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Molly Crabapple on Using Art to Expose Injustice from Syria to Guantánamo to Puerto Rico

Web ExclusiveMay 11, 2018
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Molly Crabapple is an award-winning artist and writer who has reported on the refugee crisis in Greece, Guantánamo Bay, disaster capitalism in Puerto Rico, and the war in Syria. She illustrated and co-authored “Brothers of the Gun: A Memoir of the Syrian War” with Marwan Hisham, a Syrian journalist living in exile in Turkey. They first started collaborating in 2014, when Hisham was still living in ISIS-occupied Raqqa. He would send her photographs of life under ISIS, and she would draw illustrations of them.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, with our latest Part 2 web exclusive.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We continue our conversation with the award-winning artist and writer Molly Crabapple. She’s the illustrator and co-author, with Marwan Hisham, of Brothers of the Gun: A Memoir of the Syrian War, out next week. She’s also written a memoir titled Drawing Blood. Her art is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Library of Congress. I asked her to talk about working with Marwan Hisham and what it took for Marwan to survive in Syria.

MOLLY CRABAPPLE: Well, it’s always difficult to speak for someone else and someone else’s experience. But shortly after me and Marwan began working together, he broke the news of the American airstrikes on Twitter. He was so used to the bombing of his city that he was able to identify that this bombing came from a different type of planes, and he correctly figured out that it was America beginning airstrikes against ISIS. He broke the news on Twitter 20 minutes before the Pentagon announced it.

Marwan was living in a city that was being bombed by American, by Russia, by the Syrian regime, by France, by England, by every single country, seemingly, that wanted to prove something about itself. And at the same time, there was a totalitarian regime in place that was murdering anyone who did journalism in that city. He took—

AMY GOODMAN: You’re talking about Raqqa.

MOLLY CRABAPPLE: I’m talking about Raqqa. ISIS murdered journalists. ISIS murdered the family members of journalists. It murdered not just famously Western journalists, but murdered many, many Syrian journalists, as well.

And Marwan did something of astounding courage. He didn’t just give me photos. He actually filed for The New York Times and Foreign Policy, writing on his phone and sending it at internet cafés, where, at any moment, if someone had looked at his phone, he could have been jailed and killed. And he did that because he believes in journalism and because he believes in writing, most of all, and because he believes in the power of words and the power of keeping things for history, even if it doesn’t change things right now.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And could you explain, Molly, what prompted your interest in Syria? You went to Tripoli, in Lebanon, and visited refugee camps. How did you sustain your—I mean, did Marwan have a lot to do with how much you were able to develop your own work on Syria, starting from your visits to those refugee camps?

MOLLY CRABAPPLE: Well, I started covering Syria because I—I suppose I saw a certain unity between the protests in 2011 that happened there and the protests that I was covering in Greece and also that I was involved in in New York. Of course, we had disappointed hopes and tear gas, and Syria ended with bombings and torture and their country destroyed, so it seems like a slightly frivolous comparison at the moment, but at the time that was what initially drew me to it.

And so many people had so many disagreements on what was going on in Syria, on the truth of what was happening on the ground, on what America’s role should be, if any, that, in 2013, I had the opportunity to report for The New York Times in Tripoli about Syrian refugees that were living in the midst of this city that was also divided on sectarian lines in Lebanon. And I also reported in makeshift camps in the Bekaa Valley. I met with queer refugees in Lebanon. And the stories that people told me there, they haunted me. And the questions that people asked me—I still remember, there was a woman from Baba Amr, which was a suburb of Homs that saw some of the most devastating early destruction by the regime. She asked me—she was like, “Obama talks about the red line”—it was shortly after the red line—”but what’s the difference if we’re killed with gas or if we’re killed with bombs? What does it matter? And why didn’t Obama do anything?” And while I, myself, oppose intervention, and I’ve always opposed intervention, I didn’t have a good answer for that woman. And so, I suppose I kept reporting on Syria, both very, very, very, very briefly inside Syria, but more in refugee camps in Iraq, in Lebanon, in Turkey and in Greece, because I wanted to find answers.

