Sitting on a man's back

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Three bombs had gone off the day before, and they weren?t comfortable about me walking on my own in the streets of Kabul.

Streets of Kabul

The driver insisted that he gave me a lift. The suggestion that a particular hill not too far away would give me a good view of the city was a good one, and the late evening light was just leaking through the haze. He offered to stay to give me a lift back, but I wanted to be on my own, and writing down that I needed to get back to Choroi Malek Asghar, I wandered off, free at last. Coming down the hill, I wandered through the back streets as I tend to do in cities I am new to. An odd conversation in my broken Urdu helped. As always kids wanted to be photographed, and wherever I went, people offered me cups of tea, or invited me home.

Abdul Karim latched on to me. Insisting that I visit his family, he took me through the narrow winding mud path that led to the tiny doorway that was the entrance to his home. My first task was to take photographs of the family. I had none of the language skills he had, but it didn?t seem to matter. Initially surprised by this stranger the man had brought home, the family quickly turned to more important things, like being hospitable to this mehman (guest).

Marine Engineer

I gesticulated wildly enough to convince them that I needed to catch the light while it was there, and Abdul Karim became my self appointed guide. I could go and take some photographs, but was to come back and have tea. The sun had almost set by the time we were back up the hill. A lone runner ran circles around the flattened top of the hillock. Football fever had set in and the shouting of the kids chasing a ball in the dried up swimming pool in the centre, carried through the evening sky. Four young men came up and made conversation. Two of them had been to Pakistan, and we spoke in Urdu and in English. One was an out of work webmaster, and wanted my email address. They posed, I photographed, and he scribbled his email address so I could email the picture back.

Four young men

The sun had set and Abdul Karim wanted me to keep my end of the bargain. The young men also wanted me to visit their homes. Perhaps they could take me out the following day they suggested. They knew great places for photography. We exchanged mobile phone numbers. Undiplomatically, I suggested that perhaps they too could come to Abdul Karim?s and then I could go with them to their homes. One young man took me aside and explained that they couldn?t go. It would be breaking purdah. I wondered how I had become an exception to the rule.

Abdul Karim, his mother, Bibi Shirin, his wife Ayesha, and their two children Mehjebeen and Sufia lived in this one room flat. There were mattresses on the floor and one television set and one radio. There was a tiny courtyard and metal steps that went up to what looked like a loft. Abdul Karim had worked as an engineer in the marines and was now out of a job. He showed me the children?s book he used, to try and teach himself English. Even with body language and the best of intensions, our communication faltered, but there was no mistaking that I was a welcome guest, and my major challenge that evening was leaving without having dinner with the family. The path outside was by now pitch black, and Abdul Karim walked me through the maze and got me to a cab. We parted with some sadness.

Back at the Aina office where I was staying, the guard with the Kalashnikov welcomed me with a smile. I could see why my colleague Nazrul hadn?t left the compound for the last two months.

Aina guard

Day before yesterday we drove up to Salang, past the bombed out ruins of what had been thriving villages, past the tank carcasses, past vast stretches of barren land, interspersed with lush foliage by the river beds. A young man took great pleasure in racing his steed against our minivan. Two boys flagged me down, insisting that their friendship be recorded in my camera.

Two boys

Back in Kabul, I did walk out on my own, without an escort, and went to the market place. The men in the bakery insisted that I try their freshly baked bread and I briefly sat with new found friends and watched Hindi films in the restaurants.

Bread maker

I spoke to Arif who ran a small studio, and came across the out of work labourers in the market square looking for work. A child and an old man reached into the gutter to pick up a polythene bag they could sell. It was in a worker?s face that I realized why people who are capable of so much hospitality, and are so willing to give, have become objects of terror to the foreigners who live here.

Labourer looking for work

They want the very things that the west has officially championed. Jobs, security, a home for their families and for their land to be free of occupation.

Organisers at the Sarina Hotel claimed it was the first fashion show in 20 years in Afghanistan. There were few tell tale signs of the riots that had taken place here a few days ago. But the white landrovers outside, four sets of security barriers, and the armed US soldiers on guard, marked the distance between central Kabul and the rest of the country.

