Tag Archives: afghanistan

Four on Friday: Photo Galleries

5 Aug

THIS one goes out to all my creative, shutterbug, artistic friends and family.

1. The New York Times had an arresting photo essay this week on children’s bedrooms around the world. As much as I love looking at pretty pictures, my favorite kind are the ones that tell a story. The story that documentary photographer James Mollison is telling in his new book, Where Children Sleep, is one of stark contrasts, between the little girl in Tokyo and her bedroom crammed with toys stuffed together on floor-to-ceiling shelves, and the four-year-old boy in Romania whose bedroom is a mattress on the ground on the outskirts of Rome. He shares the mattress with the rest of his family. The Times article that accompanies the images says:

Mr. Mollison’s new book, “Where Children Sleep,” had its origins in a project undertaken for a children’s charity several years ago. As he considered how to represent needy children around the world, he wanted to avoid the common devices: pleading eyes, toothless smiles. When he visualized his own childhood, he realized that his bedroom said a lot about what sort of life he led. So he set out to find others.

Jasmine, 4, has participated in more than 100 beauty pageants. She lives in a large house in the Kentucky countryside. CREDIT: JAMES MOLLISON

Jasmine, 4, has participated in more than 100 beauty pageants. She lives in a large house in the Kentucky countryside. CREDIT: JAMES MOLLISON

(The New York Times generally does stunning photo essays and multimedia features. I recommend poking around through those sections here and here.) Mollison lets his subjects tell the entire story, contrasting their portraits with visuals of their bedrooms. The children are photographed against a white background, allowing the entire focus to be on the child. (Kinda reminds me of a portrait photographer we studied at my media program in Bombay, August Sander, whose stark black-and-white pictures of ordinary people in the Weimar Republic revealed so much. I have hazy memories of piercing eyes, a stern man standing stiff and posed, an elegant dog in the foreground, stairs to the house at his back. Before seeing Sander’s images, I had thought that posed photographs could never be truthful; one needed to capture the image when the subject was free and in his or her natural environment, unaware of the camera’s steady gaze, but his beautiful photographs convinced me that even our poses give us away. In an article on the Minnesota Public Radio website, the author quotes Martin Weinstein of the Weinstein Gallery: “For me what makes him a great photographer is the truthfulness of the portraits, the directness of the portraits,” says Weinstein. “It’s his attempt to not induce any type of emotion. Very few of the pictures are taken where people are laughing or smiling or making facial expressions.”)

August Sander portrait of a man with dog

August Sander portrait of a man with dog

That was a looonng aside. Going back to the portraits of children’s bedrooms, I wanted to mention another portrait that I saw recently. It was not a photograph, but the film Stanley ka Dabba, made by Deepa Bhatia and Amole Gupte, the husband and wife team behind the fantastic film about an autistic child, Taare Zameen Par (before it was hijacked by Aamir Khan). I’m not going to review it here—though I loved it and recommend it highly—but want to say that the tension in the film is created by the lack of Stanley’s bedroom. If in Mollison’s photographs we get a sense of the children, their lives, their families, their homes, and their interests from the bedrooms, in the film Stanley ka Dabba the filmmaker’s deliberate secretiveness about Stanley’s personal space is just as telling. (Go see it to find out what I mean by that.)

2. I recently discovered iPhone photography, using a free app on my phone called Instagram. I hear that the paid app Hipstamatic is even better. From Foreign Policy‘s recent five-part photo series on the war in Afghanistan, with all the photographs taken with an iPhone and edited using Hipstamatic, I am mighty impressed.

Speaking of bedrooms, check out this lovely contrast between, on the left, refugee children peeping inside a makeshift house at the Charahi Qambar refugee camp on February 27, 2011, and on the right,Daniel Gretebeck, 21, from South Lyon, Michigan, rests on his cot at Forward Operating Base Minden, Helmand province, on October 31, 2010. Photographs by Balazs Gardi.

