DATE July 15, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Christopher Morris talks about his experience taking
photos for Time magazine's "21 Days to Baghdad"
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR, I'm Dave Davies. Terry Gross is out sick today so I'm
taking the day away from my work at the Philadelphia Daily News to sit in
Photojournalist Christopher Morris has spent 20 years documenting the horror
of several wars including ethnic conflicts in the Congo, Kosovo and
Yugoslavia, drug violence in Colombia and guerrilla warfare in Chechnya and
Afghanistan. Twelve years ago he covered the first Persian Gulf War.
He returned to Iraq this year as a photographer for Time magazine. Morris was
embedded with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, the tank division which
spearheaded the allied attack on Baghdad. His photographs are included in a
new collection, "21 Days to Baghdad: The Inside Story of How America Won the
War Against Iraq," a book of photographs and reports published by Time.
Morris has received awards from the Overseas Press Club and the International
Center of Photography. Terry spoke with him last week.
TERRY GROSS, host:
I'm going to ask you to choose a photograph that you took during the war in
Iraq that means a lot to you and to describe the photo and tell us how you
Mr. CHRISTOPHER MORRIS ("21 Days to Baghdad: The Inside Story of How America
won the War Against Iraq"): What comes to my mind, at least what moves me or
I'm attached to is, a picture that Time has published. It's not really the
correct frame that I wish they had published but the moment is close to the
image that I prefer. It's of a small boy that was pulled out of his car, to
be searched. The troops I--were with, they were looking for--they called it
an RPG team that was ambushing a convoy and a vehicle came up the road. And
it was during a sandstorm and it's just a small boy with his hands in the air
looking very, very frightened. He was probably seven, eight years old and
just being held at gunpoint with his father. So, for me, that's an image of
the war that I'm proud of or that I'm glad I was there to at least document
GROSS: Why have you chosen that image to single out?
Mr. MORRIS: It's like the boy represented to me the nation of Iraq as a
whole. They weren't really--they didn't know what to expect those weeks when
the Americans came across. They weren't welcoming us when we first came in
and there's just a lot of apprehension in his eyes and in his face about the
future and what's going to happen. So I just think it has a lot of meaning
and a lot of feeling in the photo.
GROSS: Let me ask you about another photo. You have a picture that's
reprinted in "21 Days to Baghdad" of soldiers going door to door in Nasiriyah
looking for snipers. And there's a picture of a couple of soldiers inside a
building and they don't know what's about to hit them, if anything. You're in
the building too, taking their picture. Is this a safe spot for you to be?
Mr. MORRIS: Well, for any photographer, I don't think people realize it at
least in the general public. It's not like TV crews or even writers. As a
photographer, you have to be basically right there; you have to be within
five, 10 feet of whatever you're photographing to capture it properly. So
that's just--that's the hazards of the industry we're in. If you are going to
succeed in photography and in photojournalism you have to get quite close.
And this is actually the second day I think of the invasion and it's at the
Tallil air base and they're going room to room looking for Iraqi soldiers that
are still left over in the air base.
GROSS: So where were you exactly?
Mr. MORRIS: I'm with the unit just going in the door when they go in the
door. There's actually probably five or six other soldiers that are even
behind me. So you basically work hand in hand with the unit that you're
GROSS: During the war you were embedded with the 3rd Infantry. Was your
subject matter controlled at all by the military? Did they say, `You can take
a picture of this, you can't take a picture of that'?
Mr. MORRIS: No, absolutely not. There was no conditions. There were some
ground rules that were discussed if there were casualties, that we would be
allowed to photograph those casualties, there would just be a delay in
releasing any of those photos for notification of next of kin, which is
completely fair and reasonable. There was never any time that they said you
can photograph this or cannot photograph that.
GROSS: Were there any things that you saw that you did not want to photograph
because you were afraid that out of context the pictures might be
Mr. MORRIS: Well, when we reached Baghdad, there were some--the troops had
been without cigarettes and sodas and things of that nature for some time so
there was basically the breaking in of shops and basically what armies do when
they reach a city when they've been out in the field for some time. They
basically go on their own little looting sprees. So I made an editorial
decision not to photograph that because this is the units I was with and I was
traveling with and I could see, you know, their desire to finally have
cigarettes or whatever reason. It's not like the shops were open where they
could stop by and purchase the goods.