Fashion BurkhaUS security guards

I remember Tolstoys words ?I sit on a man’s back, choking him, and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by any means possible, except getting off his back.? They seem to have learned little in 120 years.

Choroi Malek Asghar
Kabul
9th July 2006

I Will Not

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Today on Earth Day we are celebrating by making promises

But I will not
I will not stop throwing paper on the ground.
I will not stop using plastic bags
I will not go to clean the beaches

I will not stop polluting

I will not do all these things because I am not polluting the world

It is the grown-ups who are dropping bombs

It is the grown-ups who have to stop
One bomb destroys more than all the paper & plastic that I can throw in all my life
It is the grown-ups who should get together and talk to each other

They should solve problems and stop fighting and stop wars

They are making acid rain and a hole in the ozone layer

I will not listen to the grown-ups!

[Student of class five of Karachi High School on Earth Day 1991].

It was in the wee hours of the morning. Propped up in our beanbags Nuzhat and I chatted while Zaheer and Ragni clicked away on their keyboards. I was in Karachi doing a story on Abdul Sattar Edhi, the philanthropist I admired greatly. Nuzhat and I had a lot of catching up to do, and our stories wandered in unplanned directions. We talked of when she and Nafisa Hoodbhoy had started the Peace Committee in Karachi and as she remembered this story her bright eyes welled up. Nuzhat was not the sort of person one could imagine being angry. But as she recalled the words of this little boy, she shook with emotion.

It was a week after they had heard the news of the US dropping a bomb every two minutes on Iraq. They had talked in school of how the world was being destroyed, of how the minds of people were being moulded, of how Pakistanis were looked upon at airports, but how the work of Edhi went unreported. She recalled how at the end of her talk, the chief guest, a woman known for her good work, went up to the boy and quietly told him off. How the prizes went to the other kids who had made presentations that no one could remember.

What can we say to the blind & deaf?
What does education & learning mean?

What should we teach & why do we teach it?

These were questions Nuzhat asked that night. Questions we continue to ask.

As we put together the work for this festival, I have marvelled at the range of statements the artists have made to address ?resistance?. At their modes of expression. At their defiance. To resist, to challenge, to question, to go against the grain, to deliberately choose the untrodden path is a conscious decision. It is a risky route fraught with danger, but a route we must follow, if change is to come.

The festival itself continues to buck the trend. Open air marquees without gates or walls bring rarely seen work to a wider public. Billboards on cycle rickshaws take exhibitions to city spaces that have never known gallery walls. Combining innovative low cost solutions with state of the art technology, video conferences link the virtual with the real, while canvas prints on giant scaffolding scorn the air conditioned confines of exclusive openings. Hand tinted prints rub shoulders with pica droplets on digital media. Fine art, conceptual work, installations, traditional photojournalism, coexist in a strange mix, oblivious to attempts to categorise and label. The future, the present and the past huddle, sometimes uncomfortably, to produce a kaleidoscope of images and woven messages, that question, reflect and celebrate aspects of our existence.

When globalisation has become a euphemism for westernisation, it is this dissolution of borders, this resistance to consumerism, this dream of a world where the might of a few, can be effectively challenged, this belief that tanks and stealth aircraft, and media spin will not subdue an indomitable spirit, that characterises this festival. It is this attempt to subvert, through blogs and handbills and word of mouth, the propaganda machineries that dominate the airwaves, that the artists have taken as their inspiration. The festival is a call to resist, and a declaration of the resistance to come.