And also, I think what sustained me reporting on it was that it did start with a revolution, and that revolution has been betrayed a thousand times. Rebels have done many war crimes inside Syria. Many rebel groups of the initial FSA have devolved into Turkish proxies that are occupying a Kurdish city called Afrin right now. However, there was that revolution, and I felt that it was important to try to preserve the memory of the bravery of those people and those hopes, however they had been betrayed.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve talked about being inspired by George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Explain how they informed your work, Brothers of the Gun.

MOLLY CRABAPPLE: I’ll start with The Handmaid’s Tale. One of the things that bedevils every person that’s writing about the Middle East for Americans—and, honestly, I think, every person who’s writing about foreign countries for Americans—is that Americans don’t have a good education about the world outside of America. And so writers have to do an endless amount of exposition, such as “Syria, country in the Middle East, there are different religious sects in it.” And I think a lot of writers are very frustrated with having to do that. And so, me and Marwan, we looked at the way that Margaret Atwood deals with Gilead as an example of how you can show a world very, very different from your own, that has all sorts of different classes of people and a totally different government and totally different terminology, without literally writing out, “Aunt Lydia is an aunt. Aunts are women who repress other women. They have Tasers.” So that was—it was more of a technical literary model.

In terms of Homage to Catalonia, I think that everyone who writes about war is probably inspired by it. It’s an incredibly personal, unsparing portrait of war and its horrors, that is equally honest about Orwell’s own side, as it were. I actually gave Marwan a pirated eBook of Homage to Catalonia that he was reading when he was in Aleppo.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And can you talk about, Molly, what you think the value is of art in chronicling war—in particular, the Syria wars, you’ve done? And what do you think your illustrations—I mean, what is it? It seems obvious from having read the book, but if you could say, what is it that’s conveyed in your illustrations that can’t just be conveyed in text?

MOLLY CRABAPPLE: The first privilege that—and advantage—that an artist has over a photographer is that a photographer has to be there. Photojournalists are some of the most insanely brave journalists on Earth, because they’re literally at the front lines—right?—with their camera there. But the thing is that power often keeps cameras out. I mean, we were just discussing our new—I don’t know—Schatzi the Nazi, our new, you know, CIA leader, and her destruction of tapes, right? That’s because power doesn’t want the images of torture to be seen.

And one of the things that art can do is art can speak to those people who have been tortured. It can speak to those people whose phones were emptied out at checkpoints, who have been imprisoned, who are under siege. And it can make images of their memories, that would otherwise be lost. And that’s something that I did a lot in the book.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, something that you mentioned in the first part of the interview has to do with the way in which the media in the U.S., but not just in the U.S., has come to represent the war in Syria, and that this book, Brothers of the Gun: A Memoir of the Syrian War, your book, written together with Marwan Hisham, it provides a corrective to that narrative. So could you explain what you think the problems are with the way in which Syria has come to be covered over the course of these years that the war has been on?

MOLLY CRABAPPLE: Because of the incredible and seemingly unfixable ignorance of Americans about the outside world, a lot of Americans imagine that Syria was either forever a pile of rubble, probably with camels roaming through it and suicide bombings, or else they just have a giant blank of—they have no idea of what it was. And also, because of propaganda in America, that has happened even before 9/11, people from the Middle East are dehumanized here, especially young men from the Middle East. They’re either, at worst, seen as terrorists, or, at very best, they’re seen as pitiful refugees who could use a helping hand. But they’re not given the sort of complexity and interiority that Americans grant themselves.

So, what we wanted to do in this book was we wanted to show Marwan’s world in a way that was nuanced, in a way that was complicated, as something that wasn’t just black and white—man with beard bad, man with no beard good—but something that showed the full range of human possibilities, and something that also showed what Syria was and what Syria is.

AMY GOODMAN: And tell us, since we don’t have the opportunity now to continue talking with Marwan in Turkey—we lost the satellite feed—of the image you have of him, as an artist, inside that internet café—did you ever see him there?—and what he was doing and the conversations he was having. His main customers there were ISIS.

