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Posts Tagged ‘Afghanistan’

Before the Blast

September 8, 2016 | by

How expats fashion online identities while living in a war zone.

All photos by Deni Ellis Béchard.

A shop owner jokingly points a toy gun at the author in Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley. All photos by Deni Ellis Béchard.

All wars have their aesthetic: the grainy newness of the World Wars, the photographer up close, in mud or water, his speed and fear palpable in the washed-out, often blurred images of men; the Cold War a stark espionage mystery, less action than mood, its clues hidden in the diplomatic formality of competing decadent powers; Vietnam a single black-and-white photo so horrifyingly violent it punctured the jingoism of American imperialism and showed its nihilistic core; and Afghanistan, its online presence as garish as the Las Vegas skyline—street shots and selfies transmuted by the virtual gears of social-media editing, their contrast, sharpness, and saturation jacked up until followers feel as if their neurons are feasting on the very opiates that keep the Taliban in business. 

And each war has its signature story. Afghanistan’s coincides with the rise of social media. In the online world where banal weekend jaunts resemble the Odyssey and afflict followers with post-feed depression—the feeling after seeing glistening legs on a beach or a sunset clipped by an airplane’s wing (not, notably, the cramped economy seat or credit-card bill)—establishing a social-media presence in a war zone is more than self-fashioning; it’s reincarnation, maybe even creation ex-nihilo. Expats’ Facebook and Instagram avatars often emerge as if by divine birth, leaving followers unable to fathom how that bookish college friend wound up motorcycling around Kabul or hiking the Hindu Kush with a few smiling local dudes in pajamas who, to the untrained eye, are obviously Taliban. Read More »

What We’re Loving: Spiders, Spaces, Stinkin’-Hot Nights

May 2, 2014 | by

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An exhibition image from Marc Yankus’s “The Space Between,” at ClampArt.

If I had to teach a class on the Framing Device, the first thing I’d make them read is Jeremias Gotthelf’s 1842 novella The Black Spider, recently published in a new and (to this non-German-reader) magical translation by Susan Bernofsky. The opening scene is a christening in the Swiss countryside: idyllic, sentimental, lovingly detailed. Then one of the guests notices a strange blackened post in the house where the festivities are held, an old man begins to tell the story of how it got there … and in no time things have gotten very weird indeed, and they continue weird even when the story ends, the idyll stained by the past. A fairytale for grownups, an early horror story, an allegory of the Black Death or of sin—however you read it, it has the deep logic of a dream. —Lorin Stein

Sometimes I’ll Google some nouns with a writer’s name, hoping to discover that said writer has miraculously published a piece about said nouns. This usually doesn’t work out for me—zero results for “Norman Rush + Botswana + heavy-metal leather subculture,” and zero more for “Jonathan Lethem + Larry Levan + Paradise Garage + disco”—but lightning can strike, as it did with “Richard Ben Cramer + baseball + Baltimore.” That led me to Cramer’s “A Native Son’s Thoughts (Many of Them Heretical) About Baltimore (Which Isn’t What It Used to Be), Baseball (Which Isn’t What It Used to Be) and the Steadfast Perfection of Cal Ripken Jr. (Which Is Ever Unchanging, Fairly Complicated and Truly Something to Behold),” published in Sports Illustrated circa 1995. Hot dog! As its forty-four-word title indicates, this piece has it all. There’s baseball, which, for reasons that remain unclear, I’ve begun to enjoy watching; there’s Baltimore, where I grew up; and there’s the vigorous prose from Cramer, whose masterpiece on the 1988 election, What It Takes, I’ve just finished, thus creating a void that can only be filled with more Cramer. When I read the first clause (“It’s a stinkin’-hot night at the ballpark”) I knew I was safe for a little while longer. —Dan Piepenbring

The Space Between,” Marc Yankus’s show at Clamp Art, is on now through May 17; it reveals a new side of the artist. His earlier images explored his love of color washes and blurred shapes—photography that sometimes looked as though it had been printed on a wet surface. With this new body of work, Yankus has written a love letter to the stonemasons, bricklayers, and architects of an ever-evolving New York City landscape. The detail captured in these photographs is unreal and meditative; he’s shot these monumental buildings sometimes at great heights and always from their best angles. A master of minute detail, Yankus invites us to study the individual bricks right down to the fine cement layers that seal them together. Though people are ever-present in these works, there’s not a soul to be found. It lends a ghostly beauty to these prints, making it exceedingly difficult to pick a favorite. —Charlotte Strick