GROSS: Were you surprised or disappointed to see that behavior.
Mr. MORRIS: I wouldn't say I was. I was not surprised and I was not
disappointed because I've covered numerous conflicts over my career and
numerous different armies and that's what armies do. I don't think the
American public realizes it or even wants to admit it but when an invading or
conquering army enters a city there is a certain amount of looting and
pillaging that takes place. I was not surprised by it. That's why I did not
want the pictures splashed across Time magazine to do, you know, some kind of
damage to the troops. And I think the US military after the first week of
this, they started to clamp down quite heavily on that and they frowned upon
GROSS: Well, let's get to the politics of war as seen through photographs. I
mean, your photographs could make the soldiers and their mission look really
good or look really bad depending on, you know, if you wanted to weight it in
one way or another.
Mr. MORRIS: Absolutely.
GROSS: Is that the kind of thing you think about a lot when you're taking
photos of war, that your images could be really loaded?
Mr. MORRIS: Well, you try to tell the truth and you try to be honest with
yourself and with the public. I mean you're there for a purpose and you're
there to document. If I saw a killing of a civilian I would photograph the
killing of the civilian and I would put that in my caption. And then it goes
through a whole other filtering process. After you photograph that, then you
have to convince your publication that you're shooting for to actually publish
GROSS: Well, there is one photo in the new book of Time magazine photos of a
dead civilian that you took and it's a farmer lying dead in his truck. What
was the story behind that picture?
Mr. MORRIS: This was, I'm not sure of the exact date, but this was when we
reached Karbala and we'd just dismounted out of our vehicles when a truck came
up the road and a soldier stood up and put his fists in a clinched--the
military version of stop. The vehicle kept coming up the road another five,
10 feet and then they started firing warning shots above the vehicle and he
still continued so then they fired into the cab of the vehicle killing one of
the occupants. And Time actually did run that, they actually ran a story on
GROSS: And why did you decide to take the photo of the dead farmer?
Mr. MORRIS: Well, I actually shot it in many different ways, there's
actually some stronger images, because I wanted to document that this man just
lost his life and that the way he lost his life. I know the soldiers I was
with, they were kind of appalled at me that I was even taking the pictures.
They even said to me, `You're not going to take that picture are you?' My
response, `Well, why and I here?' And I proceeded to climb up in the truck
and photograph the dead farmer.
GROSS: What are your standards as a photographer, of what's acceptable and
what's not acceptable when photographing the dead?
Mr. MORRIS: It's an interesting question. First off, in the world, there's
different tolerances to this. I know September 11th, when you look at
pictures of the World Trade Center, even the pictures when people were jumping
out of the buildings, the media got a lot of flack for publishing those. So
you don't even see those very much. But I think it's a disservice. As a
photographer on the scene, I don't try to edit myself before I shoot. I try
to photograph it in many ways as possible because it's a historic document
that I'm trying to produce. If it's not for that week or that day or that
year, maybe for 20, 30, 50 years down the road; I have to make a historic
So if I come across casualties, especially if they're civilian casualties, I
will try to document it even in the most clinical and graphic way. And I know
that nobody will publish those photos, at least not initially, but at least I
want to have that documented, I want to have it on film or an image of that
for a future document be it in conflicts in Yugoslavia, Chechnya, Rwanda, it's
important historically that the public knows that this is what happens, this
is what war does to people. This is how they die, their limbs are ripped off,
their faces are removed. And if you don't document it, it becomes very
sanitized and people aren't aware of it.
GROSS: Do you think at all about the dead person that you photograph and
whether revealing them in their death in publication would be something that
would go against their wishes? You know, like are you violating...
Mr. MORRIS: Absolutely. I know that from covering Yugoslavia and covering
what went on daily in Sarajevo. I photographed, I can't even count the
numbers of dead and mostly civilians. I'm more affected by civilians then I
am with combatants. To me that's their lot in their life, that's the role
they're playing so I'm not really affected. But, yeah, I am concerned about
that, about the invasion of their soul, so to speak, about photographing them.
But I just have to--you know, I don't really know how to say this, but it's
just to get the message out that how they were violently killed or what
brought about their demise.
GROSS: So you feel in some way that they would want that information
Mr. MORRIS: Well, I don't know that for a fact. I don't know that for a
fact. But it is a very delicate line we're walking.
