From personal mementos to institutional collections, the process of selecting is most important in deciding what is kept or what is overlooked. The archive defines history through the creation of collective memory. In this issue, Bidoun focuses on this theme to raise questions relating to identity and representation throughout the Middle East and beyond. One outstanding initiative featured is the Arab Image Foundation (FAI), who sends out members to collect photographic traces, often forgotten. Young men going to war, newlywed couples, women who wanted to be immortalized as beautiful — images of proud people who sought to fix themselves in history, but whose images have fallen by the wayside. The FAI dusts these photos off and reconnects the past and the present through their stories. And they do it themselves, at home. Now, these pieces from the past belong somewhere again.
This issue also marks the beginning of a three-part series that traces the historical development of written Arabic, from classical calligraphy to modern Arabic typography. The illustrated essay by Huda AbiFarès is a foundation for a wider discourse on scripture, the origins of the alphabet, and its forays into contemporary graphic design.
Exploring another aspect of archiving, Bidoun considers the widespread trend to reorganize Islamic Arts collections by major museums throughout the world. Will this renewed focus establish responsible and unbiased insight or will it be adding yet another layer of dubious history written by the Other?
This issue of Bidoun documents a marked shift in the history of history-writing — the initial stirrings of a paradigm shift.
Over the past couple of years, a number of British art scene movers and shakers have traveled to Palestine, some at the behest of the British Council, others on independent trips to meet artists first hand. Critic Sacha Craddock and art dealer/patron Charles Asprey were both struck by the critical vacuum within which artists work and — given the difficulties Palestinians can have in making the smallest journey — the need for regular, meaningful exchange with each other and the outside world. Together with Visiting Arts and the Qattan Foundation, they came up with the idea of an online community and exhibition space, serviced by offices in London and Ramallah. Essentially, the website aims to mimic — virtually — the community vibe and informal critical dialogue typical of an art school’s student unions, exhibitions, and tutorials. Discussion areas and editorials will facilitate critical dialogue; archives will provide reference and reading material; and calendars and maps will announce cultural events and exhibitions — locally and to curators and artists in London and beyond. London administrator Samar Martha said that ArtSchool Palestine will “embrace and host all artistic endeavors taking place” and carries with it “a naive but nonetheless classical sense of hope”; presumably this desire extends to the notoriously difficult nature of creating meaningful community discussion online, as well as contributing to the enfranchisement of Palestinian artists. Bidoun wishes the project all the best for its soft launch in October.
The Hassan Hourani Young Artist Award 2004
AM Qattan Foundation**
This year’s Qattan Foundation award is dedicated to the memory of the artist who passed away in a tragic drowning accident in August 2003, and who was the recipient of a prize at the award’s first edition in 2000. Ten shortlisted Palestinian artists from the world over will be presenting their work in a number of venues in Ramallah. In recent years, Palestinian artists from all fields have been exhorted to move away from dealing with subjects that relate to their “realities”; despite the political circumstances, these young artists have neither abdicated nor given up on developing their art in imaginative and technically innovative ways. The ten finalists are: Muhammad Abu Sil (Gaza), Shadi Habiballah (Jerusalem), Alexandra Handal (Costa Rica), Shurouq Harb (Ramallah), Muhammad Juha (Gaza), Muhammad Musallam (Gaza), Steve Sabella (Jerusalem), Suheil Salem (Gaza), Muhannad Al-Yaacoubi (Gaza), Shadi Zaqzouq (Gaza). The exhibition is curated by the artist Khalil Rabah.
Dubai Windows Dubai Media City November 2004
A group show held in and around the grounds of Dubai Media City, Windows features new work by established Dubai photographer and installation artist Mohammed Kazem, plus nine other up-and-coming artists. In a city fixated by marketable global cool, this is a rare opportunity to take in new work by Emirati artists, many of whom display a healthy concern for environmental and social issues. The exhibition title refers to a hotly anticipated new installation by Kazem that incorporates video, photographs, and drawings in a study of the artist’s relationship with his city’s urban landscape. Over time, Kazem documented Dubai’s changing skyline through one window in his house, his clear vista gradually becoming crammed with layers of building development. Kazem is joined at Dubai Media City by Ibtisam Abdul Aziz, Khalil Abdul Wahed, Laila Juma, Huda Saeed, Moza Bu Shelabah, Huda Hassan, Amal Saeed Jamaan, Naser Abdulla, and Ahmad Sharif.
Tehran Gardens of Iran: Ancient Wisdom, New Visions Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art Fall 2004
Iran’s particular relationship with its gardens, described dreamily by the curators as “the story of the love of life, a celebration of everything which is alive in nature, however fragile and ephemeral, but eternal and sublime, out of this world,” comes under scrutiny in this grand, diverse survey exhibition. The work of contemporary architects, filmmakers, sculptors, painters, and photographers — including Abbas Kiarostami, Parviz Tanavoli, Dariush Mehrjui, Farshid Mesghali, Farideh Lashai, and Bita Fayyazi — is accompanied by an historic study of the Persian garden, through architectural, photographic, and textual documents. Curated by Faryar Javaherian, with a circle of advisors including Parisian Nasrin Faghih, Rome-based Mahvash Alemi (co-editor of Environmental Design), and Tehran based designer Mohammad Reza Javadi, Gardens of Iran promises to dwell on the real and mythic nature of the garden, in the midst of Tehran’s gray, concrete jungle.
Cairo Moataz Nasr: The Echo Townhouse Gallery October 11–November 3, 2004
Reworking a video he debuted at last year’s mammoth DisORIENTation show at Berlin’s House of World Cultures, Egyptian Moataz Nasr will exhibit The Echo in the Townhouse Gallery’s factory space this October.
A rumination on the stagnant nature of politics, the exhibition presents two narratives that conflate space and time — raising questions as to notions of progress and the myth of modernity at large. A scene from Youssef Chahine’s canonical film El Ard (The Earth, from Abdel Rahman El Sharkawi’s novel of the same title), in which the protagonist decries the passivity of his fellow Egyptians during the British occupation, is echoed by a contemporary scene in which a young woman in a coffee shop delivers a damning oration, more or less re-emphasizing that very frustration. ‘Move people!’ The two scenes face off, in Shirin Neshat fashion. The moral of the story is that nothing changes. And talk is cheap.
At the very least, Nasr’s images are compelling. Perhaps most importantly, this particular screening allows the artist to explore these loaded notions at home, as it were, on Egyptian soil.
Leeuwarden Nazar 11th Noorderlicht Photofestival Photographs from the Arab World September 5–October 24, 2004
Is there such a thing as Arab photography? Probably not. Nevertheless, the Netherlands-based Noorderlicht Festival presses on with an ambitious mandate. Aiming to explore the complexities of photography in the region in a manner that defies popular images of the twenty-two countries within, the exhibition will showcase works by over fifty photographers, twenty-five of whom are of Arab origin.
Nazar means “seeing” in Arabic. If Noorderlicht organizers succeed in their mission, they may put contemporary rhetoric surrounding Orientalism to bed — highlighting ways of seeing rather than prevailing monolithic representations encountered c/o Culture Brokers, the media, and others.
Nevertheless, a number of concerns must be voiced. Though the organizers did their shopping with the help of local curators, they carried out precious little research within the region itself — on the ground, as it were. Secondly, the selection is of the mixed bag variety, sometimes leaving one wondering what ties these photographers together beyond a convenient umbrella called geography.
The exhibition website announces that “this is the first time in the Western world that such extensive attention is given to photography from the Arab region.” That said, it is well worth seeing if Nazar makes the most of such an historic opportunity, or alternatively, manages to confirm that a gesture toward inclusion can in fact be as bad as exclusion.
London Hashem El Madani and Pierre Bourdieu: Mediterranean The Photographers’ Gallery October 14–November 28, 2004
This autumn London’s premier photography venue devotes four months to the “abiding cultural relevance” of the “contested area” of the Mediterranean. The season began with Mediterranean: Between Reality and Utopia (continuing until October 3), a group show that includes historical and contemporary work, and introduces London to fascinating work by Lebanese Youssef Safieddine, Serbian Vesna Pavlovic and Israeli Efrat Shvliy alongside established names such as Julie Ganzin and Xavier Ribas. The eclectic nature of the show served to illustrate the limitations of the singular exhibition title, exposing instead the manifold links between multiple Mediterraneans.
The gallery now moves on to focus on two archives: sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s 1950s images of Algeria on the brink of independence and Hashem El Madani’s documentation of Saida, southern Lebanon, over the past fifty years. Season curator Lisa Le Feuvre, with the Fondation Arabe pour l’Image’s Akram Zaatari, has narrowed down Madani’s vast collection of over 75,000 images to around eighty seminal photographs. From his first atelier in his parents’ living room, through his mobile studio, to the opening of his current workspace in the Chehrazade building in 1948, Madani has documented the changing fortunes of his hometown in portraits of its residents. This is the photographer’s first solo exhibition outside of Lebanon and the long-awaited debut of the FAI in the UK; the presentation of Bourdieu’s fascinating field research is also a British first. Together, these two “Mediterraneans” should form one of the most significant London exhibitions of the year.
Paris Hassan Khan Galerie Crousel September 19-October 30, 2004
Cairo-based audio visual artist Hassan Khan (whose work was profiled in Bidoun issue one) has his first solo show this fall at Paris’s Galerie Crousel. Showcasing a number of past works in the two-level space, Khan will also debut Hidden Location, a four-channel video piece featuring a number of fictionalized narratives — scenes from a non-film — with no apparent connection between them, i.e. a businessman wakes up in his posh Nile-side apartment and reads nine quotations from the book of quotations, foreign tourists inexplicably stand on a Cairo street against a blue-screen background — as if surrounded by black halos, a company’s employees undergo corporate training, ships flow through the Suez Canal and Egyptian actors play foreigners on Egyptian TV, accents and all. Once again, Khan plays with audiences and notions of narratives at large, asking them to resist the temptation to make connections between the sequences, to categorize, to discern, i.e., young Arab male simultaneously decries the legacy of imperialism (Suez reference) and makes judgments with regard to morality and commerce (the book of quotations, the posh surrounds). Instead, he asks us to engage with every moment, because it will only last that long.
Geneva Ethnic Marketing: Art, Globalization, and Intercultural Supply and Demand Centre d’Art Contemporain October 20–December 5, 2004
Martine Anderfuhren and Tirdad Zolghadr’s ambitious project exhibition sets out to challenge and dismantle such meta-concepts as “ethnic marketing” and “art market xenophilia” through the work of a select group of smart, observant contemporary artists. Commissioning various artists to pose as fictive practitioners of undisclosed ethnic origin, they are aiming, says Zolghadr, to “explore the fine line between critically playing on a horizon of expectation, and reproducing a caricature.” Typically setting themselves a challenging and highly experimental brief, the “ethnic marketers” are aiming for an investigative season; their plans include a late-night screenings of film and video works, grouped around the themes of Tourism, Marketing, Xenophilia, and Figures of Globalization; an evening of “fifteen-minute interventions” featuring Gülsün Karamustafa, Natascha Sadr-Haghighian and advertising film director Chris Niemeyer (October 21); and a multi-media presentations on “migration marketing”. The project team’s own work includes the knowing documentation of consulting firms’ workshops involving role-playing exercises with titles such as Doing Business with the Arab World. Meanwhile, expect the main exhibition to include such gems as Shirin Aliabadi and Farhad Moshiri’s ongoing study of veiling iconography, Freedom is Boring Censorship is Fun and COM & COM’s mock Mocmoc statue, an exploration of Swiss identity through a “Tamagotchi aesthetic.”
Frankfurt The Arab World at the Frankfurt Book Fair Frankfurter Messegelände October 6-10, 2004
Frankfurt will be a center for Arab literature for five days in October, when the juggernaut that is the annual Book Fair hits town. The long-established tradition of honouring a guest region began in 1976 with Latin America, followed by countries from Africa, Europe and Asia. This year´s visitor is the Arab World as represented by the Arab League, which is aiming to present a diverse picture of its twenty-two member states. The “dream team” is led by Alesco, the Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organisation of the League; its directors have put together a multifaceted program that includes poetry and narrative readings by the likes of Adonis, Mahmoud Darwish, Sahar Khalifa and Taher Ben Jelloun; a film program at the Frankfurter Film Museum titled “Half a Century of Arab Film, 1954–2004,” between October 2004 and March 2005; several exhibitions around a literary theme, plus various debates, symposia and discussions at the Arab Pavillion. Whether this kaleidoscope succeeds or falls into the trap of being a folkloristic circus will depend in part on the scope for freedom of expression and the courage of the 200 invited guests and authors.
New York Cinema East Cantor Film Center, New York University September 11–December 4, 2004
About Baghdad by InCounter productions (Iraq/U.S.A, 2004, 89 min., beta sp).
In English and Arabic w/ English subtitles
No news… by Bushra Azzouz (U.S.A., 2002, 13 min., dvcam).
Post-screening panel discussion with InCounter productions team Sinan Antoon, Suzy Salamy, Bassam Haddad, Adam Shapiro, and Maya Mikdashi
Saturday, September 18, 6 pm
The Lizard by Kamal Tabrizi (Iran, 2004, 110 min., 35 mm). In Farsi w/ English subtitles
Post-screening panel discussion with Mazyar Lotfalian (Yale University) and Negar Azimi (Harvard University)
Friday, September 24, 6 pm
You are My Love by Youssef Chahine (Egypt, 1957, 120 min., 35 mm)
In Arabic w/ English subtitles
Saturday, October 2, 6 pm
Mashallah by Eytan Harris (Israel, 2004, 62 min., digibeta)
In Hebrew and Arabic w/ English subtitles
Hopefully for the Best by Raed Helou (Palestine, 2004, 42 min., dv cam)
In Arabic w/ English subtitles
Introductory remarks by Ryan Lahurd, president, Near East foundation
Post-screening panel discussion with filmmaker Raed Helou and Hamid Dabashi (Columbia University)
Saturday, October 16, 6 pm
‘K’ by Shoja Azari (U.S.A./Morocco, 2002, 85 min., 35 mm)
Post-screening panel discussion with filmmaker Shoja Azari, executive producer Shirin Neshat, and actors Oz Phillips and Mohammed Ghaffari
Saturday, October 30, 6 pm
The Best Times by Hala Khalil (Egypt, 2004, 113 min., 35 mm)
In Arabic w/ English subtitles
Post-screening panel discussion with filmmaker Hala Khalil and Mona Eltahawy (Arabic Women’s Enews)
Saturday, November 6, 6 pm
An evening with Lebanese film director and photographer Fouad Elkoury
Jours Tranquilles en Palestine. Directed by Sylvain Roumette and written by Fouad Elkoury (France, 1998, 13 min., beta sp).
Letters to Francine by Fouad Elkoury (France, 2002, 43 min, beta sp)
Moving Out by Fouad Elkoury (France, 2004, 26 min, beta sp)
Post-screening panel discussion with Fouad Elkoury and Walid Raad (Cooper Union)
Saturday, November 20, 6 pm
Deep Breath by Parviz Shahbazi (Iran, 2003, 82 min, 35 mm)
Post-screening panel discussion with Shouleh Vatanabadi (NYU) and Godfrey Cheshire (film critic, NYC)
Saturday, December 4, 6 pm
The Magic Box by Ridha Behi (Tunisia, 2002, 88 min., 35 mm)
In French and Arabic w/ English subtitles
How Beautiful Is the Sea by Sabine el Chamaa (Lebanon, 2003, 10 min., beta sp)
In Arabic w/ English subtitles
Introductory remarks by H.E. Mr. Hatem Atallah, ambassador of Tunisia to the United States
Post-screening panel discussion with filmmakers Ridha Behi and Sabine el Chamaa and Joshua Schreier (Vassar College)
New York Shirana Shahbazi Salon 94 November 7–December 22, 2004 The Wrong Gallery November 6–early December, 2004
Shirana Shahbazi plays with images, capitalizing on the codes embedded within particular media (photography, painting, craft) to expose the slippery nature of pictorial representation (what is authentic? what is ethnic? what is valuable?). Her debut Salon 94 show will showcase a number of images — taken from her own photographs — stitched onto hand-knotted carpets (including the image on the cover of Bidoun Issue One). As iconic decorative objects, the carpets function as a trace of the vernacular — in this particular case, Iranian. These are artefacts from the collective bazaar, stamps of authenticity from the East.
Not so. Instead, blonde bombshells, painfully intricate still lifes of fruit, landscapes and portraits — seemingly destined for either the gloss of advertising or alternatively the baroque, privileged frames of Western art — are transplanted onto the unassuming surface of the carpet. Lines demarcating the boundary between East and West, the painting and the photograph, real and contrived are effaced, exposed as frauds. You have to be paying attention here, as Shahbazi never fails to render us confused, exposing the very representational tropes we are all guilty of falling for and finally, perpetuating.
One day before the Salon 94 opening, Shahbazi will be showing a selection of works at Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni, and Ali Subotnick’s no-profit, no-budget initiative, The Wrong Gallery — a whopping 2.5 square feet of exhibition room in Chelsea. Reconfiguring works in order to accommodate the (non)space, Shahbazi asks whether bigger is in fact better.
Walid Raad has a knack for tricks. A thirty-seven-year-old contemporary artist based between Brooklyn and Beirut, Raad has been known to confuse form and fact. He is the driving force behind an organization called the Atlas Group, which takes a serious and fastidious approach to the accumulation of documents related to Lebanon’s recent history in general, and the country’s fifteen years of civil war in particular. As such, Raad’s work has all the trappings of traditional documentary research. Yet appearances can be deceptive. Imagine Lebanese historians frittering away their time at the racetrack, gambling on finish-finish photos, while shells are being lobbed back and forth throughout the country. Imagine police investigators, tasked with solving the crimes of car bombings, but fixating instead on the particular trajectory of the engines launched from those detonated vehicles. Raad may not be pulling his viewers’ legs, but he may just be holding back the hint of a smile and cocking one eyebrow as if to suggest slyly, “You see? Things aren’t always as they seem.”
An Atlas Group production typically involves the following: press photographs, news clippings, interview transcripts, video footage, graphics, images, and text along with elements of performance, collage, digital photography, and video art, all rolled into the physical framework of an artist’s talk or academic lecture — a table, a microphone, a few lights, a stack of papers, a screen behind, an audience in front, a presenter in between. It is a rather sterile and austere environment, though packed to the gills with material. After all, the Atlas Group thrives on documents, filing them away into three distinct categories that comprise the organization’s archives. But those documents — some found, others produced — function not as emblems of fact or scraps of evidence to support the assertions of history, but rather as traces, as symptoms, as strange structural links between history, memory, and fantasy, between what is known to be true and what is needed to be believed.
As Raad’s brainchild, the Atlas Group erupted onto the art scene several years ago, afforded a space in such high-profile venues as Documenta XI, the 2002 Whitney Biennial, and the Venice Biennale in 2003. As to when the Atlas Group was established, and by whom, answers depend on how one asks, when and where. At this point, the story of the organization’s origins has settled on the year 1999, but previously Raad has tossed about dates from 1975 through 1996, along with the names of such co-founders and co-conspirators as Maha Traboulsi and Zeinab Fakhouri. In short, the Atlas Group started firmly in the realm of Raad’s imagination, but now exists in real, concrete terms. Its work has been documented, after all.
Among the Atlas Group’s archives are fifty-three video tapes that serve as testimony to the experiences of Soheil Bachar (a man claiming to be a sixth hostage held in captivity with five American men in Lebanon during the Iran hostage crisis) and 226 notebooks attributed to the historian Dr Fadl Fakhouri (a man positioned as the preeminent historian of Lebanon’s civil war). From selections of this material, Raad has constructed such multimedia works as Missing Lebanese Wars, Already Been in a Lake of Fire, and My Neck Is Thinner Than a Hair, all of which have been widely shown and critically acclaimed. That neither Soheil Bachar nor Dr. Fadl Fakhouri exists has preoccupied much of the critical response to the Atlas Group’s work, focusing on questions of authorship and authenticity.
To look at the Atlas Group as a conceptual artwork in and of itself raises interesting questions about contemporary art practices across the board. At the same time, however, one runs the risk of overlooking the nature of the documents and archives themselves, as well as the Atlas Group’s particular approach to them all. And it is here, underneath the set-up and the framework, where some of the most trenchant questions lie.
In collecting and archiving documents related to the contemporary history of Lebanon, the Atlas Group seeks to analyze as yet unexplored dimensions of the civil war (or wars) that raged through the country from 1975 to 1991. Along the way, it also digs into the manner in which that history has been written and communicated, the dominant narratives and prevailing discourses.
“The Atlas Group always works with existing documents,” says Raad, sitting at a café terrace on the eve of the group’s latest presentation, My Neck Is Thinner Than a Hair: Volume 1, January 21, 1986, which premiered in Beirut on May 6, 2004. “It has always involved material that existed in the historical world, and imagining the universe in which that material exists.” But the balance between fabricated and found documents has recently shifted toward the latter. A previous presentation of My Neck Is Thinner Than a Hair was sourced from the notebooks and photographs of Dr. Fakhouri, though many of the pictures had in fact been shot shortly before by Raad on the streets of Beirut. The latest installment relies almost exclusively on actual press archives.
Generally, My Neck Is Thinner Than a Hair deals with the history of car bombings during the civil war. Specifically, it delves into one particular explosion, a car detonated in the Beirut neighborhood of Furn al-Shubbak on January 21, 1986. With colleagues Tony Chakar and Bilal Khbeiz, Raad formed a research team of sorts, gathering anything they could get their hands on, and limiting their search to a fifty-three-day frame. The three assembled press reports, television news footage, radio programs, and interview transcripts. They trawled through the neighborhood and interviewed people living there now about the bombing.
The Atlas Group’s ambition is not necessarily fame or the rehabilitation of a missing narrative or even the satisfaction that comes with comprehensive knowledge. “There is a constant identification of these historic events with the victims,” says Raad. “So the World Trade Center becomes about naming all the victims, showing the faces, telling the narratives, because that kind of victimhood gives you the right to speak and to be listened to with awe in a way that no other subject position permits. We’re not sure that we can yet listen to those positions, let alone make them manifest and say those are the people who died, these are their stories. They can be listened to but they will not necessarily be heard. Just like the buildings. You can go to Furn al-Shubbak, photograph it as much as you want, document it exhaustively — I’m not sure what you will know, and the same goes for the victims.”
In addition, the Atlas Group throws history itself into question. “There is this notion of chronological history where the past is certain, the present is certain, the future is certainly coming,” says Tony Chakar. “But there is no history. There is a huge catastrophe that’s in the making all the time. There is wreckage that is piled upon wreckage and that’s it. I don’t like when work I do or that Walid does is presented as an alternative history to something else, as if it is trying to find a place so it can evacuate the other history.” “I wouldn’t give up the term ‘alternative history,’” adds Raad. “But not an alternative history that is necessarily additional or that must be thought of as something that completes something that was missing. It might contradict, it might just add temporarily and then disappear… A reductive notion of traditional history is written as a chronology of massacres, of events, or a biography of participants. We are not saying history should not include this. We are certainly saying that history cannot be reduced to this… We are trying to find those stories that people tend to believe, [that] acquire their attention in a fundamental way, even if they have nothing to do with what really happened. Traditional history tends to concentrate on what really happened, as if it’s out there in the world, and it tends to be the history of conscious events. Most people’s experience of these events … is predominantly unconscious and concentrates on facts, objects, experiences, and feelings that leave traces and should be collected.” Those traces, in essence, are the Atlas Group’s archive.
It is true that among artists and intellectuals throughout the Arab world, and certainly among the artists and intellectuals in Beirut who are in some way involved with the Atlas Group, there is a frequent lament about the region’s lack of cultural documentation. There are few historical volumes outlining the area’s major artistic movements or prominent figures, and little impulse toward creating catalogues raisonnés of the work of modern or contemporary artists.
The Fondation Arabe pour l’Image (FAI), or Arab Image Foundation, may be the most obvious and ambitious effort to correct this dearth of documentation in the field of photography. But while Walid Raad is a member of the FAI, the Atlas Group has an altogether different approach to documents and archives. He deals with existing documents, but he goes further by provoking questions about the nature of their existence, and how one might imagine the universe in which they came into being.
In this, and in looking at the traces of war and the symptoms of trauma, Raad is not alone. Lebanon’s civil war was, by all accounts, a mess. And many would argue that the conflict was artificially ended but never resolved. The post-war period has been characterized by collective amnesia and a desire to rebuild the country as if it had never been destroyed. Nevertheless there has been little attempt to root out causes, analyze effects, or assess the possibility of true reconciliation.
It is telling that in much of the poetry written in Lebanon today, one can locate the image of Beirut as a woman careering schizophrenically from beloved to whore. It is significant that a good chunk of the novels written in and around the war years reach their climax at the airport, where guilt and fear paralyze a given character’s decision to stay or go. And more than a few visual artists have produced work informed by the war, in both direct and indirect ways. Mohammad Rawas, Samir Khaddaje, and Nada Sehnaoui are indicative of one generation coming to grips with the country’s recent history, while another generation of artists has also made its presence known. Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s ongoing Wonder Beirut project (in which the artists showcase postcard images of Beirut from the 1960s that have been systematically burnt), Lamia Joreige’s Objects of War (in which the artist records various people talking about material possessions that stoke old memories), and Akram Zaatari’s April 13th project (a sprawling documentary that is currently under way and set for completion next year, on the anniversary marking thirty years since the war began) serve as prime manifestations of such explorations.
In these projects, the impulse to fictionalize (in Raad’s cast of characters, in Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s account of a photographer named Abdullah Farah, or in Lamia Joreige’s ability to capture her subject’s self-contradictions) comes not from a desire to invent a new narrative that is essentially false, but from a need to question the veracity of memory, to make problematic that which is typically accepted as true, as fact.
“For a theory of the documents,” says Raad, “there’s almost a five-term strategy in terms of thinking about [them]. How does, for example, any object, experience, feeling, or event become a fact in the testimony of an eyewitness to an event of historical, collective dimensions? You have these terms, and all of them must be called into question.”
