Covering Humanity at War

May 15, 2012 9:05 am
Nahlah Ayed Penguin/Jet Belgraver

Nahlah Ayed will never forget the day she looked into the eyes of death.

She stood still, the gun pointed at her. The man was ready to shoot her. She stood on a street in Iraq and kept repeating that she was just a journalist, she was just doing her job. A foreign correspondent with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Manitoba-born Ayed says if journalists claim they are not scared to report from war zones – they are lying.

One has to be brave, Ayed says, to report from the front line. She still can’t forget the stories she has covered, the images she has seen: mass graves of people who were lined up and shot, Iraqis digging amid piles of dead bodies, hoping to find their loved ones.
And that day when the suicide bomb exploded, the day when amidst panic and people dying, Ayed and her cameraman were beaten and separated in the crowd; the day when Ayed luckily escaped her death from the gunman. These memories still haunt her.

That day, CBC News called her and asked if she would go on the air to tell her story. Ayed, beaten and bloody, refused to go on the air. Ayed says the tragic event was not about her – the story was about Iraqis who died and were wounded: as was the case on a regular basis, ever since the war started.
“Because around me, I saw hundreds of people die on this day – and I got a bloody nose and some bruises… so what?,” Ayed says.

Thousands Farewells

Journalists – who travel around the world and witness wars, death, poverty, injustice and corruption – are reluctant to insert themselves into the story. Yet, after seeing so much blood and horror, Ayed discovered that writing a memoir became her revelation, a form of therapy to help her cope with her horrible experiences as a foreign correspondent reporting from hot spots for over a decade: Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Israel, Palestinian territories, Haiti and Pakistan. The book has surprised her family and friends, because Ayed kept so much to herself for many years.

“While I was writing this book, I realized that it affected me far more than I admitted to myself, writing helped me to deal with that,” Ayed says. “In a memoir, it is appropriate to talk about your story, but it’s still uncomfortable. I didn’t even want my picture on the front cover.”

In the book, she could tell a more profound story than just hard news. Ayed wanted her readers to understand that politics and people are separate. This book is about her life and about people for whom war is not an evening news item, but reality.

By writing a book, she also wanted to break a common stereotype that the Middle East is just a violent part of the world, Ayed says. It is also a region with beautiful nature, and with welcoming people who want nothing but peace.

“People over here are unaware of it, partly because of the way the media covers it. When you see Arabs on the news, it’s usually [mobs] denouncing the West,” Ayed says. “Extremists and politicians get all the attention. Regular people are lost in the shuffle. So, I think, there is a misunderstanding. Arab people are very warm.”

As Ayed recalls the Arab uprisings, her eyes shine. She says it was one of the best stories she ever covered – the opportunity that comes “once in a lifetime.” She was “so lucky” to be there “because I watched the Middle East that was so stagnant show signs of change. It gave me goose bumps the whole time I was there.”

There is still a long way to stability for the troubled region. But seeing hope in the eyes of protesters who have been repressed for many years under authoritarian regimes as they find courage to voice their dissatisfaction and show their resistance, inspires Ayed to keep doing what she does well – to report from the front lines.

Many people who watch news broadcasts from the comfort of their couches don’t realize how hard it is to be a journalist nowadays. Sometimes a journalist is a reporter, a translator and a cameraperson. Yet, despite everything, Ayed says she is destined to be a foreign correspondent.

“It’s an addiction to be on the road, it’s a way of life.”

Solar Dance: Genius, Forgery, and the Crisis of Truth in the Modern Age

May 3, 2012 5:40 pm
Screen shot 2012-05-03 at 5.35.01 PM

Today Vincent Van Gogh is everywhere. Prints of the Dutch master’s most famous paintings adorn student dormitories, living rooms and cafes.  Many paintings feature the moon and stars or the sun hovering over landscapes. Van Gogh’s ubiquity, however, has undermined our appreciation of his role in helping us understand some of the last century’s most painful chapters. Why then did a painter who died in 1870 exert such a profound influence on our understanding of the 20th century? What accounts for the enormous appeal of his work? These are among the questions that run through Modris Eksteins’s wonderful new book, Solar Dance: Genius, Forgery and the Crisis of Truth in the Modern Age. In exploring them, Eksteins tells the story of not only Van Gogh but Otto Wacker as well, a German who in 1932 was tried and convicted for peddling Van Gogh forgeries. Both men in their own way yield profound insights into the zeitgeist of Europe in the opening decades of the last century.

Solar Dance is interesting in part because it’s so hard to classify. The book is part biography, part cultural history and even part mystery. Of the two men at the heart of Eksteins’s study, Van Gogh’s story is the more compelling. As Eksteins wonderfully makes clear, Van Gogh’s life was characterized by poverty, isolation, estrangement and eventually madness. He fell in love with different women, only to be rebuffed at each turn. Friendships were volatile. As the story goes, he cut off his own ear. Although why he did so or how exactly it happened remains in question, the incident is clearly rich with symbolic possibilities. The most interesting offered by Eksteins is that Van Gogh’s successful attempt at self mutilation reflected his identification with victims of Jack the Ripper, who at the time was terrorizing London. Jack the Ripper mutilated his victims, many of whom were prostitutes. In keeping with his life as an outsider, Van Gogh sought intimacy through his relationships with prostitutes at a local brothel.

