Back to Baghdad

At the Roman ruins in Jerash, Jordan.
At the Roman ruins in Jerash, Jordan.

I felt small standing amid the Roman ruins in Jerash.

I marvel at the building accomplishments of people who lived so long ago; they intended to make structures last. How many slaves gave their lives in constructing magnificence not even an earthquake could fully take away?

I think of how I’d stood in this exact place more than a decade ago, when war seemed imminent in Iraq and I was in Jordan, waiting for a visa to fly into Baghdad. Just as I was now.

Time seems fleeting – and not.

Back in December of 2002, no one knew for sure what would become of Iraq. How George Bush would invade, drop bombs, send the world’s most powerful military in to destroy Saddam Hussein.

No one knew what would come next – a de-Bathification program that purged Iraq institutions of knowledge and expertise and left an occupying U.S. force with the daunting task of running a nation.

No one knew how American soldiers and Iraqi civilians would fall. One after another. In roadside bombings, firefights and attacks from an enemy that was often unseen. Or how Iraq would fall into chaos; Sunni fighting Shiite to the point that everyone assumed the worst of a civil war.

I stand under a cloudless sky in Jerash. It is late February but the chill that is normal for this time of air is gone. It is warm. The sun, bright. Like in Baghdad.

I will be there soon, 10 long years after the first time I visited.

saddam-hussein-picture-21Saddam’s face was everywhere then, a constant reminder of the consequences of stepping outside the boundaries of subservient Iraqi life. I remember clearly when I walked down the jetway from the Royal Jordanian plane at Saddam International Airport. “Down With the USA!,” it said. There was no mistaking where I had just arrived.

I was frightened and alone as I navigated my way through the maze of Iraqi controls for the foreign media. I was even afraid to close my eyes at night in my twin bed on a sixth-floor room at the Al Rashid Hotel. I knew someone was watching. Or listening. Or both.

On that trip, I met good people who had given up on life after years of conflict and punishing sanctions that robbed Iraq of material goods and normalcy of life.

A doctor who had no access to modern medicine, current journals or technology. A professor who sat under empty bookshelves – he had sold them all to feed his family. And a bookseller who hoped to make a living hawking outdated computer science books along with “the Great Gatsby” and “War and Peace” on the sidewalks of Al Mutanabi Street.

Where were they all now, I wondered? How their hopes must have risen an plunged like the tides of the oceans. I know I will probably not find them again now – after a decade of war, a decade of convulsion.

But I cannot wait to see Baghdad again. The way it was without American tanks and Humvees. I am anxious to see how the Iraqi capital is faring a decade after the war began and forever changed the course of Iraqi history.

I leave Jerash, my face pressed against the car window, all the way back to Amman. Soon I will be in Iraq, where I spent so many months of my life covering the war. In the midst of tragedy, I came to know a land that I loved in a way that is not always understandable. Perhaps it was because I saw the very best of humanity in conditions that were the worst.

Now I am eager to be there again.

WAR & Fashion

Carnage: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria.

Catwalk: Armani, Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent.

War is ugly. Fashion is beautiful. War projects the worst of humanity. Fashion displays sartorial splendor in its highest.

War is fraught with danger, even for journalists and especially for photographers who must get up close to their subjects to frame an image.

Fashion is far less perilous, though photographers must also get intimate with their subjects on and around the runways.
There are photographers who shoot both: battlefields and runways, guns and glamour. At first, photographing war and fashion appear as incongruous acts that are difficult to reconcile. Until, perhaps, you take a deeper look.

Check out this provocative project on CNN. It was our Director of Photography Simon Barnett’s idea. I got to interview some very cool people for the story.


On my last full day in Europe back in Novemeber (yes, I meant to write this eons ago), I hopped on a bus in Prague for an hour ride northwest to Terezin.

Joseph II built the city in 1780 and named it after his mother, Maria Teresia. It served as a fortress to protect Prague from invaders.

But during World War II, the Germans occupied the city. Adolf Hitler told the world that Terezin had been built for the Jews for their own protection. There was even a Nazi propaganda film made there that showed how happy the Jews were to be taken to Terezin. The Nazis even invited the Red Cross to visit Terezin after which the organization determined that the Jews were being treated well.

In reality, nearly 200,000 men, women and children were forced to the ghetto in Terezin. Many were taken from there to concentration camps and likely death.

The Czechs have tried to preserve the town’s history with a Ghetto Museum and tours through the town. I could feel the ugliness the moment I stepped off the bus in the town square. Yes, there were sure giveaways that it was the 21st century like the Stella Artois signs advertising a bar. But I could easily see how Terezin must have been in 1942.

The streets were largely empty. I guessed the houses must have gotten fresh coats of paint since the war but they stood as they were then, inanimate witnesses to acts of brutality.

This was a town of 5,000 people when the Germans drove the locals out. At the height of the war, 55,000 Jews were sent here. We saw in the museum exhibits how disease and starvation were rampant.

