managed this. So out of Syria, rising from the smashed pearl of the nation—beloved, stately, diligent Aleppo-- comes the film “For Sama”.
“For Sama” is arguably a belated story, although even now when filmmaker and family are settled abroad, it feels very, very present. It’s a young mother’s diary to her baby girl whose innocent, sometimes sleepy, sometimes searching, wondering eyes reappear intermittently, even confidently. From a scratchy sonogram in her mother’s womb Sama emerges a swaddled newborn, then a toddler crawling over bedclothes to grope the lens of her mother’s camera, now stealing through a frontline bound tightly against her father’s chest to reenter their besieged home, then entertained by staff medics as they huddle together in a basement bomb shelter, later seated on a hospital attendant’s lap while nearby her father’s colleagues wrap the not-yet-cold body of a boy for delivery into the arms of a mother calling to his soul as she determinedly carries him off.
News headlines stopped reporting Syria’s death toll; only an occasional photo revisits the country’s collapsed neighborhoods. Experts’ pretense at disentangling the web of warring factions-- Christian-this and Shi’ia-that, Hizbollah or Iranian, Kurd or Arab or Turkmen militants—are silent. Pronouncements of areas liberated or occupied, emptied or reclaimed seem as immaterial as US-sponsored or Russia-convened talks with opposition leaders.
The Free Syrian Army, an early American-backed operation now appears subsumed into ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’, an assemblage of America-supplied (probably U.S.-directed too) rebel groups removed to a protectet territory—not unlike what was created in Iraq in 1991-- dominated by Kurdish Syrians. (Elements of Israel and Iran are doubtless lurking in the shadow of U.S. and Russian lines.)
Millions of citizens who fled haven’t returned. They may never. Destroyed cities, fields, marketplaces and factories lie vacant. While government-secured areas allow some stability, a return to normal life is impossible to imagine. Opportunities for corruption are greater than ever. How comforting is renewed agricultural production if prices are beyond a household’s reach? Families whose young people fled, died, are imprisoned, incapacitated or remain missing move in a kind of stupor, unable to rebuild dwellings or restart their studies or their businesses.
As for the infamous, vilified jihadist-ISIS fighters:— have they been corralled and massacred, transferred to Turkey to regroup, ferried to camps for processing as refugees to Canada or rearmed to bolster rebel ranks in the secured Kurdish territory?
Five years earlier, after Waad Al-Kateab’s studies at Aleppo University were interrupted by he eruption of protests on campuses there as across the nation, she and countless others joined the so-called Arab Spring. Some areas of opposition were swiftly and ruthlessly subdued. Neighborhoods that resist are viewed as rebel strongholds and thus face the full force of government shelling and siege. Al-Kateab metamorphoses into a citizen journalist, allying herself with others who refuse to leave and, camera in hand, joins a medical team of young doctors rushing to bombed sites to clear debris and attend the wounded.
Emboldened by the deaths of their comrades and by massacres they witness, this medical crew resolves to remain in a makeshift hospital even as the neighborhood is subjected to a vise-like siege-- perhaps targeted because of the arrival of jihadist fighters there. Wisely, Waad (and a British Channel 4 News team who helped compose this film) doesn’t address internal political distinctions. For her, government forces and Russian jets are the enemy: “Whatever jihadis do, it’s nothing compared to the brutality of the regime”, she declares
Al-Kateab keeps her camera rolling as she fearlessly and resolutely moves into the carnage, never so unhinged that she neglects tender moments of passion and pathos among medical staff, neighbors and wounded arriving at the clinic. They are a community exhibiting all that life offers: a fresh snowfall in the garden; a crushed tree tenderly replanted; her sandbagged bedroom; a rush (camera-in-hand) to the shelter; a room of lifeless bodies near medics attending those still breathing; a man’s gift to his wife of a rare fresh fruit; dust-stained faces of two lads caressing and kissing the head of their newly dead brother wrapped in his shroud in the clinic corridor; a young woman filming how she’ll announce her new found pregnancy to her husband.
I resist a temptation to narrate more intimacies from “For Sama”. Simply, this is a rare document, one I can only summarize not as heroic but as the intimacy of war. These words may seem incompatible; they’re not really, not as felt and recorded by Ms. Al-Kateab, co-edited by fellow filmmaker Edward Watts, and narrated to baby Sama by filmmaker mother.
While war creates hatred and despair and loss, perhaps because at the same time life becomes more precious and ethereal, war compels this kind of chronicle. Myself, while I’ve witnessed war firsthand and recorded it for others, nothing I’ve written, seen on screen or read approaches the intimacy and impact of Al-Kateab’s diary to her daughter.
