We decided to try something different this issue, a theme that wasn’t really a theme the way GLORY or ENVY or TRAVEL are themes. Our rubric this time is OBJECTS. By which we mean to imply neither a rigorous art-historical treatment of the modernist object, nor a phenomenological account of stuff, nor some psychological treatment of desire and its target. We thought of it as a quest, or rather a question — what are the Bidounest things in the world? We asked friends old and new to play along with us, imagine just such an object, and then tell us a story about it.
And lo, the stories they told: monuments and memento mori; iconic props of iconic people; trusty or beloved cars, buses, blankets, drums. Dictators are slightly overrepresented (but then, nobody loves a prop like a dictator). Some of them are light or whimsical. Some of them are tough to read. (At least one of them was tough to write, take my word for it.) Some are weirdly moving. A few of them are fictional. But all of them, we think, are slightly fantastic, and in any case we hope you enjoy them. The middle pages of the magazine are a veritable Treasury of Bidounish Wonders, a visual catalogue produced by creative director Babak Radboy, armed only with vinyl, corkboard, and a handful of items from obscure mail-order catalogues.
There are a lot of new things in this issue, as well. It’s a thick one, the biggest yet. A new column opens up the quasi-hermetic world of the private collector and her prized possessions, inaugurated this issue by Madelon Vriesendorp. A new department, the gallery, presents a selection of images that intersect the theme in one fashion or another. And a pair of inserts showcase extravagant object-oriented imagery. In Children’s Museum, an artist’s project by Vadim Fishkin, the curatorial instincts of ten-years-old-and-under kids are unleashed. The other presents the terrifyingly desiccated exhibitions of Cairo’s Agriculture Museum, a space straight out of Borges or Sebald or maybe even Mahfouz, whose white linen suit itself makes for a powerfully telling object, as you may learn on page 86.
May 29-July 30, 2008
Laleh Khorramian opens her spring show at Salon 94 Freemans with a new stopmotion animation work. Figures fashioned from dried orange peels engage in erotic, occasionally comic interactions. Caught somewhere between breathing and decaying, the oranges are an allegory for human existence — love, loss — and its impermanence. Calling out to the passerby voyeur, Khorramian will have a window built in the gallery’s new Lower East Side space, which will show remnants, including sculpture and drawing, from the video’s production. Here is a thoughtful work from the New York–based artist and a departure from her phantasmagoric canvases, which are often meditations on the medium of painting itself. This latest project is at once universal and compellingly personal.
Home Works Forum IV: A Forum On Cultural Practices
April 12-19, 2008
Beirut’s Home Works Forum launches its fourth installment this spring. Organized by Ashkal Alwan, the forum is a formidable multidisciplinary event that brings together artists, writers, and intellectuals for seven days of lectures, panel discussions, screenings, debates, and exhibits in venues throughout Beirut. This fourth edition takes as its “thematic axes” disaster, catastrophe, and the recomposition of desire. Highlights include a film series on sex curated by Akram Zaatari; visual works by Emily Jacir, Khalil Rabah, Lina Saneh, Ziad Antar, Zeina Maasri, and Kamal al Jafari; and presentations by Bernard Khoury (on catastrophic spaces) and Tony Chakar (on the reconstruction of the Beirut suburbs). Other participants include Michael Rakowitz, Bahman Jalali, Rana Javadi, Leila Shahid, and Elias Sanbar. Najwan Darwish will deliver a presentation on Israeli sexual identity in Arab eyes, and a panel on suicide bombing will bring together Wissam Saadeh, Hazem Saghiyeh, Bachar Haydar, Houssam Itani, and Hasem El Amin. Finally, Jérôme Bel and Faleh Abdul Jabbar will converse with Iyad Jamal Al-Din on religious symbolism in the Iraq conflict.
5th Berlin Biennial for Contemporary Art
April 5–June 15, 2008
Curated by Adam Szymczyk and Elen Filipovic, ‘When things cast no shadow’ is said to be structured as five movements without a plot. During the day, new works — including over fifty commissioned especially for Berlin — will be on view at three main venues, each of historical significance to this most historically fraught of cities. Major installations don’t shy away from engaging, playfully and provocatively, with the stubborn past.
At Mies van der Rohe’s high-modernist Neue Nationalgalerie, Gabriel Kuri offers a participatory sculpture that reorders the building’s service operations; on the terrace of the same museum, Cyprien Gaillard installs an unpretentious public sculpture from a Paris housing project next to masterpieces by Henry Moore and Alexander Calder. The KW Institute for Contemporary Art, located in a decommissioned margarine factory, hosts similarly confrontational new work, including a meditation on state power by Ahmet Ögüt. The third venue speaks for itself: Skulpturenpark Berlin zentrum, an urban void on a site once occupied by the Berlin Wall. Come dusk, the exhibition continues throughout Berlin, with sixtythree diverse nighttime events planned over the course of the biennial.
The last Berlin biennial, ‘Of Mice and Men,’ was a copiously praised affair. Conceived by the renegade curatorial triumvirate of Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Giani, and Ali Subotnick, 2006’s event took place along East Berlin’s storied Auguststrasse, occupying spaces ranging from private apartments to a mirrored ballroom to a former Jewish school for girls. That show was equal parts smart, evocative, and moving; it went a long way toward cementing Berlin’s place among more established art cities (and biennials). Needless to say, Szymczyk and Filipovic have formidable shoes to fill.
Les Inquièts: Five Artists Under the Pressure of War
Centre Georges Pompidou
February 13–May 19, 2008
Borrowing its title from the Polish Israeli Leo Lipski’s novel about artists on the eve of World War II, this exhibition explores the fragility of cultural production through five contemporary Middle Eastern artists. Yael Bartana presents her 2004 work Low Relief, a four-channel video projection installed to resemble an architectural but mobile frieze of men marching in military formation. Omer Fast’s Casting (2007) considers the perspective of a viewer faced with war as televised spectacle. Rabih Mroué shows his video work Three Posters (2000), in which he ponders the possibility of representing a martyr’s suicide death. Ahlam Shibli presents a photographic series shot at the village of Al-Shibli. And Akram Zaatari offers a new film that consists of a single long shot of a Lebanese resistance fighter slowly and meticulously retrieving, cleaning, and finally donning his military uniform. The show’s guiding presumptions may be loaded, or dangerously vague — must the equation always be Middle East equals War? — but the work included resists pat conclusions.
Art Now in Lebanon
Darat al Funun
March 4–May 29, 2008
Gallerist Andrée Sfeir-Semler presents ‘Art Now in Lebanon,’ which features shows by fourteen artists, a month of short films, sundry talks (including one by Bidoun contributor Kaelen WilsonGoldie on critical practice in contemporary Beirut), a performance of Make Me Stop Smoking by Rabih Mroué, and a lecture by Jalal Toufic titled “The Withdrawal of Tradition Past a Surpassing Disaster.” The scope is indeed as wide as it sounds; the exhibition culls from the portfolios of Akram zaatari, Toufic, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Marwan Rechmaoui, Mazen Kerbaj, Paola Yacoub, Mroué, Rayanne Tabet, Randa Mirza, Walid Raad, Walid Sadek, and Ziad Antar.
The Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum
March 1–May 11, 2008
Curated by Regine Basha, Berlin-based Setareh Shahbazi’s exhibition ‘Why Not Bazar’ examines intersections and collisions between assorted locations of culture and their respective traditions. Shahbazi works with and through images gathered from her daily life. Materials culled from magazines, newspapers, postcards, billboards, and advertisements, as well as some pictures taken by the artist on location, create the basis for these twoand three-dimensional collages. Shabazi has often traveled between Western Europe and the Middle East, and her collection melds scenes from ordinarily disparate cultures, though her treatment of these transitions is anything but binary.
Manchester Forugh Farrokhzad (1935—1967): Forty-Year Anniversary Conference University of Manchester July 4-5, 2008
Convened four decades after the untimely death of one of twentieth-century Iran’s most influential women poets, this international conference will gather scholars from Europe, North America, and Iran to explore Forugh Farrokhzad’s literary and broader cultural impact, both during her lifetime and in the forty-odd years since her passing. The event is organized by the Iran Heritage Foundation and the University of Manchester.
Sharjah Biennial: Production Program
The Sharjah Biennial breaks the stop – start biennial mold with the launch of a production program aimed at facilitating new work between now and the next edition (scheduled for March 2009, to coincide with Art Dubai). The criteria are wide open: artists can produce work anywhere (though they can make use of Sharjah’s residency program, if it relates to the UAE) and the finished work may or may not be included in, or purchased by, the biennial. Artists are invited to submit proposals to the biennial committee: upcoming deadlines fall on June 10 and September 10, 2008, and application forms can be downloaded from the biennial’s website.
Dubai Art Dubai: The Art Park Madinat Jumeirah March 19-22, 2008
In the space of a year since its inaugural outing, Art Dubai (formerly the Gulf Art Fair) has sprouted the accessories of an established fair — an array of projects, a satellite fair. By 2009, it’s sure to be known as Dubai Art Week, with the Sharjah Biennial — and possibly auctions — joining the fray.
Art Dubai 2008 features installations and video projects by Tarek Zaki, Muhammad Zeeshan, Sunil Gawde, Amir Fallah, and Marwan Rechamoui. Several of these are presented in the Art Park, a new area of the fair devoted to video and installation projects, located in an underground car park. Bidoun’s contribution, an Artists’ Cinema and “video bar,” will screen programs curated by Bidoun (“Heysa!”) and guest curators Nav Haq (“Oracle of the Constitution”) and Tirdad Zolghadr (“Thanks for Sharing: Films for an Art Fair”).
Dubai Art Dubai: Desperately Seeking Paradise Madinat Jumeirah March 19-22, 2008
Art Dubai has also scheduled a curated exhibition alongside the seventy-odd galleries plying their wares. ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’ showcases the work of eleven Pakistan-based artists. While grouped, vexedly, by geography and shared histories, the work “bristles with intrinsic dissimilarities,” according to curator Salima Hashmi.
Besides the armored corsets of Naiza Khan, Mohammed Talpur’s mechanical drawings, documentation of Durriya Qazi’s Witness, and clay sculptures of war-slain figures decaying — literally — with each passing day, ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’ includes America Lahore, a site-specific work from Sophie Ernst that runs video interviews with young men looking to emigrate to America, projected onto piles of cardboard boxes.
The exhibition’s title houses a biting double entendre: an associated community art project brings photography instruction to Dubai’s notoriously indentured manual laborers.
Dubai Creek Contemporary Art Fair XVA and Bastakiya March 15-31, 2008
Bastakiya-bound gallery xVA launches the second annual Creek Contemporary Art Fair in March as a satellite event to Art Dubai — compatible, but more community-focused and a bit rougher around the edges. Exhibitions, film screenings, street parties, and talks take place in the alleyways and partially renovated houses that make up Dubai’s bijoux historic quarter.
The Third Line is collaborating with London’s Albion Gallery to show Avish Khebrehzadeh’s animations, projected over drawings and paintings. In a house next door, meanwhile, Bidoun Projects presents Emre Hüner’s Panoptikon (2005), the Istanbul-based rising star’s seminal film in which he animates elements from exquisite drawings of future–retro worlds.
Dubai Rokni Haerizadeh B21 Gallery March 16-April 10, 2008
Among the clutch of Tehran-based artists for whom Dubai is becoming a surrogate capital, young painter Rokni Haerizadeh is something of a star. His latest show marks a shift in direction from acrylics and watercolors to larger, bolder canvases painted in oils. He has also turned away from the Persian mythology and traditional literature that previously influenced his work to embrace contemporary poetry and take everyday public life in Tehran as a subject. A set of watercolors accompanying the major works includes one painting commissioned by Bidoun for October 2007’s PROJECTS issue.
DubaiCross Roads Elementa Gallery March 15-April 19, 2008
Hoping to draw local art devotees away from the packed industrial-cumgallery district of Al Quoz, newcomer Elementa has set up in a converted warehouse in Dubai’s Airport Free zone. The gallery plans an eclectic mix of shows, opening with an exhibit from a British-Canadian collective (including new work by Matt Calderwood), followed by shows with an emphasis on contemporary art from India and Pakistan. This last show groups stars such as Subodh Gupta and Rashid Rana with up-and-coming talent, from Naiza Khan, a sculptor, to Bani Abidi, whose videos and drawings reflect on the barriers — or “mobile architecture” — that spring up around foreign embassies.
Dubai Roads Were Open / Roads Were Closed: On How We Perceive Conflict The Third Line May 22-June 15, 2008
In a bid to locate the “pockets of non-information” that elude the daily news-grind, curator Haig Aivazian is assembling a boldly interdisciplinary show encompassing recent work by Tarek Al Ghoussein, Laila Shawa, Fouad Elkoury, and Sinan Antoon. Exploratory thematic exhibitions are still a rarity in the Gulf, and this inquiry into “the politics around the ways in which information is selected, compiled, circulated, and received” will prove highly refreshing. The show entails talks, performances, film screenings, and panel discussions with authors, filmmakers, and artists.
Kuwait Ed Beiti, Aana Geezi (In My House, I’m A Cruiser) Sultan Gallery March 25-27, 2008
A group show curated by Fatima Al Qadiri and Khalid Al Gharaballi, ‘In My House, I’m a Cruiser’ probes the experience of living in an urban environment in which pedestrian culture is all but nonexistent, where people — young people above all — are encapsulated in bubbles: walled-off homes, cars, diwaniyas, and plush beach houses. Chronic boredom is rampant. In this dystopia, as the curators illustrate, “cruising” is a lifestyle in which the geezi — the young, idle male — is the presumptive king. The show features work from Khalid Al Gharaballi, Fatima Al Qadiri, Tareq Al Sultan, Bassem Mansour, Monira Al Qadiri, Lauren Boyle, and the Bruce High-Quality Foundation.
Dr H is a sexologist specializing in fetishism and neo-sexuality. In recent years, he has done extensive studies of objectum-sexuality, or objectophilia, in which the attraction to particular objects completely displaces the desire for romantic relations with other people.
Here, Dr H considers the origins and significance of this phenomenon, reflecting on interviews with objectophiliacs, self-identifying and otherwise, across the world.
The increasingly common occurrence of objectophilia is most often attributed to the decline in human intimacy: people isolate themselves from others in favor of communion with their desired objects. Objectophilia is not to be confused with mere fetishism, in which the subject’s relation to a class of object — wigs or diapers, stockings or shoes — becomes eroticized. In any case, such behavior is becoming socially acceptable, as the injection of libidinal value into the world of objects is increasingly seen as a fundamental characteristic of our age.
The original love-object is, of course, the mother. Upon separation from the mother, one begins to seek out the ideal other to incorporate into one’s self—this is the immature object-love of the narcissistic self. As children develop, they learn to accept their failings as well as those of others. They learn to perceive themselves as human and direct their love toward other imperfect humans, identifying with them. In love, the self is ceded; another self overwhelms it.
When this process of psychological maturation fails to occur or is not completed, when the conditions for identification are not met, when the adolescent stage is prolonged in perpetuity, a person might direct his or her love toward things that have no failings or imperfections: ideal objects.
The subject here is not concerned with reciprocity, so the object need not exhibit consciousness. Thomas Mann wrote, “He who loves the more is the inferior and must suffer.” In objectum-love, this is not so; the subject stipulates the terms of interaction and controls the environment, extinguishing the possibility for such suffering. The object will never want to “just be friends.” Conversely, the subject is rarely ambivalent as to the object of his or her desire; most objectophiliacs describe their objects as spouses, and infidelity seems to be rare.
But what to make of objectumlove beyond this narrow observation? Is it the result of increasing asexual tendencies? The hyperliberalization of social mores? Or is it simply the logic, made suddenly visible, of a consumer culture so advanced that objects are no longer fetishized for their supernatural powers, but loved for their mundane qualities?
It remains uncertain. More research needs to be done. One thing is clear: we are witnessing a breakdown of the apartheid between people and things, which will have consequences for both sides. Remember the broomsticks of Fantasia, which quit the dust-covered floors, refusing to submit any longer to the oppressive regime of utility. Then as now, the objects have become the protagonists of our story; or, we now tell their story. Perhaps it is not the human who is in crisis, but the object. As Rainer Maria Rilke noted, “Relations of men and things have created confusion in the latter.”
The Rocket man: m, Libya, 2003
Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi announced his design for the Jamahiriya Rocket in 1999, to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of his rise to power. (Jamahiriya, Qaddafi’s own coinage, evokes “the nation/state of the masses.”) A few years later I found myself in Tripoli visiting an acquaintance who works at Al-Fateh University. It was not a work trip, but after my friend, a folklorist, told me the story of M, I was determined to investigate. Luckily, she knew where to find him, having employed his services as a mechanic in the past, and offered to come along and serve as translator.
M worked in a body shop in the suburbs east of the city and had fallen in love with the Jamahiriya Rocket. He was tentative when I first approached, but when I explained to him that I simply wanted to know more about his beloved and knew many others who loved similar objects, he became cross. “There is no object like this one,” he said. He took a deep breath, then invited us to sit with him for tea in the garage. “I heard on the radio it would be the safest car on earth,” he recounted, “that the leader himself had said we must have the air bags, the built-in electronic defense system, the collapsible bumper. Most of the cars here are junk,” he complained, surveying the rusted skeletons strewn about the shop’s yard. “The cars I normally work on, they are scraps of metal hung like a gypsy tent over an engine that burns you alive when your brakes fail, and they usually do.”
During the years after sanctions were imposed, Qaddafi announced he had been “thinking of ways to preserve human life all over the world.” The “State of the Masses” car reflected his desire to make rockets for the safety and well-being of ordinary Libyans, while other countries continued making rockets to kill. But for whatever reason, the cars never went into full production. M had obtained his, a prototype, out of luck and conniving. “There is a government official who comes to me to fix his car,” he recalled. “One day he is waiting here with the car. It is the most beautiful and powerful thing I have ever seen—a thing that challenges you, makes you powerless.” According to the official, the Rocket looked like “a James Bond car.” M disagreed. “I told him the leader would not design a car to look like a British killer of our Soviet allies. To me the car looks a little like Nancy Ajram — but she is Lebanese, and this car is more Libyan, with that metallic green color, the front and back looking like a very nice rocket or spaceship.”
The official needed a full inspection of the vehicle, and M obliged. Once he had inspected it, though, he vowed never to part with it. “I just felt the contours, put my hand on the steering wheel, examined the chassis, looked under the hood—I knew I was in love. I know what a beautiful car looks like, and how it performs. But this wasn’t just beauty, it was perfection.”
When the official returned for the Rocket, M stalled. “I told him there was something wrong with the exhaust system and that I had to wait for a part,” he recalls. “We cursed the engineers together.” The official came back again, but the car still wasn’t done. “Then there was a miracle,” M says. The man disappeared. Another customer told M that the official had been taken away for saying bad things about the leader’s car. M expressed regret at the man’s misfortune. But he and the Jamahiriya Rocket have been together ever since, and he is happier than he has ever been. Once a year, on their anniversary, he takes the Rocket out for a ride. But mostly he keeps her under wraps in his garage, obsessively fine-tuning her components, safe from prying, covetous eyes.
Sexual Concrete: A, Israel and the Occupied Territories, 2007
Animism is the fundamental condition of objectum-sexuality. As A put it, when I met her near the West Bank town of Bethlehem, “I look at things as living beings, like you or me. And how are they different? I can communicate with them like with people. For me, this is normal. My partner is a wall.”
The border wall, or separation barrier, or racial segregation wall, or security fence — by whatever name, it has symbolized occupation and oppression and the flouting of international law to many people since it was built in 2002. But not to A. “I am not interested in politics,” she asserts. “The wall is my spouse.” These days she keeps an eye on her beloved with the aid of Google Maps, but she still visits the wall at least once a week, leaving flowers and dates at its base, even reciting poetry. The soldiers look down on her, but she seems not to mind their disparaging remarks. When I ask her why they find it strange, however, she shudders indignantly. “Who says that man is the Crown of Creation?” she spits. “We share this planet with other beings. We all have the same worth, no matter what we are — animal, human, plant, or poured concrete.”
She is not quite sure why she loves the wall, and seems to find such a question preposterous. “What attracts me physically is that the wall is rectangular, has parallel lines,” she admits. “But other walls have those. Why do I love this wall in particular? I cannot put it into words — there are no words. Why do you love your wife? Your child? What reason can you have? One can only tell stories.”
I mention to her that there exists in the literature a story of a man in Silesia who became enamored of the gallows near his home, not because of its grim purpose, but because of its singular geometric form. She nods. “He was not interested in executions, and I am not interested in divisions. The purpose of the object is beside the point. It is the essence we are after.”
The Bibliophile: K, London, 2005
An acquaintance of mine, an English gentleman with excellent connections among dealers in antiquarian maps, prints, and books, sent word that a rare tome bound in human skin had recently been sold at auction to a previously unknown collector. He had seen her after the auction, caressing the book’s mottled cover and inhaling its perfume, and thought of me. He had done a little digging and was able to provide me with her name and address. The next time I came to London, I wrote ahead to K, circumspectly inquiring whether I might talk to her about the book.
As it happened, she was eager to be interviewed. She had always been a bibliophile, she said; her father had been a minister, and in the family home the books had had the run of the place. But she had only become a bona fide objectophiliac recently — at the auction house where my acquaintance had noticed her.
“It was the smell,” she said. Before the bidding had begun she had examined the items for sale, and had been stopped short by “the scent of that volume, the bouquet of ancient pages pressed together by human leather.” She looked slightly flushed, explaining that new books have the smell of pulverized organic matter, paste, and infant ink, while old books, so long as they are carefully preserved, develop their own distinctive odors. “Being in that auction house, I felt like I was in a master vintner’s cellar or the library of a medieval monastery. My excitement was overwhelming. I bid in a sort of blind frenzy, and nearly fainted from pleasure when I won it.” The final price was five figures.
The book is an early seventeenth-century edition of A True and Perfect Relation of the Whole Proceedings Against the Late Most Barbarous Traitors, Garnet a Jesuit and His Confederates. It chronicles the trial of Father Henry Garnet, who was tried and hanged for his alleged role in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, a Catholic plot to kill King James I by exploding the British Parliament building. It is bound with Garnet’s skin and is one of the finest examples of early modern anthropodermic bibliopegy. On the book’s cover, the creased skin bears an uncanny resemblance to Garnet’s bearded face, frozen in an expression of open-mouthed grief.
I wondered whether Garnet’s story was part of the attraction; or whether his having been a priest, and a Catholic one at that, posed any difficulties for a daughter of the Church of England. She laughed at the thought. “The man, Garnet, is simply the occasion for the book. It’s the book that I love.” She whispers that she takes it to bed with her each night, holding it in her arms, enjoying the subtle aroma of its pages and the astonishingly sensitive surface of its cover.
The Pipeline Lover: X, Lagos, 2006
For this one, I have few words.
During an NGO-funded trip to study the sexual relations of slum dwellers, I drove through a suburb on the outskirts of Lagos that was bisected by an oil pipeline. As we rode past a man wearing a Dallas Cowboys jersey large enough to shelter a small family threw himself in front of our car, asking for a donation to “protect the pipeline.” This was not the first time I had been asked for a “donation” during my visit, but it was the first time the solicitor appeared to be asking without contempt. He seemed desperate but not dangerous, so I asked him to explain himself.
This was perhaps the most extraordinary accident in a lifetime of sexological encounters. The man was a poet — he had studied at Ibadan, but was down on his luck — and the man was in love. “She stretches from Warri to Kaduna to Lagos, voiding herself upon reaching the tankers of the Seven Sisters,” he told me. “Here, Olorun owns the sky, the government owns the land, and the Seven Sisters own whatever lies beneath it.” But the pipeline, this stretch of it in particular, belonged to him.
I asked how long he had been protecting the pipeline, and from whom, or what. “I have loved her since I first laid eyes on her,” he said, “she the pneumatic tube in infancy, skin like virgin silver.” But she is vulnerable, he went on, “beholden to her course, sapping the oil fields in the interior and gurgling their black nectar all the way to the Niger Delta.”
But you can’t protect her yourself, I offered.
“You see that she has not perished,” he replied with bluster. “Though she is now rusted, burned. Everywhere Nigerians are drilling into her, collecting her oil with pails, buckets, Dixie cups. The fires have charred her skin and killed even those whose buckets are still empty.”
I reminded him that Soyinka had explained away these incidents as “reflections of the general social malaise.”
Smiling at me, he held out his hand. “And that, my friend, is what I am protecting her from.” I asked him for his name, an address, something I might use to contact him again, but he demurred, still flashing his toothy grin. “This is where you will find me, never far from my love.”
A few months later the BBC reported that fuel from a vandalized pipeline had ignited in Lagos, killing two hundred people. I wondered about the poet, whether he had been caught in the blast. I pictured him scrambling toward the pool of glossy sediment, protecting his love from the predations of the crowd.
The whitewashed walls of the Cairo Agriculture Museum in Dokki conceal a forgotten memorial to the country’s millennia of agricultural and natural history, from pharaonic-era efforts to anticipate the Nile flood, to the grisly bounty of courtly hunting trips, to a postrevolutionary tallying of national resources.
A succession of official interventions in the museum’s original collection, founded in 1938, testify to another, manmade, history: that of the Egyptian state. Although not all sites at the museum are accessible to the public, the complex currently houses the Cotton Museum, the Museum of Scientific Specimens, the Museum of Ancient Egyptian Agriculture, the Agriculture Museum proper, and, or so we’re told, a Heritage Museum. Claims regarding the nature of Egypt’s statehood — monarchic Arab nationalist or post-infitah — take surreal form within these walls, layering the various exhibition spaces with their respective rhetorics of nationhood, sometimes to hallucinatory effect. A plaque describing “the history of wool in Egypt” nestles in mute and moldering piles of unprocessed wool. First-generation BiscoMisr biscuits, intended originally for the new republic’s soldiers and children, conjure a political shift. An immense, opalescent camel’s stomach hangs inflated behind greasy glass: the strange beauty of an indisputably anachronistic science, proudly presented.
Some displays are more easily situated in the historical continuum of Egyptian statehood than others. The Museum of Scientific Specimens, perhaps the most delirious of the complex, presents a wooden maquette of the first Aswan Dam — polished to a luster, distinctly abstract-looking, and evidently created before that most famous of postrevolutionary national symbols, the Aswan High Dam. Nearby, a graph indicates average acreage (in millions of feddans) of Egypt’s major crops from the period of 1950 — 65. Upstairs, exotic butterflies in a glass box have been arranged to spell “Mubarak”; another box displays the eagle of the Arab Republic of Egypt, and still another, the two-starred flag of the ill-fated United Arab Republic (1958–61).
Other displays suggest political worldviews and scientific epistemologies that defy today’s received theories of being and becoming. On the museum’s first floor, a series of life-size dioramas depicts the rituals and traditions of Egypt’s inhabitants. A special section is devoted to “rural society,” and “Egyptian types” are displayed according to métier: a Qur’anic reciter, a potter, a tent-maker. Meanwhile, the aristocratic pastime of safari hunting has crowded the second floor with stuffed game. In the stairwell, a rhino head, dated “6. Mars. 1910,” greets visitors with a soulful and not unintelligent glass eye. A midsize statue set behind dusty glass represents a sub-Saharan tribesman who appears to have emerged on camel from the pages of a tattered National Geographic. The earnest — one might also say humorless, not to mention imperialistic — approach expounded in the Napoleonic Description de l’Egypte apparently informs the museum’s approach to the “scientific specimens” of the human species (an early print of the document is available in a nearby library, also part of the complex).
The entrance hall of the Agriculture Museum displays a marble plaque commemorating the 1948 visit of Saudi monarch Abd al-Aziz Al Saud; across the hall, a second plaque memorializes a visit by the leader’s son, the new monarch Saud bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud, in 1954, the year of Gamal Abd El Nasser’s ascension to the presidency. The pendants mark a “before” and “after” to the 1952 revolution. However, if the complex was once deemed worthy of official royal visits,
the same cannot be said today.
The postrevolutionary dream of nation-building — evident in the retelling of the history of cotton, wool, and barley; in the display of delicately designed cans of artichoke hearts produced by the Ministry of Agriculture; and in the 1961 inauguration of an “Arab Hall” featuring displays of traditional life in Egypt and Syria — seems to have faded under the bright lights of political vision into a semilucid subterranean of the subconscious.
As if to confirm the site’s waning ability to present an “official” account of history, the museum complex has acquired a new anti-role; it serves as a monument to public invisibility and present-day forgetfulness. Located on the museum grounds are a small police prison tucked away out back, the faithful re-creation of a lost “Pharaonic garden,” an abandoned monarchy-era theater, and an overgrown garden of roses. The paltry entrance fee (a laughable ten piasters per person) and the near absence of visitors (save for a handful of tourists and young couples finding tender hours under the trees) reinforce this feeling of anachronism.
If museums are themselves articulate historical testimonials equal to the objects and narratives they offer up to the public, the Dokki complex attests to the impossibility of a coherent official project of “Egyptian history.” The melancholic decay of history is rarely as articulately dissected as in the wings of the Museum of Scientific Specimens or the display cases of the Agriculture Museum. Nevertheless, an impossible memory of the variety conjured in Chris Marker’s vertiginous film essay La Jetée has rarely been reimagined in such poetic terms.
After an excursion to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, artist Vadim Fishkin invited a group of students, ranging in age from seven to twelve years old, to create their own museums at home, making use of any items that were significant to them. He asked that they arrange the objects on their beds and take pictures of the resulting installations with disposable cameras. The images, which were later exhibited, bear the message each student wished to convey to the world.
Translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies, photography by Christophe Katrib
Forty-four stone steps lead one from the sidewalk to the door of the hotel. it is an ancient building consisting of a ground floor with a nightclub called Cuba Libre, a first floor with the New Lebanon Hotel, and a second floor that tells a tale whose end is destruction.
Its ceilings are seven meters high, and from it one looks directly onto a public highway that leads to Beirut’s glittering commercial center. From the outside the building looks forgotten, half-hidden, an odd man out in an explosion of renewal. The reason lies in the owners’ refusing to rehabilitate the place after the war, in hopes that their tenant would vacate the lot. Then they could build two or more modern apartment blocks that would bring in high rents and dollars in place of the meager sum in liras paid by Umar Dhuqan Nasr.
The relationship of the Nasr family with one of the floors of this building owned by the Hommosi family dates back to 1953. Dhuqan Nasr’s father came to Beirut from the village of Kafar Nabrakh in the Chouf Mountains. He came with his son, hoping to find the boy a reliable business, the proceeds from which he could use one day to build himself a house in the village. Back then he rented the hotel for the sum of twelve thousand Lebanese liras annually; today, the rent has risen to 1.5 million liras ($1,666) per year.
Dhuqan opened the door, and rooms, of the New Lebanon Hotel. In a single room, a multitude would sleep: day laborers and students and whole families alongside them; Lebanese, Syrians, and Egyptians. Everyone who knocked on the door found a welcome.
With the start of the civil war in 1975, Dhuqan, father to five boys and three girls, continued to run the dormitory hotel, finding a sense of security in its proximity to the house of the founder and head of the Kataeb Party, Pierre Gemayel. This protection did not last long, however, for Gemayel left the area, and his comrades from the same neighborhood left with him.
The party leadership replaced them with young men newly arrived at the critical battlefield of the capital. These incoming armed men weren’t neighbors, which meant that the hotel was exposed to theft and attack, to say nothing of the shelling — the huge building stands precisely halfway between a Muslim street and a Christian street. Thus Dhuqan Nasr, son of the mountains, found himself, quite literally, between two fires, against which his hotel was without defense. And so one dark night, during a bombardment, the family fled to the village, bringing only the clothes on their backs.
Elias Abu Hatim, on the other hand, who had been staying in the hotel since long before the war and who taught at a Beirut school, never abandoned his room. Everything in the hotel had been stolen — doors, beds, washbasins, faucets — and yet Abu Hatim would come back every night to sleep. When Umar Dhuqan returned at the end of the war, he found Elias, still in residence, waiting for him. Abu Hatim’s tenancy only ended when the Red Cross moved him, at an advanced age, to a nursing home. Umar recounts that the man was a brilliant mathematician, lived on what he made as a schoolteacher and from private lessons, and went his entire life without a partner. He never washed his clothes but would wear them and then throw them away, he had so much money and so little to spend it on.
The tenant on the third floor was Charles Helou, a name that Lebanon has not forgotten. Helou, president of the Lebanese Republic from September 23, 1964, to September 22, 1970, moved from his home above the New Lebanon Hotel to the presidential palace as soon as he was elected, and his brother, Antoine, took up residence, remaining the hotel’s neighbor until he contracted heart disease and the doctor told him that climbing forty-four steps every day might kill him.
The Helou family maintained their lease and allowed the hotel to use the rooms of their house. The roof tiles on the third story, however, suffered greatly during the war. The property owners obtained an order for its demolition and did indeed demolish it over the objections of the hotel, which the Nasr family went to court to keep in their name, despite its ruined state.
