ShahidulNews

(Moved to http://www.shahidulnews.com)

Scheherazade of Today

By Bushra Ejaz. Translated by Paramjit Singh Ramana.

Once she decided to banish love out of her life, her world turned upside down. She had never thought that later she would face any such problem that she won’t be able to solve. And trying to solve that problem, she would herself become a problem. She had never thought that in loveless times the flowers fade, the breeze turns into scalding wind, sadness engulfs the walls of your home and despite the cacophony of noises emanating from the courtyard, a deafening silence overwhelms you and takes possession of your heart like a cobra with its hood raised, whose hissing sets your very being on such a fire that neither the cold water nor the icy winds can ever extinguish. The heart burns, the cobra hisses, the fire rages and doesn’t die out. Whatever you do, it does not die out; it just refuses to die out.

She put her left hand on her chest and walked slowly towards the window. It was pitch dark in the street opposite. A municipal bulb, visible near the last corner of that lane near Zainab Massi’s [maternal aunt] house, looked like a lamp burning in a hut at the edge of a forest, which sometimes shows the way to the lost travellers. That bulb was surrounded by a silent darkness. A murmur could be heard coming from Uncle Arshad’s house, situated just opposite the window. Chachi [paternal aunt] Rashida will as usual be narrating the same old tale of Scheherazade to her grandsons and granddaughters. She would conclude with the words: “What a wonderful woman she was! How intelligent, quick witted and brave!” When she heard that story as a child, she had asked, flapping her eyelashes, “How come, Chachi?” “That is because instead of accepting defeat, she had decided to bravely fight the cruel king. God helped her succeed. Look children, it is an honour for the brave to die fighting. Then death ceases to be death, it claims the status of martyrdom and that is a very high status, indeed,” Chachi had said.

Chachi used to tell this story always on the last day of the week. This was her principle. The children waited for the story for full seven days, and then she poured it into their ears, drop by drop. That was why this story was very popular among the children. The next day was a holiday and she remembered how instead of flying kites, playing marbles or simply making noises on the roof with her siblings, she had spent the day engulfed in silence. The issue of dying while fighting bravely had got stuck in her young consciousness. She spent the whole day lying on the cot and looking into the sky. In her heart she repeated innumerable times what aunt had said. But she couldn’t figure out what was so special about dying while fighting bravely which earned such praise from Chachi. What courage Scheherazade had displayed that so overwhelmed the aunt that she was narrating her story to everyone? When she could comprehend nothing, she decided not to listen to the story of Scheherazade again and came down from the roof.

Great, Chachi! She felt the echo of conversation reach her ears, and a sigh escaped her lips. Your Scheherazade had succeeded in defeating death due to her narrative gift. But here life itself has been crushing everyone since centuries. I haven’t seen any Scheherazade who could prevail over it. Everyone is afraid of it, and can be seen bowing before it with folded hands. Death appears helpless in facing life. Death is kind and one’s own, at least, it doesn’t reject you. Rather it accepts one into its lap with a lot of affection. She felt like shouting at Chachi Rashida through the window and ask her to let go of the poor Scheherazade now, for god’s sake. To forgive that Scheherazade! The poor girl might have got tired of fighting death. Let her face life now. She should also know that there is a world outside the world of art, where there is hunger, there are worries, there is sadness, there is hatred, there are contradictions and…. And life is like the cruel king. And life doesn’t pay any attention to the narrative skills of the master storyteller. It has no interest in any such art. Rather, it would be more appropriate to say that it’s not possible to trick it with any such art.

Life cannot be appeased. It has its own facts, its own assessments, its own canvas, its own brush and its own colours. Ideas too are its own and so it paints whatever catches its fancy: Upright, inverted, oblique, crooked, as she feels like. And the remarkable thing is that nobody can mould life the way one wants. ‘O.K. Scheherazade! If you ever come out of the discourse created by Chachi Rashida, I shall tell you what life is all about.’ The sigh emanating from her heart became an expression of her very being. Now in her eyes could be seen the innocence of an eleven year old girl, who takes note of the quickly lengthening shadows on a hot summer afternoon; one who has a small painting brush in one hand and a simple page, torn from a notebook, fluttering in the other.

She wanted to make a painting of the shadows; the shadows of the arches, walls, terraces and the attic of the house. The shadows that came down from the mulberry, mango, black plum and margosa trees growing in the courtyard and spread there in strange shapes, forms and directions. She used to watch the play of shadows while sitting in the centre of the courtyard in one of the arches of an old Baradari whose plaster was coming off. And her feeling of wonder used to multiply manifold when she would see an ill-shaped shadow emerge from the arch she sat under, and spread on the ground. “Do I look like this?” surprised she would wonder and run into the room. It was during those days that she thought of capturing the shadows in a painting. Perhaps in this way the shadows could be prevented from spreading and lengthening. But that day, her amazement knew no bounds when she saw a shadow in the middle of the arch, move strangely left and right with a yard long brush on a square shaded piece of paper. Do shadows also…? She thought and threw the painting brush away.

It was during those days that a strange accident took place which threw her into a never ending vicious cycle. All her later life was moulded into that cycle. And that cycle became her life cycle. She could never get out of it. Then she could see nothing. She closed her mind’s eye. All her innumerable little childhood joys were strung into an unending chain of tears. Unobtrusively she put that chain around her neck, never to take it off. And then that little girl metamorphosed from Mother’s Muni to Zohri, to Zohra Baji and finally to Zohra Aapa. Recollecting that transformation, Zohra felt a cold shiver quicken through her being. Wrinkles began to appear on her face, which expressed her innocent fears. Sad glitter of twinkling glow-worms began to flicker on her empty palms. A scene emerged in front of her gloomy eyes, a scene that had snatched the joy of breathing from her and had burdened a twelve year old girl with a load of centuries. When she tried to carry the burden, her shoulders slumped, her back bent double, her hands started trembling and legs turned shaky. But she couldn’t even complain against the burden.

