The New Museum Assembles a Staggering Show of Arab Art

New Yorkers are accustomed to publicly admitting our provincialism while privately upholding the belief that we live at the center of it all. The New Museum’s current exhibition “Here and Elsewhere” does nothing if not deftly point out that, at least as far as the art world is concerned, our horizons need quite a bit of expanding. The show is New York’s first museumwide survey of contemporary art “from and about the Arab world,” an uncomfortable, sweeping proposition that cuts across its subjects with a double-edged sword, reminding us that geography is as much about projection as about physical place.

Curated by Massimiliano Gioni and an in-house team including Natalie Bell, Gary Carrion-Murayari, Helga Christoffersen and Margot Norton, “Here and Elsewhere” borrows its title from the film Ici et ailleurs (1976) by Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin, and Anne-Marie Miéville. What began for the filmmakers as a sympathetic documentary about the Palestinian struggle became an uneasy meditation on the ethics of photographic representation. Images — like borders — are political, porous. They frame and restrain their contents, mediating the spaces between subject and viewer while other meanings, other agendas, still sneak in.

The exhibition winds this thread through the work of 45 artists for whom image-making is a potent, slippery tool for documenting, creating, and reclaiming ever-unspooling identity narratives that are both personal and political, chosen and imposed. New Yorkers may recognize some of the artists in the show (Yto Barrada, Wael Shawky, Etel Adnan), but most of the names will be new. As such, there is much to see in this intelligent, at times cacophonous exhibition as it conducts the eye across the nations of Syria, Lebanon, Kuwait, Morocco, Egypt, Dubai, Tunisia, Jordan, Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates to forge a rich and complicating vision of Arab identity.

As you open the door to the museum, you walk past a large-scale photograph plastered to its glass façade, of a lavishly appointed entrance to an Arabian Gulf resort. Once inside, turn around to see that the image has disappeared and left you looking back onto the Bowery through dully tinted windows. The illusion is courtesy of The One and Only Madinat New Museum Royal Mirage, an installation by the Gulf-based artists collective known as GCC. If the piece is a witty heads-up that the show is but a vision of the Arab world, other works remind us that there are very real theres there.

The short videos of Syrian production-collective Abounaddara capture the epic intimacies of everyday life, moving images to balance those the news broadcasts of civil war. In Jamal Penjweny’s photographic series, Saddam is here, Iraqi citizens are snapped in situ, holding portraits of Saddam Hussein over their faces. Read by an American, the portraits are shameful reminders of then-President Bush’s mapping and attacking Iraq as part of an “axis of evil,” though the masking also speaks to the psychological aftermath of Saddam’s dictatorship. The burdens of violence are also captured in Jordanian photographer Tanya Habjouqa’s Tomorrow there will be apricots, which documents the heavy mementos Syrian refugee women carry to remind themselves of those they’ve lost in the war.

The exhibition also reveals the sites out of sight (as it were), where identity has been expressed and explored with daring intimacy. The luminous self-portraits of Turkish-born Cairene photographer Van Leo were taken in his studio in the early to mid-1940s and capture the artist costumed as characters one might see in the movies, including one image of him in drag. Inside his Studio Shehrazade, Lebanese photographer Hashem el Madani snapped decades’ worth of clients posing and role playing — kissing, dancing, brandishing arms — seemingly without worry as to who was looking.

Although photographs and moving images comprise the majority of the show, artists working in other media contribute to the conversation with equal power. Syrian painter Marwan’s intense expressionistic figures agitate before us, while the languid and graceful lines of Palestinian conceptual artist Suha Traboulsi’s works in ink on paper eschew such representations for minimal gestures. Three color-block landscapes painted by Lebanese artist and poet Etel Adnan hang opposite the framed manuscript pages from her book-length poem, The Arab Apocalypse (1989), which many consider to be a masterwork of literature after the Lebanese Civil War. Her typewritten words laced throughout with handwritten revisions remind us that where images fail, language can provoke visions of another kind.

Perhaps the show’s greatest success is that there are so many artists here worth noting. (The joy of discovery isn’t a service most New York museums typically provide.) Egyptian Anna Boghiguian’s drawings are forceful incantations of odd wonderlands that collapse the ancient with the contemporary. Palestinian Wafa Hourani’s Qalandia 2087, meanwhile, constructs a vision of the Qalandia refugee camp’s future, at once dystopian and dazzling. Plan to linger longer at Bouchra Khalili’s video installation, titled, The Mapping Project, as well as Amal Kenawy’s dreamlike animation, The Purple Artificial Forest. Leave time to hover over Rokni Haerizadeh’s tragicomic drawings, Abdul Hay Mosallam’s relief paintings in acrylic and sawdust…the list could go on.

Although the exhibition prods us to see and think through and beyond the limits of place, a curatorial eagerness to illuminate the show’s subjects unsurprisingly leads to a fatiguing didacticism. The artists’ contributions are meticulously narrated throughout the entire exhibition, so much so that you may find yourself having to ignore the somewhat lengthy wall texts in order to have time enough to look. The problem has perhaps less to do with word count than it does with the classic perils of how an artwork’s origins, an artist’s intentions, and an institution’s bid for education can overdetermine how an audience receives the work itself. That said, audiences should view any excess of direction as an embarrassment of riches set inside what is, from beginning to end, an absolute gem.


Slavoj Zizek’s The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology Is a Lecture Like No Other

Your reaction to The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, the latest cine-lecture from Sophie Fiennes and Slavoj Zizek, will depend almost entirely upon your response to Zizek himself, a Slovenian philosopher whose appearance suggests a homeless lumberjack on speed.

