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National Geographic Photojournalist Explores Conflict in Muslim World

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In her new book, Windows of the Soul: My Journeys in the Muslim World, photojournalist Alexandra Avakian chronicles her travels through several Islamic countries with stunning photographs and riveting commentary.

Avakian has spent much of the last 17 years photographing the Muslim world. She often has focused on areas of war and conflict - often risking her own life in the process.

She has worked for publications such as Time magazine, The New York Times newspaper and magazine, and for the past 15 years, the esteemed magazine of international photojournalism, National Geographic.

Photography helps journalist understand roots

Avakian says she's been taking pictures since she was 6 years old, when her father, the late movie director Aram Avakian, first put a camera into her hands. She says she was drawn to the themes of war and conflict because she needed to understand what was happening in the world and also to better understand her own roots.

The roots Avakian refers to are her Armenian roots. Her father's family fled northwestern Iran after the violence of the 1915 massacre of more than one million Armenians by Ottoman Turks spilled over the border. By 1923, the family had resettled permanently in the U.S.

Avakian had an opportunity to travel to Armenia when Life magazine sent her there to cover the 1988 earthquake. She spent a month covering the devastation of the earthquake, which claimed the lives of more than 25,000 Armenians.

"People were being buried in trenches because of the sudden tragedy of the earthquake. So it was a sad time to be there."

Covering conflict, culture in Armenia

During her time in Armenia, Avakian also covered ethnic battles that were just beginning between Karabakhi Armenians and neighboring Azerbaijanis. She covered the war several times over the years.

She says it was an extremely dangerous time. "There was sniper fire" and "about 1,000 bullets from the Azeri side for every Armenian bullet."

Avakian says, as with any war and conflict between people, seeing people suffer, seeing women and children suffer, is "very hard."

But Avakian says not all of her trips to the land of her ancestors were so dispiriting. She also traveled to Armenia she says, "for culture, to photograph the resurgence of religion and in particular, Armenian Christianity," which she describes as a "very special, funky, interesting type of Christianity."

Bringing Americans up-close images of Iran

Avakian's heritage also is rooted in Iran, a country she has visited several times. She was thrilled, she says, when National Geographic accepted her proposal to travel there for a cover story published in July 1999.

She says she wanted to go beyond what divides Iranians and Americans to achieve a "people-to-people contact."

She says the National Geographic story she did was - at that time - the biggest exposure the Iranians had had in the American press in many years.

"It meant a lot to them that I have a good experience," she says.

Avakian says she felt very lucky to be able to spend four months in Iran, where she was free to go almost anywhere, including her grandfather's ancestral village in the northwestern part of the country.

There was one tense moment that she remembers vividly, however, involving a member of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, the elite and widely feared military force set up in 1979 to secure the new Islamic state. She describes how while photographing children who were working in the salt flats, a Revolutionary Guard commander ran toward her, shouting, "Wait, wait, stop!"

Avakian thought it was all over. But then he asked her if she worked for National Geographic, and when she said, "yes," he said, "I haven't gotten my subscription in years. Can you help me?"

Unprecedented access to Yasser Arafat

Avakian covered the first Palestinian uprising and also enjoyed unprecedented access to the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, beginning in the late 1980s and continuing over a period of seven years. After the Oslo Accords were finalized in 1993 establishing the outlines of a future Palestinian state, Avakian travelled with Arafat to Washington, D.C., for the ceremonial signing with Israeli leaders Shimon Perez and Yitzhak Rabin and then-U.S. President Bill Clinton. She remembers Arafat's unique demeanor.

"Arafat was usually quiet. He had this little voice, like when he called me a dictator or a troublemaker. It was: 'You are a dictator.' And at the same time, this little voice, it would still knock you back because when he would give you these big eyes, you knew it was time to get out of his way."

Portraits of people living amid war and famine

Avakian's travels in the Muslim world have taken her beyond the Middle East to Central Asia and several countries in Africa. She spent six months in the early 1990s covering civil war and famine in Sudan and Somalia.

She says it was extremely dangerous.

"I was walking around in a country where you can get killed for a can of Coca-Cola or your sunglasses. I was walking around with a pocket full of $7,000 in cash because I had to pay for bodyguards in order to survive there day to day. It was extraordinarily dangerous where you could be killed for nothing."

Avakian says she's been drawn to these situations - and still travels to troubled countries - in part because she wants to know what it's like to be a woman with children living through such turmoil and to experience what they experience.

"One of the most moving things in the world with people all over the world," she says, "is they want their stories told."

And that, she finds, is a beautiful thing.

People worldwide share similar aspirations, Avakian says

Avakian has been through war zones and been beaten, shot at and detained. She has put her life at risk bringing the world unique and instructive pictures. And what is the most significant lesson she has learned from her journeys around the world?

"I feel that people have much more in common across the world than they have differences… regardless of religion or anything else. I think that people care about feeding their families. They care about making sure that they have a safe place to live, education, and I have to say, if there's one thing that people have in common, it's that, and that's what I like to try to get across."

Photojournalist Alexandra Avakian's global odyssey is captured in her new book, Windows of the Soul: My Journeys in the Muslim World, just published by National Geographic.