She just kept laughing. To keep smiling in face of an extreme sorrow is also akin to defeating the grief. Implicitly, it was like victory over grief. But she learned too late that it was not so. Grief was a wrestler that displayed greater tricks when it was out of the arena. It was simply impossible to prevail over it. Now she left the window and sat in the chair. She untied her long black hair and resting her head on the back of the chair, closed her tired eyes and took deep breaths. “Life is a four-directional battle, Miss Zohra Sultan.” A whisper rose from somewhere close by. “How many opponents will you fight? You’ll get exhausted.” “This exhaustion is here since those days Professor Zaka, when I didn’t even fully understand the meaning of exhaustion.” She thought despondently, feeling the murmuring silence enclosed within the four walls of the room. How can I tell you, Professor Zaka? When the upheaval occurred, a good deal was buried under the rubble.

Long time ago, Professor Zaka, a dark night had swallowed the light out of my life like a cruel demon. The sleep had turned into a continuous wakefulness and dreams, into frightening dreamlessness. When a 12-year-old girl, rudely shaken out of her sound sleep by the frightening noises all around her, had chosen to plug her ears with her fingers. She had devoutly prayed to be blinded in both her eyes when she witnessed that horrifying scene. Finding herself defenceless and overcome by her vulnerability, she had accepted defeat and sitting near the mutilated bodies of her dear ones, had dipped her fingers in their thick blood and written a pledge on her own self. Crying, she had noiselessly run to the rooftop with Maya pressed to her bosom, to talk to God. Perhaps she had the illusion that God is nearer the rooftop. There is no barrier in-between, but this too was her delusion. She learned later that God is far away from everywhere. It is not so easy to reach Him. So she did not cry while giving the final bath and burying the blood-drenched bodies of her parents and three younger siblings. The dry dust flying into her eyes had settled on her eyelashes, spread on her lips and engulfed her very existence. Later, staring at the photograph of a terrorist, printed on the last page of a newspaper, she had tried hard to bring back tears to her dry eyes, the tears that got lost somewhere in the labyrinth of some dark alley on a brutal night.

Professor Zaka, the walls of that room used to be very pitiless and chilly where I, clutching Maya to my bosom, attempted to get rid of the questions written over the frightened open eyes of those mutilated bodies, and to find some sleep by hitting my head against the pillow. Covering both my eyes with palms of her hands, I used to vigorously recite the Ayat-ul-Kursi [a prayer from Quran]. “Go to sleep, Go to sleep”, I used to admonish myself. Those days I used to feel very angry with God. I wished I would come face to face with Him and ask what type of a God He was who destroyed the world of the unsuspecting? Did He prefer those who haughtily roamed around freely, nonchalantly killing or injuring whosoever they liked, without any worry whatsoever? Pitted against them were people like us, who even after having been destroyed completely, kept on praying to You, talking to You.’

A car blew horn in the street below, she got up from her chair, shut the window and lay on the bed. On the wall facing her, was a photograph of twenty year-old Maya. Maya on whose lips a smile had spread out like flowering buds and life glittered in her eyes like a fountain in the hills. In her confident manner, there was an extraordinary openness. As if she will jump out of the photograph and exuberantly embrace her, “Aapa, Zohra Aapa, the blue sky, high snow clad mountain tops, adventurers conquering those tops and the determination visible in the eyes of those people, fascinate me. Aapa, let us also go to conquer some top. I wish to plant my Aapa’s flag on the highest peak of the world. Zohra Aapa, the Great! Zohra Aapa, the highest peak in the world, higher than the Himalayas, mad…” She turned in the bed and felt a sharp twinge of sorrow rise in her chest: “Wah Maya! How would you know of what brittle clay your sister is made of, how fragile is her being? It was for your sake that your Aapa transformed herself into something like the Himalayas. What else could she do?” “But Aapa you never revealed why we were so alone despite having so many relatives?” “Because we loved to live with freedom” she had smiled.” “That is okay. But, when our parents died, you were so young. Tell me, how you decided to live on your own?”

On this probing, a pitiless night buried deep in her heart stared at her ironically. But she was ready. Since long, she had prepared herself for this moment. So she spoke calmly: “Maya, you have always been stupid. You fool, how was I alone? My Maya was with me, so were Noor Chacha, Massi Khairan, and Chacha Rashid. There were Masi Zainab and Mama Tufail. And we were there. They all were there. We have been living among them all. They used to be here all day long. Leave that, Yaar Maya! The truth is that I didn’t like locking up our parental house and shifting somewhere else. Should I tell you the truth, Maya?” She became a bit sad. “You were so young; you do not know how our parents used to look after this house. They had supervised every brick that was laid in this house. They had carefully tended every leaf, every plant and every flower-bed with their labour and prayers. Then how could I desert this house and let others take its possession. Maya, this house is a place of worship for me, where love is a prerequisite and purity a duty; where you can respectfully pay your obeisance any time. Where you can worship and that is all.” Saying so, she tried to erase the image of that horrible night from her mind, when in that place of worship the blood of innocents was senselessly shed. That night, the cruel rite of butchering was performed; something, which was neither so ordained by God, nor expected as an offering by Goddess Kali. Perhaps, even she doesn’t demand such sacrifices any more. And God, He has been uninvolved from the very beginning, so uninvolved. Why should He require such sacrifices?