MOLLY CRABAPPLE: Well, Marwan started working there, in large part because he wanted to observe the occupiers of his city. ISIS members in Raqqa, they called Raqqans “commoners,” and they viewed them as inferior, sinful creatures that ISIS was benevolently helping by, you know, torturing and publicly executing people. And there was not a lot of interaction between the ISIS fighters and normal Raqqans except in a purely oppressive and hostile way. And Marwan, who’s always been addicted to journalism, he wanted to be able to observe these people up close and write about what was really happening. He was providing information to journalists from many publications long before he started to write for himself. And so, he viewed this as an opportunity to do that, to be able to chronicle the occupiers of his city from inside.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And who do you hope, Molly, will read this book when it’s out next week, Brothers of the Gun: A Memoir of the Syrian War? And what would you like people to learn from it?

MOLLY CRABAPPLE: I mean, I think every writer hopes everyone will read their book. But I hope people who have not previously followed Syria, people who have not previously even thought they would be interested in the Middle East, will read this book. And one of the reasons that we looked so much at Homage to Catalonia is that that’s not a book that you only read if you’re interested in the Spanish Civil War. That’s a book that you read as a universal story of idealism and disillusionment and betrayal in the context of war. We want people to read this book and see it as a universal story of young men, in the midst of a horrifying situation, forced to make impossible choices.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go—take a little journey from Syria to Guantánamo, a place that you have been several times. And I was wondering if you can talk about your work in Guantánamo.

MOLLY CRABAPPLE: That’s actually—there’s actually, oddly, a number of similarities. I went to Guantánamo twice, first to cover the Khalid Sheikh Mohammed pretrial hearings, and second to cover and chronicle the prison itself. And both times, I was following the case of a young Algerian man named Nabil Hadjarab, who had been kidnapped 14 years before and held without trial since.

Now, Guantánamo is perhaps the most censored place on Earth in terms of visuals. It’s something where every single photo that goes out of Guantánamo has to be looked through and cleared for an OPSEC that is so complicated that a photographer ends up basically playing Twister with his camera and pointing it at the floor.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s the word ”OPSEC”?

MOLLY CRABAPPLE: Oh, OPSEC is operational security. It’s the military term. Basically, that means: “Does this photo have a camera? Does it have a face? Does it have anything? Is it something other than a picture of the floor? Then it’s forbidden. I don’t know. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed might like kill someone with a notebook if this photo gets out.” That’s how they think in Guantánamo. They use this very outsized, ridiculous safety rhetoric to completely censor all images and much of the words coming out of there, but especially the images.

And my privilege as an artist, what I could do is I could draw around that censorship. For instance, a photographer, they would have to not take a photo that had anyone’s heads in it, whereas, as an artist, I would just give those heads blank masks. And I can show not just the scene, but the censorship itself.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: How did you get access to Guantánamo? And where exactly did you go?

MOLLY CRABAPPLE: Well, Guantánamo has press tours. I’m not sure about now, but at that time, under Obama, their very ironic slogan was “Safe, legal, transparent, humane.”

AMY GOODMAN: Your work was called “It Don’t Gitmo Better Than This”?

MOLLY CRABAPPLE: That’s something they sell on the souvenir T-shirts at the Guantanamo gift shop.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Could you repeat that? What exactly does it say?

MOLLY CRABAPPLE: It says, “It Don’t Gitmo Better Than This.” And I believe it has some dolphins. I mean, Guantánamo—the Guantánamo gift shop, as if they—it’s like if they sold beer steins at Buchenwald. There’s no awareness in Guantánamo of the torture, of the people killed there, of the horrors of indefinite detention. It’s just another cheerful military base, in their eyes.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, are there tourists who go to Guantánamo?

MOLLY CRABAPPLE: No, there are not—there aren’t tourists. But this is for people who are, you know, members of the military. And also, you know, it’s a large naval base to it. It has a lot of people that are not related to the prison there. I think most people there are not related to the prison. So this is just so you can, you know, when you go home, buy a shirt for your family.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about your drawings.