The War in Hipstamatic CREDIT: Balazs Gardi

The War in Hipstamatic CREDIT: Balazs Gardi

Here’s another of my favorites, from the fifth part in the series, See No Evil, by Omar Mullick, of Rahmatuallah Rahmani, who lost most of his family and children in an air strike in Helmand province sits at the mosque in the Charahi Qambar refugee camp on the outskirts of Kabul. There’s a kind of a haze that prevents us from seeing the two men clearly. It may be a function of the fact the picture was taken with a camera phone but it suits the mood perfectly. It feels like a cloud of grief that separates this man from us; his experiences are so terrible we cannot, from our privileged standpoint, even imagine what he feels.



3. The same magazine has an interesting collection of images of visual art from Egypt: graffiti, performance art, public cinema, poetry, and more. One of my favorites is Tahrir Cinema. The author writes, “Recently, a group of filmmakers has been putting on ad hoc screenings in Tahrir Square, dubbing the series Tahrir Cinema. Lindsey writes, ‘[Filmmaker Lara Baladi] provided a projector and a screen; a passerby volunteered to get a mat for the audience to sit on; electricity was jury-rigged from streetlights. And soon hundreds of people were sitting, entranced, watching footage from the revolution that various amateur and professional filmographers contributed.'”

And then there’s this mural of a menacing tank heading toward a boy on a bicycle. Learn more about the collective artwork here.



But what I want to leave you with is not an image but some words. A poem by Kareem Abdulsalam, part of his collection, Teargas Poems. I saw it on the website Jaddaliya.com.

4. What Comes From a Cop

Armored cars
Boxes of perfected fear.
We thought they were divine creatures come to crush us
as native Americans first looked at horses.
We thought death itself sprang from them.

Armored car
Went up in flames
And the policeman inside struggled against the tongues of fire
Fought against fear.

When we rescued him,
He joined the rebellion.

4. This week is Shark Week on Discovery Channel, as I’m sure you know from the incessant ads on TV. As much as I dislike the sensationalism of the shows (some of them, at least)—if you’re trying to educate the public and raise awareness about these beautiful creatures, why use the image of a surf board with a bite taken out of it by some presumably confused shark as a recurring logo?—I love shows about sharks in particular and marine creatures in general. Some shows are better than others (some are quite bad, with soap opera-ish narration and melodramatic soundtracks) so pick your viewing judiciously. But ever since I observed great white sharks off the coast of South Africa last year, I have been fascinated by them.

Far from the man-eating monsters they are sometimes portrayed to be, they are actually the ones hunted by humans. According to “Man Bites Shark:”

While we might be alarmed at any indication that sharks are showing up in different places or biting into more and more humans, they’re far more vulnerable to us than we are to them. There have been only two recorded shark attacks in Massachusetts waters since 1670, but commercial fishing has decimated the area’s spiny dogfish shark population in recent decades. Since the 1970s, the numbers of scalloped hammerhead and tiger sharks have fallen by 97 percent along the U.S. East Coast, with bull, dusky, and smooth hammerhead sharks declining by as much as 99 percent. In the Mediterranean Sea, researcher Francesco Ferretti and his colleagues found that fishing has decimated large, predatory sharks over the past two centuries. Looking at the activities of the 21 countries that use the Mediterranean as their fishing grounds, they concluded the species that fared the best, blue sharks, declined 96 percent during that time, while hammerhead sharks declined more than 99 percent.

Shark Week from Discovery Channel

Shark Week from Discovery Channel

And according to Traffic, a site which monitors wildlife trade:

The top 20 shark catchers account for more than 640,000 tonnes annually, nearly 80 percent of total shark catch reported globally. The top 10, in order, are: Indonesia, India, Spain, Taiwan, Argentina, Mexico, Pakistan, United States, Japan, and Malaysia.

I had no idea that India contributed to the decline of shark populations! Another random fact: there’s more likelihood of being injured by a toilet than a shark.

The Florida Museum of Natural History’s International Shark Attack File reports that in 1996 there were 43,687 injuries related to toilets in the United States and only 13 shark-related injuries and deaths. That means the odds of actually dying from a shark attack that year were 1 in 3,748,067.