“What happened, Aapa?” Maya was troubled by the changing expressions on her face. “Nothing, my dear.” She had controlled herself. A smile was playing on her dust covered lips. “Then what happened, Aapa?” Detecting curiosity in Maya’s eyes, she continued slowly: “Then, your Aapa grew up, matured, became the most mature, maturer than our parents and she succeeded the mother, took over her kingdom. In her kingdom, she simultaneously performed the duties of the king, the queen and the slave. She ordered shut all the secret escape routes. She zealously protected the borders of her kingdom and began to enjoy life with her dear Maya Rani. Everyone was surprised; everyone was confident about the imminent collapse of the kingdom; everyone was waiting. Everyone spread rumours; because such things had not happened before. But as you say, your Aapa is stronger than the Himalayas, so everything went off well. (And… my Maya grew up. After a long time she breathed peacefully, holding Maya to her bosom.) Perhaps life would have gone on comfortably had Professor Zaka’s arrival not caused the upheaval. A little joy trapped in her heart for centuries escaped through some small crack and settled on the forehead of Professor Zaka. What? Completely oblivious of his presence, Zohra stared at him surprised.

“Zohra Sultan! Time is fast running out of your grip. There is only one path available to those obsessed with the quest for truth in this universe; it is that they surrender their true need to the care of some Mansoor without wasting any time. Why do you forget that you are not alone in this universe? There are some other equally headstrong people here, who are driven by the same spirit, who live with that spirit and love their selfless desire.” She saw that a ray of happiness was now playing on Professor Zaka’s chest.

“Zohra Sultan! Howsoever high your aim, it should not defy nature, otherwise, the aim does not remain aim, it grows into obstinacy. Those who go against nature suffer and cause suffering to others also.” “Professor Zaka, I don’t understand why you are after me? What do you want from me?” she heard herself speak. “I don’t mean any harm, Zohra Sultan.” She observed that the glitter of some unseen happiness shining in Professor Zaka’s eyes had suddenly begun to fade away. He bowed a bit to place the notebook he was carrying, on the table. And she observed that the little ray of happiness that had been glowing on his chest suddenly vanished. “I wish to draw you out of your self-created world where you have imprisoned yourself since ages.” “It is not like that, Professor Zaka.” The confidence in her voice had a ring of defeat to it. “Yes, yes, I know you regard this as your kingdom,” he spoke aggressively. “But without seeking your pardon, I wish to assert Miss Zohra Sultan that you are making a big mistake, a very big mistake.”

This was the moment when angry Zohra Sultan ordered him out of her world. Banished love out of her life. And taking Professor Zaka’s spirit as an illusion, she withdrew completely into her own little world.

But after this, the time sense began to go awry. The tastes began to alter and the moods underwent transformation. After moving at her own pace for such a long time she began to feel an innocent urge in her heart to stop, to rest which she tried her best to suppress with her strict rules and discipline. But she saw that the urge was growing like the bamboo. The system of her kingdom got disturbed within days, hours and moments. The eyes, on guard since so long, began to feel heavy because of the sleeplessness; the eyelids tended to close under the weight of some unknown burden. In her heart she felt such a pang that she was even afraid to name. “Is that all Zohra Sultan! How strange that you, despite being so courageous, intelligent, and self-confident, don’t know what is in your heart? Something that you long for, but can’t admit to yourself. Perhaps admission is defined as cowardice in your dictionary. But I would like to make this clear to you that there is limit to denial also. ‘If defiance crosses a certain limit, it results in problems.’” The words of Professor Zaka came from so close that she was surprised.

“Professor Zaka! Long ago I tried to make a painting of the shadows. But I was so frightened by my own shadow that the painting brush fell from my hand. But do you know what happened after that? On seeing the innocent blood of my dear ones, I dipped my finger in the blood and wrote a pledge on my very being. The surprising thing is that this scene didn’t frighten me but a strange defiance permeated every pore of my being I cannot get rid of, now. Professor Zaka! You are right this ‘kingdom’ was a delusion; I have no hesitation in admitting this. I am in love with you but, believe me, my defiance creates a wall between you and me, a wall made of such a mirror that I find myself standing on its both sides. On both sides, I find myself. In such a situation, I do not understand where you disappear. Now tell me, where should I go? What should I do?”

Far away, Professor Zaka was fast asleep in a room in the youth hostel, when something suddenly woke him up; as if the touch of a wing of some divine angel roused him, saying “Get up, Professor Zaka!” He got up, and yielding his fulfilled dream to his shortened sleep, went towards that part of the city where a girl, captive of a cruel moment and sleepless since ages, was standing on the crossroads, carrying the burden of defiance on her head.

February 22, 2009 Posted by | short stories | , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The novelist in wartime

By Haruki Murakami

In this powerful speech, the great author explains his controversial decision to accept a literary prize in Israel and why we need to fight the System.

I have come to Jerusalem today as a novelist, which is to say as a professional spinner of lies. Of course, novelists are not the only ones who tell lies. Politicians do it, too, as we all know. Diplomats and military men tell their own kinds of lies on occasion, as do used car salesmen, butchers and builders. The lies of novelists differ from others, however, in that no one criticizes the novelist as immoral for telling lies. Indeed, the bigger and better his lies and the more ingeniously he creates them, the more he is likely to be praised by the public and the critics. Why should that be?