The civil war ended at the beginning of the 90s, and Umar Dhuqan made himself available full-time to assist his aged father in running “the business.” He renovated the hotel at his own expense, less to modernize the place than to preserve its character, despite the passage of time. He purchased wooden doors from outlying areas because of their ancient appearance and left the tiles on the floor, even though some had been smashed. They were, after all, “two-hundred-year-old tiles, and every day someone comes and offers to give me a lot of money and to re-tile the place, but I say no! It’s my home, and I want to keep it the way it is.”
It is indeed his home. He lives in it with his wife and two children. Yasmin is studying special education at the Jesuit University, and his son, Sallam, is pursuing his baccalaureate. They occupy three of the hotel’s twelve rooms (one of which is kept “on standby,” as Umar puts it, in case an old customer should turn up during a busy period — he says he never turns an old customer away, ever).
Umar has gone to great lengths to be able to choose the sort of customer he wants. He says that the cost of renovation forced him to house the same types of people his father had — workers, Syrian, Lebanese, and Egyptian, together in one room, robbing one another and brandishing knives and guns. However, once the renovation was finished, Umar started telling any worker who came to him that the hotel had become a private dormitory for students, to avoid unpleasantness.
A few months went by and excuse became fact, with the hotel giving university students a bed for one hundred dollars a month. Over time, Umar stopped renting beds, and now he rents only rooms, the rate varying from twenty to twenty-five dollars a night, depending on the guest’s financial situation. Today the hotel has become a destination for a type of person — Lebanese, Arab, or foreign — that Umar describes as “decent”: a bank employee, an aged millionaire, a Yemeni doctor, a French circus troupe, a businessmen from Aleppo.
The bank employee is twenty-eight years old. He has been living at the hotel for nine years. He came as a guest with his father; then the father died and the son, who lacked any higher educational qualifications, stayed on. The bank’s owner took pity on him and gave him a job, and the Dhuqans took pity on him and shared their food and daily lives with him, till he became a part of the family. A few days ago he bought a car, Umar proudly announced to me during our conversation.
The millionaire was brought to the hotel by his lawyer five months ago to spend a couple of days while waiting to be transferred to elder care, and he has stayed there ever since. Umar says that the millionaire owns many properties and has no heir. He advised him jokingly to get married to some girl who had an eye on his money, and the millionaire replied, in sadness and dismay, “Why, Umar? Have I upset you? Do you want me to go?” Umar humored him at the time, but he doesn’t hide the fact that he prefers to have young people as guests, because the old “get you down.”
In any case, Umar prefers that his guests remain in their rooms. The main hall around which the hotel’s rooms are arranged is no longer a shared meeting space. He removed two television sets because of political quarrels that didn’t end well and went to the expense of putting a television in each room. This means that each room is now furnished with two beds, two couches, a
fan, a carpet, a table, and a television. The furnishings of the rooms resemble those of nearly every Lebanese grandfather’s house, a place where one can recall memories too large to be held in its four walls, a place where one can find the kind of peace in which to sit at ease, surrendering oneself to a private past within a public space — a strange feeling that induces a smile of complicity.
On the threshold of the hotel, on the side facing away from the public highway, I found myself looking out over the details of a life spun within a narrow space, a life with its heroes living and dead — a pool without water, a garden consisting of no more than a loquat tree and a jasmine bush, an abandoned room made of tin sheeting obscured in the shade cast by the neighboring bars.
The New Lebanon is located between two streets that enjoyed some commercial renown in the 1990s. But Rue Monot is no longer the center of Beiruti nightlife, that title having been stolen from it by Rue Gemayze. And Tariq al-Wasat’s commercial sparkle has never quite returned after all the demonstrations and funerals that passed along its bounds, especially since the opposition’s tent-city sprung up there. The hotel thus sits between two streets that helped define the “new” Lebanon in the years following the civil war. And yet at the New Lebanon, you see old Lebanon and smile, lost in an easy oblivion of quiet dreams.
Artprice, the art information company, recently announced that Indian art prices have gone up fivefold in the past decade. Other commentators have advanced even higher multiples to mark these boom times. Like the rest of the art market, the Indian market (which includes modern and contemporary art from Pakistan, too) follows one of the most basic tenets of economics — high demand leads to high prices. Still, the workings of the market can be both volatile and opaque and are influenced by factors other than simple utility. Artists come and go (more than half the artists included in Art Basel one year don’t return the next); their reputations, and by extension their prices, are constantly in flux. Plainly, critical acclaim, institutional support, and scholarship all play a role in assessing long-term value.
But the Indian market has further quirks, rendering it unique even within the art world. Its financial success is commonly perceived as being shaped by the muscle of its diaspora, sometimes referred to as the NRI (Non-Resident Indian) community, found wherever wealth meets art-world influence — notably London, New York, and San Francisco’s Bay Area. In fact, members of Dubai’s subcontinental business community dominated Christie’s first two sales in the Gulf emirate, setting new records for leading Indian artists.
Having seen their peers from Wall Street and Silicon Valley adding contemporary art to the house, car, yacht, second house, and private plane, buying art from “home” was a no-brainer for NRI entrepreneurs. Modern landscapes by Francis Newton Souza, Maqbool Fida Husain, Syed Haider Raza, and Ram Kumar not only allowed them to express their cultural allegiance in a confident visual language but also made financial sense, with a substantial arbitrage value compared with
contemporary work originating in New York or London.
In the meantime, the physical separation of artists in Delhi and Mumbai from collectors based in Euro-America, the Middle East, and Hong Kong has encouraged the auction to emerge as the preferred mechanism for members of the diaspora to buy work. The first Sotheby’s Indian art auction, in 1995, including part of the significant Chester and Davida Herwitz Collection, may have served as the starting gun for the boom as we know it. Christie’s and, to a lesser extent, Bonhams have since joined the fray. But it is arguably the new entrant Saffronart (launched in 2000), an online auction platform initially aimed at America’s money-rich, timepoor NRIs, that ignited the market, democratizing art auctions and appealing to the eBay crowd.
While diaspora collectors command the headlines, though, the bulk of buyers, even at auctions in the West, bid from India. Savita Apte, a London-based art historian and former Sotheby’s specialist, contends that India’s art boom is directly correlated to its economic boom and the far-reaching tax reforms of the early 1990s. Lower levels of personal taxation have created a new generation of double-income professionals in India with significant disposable income. It is this large, growing, and aspiring middle class that has given the Indian market its critical mass of collectors.
India’s most successful gallerists, initially reliant on the diaspora, now seek a broader international collector base through art fairs and exhibitions, in partnership with international galleries. And their efforts are paying off: even so-called supercollectors François Pinault and Charles Saatchi are joining the frenzy, sending prices for hot contemporary artists such as Subodh Gupta, Jitish Kallat, Bharti Kher, and Rashid Rana rocketing into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The price hikes have encouraged the likes of Neville Tully of Osian’s, an art conglomerate based in Mumbai, and the London-based Fine Art Fund to set up art investment funds. This financial engine behind the Indian market has raised concerns about overproduction and some artists spreading themselves too thin. But how, and by whom, will judgments of quality be made?
The absence of a generally accepted canon — scholarship built around large public collections of modern and contemporary art in the subcontinent — is a hindrance to outsiders. Much of the current “criticism” is of the advertorial variety, aimed at promoting, not dissecting, and often leading to “checkbook art history.” This is not to say that there is no discourse in India, or that checkbook art history doesn’t happen in Euro-America. But as Sharmini Pereira, the London-based curator and publisher, points out, the critical discourse in India tends to ignore the market, and debates fall into binaries of market/antimarket, local/foreign, and traditional/ experimental, with critics repeating well-rehearsed positions without seeking to address other points of view. No guesses as to which voices get drowned out.
There are a number of notable efforts to address the lack of public infrastructure for contemporary art in the subcontinent. A handful of collectors in India and Pakistan — with Anupam and Lekha Poddar in India and Wahab Jaffer in Pakistan most prominent among them — seek to institutionalize their collections. The Delhi Biennale Society, led by critic Geeta Kapur and artist Vivan Sundaram, is trying to develop a biennial as a means of critical engagement, attempting to give a voice to critical opinion that couldrise above the din of the market. Karachi’s ambitious Foundation for the Museum of Modern Art, spearheaded by the energetic octogenarian Jalaluddin Ahmed, is publishing monographs and developing a permanent museum and has opened a new institute for art-historical research that will be guided by the UK-based artist and publisher of Third Text, Rasheed Araeen. And KHOJ and VASL — the artist-led local chapters of the international Triangle Arts Trust — run a regular program of residency-based artistic exchange, exhibitions, and discussions.
Whether these initiatives will be sufficient and timely in developing a canon is a moot point. One can argue forever about the theoretical holes in the very notion of a canon, but it remains a matter of practical necessity. The probable result of not creating a South Asian canon in whatever form is that one will be created for South Asia from the outside — already the institutional wheels are grinding. In a reversal of the usual order of things, it is the market success of Indian art that has forced the attention of the international art world. A number of artists have begun appearing on the biennial circuit, notably Amar Kanwar, with an eight-screen video installation at last year’s Documenta; Nalini Malani, with a multiple-panel reverse painting on acrylic at the 2007 Venice Biennale; and Hamra Abbas, whose life-size sculptures in Plasticine showed at the 10th Istanbul Biennial. An exhibition co-organized by New York’s Asia Society and the Art Gallery of Western Australia, ‘Edge of Desire,’ is now touring India, and London’s Saatchi Gallery and the Serpentine Gallery are planning exhibitions in 2008.
It is in this canon-making activity, through exhibitions and collections in the West, that the influence of the diaspora comes to the fore. A 2006 edition of the American magazine Art & Antiques listed three Indian collectors among America’s top hundred, including hedge-fund billionaire Rajiv Chaudhary. And a Pakistani software entrepreneur, Asim Abdullah, sits on the board of San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum (AAM). They may no longer be, or indeed may never have been, the biggest buyers, but it is their collections that will wind up in such institutions as New York’s MoMA and Guggenheim and the AAM itself.
The South Asian example may have some lessons for the emergent art market of the Middle East. Most immediately, there is a direct parallel in how the canon of Middle Eastern art is already in danger of being influenced by the market and shaped by Western institutions and individuals. The British Museum’s ‘Word into Art’ exhibition, for example, is currently touring to Dubai. Flawed in many respects, it may nevertheless become a benchmark against which other exhibitions will be judged.
Comparing the two markets is problematic — after all, the Middle East is characterized by multiple centers of production, most prominently Iran, Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, and the Maghreb. But if the South Asian example has taught us anything, it is that for dramatic growth to be sustainable, it has to be underpinned by the local market. The size of the “local” Middle Eastern market and how it will develop remain tricky to determine. Will the nascent interest of Gulf collectors in contemporary art prove long-term, or is this merely a passing flirtation?
In principle, the Gulf is at an advantage for creating its own canon, with resources available and governmental commitments to building cultural institutions and collections. But the Middle East in general, like South Asia, lacks the homegrown experience to establish and run cultural institutions. Besides, the temptation to “buy now” rather than build for the future is intense. In the end, the role of noteworthy locally based initiatives in shaping the artistic agenda — the Sharjah Biennial, Ashkal Alwan, ArtSchool Palestine, and the Arab Image Foundation among them — will be crucial in building the canon from the inside out.
What is “new-media art”? The term itself seems obsolete, having been invoked for more than three decades to describe a broad, unwieldy swath of artistic practices vaguely related to technology. Still, the gap between what we tend to call new-media art and what’s known as contemporary art often seems to be grounded in institutional politics. The arbiters of contemporary art tend to be averse to supporting projects that can be characterized as “technology for technology’s sake.” Of late, however, a number of museums have been blurring the borders between the two realms, including zKM in Karlsruhe, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York.
And then there is Transmediale, a weeklong festival held each year in Berlin that has been documenting and promoting cross-disciplinary practices combining contemporary art and digital culture since 1997. Transmediale is one of the largest events in the new-media galaxy, including experimental music, video and software art, and performance.
I joined the Transmediale team for the event’s January 2008 iteration as a guest curator. I suppose I was considered someone who had “been there” and “done that” when it came to new-media art; now I am more associated with the contemporary art field. My earliest curatorial work had involved projects dealing with new technologies, as well as with the open-source movement.
This year’s festival was organized around the theme “Conspire…” My first thought was to produce a show in which the newness of the new-media work would be a subtle afterthought, rather than the focus of the experience, as was sometimes the case in past years. I was deeply aware that previous versions of Transmediale were often simply showcases for the most recent technological developments. I wanted to create an exhibition that would narrate fantastic worlds, with works that would capture the imaginations of audiences and engage with them as artworks, rather than stressing small-scale viewer interaction. I decided to think about the Latin root of the term conspire, literally meaning “to breathe together.” This was, I thought, a poetic, even enigmatic, premise for a show such as this one, a call for a sort of collective, targeted action.
A conspiracy, that is. Bruno Latour, the French sociologist and father of “science studies,” suggests that conspiracy theories — with their “knee-jerk disbelief” and “punctilious demand for proofs” — can be formidable tools of social critique. My exhibition would take Latour’s premise and stretch it even further, considering conspiracy as a critical imaginative tool for rethinking the “known facts” that make up the world around us. I engaged artists who proposed interventions upon existing social, economic, and even artistic schemes. YKON, for example, a collective of artists who have been organizing summits for micronations — utopic communities of artists who found microscopic imaginary states and declare themselves governors. Or take French collective Bureau d’Études, with its intricate, Mark Lombardi-esque maps detailing networks of information and power; they were both revealing and inherently empowering in their breadth. There was, too, a light box built by Marko Peljhan that paid homage to his idol-artist, Velimir Khlebnikov, by restructuring the Russian futurist’s famous time calculations as they are found in his poems.
Other artists I included dared to explore the unusual or even unheard-of potentialities of being, mind, and action. Their work literally stretched the senses. Kimsooja’s To Breathe presented a large video screen, its colors shifting with the artist’s increasingly intense breathing — forcing us to rethink the relationship between seeing and hearing. There was also Einar Thorsteinn’s Non-visual Object, which consisted of the artist’s voice embedded in a tall wooden box, inviting passersby to join him on a spiritual journey by initiating them into the secrets of the fourth and fifth dimensions.
Some works were rooted in great conspiracies of the past. Société Réaliste presented its agency for planning revolutions, inspired by nineteenth-century utopianists like Saint-Simon; Lene Berg provided an intimate account of cold-war propaganda; and Laurent Montaron presented a zeppelin slowly burning in his new video What remains is future.
Others looked forward. Tobias Putrih presented a proposal for a sculptural intervention inspired by Buckminster Fuller, as well as a series of collages that played on the trope of science versus fiction, while Alban Hajdinaj focused on an amateur Albanian geophysicist and his New Gravitational Theory of the Earth.
And finally, it was Mangelos, a deceased Croatian conceptual artist, who may have provided the most apt entry in the show. His poetic manifestos from the late 1970s, written over sheets of newspaper or painted on globes, expressed his theories on the crisis and death of art. His manifestos were a form of “functional thinking” — a concept inspired by a postwar world dominated by technology. Simply built from alphabets, mathematical proofs, and scientific theories, his art pieces frustrate meaning — a sort of functionalism without function. As absurdities, they seemed to capture perfectly the blurring — of disciplinary boundaries, of fixed meanings, of truths — that I was hoping for.
I started collecting postcards seriously in the 1970s, when my husband and I were living in Ithaca. He was working on the book that would become Delirious New York, and we would drive from town to town, searching for material.
Somewhere in Geneva, just off the New York State Thruway, we heard about a couple who lived in a trailer and had postcards to sell. They both worked the night shift, so we were welcome to visit after 5pm, when they would just be waking up.
Their whole trailer was packed with postcards. Every wardrobe was bulging with shoeboxes full of cards; I wondered where they kept their clothes. They watched us in amusement, their faces still creased from sleep, sitting on the couch in their bathrobes, the woman’s hair in curlers.
In this obscure treasure trove, we found one phenomenal card after another. Early models of Rockefeller Center, never realized; the unbuilt Coney Island Globe Tower, glowing with lights; shots of Manhattan’s subterranean underbelly exposed; firemen fighting flames. Dozens of incredible images, many of which made it into the book.
Later, when we moved to the city, we joined the New York Postcard Club, which met every Monday in a generic building on Broadway and Eighth Street. We became part of a strange, dysfunctional family.
There was no particular logic to the collecting habits of the members of the club. Some people never even looked at the front of a card, interested only in the serial numbers on the back. My own obsession was Americana. I looked for the most devastatingly sad places and notions: motels, a highway empty but for a single red car, a lone man on a bridge or sitting on a rock, tunnels, diners, the electric chair, cowboys, racist cartoons, and so on. Even in their attempts to present the glory days, you felt they were clinging to yesterday’s future.
One collector struck us with his extraordinary taste. He was deaf and dumb and held up a sign with the words “I collect Russian Royal family” written large. We never saw him get lucky.
I collected other things, too — tinted glass plates in all different colors, called Depression glass, I later discovered; orange juicers, for their streamlined Norman Bel Geddesesque shapes; salt and pepper shakers that look like buildings; miniature skyscrapers — any sort of small object.
Over the years, my collection has grown. I’ve started to think of it as a city. This city has a randomness that reflects human life. In it are the accidents of the world, a constant cycle of chance meetings and happenings. Like New York? In my city, people live side by side, facing out at us, not relating to one another, carved into their own tiny worlds. Perhaps this is one version of multiculturalism.
I am a permanent foreigner. As a foreigner, I am a misplaced person. I misunderstand, and I am equally misunderstood. This confusion is crucial to everything I do. As an outsider, I’m constantly failing. Maybe this is why I’m interested in failed objects. Defective, misguided, misshapen things, ambitions never realized. I began to adopt flawed objects because of this empathy with failure.
At its best, my collection is a microcosmic culture clash. There are visual surprises: the least plausible depiction of an idea, with accidental (or calculated) imperfections; objects of muddled origins, sometimes heavy with symbolic pretext; rejects from an outdated (or never fashionable) artistic order, reinterpreted, misrepresented, bizarre, or mysterious.
The objects that miss their target most are often the most irresistible. In my collection you’ll find a Minnie Mouse from India in regional dress; a Father Christmas with wings; a scorpion with a skull, for the Day of the Dead; an African Tin-Tin; and the entire Simpson family, sculpted from pistachio nuts. Freaks of culture. Surrounded by them, I feel like a tourist who has been given the wrong directions, but, not comprehending anyway, has still managed to end up in the right place
A dead carrier pigeon lies on its back tied to a single weathered brick. Its posture indicates that it is dead, but the bird is not entirely without dignity; its iridescent plumage evokes the majesty of a peacock. a tiny metal capsule clings to one of its curled-up legs, a miniature paper scroll contained within, which reads: “By the way, just so you know, your window is breakable and someone can get in through it.”
Abbas Akhavan’s latest project, Correspondences, draws on an inventory of symbols — the iconic carrier pigeon mentioned here, a Molotov cocktail, and the puff of the mushroom cloud. Developed as part of a five-week artist-in-residence program at Stratagem Pacific Consulting, a conflict-resolution firm in Vancouver, Canada, the work is part of the Vancouver-based, Iranian-born artist’s ongoing investigation, comprising video, drawing, painting, and sculpture, of the relationship between violence and the everyday.
Correspondences presents a kind of weaponized communications system in which vehicles of transmission are at the same time means of destruction. Akhavan’s homing pigeon signifies the impossibility of communication and of return. Used by militaries during the world wars as a way to send messages from the battlefield back to headquarters, carrier pigeons were driven by the instinct to roost. In Akhavan’s rendering, as a dead and bound object the pigeon implies that breakdowns in communication provoke undesirable responses, ranging from violence and exile to death.
Beside the bird sits a Molotov cocktail, its flammable pink stew soaking the inky pages of a letter. A clean white rag drapes the bottle’s neck like a cockscomb, and in this state the object is purely sculptural, an inert presence that is activated as a weapon only by fire. The words on the letter appear indistinct, and the implication is that these details will forever remain undisclosed, destroyed in the moment of delivery. In another sense, however, the object resembles a message in a bottle, an SOS. Whether used as a weapon or a plea, the object captures a desperate attempt to make oneself heard.
The Molotov cocktail is a paradox — both a vehicle of expression for the disenfranchised and a potential inhibitor of legitimate forms of communication. With a letter in the bottle, the artist conjures an image of the castaway who lives without the comforts of home, community, and society, frantically sending out messages in hopes of being rescued. The bottle silently acknowledges the desperate condition of abandonment while simultaneously recognizing the possibility, however improbable, of being rescued — spared the death sentence of desertion.
In its current form, Correspondences also includes a color photograph divided into three sections: a slice of sea, a mass of mountainous land clustered with housing, and an expanse of blue sky that provides the backdrop for an apocalyptic drama in which mushroom clouds dissolve into smoke signals. The photo and objects greet visitors to Stratagem’s main office, who’ve ostensibly arrived with grievances and differences to air and settle.
Occupying the reception area, the work ironically warns the firm’s clients of the potential failures and catastrophes inherent in communication, while concurrently articulating the need for open channels, legitimacy, and exchange. The elements of Correspondences remind us through their fragile materiality — the pigeon’s carcass, the glass bottle — that a delicate balance makes all the difference.
John Lennon could be, well, a bit of a bitch. On his post-Beatles 1971 solo track “How Do You Sleep?” he addresses Paul McCartney with the words “the sound you make is Muzak to my ears” — a reference to his former bandmate’s soft spot for tunes that flutter perilously close to the saccharine.
Five years later, McCartney penned his reply in the form of “Silly Love Songs,” the upbeat, unapologetic lyrics of which ask, “Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs / And what’s wrong with that?” Despite the manifold horrors of the track (the disco influence! the video in which Paul ’n’ Linda slurp at each other aboard a private jet!), it’s an important question, and one that lies at the heart of Cypriot artist Christodoulos Panayiotou’s ongoing work Slow Dance Marathon (2005– ).
First performed in Thessaloniki in 2005, Slow Dance Marathon does exactly what it says on the tin. The piece commences with a couple of volunteers slow dancing to well-known love songs — George Michael’s “Careless Whisper” (1984), Lionel Richie and Diana Ross’s “Endless Love” (1981), Toni Braxton’s “Unbreak My Heart” (1996) — their unfamiliar bodies pressed together like guests at a wedding reception or teenagers during the “erection section” at the end of a school dance. After thirty minutes, one of them departs, and the remaining volunteer gets a new partner. This process is repeated over and over, creating a chain of intimacy that lasted twenty-four hours in Thessaloniki and forty-eight in its second performance, in Tel Aviv in 2006 (the artist plans for each iteration of Slow Dance to last a day longer than the last).
The volunteers are given minimal instructions, leaving them to interpret the notion of slow dancing as they wish, or rather, to negotiate it with their partners. Music plays its part in conditioning the action. Pressed up against an attractive stranger, it’s easy to imagine that the dream sold by, say, “Endless Love” (“Two hearts that beat as one / Our lives have just begun”) might, just might, instantaneously come true.
But if Panayiotou’s piece is partly about how we cling to the emptiness, even oppressiveness, of cookie-cutter romance, it also has an element of cruel social theater. Each couple, after all, is made up of one person who will shortly be cuddling up to another partner and one person who must leave the stage. For one of them, this is not the last dance, not the last chance to squeeze, sigh, or steal a kiss, let alone fall in love. The dancers inhabit separate planes of possibility, even separate temporalities. However close their hips, however full the world is with silly love songs, they are simply out of time.
Currently, Panayiotou is working on a series of works that huddle under the umbrella title Let It Shine. During a residency at Platform Garanti, Istanbul, the artist noticed that regional TV weather reports would, when covering Cyprus, only show the conditions in the Turkish-administered North.
This prompted a memory of similar reports screened by the Cyprus Broadcasting Corporation, in which sun would shine and rain would fall seemingly only on the Greek Cypriot-administered South. Taking this politicization of meteorological phenomena as his starting point (I’m reminded of Simon & Garfunkel’s line “I get all the news I need from the weather report,” from their 1970 track “The Only Living Boy in New York”), he repaired to the CBC archives, where he gathered together footage of extreme weather conditions on the island from 1974 to the present. His intention is to show this in Istanbul, creating an anthology of thunderstorms and snowfalls, rainbows and early-blossoming flowers, that will demonstrate that while humans might busy themselves with terrestrial boundaries, weather systems simply happen, utterly indifferent to our affairs. Thinking about this work, one might imagine Turkish and Greek Cyprus as the geographic equivalent of the couples in Slow Dance Marathon — physically proximate, but not quite occupying the same mental space.
Weather features in another work in the Let It Shine series, titled To Be Willing to March into Hell for a Heavenly Cause: Utopian Songs (2008). Here, the artist staged a live concert of seven songs taken from Cold War–era Hollywood musicals, on a boat sailing from the Greek port of Piraeus. Sung by the Danish musician Kristian Kristensen to the accompaniment of an acoustic guitar, each of these numbers — from “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel (1956) to “Tomorrow” from Annie (1982) — employ weather as a metaphor for a better tomorrow. We might think of the piece as in the tradition of John Ruskin’s writing on the pathetic fallacy in Modern Painters Volume III (1856). There, the Victorian critic pointed out that our habit of projecting human qualities onto the natural world (“a raging storm,” “a hopeful sun,” etcetera) bears false witness to reality — our feelings are not reflected in a raindrop, and a snowflake tells us nothing about our future.
Bleak as this may seem, it also has an optimistic aspect. One of the songs performed by Kristensen, “The Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha_ (1972), tells of a quest “to reach the unreachable star.” This is all very well, but there are other, more pressing quests to pursue closer to home, and if we abandon the utopian fantasies of Panayiotou’s playlist — with their whispers of manifest destiny, of the triumph of the American way — we might just be able to focus on doing some real and lasting good. Deep down, we’re all aware of this. As Bob Dylan said in “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (1965), “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”
Raphaël Zarka collects sculptural forms. His ongoing series, Les Formes du Repos (Resting Forms), begun in 2001, consists of photographs of remnants of human enterprise littering the landscape: a stretch of unfinished monorail, a concrete breakwater, a lone pylon.
Zarka captures the sculptural possibilities of these forms as images, such that the abandoned, the disused, and the forgotten become sites of potential, with a lexicon of formal associations that runs from Plato to modernism to postminimalist sculpture. Moving beyond the strategies associated with archives and appropriation, which have come to characterize contemporary art production in recent years, Zarka’s project reinvests cultural remnants of the past with both functional and aesthetic promise.
Zarka sees himself as an essayist, as well as an artist and collector. Robert Smithson is one of his heroes, less for the formal manifestations of his work than for his writing and his mining of an eclectic range of cultural production. The critic Hal Foster observed, in his text on “the archival impulse,” that the retrieval of preexisting sources, be they photographic, filmic, or textual, is carried out by artists “in a gesture of alternative knowledge.” This observation is echoed to a certain extent in a statement by Zarka: “I never try to present reality as it is. On the contrary, I’m stressing the fact that we can only ever see the world from our own particular cultural viewpoint.”
Zarka’s most recent series, Riding Modern Art extends his investigations of the sculptural as image further, combining the “found forms” of public sculpture with “found images” that make up part of the subcultural vernacular of the urban skateboarder. Zarka began collecting photographs of skaters and sculptures from skateboarding magazines after making a short video in which he montaged his own footage of skateboarders riding sculptures in public spaces. The choice of subject matter wasn’t random. Zarka, who lives in Paris, is a skater himself and has become something of a legend in skateboarding circles since the 2006 publication of his book Chronologie lacunaire du skateboard, 1779–2005: Une journée sans vague (An Incomplete Chronology of Skateboarding, 1779–2005: A Day Without a Wave).
Riding Modern Art was presented by Zarka at the 2007 Lyon Biennale in response to an invitation by the artist Pierre Joseph. Zarka riffed on Joseph’s concept of personnages à réactiver (people to reactivate), applying it to a particular history of sculpture evidenced in corporate plazas and commercial precincts in cities across Europe. He presented eleven framed photographs on two adjoining walls. The third element of the installation was Spatial Composition 3, a monochrome sculpture constructed of curves and right angles made by avant-garde Polish artist Katarzyna Kobro in 1928, which epitomizes what Zarka describes as “the forms of modernity.”
While the borrowed sculpture by Kobro and the framed photographs are, in essence, readymades, in Zarka’s staging of them they’re endowed with a particular momentum in terms of visual and conceptual impact. The suspension of action in images of skateboarders executing gravity-defying wall rides, backside kick flips, and caveman drop-ins and the faded grandeur of monumental modernist sculptures from the 60s result in an attention-grabbing collision of cultural aspirations past and the adrenaline rush of high-velocity physical activity.
Like Les Formes du Repos, Zarka’s Riding Modern Art proposes liberation from history and/or cultural memory as an arrested state. Zarka’s images refer us to a more democratic potential within form, encapsulated in the approach of the skateboarders, for whom every surface and every curve is a potential ride. Zarka’s approach could be considered in terms of the “open form,” a concept developed by the influential Polish architect, designer, and teacher Oscar Hansen in the 1950s, with a view to integrating spatial forms and their surroundings so as to create backgrounds for events that involve the viewer. (The artist Pawel Althamer, a graduate of the studio of Grzegorz Kowalski at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, is considered one of the more prominent contemporary exponents of Hansen’s theory.)
In his visual ecology of reinvestment and reuse, Zarka not only creates a space of physical and temporal layering with assured elegance but propels us into dimensions of discovery and, for those of us used to considering our art from a position of polite critical scrutiny, some vicarious thrill-seeking. Old terrain, left for dead, suddenly becomes new again.
In the spring of 2007, Tarek Zaki spent five days building a sprawling, multifaceted installation of more than thirty plaster and concrete objects. Then, in the factory space of Cairo’s Townhouse gallery, he exhibited the work as if it were something that had just been systematically taken apart. When the show closed, he destroyed everything in a matter of hours.
As of this writing, Zaki is rebuilding the same work — albeit with different materials, on a larger scale, and in a new configuration — for Fort Island, a speck of land in a manmade lagoon that serves as the centerpiece of Dubai’s opulent Madinat Jumeirah resort, which is hosting the second edition of Art Dubai. It’s unclear what the future of the work will be when the fair ends on March 22. Maybe it’ll be destroyed again, maybe it’ll stick around this time, maybe it’ll simply be moved someplace else. Such uncertainty amplifies the already critical ambiguity of a piece that eloquently and hauntingly explores notions of time, history, memorial, and ruin.
Monument X posits the disparate parts of an unknown, unnamed monument as objects of study, wonder, and play. Columns, plinths, arches, domes, a set of steps, and the fragmented limbs of man and animal are carefully arranged, as if the monument had just been dismantled, its pieces awaiting classification tags and a storage container, or as if it had just been discovered, its pieces awaiting patient reconstruction and proper museum-style display. Zaki, the unseen artist, doubles as a time-traveling archaeologist and also, perhaps, as a conceptual prankster with a lingering attachment to formalism (the stark, matte minimalism of his lines and surfaces are as ghostly and evocative as that of Rachel Whiteread’s plaster, resin, and concrete casts). Stripped of all details that might indicate identity and history, and left with only the marks of labor’s wear and tear, Monument X is ultimately a riddle, one that yields no solutions and instead multiplies the questions.
Now, in re-creating Monument X, Zaki is adding another layer of intrigue to a work that toys with space, volume, material, and the permanence of iconic gestures, by emphasizing impermanence, the ease of construction and destruction, mobility, and the various meanings gathered from site and circumstance.
“[When Monument X] was first exhibited at the Townhouse Gallery, in the factory, I turned the space back into a warehouse,” Zaki recalls. “People didn’t expect to see what they saw. It didn’t look like a gallery, and the pieces didn’t exactly look like ‘art.’” Yet by situating the work in a well-known independent art space, off Champollion Street in downtown Cairo, Zaki surely threw out a wealth of possible narratives, connecting the dots between Pharaonic relics, noted Egyptologists, colonial architecture, and civic space.
After all, you’ve seen monuments like this before. They stand in plazas and public squares, marking out territory in space and time. They usually pay direct tribute to statesmen and offer more oblique references to revolutions, independence movements, the new political orders established by postcolonial regimes. They persist for the purpose of inspiring civic pride and to remind all who pass that history was made there. They demand a measure of respect — unless, of course, they’re knocked down and destroyed to signal the end of an era and the negation, or rewriting, of its history. In these monuments, a leader, typically male, is represented in cast concrete or chiseled stone. Depending on the century of issue, he’s either standing or astride a horse, with arm and index finger extended either up or over, pointing the way forward, indicating the path of progress, and promising a viable future.
To move Monument X from Cairo to Dubai — and from a nonprofit art space to a commercial art fair — triggers an entirely different set of generative stories. Gone is the proximity to old museums and mausoleums of ancient culture. In Dubai, Monument X has the potential to comment on the death of the nation-state (and its nineteenth-century statues of heroes on horseback) and the rise of more nebulous, postdemocratic situations (in which figurative historical monuments are likely to be at best re-created for nostalgia, at worst relegated to theme parks).