See a great series of shark pics here. (If you’re interested in learning more about marine life, check out this National Geographic article from 2005 about orcas, more commonly known as killer whales, which share lots of traits in common with us! The are a highly social kind of dolphin with distinct cultural habits, such that orcas in one community will not behave in the same way as orcas from a neighboring community. They have families, called pods, and extended families, called clans. And sadly, they are showing increasing levels of toxic contamination from PCBs or Polychlorinated biphenyls, which disrupts reproduction and does all sorts of damage. It’s worth a read.)

And because I’m an inveterate dog-lover and can’t resist pics of cute canines, here’s an adorable collection of pooches by Carli Davidson caught post-bath while they are in the middle of shaking themselves violently to fling the clinging water droplets off off off them! Go on to her site to see the full Shake series, but here’s a teaser:

Shake doggie shake! CREDIT: CARLI DAVIDSON

Shake doggie shake! CREDIT: CARLI DAVIDSON

On that note, happy weekend all!

Four on Friday: The Men Choose

3 Jun

SO this week I was wondering what I’d do my weekly four-things-I-want-to-share-with-the-world post about, and the answer landed in my inbox. (Actually, it pinged me via Facebook, but inbox sounds better.) A friend—a male friend—sent me something (that has by now no doubt made its way around the world a couple dozen times) and said he thought I’d like to see it. The following day, another friend, also a guy, found me on Gmail chat and sent me a link to a podcast he thought I should write about on this blog. The men in my life seemed to be choosing this moment (well, three out of four of them anyway) to tell me about cool/interesting/weird things they wanted me to know about, so why not take advantage of it? So here’s my first reader-generated blog post.

1. If I were to start in strictly chronological order, this would have to go first. My friend Hasnain emailed me an article more than a month ago and I meant to write about it then (and I have the draft to prove it) but somehow it never got written. (A weekend trip to the Catskills may have gotten in the way.) It came back into my life through this fresh BBC post. From my incomplete draft:

April has not been a good month to be a blogger in India [May wasn’t much better and June is not looking so good either]. On April 11, the Department of Information Technology greatly tightened the rules governing Internet speech laws in the country, adding many broad and vaguely defined instances in which the government could shut down your website. A few days later, the U.S.-based watchdog organization Freedom House released its report on Freedom on the Net in India, and we didn’t do so well. Though India has no substantial political censorship, according to the report, bloggers and online users have been arrested in the past year, and our press freedom status is only “partly free.”

Many of the new “rules” stand out. Amongst the tidbits of personal information that can be collected from you, the Internet user, are  “physical, physiological and mental health condition,” and, most bewilderingly, “sexual orientation.” Seriously? It’s not clear whether giving out this information is mandatory or not, but given that it can be handed over to the government for a number of reasons, it’s troubling, at best.

Canadian media artist runran, who took this photograph, says that Internet speeds in Pushkar, India, are akin to paint drying

Canadian media artist runran, who took this photograph, says that Internet speeds in Pushkar, India, are akin to paint drying

Even more disturbing is this rule, which prohibits Internet users from displaying or hosting information that “is grossly harmful, harassing, blasphemous, defamatory, obscene, pornographic, paedophilic, libellous, invasive of another’s privacy, hateful, or racially, ethnically objectionable, disparaging, relating or encouraging money laundering or gambling, or otherwise unlawful in any manner whatever; harm[s] minors in any way” or “threatens the unity, integrity, defence, security or sovereignty of India, friendly relations with foreign states, or or public order or causes incitement to the commission of any cognisable offence or prevents investigation of any offence or is insulting any other nation.”

From the BBC post:

The onus on host websites to remove objectionable content is a cause for concern to Mahesh Murthy who runs Pinstorm, a digital marketing agency in Mumbai which manages clients’ online brand presence.

“Any individual can write to us and say that piece of content offends us and without any recourse we have to take it down,” he says.

“This gives us an extremely onerous responsibility to be able to police every bit of content before it goes out,” adds Mr Murthy.

The new guidelines are, in part, a response to the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, planned with the help of cell phones and anonymous email addresses. And other governments have similarly restrictive rules. But India’s record in using vague laws to go after its political opponents is not reassuring anyone.