My answer would be this: Namely, that by telling skillful lies — which is to say, by making up fictions that appear to be true — the novelist can bring a truth out to a new location and shine a new light on it. In most cases, it is virtually impossible to grasp a truth in its original form and depict it accurately. This is why we try to grab its tail by luring the truth from its hiding place, transferring it to a fictional location, and replacing it with a fictional form. In order to accomplish this, however, we first have to clarify where the truth lies within us. This is an important qualification for making up good lies.

Today, however, I have no intention of lying. I will try to be as honest as I can. There are a few days in the year when I do not engage in telling lies, and today happens to be one of them.

So let me tell you the truth. In Japan a fair number of people advised me not to come here to accept the Jerusalem Prize. Some even warned me they would instigate a boycott of my books if I came. The reason for this, of course, was the fierce battle that was raging in Gaza. The U.N. reported that more than a thousand people had lost their lives in the blockaded Gaza City, many of them unarmed citizens — children and old people.

Any number of times after receiving notice of the award, I asked myself whether traveling to Israel at a time like this and accepting a literary prize was the proper thing to do, whether this would create the impression that I supported one side in the conflict, that I endorsed the policies of a nation that chose to unleash its overwhelming military power. This is an impression, of course, that I would not wish to give. I do not approve of any war, and I do not support any nation. Neither, of course, do I wish to see my books subjected to a boycott.

Finally, however, after careful consideration, I made up my mind to come here. One reason for my decision was that all too many people advised me not to do it. Perhaps, like many other novelists, I tend to do the exact opposite of what I am told. If people are telling me — and especially if they are warning me — “Don’t go there,” “Don’t do that,” I tend to want to “go there” and “do that.” It’s in my nature, you might say, as a novelist. Novelists are a special breed. They cannot genuinely trust anything they have not seen with their own eyes or touched with their own hands.

And that is why I am here. I chose to come here rather than stay away. I chose to see for myself rather than not to see. I chose to speak to you rather than to say nothing.

Please do allow me to deliver one very personal message. It is something that I always keep in mind while I am writing fiction. I have never gone so far as to write it on a piece of paper and paste it to the wall: rather, it is carved into the wall of my mind, and it goes something like this:

“Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg.”

Yes, no matter how right the wall may be and how wrong the egg, I will stand with the egg. Someone else will have to decide what is right and what is wrong; perhaps time or history will decide. If there were a novelist who, for whatever reason, wrote works standing with the wall, of what value would such works be?

What is the meaning of this metaphor? In some cases, it is all too simple and clear. Bombers and tanks and rockets and white phosphorus shells are that high, solid wall. The eggs are the unarmed civilians who are crushed and burned and shot by them.

This is not all, though. It carries a deeper meaning. Think of it this way. Each of us is, more or less, an egg. Each of us is a unique, irreplaceable soul enclosed in a fragile shell. This is true of me, and it is true of each of you. And each of us, to a greater or lesser degree, is confronting a high, solid wall. The wall has a name: it is “the System.” The System is supposed to protect us, but sometimes it takes on a life of its own, and then it begins to kill us and cause us to kill others — coldly, efficiently, systematically.

I have only one reason to write novels, and that is to bring the dignity of the individual soul to the surface and shine a light upon it. The purpose of a story is to sound an alarm, to keep a light trained on the System in order to prevent it from tangling our souls in its web and demeaning them. I fully believe it is the novelist’s job to keep trying to clarify the uniqueness of each individual soul by writing stories — stories of life and death, stories of love, stories that make people cry and quake with fear and shake with laughter. This is why we go on, day after day, concocting fictions with utter seriousness.

My father died last year at the age of 90. He was a retired teacher and a part-time Buddhist priest. When he was in graduate school, he was drafted into the army and sent to fight in China. As a child born after the war, I used to see him every morning before breakfast offering up long, deeply felt prayers at the Buddhist altar in our house. One time I asked him why he did this, and he told me he was praying for the people who had died in the battlefield. He was praying for all the people who died, he said, both ally and enemy alike. Staring at his back as he knelt at the altar, I seemed to feel the shadow of death hovering around him.

My father died, and with him he took his memories, memories that I can never know. But the presence of death that lurked about him remains in my own memory. It is one of the few things I carry on from him, and one of the most important.

I have only one thing I hope to convey to you today. We are all human beings, individuals transcending nationality and race and religion, fragile eggs faced with a solid wall called the System. To all appearances, we have no hope of winning. The wall is too high, too strong — and too cold. If we have any hope of victory at all, it will have to come from our believing in the utter uniqueness and irreplaceability of our own and others’ souls and from the warmth we gain by joining souls together.

Take a moment to think about this. Each of us possesses a tangible, living soul. The System has no such thing. We must not allow the System to exploit us. We must not allow the System to take on a life of its own. The System did not make us: We made the System. That is all I have to say to you.

February 21, 2009 Posted by | Global Issues | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

`Still pictures are not still…’ Fore-seeing the effect of visual images

by Rahnuma Ahmed

`Still pictures are not still…’ said Mahasweta Devi. She was in Dhaka to inaugurate Chobi Mela V, and, fortunately for us, had expressed her wish to put up with Shahidul Alam, the director of Chobi Mela. Having Mahasweta Devi, and Joy Bhadra, a young writer and her companion, as house guests, was a `happening’. I will write about that another day.

Mahasweta Devi consistently used the words stheer chitro (exact translation is, `still images’). Still pictures, she went on, inspire us. They move us. They make us do things.

However, I thought to myself, many who are working on visual and cultural theory may not agree. Some would be likely to say, things are not as simple as that.