Monument X is intimately tied to Zaki’s earlier body of work, Time Machine: Remembering Tomorrow, an installation of sculptures encased in glass vitrines that imagined the spent remains of today’s warfare — military-issue keyboards and data keys, soldiers’ helmets, missiles — as the novel artifacts of tomorrow’s antiquities museums.
“The two projects both deal with the icon. They both ‘look back’ at the present and try to examine history,” says Zaki. “The idea of disintegration is evident in both, [as is] the playful approach. If Time Machine: Remembering Tomorrow deals with how museums represent the past then Monument X deals with how monuments try to represent history and how we perceive it.”
Zaki, who was born in Saudi Arabia, went through five years of art school at Helwan University in Cairo. It was the kind of place where art the history of art ended with Picasso and Matisse, Zaki laughs; where installation and video never happened; and where figuration and realism reigned. (Though as for those figures — students copied draperies rather than human models.) Still, the spark for his latest works came from a source rather removed from the faculty studio.
“The war in Iraq was the first war I witnessed as an adult,” he says. “I was a boy when the first Gulf War took place. The war in Iraq was too surreal. People were watching television, following the news, and I felt like it was the World Cup or the Olympic Games. It felt so unreal, yet so threatening. I saw what destruction could be, how millions of people could just vanish, and how a nation could become history. Monument X was triggered by the war in Iraq and many other factors…. The whole region, maybe the whole world, is going through a difficult period of instability. Egypt is facing an unknown political future, and so is Lebanon,” he notes. “Deconstructing the monument seemed like the right thing to do.”
What sets Zaki’s approach to political concerns apart from his peers’, however, is his insistence, first, on the very material presence of solid, three-dimensional objects at a time when many artists tackling historical rupture are opting for immaterial gestures or ephemeral inventions; and second, on the connection between his work and a wide-ranging art-historical discourse. As an artist of critical strategies, Zaki is almost entirely self-taught, accumulating knowledge through studio residencies, fellowship grants, and internet research. Yet he situates the questions of his practice well within a sculptural lineage.
“Sculpture in general, whether casting or molding or chiseling, embodies its own history,” he explains. “You look at Venus or Ramses or a work by Tàpies or Cy Twombly, and they all seem to share one long story. These pieces of stone or marble are left by their creators (whether Egyptians, Romans, or Mayans) like evidence or proof of their existence. The physical existence of that object or sculpture in the void is the present, the embodiment of now.
“A photograph can record that existence, but I’m more interested in the existence itself that is evident in every layer or surface of the object. I try to create objects that speak for all tenses: past, future, and present. I am interested in objects that are timeless…. Time is such an elusive thing. Time is also everything…. We [try] to fight or tame nature, climate, gravity, but when it comes to time, we are clueless.
“Archaeologists are endlessly trying to solve the riddles of the past. We don’t stop digging [into] the ground, to know more about who we are, where we came from, and where we are going to, to quote from Gauguin’s painting. Some archaeologists try to tell objective histories, others [more subjective accounts]. With all of that, we are left with a huge gap between what we know and what actually took place. That gap needs to be filled, and so every one of us has his own version of history. Monument X gives the viewer the chance to make his own version of the monument, to play the archaeologist, to solve the puzzle and put the pieces together.”
Rosalind Nashashibi’s Bachelor Machines Part I centers on the unspectacular activities of the Italian crew of the cargo ship Gran Bretagna as it travels from Italy to the Baltic Sea. Over the course of thirty minutes, the men go about their business — attending to ship activities, eating, smoking and playing cards, dancing (furtively) in the dining room. But this is not the stuff of “reality television” — the onboard community of men is not subjected to the sort of documentary-making that seeks to expose its subjects’ private lives to an audience hoping for a prurient glimpse of a world they’ll never know. Nor is life aboard ship aestheticized. There is a sense of respectful distance, a refusal of intimacy that belies the filmmaker’s intimate access — a refusal underlined by the dialogue being in Italian, none of it subtitled and none of it important, really; or rather, not to the point.
Instead, Nashashibi’s cinematically literate shot-making animates the ship and the literal machinery of global commerce — dockyard cranes, shipping containers — in a way that evokes both Dziga Vertov’s constructivist celebration of the machine age and Jean-Luc Godard’s dystopian reprocessing of Vertov in 1970s films such as British Sounds. One scene, in which two seamen repeatedly open and close an uncooperative door on deck, verges on silent comedy. In another, the setting sun heaves brilliantly into view through an open hatch, creating a textbook vision of the cinematic sublime — a vision so entirely part and parcel of the everyday experience of the crew that it passes entirely without acknowledgement.
The artist’s use of 16-mm film (as opposed to more readily manipulated digital technologies) and the interpolation of herself and her camera as an acknowledged but silent character situate her as an unreliable eyewitness, neither orchestrating events nor erasing her own presence. She keeps her head to the ground. Her method suggests an unspoken collaboration with the people she represents; the work neither depersonalizes nor universalizes its subjects, and there is no sense of performance for the camera or of an attempt to produce some emblematic moment that can sum up the complexities of individual lives.
Her earlier Hreash House (2004) centers on the gathering of an extended family in an apartment block in Nazareth. It also avoids the conventions both of televisual storytelling and of the handheld, uncut art video, assembling a simple narrative whose interest is generated in the cinematic details, the particular gestures of the participants and the close-up shots of textiles and interiors, as much as by its overall arc. There is hardly a story, just an ordinary middle-class family going about the preparation and aftermath of a fast-breaking meal during Ramadan. Also presented without subtitles, the film subtly communicates a sense of social convention that is at once spontaneous and scripted. Once again Nashashibi finds herself in a context that is not her own, allowing us to occupy her subjectivity without feeling guilty or manipulated.
This balance of poetic subjectivity and documentary restraint can be traced back to the films of the French ethnographer Jean Rouch, which had an outsize influence on European filmmakers in the 1960s. But Nashashibi works in light of the very public deconstruction of the techniques she has adopted, and she employs her verite; approach to build a deliberate fiction, secure in the knowledge that no one will mistake her work for an attempt to portray the inaccessible truth of the situations she is filming. There is a latent politics at work in Nashashibi’s practice, though she avoids addressing the direct political questions that might attend, for example, the working-class identity of the sailors in Bachelor Machines Part I or the Palestinian identity of the family depicted in Hreash House. Rather, she manages to explore a wider representation of the relationships between behavior and belief, control and convention. Her film of students in the Glasgow University Library, for example, simply titled University Library (2003), is a compressed typology of behaviors, presented via shots and setups that also foreground the modernist architecture of the university building. The contrast between the evident intention of the architecture and institution (highly controlled and directed toward an idealized model of learning) and the actual activities of the students (caught between the dictates of the institution and personal or social imperatives) makes for a gentle and subtle investigation of the ways that power operates, and the ways it fails. Appropriately, Nashashibi captures the students distractedly tapping their pencils, staring into the ether, listening to music on their headphones.
Nashashibi’s background as an Irish-Palestinian artist educated in England and Scotland (she graduated from the Glasgow School of Art in 2000) is often invoked as an explanation for her interest in the workings of particular subcultures and communities. But her interest, at least in ethnographic terms, can be seen more easily as having something in common with structuralist anthropology. Her film Eyeballing (2005), for example, is a playful series of static shots of objects and landscapes, some close-up, some in wide angle, in which it’s almost impossible not to see the apparition of faces. Plainly, for evolutionary reasons, the human brain is hard-wired to recognize the combination of two dots or circles with a line beneath them as a face. These images are intercut with footage of New York City police — men and women — shot as they enter and exit what looks like a side door to one of Manhattan’s many police stations. The juxtaposition between the deeply structural recognition of the faces and the deeply cultural, costumed roles played by the cops emphasizes the place of representation and ritual in the world around us. The faces emerge from the city and are both its inhabitants and its totems — or, in the artist’s words, its “gods or monsters.”
Recently Nashashibi translated her investigations into book form. Mute: On Sound is an essay composed mostly of found photographs and archival images, from reproductions of premodern art and documentation of ritual behaviors and local traditions to modernist architecture and performance. An acknowledgment of the influence of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s films on Nashashibi’s work, it uses his unorthodox reading of Freud and the assertion of the stubborn presence of ancient mythology in contemporary culture as a framework within which to draw together the artist’s particular personal inspirations. Symbolism and ritual are presented as ways not of binding us to the past but of creatively resisting or transcending the conditions of the present.
Carl Jung once said that mythologizing “gives existence a glamour we wouldn’t Want to be without.” Nashashibi seems to agree — she borrows from the quote for the title of her most recent set of photographic works, a triptych of found images representing dancers in the Malawian village of Gumbi, a scene from Pasolini’s Oedipus Rex, and a portrait of La Cicciolina. But the ideas of myth and glamour she is interested in are not those produced by the contemporary star-obsessed mass media, but rather, the glamour of everyday life, the myths made by rituals that arise from direct, sometimes banal, social interactions.
Still, one of the characteristics of the documentary mode in which Nashashibi works is that it seems to offer the possibility of truth, and so some kind of truth is always attempting to return beyond the index of the image, all the reality that can’t be caught on film: the world outside the frame, the time before and after, all of the invisible conditions that surround the production of a particular image. It is a paradox of this kind of myth-making, this kind of ritual or glamour, that, while the documentary image can never embody the relationships of meaning that give it its power, it nonetheless exists as the social production of imagery, of symbols and their meanings.
In the end, it is as if Nashashibi is telling us that we are condemned to act out the rituals of a script we have only inherited — whether as model-airplane enthusiasts in Omaha, Nebraska (Midwest: Field, 2002), as young men playing football in an East Jerusalem town (Dahiet Al Bareed, 2002), or as members of a crew on a cargo ship making its way across the sea. After all, this is a world and a series of myths that are not of our making but that, in occasionally subtle and often unsubtle manner, make us.
When it comes to eyewear, the prudent despot opts for something chunky. After all, glasses traditionally bespeak physical frailty, and what better way to defy such astigmatic prejudices than with a pair of wide-rimmed, rectangular frames so in-your-face as to virtually dare onlookers to call you four-eyes?
Two proponents of this approach — Kim Jong Il and Robert Mugabe — traditionally chose glasses so unfashionable as to be menacing. Such was the girth and depth of their giant optic scaffolds that they suggested the thickness and broadness of bulletproof glass. Similarly, the sharp-edged, horn-rimmed glasses of Mobutu Sese Seko, the late dictator of Zaire, seemed to invoke every awful possibility of spear and bone.
Recently, however, there has been a wavering on the bridges of tyrants’ noses. Mugabe has moved toward more modest wire frames, and Kim has been photographed without any glasses at all. Mirror shades, once so prevalent among South American dictators, gleam only in the darkness of that continent’s memory. Nowadays innovations in totalitarian eyewear perch solely on the enigmatic beak of Muammar al-Qaddafi.
Qaddafi’s spectacles have always been spectacles. On the billboards of Tripoli he appears wearing a variety of boxy frames with octagonal lenses, rounded frames with teardrop lenses, mirrored metal and colored plastic, as if the brightness of his nation’s sun demanded that even the visage of his image be protected. In international publications, such as Klaus Zwangsleitner’s Official Portraits (2004), Qaddafi stares imperiously at the viewer from behind a pair of blue-tinted, gold-rimmed glasses that are both precious and strangely unsettling. In public appearances the sunglasses are there, too. A recent meeting with Nicolas Sarkozy saw him offset his white tuxedo and black silk shirt with a pair of large black frameless glasses sporting a prominent gold nose bridge. Earlier this year, on a road trip through Africa, he was seen wearing rainbow-tinted sunglasses, and when encountering Tony Blair in 2004, he played to the desert landscape with a pair of strikingly ornate gold frames.
Why does Qaddafi change his eyewear? Politicians, especially those with total authority, rarely fiddle with their image, lest it undermine their cult of personality. (In dictatorships, familiarity breeds consent.) So perhaps Qaddafi uses his sunglasses to send out political messages. His rainbow-tinted lenses clearly suggested that he sees his country as the northern equivalent to South Africa, the continent’s self-styled “rainbow nation.” But such correspondences are not always clear. Maybe his prescription keeps changing. Maybe he keeps sitting on them — we’ve all been there — or maybe it’s just that frequent stylistic shifts are natural for a man with a penchant for pink robes, scarlet epaulets, and beige scarves, a wardrobe that a lesser soul, with a lesser secret-police force, might shrink from wearing. Remember, this is a man who engineered a coup d’état from the back of a turquoise Volkswagen Beetle.
It is true that while Bono has his wraparounds, John Lennon had his tea shades and Jacqueline Onassis her Jackie O’s, there are no signature Qaddafi glasses. His tastes are too protean for any one style to stick. Yet this very shifting of facades has become the defining feature of his own mercurial image — enemy of the West, friend of the West, advocate of Arab unity, advocate of African unity, aviator, wayfarer. His sunglasses conceal nothing. They reveal him. His capricious nature is reflected in the ever-changing fashions of his face. No point trying to peer behind the glasses: the real Qaddafi can be found in the shades.
Five years ago my Aunt Berkah gave birth to a miracle baby. My infant cousin’s right ear arrived crumpled into a vaguely legible spelling of “Allah” in Arabic. The doctors and nurses were overjoyed, local newspapers picked up the story, and the whole community considered the baby a blessing. Aunt Berkah named her Aya, which means “Qur'anic verse” as well as “sign of Allah.”
Now more than ever, it seems, the divine is at work in the world. The evidence is everywhere, especially on the Internet and most especially in the amazing email-forwarding chains that can keep news of the miraculous alive nearly indefinitely. These phenomena are by no means limited to Muslims. There was the baby Jesus in the snail shell that was discovered in Tortuguero, Costa Rica, and subsequently put up for sale on eBay; and the “Virgin Stump” of Passaic, New Jersey, in which Mary’s visage, revealed in the grain of a newly exposed tree stump, was preserved, converted into a shrine for the devout and the curious. Christians have described the faith-quickening power of a two-inch-long Virgin composed of dark-chocolate drippings in Fountain Valley, California, and the face of Jesus himself in a twist of pasta on a billboard for Pizza Hut in Atlanta, Georgia. But Muslims have their own form of pareidolia, and, as befits a calligraphic culture with a somewhat vexed relationship to the visual, it is the text-image in which the divine manifests, the “word made flesh,” with Allah’s longhand the sought-after and perceived sign.
As it turns out, it’s fairly common for Allah to sign his creations. His mighty tag can be found in the froth of the sea and the pulp of the tomato, in the wool of the lamb and the rubber of the Nike. But one of Allah’s favorite mediums is certainly fish scale.
Allah-fish turn up with inspiring frequency in places like Jakarta, Manchester, and Dakar, on the fins and bellies of everyday fish, the words Allah or Mohammed beveled into the skin as some warped form of adaptive camouflage. For whatever reason, God signs “Allah” far more often than, say, “Al-Rahman” (Most Beneficent) or “Al-Mutakabbir” (the Tremendous) or “Al-Latif” (the Subtly Kind) or any of his ninety-six other, mostly more elaborate-looking, names.
The year 2006 was big for miracle fish. In February, an albino oscar fish, originally from Singapore, appeared in the tanks of a pet shop in Waterford, England, and quickly became a celebrity of sorts. “Allah on one side, Mohammed on the other,” as Mohammed Riaz-Shahid, from the Oasis Fast Food restaurant across the street, proclaimed. A sign from the heavens. Still, the young man who bought the fish, Naz Raja, insisted that he did it “because it was beautiful. It might be a sign, I suppose.” A miracle, the reporters pressed? “Kind of, yeah.”
Those minced words did not represent the views of the enthusiasts at the Allah-fish’s official website, where photos, testimonials, and videos were greeted with a generous outpouring of Sabhan'allah!s and Allahu Akbar!s. In June of the same year, a fisherman off the coast of Oman caught a rabbitfish signed by Allah. “I’m overjoyed at being the one to find this miracle in praise of Allah,” he told reporters. He sent the rabbitfish straight to the local taxidermist, where it would be preserved forever, Allah’s dead proof.
Just as Allah makes himself known in the skies and sea, so does Shaytan make waves in the aquatic underworld. Type “fish girl” into any search engine and you’ll find a grainy video of a girl who was turned into a fish after kicking the Qur'an. This sign is said to have originated in Dhidhdhoo, Maldives, though the origins of such viral videos are difficult to trace. In the footage, the fish-girl lies belly-up and vulnerable to the handheld camera that shakily follows the contours of her humanesque body, paying special attention to the orifices. The girl did not survive the transition, it seems. The corpse is the color of an artichoke heart, and its wispy fins look just like roasted leaves. She lies on a blanket-covered table with her rigor-mortised tail protruding over the edge. A Qur'anic cassette tape plays loudly in the background. We get a brief glimpse of a man bent over, examining the cursed girl. The video, which is variously titled “girl who Turn out to be a fish” and “Fish Girl: FULL STORY EXPALINED HERE!!!!” is like a lo-fi Islamic version of the Ray Santilli alien-autopsy video from the 1990s, right down to the bloated belly.
But the devil, it seems, is lazy, and his work is easily debunked. On further investigation, the fish-girl of Dhidhdhoo is actually just your run-of-the-mill guitarfish. In images and videos of these weird tropical fish, they flit about all slit-mouthed and crevice-eyed, and if you squint hard enough at its underside, a guitarfish could easily be mistaken for an anak durhaka (insolent child).
Luckily, since her miraculous birth, my cousin Aya’s ears have grown out. After the Allah stage, her ear unfurled into more of a classical cauliflower shape. And Aya has turned out to be quite the insolent child herself. All the early attention about her holiness seems to have spoiled her rotten. Aunt Berkah is just relieved that the ear’s divine message is gone; no more strangers begging to kiss or fondle her daughter anymore. Now that Aya is entering school, her ear is just an illegible echo, a smudge rather than a stamp or a squiggle, a sign no one would take for a wonder.
We are a very sick country. I, perhaps, am sicker than most.
Never come between a black man and his hustle in a room full of white people.
If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction.
In 1975, Eldridge Cleaver, having tried his hand at petty crime, insurrectionary sexual assault (so-called), essay writing, public relations, civil rights activism, US presidential politics, and paramilitary training, decided to become a fashion designer. The menswear line he produced while on the run in Cuba, Algeria, and France (his line was waggishly called Eldridge de Paris) has faded nearly completely from memory, with the exception of one novel sartorial affectation: the Cleaver Sleeve.
Essentially a sock-like codpiece affixed to tight-fitting, flat-front slacks, the Cleaver Sleeve put the male member on permanent display, abolishing the “crime of indecent exposure” in favor of its vaguely worded opposite, “decent exposure.” He explained the concept to an interviewer: “I’ve always been keen about sex. I like it. So you know the whole thing about the Kama Sutra — there’s something to learn there, right?” He was a “tantric guru” now, he said, “a label I bestowed upon myself, because I know who I am. I’ve mastered it. That’s why I made these pants.”
Is there a word in the English language capable of capturing the perverse blend of affection and gratitude we feel for our negative role models? It’s not the same as the admiration or envy we feel for an illustrious or beloved ancestor. It often hangs on a tale, and we feel a guilty thankfulness for the stocks of anecdote and misadventure these unwittingly instructive men and women, our cautionary object lessons, have provided. They wriggle and wrong-turn, they struggle and, now and then, die — not for our sins, but for our edification. But to be truly edifying, they must not be complete strangers; for their lesson to be effective we must be able to project ourselves onto the contours of their stories. They have to be plausible extensions of ourselves, younger or older, a sister or brother still visible a ways down the road not taken.
I’ve always felt that kind of affection and gratitude toward Cleaver. A onetime Black Panther Party minister of information who would eventually convert to crack, evangelical Christianity, and conservative Republican politics, Cleaver is part of that compelling subgenus of 60s provocateur whose charisma and humor conspire to distract from all that is absurd, unsavory, or worse in the rough of their makeup. Soul on Ice, Cleaver’s 1968 essayistic memoir, with its author’s self-serving, insidious codification of rape as a tactic of war, both capitalized on the confessional, street-cred-producing aspects of Malcolm X’s 1964 Autobiography and trumped them, eschewing (at that point, at least) the moral transformation that made of Malcolm a very different kind of role model. Moreover, the signature defects of Cleaver’s character (misogyny, homophobia) and his signature cause (fighting white supremacy) are of continuing relevance, and it’s difficult to take in the spectacle of his wranglings with such defects and causes without thinking, “There but for the grace of God…” Reading Soul on Ice at an invariably impressionable age, in college, you can see yourself in his shoes, or at least I could, making the same mistakes — which is why you’re glad he got there first, to make them and then document them in such obsessive, persistent detail.
It feels like a Continental sentiment, this gratitude I have for Cleaver. Or, more properly, it feels like the expatriate’s backward-looking sympathy. It’s what you feel for the ones you leave behind, on the other side of an ocean or border. Those on the other side can’t be completely abandoned, as without them the trip loses all contrast and meaning. What you do instead is carry the past with you in full view, keeping it within easy rhetorical reach. More specifically, you speak approvingly of Cleaver’s literary qualities, you put him in his proper political and historical context, you display Soul on Ice prominently on your bookshelf like a totem. Everyone knows it’s the work of a self-described rapist; it wouldn’t be up there if it weren’t.
None of this was likely on Eldridge Cleaver’s mind when he put his own totem on display, his eponymous codpiece, the Cleaver Sleeve. There is nonetheless something expatriate and European about the high-waisted penis pants he is credited with crafting. They’re exactly the kind of ostentatious and ridiculous thing a black man from Wabbaseka, Arkansas, would come home wearing after losing good portions of his mind and his faith in 70s-era exile. I’ve been places you poor, dumb nuccas wouldn’t believe, the sleeve seems say, and it wasn’t all for naught. You want to disavow the penis pants, swear you’d never wear such a thing, but then there’s Soul on Ice on your bookshelf, Cleaver’s face staring down at you. Of course you would.
Like the quark and the Higgs boson, the breastplate of the archangel Metatron belongs to that class of objects knowable only through their remote effects. No human being has seen it, save possibly Abraham, who may have been distracted by its glory as he prepared to slide the knife into Isaac’s throat. Its owner may be the same angel who wrestled with Jacob at Peniel, but it is hardly credible to think that Jacob would have noticed what his adversary was wearing, not least because it was night. It may have been Metatron whom the Lord sent forth to keep watch over the Israelites as they stumbled through the wilderness, but he would have appeared to them only as something vast and shining, less angel than beacon. In the midst of all that radiance, who could make out a breastplate?
These are the only recorded instances of Metatron’s appearance in the human world, and they’re all apocryphal, arising from the Bible’s reticence and the taxonomic frenzy of certain of its commentators, who composed a biographical note for every walk-on in Scripture. Most of what we know of Metatron comes from such noncanonical sources as the Talmud, the zohar, and the Hebrew and Ethiopic books of Enoch. He is variously described as the king of angels, prince of the divine face, chancellor of heaven, angel of the covenant, and the “lesser YHWH.” Some traditions make him a stenographer or scribe. After glimpsing him seated in heaven, a privilege forbidden to all but God, one of the Talmudists speculated that Metatron was “another power” equal to the Creator. Other commentators insist that he was just taking notes and demonstrate the angel’s subordinate status by suggesting that he was beaten with fiery rods. He is sometimes said to be as old as the created world, or older. But yet another story insists that he began his existence as a man, Enoch, who walked with God and then, as Genesis puts it, “was not.” Once in heaven, writes Gershom Scholem, “his flesh was turned to flame, his veins to fire, his eyelashes to flashes of lightning, his eyeballs to flaming torches.” The new being was more powerful than any other angel and as tall as the earth is broad. And he was called… Metatron. The parallels with superhero origin stories are striking; no wonder that the Japanese adopted him as a super-robot, or that entities bearing his name keep popping up in video games and cartoons across the globe.
Like any proper superhero, Metatron has a power object, a breastplate. It is said to be similar to the one worn by the high priest of Jerusalem in the first temple. In some commentaries, it is that breastplate’s archetype, the idea of an archetype having come to Judaism from the same Greek sources that imparted it to Christianity. The high priest’s breastplate was not just a ceremonial garment but also a prophetic instrument. It contained twelve stones, arranged in rows, each engraved with the names of one of the twelve tribes and one of the twelve patriarchs. During periods of crisis, when the ordinary human wisdom of kings and rabbis foundered, the high priest would ask the breastplate a question and certain letters in the stones would light up. The priest would note these and arrange them into a word that indicated what course of action Israel should take: “war” or “peace,” “plant” or “pluck up,” “kill” or “heal.” It is speculated that the famous third chapter of Ecclesiastes, which begins “To everything there is a season,” is a list of such instructions.
The relation between an archetype and its earthly occurrence is the relation between an original and a copy, with the copy of necessity grossly inferior to its source. Relative to Metatron’s breastplate, the chest piece worn by the high priest was a tinfoil-wrapped cardboard box with Christmas-tree lights for stones. Its oracles were as accurate as a Magic Eight Ball. Dominionists of every faith forget that the tragedy of the sacred state is that it can never be more than a blurred offprint of the kingdom of heaven. What remains mysterious is how the archangel’s breastplate figured in Israel’s auguries. Was it a transmitter that picked up the high priest’s request, forwarded it to the Almighty, and encoded the divine response into pulses of light, which it then sent earthward? And can we be sure that the answers came from God and not from the angel? As the story of Lucifer attests, angels can have ideas of their own.
In Platonic philosophy, the archetype predates its earthly translations. In Jewish mysticism, however, the opposite is sometimes true. The archangel’s breastplate, forged from the unimaginably heavy ore of the sun and set with stars, could not come into being until the high priest’s had been stapled and taped together from its flimsier materials. The breastplate of the high priest was less a copy than a prototype, a ham-handed foray toward an as-yet unrealized perfection. As the zohar tells us: “The impulse from below calls forth that from above.”
We had been trying for a week to see Rashid Dostum, one of the most notorious of the Afghan warlords. We were hopeful; we had never gotten as far as this waiting room, with its canary-yellow walls and green brocade couches. But we had no idea how many other rooms still stood between us and the general.
On the wall hung a row of clocks, some round and some square. Each one told a different time. Two white-bearded village chiefs sat silently, cross-legged on the couches, as though they weren’t couches at all but elevated patches of earth. An aide said that Dostum had acquired the couches in Turkey, where he had gone into exile in 1998 after his defeat by the Taliban. He returned at the end of 2001 with the support of the Americans to join the Northern Alliance in chasing the Taliban from power.
Everyone close to him agreed: the general’s tastes had evolved considerably during his forced exile in Ankara. The first order he gave after settling in Shebergan was to repaint this very building, which served as staff headquarters, a residence for his VIP guests, and the head office of the Jumbesh-e Melli, his national Islamic political party, entirely in pink. He also added two towers in the corners and ordered a crew of workers to rip out the street in front of the building, one of the only paved roads in all of northern Afghanistan, to plant flower beds.
His former stronghold, the Qala-i-Janghi (House of War) fortress, was a rectangular structure about half a mile long, made of crude bricks and ocher-colored mud and consisting of two huge courtyards surrounded by lookout towers and a double enclosure of ramparts and battlements. It overlooked the desert on the way out of Mazar-e Sharif. He used to like to punish traitors and criminals by having them crushed by his tanks in one of the courtyards. At the end of November 2001, Qala-i-Janghi was the scene of an uprising of three hundred Taliban prisoners, who were massacred by Dostum’s troops and American Special Forces. Only eighty-six of them survived, including John Walker Lindh.
The white-bearded elders disappeared. We were now alone in the room, wondering whether the American military officers who sometimes came to visit Dostum sat on these same couches, listening to the out-of-sync ticking of the clocks.
The clocks appeared to have been premiums for a chain-smoker who’d purchased in bulk. The square ones bore the name “Pine” and the round ones said “Legal.” These two cigarette brands, among the most common in Afghanistan, advertise “American taste” and “Blended in USA” on their packaging and are official products of South Korea.
All of the clocks worked except for the biggest one, which hung above all the others, its hands elegantly frozen at 10:10. No city names were given below the clocks to indicate the time zones to which they should correspond — New York, Paris, Beijing? Dubai, Peshawar, Tehran? They weren’t really keeping time at all, these clocks. It made the waiting seem even more interminable than it was.
Sometimes we would get up to knock on an adjacent door, only to be instructed to return to the couches, where we started to doze off. Behind the red curtains adorned with gold flowers, the day was rapidly coming to an end, and with it our chances for an interview.
Atta Mohammad, Dostum’s arch-enemy of the moment, also backed by the Americans, had been easier to approach. He had granted us an interview the day before in Mazar-e Sharif, dressed in a stylish three-piece suit and fervently insisting on his commitment to peace while fiddling with a bronze cannon, a miniature of those used during the Napoleonic Wars. He had just lost four villages to Dostum’s troops.
Our meeting with the general finally took place the next evening. Dostum allotted us ten minutes for a photo session in his office, which was decorated like an Oriental drawing room with a suspended gilded-stucco ceiling, subdued lighting, and an aquarium with no fish inside. As to the interview itself, he preferred to have us speak to his spokesman, who spent the next two hours telling us how the general was a man of peace, that he had not committed war crimes by letting Taliban prisoners die in containers abandoned in the desert, and that the Jumbesh was not financed by opium trafficking.
During our photo shoot, the general had agreed to answer one question only.
How had he found his office when he got back, after three years’ occupation by the Taliban? “Very clean!” he exclaimed. “They slept on the floor but didn’t damage the Persian rugs. When I left in 1998, I had forgotten a pair of shoes in a corner. I found them in the same spot when I came back, just a little dustier.” He pulled up his caftan so that we could admire his short black leather boots, shined to perfection.
On a wall in the ruins of Persepolis, Iran, there is a relief sculpture of Xerxes the Great, king of the Persian Empire from 485 to 465 BC. Sitting straight-backed on a throne with his bare feet resting on a dainty stool (the better not to touch the humdrum earth), he wears long, pleated robes and holds a lotus flower, symbol of his eternal dominance, in his left hand. Beneath his crown froths a fulsome head of hair, and from his chin juts a great crocheted beard, as long and as thick as his upper arm. Half-god, half-barroom bruiser, this Xerxes seems more than capable of keeping most of the known world under his thumb.
Fast-forward to 2007 and the release of Zach Snyder’s 300. Based on a 1998 Frank Miller comic book of the same name, the film recounts the tale of the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, in which three hundred Spartan warriors held off a vast Persian invasion force (Herodotus reports an improbable and improbably specific 5,283,220 men) for three days in a famous last stand that gave the united Greek city-states time to assemble a fleet that would banish Xerxes’s troops from Greece forever. Snyder, however, evokes Thermopylae as a metaphor for present-day tensions between the West and Islam, and more particularly between America and Iran — something not lost on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose blustery spokesman, Gholamhossein Elham, described the film as an act of “cultural and psychological warfare.” And yet, while there is much that is politically suspect about 300, this CGI-heavy, nu-metal-sound-tracked adolescent power fantasy fails in its mission to equate the Spartan king Leonidas’s band of outnumbered brothers with George W. Bush’s military-industrial machine.
In his essay “The True Hollywood Left,” Slavoj Žižek asks whether the Spartans “with their discipline and spirit of sacrifice [are] not much closer to something like the Taliban defending Afghanistan against the US occupation (or, as a matter of fact, the elite unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard ready to sacrifice itself in the case of an American invasion?).” Well, perhaps. But what’s most interesting about 300 is not that the supposed heroes, with their ripped abs, rubber briefs, and taste for infanticide, are so unappealing; rather, it’s that the villain is so unintentionally attractive. Elsewhere in his essay, Žižek describes Snyder’s depiction of the Persian court as “a kind of multicultural different-lifestyles paradise [where] everyone participates in orgies[:] different races, lesbians and gays, cripples etc.” At its center stands Xerxes the Great. But this Xerxes is not the Achaemenid alpha male of the Persepolis reliefs. Rather, as portrayed by the beautiful Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro, 300’s Xerxes is Middle America’s every subterranean fear and desire brought to burnished, glittering life. His unstable ethnicity flickers between southern European, sub-Saharan African, Arab, and Persian. He’s a poster boy for miscegenation, containing within himself a genetic trace of every subject race in his continent-spanning empire. Standing some eight feet tall, he is possessed of a Brad Pitt-in-Fight Club (1999) musculature and a rumbling voice to rival Barry White’s. Yet despite these signifiers of heterosexual hypermasculinity, he has a certain joyfully swishy quality, taking languorous sniffs of Leonidas’s scalp when they meet to parley, wearing clear lip gloss, and dressing like the sartorial stepchild of Liberace and Dhalsim from Street Fighter II (1991). (In a recent South Park spoof of 300, Xerxes is depicted as an Iranian club owner who attempts to buy up an American lesbian bar named “Les Bos” and refurbish it with “blue carpets and gold curtain rods,” only to fall in love with one of the protesting customers and reveal himself to be a drag king. Try applying your postcolonial queer theory to that.)
