It is hard to find much to smile about in the news these days what with the U.S. economy in the toilet, sectarian conflicts erupting throughout the world, and nature following its own rhythms and paths to devastating destruction. And so when I saw this picture featured front and center on the NYT website yesterday with the headline “A Vision of Tourist Bliss in Baghdad’s Rubble” I broke out in laughter –and then I double-checked the URL to make sure I hadn’t inadvertently clicked on the website for The Onion.
The man we are looking at is Humoud Yakobi, the head of Iraq’s Board of Tourism, who is looking to convert a small, bombed out island in the Tigris River and within sight of the Green Zone into a fantasy island getaway that would include a “six star” hotel, an amusement park, and luxury villas “built in the architectural style of the Ottoman Empire-era buildings in Old Baghdad.” It would be topped off with – and I kid you not – the “Tigris Woods Golf and Country Club.” The only thing missing, it would seem, is Ricardo Montalban’s “Mr. Roarke” and his sidekick Tattoo. The problem, it seems, is not only finding financial backers to fund the 4.5 billion dollars to underwrite the enterprise, but reckoning with the fact that the target audience—Western tourists—tend to be “sensitive to bombings and things like that” (at least in the opinion of the head of the media relations department of Iraq’s tourism board).
The return to normalcy will surely require venture capitalists willing to take risks on Baghdad’s future and so perhaps we should not be overly cynical here. And yet it is hard to be anything but cynical when the NYT’s “Week in Review” features another story that presumes to underscore the first stages of the return to “calm” and “normal” with a photograph of a mother and child walking about safely in a mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhood:
Of course, one cannot look beyond the edges of the photographic frame, and so it is impossible to see what, if anything, enables or secures the apparent calm and safety. And as if to acknowledge this absence the NYT slips in two small clickable photographs sutured together in a sidebar labeled “Street Scenes”:
It is important, I think, that the two images function as a vertical diptych, forcing the viewer to take them in seriatum as part of a coherent narrative. The top photograph, the caption tells us, shows members of the “Awakening Council” controlling a local “checkpoint.” The bottom photograph is a car bombing from “early 2007” and is captioned as a once “frequent” scene. The implication then is that the only thing that stands between the bombed out cars and the scene of relative calm in the Sunni-Shiite neighborhood are these local militias.
This logic of the visual narrative is impeccable and if we stop here we might be inclined to read the story as designed to animate support for U.S. policy and the Bush administration’s Pollyanna conclusion that “the surge” has helped Iraq recover its middle American, Main Street calm. But I think another possibility has to be considered. For surely one implication of the visual logic has to be that just as one needs to look outside of the frame of the first photograph to discover what might be supporting the relative calm, one needs equally to look outside of the diptych to discover what supports the Awakening Councils—which are, after all, groups of former Sunni insurgents funded as mercenaries by the U.S. government as part of a “hearts and minds” campaign –and to wonder what will happen when that support dissipates.
The answer to this question is by no means clear, but given the history of this region one has to assume on par that the return to sectarian violence is a very real likelihood. And so we come back to the article that reports Hamoud Yakobi’s plans to build a luxury, tourist retreat on an island in the Tigris River. It really is an absurd fantasy, but then again perhaps no more absurd or fantastic than portraying a neighborhood controlled by former insurgents hired as mercenaries by a foreign and occupying government as somehow a return to normalcy. And maybe that was the point all along.
Photo Credits: Max Becherer/Polaris and New York Times; Ali Jasim/Reuters.