The Atlas Group’s documents do not mimic reality, Raad suggests, because that reality is itself suspect. “What we have come to believe is true is not consistent with what’s available to the senses,” he explains. “If truth is not what’s available to the senses, if truth is not consistent with rationality, then truth is not equivalent to discourse. Today, we find ourselves in a position where what we take to be true is what rings true at the level of the psyche … In Freud’s analysis of hysteria, when a subject undergoes a traumatic experience, what they come to believe has been little to do with what actually happened to them. But what they come to believe is certainly related to fantasies that are based on memories and that those fantasies are very important. You can’t just dismiss them and tell them, wake up, these are just fantasies. The fantasy captures the subject’s imagination and is his or her reality. So those are called hysterical symptoms. The hysterical symptoms bear no resemblance and have no real proximity to the event that caused them, and that’s what fascinated Freud … And I think the hysterical symptom then becomes, in a way, a document of something. And the interesting thing about it is that it’s not a question of returning to the origin, it’s a question of the future. It’s a question of the production of a narrative that rings true to the subject … The story you tell yourself may have nothing to do with what happened to you, but that’s the story that may cure you.”
The Atlas Group’s The Truth Will Be Known When the Last Witness Is Dead, consisting of two notebooks, two films, and a collection of photographs, is on view in the exhibition The Interventionists: Art is the Social Sphere, at MASS MOCA (the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art) through spring 2005 (www.massmoca.org). Raad is preparing to publish the first of Dr. Fakhouri’s notebooks as a book in October. His most recent essay, “Let’s Be Honest, the Rain Helped,” detailing answers to the questions raised during the latest presentation of My Neck Is Thinner Than a Hair and the film within that performance, We Can Make Rain but No One Came to Ask, can be found in a volume recently published by the Arab Image Foundation, The Review of Photographic Memory, edited by Jalal Toufic. The Atlas Group is back in London on October 29 and 30 with The Loudest Muttering Is Over, as part of LIFT’s Indoor Fireworks season at the Riverside Studios presented in colaboration with Forced Entertainment.
We should not be ashamed to acknowledge truth from whatever source it comes to us, even if it is brought to us by former generations and foreign peoples. For him who seeks the truth there is nothing of higher value than truth itself. —Al-Kindi (c. 801–66)
Writing is a powerful tool, the very essence of human history. With the invention of writing the human race bridged the gap between the ephemeral world of matter and the eternal world of the spirit. Writing has immortalized the fears, desires, and stories of many civilizations, helping them survive the relentless progression of time. Regardless of the many graphic forms it took, in ancient times writing was considered a potent symbol of supernatural power and divinity. In the East, letters were considered the only worthy carriers of holy scriptures and divine revelation. They were the word of God materialized for human eyes to perceive. A separation between the visual appearance and the meaning of texts was unthinkable, just as the separation of the body from its soul.
In Eastern cultures letters were shrouded with mysticism and supernatural power. The Egyptians saw in their hieroglyphs a sacred gate to the secrets of the world. They believed that through words and images they could create immortality (and to a certain extent they succeeded), and that their word-images had an inherent eternal life and magical power. The Sumerians impressed their script in clay tablets, not simply because it was an abundant and easy-to-use resource in Mesopotamia, but also because the act of writing in clay was a ritual enactment of their myth of creation. They believed that clay was at the origin of life and that man was created from a handful of soil. The Chinese considered every brushstroke of their characters to be the bearer of the soul and spirit of the universe. The mysticism attributed to writing is not confined to ideographic writing systems. In the Islamic tradition, the development of point to line, of light to movement and of the Aleph (the first letter of the Arabic alphabet) to the rest of the alphabet becomes the story of creation itself. In religious texts, the calligraphic perfection that may sometimes obscure the reading of the text forces the reader to go beyond the precise meaning of the words and into the radiating beauty of the holy message. Ornamentation is designed to mimic in intricate fashion the infinity of God’s creation, and to imply to the faithful the mirror-image concept of the reciprocal reflections between the spiritual and material worlds. For many ancient cultural and religious traditions, the world of writing is a metaphor for life; its elements are the creatures and its books the world.
The Arabic letters are at the center of the Islamic story of creation. In the beginning, God created a point of light (like the Hamzah, a diacritical mark signifying the very short consonantal sound and represented by a tiny sign on top of the Aleph). While God looked upon it, the point began to drip, becoming ink, and the letter Aleph was formed. The Aleph, the first letter of the alphabet, is the first moment of creation when non-matter (the Hamzah, the point, the light) becomes matter (the Aleph, the line, the ink) in the flux of movement. This principle of point to line, of non-matter to matter can also be applied to the Arabic numbers where the point represents zero (the incarnation of nothingness, or non-matter), and the line represents number one (the beginning of all numbers, the first and simplest material form). In addition to being the beginning of life, the Aleph becomes the axis of the world. Through its infinite rotational movement around itself, it draws the circle that regulates the shapes and proportions of all the other letters of the alphabet. Through motion, it gives form to the whole alphabet, and joins non-matter (ideas) to matter (writing). The circle is another essential metaphysical concept, a symbolic way of expressing the philosophy of Tawhid—the divine unity of the diverse yet harmonious creation. Therefore with these three elements of point, line and circle, and the geometric structural principles that govern their inter-relationships, all the Islamic applied arts were unified. Encouraged by the prohibition of figurative representation in Islam (intended as a means of banning the worship of idols and pagan gods), Arabic calligraphy and decorative arabesque motifs achieved the status of spiritual art through their fusion of sacred texts and aesthetics.
Mystical manifestations in contemporary art and design
In the visual arts we frequently run into circles where we find ourselves looking back to the past for inspiration and the regeneration of creative energies. Like a Philip Glass score, history does not necessarily repeat itself in quite the same way, but rather repeats itself with variations and remixes of old themes in a new garb. This too applies to contemporary Islamic art and design. The theme of poetic mysticism returns in a new form through the work of artists from different geographical backgrounds. Three main themes surface, each conveying a similar message yet differing in their mode of visual expression. There might be mysticism in geometric and repetitive motifs, mysticism in the symbolic play between light and darkness, and mysticism in the poetic marriage of opposite elements (imagery and abstract calligraphic forms). These themes can best be discussed through the work of three very different artists, all of whom use Arabic letters as the central element in their art: Samir Sayegh (Lebanon), Khaled Al Saai (Syria), and Reza Abedini (Iran).
In Samir Sayegh’s work, the principle of Tawhid is expressed in an art form that goes beyond decorative arabesque motifs to include Kufi letters as its central module. The artist creates harmoniously balanced and poetic compositions that deviate from the very tradition that inspires him. In the Islamic art tradition, calligraphy and decorative arabesques are seldom combined, but in Sayegh’s work the two are merged into a seamless whole. Here the letters take on the role of the very building block on which the whole design of the painting is constructed. These are compositions that expand in endless rhythms and returns, mimicking the very concept of the emanation from and return of the soul to its original creator. Harmony is created between the perfection of the detail and that of the whole, leaving the viewer in a state of meditation vacillating between the two. Moreover, some of Sayegh’s paintings consist of bas-relief woodblocks, carved and then painted, which add to the tactile quality of the abstract image. The artist makes literal allusion to the ‘constructed’ nature of the surface, and in so doing forges a link between the material world and the spiritual experience of gazing into eternity. His work invites the viewer to reflect upon the philosophical implications inherent in the artwork the mirroring of the smallest detail into the greater scheme of the whole. It is a poetic celebration of the unity between the spiritual and material states of existence. Through their perfectly balanced and arranged geometry, his paintings represent a state of perfection that one aspires to achieve through meditation in order to attain a heightened state of awareness.
This poetic spirituality is approached diametrically in the paintings of Khaled Al Saai. Where geometry is the binding element in Sayegh’s work, light is the central theme of Al Saai’s paintings. In his painting The Valley of Colour, letter forms in Diwani Jaly (Turkish) style crowd the landscape with an upward motion toward a brightly lit sky. They are like earthly souls yearning to return to their origin of pure light. In earth tones and shades of green and ocher, they mimic plant forms that grow in joyful movements towards the sunlight reaching for their very source of energy. As Albert Hourani has noted in A History of the Arabic Peoples (London, 1991), “the symbolism of light was common in Sufi as in other mystical thought […] Just as the soul was created by this process of descent from the First Being, a process animated by the overflowing of divine love, so human life should be a process of ascent, a return through the different levels of being towards the First Being, by ways of love and desire.”
In another painting entitled Sunset, letter forms in multiple and harmoniously matched complementary colors dance in mirror image (as in the heavens, so also on earth) around a light source that holds them riveted to the center of the composition. The painting transfixes the viewer, with an invitation metaphorically to take part in this concentric dance, making allusions to the entrancing dances of twirling dervishes in a state of exaltation and spiritual ecstasy. These allusions to a certain rhythm and spiritual tempo are easily explained by Al Saai’s source of inspiration, namely the music of poetry. It is poetry that has compelled him to search for “the image of meaning,” and for an artistic rhythm that can give to calligraphy a sense of meaning without the words themselves needing to be read. This is his invitation to transcend the barriers and restrictions of languages that can hinder a universal kind of understanding. In the philosophy behind Al Saai’s work we hear the resonance of an older poet and philosopher, Mawlana Jalal al-Din Rumi, who said: “Explanations by words make many things clear, but love, unexplained, is clearer” (quoted in Nabil Safwat, The Harmony of Letters, Singapore, 1997).
Unlike Sayegh and Al Saai, Reza Abedini creates work that is of a more pragmatic nature. His body of design work is focused on assignments for Iranian and international cultural institutions. In it there is a clear resonance of the poetic compositions of Iranian miniatures and manuscripts, where painted images sat side by side with poetic texts, often written in the free-flowing Nastaliq and Shikasteh styles (hanging diagonally across the page). In Abedini’s work the image and the letter forms are merged in very fluid and sensitively organized compositions where one cannot be separated from the other. With his ability to weave the text into the image using his own lettering, he creates a finely tuned balance between traditional Iranian art and modern typographic compositions. His posters and book covers vibrate with hidden messages in a playfully engaging yet spiritually enlightening way.
Abedini’s work is representative of contemporary trends in postmodern graphic design, where the text is entirely liberated from the constraints of typographic conventions. The text becomes the image, a visual element to be seen and understood intuitively, rather than read and understood intellectually. These are distinctively cluttered compositions, in which the Farsi-style lettering does not necessarily act as a neutral support to the image, but blends with the images to create a tightly woven fabric that occupies the space of the poster like a self-confident monument. His posters create spaces that reflect the lively environments of modern cities, throbbing with mixed textures, smells, and graphic elements from various sources and origins, mixing old and new. The tension created by the eclectic mixes he achieves through his work unifies his native culture with that of the global civilization of contemporary cities, and expresses the transient feel of a new kind of spiritualism.
These mystical manifestations in contemporary Islamic art and design are a hopeful sign of a future that will carry on expanding, changing, mutating, and developing new forms of expression that reflect and comment on the culture of the time. Art (Islamic or otherwise) will carry on recycling some of humanity’s basic and vital needs, refitting old traditional forms into new ones, and going beyond the seen into the realm of the universal quest for spiritual fulfillment.
The story of writing carries within it an inherent balance between spiritual quests and pragmatic concerns for solving mundane and daily needs. Although most scripts are shrouded with mystical significance, they invariably originated from the basic needs for commerce and communication. Their forms evolved, first borrowing from neighboring civilizations and then developing in their own right as independent scripts. With the collective contribution of many talented individuals and the influences of various cultures, calligraphy grew into a clear means of communication that balanced clarity with beauty to produce an art form that embodied — according to Nabil Safwat in The Harmony of Letters — “disciplined freedom.”
The Arabic alphabet, like most alphabets in use today, has its roots in the first developed alphabetic writing system invented around 1000 BC by the Phoenicians. The Phoenician alphabet originated with a civilization that was strategically situated at a crossroads between the two powerful civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt, the superpowers of the ancient world. The power struggles between these two civilizations meant that the territory in between — the land of the Phoenician people — was constantly invaded from the East (Mesopotamia) and the West (Egypt). This set the stage for a historically significant cultural exchange, a fusion of both these civilizations’ scripts (see figure 1 and 2), which culminated in the invention of the progenitor of all alphabetic writing systems — the Phoenician alphabet (3). The Phoenicians developed a simple and limited set of phonetic characters that were easy to learn and adapt to various languages. As traders, the Phoenicians managed to spread their alphabet across their trade routes and port cities. Traveling westward via the Greeks and eastward via the Aramaeans as far as India, the Phoenician alphabet was adopted as a writing system by various Semitic, Indo-European and other languages.
The Arabic alphabet, developed in Arabia, is the last of the Semitic scripts (from around AD 500) (4). From its origin in the Arabian Peninsula, the Arabic language spread via the Islamic conquests to neighboring nations, into what constitutes the Arab/Islamic nations of today. As a language it replaced a number of native languages, and as a script it was adopted by non-Arabic languages as a visible cultural allegiance to the Islamic faith. In the words of Nabil Safwat (The Harmony of Letters, Singapore, 1997), “the effect of the Arabic language on the growth of the Arabic civilisation is no longer elusive or difficult to define, nor is its function as a unifying cultural force. The art of writing this language — calligraphy — is regarded as the supreme achievement of Islamic art, enjoying a distinction and importance which is unsurpassed in the Arab world.”
Calligraphy can only flourish when a civilization is at the peak of its cultural activities and prosperity. This statement is true of all the developments that took place in Arabic calligraphy. The first such development occurred in the first Arab empire in the seventh century. The script then flourished into a higher art form in the tenth century in the eastern and western parts of the Arab empire. It later attained its peak of refinement under the Mamluk reign in Egypt, and finally reached its climax in the eighteenth century under the auspices of the Ottoman sultans. The fact that the Arabic script was initially developed to document and represent the word of God led to a great concern for its visual quality. The preoccupation of many calligraphers over the centuries to beautify and perfect the written script attests to their concern for making the writing worthy of carrying the holy message of the Qur’an. From the seventh century until the tenth century, the art of calligraphy soared in aesthetic quality and became the core of Islamic art thereafter.
The first name given to the Arabic script was Jazm. It was an archaic and unrefined script characterized by its angularity, the monotonous equal sizes of its letters, and the absence of any diacritics. It was to influence all the calligraphic styles that developed shortly after the introduction of this script in Arabia in the early sixth century. Two cities played a major role in creating the first archaic calligraphic styles in the seventh century: Hira, where the three Ma’il (5), Mashq (6), and Naskh styles originated, and Baghdad (during the Abbasid Dynasty) where the style later to be named Kufi was developed. Both Kufi and Naskh were to set a definitive mark on Arabic calligraphy by creating the two broad categories for the classification of Arabic calligraphic styles.
1 — The Kufic styles (c. seventh to ninth century) were known in Arabic as “Mabsut wa Mustaqim” (elongated and straight). The Kufic styles are often geometrically constructed and generally monumental and/or ornamental — with the exception of the Maghrebi (or Western Kufi) styles which have characteristics that combine features from both categories. The original Kufic style was the oldest and most refined Arabic script; it reached a high level of formal perfection in the eighth century, making it the unrivalled style worthy of transcribing the Holy Qur’an — a tradition that persisted for the following three hundred years. In its original form (7), it was a rather austere style that grew more ornate as the Arab empire grew more prosperous. It developed in two main directions: the smoother curvilinear Maghrebi styles in the western regions of the empire (North Africa and Spain; 8, 9, 10), and the angular styles of the Eastern Kufi (11) in the eastern part of the empire. More ornate variations were developed in the eleventh century by extending the letters into decorative endings that ranged from floral to arabesque motifs (12). The geometric Kufic styles developed further into the Square Kufi during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries as a result of their use for architectural inscriptions and ornaments (sometimes covering whole facades of buildings).
2 — The cursive styles, starting with the archaic Naskh style, were known in Arabic as “Muqawwar wa Mudawwar” (curvilinear and round), and are based on fluid handwritten calligraphy. The early cursive styles predating the Islamic era were more akin to handwriting than to a calligrahic script per se. They were used strictly for secular and non-official business and personal correspondence. Their development into calligraphic styles was triggered by the Caliph Abdelmalek’s decree to legislate the use of cursive scripts for official documents. The cursive scripts were then further developed and refined, but it was the vizier and calligrapher Ibn Muqlah who gave the cursive styles standardized proportions and imposed specific rules. These changes put order and structure into the roughly twenty calligraphic styles that were in use by the end of the ninth century. The Thuluth (13) and classical Naskh (14) were created in Baghdad by Ibn Muqlah. These were followed by the Muhaqqaa (15) and Rayhan (16) styles, attributed to the renowned calligrapher Ibn al-Bawwab. These four cursive styles underwent further refinement and perfection in the hands of Ibn al-Bawwab and the calligrapher Yakut al-Mustaasimi. The classical cursive styles laid down the foundations for a number of other styles that were then further developed by Ottoman and Persian calligraphers. A brief list would comprise the following: the Tawqii (17) and the Ruqaa (18) styles (c. ninth century); the Behari (19) (c. fourteenth century); the Diwani (20), the Taaliq (21), Nastaaliq (22), and the Shikasteh (23) styles (c. fifteenth century). Other less traditional styles would include the Sini (a derivative of the Behari style, developed by Chinese Muslims in the fourteenth century), the Sunbuli (c. 1914, attributed to Aref Hikmat in Istanbul), and Huruf al-Taj (c. 1930, developed in Egypt for King Fouad).
Think antique images of the Middle East, and it’s Wilfred Thesiger’s romanticized shots that spring to mind, rather than Armenian-Egyptian Van Leo’s significant body of work. Even for informed historians and curators, images of the region’s history taken from the inside out, by those who lived and breathed it, remain obscure. Indeed, the dominance of hardback, glossy tomes by colonial explorer-photographers in bookshops from Dubai to New York conceals a vast archive of homegrown images that tell a diverse, human story, as well as a grander, historical narrative.
The Fondation Arabe pour l’Image (FAI), or Arab Image Foundation, which was launched in 1997, is unique in its mission to locate, collect, preserve, interpret, and promote photographic works from the Middle East and North Africa. Today, its office in Beirut houses over 150,000 images, dating from as early as 1860. Sourced from families and collections in the Arab world, Iran, parts of Africa, and the Americas, the bulk of the collection ranges from the 1920s to the 1970s, and takes in the work of both amateurs and professionals. Carefully filed in archival boxes in a temperature-controlled library, the photographs are gradually being digitized on to a bespoke database; the organization’s plans include publishing the collection online, which will enable diasporic families, researchers, and curious persons at large to sift through photographic traces of the past.
The FAI is also exceptional in its approach to archival practice: rather than viewing the photographs as footnotes in history, or saddling them with revisionist politics, the members see them as art, and seek to interpret the works within the complexity of today’s art world. Artists, filmmakers, and critical theorists, the members act as guardians. They see themselves as being on a long-term mission to present and represent the images, exploring their potential as documents, as images, as memories, as social constructs, as testaments to both private and public worlds.
Founder members Fouad Elkoury and Akram Zaatari work with elements of the FAI archive in producing their own video and film work; and Zaatari and other members, including Yto Barrada, Walid Raad, and Samer Mohdad, have curated a number of group and solo exhibitions based on the collection. “Mapping Sitting,” for example, focused on portraiture, including the vast numbers of passport-sized studio photographs and street portraits taken by itinerant “photo surprise” photographers in the early to mid-twentieth century. The exhibition, which has been touring galleries and museums in Europe for the past two years, aims — according to the curators — to question “how the photographic portrait functioned in the Arab world as a commodity, a luxury item, an adornment, as a description of individuals and groups, and as the inscription of social identities.”
The images also function as a powerful reminder of life beyond multiple news networks — of a time before the blanket coverage of disaster, “fundamentalism,” and war all but smothered alternative stories. A collection of images of Palestinian life pre-1948 is not only vitally important as an historical document, but also acts as a statement of tenancy and belonging. The level of interest in the FAI’s work and the flood of requests for exhibitions is testament to the thirst within both the Middle East and the West for images that tell narratives of the region from an insider’s perspective.
Besides pulling together threads across the collection, the FAI has celebrated notable individual practitioners, many of them previously unrecognized. Van Leo, for example, filled his Cairo studio with glamorous 1940s film stars, dancers and strippers, Scottish soldiers, and local intellectuals; in addition, he experimented with the photographic form, creating series of artistic self-portraits over the years. His work was shown in Cairo Portraits (2000) with that of two other Armenian Cairenes, Alban and Armand, and then in solo shows at PhotoCairo (2002), the Biennale of African Photography in Bamako, Mali, and Barcelona’s CCCB. The FAI is currently planning a large-scale retrospective of Van Leo’s work, with a particular emphasis on hitherto unseen self-portraits.
Hashem El Madani has been working out of his studio in Saida for over fifty years; his vast archive includes around 90 percent of the southern Lebanese town’s residents, many of them assuming roles — from popular culture, advertisements, films, and so on — for their portraits. A selection of these portraits, plus examples of his work as an itinerant photographer, is being shown in his first solo show at the Photographers’ Gallery, London, this autumn. Amateur photographers include Marie el-Khazen, one of relatively few women actually credited for their work; her images display a surprisingly frank, progressive social awareness.
Following collecting trips by her colleagues to Iraq, Morocco, Senegal, and elsewhere, Negar Azimi recently undertook the FAI’s debut research project in Iran, examining that country’s particular photographic heritage; the following pages include a diary of her travels. FAI member Fouad Elkoury also details his recent research initiative in Mexico City amid that city’s Lebanese community.
www.fai.org.lb. Hashem El Madani’s exhibition is at the Photographers’ Gallery, London, October 14–November 28 (www.photonet.org.uk). “Mapping Sitting” is included in Home Fronts’ at the Singapore Art Museum, October 1–November 30, and at the Grey Art Gallery, New York University, January 13–April 2, 2005. “Palestine Before 1948” and “Moroccan Albums” are included in “Nazar,” Noorderlicht Photofestival, Leeuwarden, September 4–October 24 (www.noorderlicht.com).
Thousands of gravestones extended into the distance. I walked over to one section and stumbled upon a curious sight. Photographs of young men, beautifully hand-colored studio portraits — probably from the 1970s given the gratuitous polyester — stood above each and every grave. Locked away in sterile plexiglass vitrines, the photographs gave each gravesite the aura of a shrine. A group of young men took turns posing for the camera at one grave, pictures with a picture, not unlike the kind of pilgrimages that mark the graves of fallen rock stars.
Later I learned that these young men posing for the camera were university students and the sought-after photograph in question depicted a young martyr — a sixteen-year-old casualty of Iran’s grueling war with neighboring Iraq in the 1980s. That young martyr is now lionized as a hero, his portrait found on murals, postage stamps, and trading cards throughout the country. His story, like so many others, has made its way into the historical folklore surrounding the birth of the Islamic Republic (see Hamid Dabashi and Peter Chelkoswki’s Staging a Revolution: The Art of Persuasion in the Islamic Republic [New York University Press, 1999]).
That day in Behesht Zahra cemetery was where my investigations into Iranian visual culture began. Most existing works on Iranian photographic history focus on the Qajar era, the ruling dynasty that extended between 1796 and 1925. Photography during this period entered the country by way of then-ruler Nasser-ed-Din Shah’s (1848–1896) introductory trip to Europe. Photographs from the era often reveal the mustached leader snapping self-portraits, clearly enamored of the possibilities afforded to him by his ability to capture his own image, that of his wives (harems), soldiers, and court. Photography at this time was still an aristocratic preoccupation reserved for the privileged few.
While Qajar court photography had its own trajectory, the story grew more interesting with the public’s first encounter with photography (it always does) — the birth of the earliest studios and later-ruler Reza Shah’s mandate that every last Iranian must have a photograph pasted onto their identity documents. Looking at photographs from that era, one can’t help but note the discomfort in peoples’ expressions, hands, and gestures. To take a photograph of someone was to wield power over them.
And what of the studio era of the latter half of the last century? Nobody seemed to care about these technicians-cum-artists who manned studios that dot Tehran’s urban sprawl. I made my way into the city’s working studios in relatively systematic fashion, placing particular emphasis on the half of the city south of Ferdowsi Square (a remnant of Tehran’s belle époque), engaging the old men at studios Hollywood, Sano, Metropole, and so on — all in various states of function and dysfunction (both the studios and the men). I nearly cried when I entered one particularly musty subterranean archive and found that most negatives had disintegrated under the weight of decades of accumulated moisture. I did my best to scrape off what seemed a persistent fungus. Six hours into scraping, I realized that it was a lost cause. There were at least 400 boxes surrounding me — portraits, weddings, family images — and I could hardly breathe.
Accessing archives was never easy. Many had either been burned or were hidden away soon after the Islamic Revolution. Suddenly, taking photographs of unveiled women in the studio was deemed illegal. The specter of ranting paramilitary basijis, who in the initial years after the revolution served as vigilante, self-styled censors, frightened many studio owners, leading to the destruction of countless archives. Images of glamorous sexpots in studio vitrines were replaced with babies, men, and mullahs.
Photographic gems outside of the capital are in abundance, though. In one small studio in the southern desert city of Yazd, I stumbled upon a man who had not thrown his archives out during the revolution. Situated in the town’s central square was modest, cramped Studio Caron, its walls painted a sky-blue. I stopped in one day to take a seat among a row of old men, as the afternoon heat was leaving me dizzy. Minutes into our conversation, the proprietor, a sun-worn man in his ’70s who had trained and worked for years in Kuwait under a Lebanese photographer named George, pulled a box from under his front counter. Within this box were treasures — hand-tinted portraits from the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s. The saturated shades of magentas, blues, and reds were fantastic, reminding me of Studio Atro (run by Artin Sarafian) on Cairo’s Sherif Street. Some might call this sort of coloring kitsch. I call it a dying art.
In the meantime, back in Tehran, I continued my wanderings in the cemetery, exploring the ties between photography and national identity, history-making and politics at large in the Islamic Republic. The Iranian regime has an enormous command of visual imagery as a tool, whether in the form of commemoration of martyrs, design of postage stamps and political posters, or commissioning of street mural odes to the leaders of the revolution.
I left Iran after five months with one million ideas and a hope to return as soon as possible. The next stop is Kurdistan, on the Iraqi border, where I will pursue this story of the hand-colored images of martyrs that began for me that day in the cemetery.
