Photojournalist shares ‘unheard voices’ of American history

Posted 10/3/19

Robert Azzi bravely tells it as he sees it, unafraid of the possible consequences of his words. And he brought those words to the Powell area in a series of talks last week.

Azzi is a …

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Photojournalist shares ‘unheard voices’ of American history


Robert Azzi bravely tells it as he sees it, unafraid of the possible consequences of his words. And he brought those words to the Powell area in a series of talks last week.

Azzi is a first-generation American, born in New Hampshire to naturalized Lebanese parents. He loves America, but he’s seen a different side of American history than most — the point of view of an American Muslim.

There are many around the globe who hate him.

Azzi spent a large part of his career covering the Middle East and is considered one of this country’s top experts on Saudi Arabia. His work in the Middle East has been educating Americans for more than 40 years through his words and photographs appearing in highly respected publications, including National Geographic.

But an Azzi column that appeared in the Concord, New Hampshire Monitor last year — about the death of Azzi’s friend and fellow journalist, Jamal Khashoggi — drew the ire of Saudi Arabian officials.

A critic of Saudi leaders, Khashoggi was killed in Turkey a year ago, on Oct. 2, 2018. Saudi officials have said he was killed in a “rogue operation” by state agents, but the CIA concluded the agents likely acted on orders from crown prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.

Azzi wrote in his column that Khashoggi “is dead because the Saudi crown prince was too thin-skinned to allow a Saudi citizen — even one legally living in America — to criticize him and his authoritarian regime, a regime that rules through terror, intimidation, corruption and extortion.”

The Saudi regime banned Azzi from the country in the wake of that column.

Meanwhile, his candid assessments of America’s history of oppressing minorities and his disdain for the current tenor of political debate and the dealings of the Trump administration have made him a target in his own home country as well.

For instance, in his response to Khashoggi’s murder, Azzi also wrote that: “The truth is that America will continue to be diminished and corrupted because its president, Donald J. Trump, is too thin-skinned, ignorant and selfish to understand the moral, ethical and political ramifications of the deals he’s making with devils who threaten the very nature of our democracy.”

His views have angered some; hate groups threaten Azzi and track his movements.

“I’m too old for them to scare me,” Azzi said at a speech in front of a full house at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center Thursday night.

Azzi came to Heart Mountain to speak about the murder and other injustices. He believes that to be a true American patriot, citizens need to be honest to protect the country he loves. “To love something, or someone, one is compelled to criticize and call to account those who put the object of one’s affection in jeopardy,” he said.

Azzi refused to sugar-coat the country’s history. From the very ground where thousands of American citizens were imprisoned during World War II, he called the internment facility nothing more than a concentration camp. He also spoke about many injustices against minorities in the country, including the imprisonment of men, women and children along the southern U.S. border. And Azzi warned of the possibility of the history of Heart Mountain repeating itself, saying he could someday face imprisonment for his religious beliefs; Azzi referenced a 2016 comment by former Trump administration appointee Carl Higbie that internment camps like Heart Mountain’s were “a great precedent” for a potential registry of Muslim immigrants.

Former Powell resident Nick Morris helped arrange for Azzi’s visit to this area and he was invited to speak at the Heart Mountain center as part of a series of community conversations.

“It’s very important to me and the Heart Mountain board that we be a forward-facing museum that doesn’t just look to the past,” said Dakota Russell, executive director of the Heart Mountain Foundation, “and does what it can to become a forum where people can discuss the sort of things that they might not be able to discuss without yelling at each other elsewhere.”

Azzi also took time to speak to photographic communication students at Northwest College during his visit. He showed inspirational slideshows from his long photojournalism career and met privately with students, going through portfolios and encouraging them to ferret out injustice in their future careers.

Azzi said in his remarks at Heart Mountain that he didn’t come to Powell to preach Islam, but “to share with you stories which I hope will help us, together, work to reweave the precious fabric of our history — which has been soiled by divisiveness, bigotry, greed and ignorance.”

He said he came as a “proud American,” to stand up for his and the rights of others wronged in the country and across the globe. He pointed to the long history of Muslims in America, including in Wyoming, and spoke to the plight of many religious worshippers, ranging from Mormons to Catholics.

“Along the whole social justice spectrum, those previously marginalized are now standing together to demand their share of their inalienable rights,” Azzi said. “You don’t have to like them. You don’t have to agree with them — I don’t, not all of them. You just have to grant to them, as I ask for myself, space in America’s public square. If you deny them space, you deny the promise of America ... and the First Amendment.”