Modris Eksteins

Outside of that local brothel, Van Gogh’s art became his refuge. He writes to his brother about only feeling alive when he was engrossed in his work. He relished the opportunity to walk seemingly endlessly with his paint brush and easel. Some of his most famous paintings feature exaggerated images of landscapes bursting with colour. Yet his immersion in his art might also have accelerated his descent into madness. He not only allowed his health to deteriorate, he believed that doing so heightened his experience of painting and ultimately the quality of his work. Moreover, although his art is priceless now, it brought little re-numeration to him while he was alive. Van Gogh died poor, his work only dimly appreciated by a precious few.  Why was this so? Ekstein locates the Expressionist school – of which Van Gogh was its most vital member – as a response to the perceived limitations of Impressionism.  The impressionists put a premium on ‘precision and detail.’ Van Gogh and other Expressionists were less interested in faithful depictions of the natural world and more committed to exaggerated images as a way of the “mind exercising its autonomy over the experience of nature.” His art also constituted a form of ‘spiritual rebellion’ against the growing dominance of science, law and other sources of authority. Van Gogh, according to Eksteins, both personally and through his art anticipated the storms gathering over Europe.

Otto Wacker, for his part, was somewhat of a chameleon. He dabbled in dance and art and was gay. He created a sensation when he claimed to have in his possession an extensive series of hitherto undiscovered Van Gogh paintings. A Russian fled Bolshevik Russia with his treasure trove, or so told Wacker to the rest of the art world. The mysterious Russian entrusted Wacker with the paintings on the condition that his identity never be revealed. Throughout his trial and the rest of his life, Wacker insisted his story was true and that he would never reveal the identity of the Russian in question. It was thus impossible to verify. Various experts had sharply conflicting opinion as to the authenticity of the paintings Wacker sold to unwitting buyers. In the end, he was convicted of fraud and sentenced to two years in prison. But the origin of the forgeries has never been definitively determined. Who painted them?

Van Gogh's Self Portrait

Has Eksteins stretched too far the apparent connections between this case and the turbulent times in which it unfolded? He insists it is symptomatic of the much wider malaise characteristic of the times. Wacker’s scheme typifies, according to Eksteins, a crisis of authenticity. But we are talking about forgery in the pursuit of money – a type of crime that surely didn’t begin in the aftermath of the Great War. As far as criminal activity goes, it seems relatively benign. That various connoisseurs of the art world were confounded by Wacker’s claims may suggest more about the undeveloped science of forgery detection than it does about the crisis of truth in post World War Europe.  Moreover, Eksteins stretches the connection between art and society even further: Wacker’s attempt at forgery anticipates our own culture’s fascination with celebrity and stardom.

Nevertheless Eksteins skillfully creates a sense of dread when he places Van Gogh’s work and appeal and Wacker’s attempt to profit from it in the context of the day. Van Gogh was Dutch, but his initial rise in influence and popularity happened most dramatically in 1920s Germany. According to Eksteins, his appeal had as much to do with his lonely, marginalized existence as it did with his art. Germany was suffering through the aftermath of the Great War and the Treaty of Versailles that was its most consequential outcome. The economy was in tatters, much of the country in ruins.  People increasingly identified with those living their lives on the margins of society. Otto Wacker – among countless others no doubt – was prepared to find innovative and shadowy ways to survive. Apparent truths were shattering all around. Authority was collapsing. The climate was one of uncertainty and foreboding. As Hitler’s rise makes clear, people were susceptible to messages of hate and intolerance as a way of restoring a lost order. In telling this part of the story, Eksteins shows he’s a master at tracing the connections between culture and the political currents that led to some of the previous century’s darkest episodes.

Van Gogh's Sower

Although the world is now a much different place, the modern condition remains one of flux and impermanency. In many key respects, truth remains elusive.  There are countless numbers of people, like Van Gogh, who suffer from loneliness, estrangement and mental illness. Unlike Van Gogh, their art isn’t something in which they can take refuge. Similarly, Otto Wacker’s willingness to redefine himself anticipates the very common inclination today to do the same. But that prospect no longer inspires existential dread. Both men, from this perspective,   anticipated the future, but it’s Van Gogh’s ghost that haunts us still.   

Book Review: Behind The Bank Counter

May 2, 2012 8:55 am
You Can Bank on That

Brian L. Coventry’s You Can Bank on That: The Early Years, a second sequel to the author’s first book Adopted at Age Four, will give its readers a perspective on how the credit business operates inside and out.

In this book, the main character Leslie Swartman – – who was previously bounced between foster families, at last adopted by a good family – – starts working in the Canadian banking system.

It’s late 1960’s. Leslie is just out of high school, works as a sales representative for the shoe company. But for Leslie, it isn’t the job he dreamt about. At last, he sees a job ad for a credit trainee, and encouraged by his friend, he applies for the job. Without any higher education, but being able to relate to his previous experience,  Leslie gets the job.

As Leslie climbs his career ladder, he becomes friends with the managers of big Canadian banks. They share with him stories that will make you laugh and think. With Leslie, the reader will witness conversation at the workplace; and even more – those that are held behind the closed doors.

You Can Bank on That: The Early Years was released in February.

Coventry is a Canadian author, a retired bank manager with over 40-years experience in the banking system. He owns a mortgage consulting business and is actively involved in the community. Now, Coventry is  writing a third book for this sequence.

192 pages, ISBN  9781467849333, AuthorHouse 

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