March 1, 2005

Late in the Day (…Unless it's Early)


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I’ve been holding on to this picture since it appeared on the NYT front page a couple weeks ago. 

I was interested in it before, but it seems more significant now following the outbreak of independence activity in Lebanon, and President Mubarak’s gesture to hold elections in Egypt.  The picture is significant because it doesn’t make sense.  Except, it seems not to make sense in the same way the combination of ethnic and religious entities that were stitched together out of the old Ottoman Empire (that are now coming unglued) don’t make sense.

To elaborate what I mean, I have to share the caption with you.  It reads:

“Thamther Joma, a Shiite, watched election results with her children and neighbors’ children on Al Aras Island, a former park in the Tigris River.”

You just rarely see a front-page photo that is simultaneously so rich and so mysterious.  After I sent it to my occasional guest blogger, Karen, a medievalist who just returned from Egypt, this is what she wrote back:

So she’s with other kids who aren’t necessarily in her family, on an island that used to be a park.  Do we know that that’s her home?  Or could this be some sort of community center? 

There’s a picture that looks like Jesus; not strange in itself, since Jesus is an important prophet in Islam. (Is that more or less true for Shiites?)  But what’s he holding?  Is that a scepter, or a trumpet, rising out of his hand on the left?  Is that a child in his hands, with hair falling down on the left?  What kind of religious iconography are we dealing with?  Not any that I’m familiar with!

The thing that strikes me, honestly,  after my combined four weeks or so in Egypt, is how roomy that space is.  And how many kinds of electronics are in the room (what are all those things under the TV?  A VCR?  A cable box? A DVD player?).


Why are they on the floor?  Where’s the furniture?  Why are there pillows/blankets/quilts piled up behind and above the kids’ heads?  Why does it look as if 100 kids have written in crayon on the wall behind them?  Is the woman at work, looking after these kids? 

I think it’s an odd photo to have taken, and to have published.

I agree.  The fact that the Times would run a photo that is so thoroughly ambiguous implies just how confusing and confused the Arab world is to us — especially now.  The scary part is how easily a picture like this can be taken for granted.  Perhaps the most deceptive thing about the region is that it presents so many symbols that seem so familiar.  If that’s the case, perhaps it’s our tendency to identify with discrete symbols without more thoughtfully considering the way they interrelate.  What specifically worries me is the difficulty (and, in this government, the ignorance) in recognizing the more complex relationships between various ethnic, cultural and political entities in Iraq, and the greater Middle East.

On the other hand, maybe things are a lot more straight-forward than I think.  Maybe, looking at this picture, there’s only one simple question to figure out, which is:

How do you deal with Jesus in the same vicinity as the Dome of the Rock when it’s getting late in the day (unless it’s actually very early); and there are babies floating around; and you’re getting some kind of important picture from cable news, but you don’t know if it’s coming from our news or theirs, and which brand; and you find people together who don’t necessarily make sense together; and some people seem to be rooting one way, while others are sticking out their tongues; and birds are flying; and angels are descending; and, for some reason, nobody has a proper place to sit? 

(image: Max Becherer for The New York Times)

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Michael Shaw
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