Roving thoughts and provocations

How to Be the Photograph

Christopher Benfey

There was reason to expect some personal revelations when the musician and writer Patti Smith took the stage at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a Friday evening in early December. She was there to talk about Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer and indefatigable promoter of modern art whom O’Keeffe married in 1924. An exhibition upstairs in the Tisch Galleries—showcasing the works of art that O’Keeffe had selected from Stieglitz’s private collection and given to the Met in 1949, including some of his erotic photographic portraits of O’Keeffe herself—was the immediate occasion for Smith’s appearance, along with the publication of the first volume of letters by O’Keeffe and Stieglitz, which Smith carried onto the stage like a bible, festooned with yellow Post-it notes.

Afghanistan: A New Sectarian War?

Ahmed Rashid

Steve McCurry/Magnum Photos

Throughout a decade of terrible conflict in their country, there is one kind of violence Afghans have largely avoided: between Sunni and Shia. On December 6, however, all that changed. In coordinated attacks aimed at Shiite Muslims in three Afghan cities, bombs killed 63 people and wounded 150. Lashkar-e-Jhangyi, a Pakistani militant group affiliated with al-Qaeda, has claimed responsibility for the attacks. Its aim appears to be to start a sectarian civil war.

Gitmo Forever? Congress’s Dangerous New Bill

David Cole

John Moore/Getty Images

For nearly ten years now, Guantanamo Bay’s military prison has been an international symbol of United States lawlessness and a recruiting boon for al-Qaeda. If Congress gets its way the facility will stay that way for the indefinite future. Both houses of Congress have now approved versions of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a bill that would require the use of military detention and military courts for suspected terrorists and make it virtually impossible to close Guantanamo.

Twilight in Damascus

Sarah Birke

Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

One morning last week, while visiting a friend’s house on the outskirts of the old city of Damascus, I heard high-pitched voices shouting “Irhal ya Bashar!” (“Leave, o Bashar”). I peered out the window onto the street but couldn’t see anything. Later, when I went out, I tracked the chants to children innocently swinging to and fro on a large rusty metal swing in the street. The protest chant against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad would be nothing out of the ordinary in Homs, the city near the Lebanese border that has been a center of the Syrian revolt, but to hear it from children’s mouths in the heart of the capital shows how far the revolution has spread.

Making the Case Against the Kremlin

Amy Knight

Kino Lorber

There are many reasons for the poor showing of Vladimir Putin’s party in Russia’s December 4 parliamentary elections, among them the way Putin announced earlier this fall that current president Dmitry Medvedev would step aside in the March 2012 presidential elections so that he could run largely unopposed. But there also seems to be an increasing sense among Russian voters that the Kremlin has done nothing to stop pervasive corruption and that its own behavior is often above the law. To understand the extent of the crisis, observers might do well to watch German filmmaker Cyril Tuschi’s provocative new documentary about jailed Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, which began showing in Russia and the United States just days before the elections and is now at New York’s Film Forum.

Goodbye Serenity

Charles Simic

Thomas Hoepker/Magnum Photos

My own inordinate interest in what the lunatics are up to in every corner of our planet has to do with my childhood. When I was three years old, German bombs started falling on my head. By the time I was seven, I was accustomed to seeing dead people lying in the street, or hung from telephone poles, or thrown into ditches with their throats cut. Becoming a displaced person after that, one among millions, ending up in country after country, learning one foreign language after another, mispronouncing its words in school or when asking direction in the street, struggling to read and make sense of the history of the place, worrying about some war being declared and even bigger bombs falling on my head—all this contributed to my need to know what plans are being hatched behind our backs.

Choosing Egypt’s Future

Yasmine El Rashidi

Mosa'ab Elshamy

Few people I know in Cairo got much sleep last Sunday night. The voting stations were set to open at 8AM the following morning, and everyone was concerned that the day would be marred by the increasingly lethal violence we have witnessed in recent weeks. “I’m going to go as early as possible, before it gets crowded or anything bad happens,” my mother had told me. It seemed everyone had thought the same— by the time I reached my neighborhood voting station at 7:15AM Monday, it was already packed—there were at least 2,000 people there. A friend called me from her own voting station about 40 minutes away as I arrived, saying she couldn’t even see the end of the line.

Train of Thought: On the ‘Subway’ Photographs

Bruce Davidson

Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos

As I went down the subway stairs, through the turnstile, and onto the darkened station platform, a sinking sense of fear gripped me. I grew alert, and looked around to see who might be standing by, waiting to attack. The subway was dangerous at any time of the day or night, and everyone who rode it knew this and was on guard at all times; a day didn’t go by without the newspapers reporting yet another hideous subway crime. Passengers on the platform looked at me, with my expensive camera around my neck, in a way that made me feel like a tourist—or a deranged person.

Translating in the Dark

Tim Parks

Félix Vallotton

Let us remember our most intense experiences of poetry in our mother tongue, reading Eliot and Pound as adolescents perhaps, Frost and Wallace Stevens, Auden and Geoffrey Hill, then coming back to them after many years, discovering how much more was there than we had imagined, picking up echoes of other literature we have read since, seeing how the poet shifted the sense of this or that word slightly, and how this alters the tone and feeling of the whole.

Now imagine that, having a poet friend who wishes to translate these authors, you offer a literal translation of their poems in your second language. Maybe you read The Four Quartets out loud, line by line, to give him the cadence. But does our translator friend, who doesn’t know our language well, hear what we hear when we read aloud?

Secrets of the Keeper of Secrets

Russell Baker

Keith Bernstein/ Warner Bros. Entertainment

Clint Eastwood is now eighty-one, a mellow age that tends to breed a gentle tolerance, if not sardonic forgiveness, for life’s brutes and rogues. This may explain the curious lack of menace in the J. Edgar Hoover he conjures up in J. Edgar, his low-voltage cinematic speculation on the character of America’s most famous cop. J. Edgar Hoover without menace is like Boris Karloff without bolts in his head. Not an old softie, to be sure, but Eastwood’s Hoover—though a sly, neurotic, and occasionally vicious bureaucrat—is scarcely a patch on the real-life Hoover who, as creator and director of the FBI. from 1935 to 1972, once lurked in the nightmares of almost everyone with an interest in government and many more who simply went through life feeling guilty.