MOLLY CRABAPPLE: Well, I drew this trial, in an atmosphere that was so censored that my notebook literally has stickers on it saying that everything is approved by the military. And I also—I drew the prison, including, for seven minutes, the prisoners. I actually had to scribble out where their heads were, because the Army said that otherwise I might draw them from memory. I also—I drew the soldiers. I drew the medics. I drew the chair that they force-fed people in. I drew the TV room, which is really just a recliner with the prisoner’s legs shackled to the floor. I tried my best to chronicle one of the most horrendous injustices our country has done.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And where did these—where were these images published? And what kind of response did you get?

MOLLY CRABAPPLE: Well, I published the images in Vice, of—in Vice magazine at the time. The military spokesperson was very angry at me, and he called up my editor and screamed a lot. And he wrote me very many angry letters. And they tried to cancel my security clearance to go back, or just not give it to me. But they didn’t end up doing that. One of the things that perhaps touched me the most was I’ve gotten a lot of very positive response from guards that had served there, that said that it was very true.

AMY GOODMAN: And before you go, I wanted to go from Guantánamo, from this incredible image you have, “It Don’t Gitmo Better Than This,” to Puerto Rico and what your connection is to Puerto Rico and what you did there in the devastation, the aftermath of the storm, Hurricane Maria.

MOLLY CRABAPPLE: Well, my father is Puerto Rican. My father is an amazing Puerto Rican studies professor and political economist. I’m very lucky to have learned so much from him.

I went to Puerto Rico the first time since childhood, really, because I used to see my grandparents there, but I hadn’t been back in a long time. I went, the first time since childhood, about three weeks after Maria. And I was covering what was happening in my friend Christine Nieves’s barrio, which is in Humacao province in the east, which was nothing at all—no power, no water, no connection on phones. The only aid that they had gotten was some Skittles and, I think, some Cheez-Its also. They got—about 10 days after, they were given an individual pack of Skittles and some Cheez-Its and two small bottles of water.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: How is that? Because that’s actually in places where the U.S., well, bombs and then provides with food. It’s more—more than just Skittles and—

MOLLY CRABAPPLE: I think they don’t care. I mean, everyone that I know in Puerto Rico thinks that the recovery, or the lack thereof, is a deliberate plan to force people to leave their homes, so that the island can be turned into a tourist resort, because there’s the hurricane, and there’s the devastation of that, but there’s also the devastation of PROMESA and austerity, which is completely financially gutting the island. One-third of the schools on the island were just ordered to be closed by Julia Keleher, who’s the American-appointed head of education, who is paid $100,000 more than Betsy DeVos to close schools in Puerto Rico.

So, I’ve been going back since then, and I’ve been covering both the DIY attempts to create community out of disaster—an amazing network of projects called the Centros de Apoyo Mutuo, the mutual aid centers, Athens-style solidarity centers, that had happened all around the island. And I believe you had one of the founders of them, Giovanni Roberto, here previously, who’s an amazing activist. But also, I’ve been covering the resistance to disaster capitalism and austerity there.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about how you have presented it—for example, in The Paris Review—what exactly you’ve done.

MOLLY CRABAPPLE: Well, in Puerto Rico, I have been doing illustrated articles. In The Paris Review, in particular, I would—I just took a sketchbook, and I would use—I would create like vignettes, where maybe I would do six sketches about a particular thing, like six sketches about artists helping rebuild in Comerio, for instance, or six sketches about anarchist bike punks in Mariana. And then I would, you know, write a small thing. And I was trying to basically just show the different ways that Puerto Ricans were rebuilding for themselves.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to talk about, Molly, the origins of your art in activism, how you started in the Occupy Wall Street movement. I mean, you mentioned earlier that, even though of course there’s no equivalence, that you started off in Occupy, you also covered protests in Greece, and then you went to Syria. I mean, you didn’t literally go to Syria, but you went to the refugee camps, and then you’ve done this beautiful book on Syria. You had said initially that “Before Occupy I felt like using my art for activist causes was exploitive of activist causes.” So, could you explain what you meant by that, and then how Occupy changed your perception of the art that you were doing?