Yoking together disparate topics with critical theory, Zizek’s fixation is revealing the social and psychological prejudices latent in pop culture. The film features Zizek parsing a number of films and their relations to history; keeping us visually stimulated, Fiennes has Zizek inhabiting the set of each film as he discusses it.

In essence, the film is a lecture, but Zizek’s associative thinking and understanding of the applicability of psychoanalysis makes it a lecture like no other. Linking West Side Story to the 2011 London riots (rebellious cultural movements’ self-aware exploitation of liberal ideology), The Dark Knight to WMDs and the Iraq War (the “noble lie” required for the sake of cohesive narratives), even Jaws to the Holocaust (stunning, but yes — the object that is manipulated to take the place of all fears), Zizek’s critiques illustrate how pop culture implicitly advances ideologies without us even being aware.

Zizek’s goal is to fulfill a role similar to the first film he discusses, They Live: Like the sunglasses in that picture, he’s interested in revealing the inherent systems of thought we unwittingly buy into. This critic expects that audiences willing to take a highly unusual cinematic journey will be seeing things rather differently as they leave the theater.


From Zuccotti to UC Davis: 99%–The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film

“We are the 99 percent,” chant the Occupy protesters as they set up a self-sufficient community in Zuccotti—renamed Liberty—Park to demand an answer to America’s wildly unequal distribution. 99%—The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film, a documentary made by over 100 filmmakers, gives us a look behind the barricades at these men and women who hoped to start a revolution on September 17, 2011. Though it largely sides with the protesters, the film does not find them faultless. For example, author Naomi Wolf criticizes the movement—after police forcibly evicted the protesters from the park—for being satisfied with “changing the discourse.” It’s a valid concern: After the outcry, what next? What is the solution? It’s easy to root for separating money from government, for wanting our votes to count. It isn’t news that greed at the expense of millions of others is bad. What is shocking is seeing the aggressive and malicious response to the movement: the growing police state where a row of nonviolent UC Davis students gets pepper-sprayed, an Iraq veteran’s skull is fractured by a flashbang grenade in Oakland, and members of the media have their press badges seized. The only time we hear from the 1 percent is when an unseen woman asks different people in suits if they’re going to the rally. When one man who says no is asked why not, he replies, “Because I make money.” And though the protesters may shout that money is not free speech, the reality is that it has the loudest voice of all.


The Castle

Today soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan often experience anxiety, stress, and difficulties readjusting to civilian life. Apparently, it wasn’t a lot easier in the 13th century. Howard Barker’s violent tragicomedy, staged by Barker superfans PTP/ NYC at Atlantic Stage 2, follows a group of Crusaders as they arrive in a changed England.

July 4-Aug. 4, 2013


Dirty Wars Is Essential Viewing About How We Wage Wars

It’s not news that the American “war on terror” has helped create growing anti-American sentiment (in Iraq and Afghanistan, for starters) rooted not in people’s envy of our culture or hatred of our values but in the senseless bloodshed suffered by their families and countrymen. A sobering illustration of how the U.S. creates such enemies is merely the starting point of Richard Rowley’s documentary Dirty Wars. Written by David Riker and celebrated investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill (author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army), the film follows Scahill as he unpeels the layers of the Joint Special Operations Command, the powerful covert military outfit that answers directly—and only—to the president, and whose maneuvers in the Middle East have left more civilians dead than we can know. Fast-moving and sleekly made, the film is woven from graphic images filmed on phones, in-the-field footage shot on handheld cameras, and interviews with both survivors of violence and stunningly callous American military figures. At times it plays like a real-life Jason Bourne flick as Scahill travels from country to country connecting the dots between mysterious and misbegotten attacks on outpost villages, the U.S. military’s hunt for the Taliban, and the complicity of both the U.S. government and media in covering up massacres and smearing journalists who do more than phone in PR-spun news. Dirty Wars is essential viewing for anyone who wants to know how we wage war right now; it’s also a chilling prologue for what’s likely a global future of endless war and blowback.


The Many Sacrifices of Captain Van Thach

I went into the Army Reserves in 1994, my freshman year at St. John’s University. First summer after freshman year, I [was] awarded a three-year Army ROTC scholarship. My initial commitment was four years active duty, and another four years, reserves. Six months prior to my graduation and my commission, I requested an educational delay to attend law school. The first law school I went to was in Lansing, Michigan, but I wanted to be at home to support my mother and especially my father, because he was older. I transferred to Touro Law Center in Central Islip.

I had a feeling of selfless service, but what changed me, very specifically, during my law school career, was September 11th. I was . . . I was at home studying for my classes, and I decided to take a break. I was watching the television when the first tower was hit. I continued to watch, and the second plane hit. As information came out that this was a terrorist attack, I decided that I was not going to pursue a legal career in the military. I wanted to make a higher sacrifice. Even though I had a very high [level of] education and a legal career, I decided that once I graduated law school, I was going to join the infantry in the U.S. Army—which are land-based soldiers, soldiers who are walking, using Humvee vehicles and other land-based vehicles—and engage the enemy face to face. I wanted to honor the innocent people, law enforcement, first responders, and the military personnel that perished.

My dad was infantry during . . . during Korea and Vietnam, and he knew the dangers, the despair of losing men, having to kill enemy combatants, seeing innocent civilians killed. He felt that I should be a lawyer in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps. My mother, also. Like any parents, they wanted their child to be safe.

I told them, “Don’t worry. Just pray for me and I’ll be fine.”

I was selected to go to the Infantry Training Brigade. [It] takes incoming soldiers, puts them through Basic Training, Advanced Infantry Training, then sends them to their units. That’s not what I wanted, but I was patient. After two years, I requested either Iraq or Afghanistan. In January of 2006, a request came down for military advisors. I volunteered. On March 1st, 2006, I was in Iraq as a military advisor to the Iraqi Army.