The effect of visual images needs to be investigated

The debate about the power of visual images has become stuck on the point of the meaning of visual images, on the truth of images. This, said David Campbell, a professor of cultural and political geography, doesn’t get us very far. He was one of the panelists at the opening night’s discussion of Chobi Mela V, held at the Goethe Institut auditorium (`Engaging with photography from outside: An informal discussion between a geographer, an editor and a curator/funder of photography’, 30 Jan 2009).

David went on, it is much better to focus on the effect of images, on the function of images, on the work that images do — and that, is how the debate should be framed. At present, attention is overly-focused on the single image, and what we expect of the single image. By doing this we have invested it with too much possibility, we place too much hope on it’s ability to bring about social change. The effect of visual images needs to be investigated, rather than assumed.

nick-ut-associated-press-pulitzer-terror-napalm

Amy Yenkin, another panelist in the programme, and head of the Documentary Photography project at the Open Society Institute asked David, Why do you think this happens? Is it because people look back at certain iconic images, let’s say images from the Vietnam war that changed the situation, that they try to put too much meaning in the power of one single image..? David replied, `In a way, I am sceptical of the power of single images, a standard 6 or 7 in the western world, that are repeated all the time. I was personally affected by the Vietnam war images, by the image of the young Vietnamese girl fleeing from a napalm bomb, but I don’t know of any argument that actually demonstrates that Nick Ut’s photograph demonstrably furthered the Vietnam anti-war movement.’ He went on, `Now, I don’t regard that as a failure of the image, but a failure of the interpretation that we’ve placed on the image. It puts too much burden on the image itself.’

The discussion was followed by Noam Chomsky and Mahasweta Devi’s video-conference discussion on Freedom (Chobi Mela V’s theme), and I became fully immersed in watching two of the foremost public intellectual/activists of today talk about the meanings and struggles of freedom, and of imperialism and nationalism’s attempts to thwart it in common peoples’ lives.

But the next day, my thoughts returned to what David had said, and to the general discussion that had followed. On David’s website, I came across how he understands photography, `a technology through which the world is visually performed,’ and a gist of his theoretical argument. I quote: `The pictures that the technology of photography produces are neither isolated nor discrete objects. They have to be understood as being part of networks of materials, technologies, institutions, markets, social spaces, emotions, cultural histories and political contexts. The meaning of photographs derives from the intersection of these multiple features rather than just the form and content of particular pictures.’ .

In other words, to understand what happens within the frame, we need to go outside the frame.

Abu Ghraib photographs: concealing more than they reveal

A good instance is provided by the Abu Ghraib prison torture and abuse photographs taken by US military prison guards with digital cameras, which came to public attention in early 2004. The pictures, says Ian Buruma, conceal more than they reveal. By telling one story, they hide a bigger story.

Images of Chuck Graner, Ivan Frederick and the others as “gloating thugs” helped single out, and fix, low-ranking reservist soldiers as the bad apples. As President Bush intoned, it was “disgraceful conduct by a few American troops who dishonoured our country and disregarded our values”. None of the officers were tried, though several received administrative punishment. As a matter of fact, the Final Report of the Independent Panel to Review Department of Defense Detention Operations specifically absolved senior U.S. military and political leadership from direct culpability. Some even received promotions (Maj. Gen. Walter Wodjakowski, Col. Marc Warren, Maj. Gen. Barbara Fast).

The gloating digital images, no doubt embarassing for the US administration, probably helped “far greater embarrassments from emerging into public view.” They made “the lawyers, bureaucrats, and politicians who made, or rather unmade, the rules—William J. Haynes, Alberto Gonzales, David S. Addington, Jay Bybee, John Yoo, Douglas J. Feith, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney—look almost respectable.”

But there is another aspect to the story of concealing-and-revealing. Public preoccupation with Abu Ghraib pornography deflected attention from the “torturing and the killing that was never recorded on film,” and from finding out who “the actual killers” were. By singling out those visible in the pictures as the “rogues” responsible, it concealed the bigger reality. That the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, as Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris point out, “was de facto United States policy.”

Lynndie England, who held the rank of Specialist while serving in Iraq, expressed it best I think, when she said, “I didn’t make the war. I can’t end the war. I mean, photographs can’t just make or change a war.”

True. Photographs can’t just make or change a war. But surely they do something, or else, why censor images of the recent slaughter in Gaza? To put it more precisely, surely, those who are powerful (western politicians, journalists, arms manufacturers, defence analysts, all deeply embedded in the Zionist Curtain, one that has replaced the older Iron Curtain) apprehend that the visual images of Gaza will do something? That they will, in all probability, have a social effect upon western audiences? And therefore, these must be acted upon i.e., their circulation and distribution must be prevented.

At times, their apprehension seems to move even further. Images-not-yet-taken are prevented from being taken. Probable social effects of unborn images are foreseen, and aborted.

Censoring Gaza images, for what they reveal

All of this happened in the case of Gaza. But before turning to that, I would like to add a small note on the notion of probability. I am inclined to think that it’ll help to deepen our understanding of the politics of visual images.

As the organisers of a Michigan university conference on English literature remind us (“Fictional Selves: On the (im)Probability of Character”, April 2002), the notion of probability went through a major conceptual shift with the emergence of modernity. What in the seventeenth century had meant “the capability of being proven absolutely true or false” as in the case of deductive theorem in logic, gradually altered in meaning as practitioners searched for rhetorical consensus, and the repeatability of experimental results, leading to its present-day meaning: “a likelihood of occurring.”

What might have occured if Israel had allowed journalists into Gaza? What might have occurred if the BBC instead of hiding under the pretence of “impartiality” had agreed to air the Disasters Emergency Committee’s Gaza Aid Appeal aimed at raising humanitarian aid for (occupied and beseiged) Gazans? What might have occurred if USA’s largest satellite television subscription service DIRECTV had gone ahead and aired the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation of Palestine’s `Gaza Strip TV Ad‘?

