I was first in Chicago’s Grant Park in August 1968 when I was a photographer for Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s quixotic presidential campaign. In spite of protests and marches, and sometimes violent conflicts with Mayor Daley’s aggressive police forces, Democratic Party discipline prevailed and Hubert H. Humphrey was nominated. He lost to Richard Nixon by 500,000 votes. The United States got Henry Kissinger, more Vietnam, Watergate and Gerald Ford.
We all got more than we asked for.
I left Chicago, packed my bag and embarked for Lebanon, my parents’ homeland. I needed to get away. A quest for roots, interest in the Arab-Israeli conflict following the 1967 War and wanderlust got me aboard an Icelandic Airlines flight to Europe. It was my first time abroad.
I arrived in the Port of Beirut aboard a freighter from Naples, Italy, via Alexandria, Egypt. I was picked up by my Uncle Shaheen and a gaggle of cousins. I had a duffle bag, two cameras, three lenses, 10 dollars and a blond girlfriend whose presence had made hitchhiking en route to Lebanon a cinch. My long hair was an issue for Uncle Shaheen. The family reunion was delayed for a stop at a coiffeur, hairdresser, who made quick work of my beloved tresses.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness,” Mark Twain wrote, “and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”
As I hadn’t yet fully developed my emerging photojournalist talents I used my design and graphics background to earn a living. I got a contract to decorate United States Information Service offices across the Middle East and Asia. I loved the work. I painted huge oversized Super-Graphics of numbers, arrows, stars, stripes and geometric forms on the exteriors and interiors on USIA buildings, introducing the exuberant art forms raging across America in the late ’60s.
In Calcutta, Cairo, Istanbul and other points across the Third World I decorated with paint, posters and billboards promoting America and its exceptionalist vision, even as I witnessed, in my emerging work as a photographer, the struggles, poverty, exploitation and humiliation of millions. Two superpowers vied for spheres of influence in the world I traveled; making promises they had no intention of keeping. I kept painting. I never wondered who could care about Twiggy when true emaciation was just around the corner?
In Nicosia, Cyprus, the head of the Antiquities Ministry could see my work from his office window and declared it an abomination.
In Amman, Jordan, anti-American protesters burned down the USIA building. It was easy for them to find after I got done with it.
Unfortunately, Twain also wrote, again in “Innocents Abroad,” “We entered, and the pilgrims broke specimens from the foundation walls, through they had to touch, and even step upon the “praying carpets” to do it. …; To step rudely upon the sacred praying mats, with booted feet …; was to inflict pain upon men who had not offended us in any way.
“Suppose …; foreigners were to enter a village church in America and break ornaments from the altar railings for curiosities, and climb upon and walk upon the Bible and the pulpit cushions? However, the cases are different. One is the profanation of a temple of our faith — the other only a profanation of a pagan one.”
I never wondered whether what I was doing was appropriate. Painting red, white and blue stripes across a region less than 20 years free of colonial domination seemed like the right thing. In retrospect, I was the ugly American dangling huge stars across a troubled and desperate landscape.
I was last in Grant Park on election night, 2008. I sat transfixed, crowded with friends on a sofa in Exeter, watching election results. I listened to the president-elect promise hope and change. Tears of joy replaced the memories of tear gas 40 years earlier.
I have often said how disappointed I am that Obama has failed to illuminate the beacon on the hill.
Where is the alternative?
As we approach the Republican primaries I worry about the vision of America they are setting before our voters — and before the world. I worry about the America first, right or wrong, no apologies, argument that denies the promise of who we are. One can apologize from strength. The weak speak of war.
Do we march across Twain’s prayer carpets, boots on, and win the battle while losing the war, or do we move with caution and respect, with hospitality and justice, and win, not just for Republicans, not just for the one-percenters, not just for Americans, but for all?
Once, a consul telexed Washington complaining that the work I had started in New Delhi was not completed.
My supervisor telexed back: “Relax, you are only half-Azzied.”
I returned to Delhi to finish the work. It looked great and it was a turning point. I looked more closely around me and realized the gift I had been given: I was blessed to be amidst Hindu, Buddhists, Muslim and Christians who inspired me with their culture, variety and beauty.
I learned the gift I could give as an American was simple: acknowledge their beauty.
Today, I am hoping for an e-mail: “Relax. You have only been half-Obama-ed.”