Still, many felt lucky to arrive at Terezin. This was not a Nazi extermination camp like Auschwitz-Birkenau or Treblinka. But many were sent there from Terezin.

Perhaps that’s why the town haunted me. That so many human beings sought refuge here and harbored hope in their hearts that they may live.

Just outside the town, in the old fortress, the Gestapo took over an existing a prison. I stood in the commandant’s office and stared at the sign in the courtyard: “Work makes you free.”

Here was a town with such an ugly past that I think many Czechs who were driven out to make room for the Jews, never returned. Why would they?

As the bus back to Prague meandered out of town, I pondered once again the breadth of inhumanity in this world. And why we should never forget places like Terezin.

A New Year’s salute to amazing people not on any lists

I met Zhanna Dawson at her Atlanta home in April.

Today, we bid goodbye to 2012 and usher in a new year. It’s a time of cheer and remembrance.

We like lists. So we have the top 10s of everything from movies to gadgets to events. And there are lists of admirable people. Barack Obama was Time’s Man of the Year. Malala  Yousafzai topped other lists. As did Mohamed Morsy, the Egyptian president and Olympians who set records and won medals last summer in London.

Then there are all those people who perhaps made the news in remarkable moments and then faded to the background again. Their names are not on any Top 10 lists though it’s likely they went on in their acts of courage, brilliance and altruism.

There are countless people, of course, who deserve recognition. I am naming a few who I had the opportunity to write about in the last 12 months.

Dr. Kasem kept the Hippocratic Oath at a makeshift hospital in the besieged Syrian city of Al Quasyr. He knew every patient could be his last; that at any minute, a rocket could slam into the building at any moment. Instead, he kept moving the hospital from building to building and held steadfast to the medical oath he took that demands that he do all he can to save lives.

“If I will die when I help people, it is good for me,” he told CNN many months ago. “Because I am a doctor. I must help people, especially in this very catastrophic time. After the revolution, before the revolution, during the revolution, I will help people.”

I don’t have any way of knowing where Dr. Kasem is today. Whether he is even alive.

Back in February, I wrote about how the Tibetan New Year, Losar, was silent and dark in 2012. Tibetans decided to forgo festivities to honor all the monks and nuns who have self-immolated in protest of Chinese rule. Think about what that takes — to set yourself afire because of your love for homeland.

In the West, we seldom hear about what Chinese occupation is doing to Tibet, how an entire culture is eroding.

And I salute survivors of tragedy and trauma everywhere who  found ways to carry on living.

In 2012, I was lucky to have met Zhanna Arshanskaya Dawson, who survived the Holocaust in her native Ukraine by playing the piano for the Nazis.

She is in her mid-80s now, yet I was so taken by her verve for life. I could not stop listening to a recording of her playing Chopin. I could not stop hearing her stories of the war — how she felt when she played for survivors of Auschwitz.

She was was a triumph of spirit amid the worst of humanity.

Tonight, I will sip bubbly and make resolutions for the new year. And I will celebrate the lives of extraordinary people I have met and hope that their achievements always serve as a guide for my own aspirations.

A brutal rape, then outrage. What next for women?


When I was home in Kolkata several years ago, I climbed aboard a crowded public bus to go across town. The experience was far from pleasant.

It was hot and crowded. The bus was filled with the stench of body odor. I could feel the sweat of others on my bare arms as I clawed my way to the front door to get out at my stop.

But all of that could be borne in some way or the other. This was the price of getting from south Kolkata to its financial center in Dalhousie Square on a ticket that cost me all of 5 cents.

But there was another memory that came hurtling back in the last few days as I read the news of a 23-year-old woman attacked and raped by a gang of men on a moving bus.

Men on the bus pinched me and groped me and there was nothing I could do. My right arm was up, holding onto the grab bar for dear life as the rickety bus bumped its way over gaping pot holes.

I could not move in that packed bus. I could not hit them back. I was helpless.

But that was just the way it was. Not one person around me thought to do anything about it.

What happened to me happens to women all over India. Every day.

I’ve been stared at on the streets. Or heard catcalls and whistles.

In every instance, I was violated. But I was lucky.

Many times, the attacks are violent. In the December 16 rape of the Delhi woman, the circumstances were unimaginable. Her assailants gang-raped her and dumped her battered body off an expressway. Her injuries were so horrific that part of her intestines had to be removed in hospital.

The shocking nature of this crime galvanized Indians to take to the streets to express their outrage.

But I believe that anger was a long-time coming.  It stemmed from years and years of hearing about rapes and other forms of violence against women in which victims are blamed and perpetrators face little or no punishment.

I believe that Indians were finally finding a mass, united voice by which to say: We have to change the way we think about women and the way we treat them.

Kavita Krishnan, the secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, got it right in a speech that was posted online:

There is barely a woman here who has not at some point fought for her dignity on the streets of Delhi, or in its buses. There is not one amongst us that has not found herself alone in such a situation. When we do this, we are told that we are inviting trouble; that we are asking for it.

The Indian government has promised stricter safety measures on buses. It can also, perhaps, make policy changes that will make reporting and convictions in cases of violence against women easier.

