Lessons

Analyzing Elements of "Fractured Lands" - College Level Lesson

006.jpg

Border crossing in Ras Jdir near Ben Gardenne. Image by Paolo Pellegrin. Tunisia, 2011.

017.jpg

Black and white image of children in silhoutte from an IDP camp in Iraq.

Children in an IDP camp. Image by Paolo Pellegrin. Iraq, July 2016

Overview:

Following are a series of discussion questions and exercises to promote your analytical thinking about elements of “Fractured Lands.” The questions are grouped by category, though some topics and ideas will inevitably overlap. Click here for a lesson geared towards K-12 students.

Sources/People:

  1. What are the benefits of storytelling by weaving multiple narratives to build a single long-form article?
  2. Compare Anderson’s technique using these six separate narratives to a more traditional non-fiction approach in which a writer tells the story in a singular thread with observations and quotations from various sources.  Weigh the pros and cons of each approach.
  3. Anderson began his article with an anecdote involving one of the six sources, Dr. Azar Mirkhan. Make a case for why the writer began with him. Does Mirkhan’s presence in the story help to unify the narratives? Can you argue that the writer could have launched the story by focusing on another of the sources?  
  4. The article clearly is a work of non-fiction. But in building the dramatic narratives, Anderson employs techniques perhaps more routinely found in works of fiction. What aspects of the narratives helped you in judging whether to believe the sources and their stories?
  5. Which one of the six main characters in the story most captured your interest? Identify a passage in this source’s narrative that you found important.  What are the aspects that intrigued you? What role did photography play in characterization?
  6. Can you make a case that the experiences of one of the sources, or characters, in the article best represents the changes and disruptions that have been occurring in the Middle East? Explain.
  7. What do these narratives tell us about the advantages of being from the higher, educated classes even during civil upheaval?
  8. How should readers look upon Wakaz Mutashar? To what extent does he fit the western stereotype of an indiscriminate or irrational ISIS murderer? How does Anderson’s treatment of him raise complexities for understanding ISIS combatants?

Exercises:

1. Anderson must have interviewed many more sources, but he settled on profiling the six people in the article. Here is an exercise in imagination: If you were to add one more source to enrich this article with yet another perspective, what type of person would you seek? Outline a few characteristics -- which might include traits such as gender, generation, nationality, ethnic affiliation, occupation, ideology or experiences -- of a source who might contribute another valid narrative to this chronicle of experiences.  Connect this source with an actual location/situation that you can describe through references to other news reports you find. How well would your (invented) source fit into the article’s chronology?

2. Anderson has adopted the same storytelling strategy in a previous work about the Middle East. See his 2013 book Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly an the Making of the Modern Middle East (Doubleday), in which he mixed threads about T.E. Lawrence and three others who were active in the same region during WWI. Compare his rhetorical approaches in Lawrence in Arabia with “Fractured Lands.”

Story structure

  1. In a nutshell, a narrative is a story with a beginning (introduction), middle (development/conflict) and an end (crisis/ resolution). Anderson does even more in the sophisticated structure of this article than combine six narratives. He breaks them into anecdotes and groups them in a chronology. He also doesn’t take turns, sometimes returning to one source more often than others. Study the placement and pacing of these 34 sections. What can you discover and explain about his methods of structuring the narratives so they contribute in telling one comprehensive story?
  2. Narratives are difficult to craft because writers need to inject background as they trace the actions and motives of the sources. Find and analyze an example in this article where the writer does this.
  3. Identify some of the passages – we might call them plot points – that drew you into the article to continue reading.  What were the elements in the passages that succeeded in holding your interest?  
  4. Long-form journalism requires readers to make a concerted effort to read to the end.  What are the structures in place in this article that compel people to stick with this piece to the end?  Explain.
  5. Although much of the article describes the experiences of the sources, the writer does appear at times either as a participant in a scene or as a narrator to interpret larger issues.  Find such a passage and analyze the utility of the writer’s appearance.

Exercises:

  • Write your own story using multiple narratives.  Select an event on your campus or community.  Interview several people and then tell the story of the event through your descriptions of their experiences. You can study “Fractured Lands” to learn from its techniques.
  • Anderson’s work is similar in style and substance with another long-term work of non-fiction first published by a magazine.  Compare “Fractured Lands” with John Hersey’s acclaimed story Hiroshima, which weaves the narratives of survivors of the 1945 atomic bombing.
  • Find a work of fiction that relies on multiple narratives.  There are many, from Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology to Audrey Nifenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife to Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore. Compare the techniques these creative writers used with Anderson’s non-fiction approach. What other works can you name that use multiple narratives?

A Journalist’s Role:

  1. This article is the product of months of interviewing, traveling, planning and writing. What purposes and ideas might motivate a journalist such as Anderson to do this kind of extensive reporting?
  2. Subscribing to the norms of the Western journalism practice, journalists often seek to walk a careful path between building trust and familiarity with their sources and yet preserving enough distance so that their relationships don’t unduly influence their reporting. How did Anderson do in that regard? Can you cite passages that reveal the difficulties in keeping what we sometimes call a ‘professional distance’?
  3. Can you challenge this journalistic norm of distance? Do the circumstances in this story invite – or even require – journalists to build strong personal attachments? What are the dangers, professionally and personally, when journalists become close friends or allies with the sources in their stories?
  4. Find places in the article and photo images that lead you to wonder if the reporters placed themselves in dangerous situations. How did Anderson handle descriptions of these situations? 
  5. Journalists in zones of war and upheaval, of course, must always be alert to their personal safety. What calculations would you make as a journalist if you were covering conflicts?  What do journalists lose if they do not take some risks?