Could pictures of Israel’s 22 day carnage in Gaza, which killed more than 1,300 Palestinians, have sown doubts in western minds about the Israeli claim of targeting only Hamas, and not civilians? Could photos of bombed UN buildings, mosques, schools, a university, of hospitals in ruins, ambulances destroyed, of dismembered limbs and destroyed factories have forced BBC’s viewers to question whether both sides are to blame? Could pictures of the apartheid wall, the security zone, the checkpoints controlling entry of food, trade, medicine (for over two years) make suspect the Israeli claim that it had withdrawn from Gaza? Could photos depicting the effects of mysterious armaments that have burned their way down into people’s flesh, eaten their skin and tissue away, have given western viewers pause for thought? Could the little story of Israel acting only in self-defense, begin to unravel? Could pictures of Gaza in ruins have led American viewers to wonder whether there is a bigger story out there, and could it then lead them to ask why their taxes are being spent in footing Israel’s military bill (the fourth largest army in the world), to ask why they should continue to sponsor this parasitical state, even when its own economy is in ruins?

May be.

After all, as Mahasweta Devi had said, still pictures are not still. Still pictures (may) move us. They (may) make us do things. The powerful, know this.

—————-

First published in New Age on Monday 16th February 2009

February 15, 2009 Posted by | Photojournalism issues, Rahnuma Ahmed | , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Copyright is for losers* or What’s yours & mine is ours

By Rupert Grey

On the way over here I read the obituary of Francoise Demulder.  Some of you will remember that she was the first woman to win the World Press Photo of the year Award in 1977. The photograph was topical enough – Palestinians in Beirut. She was one of the stars of the Paris – based agencies which made France the centre of world photo-journalism during the last years of the golden age of European and US photographic magazines. Like many photographers here in the sub- continent/Bangladesh she felt “compelled to document how it always was the innocent who suffered while the powerful get richer and richer”. Like a lot of photographers here she was an artist, and she bore witness to the times during which she lived.

I am glad to be back here – this is my third Chobi Mela – and most particularly to see such a rich diversity and high standard of photography over the last few days and – importantly for me – many powerful documentary images which reflect the same passion for justice which drove Demulder, to be a part of the struggle for change in lives of the oppressed.

1.   The Title

The title of my talk tonight is Shahidul’s fault. He sent me an email a couple of weeks ago and asked me to give this talk tonight and said could he have the title by return. Just about to go to print, he said.  I thought for a few seconds and recalled a phrase which appeared on the introductory page to one of Banksy’s books which I brought as a present for someone before Christmas: copyright is for losers. Catchy enough, but it raises a question which is central to the profession of photography. Banksy is a well known artist in London. So well known that nobody quite knows who he is: his art takes the form of graffiti in public spaces, and I should imagine that he has a very healthy disrespect for the establishment; so it was surprising, and yet not surprising, to see at the foot of the same page that Banksy invoked the protection of the law of copyright for his book.

2.   The Central Issue

Banksy’s schizophrenic approach to copyright symbolises the conflict, the tension, between the desire for artists to find their way into the minds of all people, and the need for those artists (and their agents) to maintain a monopoly in order to earn a living. This question, how society produces and distributes its information, literature and art, goes to the very core of freedom. It is an international issue – who gets to say what, to whom? Who has access to it, who gets paid? The answers determine political outcomes. They determine wealth. They determine the extent to which an individual is able to play a central role in altering his or her own life. All this is governed by the law of intellectual property.

3.   History of Copyright

Hogarth, the great cartoonist whose images of 17th century life in England are central to our understanding of his era, refused to permit his works to be publicly exhibited until Parliament passed an act prohibiting copying. Which is why the first Copyright Act in UK legislation is called Hogarth’s Act. The first in history, I think. The protection was narrow and the duration short. Since then there has been a great deal of legislation in which the overall trend (to put it mildly) has been to increase protection, reduce the exceptions and extend the duration. Before the 1911 Act in Britain – on which copyright law in Bangladesh is based – the protection was between 7 and 14 years. In 1911 it was increased to 50 years from creation of the work. In 1956 it was increased further to 50 years from 1st publication. Towards the end of the last century it was 70 plus life of the author. Policy makers and their advisors regarded the ownership of intellectual property as they did motor cars: you owned it exclusively, and when you lent it to somebody else – or granted a licence if it is was copyright – it was on strict terms. The thinking was that the more it was protected the more artist & writers would produce their works.

The US patent system was overhauled in the early 1980’s – protection was strengthened – the reach and scope of exclusivity was broadened; and the same thing happened to copyright and trade marks. Universities registered patents and required the payment of royalties: thus institutions dedicated to disseminating knowledge, information and understanding in the widest possible way were in fact impeding the sharing of that knowledge as if they were a commercial enterprise. The proprietary model for disseminating information was, and is, in the ascendant.

4.   Internet

At the same time, reflecting perhaps the same concerns, a counter-trend has developed. As the law tightens the control given to the rights-owners and cultural producers, the consumer pushes in the opposite direction: in the networked information economy the ethic of sharing exchanging, building on the past, is the primary driver.  Social networks share – with abandon and some would say a blithe disregard for their own privacy -  information, knowledge and culture – so that the political and legal pressures which favour the proprietary business model runs head-on into a generation of savvy and determined consumers. There is an increasing resistance to attempts to enclose the information environment. International boundaries, indeed boundaries of all kinds, are becoming blurred, cultural values fused, sovereignty pooled authority subverted. Creative commons, the non profit organisation dedicated to granting royalty-free licenses, expands the range of creative work available to others to build on and share.  There is, in short a strong movement which aims to counter the restrictions of the permission culture erected by the dominant producers of culture and the legal systems they (largely) control.