Mr. MORRIS: I know that if I've approached someone who's found their dead
child in the street and he's weeping over the dead child, I could turn and
walk away and not photograph that or I could photograph it and try to make
some change to try to help save other children by causing the world to change
GROSS: In that circumstance would you say to the parent grieving over their
dead child, `Can I take your picture?' or do you just go ahead and take it?
Mr. MORRIS: No, for myself I would not ask because I don't want to invade in
that person's grieving. If the person stands and looks at me and gestures in
a certain way, yes, I would turn and walk away from that. Yeah, it is, it's a
very delicate issue. I know that it is pushed.
There's was a famous photographer who I've tried to emulate over the years.
His name was Don McCullin. I know this very subject you're talking about
basically pushed him over the edge where he couldn't do it anymore. And it
was in Lebanon. A woman had attacked him. He photographed her. I'm not sure
if it was a car bombing. And it deeply affected him that she physically
attacked him for taking her picture.
DAVIES: Photojournalist Christopher Morris speaking with Terry Gross. His
photographs of the war in Iraq are include in the collection, "21 Days to
Baghdad." We'll hear more of their conversation after this break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: Let's get back to our interview with photographer Christopher Morris.
GROSS: Did you want to be embedded?
Mr. MORRIS: Actually not. And in technical terms I was not an official
embed. I basically had embedded myself. My original plan was to go in
unilaterally on my own with a vehicle. But the day before deployment bringing
supplies out to the Time writer who was embedded with the 3rd ID, meeting the
unit, talking to the unit, they convinced me to go with them. So at the last
minute I had changed my role.
In the First Gulf War, I was embedded with the Marines, so I had done that and
I wanted to try to do it unilaterally because I knew the restrictions that are
on me in the sense of--logistical restrictions. And that is what I feared
most was you're not really sure what you're going to meet or what--military
plans change daily so even if you're tasked to take the airport in Baghdad, by
the time you get up to the airport in Baghdad you're mission may be retasked
to do something else. You could be guarding a water treatment plant, you
could be guarding some bridge on a highway for two weeks.
It's very limiting when you're embedded in the way we were in the sense that
you can't cover it the way you normally would cover a story. I mean, if
something is happening 500 meters away from you, you really can't even get to
that because you're with a unit and their unit is not tasked for that mission.
So you're basically stuck. You go where they go; you can't move left, you
can't move right, you can't go forward, you can't go back, not unless that's
their mission. And that's very frustrating I think for any of the journalists
that were covering the conflict.
GROSS: When was the first time when you were photographing a war when you
realized you might actually die doing this?
Mr. MORRIS: The first time was actually in the late '80s in Afghanistan.
Early on in my career I decided I wanted to be a war photographer but it's
very difficult to just run off to a war. And so finally I'd found myself by
myself in Afghanistan near Kandahar. I'm not sure if it was '88 or '89, it's
already slipping my mind. But I was with a group of fighters that were trying
to take the airport in Kandahar, and just before the attack happened some
planes came and bombed our village that we were in and then through the night
they shelled the village. And being in a small village in the desert under
artillery shelling is quite frightening. And that's when I realized, this is
war, this is real, and also the term `shell shock.' Basically you just lie
flat on your stomach and hope you see the sunrise. And that's when I realized
that that was war.
GROSS: So what was the shell shock like afterwards?
Mr. MORRIS: Basically I wanted to get out of there. I was there fore--this
was into my third week of being alone without anybody that spoke English and
wondering about this career decision that I was, you know, taking. It wasn't
until the invasion in Panama that I realized that with war photography you
could do it well and survive. There was a way in combat, where to go, how to
move, where to stand, basically how to do photography from very, very close in
combat and survive without getting maimed or wounded or killed.
GROSS: Well, what were some of the things that you learned about that, to
Mr. MORRIS: Well, just structures. I realized that hiding behind cars do
nothing, what type of--where to stand, where to move. People don't realize
the invasion of Panama was very quick but it was quite violent. There were
over 1,000 Panamanians that were killed and there were some very fierce fire
fights that took place in Panama. And being there and trying to document
those, I learned a lot from that. And that's when I would say I became like
hooked on being a war photographer.
GROSS: Well, you've written a little bit about that experience and you said
that, you know, you were caught in a couple of fire fights between Panamanians
and Americans and during one of them you were pinned down for over an hour
with a group of civilians. About 18 of them were wounded and several were
killed. How did you get through that particular fire fight?
