The Abu Zubaydah Diaries

Al Jazeera America is featuring this month the exclusive Abu Zubaydah Diaries that show the personal reflections and commentaries of an Al-Qaeda terrorist. Abu Zubaydah is imprisoned in Guantanamo bay and was considered by the Bush administration to be one of the major characters on the war on terror.

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AJAM has released the diaries on it’s webpage and is offering considerable amounts of reporting on what the document contains. The diary offers a unique possibility to look into the mind and really learn about this Abu, not only as a terrorist but also as a person.

But what the diaries do reveal is something of the complexity of Abu Zubaydah and of the networks and personalities that produced Al-Qaeda. The diaries reveal a mindscape that mingles a fondness for the casual trappings of Western culture — such as cheesy pop music and Pepsi — with hard-core anti-Western sentiments and a willingness to embrace violence and death for the cause.

If you visit the AJAM website you will see on the right hand corner of the screen a link with a picture leading to the collection of reporting that has been done on the diaries as well as the diary itself. If you click on it the link will lead you to a page with content divided in three parts, varying from opinion pieces, to hard news, to pictures.

The diaries not only open the door to the psychology of Zubaydah, but also on the conditions of the Guantanamo prison and the events of his life that led him to where he is today. The diary discloses the horrible tortures that are done to the prisoners in Guantanamo. Also it sheds some light on the question of the mental sanity of Zubaydah. AJAM did great reporting  by acquiring the diary and also by recognizing the archival value that it holds.

AJAM has been exploring the issue with all sorts of different angles: from what it means fro reporters in the digital era to go back to the the document as a source, to the man himself and what brought him on the top most wanted list.

I do not know how most people feel about the release of this new information, since there tends to be little or no sympathy for terrorists. Yet I believe it’s very informative and interesting to offer different perspectives and exit our “filter bubble” of sorts. Also AJAM should be praised for managing to obtain the diary itself.  They had asked for them through the Freedom Of Information Act having heard from frequent quotes that it had been confiscated by the CIA. AJAM failed twice before they finally managed to retrieve the document by a  former U.S. government official who worked with the CIA and FBI. I believe It is a great example of reporting and journalism.

Here is a YouTube interview with Jason Leopold, the AJAM investigative reporter who covers Guantanamo prison and had a large part in retrieving the diary.

Two American Families: a commentary.

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It’s hard to talk about this documentary without giving any personal commentary. But here it goes:

The video, called Two American Families and made by Bill Moyers and Frontline, has a cyclic feature. It traces the lives of the Neumann and the Stanley families in Milwaukee from 1991 to the present day. At first the documentary present the two families, one African-American and one white, to the viewer individually, then it follows their struggles through time, finally ending with a recap with footage from the beginning.

Most of the footage in the documentary is from the past, so it is slightly damaged and looks antiquated. The overall effect though is positive because it gives a feel of authenticity to the story.

The greatest quality of the piece is its ability to introduce characters. The footage that was used and the way it was edited together makes the viewer feel like he knows the people in the story and makes them relate to them at a very personal level (as I found out the hard way, crying my eyes out during the entire feature).

Sometimes the characters are shot in an environment that can awaken certain passions in the viewers, such as with the American flag or watching the Presidential speeches. It is also done effectively to give a feeling of depression and surrender. For example, the mother of the Neumann family is pictured alone in a room in semidarkness, having heard that she will have to leave the house that she struggled to keep for over a decade.

The Two American Families documentary uses several stratagems to make some points. Often the interviews or comments made by the various characters are overlapping footage that actually exemplifies what is being said. In the final part of the film these stratagems are used to explicate certain points of view relating to the social and political causes of the families hardships.

The video should also be lauded for its commitment, since it shows the story of these struggling middle class families for nearly 20 years. This kind of venture presents very unique possibilities and issues. The editors can choose footage that is poignant and relevant to what happens in the future to the two families. This is artfully done in the end, when clips from the past are compared with interviews done in the future. For example a young boy says he wants to be a millionaire someday and then he is shown struggling to keep a job as an adult.

The only thing I would critique is that there is a consistent gap from 2003 to the present day, but apart from that the documentary is provocative, compelling and masterfully put together.