Under the auspices of the Arab Image Foundation, I planned a research trip to Mexico in 2003. Initially, the subject of the research was viewed as irrelevant when discussed at the foundation’s general assembly — on the grounds that priority should be given to research within the Arab world itself. I argued that a significant number of Lebanese, Syrians, and Palestinians had been living in Latin America for years — in fact, from the beginning of the twentieth century — and that it would be equally interesting to research the images they had brought with them in their exile as well as any pictures they might have received from those relatives who had stayed behind in their countries of origin. The possibility of studying these images was already compelling enough to build a research mission around. And so my argument was accepted and the trip received the necessary support.
I didn’t know anyone in Mexico and this was to be my first trip to Latin America. I managed to meet most Mexicans of Arab origin by accident. February 9 was a religious event linked to Mar Charbel, a feast that was celebrated in Mexico City with all the fervor that one would celebrate an event that no longer has any meaning except that of providing a link with the mother country. Many Mexicans of Arab descent were present at the ceremony; since they bore names of Arab origin, the job of tracing them was made far easier. While I was expecting to have difficulties trying to convince individuals to part with family pictures — which many regard as their only tangible connection to their countries of origin — they were in fact proud that an institution was showing such an interest in their histories. I told them of the aims of the foundation, explained that we were interested in protecting these pictures from further deterioration, and shared with them our hopes of promoting a project that would encompass diasporas in general, whether in Latin America, Africa, or Australia. To my surprise at the time, I was greeted in Mexico with an enthusiasm and warmth that I have encountered in few other places.
Language was not a problem since I speak fluent Italian and a little Spanish, but some of the people I met made a point of speaking Arabic, although reverted to Spanish within minutes. When I visited families searching for images, I noted down stories of the forefathers of those who gave me the images, including the names of the villages they hailed from. They all told me variations on the same story — their fathers or grandfathers left the Arab region at the end of the nineteenth century or the beginning of the twentieth century for Vera Cruz, on the Mexican coast. Most of them arrived penniless and began selling knick-knacks on foot to local Indians. With time, they migrated to major cities, where they traded in fabrics, manufactured clothes, and opened linen shops. Within years, many became affluent. Most Arab Mexican families live in wealthy neighborhoods of Mexico City. Some are Druze or Jewish, most are Christians, mainly Maronites. They left primarily because of poverty, while emigration accelerated when the Ottoman Empire called upon Christian citizens to serve in the army.
While visiting families, I kept asking for names of photographers within the Arab community. I first went to the Centro de la Imagen, then to the Museo Soumaya, and finally met a woman called Martha Diaz de Kuri, who had published a book on the Lebanese diaspora. Martha gave me the name of Edmundo Feres Yazbek, with whom I would have my most important encounter. He is a photographer, now in his eighties, and, together with his two uncles, Alfredo and Tufic — both of them photographers of Lebanese descent — ran what was called Studio Yazbek. Studio Yazbek was one of the most important portrait studios in Mexico City when it opened in the thirties; concentrating on commercial photography in the fifties, it finally closed in the seventies. Edmundo is now retired, Alfredo and Tufic are dead.
Edmundo received me one evening in his modest Colonia Florida apartment, in the south of Mexico City. Before I had time to sit down in the midst of linen piles, he ran to the kitchen to bring us two cups of coffee (it was eight o’clock at night). Edmundo, who is tall and thin, stood up while I talked about the foundation. Very intimidating, although simple and direct in his manners, he is a seductive gentleman (the following day, when we met again, he took me out for breakfast and walked on the outside of the pavement in a protective gesture). Some of his pictures were hanging on the wall of the sitting room, with one hand-colored portrait of his late wife whom he refused to talk about, as if she had died the day before. He listened carefully to me detailing the aims of the foundation, but when I asked to see more pictures of his, he replied that he had to go to the Lebanese Club nearby. It took me a few visits to try and convince him to collaborate, until one morning, as I was entering his house, he shoved two suitcases full of pictures in front of me.
In them were colored transparencies and black-and-white prints mixed with old family pictures from Lebanon. I was surprised to find them all mixed up in a single suitcase, seemingly unopened for years, as if he had put a lid on his past. Indeed, this was the case. When his studio finally closed in the seventies — because of fierce competition — he stopped taking pictures, save occasionally for the Lebanese Club in exchange for free meals. As I searched through one suitcase, it became clear to me that it was painful for Edmundo to narrate the content of the pictures. Yet there was no bitterness in his attitude; instead he kept repeating that most of the valuable archive of the studio was kept in Tufic’s and Alfredo’s studios, as if he wanted to diminish the value of his own work. I couldn’t understand his reluctance to talk about his work (I understood later that it was somehow linked to the death of his wife), but since I was cautious not to push him, we agreed that he should take me to Tufic’s studio.
We met on a Sunday in the studio where Tufic’s son, also named Tufic, operates. He was extremely happy to have his older cousin around, whom, it seemed, he hadn’t seen for some time. We all gathered in the studio’s warm atmosphere dating back to the sixties, drinking juices that only Mexicans know how to prepare — a mixture of fresh exotic fruits and carrots or sometimes mint. I asked Edmundo to take a portrait of all of us. Within seconds, Edmundo was transformed, the photographer found his marks almost immediately, asking Tufic’s assistant for help to adjust the backdrop and the lighting, climbing on a ladder (at more than eighty years of age) to master his frame. Each time he shot a picture, he would hand the camera to the assistant for him to wind it before shooting again, as he would have done during his glory days.
Above Tufic’s studio was his apartment, where his archives were held, all stacked in files with dates and names. Edmundo stayed with me part of the afternoon looking at his uncle’s pictures, most of the time silent, at times commenting on a series of pictures. Occasionally, he would simply say “this is signed Tufic, but I shot this picture. Tufic never used this setting, he didn’t like it…” The more I stayed with him, the more Edmundo recovered his past, keen on letting more information out. Despite his initial reluctance, I think he saw in the foundation the hope that his work and that of his two uncles might finally receive recognition. He signed a donation contract, and he strongly advised me to get in touch with Alfredo’s son whom I visited a short while later and who, thanks to Edmundo, allowed me to search through his father’s archive.
The Yazbek collection provides us with an insight into a certain affluent strain of Mexican society, mostly of Arab origin (many of the portraits I found bear Arab names), while also reflecting what was to become the spreading influence of the multinational, and commercialization at large. From this point of view, there is nothing “Arab” about the collection. But then again, is there anything specifically “Arab” about photography? In the case of Alfredo, who started the business and who, in the eyes of Edmundo, was the reigning master and the most talented artist among them, I took all the available vintage prints and made a selection of negatives dating back to the 1940s and 50s. According to his son, no trace of his series of portraits of military cadets or of Mexican stars was ever found. As for Tufic, who, after training with his elder brother Alfredo, specialized in commercial photography, producing photographic campaigns for Smirnoff, Tecate, Manchester shirts, Disneyland, Coca-Cola and the like, I made a selection of negatives and black-and-white prints. These were brought back to Beirut, scanned and stored, and now await plans for an exhibition.
On the last day of my trip, I came across a stack of old pictures in an open market. I casually looked down at them and fell on one particular hand-colored picture of a Mexican lady. The photographer’s stamp read Saad, Mexico. By all accounts a sign left by another photographer of Arab origin telling me to pursue my research. I bought the picture for ten pesos and moved on.
As interest in Islam has rocketed in the West since 9/11, the broad rubric known as Islamic art has become the veritable flavor of the day. Islamic art collections are attracting massive funding in the hope they can act as a bridge to straddle the cultural divide. Politicians and museum directors have picked up on ‘Islamic art’ as an attractive counterpoint to the terms ‘Islamic terrorism’ and ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ spewed out by the news media. From Los Angeles to Athens, Western museum holdings are being reshuffled, refocused and renovated, so that the Islamic collections now find their place alongside Greek, Roman, and Egyptian antiquities at the forefront of the museum world.
But the politics belie the fact that ‘Islamic art’ is not simply the pretty face of Islam. It is in fact a confusing label for a vast and varied field. ‘Christian art’ denotes objects used in religious contexts or with explicitly religious subject matter. Objects embraced by the umbrella term ‘Islamic art,’ however, are dramatically different, often having a very loose relationships with religion. Islamic art embraces a huge diversity of objects, and recognition of that diversity is fundamental if the promotion of the field is not to become another dangerously reductionist exercise. As Tim Stanley, head of the Middle Eastern section at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A), writes, “Although we call it ‘Islamic’ art, it is not so much the art of a body of believers as the art of a broad and complex culture. How then do we justify this name?” Curators are well aware of this question, which was hotly debated at the Louvre’s ‘Musée à Musée’ conference in May.
Islamic art is a Western label that became popular after the Second World War (in the 1930s, ‘Muhammedan’ or ‘Saracenic’ art — think crusades — were still current). Its scope ranges from Islamic Spain to Mughal India, and its time span runs from the dawn of Islam to the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Patterns of influence weave their way through the field to which it refers, and despite pressure from certain quarters to break it down into geographical entities (Spain, Anatolia, Iran, and so on), a strong case can be made for approaching these works as a group. From the beginning, however, the explicit religious connotation hovered uncomfortably over a broad field that, in the words of one American curator, is “not exactly religious … nor secular.”
Modern catalogues of Islamic art perform linguistic acrobatics to define the term and explain how Islamic art may, or may not, directly reflect, or have been influenced by, Islam. Most curators now define it as art produced where Islam was the dominant religion. According to this definition, Iranian-born New York artist Shirin Neshat would then be producing ‘Christian Art’ — an absurd assertion, but one that seems less strange when you consider the wealth of Christian objects produced in the Middle East on display in ‘Islamic’ collections. ‘Art from Islamic lands,’ a term used by the recent Khalili Collection/State Hermitage Museum exhibition in London, is less loaded and museums are gravitating towards it. With constant pressure from the dissatisfied, the next few years should see more helpful, albeit longer-winded, titles appearing for these collections.
Facing the quagmire of museum politics and tightly defined department parameters, some curators are resigned to the title ‘Islamic art.’ Dan Walker, head of the New York Metropolitan Museum’s Islamic Department, will stick to it but is committed to launching an educational offensive that gives “full credit to the various cultures who have their own way of doing things,” and is determined not to treat Islamic art as “a monolithic entity with subtle variations.” His plans are impressive and address the issues at stake, but it is questionable whether educational efforts can win the battle when the term itself immediately heads people off in the wrong direction.
London’s British Museum recently ‘refocused’ its Islamic Gallery. One rainy Saturday I went along to take a look. Standing in a room with objects from countries as disparate as Spain and India, anything from ten to 1200 years old and including an illuminated Qu’ran, Turkish tiles, and some fairly naughty Persian miniatures, I read a display near the entrance headed ‘What is Islamic Art?’ The curators tackled the issues of diversity, a multiplicity of cultures, individuality and so on, and ventured a definition near that mentioned above. Yet many visitors walked past without a glance, making their own assumptions from the term itself.
Ironically, because of the term’s reductionist convenience, Islamic art is attracting funding for large-scale renovations, which in turn is giving curators a unique opportunity to rethink the way Islamic art is seen. Museums are debating the relative merits of geographical, chronological, or thematic displays as they cater for new and larger audiences. The relabeling and rearranging at the British Museum was part of a move to increase ‘accessibility,’ an aspect important to the museum’s new director Neil MacGregor, who has opened up the museum’s galleries to new audiences, while still retaining the appeal to scholars.
Over ten major museums worldwide are now renovating their Islamic Art galleries, some on a spectacular scale, and the principles of ‘education’ and ‘accessibility’ underlie most projects. Certain museums are removing Islamic objects, previously housed in an assortment of wider geographical (Near Eastern, Indian) or thematic (textiles, manuscripts) locations and displaying them in isolation. The new Benaki Museum in Athens has chosen to focus exclusively on Islamic art and has moved its collection into two nineteenth-century houses in the center of the city, which opened in time for this summer’s Olympics.
The multimillion dollar renovation at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, scheduled for completion in 2008, looks in the opposite direction but shares a motivation: to enhance the profile of the objects in question. Unlike the Benaki, the Met has had a separate Islamic department since the 1970s and is now concerned to place Islamic art within the context of universal culture, “side by side with related works from other cultures,” according to the director, Philippe de Montebello. The renovation will allow visitors to explore the influence of Islamic art on Western art and architecture, a popular new seminar topic for many museums.
The V&A in London is also keen to focus on cross-cultural influence in its new gallery. The museum recently received a spectacular $9.7 million donation from Mohammed Jameel, president of the Abdul Lateef Jameel Group, for a new gallery of Islamic art, scheduled to open in 2006. In an unusual twist, he also donated a substantial sum for a tour of around 120 of the collection’s best objects to the US and Japan.
Touring and temporary exhibitions are scheduled for many collections as renovations get under way. Thirty of the Met’s star objects, including important finds from Nishapur in eastern Iran, are on display at the Louvre until April 2005. But while playing host to the Met’s collection, the Louvre has been formulating its own grand plans. In February it announced a scheme to glass over the Visconti Courtyard to house its Islamic collection, only a fraction of which is now on display in underground corridors. This ambitious project, which will cost $60 million and take five years to complete, has the personal support of President Jacques Chirac. In 2002 he applauded the creation of a Department of Islamic Art in the Louvre that underlines “the essential contribution of Islamic civilization to our culture,” and personally welcomed museum directors at the Louvre’s May conference. Minister of Culture, Jean-Jacques Aillagon, said the development “obviously has a political dimension. It’s a way of saying we believe in the equality of civilizations.” On a scale of generalizations, the phrase ‘Islamic civilization’ puts ‘Islamic art’ in the shade. The sentiment is a positive one, but is another example of the presentation of the Middle East, or the ‘Islamic world’, as a monolith, and one uniquely driven by religion. While this continues, Islamic art collections will be hard-pressed to close the cultural divide.
London may soon be home to the collection of Nasser D Khalili, an Iranian-born London resident with an intimate understanding of the links between America, Europe, and the Middle East. In over thirty years he has amassed one of the largest and most important collections of Islamic art in the world. His 20,000 objects (twice the size of the Louvre’s collection) include the largest group of Islamic manuscripts in private hands. Khalili has revealed that he is about to start looking for premises and hopes his museum will be established “in the next five years.” His aim, he said, is to use art and culture to create “goodwill between the West and the Muslim world.” Khalili feels committed to Britain and is disappointed that, until recently, Muslim governments paid little attention to their cultural heritage. He told me that when he began collecting in 1967, moving from Iran to New York when prices were low and neither Muslims themselves nor Western museums appreciated their value.
Times have changed, however, and the old Western centers of art may be swiftly becoming the poorer relatives of their Middle Eastern counterparts. Sheikh Nasser al-Sabah of Kuwait has a phenomenal private collection of Islamic art and has established a collection of over 20,000 objects for Kuwait’s National Museum. A colossally rich collector, he has been a discerning contender at Islamic art sales for years but has recently met with serious competition. Sheikh Saud Al Thani is collecting for Doha’s new Museum of Islamic Art, designed by IM Pei and the first of five museums scheduled to open in Qatar’s capital. The scale of his recent acquisitions has driven prices through the roof. Christie’s reported its highest ever total for a sale of Islamic art (£11 million) at an April auction that saw Al Thani, represented by a team of agents, pay £901,250 for a Mughal agate-and-garnet fly whisk handle valued at £8000. The Sheikh bought 350 of the top lots in April’s Islamic sales, and no European or American museum can compete. With interest in Islamic art backed by such buying power, the Middle East can look forward to a world-class museum while the art world as a whole experiences the knock-on effects of Islamic art’s rising profile.
Contemporary art from the region, however, remains within grasp and a few Islamic art departments have begun collecting, an innovative decision but one that further complicates labeling. The British Museum is unusual in actually displaying contemporary pieces in its Islamic Art gallery. On show are ceramics by Tunisian artist Khaled Ben Slimane and a work by another Tunisian, Nja Mahdaoui. The repeated words and phrases that cover Ben Slimane’s ceramics have strong Sufi associations, and his works ironically portray one of the collection’s most overt relationships with Islam, but hover on the boundaries of Islamic art. Mahdaoui’s piece explores calligraphic vernacular through shapes that are inspired by Arabic letter forms but hold no textual meaning. In a room where Arabic script is just ‘squiggles’ for many viewers, his work creates an interesting interplay with the neighboring religious texts and leaves from Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh— and questions the relationship between object and meaning in a room where text signifies nothing to many of its audience. These ‘contemporary’ pieces, a label with its own assumptions, bring into focus how the term ‘Islamic’ overshadows art to which it is applied.
So as the term becomes strained, and curators debate alternatives, the very words ‘Islamic art’ attract money and attention from governments and Middle Eastern benefactors. As its profile rises, Islamic art thus finds itself at a crossroads, and current developments will profoundly affect how it is framed for audiences in the future. Museum heads and politicians emphasize the importance of ‘Islamic culture’ and ‘Islamic civilization’ and ironically, under the shadow of these unwieldy terms, curators finally have the opportunity to reshape their collections and explore the individuality and diversity of the works and cultures that produced these treasures.
Edited by Antonia Carver, Rosalind Nashashibi and Catherine Yass
In 2003–4, British artists Rosalind Nashashibi and Catherine Yass spent time in Palestine and Israel, making films for exhibition this year. Best known for winning the Beck’s Futures award in 2003, Nashashibi made Hreash House, a film that is confined to the domestic interior of a Palestinian home in Israel during Ramadan. It has been shown at CCA, Glasgow, and at Tate Britain, London. Yass, who was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2002, chose to film the façade of Israel’s ‘separation barrier.’ Her film Wall will be shown in a solo show at Alison Jacques Gallery, London, this autumn and at Herzliya Museum of Art, Israel, in 2005. Commissioned by Bidoun, the two artists got together upon their return to compare notes. Over many hours of discussion, key questions arose — about working in Israel and Palestine; about the complex relationship between art and politics; about the nature of visual language and its potential to create contemplative space and time.
Catherine Yass: I got in touch with you because I felt the film I was making should exist within a context of discussion—in a way it’s there to generate debate. From seeing your film District of the Post Office, of the kids hanging around, I understood that it was both about Palestine and about filmmaking. That balance is something you don’t often see and it’s something I’m also trying to deal with.
Rosalind Nashashibi: There seem to be some similarities about the way we approach both the subject and filmmaking in general; for me, this kind of approach gives the viewer a space to react, through showing rather than explaining or interpreting.
CY: I think it’s about trying to find a way of giving the subject an openness for people to enter in and a space to think for themselves. In your film [Dahiet al Bareed (The District of the Post Office)] you set certain conditions when you filmed those people. You chose a few places and you left the camera and let them do their thing in front of it. And in a way I was doing something similar. I set up the camera to travel along the wall in a single direction. But even in creating a framework for things to happen in, you’re still the person setting the conditions.
RN: Absolutely, yeah.
CY: So, I suppose we allow a process its own momentum but within conditions set by us, so there’s a play between the choices that you make and what you allow to happen which you don’t control.
RN: And of course the editing suite. What stays and what goes. I guess we both approach films kind of knowing that something is interesting, knowing that you want to film but not necessarily knowing what associations you want to find or make, until you’ve actually gone and shot some film. Decisions come later watching the footage in the edit suite; they still seem like non-decisions but are really the decisions. Filming is an intensely connected experience of time, all about performance of the physical thing and the nervous thing of the shoot. At the time of filming, there are so many questions that go through my head; but I don’t choose to answer them at that stage — it’s a more intuitive process.
CY: For me it was slightly different as I planned the filming first and it was determined by the length of each section of wall. But I still had to order the sections and choose which shots to use. And unpredictable things happen while you’re filming. It wasn’t until I actually filmed the wall that I realised that it [the wall] was something to do with me and my response to it that I just had to explore.
RN: It’s only from actually making the film that it begins to exist in its own right and tell you what it’s all about.
CY: Yes, and I think that when you’re dealing with something this political it rings hollow unless you really do have a reason, and that’s somehow embedded in you; you may not know exactly why but it’s really personal.
RN: Had you been wanting to do something in Israel/Palestine before or was it the fact of this wall that prompted you to make this work?
CY: WelI, I never wanted to be labelled as a Jewish artist or make work directly about being Jewish because I felt I’m equally brought up in London and it forms part of my background in the same way that lots of other things do.
RN: Yes, it doesn’t have to be remarked upon every time within your work. I’m half Palestinian and it is part of my life and who I am, but I was born and have lived all my life in Britain, and I am interested in other things and make work in other places.
CY: Exactly. But then I got invited to go to Israel to do some research. When I went initially there was no obligation and I thought, what am I getting into here? It was only when I saw the wall that I thought I cannot ignore this, I have to make this piece of work.
RN: As if you have no choice in a way. I think there could be a point at which you might choose not to — it’s a commitment and it does alter things, not only for you but for how you are seen.
CY: And it also impacts on how your past and future work will be read.
RN: But in the end the actual facts of the thing that you find, that you want to make a film about, sort of take away that choice.
CY: What made you want to go there?
RN: Well, I used to go as a child up until I was about seven years old, to where my father grew up, in this area called Dahiet al Bareed (District of the Post Office), conceived and built by my grandfather who ran the Palestinian Post Office. It was a kind of utopia in a way because they ran and owned their own neighborhood where everybody knew each other. I thought, well, I’ll go there and find out what’s happened to that place now. I found it to be surrounded by this kind of sprawl and for various political reasons to do with people being urged to move out of the Old City and coming in from other parts of the West Bank, it had turned into this quite chaotic, very quickly built-up, quite squalid area, where there was no real rule — a kind of no-man’s land. It is technically West Bank but it has never been under the control of the Palestinian Authority — it’s under the administrative division of the Israeli military. Nobody was really looking after the place so the kids seemed to be ruling the streets. A place defined by the checkpoint down the road and its position as neither Occupied Territory nor the West Bank.
CY: I filmed the wall from the Israeli side as that’s closer to my background, but I concentrated on the sections which cut through Israeli Arab and Palestinian communities which, like the District of the Post Office are in a kind of no-man’s land. I think it’s significant that I couldn’t get insurance for filming in some of these places since they don’t fit into any official territory. These areas are also where the wall is at its most brutal — where it passes Jewish communities it’s softened by using more domestic-looking blocks, and in the countryside it’s usually a fence.
RN: In that space which is no-position or no-man’s land there are so many shifting possibilities that should encourage people to be active in the reading of the work. This kind of no-place was also important for my film Hreash House. The house is in Nazareth, which has a totally Palestinian population but is in Israel proper. The Hreash family are one of these extended family groups all living together in one single apartment block. I tend to look more at the familiar rather than the more spectacular aspect. I don’t think your work is spectacular but it’s looking right into the heart of the fact of the wall.
CY: My film doesn’t have people in it — it’s just got this really horrible structure. I’m interested in the difficulty of making an image of something that is so damaging but blank at the same time. I’ve filmed the wall in such a way that it fills the screen, leaving a really narrow margin at the top and bottom so you can just see the occasional building or minaret behind it. So you get a glimpse of something on the other side but you can’t really see it. The film enacts what the wall does which is make the viewer’s own view restricted. It’s quite a tough film to watch because it really does make you feel imprisoned.
RN: It’s an aggression on the viewer in a way.
CY: Yeah, and what I find really difficult about filming it is that most political art that I’ve seen that’s affected me, if I think of someone like Goya, it’s from the point of view of the people who are affected — and that’s what you’re filming. I’m filming the thing that’s doing the oppressing. It’s very difficult suddenly not to aestheticize, because actually the wall is built with these modernist-looking concrete blocks, which could resemble a Richard Serra sculpture. They can start to look quite beautiful — that’s really frightening.
RN: And it’s a reminder of what went on in the twentieth century; it can’t help being linked to Modernism. You can’t disconnect that visual language from its political manifestations.
CY: We are in a very privileged position in the West where if you draw a line across a piece of paper you can discuss what it divides and the ethics of drawing a line. You can discuss things in an abstract way. Bruce Nauman, for example, makes most of his work in his studio and within that space he can ask a lot of questions and they can be ethical, they can be about whether he’s on one side of the line or another. We’ve taken questions like that but they’re in a very real situation. I think the point of those ethical questions is that they should eventually equip you in some way to address things in the real world. So, I think we’re caught in a strange situation between very real, emotional people’s lives and politics, and the more rarefied place where you can try out ethical questions.
RN: I think that’s it the studio is a safe place to question and play with ideas. It’s more dangerous in some ways in terms of how things can be read, to take it out into the real world. It does require a different approach. I think it’s telling that we both choose not to put ourselves in the work.
CY: And Hreash House is about aspects of people’s lives, but also ethical issues like where you put the frame, where you put the lines. The decisions that we make as artists are political in the same way that decisions about where to build houses are.
RN: The reason I wanted to restrict the film to the four walls of the house — you only ever see the inside or the façade — was because I felt that the home was the only place that you could really feel safe. Even if there was no immediate physical danger outside the house there was this uncertain feeling, this unknown pernicious situation, a constant worry to do with where you are and who you are.
CY: There’s a similarity in both our approaches, that the view is limited and that we are both referencing these restrictive conditions in the way we film and frame each shot.
RN: It’s questioning the form and putting it to use…
CY: I think that’s where time is very important. In Hreash House there is time to sit there and look at the activity going on.
RN: In time you grow accustomed as well don’t you? You begin to see the structure of the activity.
CY: And I’ve filmed the wall going on and on, and it doesn’t seem to get shocking until you realise it’s going on far too long for a narrative structure. The length of time adds to a feeling of dumbness that the wall has. It kind of shuts out other stuff and shuts you up. For both of us, I think the work is sculptural and spatial as well as temporal.
Another thing is where you exhibit. I’ve been asked to show Wall at Herzliya Museum of Art and I know that a lot of people, including friends in Israel, think I should boycott it. I wouldn’t show other work there at this time, but I’ve decided to show this film because a lot of people in Israel have never been to the wall or seen it. And Herzliya Museum has a history of showing work critical of Israel and I think it’s essential to support that and acknowledge that there is opposition inside Israel. As a Jew I need to separate myself from Israeli policy. I know some people believe that criticism of Israel will lead to anti-Semitism, but if there’s no difference voiced, no one will know that a large number of Jews criticise Israeli policy, and anti-Zionism will be conflated with anti-Semitism.
RN: It’s significant that we are both not only working with the ideas about the situation in Palestine and Israel, but also elsewhere, and that the experience of the Israelis and Palestinians should not be separated from the rest of the world. Seeing these works within our whole bodies of work gives what we are doing a context.
