Everything that could possibly go wrong in Afghanistan has gone wrong over the past two months. The industrial-level rigging and manipulation of the August 20 election—largely by the government of President Hamid Karzai—could have dealt a death blow to international involvement in Afghanistan, as it entered its ninth year. Worse, it occurred just as the Taliban were ramping up their insurgency and Afghans were becoming even more disillusioned with their government than usual. So how did the US and its allies manage to convince Karzai this week to agree to a run-off election?
For me Iran’s sentencing this week of Iranian-American scholar Kian Tajbakhsh to at least twelve years in prison—the harshest sentence so far passed down by the revolutionary court—is particularly fraught. In 2007, he and I were fellow prisoners in Tehran’s Evin Prison. He was held in the men’s section and I in the women’s section of Ward 209, reserved for political prisoners held by Iran’s Intelligence Ministry. We had been arrested within a day of each other, and we shared, in separate interrogation rooms, the same interrogators. He began to send me books; thanks to him I was able to escape the confines of my prison cell by reading the novels of Dostoevsky and Graham Greene.
As the echoes of China’s spectacular military parade on October 1 were subsiding, officials in the Obama administration, in quieter settings in Washington, D.C., were telling representatives of the Dalai Lama that the president was not going to meet with him. This would mark the first time since 1991 that the Dalai Lama was invited to Washington—he was here to receive a human rights award from the US Congress—without at least some visit, however short and informal, with the president. It also goes against Obama’s own pledge to the Tibetan leader during his 2008 campaign to “continue to support you and the rights of the Tibetans.”
Irving Penn was assured a high place in the canon of photography well before his death, on October 7 at the age of ninety-two. Yet for those of us who came of age during the 1960s, he seemed the Apollonian counterpart of his Dionysian contemporary and principal competitor, the younger and groovier Richard Avedon, who died five years before Penn almost to the day. They were the twin gods who ruled high-fashion photography after the postwar resurrection of the Paris haute couture, when they brought unprecedented formal power and graphic impact to what had been dismissed as an intractably insipid genre—“visions of loveliness,” in the sneering phrase of Penn’s mentor and tormentor, Alexander Liberman, longtime editorial director of Condé Nast Publications.
The Swedish Academy’s selection of Romanian-German writer Herta Müller for this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature occasioned surprise in the United States, where Müller is little known. But in Romania, reactions have been strong—and ambivalent.
Vicente Molina Foix is one of those cultured Spaniards who seems more French than Iberian. A distinguished novelist, he knows everything about everything though he’s jokey and not at all pedantic and has the exquisite manners of an old-fashioned French aristocrat (come to think of it during the late Middle Ages there were French Counts of Foix in an independent fiefdom in the Pyranees just north of Aragon). He has written poetry, translated Shakespeare, taught for three years at Oxford, worked as a film critic and published a score of novels; his best known work is El Abrecartas, an epistolary novel that covers the twentieth century in Spain and includes among its many characters the Nobel prizewinning poet Vicente Aleixandre (who late in life was a friend to Molina Foix). There are also letters back and forth from Aleixandre and Lorca.
On October 13, a sold-out crowd at New York’s Cooper Union listened for an hour and a half to readings by such prominent writers as Art Spiegelman, Don DeLillo, Susanna Moore, Eve Ensler, A.M. Holmes, George Saunders, and Paul Auster. Convened by PEN American Center and the ACLU, these writers came together to read not their own work, but the words of CIA bureaucrats, FBI agents, torture victims, former President George W. Bush, Army interrogators, Guantanamo detainees, former Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, and coroners’ reports on the homicides of suspects killed in US military and CIA interrogations.
Someone really needs to write a “History of the Improvised Explosive Device”—the IED—covering the period since September 11. This seems like a much-neglected aspect of the Long War—or whatever you want to call it—that hasn’t really gotten its due. Take some of the ominous reports that have cropped up in the news over the past few weeks: