Monday, February 14, 2005


wsf 7: afghanistan and darfur

The first revelation came while viewing a photo exhibit about the women of Afghanistan. The photos showed middle-aged women learning the alphabet, young women taking computer courses. There were mini-interviews in which the women talked about the challenges they experienced, their dreams and aspirations. Though the exhibit's intro text was fairly dark, talking about oppression and such, the pictures and interviews themselves were nothing if not uplifting. The women's lives were difficult, sure, but they expressed a great deal of hope.

Stepping back, I was struck by the fact that this was the first time I'd seen any mention of Afghanistan at the Forum. Why no Afghanistan? Perhaps because it was pretty stable right now. There had been elections, there was a new government, no one was getting blown up. You have to imagine that if there were still an insurgency Afghanistan would have been on every other placard in the place, like Iraq was. But things were going relatively well, so no one spoke of it. (I'll also mention that good news from Iraq was similarly unmentioned. The last day of the Forum was the Iraqi election, but you wouldn't know it to be there.)

The exhibit itself appeared to have undergone some sort of heavy editing. There was no mention of either the US or the Taliban. How could this be? In an exhibit on the current state of Afghanistan? It was as if the organizers had done everything possible to avoid any insinuation that the US might have played any sort of positive role in Afghanistan. Why were these middle-aged women learning to read now, as opposed to any other time? Makes you wonder.

So there I stood in front of a beautiful set of pictures and interviews of Afghani women, an exhibit which, if some context were supplied, would have reflected somewhat favorably on the US. I wondered what other people thought of this, so, taking Mandy's advice retroactively, I resolved to do something about it. I wrote out a set of questions to ask people who came to see the exhibit. "After seeing these pictures, what do you think of the current state of Afghanistan?" "Who do you think is responsible?" "Do you think the country was better or worse under the Taliban?" "Do you think the US was right to overthrow the Taliban?" I sat with these questions (and a few more) nearly 20 minutes, waiting for people to come. But the hour was late and the room was poorly-marked and uninviting. Nobody came. My resolve waned and I moved on.

The second revelation was the combined result of two art pieces. The first was a dance performance by a Palestinian dance troupe. It was actually really good -- circle dances and such.During this performance someone went around handing out leaflets denouncing the "Israeli genocide" of the Palestinians. Whatever one's feelings about the Israel/Palestine situation, "genocide" seems a tough case to make. For one, the total number of people killed is, in the greater scheme of things, rather small. A pro-Palestinian site lists an estimate of 3,334 Palestinians killed during the first 4 years of the intifada. This is of course not a happy number, but from the numbers alone it seems a stretch to make the case for genocide, especially in the context of an ongoing war of attrition in which people from both sides are dying.

(A note about death toll numbers. I have a few problems with how they are often used in the Israel/Palestine conflict. For one, the Palestinians numbers almost always include suicide bombers themselves, and Palestinians killed by other Palestinians. Also, there is rarely a distiction made between combatants and non-combatants. According to this rather detailed report, as of Feb. 2003 45% of Palestinian deaths were civilians, as opposed to 80% of Israeli deaths. Similarly, 32% of Israeli deaths were women, but only 5% of Palestinian deaths.)

Jump ahead a couple days, and I'm back at the art exhibits, wandering around the really back rooms. And there I find, totally deserted, an exhibit dealing with Darfur. And again I think, where's Darfur at the Forum? Why does no one mention Darfur? Darfur is probably the biggest ongoing human tragedy in the world right now. There is most definitely a genocide there. But not a word about it at the Forum, just a little art exhibit in a back back room.

Seriously though, why? Why do people run around crowing about genocide in Israel when there's a very real genocide happening in Sudan? What are their priorities? Do they actually care about stopping the slaughter of innocent people? I've got a theory, which you can make of what you will. My theory is that there is a narrative going around which is "West screws Developing World." Stories that fit this narrative become popular in places like the Forum. Stories that don't get ignored. When the bad guys are themselves people from the developing world, like the Taliban or the janjaweed, the Forum crowd loses interest. The story has no teeth; you can't use it to nail someone you want to nail. It's not about stopping genocide, it's about sticking it to the West. This is a very cynical view I know, but it seems borne out by what I saw at the Forum. Darfur and Afghanistan wiped from our mental maps.

And I guess this is why I get mad. Because this isn't just about whether you say the US is good or bad. This isn't just about opinions, or fashion, or whatever. I don't make the case that Israel/Palestine isn't genocide just to vindicate Israel. I make it because I want everyone to turn around and do something about a real genocide. There was so much energy, zeal, and rightous fury on display there at the Forum, if just some of that political will were turned toward Darfur there might be some real changes. Hundreds of thousands of people not raped, not killed. Maybe.

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