CY: When I’ve made work in London, like my film Descent, the politics of it are more hidden. People can recognise the subtle things going on and they don’t see it as being from a particular side. The politics don’t even have to be consciously recognised, they are just there in it. As soon as you make work outside a culture people are very familiar with, there’s a loss of confidence in reading the work and a desire to simplify things and look for answers.
RN: If you show anyone with a headdress on or an Arab-looking man or woman, people think it looks like the news.
CY: So do you think that one role of the artist is to undo the news?
RN: Yes, certainly, to re-look at things and question accepted ways of seeing. I tried to articulate this in my film The States of Things — a three-minute, 16 mm film of a jumble sale in black and white, which I processed myself so it looks kind of crunchy and a bit dirty and you’re not quite sure when it was filmed. It’s just people rummaging through stuff at a Salvation Army jumble sale in Glasgow, but I used this Umm Kulthoum soundtrack, a classic Egyptian love song from the 1920s. The viewers read the scene as being Arab, Indian or finally from somewhere in Eastern Europe, but not as themselves in their own city.
I was angry at the time about the idea of ‘East / West,’ a stupid, black-and-white definition, and the exoticizing of ‘East’ which denies its shifting, relevant, human existence. I wanted to show more of the greyness and the muddledness of actual individual experience. As a half-Palestinian and half-Northern Irish artist, brought up in England, now living in Scotland, it’s not clear cut but who is clear cut? Without that ambiguity there is no position. Without it the viewer can’t approach the work and there can potentially be a shutting off or expectation of how you’re going to feel about the piece. Because of the way this material is presented in the media you need some distance, and I think that ambiguity provides that distance.
This is an extract from conversations recorded in London in July/August 2004, edited by Antonia Carver, Rosalind Nashashibi and Catherine Yass. Rosalind Nashashibi’s solo show ‘Over In’ is at Kunsthalle Basel, September 19–November 7, and she is undertaking a Scottish Arts Council residency in New York from November 2004 to May 2005. Dahiet Al Bareed (District of the Post Office) is included in ‘Expander,’ Royal Academy of Arts at Burlington Gardens, London, October 16-24, 2004. Catherine Yass’s film Wall will be exhibited in London at Alison Jacques Gallery, November 18-December 23, 2004, and at Herzliya Museum, Israel, June–October 2005. It will be included in the touring exhibition ‘Territories’ (www.konsthall.malmo.se.oas.funcform.se/o.o.i.s/2426).
This year’s Frankfurt Book Fair has invited the “Arab World” as guest — to present itself and works emanating from the twenty-two countries within the region. Ten thousand titles, as many as 200 authors, and a cultural program spread over several locations are intended to bring about a change in prevailing perspectives on the Arab world. Is this yet another Western-oriented event riding on the back of the current wave of interest in the Arab world? Mohamed Ghoneim, director of the Arab program for Frankfurt, the world’s largest book fair, characterized the maxim of his organizational team as “You don’t have much of a chance but make the best of it.”
The question, however, remains — to what end?
Given the attempt to clarify the problematic views of literature from the Arab region, a certain irritation was already built into the initial formula and address. Take the idea of the “Arab World” as guest country. Under different circumstances, this would have received a pan-Arab framing, but in cultural and artistic spheres it is time and again used blithely as a reference. While the fair usually selects individual countries as themes to work around (Russia and Korea, last year and next year, respectively), the Arab World was invited as a region. The publisher of the literary journal Akhbar al-Adab, Gamal al-Ghitani, brought the issue to a head in a recent column. The exaggerated identification of the Arab World with Islam and 9/11 overlooks and eradicates important historical and sociological details. Authors who have an alternative approach, as well as subcultureand country-specific aspects, are simply absent from this perspective.
The Arab League and its sub-organization, Alesco, the Arab Organization for Education, Culture, and Science, are to some extent in charge. The difficulties are obvious. Just as “too many cooks spoil the brew,” the selection for, and realization of, an event involving twenty-two countries is far from easy. Which criteria should be used for the individual countries’ selections? Who can claim a greater literary tradition? Or does one achieve a balanced representation based on population figures and land mass? Or with political themes?
According to the speakers present at a press conference held in June, it seems that a mixture of these aspects will prevail. The general director of Alesco, Mongi Bousneina, said it is “essential to overcome existing obstacles in order to bring about an open dialogue.”
More than 200 Arab authors, lyricists, and translators have confirmed their trips to Frankfurt, among them Morocco’s Taher ben Jelloun, Egypt’s Edwar al-Charrat, Algeria’s Assia Djebar, and the Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish. At the time of writing, the planning of the program, however, is only progressing slowly. Differences of opinion within the Arab League are being carried over into the organization of the book fair, and the bureaucracy of Alesco has let valuable time slip by. There are still no official lists of authors, publishers, or other involved literary institutions. Nonetheless, the book fair will take place between October 6 and 10 at the exhibition center in Frankfurt.
These issues and others seem sufficient grounds for bringing up the theme of literature in Bidoun. In the pages that follow, two established writers, Ghassan Zaqtan and Edwar al-Charrat, talk us through the younger writers’ scenes in their countries and highlight up-and-coming authors and poets. And Lebanese novelist Iman Humaydan Younes discusses the process of writing between fussha (classical or written Arabic) and ‘amiya (colloquial or spoken Arabic).
www.buchmesse.de. See also www.bidoun.com for further information about Bidoun’s regular discussion forum with young writers, editors, and artists at the Frankfurt Book Fair, as well as short stories and texts by young writers.
Edwar al-Charrat was born in 1926 in Alexandria, and has lived and worked as an author and critic in Cairo since 1983. One of the most prominent members of Egypt’s literary scene, he has received several awards, including the Naguib Mahfouz award from the American University in Cairo in 1999. His novels, including_ Rama and the Dragon (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2002), City of Saffron (London and New York: Quarter Books, 1989) and Girls of Alexandria _(London and New York: Quarter Books, 1993) have been translated into several languages.
Bidoun: You’re one of the very few established writers interested in the young writers’ scene. What in your opinion is the most interesting current development here?
Edwar al-Charrat: It’s what I call ‘trans-generative writing.’ Normally writing is classified into genres, but I don’t believe that literature can be put into these pigeonholes. I believe instead in experimental developments, in collaboration between areas such as poetry, cinema, theater, or the plastic arts. Writing that does not stick to the boundaries of particular genres — poetry as such, the novel as such.
Bidoun: What is the situation like for young writers in Egypt today?
EaC: Compared with how things were in the past, it is easy to get your text published. Today, we have quite a number of different publishing houses that are happy to publish whatever young writers give them. To the point that they often choose without much care.
Bidoun: Is there anything similar to what we’re seeing with the development of hyped, so-called ‘pop writers’ in Europe?
EaC: No, not really, because the principle here is to encourage young writers from the provinces. And besides that, the trend has not gained much awareness. But it is an open gate — so open that these writers have no difficulty getting their works published.
Bidoun: What kind of dialogue is there between established and emerging writers? Is there any exchange?
EaC: In a way yes, and in a way no. There are groups of authors such as the ‘Atelier of Cairo’ or the ‘Atelier of Alexandria,’ which regularly organize readings, book reviews, and book presentations. But some of the established writers do not really care about young writers or others, and that includes the young — whether that’s because of professional jealousy or professional illness… [laughing]
Bidoun: What about the distribution of literature in the Arab world in general?
EaC: There are problems concerning prices, import and export regulations, censorship — all sorts of problems, so it is very difficult to have a novel distributed throughout the Arab world. We still have a situation where it is much easier to publish in England or France than in Morocco or Lebanon. Exchange is difficult. The only breakthroughs come during the book fairs.
Bidoun: What are your thoughts on this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair? It has been said that quite a number of writers refused the invitation from the Arab League, due to the fact that they oppose their policy in general. Has the whole thing become a political issue?
EaC: Well, some of them did refuse, yes, but as far as I know 200 qualified writers from Arab countries invited by the Arab League will be coming. Of course this is not the complete picture, but politics may be unavoidable. There are people who have not been invited for several reasons. This is especially true of young writers. If they are not at the book fair, at least their books will be, as some publishing houses have translated them. So their work will be there even if they themselves are not. It is a pity because it could have been a chance for the younger generation. But sometimes too much publicity can reduce creativity. So perhaps it is not for the worse.
Bidoun: Translation is always a big issue, especially when it comes to literature. Do you feel well represented by your translated books?
EaC: I’ve been lucky with my translations. But in general, I believe that translation should not be a one-person task. The best strategy is to have an Arabophone and an Anglophone working together. Honestly, I think translation is what I may call ‘creative betrayal.’
Bidoun: Back to the language. How do you handle the different approaches of fussha and ‘amiya in literature?
EaC: The boundaries between fussha and dialect have been slowly eroding for a long time — for example there are classical writers like Ibrahim Abdelkadr al-Majd, who used fussha syntax and mingled it with dialect words to give a richer variety to the writing. They do not even hesitate to use dialect words that are not accepted by old lexicons or dictionaries. The interaction between the two languages — or I would even say dialects — is possible. Because in the end, what is fussha? Fussha is a dialect spoken by a tribe in Saudi Arabia, the Qurash. And because of the Qur’an this particular dialect has been established as the purest form of Arabic.
Isn’t there a kind of reluctance to change this?
You cannot change it, because it is based on the Qur’an. But what is developing is a fusion between fussha and dialect. I am not talking about introducing dialect when writing dialogues — I am talking about using dialect in narrative text. In my books you will find this. I try not to lose the dialect in making it fussha, because fussha does not have the richness and the flavor that dialect offers you. In the end, it depends on the talent of the author — whether you manage to use the richness or not.
Bidoun: Are there any young writers whose work you would particularly recommend?
EaC: The issue is a sensitive one. But let us try to mention the outstanding young writers in Egypt. If I forget somebody, let them forgive me.
One of them is definitely Montassar al-Qaffash. He already has two or three good and promising books to his credit. He writes short stories and novels, the latest one being Tasrih bi-al-ghayab (Permission for Leave of Absence). What is characteristic of his writing is, first of all, the absence of high-flown language, the lack of metaphors and symbolism. He doesn’t rely on day-to-day realism, but hints at situations that lie beyond the obvious.
Another representative of this form of writing, who is also promising and good in his field is Mustafa Zikri. He is a screenplay and scenario writer and gained quite a lot of attention with his latest film Afarit Al-Asfalt (Demons of the Asphalt). Besides that he has written at least two important books, one of which is Huraa’ Mataha Qutiya (Drivel about a Gothic Labyrinth). Without using high-flown or metaphorical language he resorts to the outrage of fantasy, mingling reality with the imaginary in a way that is truly captivating. For example, he uses themes from the Arabian Nights — Alf leil wa Leila — but introduces these themes into everyday life. It is not the depiction of reality as a common phenomenon that grabs you, but the mingling of the inner and the outer, the spiritual and the material, the fantastic and the down-to-earth. It’s possible to compare his writing with comic strips – although comics have an abstract, graphic characteristic and therefore tend to lack the ‘warm blood’ that made Demons of the Asphalt so special.
Another example from this generation is Haytham El-Wardany, who writes short stories that also shift between realism and fantasy. His latest publication, Jama’at Al-Adab Al-Naqis (The League of Incomplete Literature), shows a range of approaches to the art of short-story writing — from dry reportage to formal experimentation — in a very easy and sometimes ironic way.
A fourth writer, who is also very interesting, but with a totally different approach, is Kheiri Abdelgawad. He deals very courageously with the folkloric and traditional side, but in a different way from Mustafa Zikri. Abdelgawad uses the Arabian Nights, as well as the tales of itinerant storytellers. He uses the techniques and the style of the popular narrators and popular poets of the coffee shops, where the old poets used to recite and receive the tunes of simple and primitive music and intoned verses in dialect. He uses this in a very ingenious way to introduce a metaphysical quest. Through his writing he is looking for answers to questions such as who we are, what the meaning of love is and what of death. These high themes, treated in a folkloric way, produce a certain meaning that is absolutely new and interesting.
Edwar al-Charrat’s recommended reading
Montassar al Qaffash Tasrih bi-al-ghayab (Permission for Leave of Absence), Cairo: Dar Sharqiyat lil-Nashr wa-al-Tawzi, 1996
An Tara Alaan (To See Now), Cairo: Dar Sharqiyat lil-Nashr wa-al-Tawzi, 2002. German translation (by Ola Abd el-Gawad) to be published late 2004 by Lisan Verlag, Basle
Haytham El-Wardany Jamaat Al-Adab Al-Naqis (The League of Incomplete Literature), Cairo: Miret for Publication and Information, 2003.
Mustafa Zikri Al-Khawf Ya’kul Al-Ruh (Fear Eats the Soul), Cairo: Dar Sharqiyat lil-Nashr wa-al-Tawzi, 1998
Hara’ Mataha qutiyya (Drivel about a Gothic Labyrinth German translation to be published October 2004
Afarit Al-Asfalt (Demons of the Asphalt), screenplay, 2003
Kheiri Abdelgawad Al Hakayat al-Dib Rama’a (The Stories of Ramathe wolf)
Ghassan Zaqtan was born in 1954 in Beit Jala, near Bethlehem. Co-founder and director of the House of Poetry in Ramallah, he is chief editor of Al-Shua’ra (Poets), a quarterly magazine, and writes weekly columns for two newspapers in Ramallah and the Gulf. His own poetry collections include Luring the Mountain in Beirut (1999); Prescription of a Description in Jerusalem (1998), and Weightless Sky (1980). His novel, Describing the Past, was published in Jordan in 1995. Ghassan Zaqtan has also written a number of scripts for various film documentaries, among which his screenplay The Narrow Sea was honored at the 1994 Cairo Festival.
Bidoun: Could you tell us a bit about the young literary scene in Palestine?
Ghassan Zaqtan: I think we have quite a new movement. We are talking about writers who are under thirty-five — both poets and writers of prose. The movement is even stronger in poetry than it is in prose.
Bidoun: Why do you think young writers are more interested in poetry?
GZ: Because it is an easier genre to start with. Most of these writers will change later to prose. In regards to Palestine, I’m speaking from my experience as the cultural editor of Al Ayam.
Bidoun: Can you characterize the young writers you’re referring to?
GZ: The most significant characteristic is that their art has liberated itself from the chain of the political cause. They do not have to gain their legitimacy through serving the cause anymore. Instead, they simply try to be more themselves. They are questioning the situation as such and the human being, which is not new, but has not been the main movement of Palestinian poets in the past. Most of them choose themes from daily life — from macrocosms to microcosms. We had three main subjects around which our culture used to circulate: the hero, Palestine as a promised land, and the chosen people. Let’s take the hero to make it clearer. The hero is a holy character in the Arab and Palestinian tradition and we always try to protect him. Of course at the end, we send him to die. He has to be dead to be fully heroic. The young writers have smashed the hero totally. They do not care about the old style of heroes anymore, and try instead to create another kind who is very human. The new generation is abandoning these subjects and replacing them with everyday realities — not only in poetry, but also in prose.
Bidoun: Have there been any recent changes in style or structure?
GZ: When you change the subject, when you choose ‘inner subjects,’ you have to change your language as well. You need a new language. But the new writers get their inspiration from the allied disciplines of cinema and the plastic arts. Their sentences become shorter and sharper, the language is closer to street language. For example, when you compare the old texts with the new ones you discover different layers and colors that have not been used in this way before. Their texts seem to encompass the full range of senses. Perhaps it is not possible to speak about a clear direction, but we can definitely talk about new voices.
Bidoun: Can you give us some names?
GZ: In poetry I would focus on Walid Asheikh from Bethlehem, Tariq El Karmi from Tulkarem, and Bahsir Shalash, from inside the green line. For short stories you could name Hatif Abulzeid, Akram Abusallah, Adania Shibli, and Alaa Hlehel. Alaa is special because he has a very particular voice. He may not like this, but in my opinion he can be compared with Emil Habibi, who played an important role as a Palestinian in Israel and is one of our greatest novelists. Habibi’s The Secret Life of Saeed has been translated into thirty-five languages and, controversially, won the Israeli literature prize in 1992; despite pressure to refuse it, Habibi said that it was a victory for the Palestinian cultural movement, and accepted the prize.
This new generation has another big advantage over us, the older and established one. Not only are their readers of the same age, but so too are their critics, which is very important for the whole movement. Among them are Malik El Rimawi and Abdelrahim As-Sheif. That’s what makes them more complete than our generation of writers. At first, we tried to avoid or escape all these inner subjects. Our generation took its first steps in that direction after the Beirut siege of 1982, because the political movement lost its power. We started to question the system and jumped beyond political programs. But all our critics belonged to the previous generation, which had no connection to our writing. It’s impossible to develop without productive criticism.
Ghassan Zaqtan’s recommended reading
Adania Shibli Masas (Senses), Beirut: Dar Al Adab, 2002 (recently published in French by Editions Actes-Sud)
Kulluna ba’eed bidhaat al-miqdaar ‘an al-hubb (We Are All Equally Far From Love), Beirut: Dar Al Adab, 2004
Ala Hlehel A-serk (The Circus), Beirut: Dar Al-Adab, 2001
Kisas le-Awkat al Tajah (Stories at the Time of Need), a collection of short stories, Beirut: Dar Al-Adab, 2003
Atef Abu Saif Mu ’assasa filastinîya li-l-irshâd al-qaumî (Bitter Fruit of Paradise), Ramallah: Palestinian Institute for National Guidance, 2003
Walid Asheikh Hietho la shajar (Where There Are No Trees), a poetry anthology, Ramallah: House of Poetry, 2003
Emile Habibi The Secret Life of Saeed: The Ill-fated Pessoptimist (translation by SK Jayyusi, T Legassick, Salma Khadra Jayyusi), and Trevor Le Gassick, London: Zed Books, 1985
Long before the experience of publishing my novels, my son, then seven years old, came to me one day with an Arabic reading book asking me to “translate” a phrase he did not understand. “Translate this sentence for me please,” he said. He used the word “translate” and, of course, he wanted me to “explain” with colloquial or spoken Arabic, or amiya, the sentence written in classical Arabic, or in fussha. My son did not understand at that age why Arabic is two “languages,” as he put it, while the French that he began studying in his early years is one language.
In an article published a few months before his death, the eminent Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said argued that the debate on the need to reform Islam, as well as the Arabs and their language, reflects an extraordinary lack of the daily experience of living in Arabic. Said was perfectly correct by referring to the Arabic language as an experience of life, something we live and live in.
Writing about my experience with the Arabic language, be it fussha or amiya, does not only stem from my being a female Lebanese writer (novelist), but also from my experience of the cultural, political, and social changes Lebanon witnessed during the last three decades of the twentieth century. These changes, no doubt, affected our language. However, what we have now as a modern written language goes back to the changes Lebanon has gone through from the beginning of the last century until the present.
Since the beginning of the twentieth century, there has been an ongoing debate on our language in the Arab world. At that time there was a strong notion that the classical Arabic language would face a destiny similar to that of Latin. Both supporters and enemies of classical Arabic had the same view. Those who were pro-Arabic feared such a destiny because to them, the Arabic language was a symbolic representation of their religious and national identity. Needless to say, the Qur’an “was descended” in Arabic and is therefore seen as the principal and sacred source of the language. Such ideological arguments were used by the many defenders of classical Arabic, but equally by its enemies, who viewed the language as being exclusively identified with religious Islam as well as a form of Arab nationalism. They wanted to abolish classical Arabic and to construct cultural and political identities far removed from the language and its nationalistic implications. Is that debate over amiya and fussha still alive? It seems that the debate has lost its spark and that both fussha and amiya have changed.
Around the mid-1950s in Lebanon, for example, the Lebanese poet Said Akl argued that, like Latin, classical Arabic was a dead language and should be reformed and replaced by amiya. Akl published a book in amiya Arabic using Latin script instead of Arabic. However, Akl’s initiative (he is still alive at ninety years of age) remained an isolated attempt.
In the past, the fussha and the amiya very seldom met. Fussha was used in the media, in political discourse and even in conversation among leftists, nationalists, and intellectuals when talking about politics and ideology. On the other hand, amiya was seen as the language of feelings, emotions, love. We never expressed love or made love in fussha, but we did use fussha while talking in a political party meeting or in a conference. ’Amiya was the language of the ‘quotidian,’ while fussha of the discourse.
Nowadays, however, the dual language does not seem as divided as it was in the past. Fussha has lost much of its eloquence, and amiya has lost some of its independence and peculiarity. Perhaps Gibran Khalil Gibran, the Lebanese-American writer, poet, and artist, expressed perfectly the idea of bringing together fussha and amiya in an article he wrote in the mid-1950s, about the future of the Arabic language. He argued that there must be a third language that grows out of people’s changing lives and ways of expressing themselves. To Gibran, this third language — which Edward Said called the modern fussha — must be a combination of feelings and of thoughts.
The media has played a major role in modifying and modernizing the fussha that both Gibran and Said wrote about. News broadcasts on radio and television are in fussha, but at the same time are closer to amiya. However, sometimes television stations broadcast programs with dialogues oddly conducted in fussha. The practical reason for this is that these programs are mainly targeted to the broader Arab audience who cannot follow the different dialects of each Arab country.
Following the Lebanese war, local television channels started broadcasting a Mexican series dubbed in fussha. The series is similar to American soap operas such as Dallas, Dynasty, or The Bold and the Beautiful. It was very funny for an ordinary Lebanese audience to watch characters leading super-modern, cosmopolitan lives, while talking in fussha. It was something new for us to be able to express love or hate and to insult in fussha. Now, whenever someone is speaking heavily classical Arabic in Lebanon, they say that he or she is speaking Mexican! Lebanese television stations were obliged to choose fussha, instead of the Lebanese amiya dialect, in order to be able to sell the dubbed series to other Arab countries. It is difficult to understand the dialect of each Arab country, as it varies from one country to another. In this sense, classical Arabic unites Arab countries. And when people from different Arab countries meet, fussha is used in order to communicate.
My very personal argument is that my generation in Lebanon was deeply influenced by the young Lebanese actor, composer, and theater director, Ziad Rahbani (son of the famous Lebanese singer, Fairuz). Born in 1957, Rahbani lived his adolescence and some years of his adulthood witnessing the Lebanese civil war (1975–1990) and the massive destruction it caused. The war destroyed social, political, and mainstream cultural values. These changes were reflected in language too. The modern Lebanese novel was born out of this destruction, representing a new way of writing and expression. Though he is not a novelist or a writer in the wide sense, Rahbani contributed greatly in his way to Lebanese theater, by bringing amiya to the political discourse that was occupied by fussha. He also played a major role in bringing the language of the intellectuals to amiya. Rahbani did not make a compromise between amiya and fussha, as the Lebanese writer, Maroun Abboud, did at the beginning of the twentieth century. On the contrary, he rather destroyed the eloquence and the sacredness of fussha by presenting it as the language of lies; or the language of the non-lived, or the non-lived-in. Rahbani was not the only artist who contributed to the debate of the fussha and the amiya, nor will he be the last.
While writing my first novel B…mithl bait mithl Beirut (B…Like Beirut), I had to stop several times in front of a word I wanted to use, feeling that it might not be understood by non-Lebanese Arab readers. However, this was a part of the dilemma I faced. I was brought up in an environment where street language, or the everyday ordinary amiya words, were not very welcome in writing. But I am a daughter of the civil war too, and this situation helped me overcome the sacredness and taboos of the language in my text. While writing dialogues, I feel that fussha does not fit or reflect what my characters really want to say. Maybe that is why some novelists avoid using dialogue in their writings. They cannot imagine themselves writing amiya. This is mainly due to the deep idea that they have about writing, which is seen as a sacred task that aims at bringing their writings near to the old scripts.
I use dialogues and I have the courage to use amiya in places where it looks awkward to write what a character says in fussha. I always see language as a living thing, or a living process. I live in it and it lives in me. I cannot imagine myself writing a word that I do not feel. I do not feel many of the old, eloquent, and classical Arabic words and in this sense I have never had any loyalty to the language. I do not see it as a sacred script. To write with creativity, one must cheat on language, betray it, mold it, and try new things in order to take the language out of its deadly forms. This happens usually when I start writing. After a while, I feel that I am going on a long journey accompanied by a language that is continuously created and subsequently destroyed. Now, while writing my third novel, I do not find any difficulty in moving from amiya to fussha and I do not see it as a problem. Quite the contrary, moving from fussha to amiya, and vice versa, gives me a freedom of expression with much richer images and meanings, something that no other language can give me.
“The Arabs are coming!” wrote critics — some not even Middle Eastern — from Cannes in 2002, intoxicated by the rash of good films from the region and the success of Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention. In 2003, the enthusiasm was muted, although Moroccan first-timer Faouzi Bensaidi’s One Thousand Months gave even the cynics something to celebrate. But at Cannes Film Festival 2004, alas, even the most enthused critics had to admit that it was now the Asians, rather than the Middle Easterners, who were having their day. Iran, the darling of the arthouse circuit, only had a couple of films competing — although they did include Mohsen Amiryoussefi’s fantastically quirky Khab E Talkh (Bitter Dream). (Out of competition, Kiarostami’s Five left gallery directors salivating, but most film critics slightly bewildered, a fact not aided by the straight-talking veteran auteur’s repeated assertions that his film was “about nothing” and in no way an art installation.)
Thirty-two-year-old Mohsen Amiryoussefi’s first feature is a black comedy set in a cemetery in Sedeh, near Esfahan. Starring its real-life employees, the picture tells the tale of Esfandiar, a cantankerous body-washer who comes face to face with Ezrael (the Angel of Death). With his life flashing before his eyes — often, surreally, through his beloved black-and-white television — Esfandiar is forced to reconsider his behavior. Wonderfully underplayed, with a good dose of gallows humor, Bitter Dream was awarded a Camera d’Or Special Mention.
The Middle East in general was of course high on the agenda, with Michael Moore’s Palme d’Or-winner Fahrenheit 9/11 dominating the headlines (and since going on to dominate the box office, even in Middle Eastern, documentary-phobic cinemas). Tony Gatlif’s ‘exotic’ travelogue Exiles inexplicably took home Best Director.