2. The Facebook pinger, my friend Zed, sent me this Guardian article with British author V.S. Naipaul’s inflammatory remarks. In an interview with the Royal Geographic Society this week, he claimed that he considers no female writer his match. You’ve no doubt read or heard of this piece, which has been causing so much furor in the UK and here in the United States, already, but here are some choice bits:

In an interview at the Royal Geographic Society on Tuesday about his career, Naipaul, who has been described as the “greatest living writer of English prose”, was asked if he considered any woman writer his literary match. He replied: “I don’t think so.” Of [Jane] Austen he said he “couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world”.

And also:

The author, who was born in Trinidad, said this was because of women’s “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world”. “And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too,” he said.

But the part that spawned a mini-series of follow-ups was his claim to be able to tell work written by a man as opposed to a woman from a short sample:

He said: “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.”

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

The Guardian humorously decided to query its readers to find out who among us can claim the same perspicacity as the Nobel Laureate with their “Naipaul test.” (Through sheer guesswork, I scored five out of 10.) The UK’s Telegraph also devised a similar test, though with five samples only. (In that one, I only guessed one correctly, and ironically, I guessed that the excerpt by Naipaul himself had been written by a woman. Wonder what Naipaul would make of that.)

Naipaul has been given enough publicity in the past week, what with his reconciliation—after a period of 15 years—with Paul Theroux over the weekend, and now this. This Wall Street Journal blog had the right idea, when it published an interview with Jennifer Egan, the 2011 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her novel A Visit from the Goon Squad (which, coincidentally, I just finished reading this past weekend), in which she said:

He may feel like he’s dealt a difficult and painful blow to women, but he makes himself look silly and outdated. And honestly, pretty vain.

Read this 1998 interview Naipaul gave to The New Yorker for an insightful portrait of the author.

UPDATE: I just came across this piece in the Indian newspaper Mint (where I’ve published several travelogues over the years) by Supriya Nair, which impressed me so much that I’m tempted to quote it in full. But that’s bad blogger etiquette, so here are the bits I liked best:

[Y]ou’ve probably seen these charts that came out earlier this year, which ran some numbers on how many women writers were reviewed in America’s top literary magazines — and how many women reviewers wrote for these publications. In some of the Anglophone world’s most liberal, forward-thinking — indeed, downright groundbreaking — publications, the imbalance on these counts isn’t small. In fact, it’s shocking.

Go look at those charts again. I’ll wait.

So, as you can see, women writers have bigger things to worry about other than VS Naipaul not liking their feminine sensibilities. (I mean, what next? Gay writers too caught up in unimportant things like sexuality? Japanese writers write too much about Japan? Derek Walcott just not understanding the West Indies? I’m agog, Naipaul. Agog!)

But — are they really bigger things? When I read Naipaul’s reported statements, after I laughed at him as you laugh at Internet trolls, I couldn’t help but think of the literary establishment responsible for the negligible importance given to women writers and reviewers, as the VIDA numbers demonstrate. VS Naipaul is a Nobel Laureate, read, reviewed and debated extensively — not to mention celebrated — in the pages of global opinion-makers like Harper’s Magazine (number of male reviewers in 2010: 27. Number of female reviewers: 7). And The New York Review of Books (number of male authors reviewed in 2010: 306. Number of female authors reviewed: 59). The New Yorker (male reviewers: 29. Female reviewers: 8).

Go read the full post here.

3. My friend Irfan (sometime Gmail chatter and full-time Canadian resident) sent me a link to this CBC podcast the other day, with this endorsement:

I was just amazed at this woman’s strength, courage, determination and vision.
The odds were heavily stacked against her. The environment, very hostile. Her demographic, a woman in a male dominated society.
She has a great vision to rebuild her country especially the weakest and most vulnerable…the women and children of Afghanistan.
I couldn’t help but admire her guts and her resolve.
She is winning in a society where the best of men hv failed.

How could I not listen? The interview was conducted on CBC’s The Current, with Anna Maria Tremonti, and the interviewee was Afghanistan’s first female deputy speaker of Parliament, Fawzia Koofi. The segment begins and ends with a letter Koofi reads to her preadolescent girls in case she is killed. At the time she wrote these letters, she was receiving death threats regularly. Happily, she survived to publish a memoir, Letters to My Daughters, and to garner enough support in Afghanistan that she is thinking of running in the presidential elections in her country.