5.   “One up on the Greeks”

I have selected, somewhat randomly, three cases to illustrate these conflicting trends: Perfect 10, the soft porn empire in the US, sued Google for enabling users to access Perfect 10’s thumbnail images of Perfect 10’s nude models. Google’s defence, that it was an exception to the usual rule (fair dealing, in lawyers’ jargon), failed in the lower court and won in the higher court. A significant victory for the consumer.

Last year a New Zealander called Elliot Smith uploaded a hundred videos from YouTube. No problem there, though I dare say there was an infringement or 2, but then he made the mistake of uploading Olympics footage without permission. Within 12 hours his entire account was completely deleted. The owners of the Olympic footage were savvy enough, or rich enough, to have at their disposal the necessary technology to force YouTube (now Google of course) to cut off anyone who is accused of infringing copyright. Whether or not they turn out to be guilty is no longer of interest. This is pretty outrageous. The judgment has been widely criticised as “deeply flawed”. Victory by technology, aka bullying, rather than law.

Google also feature in the third case I want to mention. It is by far the biggest and most significant. It settled just before Christmas. Four years ago Google started scanning millions of books onto the web. It asked permission of neither the publishers nor the authors, and pretty soon it got sued by both. Google’s aim was along the same lines as the chief librarian in the great library of Alexandria, burned to the ground by Caesar three centuries before Christ in one of the most destructive acts of vandalism in world history: Google wants to set up a library containing every single book, article, play or art work written or created in the history of the world. The Great Library in Alexandria housed, it is thought, between 40 and 70% of everything that had been written by that stage in world history. Google, not to be outdone by the Greeks is aiming for 100%. Furthermore, it maintains, access to its library is simple and free, neither of which was the case in Alexandria’s case.

As their archivist some what arrogantly remarked “this is our chance to get one-up on the Greeks… It will be an achievement remembered throughout time – in short, the entire works of human kind, from the beginning of recorded history, in all languages, available to all people, all the time”. Worth mentioning in this context, I suppose, is that all this information, that is to say all the information that is can currently be housed in a building about the size of a small town library. No doubt tomorrow it will all fit into your Ipod.

Battle over copyright infringement commenced in the States but the ramifications are worldwide. Eventually Google caved in, and paid out 125 million to the Association of American Publishers and the Authors Guild. Part of the damages – US$34.5 million – will be spent by Google in creating a “book rights registry”, to make sure that authors are compensated for the use of their works. It will be independent of Google, and will oversee payments to authors much as the equivalent of the music industry oversee payments to songwriters and musicians. Google also agreed to pay $60 for every book uploaded onto the web, and to charge a licence fee of which 68% will go to the authors. For reasons that are wholly unclear, photographs were not included in this agreement, and thus no doubt will be excluded from access on the web.

6.   Searches

The new technology of searching renders archaic the concept of copyright; when is the process of copying an infringement, as opposed to just making it available?  Enabling a connection? Is it the same as creating a copy, in the ordinary sense?  There is a value in the connection created by the search, and the value of the work is increased the more it is shared. To put it another way, as no doubt Google did, the value of the created work is increased enormously by allowing a billion new connections. That in the previous generation would have been completely inconceivable. It is publishing on a scale which is incomprehensible.  Is that good for the creator? Is it, in effect, free advertising which will enhance a reputation, or a massively outrageous infringement of copyright for which compensation should be justly awarded?

7.   Review of Copyright Law

Against this background, it is not surprising that the law of copyright is being reviewed by Western Governments and the UK in particular. David Lammy, the Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property, launched the review earlier this year, pointing out that 8.3% of the UK GDP – at least as it was (down a bit since then I expect) – and is growing at twice the rate of the economy as a whole. It follows the Gower review a couple of years ago, amongst whose recommendations were to reform the copyright provisions in relation to orphan works – that is to say works to which owners cannot be identified after reasonable enquiries have been made by the prospective publisher – and secondly, a recommendation that a further copyright exception should be created for user generated content, on the basis that it is “transformative”  – technical jargon for which I have so far read or heard about 6 definitions.

Implicit in these proposals is an acknowledgment that the high level of copyright protection considered to be crucial for intellectual creation and development should to an extent be tempered. The European Commission’s recent green paper on copyright and the knowledge economy points out that the balance between ensuring a reward for creation and investment and the future dissemination of knowledge has been challenged, or rendered less effective, by the evolving internet technology. Difficult to argue with that.

A great deal of debate has been generated by these prospective changes, particularly the proposed orphan works exception; and the transformative use exception has been described as artistic stealing. These are significant steps within the framework of our existing copyright law.

8.   The Answer?

I have no idea. But I have three thoughts for photographers:

It is now critically important to ensure that your name is tagged to every one of your images on the web. Your paternity right is now more valuable than your copyright. It is the key to the management of your reputation as a photographer, and it is that reputation which will generate your income; by the same token, and equally important, tagging your name will prevent it becoming an orphan work.

Secondly technology. Not my field, to say the least of it, but programmes (on subscription) are now available to trace your image wherever it appears or is accessed on the web. They use advanced identification and algorithms to identify your images by the composition of its pixels, so its appearance on the internet sends an instant notification to the owner of the copyright.  In theory you can then ask for a fee, but the real point is that it works the other way round: publishers can use it to identify copyright holders, and will need to if they are to take advantage of the orphan works legislation.

