When we set out to make this, our “Icon” issue, we weren’t interested in making a definitive hot-list of cultural touchstones or in assembling a collection of canonical Middle Eastern luminaries only to bog them down with superficial hype. We acknowledge the casual nature with which people throw around hyperbolic labels, (i.e., icon, fetish) and the multitude of associations the term “icon” elicits in the current lexicon. The challenge is approaching this theme in an original way, acknowledging that an icon represents something greater than itself while resisting heroic monumentalisms.
So, we collected our range of icons by asking writers and artists to propose their own ideas rather than commissioning specific articles and works. The resulting body of work is more a collective examination of the idea of the “icon” than it is a celebration of specific things. After all, one person’s notion of an icon is another’s hackneyed cultural blip — particularly when looking at geographies as disparate as we happen to be. So we asked ourselves, how are icons born? What is it that buoys them to iconic status? We look at fan cultures (Iranian diva Googoosh), the world through the lens of a children’s book (Hassan Khan’s epic collage painting), and history and its curious turns (former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, creating a new Iraqi flag, and the structure of revolution in Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square). Our image section, featuring work by Thomas Ruff, Nate Lowman, and Thomas Demand, is a testament to the effect that war and its associated iconography have had on the collective conscious — often care of the contemporary media. A project by the artists Yto Barrada and Simona Schneider looks at the iconography of local economies, here in the form of the exchange of cigarettes in one Moroccan town. We also inaugurate a new feature this issue, the “Bidoun Phrasebook,” a dispensable guide for contemporary travelers.
In an interview given for this issue on the subject of the late Edward Said, Christopher Hitchens, in his typical acerbic manner, brutalizes the usage of “icon” in current discourse: “It’s a fatuous word, it’s a concession by intellectuals to celebrity culture, and would be better off banned.”
Damning words, maybe. But with the help of a talented host of writers on four continents we’ve gained a glimpse into different histories and at times cultish pop phenomena. Hopefully we’ve managed to bend the notion of the icon, expose its multiple forms and leave us all thinking about what it is exactly that makes an icon an icon.