MOLLY CRABAPPLE: Before Occupy, I worked primarily in nightclubs. I was someone who would sit in the corner of a very, very decadent nightclub in Wall Street, and I would essentially be their house Toulouse-Lautrec, drawing all the acts. And it was an amazing privilege. I have learned much more, perhaps, from nightclub performers than I have from anyone else in this world.

AMY GOODMAN: And were you Molly Crabapple then?

MOLLY CRABAPPLE: I was. I’ve been Molly Crabapple for—well, for a very, very long time, probably since I was 18.

And at that time, in my head, I was like, “Well, I’m just—you know, I’m just drawing sexy women with feathers, and it’s not a serious thing. And there are serious artists who have master’s degrees, and they’re very, very serious, and they work elsewhere, but it’s not me.”

And when Occupy happened, there weren’t those sort of boundaries that were drawn between people. Occupy wasn’t just for people who read Foucault. It was for everyone, right? And that included me. And because my skill is drawing—and I do view it as a skill similar to how a carpenter might view his own craft—because my skill was drawing, that was what I was able to bring to it.

So I started drawing the protests. I started drawing the protesters there. And I got very frustrated with the way that Occupy was just portrayed by the media as a bunch of lazy hippies, you know, lying around the park, probably doing drugs and not bathing. I was like, “No, that’s not true. That’s a lie.” And I wanted to show with my drawings that that was a lie.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And then what happened after that? How did you continue on? I mean, because that’s what you’ve done, principally, since then. Since Occupy, your illustrations have been documenting movements, political movements, of various kinds in an extremely diverse range of places.

MOLLY CRABAPPLE: I guess I hung out with a lot of journalists. And it gets—rubs off on you, maybe like a rash, journalism. And I started writing in 2012, after my arrest, a very unheroic arrest that I did not intend.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But can you explain what happened? When were you arrested?

MOLLY CRABAPPLE: Oh, I was arrested during Occupy. A policeman dragged me into the street and arrested me for blocking traffic, I assume, because I was short and docile-looking, and he didn’t think I would give him trouble, so he could fill a quota. And I wrote about the arrest.

And after that, I had the opportunity to write more for Vice. They really took a chance on me early on. And I wanted—after Occupy was crushed, I wanted to cover other movements that I saw as related to it. So I went to Spain first. And then, after that, I just kept having more chances to write about people, people resisting, and in all sorts of ways. That person might not be a protester in a square. One person who I will always admire was a young South Asian man who worked in the construction industry in Abu Dhabi and who was secretly giving information to all of this media about the brutal labor conditions and the exploitation there, even though no one suspected him, because he was a working-class South Asian man, and, in Abu Dhabi, those people aren’t supposed to think like that.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we only have a minute to go, but a new monument and museum has just been opened in Montgomery, Alabama, by the Equal Justice Initiative, Bryan Stevenson. And you have done a project with them.

MOLLY CRABAPPLE: I’ve worked with Bryan for some years now, me and my best friends, Kim Boekbinder and Jim Batt. We do videos for him. And we did a number of videos for the museum that were chronicling America’s history of slavery, of terrorism against black people to enforce white supremacy, and also the individual histories of black people who had been murdered by white people in the South, black people who had been lynched by white people in the South.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you for all of your work. We are showing it. And for those listening on the radio, you can go to democracynow.org. Molly Crabapple wrote and illustrated, together with Marwan Hisham, the book Brothers of the Gun. Bryan Stevenson of Equal Justice Initiative said, “This powerful memoir, illuminated [with] Molly Crabapple’s extraordinary art, provides a rare lens through which we can see a region in deadly conflict.” Angela Davis says it’s “A revelatory and necessary read on one of the most destructive wars of our time.”

This is Democracy Now! To see Part 1 of our discussion with Molly Crabapple, you can go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Thanks so much for joining us.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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Coming of Age in the Syrian War: Memoir by Journalist Marwan Hisham & Illustrator Molly Crabapple

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