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Shoot an Iraqi

NOTE: This blog entry was written in February 2009

In his youth, Wafaa Bilal’s art was controversial in his home country of Iraq where his work was often censored for offending those in power. Bilal was born and raised in Najaf where he lost family members to Saddam Hussein’s oppresive regime. He survived Iraq’s long, bloody war with Iran, then as a university student, was expected to fight in Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait during the first Gulf War in 1991. Bilal declined and after the American victory and as Saddam cracked down on the Shia and Kurdish uprisings, Bilal left his family and fled for the Kuwaiti border. He snuck across, was arrested and spent two years in a Saudi Arabian refugee camp. In that tent city in the middle of the desert, Bilal continued making art to maintain his sanity. He slowly built a studio made of mud bricks and sealed the walls with trash bags so the sandstorms wouldn’t ruin his oil paintings. Bilal got out after two years and wound up here in the United States - where some found his art offensive and he was censored by those in power.

Bilal is best known for “Domestic Tension” - a dynamic art installation in a Chicago gallery where he lived for 31 days while online visitors could shoot at him all day and all night with a remote controlled paintball gun. He says he came up with the idea after his brother and father died during the current war in Iraq. Bilal sensed a great disengagement among American citizens about this war being fought on their behalf on the other side of the world, where American soldiers were being killed along with tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians. So he locked himself in the gallery to illustrate the intersection of conflict zones and comfort zones — to bring the war into our homes. During that month in the art gallery, online visitors fired more than 60,000 yellow paintballs at Bilal, hitting him a few hundred times. There was also a chat room interface where Bilal could talk with those shooting at him and with those trying to protect him.

Click here for Wafaa Bilal’s website.

Click here to see videos of “The Paintball Project.” (Day 2) (Day 30)

Wafaa Bilal has written a book about the experience called Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun.





Will Sheff of Okkervil River

NOTE: This blog entry is from October 2013

by Chad Campbell, senior producer

All credit for this guest’s appearance goes to Phil Harrell, my former colleague first at NPR, then at XM with Bob. For years Phil has been telling me about Okkervil River and the band’s leader Will Sheff and what a great guest he would be with Bob given our open format. I finally took the advice and booked Sheff to discuss his career and the music from the band’s new CD The Silver Gymnasium. The songs on the album are all inspired by the people and places of tiny Meriden, New Hampshire of the mid 1980s. That’s where Sheff grew up on the campus of Kimball Union Academy, the college prep school where both his parents taught.

NPR Music prepared this interactive link to Sheff’s world, based on the map created by Sheff’s friend and frequent artistic collaborator William Schaff.



The Bob Edwards Show Schedule (May 18-22, 2015)


Monday, May 18, 2015: The indie rock band Okkervil River has been a critical darling since the late 1990s. The group formed in Austin, Texas but the founding members first met at a New Hampshire boarding school years before. The parents of bandleader Will Sheff taught at Kimball Union Academy and despite his subsequent success and cross-country touring, Sheff’s thoughts often returned to his childhood spent in tiny Meriden, New Hampshire. The songs on Okkervil River’s latest album are autobiographical and set in that specific place during the year 1986.  Bob talks with Sheff about his hometown, his songwriting process, the band’s unusual name and Okkervil River’s CD titled The Silver Gymnasium. Then, Buzzy Martin is a musician and guitar teacher who gave lessons in an unusual place to some very unorthodox students. Martin took the position of Guitar Teacher at San Quentin State Prison in California and wrote an account of his experiences changing lives through music. His book is titled Don’t Shoot, I’m the Guitar Man.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015:  During the 2008 presidential campaign, Bill Ayers was dubbed a “domestic terrorist” and his relationship with candidate Barack Obama was extensively studied under the right-wing talk show microscope.  In his memoir, the co-founder of the Weather Underground presents himself as an activist committed to social justice and education. His book is titled Public Enemy: Confessions of an American Dissident. Then, in their book, Merchants of Doubt, historians of science Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway tell the story of how for more than four decades, a small group of pro-industry, politically-connected scientists carried out effective campaigns to mislead the public.  Our guests argue that ideology and corporate interests, helped by a lazy media, have clouded public understanding of some of the most critical issues of our time.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015: When writer and Classics teacher Tom Payne noticed that his students were more interested in the current celebrity scandal then in Homer’s epic poetry, he started weaving in millennia old themes of Fame and Celebrity into his lectures.  Are our celebrities today akin to the deity of ancient times?  Payne examines the similarities in his book Fame: What the Classics Tell Us About our Cult of Celebrity.  Then, Bob talks with author Jake Halpern about his book Fame Junkies: The Hidden Truths Behind America’s Favorite Addiction.  Halpern traveled the country to try and understand our addiction to fame and celebrities.