Thirdly new business models are arriving on the scene. On-line agencies aren’t just stock agencies; some of them commission work and actively engage with publishers. As the number of bricks & mortar agencies (and publishers) dwindle, undercut by fast-moving & shrewd on-line players with minimal overheads, the market-place is changing. In change there is opportunity.  And more the point, it does not matter whether you are here in Dalhmundi Bangladesh or in London’s Covent Garden. The only thing that matters is the quality of your image and the content – and accuracy – of your text.

According to the British Journal of Photography in London there are now 3 trillion images on the web. That was last August. So there’s a bit of competition.  But judging by the quality of some of the work I have seen in the last couple of days I can see no reason, particularly if you subscribe to a tracking device, why you should not be able to make a living out of photography.

Rupert Grey of Swan Turton, Solicitors

3 February 2009

Transcript of lecture by Rupert Grey @ the Goethe Institute in Dhaka on  4 February 2009. Dhaka, Bangladesh

* Acknowledgments to Banksy

(It is the third time that Rupert Grey has attended Chobi Mela)

February 12, 2009 Posted by | Photojournalism issues | , , , | 9 Comments

The present as history. Life and death in Dilara Begum Jolly’s work.

by Rahnuma Ahmed

bullets

After the end of time - 3. Dilara Begum Jolly

Flowers blossom, but with bullets in place of stigma. Bullets signal the end of fertility, the end of life. They signal death and destruction (After the end of time – 3).

Before the end of time 2

Before the end of time 2. Dilara Begum Jolly

A chess board. The king wears Stars and Stripes, his minister is dressed in the Union Jack. Soldiers litter the board, two have holes in their hearts. The path to a target practising board is strewn with eyes, un-seeing eyes. Dead targets. One eye, may be half-alive, stares at us unblinkingly. An eagle, hovering above, stops in its flight of extending the empire, to oversee American-style democracy take root in a faraway land (Before the end of time – 2). This is how Bangladeshi artist Dilara Begum Jolly captures the present moment on her canvas.

Before the end of time 4

Before the end of time 4. Dilara Begum Jolly

Bodies fractured by wars of the present, dismembered limbs, single hands — coloured red, yellow, blue, purple — lie lifeless. Others are raised upwards, they seem to be imploring. Stop this madness, stop the war. A human body folded, her head and pair of legs buried beneath the soil, her arms too. The trunk of her body and her fingers are visible. Fingertips stretched outward, towards the sun, towards light. A flaming red petal of a bird of paradise springs forth like a knife from the navel of a human body as she lies face upwards, her hands tied in a knot. A pair of army boots remind us of how it happened (Before the end of time – 4).

Before the end of time 1

Before the end of time 1. Dilara Begum Jolly

An Iraqi flag interweaves between dead bodies lying in a heap. Mother Teresa grieves silently as a furious red hand, gloved in Stars and Stripes, hangs over — and above — everything else. Once again, a Union Jack, this time in the background (Before the end of time – 1).

Other canvases, other images. Naked bodies, imprisoned bodies heaped on each other, surveilled by an eagle eye, the new owners of Abu Ghuraib. Autumn leaves falling on a white background as women, dressed in hijab, some in brown, others in purple, or blue, grey, white, stand shoulder to shoulder to the right of the canvas. They seem to be grieving. May be for a lost husband or a daughter. May be a son, a grandmother or a lover. For people, obscured by words spun by the invader — safe and secure in Pentagon, Washington, Fort Benning, and Downing Street — “collateral damage.” May be for the loss of national independence and freedom.

Other canvases, other images. Not any civilisation, but the cradle of civilisation itself destroyed. Army vehicles advancing on monuments. Statues and sculptures lying scattered as blank pages of history waft down. A Buddha head looks impassively as a shot is fired into its right eye. A broken cuneiform tablet.

And yet, in the midst of all the death, destruction and havoc, a pink lotus blooms. And that, as we who are familiar with the artist’s work know, is Dilara Begum Jolly’s signature. A flower, a sapling, a shoot springing forth in the midst of ruins. Signalling life, its force and energy. Its beauty. Signalling the will to live. The death of forces of evil.

Dilara Begum, known more by her nickname Jolly than her proper name, has always produced art that is social, and political. That is keenly critical of the prevailing order, whether at home or abroad. Or, as her exhibition Excavating Time (Bengal Gallery of Fine Arts, 4 – 17 September 2006) shows, of the new order that has not only destroyed the cradle of civilisation, but threatens to destroy all vestiges of life on the planet. An inexorable war machine, spinning lies and deceit to the heavy rounds of applause by western politicians, generals, defence analysts and journalists.

Embryo withdrawn 1

Embryo withdrawn 1 Dilara Begum Jolly

Other canvases in the exhibition drew on the womb, on foetuses, on the pain of giving birth. Or, of not giving birth, of an embryo that retreats into the womb, repelled by the patriarchal order that controls and regulates life outside (Embryo withdrawn – 1).

Jolly’s more recent work draws on the the nokshi kantha (quilt-making) tradition of Bangladeshi women, quilts that are made from worn-out saris, two to three sewn together, richly embroidered from folk tales, myths, everyday artefacts, and daily village life as seen by, and as intrepreted by, women. Always. Instead of strokes and brushes, Jolly paints short stitches that weave tales, of women as mothers, as sisters, and as friends, drawing on traditions of weaving to tell stories of the pain and wonderment of giving birth. Of creating, and re-creating, bonds of solidarity.

February 7, 2009 Posted by | Bangladesh | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

   

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 49 other followers