I served at Forward Operating Base Constitution in Baghdad, near Abu Ghraib. I didn’t work at Abu Ghraib prison. Our team was made up of up to 12 advisors; you’re living, sleeping, eating, and drinking with your Iraqi counterpart, your liaison officer who you’re advising. I would advise on training on firing ranges, map-reading for the soldiers, urban warfare, raids, using vehicles, how to drive in convoys. We ensured that the Iraqi military was technically and tactically competent to provide security for their country for . . . for domestic enemies . . . and also foreign enemies.

We’d raid a building that was housing terrorists or weapons, or had hostages. My counterpart would command his troops and I would be following him. If there was an IED found, he would use his soldiers to cordon off the area, and [I would] coordinate with Explosive Ordnance Disposal. We also conducted humanitarian operations at schools or mosques, our medical officers and medics providing first aid for eye infections, ear infections, maybe dental care. We would drop off school supplies, desks, markers, pens. In the winter, it gets as cold as New York, so we would have winter-coat and blanket drop-offs.

My Iraqi counterpart and I would have dinner together. I would stay over, watching television, getting to know his family, telling him about my family. Some of the soldiers who served underneath the battalion I advised were killed, so I went to funerals, as well. I’m putting my life in his hands; he’s putting his life in my hands.

In June 2006, I was in my Humvee. On a dirt road, my vehicle ran over an IED. The IED exploded and pushed our vehicle up in the air at least six feet, but we came down on all four wheels. Smoke was all around. [Long pause.] There was dirt all around. I immediately felt my driver—his arms, legs, and face. “Sergeant, you OK? You OK?” He said, “Everything’s fine. Just shaken up.” I then started feeling the legs of my gunner. He’s OK. I’m scanning, looking around to see anybody running away. I turned around to my interpreter. “Are you OK? Are you OK?” “Yes, yes, I’m OK.” I got on the radio, I went on high . . . I went on high headquarters. I told high headquarters what had happened. We were in pain, but being infantry soldiers, we went on with the mission. I was in an up-armored Humvee, so it could take a heavy hit.

When I talked to the medic I told him that I had a headache, a little bit of nausea. He gave me some aspirin, told me to get some rest. Eventually, the pain got too excruciating and I did go to an American base next door to the medic station. I suffered a mild traumatic brain injury.* I had a neck injury, and injury to my spine, to my back, to one of my C-spine areas. I got some physical therapy for my neck and my back and some medication for the pain. In 2006, traumatic brain injuries weren’t widely known.

In October, we received notice that my one-year deployment would end in March of 2007. Headquarters sent down a request to see if anybody wanted to do six-month extensions. I put in a request to stay an additional year. I was initially going to be an advisor again.

In February 2007, one month shy of completing my first year, we came under attack by Katyusha rockets, 12-foot-long rockets. I was walking with my Iraqi counterpart. I heard a whistle. You always hear a lot of explosions and gunfire, so a whistle didn’t faze me. Then I heard a big boom and I was unconscious. One of them landed [long pause] 20 meters from me. I took the brunt of the blast, my body was blown to the ground. I was medevaced out, I didn’t know what was going on. I woke up in the hospital in Baghdad City, in the Green Zone . . . I was at the combat hospital. I was given morphine for the pain. I was in a hospital bed. I was in tremendous pain. The next day I was flown to Balad air base in northern Iraq, stabilized, and then I was . . . told that I would be transferred to Landstuhl, Germany.

In Balad, there were American soldiers missing arms, missing legs, unconscious. They didn’t know what was going on. I felt . . . looked in the mirror and saw I had everything. I felt it [would be] a dishonor to be on the same plane as them. I requested from the medical staff not to go to Landstuhl. They said the only way that you can be released is if we get clearance from a medical officer, so they scheduled me to see a psychologist, to talk about my mental stability, and talk about my background and what I was doing in Iraq. I was hurt, but I wanted to continue the mission. A psychologist wrote a recommendation after the Military Acute Concussion Evaluation that I was impaired and could endanger myself or others in combat, but that it would be possible to stay in Iraq on a modified duty. I headed back to Baghdad. My commanding officer was astounded when I came back. He said, “You should have gone to Landstuhl.” I said, “Sir, I can still do my job.”

I was hyper-vigilant about what was going on around me. Every single noise, I’d be jumping, looking around me to make sure it wasn’t another attack. I was having problems sleeping, having nightmares of those two attacks. I was also having neck pain, back pain, mild headaches, blurred vision. I knew if I complained I could be sent back to the States. So I kept it under wraps. I took some painkillers to mitigate the pain, and I drived [sic] on with the mission.

They assigned me to headquarters at Iraq Assistance Group as the S4 Supplies and Services Officer in Charge. And because of my contract-law background, I was tasked to coordinate and build a base in eastern Iraq called Combat Outpost Shocker. Where the Iraqi border patrol was facing Iran, it wasn’t defended properly and couldn’t stop the smuggling of weapons and Iranian Revolutionary Guard agents. I was able to write up a statement of work, and coordinate with engineers. I brought in several Iraqi contractors, and awarded one the contract. The base that I built was a premier base. It had dining facilities, housing units for the soldiers, offices, a helicopter landing pad, generators, a motor pool.

I coordinated everything from Baghdad. But at the end, when the base was built, I requested from my commander if I could go out to the base by helicopter and visit it. He said it was OK, as long as I traveled with somebody. So I traveled with our chaplain.

The base was one of the great accomplishments of my stay in Iraq.

