Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Getting the story out...

I sit in our cozy office room that gets converted into the nap room for KB as I write my posts each time. He sleeps on a fold out couch so I can be near him since he is a restless sleeper. If I pat him when he is restless, he just goes back to sleep so he gets a good couple of hours to nap. KG sleeps in her crib in our master bedroom. In the comfort of a cool room I sit and wander into the lives of others through their blog posts. I often have comments and responses composed in my mind as I read along - be it their posts or email to a group list. I sometimes get to write it down. At other times, I just let it pass since many others have already commented or responded already.

There is a feeling of camaraderie even without overt communication between all of us in the written medium when you read tales about people. At the end of it, at some level, we feel a common bond. Universal emotions that we all relate to. I suppose it is this feeling that makes it worthwhile to communicate a story to the rest of the world. That the reader will feel possibly enlightened and will relate to the words in your story.

A few days back, I sat down to eat my dinner after the rest of the family had had theirs. I picked up a recent issue of National Geographic to read as I ate my food. As I read the story about "The Sahel", I found myself in awe of the dedication of some journalists who are willing to put their lives at stake in order to get the story out to us. Not just the journalists but the entire coterie that works on a story - the translator, the photographer, the driver, every one of them. It is one thing to work on a story when you know you are going back to the comfort of your own home at the end of the day. But to willingly go into dangerous territory just because the people there deserve to have their story heard by the rest of the world is commendable. You can see the passion and dedication of the journalist shining through in such a story. And when it is about the human condition, you feel it at a deeper level - that universality of some emotions no matter how removed we are culturally.

Each time I think we don't have enough time to read all the articles in National Geographic and may be we should cancel our subscription, I find myself unable to stop it. It is a fantastic magazine that lets you travel to all corners of the world with it's brilliant articles and phenomenal photographs. They choose from nearly 20,000 photos and pick a few shots for every story. I leave you with an interesting excerpt from the story of the Sahel that I read the other day. The interview with the writer, Mr.Salopek was very interesting to read as well - his perspective on life and reporting was so full of wisdom and spoke of someone who had matured from having witnessed the world and having written about it.

Darfur—Towé village

On our first night in Darfur the gunmen forced Idriss and Daoud into a pickup truck and drove them off into the moonlight. They tortured them out there, tied to a thorn tree for three days. Me they pummeled without enthusiasm inside an abandoned hut in the burned-out village of Towé. Between sessions, I lay trussed on my belly, breathing hard against a dirt floor that smelled of rancid butter. I squinted out a brilliant doorway at two women.

They were planting sorghum in a dry wadi.

The women’s work appeared rudderless. They planted their seeds in lines that wriggled across the field, nudged here and there by whims of conversation. The older woman swerved whenever she told jokes, and her seed rows lurched like cardiograms. She giggled into her hands often, and I decided she must be mad. The younger one was more solemn. She toiled briskly, with a sense of purpose, as if engaged in a race, and her planting was much straighter. A tiny child crawled at her side, trying to eat the seed grain. The women labored like this all day. Then, late in the afternoon, they quarreled, and their plantings veered apart in rancor.

It occurred to me that the women were doing more than growing food. They were sowing their autobiographies.

Sex jokes, village gossip, little wisps of song, rebukes to children—all of it lay scribbled in the eccentric lines of their crops.

Women have been singled out for maximum violence in Darfur. Mass rapes by the janjaweed are systematic and well documented. As part of a Sudanese campaign of ethnic cleansing, women have been burned alive, shot, bayoneted, and dumped down wells. These stories, too, would be recorded in their fields. Lying in the hut, I imagined flying low over the savannas of Darfur and reading the women’s lives inscribed in plots of millet, peanuts, and sorghum. (See that row of melons ending abruptly at midfield? A Fur grandmother dropped her seed bucket and ran at the sound of approaching hoofbeats.)