Thursday, May 21, 2015: When Barack Obama was campaigning for president, he pledged to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, and to follow the rule of law in fighting terror groups. That was in 2008. Today, there are still prisoners at Gitmo, and covert drone air strikes, in which the U.S. military and the CIA act as judge, jury, and executioner, are at an all-time high. Daniel Klaidman, a reporter for Newsweek, examines Obama’s foreign policy decisions in the book, Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency.   Then, when the brother of Wafaa Bilal was killed at a U.S. checkpoint in 2005, the artist channeled the experience into a performance piece.  For a month, Bilal lived alone in a prison cell-sized room in the line of fire of a remote-controlled paintball gun. A camera connected him to internet where people could watch him - and shoot at him - 24 hours a day.  The piece was titled “Domestic Tension” and The Chicago Tribune called it “one of the sharpest works of political art to be seen in a long time.”  In 1992, Bilal came to the US where he became a professor, artist and now author. His book is called Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun

Friday, May 22, 2015: Garry Wills has written about Jack Ruby and John Wayne; Saint Augustine, Saint Paul and Jesus; James Madison and Abraham Lincoln. Now he writes about himself. His autobiography is titled Outside Looking In: Adventures of an Observer. The author, historian, classicist, theologian and journalist marks his 81st birthday today.



Bob Edwards Weekend (May 16-17, 2015)



It’s hard to believe, but Jim Henson died 25 years ago. Today, we look back at the life of the visionary artist.  In his biography, writer Brian Jay Jones tells Henson’s personal story, revealing the man behind the Muppets.  The book by Jones is titled simply Jim Henson: The Biography.

Then Bob talks with Stephen Christy about one of Henson’s lesser known works. Tale of Sand is a Jim Henson-written screenplay that was eventually released as a graphic novel. Christy was the editor of the project.



Famed director John Waters—the man behind Hairspray, Pecker, and many other films—made a cardboard sign that read “I’m Not Psycho” and hitchhiked from Baltimore to San Francisco.  His book Carsick is his account of what happened during his unforgettable and unconventional “vacation.” It is now available in paperback.

Then, the story of another famous road trip. Peter Carlson isn’t sure which anecdote it was that turned him into a self-described Khrushchev-in-America buff. It could have been the one about the irascible Soviet leader throwing a fit because he wasn’t allowed to go to Disneyland. Or it could have been Khrushchev’s suspicion that Camp David was really a leper colony. Or it could have been Khrushchev arguing with Nixon over which kind of animal dung smelled the worst. But Carlson synthesized the stories into K Blows Top, a book about Nikita Khrushchev’s great American road trip he undertook in the summer of 1959.



Jim Henson's "Tale of Sand"

NOTE: This blog entry originally appeared in February 2012. Muppets creator Jim Henson died 25 years ago, May 16, 1990.

by Chad Campbell, senior producer

More than 40 years ago, Jim Henson began writing a screenplay. When he showed it to production companies, they all agreed it was great, that he was a genius AND that there was no way to make it into a movie. Henson moved on, creating the Muppets, The Muppet Show and working on Sesame Street, but he continued to tweak his dark, desert story. It never was filmed and the script sat in a vault in the Henson family archive after Henson’s untimely death in 1990. Now, thanks to a partnership with Archaia, Tale of Sand is finally available — as a graphic novel. Stephen Christy is the editor-in-chief for the publishing company. He’s a life-long fan of Henson’s work and speaks eloquently about Henson’s legacy and abundant creativity. In our interview, Christy mentions the journal that Henson kept, just to get ideas out of his head. Click here for a sample of Jim Henson’s “Red Book.”  Christy also says Henson’s Oscar-nominated short film Time Piece was a big inspiration for many of the choices made by artist Ramon Perez as he transformed Henson’s screenplay. Here is that trippy video from 1965, which stars Jim Henson and features music, sound effects and VERY little dialogue.

“Time Piece - Jim Henson” - Watch more Videos at Vodpod.



 And here’s another sample of Ramon Perez’s art from Jim Henson’s Tale of Sand.