Mr. MORRIS: That's the one I was talking about. I basically realized we
were all hiding behind vehicles and when the vehicles started getting hit with
machine gun fire and the people next to me were getting wounded I realized
that this vehicle is not stopping it and I rolled over a side of the wall
where the Americans were and basically laid down with the Americans behind
this barrier. And basically that's how I got through that, where all these
civilians stayed up behind the vehicles...
GROSS: Were you...
Mr. MORRIS: ...which provided them with no protection unlike in the movies
where the police are standing behind the doors firing their weapon.
GROSS: Right. Right. I've seen those films.
So were you able to actually get any good photos during that fire fight or
were you too afraid to?
Mr. MORRIS: No, no, I did well. I kept my cool. I photographed. I was
even shooting video at the time and marketed my video that day to the "CBS
Evening News" which was a big break for me and they immediately put it on the
air. It was right after President Bush at that time was stating that the
hostilities had ceased in Panama and CBS broke into their afternoon soap
operas with this video that was shot from Panama.
GROSS: How did you reach CBS to negotiate with them about what you'd just
Mr. MORRIS: Whenever there's US military action--at the time, they had--in
Washington they activate what's called the DOD pool, the Department of Defense
pool. And they were flown from Washington, a TV crew, some photographers,
writers, were flown to the US military installation in Panama. So after I
shot that video, I worked my way back to the military base, got on base and
found the CBS DOD TV crew and then struck a deal and sold them the video right
there on the spot. And then left the base and went back out to continue
covering the invasion. Where the DOD pool was not allowed off the base, they
weren't able to basically do anything.
It was also interesting, and I don't know if people are aware, there were
actually only four still photographers that were in Panama when the invasion
happened. There was a Newsweek photographer, Malcolm Linton from Reuters and
a Mexican photographer working for one of the Spanish news agencies and
myself. And on the third--not the third day, actually the second day, the
three of them were wounded near the Marriott Hotel. So after that I was
actually the only photographer there for around three days working, so it
GROSS: Well, now how did you feel? Like you're the last one standing?
Mr. MORRIS: Well, I just wanted to keep documenting. I was concerned that I
would also survive because I knew two of the photographers quite well, Patrick
Chevelle(ph) and Malcolm Linton and the Mexican photographer was killed. I
just knew that being now the only photographer left that I had to keep trying
to do as good of a job as I could.
DAVIES: Photojournalist Christopher Morris speaking with Terry Gross. His
pictures of the war in Iraq and included in the collection "21 Days to
Baghdad," published by Time magazine. We'll continue this interview in the
second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: Coming up we continue our conversation with war photographer
Christopher Morris about why he returned to war zones after he thought he'd
quit. Also we talk with Salman Ahmed, lead guitarist of the popular Pakistani
rock group Junoon. Recently the mullahs in Pakistan have banned their music
in parts of the country.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies sitting in today for Terry Gross.
Let's get back to Terry's conversation with war photographer Christopher
Morris. His photographs of the war in Iraq are included in the book "21 Days
to Baghdad," published by Time magazine. Morris covered the war for Time as
an embedded photojournalist with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division. Morris has
spent 20 years documenting armed conflicts in different parts of the world.
GROSS: You covered the war in the former Yugoslavia and you've written that
you felt burned out after the first year, but the war dragged on for another
six years and you kept coming back during those six years. You'd leave but
you kept coming back. If you felt so burned out after the first year, why did
you keep returning?
Mr. MORRIS: That's a good question but it's like anybody in any career.
Once you get on that treadmill of life in a career, it's very hard to get off.
What do you get off to do, you know, to start a new career? Once you become a
war photographer and there's a war going on, what do you do? You can't just
say, `OK, I'm going to be a fashion photographer or an architectural
photographer.' So basically once you're on that treadmill of life, it's very
difficult to get off and it has been very difficult for me to change
GROSS: You've tried.
Mr. MORRIS: And it basically--well, yeah, I tried. It basically took myself
settling down and having a family. And when my first daughter reached around
two years old, two or three, when I was in Chechnya, that's basically when
this very crystal light went off in my mind that I had to do something else.
Time had to find me something else to do than just going from war to war to
war, 'cause that's all I basically did for those 10 years.