In April of 2008, it was time to return to Fort Benning, Georgia. The first week, I was having a lot of nightmares [about the attacks in] June 2006, February 2007. I was in tremendous pain. When you’re in a [military] convoy, civilian vehicles are not allowed next to you, so I was very hyper­-vigilant, especially when I went off the base, dealing with vehicles next to me. With the migraine headaches I had problems seeing. Finally, after a month and a half, I went into the hospital. I stayed for two months. I wasn’t able to do my infantry job anymore. My doctor decided that I should be medical-boarded out of the military. I was officially retired in March 2009. It was a crushing experience.

My wife at the time did not agree with my commitment to the Army. It was too long, and too much pressure on her. We decided to get divorced. That was very troubling. I was very dependent on my mother and my father to assist me. I was a 33-year-old man, but now I had to use a cane. I had difficulty putting on my socks because of my neck and back, difficulty sleeping, had to be driven to the hospital for my medical treatments.

I lost my sense of independence. So it was very . . . it was very, very . . . I lost my sense of manhood and I became very depressed. Some days I wouldn’t take my medication, I would leave the house with my walker or cane and just go on the subways, sitting on empty cars, reminiscing on what my life had become. I contemplated suicide, maybe jumping in a subway station, in front of a subway train. Living on the train, not returning home. A few days became a few weeks. I wanted to jump in front of a train. I decided to go to the Manhattan VA Hospital. It was the holiday season in 2009. I ended up in the hospital again in June of 2010 for a month, again for the holiday season 2010—because of the depression on the holidays, thinking of the men I lost in the war, that weren’t there with their families, but I was here.

My father knew that I was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder—he does, too. He was a World War II veteran, a Korean War veteran, and a Vietnam War veteran. He advised me to go out to Northport [Veterans Administration].

Having somebody who wanted to be there with me was [another] major factor. Since my divorce was finalized, I had started to be romantically linked with my best friend’s wife’s friend in e-mail. She was in Vietnam. I took a one-month vacation in Vietnam. I petitioned a K-1 visa, a fiancée visa, and I brought her to the United States in 2010. I needed somebody I could open my heart to. I had to find a counterpart.

The third thing that helped me was a service dog that I received free of charge from Canine Companions for Independence, through their Wounded Veterans Initiative program. Instead of always asking my wife, my mom, “Oh, I dropped my medication bottle, my keys, my socks—can you pick it up for me?” my service dog, Liz, can pick up items on command. Her compassion for me, her being next to me, has helped me emotionally.


As part of Operation Proper Exit, a nonprofit

that works to treat PTSD by bringing wounded veterans back to the war zone, Captain Van Thach spent seven days in Afghanistan in February of 2013.

We flew business class from D.C. to Kuwait. We transitioned into our uniforms, and flew by military plane to Afghanistan. I was there for one week. I, along with eight other wounded veterans, traveled to several bases and attended town-hall meetings, with over 1,500 U.S. troops. We talked about how we were injured, how we have been treated, how we are persevering.

My psychological scars—nightmares, anxiety attacks, the hyper-vigilance—I wanted to face those fears. Worrying about that . . . that rocket flying into a base. Worrying about being shot at. We were traveling in convoys, we were traveling in the traffic of everyday life and at . . . at any time a suicide bomber could have came [sic] in a taxi or somebody could have came [sic] on a motorcycle with explosives or on a bike with explosives, and I had to keep my eyes open to face those fears. I had my cane, and I was walking through the base during the day and night to take on those fears.

Right now I’m taking 20 pills a day. I’d been on sleeping medication for over five years. After the fifth day, I did not have to take my sleeping pills. Since coming back to the United States, I did see my psychiatrist and I mentioned that to her, and she was very happy for me.

I cannot bend over. I have high anxieties. I have nightmares. The bomb blast contorted my spine. I have to use a cane to walk. If it’s longer than two blocks, I use a walker. If the pain is tremendous, I use a wheelchair.

But our injuries don’t define us. It was a tremendous experience going to the war zone with those eight other wounded veterans. We want to serve as an inspiration to our fellow Americans and an asset to our country. I feel very honored that I had the opportunity to serve, especially during war. Many men and women have paid the supreme sacrifice. I’m very fortunate that I still have my life. Living through history to serve our nation and protect our citizens has made me a more compassionate person. I plan [on] taking the New York State bar exam, to work for veterans pro bono.

I’m working on my short-term and long-term memory. I’m taking the proper medication, but nothing can be fixed overnight, or in a week, or in a year. A lot of injuries are lifelong, so I have to be realistic. I have to accept it. But I have to make my life as comfortable as I can.


Jonathan Wei is the founder and director of The Telling Project (


SCOTUS-Backed Surveillance Law Built on a Bush-Era Lie

Army Spc. Alex Jimenez died without ever learning he would be used to advance the Bush agenda. Jimenez, a U.S. soldier originally from Queens, was abducted in Iraq alongwith two others in May 2007. But he quickly became more than another missing soldier. The Bush administration decided to spin his capture, plunging Americans into a civil-liberties head game, and leading to a Supreme Court ruling last week that activists fear will leave the Fourth Amendment permanently weakened. 

After he was captured, Jimenez became the focus of media attention not because there was anything exceptional about his mission or the attack on his unit, but because his case was used to highlight a law the Bush administration blamed for delaying the search for his captors. Bush officials said the hunt was hampered by the bureaucratic hurdle of what’s known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, which was enacted in 1978 to require the approval of a special court before wiretapping people inside the U.S. suspected of terrorism or espionage. That requirement cost Jimenez’s would-be rescuers precious hours, the Bushies’ narrative explained. The FISA requirement could lead to the loss of American lives.