Shahidul Alam

5th December 2004

It's For Your Own Good

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We will kill your children
Destroy your mosques
Grind to dust your citadels
With your oil, we’ll buy you food
Believe you me, it’s for your own good

Regime change, that’s what its about
Jay Garner* instead, what more could you want
You’ll have Big Macs and Coke
As we know you should
Believe you me, its for your own good

Forget your heritage, its so uncool
Face the facts, the US rules
Afghanis blew statues
They were ever so rude
We will raze Baghdad, for your own good

CNN, BBC, they report for our cause
Embedded journalists, they know the laws
Al Jazeera is not cricket
C’mon you dude
You know we care, its for your own good

US contracts, Haliburton rules
Conflict of interest? C’mon you fools
My interest in oil
That’s obscene, that’s lewd
Its Iraqis I care for, its for your own good

It’s freedom I want, get out of my way
A new Middle East map, drawn as I say
Imperialist expansion
Must you be crude
Are you not listening, its for your own good

World opinion, who gives a damn
My latest war cry, Saddam Saddam
United Nations
Step out if you would
Don’t get in the way, its for their own good

US weapons of mass destruction?
Don’t be absurd, we’re a peace-loving nation
Hiroshima Nagasaki
Why do you still brood?
As my God has said, it was for your own good.

I wish you’d believe me. I so wish you would


Shahidul Alam
30th March 2003, Dhaka.

From Seventh Fleet to Seventh Cavalry

Mowli. Until recently, she didn't know her original name was Mukti. Too dangerous a name to use in 1971. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

25th March 1971. My eldest niece had just been born the day before. It was a premature birth. Amma had found a Mariam flower and the flower had bloomed, heralding the birth. She had stayed behind at the clinic. We had felt something was afoot, and Babu Bhai and I went out to try and get mother and child back from Dr. Firoza Begum’s clinic in Dhanmondi. Our home might not have been safer, but at least we’d be together. Friends were building roadblocks in the streets by then, and let us through reluctantly, warning us that we had little time.
We went along the narrow road by Ramna Police station to Wireless Mor, it being too dangerous to go along the main road. I climbed over the barbed wires on the boundary walls to get to my sister’s flat, but my brother in law felt it was too dangerous to go out, so I turned back. By then the tanks were on the streets.
I had fallen asleep, but woke up to the sound of gunfire. The wide red arcs of tracer bullets had lit up the sky. The only tall building nearby was the Hotel Intercontinental, where the meetings between Mujib and Bhutto had taken place, and where the foreign journalists were staying. The slum next to the Sakura Hotel and the nearby\ newspaper office were ablaze. We could hear the screams. Those who were able to escape the fire, ran into the machine gun fire waiting outside.
Abba (my father), Babu Bhai and I watched in silence. We had argued with Abba about Pakistan, but he had been victimised as a Muslim in pre-partition India, and would not support what he saw as the break up of the nation. That night he finally broke our silence by saying, “now there is no going back.”
We heard the gunshots all night, and there was a curfew the following day. Eventually when there was a small break in the curfew the day after, Abba went to get supplies, and Babu Bhai and I got my sister and her daughter to Nasheman, in Eskaton where we lived. We called her Mukti, meaning `freedom’. But relatives warned us that it was too dangerous to use that name, even if it was a nick name to be used only amongst ourselves. So Mukti became Mowli, and even after independence, the name stuck.
Twenty five years later in 1996, I tried to put together a collection of images of ’71 for our 1996 calendar. I am reminded of the introduction:
Drik calendar 1996, commemorating 25th anniversary of the birth of Bangladesh