The only facial hair Snyder’s Xerxes seems to possess is his exquisitely plucked eyebrows. Chains snake across his bald pate, and his smooth cheeks and chin are pierced with rings that glisten and shiver with every grimace or sigh. If these historically anomalous accessories are intended to suggest that the king is an S&M enthusiast, they also, in their asymmetric, almost haphazard, distribution, hint at another sexual peccadillo — what the American porn industry charmingly terms “getting a facial,” which is to say kneeling down before a masturbating man so that he might ejaculate on one’s face. (Significantly, “facial” scenes are often filmed from the standing perspective, allowing the viewer to fantasize that it is he who is, um, delivering the goods.)
In a movie that seeks to portray the Persian king as effeminate — a move beloved of Western Orientalists since Herodotus’s Polymnia — reading these baubles as blobs of semen seems oddly reasonable and becomes even more so when we consider the role proskynesis, or ritual prostration, plays in this tale. Snyder’s 300 is all about not kneeling before a king — only slaves and traitors do so, here — and the implication is that by wearing these gilded sperm proxies, Xerxes is demonstrating that he bends the knee to a higher power. If Snyder is using this device to contrast masculine, rationalist, straight (ha!) Sparta with feminine, mystic, polymorphously perverse Persia, it’s hard to know whether to find it grossly offensive or merely to laugh. With their Muscle Mary glutes and wipe-clean underwear, Leonidas and company look just about as gay as it gets, and one is tempted to suspect the director of a secret, shaming crush on them, like the homophobic frat boy who nurtures private fantasies of rubbing Deep Heat into the star quarterback’s tectonic shoulder blades. Curiously, the director’s other creation, the fictionalized Xerxes, is far better adjusted and seems to find his own ambiguous relationship with sex and power rather fun. An out bi man with the world at his feet, he wears his kinks on his sleeve, or rather his face.
In the concluding battle scene in 300, Leonidas, the sole remaining Spartan, hurls a spear at Xerxes in a final act of defiance. The historical Xerxes did not die at Thermopylae, of course, so Snyder has the spear glance his cheek, ripping out several of his ringlike facial piercings in a slo-mo spurt of blood. Some critics have interpreted this as the moment when the Persian king becomes aware of his mortality, the freedom-loving Spartan having divested him, albeit briefly, of the metaphoric ties that bind him to the idea that he is a living god. Me, I just think he looks disappointed. This Xerxes knows just what to do with a Spartan’s spear, but it’s not blood he had hoped to be wiping from his chin.
I was in Cairo, trying desperately to interview the aging pop star Ahmed Adaweya, whose penis, depending on whom you talk to, was or was not cut off by Saudi royalty. It was a uniquely American endeavor, mocked a friend of mine — invade the region with superior firepower, help topple a statue of Saddam Hussein, and then come in on a tourist visa to find a castrated singer.
“Next thing, you’ll probably want to steal this guy’s wife,” my friend said, way too loudly, waving in the direction of a Sayeedi in the corner of the coffee shop where we sat. “You’re like Genghis, but with loafers. You can just throw dollars at them. Or Michael Jackson records.” I looked nervously over my shoulder at the Sayeedi, who was wearing a green djellaba. Thankfully, he seemed oblivious to my home-wrecker plan, his eyes glued to the flickering television set. 50 Cent had his shirt off and was bragging about his magic stick. His abs were glistening; they seemed almost extraterrestrial in their beauty. No one in the coffee shop was immune to their strange and terrifying allure.
“This is not the story of 50 Cent as object of the Sayeedi gaze,” said my friend, touching my leg just above the knee. “This is the story of what you choose to see when you come to Egypt. All you see is castration.”
“Isn’t it better than being really into Umm Kulthum’s glasses?” I asked. “Or Nasser’s Hawaiian shirts? Or Sadat’s car? Or Muhammad Naguib’s presidency? Or Souad Hosni’s white dress?” Ruby started dancing on the television. “Or Ruby’s flared nostrils?” “Her nostrils are beautiful,” said the coffee-shop owner. He finished adjusting the coals on our sheesha and blew his nose on the hem of his shirt. “I could write a ghazal about her nostrils.”
“We’re talking about Ahmed Adaweya’s penis,” announced my friend.
“Not much to talk about!” Exaggerated laughter. “Now Ruby’s nostrils — there’s an object worthy of being a subject!” He whistled lasciviously and traced the outlines of the female form as imagined by a horny monk — an infinity of rolling hills.
As he walked away, I tried to explain my idea about Adaweya. Because we spoke in Arabic, I used awkward, muddled phrases, each ending with a questioning lilt: It’s about more than the rumored castration? It’s about the history of Egyptian pop music? About the shift from classically trained poets and composers to working-class louts? About technology and the cassette tape? About the man who sold a million tapes, even though the government wouldn’t allow his songs to be played on the radio? They were too lascivious? An allegory for the swamping of Egyptian nationalism by Saudi oil money?
“It’s just so crass,” my friend said. ”You like Ahmed Adaweya because he’s crass. You like him for the same reason you like this coffee shop, because it’s crappy.” He started pointing: the rickety wooden chairs with torn woven wicker seats, the dented, aluminum-topped tables, the grains of Keda tea floating in tepid water, the blanket of sawdust on the stained tile floor, the giant gap in the coffee-shop owner’s top teeth, the subtle stench of garbage wafting in from the side alley, the spidery cracks that spanned the length of the walls, the sharp smell of butane from the gas stove, the single bulb swaying on a thin wire from the sooty ceiling…
”What’s wrong with Umm Kulthum?” he demanded. “What’s wrong with being fascinated with Mahfouz or Abd al-Haleem Hafez or Fairuz? Something that requires a mastery of Arabic music or history or the goddamn language?”
“Yeah,” said the coffee-shop owner, his jowls quivering with excitement, “and why don’t you go to a nicer coffee shop?”
“I’m leaving,” the Sayeedi suddenly announced. He twirled his magnificent mustache, picked up his mysteriously bulky jute bag, and walked out of the coffee shop.
“Where is he going?” I demanded. My friend looked embarrassed. The coffee-shop owner ignored me. Outside, the Sayeedi hailed a minibus and got in, heading off to wherever it is that Sayeedis go. Where do Sayeedis go? Upper Egypt? Ain Shams? Ezbet el'Nakhl?
But this is not the Sayeedi’s story. Nor is it the story of the Sayeedi’s mustache, which nonetheless deserves a book-length study of its own. And it is most definitely not the story of Ahmed Adaweya, who is, let’s face it, kind of crass. It is, rather, the story of Naguib Mahfouz, who turned out to be worthy of fascination after all.
It turns out that meeting a Nobel laureate is far easier than meeting a washed-up and possibly castrated pop star. The difficult part is figuring out what to wear. In preparation for my interview with Mahfouz, I turned to the best-dressed man I knew, the owner of the corner store near my apartment. He was an old man, maybe sixty-five years old, and the very picture of worn elegance. He wore a three-piece suit to work every day and had four strands of hair on his head that he combed carefully. He even wore a fez, perched to display the four strands of hair.
He was very pleased that I was to meet Naguib Mahfouz. It was extremely important for a foreigner like me to meet someone like that. “There is no one alive in Egypt today who can take you into the heads of the people like Mahfouz can.” He advised me, gravely, that I should take a notebook. “He will explain Egypt to you, so you can explain it to America.”
He paused. “Of course, you’ve already read his books.”
“Of course.” Like everyone else, I had started and almost finished The Cairo Trilogy.
“Then you know that Ustez Mahfouz can describe anything.” He looked around his store, at the artfully arranged pyramid of toilet paper, at the dark wood floor and polished glass surfaces. He was rightfully proud of his store. Though he sold the same Lux soap as every other store in Cairo, he sold it with dignity. After a moment, he pointed out the window at the coffee shop across the street, where I had been sitting with my friend.
“Ustez Mahfouz understands what happens in Egypt’s streets and its coffee shops.”
Outside, the owner of the coffee shop was arguing with the mechanic who worked in the garage next door. Their daily altercations were a neighborhood ritual. The two
extremely large men would start yelling at each other about something minor, then about the color of their mothers’ vaginas. Then would come the climax of the fight: approaching within inches of each other, they pulled up their shirts and twisted their torsos violently from side to side to shake their corpulent bellies. Everyone on the street froze, mesmerized by the vast expanse of hairy flesh quivering in the hot Cairo sun.
We watched from the darkness of the store. “Naguib Mahfouz understands why those two men shake their bellies?”
“Of course. Ask him. He will explain to you why they choose to fight like that. He knows what they had for breakfast this morning, what they dreamed about last night, how many children they have…”
I interrupted. “Does Naguib Mahfouz understand what a Sayeedi thinks?”
He laughed. “He even understands the secrets of the Sayeedi’s mustache.”
I showed up to my meeting with Mahfouz wearing a new suit. The store owner had taken me to his favorite tailor, and after two hours of close deliberation, they settled on a gray wool. But something had gone wrong in the tailoring; the arms reached down to my knuckles while the pants barely made it to my ankles. It was not, in any case, an easy suit to wear in the heat of a Cairo summer. By the time I reached Ustez Mahfouz, my shirt was stuck to my back. The old men had made me buy a waistcoat (for the pocket watch I would one day buy, they said), and I could feel my sweat pooling up against the stiff fabric. To make things worse, I had worn bright white socks that day, and by the time I arrived at the Shepherd Hotel in Garden City, they were stained a dusty brown.
I met Mahfouz in the hotel bar. He wore a striking white linen suit that hung loosely over his small frame. He was lost in a high-backed leather armchair. I shook his hand gingerly — this was three years before his death, and everything about him seemed delicate. I was worried that Naguib Mahfouz would see my socks or notice the poor cut of my suit. When I sat down, I could feel the stiff neck of my new dress shirt grown damp with sweat and nervousness.
Not that there was anything to be nervous about; Mahfouz was asleep for most
of the evening. I was left alone with the coterie of men who made up the ranks of his salon, a group of intellectuals who filled the void of Mahfouz’s silence with talk of their own. When they found out I was American, they roared and began to lecture me on the necessity of American intervention in the Middle East, using exotic terms like “Drudge Report” and “Fareed Zakaria.” “America must push, push, PUSH on the Middle East!!” yelled one.
From time to time, someone would shake Mahfouz awake and yell a question into his ear: “Ya, Naguib-bey, what is your opinion of Ahmed Adaweya and shaabi music?”
“I love it.”
Cheers, applause, and laughter. “Ya Salaam, Naguib-bey!!”
“Naguib-bey still loves the music of the people!”
“Naguib-bey, what is your opinion of the situation in Palestine?”
“My heart goes out to the Palestinian people.”
“Naguib-bey!!! So kind!!”
A journalist from Al-wafd pointed to me: “Write that down and send it to America!!” I pretended to scrawl something down in my notebook. The pool of sweat had breached the waistcoat; even my jacket was sopping. I gulped down my water. I was completely mystified by Mahfouz, who never seemed to break a sweat.
“Naguib-bey, how do you feel about your recent birthday?”
“Praise be to God, I am still alive.”
“Ahh, Naguib-bey! So modest!!”
“Naguib-bey, what is your opinion of the movement toward democracy in Egypt?”
Silence, soft snore.
“Ahh, Naguib-bey is grumpy today.”
It took several attempts to get Mahfouz to answer the question.
Finally, he whispered, “Where is this democracy movement?”
“Ahh, Naguib-bey!! So wise! Where is the democracy movement, indeed!” “Genius!”
“Naguib-bey: still the most intelligent critic in Egypt!!”
“Write that down and send it to America!”
And with that, everyone joined in the master’s silence, content to watch Mahfouz doze peacefully. I wondered whether I should pay for my water and leave, but no one else seemed restless at all, and there was something calming about the sight of Mahfouz, he brightness of his suit set against the dusty red leather of his seat.
Mahfouz woke with a start and asked for the check. We all trailed after him as he made his way to his car, which, as I was informed several times over by a member
of his entourage, was the same car he had been driving for the past two decades and, indeed, the same car beside which he was stabbed a decade before. We stood outside to watch his driver help him into the car and slowly maneuver into the traffic on the Corniche. It was late evening, and the heat was still oppressive. I wiped my forehead with the arm of my suit, which was almost comically wet. “The car still exists!” one man exclaimed. “Naguib-bey’s car is with us still!! It is a beautiful car!! Naguib Mahfouz still exists! He is with us still!! Naguib-bey is a beautiful man!!! It is a beautiful car!! Today is a beautiful day!!!”
But this is not a story about Mahfouz’s car. Nor is it a story about his entourage and their multiple ejaculations. It’s not even really about Naguib Mahfouz. Rather, it is the story of his miraculously pristine white linen suit, its elegance unperturbed by its surroundings, its whiteness unsullied by his obsequious hangers-on, let alone by me.
Hamid’s the quiet one. “Crazy!” laughs his manager, a fidgety Marrakechi who’s as animated as Hamid is still. “He spent a year walking around Morocco. Walking! Just him and his guembri, from village to village… Don’t let him fool you — his hair is gray! He dyed it for this tour.” Lean, dark-haired (now), and gifted with a snaggletoothed grin, Hamid Batma could be in his thirties or his fifties. The music he performs has a similar timelessness, based on shifting and accelerating rhythms learned by the body, through habit. Unwritten.
Like most Gnawas, Hamid enters a kind of trance when he plays. Unlike most, he never seems to fully exit from it. We toured Europe together in October 2004 and again in 2005, my band Nettle and his band Nass el Ghiwane. Ramadan in the UK made him go nocturnal. I remember Hamid glued to his hotel-room TV, giggling quietly, transfixed by the dismal late-night programming of Britain, not a word of which he could understand. Greasy halal takeout competed with boxed orange juice and cigarettes for table space.
The rest of the band would joke about him being a nomad type, a weirdo, a few clicks away from a total dropout. So far as I could tell, Hamid never bothered to explain anything. Onstage, when the others wore ordinary clothes, he preferred a crisp djellaba.
My most vivid experience of Hamid Batma occurred after a free concert in Brussels. About three thousand people were gathered. White Belgium had never seen the Moroccan community manifest itself like this; by the third song, people were throwing their children into the air. Fans clamored to get backstage the moment it ended. Every so often, someone would talk his or her way past security, run inside, and start kissing everybody. It took nearly an hour to get out of there.
Driving back to the hotel, someone’s loose cigarette was on the verge of ashing. “Wait,” Hamid said, reaching for a tabla, which he turned upside down and proffered as an ashtray. I was shocked and looked it. He was surprised by my reaction, but I couldn’t get over the fact that a musician was treating the floor of the van better than he treated his instrument.
Three years later I watched this same sublime disregard repeated on restored celluloid. In Transes, a poetic 1981 documentary about Nass el Ghiwane, Larbi Batma — the band’s humble front man, Hamid’s older brother — rolls himself a cigarette and proceeds to tap the ashes onto the head of his tabla. Knowing their music as I do, and the way it reverberated across a country (and does still), this simple act exploded with meaning.
As musicians, Nass el Ghiwane disregard virtuosity. Virtuosity implies mastery focused by unity of purpose — what we mean when we speak of someone becoming one with his instrument. (Allal Yalla, the group’s banjo player, is actually a virtuoso; I have yet to hear anyone else play that instrument with such precision and intricacy, in the 1970s or now. But the band as a collective eschews it.) They work in an adjacent space, that of familiarity, beside or beyond virtuosity, in which one’s instrument is no longer necessarily an instrument. A drum becomes a table, an ashtray, an extra limb. The percussion of the Batma brothers is by turns magical and mundane; rather, it is both at the same time. The tabla’s drumness diffuses into the ambience of daily life, and the songs whose heartbeat they provide live inside people in the same way.
Larbi Batma died of lung cancer in 1998. By that point, the band’s fame was such that King Hassan II took him into his private care, but even the best doctors at the royal hospital in Rabat couldn’t undo what a lifetime of cigarettes had done. Hamid joined Nass el Ghiwane a year or two later, to keep it alive.
In Paris recently, weaving my way between skinny Arab boys selling contraband cigarettes in the streets around the Barbes metro (one of those open-border Maghrebi microstates in tentative European bloom), I discovered that the shops no longer stock Nass el Ghiwane cassettes. In previous years I could always find tapes with covers I didn’t recognize. Since the compilations were so haphazard, tunes I hadn’t heard would often surface. Virtually all of those recordings were bootlegs, many of them little more than personal mix tapes.
If you ask around, though, you can still find their music, now on shaky CD-R copies. The selection is smaller, but it’s there. Nass el Ghiwane remain the most versioned group in and from Morocco. (Algerian raï star Khaled got his start in an NEG cover band, and thirty years later the phenomenon persists.) The group practically invented Moroccan pop music — and, at the same time, inspired the music-piracy industry. They’ve never earned much money from record sales; the digital-era “crisis” of our contemporary music industry is ancient news to these pioneering victims of modern bootlegging.
Nowadays the songs seem to belong to everyone. They’re so well known, so beloved, that you almost take them for granted. The songs are everywhere and nowhere, forming part of the fabric of everyday life in Morocco. While the music of Nass el Ghiwane is steeped in poetry and history, everything that surrounds it remains earthy, intimate to the senses. Priceless, and worthless, as any old drum.
I was the cutest baby in Queens. Somehow none of the fated genes had stuck, doubtless helped by my mother’s daily prayers and the hefty dose of sesame seeds (turns the eyes blue! makes the hair blond!) that my father sprinkled on everything they ate, hoping for an Aryan miracle. Platinum-haired and green-eyed, I was not what the spawn of two black-haired Iranians should look like. I was lucky.
Sometime into my first year my luck ran out. I turned blue. There must have been trips to the hospital, to the pediatrician, a whirlwind of sterile smells and tests I can’t remember. A tiny pin-size opening between my atrium and ventricle. A hole in my heart.
There was nothing they could do, at least not yet; I was too small to have the operation. In the meantime, my father learned everything there was to know about atrial septal defect and called all over the country with his passable English to find the best doctor, all the while working three jobs and finishing his PhD in psychology.
I don’t remember a thing.
What I remember starts in the car outside Boston Children’s Hospital, when my father crashed the Cutlass Supreme into a parking lamp and my parents started fighting. My mother said we were at a hospital and there was a surprise waiting for me inside.
My three-year-old mind raced. There was a tense moment of endless waiting; then I was brought into a book-lined room that didn’t smell like the rest of the hospital, and there was Mister Rogers. Mister Rogers, from TV, was standing there in front of me. It was like meeting God. My television universe had exactly two shows in it, 3-2-1 Contact and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Three if you counted Dallas, which I watched while pretending to be asleep on my mom’s lap. Later I learned that my mother had called Fred Rogers in Pittsburgh every day for a year. Finally, he relented: I’ll send a personal letter and a photo. Not good enough, she said. She won.
Mister Rogers explained why I was there. I don’t remember the words but instead the hushed calm his voice made when it mixed with the air in the room. His hands were restful and clean, and his fingers were long and white. He had perfect nails. I wanted to poke him and see if his skin was made of wax. He assured me I was going to be all better soon. Then I took him to meet my boyfriend Richard from the heart-surgery ward. We had cookies and juice on red plastic chairs. I don’t remember for sure, but I think he was wearing the loafers.
I had met Richard in the common room. He made me a paper crown and put it on my head. Then he made himself a crown, declared himself king, and said, “Now you are my wife.” (It occurs to me that this is what my boyfriend, Brian, said to me, too, six years ago, before we decided to spend the rest of our lives together. Before we were together at all.) That might have been when my dad told the staff, “We are not villagers,” and demanded a private room; I was moved that day.
I remember being wheeled into surgery and the nurses talking about the Mets game as bright lights in the ceiling flashed by. When it was over, two people dressed in white stood over me and chuckled and told me that I had asked for ice cream in the middle of surgery. They gave me a lot of ice cream after that. I was in intensive care for twenty days, and then we got out of there as quickly as possible. I never did get to say good-bye to Richard, but I knew things were over. There was talk of Disney World. I was ready to move on.
At Disney World a month later, my mom bought me a straw purse that I liked to hit the Disney characters with, especially Goofy. One morning I saw Minnie, Donald, and Pluto eating breakfast together. What kind of world was I living in, where I could have apple juice with Mister Rogers and breakfast with Pluto? Minnie’s eyelashes were six feet long and indestructible. Every time I saw her, I tried to climb up and pull them off.
A few years later, I spoke to my mom about my surgery. I asked her why we had gone to Boston and what was wrong with me now.
The doctor, Dr. Riteman, was the leading heart surgeon in the States and the only one using natural tissue to mend the heart.
You mean he used tissue to close up the hole?
Yes, he did. All the other surgeons are still using synthetics. There’s a history of the body rejecting the material, so we searched for an alternative. Dr Riteman only uses tissue from your own body.
He used my own tissue, from my heart?
Well, not exactly from your heart, but, yes, he used tissue from you. Where was it from, then?
From inside of you.
From where inside of me?
From your vagina.
Oh, I said.
I hid this disgusting information well. It was bad enough to have a scar that cut me down the middle like a dissected frog. I wore strategically chosen bathing suits, shirts that came up to my chin.
When my first real boyfriend asked me what had happened, I embraced my defect for the first time. I have a piece of my vagina on my heart, I told him.
So that’s why I love you, he said.
One time I read an interview with Fred Rogers where he talked about religion. He said that he didn’t really have a particular belief system, but that he thought that there is a heart beating at the center of the universe, and it cares about us all.
When I was sixteen, I got my belly button pierced on Newbury Street in Boston. I was visiting a friend who went to college there. We went to a clinical-looking tattoo parlor, where I filled out a form, took off my shirt, and got on a platform. The piercing technician paused, kneeling, needle in hand. He stared at my scar and then at me.
Did you have heart surgery?
Yes, I answered. What a genius, this tattooed man on his knees.
Atrial septal defect?
At Children’s Hospital? Dr. Riteman?
I couldn’t breathe. I stared back at him.
I was your nurse, he said, grinning. Your parents are crazy! Your dad called us all villagers, and your mom kissed our hands when you left. How are they? How are you? How’s it going under there?
You are doubtless aware that Bob Dylan faked his motorcycle crash — or rather, that it was faked on his behalf by the shadowy elders who inhaled him, Rapture-style, into their flying saucer, leaving his bike to wobble riderless into the verge of an empty Woodstock road. Once aboard, as we now know, Dylan was detoxed, deprogrammed, demystified, swept head to toe by otherworldly lights, and then deposited with (naturally) no memory of the event outside the office of Dr Ed Thaler of Middletown, New York, who gave him a neck brace and a pat on the head. In the weeks that followed, Dylan grew irreversibly quaint and rural, knotty as an old tree. His rate of production dropped off, and his friends realized slowly that he would never again be capable of lines like “As the crow flies, I got second prize / But the spies in your eyes have deodorized my french fries.”
Did Georges Ivanovitch Gurdjieff, Greco-Armenian mystic, guru, carpet salesman, and dance teacher, fake his crash, too? Not likely — it almost finished the old rogue off. The year was 1924, and Gurdjieff’s commune/psychic-rehab facility at the Chateau du Prieuré in Fontainebleu, France, had been operating at full steam for over a year, its ample grounds peopled by poets whom Gurdjieff had sentenced to dig holes and professors who had rediscovered themselves as dishwashers and feeders of pigs. This was the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, the place of the Fourth Way, Gurdjieff’s pragmatic but unpredictable assault on illusion, automatism, and the spiritual sleep of modern man. The blistered neurotics in the tomato patch were his shock troops, as were the home-schooled dancers with whom he had just returned from a slightly apocryphal “tour” of the US.
Gurdjieff’s driving was very bad indeed, and very dangerous. As one observer noted, he operated his automobile like he was riding a horse. Delivered to the Prieuré in May 1923, his Citroën was both an imperial pleasure and the instrument of his private vengeance against mechanization. “He drove like a wild man,” wrote Kathryn Hulme in her memoir Undiscovered Country, “cutting in and out of traffic without hand signals or even space to accommodate his car in the lanes he suddenly switched to.” One accident had already been mysteriously survived, in the course of which Gurdjieff’s memory deserted him. He woke up twelve hours later, still at the wheel, in the middle of a forest, where “a big wagon loaded with hay had stopped in front of the car and the driver was standing at my window tapping on it with his whip.”
The next time was not so dreamy. Gurdjieff’s second motoring accident was nearly the end of him. But even after he had been brought home from the hospital, unconscious and displaying all the marks of a man who has just driven his car into a tree at ninety miles an hour, certain of his disciples were fully convinced that this was all another of Mr Gurdjieff’s “tests” — a trial of their credulity, or discipline, or readiness, or something. Among those unprepared to believe that he’d done it on purpose, there were whisperings of sabotage. Why had Gurdjieff insisted, just before motoring out to disaster on the route nationale, that the steering, lights, and brakes of his car be checked and rechecked? Did he suspect something? In any case, the crash would have philosophical consequences. Years later an ex-disciple called Mouravieff wrote a book in which the 1924 smash-up was adduced as proof that the master was “not outside the Law of Accident.”
Convalescing, tottering about the Prieuré in his dressing gown, Gurdjieff was filled with a need for fire. He smoked cigarettes as if committed to some state of internal combustion, and great choppings-down and burnings of Prieuré vegetation were ordered — a bonfire every day. “Fire evidently pleased Mr Gurdjieff,” wrote his acolyte Thomas de Hartmann. “We thought he drew a kind of force from it, and we tried to provide him with as many as possible. But the felling of the trees was a difficult matter.” As Gurdjieff’s interest in driving returned, de Hartmann’s wife, Olga, tried to shield Gurdjieff from its inevitable consequences by snipping the accelerator wire in the Prieuré’s backup Citroën. No good — this metaphysical speed-racer was soon on the road again, and at the usual perilous velocity. “The Work” continued, too, the great and strenuous perplex that “could only become more difficult as one learned more,” he warned his disciples. “As one grew one did not achieve any greater peace or any visible or tangible reward.” Gurdjieff carried on, indeflectably. But he never made another record as good as Blonde on Blonde.
Sacred Heart Chaldean Church juts out like an overgrown shed on a street of abandoned shops with names like Happiness Club and American Store. Thirty-odd years ago, Saddam Hussein donated nearly half a million dollars to fund the church and the cultural center across the street, which now serve the largest population of Catholic Iraqis outside the Middle East. For years, the squat wooden church was a gathering place for new immigrants, many of whom had come to Detroit’s east side precisely to escape Hussein. The church’s pastor, Jacob Yasso, calls the former Iraqi president “a very generous, warm man who just let too much power go to his head.”
Yasso met Hussein in 1979 at a banquet in Baghdad, where the pastor gave a speech commending the president for his kindness to Christians. “Saddam was 100 percent American then,” he says. “He arranged for the government to pay for my trip and [for me to] stay at the best hotel in Baghdad.” After learning that Yasso’s Michigan parish was in the red, Hussein promptly wrote a check, the first of two, for a quarter of a million dollars. After Yasso’s triumphant return, an influential member of his flock convinced Coleman A Young, the controversial mayor of Detroit at the time, to give Hussein the key to the city.
Young, a cheerfully polarizing figure who had become the city’s first black mayor in 1974, displayed little interest in international politics — he had a habit of dismissing world leaders with names like “mean sucker” or “old prune-face” (though, to be fair, he also used that language on his suburban counterparts). Young handed out more than a hundred keys in his twenty years as mayor — he once called it a ritual “overbloated with meaning” — and it’s unlikely he gave much thought to making Hussein an honorary citizen. But the “dirty key” was important to many Detroit Chaldeans, who saw it as a reward for their hard work and a sign of their commitment to the city. “Young didn’t give a damn about anything outside of Detroit,” says Amir Denha, former publisher of the Chaldean Detroit Times. “The gift was for us, not Hussein. He was proud of us.”
Today there are 120,000 Chaldeans in southeastern Michigan. Like other Iraqis — indeed, like most of the groups that ended up here — Chaldeans were drawn to the area by the auto industry in the first half of the twentieth century. Though the majority of them no longer live in Detroit proper, they own most of the grocery, corner, and liquor stores in the city, having taken over the businesses from departing whites before and especially after the 1967 riots. They promote themselves as model citizens, patriotic entrepreneurs, and family-oriented conservatives. To make themselves appealing to their neighbors, the Chaldean community distributes a brochure to business partners, city leaders, and schools, touting their history and entrepreneurialism and featuring a collage of images of Chaldeans at work — a priest, a US soldier, and a supermarket owner reaching into his freezer.
Since the American invasion in 2003, more than half of Iraq’s remaining Christians have left, many of them bound for Michigan. There is talk of Detroit becoming a permanent Chaldean city-in-exile; area leaders have requested that the patriarch of Babylon protect himself by transferring headquarters, based in Iraq for over five hundred years. (He has declined, repeatedly.) Last summer, the Chaldean Mother of God Church purchased 160 acres from the city of Detroit to use as a summer camp for Chaldean children; on the grounds, a new church will sport a replica of a shrine to Saint Gorgis (the original is grafted into the side of a mountain near Mosul). This spring, the first-ever Chaldean museum is set to open, which will trace the people’s history from ancient Mesopotamia to the vacant strip malls of outer Detroit.
There is in all this an element of Chaldean exceptionalism. Most Chaldeans pointedly define themselves as not Arab; the language they speak — those who still speak it, at least — is Aramaic, “the language spoken by Jesus”; the Assyrians, their ancestors, are numbered among the earliest Christians, supposedly converted in the first century by the Apostle Thomas, on his way to India. (When The Passion of the Christ came out, some members of the Chaldean community were offended that reporters kept referring to Aramaic as a dead language; others complained about Jesus’s accent.) More ambitious Chaldean nationalists, nothing if not nimble, will tell you that their ancestors are both “the American Indians of Iraq” and the inventors of writing, astronomy, irrigation, the number zero, bronze weaponry, and beer.
Thousands of Iraqi refugees, many of them Chaldean, are expected in Michigan in the coming years. Jacob Yasso hopes the influx of immigrants will help reinvigorate his church, which is now attended almost exclusively by the elderly. But for Detroit’s old Chaldean Town, as for the city itself, the prospects are not good. Detroit’s population is down to the size it was in the 1920s, when the first Chaldeans came to America by sea.
Among the remaining parishioners at Sacred Heart Church, there is a sense of nostalgia that they acknowledge as desperate, even perverse. There hasn’t been such a fondness for Hussein for decades. Yasso speaks bitterly about the war and America’s unwillingness even to think about compromising with its former friend and ally. “Saddam was good for Christians,” he says. “Now he’s murdered, and look what happened.” He still keeps a framed photo above his desk of himself and other Michigan delegates handing Hussein the key. Yasso never found out what became of it. “Ask the US troops,” he laughs hoarsely. “Maybe they’ve recovered it in one of his palaces.”
I only saw an afro-horn once, and I hardly saw it then. It must have been the summer of 1968 because it was after Hank Dumas got killed. I didn’t know him that well to begin with, and he’d spent a good part of 1967 in St Louis, so he wasn’t around much that winter. But one night we found ourselves sitting next to each other at the filthy bar at Slug’s, listening to the Arkestra and talking about the music. In the break between sets, Hank told me he’d been doing research on esoteric instruments. I knew about some of Sun Ra’s discoveries in that sphere (the Jupiterian flute, the Solar Sound Organ), but Hank was talking about something I’d never heard of: the afro-horn. He’d written about it, he said, but dismissed his effort as “mythopoetic.” “I thought it was just a legend, a tall tale. But the thing is,” he whispered, speaking so softly that I had to lean toward him to hear, “it’s real.”
Hank claimed that the instrument was invented by the ancient Egyptians, who called it the Tun-tet. In the Book of the Dead it’s described as an “instrument to open the mouths of the gods.” Some scholars thought the Tun-tet was just an implement, a kind of crook or staff used in burial rituals, but in fact it was a horn, Hank explained, forged of an extremely rare metal found only in Africa and perhaps South America. No one knew exactly how it was made, and the tuning system remained a mystery. He added that there was supposedly a “hornbook” to accompany each afro-horn. A primer or instruction manual, a treatise on harmony? I wondered whether it would be written in hieroglyphics or in some esoteric musical notation.
Hank didn’t say much more, except to mention that he’d been trying to locate one. He’d never seen an afro-horn, he said, and there were rumored to be only three in existence: one was held in the collection of a museum in Europe and another supposedly guarded jealously by a small indigenous community on the west coast of Mexico. But the third was in New York, having recently entered the possession of the musician Roland Kirk. Or so it was said. Hank swiveled back around on his stool when the band came back out, and we didn’t speak anymore while the Arkestra played. When they finished, the musicians marched through the audience chanting a kind of recessional (the habitual conclusion to their shows), and Hank and a few others in the audience jumped up to join them. He looked back at me briefly, smiling, as he followed them out onto East Third Street, taking up their refrain: “It’s after the end of the world / Don’t you know that yet?” It was the last time I saw him.
