Noam’s upturned, screaming face was on posters in Honduras for a political initiative he knew nothing about in a language he couldn’t read. It was on banners in Spain and Colombia calling for the release of political prisoners he’d never heard of, accused of crimes unknown to him.
After a certain number of years our faces become our biographies. We get to be responsible for our faces. —Cynthia Ozick
There were crude uses of the portrait and sophisticated ones. A few of those who had downloaded the photo had altered it, adding vampire’s teeth and blood, or a knife in the mouth. Some had tinted it, enlarged it, set it on a black or orange or blue background … but most had left it unchanged. Only once was Noam paid for the use of his portrait: National Geographic approached him and asked to use the image on the cover of a special issue they printed before the U.S. elections. The image, they said, was exactly what they needed. The special issue was themed “power to the people.”
With this single exception, though, the use of Noam’s self-portrait had gone out of his control. It was sketched and silk-screened, crayoned and printed, stenciled and spray-painted on concrete walls.
Noam’s response was mostly a sort of awed fascination. He liked seeing how people used the portrait, what settings they chose. He had no quarrel with anyone, except perhaps those selling scream T-shirts for a profit. He posted an album on Facebook: images from all over the world, of his face. A face that seemed to imply protest. Rage. Despair. Fist-pumping populism. …or, in some cases, just a rockin’ good time. His face seemed to mean all things to all people.
This portrait would be to him the most magical of mirrors. As it had revealed to him his own body, so it would reveal to him his own soul. —Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
Before moving to the U.S., Noam served in the Israeli army as a tank driver. He spent a year and a half moving about in the West Bank, encased with three fellow soldiers in an old tank crammed with weaponry and equipment, accessible through a hatchway so narrow that only very thin soldiers qualified for the crew. They stayed in the tank for up to 100 hours at a stretch, with barely enough room to move, in heat Noam describes only by saying, “It was extreme.”
He saw no combat—it was a relatively quiet time in Israel. He and his crew-mates devoted their time to finding creative ways to live and move and get along in the tank. Eating their packaged meals atop mortar shells. Sleeping: upside-down with legs on a seat, head on the brakes.
A year and a half inside a metal shell, with the same three guys—counting the guys in the other tanks, an extended family of about 30. Noam hadn’t expected to like his tank service, but soon grew comfortable there.
There were no windows in the tank. Driving, Noam looked out at the world through three small periscopes, each perhaps five inches long. For hours, sometimes days on end, that was his only view of his surroundings. No blue sky during the day, no stars at night. Only three five-inch reflected views of a terrain populated by people who might or might not be your enemy. “The periscopes are mirrors,” Noam explained. “Nothing is a real view to the outside. So if they shoot, they only shoot the mirror, not the driver.”
In the beginning, driving that way seemed impossible. Noam had no idea how to do it, no idea how to orient himself without a true view of the world. But he learned quickly to work within the restrictions of the tank’s visuals.
“You can’t really see where you are,” he said. “But at least you’re not dead.”
Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.
—W. H. Auden
From outside an Israeli army tank, you cannot see the face of the driver. His expression, his demeanor, his voice, his posture—these things are hidden. All you can see of the tank driver—of the soldier who himself hasn’t felt a breeze or breathed fresh air for perhaps 50 hours—are his eyes, reflected in a mirror-image of a mirror-image.
If you succeed in looking past the guns and the armor and the earth-churning treads, if you concentrate hard on a very small strip of mirror, then you might just barely see the eyes. Watching you.
Sometimes a scream is better than a thesis. —Ralph Waldo Emerson
Shortly after Noam began investigating the spread of his scream photograph around the globe, he discovered something completely unexpected. Images of his face were turning up graffitied on walls in Tehran. In Tabriz City.
His portrait, it turned out, had been picked up by some anti-government protesters in Iran. In the year following the Green Movement’s first open clashes with Ahmadinejad’s government—a violent confrontation watched anxiously by the world—images of Noam’s face were reproduced by activist graffiti artists, sometimes veiled in red-painted blood. His anonymous face was rendered by anonymous Iranians on metal fuse-boxes and walls, alone or amid a crowd of other spray-painted images: part of a mute but vociferous message dangerous to utter aloud.
One of the hallmarks of the Iranian resistance movement has been the nighttime scream—protesters climbing unseen to their rooftops in Tehran and elsewhere to fill the dark skies with cries of “Allah o Akbar,” a slogan the religious government can’t technically oppose … but of course everyone understands the message. In this setting, it seems natural that Noam’s portrait might strike a chord. Seen in context, on rusted Tehran notice boards papered with torn fliers or on the barren sun-struck walls of a Tabriz City construction site, the face is a portrait of suffering and rage. The mouth is a black hole, crying to the heavens—but it’s not a passive howl. There’s something about it that implies that this scream is going to end. And when it does, the face is going to level its gaze at someone and take action.
The fact that members of the Iranian protest movement are using the face of an Israeli in their street art has surfaced here and there. It’s been a small ironic punch-line in a few articles—one in an Israeli newspaper, two in Germany, one in the Netherlands, one in Turkey, one in Switzerland. Until this week, there had been a few blog mentions, but nothing in the U.S. press. And nothing in the Iranian press.
An acquaintance who runs a network of Iranian journalists made inquiries about the portrait and its uses; based on what she was able to learn, the origin of that screaming face doesn’t seem to have made it onto either the Iranian artists’ or the Iranian government’s radar. The graffiti artists who put Noam’s face on walls seem to have no idea that the screaming face they’re reproducing is, in fact, the face of a Jew … a Jew who happens to be a grandson of four survivors of the Holocaust (which Ahmadinejad has gone on record calling “a lie,” a “mythical claim,” and “the opinion of just a few”) … a Jew who also happens to be a former soldier of the country Ahmadinejad calls “the flag of Satan,” and which even Moussavi, the relatively progressive candidate some of the anti-Ahmadinejad protesters champion, calls “a cancerous tumor.”
Somehow the fact of Noam’s identity doesn’t seem to have passed through the same walls his face sailed through. The story has been told only in human-interest articles appearing in the back sections of newspapers written in Dutch and Turkish and Hebrew and German.
Noam’s face, on the other hand, seems to be written in a language everyone can understand.