a new young adult novel, to be published by Wendy Lamb Books/Random House in 2016
“No one who reads WATCHED– young or old – will come away without empathy and compassion for the thousands of ‘Naeems’ now residing in this nation.” –Patricia McCormick, author of SOLD
The watching, it seeps into everything in this neighborhood. It’s like weather, the barometric pressure lowering. Before the monsoons came in Bangladesh, you could feel the air thicken and squat on your head. A constant ache behind your eyeballs.
For the past few years there’s been a vibration, around us, the air pressing down, muffling our mouths. We’re watched: we see the men, coming down the metal stairs from the subway, or parked in cars for hours on end: clean-cut guys, creased khakis, rolled-up sleeves. The breath of Manhattan steaming off their clothes. They aren’t from around here–that we could tell. Not like the white people, the young couples, girls with pea coats and holes in their black tights, who moved to the nice part of Jackson Heights, for the leafy courtyards and apartments with parquet floors. They stroll into stores, finger the edges of the newspapers in their racks, check out flyers taped to the side of the fridge.
In 2006, I published “Ask Me No Questions,” about a Bangladeshi family snared in a post-9/11 crackdown. Over time I began to see, all around us, a new resonant theme: surveillance. We’ve all seen the headlines about Edward Snowden, the NSA revelations, the controversial stop and frisk procedures used on young men in New York City and the profiling of Muslim communities. At the same time, we do face real dangers, as the tragedy of the Boston bombing and the recruitment of young people to radical causes demonstrates. What is the right balance between security and freedom? What is it like for a Muslim teenage boy—growing up in the U.S., struggling to find his own identity in a tense atmosphere where he is an easy suspect?
I believe it’s time to come forward with the next important beat in this story in our post- 9/11 world. If AMNQ was about the immediate aftermath of 9/11, “Watched” is about the world we live in now—saturated in watching. And I wanted to explore this issue close up, and seen through the eyes of a teenager.
“Watched” follows the story of Naeem, a Bangladeshi high schooler in Jackson Heights, Queens who lives with his father, stepmother and his step brother Zahir, trying to help his parents with their struggling, small neighborhood store. Naeem is a restless dreamy kid; he’s the eternal procrastinator, hoping he can charm his way through life. Naeem, like many teenagers, has had a few brushes with the law, and was caught twice for shoplifting. When one of his friends, Ibrahim, shoplifts at the mall, Naeem is left with stolen goods. Two detectives offer a way out: become a ‘crawler,’ an informant for the New York City Police Department, and the charges will be dropped.
As more of Naeem’s life falls apart, and he learns he is failing and will not graduate high school, he is recruited by one of the detectives, Taylor. Thus, Naeem goes from being ‘watched’ to being a ‘watcher’—a choice that will eventually implode in his life. What happens when you are enlisted to help in counter-terrorism? Are you a hero or a traitor? Are you helping or hurting your community?
I’m fascinated with how surveillance feel like from the inside: how does a young man, searching for his identity, for heroes, learn how to be in the world, when he senses that his every move is tracked? What does it mean to always be watched? How, as a young person, does he make an identity for himself when he is often seen as a suspect? And what happens when he’s offered a chance to remake his life and be on the other side—to become the watcher, someone who has the power to see into other lives, and perhaps change his own.
* * *
THE EYES OF THE WORLD: ROBERT CAPA, GERDA TARO & THE INVENTION OF MODERN PHOTOJOURNALISM
co-authored with Marc Aronson
Forthcoming, Henry Holt & Co., 2016
Imagine: you are young. You have nothing. There have been times when Andre has fled an enraged landlady for not paying the rent, run into the night, leaving his shoes, his belongings behind. He travels light. He is always looking ahead for the next chance, the next opportunity, to make himself anew. Gerta too is a gambler. They are fanciful dreamers—not just for politics—but for themselves. They want to ‘make it’ in Paris.
And there is one big way they can make their luck change: their names.