I’ve been reading Adam Shatz’s vivid remembrance of the journalist and historian Patrick Seale, who died last month. Seale wrote the two best books on modern Syrian politics, in English or any other language. The Ba’athists in Damascus trusted him and the Western spymasters learned from him. And what a time it was for foreign correspondents, especially if you lived in Beirut. As Shatz writes, “It was the Mad Men era of Middle East reporting, a time of high living and high-stakes intrigue … The correspondent’s calendar was marked by revolutionary conspiracies; many were first reported as rumors, sometimes overheard at the bar of the St. George Hotel, where spies, arms dealers, diplomats and other adventurers gathered at the end of the day.” —Robyn Creswell Read More »

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Transcending the Archetypes of War: An Interview with Phil Klay

March 4, 2014 | by

Phil Klay

Photo: Hannah Dunphy

In late 2011, Phil Klay, a former Marine officer who served in Iraq during the Surge, published “Redeployment,” a harrowing short story about a group of Marines returning stateside from the war. It drew praise for its subject matter, its lean prose, and its psychological acuity. Klay’s first collection, also titled Redeployment, is out this week. Its twelve stories revolve around war and its aftermath. Klay’s narrators include a State Department official charged with popularizing baseball in Iraq and a military chaplain offering spiritual guidance to an out-of-control unit.

Like a young professor who is still as comfortable in the world as he is in the library, Klay has an easygoing warmth. He exudes a passion for and knowledge of his craft. He is also unfailingly punctual. Last month, we sat down over coffee to discuss his book, the state of contemporary war literature, and the pitfalls of drawing too much from personal experience when writing fiction.

First books by vet-writers often read as rough autobiography, but in your collection, every story has a different narrator. Was this is a deliberate choice?

It was. When I first came back from Iraq, I of course found myself thinking a lot about it. Not just my experiences, but those of people I talked to, friends, and colleagues. What did our deployment mean, where did it fit into the broader perspective of what we as a country were doing? What was it like going out and making condolence payments to Iraqi families? What about the artilleryman who sent rounds downrange but never saw the effects of what happened, didn’t know how to conceptualize the bodies of those he helped kill, but wanted to? Even in my earliest stories, I knew I wasn’t writing about myself.

It also felt important to convey that modern war is this huge industrial-scale process with a lot of parts making the machinery work. There’s an incredible diversity of experience. We have a tendency to think of war as this quasi-mystical thing, and that interpretation flattens the experience—by using different perspectives, I wanted to open a place for readers to compare and contrast, to make judgments, to engage.

“Prayer in the Furnace” is narrated by a military chaplain in Ramadi during one of the most violent periods of the war. How did that story come about?

A lot of the great pieces of journalism from Iraq showed how important command influence was in violent, aggressive environments, where Marines and soldiers had a constrained set of choices to make in sudden moments. Sometimes that command influence was positive. Sometimes it wasn’t. So as “Prayer in the Furnace” developed in my mind, I decided to tell it from the perspective of someone who is sympathetic to those men and the decisions they make, but removed enough to adopt a more contemplative stance. An observer who’s with them, but not of them.Read More »

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Bukowski on File, and Other News

September 10, 2013 | by

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  • “The FBI kept a file on noted dirty old man Charles Bukowski.”
  • Indian author Sushmita Banerjee, whose writing inspired the film Escape from Taliban, was killed in Afghanistan on Wednesday.
  • “What I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.” At The New Yorker, excerpts from Flannery O’Connor’s journals.
  • Satan, Humbert Humbert, Moby-Dick, and other curiously sympathetic literary villains.
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    Your Eyes Deceive You: Claire Beckett at the Wadsworth Atheneum

    August 7, 2012 | by

    Marine Lance Corporal Nicole Camala Veen Playing the Role of an Iraqi Nurse, Wadi Al-Sahara, Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, CA, 2008

    In Hartford overnight for reasons that would take too long to explain, my wife and I visited the Wadsworth Atheneum, the city’s art museum, where she had interned a number of years before. Hartford is one of those midsize American cities, like Cincinnati or Worcester, dominated by Chris Ware cityscapes.

    The Atheneum is a small, good museum and interesting in that way that Hartford is interesting: on a comparatively small stage the choices are more evident, the collections more particular. Things that would be pushed into the storeroom at another museum are given fascinating pride of place. What is less well known is not so consistently edged out by what is too well known.

    We walked past the museum’s two Balthuses into a room full of photos of men in headdresses, dusty streets, namelessly Middle Eastern scenes. A man fiddling with a bomb. Something was off, however: there was too much unfinished plywood and the people staring into the camera were clearly … what?

    We slowed down, read wall text. This woman is a Marine lance corporal.

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    ‘Bartleby,’ ‘Star Wars,’ and Animal Authors

    May 2, 2012 | by

  • May Day viewed through the prism of Bartelby the Scrivener.
  • In Afghanistan, women are risking their lives for poetry.
  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s wall text will now reflect Gertrude Stein’s complicated war record.
  • Controversial almost-ran New Yorker covers.
  • The Star Wars cookbook.
  • Last but not least, books authored by famous animals.
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