GROSS: Well, I should mention that right before you went to Iraq, your second
child was born.
Mr. MORRIS: Yes.
GROSS: Right before. So...
Mr. MORRIS: Yes. Yeah.
GROSS: What was...
Mr. MORRIS: On March 8th.
GROSS: Did you think of like not going or...
Mr. MORRIS: Well, the thing is, I had promised my wife around three years ago
that I would not do anymore conflicts. This is pre-September 11th.
Mr. MORRIS: And I had asked Time to find me something else and they'd
actually put me on the presidential campaign and now covering the White House,
which is very steady work and I enjoy it. After September 11th and
Afghanistan started, I felt a kind of pull to go back there. But I knew what
Afghanistan was like. I did not like the country. And it was very easy for
me not to go. But through some fluke chance of having some contacts with some
Special Forces teams and pitching the story idea for Time and that, it all
kind of fell into place and the next thing I know I ended up in Afghanistan.
And I ended up making two trips for, I think, a total of around six weeks.
And so I convinced my wife that, `This is it, this is the last time. This
one's too important to ignore,' when all of a sudden this whole thing with
Iraq started up. And for myself--my wife, she understands that it's important
to me, that it's been my whole life and my whole career and it would not look
right for me if I did not try to cover this conflict. But there's always that
in the back of your head. You're playing with fate. Is this the last one?
Am I making a fatal mistake? And that can be very taxing emotionally on you
and your loved ones when you're playing like that. It's kind of like a
Russian roulette, because what we do is very dangerous.
GROSS: One of the photographs you took during the war in the former
Yugoslavia was of six children in the morgue. Would you talk about the story
behind that picture.
Mr. MORRIS: It's probably one of the most emotional things I've ever
witnessed in my career and probably the one thing--I've always said that
photographers who do this, there are certain things that can push them over
the edge or have a breaking point. And I know that people that do this will
know what I'm talking about. It's just certain things that you see or
experience are just so shocking and so tragic and that's one for myself. It's
this--these children were playing in the snow and were killed by a mortar that
fell nearby. And it was just the way they were killed. They were young,
ranging, I don't know, four to 10 years old. And several of them--they had
their faces removed by the shrapnel. And when I say their faces removed, the
rest of the body is intact. They're in their little pink snowsuits and
snowshoes and they look like any other Western child except their faces were
removed. And to watch their father and grandfather come in to identify them
was very emotional and very shocking. And basically that really pushed me
over the edge.
GROSS: When you say pushed you over the edge, what do you mean?
Mr. MORRIS: Just anger. Anger at the West at the time, anger at...
GROSS: For not intervening?
Mr. MORRIS: Not intervening. Boutros-Ghali, Clinton at the time. That
was the time that they were saying there was no humanitarian crisis in
Sarajevo and people weren't starving. They had food. They had water. And my
reaction was that, that these children lost their lives. They didn't have
their face. These parents lost their children. And it wasn't happening once
a week. It wasn't happening every few weeks. It was happening daily there.
The only time that the West stood up and took notice was when there was a
market blast or a large number of people were killed, like in the '60s or
'70s, but daily there would be six or five or three or eight or 10. This went
on every day. And the leaders in the West just ignored it.
GROSS: Now what about this photo you took of the six children in the morgue
still wearing their snowsuits and gloves? Was that published?
Mr. MORRIS: No. It's never published.
GROSS: Why wasn't it published?
Mr. MORRIS: The picture--I don't know. I know that--I'm not sure. Maybe it
wasn't strong enough. The picture that I know Time ran from that was their
sleigh still in the snow, in the bloody snow--was the picture that ran.
GROSS: Do you think they thought it was just like too much to see these dead
Mr. MORRIS: I think that week it was, but the next week was a big market
blast. And they did--they put on the cover of a magazine a picture of people
from the market blast. So it just wasn't enough to--it was maybe too strong.
But that's my point, where you need to document it, even though maybe it's too
graphic for the time but later maybe it can get published.
GROSS: I should mention that the photo is included in a book which is called
"Shooting Under Fire: The World of the War Photographer," which is edited by
Peter Howe. And my guest is Christopher Morris. He's a contract photographer
for Time magazine and his photos are included in the new book, "21 Days to
Baghdad," from the editors of Time.
