It Was a Publisher’s Idea

The hopeful monster that is the Bidoun Library was born in the fall of 2009 in Abu Dhabi. It began as a resource, earnest in design and intent, bringing together artist books, monographs, catalogs, and other sources pertaining to art and culture in the Middle East and presenting them in places where such materials were hard to find. What you are now perusing is not that library.

What the Bidoun Library has evolved into is less a collection of books arranged according to an organizing principle than an organizing principle that collects and arranges books. The Bidoun Library one visits in Cairo may be wholly different than one in Dubai, Detroit, or Beirut.

This issue presents a specific iteration of the Bidoun Library, generated especially for an exhibition at the New Museum for Contemporary Art in New York: a presentation of printed matter, carefully selected with no regard for taste or quality, in an attempt to document every possible way that people have depicted and defined — slandered, celebrated, obfuscated, hyperbolized, ventriloquized, photographed, surveyed, and/or exhumed — that vast, vexed, nefarious construct known as “the Middle East.” The result is banal and offensive, a parade of stereotypes, caricatures, and misunderstandings of a sort that rarely makes it into the magazine, all the trappings of the Middle East as fetish: veils, oil, fashion victims; sexy sheikhs, sex with sheikhs, Sufis, stonings; calligraphy, the caliphate, terrorism; Palestinians.

Take, for example, a bodice-ripping romance, The Sheikh’s Secret Son. It’s a novelty, a cheap thrill. But if you see it alongside The Sheikh’s Secret Bride… and The Sheikh’s Convenient Bride… and The Sheikh’s Virgin Bride… and The Sheikh’s Mistress… and then seemingly countless permutations of the same, novelty gives way to conspiracy. What you notice is that these books begin to appear in their legions only after September 11, 2001 — a revelation that, like many others in the Bidoun Library, is more stupefying than clarifying.

This particular collection of books was the outcome of a series of escalating searches on the World Wide Web. Deploying a search term like “oil,” “Arab,” or “Middle East” would return an unmanageable array of books — but adding an additional search term would narrow the field in telling ways. Books about oil before 1973 that cost less than five dollars are few and almost entirely in hardcover, usually technical guides written for a specialized audience. After 1973, the same search yields a completely different array: in hardcover, hundreds of books about the coming oil crisis, rampant Arab wealth and influence, global bankruptcy, impending world war, and biblical Armageddon. At the same time, in paperback, the terrorist novel is born, and its brood is legion — cover after cover depicting vintage special agents, Israeli commandos, vigilante lone wolves, soldiers of fortune, and even a black samurai, karate-kicking djellaba’d sheikhs beside burning oil rigs, often after sampling the delicacies of the inevitable harem. A similar set of searches substituting “Iran” for “Arab” produced its own assortment of types and stereotypes. We wanted to see what would happen if we put together a library without regard to aptness or excellence; to choose books not for their subjects, but their contexts; not for their authors, but their publishers; not for their qualities, but in their quantities.

And quantities they did! Just shy of one thousand books came to occupy the Bidoun office, and as they arrived we read them — all of them, book by book. As we read, we marked passages and images for transcription and scanning, which were then indexed according to topics — descriptions of artworks, photographs, flags; jokes and sexual innuendos; captions, acknowledgments, asides. Things that, considered out of context, revealed a surplus or a deficit of meaning. Those texts and images were then organized into four books that were suspended by chains from the ceiling of the New Museum at strategic points in the exhibition space. Three of the books corresponded to general categories: Home Theater/pulp, Natural Order/corporate publishing, and Margin of Error/“other.” A fourth book, Further Reading, purported to be a glossary for the other three. We called the books catalogs, though as such they were incomplete, inaccurate, and perplexing. What the catalogs did do was provide an example of one way of reading the library — to look over our shoulders as we read the library, in its entirety, and to see some of the associations and parallels within. This issue of Bidoun is in a sense a third reading of the library and a rereading of those catalogs — they are reproduced here, in sequential order, nested within the pages of the magazine.

A good deal of the books and periodicals in the library were produced in conjunction with one or another corporate entity, including Horus, the official publication of EgyptAir, and the catalog of the 1974 International Art Exhibition ITT. But the strangest flower of corporate publishing is undoubtedly Aramco World, the curiously spectacular official publication of the Arabian American Oil Company. “Mondo Aramco,” an oral history of the Middle East’s oldest magazine for art and culture, begins on page 89.

One category that intrigued us was books printed by regimes of production that no longer exist. Like the myriad publications of the Novosti Press Agency in Moscow, such as Afghanistan Chooses a New Road, Treasures of Human Genius: The Muslim Cultural Heritage in the USSR, and Tonight and Every Night: The Soviet Circus Is Seventy Years Old. Or Aurora Art Publishers, another state-run publisher, and the coffee-table books they produced about art and architecture on the outer reaches of the Soviet empire. In “Invitation to a Sunset” (page 135), Achal Prabhala remembers yet another communist publisher, Progress Press, and the warm Red tinge of his Indian boyhood.

The Cold War produced publishing ventures across the globe. Dozens of magazines were founded or supported by the Congress for Cultural Freedom, an association of left-leaning but anticommunist artists, writers, and musicians that was also a secret project of the CIA. Postrevolutionary Cuba became for a time a hotbed of avant-garde publishing, sponsoring the Afro-Asian-American journal Tricontinental, which included foldout posters promoting a solidarity-of-the-month club with oppressed guerrilla movements the world over. Copies were door-dropped on college campuses across the Third World, including Beirut, where Bidoun acquired some thirty-odd copies for fifty cents each. In “Revolution by Design” (page 161), Babak Radboy considers the aesthetic legacy of Tricontinental and its visionary art director, Alfredo Rostgaard.