Letter to my Daughters by Fawzia Koofi

Letter to my Daughters by Fawzia Koofi

Koofi was the 19th of 23 children, born to the second of her father’s seven wives. In the interview, she says, “My mother didn’t want me to be alive because she wanted me to be a son” so as not to disappoint her husband, Koofi’s father. So they put the newborn out in the sun to die.”I think for a woman, being a woman is a vulnerability sometimes,” she says.

But Koofi survived her first day, and has overcome numerous obstacles since. She was the first in her family to be educated. Her father, who was a Member of Parliament, was killed by mujahideen when she was a toddler. She had to fight with her brothers to be allowed to stand in election. Her stepbrothers would tear down her election posters when they saw them plastered on walls in public. They didn’t want their sister’s face to be displayed in public. “It’s like ownership,” Koofi said. But Koofi was already working by that time, and was financially independent, and so she prevailed. Now, she says proudly, in the last elections where she won a second term, all her brothers stood by her and supported her, putting up the previously reviled posters up in nearby villages to help her campaign efforts.

Now, at age 35, Koofi is a single parent (her husband died in 2003), a Member of Parliament, and a passionate activist for democracy and for human rights and women’s rights in Afghanistan. She is the kind of role model she found in Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India when Koofi was a child.

In an interview she gave to Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail, she said: “I want to tell to the world, as a woman who has lived through all the situations, that women can make a difference. I want to show how strong Afghan women are.”

Spanish Class; courtesy cappex.com

Spanish Class; courtesy cappex.com

4. The final piece of this Four on Friday post comes from my husband, Jatin, who has just begun learning Spanish. Yesterday he came home from his Spanish class with a fascinating bit of information that he knew I would enjoy: in most countries where Spanish is the native language, most women don’t take their husbands names when they marry (I didn’t take my husband’s surname when we married). Not only that, when they have children, the kids’ last names come from both parents’ last names. As About.com explains it, “If Juan López Marcos marries María Covas Callas, their child would end up with a name such as Mario López Covas.”

I’ve always thought that children should have the names of both their parents—and am delighted to know that the Spanish (thanks to an Arabic influence) have been following this democratic custom for decades and maybe even centuries.

Four on Friday: The Injustice to Women Edition

27 May

OK, now I’m really mad. The universe is conspiring to give women around the world a really bad deal. (Though it did find fugitive from justice Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb general infamous for orchestrating the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica in which some 8,000 Muslim men and boys were murdered, among other war crimes. But other than this late-week bit of good news, it’s been pretty depressing.)

1. A Lancet study came out this Tuesday on the selective abortion of girls in India. The preliminary census numbers released by the government in April already showed that the number of girls aged 0-6 had declined overall from 927 girls to 1000 boys in 2001, to 914 girls in 2011—the lowest it has been since India won its independence in 1947. The Lancet study found:

The conditional sex ratio for second-order births when the firstborn was a girl fell from 906 per 1000 boys…in 1990 to 836…in 2005; an annual decline of 0·52%… Declines were much greater in mothers with 10 or more years of education than in mothers with no education, and in wealthier households compared with poorer households.

It added:

After adjusting for excess mortality rates in girls, our estimates of number of selective abortions of girls rose from 0—2·0 million in the 1980s, to 1·2—4·1 million in the 1990s, and to 3·1—6·0 million in the 2000s… Selective abortions of girls totalled about 4·2—12·1 million from 1980—2010, with a greater rate of increase in the 1990s than in the 2000s.

Despite making it illegal for Indian parents to learn the sex of the foetus through the 1994 Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act(PDF), followed by a Supreme Court directive to the worst offending states to enforce the Act, there is little to no punishment for breaking the law, and female foeticide is a common occurrence. The practice is worse in educated and affluent families, and even the states that didn’t display a trend of sex-selective abortion are now starting to kill their unborn daughters. Plus, this phenomenon knows no borders: not only are Indians skewing the sex ratio in India, they are also carrying this abhorrent practice with them when they emigrate to other countries. Continue reading