Them vs. Us, and Beyond
The upper photograph of mine, below, is featured on the cover of the March 2012 issue of The Sun magazine, which, according to its website, “is an independent, ad-free monthly magazine that for more than thirty years has used words and photographs to invoke the splendor and heartache of being human.” You can sample over 50 of my photographs which have appeared on Sun covers and inside the magazine on my website here. Below the magazine cover is another photograph I took of two Yemeni children.
In 1964, when I first arrived in Beirut (where I would be based for two years as a photojournalist), I met Dana Schmidt, the New York Times Middle East bureau chief, who asked me to accompany him on a journey to Cairo, Yemen, and Aden. From Sana’a, Yemen, we traveled north toward a tribal civil war then raging between the Royalists (backed by the Saudis) and the Republicans (backed by the Egyptians). The country was extremely undeveloped in those days. We met this man on the road north. He wore his curved dagger as a traditional emblem of manly power. Stuck in his headband was a sprig of khat, a mild narcotic plant chewed by most Yemeni men in the afternoons to induce a state of semi-stupor. The photo is reproduced in my recent book, Causes and Spirits. The full un-cropped print, made in my darkroom, includes the long-abandoned ruins of a castle on the hill behind the man.
In the 48 years since taking these pictures, along hundreds of others across the region, I have often reflected how long it is taking the Americans (and the British before them) to begin to comprehend the intricacies and staying power of tribal relationships throughout the Middle East and Asia — and to understand the near-futility of trying to transform these insular societies, in our lifetimes, into Western-style democracies.
Tribalism is an innate human survival mechanism. The impulse to cluster together in small bands must have embedded itself in the human brain over thousands of years of evolution. Straying beyond boundaries meant getting eaten by animals or killed by competing tribes. So, those with strong in-group affinities were selected to survive. That is my view and that of the neo-Darwinian “evolutionary psychology” movement.
Equally crucial, among these societies, I experienced traditional patterns of human relationship and economic cooperation. Mate selection, child rearing, home management, land management, animal husbandry, trading networks and handed-down occupations are elaborately codified in language, ritual, and religion to form a tightly woven fabric deeply resistant to change from within or without. Since the dawn of recorded civilization, the peoples across this vast stretch of territory, stretching from the Nile Valley across the Fertile Crescent and over to the Indus Valley, have developed complex strategies of thriving internally while resisting external threats. Layers of cohesiveness bind in-groups together in a quilt-like diversity of languages, faiths, pride and identity. Like many another outsider, I was greeted with extraordinary warmth, underwritten by strong customs of sharing and hospitality. The poorest among my hosts were often the most generous. However, ostracism — or worse — faced one of their own whose attitude or behavior might undermine in-group cohesion.
We westerners have all experienced schoolyard cliques, ethnic slights, religious and social superiorities/inferiorities, countless other in-group/out-group expressions, overt and subtle, right down to the class warfare sometimes implicit in the Presidential debates. Nationalism is a way of belonging, as is the nuclear family. But now there are strong forces, worldwide, working working to dissolve all forms of group affinity. These include major trends such as the spreading demands for personal equality and religious liberty, the toppling of dictators, and the globalization of commerce and travel. Digital transmission may enable tribal chatter, but it also seeds the rapid dissolution of all sorts of boundaries worldwide. Deeply rooted instincts are now confronted by commercial facts on the ground, and seamless communications in the air. The pictures of conflict I took in the Middle East, armed with Leicas and press credentials, are now being supplanted by gritty videos shot by ordinary citizens wielding their i-Phones.
Like it or not, appropriate or inappropriate, this is how the world is going. I welcome your comments.