‘I hope the Indian government, in its mysterious Byzantine ways, will reconsider its ban on me. I am hardly a threat to the Indian Union’
Late in September 2011, American radio broadcaster and writer, David Barsamian, landed at Delhi Airport, only to be stopped at Passport Control, and turned right back on the same plane he had just arrived on. No explanations were provided then, or since.
Barsamian is best known as the founder of Alternative Radio, a syndicated weekly talk programme heard on 150 radio stations in countries across the world. Over 25 years he has turned the long form audio interview into a unique genre, and the Boulder, Colorado-based Alternative Radio into a legend.
Its tagline says ‘audio energy for democracy’, and his interviews with some of the most important critical voices of our times have confirmed that reputation, and appear regularly in acclaimed media outfits like The Progressive, The Nation, and Z Magazine. Much of this social commentary has been collated into significant books. These include conversations with Edward Said (The Pen and the Sword, 1994), Howard Zinn (The Future of History, 1999), Eqbal Ahmad (Terrorism: Theirs and Ours, 2002), Arundhati Roy (The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile, 2003), Tariq Ali (Speaking of the Empire and Resistance: Interviews, 2005) and most frequently, with Noam Chomsky, with whom he has brought out Chronicles of Dissent (1992), Class Warfare (1996), Propaganda and the Public Mind (2001), and What We Say Goes: Conversations on US Power in a Changing World (2009). His latest book with Noam Chomsky is Power Systems: Conversations on Global Democratic Uprisings and the New Challenges to U.S. Empire. The book was published in January of 2013
Eighteen months after he was turned away from India, on a cold blustery day in March 2013, documentary filmmaker Sanjay Kak spoke with him in Chicago.
Q: Welcome David Barsamian
It’s a pleasure. Usually I’m on the other side of the microphone. (Laughs)
Q: This is my first ever interview. So I just want to share some of that anxiety with you, and ask you to tell me about the first interview you ever did, if you can remember who it was?
I could never forget. It was with Araxie Barsamian, my mother. It was in the mid, early 1970s, on a very cheap General Electric cassette recorder. I didn’t even know what I was doing, but I wanted to talk to her about her memories of the genocide that she had lived through, in 1915, when the Turkish government carried out a campaign of extermination, dispossession and deportation of its very large Armenian Christian minority. When I was growing up -- I was born in New York in 1945, my parents came to America in 1921 after they got married in Beirut -- and while I was growing up there was always this big dark secret in the background, there was this huge shadow over everyone and everything in the Armenian community, over people in my family. I wanted to interrogate that, I wanted to know about it. People didn’t want to talk about it. They were reluctant, there was something called survivors guilt: “Why did I live, when I lost my parents and my brothers…” In my mother’s case she lost three younger brothers, and her parents, all lost in that horrific period. So I wanted to record the memories of these people, because I thought what they experienced is really valuable for history, and also for my own edification and knowing about my family background.
So that was the very first interview I did, and then I interviewed some survivors from my mother’s village and people on my father’s side who were in New York and those I knew. That was the beginning of my interviewing career. I never realized it was going to become a profession for me. I just did these out of mostly curiosity and interest and knowing that these were elderly people, they were going to die in a few years and all those memories will go with them. So I felt it really important to record that. Since I did that interview with my mother, which was heartbreaking, and if I think about it even now I start choking up, because it was so visceral, in the solar plexus, not up here (taps his head). It’s not an intellectual exercise when you’re talking to your mother about painful, painful things; since then, I’ve felt all the interviews I’ve done have been a snap, because that one was so hard. I was on the top of K2, Mount Everest, and then, the other mountains have been much easier. (Laughs)
Q: So, as a form of journalism or enquiry -- you used the word illumination, to illuminate the darkness that surrounded your family’s history -- what is the interview for you? You’ve interviewed -- I don’t know, you’ll tell me -- how many people, all kinds of people, so, why do you think it works as a form for you?
Well, first of all, I think my approach is of an artist. I see this as an art form. I mean, it is journalism, but how you construct an interview that has a beginning, a middle and an end, that has waves and texture, and engages the listener -- that’s not some dry exercise. What do the listeners need to know? I might know a little bit about these subjects but I have to remember who is behind me. So if I ask simplistic questions like, “What is the capital of Kashmir?” or something like that, it’s because I am sure listeners may not have that information. So I want to get it out there, but at the same time, it shouldn’t be patronizing, it shouldn’t be overly simplistic.