Any fan of the music knows that Roland Kirk was a connoisseur of obscure and handmade reed instruments like the manzello (a modified King saxello, itself a modified B-flat soprano saxophone favored in the 1920s by military bands playing mazurkas and pasodobles) and the intimidating-looking stritch (a thick-set Buescher straight E-flat alto with an inverted neck). He gave them nicknames: He called the manzello his “moon zellar” — an instrument to lure the moon underground. “Stritch” suggests a kind of stick, but something more than that; a stick with an itch to stretch its tonal capacities into something broader, richer. And yet perhaps a stitch too far, as well — an instrument pushing beyond itself, leaping to something new but not entirely succeeding. Kirk was a sight to see on the streets of Manhattan: a big blind man lugging a felled forest of burnished horns behind him in a green golf cart. Onstage he’d drape a menagerie around his neck — not only tenor but also manzello and stritch, which he would play simultaneously and in harmony. These were augmented by a variety of other props: a transversal flute, a nose flute, an oven timer, various sirens and whistles, amulets and necklaces.
When Dumas died so suddenly that spring, I felt — as another young writer striving to find ways that language could approach this music — that it was somehow my responsibility to continue his research. I went up to Kirk after a show at the Vanguard, approaching him as he packed up his horns in the narrow hallway back by the bathroom. I’d met him once or twice, but I had no idea how he’d react to my inquiry. Bent over, he stopped moving when I said the word “afro-horn.” He didn’t peer up at me, of course, but instead almost listened up quizzically at me, as though he were gauging the sound of my intentions even after I’d stopped speaking. Finally, he said in a gruff voice that I’d have to come to his place. “Right now?” I asked. But he’d gone back to packing his horns. So I waited out front by the stairs leading up to Seventh Avenue.
When we left together, Kirk began talking. He made no effort to engage me in conversation, nor did he ask why I was interested. It was as though the word itself were talisman enough to bring me into a circle of familiarity.
Kirk told me that he’d been given an afro-horn by a vagabond who had been a common sight on the streets of the Village. I remembered him. He called himself Aulos and fashioned himself a sort of amateur archivist of diasporic arcana. He walked around pushing a shopping cart laden with piles of what looked like rags and useless objects. Most people walked right by him without a second glance. But every once in a while, he would stop a passerby. Never a white person. He would walk right up in a manner that couldn’t be ignored or evaded, always to offer a gift, as though he had a special delivery in the cart that he’d been waiting patiently to give to just that person. It would be a small thing, but something with some unusual aura or oblique relevance. One day on Bleecker, I saw him give a deck of cards he said had belonged to the magician Black Herman to a man who, after a brief double take, admitted he was a professional gambler. I heard that Aulos once surprised the trumpeter Lee Morgan near Cooper Square with a rusted cornet valve that he claimed had graced Buddy Bolden’s horn. Aulos came up to me only one time, back when I was trying to write about what I called the unsung heroes of Pan-Africanism, and pulled out a yellowed issue of Dusé Mohamed Ali’s newspaper African Times and Orient Review from 1913, with articles by Marcus Garvey and George Bernard Shaw. He turned away before I had a chance to thank him properly. Reading that paper opened up a whole new direction in my research.
When we reached Kirk’s apartment, he didn’t turn on the lights. I’d heard that he often went around his place in the dark and was in the habit of listening to music that way. It’s perfectly logical, when you think about it — what difference does it make to a blind man? But it was something to be sitting there in a room lit only by the moon and by street-lamps and slowly come to realize that the afro-horn he was telling me about was right there in the room with us.
Kirk spoke to me for hours about the reasons he couldn’t or wouldn’t play the afro-horn. I didn’t follow all of it. Any reed instrument is another voice, not your own, he told me. The reed itself, even before it’s in the saxophone, is an “ersatz tongue,” and if you paid enough attention you could hear its accent. Once, while in the South of France to play a festival, he’d made a pilgrimage to the cane fields outside Fréjus, where the great majority of saxophone reeds are still made. Uncut tongues hum in the wind around you like a nasal Mediterranean language you don’t know but almost understand, he said; you smell the sea, but you can’t hear it. So to put your mouth to a horn is to wrestle with another mouth, a distant way of speaking. You know what the French call the bell of an instrument? he asked. They call it a pavillon, from the Latin for “butterfly”: something takes flight when your horn talks, the sides of a tent flirting with the breeze.
“There is thunder in that bell,” Kirk said, pointing at a bundle in the moonlit corner of the room. “Hungry, always hungry.” I stared at it but didn’t dare go over. It was not in an instrument case but a kind of misshapen bag, possibly made of felt or canvas. The bag bulged with sharp and irregular protrusions. It was partially open at the top, and a bit of metal was visible. It didn’t look like a saxophone, at least not any sort I’d ever seen. It wasn’t shaped right, for one thing. It was bigger, and it wasn’t clear where you would put your mouth, and it looked like there were too many keys. It almost looked like one of those nkisi nkondi protective statues from the Congo, a kind of animalistic shape covered with dozens of nails and tacks driven into its body. As though each hand that touched it would have to find its own fingering in a treacherous thicket of thorns.
The problem with playing the horn wasn’t actually a technical one, Kirk explained.
It was above all a matter of what he called the “danger of extensions.” Hank had used the same term; I thought he just meant the overtones present in any sound wave. But it meant something more. I remembered something Kirk had said a few hours earlier to the crowd at the Vanguard, explaining the effect when he played two horns at once: “It’s splitting the mind in two parts. It’s like making one part of your mind say, ‘Oo-bla-di,’ and the other part of your mind say, ‘What does he mean?’” Extensions have to do with the coexistence of frames of reference. Sound, more powerfully than any other sense, could transport you to Fréjus or to Fez. And that effect, Kirk went on, was immensely powerful; if it could bring people together around a shared but submerged register of vibration, it could also overwhelm a listener for whom a given frame was impossibly alien. This overwhelming could even be physical. Many years later I found a phrase for it in an essay Amiri Baraka wrote about Hank Dumas: black music is forceful because it makes the whole body “a field of sonic ideational penetration.”
Kirk said he’d only taken the afro-horn with him to a club once. He didn’t even take it out of the bag, but a woman sitting next to the stage became violently ill during the concert just from the sympathetic vibrations of the afro-horn as he played the stritch. Since then, he’d kept it in the bag at home, he said. He added that he wanted to give the afro-horn to Albert Ayler, the one musician who might know how to handle its power.
I don’t know whether he ever had the chance to do so. After Kirk passed in 1977, I asked musicians who were close to him if they’d heard tell of the instrument among his possessions, but I got only blank stares. A few years ago, I made a trip to Paris after finding what I thought might be a reference to another of the afro-horns in the online catalog of the Musée de l’Homme. A polite archivist, overlooking my poor French and the strangeness of my request, agreed to fetch the relevant box but came back from the stacks empty-handed. Introuvable, she shrugged, possibly lost or misplaced or stolen over the years.
In the winter of 1970, after Ayler’s body turned up in the East River, I used to go to the Congress Street Pier in Brooklyn and look out into the harbor. I suppose it was a morbid pilgrimage of sorts, to go to the place where the waters had delivered him and stand there listening out into the distance. Once, looking into the flotsam and muck beneath the dock, I saw a book floating in the water, an elementary school English textbook. Jettisoned primer, waterlogged tongue. The sky was dark, and I heard a rumbling far away, but it hadn’t started raining yet. Words came into my head, a quotation the source of which I couldn’t recall to save my life. Seal up what the seven thunders have said, and do not write it down.
Once upon a time, before the home ovulation test, before hormone-replacement therapy and in vitro fertilization, before progestin and Clomid and Viagra — before Science, that is — a man or a woman in desperate straits might turn to other authorities. One might whisper the details of one’s predicament to the hakim or the single-toothed hag at the back of the bazaar. An infertile woman might dip an eggshell into the bath, gather water from the four corners of the hammam, and pour it onto her head. Some would make a bundle of grass and throw it into a stream on Sizde-Be-Dar, the thirteenth day of the New Year, while chanting:
Sizde-Be-Dar next year In husband’s house with a child near
Often there was a special place, with a special object, a monument or relic, that could be entreated. In the city of Hamedan, the girls poured oil on Sang Shir, a lion-shaped stone at the top of a small hill in the central park. In Isfehan, just outside the city, there was a brass-topped minaret that girls used to sing to:
Brass-topped minaret, do not be annoyed by what I say My between needs a hilt, a strapping man
In Tehran you might head over to the Toop Morvarid, the Pearl Cannon. In the middle of the old Arg Square — later Artillery Square, in honor of the cannon, and later still Imam Khomeini Square, where today the brown, ugly beehive of the Telecom building stands — there was a cannon that could cure the infertile and lift the curse of a childless marriage. It might even provide those who were lonely, with mates. The barren and the impotent, the debutante and the bachelor, the spinster and the wench — all gathered around the miraculous cannon on Charshanbe Soori, the last Wednesday of the year, and made a wish. Eyewitnesses say that the cannon blew confetti out of its barrel on special occasions.
What was the provenance of this miraculously potent ordnance?
The great Sadegh Hedayat’s etymological obsessions and his love of Iranian popular history drove him to write a book about the cannon. Toop Morvarid was his final book, a kind of hysterical last testament before his suicide in Paris two years later. Hedayat could only afford to produce fifty copies with a printer in India. Its eighty-eight pages feel like an unstinting, never-ending flow of acrid satire, an extended improvisation on the superstitions and inanities of post-eighteenth-century Iran, a broadside against the royals, their backwardness and demagoguery. Hedayat makes you laugh ruefully as the Pearl Cannon blows through page after page of wretched tyrants and credulous religious belief.
The cannon was said to have made its way from Bushehr to Tehran, some thousand kilometers, without human assistance. In any case, it had made its journey before Reza Shah’s Trans-Iranian Railway and long before the advent of the sublimely unreliable Tupolev airplanes.
Its origins, too, are obscure. Some say the Pearl Cannon was brought to Iran by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century, when Lisbon controlled the Strait of Hormuz from its base at Gameron; Shah Abbas enlisted the British to help him drive the Portuguese out, and the cannon was left behind. (The British stayed, too.) Others say it was brought by Nader Shah when he conquered India. And then there are some who believe it was created in 1817 by Ostad Ismail Rikhtegar Isfehani, a well-known molder during the reign of Fath Ali Shah Qajar. Today the suspicious or superstitious can still seek its blessing inside the police station near Imam Khomeini Square.
In his book, by way of conclusion, Hedayat wrote that, with the proper tools, the metal parts of the cannon could be whittled down to a wire .0007 millimeters thick, which could circle the earth seven times. That same quantum of brass, melted down, could be used to manufacture precisely 77,777 American dog whistles. Perhaps that could be the cannon’s final miracle?
He died while on the phone with one of his most enthusiastic lapdogs, his purported last words a fine banality: “Our destiny is to build a better future for our states.” An unworthy end, perhaps, for one of the most cold-blooded despots of the Levant’s twentieth century. There were a hundred thousand wishes that he might have died more painfully, tendered by the mothers, wives, and daughters of the men he detained, tortured, and killed over nearly thirty years of iron-fisted rule, but they would remain forever unfulfilled.
Hafez al-Assad (Arabic for “lion”), born al-Wahash (Arabic for “beast”) on October 6, 1931, died June 10, 2000. The official report announced he had died of heart failure; rumors, not entirely unfounded, claimed he died from acute acrimony over the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon — a move that deprived him of his most cherished bargaining chip in his never-ending negotiations with Israel. He was ruthless; he was patient. American presidents came and went, Israeli governments rose and fell, while the Sphinx of Damascus held court. He was a player. He knew when to hold them, and he could hold them indefinitely.
No wonder, then, that he had once been allotted a place in history as the founder of “bladder diplomacy,” a coinage of that ayatollah of modern diplomacy, Henry Kissinger. The sport of bladder diplomacy consists of hosting diplomats, negotiators, and state officials for meetings that can last up to nine hours, regularly serving them beverages — hot to cold — until, beside themselves, they are forced to bring the meeting to a conclusion, capitulating to some or most of their host’s demands, just to get to the loo. When Henry Kissinger, then the American secretary of state, met Assad for the first time, their encounter took six hours and thirty minutes. Kissinger was equal to the task. It is reported that the waiting press, unaccustomed to the modus operandi of bladder diplomacy, worried that the American official had been kidnapped. Decades later, another secretary of state, James Baker, was treated to nine hours and forty-six minutes without a break.
Assad’s tactic became so renowned that the unofficial duties of the American ambassador to Damascus included briefing dignitaries on how best to meet with the Syrian president: be careful when accepting gifts of coffee, tea, or lemonade, as even incidental encounters with the voluble host might be ruined if the guest defamed protocol by asking for a bathroom break.
In any case, according to a certain strain of conspiracy theorists, his bladder may have been his undoing. In February 1999, King Hussein of Jordan died, and his ostentatious funeral summoned an array of leaders nearly unprecedented in the region. It was Hafez al-Assad’s first visit to Jordan. The lion looked drawn and weakened. The conspiracy theory suggests that Israeli intelligence, in consort with the Jordanians, deployed a portable toilet special for the occasion, that they might seize a sample of the Syrian leader’s urine. They would then “read the tea leaves,” as it were, to find out the state of their mutual enemy’s health — whether he was ill, as suspected — and to make an educated guess as to how much longer the sixty-nine-year-old was likely to survive.
The magic of Assad’s negotiating style was not only his iron bladder. It was that he was always prepared to take no for an answer. In March 2000, when President Clinton presented Assad with Ehud Barak’s peace proposal in Geneva, the Syrian leader deemed it unacceptable. The round ended abruptly. All parties walked away empty-handed, the Americans furious.
And yet, over forty-eight hours in May of that year, the Israeli military withdrew from south Lebanon. Their presence there had long been used to justify Assad’s satrapy over Beirut; it was one of his strongest cards. But then suddenly, without signing agreements with either Lebanon or Syria, without the arduous process of negotiation, without a back-and-forth or long hours and nearly endless speeches, Assad was exposed. Some say that the Israelis had divined from his urine that his time was up. Cancer, diabetes, heart disease: he had months to live, a year at best. No better time to incur the wrath of the lion.
Just a crushed red box, another and then another, an ordinary companion always in the pocket or under a pile of papers unless desire is aroused.
The box contains flat cigarettes made from a cheap brand of tobacco, harvested who knows where, cultivated and harvested by the oppressed wage earners of the world. The ritual is accomplished better with a match than a lighter, so the matchbox and the cigarettes go together. With this particular brand of Greek cigarettes, it was the color of the box and the woman in a circle at the center that really attracted my attention: the red is cadmium, with a slight orange reflection, which reminds me of sucking deep red oranges.
The cover lifts, and inside are the twenty-odd flat cigarettes. Up in the mountains of Crete a quarter-century ago, every peasant smoked this particular brand, so the taste and the smell of it lingered in the mouths of poor Greek villagers of that time, along with ouzo or homemade retsina. The blonde woman in the circle could have been Marlene Dietrich singing “The Blue Angel,” dangling her black-stockinged legs in the air, puffing a cigarette attached to her long cigarette holder. It could easily have been Renata Jordan of the Cairo-Berlin Gallery, who would assume from time to time the persona of Marlene Dietrich. Strangely enough, the heir to the tobacco company happened to be in Cairo for a while and befriended Renata, and together they would sing “The Blue Angel” in German. As time went on, they both died, but the little red box, like any other object, lingered on.
Gossip can sometimes be entertaining, and sometimes it can shed light on topics that are meant to be kept secret. The woman on the box had tinted blonde hair that is unlike but also like so many Greek blonde women. I was told she was the mother or the grandmother of the heir to the Greek tobacco company, but it was also said that this particular Greek woman was associated with Ataturk, a close friend or even his one-time mistress. It was easy to see her in the Dolmabahce Palace, in Ataturk’s bedroom, see her standing behind his white muslin curtains, singing love songs to the modern dictator, who had it in mind to throw a few thousand Greeks into the sea down by Izmir. It may even have been the whole city, as once when I strolled through Izmir I could only find the names of Greeks inscribed on walls of Greek-style architecture. Those who survived Ataturk had crossed over to the Greek islands, and as a memory of past days they had a little Greek red box with a Greek blonde woman.
Growing up in a small railway town in the 1970s, I had very few things, if by “thing” we mean “object of industrial manufacture.” Barely a generation separated us from village life, and we still lived close to the earth. Its pliant shapes and musky smells were all around me: water cooling in round-bottomed clay pots (fridges were still off in the future), toys whose veneer of bright peasant paint wore off to reveal dark mud underneath.
In this preindustrial fastness, anything that carried a whiff of the busy civilization elsewhere — the cities to which trains rattling through our town every day carried our fantasies — was cherished. I remember particularly a biscuit tin from before World War II, in which my mother stored brown jaggery. The paint on it had faded, and rust scarred the metal surface, but not enough to conceal its place of origin, Fortnum and Mason of London, or its emblem, an extravagantly costumed Indian dancer, her arms and legs arrested in the traditional posture of Shiva.
I’m not sure how it came to be in our possession; it was probably something inherited from the railway bungalows where gloomy Anglo-Indians — the mixed race that, patronized by the British, was disproportionately represented in the railways — had, postindependence, plotted immigration to their imagined homelands in the West.
It stayed with us through our many moves, and while not strictly mine, I exercised proprietorial privilege over it, not just for its sweet contents, which were especially good with roasted peanuts on mild winter afternoons, but also because of its affiliation with the larger world, an unknown place I desperately wanted to make my own. My sisters, fierce competitors in other respects, indulged me — I could have my little toy.
Over the years, other things — people, places — forced their way into my vision, all stoking that desire to escape. I can’t remember when and where I lost possession of the biscuit tin. But it was no longer on my mind by the time I first went to London, let alone when I moved there for a few months in the autumn of my thirtieth year.
The city bewildered me. I’d had no clear idea of what to expect beyond red double-decker buses and Big Ben, but London, which in the late 90s was beginning a sustained period of economic growth, was most definitely not the city I had dreamed of in India. Occasionally a street name or an inscription on a statue’s plinth hinted at the network that once bound London to Asian and African hinterlands. But visitors from the former colonies could no longer exercise a special claim on the capital of what was then being hailed as “Cool Britannia.”
In this London, I felt lost. I stayed in a large ground-floor flat in Notting Hill that belonged to a famous actress who’d been born in a tea garden in India’s remote northeast during the war. That knowledge was oddly reassuring in the midst of a gentrifying neighborhood, where to be poor and dark-skinned was to be increasingly isolated.
But no trace of her colonial childhood seemed to have survived her subsequent decades in the modern, self-absorbed West. At least I could see none in the Notting Hill flat, until one chilly evening when, rummaging in the overhead kitchen shelf, my hand grasped something cold and metallic, a squarish box of familiar proportions.
Slowly I brought it out. The paint had preserved better in the temperate zone, and the ecstasy on the dancer’s face and the Oriental floridness of her costume were more pronounced. For a moment I stood there, giddy, as the years collapsed and my senses, roused, took flight.
A decade has passed since that moment of discovery. Probably surprised by the ardor of my request, the actress gave me the biscuit tin. Now it stands in my own London kitchen, and on melancholy days the tin box reminds me not only of the vanished world of my childhood but also of my childish dreams of escape to the West, and the strange emptiness that has followed their fulfillment.
In Elisabeth Bumiller’s Condoleezza Rice: An American Life, there’s a grainy black and white photograph of the future United States secretary of state that reveals a person few knew existed. Rice is on an ice rink in Denver, Colorado, in the late 1960s. She wears a figure-skating outfit: a girlish white dress, tights dipped in glitter, the snug-fitting white leather lace-up Victorian boots that embody the sport’s campy elegance and dowdy glamour. She is held midwaltz by a prepossessing young white man dressed in black slacks and a cardigan, a sharp part in his hair and a curl, slick and flammable, plastered to his forehead. He looks comfortable, professional, while Lil’ Condi appears stiff and self-conscious, counting the moves in her head, legs and hips fused at the joints. Her mouth, parted slightly, reveals the signature gap in her teeth. She looks vulnerable, exposed — yet at the same time, her discomfort appears mixed with a thrilling, if uncertain, joy.
You look at this photograph, and you see the bliss and uncertainty, and you want to like Condoleezza Rice. You wonder, how did that young girl, oblivious to everything but the numbers of the routine and her closeness to that boy who was not her father, become a woman who was moved to tell Bumiller that she is “not an automaton,” whose friends search for the word “human” to describe her? How did those cheeks become so harrowed? And what of the quality suggested by the Italian phrase from which her name derives? Con dolcezza: with sweetness.
“I was terrible,” Rice states of her figure skating years, admitting failure for once. After six years of 4:30am wake-up calls, she realized that she couldn’t do it. She couldn’t bend her knees, she says. A judge once commented that it was amazing that she could do a double jump at all, since her feet never actually left the ice. But those skates would later assume a totemic power for the woman who would become George W. Bush’s muse and companion; she had not been swept up by the civil rights movement or “the counterculture,” she insisted, because all she did in those turbulent years was “play the piano and ice-skate.”
She had better luck with the piano. By age four, she was giving recitals, and as she grew older, her friends would hear her practicing Mozart and Beethoven before stickball games in the summertime. Rice was hailed as a prodigy, and not for the last time. She was recruited by Stanford University at twenty-six and tenured at thirty-one, one of the youngest full professors in that institution’s history, certainly the youngest black, the youngest woman. At thirty-eight she was provost. She was the first black person and the first woman to be national security advisor. In 2005, as she became the first black woman to serve as secretary of state, there was talk of yet another prodigious achievement on the horizon: the first black president, the first woman in the White House.
For all her storied achievements, there is a sense that what Condi Rice became was a well-heeled warning to prodigies everywhere. A walking catalog of firsts, Rice never quite distinguished herself in any of those positions. By her own account, she’s a mediocre pianist. At Stanford, she alienated faculty and staff while prompting ongoing lawsuits from the California Board of Labor. (“I don’t do committees,” she once said after a rash of firings, having learned essential lessons from her study of Stalin.) As national security advisor in the months before 9/11, she ignored the warnings of an imminent terrorist attack while greasing the wheels that led to war in Iraq.
Most of Bumiller’s biography is devoted to these more epic failures. But I can’t help wondering whether something was lost on the Denver ice, when her six-year career as a figure skater came crashing to an end and with it, perhaps, that certain sweetness. Gone forever, the utopian world of Austrian waltzes, Argentine tangos, and courtly love and romance; gone the Victorian costumes, the closeness of that boy who was not her father.
Alas, poor Condoleezza.
She was not the first black girl to pursue a career in the fairy-tale world of figure skating. That distinction belongs to Mabel Fairbanks, who bought a pair of used skates for a buck-fifty, stuffed the toes with cotton, and began practicing on frozen ponds in 1930s Harlem. Fairbanks wasn’t allowed to compete professionally, but she later became a coach and mentor to numerous young skaters, including Atoy Wilson, the first African American to win a national title (in 1966, about the time Rice’s photograph was taken), and she was the first African American inducted into the Figure Skating Hall of Fame.
Rice is the product of a particular kind of African-American upbringing, a hyperactive yet hermetic response to the brutal indignities of Jim Crow and the overt racial hostility of 1960s Birmingham, Alabama, where she lived until the age of thirteen. (A classmate was one of the four girls killed in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in 1963.) Her fiercely independent father trained his daughter to be proud and self-reliant; yet he also disdained the civil rights movement and its “uneducated, misguided” leadership. She was to the manner bred, through years of elocution and etiquette lessons, French- and Spanish-language training, the piano and the ice skates and the Barbizon modeling courses, all of which contributed to her southern feminine wiles and her patrician manners — and, it seems, a lust for shoes that not even a hurricane could stop. She was trained to be an exceptional Negro, better than the other blacks and, more importantly, better than the whites — indeed, fuck the whites, whiter than the whites.
The tourist I was, once, waited for the dawn train from Rabat to Casablanca. It was January, but he’d been caught unprepared by a brutal chill, down from the Atlas, a dry and biting cold. This was why people traveled, he thought, to do stupid things that tested what they could bear, who they were. The trip had been full of moments of aboveaverage stupidity, like buying hashish in the park at Marrakech, and not even for himself. He’d smoked it anyway with the students who sold it to him, to make sure it wasn’t goat shit and they weren’t cops.
They had been sitting behind a low wall off one of the broad alleys, a scent of flowers strange in winter. They wanted to know who he was, and he told them he was French. “Personne n’est français,” said their crew-cut leader, inhaling and passing the joint. The tourist inhaled, too, and tasted saliva. No one was French. It was undeniable.
Just as no one was really American, or Moroccan, for that matter, except the Berbers, and maybe not even them. My ancestors were from Poland, he told them. “Juif, donc?” He would not deny it. But he couldn’t help imagining them trying out their very own conversion of the Jew, either. The hash had made him paranoid, so he took off with the rest of the foil-wrapped cube. They told him to go with God — all people of the book, some better than others. Walking away, with their eyes on him, he was reminded of Central Park’s Sheep Meadow back in high school, the private school kids and the public school kids, buying and selling, terror, shame, pride, self-contempt. Set foot in Africa and feel like a teenager again.
Then there’d been the solitary walk through Fez at dusk, while Quentin and Anne rested at the hotel. (Perhaps that was the first time they’d slept together?) At one of the cafes in the modern city, a boy he imagined to be a more beautiful, Berber version of himself came up to him speaking Spanish, then switched to French. The boy bared his teeth, said he wanted to fuck him. “Je t’encule, tu vas voir, ça sera beau.” And then, sizing it up differently, “Tu aimes les filles, je comprend, pas de problème, moi aussi.” The boy promised to take him to a whorehouse where they’d watch each other taking turns, a different version of homosexuality; he only needed to make a phone call, but that required, for some reason, a lot of cash up front. The tourist wanted nothing, or rather it was enough to know that this was happening. They settled for tea and cigarettes. When he turned the talk to Berber nationalism, he caught some of his own fear reflected back at him in this boy-man so seemingly eager to be his friend.
This last self-imposed test, the long night of the train station, mostly involved sitting still. It was too dark on the platform, and he had nothing left to read, anyway. The day before, killing time in a garden above the sea with a plate of almond cookies, he’d burned through the secondhand copy of L’Immoraliste he had been saving for the journey. Better anyway not to read, but to think back on what he’d seen and heard, replaying the experiences, affirming them before they vanished in the airport lounge at Charles de Gaulle or the line at customs or that other train, to New Haven, some twenty-four hours in the future.
He began to take notes, but even the ink oozed slowly in the cold, and all he could think about was the unfairness of the chill. He hated unnecessary expenditure and had refused to pay for an extra night at the hotel. Instead he had gone over to the station at midnight to wait the four hours for the train. The station itself was well lit and slightly warmer, but that was no longer an option.
A painfully thin man had wanted to talk to him, his watery, cataract-scarred blue eyes gleaming over a thick beard and shrunken cheeks. Christ on the cross, the tourist thought. But he wasn’t Christian at all, it turned out. The man had been a religious student; something had happened to his body while at the madrassa. He wasn’t well, he said. His friends had it, too. They had been very close. One should be lucky to have such friends with whom one can share everything.
The ex-Talib didn’t know what he had, but his faith had decayed with his body. The Moroccan government wouldn’t tell him, and the tourist didn’t have the heart to suggest he was probably dying of AIDS. All meetings with strangers are meetings with angels, he thought, but I cannot be this man’s angel of death. He gave him most of his remaining dirhams instead. It was a tactical mistake, since just about everyone still at the station at that hour seemed homeless and in need of money, and they were watching him. It was too much to bear, all that need, the suffering he was powerless to do anything about, the raw rubbing of so much humanity against him, plucking at him. He imagined they’d strip him naked if he let them, eat him alive like zombies. That’s what they are, the living dead in those films — the poor, coming to get you. Saying no to people was the hardest thing, and he’d never been good at it. To each according to his needs, from each according to his ability. But what if the needs are bottomless? Thank God he was on his way back to America, where these things were all hidden away, at least from him. The only thing to do was head down to the platform, with that studied air of urban purpose, although the train was still hours away. It was too cold for them down there; it was starting to be too cold for him.
He paced, he rubbed his hands, blew on them, thrust them into the pockets of his mackintosh, the only coat he’d packed. That was another stupid rule: only take what you can carry on your back. He’d amended it to include an item of hand luggage, but that was for stuff to carry out; he’d brought almost nothing with him. Bargaining for the handcrafted and handwoven was what one came to Morocco for, of course, recovering the human element in making, selling, buying. He and his friends had toured the tanneries, the shops of metalworkers and weavers, gone hunting in the medinas to test their own eyes, emerged with the spoils to prove it. North Africa, not only another place but another time — that would be his slogan for the tourist bureau, if they asked him for one. He liked the idea of traveling backward, had always preferred old places to new ones.
That had been the real point of the trip, to escape time, specifically the Western calendar. He and Quentin and Erik came up with the plan while watching the news about the millennium bug, the vague reports of terrorist threats and impending breakdown of the global order.
“Idiots will do something just to make sure the prophecies work out,” Quentin said.
They’d agreed to go onto an alternate calendar, trading New Year’s Eve for Ramadan, and cracked jokes about how no one would notice in Marrakech if the computers stopped. The only problem would be if they couldn’t manage an ATM withdrawal. Anne said she was coming, too, but then she and Erik split up and she insisted on making the trip, and Erik decided not to come.
The tourist jumped in place, shadowboxed, replaying a fight they’d seen in the square at Marrakech, tempted to blame Anne for his imminent death by freezing. If she hadn’t come, she and Quentin wouldn’t have spent the vacation falling in love, and he wouldn’t have left Fez ahead of schedule to give them time to themselves, which was why he was in Rabat that night, waiting for the train to Casablanca and its airport.
His anger couldn’t warm him for very long, so he decided he would put on all of his clothes, even the dirty ones. At the top of his bag, right there when he opened it, lay the Berber blanket. He couldn’t believe his stupidity. He unrolled it to its full length, about eight feet, and then wrapped himself in it the way he thought he’d seen it done in a photograph of Sitting Bull. Then he pulled it up over his head. Where it touched his skin, it prickled like two-day stubble, but still he wound it tighter.
“It’s camel hair, my friend,” the salesman had said. A lighter singed the fringe, the burned tassel held out to him to sniff. Perhaps this was what burned camel smelled like? He would never know, but he enjoyed the show, that and the simplicity of the thing, broad bands of alternating brownish shades, from a beige-white that was almost the color of the better-preserved houses to a rich brown that looked like the gates to Fez’s old city, as seen from the mountains above. It was land-colored, he decided, and from that moment it became the Souvenir, the thing he’d keep for himself. The bargaining was a formality, a performance to keep face. “I’m only a poor student,” he said, “even for an American.”
“Ah, then it’s perfect. We call this the ‘student carpet.’”
Forty dollars made everyone happy. At the station, though, it merely kept him warm. He huddled under it, looking like a Christmas-pageant camel with embroidered tribal markings, imagining himself a shepherd of the Atlas, until the train came to take him back to twenty-first-century America.
These objects are fully independent of humans. Autonomous in sentience and intention, they are generally depicted as relics, forged from inorganic materials (stone, metal, bone, ash, soul, etcetera). Autonomous or sentient objects — or demons, as they were known to the ancient Assyrians — exist in a subaltern state, buried within the bowels of the earth or inside another object, slumbering, their shapes almost always assuming provokingly exquisite forms, as if nourished by radically different laws of space and time. From the human perspective, these objects are distressingly offbeat and off-time.
As genres obsessed with the inner logics of objects, pulp horror and science fiction reveal that inorganic outsiders cannot be destroyed save by exerting the power of another object on them. But employing demonic logic to slay a demon inevitably evokes another demon. In this, horror’s insight represents a return to the Assyrian medical tradition of demonism, in which “doctors” attempt to expel one demon from the patient by summoning another demon to possess the sick person in its stead — a tradition according to which every human is always a puppet of an outsider, suspended in a labyrinthine network of demonic possession.
Sentient objects and xenolithic artifacts manifest their antagonism by encroaching on human actions that involve sense, consciousness, or experience. Artifacts unfold their true demonic thinghood only on achieving proximity to a human host. It is at this moment that the object as a demon begins to peel the skin off the human and dresses him as its own puppet. Pulp-horror stories suggest that with each step in the process of sensing or possessing the object, the object adds another string to the human puppet, becoming a puppeteer with no sense or purpose. Examples of sentient relics and artifacts that threaten the self-possession of humans are numerous; examples might include the amulet of the Pazuzu demon in The Exorcist, the One Ring in the Lord of the Rings, the Lament Configuration in the Hellraiser film series, the oil lamp in Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp, and the Soul Cube in the video game Doom 3.
As what can be called a contribution to lumpen Orientalism — the term is borrowed from China Miéville — horror and science fiction present sentient objects with names that resonate with the nomenclatures of Near and Middle Eastern languages. The names associated with these objects cannot be directly imported into the vocalization systems of the Indo-European languages, as with Ghatar, the country, which is sounded in English as “guitar” or “gutter.”