Well, you said that you'd been trying to get away from covering war because
you have a family now and you don't think it's fair to them to be at risk like
that. And you've been spending a lot of your time as a White House
photographer for Time magazine, which means you're often traveling with the
president. Having covered the war that the president initiated, you must
really feel a sense now of the power the president has to use in whatever way
Mr. MORRIS: Absolutely. Yeah. Absolutely. And I've always known that power
and that's why I was so furious at what I saw going on in Yugoslavia when the
power of the US government to put a stop to it, the slaughter of innocent
GROSS: And what were your feelings about the war in Iraq? Did you feel like
we used our power in a productive way?
Mr. MORRIS: You know, it's difficult for me. I don't know if my role in
society is to give my opinion...
GROSS: That's fine. I completely understand that so don't...
Mr. MORRIS: ...on the war.
GROSS: ...feel pressed on that if you'd rather just not have an opinion and
just try to be fair with your photographs.
Mr. MORRIS: All I can say is I know that we have bit off more than I think
we can handle, in the sense that we're in a region in a part of the world
where we are not liked. No matter what we do and what good we do, or what our
intentions are, it will be turned against us. And I think we've opened a very
serious can of worms that we're going to have to deal with for some time. And
it's not the politicians that'll have to deal with it. It's these young
Americans that are going to have to go live in that part of the world and put
their lives on the line to protect what? Supposedly to protect our freedom.
GROSS: Well, Christopher Morris, I want to thank you very much for talking
with us. Thank you.
Mr. MORRIS: Thank you.
DAVIES: Photojournalist Christopher Morris speaking with Terry Gross. His
photographs of the war in Iraq are included in the book "21 Days to Baghdad,"
a collection of photos and reports from Time magazine.
Coming up, the rock star and the Mullahs. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Salman Ahmed discusses his band, Junoon, and his
difficulties with Pakistani mullahs
DAVE DAVIES, host:
The rock band Junoon, like a lot of bands, was started by a guy who'd seen Led
Zeppelin when he was 11 and wanted to be like Jimmy Page. The difference is
that Junoon came together in Pakistan. Its co-founder, Salman Ahmed, was
living in the States at the time. The band, which includes guitarist Ahmed, a
Pakistani lead singer and an American-born bass player has become a crossover
success playing to sold-out audiences in India and here in the US. The New
York Times called their music `Pakistani rock mixed with religious rapture.'
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: Salman Ahmed is a practicing Muslim and has set to music Sufi poems
and verses from the Koran. But within Pakistan, particularly in the
northwest, fundamentalist mullahs have instituted Sharia law, a strict code of
Islam which bans music and also requires women to wear veils. Ahmed set out
to question the mullahs and find out what other Pakistanis think about the
music band. A new documentary, "Junoon: The Rock Star and the Mullahs,"
traces his journey. It airs on the PBS series "Wide Angle" this Thursday
night. Terry spoke with Salman Ahmed and asked him to describe the mullahs'
Mr. SALMAN AHMED (Junoon): What they're doing is, you know, harassing people
like musicians and poets and common people who travel on buses. You know,
normally there's music being played on the buses. They've banned that and
they've also stopped music in restaurants, public places. It's kind of how it
was three years ago, four years ago when we were banned by Nawaz Sharif. It
wasn't a law but they would just--you know, it would be unwritten law that you
wouldn't allow concerts, you wouldn't allow people to get together in any
public place and listen to music.
TERRY GROSS, host:
When you went to Peshawar, you spoke to some mullahs about music. What kind
of arguments did they make for wanting to ban music? What did they tell you
about the evils of music?
Mr. AHMED: Well, the interesting thing is that they couldn't give me any
documentary evidence from the Koran where it says that music is prohibited in
Islam. But they would come back with, you know, that music promotes
promiscuity. It's vulgar, that it leads to obscenity and that's why it's
haram in Islam.
GROSS: Did you try to counter the arguments that the mullahs gave you about
Mr. AHMED: Absolutely.
GROSS: What would you say?
Mr. AHMED: My answer was that the adan, the call to prayer, is in the
harmonic minor scale, the raven scale(ph), and it's got melody, it's got
rhythm and what do you say about that? They said, `Well, that's not music.
That's just reciting.' In fact, you'll see mullahs and Islamic students, the
Taliban, in madrassas singing, but they don't call it singing. They say,
`We're reciting.' So it's like self-deception and denial, which, you know,
they hide behind that and whenever they see someone who's posing questions or
asking questions through the music, they'll come up with, you know, this is
just Westernized or this is haram, this is prohibited. So they don't really
have an argument, an Islamic argument for it.
