HORIZON OF HOPE
By William Carter
So often, these days, we feel caught in a clash of forces. When passions collide, resolution appears impossible.
Interminable wars, tribal struggles, sagging economies, rancorous politics, divorce courts, teenage gangs sometimes mirror our own internal struggles.
“Kill! Kill!” the drill sergeants taught my platoon to scream in basic training, running down a hill with fixed bayonets.
Violent mainstream movie content suggests such urges are never far from the surface.
Science has brought huge material gains, zero moral progress.
We are as we are.
End of story? Or can the situation change?
Research on human brain activity is famously hard to do. But progress is under way, and a spate of recent books describes the gradual unveiling of this final frontier. Careful, long-term studies are shedding light on the deep wellsprings of our thoughts and actions.
In The Moral Molecule (2012) neurologist Paul J. Zak summarizes decades of research into the ways the brain-and-blood chemicals oxytocin and testosterone powerfully affect human thought and behavior.
How culturally and tribally based languages, including music, express and determine our attitudes and actions via specific brain centers and pathways is the focus of the work of Daniel J. Levitin as outlined in books such as This Is Your Brain on Music (2007) and The World in Six Songs (2009).
Oliver Sacks is a well-known writer on these crossover areas between brain, behavior, and art.
Here are a few other recent titles, in alphabetical order:
We are as we are. Not necessarily as we thought we were — or could be.
The research nudges us past our deeply rooted tendencies to separate mind and brain, spirit and matter, them and us. The physical and spiritual are shown as one substrate. We are encouraged to seek resolution beyond the opposites, within that unified field. At least we can witness ourselves from a wider perspective, hopefully adding some humility.
While the wars rage on.
Here’s another photo to illustrate tribalism — a portrait of the famous Kurdish tribal chief, Mullah Mustafa Barzani, taken when I was traveling illegally in northern Iraq in 1965. This black and white version appeared with my six page article in LIFE Magazine the same year, and it reappears in my recent book, Causes and Spirits, on pages 264-265. Mullah Mustafa died in 1979. The original is in brilliant color (Kodachrome slide taken with Leica M2), which I could probably find and scan into my website if anyone is interested (ie, if enough readers write and ask). Another picture of Barzani taken by me at the same time illustrates the current Wikipedia entry on Mustafa Barzani.
The deep tribal affinity of the Kurds in their generations-long struggle for independence from the Iraqi central government is a textbook-perfect case of the enduring power of in-group tenacity throughout the Middle East and south Asia. Mullah Mustafa’s son, Massoud Barzani, has played a leading role in Iraqi politics since before and after his alliance with the US-Coalition invasion. He is the current leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iraq, and was re-elected President of Iraqi Kurdistan with 66% of the vote in July 2009.
The deeper reality is that the Barzani clan commands the fundamental loyalty of only part of the Kurds. The others traditionally adhere to a faction called the Talabani (unrelated to the Afgans by a similar name); Jalal Talabani serves as the sixth President of Iraq. He met with Barack Obama in Iraq on April 7, 2009. Past relationships between the two Kurdish clans were frosty at best, but (perhaps as a sign of changing political realities) the Barzani and Talibani appear to have evolved a cooperative relationship. The stories of the Kurds in Turkey, Iran, and Syria are politically different, yet ethnically similar in that, for instance, nearly all speak Kurdish and some have blue eyes; quite a number have also emigrated to Europe.
My step-daughter’s husband, Kushi Gavrieli, is a Kurdish Jew born in the Negev region of Israel whose family migrated there from a village in western Iran where the ancient Aramaic language is still spoken. The Middle East is speckled with such anomalies; I visited a band of Chaldean Christians living in a cave among the Iraqi Kurds.
Sure, all of above complexity will be beautifully sorted out and settled by whomever wins the U.S. election in November. Send over a few more bombs, and we can “get it behind us.”
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 30 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 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 with 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.
When I was fooling around with my first digital camera several years ago, I tried auto focusing on my hand, then snapped the picture. The photo somehow refused to go away, and kept popping up in my files. Unlike others in the book I was preparing in 2009, it would not fit in that sequence, but like an unruly child still demanded attention, until I hit on using as a soft pattern across both “end papers” – the sheets just inside the hard covers. What could be more implicit in ones destiny?
“The Palm of My Hand,” photograph © William Carter 2001-2010, as used in Causes and Spirits, 2011