The Middle East in its geographical obscurity and geopolitical remove serves as a generous host for inorganic demons and alien relics — a pulp lair for all objects that can be considered insurgent by virtue of their complete autonomy to human will, desires, and abuses. These relics have names only in order to give humans an objectified relief. Rather than a means of comprehending these objects, their names convey the elusive horror of the Thing. But demons are not identified by names; they are individuated in their collectivity — a horde or legion or army, a river or an ocean. Beelzebub (ba’al zebub), the festivity of flies. Pazuzu, a sky-blackening swarm of locusts, enforces the reign of “dust” — itself the most prevalent Middle Eastern relic. So what, then, is the name of that other terrestrial relic, oil, with which the Middle East is drenched? An avatar of a sun god, descended to the bowels of the earth to enlighten earthly beings in their own abode?
The sentient junk and alien oddities of horror stories are housed, hoarded, and occasionally disbursed by greedy Middle Eastern mongers. Indifferent to the trading ethics of civilized countries, inorganic demons and Middle Eastern markets converge on one another. The Middle East continues to resist the onslaught of politics, philosophical doctrines, and economic systems that advocate transparency and accessibility. The link between the Middle East and the demonic lies in their mutual resistance to the myth of anthropocentrism. The myth of anthropocentrism is the myth of intelligibility, the idea that everything can be made sensible, experienced, comprehended. It is the fantasy of total access. In the Middle East, its advocate is the capitalist profiteer, for whom “access to things themselves” is the new shibboleth of economic morality. According to both the anthropocentric agenda and the capitalist juggernaut, everything should be accessible simply because access is a function of affordability.
By closing their inner logic on themselves, the Middle East and its demons expose the redundancy of human intelligence and the myth of capitalism’s omnipotence. This is why they both appear as terrorizing superweapons, contagious and proliferating, for they reveal the fragility inherent to the logic of anthropocentrism and capitalism. This is the view from horror: a criminal alliance between the Middle East itself and the demonopoly of autonomous objects; a new dark age yet to unfold.
This is the thing I love most,” she says. She runs her fingers round the edges of the shard of dark gray slate, trimmed to the shape of a flat, wide fish with an upturned mouth and jolly eyes. “When I spoon the powder onto it, when I mix the colors, I feel as if I am all the women who’ve used it before. Just think — how many women would that be?”
I do a quick calculation. “Perhaps a hundred? Assuming each one used it for about twenty years.”
She laughs. “Imagine that,” she says.
Next to the fish palette sits her makeup box, its top tray a jumble of brushes and carved spoons, its drawer half open, the jars of creams and perfumes spilling out onto the dressing table. She strokes the fish; for a moment, the tip of her finger rests on its mouth.
I take possession of the finger — my mouth is more deserving.
“No, no,” she cries, throwing me a sidelong glance and withdrawing her hand. “We’re almost late already. We can’t keep my father waiting. Go! Now, so I can finish dressing.”
I pause at the door and look back at her as she draws the slim wand, dipped in kohl, along her eyelids. Next door our two young daughters are sleeping. How blessed I am in the love of this woman: Nefret-Hur, my wife, youngest daughter of my king, Amenemhat the Fourth.
“All my life,” Anwar Sadat once wrote, “I’ve felt attracted to acting.” One of thirteen siblings born in a poor Delta town, he made the world his stage and gave a stirring performance: from underdog to president and war hero, Time magazine’s 1976 Person of the Year, and winner of the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize. Unfortunately, his ratings at home weren’t nearly as good as those he received abroad.
A collection of Sadat’s belongings, including several of his famous pipes, are on display in Cairo. You won’t find them in a presidential museum, but at a tourist trap called Dr Ragab’s Pharaonic Village. Typical black-stemmed, brown-bowled affairs, the pipes are arranged in a glass case with a pair of shoes and socks, a walking stick, and a half-finished canister of Nat Sherman’s Highstone tobacco.
The pipe, with its scholarly Anglo connotations, was a signature prop for the statesmanly persona Sadat had constructed with no small art; during the Camp David talks he was rarely seen without it. The pipe also appeared frequently in faux-candid snapshots of Sadat lounging around his villa gardens with his much younger, fair-skinned, half-British wife. An early master of the photo op, Sadat saw to it that emblematic moments in his private and official life were well documented and publicized. He was photographed praying, playing with his children, shaving in the presidential bathroom. In a favored pose, he held his pipe and gazed, as visionaries do, out into the distance.
Sadat was a natural. In the 1940s the young army lieutenant wore a monocle and tucked a swagger stick under his arm, imitating the German officers with whom he collaborated against Egypt’s hated British overlords. He later grew a beard and adopted a pious alias, Hajj Mohammed, the better to elude the British, who managed nevertheless to jail him several times.
The pipe, Sadat’s most successful bit of stagecraft, conveyed his canny paternal wisdom while delivering a subtle “fuck you” to the Brits, whom he’d beaten at their own game. Symbolically, at least, the pipe was loaded. But if the persistent rumors that circulated Cairo are to be believed, Highstone was not the only thing he was smoking.
Popular opinion maintained that the president was a hashesh: a devout smoker of hashish. Hashish was certainly affordable and widely available throughout Sadat’s term in office. In the Old City it was sold openly, alongside fruits and vegetables. Low-level dealers were sometimes apprehended, but the big fish swam free. In a country rife with informers, where the only working telephones were the ones that had been tapped, people reasoned that the boss must have known what was going on.
The president’s conduct, moreover, bore the whimsical traits of the hashesh. He was a self-absorbed dreamer whose favorite pastime was watching video clips of past triumphs and NASA footage of the first lunar landing. He admired America for its pioneer spirit and “Wild West” expansion and envisaged a day when Egyptians would open a new frontier by greening and colonizing the desert. A munificent host, Sadat thought nothing of giving priceless antiquities to fellow heads of state. He was inconsistent — alternately vicious and tender toward his public — but this enabled him to project an image by turns virile and austere, urbane and rustic, spiritual and ruthless.
Well before the end of what is now known as the Sadat era, Egyptians had wearied of the president’s theatricalities and the vainglorious tyrant they thinly disguised. His last, most indelicate prop was a field marshal’s baton resembling a royal scepter. It had a Pharaonic lotus finial, and he held it across his chest in a pose most often seen on temple friezes and, alas, sarcophagi.
On the morning of October 6, 1981, dressing for his annual Victory Day parade, Sadat forgot his scepter — a bad omen — and chose not to wear his bulletproof vest because it made him look bulky. But he would have died that day, anyway; his assassins fired at close range.
“I have killed Pharaoh, and I am not afraid,” one of them reportedly said.
Whether or not Sadat’s pipe ever emitted the nutty fragrance of Bekaa Valley Gold, within twenty-four hours of the assassination a tank rumbled into the medieval square where the goods had been sold. Cairo’s hash market, like the man who lent his name and flourish to an era, was history.
When Sheikh Mujib led the movement that broke Pakistan in half to make Bangladesh (the sound of one wing flapping), he was like a god. Bangabandhu, friend of Bengal. Humayun Azad once wrote that when Bengalis want to elevate someone, they pump him until he loses his head. And when they grow tired of an idol, they slam him to the ground until he breaks.
An officer’s memoir spits disenchantment: “We were ready to eat grass for Mujib. But look how he behaved.” August 1975. Tanks again on Dhaka streets, rolling past the old airport. Not Pakistani this time, but the new army of independent Bangladesh. Mujib could never imagine “his boys” would turn on him, even after Fidel Castro asked him, “Your Excellency, do you trust your bodyguards?” This is the problem with a god complex.
Beware, Caesar, men who dress like you. On the Ides of August, you will die alone and unprotected.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s house is now a museum in Dhanmondi, Road 32. The guards are obsessive.
“I’m sorry, you can’t take that bag inside. You have to leave it in the guard room.”
“I can’t leave it there, it has my camera inside.”
“Sir, everyone has cameras in their bags, that’s why you can’t take it inside.”
And then, “You have to leave your mobile phone as well.”
Firm and smiling, he knows what’s up. Unlike at many venues where I have taken furtive footage, the guardians of Mujib’s house know all about mobile-phone cameras. I enter with nothing in my hands or pockets.
All the rooms are cordoned off, everything covered with cloying plastic shrouds. Dust from neglect. Artifacts of death preserved with such perversity, they lose dreaming power. The steps where his body fell are covered with glass sheets, supposedly preserving bloodstains underneath. But beneath the pressed surface, there is no residue. Bullet holes covered with plates look like weak installation art, casualty of the last Dhaka Biennial. Only the smashed bathroom mirror looks real, looks 1975.
Every object he possessed is here. The dressing gown, the sandals, the kurta; the books, the plates, the cutlery. The ever-present pipe. After nine months in a Pakistani prison in 1971, when Mujib emerged as leader of a new country, he told David Frost what he’d missed most in jail. “I missed my pipe tobacco,” he said, and then he named an English brand.
Finally, there is the coat. In photographs of state functions. Black. Light felt or thick cotton, the arms cut off, always buttoned to the neck. Every icon must lend his name to at least one item of clothing. The Mao jacket. The Gandhi cap. The Mujib coat.
Stare long enough at these official images and all the threads start to merge. The obligatory third-world solidat moments: Castro, André Malraux, Léopold Senghor, Kenneth Kaunda. The future embarrassments: Ferdinand Marcos (looking so bloody fresh-faced and young), Mobutu Sese Seko. One rare meeting with Gerald Ford, just before the end, though none with Nixon, his arch-nemesis during the 1971 war, when the Americans backed Islamabad, and the Indians, backed by Moscow, came to the rescue. (Later we learned that Kissinger called Indira Gandhi “that bitch” during the war — what did he call Mujib?) Many meetings with the Soviets: Brezhnev, Kosygin. Taken together, a vision of Non-Aligned splendor.
Parallel walls of photos, the living cliché of yellowing prints. When Mujib’s daughter Sheikh Hasina came to power in 1996, after twenty-one years in the wilderness, the whole house was rebuilt. That’s when the museum was completed, the photos framed and hung. Just five years later, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, Mujib’s ideological foes, were back in power, and the museum started to wither again. Badly deteriorated and all, there are lost worlds here. One row of photos shows an endless series of meetings with the Arab bloc. Anwar Sadat, Muammar al-Qaddafi, Saddam Hussein, Hafez al-Assad, Sheikh zayed bin Sultan al-Nahayan, Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, the emir of Kuwait, the prime minister of Lebanon. The smiles and clasped hands all hiding a palpable sense of tension.
If history is written by victors, who won in 1971? Triumphant Bangla secularists wrote of “the shattering of Islamic Pakistan.” Indians insisted that the birth of Bangladesh was the end of the two-nation theory (separate countries for Hindus and Muslims). But the Arab bloc was determined to stop the splintering of Pakistan from taking on any greater meaning. This was not the end of the ummah; it was only a quarrel between brothers, we were told. And so the meetings, pressuring Bangladesh to attend the Organization of the Islamic Conference summit in 1974. In Lahore, no less. The nail in the coffin of our planned “secular” identity; we were all Muslims after all.
And then, the rapprochement with Pakistan. There are photos of that, too — Mujib smiling alongside zulfiqar Bhutto, the return of the POWs — all greased along by the promise of oil money and jobs in the Middle East.
What the photographs don’t show is the unraveling of Mujib’s rule; those last years before the crash. He wore the coat to the end; but so did everyone else. By 1973, the Mujib coat was on every pretender. Every would-be acolyte took the easy path to state patronage, dressed for the part. Camouflaged. During the 1974 famine, millions of dollars in international aid went missing. The proverbial “relief blanket” became an object of derision. Rumors flew that the missing blankets were being diverted to make Mujib coats for his followers. The fabrics look nothing alike, of course, but what a bleeding image!
The poetics of hunger. Angry opponents started lampooning the boat, the symbol of Mujib’s party. A street ditty emerged:
Kombol kata Mujib Coat Ar dibo Na Nouka-e Vote
Cut from a blanket, Mujib Coat
No more will I vote for the boat
I heard a story recently in a Dhaka canteen. There is a flood all over the land; a man takes shelter on his rooftop. A boat goes by, and the boatman urges him to climb onboard. “No, Allah will protect me.” The water keeps rising. Another boatman passes by. Same offer, same refusal. “Allah will protect me.” Water is now up to his waist. A third boatman, again the refusal. By now, the water is up to his neck. As the man loses his footing and slips underwater, he screams, “Oh, Allah, why have you forsaken me, your devoted son?” And a booming voice from heaven replies, “You fool, I sent help for you, and three times you turned it away.”
In the wake of the famine and facing a growing Maoist guerrilla movement, a cornered Mujib and his government are under siege. Out of desperation or conviction, he abolishes all political parties, installs himself as President-for-Life. Perhaps he has becomes unpopular. Perhaps the Army majors are only waiting for an excuse. Perhaps, perhaps … still wearing the coat, a prop for all seasons, signifying everything and nothing.
Six years ago, Mike Knight had just about had enough. A white American from Buffalo, New York, he had made a certain late-twentieth-century pilgrim’s progress. He’d converted to Islam after listening to Public Enemy and reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, gone off to Pakistan at the age of seventeen to study the Qur’an, and barely avoided a trip to Chechnya to make jihad. On returning to the States, he went to college, rediscovered punk rock, and fell out with his adopted faith.
In 2002, he wrote a novel, The Taqwacores, in which Buffalo is home to an unlikely cavalcade of countercultural Muslim punks, or taqwacores (“seeker” or “God fearer” in Arabic, plus the -core in “hardcore”). At the taqwacore safe house, the straight-edge Sunni kid with Qur’anic verses tattooed on his arms butts heads with a permanently besotted Mohawk-wearing Sufi, and the house enforcer is a radical feminist in a burqa covered with hand-sewn band patches. There seem to be shows every other night, featuring Muslim bands engaged in all manner of blasphemy (and some pieties). It is, from nearly every angle, a total mess. From one angle, though, the taqwacore scene is heaven on earth.
The Taqwacores was, you might say, a fantasy novel, in which Michael Muhammad Knight imagined the kind of mixed-up Muslim-American world that he’d like to belong to. It was a love letter and an indictment and a suicide note all at once, the work of a sometimes-mournful ex-Muslim. Then a funny thing happened. In San Antonio, a sixteen-year-old Sufi kid called himself Vote Hezbollah and set “Muhammad Is a Punk Rocker,” a poem from the novel, to music. Outside Boston, a group calling itself the Kominas (the Bastards, in Punjabi) posted a song called “Rumi Was a Homo” to its MySpace page. In Vancouver, an all-girl punk group called themselves Secret Trial Five, after five Muslim men held in a Canadian prison for years based on secret evidence. Each of the bands reached out to Knight — not difficult, actually, since he’d put his cellphone number in the book — and told him they were taqwacores. You could say they made a believer out of him.
Last summer, when Shahjehan Khan, guitarist for the Kominas, put together the first-ever taqwacore package tour (five bands, two weeks, Boston to Chicago), Knight jumped at the chance to live his improbable dream. He bought a perfect yellow school bus from rural Amish country in upstate New York ($2,000, eBay), replaced the last few seat rows with couches, painted the outside John Deere green, and wrote “TAQWA” in white block letters above the windshield. The international taqwacore conspiracy then descended on Boston for the start of the tour, meeting up at the home of Kominas lead singer Basim to turn the bus into a spectacle. Omar Waqar (formerly of Diacritical, now of Sarmust, but performing solo on the tour) stenciled small red camels down the sides and spray-painted a portrait of Rumi onto one of the back windows. On the other he painted a woman in niqab with an “A” for “anarchy” on her forehead and scrawled “I Am the Truth” alongside. Marwan Kamel of Chicago’s Al-Thawra (the Revolution) started painting the word “TAQWACORE” in fourcolor graffiti on the roof, but ran out of paint at the “W.”
After every gig, fans were invited onboard to tag the bus. By the end, words and images covered every inch of the interior, and you could read anarchist slogans in nine different languages. Of all the symbols and messages, the “Praise Allah” bumper stickers provoked the biggest reaction. “Some guy, I think in Detroit, went to the trouble of writing ‘Fuck Allah’ and holding it up to his windscreen,” said Khan. But most feedback was more benign. “You couldn’t help but smile at that thing. At certain times it looked like an animal.” Often Khan would sit on top of the beast and look at the sky. “The bus was the physical representation of the feeling I had when I first read The Taqwacores — not being able to believe that it was happening.”
Knight, too, grew ever more attached to the bus, its contents, and its mission. He never let anyone else drive it, and he always wanted to sleep in it, among the fireworks and empty tuna cans that collected along the way. Fueled by gallons of Mountain Dew, he drove and drove across the country, taking the bands on educational field trips. Since The Taqwacores, Knight has published two books of nonfiction: Blue-Eyed Devil (2007), a swashbuckling Greyhound-driven pilgrimage to the mostly unmarked holy places of American, and especially African-American, Islam; and The Five Percenters: Islam, Hip Hop, and the Gods of New York (2007), in which Knight set out to document the history of Father Allah’s heroically misunderstood Nation of Islam splinter group, before all of its original members died out. No surprise, then, that the bus stopped off in Harlem to build with Knight’s friends and informants. But then, not really a surprise that they also met with straitlaced Sunnis in Toledo, Ohio, either, or that they performed the Dances of Universal Peace, created by San Francisco hippie leader Samuel Lewis, in Baltimore. Knight even drove the bands to Buffalo, where it all began. “We didn’t want to stay, because it sucked,” admitted Kamel.
Back on the road, Knight would tell the bands tales of Muslim America. “From behind the wheel, dropping all this knowledge on us, like the Sufi saint of taqwacore or something,” Kamel said. And while Knight showed them the landmarks of his own private cultural landscape, he listened to their drums, guitars, and sitars as they sang chaotic punk-rock qawwalis and songs about one another: “Mike Knight Is CIA”; “Shahjehan Is a Babagadouche.”
After the final show, Knight drove straight from Chicago back to Boston. His role as “the Neal Cassady of the thing” was coming to an end, and the bus was falling apart. The door kept jamming and the tires were bald; the turn signal came off in his hand. He and the tour’s survivors — the Kominas and Waqar — talked about destroying it. No one would be allowed to mope around in it in his backyard; they needed to destroy it to save it. In a junkyard in Waltham, Massachusetts, they attacked it with crowbars and hammers before turning it over to a forklift. Afterward they walked around the painted wreckage with shards of glass in their hair.
Each of them took a relic. Waqar took the gas cap with a dollar sign on it and the “I <3 Allah” bumper stickers. Khan has the dented stop sign on a shelf above his dresser. Knight wishes he still had the bus. “But it’s something now that can never be ruined. We said at the time that the whole thing would be better to remember than to live.”
I was going to write about Dr Mike’s butt. It’s one of the best objects in the world — the kind of thing that makes people want to start a new religion. But Dr Mike’s ass in my face is long ago. His real name isn’t Mike, and the guy’s only a doctor in the loose sense of healing that Marvin Gaye crooned about in a still-great song. Mike’s one of the two best I ever paid for. His smile was calming, but his rear was a better catholicon.
An opened book, spread on a table, has its buttlike qualities: two raised domes, a gutter, a smooth expanse of surface to be “read.” (I don’t recall Walter Benjamin ever mentioning those aspects.) In more relocations than I care to count, books are the only things I’ve bothered to transport. When I first moved out West, to Portland, Oregon, I shipped seventeen book-filled boxes by UPS; two suitcases with the rest of my belongings came with me on the plane. Although the idea of divesting myself of my library has a certain appeal, I can’t imagine living anywhere without a stack of books by my bedside.
Right now, only two kinds of books appeal to me: fine copies of things deeply out of print and the brand-spanking-new. Two such top my bedside stack.
Boyd McDonald’s Cruising the Movies: A Sexual Guide to “Oldies” on TV (1985) still teaches me more about the uses of sex as a goad to thinking than any other tome. An elegantly louche photo by Joseph Modica of a guy wearing nothing but a jockstrap and a studded bracelet graces its cover; the dude is stretched out on a bed—legs casually spread, furred butt bared—in front of an old television set, gazing at the lady with the torch whose appearance opens every movie from Columbia Pictures. McDonald lived an admirable life of unassimilating faggotry. In his sharp obit for the Village Voice, Vince Aletti wrote:
Boyd McDonald, who died September 18 of lung cancer in his room in an Upper West Side transient hotel, was memorialized by his surviving family in a Times death notice that must have surprised those who knew him as the angry old man of gay sexology. “Born July 11, 1925, in Lake Preston, SD,” it reads. “He served in the US Army in World War II, attended and graduated Harvard University. Upon graduation he worked for Time Magazine and IBM Corp. He pursued freelance writing up until the time of his death.” Cranky, brilliant, and hilariously misanthropic, McDonald didn’t just leave the straight, corporate world in 1968, he scorned and ridiculed it, first from the platform of the occasional self-published pamphlets he called Straight to Hell/The Manhattan Review of Unnatural Acts, then in the pages of his many STH anthologies. Though the bulk of McDonald’s publications are given over to rigorously edited letters from readers describing their sexual experiences (typical headlines: “Boy Scouts Line Up for Blow Jobs,” “I Like to Swallow Cum,” “Another Married Man Wants Some Dick”), their genius lies not in his slogan, “The truth is the biggest turn-on,” but in his mix of pissed-off politics and radical raunch.
Fifteen years later, truth still has its appeal; finding it is another matter entirely. Certainly it is no longer in any way coterminous with what’s currently billed as reality. Within Cruising the Movies, a reader will find acute observation, cinematic and political, rendered in taut, funny, and always intellectually provocative prose. McDonald reckoned with the poetics of sex. In “Cruising Broadway,” he snares the ripe thrills of the now mostly long-gone male sex theaters in the Times Square district while demarcating the class consciousness of homosexuality, noting that “homosexuality is the only culture I know of whose queens are middle-class and whose commoners are upper-class as well as lower-class.” He continues:
It takes a higher degree of intelligence than that possessed by the wax fruits and artificial flowers of the middle class, including the educated middle class (for education has nothing to do with intelligence), to know that the Judeo-Christian culture, and the ways in which men achieve dignity and respect in it, are, in a word, shitty. In the long run, the only real dignity and respect come from the simple truth, including the truth of sex.
That word, again. It leads him to wonder about bodies and silence, in a paragraph that is as bawdy as it is ominous:
I wonder if any impresario in this branch of the theater has ever thought of just putting his boys on stage, one after another, and having them strip and play with themselves in silence instead of copying the traditional female format of dancing to music. If the boys would simply undress and play with their dicks, balls and assholes, as they do at home alone, it would reduce the artistic interference of the theater and enhance both the audience’s and the performer’s experience of, respectively, voyeurism and exhibitionism. Such a format could simulate the experience—one of the most enjoyable available in cities with cluttered housing like Manhattan—of looking into a boy’s or a man’s bedroom when he undresses.
Both voyeurs and exhibitionists are admirable, and need each other, and give each other great pleasure. Indeed, the terms “voyeur” and “exhibitionist” are not really necessary; all men are one or the other and most men are both.
Blanchot never bettered this. McDonald’s prose cruises the murmuring at language’s outer reach, fixing on the blankness and silences that give rise to what gets called, in other contexts, poetry.
The other book on my bed stand is, in fact, a book of poems. In swank hues of turquoise and pink, a pixelated grab provides the cover image of Jon Leon’s brilliant new chapbook, Right Now the Music and the Life Rule: a man sucking on the melony boob of hand nuzzles her other breast. Some even more explicit action in black and white makes up the back cover. Language and silence—modulated by the fashion and entertainment industries pushing and pulling on “personal” desire—drive Leon’s poetry, which often takes the form of seemingly matter-of-fact notes in short paragraphs. He negotiates the erotic tensions between how bodies appear and what is thought about them; between, as McDonald suggests, the exhibitionist and the voyeur, transfigured into writing and reading. The names of models, fashion houses, and designers; the words for specific items of clothes (“unitard”; “track breaker”; “short-shorts”); textures, scents, and effects of light—noting these fineries as they allure in magazine editorials and ads might seem alien to whatever poetry is sadly too often thought to be (pious? tedious? abstract?), until it’s recalled that both Mallarmé and Wilde clocked time editing women’s fashion magazines, not to mention Barthes having stitched seam to seme and alerted anyone who cared to the jouissance of midriff, textual and otherwise. McDonald found in the male strip club a suitable zone for an exacting disquisition on class; Leon uses glamour mags to formulate an aesthetic treatise dressed in the apparel of poesy.
Peyton Flanders If you call +1 888 977 1900 you will reach Prada. Prada is going to go public soon I hear and I know their stock will be valuable. Anonymous is wearing a black dress but mostly she is wearing a Prada bag which really jumps out at you. The bag seems like it is almost as big as the girl. I love girls. She is standing against the car and looks disheveled. Her hair is all split up and her face is ghostly, but although she looks like a hooker she remains infinitely desirable. Behind her it looks like a fire is blazing but it could just as easily be city lights. I picture this one at the point abandoned by a young beau. The bag is great. She has dark circles under her eyes. She radiates a gothic sensuality. Everything in the world is permissible and this captures all possibility.
“Quelque chose comme les Lettres existe-t-il?” asked Mallarmé. (Something like literature, does it exist?) Here it exists in the economic dissolve of information (Prada’s toll-free corporate telephone number; its stock status) into the transaction of products and those who hawk them. This becomes a meditation on how taste is formed (“I love girls”). But in a world in which the product (a Prada bag) almost overtakes the girl, the look of the human turns “ghostly” as one human abandons another. In the final line, all is “permissible”—but is it the permissibility (of abandonment, objectification, human value) that provides the antecedent for the “this” that captures everything possible; or does the pronoun refer to the girl’s gothic sensuality, her ability to change, emote, strike a pose, or be abandoned, while all the bag can do is remain “great”?
The text takes its title from the name of the murderous nanny Rebecca De Mornay portrayed in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992), becoming a gloss on the perils of romance as it makes available other ways of desiring, alternatives to family monogamy. Looking “like a hooker,” the muse is not trashed or used up but “remains infinitely desirable.” Right Now is an ode to the muse (of truth, of Marianne Moore’s paradoxical poetic “usefulness”) in its various guises—as Prada girl or, in other poems, Elizabeth Taylor, or an anonymous male model who conceptualizes a “sans-serif lifestyle.”
All of which might make Leon’s work sound very serious, which it is, but misses its fresh fun. The fun arrives by way of his almost deadpan tone and by what he doesn’t, won’t, or can’t spell out (“I can’t describe the boredom in this picture it is so hospitalesque”). “An indoors type who is against nature,” the narrator—silence’s speaker, absence’s watcher, glamour’s grammarian—listens to Eric Burdon, Jens Lekman, and David Bowie (circa Heroes); he’s also the observant type who gets up and changes “the music because this one requires a whole new attitude.” As it happens, “this one” could be another handbag, another “anonymous” tropical beauty who has caught his attention, or the poem that’s being written and being read.
Huysmans wrote Against Nature to bring about and claim an attitude. He served a cocktail of artifice, spiked with hallucinogenic venoms, to modernity, right around the time Manet mirrored the zeitgeist in the come-hither discombobulation of the FoliesBergère. McDonald caught the worth of sex on the street, or wherever, as AIDS began to take its toll. Leon writes a “vivid index” of what being against nature might look like now. The book, independently produced, is the way he finds best to frame his pleasures and his objections.
It wasn’t easy to sit staring at the camera for twenty-odd minutes, unmoving, while the daguerreotype coalesced into a recognizable form. That was true for most anyone, let alone an African legal scholar from an aristocratic Muslim family who was also, at the same time, an American slave and Christian convert. Omar ibn Said, the self-styled Prince Moreau of Fayetteville, North Carolina, was a study in contrasts, a composite even here: his artfully arranged clothing (scarf wrapped around the head just so, collar puffed and starched) belies the doubtful, nervous look in his eyes. He looks no more at ease in an ambrotype made decades later. Ensconced in a gaping black overcoat, his chest appears almost concave, matching his decidedly down-turned mouth, puckered in a way that suggests the futility of any effort to pose.
Said was only one of a number of purportedly princely West African men enslaved in the antebellum American South. He was also literate in Arabic and famous for it, at a time when it was illegal for a slave to be literate in English in North Carolina. In this, too, he was by no means alone. The Africans in North America included literally innumerable West African Muslims, many of them capable of reciting the Qur’an by heart, some of them able to write it. And yet by the operation of chattel slavery they became residents of a largely illiterate society of white yeoman farmers who treated them as little more than animals. The periodical literature, diaries, and news reports of antebellum America register the perplexity of Southerners who observed slaves “pray[ing] five times a day, always turning their face[s] to the east,” and witnessed them etching obscure characters into the dirt with sticks during short breaks from cotton-picking. Some of these slaves would go on to compose interesting narratives of their bondage and their freedom, but white Southerners, still misreading the signs, often numbered these compositions in reverse of their narrative order, thinking them nothing more than strings of cryptic symbols. After their momentary vogue among ethnologists during the late nineteenth century, these Arabic-language slave writings often wound up in the recesses of Southern libraries and the basements of Southern churches, until scholars rediscovered them, and began to take them seriously, in the 1980s.
“The Autobiography of Omar ibn Said” was composed over a period of months in 1831. Mary Owen, wife of North Carolina governor John Owen, had given Said a book of quarto paper and a pen with which to set down the story of his life — fifteen pages, front and back. Said’s handwriting was contradictory, almost schizophrenic, lean and precise, then thick and clotted. A heavily inked crosshatch pattern was a recurring feature, often marking the end of a passage or surrounding a prayer; the dense shapes seemed almost architectonic, and Said encouraged his readers to interpret them as such — paper renderings of his (entirely fictitious) West African palace. At other times, he would aver that these drawings represented not the palace itself, but rather his royal family’s coat of arms.
The story of Prince Moreau made extensive use of these patterns of letters, drawings, and dashes to evoke his cunningly composed identity. Reconstructing the story of his capture and enslavement, Said added the stuff of legend to his decidedly more pedestrian personal history. It was a case of mistaken identity, the aristocrat confused with a commoner, with commerce. Yet despite his assertion of a royal bloodline and the indignity of his circumstance, it didn’t occur to him to go home to Africa. Almost the opposite — the text of his memoir flatters the Owen family to the point of obsequiousness. He showers them with bismillahs and stops his narrative several times to praise their hospitality. As descriptions of slavery go, it seems almost surreal. But then Said presented himself not as the Owens’ slave, but as their guest, a noble visitor from a strange land, laid low for a time but now restored to his dignity and station — a prince who, apparently, had it pretty good on the plantation.
Said had come to the attention of the Owen brothers in or around 1810, when he turned up in a Fayetteville jail. The “peculiar”-looking man, already in his forties, attracted notice throughout the county, not least for the facility with which he wrote in a “strange language.” Covering the walls of his jail cell with piteous coal-composed calligraphic petitions begging to be released, Said’s holding pen quickly became more of a performance space. Many local citizens visited the jail to see him, and he became a favorite of area schoolchildren, who “fitted up a temporary desk, made of a flour barrel,” and amused themselves by watching him write “from right to left, in what was to them an unknown language.” At some point, a few weeks into this curious ordeal, it was determined that the man who called himself Prince Moreau was writing and speaking in Arabic — a perceived novelty that made him only more of a celebrity. Governor Owen purchased Said from his former owner for one thousand dollars, eventually giving the slave to his brother James, an ardent bibliophile whose private library was said to be one of the largest in the US, rivaling Thomas Jefferson’s.
Said became something akin to the spectacular centerpiece of James Owen’s extensive library. He was given materials and space for study among the books, and he was showcased in a separate dwelling adjacent to the main plantation house, complete with its own slave. Said hosted a steady stream of visitors who came to hear him recite suras from the Qur’an, as well as Psalms and other Bible verses translated into Arabic. Said was said to be able to recite the entire Qur’an from memory, even late in his life, and it is rumored that he had transcribed a copy for himself; rumors also claim that the book was buried with him, at his death in 1865 at the age of ninety-four.
Personally conflated with the culturally confused fragments produced by his pen, he was called in one 1847 article a “superior remnant.” Was it not, the author asked, “quite as remarkable to find an Arabic scholar under such a guise as to find a scrap of antiquity deposited on the moldering shelf of some ancient library?” Southerners thought of Said’s body as something that could be read like a book, his fingers echoing the curvatures of Arabic characters, his fancy overcoat a living, breathing book jacket. Not unlike the Bibles and other religious texts popular in antebellum America, texts in which large maps of the Holy Land were sandwiched between Psalms in order to insinuate scriptural stories into real, lived geopolitical history, Said provided a multisensory experiential encounter with the text and context of the Qur’an in a safely Christian setting. He was the medium and the message both, and he became quite good at the role.
