- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Images from the Muslim world over the past 20 years capture both the tragedy of war and the resilience that lingers when the fighting ends.

In one photo, Palestinian children clutch planks of wood wrapped in barbed wire. In another, a uniformed, gun-toting Israeli soldier jumps from a truck to chase rock-throwing Palestinian boys, while two men, undisturbed by the scene, do business over a basket of fish. The images go on: a dead child in Somalia, a teenage Kurdish bride in Iran and a girl holding a dove in a Gaza refugee camp. Each photograph captures just one moment, but together, the images create a mosaic of the Muslim world, contrasting its beauty and violence that represent photojournalist Alexandra Avakian’s 20 years of chronicling Muslim life.

A New York native, Ms. Avakian, 48, covered conflicts around the world for a decade.

Presenting the book at the Middle East Institute last week, she paused on a picture of Iranian children playing on the beach to explain the meaning of her book.

“These kids could be on the Potomac, but they’re not. They just happen to be in Iran,” she said. “I guess that’s my [modus operandi] - to communicate that we have so much more in common than we do differences.”

“Windows of the Soul: My Journeys in the Muslim World” is an account of the Islamic lives she witnessed. The book narrates deaths, weddings, prayer, famine and uprisings in countries from Uzbekistan to the United States, where she studied American Muslims. Many of the photos have appeared in National Geographic, Time magazine and the New York Times, and many are rescued from reject boxes, she said.

Published by National Geographic, the book takes an in-depth look at several places where she worked, and often risked her life, documenting some of the most violent regions of the past two decades.

She covered Sudanese rebel troops and the daily life of members of Hezbollah, a job she described as a “dream project.”

While traveling for six years with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and living for two years in the Gaza Strip, she was beaten bloody by Hamas on claims that she was a spy.

Taking pictures in a Palestinian refugee camp, she saw a boy next to her fatally shot in the street. She drove with Israeli settlers through disputed territory as Palestinians scowled.

“It was terrifying to be looked at like a settler,” she said. “I now understand the fear that settlers experience.”

In Somalia, she rode in the back of a pickup surrounded by armed bodyguards.

“It was completely insane. Stoned, madmen militias, they killed for absolutely nothing,” she said.

As she photographed fighting between rival warlords there, Ms. Avakian made friends with a child soldier who once threatened to kill her.

“I gave him rides through town, and one day he put a bullet in the chamber of his gun and pointed it at me,” she said. “I told him, ‘I could be your mother.’ A very New Yorker response. I’m a New Yorker.”

The older gunmen took his gun and drove him away, she said.

Ms. Avakian’s willingness to stay in countries overrun by violence impressed Yasmin Yonis, a 20-year-old journalism student who attended the book release at the Middle East Institute.

When Somalia’s president was overthrown in 1991 and its lawless warfare began, Ms. Yonis and her parents fled the country and came to the United States with few pictures of their home county.

“I see my Somalia through these pictures and through the work of journalists. The presentation hit me hard. My parents never really talked about Somalia,” she said.

“Everyone else was running away from Somalia, and [Ms. Avakian] ran in.”

Ms. Avakian’s parents inspired her to work as a photojournalist: Her mother was an actress, and her father was a movie director and her personal editor early in her career.

“It was natural for me to tell stories with pictures,” she said.

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