Arab films from the Arab world, however, were largely disappointing, leaving their directors empty-handed and the critics underwhelmed. Master-filmmakers Youssef Chahine (Alexandria–New York) and Yousry Nasrallah (the four-and-a-half hour Bab Al Chams) did have turns in the spotlight, but left even their most ardent fans wanting. The Euro crowd was more impressed by Mohammed Asli’s moving Italian-Moroccan co-production, In Casablanca the Angels Don’t Fly. Beautifully shot, the film follows the efforts of Said, a Berber villager, to juggle family life back home with his job in a city restaurant. Although In Casablanca suffered the odd slip into melodrama, and there were some sentimental Italian fingerprints on the lens, the film benefited from a stellar cast, some excellent storylines, and moments of idiosyncratic brilliance. Asli is one to watch.
Among some slow-burners, including Afghan Atiq Rahimi’s stunning Khâkestar-o-khâk (Earth and Ashes), it was Danielle Arbid’s well-styled Maarek Hob (In the Battlefields) that won the plaudits. Set in East Beirut during the Lebanese civil war, the film focuses on a Christian family attempting to survive the war outside and, most devastatingly, what Arbid has called the “internal war” within. Centering on twelve-year-old Lina and her friendship with her free-spirited aunt’s maid, Siham, the film is a moving, melancholic depiction of a girl prematurely brought to the edge of adulthood and the cruelties that exist within us all.
A little over a month later, the Cannes gang had their second French outing in Paris, at the Biennale des Cinémas Arabes, traditionally the world’s most comprehensive venue for Arab filmmaking. Festival director Magda Wassef and her team at the Institut du Monde Arabe played host to an eclectic range of films and documentaries. In the competitive feature film section, strong contenders Tawfik Abu-Wael’s Atash and Mohammed Asli’s In Casablanca were joined by Tunisian director’s Nawfel Saheb-Ettaba’s romantic drama El Kotbia and Hani Khalifa’s popular hit Sahar al-Layali (Sleepless Nights), among others. Drawing particular acclaim, and subsequently walking away with the Grand Jury Prize, was Danielle Arbid’s In the Battlefields.
Elsewhere the documentaries on offer varied wildly in quality. Sherine Salama’s warm, gripping A Marriage in Ramallah delighted viewers, but Nigol Bezjian’s Muron, depicting a Lebanese-Armenian priest’s painstaking attempts to cook the holy oil of communion, was ruined by over-direction and poor editing. Indeed, plagued by indulgent edits, many directors — especially exiles returning home — could take a leaf out of Jihane Al-Tahri’s book. The documentary director has produced a tight, TV-style tale in The House of Saud. Through an impressive selection of ‘talking heads,’ plus archival footage, she details the rise and subsequent decline in fortunes of Saudi Arabia’s ruling family from the days of founding father King Abdul Aziz through to the kingdom’s post-9/11 troubles.
Among the shorter documentaries, it was Myrna Maakaron’s deceptively simple BerlinBeirut and Hichem Ben Ammar’s portrait of Tunisian fishermen, Rais Lebhar! O Capitaine des Mers, which stood out. The latter consequently won the top prize in its category, deserving the award alone for a scene in which the men take to the sea and descend upon a huge catch of tuna, the blue waters turning white and red with blood and the deafening sounds of the dying fish juxtaposed with the jubilant cries of the fishermen. Ammar al-Beik deserves a mention for his highly original Le Clap, an attempt to unravel the mysterious goings-on in a monastery in the Syrian mountains.
But with the cinemas never more than two-thirds full, and a mixed bag of films, directors and journalists spent their coffee breaks debating whether there was a crisis in Arab cinema. Bidoun put the question to eminent festival director Magda Wassef: “There’s no such thing as ‘an Arab cinema’ as such, but many Arab cinemas, and new talent is emerging all the time. We have Danielle Arbid, who lives in France, making a very Lebanese film; for the first time, we have short films from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and a retrospective of films from Iraq, and a multitude of films about the Palestinian experience. Over the years the quality of the audience has changed — they stay now, and discuss the films, they’re more engaged.”
From Paris, the itinerant gang of Arab cinephiles decamped to Palestine, for the opening, on July 8, of the first Ramallah International Film Festival in the city’s new Cultural Palace. Festival director Adam Zuabi, twenty-nine, has lived in Jerusalem, Los Angeles and, for the last five years, primarily in Rome. Working together with Ramallah-based Fatin Farhad and a young crew of volunteers, he was justifiably proud to have pulled off an ambitious program of more than eighty films from twelve countries, three different screening locations, an educational program and forty guests from around the world. The RIFF also included a Palestinian Silver Screen competition focusing especially on first films by young Palestinian filmmakers; the very first National Screenplay Competition for high schools; and a range of workshops with film experts from around the world.
But the obvious enthusiasm behind the project was not in itself enough to guarantee that everything ran flawlessly. Apart from those technical glitches so much a part of any festival, there were other problems that cast longer shadows, including the festival’s opening and closing films crackling to a halt while in full flight (Walter Salles’s Motorcycle Diaries and Tawfik Abu-Wael’s Atash, respectively). Unfortunately, the Palestinian Silver Screen winner and new hope of local film — Raed al-Helou’s La’alo Kheir (Hopefully for the Best) — went on to experience the same fate. (That the projector bought especially for the festival had been impounded by the Israelis, and then replaced with a make-do version, was illustrative of the kind of battles the festival faced.)
The RIFF organizers did a sterling job — especially considering that the crew only convened two weeks before the festival, many of them with no previous experience of event management, and all working unpaid. Maybe that’s why the festival office atmosphere resembled a university campus gathering — except that everyone looked on the verge of collapse. How far the city’s reluctance to get involved was due to political infighting, the management’s faulty communication, or wrangling between local interest groups is impossible to tell. In future, though, it will be vital to forge a closer bond between the RIFF and the city itself. Nonetheless, that so few Palestinians from Jerusalem or Bethlehem — let alone Nablus or Hebron — made it to the festival, had less to do with the festival organization and much more to do with the political situation. (With the Kalandia and Ram checkpoints closed from 9 pm on, it was simply impossible to get out of Ramallah in the evening). And despite all this, the Palestinian film screenings in particular were very popular, with demand exceeding the available space in the relatively small garden at the Sakakini Center.
The day after the RIFF ended, when Ramallah was just beginning to recover from all the excitement, a key event took place. Relatively spontaneously and thanks to a supremely unconventional talent for organization on the part of the filmmakers Elias Suleiman and Simone Bitton, Bitton’s latest documentary film Wall was screened in Abu Dis, with the film actually projected on to the wall itself. “I could hardly imagine anywhere better to show it,” a visibly moved Bitton commented shortly before the screening. The audience of around 300 was seated on plastic chairs, quickly set up before the evening call to prayer; when the film started, the soundtrack echoed far along the wall itself. Both the film and its setting were inspired; the audience found themselves a part of the story being projected onto it. A grotesque reflection, rife with consequences.
All in all, the RIFF was a great achievement — not least for local filmmakers, many of whom had their films picked up by various festivals and European broadcasters for screening over the next months. As an exhausted Adam Zuabi put it at the end: “The festival got lots of coverage, both negative and positive. We had up to 1200 visitors a day, which is more than we’d hoped for given the circumstances. As I see it, we’ve made a start. People here have now been woken up to film as a medium, and it’s made its entrance into Ramallah — what more do we want?” Zuabi perhaps answered his question by assuring Bidoun that the RIFF will be an annual event — which fits in nicely with the spirit of Festival winner La’alo Kheir, or Hopefully for the Best.
From Cairo’s coffee shops to Dubai’s hotel bars, Middle Eastern cinephiles have one complaint: the lack of arthouse cinemas, or indeed any venue screening non-commercial fare. Artist Yto Barrada plans to change all that — in Tangier at least — with the opening of the Cinémathèque de Tanger (CDT) in the former Rif Cinema, a glorious 1940s building that sits at the tip of the Grand Socco and currently boasts a run of Bollywood B-movies. CDT’s artistic director and programmer, Barrada will open the CDT in spring 2005 with a program that spans Middle Eastern, European, Latin American, and North American features, documentaries, shorts, children’s pictures, and animation. The CDT will act as a “permanent film festival”; Barrada’s plans include retrospectives of work by directors such as Elia Suleiman, Yousry Nasrallah, Abbas Kiarostami, and Chris Marker, plus Sunday documentaries, a film club, and monthly programs of shorts.
While the cinema seats around 450, the square outside the Grand Socco can accommodate ten times that number, allowing for open-air screenings of classic films. In addition, the center will house an editing suite and screening room, and future plans include the distribution of new films. Barrada hopes the CDT will introduce local audiences to national and world cinema; along the way, she says, perhaps the project will go some way to slowing Moroccan youth’s slip into “unemployment, boredom and solipsism.” Bidoun caught up with her in Tangier.
Bidoun: Presumably the CDT project is in part inspired by the irony inherent in recent Moroccan cinema — that the country has increasingly been used as a destination to shoot international and local films, yet cinemas are closing every month, and there are few opportunities to see homegrown films…
Yto Barrada: Yes, this paradox is one of our motivations. The film funding law in Morocco has changed recently — it’s now based on the French model, and part of the money made on foreign shoots is being reinvested in the local film industry. In addition, the government has stated its desire to fuel the energy around films and locations. But most films shot in Morocco are never shown here and the technicians, actors, and so on, never see their work. There are around five to ten films made every year, but within the cinemas, there’s the usual hegemony of Hollywood and Bollywood movies. Some distributors do show Moroccan films, but only the easy, populist comedies. (Yet in the past five to six years, people have begun to demand to see features that might present a critical view of life.) And of course there’s no space for shorts and documentaries, let alone experimental cinema. We’re going to show one short before every feature, and include experimental film and video, especially work by young Moroccans — both expatriates and locals, we make no distinction.
B: You’ve mentioned that you’re “inviting the world back to Tangier” — what will be the balance between world cinema and Moroccan cinema?
YB: We’re linking up with the Centre Cinématographique Marocain’s archive in Rabat, which has a great collection of Moroccan films and films shot in Morocco. We will also follow up all films shot in Morocco, good or bad, so as to encourage debate. There are no film schools here, so the history of cinema is also vitally important — we can learn from the classics.
B: This issue of Bidoun focuses on the politics and practicalities of archive. Could you tell me a little more about the documentary collection and CDT’s archive? Is there anything to compare with this — either in the Arab world or internationally?
YB: At the moment, we’re collecting for the documentary archive, building a library of films, digitizing the films, and planning to make them available for members. We’re also collecting amateur and professional films, to build an historical archive. The Centre Cinématographique Marocain has an amazing collection on 35mm — even the news was shot on 35mm! This dates back to colonial times, through independence and beyond. We’re also collecting amateur film — little treasures on super-eight of events, weddings, and so on — which people are donating. There will be a context — we’re going to include a library of books and magazines, to create a critical space, and encourage cinema-goers to be demanding. My model here is the Dublin Film Institute (sharp, accessible, minimal bureaucracy) or the Jerusalem Cinematheque. I used to go there when I was living in Ramallah in the early 1990s, so I know the work they do is great. I still have some considerable fundraising to do — we want this to be a serious cinema, and digital projectors and the shipping of prints are expensive, but we’ll take it step by step.
B: Distributors in the Middle East tend to have a limited, commercial view of their audiences, and maintain that the viewing public is not interested in arthouse or non-commercial cinema. Is Morocco ready for CDT?
YB: I have the opportunity to show ‘alternative’ and local cinema because the center is non-profit. We’ll have four to five films a day, with every morning devoted to documentaries and Friday afternoons for Arab cinema (just like in the old days, when Egyptian films always played on TV on Fridays). In Tangier, we’re about twelve kilometers away from Europe, yet the borders are closed to Moroccans, and increasingly, people are becoming closed in on themselves. But if we can’t go out, we can still have a window on the world. Compared to Paris, or anywhere in Europe, young people here are hungry for information, obsessed with politics, with a strong desire to discover things. But the political space is saturated, and it’s only within culture that we have space to tackle issues, to encourage debate. We speak Spanish, yet have no cultural links with Latin America; we’re part of Africa, yet have no links there; and even vis-à-vis Europe, we need to develop links in a more profound way, beyond tourism and business. The screenings will be cheap for members — this isn’t just a center for the Lycée Français or the American School. In a way I’m lucky — there’s no concert hall or theater here any more, the cine-clubs have gone, and yet there’s a population of around one million people, so I know Tangier is more than ready. The city deserves a permanent arthouse cinema (like many of us were privileged to grow up with, and that changed our lives). We’re aiming for a modest space but with pleasure, good coffee, clean toilets, great sound, and excellent technology. Voilà!
“We didn’t know Palestine until we lost it.” So says one of the characters in Yousry Nasrallah’s epic four-and-a-half hour adaptation of Elias Khoury’s novel Bab El Chams. Retracing the story of Palestinian resistance fighter Younes Ibrahim el-Assadi, from Galillee in 1943 through to the days of the Oslo Peace Accords, the film marks a formidable achievement in attempting to put on screen a definitive version of the ‘Palestinian story.’
Split into two parts, ‘The Departure’ and ‘The Return,’ Nasrallah cuts back and forth in time between scenes of Younes as a young man, first fighting the British in the hills of what was still Palestine, to the film’s ‘present’ as a middle-aged Younes lies comatose in bed in a refugee camp in Beirut, having suffered a stroke, and being tended to by Dr Khalil. It is the character of Khalil, himself in hiding from the PLO under suspicion of complicity in his lover’s shooting of another Palestinian man, who narrates Younes’s story. Revolutionaries, by definition, live in a world of myths and legends, and this comes out most strongly with Khalil’s wide-eyed remembrance of Younes’s feats as a young man. Bab El Chams is at its strongest in this first half, as we witness the Nakba of 1948. What comes out most of all is the pastoral nature of pre-Partition Palestinian life, a nation of farmers and peasants hopelessly unprepared for the battles that lay ahead.
The film graphically shows the Palestinians forcibly driven from their villages by the Jewish forces of the Palmah, their loudspeakers menacingly threatening: “We’ll kill your men. We’ll rape your women. This zone is now forbidden to Arabs.” Often attacking at night, their faces obscured by ghostly flashlights, the Jewish forces are portrayed as an unstoppable force of nature, bringing with them fire, destruction and violence. Nasrallah deliberately dehumanizes them. One scene shows a Palestinian man remonstrating with a Jewish soldier that they have an obligation to treat the civilians with respect and dignity. “Let’s reach an understanding now,” the old man pleads. The unseen soldier, back to camera and only pistol in view, responds by shooting the man in the head.
Nasrallah has, inevitably, faced accusations that his film’s depiction of the Jewish forces is anti-Semitic. In discussion with Bidoun, he dismissed this, claiming: “It’s understandable that some people are upset by some of the sections. But my answer to them would be that I didn’t want to make a film where it’s as if the Israelis are the Nazis and the Palestinians are the Jews. We can’t have peace unless there is acceptance and acknowledgment of what really happened.” Indeed, the filmmaker was keen to stress the critical representation of Arab regimes in the film’s second half: “If anything I want to liberate us from these Arab regimes who have expropriated the Palestinian cause as an excuse to oppress their own people.”
Indeed it would be unfair to say that it is only the Jewish forces who are portrayed as villains. Nasrallah makes a point of criticizing Arab regimes for having abandoned the Palestinian people. In one of the film’s most memorable moments, Lieutenant Mahdy of the Arab Rescue Army is begged by the Palestinian villagers to give them arms and support. “We have no orders,” he tells the beleaguered peasants. “Our leaders have sold us out.”
The clear shift in tone between the two parts is most evidently symbolized by Khalil’s assertion to the passive Younes: “Yours was a time of heroism. My times desperately lack it.” Nasrallah revels in portraying the heady initial days of 1948. In one stirring moment, the Palestinians, backed by Lieutenant Mahdy’s cannons, force back the retreating Jewish forces. Nahila, Younes’s wife, leads the charge, flag raised defiantly in one hand, baby held close to her breast in the other, a latter-day Marianne delivering her people. It is only a momentary triumph, though, a brief glimpse of what might have been, as the film soon shows us the desperate nature of the Palestinian predicament, hopelessly split between those who live a life of exile in the refugee camps of Lebanon and those that have chosen to remain.
Perhaps inevitably given its running time there are moments when the film lapses into didacticism, particularly in the second half. One exchange in particular falls flat between Khalil and the unlikely figure of Béatrice Dalle as a French actress researching a play on the Sabra and Chatila massacres. The film was originally commissioned by French TV channel ARTE, and episodes such as this betray its non-theatrical roots. Elsewhere, however, the viewer is left with an abiding sense of a nation lost and a people often defeated but never vanquished. “A young man will know many a refuge throughout his life,” Younes’s father tells Nahila as they are expelled from their village, “but only his first home will he miss.”
Bab El Chams (La Porte du Soleil), 2004. Dir. Yousry Nasrallah, Egypt/France, Arabic, 142 and 137 min.
Smoke billows from a blazing heap of wood and charcoal as a man cries out for more water, his wife and daughters frantically throwing endless mounds of sand to douse the flames. Passively looking on is his son, Shukri, who uses the opportunity to run to school rather than help. So begins Atash (Thirst), the feature film debut from Tawfik Abu-Wael that has already picked up the Fipresci Award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, as well as the Special Jury Prize at the 7th Biennale des Cinémas Arabes in Paris.
Set in Abu-Wael’s hometown of Um Al-Fahem (which means Mother of Charcoal in Arabic), the second largest Palestinian town within Israel’s pre-1967 borders, Atash focuses on a family cast adrift in a deserted outpost. Abu Shukri sells charcoal for a living, his wife, their son, and two daughters compelled endlessly to burn stolen wood. Obsessed with water he decides to build a pipeline directly to their house, despite protestations from his family. On the importance of water in the film, Abu-Wael commented, “Water is a power in our region. Whoever controls the water has the power.”
Added to this mix is a dark secret to do with the eldest daughter Gamila that is constantly alluded to but never explicitly revealed, a secret that has forced them to escape the derision of the neighbors. In this near primeval setting, where the unforgiving sun and aridness of the land is etched deeply in the mournful, embittered lines on Abu Shukri’s face, the director sets about unraveling his tale, imbued with an aura of tragedy that would put Sophocles in the shade.
The film is a devastating indictment of the patriarchal order of Arab society, the father’s hulking frame and piercing gaze dominating nearly every scene. At one point he tells his son, “Cursed is the man who trusts women.” Abu-Wael, however, avoids turning the figure of Abu Shukri into a simple villain. Instead we witness a broken man, unbearably burdened by regret and guilt. There is the implication throughout the film of an incestuous relationship between the father and Gamila, as he gazes at her endlessly, his eyes betraying a mix of desire, repulsion, and shame. It is a wonderfully subtle performance by Hussein Yassin Mahajne, considering that neither he nor the rest of the cast are professional actors. One particular scene is electrifying between the two characters, as Abu Shukri implores her to put on a new dress he has bought her in preparation for an imminent feast. “I’ll put it on when you’re my husband or lover,” she replies, an answer for which he slaps her. In a moment of defiance she undresses in front of him, leaving the bewildered man torn between staring at the floor and stealing one last forbidden glimpse of her naked body.
Commenting on the aesthetic style of his film, Abu-Wael told Bidoun, “I wanted to look at the conflict from my point of view, not with clichéd or typical imagery. I tried to find new images and new metaphors. This is my style, to use super 35, widescreen, also handheld footage. I like composition and creating the contrast between colors and lights.” Atash is undeniably beautiful, the harsh landscape providing ample opportunities for the director to show off visual flourishes that suggest a genuine cinematic talent. When the family first successfully install their pipeline, the gushing streams of water are lit in such a way as to take on a near celestial glow. Elsewhere, plumes of smoke and steam waft across the screen, the inescapable heat portentously alluding to the inevitably shattering climax.
The Palestinian–Israeli conflict takes a back seat for much of the film, although it lingers in the background, a shadow creeping into the edge of frame. This could be attributed to the fact that the film was financed entirely with Israeli money, although Abu-Wael defiantly noted, “It’s a Palestinian story. I don’t care from where I take the money. No one told me what to do. I’m a Palestinian who lives in Israel. I didn’t transfer to Israel. Israel transferred to me. They’re not doing me a favor giving me money to make the film.”
Ultimately this is a film about the politics of family relationships, the politics of one’s relationship with the land around one and the demons within, or, as Abu-Wael puts it, “the thirst for water, for sex, for love, for freedom, for Dostoevsky, for Shakespeare, for Tarkovsky. The thirst for life.”
Atash (Thirst), 2004. Dir. Tawfik Abu-Wael, Palestine/Israel, Arabic, 110 min.
Maarek Hob (Dans les Champs de Bataille/In the Battlefields) marks the feature film debut of Danielle Arbid. Telling the story of a besieged Christian family in East Beirut during the Lebanese civil war, the film centers on twelve-year-old Lina and her friendship with her free-spirited aunt’s maid, Siham. Coming from a documentary background, which includes On The Borders, a depiction of life on the border between Israel and Lebanon, Arbid’s cinematography is notable for its naturalistic style. Natural sunlight often refracts the growing distances between the characters in the film, and the frequent sex scenes are shot with a close-up, breathless intensity. The film was awarded the Grand Prix at this year’s Biennale des Cinémas Arabes in Paris. We caught up with Arbid at the Cannes Film Festival, where Maarek Hob — included in the Critics’ Week selection — had its debut.
Bidoun: How did the premise of the film materialize?
Danielle Arbid: The story was with me. It’s not just a story. It’s also feelings and emotions. There are autobiographical elements to the film. I don’t want to say what is true and what is fiction because it’s cinema. I’m not making a documentary about my life.
Bidoun: The film is set during the Lebanese civil war. How much did the war personally influence and affect your life?
DA: As all Lebanese who lived in Beirut during the war, or in Lebanon during the period 1975-90, we were touched by the civil war. We lived in it and we somehow accepted it as normal life. It lasted fifteen years, so everyone in Beirut who got married during the war, or had children during the war, will tell you that life continued. That is why it is very important to show the war not as an exotic thing, but just as one way of living life. When I was a kid I used to think this was normal, that the whole world lived in war. I didn’t know what peace was. We are human beings and we accept and adapt. Otherwise we will kill ourselves. So here the war also becomes a metaphor about the interior war between people that live in this family. This interior war is much more cruel and tough than the war outside. The war outside is waged against everybody. There’s a justice to it. The war inside is only waged against the girls. This is how I lived it.
Bidoun: The film is very focused on women. How much did you want to show the condition of women in Lebanon, particularly during this period?
DA: You’re right. But I’m not a feminist and I’m not political. I believe in the individual not in the group. I believe in the “I”, not in the “we”. I didn’t want to show only the women as cruel or tough but the whole of society. Everybody in the film is bad and good. I believe in this as a human being. There’s not white or black, we have both of those elements in us.
Bidoun: How difficult is it for you as a woman director to work in the Middle East? Have you encountered any specific problems or prejudices?
DA: On the contrary. Being a woman helps me a lot because you have the seduction thing and I use it a great deal. I love to be a woman and make films. Whether you are a woman or a man if you want to do what you want to do then you just have to do it, in the Arab world or outside.
Bidoun: How conscious were you of Ziad Doueiri’s West Beirut when making In the Battlefields?
DA: I was with Ziad when he chose the title of his film. I chose the title with him. We are friends. I love Ziad’s movie and I love Ghassan Salhab’s movie Terra Incognita. They are my friends. Ziad opened the door for us. He gave the Lebanese an image of themselves in the cinema. I was encouraged by his experience but my film is very different. He likes to make comic scenes but I don’t know how to do these. It’s not my interest. I’m into drama.
Bidoun: Did you set out to make East Beirut’s answer to West Beirut?
DA: No. If I were a Muslim then I would have focused on a Muslim family. But I don’t like it in Lebanon where you have to hide what you are because of religion. The women in my film wear crosses. The characters are called George, Antoinette, and Therese. It’s not like on television in Lebanon where everyone is called Samir and Leila. It’s just a reality. We don’t have to have a complex about who we are. It’s not West Beirut against East Beirut. We are not going to start a war between the two films. I love Ziad’s film.
Bidoun: The sex scenes are relatively graphic. Do you think there is a growing permissiveness towards what can be shown in Lebanon today?
DA: I don’t make films to show them only in the Arab world, or Lebanon. I live in France, and my film was financed by French, Belgian, and German companies. I feel the freedom to say what I want to say and film what I want to film. No one tells me what to film. I love to film sex. Really, I love filming bodies, the skin, and the movement of the skin. That’s why I take my camera up very close. It’s very sensual. I love to film sensual things. It’s not provocative. It’s just emotional.
Bidoun: The character of the little girl is quite complex. At first she seems to be sympathetic but at the end she betrays Siham. Were you trying to show the effects of the trauma of the war with her transformation?
DA: No — it wasn’t about the trauma of the war. That exact situation may happen during peacetime. It’s just the trauma of being left. Even now at our age when you become an adult you feel it’s unjust when somebody leaves you. Every time it happens again you still don’t accept this abandonment. I wanted to speak about the first time you are left as a child. Your world collapses. This emotion has nothing to do with war. Lina becomes an anti-hero. In a way she is Siham’s slave in the first part of the film. It might be a perverted way of thinking but I love the way that Siham becomes her slave in the second part. She prefers to die and kill Siham than to see her leave. We can kill someone we love, in a metaphorical way, rather than see them leave. This is the idea. It’s a passionate story.
Bidoun: You end with scenes from Beirut. How much did you want Beirut to be a character in the film?
DA: At the end we go out from the building and see the city but I hate it when you try and make it a character because this is what every director in Lebanon tries to do today. I think we need to speak about ourselves much more.
Bidoun: The film has a very naturalistic style. What influenced its aesthetic?
DA: I shoot instinctively. I don’t even storyboard my films. I just try to get as close to how I have dreamt the scene. I love films about teenagers, such as those with Larry Clark. I love the cruelty at this age. It’s very sexy. Also Fassbinder — he’s very cruel with society. I feel the same. I have said before that it was us who made this war. We took up arms, we killed each other, and in this film I say it’s the family. Look at how awful this family is. In the end, though, it’s a love story between me and the country and family. I love my family and they love me.