GROSS: I could see where Junoon would be exactly what fundamentalists leaders
would be afraid of because, after all, you play these like big venues, the
equivalent of like stadium concerts where thousands of young people get
together and have a good time. I mean, it's like the recipe for cultural
rebellion, which is exactly what, you know, fundamentalist leaders do not
Mr. AHMED: You know, Pakistan's been struggling for its soul, Terry. I
believe the vast majority of Pakistanis, who are Muslims, you know, who are
maybe even conservatives, but they don't agree with the mullahs version of
Islam, which they feel is an alien implant of Islamic culture, you know. They
look at it as coming from Saudi Arabia. Most of the Muslims living in
Pakistan, they practice Islam which is--you know, you don't need a priest to
go to. You have a direct personal relationship with God. But the mullahs
have, through, you know, the last 34 years, worked with military dictators,
with so-called Democrats and they just have a very heavy presence in the
country. I believe them to be this sort of lethal minority of thugs who
just--you know, like a Mafia, they harass people.
GROSS: When you were growing up, what was your family's approach to Islam?
Mr. AHMED: Well, my mother moved in 1947. She came from India. And my
father is from Lahore and they always had music, you know. I mean, my mother
had a mass collection of, you know, records which were from traditional
sources, modern sources, you know, Jewish folk music. There was never, ever a
question in our--you know, in my grandparents' house, both my grandparents'
house--that we have to cloister ourselves or, you know, separate ourselves
from the rest of the world. In fact, my mother was 16 years old and she saw
this ad in the paper of American Field Services offering this opportunity for,
you know, Pakistani students to come to America and spend a year there and,
you know, go to high school. And she proposed it to my grandparents and, you
know, they had no problem. This was in the early '60s. My mother came to
Oakland, California, lived with an American family, was eventually prom queen
and, you know, I have got a lot of the letters that she exchanged with her
mother at that time. There was never a question of--you know, that there's
some struggle between Islam and Christianity or Islam and America. And this
is something which is--you know, I think being planted in the minds of people
through--I think a lot of it has to do with getting political power. A lot of
it has to do with wanting to keep people in the dark.
GROSS: You moved with your family to the United States when I think you were
in high school.
Mr. AHMED: Yeah, junior high school.
GROSS: Junior high school. Your father worked for an airline, so your family
lived all over the world for a while. So when you lived in the United States,
you heard Led Zeppelin and fell in love with the band and their music and that
kind of sent you in a new direction. What did you hear in Led Zeppelin that
you found so life-changing?
Mr. AHMED: Well, it was--first of all, I mean, I was 11 years old and my
friend's elder brother took us to Madison Square Garden. And this was back in
'77. And, you know, I mean, just first rock concert and you see a guy on
stage with--you know, Jimmy Page, double-neck guitar, long hair. You know,
he's got dragons painted on his pants. And, you know, just that image just
totally blew my mind, you know, and I just decided, you know, I want to become
GROSS: You returned to Pakistan with your family in 1982 and this was during
the era that the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan and that was having an
impact on the whole region. After you returned to Pakistan, you know,
modeling yourself on heavy metal bands, learning how to play guitar, changing
the way you looked, what kind of adaptations did you have to make when you got
Mr. AHMED: You know, it was in the middle of a military dictatorship which
is supported by the United States, General Zia-ul-Haq, which for me, in his 11
years of rule, he set back that country 100 years. But because he was, you
know, allied with the United States and fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan,
you had basically, you know, the darkest age in Pakistan history. At that
time we wanted--you know, we had no youth entertainment. We were in college
and what we'd do is just play music for ourselves. As long as we covered
Western songs--you know, we were singing, you know, Bruce Springsteen's "Born
in the USA" or Bon Jovi or whoever, it didn't bother the establishment or the
mullahs. It's just that when we started singing original music and reaching
out to a wider audience, that's when they thought that, you know, `We've got
to put an end to this.' And I remember the first time we did a talent show, a
lot of these extremists came and they broke the instruments. They broke the
furniture, similar actually to what's happening in Peshawar now. This is like
a bad nightmare which keeps repeating.