It would be pointless to decipher the role of supplementary editors and foreign producers or to speculate on when the narration was written, and from where all the elements were drawn. One feels proud of this woman for her compassionate eye, her determination, her steady-hand and her tender questions.
“What would you like to say to your friends who left?” she inquires of a shy nine year-old neighbor.
“May Allah forgive you for leaving me here alone” is his unequivocal reply.
- July 15, 2019
Heard “Trader Joe’s” podcast yet? I don’t know who might listen to a 22-minute corporate ad. But, given how cool podcasts have become: hey, that sounds inviting. The idea is also an implicit endorsement for radio-- because that’s where podcasting originated. Yes.
I don’t want to disenchant young progressives for whom podcasts are their go-to listening medium today. It likely wouldn’t concern them in any case that in fact these phone-friendly popular audio items are little more than archived radio productions. They follow basic principles developed by radio hosts and editors over the years-- many years.
I’m not here to knock podcasting; not at all’; podcasts are a welcome advance, a real boon for radio broadcasting. Still evolving, radio has conscripted a generation who twenty-five years ago listened to sound productions only in a car, or (as teenagers) from a boom box at the beach.
Today’s listeners don’t dial into 99.5 FM or 800 AM. Through iTunes or another app, they locate an amusing podcast among a list of hundreds (thousands?) of podcast subjects or sites. Many of those are original radio productions adapted to a podcast format, packaged into serials that can be subscribed to, listened to for a while then picked up later. Everything’s portable—not only in your car, but in your pocket phone while traveling to work by train or subway car.
So the medium of radio not only survives; it’s evolving too, using the latest technology to reach into every phone.
How has radio’s appeal endured? Simply because radio builds on its quintessential feature-- intimacy. Besides its proven versatility, radio invites us in. Yes, it may stimulate us with flute solos, sitar ragas, blues and R&B, Brahms sonatas or inventive hip-hop poetry. More poignantly, radio taps our deep human need for the voices of others. It’s often a very private experience, attested by the ubiquity of slinky earbuds and chunky wireless headphones that envelope each wearer in his and her personal world.
Many are unfamiliar with a piece of household furniture known as an FM radio receiver -- like the Jackson Bell 1930s ‘cathedral’ style countertop item . You’ll find other classics such as Bakelite radios and transistors on vintage radio sites for broadcasting aficionados from the era bypassed by the current generation-- like the dial-up phone that was plugged into a wall!
I learned about the dispensability of these FM home receivers when visiting the apartment of a fellow producer thirteen years ago. She quietly answered my challenge-- How can a radio producer not possess a radio, the medium we work in?-- by opening her computer and tuning into our station’s webpage! “It’s called streaming”, she informed this old-timer.
Today every station live-streams and offers a phone app through which you can subscribe to listen live and search archived shows and podcasts. Thanks to phone apps radio’s reach extends far beyond the kitchen table model or the car receiver. For a few intervening years when television dominated home entertainment, the car was where most radio programs reached listeners. Then cars acquired SiriusXM (launching 22 podcasts soon, I’m informed) whose plethora of channels competes with television.
Sixty years ago, apart from the toaster, a radio was the only electronic device in regular use in a home. When television came along, oh the woes and warnings: radio was finished. How would it complete with live picture transmissions? Chatty comedians like Arthur Godfrey eschewed radio for TV, as did sportscasters. (Imagine fans gathering around a sitting room audio receiver cheering on their team! But they did.) Then there’s drama; drama was once a mainstay of radio, offering employment for writers, actors and sound effects specialists. “The Lone Ranger” and “The Shadow” were two serialized shows I recall hearing as a child. (One can still find those early dramas on programs like “The Golden Age of Radio” which my WBAI colleague Max Schmid began producing in 1976.)
Radio dramas provided evening family entertainment and were adapted for children too. I belong to the generation of schoolchildren who walked home for lunch where we heard a daily episode of some short children’s drama airing at 12:30. This was in Canada where radio always had a special status. Maybe it still does.
The still popular broadcast “Selected Shorts” [Image result for selected shorts radio] based on recorded performances began in 1985. Today radio drama is enlivened by productions like “The Moth Radio Hour” launched in 2010 (from Woods Hole, MA) inspired by Atlantic Media’s www.atlantic.org commitment to “the art of the story, in the power of sound and spoken word”. (Atlantic Media introduced a fresh ambiance into radio broadcasting.)
For decades after television was a household fixture, in defiance of expectations, radio held his own. Television sets were initially one per household, dominating the sitting room, with the radio receiver consigned to the kitchen for morning news and weather.
Radio’s role in the music industry was advanced by “American Top 40 Countdown” introduced in 1970 by Casey Kassem.