No one knows exactly who decided on the name change, but bets are on the canny Gerta, with her eye for style and illusion. Together they come up with a scheme to help land more lucrative photography jobs: Gerta will pretend she is trying to sell the photographs of this famous and rich American photographer named Robert Capa, who will offer his images for no less than 150 francs. She too will change her name—Gerta Porhylle will become Gerda Taro—fascinatingly similar to Greta Garbo. Their new names give them an alluring, glamorous air. As Capa writes his mother about his new name, “One could almost say that I’ve been born again, but this time it didn’t cause anyone any pain.”
There is another side to their name change. With anti-Semitism on the rise, and living as foreigners in a city that is hostile to them, it is better to take on a name one that does not root them in any particular nation, religion, or identity. Their new names are a disguise, a protection, “a farewell to any fixed point in the world, to any country.”
It is a daring move. Every time someone asks to meet the elusive Robert Capa, Gerda hedges her bets, says he is busy traveling, and offering to send his dark-haired assistant “Andre” instead.
And it works. “Capa” now lands more assignments—he travels to Geneva to cover a special session of the League of Nations, where Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia, will make a special plea for his country. While there, he happens upon a Spaniard who is wrongly dragged away by the police. Capa’s photos become a sensation, as they symbolizes the muzzling of voices in an increasingly intolerant Europe.
There is one editor, however, who is not fooled by the ruse of Robert Capa: Lucien Vogel, who runs Vu, an influential Left magazine, a prominent figure in magazines, and married to the editor of Vogue magazine. Known for his elegant, British tweed jackets and silk neck scarves, the dapper Vogel telephones Gerda, saying, “Tell that ridiculous boy Friedmann, who goes around shooting pictures in a dirty leather jacket to come see me.”
When Capa arrives at Vogel’s fancy estate, the two men take a walk on the big lawn—a test apparently of whether the regal editor will approve of the young man. By the time they return to the house, Vogel has agreed to publish some of Capa’s photos.
The names Capa and Taro stick.
* * *
A few summers ago, while sitting at lunch at the Vermont MFA program, chatting with many veteran children’s book authors such as Walter Dean Myers, Leda Schubert, I was suddenly thunderstruck with inspiration: I knew what my next young adult nonfiction book would be–the story of photographer Robert Capa, the less-known Gerda Taro, and their friend Chim, as they set off to photograph the Spanish Civil War and create modern photojournalism–and war journalism–as we know it today. Nothing like the company of other authors, bubbling with their own ideas, to set one going.
Indeed, given that this is very much a story of a man and a woman collaborating–as equals, as compadres, as artists–it seemed the perfect next book for Marc and I to write. We had been casting about for a new idea and had touched on the idea of collaboration–various duets in history that have joined forces to create something they could not do on their own.
The story of Capa and Taro had caught my eye a few years ago when I went to an exhibition at the International Center for Photography–“This is War!”–a huge retrospective of Capa’s work. I’d always been fascinated with the Magnum photographers, and fell in love with those images from the Spanish Civil War–the molded, strong faces staring up at a sky strafed with war planes; children playing see saw amidst rubbled buildings. At that exhibition, I became acquainted with Taro’s work, which also shared a smaller exhibition space. I learned that in fact she and Capa were an artistic team–Capa & Taro–and they had gone off together, as lovers, as friends, as co-conspirators in the aim of telling the world about the Republican cause. Like so many of their generation, they believed that the Spanish Civil War was the war to stake a claim–that if it was not won–Europe would surely fall to fascism. (And of course they were right in this regard) Armed with their new, lightweight Leicas and Rolloflexes, they set off, arriving in Barcelona on August 5th, 1936. Sadly, Taro would not live more than a year, as she was killed during the Battle of Brunete in July, 1937. This is one of the reasons her work is not as well known–she died very young, just as she was emerging as a daring and canny photojournalist in her own right.