The self-appointed mascot of the First Presbyterian Church in Fayetteville, Said would saunter into Sunday services dressed in a long, flowing robe and slide into a specially constructed, thronelike chair in the front of the pews. He was both talisman and model for the imagined success of missionary incursions into Africa, immensely popular among the Southern Presbyterians in China and the Middle East, with whom he had contact. Said also maintained an international correspondence with a network of other Arabic-speaking slaves. Among the first to read Said’s autobiography, Lamen Kebe was one of several former slaves with whom Said maintained contact after Christian colonization societies paid for their repatriation to Liberia. Kebe had been apprehended around 1804 during a trip to Timbuktu to buy paper; he was captured by slave traders at night and awoke to find himself in fetters. Thirty years later, the literary bent that indirectly caused his capture became his ticket to freedom — of a sort. Missionaries working in Africa, who figured that the highly educated Kebe would make a great proselytizer, bought his passage to Liberia in 1835, giving him good reason for a shotgun conversion to Christianity.
On similar grounds, some have questioned the circumstances and sincerity of Said’s conversion to Christianity, but antebellum North Carolina could have easily made a believer out of someone with Omar ibn Said’s talents. During John Owen’s brief tenure as governor — about the time that his wife was urging Said to get his story down on paper — he responded to an antislavery pamphlet written and published by David Walker, the son of North Carolina slaves, with Old Testament fervor. Decrying the tract as “totally subversive of all subordination in our slaves” and sensitive to the “awful peril” the whites of Fayetteville would be subjected to if the slaves became rebellious, Owen supported draconian penalties to curb slave literacy in English. It was quite common for slaves caught in the act of writing in North Carolina and neighboring states to have their hands or fingers amputated as both punishment and preventative measure. Daniel Dowdy, a slave in Georgia, explained that the first time a slave was caught writing, he would be whipped; the next time, “they cut off the first jint offen your forefinger.” If they caught you again, they would take the entire hand.
Pinning proclamations declaring his desire to remain with the Owens to trees all over the plantation, and beginning many of his texts with the entreaty “O ye people of North Carolina, O ye people of South Carolina, O all ye people of America,” Said crafted himself as an Arabic prince rather than an African slave, in a stunningly effective song and dance that sutured the threat posed by his exoticism to the solid, reassuring foundations of the Presbyterian Church. It was enough to keep his fingers off the chopping block despite his copious correspondence. Neither his “delicate,” “effeminate,” “well-tapered” fingers nor his outsize personality saw any censure or severance, making it pretty clear who had the keys to the pen.
ANC2002.36 was found on Christmas Day in the shadow of the Deir Sitt Damiana Coptic Church in southern Egypt. Our excavation crew had grumbled that morning about the injustice of working on the holiday, but by lunch- time we had all made the pilgrimage to the grave at the far end of the cemetery, to gawk at our macabre Christmas present. At the bottom of a rectangular pit, pressed against a white limestone cobble floor, was a tiny pair of legs and feet. The knees were bent and facing to the left, as though the body had been carefully arranged to rest on its side nearly five thousand years before. Above the dirt-stained left femur were stacks of white ivory bracelets, once meant for slight wrists now missing. The entire upper body seemed to have vanished, as though by some strange magic. Together, the remaining bones and ornaments were an elegant still life, striking in its stark composition, beautiful even in that vast Pharaonic cemetery full of elite dead and their prized possessions for the afterlife.
The archaeologists were ecstatic, their excited voices signaling the rarity of their discovery. The excavations that season had already yielded the sacrificed bodies of three women and a man, each solemnly laid out in a grave with translucent alabaster vessels, or pottery inscribed with the king’s name, or amber-colored carnelian beads. But why murder a child? Had it been strangled or drugged? Was it a boy or a girl? The archaeologists began the slow, painstaking task of charting the coordinates of each bone fragment, each bracelet, capturing every detail in digital photographs and pencil drawings on graph paper. By the end of the day, ANC2002.36 could be understood in two dimensions, flattened and made legible. At dusk, the body was covered with a white shroud of Tyvek — a strange sort of tucking in — meant to shelter it not from childhood nightmares but from the caprices of the sun and wind. The edges of the cloth were weighted with lines of sand, a way of ensuring that the remains would still be there for us the next day.
I am a conservator, not an archaeologist. I preserve objects, things, the fragments of past lives that archaeologists uncover during excavation. I clean objects of their burial dirt and accretions, reassemble vessels and sculptures from their puzzle pieces, conserve the pigments on painted objects’ surfaces so that they can come alive again and be recognized and known. But my tools, brushes, and adhesives are useless for the dead. While archaeologists and physical anthropologists work to reconstruct the lives that these bones once lived and lost, conservators have no power to remake bodies and render them whole again. But the child’s femur, tibia, and fibula were broken in several places, and the archaeologists asked whether I could bandage those breaks and remove
the bones intact. How could I not oblige, even if those delicate legs and feet were at their most graceful lying in the ground?
In the days between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, the deep and narrow grave grew familiar. I would leave the upper world, with its toiling workmen, relentless wind, and views of the high desert looming in the far distance, to descend into a world bounded by four mud-plaster walls, anchored by the child’s legs and bracelets. Often there were two of us in that space, performing a slow-moving dance as we awkwardly shifted our suddenly overgrown bodies on sandbags to avoid bone fragments and pottery. The most comfortable position I could find was one of odd obeisance, kneeling at the child’s feet to perform my strange preparations. Over the course of days, I laid slivers of tissue paper across the jagged breaks in the bones and fixed them in place like invisible bandages. Sometimes the bone drew the wet tissue to itself, desperate, or so I imagined, for some little comfort; but at other times, the tissue refused to hold, as if the bone were rejecting that final indignity by those who had disturbed it. We lifted the legs out of the tomb on New Year’s Eve, transferring them from the floor to a tray prepared with soft foam for the mile-long journey to the excavation workrooms. Most of my bandages held, but a few sprang apart, unwilling to abet our transgression.
On New Year’s afternoon, I made my final descent into the grave, to retrieve the child’s ivory bracelets. Cracked and broken into hundreds of fragments, they seemed forlorn and hopeless without the crooked legs that had kept them company for nearly five millennia. I remember thinking that I was getting sentimental — as if bracelets could feel mournful! I ascribed it to staying up so late the night before, or the emotional weight of beginning a new year in the Egyptian desert far from home, or the accumulated exhaustion of a long excavation season. But even in the conservation workroom, the bracelets continued to shatter, fracturing into smaller and smaller pieces with every attempt to rejoin them. I could explain this rationally; from the moment the earth offered up the bracelets on Christmas Day, the humidity and sun and wind had begun damaging the ivory. But I could not assuage my frustration, my guilt. At night I would close my eyes and see ivory fragments breaking, joining, and breaking again. By day, in my workroom filled with so many objects waiting to be mended, I was drawn again and again to the bracelets. Only five of twenty-five could be reformed.
At the end of the excavation season, we performed the final rites of separation. The assemblages and accretions of history so carefully dug and pried apart by hand trowels and brushes were sorted into labeled Ziploc bags and firmly sealed shut. In one workroom, the child’s body was subdivided and packed; even the toe bones were wrenched apart and classified. In the next room, I filled bag after bag with pieces of ivory, small and precious like a child’s milk teeth, hoping that they might one day become bracelets again, knowing that they might not. We placed the body and bracelets in the dark, dusty storeroom. They sat on different shelves, separated by other boxes of tagged bodies divorced from their numbered objects, once meant to protect and comfort them in the afterlife. We drove away from the excavation house in a cloud of dust, passing the vast cemetery and, in the distance, the place where the child had lain alone with its talismans. After a turn in the dirt road, the white domes of the house disappeared, and ANC2002.36, left behind, entered a new kind of exile, awaiting our return another year.
In a tally of the many eloquent objects that populate the novels of WG Sebald — the skull of the seventeenth-century physician Sir Thomas Browne, a plaster cast of the left hand of Stendhal’s beloved Mathilde, a variety of diseased organs preserved in a museum of veterinary medicine, to name only a handful of the more grisly — a special place ought to be reserved for the curious number of writing desks to which the author adverts. They are in truth no less intimately vocative of the lives of those who sat at them than are passports, photographs, and body parts.
Readers of The Rings of Saturn, for example, will recall the desk of the narrator’s late academic colleague, Janine Dakyns, a surface so laden with notes, letters, and other documents that it has come to resemble a paper glacier, spilling slowly onto the valley floor of her office. Later in that book, Sebald (or his fictional stand- in) visits the poet Michael Hamburger and finds himself gazing, stunned, at a heavy mahogany bureau, feeling obscurely connected to the desk, the room, the house, and his friend’s life there. What these items share is a physical affinity with those who use them. Like old clothes, they have shaped themselves to the intellectual or creative contours of their owners. They are also, of course, reminders of Sebald’s own intuitive working methods; we may picture him at his desk, arranging his notes, obsessively curating the photographic fragments that punctuate his text.
But there is another species of desk in Sebald’s books, allegorizing another sort of labor: the detailed work of functionaries in the machinery of state power. In Austerlitz, the narrator recalls that his voluminously learned friend, the restless exile scholar of the book’s title, was appalled at the architectural hypertrophy of the Palace of Justice in Brussels. The massive structure, Austerlitz tells him, was built by the architect Joseph Poelaert in 1883; the finished building — if such a labyrinthine edifice can be said to have been completed — is the largest agglomeration of stone in all of Europe. Wandering its deliberately oppressive halls, he has discovered permanently darkened courtyards, forgotten offices, and rickety staircases that lead to “dark cul-de-sacs with roll-top cupboards, lecterns, writing desks, office chairs and other items of furniture stacked up at the end of them, as if someone had been obliged to hold out there in a state of siege.”
The desks are still there. In December 2007, when I visited, the Palace of Justice bristled with scaffolding, just as it does in the blurred gray photograph that accompanies Austerlitz’s account of it. Inside, in the gloom of a cavernous foyer, gowned lawyers received their clients in a series of plush recesses, each furnished with an imposing desk, weakly glowing lamp, and enormous radiator of antique design. A strange hush presided, and my companion and I went unaccosted as we crossed the lobby toward a huge marble staircase. Upstairs, in the shadows, we discovered the first phalanx of abandoned furniture. Weighty writing desks of dark wood, each about three yards wide and a yard deep, decorated with classical motifs and topped with green leather, had been shunted against the walls. It was as if a whole stratum of bureaucratic endeavour had been stripped away, its infrastructure left to gather dust.
The whole of the Palace of Justice was like that. We wandered for an hour along spacious but dismal corridors, at the end of which gleaming black tables were stacked and forgotten. We snuck up ill-lit staircases — only once did somebody ask whether we were lost — to find beautiful bent-plywood desks from the 1950s, shoved chairless into dingy corners. We pushed open huge polished doors to discover musty vestibules (presumably to court chambers), in each of which, inevitably, some archaic item of furniture stood like an aged attendant. When we emerged again onto an upper level of the lobby, we found, tucked behind a pillar, a small bureau, resembling an old school desk, whose lid opened to reveal crumbling documents, chocolate wrappers, and ancient office supplies.
By far the strangest item of neglected furniture, however, was just off the lobby, on the right heading toward the exit, adjacent to the infirmary, in a windowless anteroom filled with wooden benches. It was stuck in a corner, a dull gray metal desk, probably made of aluminum or pressed steel and appearing to date from the middle of the last century, with rounded corners and a single drawer. Though its design suggested use in an office, the desk was so small that you could hardly imagine an adult seated at it. It seemed to have shrunk into its corner over time, or the building to have grown to even more monstrous proportions, dwarfing the objects that, as Sebald writes, “know more about us than we know about them: they carry the experiences they have had with us inside them and are — in fact — the book of our history opened before us.”
I took one photograph of the tiny metal desk before my camera jammed. I knew right away that it was underexposed. The film turned out to be a dull mass from which only the scantest information could be extracted. The cracks in the marble floor were scarcely visible; the black wastepaper basket had almost vanished in grainy shadow. One thing remains clear, however — the furniture is not unused, after all. A clue is in the wastepaper basket and scattered on the floor in front of the desk. The building’s strange interstitial spaces are full of litter; it is obvious that someone is sitting at those desks, even the ones crammed into the most inaccessible nooks. The building, despite itself, has produced a kind of private space, for the fearful, the bored, the guilty, and the dispossessed — ghosts hunched painfully over the abandoned desks in the Palace of Justice.
Not so long ago, most maps of the world used the Mercator projection, which unpeeled the planet’s rounded surface and rolled it out, like dough, into a neat rectangle. This stretched the higher latitudes and squeezed tropical zones, so that Alaska seemed to outsize Brazil, and Sweden to equal India.
The standard wall-chart versions in the American schools I went to skewed things further. Snipping the great landmass of Eurasia in two along a line running roughly from Calcutta to Yakutsk, they rendered the world as a sort of triptych, with a plump United States flanked by a rump Europe and an amputated Asia. In that smug world, lucky northern folks occupied the roomy upper reaches, lorded over by an American Middle Kingdom, while southerners huddled in the space below.
So it was mildly unsettling to find this world turned upside down in the large framed map that I encountered in an Iraqi dissident’s office in Kuwait, shortly before the American invasion of his country. It showed the most populous quadrant of the globe, the northern part of the Eastern Hemisphere, with Africa curled along the top, an ungainly Italy seeming to pour out Europe onto the bottom, and a smattering of islands to the left representing the East Indies and, perhaps, Japan. Squiggles of Arabic identified both familiar places, such as Damascus and Rome, as well as a mysterious “land of the Waqwaq” near what is now Mozambique, and the gates of Gog and Magog down in the bottom left, in distant Siberia. The navel of this world, where those old, now disgraced, American maps placed Washington, DC, was somewhere between Baghdad and Mecca.
A label said that this was a reproduction, printed in 1956 by the Iraq Geological Survey, of the mappa mundi created in 1154 by the Moroccan geographer Abu Abdallah ibn Idrisi. My dissident friend explained that it was one of the few things he still possessed from Iraq and that he treasured it because it evoked not only an Arab-centric world but also the proud, prosperous Baghdad of his youth, where a government agency had taken the time to revise and reprint this greatest and most accurate of medieval maps. (The dissident hated Saddam Hussein but thought America’s invasion plan monstrous and liable to unleash “a thousand Saddam Husseins.”)
On further investigation, I learned that Idrisi’s mapping project had been sponsored, not by some illustrious sultan, but by the Norman king of Sicily, Roger II. Despite the fact that his capital, Palermo, had only been wrested from Muslim control a few decades before, and in spite of the ongoing crusades in Palestine, Roger was good to his minority subjects, including Orthodox Greeks and Jews, as well as Muslims. So keen was this enlightened ruler to understand the world that he commanded the compilation of a general geographic encyclopedia. Most scientific knowledge at the time happened to be in Arabic, so it was natural that he should invite Idrisi, a scholar known for his wide travels, as well as for his scientific work in the madrassas of Andalusia, to his court.
The team, headed by Idrisi, labored for fifteen years, resulting in the production, only days before King Roger’s death, of a great book titled Nuzhat al Mushtaq fi Ikhtiraq al Afaq (Delight for the Seeker of Breaching the Horizons). The text was also known more simply as, The Book of Roger. It comprised detailed descriptions of all known lands on what was described, quite categorically, as a spherical globe. The accompanying atlas used different colors and symbols to mark lands, seas, rivers, lakes, mountains, and cities. It included seventy maps, with ten plates accorded to each of seven climate zones between the equator and the North Pole. The Baghdad edition I saw reconstructed this atlas as a single sheet.
Less than a decade after King Roger’s death, an uprising of Sicilian barons, instigated by the pope and partly inspired by resentment at Roger’s openness to Muslims, led to the sacking of his court at Palermo. Idrisi himself is believed to have fled home to Morocco. All Latin versions of his book were destroyed, leaving only a rare few Arabic copies. Most tragically, an object that King Roger had considered his geographer’s masterwork, a silver disk or globe that was said to have measured two meters in diameter and been exquisitely engraved with a detailed map of the known half of the world, vanished.
Certain things in the Turkish national pantheon, you touch upon peril of death. The man called Ataturk. The notion of Turkish identity. YouTube died in Turkey recently after the government decided that Armenians and other anti-Turkish elements were smearing the nation with videos insinuating that Ataturk was gay. But YouTube will be back; Hrant Dink, the idealistic editor, journalist, and minority rights activist, will not. Just over a year ago, he was shot dead by a seventeen-year-old who could later be observed in photographs flanked by celebrating Turkish police, who presumably saw the young man as a nationalist hero.
Dink, an Armenian Turk and editor in chief of the bilingual weekly Agos, was under constant threat of death. But he clung to the belief that his stories — his prodding the Turks to admit the Armenian genocide, his prodding the Armenian diaspora to move on — could redefine what it meant to be from Turkey. Not a Turk, but of Turkey. One of those stories touched both untouchables, Ataturk and Turkishness.
Dink said he’d discovered that Sabiha Gökcen, Ataturk’s adopted daughter and a Kemalist icon, was an Armenian orphan; he’d actually found her relatives in Armenia. True or not, his words kicked up a storm. Gökcen’s life was a tribute to her natural orphan spunk and Ataturk’s transfiguring vision. In 1936, at age twenty-three,
she became the first female combat pilot in the world. She was feted throughout her long life — she died at eighty- eight in 2001 — as a symbol not only of modern Turkish womanhood but of the Turkish military and of her father’s nationalist project. Today Turkey’s international airport bears her name.
No wonder the head of the Turkish Army pounced on Dink for his story, charging him with a crime against national unity. It’s a shame that Gökcen was dead already and unable to defend Dink. But then, would she have defended him? Nobody believed in Ataturk’s vision more than she did. Nobody — nothing — was such a pure product of it.
Gökcen was a strange national treasure, almost a museum artifact. In a memoir fittingly entitled My Life with Ataturk, she said that her lived life began in 1925, when Kemal adopted her, and ended in 1938, when he died. Thirteen years, a life in miniature. The rest, she wrote, was serving time.
Was she in mourning for an adopted father she adored? Or was she such an object of Ataturk’s fashioning that her spirit left with its creator, even while her body remained on earth? That might sound like a fairy tale, but the pivotal events of her life often seem the stuff of one.
Scene 1: The Garden
Her story began once upon a time in Bursa, a war-torn town in northwestern Anatolia. The year was 1925. Sabiha was twelve, poor, an orphan. President Mustafa Kemal came to visit Bursa and happened to lodge in the mansion next door. She watched him for days, an idea percolating. Unable to contain herself, she leaped over the fence and landed in his garden. (In fairy tales, the garden is often the portal to magical realms.)
The founder of the Turkish Republic beckoned to her and petted her head. She kissed his hand, told him that she was an orphan, a burden on her siblings, that she dreamed of going to boarding school. He nodded, and it was done. The urchin had been turned into a princess, albeit not your typical princess. She was no beauty, Sabiha, but that was all right; he didn’t intend to marry her off. What he was creating was more magical than a dynasty.
Come with me to Ankara, he said. Become my daughter. She accepted, of course, and off she went to join his other adopted daughters at the presidential house. She had private tutors, attended the American schools in Istanbul, and spent time in Paris (which she hated — too far removed, perhaps, from her father).
Scene 2: What’s in a Name?
In 1934, Mustafa Kemal passed the Surname Law. How could citizens of a modern nation-state, modeled on France, not have surnames? Kemal became Ataturk: father of the Turks. To others he dispensed names. The man he sent to Mexico to study pre-Columbian ruins for ancient Turkish connections became Mayatepek, “Mayan hill.” Sabiha became Gökcen — “of the skies.” Her fate was sealed.
Scene 3: The Biplane, #19
The following year, with her father, she watched Russian aviators performing at a ceremony for the opening of the Turkish Bird Flight School. She was entranced by the skydivers and the parachutists. When Ataturk asked her whether she wished she could be like them, she answered with sudden seriousness: “I am ready right now.” Ataturk liked the match between her name, her courage, and her ambition, and he instructed the head of the school to admit Gökcen as his first female student. Seeing her accomplish her first solo flight, Ataturk saw an icon flashing across the skies. “Now I can tell you what I have planned for you,” she recalled him saying, in her memoirs. “Can you imagine how proud it would make us feel to have a Turkish girl become the world’s first woman military pilot? I will act now and make arrangements for you to receive special training.”
It was around this point that her fairy-tale life crossed a threshold. There was still magic in it, but her innocence was lost. The sky is not simply a frontier of wonder. It’s also a theater of operations. Air is for superiority; the sky is for bombing.
Scene 4: The Silver Pistol
In 1937, Gökcen heard whisperings of a secret operation that her air force peers were about to embark on. They were to squash the Dersim uprising of the Kurdish Kizilbash and their rebel leader, Seyit Riza. She wanted to fight for her country, too, but the decision was not her commander’s to make, so she borrowed a plane and flew to Ankara to make her case directly to her father, the father of the nation. He accepted, with conditions.
Ataturk: You should not forget this: you are a girl…. You will be faced with a band of deceived men….You might have to do an emergency landing and surrender to them…. Have you thought about what you would do in such a situation?
Gökcen: … If something this unfortunate happens, don’t you worry, I will never surrender to them alive.
Ataturk: Gökcen, then, I will give you my own pistol…. If anything that will put your honor at risk should happen, do not hesitate to use this pistol against others or to kill yourself. Gökcen [kisses his hand, kisses the pistol]: I will not forget your words for as long as I live and will always keep this promise!
The next day she flew with her comrades to Dersim. For a month, she dropped bombs and flew gun runs over the Kurds. The rebellion was suppressed — a rebellion one can easily imagine Gökcen participating in, had she been adopted by the Kurds instead. Seyit Riza, their leader, was captured, but before he was hung, he shot out a warning: “I am seventy-five years old…. I am joining the Kurdistan martyrs. Kurdish youth will get revenge. Down with the fickle and liars!” Stealing the show from his persecutors, Seyit Riza grabbed the noose, pushed the executioner aside, and hung himself. The Dersimlis were devastated. Tens of thousands were deported and massacred. Kosovars and Albanians were resettled there to alter the ethnic composition. Yet not a word was uttered about what happened at Dersim when Gökcen became a national hero. She was glorified for eliminating “feudalism” with her bombs. Even in her memoirs she never talked about Dersim or its aftermath or consequences. She was ever the dutiful soldier and daughter. In the words of Ataturk:
I am proud of you, Gökcen! And not just me, the whole Turkish nation that has been following this incident very closely is proud of you….You should be proud of yourself for showing to the whole world, once again, what our young girls can do…. We are a military nation. From ages seven to seventy, women and men alike, we have been created
After the operation, Ataturk dispatched his creation on a goodwill tour of the region — Sofia, Belgrade, Athens — to promote not only Turkey’s advancement of women but also the country’s combat readiness. Ataturk showed her off in military uniform at balls and ceremonies. She was heralded by poets and editors as a model for the youth, for women, as a heroine out of pre-Islamic Turkish legend. And yet women still had no formal position in the military. Ataturk either could not or would not change that on his own. Instead Gökcen would make appeals on his behalf. At the Republican Day ball, she confronted Marshall Fevzi Cakmak, urging him to pass a law allowing women to be soldiers. “There are so many young girls that I know who are ready to sacrifice the best years of their lives to wear this honorable uniform,” she told him.
But he was opposed. “Please child, don’t ask me,” he said. I do not at all agree that our girls and women should become soldiers. For a nation to exist, its women need to live.”
She was devastated. In her memoirs, she writes, “I had convinced myself that, after all that work and all that success, we would have rights equal to men in the realm of the military as well. Yet, as usual, reality had reigned over dreams.”
Such a wistful line for one who had fulfilled so many of her own dreams. Yet one can see, perhaps, the source of that wistfulness in the many photographs and video clips of her life: Gökcen propped on the propeller of her biplane; Gökcen as gunner in the rear seat; Gökcen in leather jacket and cap and goggles riding in an open car with Ataturk; Gökcen in uniform kissing Ataturk’s hand as suited Turkish gentlemen and a few guards look on. Iconic images of a miniature life.
One day in November 1938, the fairy tale came to an end. Ataturk had succumbed. After his death, Gökcen had to leave the military. In 1940, she married, but her husband died three years later. In 1950, she asked to fly combat missions over North Korea, to do her part “for the free world” and for NATO, and was denied. She ended up serving as the chief instructor at Turkey’s Civil Aviation School and flew tours in the US in the 50s, representing Turkish society. Decades later, in 1996, the US Air Force included her in a poster honoring the “20 Greatest Aviators in History.”
We shouldn’t judge Sabiha Gökcen too harshly for her admission that the larger part of her long life was “time served.” Ataturk was her muse and her creator. He breathed agency into her, made a girl into a living legend. Without him, she felt she was no one — just another object in the national pantheon.
The sheer genius of the plastic ice-cube tray first arrived on Iranian shores with President Harry Truman’s broad-ranging Point IV program and its emphasis on “the underprivileged persons of the Earth.” Later, American companies like General Electric and the York Corporation would provide the stuff of suburban fantasy, in the form of shiny kitchen utensils, to Iranian kitchens. High school textbooks on housekeeping lifted most of their copy from magazines like Ladies’ Home Journal and Good Housekeeping. And by the late 1950s, the McGraw-Edison Company’s Air Comfort Division in Albion, Michigan, was helping Iranian cities stay cool thanks to their iconic air- conditioning units, especially when the country’s famously scorching summer heat waves rolled in.
Some years later, an Iranian company called Arj began to produce a local version of McGraw-Edison’s air coolers. Arj, which means “value” in Farsi, set up a sprawling joint Iranian-American factory on the old Karaj Road, on the outskirts of Tehran, devoted to electrical equipment and appliances. Among the many items produced by Arj was a clunky blue and white metal air-conditioning unit known as the Kooler. Its affordability and perfectly acceptable quality made it a hit among a certain kind of middle-class Iranian.
The Kooler and other later brands (eg, Absal and Arj) were not the typical window-mounted machines used in the States. Rather, the Kooler stood apart from the building, either propped atop a balcony like a tiny industrial minaret or attached to a metal frame. These boxes “decorated” countless facades around cities, resembling stalled elevators or awkward miniature tree houses.
In the late 60s, these air coolers captured the imagination of an Iranian artist named Mehdi Husseini, previously known for his reliably abstract oil paintings. At the same time, a fellow artist named Behjat Sadr began riffing on imported Venetian blinds as objects of art, while Coca-Cola bottles served as inspiration for Parvaneh Etemadi. Indeed, everyday commodities inspired a generation of Iranian artists, many of them educated in the West, and many perhaps not wholly unaware of a man named Andy Warhol silk-screening soup cans somewhere across the ocean. Most of the objects that figured into these artworks were either imported or joint Iranian-Western products. (In a strange twist, jointly produced industrial products were called “montage.”) Under the shah, the apple of the American eye, Iran became a repository for all manner of mass-produced consumer detritus. By the second half of the 1970s, on the verge of the revolution, the Iranian market was completely overwhelmed by iconic American products, from Kentucky Fried Chicken to Westinghouse; the value of US exports to Iran hovered around $326 million.
Plainly, the reality of this Westoxification — to use a term popular at the time — raised the ire of leftists. But so did the Warholian art of the era (and, it should be said, Warhol’s art itself). The Marxist art critic Khosrow Golsorkhi once proclaimed that such works turned aesthetic value into exchange value. The postrevolutionary elite condemned such pop works, too. Artists were barred from displaying their “capitalistic works” in local museums due to the mobtazal character of their art — a term implying both corruption and kitsch. Even commercial advertisement in local media was forbidden for almost a decade, while Islamic revolutionaries drew a sharp distinction between local and imported goods, a view that defined the essence of household objects. Terms such as halal vs haram (accepted vs forbidden by God) and taharat and najasat (purity and filth) — once applied mainly to the human body and its environment — now extended to imported commodities. Montage was considered haram, as described in early postrevolutionary texts like Hasan Tavanayan Fard’s Karkhanijat-i Montage: Iqtisad-i Shirk (Montage Factories: The Sinful Economy).
It is nearly thirty years since students took to the streets and shouted “Death to America” at the gates of the American Embassy, and while the popular consensus against the excesses of the West seems to have faded (there are more BMW and luxury-watch ads along Tehran’s highways than ever), the regime continues to pay lip service to the purported evils of Western consumerism and its associated blight. In what was once sleepy Karaj, the Arj Company factory and its patrons are all gone, replaced by a growing number of factories owned by the regime and its cronies. As for the Kooler, it lives on, its exceptional profile and color becoming a standard prototype for all subsequent locally produced varieties. Occasionally, one of the vintage originals can be spotted perched atop a building, its exterior caked in the dust that marks Iran’s bigger cities. Behind their dull facades, these boxes tell forgotten stories about an earlier time, of coolerators and kings, back when America reigned supreme.
David Macklovitch is a Teaching Fellow and PhD candidate in the French and Romance Philology department at Columbia University. He is also Dave 1, one-half of Chromeo, a synth-heavy electrofunk act from Montreal that bills itself as “thugged-out Hall & Oates.” Dave 1 sings about romancing at parties and searching for the perfect girl (ie one who reminds him of his moms) while his partner and best friend from forever, Pee Thug (Patrick Gemayel), makes good use of an 808 and a talkbox (don’t call it a vocoder) to lay down the duo’s highly danceable beats. The band’s most audacious claim is that they are the “the only successful Arab/Jew partnership since the dawn of human culture.” David’s students at Columbia had no inkling of his rock stardom until Alex Gartenfeld, an undergrad in his French conversation class, came across a Chromeo video on a website for hipsters. Dave admitted that music is a family affair: his brother Alain was the youngest World Champion DJ ever and is currently Kanye West’s tour DJ. Alex has followed Chromeo’s career diligently ever since, up to and including their latest album, Fancy Footwork. Recently, the two reunited to chat about Vampire Weekend, embracing your jock fans, poseuring, and Dave’s dad’s YouTubing habits.
What was your school like?
Our school was a French lycée. A lot of the people who came to our school were children whose parents grew up in French colonies and wanted their kids to have a French education. There were a lot of African, Haitian kids. My mom grew up in Morocco, which is how I ended up there. But there were lots of Lebanese kids, too. Parents who trusted the French educational system over the Canadian education system.
When did your parents come to Montreal?
My mom came over in 1964. My father was born in Canada.
Why did your mom leave Morocco?
Well, Algeria achieved its independence in 1962, and there was a fear at the time that a similar movement could emerge in Morocco. The king had been very protective of Jewish people. Their safety was guaranteed by the king.
So the whole family moved?
The whole Jewish population of Morocco relocated — mostly to France or Montreal. Some of them moved to New York; I have family here from Morocco as well. There wasn’t really any trauma — it was quite well planned. But whenever my mom goes back now, the guy at immigration always says, “Why did you guys leave us?”
How Jewish do you consider yourself?
Uhhh… Larry David Jewish. I’m the same Jewish as him. Not very practicing, I haven’t fasted for Yom Kippur in years. I have no ties to Israel. Actually… I won’t even go there. I’m not very pro-Israel. But at the same time? Culturally, I’m very Jewish. My mannerisms — I’m neurotic. I’m a complete neurotic. I’m the typical lefty Jewish intellectual type… Have you ever seen me reading at the library? You know what shuckling is?
Hasidic Jews — it’s what they do when they say prayers. They rock back and forth on their chairs …
Oh! I do the same thing! All the time!
Yeah, why do we all do that? My father does it, too.
That’s eerie. And incidentally, my shuckling is always something I’m mocked for.
I get called a self-hating Jew all the time. I make off-color jokes all the time. But I’m a super-Jew. I’m a Larry David Jew.
I don’t know. I don’t watch the show the way you do, but Larry David strikes me as somewhat sadistic. And certainly masochistic.
I do the same thing he does all the time.
Really? But he is delusional.
I don’t think so. I think he’s normal. I think he treats everyone equally. That’s why he talks to handicapped people the way he talks to a non-handicapped person. And we’re not supposed to talk to handicapped people the same way, so he gets into trouble.
It’s kind of like autism, that inability to read any cultural codes.
He’s autistic to the hypocrisy of etiquette, basically. But Jewishness, I link to him. My father’s like him. My grandfather’s like him.
What does your dad do?
Both my parents are gonna retire soon, so they don’t have much to do. My dad’s a linguist, and my mom heads a translation bureau. Basically they check our MySpace page. My mom reads all the MySpace comments and then calls me about them. She’s like, “There’s this girl, she said she loved what you were wearing, so that’s good!” My father checks all the YouTube videos. Whatever it is, even if it’s like some DJ did a mashup triple-bootleg remix, he’ll tell me about it.
Isn’t it weird for a Jew to be Francophone in Montreal?
Well, that’s an interesting story. Moroccan Jews are all Francophone, of course. But my father is an Ashkenazi. So basically when he met my mom he decided to raise his kids in French out of solidarity with the Québecois. During the 70s there was a big ethnic cultural explosion in Quebec, and at the same time it was the birth of Quebec nationalism. My father had a lot of sympathy for the Francophones because they were underdogs. They were generally lower class, and they were oppressed. And also to piss his family off, I think, my father went off and married a Moroccan girl. But yes, you’ll find that an Ashkenazi Francophone is very rare.
Why do you write your songs in English?
Because pop music to me, and music to me, has always been in English. I’ve never really listened to French music.
What type of music did you listen to as a kid?