And what about political radio? Perhaps as a corollary to growing opposition to the Vietnam War, alternative voices carved out their space on the FM dial. The Pacifica Network surged in popularity during the 1960s (giving birth in 1996 to “Democracy Now” which has largely eclipsed the mother network). Pacifica’s early commitment to vigorous debate and a space for dissenting voices fostered the talk-radio format where lively hosts brought listeners on-air by phone. Talk radio’s widening influence is now associated with extreme conservative advocates Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage and Mark Levin. Their radical views may appear risible to some, but their deep impact into American politics is unarguable. One of the founders of talk-radio lies at the other end of the political spectrum--“RadioUnnamable”’s Bob Fass who originated “free form” radio which also revolutionized late night FM listening.
The podcast revolution notwithstanding, regular FM broadcasting is attracting print news sources to the air, from “Counterpunch” to “The New Yorker Radio” and New York Times’ “The Daily”. Stay tuned for more.
- July 05, 2019
"Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? And am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?
I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you this day rejoice are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today?
What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is a constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes that would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation of the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour.
At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour forth a stream, a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and the crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.
An excerpt from Frederick Douglass’s July 4th1852 Independence Day address in Rochester, New York. Presented by James Earl Jones, part of a performance of Howard Zinn’s Voices of a People’s History of the United States.
- July 04, 2019
“This is not what America is about” argues a U.S. reporter referring to revelations of misogynist, violent, racist behavior by employees of the U.S. Border Patrol ‘guarding’ migrants held in detention centers.
Sorry Mr. Thompson (the "Propublica" reporter who broke this story); THIS IS what America is about. Vulnerable people, i.e. women, men and children held in secret or without legal representation:-- undocumented migrants, Americans in detention or serving sentences in prison, our indigent and our Black and Brown citizens in general, and foreign prisoners. We witness their abuse, beatings and killings by ‘authorized’ armed personnel every day--every day-- most of it carried out by our local police officers.
But that’s another long, sad story. Let’s get back to those border guards and their contempt for their wards. Where did we last see this shameless conduct on the scale of these recent revelations? Was it not Abu Graib in 2004? And Abu Graib was just one Iraqi prison where American excesses were exposed. One can find more references to extreme cruelty and sadistic acts by American and allied troops (all under earlier administrations) directed against prisoners in Afghanistan.
As much as our naïve public and the noble liberal wing of our press may wish to assign this newly revealed shame to the Trump administration, the ‘problem’ is much deeper.
I suggest it exists within the training of U.S. troops today and to the license given them in the Iraq and Afghan wars-- a license to humiliate, mutilate, shame, torture and murder with impunity— over people they have been taught to despise. Recall the report of an American verbally attacking a Muslim woman in the street not long ago proudly proclaiming: “I killed people like you over there!” (This week we had one U.S. veteran tried for just one murder by U.S. troops in Iraq; and he was acquitted.)
The U.S. is home to more than two million Iraq-Afghan war veterans who, when they announce they are veterans, we are obliged to hail with “Thank you for your service”. A huge percentage of these veterans are ill—little wonder, given crimes they have witnessed and committed. Of those, an undocumented number have become abusers and killers at home. Too often, if one searches through a news story we’ll find that many killings-- of families by out-of-control husbands or fathers, or the perpetrators of mass shootings-- are by veterans. A local New Hampshire paper carried a story in May about the murder of two enlisted women by a fellow soldier at their military base.
One threat of a mass shooting, by a military veteran, was thankfully intercepted more recently in Dallas, Texas.
A "Mother Jones" investigation of mass murders in the US and contributing factors (updated May 31, 1019) offers no analysis about killers’ experiences in the armed services and in foreign wars.
What we need is a thorough, honest tally of the number of our prison guards, our border patrol guards, and policemen who’ve been in the U.S. military--policemen like those threatening the family in Phoenix .
Videos exposing this kind of terrorizing American urban police behavior may shock our largely white population. It will not shock Black Americans. Nor will it shock Afghans and Iraqis who doubtless witnessed countless such shameless, unrestrained murderous conduct by U.S. and other occupation troops in their neighborhoods.
A closer examination of prior military experience of those involved in the recently revealed activities towards would-be-migrants by border guards may well reveal a) racism, Islamophobia and misogyny perpetuated by our military establishment, and b) the culpability of all American administrations. The ugliness that faces us today cannot simply be laid on the shoulders of the current White House occupant.[ Abu Graib At Home in America ]
- June 06, 2019
Even in New York, it’s not often one has an opportunity to view a sculpture exhibit on the scale of Simone Fattal’s 50-year retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art PS 1. It’s a splendid assemblage of work—247 items— from a prolific artist generously distributed over spacious galleries in a grand museum space in Long Island City, New York
As I moved through the eight halls devoted to stages of Fattal’s work—collage, canvas paintings, work on paper, ceramic and glazed terracotta, I found her sculpted pieces particularly compelling. Many are rather whimsical; although they initially appear somber. The overriding impression from these sculptures is of movement and ‘becoming’; while the striking paintings and collages evoke contemplation, for me. Even Fattal’s stark back and white lies on canvas are heavy with deliberation.