It is a hot summer evening in 1923 on Emad el-Din Street, in the city’s storied El-Ezbikiya district — the cornerstone of a Cairo long extinct. Former French prime minister Georges Clemenceau, recently retired from political life in the aftermath of the Treaty of Versailles and the First World War, is escorted into the el-Hambra, an iconic music hall where the city’s well-heeled (and less so) regularly gather to indulge in music and a drink. Inside the smoky hall stands a busty, coquettish woman, gazing out before a spellbound audience. Her presence overwhelms. The assembled are mesmerized by her aloof, tragic sound — nothing short of seductive. The song ends, applause, and more applause. The apparently smitten Clemenceau turns to his Egyptian host and asks if he may buy the woman before him a bottle of the best champagne in the house.
Though she may have been a head-turner in her time, few Cairenes today have heard of el-Hambra’s mystery woman — known then as Na’ima al-Misriyya. Generations later, her great-granddaughter, Egyptian-Canadian photographer Heba Farid, sits in a Cairo flat listening to one of the rare recordings left from that period, fiddling with a cigarette and discussing ambitious plans to create a platform to reintroduce the icon, who died in 1976. And it will begin here in Cairo, the city in which her great-grandmother built her reputation as one of the region’s most compelling, fiercely independent, and ultimately, unforgettable voices.
Na’ima al-Misriyya was born June 1, 1894 as Zeinab Mohammed Idris Sallam in el-Magharbillin, an area known today as Islamic Cairo. Her father was a wealthy, well-connected merchant of Moroccan origin, while her mother, the second of her father’s two wives, also hailed from a family of merchants in Upper Egypt’s Asiut. By the age of fifteen, Naima was married, and by sixteen had given birth to a daughter. Within a year, however, she had divorced her husband and left her child to move out on her own to the Cairo quarter known as Sayyida Zeinab. A family myth about that period tells of a Levantine neighbor known as el-Shamayyia overhearing the young mother crying and singing one day. So taken by her voice, the neighbor — herself a wedding performer (known then as an aalma) — encouraged and eventually trained her to sing. And so a career was launched. She would go to Aleppo for additional training in the period between 1911 and 1914.
Before long, al-Misriyya had made a name for herself with her singular voice, working alongside noted composers of her time, from Zakariya Ahmed and Mohammed el-Qasabgy to Sayyid Darwish. She performed in theaters and music halls from Beirut to Aleppo, Jaffa, and Baghdad. In addition to opening and single-handedly managing el-Hambra, she also performed in the Cairo district of Rod el-Farrag, at the music hall Alf Leyla wa Leyla (One Thousand and One Nights). A 1926 article in one of Egypt’s premier cultural and political magazines, Ruz el-Yusuf, proclaimed al-Misriyya one of the “most famous female singers” of her time. Listed along with Fatheyya Ahmad, Munira el-Mahdiyya, Tawhida, and the rising star named Umm Kulthumm, she was in good company. Her brand of music, referred to as taqtuqa, was not far removed from the pop of today — in effect a popular music that was accessible to all. By 1932, al-Misriyya’s voice was broadcast on the newly inaugurated Egyptian national radio. Some showered her with the title “queen of the phonograph” (maliket el-istiwanat).
As her career took shape, al-Misriyya married five times. By 1925, she had moved to the then-fashionable Cairo suburb of Chobra, where she lived with her daughter as well as her divorced sister and infant niece, Azziza, for many years. The Chobra home made for an epic setting, often serving as host to impromptu gatherings of musicians, composers, and friends.
In 1937, al-Misriyya’s life took a dramatic turn. The marriage of her daughter to a conservative, French-educated accountant proved fateful as he forbade her from singing, finding the life of an independent female performer immodest, even base. Most everything connected to her musical career was either given away or destroyed, from photographs to old recordings and performance bills. By the late 1930s, her name had ceased to appear in record company catalogues. And the rest, as it were, would become history as al-Misriyya spent the next four decades of her life largely in isolation, finally passing away in 1976 in her Heliopolis flat — never receiving the accolades that el-Mahdiya and, of course, Kulthumm, and other contemporaries were to receive.
Farid’s first memories of her great-grandmother are rooted in the image of a potent matriarchal figure. Her family’s emigration to Canada soon after her birth in Cairo meant that she would return to Egypt only periodically, every few years. Isolated pieces of her great-grandmother’s history accumulated in patchwork fashion — those, combined with regularly posted voice recordings from al-Misriyya recounting family events, musings, and sentimental nothings, created a complex picture. Her great-grandmother’s status as a performer, in the meantime, remained largely mysterious; bits and pieces would slip out in hushed fashion, particularly at times when Farid herself expressed a desire to pursue music as a hobby. The sole member of the family who could provide any substantive information about al-Misriyya’s life and career was her niece, Azziza. She, however, passed away two months ago. Thankfully Farid had recorded a number of conversations with her in the immediate months before her death.
Working full-time on the project since last year with backing from the European Union and Cairo’s Royal Netherlands Embassy, Farid’s efforts to reconstitute the lost story of her great-grandmother have exposed the tricky politics of archiving. In this field, entering the canon has never been easy. Needless to say, highlighting a popular musical style (taqtuqa) and, furthermore, the life and times of a stunningly contemporary, independent woman (al-Misriyya) was always likely to be a loaded proposition.
Indeed Farid’s initiative exposed a number of gaping holes in the state of conservation in the region at large. While there is a critical lack of resources devoted to music archiving, Farid and her team have encountered a number of difficulties in accessing existing archives, public and private alike. Everything from missing documentation to absence of organization has called attention to the need for investing in missing structures, from music archives to repositories for cultural magazines, newspapers, and photographs of the last century.
In the meantime, the scope of the project extends far beyond Egypt. At the moment, Farid has plans to send off researchers to Aleppo, Beirut, Jaffa, and Baghdad in hopes of collecting clues from former performance venues, as well as music lovers, both seasoned and amateur. In Baghdad, for example, a certain Hajj Abdelmuwain, who once ran the Umm Kulthumm Café (when central Rachid Street was a hopping cosmopolitan throughway), is known to be an aficionado of pre-Umm Kulthumm Egyptian music. People like Abdelmuwain may hold invaluable information, and seeking them out now is rendered all the more important because of their advanced age, as well as the current high level of instability in the region.
In addition to a book devoted to chronicling her great-grandmother’s life, Farid and her team are in the midst of producing a documentary film, as well as a music archive to be presented as a complete CD set. A limited number of fading 78 rpm recordings have been secured from music collectors, antiquarians, and the odd archive. Nevertheless, the most substantive collections remain locked away or inaccessible because of uncatalogued neglect, family squabbles, and impending court cases. This is Egypt, after all, where there is never a dearth of drama.
Out of the music archive initiative may come a musical resource center, which could ultimately safeguard the legacy of countless musical traditions for years to come. Renowned Sorbonne-based Arabist Frédéric La Grange has joined the project team and is providing invaluable help in this realm, while Grammy Award winner Harry Coster, who has recently restored rare Billie Holiday tracks, has also offered crucial advice in the realm of conservation.
And while today Emad el-Din Street may be far removed from the magic it was — lined with seedy beer bars, dilapidated cinemas, and over-mannequined clothing shops — crucial to Farid’s project is ensuring that we keep sight of what it once was. As an additional piece of the project, she and collaborators are constructing a map of the street, perhaps aptly referred to as Cairo’s version of Broadway, from the 1920s — a virtual exercise in urban archeology.
In the meantime, al-Misriyya’s musical legacy lives on, in veiled fashion. One day last week in an el-Ezbikiya café, her voice came cracking through the radio. Nobody in the café could identify the songstress, but near all within knew the words by heart. The song is Ta’ala ya shatter (Come on big boy) — recounting the tale of a young woman urging her lover to take her to the Barrages, a favorite hangout for lovers seeking discretion, asking him to bring “a bottle and have fun with her.” It seems that even today, al-Misriyya continues to defy popular notions of music history, the Arab world and, ultimately, women at large.
As Four are a New York–based design collective made up of four members — Adi, K.A.I., Gabi, and Angela. While they have gained a lot of attention for their innovative, otherworldly fashion experiments — fish-scale tops, pod dresses, balloon trousers, all-metallic lines and out-of-this-universe prints — they have also raised eyebrows as manic appearance-makers in the downtown art scene. All of them heavily accented — Adi is Israeli, K.A.I. is German, Gabi is Palestinian-born Lebanese-raised, and Angela is a Tajik-Russian — international cosmopolitanism was such a given they have perhaps had to look to other planets for their inspiration. The four insist that they do not deliberately extract influences from their cultural heritages, but nor do they shake their heads when critics point out striking Middle Eastern influences, as well as streaks of pan-Asian and ancient European aesthetic — they admit their own roots do exist in the micro-melting pot the foursome has constructed to provide one take on the notion of a truly universal vision.
They resist definition and description and yet their strong individual presences make it irresistible…
For instance, Adi is the glorious gooey center, the sunshine, the easy favorite. She’s the one grinning under her tightly wrapped red unicorn-shaped bun, never feeling any less artistic in giggles and hugs as she does working a sketchpad or thread. Something about her exudes whimsical, enthusiastic, idealistic, youthful power. You can’t imagine her toughening up.
K.A.I. is the flair, the positivity, the theater, the handshaker and presence-maker. He’s the devilishly beaming dervish with the mad lion swagger. He is what Optimism looks like all grown up and badass.
Gabi wouldn’t claim to be, but he’s arguably the top dog — the brooding philosopher, the iconoclastic visionary, the outspoken evangelist, the dashing hypnotist — who is about as diplomatic with his strategic in our opinion conversational tags as he is generous with cursing the state of a world not worthy of his vision. And he’s right.
Angela is the incarnation of the group’s enigmatic spirit and introverted soul all in one. She is dark, difficult, mysterious, stunning. She’s deeply latticed, knotted even — within her there’s a tangled web, a whirlwind history. It take five phone calls to the group’s studio to get hold of her — at one point she even answers the phone but passes it on. She’s ready only when she is ready. She comes around, but you can imagine the only thing that repulses her more than a recording device freezing her words is seeing them in inanimate print, instantly dead.
Midsummer evening. The As Four workday is adjourned prematurely as they are getting ready to make an appearance at the Brooklyn opening of the Big Apple’s very first Target department store. In New York, this is the type of anti-fashion event that creates considerable fashionista/hipsterati ripples — and so what couture cult could convey that sweet absurdity better than fashion renegades As Four…
Just one of the many evenings when As Four HQ stands without its ubiquitous nightlife-fixture agents. Their Chinatown loft, shrouded in the type of art-world mystique you’d imagine Warhol’s Factory once garnered, screams life, with its manic all-silver disco balls and nonstop music (K.A.I. warns that the fearless soundtrack will easily juxtapose Latin, house, Barbra Streisand, and heavy metal.). It’s true that the space has already undergone its most dramatic alteration — unlike the good old days when this was the quartet’s working as well as living quarters, the residents are now
As Two: Gabi and Angela, while K.A.I. and Adi have opted to live somewhere else close by. They shrug it off — nobody in As Four country has time to psychoanalyze, dramatize, freeze-frame this or anything else, it seems….
Because As Four do. In a few days, the group will be in Japan for an art exhibition in which they created a bag for Hello Kitty’s thirtieth birthday. Then there’s the homework: a new collection that they’ve just begun working on for September’s fashion show season. Not to mention they’ve nabbed an upcoming stint with Gabi’s former employer Kate Spade (Gabi leaves it at “we’re doing a line of clothing as accessories,” with K.A.I. only muddling further with “you know, items you don’t need a changing room for”).
Adi highlights everyone’s lukewarm appreciation of all their laurels — “it’s tough,” she says of the As Four livelihood, even now, three years since their runway debut. Even in the trust-fund fueled downtown art scene, even with their infamous circle bags on the arms of the Sex & the City girls, As Four has been kept all too real — they’ve been a self-financed operation since day one without an investor in the shadows. They are perhaps the design collective that most of the creative, progressive Lower Manhattan fringe will define as being emblematic of the city’s turbulent 9/11 era … and yet they’re still a way from being honored anywhere outside a neighborhood or two in the city.
The following are some questions we knew As Four would never answer and some that we were amazed they did:
Real name: “That’s usually just for passports and stuff like that — we’ve just decided it’s not the most important thing. Adi is an Israeli name for boys and girls.”
Age: “Well, I can give you my age … usually we don’t care about such things — we say that our combined age is over 100. But I was born in ‘74 so I am actually … twenty-nine! Usually I forget.”
Born and raised: Israel until the age of sixteen, then her family moved to Germany. “I never felt comfortable in Germany, so when I finished school, I just went with my feelings, and came to New York. I don’t know why — I had never been here before!”
What is As Four?: “Four people that like to be together and work together and create something beautiful together. We used to do everything together — now, we’ve changed a little bit but we still believe we want to be recognized in whatever we do together. The thing we do is fashion, of course — we do a lot of other things, but I think our strength is clothes. For example, the early shows were not typical runway shows — we created music and we had our friends performing. We show in galleries. We showed almost two year ago in Deitch and it was not necessarily clothes — it was what people call art!”
Aesthetic: “It’s not just fashion, it’s a lifestyle as well. How can I describe it? It’s hard for me to say in words…”
Progressive? Futuristic? “I don’t like the word futuristic! A lot of people like to pin that label on us because our studio space is all silver, but we didn’t really think about being futuristic — it just happened because we believe silver’s a good color that reflects everything. We don’t really believe in [futurism]! Timeless perhaps.”
Political?: “That we are from different places shows that you can be together. I’m from Israel and Gabi’s from Lebanon — we’re obviously Middle Eastern. Middle Eastern people can work and be together. But putting Arab prints on our clothes or making Arab-looking clothes or Jewish-looking clothes — it’s not about them, it’s more about us. I think the fact we are together is in a way political but it doesn’t necessarily have to show so obviously on the clothes.”
Inspiration: “Shapes and the body.”
Why fashion matters: “You can buy fashion but you can’t buy style. If you have it, you have it. It’s not really fashion for me. It’s more about your own personality and style. What we do — it’s style. It’s lifestyle, it’s culture.”
What are you wearing?: “Long pants with a lot of slits so I get some air. Because it’s so hot, I just wear a scarf as a top — I just wrap it around. And red sandals.”
Are you tired of being known for the circle bags?: “As long as they know it’s not the only thing that we do, then it’s fine. That’s how we got recognized.”
On home: “I went back to Israel last summer. Since I’m not living there, I freak out a little bit but actually it’s fine. Of course shit happens there. It’s bad but life goes on. You live with it. People live there. I don’t know anymore if I can live there, only since I am not used to the mentality anymore. I don’t know if I can take it … I consider New York my home.”
Real name: “My name is actually Kai.”
Age: “Together we come to more than 100. You know, it’s so important to people to be young and beautiful. I always answer my phone, ‘How are you — young, beautiful, and talented?’”
Born and raised: Germany, near Hamburg. Moved to New York nine years ago.
What is As Four?: “It is exactly what the words suggest. It’s one unity out of four individuals. Four equal parts of one thing.”
How did you find each other?: “It was somehow magical. We all have the same ideas most of the time. We tend to find the same things ugly, beautiful, boring.”
Aesthetic: “I like to call it a new kind of classic elegance. It’s important that we try not to redo something that already exists but create something that is eternally beautiful.”
Political?: “Probably. Everything in a context is political. But it’s not something that we like to stress. We all live in America, but we’re not Americans. We all come from different cultures. They always make a joke that a German, a Jew, a Russian, and an Arab are stuck in a room — what happens? And [we are] old enemies: German and Jew, once political, and now the Arab and Jew … But it’s hard to express what I believe in politically. I try to do it in the way I live my life and do my work.”
Why fashion matters: “It’s one of the things that really unified people in the past. That’s actually something we’ve lost — an individuality that used to be expressed through clothes and cultures. People might think something couture or avant-garde is crazy but in Germany people used to run around with huge pom-poms on their head. That is something that in daily life all over the world has disappeared, but fashion is about expressing yourself through clothing. And you can communicate — that’s one of the main things that’s important in the world, communication — and doing it through your own body with clothing!”
Inspirations: “It’s in everything. With us, it’s more natural — like an Arab silk print that we might buy in Paris, but everyone thinks is a Japanese kimono, you know? There’s something universal about our things. We did a whole golden collection and people thought it was A Thousand and One Nights but it had nothing to do with it.”
Are you tired of being known for the circle bags? “No, we love them actually! It’s kinda funny, but we don’t sell them that much. We didn’t show the bag for a few seasons, so I think it’s changed now. It’s a classic. Also, we wear it.”
What are you wearing?: “I’m wearing harem pants — pleated low pants — in gold lamé silk with orange and purple. My eye color is olive green and my silk shirt is in the same color. Flip-flops. And lots of golden bangles.”
Aren’t you ever tempted to wear something non-As Four — just everyday crap? “Yeah, but all our crap is so beautiful.”
Real Name: “No”
Born and raised: Palestinian, born and raised in Lebanon. Moved to Washington D.C. with family in 1986.
What is As Four?: “Fundamentally it’s an opinion that is filtered through four people. So the idea is that it’s four times better. If we don’t all like it, all four of us, it’s out the window. We have thousands of ideas — most of them are never realized. The ones that are good enough come through. That’s what makes it exciting. So our own personal ego has to eat itself up. It’s a lot of criticism and a lot of fights, but at the same time it’s mostly pretty smooth.”
How did you find each other?: “I think I’m very lucky — I never expected this to happen. I was doing my own line when I met the others. We started by taking pictures and styling. I was in fashion for a while on Seventh Avenue — I was with Donna Karan and Kate Spade and all that stuff — so I had the industry experience. They had other experience — the girls were doing styling for a while and K.A.I. was taking pictures. Being a designer was not as interesting to me as having a challenge from equal-minded people. I thought, wow, the product could be much better.”
Aesthetic: “Some [Middle Eastern influence] is there but it’s also Asian and northern European and Greek and Egyptian. We think it’s more universal what we do. It also applies in the future and in the past. We say it’s ageless and universal.”
Political? “Fashion is really political right now. It’s very conservative and not open-minded at all. The public is very limited in terms of what they dare to wear because of the political situation. The way the world is right now is not allowing anyone to have any fun. This is the dullest time for a century, I think. Since the collapse of the communist regimes, there’s been a monopoly of capitalism, and that’s based solely on money. Any regime that’s based on money has to be conservative.”
Why fashion matters: “I think fashion is still the most exciting field in the arts! In our opinion, art is very mediocre right now. There hasn’t been anything new in a long time. It’s become a business. Fashion is a business but you’re wearing wearable art — it has more function. In my opinion, art that you put on the wall is not really as exciting as art that you put on your body — it’s something that moves with you. There’s more action and entertainment in it. The people who are in fashion may be more bitchy than people in the art world, but that’s probably why they are more interesting.”
Inspiration: “People in general. People everywhere. We feel people.”
What are you wearing?: “I’m wearing hoof pants and a sequined shirt — all in white — and boots.”
Are you tired of being known for the circle bags? “Yeah! But it’s like a logo. It means something. It’s a shield.”
Can you wear non-As Four?: “No. But it’s not a conscious decision, it’s just that we can’t find anything that fits or looks better. We go still to second-hand shops, but if we find something we always have to alter it, because it’s not good enough the way it is.”
On the difficulty of getting Angela to be interviewed: “Well, let’s see, hold on… but she has to be in the mood to talk …”
Real name: “‘Ange’ is like my business or outside name. It says ‘Ange’ on the letterhead. It’s always weird when people on the street call me ‘Ange’. I am Angela.”
Age: “All together we are like … over 100, around 100 … does it matter?”
Born and raised: Born in Tajikistan, to a Russian mother and German father (although he was born and raised in Russia). Family moved to Germany when she was eight she spent next sixteen years there. “Which means I’m probably going to spend thirty-two years in America.”
What is As Four?: “We are one, but we all have our own little individual things. It used to be much more extreme — the four of us very closed in — but I guess we go through different periods. What makes us strong is the four individuals who create in the end. You cannot let go of yourself ever.”
Aesthetic: “I hope it’s always beautiful. It definitely opens your eyes and makes you curious. You cannot overlook it.”
Political?: “It’s already a very political statement that we are four people — it goes against human egomania. And of course, coming from different cultures and countries…”
Why fashion matters: “How can you justify it ever? I guess sometimes I wonder why I am doing this. But I have no other calling in me. We don’t even really call it fashion. We try to live our lives and try to express this urge inside that has to come out.”
Inspiration: “Here. Home sweet home. And the world that we live in. The people around us. The dreams that we have and the nightmares.”
What are you wearing: “Black tube top with black angular riding pants.”
Are you tired of being known for the circle bags? “Not really. It is part of us and it makes me happy when people recognize it.”
On looking East: “Tajikistan is in Central Asia, very close to the Middle East. And very close to a Middle Eastern feeling because of the Muslims. Very peaceful, I remember. It was very mixed — before everything crumbled down, it was different cultures living together. I believe it inspired me a lot. I was born blonde — I kinda changed that when I was fourteen — so I’m actually a very Russian blonde girl but my beauty ideal was always long dark black hair.”
Recently I was looking at the cover of Nico’s milestone LP Desertshore produced by John Cale. On the cover, Nico is riding a camel and there is a man walking behind her. She is looking very androgynous in what appears to be men’s desert attire: billowing trousers, boots, blousy top, and kifeyah. This is 1969. She is out on a musical limb and the cover betrays this isolation. The frozen moment seems lonely, just as the album’s music is harrowing and desperate. Images of the Western females portrayed in Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky come to mind. They, too, are dressed in men’s attire. Fate brings them to the desert where they are not in tune with the female ethic of the time and place. What is aesthetically interesting in this scenario is the hybrid created by the mix of early 1900s European military fashion, traditional Moorish attire, and Western liberated female fashion — foreign lands introducing different ways of dressing.
Since the 1950s in particular, fashion has been significantly influenced by non-Western cultures outside of the parochial geography that is haute-couture. At the mid-century, most high-fashion houses were based in Paris, but even then, designers were hunting for newer, more exotic influences to lend interest to their collections. In the 1960s, some of the most influential designers in the world, among them Yves Saint Laurent, focused their attention on the Middle East. Saint Laurent was particularly inspired by the sensual aspects of the region and the exploits of fellow members of the Western leisure class, who often came to the area to live and frolic. Another avid traveler of the time was Barbara Hutton (the infamous Woolworth heiress).
Some years ago, I had the fortune to work with the exhibition installation teams at Sotheby’s auction house in New York City. One of my jobs was installing Barbara Hutton’s scrapbooks and loose photos. A centerpiece of this collection was a scrapbook of an expedition to what appears to be Morocco. She is the only woman in almost every photograph, while she is continuously surrounded by (wink) Moroccan men. In a number of the images, she is being carried. What is interesting is what elements she has adopted from the native culture to mesh with her own identity. Although the images are in black and white, it is clear that Barbara is wearing color. She is wrapped in it. In startling contrast to the tendency back home in the United States, Barbara has embraced elements of the feminine Middle Eastern aesthetic, with kohled eyes and wrapped silks. Other Western women in the area preferred to blend into the desert landscape. They wore men’s desert attire straight off the silver screen of Lawrence of Arabia. However their attire is not an organic extension of their identity; it is a fashion statement and a surface reaction to an unknown culture. It is also potentially a reaction to the American sexual revolution. While these women can never fully share in the Middle Easterner’s experience — they can approach this experience with their own culture’s roles and customs.
Western cinema has also had a tremendous impact in spreading romantic images of the sands of North Africa and the Middle East, further inspiring fashion designers. Soon after talkies began, Marlene Dietrich would create a stir throughout the world with her portrayal of a bisexual cabaret singer performing in Morocco. The flawless ending of her walking off into the desert into the world of the North African unknown has left an indelible mark on cinema and fashion, while it is still referenced to this day. And as with every Other, Hollywood has repeatedly bastardized and caricatured the Middle Easterner. Images of harems, genies, and belly dancers have given the Middle Eastern female an exotic, mysterious, and often submissive identity in the Western world — some of the worst examples being TV’s I Dream of Jeannie and Elvis Presley’s Harem Scarum. As if Middle Eastern women were all about veils and finger cymbals and facilitating men’s sexual gratification.
There was an extremely long period (1960–mid-1980s) during which the Middle Eastern and North African cultures had a direct influence on high fashion and rock fashion. Along with YSL, Thea Porter, Norma Kamali, Perry Ellis, and Issey Miyake are among other blue-chip designers borrowing from Middle Eastern influences. The post-war era saw the beginning of routine international travel, suddenly making it possible to travel to distant places for a reasonable price and most importantly, with speed. The ocean liner era was grinding to a halt and ‘jetset’ joined the vernacular. With it came photographs, souvenirs, and tourist destinations. We could now experience far away lands ourselves.
In the 1960s, revolutionary designers Rudi Gernreich and Emilio Pucci would be influenced by the Sunset Strip, where an icon was in the midst of being born: the go-go dancer. Is this character a bastardized descendant of the Hollywood caricatures of the Middle Eastern women? I would argue yes. Is she also subverting the submissive stereotype with her brazen and empowered appearance? Yes, I think so, too. Is she a hybrid of Barbara Eden, some midriff, a cage, good drugs, a light show and psychedelic rock? Absolutely. As is often the case, the designers looked to an outside culture to help them in their struggles with the limitations of their own (American) culture. They harnessed the sensuality and power of the stereotype of the Middle Eastern woman to blow the lid off tight-lipped, repressed American gender roles.
From the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, designers like Kamali, Ellis, and Miyake did collections with harem pants, a look that lingerie company Frederick’s of Hollywood had already been milking for some fifteen odd years. These designers engaged with the Hollywood caricature of the Middle Eastern woman as well, but they took this stereotype and refashioned it into a sincere and unpatronizing vision of a way that women everywhere could dress. They demonstrated the power of fashion to consume influences and create something new and potentially universal. This approach created different kinds of problems with its capitalist consumption but it also perpetuated, at least on a visual level, intercultural dialogue.
As with all fashion statements, however, these outfits were about appearance and aspiration, not a literal translation. Were these fashionistas really heading to the souk? I doubt it. They were going uptown and downtown — out of limos and into the trendy club Pyramid in New York City and then on to the Oasis and lastly, Plato’s Retreat. They wore high-heeled boots or flats, permed or feathered hair, and a bandeau top. During the 80s the Sultans of Swing was a radio hit and in America the only Sands or Dunes were in Las Vegas and the Sheiks were a brand of condoms. Yet somehow, thousands of miles away, in dramatically different climates, the aesthetic of the Middle East still spoke to Western women. They were seduced by the colors, layering, and accessories, the heady blend of seduction and exoticism that was lacking in Western woman’s aesthetic norms. Cultural tourism? Of course. But at least it began a dialogue between many different cultures that had not existed. Sure, in these complex times, fashion is hardly suited to provide a blueprint for world peace or tolerance. But it is capable, in the most immediate and visceral of ways, of showing us that it is possible to share one another’s ideas and ideals of beauty. Why shouldn’t Galliano be up for a Nobel?