 The supposed delay in wiretapping Jimenez’s captors was reported by the Associated Press on August 3, 2007, just as the Protect America Act (PAA), the law President Bush had sought as a “fix” for FISA, was being voted on in Congress. The Christian Science Monitor reported that the delay was again discussed in September by Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell as he urged Congress to pass a law making permanent the changes contained in the temporary PAA. (A few weeks later, in October, according to an Army statement, Jimenez’s weapons, including an M-249 “squad automatic weapon,” were recovered in an Iraqi village, but not his body.)

 And so a drama of violence and death in Iraq became part of a debate in Washington about wiretapping and the Fourth Amendment. It is part of a narrative that stretches back to The New York Times‘ 2005 revelation about warrantless wiretapping by the National Security Agency. It is a debate that takes place with almost no concrete evidence about how, exactly, the government has used those powers: No public record exists of the NSA program or FISA court orders. And it is a debate that was rekindled a week ago with the Supreme Court’s dismissal of a lawsuit by a group of plaintiffs who had sued to block the expanded wiretapping powers of 2008’s FISA Amendments Act (FAA), which also gave telecoms immunity against lawsuits brought by those who believed they had been illegally wiretapped. The FAA was renewed for five years in 2012.

 With the Supreme Court’s dismissal of that case on February 26, we seem one step closer to permanently enshrining a legal regime that, as of today, allows the government to eavesdrop without warrants on foreigners believed to be outside the country in order to collect “foreign intelligence information,” a term that is broadly defined. But that doesn’t just affect non-Americans. In a brief filed last year with the court, the American Civil Liberties Union explained that “Under the FAA, the government can target anyone—human rights researchers, academics, attorneys, political activists, journalists—simply because they are foreigners outside the United States, and in the course of its surveillance it can collect Americans’ communications with those individuals.” Got a client in Bahrain? A source in Somalia? You are now fair game. “More than 40 million Americans travel overseas each year,” Lisa Graves, the executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy and a former deputy assistant attorney general, told the Voice. “Increased globalization should result in strengthened privacy protections for Americans, but changes to FISA pushed through by President Bush have weakened privacy protections for Americans at home and abroad.”

 Graves’s concern is easier to understand given that it seems the Bush administration resorted to outright deception to get the new rules approved. Much like aluminum tubes and purported yellowcake uranium were put forward as grounds for preemptive war in Iraq, the central premise advanced by the Bush administration as justification for wiretapping—and for stripping away the requirement of a warrant from the FISA court—was at best wrong, and very likely a lie. And this central “fact” was so banal and technocratic that it seems to have gone unnoticed all these years: Government officials claimed that phone calls made between two points within a distant country, or between two distant countries, routinely passed through telecommunications hubs or switches inside the U.S. The officials insisted that surveillance of these calls was not permitted without a warrant from the FISA court, leading to a dangerous, even lethal, backlog of warrant applications. While U.S. intelligence officials waited for the FISA court to issue their warrants, this storyline read, scads of terrorist communications went undetected, creating the risk of another 9/11. 

 The claim about foreign phone calls routinely passing through U.S. switches was widely reported, including by The New York Times and The New Yorker. For example, in a New Yorker profile of McConnell, published on January 21, 2008, Lawrence Wright reports that McConnell, in his office, explained the administration’s FISA problem by walking over to a world map on his wall. ” ‘Terrorist on a cell phone, right here’—he pointed at Iraq—’talking to a tower, happens all the time, no warrant. Tower goes up to a microwave tower, no warrant. Goes up to a satellite, back to the ground station, no warrant. Now, let us suppose that it goes up to a satellite, and in the process it does this’—his finger darted to the U.S. before angling back to Pakistan. ‘Gotta have a warrant! So it was crazy.’ “

 But calls between two points in Iraq or any other foreign country did not and do not routinely pass through switches inside the U.S. Indeed it seems they almost never do. Not only was McConnell’s description untrue, it borders on ridiculous. As one FCC official, Narda Jones, told the Voice, “Usually the cost benefit is to carry traffic over the shortest distance, unless a country requires a fee. . . . Everything I know and understand is that it’s cheaper to go the shortest distance.” Daniel Sudnick worked for a year in Iraq, helping to oversee the establishment of a telecommunications infrastructure, including landline and cell-phone networks, for the Coalition Provisional Authority after the 2003 invasion. Asked by the Voice if he had ever known of calls between two points in Iraq traveling to a switch inside the U.S. and back to Iraq to be completed, Sudnick answered, “No. I don’t know why anybody would want to do that.” An officer on a ship that repairs transatlantic undersea fiber-optic cables told us, “Since bandwidth is at a premium, I can’t see how it makes financial sense to lease space on another telecom’s wire to cross an ocean and back again.” 

 The “crazy” situation McConnell outlined to Wright was a fiction. What’s more, the powers the FAA was designed to make permanent already existed in Army Regulation 381-10, which is dated May 3, 2007, and carries the signature of the administrative assistant to the secretary of the U.S. Army. The regulation makes clear that decisions about wiretapping non-U.S. persons (those who are neither U.S. citizens nor permanent residents) in a foreign country are left to officers on the ground with the authority to initiate surveillance. The regulation leaves no doubt that FISA was never needed to wiretap Iraqi insurgents in Iraq. One of its provisions allows wiretapping without a warrant of any non-U.S. person from any location, as long as the target is outside the U.S. As Louis Chiarella, a former judge advocate in the U.S. Army who has written about FISA, told the Voice, he knew of no instance where FISA and the military regulations were in conflict. In other words, every tool, legal or electronic, needed to find Jimenez—or prevent another 9/11—was already in place.