[Twenty five year ago, even longer perhaps, just a camera in hand, they had gone out to bring back a fragment of living history. Today, those photographs join them in protest. Peering through the crisp pages of the newly printed history books, they remind us, “No, that wasn’t the way it was. I know. I bear witness.”
The black and white 120 negatives, carefully wrapped in flimsy polythene, stashed away in a damp gamcha, have almost faded. The emulsion eaten away by fungus, scratched a hundred times in their tortuous journey, yellowed with age, bear little resemblance to the shiny negatives in the modern archives of big name agencies. They too are war weary, bloodied in battle.
So many have sweet talked these negatives away. The government, the intellectuals, the publishers, so many. Some never came back. No one offered a sheet of black and white paper in return. Few gave credits. The ones who risked their lives to preserve the memories of our language movement, have never been remembered in the awards given on the 21st February, language day.
25 years ago, they fought for freedom. They didn’t all carry guns, some made bread, some gave shelter, some took photographs. This is just to remind us, that this Bangladesh belongs to them all.]
Drik Calendar 1996
Today, embedded photojournalists with digital cameras, give us images of yet another aggression. This time, from the other side of the gun. The 50 clause contract that gives them access to imperial military units, like the unwritten rules that allow them access to presidential pools, ensure that `free’ media remains loyal to the warmongers. Will we ever get to see the images taken by the Iraqi photographers? Will their negatives die the same death? Will those images, like the bombed ruins of a magnificent city, be the only tattered remains of an aggression that the world allowed to happen? In ’71, the Seventh Fleet was stationed in the Bay of Bengal. The Mukti’s were not deterred by this show of power. They won us our independence. Today, after 43 more US military interventions across the globe, it is the Seventh Cavalry that bombs Iraq. And our own government, forgetting the lessons of history, forgetting that they tried to kill our unborn nation, turns against the will of its people. Our own police turn against us in our anti war rallies, to protect the biggest aggressor in history. These negatives may not survive, but the collective memory of the people of the world will, and our children will confront us in years to come.
Shahidul Alam
Dhaka
26th March 2003
* A flower from Arab deserts, used during labour to predict the time of childbirth.
** A working man’s cloth of coarse cotton, used as padding when carrying weight, to carry food, and to wipe away sweat.

We Did Say No

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My questions are many. Why is there no UN resolution against the United States, for blatantly initiating an unprovoked genocide? Whydoes not the UN Security Council, demand that the most habitual aggressor in recent history, disarm and destroy

its weapons of mass destruction? Why is it that despite our collective strength, the most we can muster is a passive condemnation of a mass murder? Whatever may happen after the bombs have dropped, we will not be able to hide our shame. It may not have been in our name, but we sat and watched. We allowed it to happen. It is a guilt that will haunt us. While I sit in anger, wondering how, despite all our rhetoric, we watched a nation being plundered, without raising a finger to stop it, this quiet reflection from Baghdad University campus brings homethe extent of our complicity. These are the people we allowed to be destroyed. Our lives will go on, and we will face another day. They will not. And we will be content because we had said no
Shahidul Alam
Mon Mar 17, 2003
===============================================================
At the College of English, it is most definitely springtime. Co-eds are chattering cheerily and they smile as we pass.  "We are intent on finishing the syllabus, war or no war," says Professor Abdul Jaafar Awad.  He tells us that during the Gulf War of 1991, he was discussing a doctoral dissertation with a student while American and British warplanes were bombing Baghdad.  Jawad's determination to carry on despite the approach of war is shared by the students at his department.

Students at a class on Shakespeare are discussing Romeo and Juliet when we interrupt them. No, they say, they don't mind answering some questions from the Asian Peace Mission. They are carrying on with Shakespeare, but their answers show that morally they are on war footing. What do they think of George Bush?  "He is like Tybalt, clumsy and ill-intentioned," says a young woman in near perfect English. What do they think about Bush's promise to liberate them? Another co-ed answers, "We've been invaded by many armies for thousands of years, and those who wanted to conquer us always said they wanted to liberate us." What if war comes, how would they feel?  Another says, "We may not be physically strong, but we have faith, and that is what will beat the Americans." A young professor tells me, "I love teaching, but I will fight if the Americans come." These are not a programmed people.  Saddam Hussein's portrait may be everywhere, but there are not programmed answers.  In fact, we have hardly encountered any programmed responses from anybody here in the last few days. Youth and spring are a heady brew on this campus, and it is sadness that we all feel as we speed away, for some of those lives will be lost in the coming war. As one passes over one of the bridges spanning the Tigris River, one remembers the question posed by Dr. Jawad:  "Why would today's most powerful industrial country wish to destroy a land that gave birth to the world's most ancient civilization?"  It is a question that no one in our delegation can really answer. Control of the world's second biggest oil reserves is a convenient answer, but it is incomplete. Strategic reasons are important but also incomplete.  A fundamentalism that grips the Bush clique is operative, too, but there is something more, and that is power that is in love with itself and seeking to express that deadly self-love.