But ultimately, there has to be changes in the Indian mindset that affords women the dignity they deserve.

Here’s what journalist Shoma Chaudhury wrote on

Rape is already the most under-reported crime in India. But beneath that courses a whole other universe of violence that is not even acknowledged. It’s not just psychopathic men in a rogue white bus who can be rapists: it’s fathers, husbands, brothers, uncles, friends. Almost one in every two women would have a story — perhaps told, perhaps untold — of being groped, molested or raped in the confines of their own homes. If they dare speak of it at all, they are told to bury and bear it. Take it as a part of life. To name an uncle who has been molesting a minor niece would be to shame the family. And marital rape — that stretches the very imagination. It’s a mark of our bestial ideas about women that even judges often suggest that rape survivors marry their rapists to avoid the hell of life as a single woman rejected by society.

It’s clear, say Indian women’s rights activists, that passing laws is not enough.

Legislation might give a sense of change, said Ratna Kapur, a professor at Jindal Global Law School, when in fact, very little is being done. This is what she wrote in The Hindu newspaper:

To confront the hatred that is now manifesting itself in the most egregious ways is to move forward as a society. We need to think about how we can handle women’s equality in ways that are not perceived as threatening. That demands greater responsibility on the part of parents as well as society not to raise sons in a way in which they are indoctrinated with a sense of superiority and privilege. There is also a need on the part of young men to be actively involved in their schools and communities in advocating women’s equality rights.

I am horrified by what happened in New Delhi.

I am heartened that so many people hit the streets in outrage.

I can only hope that from this brutal crime will come the beginning of a safer future for women.

A violent world

I visited my friend Archna yesterday. She, like so many others I know, was distraught over the Newtown shootings.

What was happening to the world?

We embarked on a conversation about many things.

Was the world more cruel in medieval times? No, Archna said. Back then at least you knew you were going to be killed. There were fights and public executions but were there 20-year-old bursting into schools and murdering young children?

Maybe there were.

Maybe we just live in a world of heightened awareness and non-stop information sharing. Mt employer, CNN, has been broadcasting live from Newtown since Friday.

What was the answer to preventing another massacre like this? School security guards should be fully armed, Archna said. I don’t know about that. Yes, she agreed. Perhaps that might lead to more bloodshed.

She doesn’t think stronger gun control is the answer. Look at the crazy guy who knifed 22 children in China?

Maybe the answer was better health care access so that mentally disturbed people could seek the help they need.

I could tell that she, like all of America, was grasping for solutions.

There is so much violence in the world, she said. I told her about massacres in Syria and Congo and other places, where young children die every day.

Why was the world letting Bashar al-Assad do this to his own people?

With all those questions, I left her at the new branch of her restaurant Bhojanic. We were both thinking the same thing, I believe. What gave us the right to be so happy, to lead such trouble-free lives in a world that contains so much sorrow?

Sacred sounds

ShankarOne of the greatest musical talents of our time was silenced Tuesday. Ravi Shankar died at 92.

His was a name I grew up with, a name that made me proud to be Indian at a time when my country was known mostly for human misery.

I read the sad news of Shankar’s death Tuesday evening in The Hindu newspaper and thought back to a time when I was still in high school in Tallahassee, Florida. Ravi Shankar was touring the United States and he was coming to Florida State University’s music school for a performance.

There were only a handful of Indian families in Tallahassee then and not much for us in the way of our culture. It was a rare treat for us to be able to hear the pandit play the sitar.

My mother was especially excited. She sang Rabindra Sangeet and played the taanpura, an Indian string instrument that resembles the sitar but has no frets.

Then came a phone call from the organizers of the Shankar event at FSU. The maestro was sick of eating steak and potatoes and had requested a Bengali meal in Tallahassee. My mother was asked to do the honors.

It wasn’t easy to make authentic Bengali food at home in those days because no stores carried fenugreek or mustard oil. Most people didn’t even know what cilantro was back then.

My mother did the best she could with her stockpile of spices purchased from New York wholesalers. I remember she began cooking days ahead so she could present dinner in Indian fashion — at least seven or eight courses and then several desserts. The Bengalis are known for their “mishti.”

Listening to Ravi Shankar was magical that night. I didn’t understand Indian classical music very well then. In fact, I was not unlike most Westerners who equated Ravi Shankar’s name with George Harrison and the concert for Bangladesh.

The great tabla player Alla Rakha accompanied Shankar’s sitar that night. When they arrived at our humble split-level house for dinner, I was in awe. I couldn’t believe I was sitting at the same table with these musical giants.

Later, I came to appreciate Indian classic music much more. Now I own many of Ravi Shankar’s music as well as that of his daughter, Anoushka.

But my lack of knowledge didn’t matter that night in Florida. Shankar’s music was mellifluous. Like a luscious silk sari fluttering in the wind. Like rays of sun peaking through clouds. It was, as the pandit himself said, music that is sacred.

Read my appreciation of Ravi Shankar on CNN.


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