This is not a crowded, ponderous mind we are witnessing at work; there’s some playfulness here, along with a reach into history. The range of work is not surprising given that they represent half a century, in Lebanon, California, and France.
Accompanying captions refer to the impact of displacement and geopolitical conflict on the artist. This may apply to mystical terracotta items-- mostly standing humanoid figures, their blunt torsos anchored by heavy trunk-like legs. While these pieces evoke something colossal from early times, there is nothing daunting in them. Is Fattal telling us they represent past (or present) experiences which, while they may embody dislocation, are in fact manageable and embraceable?
The headless, armless figures stand unambiguously erect, about to step forward. Speaking with Ms. Fattal at her home in Paris last week, she affirms: “I want to show man on his feet, as witness, still standing.”
She began sculpturing long after she left Syria and then Lebanon in 1980 where she’d worked on canvas. Taking with her the detritus of war with an energy she would never lose, she turned her attention to founding a publishing house. Her Post Apollo Press featured innovative texts, mainly poetry—especially the writing of the powerful poet and painter Etel Adnan.
Settled in California, Fattal returned to the plastic arts in the late 1980s not to resume painting (some striking canvases from that period are exhibited here). She began clay sculpting, a medium she chose, she explains “because clay gives the sense of being alive; it retains the quality of fragility and lightness at the same time.”
Too often creations of artists originating in places we associate with conflict are interpreted as cathartic; their images seem baleful or angry, we are told, to expunge or transform painful past experience. I don’t see this in Fattal’s work on exhibit in this grand New York gallery. With the mostly diminutive scale of her massive (in image, not size) ceramic and clay shapes, perhaps the artist is showing us how she prevails as an energetic being celebrating a continuous forward movement.
The reference to ancient antiquity in some sculpted forms may derive from a ‘memory’ of lost civilization. But through their color and their weightlessness, the artist transforms them into celebratory images. Those massive feet under the torsos are not irreconcilably anchored; they seem ready to spring off the platform.
Still, there’s an undisputed historical feel to many sculpted figures, especially the mystic ceramic and stoneware torsos. While possessing a sense of emergence, they simultaneously remind us of recovered, damaged reliquaries. I found myself meditating on them.
Accompanying exhibition notes inform us how Fattal draws from her personal experience in the Middle East and from the epics of Gilgamesh and Dhat al-Himma created in that cradle of civilization millennia earlier. Characters from these tales populate the exhibition and may provoke viewers to search out those classics. The art itself is however strong enough to suggest an intentional reach into the elemental aspect of civilization.
Simone Fattal is a fine example of the many women with roots in the Middle East, Asia and Africa who exist in a global 21st century, bringing powerful messages, with courage and limitless energy that speak to all. Their female voices represent a universal past, a present and a future.
This is an exhibition for anyone, and for any age. But I encourage women to see this display of one woman’s vision. Just as I encourage women to read the poetry and novels of the abundance of contemporary women who seem to be in the forefront of groundbreaking research, of invention, of reinterpretations, and of honest truth-telling. Fattal is in the vanguard of creative women demonstrating our ability to reinterpret history and reality, and to project the power of our gender in completely new terms. To my question to Fattal about women in the arts, she replies—“We can pick up and move on from adversity maybe more easily than men can, perhaps because we fall from a less elevated place.”
The exhibition runs to September 2nd, well worth a trip to New York just to imbibe this display of energy and imagination. Allow extra time to view “Autoportrait 1972-2012”, a 47 minute film by the artist. It’s screening at the same venue. Attached photographs from the MoMA PS1 installation are taken by M. Gurung for this article.[ Arab Women at Work: Simone Fattal Retrospective ]
We have a tradition of honoring our ancestors; so honoring Billy Holiday today, the centenary of her birth, we honor and elevate the community of African Americans.
Cassandra Wilson, vocalist; April 7, 2015 Harlem's Cotton Club, NYC
- a poem.. a song..
- Darwish: "On A Day Like Today" read by Fady Joudah
from The Butterfly's Burden (2006) translated by Joudah Flash
- Qur'an Surat Al-Laila
from 'Approaching the Qur'an' CD, male reciter
- Book review
- Karen Armstrong's
Fields of Blood: Religion and The History of Violence
reviewed by BN Aziz.
- Tahrir Team
- Read about Maysoon Zayid in the team page.