An American journalist I meet at the press centre says the people are carrying on as usual because they are in deep denial of the power that will soon be inflicted on them.  I wish he had been with us when we visited the campus earlier in the day, to see the toughness beneath the surface of those young men and women of Baghdad University.  Like most of the Iraqi we have met over the last few days, they are prepared for the worst, but they are determined not to make the worst ruin their daily lives.

Tomorrow afternoon, March 17, the date of the American ultimatum for Iraq to disarm or face war, we in the Asian Peace Mission will be travelling by land on two vans flying the Philippine flag to the order with Syria. Dita Sari, the labour leader from Indonesia, was offered a ride to the border this evening by the Indonesian ambassador, who was very concerned about her safety.  She refused, saying she would leave only when the mission left. We are leaving late and cutting it close because all of us–Dita, Philippine legislators Etta Rosales and Husin Amin, Pakistani MP Zulfikar Gondal, Focus on the Global South associate Herbert Docena, our reporter and cameraman Jim Libiran and Ariel Fulgado, and myself–feel the same compulsion: we want to be with the Iraqi people as long as possible.

The Silences We Maintain

11th September 2002. I was at Heathrow Airport, flying home to Dhaka. Friends had warned me against flying that day, but I wasn’t too bothered and looked forward to the empty seats I could stretch out on. In place of the flight notices, the loudspeakers made an unusual announcement. It was a call for a minute’s silence for the people who died at the World Trade Centre and year ago. A minute’s silence, and then it was business as usual.

A boy holds his dead father's trousers as he squats beside the spot where his father is to be buried, surrounded by soldiers and villagers digging graves for victims of an earthquake. The earthquake, measuring 6.0 on the Richter scale, struck on June 23. Dozens of villages were destroyed and hundreds of people killed across the province. 23rd June 2002. Qazvin. Iran. Photo Eric Grigorian/Polaris Images
A boy holds his dead father’s trousers as he squats beside the spot where his father is to be buried, surrounded by soldiers and villagers digging graves for victims of an earthquake. The earthquake, measuring 6.0 on the Richter scale, struck on June 23. Dozens of villages were destroyed and hundreds of people killed across the province. 23rd June 2002. Qazvin. Iran. Photo Eric Grigorian/Polaris Images

The piece that follows was written in February 2003, in the week following the judging of World Press. Before the invasion of Iraq, before the advent of embedded journalism. Later at the award ceremony at the Oude Kurk, I was impressed by Wolffensperger’s speech (Chairman of the Board, World Press Photo), made in the presence of the Dutch Prime Minister, where he clearly stated his position regarding the attack on journalists and the media coverage during the invasion. I was left wondering however, why we as a community have never called for that minute’s silence, for those killed in Afghanistan or in Iraq, or the industry’s silence on the killing of its workers. We are responsible for the words that we speak, and the images we produce. Who will take the responsibility for the silences we maintain?
——————————————————————–
Much is made of the figures, but this is not a numbers game. While the sheer volume of photographs is daunting, it is still in the end a qualitative choice. How does one weigh one photograph against another? What makes one compelling image more special than another? What criteria do juries use to determine which one is best?
The parameters for the World Press Photo of the year are known; a photograph showing outstanding visual qualities and representing a news situation of global importance. News photographs are often taken on the run, in situations of extreme stress, often in situations of danger. Only outstanding photographers are able to create powerful, moving, beautifully constructed images even under such conditions. But their qualities need to combine with outstanding news-value to create the most talked about press image of the year.
2002 was a year of waiting. Waiting for UN resolutions to be applied equally to all. Waiting for aggressors to be punished. Waiting for a war that the world abhorred but seemed unable to stop. Missing were the moments that news networks paid millions to cover. Disasters in western countries lacked significant death tolls. Nothing significant had happened in the countries that mattered.
That is not to say that nothing had happened, or that the world was at peace. In a world where all lives are not equal, some lives are easily forgotten. Their daily plight does not count. Their struggles are insignificant. No war machines come to their rescue. Unless material interests intervene.
But riots, earthquakes and indiscriminate bombings have taken place, and occupation continues. And there have been photographers who have been there. At a time when defence pools, restricted access, and editorial policy define the perimeters of journalism, some photographers have gone against the grain and covered stories which should have been news but weren’t, about people who should have mattered but didn’t.
Clinging to the trousers of his dead father, a young boy cries for a loss that is as universal as it is personal. The image talks of humankind’s eternal struggle against nature, and a community’s ability to stand by the afflicted. Yet, amidst all these people, the young man is alone in his misery. The death he mourns might not matter to a world that doesn’t care, but to him, the world might well have stopped. And one photograph preserved that moment, a silent witness of an emptiness that speaks to us all. One photographer takes on the challenge of questioning our definitions of news.
As for the judging itself, it was a complex, passionate, fervent affair. Time and time again, we were humbled by someone’s insight into a moment, that had completely passed us by. Again and again, our zone of comfort was invaded. We were shaken into responding to an argument that questioned the values that we had always considered unshakeable. Our tools of measurement were cast aside. We stood naked, our prejudices exposed.
The photographers too stretched us. Images that explored the gaps in our visual spaces, played with our sense of balance. War was presented through lingering traces. Political systems presented through emptiness and solid structures. Consumerism and decadence exposed through garish images, unashamedly rejecting the classical norms of image construction. Tender moments rendered without sentimentality. And of course those stark images, where the photojournalist, at the right place at the right time, but hopefully for not too long, returned with the horrors of what man does to man.
When the credibility of our media, shrouded in propaganda, struggles for survival, a few brave women and men continue to report the news that is no longer newsworthy. This contest salutes their courage.
Shahidul Alam
21st February. Oldham.
Chairman of the Jury 2003