Exercises:

1. Write a story -- twice -- about an event you attend.  First try to write the story with complete ‘distance,’ showing no special affinity for the people involved or their efforts. Next, approach the story as if the people involved are your close friends and allies, and you feel strong ties to their intentions. How do the finished versions differ? Reflect on the values that went into each piece and then record your findings as a means of evaluating how important information can be communicated. 

2. Read the Journalist Security Guide published by the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based non-profit organization that supports the rights of journalists to report stories around the world. See also this article from The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting on safety for freelance journalists. Drawing on these sources, write an essay on your concerns, or willingness, to cover dangerous situations overseas or at home. 

Conclusions/Implications:

  1. Anderson does not wait until the Epilogue to begin raising questions about the political future of the Middle East and exploring solutions. Can you identify the narrative passage where this function begins? What is the topic?
  2. What are the political outcomes that Anderson suggests are possible if and when conflicts begin to ebb? Do these possibilities seem satisfactory now that you've read the article? Why or why not?
  3. Early research about Arab Spring often highlighted the advantages of mobile digital devices, notably smart phones and electronic tablets, in mobilizing uprisings. Anderson’s narratives mention his source’s use of digital devices in a few cases, but the article doesn’t emphasize media technology as a primary agent for change. Identify narrative points where digital devices are mentioned. How crucial was their usage? Overall, why do you think the story offers only modest mention of media technology?
  4. The Epilogue ends with a direct quotation from Khulood al-Zaidi: ‘‘To bring them here, to have a family again,’’ she said. ‘‘That is my greatest dream.’’  How do you make sense of that ending? How did it affect you as a reader and as a student?
  5. In what ways did this article help your comprehension of current events in the Middle East? Would you estimate that this deepened your knowledge?
  6. Where will you likely turn next for more information about the events chronicled in the article?
  7. The article offers various depictions of prior U.S. actions and policies. What implications do you draw from these about U.S. effectiveness in the region? Do these implications agree with your previous perspectives?
  8. How do these stories influence your understandings of the political discourse in North America and Europe about the threats of migrants and refugees from the Middle East or Northern Africa?

Exercises:

1. Interview an international student, staff or faculty member on your campus who has come recently from a country in the Middle East. What personal narratives can this student share that might add to your knowledge and understanding? Write a story or essay based on this person's experiences.

2. Find five breaking news articles about a similar event in the Middle East that are each published by a different news organization based there. Among your many choices for news in English are Al-Jazeera (Qatar), Al-Arabiya (UAE/Saudi Arabia), Al-Manar (Lebanon), Egypt Daily News, The Jordan Times, and The Jerusalem Post.  Research each news outlet to identify its owners and perspectives.  Then analyze the five articles, comparing their reporting points – and also evaluating their content with points you can draw from “Fractured Lands.”

Educator Notes: 

This college-level lesson is designed to supplement the New York Times Magazine article “Fractured Lands” by writer Scott Anderson and photojournalist Paolo Pellegrin with a series of prompts for discussions and exercises.  Because of the depth and richness of the article as a whole, the prompts explore a variety of topics in categories that generally coincide with the sections of the long-form article.

In this long-form magazine article, Anderson and Pellegrin provide insights into the recent conflicts and changes in the Middle East, including Northern Africa. They do this by weaving the narratives of six people native to those lands who were caught up in the major conflicts that have disrupted the region in the past dozen or more years. Thanks to its fine details and human plotlines built from extensive interviewing, the story reveals how people from Libya to Iraq traced their own precarious paths through threats, conflicts and shifting prospects, with various degrees of hope, urgency and success. For college students in the United States, the human complexities introduced here give context to the news reports they see from a distance on TV or in quick bursts through social media. In sharing these narratives, the well-traveled Anderson, who has written extensively on the Middle East, adds his interpretations of causes and effects that take into account the failures of dictators as well as the foibles of European paternalism and the misjudgments of U.S. military actions.

This lesson is designed to supplement a compelling magazine article with a series of prompts for discussions and exercises. Because of the depth and richness of the article as a whole, the prompts explore a variety of topics in categories that generally coincide with the sections of the long-form article. Instructors are of course encouraged to revise and create your own questions and assignments to meet your purposes.

In many cases at the collegiate level,"Fractured Lands" will be one part of a wider exploration of issues concerning the Middle East or, perhaps, issues in global/regional studies or international reporting.  An introductory survey of recent history of the Middle East is recommended for students without prior knowledge of the region.

Objectives:

  • Challenge students to seek deeper and more complex views of events in the Middle East.
  • Recognize the roles of powerful nations from outside the region in influencing the political landscapes of the Middle East over the past century.
  • Invigorate a curiosity about the conditions of people living in the midst of conflicts.
  • Encourage an analytical approach in studying the structure of the article.
  • Weigh recommendations for political improvements in the region.
  • Reflect on the choices that people can exercise in responding to crises of war, threat and violence in the Middle East.
  • Evaluate the effects of a long-form journalistic work such as this article.

Lesson Builder Survey