DAVIES: Terry Gross speaking with Salman Ahmed of the Pakistani rock band
Junoon. He's featured in the documentary about a crackdown on music by
fundamentalist mullahs that airs Thursday night on PBS. More after a short
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: Back to Terry's interview with Pakistani's rock star Salman Ahmed.
Ahmed is guitarist for the band Junoon, which has been around since 1990.
Before that he played in a band named Vital Signs.
GROSS: In 1987, there was a nationwide songwriting contest to write a
patriotic song and you actually won the contest with a song called "We Love
Pakistan." What were the lyrics? Can you give us an English translation?
Mr. AHMED: Well, I mean, it's a really soppy lyric but what it did do was
that it--you know, it's really difficult to have a literal translation, but in
a nutshell, it said, you know, `We are Pakistani. We love Pakistan and we're
modern.' And the video that went along with that actually showed us, you know,
just driving around in Jeeps, wearing jeans, T-shirts and it, you know,
accidentally got on the air because it was a national song. And I guess the
mullahs who were on the censor board didn't even look at it because they
figured, you know, I mean, only a national song is, you know, 20, 30 people,
kids standing like zombies and saying `We love Pakistan.' They didn't look at
this video. The video got out and just overnight it just ignited something in
people. You know, I mean, remember going back to college and, you know, you'd
be stopped everywhere, recognized, asked for autographs. And it was the first
ever, like, pop song from a pop band, which, you know, became number one. And
that made me think, you know, that you could really bring a lot of change
through music and, subsequently, I left Vital Signs and formed Junoon to do
GROSS: So what are the members of Vital Signs doing now? Are they still
Mr. AHMED: Well, it's interesting that--you know, the lead singer. Vital
Signs was like a boy band, you know, and a lot of adulation from girls. The
lead singer, Junaid, he's been worked on by religious fundamentalists and
they've told him that, you know, you should become a Pied Piper for Islam, you
know, not for music. And there's a lot of confusion in his head and that's
happened in the last couple of years.
GROSS: So he's thinking of giving up music?
Mr. AHMED: He's confused, you know. I mean, he's confused with this thing
that how could it be that what I'm part of and what I earn my money from is
not part of my faith? And I've had deep discussions with him and, you know,
at the end of the discussion, what happens is a guitar comes out and he starts
singing. But then again, you know, when he goes back to his life, you know,
the mullahs are just around him and they just surround him.
GROSS: Do you feel like your day-to-day life, you know, the day-to-day world
around you has changed a lot since September 11th?
Mr. AHMED: I felt a paradigm shift in my consciousness. I mean, you know,
here were two of my worlds, Karachi and New York, colliding with each other
and this hate virus spreading everywhere in all directions. And then, you
know, you realize, `Oh, God, you know, these terrorists belong to, you know,
my faith.' And now everybody's thinking that, you know, my faith has to do
with terrorism. I mean, you know, people rushing to conclusions. It changed
my life I think forever and in a way that, you know, I never sort of was
prepared for and I'm still trying to make sense of it, because while in
Pakistan I have to fight with, you know, the mullah mentality, when I go
outside of Pakistan, you know, you're being looked upon with deep suspicion.
You know, you say you're Muslim and, you know, all of a sudden the whole
atmosphere changes. I mean, we tour in America, just finished a tour. It's
really difficult to be natural anymore and...
GROSS: What do you mean?
Mr. AHMED: Well, in the sense that, you know, you start a conversation with
strangers--I mean, if you're waiting for a plane or, you know, you're in a
restaurant and people look at you and they look at your name being Salman,
it's like they're hesitant. There's a lot of fear in the United States. I
mean, after 9/11, there's a lot of fear of, you know, what's out there. And
similarly, in Pakistan and the Islamic world, there's a lot of fear about the
United States. And in between, like I'm straddling these universes and
trying--sort of bridging it for myself, you know, for my own sanity.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. AHMED: You're welcome.
DAVIES: Terry Gross speaking with Salman Ahmed, lead guitarist of the band
DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Now here's Junoon's "No More." The
words come from a poem a New Yorker named Polar Levine gave Salman Ahmed after
the events of September 11.
(Soundbite of "No More")
JUNOON: (Singing) In my lungs through my windows, on my head on the floor,
ashes of falling hope choking me inside these doors. Stormy winds seduce the
night over New York and Karachi skies, sinking in a sea of time mourning since
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