Ground Zero

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It was as a student of photography that I poured through the
mysterious images of Joel Meyerowitz. Haunting images of the twilight
zone. Nature’s colours blending into the neon constructions of
mankind. A changing moment in everyday life. This time Meyerowitz has
chosen a different transition point. A moment that has clearly
changed the contemporary world. An event that has taken on an iconic
status.

The stoic strength of `The Welder Wounded By Exploding Bullets’, and
the nuances of light and form in `The Blue Hour’ and `The North Wall’
are reminiscent of the vintage Meyerowitz. A few of the other
exhibits in “Images of Ground Zero” are also signature images of this
master craftsman, but by and large, the photographs are
unexceptional. The packaging is impressive however. Smartly hung on
large frosted panels, the exhibition is destined for over thirty
venues in locations around the globe. About a third of these venues
have a largely Muslim audience and the show is clearly designed with
a purpose. As a photographer from the majority world I question the
simplistic message this exhibition carries. I see an icon that has
many meanings. The exhibition does remind me that everything is NOT
okay in this world of ours, but I look beyond the rubble of ground
zero.
I hear the word democracy, over and over again, and wonder why the G8
countries, which represent only 13% of the world’s population, decide
for me how my life should be lived. I do not question the process
through which their leaders came to power, but I know that I never
chose them as my representatives. Yet they rule our lives.
I worry knowing that the 5 permanent members of the Security Council,
who happen to be the world’s largest producers of arms, are entrusted
with keeping peace in the world. I worry knowing that they have
quelled the peace-initiatives that have given us most hope, while
innocents have continued to die. I want my voice to be heard, but
know that a single veto by nations I have never chosen to be led by
can overturn the hopes of the majority of the globe.
I dream of an epitaph that we can all take strength from. That
perhaps from the rubble of ground zero, will rise a Banyan tree, that
will give shade to us all. I remember the words of an American whom
Meyerowitz’s own nation seems to have forgotten: “Every gun that is
made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the
final sense, is a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those
who are cold and are not clothed. The world in arms is not spending
money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of
its scientists, the hopes of its children… This is not a way of
life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war,
it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”? Former U.S. President,
Dwight D. Eisenhower, in a speech on April 16, 1953.
Only when we build a world that truly respects different
civilisations, cultures, races and religions, can we honour the dead
in ground zero and those who continue to die. For when all things ARE
considered, the price is NEVER worth it.
Shahidul Alam. 7th April 2002. London.