 In a Rose Garden ceremony at the White House on July 10, 2008, George Bush signed the FISA Amendments Act into law. The following day, the Pentagon announced that Jimenez’s remains had been identified. The press release describes the attack south of Baghdad in which Jimenez was captured and notes, “The incident is under investigation.”

 Alex Jimenez was promoted twice after capture: to sergeant in January 2008, and posthumously to staff sergeant that July.


A Dancer’s Tour of Duty

I was born in New Mexico. I grew up in Washington State. After high school, I moved back to New Mexico to go to college, and I started studying dance—ballet and jazz. After a few years, I got the chance to study ballet in a conservatory in Connecticut. Very rigorous training. I worked as a professional ballet dancer for a few years, and then, in 2000, I enlisted in the Marine Corps.

Being a classical ballet dancer has a lot of stigma attached to it. I wanted people to look at me differently. And I wanted to serve my country.

My grandfather was in the Korean War, and my uncles were in the three other services. My family’s military history was a factor, but even more than that, I knew so many other Marines. Kids I’d grown up with had gone into the Marine Corps. I had a soccer coach who was a former Marine. All of the Marines I knew had certain values that I felt I wanted in my life.

I walked into the Marine Corps recruiter’s office with an earring in each ear and red hair. The recruiter sat me down and did the typical spiel: judgment, justice, integrity, discipline, and so on. I said, “I’ll make this really easy for you. I want to be a Marine.”

I didn’t tell my friends until after I’d actually signed the papers. I didn’t want them to talk me out of it. The night that I told all of my friends, two of them were dancing at an international ballet competition here in New York City. We were driving to drop them off at Fordham so they could be in rehearsals the next day. I fell asleep in the backseat, and when I woke up I overheard them having a conversation about my decision. My best friend was extremely worried that the Marines were going to forever change me.

I went to Parris Island, South Carolina, for basic training. Of course it was very hard. But the ballet conservatory was very hard. I had no problem rising to the physical standards. It was the mental demands and the constant attention of the drill instructors and the amount that they test you. We woke up at 5 o’clock in the morning and had to do pull-ups before we went to chow. You would line up at these pull-up bars and crank out as many as you could, and the first squad to 500 didn’t have to do fire-watch that night.

I would have dreams of doing pirouettes down the squad bay. I didn’t tell anyone in boot camp that I was a ballet dancer. But the woman I was seeing sent me a book of photos of us dancing, and as I was looking at it, a few of my friends looked over my shoulder. Two of them thought it was really interesting. The third one never talked to me again. We went through basic training together and then to the infantry school, and he steered clear of me the whole time.

I just put dancing away while I was in the Marine Corps. Except for the last day of boot camp, when I already had my papers. I marched right up to my senior drill instructor and snapped to attention, and said, “Sir, this Marine has something he wants to show you, sir!”

He said, “What?”

I said, “I want you to take a look at this.” I handed him a manila envelope.

He pulled out the first picture, and it’s a picture of me in a tunic and tights with a ballerina, from Sleeping Beauty. And he slowly shakes his head and goes, “Oh, Baca, Baca. I knew there was something weird about you.”

Training with the Marines during peacetime, I don’t think there was that clear sense of purpose. But once September 11th happened, things got crystal-clear real fast.

I was a reservist, trained as an anti-tank missile gunner and assigned to 23rd Marines out of Chicopee, Massachusetts. On September 11th I was working in Connecticut at a day job. My boss flipped on his television, and we saw the aftermath of the first tower, and we saw the plane hit the second tower. And my phone started lighting up. Our whole unit got on the phone with the company commander and just begged to come down to New York City and help out.

There were rumors of where they were going to send us, everywhere from Egypt to Syria. We ended up getting sent as a Quick Reaction Force down to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, and then deactivated six months later and sent home. But we all wanted to be overseas doing what we had been trained to do. And in 2005, we were sent to Fallujah.


The military is very good at keeping secrets. Even where we were going and why we were there was kept under wraps. And at the time, we didn’t know much about Fallujah. There was very little in the media about Operation Phantom Fury; there was very little about the dangers in the area. All we knew was we were going to Iraq, and we were preparing like we were going to the Wild West.

We got sent to Twentynine Palms, California, to acclimatize to the heat. We flew from Twentynine Palms to one of the air bases in Iraq. The minute we got to Camp Victory, we were told to fill our magazines with as many rounds as they can hold. And they laid out in front of us just ammo can after ammo can after ammo can. It nailed home the fact that we were going to a place that was very dangerous. And then we were trucked in to Fallujah.

It was completely flat. There were a couple main highways that came into the area, and there were three small villages. The engineers had gone in and made makeshift sand dunes, so we couldn’t get attacked, but otherwise it was arid and flat and hot.

Fallujah at the time was an extremely dangerous place. The base got mortared a lot. The very first patrol that we went on, we rolled up onto an area where a Humvee had been hit with an IED or a mortar or some sort of explosive, and we actually found a helmet. So what was supposed to be a normal, run-of-the-mill patrol turned into something that emphasized that we weren’t in a safe place.

They allowed some Iraqi locals to work on base. And because I’d had a little bit of college, I got trained on the imaging machines to screen these people getting on base, and worked with the interpreter to make sure they didn’t have anything. Because of the machine, we weren’t allowed to wear any protective equipment—no flak jacket, no helmet. I wasn’t allowed to have my M-16 because I was usually conducting a body search. My cover man was the man who carried the M-16. And by the time the locals got to our tent, they were supposed to be totally clear of anything that could be dangerous. Knives, weapons—they were supposed to surrender all of that at our armory.