Yet I loved Taro’s work—they were at times, smaller, more fragile than Capa’s bold, shaky action shots. And I was fascinated by this impish, elfin woman with short hair, who was not a muse to a male artist, but his equal. In the few images of her that exist, she comes across as someone surprisingly light-hearted (given the grim surroundings), tomboyish, as in a photo taken of her sleeping in a hotel room, or another of her crouching in a trench with a soldier, bombs thudding nearby.
Taro’s fame-or perhaps her profile–would rise considerably with the surprising discovery of the Mexican Suitcase—over 4,500 images from the Spanish Civil War, taken by Capa, Taro and Chim, which had been lost for over seventy years. The show, which opened at ICP in 2010, was a revelation, and it opened the door ever the more to Taro’s own beautiful images, along with their friend Chim, whose views of children, especially, have always been a haunting reminder of the cost of war. Scholars are still poring over these images, making sense of them, recalibrating who took what shot, and thus filling in this rich story of image-making, friendship, politics, love and collaboration.
On August 5th, 2012, Marc, myself and our two boys, Sasha and Rafi flew to Barcelona—exactly 76 years after Capa and Taro when arrived to begin their photo-journey into the Spanish Civil War. Within a few months, Capa would become a world-famous war journalist. Both would reinvent modern photojournalism as we know it today. And in less than a year, the daring Taro would be dead.
We spent nearly three weeks in Spain, tracking, as best we could, some of the key sites and in some cases, visiting some of the exact locales where they shot photographs. Our last research day was in Brunete, where Taro was sideswiped by a swerving tank, and ultimately died in a hospital 30 kilometers away.
In this blog, I’ll be filling you in our travels, our journey into the story of Capa, Taro, and Chim as we develop this book, which will be published by Henry Holt in 2014. Enjoy!
Barcelona, August, 2012: This is the Barcelona I remember from 1983-84 when I backpacked through–and it isn’t. Still the same frilly-edged art nouveau buildings rising off the grand avenues; still the winding streets in the old quarter; and still good Serrano ham and manchego cheese to be found at all hours.
Yet there is a difference. Gone are the old women washing on the balconies, the clamoring parakeets and teeming plants; gone are the old men and women on Las Ramblas benches, the smokey-eyed gypsy children; the seedy, red light district, the dark mouths of nightclubs, where you walked downstairs and were never quite sure what you would find; gone is the morning wake up when we stayed in the old quarter—a bakery where fat-armed women shoved aluminum trays of quivering flan; the men in their slightly ill-made suits and hair wet down; the shoes thicker, sturdier; so much less polish and high-strung tourist sheen as I had encountered in Florence and Sienna. I could feel, in this city, the sense of the peasant, of the rustic.
At that time—28 years ago—my friend and I were at the edge of their lives, observing. Now it is throngs of tourists driving down Las Ramblas who are the center of the action; now they are flanked by shiny stores, tapas places that seem like remakes of the dark wood dives I drank in and ate before. When we reach Placa de la Catalyuna, I feel as if I’m in Times Square. We’ve stopped off at the official FC Barcelona store, where Sasha understands that I am not spending 100 dollars on a Messie shirt.
But we are here for history, and so we oblige, with Alan Warren, our chipper and cheerful guide who is obsessed with Spanish Civil history, knows it down to his bones, and leads tours throughout the region recreating Orwell’s steps, battles, particular regiments.
He has arrived at our large, atmospheric (and slightly odd) Eixample flat in his floppy khaki hat, his folder of images and notes, and marches us past the elegant art nouveau buildings, shows us the Hotel Majestic, which at the time was taken over by the Republican forces, and where long tables of food were served for free. Now it is swathed in scaffolding; I peek through the revolving doors to see the lobby is completely renovated—sleek marble, barely adorned—and intimidatingly pricey in look.
Another doorway is where deserters from the Nationalist side straggled in, along with recruits from abroad. This is the international surge that brought Capa and Taro to Spain in the early days, along with George Orwell, who would immortalize his time in the classic Homage to Catalonia:
“When the fighting broke out on the 18 July it is probable that every anti-Fascist in Europe felt a thrill of hope. For here at last, apparently, was democracy standing up to Fascism.”