In Towé the women were Zaghawa seminomads. The laughing one was named Fatim Yousif Zaite. She wasn’t crazy. She was 40, with the burning, clairvoyant gaze of the starving, and a smile that transmitted the innocence of her heart. She brought me gourds of asida, a yellow lentil paste she could hardly afford to share. Once, while untied to eat, I grabbed both her dusty hands in mine. She sprang back in fear.

But I only wanted to thank you, Fatim. You will always be with me. The janjaweed may toss your kids into vats of boiling water as they had done to children in another village, and the Sudanese Air Force may bomb your wretched fields as they had before, killing five of your family members. But for three days in Darfur you were my mother.

Here's a part of the interview with the writer Paul Salopek:

What goes through your mind now when you're asked about the experience?

You know, I've been asked a lot about the experience, and what I have to tell readers, colleagues, and friends is that what we experienced pales in comparison to what the people of Darfur live with every day they wake up. And in a sense, the experience made us truly Sahelian for about 34 days. We penetrated that bubble of being a journalist-observer and suddenly became participants in our own story. So if you want to look on the bright side, it gave us maybe a little more understanding about the plight of the people of the Sahel that we otherwise would not have had.

You became, as you say, truly Sahelian for 34 days. Given this experience, how do you think that people in these war zones exist in this constant state of fear and uncertainty?

I think the answer is simply because there's no alternative. You survive. And what it tells me is that we're tough—as a species we're tough. Men, women, children come out of these experiences scarred, often, but in some ways stronger. They use muscles that we all have, but that we who live in the peaceful corners of the world don't even realize we have and that we rarely use. But they're there. And if this had happened in North America, or if it happened as it did in Europe not so long ago, people do survive through the horrors, and I think that's a good lesson to take away.

So why place yourself at risk, given the increasing level of danger?

The risk of danger in covering war is the risk of being captured, being wounded or being killed—like a soldier, like a combatant. It has a very interesting clarifying effect on the reasons for why you do what you do, and you do have to ask yourself, Why am I doing this?

My answer is twofold. It's for the people who I cover whose stories I feel are not getting out, and to bear witness to darker corners of the world that the rest of the world chooses, for a variety of reasons, to avert its gaze from. And it's also for my readers, to be the vehicle for conveying that information as objectively as possible. I am not an activist—I am a journalist, a reporter. The moment I start taking on one cause or another and become an activist, that puts me in even more danger. So the only shred, the only fig leaf of protection that I have is the tiny claim to the man whose finger is on the trigger that I will be neutral.

So I do it for my readers, and I do it for my sources, who are ordinary people on both ends. I don't write for policymakers. I don't write for the people inside the beltway in Washington. I write for plumbers in Indiana and schoolteachers in California—the ordinary bloke on the street. And those are the kind of people that I cover too. I don't cover politicians, I don't cover kings or presidents. I cover people who live in huts or who live in houses or shantytowns, or who partake of the most common lifestyle in Africa, which is often pretty poor but on many levels very, very rich. Sometimes when I go to a fisherman's village in Nigeria, even though he's financially very poor, his family life is wonderful, and it's our task to convey all of that in its entirety and not just focus on the bad.


bird's eye view said...

Hey noonie, nice post. Made me feel nostalgic for the days we used to subscribe to Nat Geo. Now we just don't have the time - even the Economist just lies around for weeks till we finally have a spare moment, but your write-up made me feel like reading NG again.

Anonymous said...

Noon, the answer to the last Q that was quoted was superb.

Reading about the dangers men and women face, twists my heart. After becoming a mother, this emotional toll is simply too much to bear.

Imp's Mom said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Imp's Mom said...

what a great post to come to the fist time! heart wrenching..i just don't get it, why do humans ill treat other humans?

DotThoughts said...

what can we do about it? what can be done to the demons who throw kids in vats of boiling water.

Mystic Margarita said...

Wow! Beautiful post. We used to subscribe to Nat Geo, but we stopped a couple of years back. Your post reminded me of what we are missing - plan to start the subscription again. Thanks, Noonie, for this post.