One day, we were in the tent, and there were two Syrian men coming through our post. When they got to our tent, the translator asked one to empty his pockets, we went through his stuff, we put him through our machine, he was totally fine, we asked him to step out, and we asked his friend to come in. When he came in, we put him in front of the machine, and I got an image that we weren’t supposed to have at this point.

We were given so much training as to what bomb vests looked like, what they could do in a short amount of time, the trigger mechanisms. The only protocol for a bomb vest was to neutralize the threat. Immediately. Right between the eyes. I gave a signal to my cover man to aim his M-16, and instead of doing what I should have done, I told the translator to tell the guy to lift his shirt. And as soon as the translator told him that, the guy went white and lifted his shirt, and he was wearing a bulletproof vest. It was just a bulletproof vest.

That day we took a chance. I’d like to say I did the right thing. I don’t know why I asked him to lift his shirt. It was just that day.

By the time I left Fallujah, I thought I wouldn’t dance again.

I had met somebody new before I went to Iraq, and we had a tumultuous relationship before and through the deployment. Most of the communication was done through e-mail or over the telephone—you had these huge trailers that had 20 or more phones, and you went and took a stall and dialed. She was there when I got home, when I got off the bus in Chicopee, and I think our relationship, from that moment forward, started to improve. Improved enough that she’s now my wife.

I wanted to do everything I thought responsible people did. I got a really good job as a technical specialist at a storm-water company, and bought a condo in Waterbury, Connecticut. I thought things were going really well for about six months. And then my girlfriend sat me down and said, “We gotta have a talk.”

I was like, “Sure, let’s talk.”

And she’s like, “You’re not OK. I don’t like the person you are.” She said I was anxious, I was depressed, I was angry. I was mean. I had some episodes when I was driving on the freeway, and traffic was getting bad. I wanted to ram into other cars. That was part of the standard operating procedure when you were dealing with other cars in Iraq. You take care of the situation. We had a couple incidents where we had to travel along a main thoroughfare and we had to escalate to using force. So now, back home, I had to pull off the freeway and walk around a supermarket and call my girlfriend and talk myself down from that place.


We would take the Metro-North train into Grand Central, and when we would walk through the station, I’d get angry at the lack of personal space, and I would get anxious. Instead of just dealing with those feelings, I made it a game to see how hard I could bump into somebody. I thought it was funny, but now, looking back, I’m embarrassed. People would tell me they were afraid of me.

When my girlfriend sat me down, instead of saying, “It’s over,” she said, “Let’s figure out what we can do to fix this. If you could do anything in the world, and you didn’t have to worry about money or time, what would you do?” I told her I’d start a dance company. And so we did.

On a very basic level, I had walked away from the arts, and figured that I needed to live a corporate life, a “normal” life. So this was recognizing that art could still be a part of life. We started working on choreography. Some of it was autobiographical, about a dancer who became a Marine and went to Iraq, and some of it was more about what it meant to serve in a war. It gave us the opportunity to bring the war into places where nobody wanted to talk about it and nobody wanted to think about it. And so it became more than just dancing.

Our first work was a piece called Habibi Hhaloua, which is an Arabic phrase that I learned as meaning you have my eyes, or when I look at you, all I see is you. The Iraqi people are very passionate people, and they have ways of saying things that we compartmentalize into “I love you.”

The piece was about a Marine on patrol in Iraq. And during this patrol, he does what we all do in the midst of monotony—our mind wanders, and we create a world within a world. And so he creates these characters that represent everything tying him back to where he’s from—life and courage and home and love. And the love character becomes real to him, and they dance a duet together. And because he gets pulled out of that very alert state, he gets injured, and his comrade has to take him to the medevac.

When we were in Fallujah, there was a Syrian sniper that was picking off Marines left and right. He was brilliant. He would get them right in the neck, because he knew that it would get stopped by the helmet, and it would get stopped by the ceramic plates in the flak jacket, so he knew exactly where to aim. In Habibi Hhaloua, the Marine who is injured in the dance gets hit by that sniper.

Next I did a piece about the war’s effect on families. We recorded letters—letters that my sister had written to me, letters from my girlfriend, letters I had written back home. Whenever I talked to my mom when I was in Iraq, she would always be, “Things here are just great. How are you?” I had this image in my head that my mother was a rock. And when I got back and started talking to people, they all said the same thing: “Your mother was a basket case while you were gone. You couldn’t talk to her about it, because she’d lose her mind.” And so we created a ballet called Homecoming. The letters are read, and the dancing is everything the letters don’t say—the loss, the longing.

We also created another work, called Conflicted, about the relationship between the American military and the Iraqi people. And next month we’re starting a piece that’s going to be choreographed by the mother of two Army soldiers who are deployed to Afghanistan. She wanted to do a piece about being a mother waiting for her only sons to come home from the war.

Two Marines that I knew took their own lives. One was a Marine I served with. Another was a Marine I used as a template on how to live after the Marines. He was a volunteer at The Mission Continues, a nonprofit organization that gives fellowships to post-9/11 veterans to serve their communities. He did his fellowship responding to disaster areas. And I guess he decided that life was a little too difficult. That rocked my world.


Then I applied for a fellowship with The Mission Continues myself. I was awarded a fellowship last year to work with a dance company here in New York called Battery Dance. [Baca moved to New York City in 2011.] They were already doing overseas work with dance, and we developed a program to bring workshops to Iraq.

And so I went back to Iraq last April.