Most certainly this is what Capa and Taro felt, back in Paris. Both were refugees from Hungary and Germany respectively; both were Jews who had begun to see the iron hand of anti-Semitism start to choke the political life of their countries. Indeed Capa had already had his run-ins for political activism, as did Taro, which is how they wound up in Paris, mingling among the many artists and emigres who had flocked to the city at this time.
Capa and Taro were also opportunists—in the best sense of the word. They sensed a chance, an opportunity, to make their mark through the growing field of photo journalism. They had met when Taro worked for Maria Eisner, who ran a photo agency, Alliance Photo. Taro helped to groom the scruffy Hungarian so he might better sell his work. Then she too took up the camera. It was only a matter of time before they felt the siren call to Barcelona, to Spain, where already, international volunteers were pouring in to fight Franco.
The Barcelona they would have encountered would have been similar to the city George Orwell described:
“… when one came straight from England the aspect of Barcelona was something startling and overwhelming. It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt.”
“The revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues that made the few remaining advertisements look like daubs of mud. Down the Ramblas, the wide central artery of the town were crowds of people streamed constantly to and fro, the loud-speakers were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night.”
“There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.”
Certainly, Taro’s photographs during this time capture the revolutionary fervor, the joyous and ordinary ways that residents had taken up arms and were remaking their very city, their society. Taro shot children happily scampering on sandbagged walls, donning anarchist caps like any children playing made-up war games.
She followed Republican militiawomen training on the beach near the city—one of her most iconic a silhouetted woman, crouched, aiming her pistol—a symbol of equality promised women during this halcyon period, a time, as Orwell noted, when people did not address anyone as “Senor or Dona” or even use the formal “Usted.”
My favorites of Taro’s during this period are those of people laughing, relaxing in the August sunshine (Catalonia is indeed hot during those months). In one, a man and a woman lean back in two wicker chairs, heads tilted to one another, exchanging laughter; he casually holds a rifle between them. There’s an easy grace to the photo, men and women as comfortable compadres, as Taro and Capa were themselves.
In August 1936, when Taro and Capa and Orwell arrived in Spain, to join what they saw as the greatest struggle of their generation, they did not yet detect its dangerous and self-destructive undertow, nor did anyone anticipate the terrible destruction that would be unleashed with ariel bombing. (Indeed Barcelona was used as a testing ground for this new technology and the brutal air raids gave way to something called the “Barcelona Effect”–the more a civilian population was bombed, the more they in fact resisted) We pause at the reconstructed Coliseum, which now has a stark black steel memorial in front to memorialize those killed in the dreadful pounding that pummeled these grand streets.
“There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.”
Yet if anything characterizes the Spanish Civil War, it was the deadly factionalism that would eventually splinter the Left, particularly as the Soviets played a deadly game of suppressing the Anarchists and undermining their hold on the local population.
Less than a year after that optimistic period that Capa and Taro recorded visually, a stand-off between the Communists and Anarchists was taking place: “The word flew round the town that the workers’ buildings were being attacked, armed Anarchists appeared on the streets, work ceased, and fighting broke out immediately.”
Today, we stand in the thronging Placa de Cataluyna to see the Telefonica Building, the tallest building at the time of the Spanish Civil War, a blank modern building that juts up over the teeming plaza.
We press onward, past the fountain where everyone descends after a Barcelona soccer team game (No, we tell the kids, you cannot drink the water), and stand just opposite Café Moka, where Civil Guards were holed up inside. Across the way was the Poliorama, where the P.O.U.M. (the party Orwell fought with and more or less came to support) patrolled on the roof domes.
“I used to sit on the roof marveling at the folly of it all,” Orwell writes. “From the little windows in the observatory you could see for miles around—vista after vista of tall slender buildings, glass domes and fantastic curly roofs with brilliant green and copper tiles; over to eastward the glittering pale blue sea—the first glimpse of the sea that I had had since coming to Spain. And the whole huge town of a million people was locked in a sort of violent inertia, a nightmare of noise without movement.”