The Gallery at the Intersection for the Arts
June 16–July 31, 2004
Ala Ebtekar’s artwork is illuminating in more ways than one. Take for starters A Breath of Air, an antique Persian prayer manuscript Ebtekar elegantly illuminated with heavenly stylized clouds and hellish cartoon bombs. Ebtekar captures the instant before the missiles hit, giving us pause to consider where we place our faith: Is it true that in God we trust, or has our faith been led astray, like so many supposedly smart bombs? This delicate image raises a delicate question that reverberates with the force of a booming megabass throughout the gallery, into the streets, and across the longitudes and latitudes that link East and West. This is Ala Ebtekar’s particular talent: No matter where you stand as you look at his work, you’ll get the picture, and feel it too.
Ebtekar’s imagery is tantalizingly tough to place, because it belongs everywhere. Ebtekar was already a precocious graffiti artist of growing renown in Berkeley, California, where he was born and raised, when a trip to Tehran to visit his parents’ relatives broadened his artistic horizons. “I was studying under a miniature painter in Iran when I saw a coffee-house painting and said, ‘I want to try that style, with mustaches askew,’” he recalls. “The miniature painter said, ‘Nah, that’s coffeehouse painting.’ It’s not considered particularly refined. Coffeehouse painting was a reaction to miniature painting, much like hiphop was a reaction to disco: it’s the common culture’s comeback to a highbrow art form. The attitude of coffeehouse painting spoke to me it was more loose, expressive, and dynamic.”
The more time Ebtekar spent in Tehran coffeehouses admiring paintings, the more connections he recognized between Iranian coffeehouse culture and the four elements of hiphop: graffiti, DJing, MCing, and breakdancing. To Ebtekar, coffeehouse paintings sampled and retold legends as fluently as any DJ, using fluid lines that reminded him of graffiti. But he noticed other parallels between the two popular traditions, too: Breakdancers admired for their physical agility are a fixture on the hiphop scene, much as respected strongmen from the adjacent zurkhaneh, or gymnasiums, once were in coffeehouses across Tehran. After workouts, these local heroes would stop by for coffee, conversation, and poetry. “Traditionally coffeehouses featured a naghali, who recites poetry describing the stories in the paintings,” Ebtekar explains. “Naghali are almost like MCs in how they set the scene and act out characters.”
But while he is inspired by the Tehran coffeehouse scene, Ebtekar is troubled that much of its colorful vitality seems to be draining away. “There’s only one place you can hear naghali in Tehran, at Azari coffeehouse,” he says. “It’s also one of the only coffeehouses that still has photos of strongmen on the walls.” So when he was offered a solo show at San Francisco’s Intersection for the Arts, Ebtekar knew just what he wanted to do with the platform he’d been given: To turn the gallery space into a traditional coffeehouse interior that doubles as a hiphop hangout, where East could meet West and the next generation could pay respects to generations past. The result was Elemental, a coffeehouse interior with its traditional furnishings eerily whitewashed. But while the sardam platform seating, hookahs, and mythological paintings seem to be fading before our very eyes, a tenacious Persian floral motif appears to be taking root on turntables, across a linoleum breakdancing floor, and onto track suits and Adidas sneakers. Here Ebtekar seems to be throwing down a challenge to his audience to make traditional culture their own, and wear it with pride.
Pass the mic
Rather than staying within the lines of class and culture, Ebtekar creates provocative artwork with the graphic impact of graffiti, the delicacy of Persian miniatures, the storytelling of Iranian coffeehouse painting, and the social commentary of such painter-provocateur mentors as famed Mexican-American artist Enrique Chagoya. In works on paper and in Elemental, Ebtekar invites us in with his evocative imagery – and then gives us the floor to respond to the pressing questions it raises. “What I wanted to find out with Elemental is: Who’s going to fill those shoes with the fat paisley laces? What kind of music is going to come out of that Persian ornamented boombox?” he asks.
If this sounds like a dare from an MC to the next in line, maybe that’s because it is. At 26, Ebtekar is acutely aware that he lives in an American society swayed by its youth culture, and that Iran’s future will also be determined by the bulk of its population under 25. “It was wonderful to see older Iranians at the opening of Elemental, since many of them have nostalgia for coffeehouses and could explain them to their kids,” he says. “But those kids knew all about the wide-tipped markers and the linoleum dance floor, so they have an understanding to offer too.” With every connection Ebtekar draws across cultures and generations, he is widening the circle of cultural conversation. So look closely, and look sharp: Ala Ebtekar is keeping the mic warm for you.
June 3–September 19, 2004
Ever fond of the next big thing, globalization theorists today may describe the Mediterranean region as one characterized by a dense web of networks, its various nations interconnected through a bewildering array of economic, social, and cultural relationships. Of course, old-school historians would gently remind us that it has almost always been so. They may not use such newfangled language to describe historical encounters through travel, trade, war, colonization, proselytization, and migration. But surely they would agree that the intensity and frequency of those encounters is making something of a comeback these days.
And so MACRO has provided us with a show of forty-five artists and ten international curators from nearly twenty countries in and around the Mediterranean basin. Housed in a post-industrial facility, the museum succeeds at being both grungy and optimistic, somehow an ideal setting for a group show of plucky young artists from parts of the world long ignored by professional promoters of contemporary art. In an age in which culture brokers churn out trendy pan-Mediterranean themed restaurants with predictable versions of tapas, mezze and the like, an exhibition of this size and ambition could easily have ended up as an unholy alloy of provincialism and blandness. Instead, we have a confident show leavened with a sense of urgency and diversity. Indeed the curators were shrewd enough to give us the plural ‘Mediterraneans’ as the title of the show. The Mediterranean as geographical unit has a cultural ecology too varied to allow otherwise.
Within the MACRO line-up, audiences were thankfully spared that tired approach to representation that involves tinkering with national icon(s) to say something politically glib and artistically trite. It seems contemporary artists of the Mediterranean have a number of things on their mind and they are able to vent them in some unexpected ways. Like many of their comrades from other shores, video and photography are de rigueur. But where many big tent shows in more traditional art capitals can often feel cold, with empty celebrations of the culture industry, ‘Mediterraneans’ contains work quite willing to engage with geopolitics, history, sexuality, modernity, and other rather ambitious subjects—possibly because artists of the region are less inclined to use cinematic and other pop-cultural references. Take Sharif Waked’s video Chic Point
(2003), for example. Utilizing the idiom of the fashion show, the Nazareth-based artist constructs a nocturnal catwalk of haughty male models dolled up in shirts with cleverly designed holes, rips, and zippers—the perfect accessory for Palestinian males forced to expose their bodies for inspection at Israeli checkpoints.
Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige provide us with some of the more chilling images of the show, presenting damaged negatives born of a pyromaniac photographer, eventually printed to produce what they term “latent images.” Idyllic Beirut, once the so-called Paris of the Middle East, is suddenly on fire. Ironically titled Wonder Beirut (1997–2004), the glossy photographs of leisurely waterfront hotels and promenades are now marked by scars and burns.
Oddly enough, it is Hussein Chalayan, well known in the fashion world, who has produced the most searing and melancholic image in ‘Mediterraneans’: a cracked, eroded airplane standing guard on an abandoned tarmac at Nicosia airport. Though meant to illustrate the realities of a divided Cyprus, the defunct jetliner stands as an anti-monument to the social rifts and cultural stasis of the region. ‘Mediterraneans’ suggests that a brazen group of young artists are helping to change that perception.
Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) and the Bargehouse, London
June 7-13, 2004
The London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT) extended into the realm of the visual arts this past summer, showcasing a selection of Lebanese contemporary art works that spanned a breadth of mediums from performance to video in an ambitious exhibition entitled ‘Laughter.’
In its third year, Enquiry exists as a laboratory of sorts, exploring the potential for diversity within performance. This year, director Rose Fenton and co-director Lucy Neal chose to focus on art production from Lebanon, collaborating with curator Christine Tohme, who has managed to tie Beirut to the international arts scene through her association, Ashkal Alwan (the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts).
Importantly, the exhibiting artists’ works deal with the Lebanese civil war(s), both in direct and indirect fashion. The show comes at a time when Tohme notes the need to re-evaluate, and finally challenge prevailing perceptions of Lebanon — in the art world and beyond. Here, the notion of Laughter serves as an umbrella for the exhibition, likening the artists’ relationship to war and its aftermath (a debatable concept of finality) as a type of “ambiguous hysteria.” In this neighborhood, the past continues to infiltrate and inform the present.
Veteran videomaker Akram Zaatari’s piece Excavation (a thirty-minute video described by the artist as “a documentary piece on two channels”) maps the geography of fear that the residents of a remote house experience once they become aware that a piece of the past is buried in their garden. Zaatari also showed his latest work, This Day, a feature-length exploration of frontiers, geographical and metaphorical, through the use of photography and video. Zaatari’s point of departure was a series of old photographs from the desert plains of Syria. The impossibilities and ambiguities of representation embedded within those images extend themselves into his own relationship with the visual culture of Lebanon in and after the civil war.
Filmmaker-artists Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s approach was also a personal one. Their installation Lasting Images, an exploration of latency and loss, was built around the discovery of a seventeen-year-old, 8mm film of Joreige’s uncle Alfred Junior Kettaneh, who was kidnapped in 1985 during the war. The work was accompanied by an official text from the Lebanese government as to what constitutes a missing person. The inclusion of the latter was essential in avoiding a gushing sentimentality, while the project as a whole proved a stunning archaeological endeavor into histories present and hidden in nature.
But it was the Atlas Group’s sell-out lecture/performance My Neck is Thinner than a Hair, presented in collaboration with the Institute of International Visual Arts (inIVA), which was greeted with the greatest enthusiasm by both art critics and audiences alike. The quasi lecture/performance, headed by Atlas Group founder Walid Raad and developed with Lebanese artists and writers Tony Chakar and Bilal Khbeiz, was the result of a yearlong collaboration.
Installation and video artist Lamia Joreige’s video short Replay featured a woman who appeared to be running (or not), along with a man who kept falling as though dying (or not). Ambiguity abounded within this work as only a fine line distinguished dream from reality. In this case, Joreige’s defiance of any narrative structure seemed an extension of the ruptures so inextricably linked to war. Lina Saneh and Rabih Mroue’s fascination with the ambiguity of storytelling and the difficulty of gauging where fiction starts and stops inspired the hilarious one-woman show Biokhraphia, first screened as part of Ashkal Alwan’s Homeworks Forum in Beirut, 2002. The forty-five-minute play tackled issues of sexuality, censorship and beyond as constructions in and of themselves within contemporary Lebanon.
Mroue also presented Looking For a Missing Employee, a play in which he narrates his way visually through the case of a missing employee from Lebanon’s Ministry of Information. Although his innocent and sometimes humorous matter-of-fact narration affected neutrality, Mroue repeatedly manipulated audiences with his particular version of Truth. The latter performances in particular confirmed LIFT’s strong track record in promoting new theater forms, while the show as a whole existed as additional manifestation of a marked momentum — proof that Beirut is indeed in the midst of a novel, exciting arts movement
Arab Art Workshop
June 7, 2004
Post-9/11, art from the Arab world holds a privileged place on the agenda of countless cultural institutions. The Arab Art Workshop, organized by Mona Tayara-Deeley and the Zenith Foundation and held at the Barbican in London on June 7, was a chance to hear insiders-Lebanese curator Saleh Barakat, Iraqi artist Rashad Salim, and Lebanese-Canadian curator Jayce Salloum-as well as notable outsiders-Parachute’s Stephen Wright, curator Catherine David, and Els van der Plas from the Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development among them-explore the ramifications of such heightened visibility today.
Throughout, the old arguments remained: what is ‘Arab’?; what constitutes the ‘Middle East’?; does Catherine David have the ‘right’ to represent Middle Eastern artists via her ‘Contemporary Arab Representations’ project?; who claims what for whom? Some of the discussion suffered from curatorial sniping. But in the end, the art spoke for itself.
Importantly, the Zenith workshop took place during LIFT’s Laughter, an impressive programme of contemporary performance and visual arts from Lebanon. Both events seemed entirely separate, with little cross-over — by all accounts an opportunity lost.
They Shoot Horses
May 8–June 5, 2004
In March 2004, artist Phil Collins held auditions in Ramallah, and consequently filmed two separate groups of young people dancing throughout the course of a working day, without any breaks. The resulting video, They Shoot Horses — a two-screen, seven-hour installation depicting a disco dance marathon — was exhibited at the Kerlin Gallery, Ireland, two months later. The gallery described the work as being “about cultural translation and cultural imperialism; about the liberating nature of music, and the cabin fever mentality, generated by eight hours of repetitive action. It is at once concerned with survivalism and collapse; heroism and exploitation. For Collins the point of an artwork is to fall in love, and the point of love is to realize our place within the world.”
Currently based in Brighton, UK, Phil Collins has lived, worked, and exhibited his work in live performance, photography, video, and social activism in numerous locations, including Belfast, Belgrade, New York, and Baghdad. Bidoun asked Collins to keep a diary of his experiences in making They Shoot Horses in Ramallah.
“It all started I suppose with me writing to Jack Persekian. Now Jack is the director of the Al Ma’mal Foundation in Jerusalem. But still, I didn’t know whether he’d be interested in my idea — to organize, execute and film a disco dance marathon in Ramallah, which would afterwards be exhibited as a real-time video. In fact, I thought he’d hate it. Something so dumb and frivolous as this exploitative conceit, which spoke precisely about exhaustion, collapse, and heroism but in a palette of pop idol candy-pink colors. In Britain, when we think about Palestine, it never seems to be in reference to modernity, or culture — in fact it’s relentlessly positioned in the media as uncivilized, philistine. The disco dance marathon would be a way of looking at beauty under duress and entertainment in a place of routine indignities.
“Ten days later I’m standing with Iman Hammouri in the Popular Art Center over the road from the local mosque, and I’m holding auditions in which I play Beyoncé and Joy Division over and over. And the dancers, they’re heart-stoppingly beautiful, I mean they take your breath away — they’re kind of shy and awkward but when they rock, they really flip out. I choose nine, and I film two groups over successive days dancing to the same soundtrack, from northern soul to acid house, from Love Hangover to Xanadu, from ten in the morning until six without breaks. Or so I thought. I take the role of cheerleader, DJ, cameraman, bouncer. I’m like a one-man band but with more to do. Have you ever tried to dance for eight hours? It’s a killer. There’s a kind of madness, or cabin fever that slowly descends upon a group. It’s insane. In the course of the video they do aerobics to hi-NRG hits, they do folk dancing to Gina X. Someone starts dry-retching at Aretha Franklin. They belly dance to the Smiths. Later on some actually fall asleep to Fame. They’ve almost had it, stumbling about, bags under their eyes as Irene Cara rattles on in the background. It’s halfway through Bananarama in the second hour though when we hear the first call to prayer. Which punctuates the video as we turn the music off and wait until it’s appropriate to put Primal Scream or whatever it is back on.
“I’d also not counted on the power cuts. On the second day, the whole of Ramallah goes down. We’re left sat in a shuttered room with everybody telling me this is completely normal, and would I like a piece of fruit, except I’m getting back on the plane the next day and I know that half the dancers have to get through checkpoints that close at nine. Of course I did have the piece of fruit and also a silent nervous breakdown.
“The end of each day had me literally in tears. The dancers showed such fortitude, resilience, grace and, most importantly, had better, sharper moves than anyone I’d ever seen. I wanted everyone who saw it to literally fall in love with them, to admire their incredible perseverance, and to wonder why it should seem odd to us — in the West — if they knew the words to Donna and Althea’s Uptown Top Ranking or went crazy to the insistent harmonica of Groovin’ With Mr Bloe. It shows a dire failing in our understanding—it’s stranger surely that we’re uncertain what music young Palestinians would love, whether they do aerobics, go to bars on a Saturday night. The last track they dance to is Olivia Newton John’s superb, saccharine Xanadu. For me there really is a heroism to live in a place it’s impossible to leave, to be split from families, imprisoned by a Berlin wall, and maybe worst of all to be forgotten by a world who refuses to understand you.”
Susan Hefuna: Xcultural Codes
Bluecoat Arts Centre
May 29-July 17, 2004
In 2002 Susan Hefuna spent time in residence at Delfina Studios in London, a year in which she also exhibited in the capital. ‘Xcultural Codes’ run at Bluecoats Arts Centre, however, provided the first opportunity for UK audiences to see a substantial selection of work by this artist who seems to be constantly on the move. Born in 1962 into a mixed Muslim/Christian family, her father Egyptian, her mother German, Hefuna’s work reflects the sense of distance she feels both from Egypt where she grew up, and — significantly — from Germany, where she has spent much of her life and where she is based.
Whilst the experience of diaspora is one that is increasingly coming to signify, somewhat paradoxically, the idea of home at the start of the twenty-first century, Hefuna resists being pigeonholed as a ‘diasporic’ artist: “I think it is just normal that people are moving, moving all the time and mixing up. I am always on the move in the UK and US, in Europe. So my identity is a mixture of influences, which come from all over. I do not consider myself as anything.” Hefuna’s interest then lies in transcending labels, and in creating an art that is spiritual, timeless, open-ended, one that overcomes boundaries, categorization, and clichés.
To achieve this, however, she starts by visiting the very point from which those clichés emanate, interrogating codes and symbols already heavily invested with specific cultural associations, using images redolent of a time and a landscape scrutinized through an Imperial gaze. This is seen most clearly in her photographic series, which conjure up a distant world of colonial Egypt, scenes of everyday ordinariness made exotic by the presence of palm trees, a lone donkey tethered in the midday sun, or an intriguing doorway into some forbidden place. Elsewhere, Hefuna’s intricately patterned drawings suggest decoration from Middle Eastern or North African architecture, and her arcane sculptural objects seem to refer to Arabic antiquity. In these ways she constructs a fictive space, whose inauthenticity however is never far beneath the surface. Yet unlike cliché, in which meaning becomes devalued, reduced to perfect simplicity, this space is layered, ambiguous, open to multiple readings.
One could approach the same work in purely formal and aesthetic terms, from the same European modernist perspective that Hefuna’s fine-art training in Germany has equipped her with. But this interpretation alone ignores the cultural referents in Hefuna’s work, for example the significance of the mashrabiya (decorative wood carving used particularly in screens), with its position between private and public space, its metaphorical associations with veiling and voyeurism. Hefuna finds in the mashrabiya’s ability to operate in two directions the possibility for dialogue rather than closure, a template she uses for drawing in and engaging with her audience.
This is demonstrated in her photographic work, where there is an intangibility about the images that prompts questions from us rather than provides any immediate answers. These are photographs to ponder on, inviting the viewer to speculate on their production as much as on their content. Images of today’s Cairo appear grainy and rudimentary, as if created at a time when photography was in its infancy. Cityscapes are inexplicably printed in negative, whilst others taken of architectural detail on the streets of Cairo resemble the early darkroom experiments of Man Ray.
But nothing is as simple as it seems. Included among a set of picture postcards that Hefuna has produced, similar to ones that tourists send as greetings from Cairo, is one in which she sits in the lap of a sphinx statue, her serene inscrutability and arms outstretched in front of her mimicking the pose of her mythological host, as she watches the river flow. It is only on closer inspection that we realize it is the Thames she observes and the location is London’s Embankment, whose Cleopatra’s Needle obelisk is just out of shot. Hefuna’s impromptu intervention here is a small act of cultural reclamation, a simple yet effective gesture that decodes the monument’s symbolic presence right at the historical heart of Empire. The effect, as elsewhere in her work, is one of disorientation — literally, in the sense of Orientalism’s centuries-long indexing of the land to the east and south of the Mediterranean — as Hefuna steers us away from the certain paths that the West’s hegemonic compass has mapped out for the region.
The debt that European modernism, stretching back to Picasso and Matisse, owes to visual expressions from outside Europe has been well documented, if not fully embraced in official art histories. Islamic art in particular had a profound influence on artists in the West, demonstrating that the world could be pictured non-figuratively, and that patterning — up till then consigned to the category of mere decoration —offered possibilities for formal innovation (and indeed spiritual and philosophical signification). The coexistence in Hefuna’s practice of visual codes from both Islamic and Western conventions continues to interrogate this relationship, setting up an intriguing interplay.
The apparent simplicity of the lattice motifs in her drawings, for example, with their reference to the mashrabiya screen, belies the complexity of these graphic works. Gradually we notice flaws in the patterning, an irregularity to the lines, some of which discontinue and veer off course, and there is an imprecision to the joins. Far from either the rigorous mathematical order of classical Arabic pattern or the strict obsession of American contemporary artist Sol Lewitt’s grid drawings, Hefuna’s draftsmanship is intuitive, serving to loosen structural rigidity. Indeed this fluidity of line creates an impression of netting in these intimate works, rather than the solidity of the mashrabiya, which can — as Hefuna demonstrates in another series of digitally manipulated photographs — be dissolved through the effects of light and movement. Like net curtains, associated in an English context with the nosey neighbor forever lurking at the front window, keeping an eye on the comings and goings of the street, these lattices obscure what is behind them, sometimes a density of further patterned layers or else the shadow of an indistinct shape. We peer in, but are we too being observed?
9th Tehran International Photography Biennial
The Photography Biennial, held under the auspices of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, showed over 250 contributions both photojournalistic and artistic in temperament, a (surprising) number of which were well worth seeing. Farshid Azarang’s arrangement of old portraits of family members, for example, juxtaposed with images of TV screens, was a self-reflective commentary on history and the media that was intriguing and enigmatic, in a pleasant, Hassan Khan-ish sort of way. The work of Mohamad Ghazali, who won first prize with a graphic constellation of colored plaques propping up a series of forbidding architectural motifs and identical self-portraits, was similar in its shrewdly aestheticized, self-reflective appeal.
A number of participants combined their technical prowess with a wry sense of humor, as was the case with Maryam Kian’s unexpected graffiti compositions. Just as sardonic, photojournalist Hassan Sarbakhshian does without the routine corniness accompanying tragic topics (Bam), opting instead for blunt, vivid, mordant commentary. His portraits of politicians are equally known for being demystifying and tongue-in-cheek. The above work was refreshing in that it stood out against the homogenous nature of much of the show. For the number of photographs indulging in ‘misérabilisme,’ or in the poetic effects of ruins and rickety old windows, seashores and deserted streets, was simply staggering — bohemian melancholia and dreary black-and-white innuendos, oozing with deep, gripping significance.
The most politically outspoken genre in Iran is not photography, nor ‘cinéma d’auteur,’ nor the visual arts, but mainstream action flicks, comedies, and love dramas that regularly grapple with contemporary, sociopolitical issues. What would have done the Biennial a world of good, in other words, would have been not dissident heroics and other forms of political marketing, but instead a sense of history going beyond nostalgic sentiment. Many Tehran photographers see their anti-urban escapism as a form of savoir vivre. I further suspect that a prevalence of cumbersome form and style is due to Iran’s overbearing literary heritage: symbols over symbols; emblems over emblems; The Road, the Old Man, the Sea. To state the obvious, any metaphor or metonymy that would be clumsy enough in a Forough Farrokhzad stanza loses absolutely all potential as an image.
And this is why those photographs with the slightest trace of a post-literary stance do stand out. As a case in point, Arash Hanaei’s burnt doll is fantastic in its straightforward goriness — though its quasi-allegorical title, Democracy after Dictatorship, doesn’t do it any favors. By way of comparison, Jamshid Haatam shows the silhouette of a Barbie doll floating in front of a dreamy landscape of trees, arguably an astute, sarcastic comment on the pastoral fantasies dominating the Biennial — and sparking one’s curiosity as to artistic purpose more than any other photo.
Embedded within a triptych by Reza Sayed Paydari was a particularly absorbing series of snapshots of the Tehran subway. Amirhossein Shahbodaghlou’s picture of a subway in East Asia was interesting in that his other photograph on display was actually of the countrified variety (wobbly wooden shutters in black and white). The contrast of the latter with the saturated colors of a Tokyo subway — currently a worldwide pop culture evergreen — was mesmerizing in that it revealed unsuspected folkloric parallels between the two. Nevertheless, glitzy, plastic pop is arguably the lesser evil, even when it replicates the likes of Andreas Gursky and Martin Parr. It is worth mentioning that the first photographs ever to leave Iran, taken in the 1870s by Antoine Sevruguin, were largely examples of ahistorical Orientalism that included poverty-stricken old women, donkeys, and desolate countrysides. Emblematic indeed. If you do assume an ahistorical stance, copying and quoting and appropriating is all very well, but there must surely be other things on the global smorgasbord to choose from in this day and age? What’s the point in ripping off a tradition that has never gone beyond the postcard industry? In Tehran, you’re rarely more than twenty feet away from a pizzeria serving chiizberger in a setting of purple bathroom tiles, fake black marble and pink neon, with syrupy soft-rock in the background. Tehran is traffic jams, baroque furniture, brute concrete, postmodern facades, advertising billboards, and flamboyant teenagers in Daddy’s BMW convertible. But judging by the Biennial, you would be forgiven for assuming Iran looks like something out of a kitchen calendar at a UNICEF Christmas fair. Which, to put it mildly, is a bit of a shame.
As a matter of policy, the CIA publishes archival material only several decades après le fait. Thus it was in 1998 that we became witness to Madeleine Albright begging Iran for forgiveness, standing with her pearl necklace and drowsy demeanor, wondering if it was a mistake to topple a democratic government back in 1953, and replace it with an autocratic playboy bubblehead. Instead of calming anyone’s nerve, people reaching for their handkerchiefs to dab a tiny tear of patriotic gratification, the gesture, of course, only served to raise new questions. Why would a superpower even bother with a mea culpa? On whose behest, to what end, and, if they’re admitting to this, darling, imagine what the TRUTH must look like.