I didn’t get to take anything with me—no flak jacket, no helmet, nothing. I had my dance clothes and a 95-pound female dancer from New York City who went with me. We get in the car to go to JFK and she turns to me and she says, “I’m scared. I’ve been to Africa and Cambodia to do this program, and when I tell people where I’m going they’re always like, ‘Great! Do great work!’ But when I told people I’m going to Iraq, they were like, ‘Be careful.'”

So I tried to calm her by pulling the Marine card and saying, “I’m a Marine and nothing’s gonna happen to you.” But when the plane left Istanbul, we were the only Americans on the plane, the only people who spoke English. When we landed in Arbil, we had to get from the plane to the parking lot to catch our bus. We were the first ones on the bus, and I was like, “This is great, the bus is gonna leave, we’re gonna be fine.” But the bus didn’t leave, and we sat there while more and more people got on—and they were all military-age males. And suddenly the Marine Corps training is kicking in, and I’m putting myself in a corner, and making sure I have eyes everywhere.

Then a family of four gets on. A wife and husband and two little kids. And as the bus starts, her bag falls over. And I pick up her bag and I lean it against my leg so it won’t fall again, and she looks at me and says, “Thank you,” in broken English, and smiles. And then my traveling partner starts to play with one of the little kids, trying to make him laugh. And that’s when I knew it was going to be a different sort of trip.

Through a grant from the U.S. State Department’s cultural diplomacy program, we went to northern Iraq and did a dance workshop with 30 kids. Half of them were from Kirkuk, which is Arab, and half of them were from Arbil, which is Kurdish. We brought them together, and in five days the kids choreographed a dance about the struggles of being a young Iraqi, what it’s like to live through a war, what they thought the Americans thought of them and what they thought of the Americans, and their hopes for a better future.

We performed that piece in a theater for 240 community members—their families and friends, people who saw our banner and came to the show, members of the Ministry of Culture in Iraq, and members of the U.S. Consulate in Arbil. And at the end of the performance, the families had just two questions: When were we coming back? And what city were we going to next?

And so now we are planning another trip back to Iraq.


‘Holding It Down: The Veterans’ Dreams Project’

The first of a two-part collaboration involving jazz pianist Vijay Iyer, poet Mike Ladd, and poet-Iraq veteran Maurice Decaul, Holding It Down uses dreams to explore the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan vets. Iyer employs an electroacoustic palette—his ensemble here includes Guillermo Brown (vocals), Liberty Ellman (guitar), and Kassa Overall (percussion)—to map surreal, banal, and ultraviolent psychic souvenirs. GEHR

Wed., Sept. 19, 7:30 p.m.; Thu., Sept. 20, 7:30 p.m.; Fri., Sept. 21, 7:30 p.m.; Sat., Sept. 22, 7:30 p.m., 2012


Short and… Sweet, Sincere, Cloying, Beautiful: Oscar Nominees, in Brief

This year’s Academy Award–nominated shorts offer a little something for every viewing temperament—though some categories require sitting through a lot of mediocre to get to the good.

Of the five documentaries, Saving Face and God Is the Bigger Elvis were sadly not made available for critics, but the other three address significant moments in recent world history from the perspective of the firsthand witness. In The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom, director Lucy Walker, whose feature-length documentary Waste Land was nominated for an Oscar last year, examines Japan’s 2011 earthquake and tsunami by observing how the victims respond to the aftermath’s cherry-blossom season. Less hopeful is Incident in New Baghdad, director James Spione’s interview with a U.S. soldier caught in the crossfire of the 2007 air strike on Iraqi civilians that became news after WikiLeaks released military video footage of the incident. Both documentaries are despairing portraits, which makes The Barber of Birmingham a welcome tonic: The movie looks at a group of aging civil rights advocates on the eve of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential election.

If the documentaries are touching but earnest, they still outclass the live-action field. First up is Pentecost, a forgettable comedy concerning an Irish youth who has to be an altar boy on the day of a big televised soccer match. In the overcooked moral drama Raju, a German couple travels to Calcutta to adopt a child with a dark secret. The glib Time Freak tells the story of an uptight inventor who has made a time machine, which he uses to “fix” all his recent minor social interactions. The Shore has the highest star wattage—Hotel Rwanda filmmaker Terry George; actor Ciarán Hinds—but this comedy-drama about two estranged friends plays out in predictable ways. In a mediocre category, top honors easily go to Tuba Atlantic, Norwegian director Hallvar Witzø’s droll comedy about a machine-gun-toting, seagull-killing curmudgeon who has six days to live. Buoyed by a sharp, melancholy performance from Edvard Hægstad, Tuba Atlantic touches on mortality and reconciliation in unexpected ways.

For sheer inventiveness, though, nothing holds a candle to the animated nominees. The understated humor of Dimanche/Sunday is its greatest attribute, as filmmaker Patrick Doyon shows one memorable Sunday in the life of a small boy. Less cheeky and more tender, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore documents the adventures of an avid reader who is blown Wizard of Oz–like into a magical world where books are alive. If those two sound a little too precious, try A Morning Stroll, director Grant Orchard’s darkly comic tale that recounts the same interaction between an urban dweller and a chicken three times over the span of 100 years. (Warning: A zombie is involved.) And though Pixar’s recent shorts have been technically superb but emotionally flimsy, La Luna is a subtle beauty: Anchored by Michael Giacchino’s gorgeous score, director Enrico Casarosa’s film follows two men and a small boy as they await the moon’s arrival. But as affecting as La Luna is, it must take a backseat to Wild Life, a moving, painterly look at an Englishman who decides to reinvent himself in the rugged Canadian frontier in the early 20th century. What starts off as a fish-out-of-water comedy soon becomes something richer and sadder—a reminder that sometimes when people head out to find themselves, the only thing they discover is oblivion.