In most parts of the world, such knee-jerk suspicions are routine, since archives and institutionalized histories are widely seen as propaganda devices, or a shoddy ersatz for local microhistories that are too ephemeral to narrativize. But it seems that even in those prosperous, provincial environs we call the West, history is becoming a more complex affair than the Eurocentric teleology of “how we ended up the joyous pinnacle of civilization, happy as pigs in shit.” History, along with other officious narratives, is now widely consumed with the same deference as a soap opera or a fashion magazine. Yes, this is indeed a load of silly bolderdash, but I’ll take it with sophistication and irony, not like my next-door neighbor who is a coward and a fool. These days, everyone uses the mythical neighbor, the intellectual buffoon, to set themselves apart from. Which means that the very habit of casting oneself as a disillusioned minority is now mainstream.
This epistemological turn, away from historical factuality and other intellectual superstitions, did not go unmarked by local specificity. Among West Europeans, for example, it is often a case of annoying, happy-go-lucky relativism (“anything goes”), kept in check only by ritualized reminders of Auschwitz and Buchenwald (“history is not to be messed with”). Elsewhere, the disenchantment of historiography is not quite as celebratory, nor as puerile and oedipal in character. And if the lack-of-historical-factuality is a cliché in some places, in many others, the archive is still the object of heated cultural wars that are far from settled.
Etymologically, an archive was a government building, later to become a building housing government documents. So the archive was never some harmless librarian at the service of the volonté générale, but a locus of authority that answers to rules of its own, deciding on the passage from the realm of the profane to that of historical relevance according to criteria that have precious little to do with the outside, random slush of facts and figures.
One might assume that, in order to have an archive, one needs a people that supplies the material to be archived — photographs, rumors, legends, family trees, statistics, folk songs, bloodbaths and such and the more objective the archival processes, the truer the representation. Yet a people as such is not necessary for an archive to come into being, for it’s ultimately the outside that is the representation of the archive, and not vice versa. In point of fact, the standard procedure is to assemble an archive, then look around for a people to conjoin it with,2 the most famous examples being the Aryans and the Proletariat, but one might add the Swiss confederacy, Garveyism, the Middle East, Grecoroman civilization, and so on. Even wars are normally prompted by some willful historiographic misunderstanding or other, with one nation claiming that another pertains to it, “historically,” or actually destroying its archive — like the Israelis blowing up archives in Ramallah and elsewhere, saying, “actually, before we came along, there was nothing here but camel dung.”
Postmodern theories have done their part to dispel hopes of archival representations living up to accurate truth. Moreover, the avalanche of data now puts claims to exhaustive archival procedures to shame, with any issue from Naguib Mahfouz to Nation Building to Scottish kilts to pet psychology to downtown Tehran being subject to dozens — if not thousands — of videos, articles, essays, glossaries, blogs, surveys, cross-references and theoretical speculations per week. Even in terms of method, the multiplication of representational paradigms and theoretical debates has led to an overwhelming set of options to choose from. Which has led to a preoccupation not with objective representation or historical relevance in the usual sense of the term, but with marketing and an appropriate shelf life. As Appadurai puts it: too grand a set of historical questions, and you lose yourself in trivial generalizations — and are unlikely to find funding. Too myopic a framework, and the product sinks into the growing ocean of data.
“Historical research” is still largely a matter of ritualized signs and symbols that are indispensable, no matter how arbitrary they’re proven to be. Why do we agree that, say, Daniel Pipes, for all his intellectualized racism, did “research” on conspiracy theories in the Middle East, while Plato did not do research on tyranny. For one, the latter did not undergo the ritual deference toward the “prior citational world” of the archive. For another, Plato’s research was an openly declared moral project, with his personal and political intentions clearly stated — while Pipes lays claim to nothing other than archival research, tout court.
There are a number of methods aiming at the eradication of all personal ingenuities or political agendas in historical research: verifiability, replicability, falsifiability, transparency, and so on. In theory, these methods are at the disposition of hordes of career-hungry academics just waiting to prove their colleagues wrong. The fact that they’re rarely used only shows the ornamental essence of the scientific edifice, and the self-propelled dynamics of historical discourse.3
The advantage of an archive is the possibility of defining “old” and “new” — albeit according to rules and criteria pertaining to the archive itself. If in the media, the “new” is exoticized to be recognized as such, in an archive, it is that which best incarnates whatever has been overlooked by that archive so far, be it the Proletariat or Pop Culture. As an example for differing conceptions of the “new,” Boris Groys once mentioned Duchamp’s pissoir, which was interesting for art history in that it incarnated the banal and the profane, which was overlooked by the canon thus far. By contrast, in order to represent anything new on TV, the urinal would have to reach out and castrate the user, which is nothing new in the archival sense of the term, for it partakes in a psychoaesthetic folklore of Freudian bent, an old tradition of the extraordinary.
Which is not to say that within the archive, the criteria are sound and scientific. When it comes to the said “incarnation” of the new, it is hard to overestimate the psychosemantic importance of “mana”,4 to use the anthropological term, the surplus of signifieds soaked up by a single signifier, currently to be witnessed in buzzwords such as hybridity, globality, Pop Culture, Middle East and such, with an aura going far beyond their content, or even the immediate connotations of the term.
“New” material is rarely cause for controversy within the archive, even if it contradicts the material collected thus far. Tensions arise when it is the actual medium of comparison and narrativization that is called into question, be it the nature of writing and Grammatology, the issue of oral history, microvs. macro-history, phallocentric patterns of discourse and so on.
In view of the fact that archival material is not a sign of its historical surroundings, but of the rules and criteria that constitute the passage from the exterior into the archive, attention has shifted towards the very organization of the information deluge, the administrators, the curators of history who sift through the onslaught of material, endowing it with hierarchy and meaning.
According to Groys, this shift is crucial to the way history is consumed these days, reflecting a move towards the conspiracy as the dominant mode of historical knowledge. If history is no longer some chronological chain of transparent actions, but a result of impenetrable decision processes, then the historical event gains the aura of a sudden “clearing,” a deeper insight into backroom machinations, if only for a second, before a new conspiracy instinct causes the insight to cave in.
That said, in practice, little has changed. Even if we assume history to be a gentleman’s agreement, the museum a “fiction,” progress a “grand narrative,” the nation an “imagined community,” we have to concede that, in practice, this changes very little. 9/11, for instance, showed us the tenacity not only of conspiracy theories and the economics of suspicion, but also of historical explanations that are little more than old-school, cause-and-effect Orientalism (poverty + oppression + Islam = rise of terror). Very few analysts acknowledged the modern history of internationalist terrorism on behalf of overeducated, upper-class brats, from Bakunin to the German Red Army to leftist Iranian guerillas to Al Qaeda, attacking imperialism with a self-important ideological agenda that has little to do with outside realities.5
So commonalities overweigh between postmodern critics of the archive and their conservative counterparts. To state that historical arguments are constructed or contingent does not devalue them, but simply implies that all the counter-arguments are equally arbitrary. If all histories are merely the products of intellectual creature comforts, then so are Palestinian ones, and whoever blows up the Ramallah photo archives can rest assured. In other words, strategically speaking, if one hopes to get anything done, one must take the archive’s bedrock of reality at face value — the “Arab” in Arab Image Foundation, the “Woman” in women’s history. Obviously, this suspension of disbelief can be a strategic one.
If Groysian economics of suspicion run the risk of causing jaded perplexity and tristesse royale, an equally plausible outcome might be a historiography that celebrates — rather than plays down — the coarseness of our visual and discursive possibilities. Once radically biased appropriation and recontextualization is endorsed as a strategy, any boring, insignificant copy of a historical document, any disregarded testimonial can become an auratic ready-made, an “original” imbued with relevance and mana. A historiography of the kind is free to actually spread and encourage suspicion for its own ends. Examples from contemporary art range from the Atlas Group to German 1990s Kontextkunst to “postcolonial” practices (such as Wong Hoy Cheong). Others have construed tentative, speculative historical sourcebooks, contrasting various theories and styles of historiography, a prominent example being Walter Benjamin’s Passagenwerk, or OMA’s S, M, L, XL, or the SHAHRZAD collective’s History Begins.
A very different option is strategic essentialism, or calculated monoglossia, as in the historiography of Edward Said. I know there is much to bemoan regarding Said’s knight-in-shining-armor allure. But Orientalism has become a milestone no angloamerican study on the Middle East can afford to ignore — and the book needed precisely that chest-beating posture to get there. Said reduced the West to a bestiarium, implying that every European was a prisoner of Orientalist thought, that Orientalism was European in its very essence. He ignored the more subtle orientalists, along with most developments after 1798, German Orientalism as a whole, the entire branch of Orientalist philology and the Middle Eastern informants. Thanks to which his aggressive political agenda became an enormous contribution to a debate that was all too subdued.
This is arguably nothing new; both strategic monoglossia and the aforementioned heteroglottic variations have been pursued, time and again, by various postcontemporary spirits and such. It actually seems as if both strategies are quickly running out of sex appeal. Which is a shame, now that the economics of suspicion are finally gaining the upper hand, and seeing as we still have historical habits spawned over several centuries to soften up and reassess.
1 This essay is largely inspired by art & media theorist Boris Groys’s study Unter Verdacht : Eine Phänomenologie der Medien (Under Suspicion : A Phenomenology of the Media), Carl Hanser, München, 2000
2 Groys, Im Namen des Mediums, Kunst und Politik der Avantgarde , in : Die Topologie der Kunst, Carl Hanser, München & Wien, 2003, p. 223
3 Arjun Appadurai, Grassroots Globalization and the Research Imagination, in : Globalization, Duke University Press, 2001, pp. 11–14
4 cf. : Religion spielt hier überhaupt keine Rolle, Interview in Tageszeitung Berlin, 17.10.01
Mani, Nima and I grew up together in Dubai. They were my Iranian brothers from another mother, and I think we were in some kind of gang called the Persian Mafia, or the PMP, or something. Ten years later, Mani lives in Los Angeles and often speaks of 6 figure sums. Nima commands a hyper successful online company, clothing the young and hip in thug inspired threads. Mani likes to night dive with sharks and no flashlight. Nima likes to make fun of everything that moves and do headstands for fun. They both astound me, and I am honored to be their friend. Lisa
Top five reasons Indian movies are worth watching
People, if you haven’t yet watched an Indian movie you need to make this a life priority and get on with it. Take my word for it — nothing beats the insanity of the Indian filmic imagination. Growing up in Dubai fifteen years ago, there wasn’t much to watch on TV, so you learned to enjoy the only thing that television had to offer in abundance, and that was the good old Indian feature film. Ask anyone who has lived in Dubai forever and ask them what Thursday night is. They’ll tell you it’s Indian feature film night, that’s what.
The villains are almost always well-dressed megalomaniacs (reminiscent of Dr. Evil), wearing either white or black and typically missing at least one body part —usually an eye (eye patches make a villain look so much more evil) or a leg….
Nothing beats catching a few classic English words in the trademark Indian dialogue — treasured terms such as like ‘uncle’ and ‘jolly good’…
The heroes are indestructible. I mean you can shoot these guys and the bullets just ricochet right off them and end up hitting you. Often a family member has just been kidnapped (a daughter, a brother, a mother etc) and the hero is out to save them from the one-legged villain wearing an eye patch, who he’ll defeat by stabbing out his one good eye and beating him to death with the guy’s own prosthetic limb.
In all Indian movies the hero’s sidekick will die. It usually happens in a giant fight scene where hundreds of armed men attack the unarmed hero and his sidekick. A violent Braveheart-style battle will ensue, full of blood and extremely unrealistic sound effects. Once everyone has been torn limb from limb, the hero discovers that his friend has been struck down. After ‘Mighty Yell of Anguish-No.1’ he rushes over to his friend’s side. His friend is moments away from death and, just as he is about to die, he comes to his senses long enough to tell the guy to promise to take care of his mother, his father, his kids, uncle Joe, his blind cat, his pet midget … you get the idea … and then in mid-sentence he dies. The hero lets out ‘Mighty Yell of Anguish-No.2’ … zoom into the eyes … fade to black…
This last reason is my favorite of all. In the middle of all Indian movies you have the mighty love dance between the hero and his woman. These scenes start in a house or in the city, the hero begins to sing a few words, then the woman sings, and then suddenly they are both dancing in the middle of the forest teasing each other from behind trees and then the hero disappears for a second. Suddenly he jumps out from behind a tree blowing on a saxophone … it’s always a saxophone. Indian people —what is the deal with you and saxophones? Could anything be less Indian then a saxophone? Seriously… Then after playing a few notes he jumps out from behind another tree with a guitar and then another tree with an accordion, and this goes on and on. Where is this forest? Which forest in India is hiding an instrument behind every tree? Who thought of this? How was this a good idea?
Most annoying thing that Middle Eastern families will do
Iranian grandparents are masters of subtlety. You will be sitting in the room with them and of course they will want to make a comment about you. Say they don’t like your shirt, for instance. They won’t come out and say it. Nope. They will start a conversation with another like-minded person (an ally) in the room about you and your shirt, but it will all be done as if you were not there. “When we were young no one ever wore disrespectful clothes, no, people wore stuff that would bring respect to them and their family, not SHAME and DISGUST.”
In Farsi we have a saying for this insanity — it translates as “I told the chair so the door would hear.”
Top five worst things about going to school in Dubai fifteen years ago
Going to school in an old abandoned military camp is high on the list. There is a reason the military abandoned the damn thing … it was falling apart.
This is more of a general thing that I am sure still happens. You say, “I want to turn on the air conditioner” not “I want to open the air conditioner.” It’s “I want to turn off the a/c” not “I want to close it.”
The sandstorms … Yes, before the schools in Dubai had grass and flowers and walkways they had sand. Lots of sand. Endless valleys of sand that would be picked up by the wind and thrown into my eyes, ears, nose, food, shoes, pockets…
The number of times I was attacked by crazy bright orange and yellow wasps is ridiculous … these things are God damn merciless. I think the schools would have their hives set up around school as a sort of living fence … these damn things were so big and orange….
Inshallah is not an answer
Inshallah = if God is willing, if God wants.
Hey Abdullah, you want to go see a movie later?
Ok, so should I get tickets? Will you come?
Inshallah, I will
Well do you think God is leaning more towards you coming or not?
Inshallah, we will see
Well could you let me know so I can make other plans if you don’t want to come?
Inshallah, I will
Top five reasons Indian movies are worth watching
*Most annoying thing that Middle Eastern families will do *
Feed You Constantly: Middle Eastern families don’t seem to get the concept of “I’m full.” You’ll be sitting in your grandparents’ house telling a story and you can see their eyes glazing over and you know they’re not even listening anymore. Then when you deliver the climactic punch line, they’ll respond with “Have some fruit.”
They Ask You What’s Happening in the Movie: “So what’s happening now?” “So what happened while you were explaining the last part to me?”
Ask What Grade You’re In: it never fails, man. Every time I see a family member, they still ask me what grade I’m in, like it’s a great conversational ice-breaker. “I don’t go to school anymore grandma, I died last year, remember?”
Tell That Story About The Time When You Were a Kid And Showed Everyone Your Private Parts To Prove You Weren’t A Girl: this never happened, I just made it up. Honest. Shut up, I’m not a girl!
Make You Show Off Your Talents At Dinner Parties: even if you have no skills at all, your parents will hype you up in front of their friends and make you do things. “C’mon Nima, show us that thing you do with your elbow!”
Top five worst things about going to school in Dubai fifteen years ago
The school was covered in sand and rocks. Not only did this mean that your new Air Jordans got messed up on day one, but it also meant that if there was a schoolyard fight, you could expect rocks to be thrown. Ouch.
The PE teachers made up sports activities to keep us busy. The games never had official names, but two of my favorites were ‘Run Around the Desert Until You’re Tired’ and ‘Wrestle the Fat Girl.’
The air conditioner in the class never really worked, no matter how many times you “onned it” or “offed it.”
The one ‘canteen’/food shack run by the legendary ‘Ramo’ only had zaatar bread and ‘Capri-Sonne’. When class let out so many kids would bum-rush the shack yelling “Ramo, Zaatar!” that there were some serious melees and disturbances of the peace, and kids ended up looking like they were at an English soccer match. One of Mani’s friends had an anxiety attack at thirteen waiting for a zaatar bread.
Semi-permissible physical punishment. We weren’t really crystal clear on whether or not teachers were allowed to hit kids, but it sure happened once in a while. All the other kids would kind of curiously look at each other like “Is this cool?,” then we’d just shrug our shoulders because hey, it wasn’t us.
Five best things about having Mani as a brother
We had white boy, crime-fighting alter egos when we were kids. He was Mark, I was Johnny Boy. All ladies were ours. (No they weren’t, we never really made it out of our bedroom.)
I got to talk to older girls from his grade who thought I was the kindlier, gentler Mani. After I’d talk to them for a while, then I’d …. well, then I’d walk away actually. Seriously, I’m no Casanova.
We would make home movie versions of “Believe or Not”, except ours was called “Believe it or You Don’t”, because I thought the grammar sounded better that way. On one episode we rolled down a short grassy hill in the park while my dad videotaped us.
He’s easy to find in movie theaters—just listen for the girly scream-cackle.
I’m a lot less hairy by comparison. I mean in general if I took my shirt off, people would say, “Put your shirt back on, you’re scaring the kids.” But if Mani was around, I’d look like a twelve-year-old girl. (For the record, I have no idea what that looks like).
Five worst things about getting older
Developing the instinct to pat my belly when I’m tired, hungry, or confused.
Having shoulder hair.
Realizing your mother was right about how you’ll never get any girls if you keep acting that way.
Less time until you die.
It’s no longer OK to have a crush on either Mary-Kate or Ashley.
Between the two Persian restaurants in New York, one is only worse than the other. Sometimes the sole option is to take matters into one’s own hands. Tired of missing my mother’s incomparable cooking, and often being disappointed at various friends’ houses, I made my favorite dishes from memory, sometimes having to place a frantic phone call to Dubai to ask why mine doesn’t exactly look like hers.
In this issue we turn the camera on ourselves, and offer three easy Iranian dishes that will certainly impress your sweet friends, if nothing else.
Must-o-Esfinage(Yogurt and Spinach)
2 onions, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
10 oz spinach, roughly chopped
16 oz yogurt
3tbs extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Fry onions and garlic in olive oil over medium heat, until golden brown. Add spinach and cook for two minutes.
Cool spinach mixture in the refrigerator 1–2 hours.
Season yogurt with salt and pepper, mixing with a fork until smooth. Add spinach to yogurt, mixing well, and serve.
3 onions, thinly sliced
1 chicken, cut in parts
3 cups walnuts, finely chopped
2 cups pomegranate syrup
Salt and pepper
Heat large saucepan with olive oil with medium heat. Add thinly sliced onions to the pan, and fry until all are translucent.
Add 3 large glasses hot water and chicken parts.
Bring to boil and cover for 30 minutes, adding water if necessary.
Mix pomegranate syrup with finely chopped walnuts. If pomegranate syrup is sweet, you do not need to add sugar. Fesenjoon is quite sweet. Some brands of syrup are sour, so sweeten according to taste.
Stir mixture well, and then add to chicken. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Lower heat and simmer for 2 hours, until sauce has reduced completely to a thick, rich stew.
Serve over Persian rice, or just over the tadiq (the crispy rice, on the bottom of the pot).
Almost Mashti Ice Cream
1 pint vanilla ice cream
1 generous tbs rose water
6 tbs heavy cream
pinch of saffron for color
Freeze cream in ice tray for at least an hour.
Soften ice cream by taking out of the freezer and letting it sit in the refrigerator.
Chop frozen cream squares into small chunks.
Add cream chunks, saffron, and rose water to ice cream, stirring quickly to avoid the cream melting.
Bethlehem TV, third floor. A destination only reached after crossing checkpoints and changing means of transport several times — the everyday reality of getting around in Palestine. There are no direct routes from A to B. Bethlehem: headquarters of a local TV station that has already made a name for itself. Bethlehem TV is the only private Palestinian TV channel (out of twenty-nine) broadcasting a translated version of the Israeli eight o’clock news, daily. The producer and driving force behind the program is forty-year-old Nasser Laham. When I arrive, he is on the phone, though he beckons me in. I catch bits of the conversation. Laham is involved in a lengthy discussion on the recent European Court of Justice decision, how psychologically crucial the ruling is for the Palestinians, what impact a judgment in their favor will have, and how the psychological effect is comparable to the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon.
Laham laughs as he puts down the handset. An Israeli officer had been on the other end of the line. His chief editor glances into the room, looking worried. Laham appears to be playing with fire. Shortly afterwards, he receives an official request to appear in the main army headquarters to discuss the issue in more detail. But he won’t be going — the limits are clearly fixed. The provocation has had its effect.
Nasser Laham can allow himself such bold actions — there are few who can claim to have gained the respect of so many different sides. During our interview he shows me awards he’s received in recognition of his work from across the political spectrum, from the Journalist Association, from a kindergarten, from the Christian community in Bethlehem. Nasser Laham is a Muslim, lives in a refugee camp, was a former communist and activist during the first Intifada, and spent six years in an Israeli jail: perhaps a classic Palestinian biography.
Before his arrest, Laham studied psychology and philosophy; since his release, he has been working as a journalist and translator. “It happened by chance. They needed a translator in the office. People got to know that I could translate from Hebrew into Arabic and came with the Hebrew newspaper to get to know what the Israelis were up to. More and more people came and asked me to continue. I saw that there was a need — and I stayed.”
Laham’s program is watched by thousands of people every day, and his name is known far beyond Bethlehem itself. As Hani, a taxi driver in Jerusalem says: “It’s very important to know what the Israelis think about us. There is much too little exchanged. We don’t know them, they don’t know us.” Nasser Laham belongs to that group of people who do not allow themselves to serve an ideology; they have learnt the dangers ideologies harbor. Instead, he works tirelessly to enable his fellow humans to gain access to information, letting them exercise their rights as responsible adult citizens. A democratization machine? Far from it. He always acts independently and is miles away from making the running for one particular cause. “As soon as someone tries to interfere, sponsor, or influence my work — I’m off!” Laham believes in information and the freedom to shape one’s own opinions — a belief he applies to journalists too. Laham has been translating the news programs since the beginning of the second Intifada: “Translation is a kind of civilized way to think about the future. If you want to accept the other, if you can translate their culture, their art, their social life, maybe you no longer have any reason to occupy them. I’m giving my people this, just by giving them access to the data, the information.”
Laham’s translations, however, are not universally applauded. In certain Arab circles the use of Hebrew is still seen as a problem. Across large parts of the neighboring Arab states Hebrew is taboo, since the language itself is considered synonymous with war and misery — a language where the sound of occupation still resonates in the melodies of the sentences. But as a Palestinian, one has a more direct confrontation with Hebrew, and one that is far more necessary — a view not always shared by others. “I know about the accusation. But people should not forget that I learned Hebrew in prison. They have no right to criticize us like that. And honestly I do not have any problem with the Hebrew language — because I do not judge a language by politics. Honestly, I like the Hebrew language, its poems, its rhythm. I believe in equality and difference, and I don’t feel any conflict. It’s easy.”
Laham sees his work as serving enlightenment — a loaded word, though one that nonetheless in this political instance seems to have retained its original meaning, being located at a crisis point of ignorance and blindness when concerned with “other people.” “The Israeli–Palestinian struggle is simply based on a misunderstanding, the Israelis’ misconception that someone promised them they’d find the safest place on earth here. And suddenly they had to discover this isn’t true at all. Someone misled them, but they try very hard to prove the opposite. But the truth is something else. It is the same with the Palestinians. The Palestinians have been cheated by the Arabs. They told them okay…come on, we’ll fight, so keep the keys and we’ll give you the promised land. So, in the end, we’re talking about a big misunderstanding.”
After two years of broadcasting, news of the program’s success had spread, even reaching Israeli TV producers. Six months ago, Channel 10 started broadcasting a fifteen-minute news program translating the Arab news into Hebrew. Is this a first victory in the battle to overcome the presentation of stereotypes? “The Israeli people don’t know any details about the Palestinians, apart from the information coming from the Shin Bet and the army. This program is the first one of its kind since 1948. But in contrast to our program, they choose the news they translate. If you select your news, you miss the chance to break stereotypes.” A fact proving there is still a long way to travel down the road to objective reporting. The political situation continues to influence everyday work and it takes considerable effort to resist its undertow. “We journalists can just try to be the antibiotic for this situation — but if it’s cancer, I give up. An antibiotic is only good against flu or something like that.”
But Laham does not just see himself as a journalist providing a supply of antibiotics. He has also published his first book, the landmark work The Only Truth about Yassir Arafat. This book, decorated by a portrait of Arafat, can be read as a statement, a joke, or a really ingenious idea because when you open the book, there is no text at all, just a mass of empty pages. Not one single page has anything printed on it. Laham invites his readers to write down their own history of Arafat — an idea born from noticing that not a single book on Arafat was available throughout the territories. During a visit to Germany, Laham had come across a book consisting of nothing but empty pages. “They told me that the author had decided to produce an empty book to criticize the government or those who didn’t allow him to publish anything. I liked this idea very much and tried to find a way to do something like this here, but I couldn’t find any funds.” In the end, he paid for the first edition of 9000 copies himself and distributed them across the country.
“In the beginning everyone was shocked because they expect you to criticize, or at least to be against, the system. But let’s suppose we want to say something, but we can’t. So we keep silent. Silence is another way of showing your anger. Silence is art. Love is art. But hate is not art. I believe that silence is also another form of translation — a very powerful one. And it is an international language. There is no need to translate. Sometimes I get tired of translating and mediating — and I am suffering. The silence gives everyone a chance to understand what I have to say — without any need for translation.”
Laham seems to be swimming against the stream — at least, that’s what it looks like at first glance. But would that alone have made his program into such a success? Doesn’t his work show the need there is for more information? One should refrain from making the mistake of seeing his work as serving some kind of exchange between Israelis and Palestinians, something Europe likes to support and promote so much, yet so often remains merely on the surface. This is not mere photogenic hand-holding or forced “understanding of each other.” Rather, it is about using direct information as a chance to let people get their own idea of what is happening, and make their own decisions — like opening a window. A simple step, yet a very courageous one. “Sometimes it’s quite difficult for me. Let me give you an example,“ he says, laughing. “When you put one normal guy in a room with nine crazy people, who will be the crazy one in the end? The normal guy — so you know how I feel.”