Up until the age of nine, I was listening to my father’s records: Beatles, Bob Dylan, Fleetwood Mac, Van Morrison. I learned all those records by heart. Then we got MTV, so I just watched videos all the time. Prince, Hall & Oates, Barry Ocean — pretty much all of the things that Chromeo is influenced by, I was listening to by the time I was eight. Guns N’ Roses, Robert Palmer, INXS — classic 80s, basically. Then when I turned eleven, for some reason I got into classic 70s rock. I did that for three years. I knew every Led zeppelin record by heart. I listened to music for hours and hours a day. And then, at fourteen, I discovered black music: hip hop, funk, and soul.
Was that interest spurred by anything? Was it an adolescent-male thing? Was it the cool thing?
Jamiroquai. 1992 was when Jamiroquai first came out, and I thought he was cool. And that got me into acid jazz, which got me into James Brown and Maceo Parker, which got me into all the things that sampled that stuff. The Pharcyde, Beastie Boys, A Tribe Called Quest. And the next thing you know, it’s 1994, which was the biggest year for hip hop: Nas, Mobb Deep, Wu-Tang. So by the mid-90s, I was completely into hip hop. And that was true right up until 2000, when I started listening to electronic music.
You’re like a walking chronicle of the last few decades.
The only thing I didn’t really get into was indie. I didn’t listen to Pavement.
Was that typical of Francophone Montreal?
No, that was typical of a macho kid. Pavement in high school — if you listened to that, you were like some goth or whatever. If you had any balls, you listened to Tupac. That was us — these little white kids pretending to be tough.
Wasn’t this the time you started producing hip hop records, too? You were so busy!
Well, I wasn’t getting a lot of girls in high school, so I had nothing else to do. I don’t smoke, I don’t play pool, I don’t play video games. I stayed home and listened to records and tried to make beats in the basement.
What was your crew like?
Poseur-tough. We were in a private school. We were writing graffiti but we weren’t really badasses. We were in this nice neighborhood, you know?
How did you meet P?
Patrick and I went to high school together. He was one year older than me, which … you know, in high school time is like dog years. But he had a band with all these older kids, and they were playing funk, and I said, “Man, I want to do that too. Enough with the Led Zeppelin.” And because I was the nicest guitar player, I joined their band, and we just became best friends. At some point we saw Wild Style and were like, “Whoa, this is the coolest thing ever.” We just wanted to make music like that. You know that movie Wild Style, right?
No… The only hip hop movie i’ve seen lately is that sneaker-collecting movie, Just for Kicks…
Yeah, my boy did that. A French guy. Thibault de Longeville.
Did that kind of collecting, rebel-capitalist part of hip hop culture make its way to Montreal?
Of course. You know how many sneakers I have? I’ve got, like, four hundred pairs up at Manhattan Mini Storage on 134th Street. To this day, I’m always looking at sneakers, always checking out graffiti. Especially when you’re a white kid from Montreal, you approach things with the discipline of a Chinese kid at Butler. But you know, when La Haine came out in 1995, that was the height of our poseur hip hop heyday.
I’ve seen pictures of you wearing the tracksuits.
That was us. It was great for us being Montrealian, because here was a hip hop movie in French. I had a radio show back then, Rap Attitudes — it was the biggest French-language hip hop radio show in Montreal. A huge college radio show, and I wasn’t even in college yet. And Mathieu Kassovitz and Cut Killer came to my show. It was cool. I remember that Mathieu Kassovitz was really short and Cut Killer was really tall. And Cut Killer was thugged out. Actually Kassovitz was thugged out, too, then. That movie was so powerful! We were extra tough after that movie.
Pee still dresses thug, but you stopped dressing thug entirely.
Well, I know better.
You know he’s not here to defend himself. So what caused the change?
Around 1999, my girl was like, “Yo, you look stupid.”
That old chestnut.
“Why you wearing shirts that are too big for you?” And I was like, That’s true, I look like a clown. So I started wearing tighter clothing. Funny, huh?
That seems like an important shift for you. Today you’re known for your style.
Well, no one’s gonna like you unless you look fresh. Every artist I like is someone I like looking at. The only bad-looking bands I like… well, Steely Dan, they don’t look so good. Steely Dan were always ugly. But all the bands that are out today — look at Vampire Weekend, they’ve got a perfect look. No one looks like them. Nobody sounds like them, either — they found a sound no one was doing. No one went full-on Graceland.
What designers do you like?
I always like the same stuff. APC for Denim, Dior, and Margiela for boots. Dior for shirts. And then I go to the most bogus thrift stores. Thrift stores for idiots. Then take it to a tailor. That’s the real trick, how well it sits.
Why don’t you guys do merch? You’d be perfect for it.
Well, we haven’t got our shit together. I mean, we have tee shirts.
But you need a whole lifestyle thing! Like Chloe Sevigny for Opening Ceremony, except… Dave 1 for…
I think that our audience wouldn’t like that. We know who our audience is, and we can’t really count on Margiela to design our merch.
Your fans are not hip.
We don’t have a trendy fan base. I love it. A little bit of a hipster contingent, but not full-on.
They’re kind of bad hipsters, like straight-up American Apparel leggings—
—we have jocks! It’s great.
Yeah, and I’m stoked! I love it! They’re gonna stick around. Some kids are always gonna like the band that is the big thing because they’ve got to like the next thing … Our references have become a little cooler, though. Before, when I started talking about Hall & Oates or Graceland during phone interviews, people would hang up on me. They didn’t know what to do with it. No one had gone full-on Jheri-curl Rick James–meets–Robert Palmer 80s. But it’s become cooler. I don’t even mention that stuff anymore. I just say: Toto. “Africa.” Billy Joel.
No, that’s the next level! See what I’m saying? That’s hot!
At first glance, Bab’Aziz: The Prince Who Contemplated His Soul seems like a veritable cornucopia of Oriental exotica. At second glance, too. There are forbidding desert vistas, a blind, wizened dervish, gnomic utterances, and elaborate digressions into vaguely mystical stories.
And, of course, a prince contemplating his soul.
Some may even hold the film’s overwhelming visual beauty against it — shot in Tunisia and Iran, Bab’Aziz unfolds across a backdrop of rolling, sensuous sands, often caught in dreamy twilight by Iranian cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari. And yet Bab’Aziz has proven to be something of a hit on the festival circuit, premiering in Dubai in 2004 and making appearances in Cairo, Istanbul, Muscat, and Fajr, where it won a major prize in 2005. (It was released theatrically in the US in February 2008.) There’s little doubt that it has been warmly received by viewers in the Middle East and elsewhere; what then to make of its seeming embrace of a fairy-tale version of the Muslim world?
Perhaps we should blame 9/11. Nacer Khemir, the film’s Tunisian director, has claimed that Bab’Aziz is meant to be read politically. “I tried to wipe Islam’s face clean with my movie,” he told an interviewer, “by showing an open, tolerant, and friendly Islamic culture, full of love and wisdom… an Islam that is different from the one depicted by the media in the aftermath of 9/11…. This movie is a modest effort to give Islam its real image back.” Setting aside the vexed question of what it would mean to give Islam its “real image back” (and also, where its face is), Khemir’s film does offer a compelling study in contrasts. The obvious debt it owes to The Thousand and One Nights evokes an image of a world fixated on the past; but Khemir also tweaks his narrative in ways that suggest that this past may not be what it seems.
The story begins in the wake of a sandstorm, as the aged dervish Bab’Aziz and his young granddaughter Ishtar emerge literally from beneath the desert, on their way to a gathering of dervishes. We’re told little about the gathering, save that it happens every thirty years and no one knows where it’s held. To pass the time, Bab’Aziz tells Ishtar a story about a desert prince who follows a gazelle out into the sands one day and disappears. His men set out to find him; when they do, he’s staring into a pool of water, enraptured by his own reflection. This prince isn’t hypnotized by his own beauty, however. Rather, he is peering into his soul (more Siddhartha than Narcissus, as it were). He ends up losing his earthly kingdom. But does he gain something else? The film doesn’t say, precisely, though we’re invited to wonder whether he might, perchance, have become a dervish himself, a dervish with a young granddaughter, on a journey to what seems like nowhere in particular…
But Bab’Aziz is not merely the tale of the prince. It’s a tapestry of stories, connected in a variety of ways, told by Bab’Aziz himself and by travelers he encounters along the way. Perhaps the most notable of these tales is related by a young man named Zaid, searching for a beautiful woman named Nour, whose heart he won in a poetry contest, at which point she disappeared. The contest is seen in flashback; Zaid’s verses remind Nour of her own father’s words, prompting her to fall in love with the young man. Zaid has been searching for her ever since and hopes to find her at the gathering of the dervishes.
The film obviously elicits comparisons to The Thousand and One Nights. But with its intricate narrative structure, its stories within stories, and its deferred resolutions, Bab’Aziz bears even closer resemblance to one of the Nights’ palimpsests in Western culture: Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1974 film The Arabian Nights, which shares with Khemir’s film a matter-of-fact fascination with ritual. Indeed, despite its director’s Tunisian background and his manifest concern for the image of Islam, Bab’Aziz’s aesthetic DNA feels distinctly European, notably Italian. Khemir’s collaborator on the script was the legendary Tonino Guerra, Michelangelo Antonioni’s partner on L’Avventura, La Notte, and Blow Up, among other films. (Guerra has had fruitful collaborations with Andrei Tarkovsky, Francesco Rosi, Federico Fellini, the Taviani brothers, and Theo Angelopoulos as well.) The sensuous depiction of the desert as a place for the submersion of identity and for endless quests, for rebirth and for reinvention, also recalls Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky and Valerio Zurlini’s Desert of the Tartars, not to mention The Passenger (interestingly, one of the few major Antonioni films Guerra did not write).
But it is precisely in its treatment of the desert that the fantastic aspect of Khemir’s film turns back on itself. Whereas the film at first seems to be set in the distant past, as the travelers’ journey progresses, traces of the present creep into the story. There are images of trucks, a reference to a bus, and other glimpses of the world beyond. Zaid’s final story is introduced with a shot of a passing airplane.
This young man with the baseball cap and the backpack walking across the desert sands with the blind, turbaned mystic and his wee granddaughter makes for a seductively incongruous image. It also presents the film with one of its most powerful moments. When a tired and weakened Bab’Aziz requests that Ishtar leave him and proceed to the gathering with Zaid, the girl refuses, struggles, but finally relents, leaving behind forever the old man who was once, perhaps, a prince. Ishtar’s journey, in that sense, mirrors that of the film itself. Bab’Aziz ultimately finds itself in an ambiguous place, open to the world at large and uncertain as to what new marvels the future holds.
You haven’t died and you’re no wiser. You haven’t exposed your eyes to the blinding of the sun.
The two tenth-rate actors haven’t come for you, clutched you, fastened themselves so closely to you that if one were crushed all three would perish.
Merciful volcanoes have shown no concern for you.
The text of Georges Perec’s 1967 novel, Un Homme Qui Dort, was written “invisibly” at the interface of other pieces of writing, including Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and Franz Kafka’s “The Burrow.” Images, narrative lines, direct quotations, and obtuse reprocessings are disappeared into the final text, which acquires the off-kilter yet smooth surface that Perec’s highly complex experimental writing is famous for. As texts originally written in English and German, then translated into French and worked through the wild formalistic interior of Perec’s personal language games, what emerges back into English is an echo chamber of mutant allusions and distant laugh tracks.
In the film version of the novel, made in 1973–74 in collaboration with Bernard Queysanne, a compressed version of the text is read continuously in voiceover. In the French version, what mattered to Perec — as the text is written entirely in the second person — was that the voice was absolutely distinguishable from the sole “man” featured onscreen; he didn’t want the viewer to collapse the film into a simple internal monologue. For Perec, the solution was to have the voice of “a woman.” Whereas in French, the gendering functions quite flatly to produce difference, a miraculous thing happens in the English-language dubbing: Shelley Duvall.
The text of Perec’s novel was spoken by Duvall in English long before a complete translation was published. (Harry Mathews unpublished translation for the film is also radically different from Andrew Leak’s 1990 translation.) How it is that Shelley Duvall ended up as the first American voice of Georges Perec is a fascinating mystery; all I can confirm is that Perec loved Brewster McCloud (1970). But Perec was a member of the Parisian literary group Oulipo, which developed pataphysical literary techniques out of the most disfiguring aspects of translation, and I can imagine that he considered Duvall’s voice an experimental choice. Duvall, with her famously weird affect and softened Texas accent, manages to get under the skin of a split “you”: “you” the protagonist, an increasingly dissociated (male) college student walking around Paris in the late 1960s; and “you” the viewer, brought to the point of psychological exhaustion.
Three years after the release of the film, Duvall won best actress at Cannes for a different film, Robert Altman’s 3 Women. Bizarrely, Un Homme Qui Dort had been formally invited to and then formally rejected by Cannes. (Perec and Queysanne decided to have posters printed with “Cannes Official Selection 1974” anyway and showed Un Homme Qui Dort “out of competition” at the festival.) In an interview for French TV, in the midst of her big win for 3 Women, Duvall, the marvelously untrained actress, rehearsed PR lines with the same emptied-out disaffection she is known for onscreen: “No, not successful at the box office, but very successful with reviews. We got every big critic, [pause] every critic that was necessary. But the box office, no, uh, because, uh, United Artist’s artists, uh, didn’t put [pause] a lot of money into publicity.”
On and offscreen, in and out of character, Duvall acts from the outside in, like a puppet master of her own body: erasure, elimination, nullification, deletion, dissolving, disappearance, obscurity, withdrawal.
One day in Paris, circa 1967, a university student wakes up to find himself radically dissociated. Somehow, that student has the body of un homme and the voice of Duvall, and, on walking into Paul Virilio’s classroom (he lent it, full of exam-taking students, for the filming of this scene), s/he “would prefer not to.” Listen to the voice:
You get up too late. You’re not going to say on four, eight, or twelve ruled pages what you know you should think about alienation, or the working class, or modern life and leisure, about the white-collar worker or automation, about other-directedness, about Marx’s critic [sic] of de Tocqueville, or Margaret Mead versus Marcuse. You wouldn’t have said anything, in any case, since your knowledge is small and your opinions are nonexistent. Your seat remains empty. You won’t get your degree, you’ll never begin your advanced studies. [Sound of a rotary alarm clock ticking very fast.] You’ll give up your studies altogether.
It’s been a long time since your alarm clock stopped at 5:15. Time no longer enters the silence of your room: it’s outside, a lasting, obsessive, inaccurate, rather dubious medium. Time passes, but you never know the time. It’s ten o’clock, maybe eleven, it’s late, it’s early. Day breaks, night falls. The sounds never stop altogether, time never stops altogether. Even if it’s no longer anything but a tiny breech in the wall of silence, a somnambulant murmur forgotten bit by bit, scarcely distinguishable from your heartbeats. Your room is the most beautiful of desert islands, and Paris is a desert that no one has ever traversed.
Heavy Metal in Baghdad, a twitchy, handheld documentary that jets in and out of the lives of some Iraqi metalheads, signals its intentions in the encompassing breadth of its title. The naming is a bit of a fake-out; Video of Some Emblematically Unlucky and Tense Dudes in a War Zone might have been more apt, given the actual material. Unlike, say, Jeff Krulik and John Heyn’s 1986 Heavy Metal Parking Lot, which discovered an entire emotional ecology outside a Judas Priest concert, or Penelope Spheeris’s iconic 1981 portrait of the LA punk scene, The Decline of Western Civilization, Heavy Metal in Baghdad turns out to have little to do with its purported subject. It is not really about Iraq or metal or the war or even Acrassicauda, the band it sets out to document. Instead, Heavy Metal in Baghdad is an almost universalist gloss on what it’s like to be trapped, male, and screwed while possessing a skill that may or may not allow you to play your way to safety. As such it has more in common with the basketball tragedy Hoop Dreams or even Roman Polanski’s WWII drama The Pianist.
A part of the increasingly wide-ranging Vice-magazine empire — the doc was directed by Eddy Moretti and Suroosh Alvi, one of Vice’s founders — Heavy Metal quick-sketches in electric video tones four postwar years in the lives of “Iraq’s first and only heavy-metal band.” The particular interest of Vice in such a novelty should be obvious to anyone who has read the magazine, founded in Montreal in 1994 as a place where casual extremity and obsessive connoisseurship meet. If you can imagine a Japanese, limited-run, 2Girls1Cup, Nike Dunk sneaker, you likely have a copy or two of the blithely transgressive global magazine somewhere in your home. (I keep mine in the bathroom.) If not being able to imagine such a thing either in aggregate or in part leaves you wracked with anxiety over how lukewarm your taste has become, you are very likely a subscriber.
Vice’s conceits are on display within the film’s first five minutes, and over the course of Heavy Metal we will learn much more about what it means to be a certain kind of transnational North American hipster than about what it means to be an Iraqi metal band. Pakistani-Canadian Alvi, the narrator, seems at peace with being the film’s costar, and he lays his claim to our attentions with laconic bravado while strapping on a flak jacket. Acrassicauda (Latin for “black scorpion,” aka “the most deadly scorpion ever”) may be the ne plus ultra of metal — what could be more metal than headbanging in a postapocalyptic IED-strewn war zone? — but Vice’s intercontinental pursuit of the band over the last several years is meant to position the magazine as the be-all and end-all as well. “A lot of people think it’s risky, dangerous, and really fucking stupid” to fly into a war zone, Alvi announces, as he meets his heavily armed security detail at Baghdad Airport (their faces pixelated to protect their identities). Fucking stupid like a fox, maybe. Almost forty years ago, Chris Burden shot himself in the arm in the name of art, but during the American live tour for MTV’s Jackass (a cultural kissing cousin to Vice), stuntman Steve-O would staple his own scrotum to his inner thigh on the regular for no particular reason beyond ticket sales and what some post-internet subcultures call the LULz: pointless, visceral kicks. (Steve-O dubbed his act, with unexpected tenderness, “The Butterfly.”) Exposing oneself to controlled but genuine physical risk is just a means to an end in the Vice-Jackass continuum. Stepping into the range of sniper fire, as Alvi and Moretti did in order to document the story of a band, has an air of quaint integrity to it. (Like publishing a physical magazine, perhaps, on paper and in ink.)
As for Acrassicauda, one could watch Heavy Metal in Baghdad ten times over and come away with only the passingest sense of the band and its members. The core group is Firas the bassist, Tony the guitarist, and Marwan the drummer. Tony speaks little English but plays guitar like a monster. Firas owns a computer shop and has a wife and a child. Marwan works out his frustrations by banging on his kit as hard as he can. Everything beyond these thin understandings seems to have been shaken off the screen by a series of concussions and aftershocks, the band reduced to an unusual subgenus of wartime displaced.
The primal scene of the band’s introduction to, you know, rock music is never discussed or envisioned, so the film’s only uniquely metal encounter turns out to be an asymmetrical collision between the band and Vice magazine. Better-informed local correspondents will have to evaluate the claim of Acrassicauda’s uniqueness. (Selfstyled “Mesopotamian Black Metal Band” Melechesh have been celebrating Iraq’s premonotheistic heritage since the early 1990s, but that band is based in Jerusalem.) But even if it is true, their track record — six gigs in six years, two of them seemingly staged for the documentary itself — suggest that the band is as much the product of Vice’s desire as its object. The film tracks Vice’s hypostatizing investment in the group, beginning with a magazine article by Gideon Yago, an MTV correspondent in Iraq; the first images of the band derive from a perfunctory interview that seems like footage Yago was unable to pawn off on his usual employer. (“You guys just want to rock,” he exposits, wan and awestruck at the same time.) From there, a good chunk of the film is devoted to the logistics of staging “The Vice/Acrassicauda concert” in Baghdad, followed by an in-depth treatment of Alvi and company’s inevitable difficulties trying to shoot a movie in an active war zone. While overlong, this section features an abundance of footage of vintage Iraq war, Baghdad, and one can imagine, say, video-game makers mining the film for images.
It’s only after Heavy Metal retreats to the relative safety of Syria, where the band have escaped in order to record an album (produced by Vice, of course), that their specific predicament as musicians becomes the focus of the film. Alvi’s narration starts to take on a more contemplative, self-conscious tone, while Acrassicauda break down in tears while watching a rough cut of the doc. At first they’re stoked about how they look, “like a real band and everything,” but then Marwan has an epiphany while staring at the screen: once this shoot is over, the Vice guys get to go home with the footage, while he gets to go back to his shitty, dangerous, perhaps doomed life, his broken country. His anger is explosive (which is to say, rocklike), and Alvi and Moretti want to position this moment as their ultimate comment on Iraq and the war. But you could just as easily imagine them putting an arm around Marwan’s shoulders like — well, like media moguls. “Welcome to the big time, kid,” they might say. “Welcome to showbiz.”
International Center of Photography
January 18–May 4, 2008
In 1963, Life magazine published a series of photographs by Charles Moore documenting civil rights protests in Birmingham, Alabama. The images captured a moment in which authority gave way to raw violence, as white cops and their dogs attacked black demonstrators. Circulating through living rooms across America, they helped galvanize public support for the civil rights movement and have since become potent icons, testaments to the moral disaster of segregation.
The same photographs have an alternate history, however, as the inspiration and source material for a famous if unusual set of paintings and prints by Andy Warhol, the Race Riot series of 1964. One of these prints — showing a police dog tearing apart a man’s pant leg — was at the beginning of ‘Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art’ at the International Center of Photography. The works that curator Okwui Enwezor assembled surveyed what has been called, rather generally, the “archival impulse” in contemporary art. Race Riot set the parameters of the show. It not only raised questions about what it means to translate photographic images from documentary sources into the staid setting of the museum, but also, by invoking historical trauma, suggested the ethical stakes implicit in such a move.
Of all the images that Warhol drew from magazines, police reports, and advertisements, Moore’s were the only ones that manifested overt political violence. Rendered with the same deadpan technique as the Marilyns, Death and Disasters, and Soup Cans, Warhol’s Race Riot print didn’t simply re-present Moore’s photograph; it displaced it into another, far more ambiguous, discourse, lacking the moral clarity of the civil rights movement. The subtlety of the image’s transformation from photograph into print, from document into work of art, belied the more substantial shift in how the image is subsequently encountered and discussed.
As Enwezor’s introductory wall text noted, approaching “the archive” is not a matter of unearthing “inert historical artifacts” from a “dim and dusty place.” Instead, “the archive” refers to the structures that actively shape the amorphous bulk of evidence that constitutes the past. Michel Foucault, whose writing looms over the exhibition’s own archival logic, described the archive as a site of authority: by designating what is remembered and, conversely, what is forgotten, it establishes the very conditions of discourse. ‘Archive Fever,’ which takes its title from a 1994 essay by Jacques Derrida, created a platform for some of the strategies the artists used to deconstruct or, in some cases, interrogate and destabilize these conditions.
Most of the works in ‘Archive Fever’ appropriated documents of violence and oppression, entering spaces in which collective memory was at once most vital and most contested. Harun Farocki and Andrei Ujica, for example, pored through more than 150 hours of video shot during the 1989 overthrow of Nicolae Ceausescu’s regime in Romania. Their meticulously edited Videograms of a Revolution (1993) brought together amateur video, suppressed broadcasts, and official news reports to weave a revisionist history of the Romanian Soviet Republic’s violent collapse. During a revolution that was indeed televised, choices made in the editing booth immediately informed,
even shaped, the political reality being played out on the ground. By re-editing the events, Faroki and Ujica both revealed the ephemeral nature of history and, more important, capitalized on it.
In his ongoing investigations of the Lebanese civil war and its aftermath, Walid Raad similarly rejects totalizing claims on historical representation. In We Can Make Rain but No One Came to Ask, a written narrative about a photojournalist who documents bomb sites preceded a series of unassuming prints in which images of a bombed-out city were collaged in a narrow strip across the top of an otherwise empty page. The overlapping images were barely legible, even on close inspection. Nor were their direct connections to the narrative readily apparent. The piece suggested the complexity of the war by refusing the possibility of gleaning meaning or any concrete semblance of truth.
Raad’s subtle gesture stood in contrast to Hans-Peter Feldmann’s 9/12 Front Page (2001), a full-gallery installation comprised of the front pages of newspapers from September 12, 2001. Feldmann’s displacement of media spectacle into the gallery seemed to do little more than reiterate the point that media is all around us. The more difficult question was how news can be hijacked, manipulated, and reshaped in compelling ways.
‘Archive Fever’ explicitly privileged the role of photographs, film, and video in formulating these potentially disruptive strategies. In works such as Glenn Ligon’s Notes on the Margin of the Black Book, texts also played a substantial role in interrogating assumptions latent in images. Still, some of the most intriguing works in the exhibition were those that managed to pose questions not only at the lofty level of concept but at a tactile level as well.
The simple act of picking up one of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s posters of gunshot victims, or leaning in with a magnifying glass to study Ilán Lieberman’s meticulous hand-drawn images of missing children, was effective in a way that obviated the need for Enwezor’s extended, at times heavy-handed, wall texts. These works made it clear that although interrogating the “conditions of discourse” remains a rich concept, it may be limiting to discard the spatial and physical sense of an archive as a “dim and dusty place” full of material things. After all, an art exhibition — especially one staged in as iconic an institution as the ICP — comes with its own particular baggage in tow.
Fundació Antoni Tàpies
September 28–December 30, 2007
If the history of photography is entangled with that of modernity, it’s not because photography aims to absorb the “real” world, but because it’s an essential tool in defining what it means to be modern in the first place.
Plainly, no nation exists outside of an accompanying visual narrative. Taken together, events, facts, and images can rise to the status of legend. Fractions of a second, as captured on film, can become markers of a national history. This is to say that photography has come to yield a constitutive power. It tells a story. Contemporary Iran, that country famously marked by paradox and too often filtered through the lens of an unsophisticated news media, can retrace its history through Iranian photographer Bahman Jalali’s oeuvre.
Cultural heritage, ethnographic documents, revolution, and war chronicles came together to tell an extraordinary tale at Jalali’s recent exhibition at the Fundació Antoni Tàpies. Most of the images on display — there were five individual series — dated back to the early 1970s; altogether the show spanned some thirty years. An emphasis on the serial aspects of Jalali’s work provided for a privileged insight into the recent history of his country, from an ancient city falling apart, a catalogue of vernacular architecture, and a band of fishermen’s daily doings, to the Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War.
In addition to these classically documentary-like photographs, the exhibition included another series of work, which looked pictorial at first glance, superimposing various archival photographs drawn from Iran’s Qajar period, creating fading pictures of sometimes indecipherable content. The result was dreamlike images that seemed at odds with the documentary, even clinical, tone and ethos of the rest of the photographs.
Such tension should never pass without comment, for such comment stands to be productive. If the images of the crumbling city of Bushehr could still evoke some sort of urgency to care, to react — or, to mention a very different set of images, if the shots of Khorramshahr claimed witness to the barbarity of the war fought between Iraq and Iran from 1980 to 1988 — then the last image in the exhibition introduced the quintessential paradigm of modern photographic practice: montage.
Though it may seem contradictory, manipulation, interpretation, transmission, and preservation — not an imagined objectivity — are the keys of photography as it is enacted by Jalali. His photography appears as a secular religion, in spite of a history that insists on its absolute scientific credentials. The more technological it gets, the more theological it becomes — a supposition incompatible with the dominant narrative of photojournalism as asserted by its practitioners, who often describe themselves as witnesses to truth.
This explains Jalali’s refusal to see himself as a photojournalist. Having worked for a news agency based in Paris, he eventually decided to quit. He complained that the pictures his editors sought didn’t satisfy him. “I wanted to capture pictures that defined the war for the future. Not photojournalistic images, but rather a kind of documentary photography.” Such a photographer is an active agent in defining history, not simply a passive recipient.
This exhibition represented a potential case study in both the limitations of photographic practice and the freedom it affords individual photographers. In the end, the exhibit revealed that Jalali’s contribution to photography in Iran is hardly limited to simply capturing images. His practice also encapsulates his activities as a teacher, editor, curator, and, perhaps most important, keeper of Iran’s awesome photographic heritage. The accompanying catalogue text, for example, told us that the first cameras were introduced in Iran within eight years of their invention in France, by a curious mustachioed ruler named Nasir al-Din Shah.
Drawing from Jalali’s own formidable collection, viewers could see the work of the Chehrenegar family, three generations of a Shiraz-based photography practice that Jalali and his wife, Rana Javadi, have been critical in preserving. Looking at Chehrenegar’s images — at times capturing people’s first encounters with the camera — and then at Jalali’s images of the tumultuous revolution as played out on city streets, one realized that Jalali’s relationship to photography is rich and varied and transcends mere issues of memory and representation. As with David Goldblatt’s photographs of South Africa and Enrique Metinides’s images of Mexico City, this show revealed how photography both informs and captures modernity as it is enacted on the national stage.
Carey Young: If / Then
Paula Cooper Gallery
December 1, 2007–January 12, 2008
Carey Young’s performance-based art visualizes “impossible” overlaps in political spectrums. First focusing on the curious ways in which the countercultural aesthetics of the ’68ers have been inspirational to the right-wing “avant garde” of global corporatism, Young began doing performances such as I Am a Revolutionary (2001), in which she just couldn’t get the words “I am a revolutionary” quite right during a business-presentation-skills training session. This performance was filmed in an office that seemed to float in a grid of identical glass cubes surrounding a factitiously glorious atrium.
In her recent gallery exhibition at Paula Cooper, Young extended her line of inquiry into specific art-historical referents, bringing feminist and Marxist aesthetics into a speculative dialogue with corporatism. In a series of largescale photographs, Young, dressed in her signature gray power suit and sensible heels, re-created iconic performancebased artworks — by Bruce Nauman, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Valie Export, Ulrich Rückriem, and others — amid construction sites in Dubai and Sharjah. The photographs framed the landscape in a way that emphasized the virtuality of a megalopolis springing up so quickly in the middle of the desert. They recalled both the wide-open landscape of the colonial imagination and the fantasies afforded by computer-based architectural rendering.
Indeed, the virtuality of the landscape and the way her body was miniaturized in it made it seem like our protagonist, “Carey,” was somehow trapped in a video-game version of 1970s performance art. In one game level, she was required to craft what looked like a UFO circle (after a performance by Rückriem) in the middle of the desert, with a row of six identical mini-palazzos in the flattened-out distance, each painted different shades of Miami pink, yellow, and beige. In one of the Export levels (there were two), Carey, lying in the gutter, molded her body into a perfect arc around a circular plaza in a postmodern village reminiscent of the Disney-owned Florida town Celebration; she earned bonus points for bringing the red that Export used to highlight the curve of the gutter in the original photograph onto her gray suit. In the Ukeles level, it was game over; Carey couldn’t capture Ukeles’s unique class consciousness and performance affect and ended up looking like she was just mopping up the construction site prematurely.
In a text-based piece, Inventory, Young gave a nod to Martha Rosler’s and Eleanor Antin’s well-known problematization of scientific and artistic objectifications and fragmentations of the female body. Young smoothed over the psychological and emotional disruption of these feminist classics by subbing out an explicit second-wave-feminist ideological analysis for a simple economic one. She gave the statistics of her body to two university scientists, who figured out the actual net worth of the chemical elements of her material being: carbon, £12,329.960; oxygen, £35.972; samarium, £0.000; etcetera. Total current market value (and the sale price of the artwork): £13,003.23. The Marxist proposition that money is the ultimate abstraction led Young logically into the commodities analyst’s snuff fantasy.
The back room of the gallery featured a new performance video, Product Recall. There, as in her strongest performance work, she produced a disorder in the ordering systems that make us complacent. After Young had entered into an haute-bourgeois psychoanalyst’s office and planted herself on a Le Corbusier chaise longue, the analyst read a list of well-known advertising slogans and asked her to recall the attached brand. Some, such as “Knowledge without boundaries” (HSBC), Young quickly identified; others, such as “Ideas you can’t live without” and “Where imagination begins” were “gone” from her memory bank. The scenario highlighted a curious overlap in advertising and therapeutic lexicons and aligned the simple logic that advertisers use to create a sense of belonging and transcendence (fulfillment through shopping) with trends in therapy among the rich that favor hypnosis over deep analysis.
While much of the work in ‘If / Then’ bordered on a sort of absurdist science fiction that could leave the viewer with a quickly forgotten awkward smirk, the exhibition held the potential to stir up something beyond a trendy critical ambivalence. In certain sectors of the New York art world, an antimarket-versus-pro-market dialectic — a Marxist understanding of the dematerialization of the art object versus a naive marketing strategy — has become increasingly dodgy and often downright delusional. What ‘If / Then’ demanded of its viewers was an acknowledgment that art’s primary contribution to the global economy has nothing to do with the production or suppression of luxury commodities; it’s the radical gestures, the transcendence, the rethinking of the body’s threshold, that inspire “us” and “them” to “Think different” (Apple).
What’s Happening Now?
Palace of Arts
December 9, 2007–February 5, 2008
A group exhibition held this past winter at Cairo’s Palace of Arts, ‘What’s Happening Now?’ seemed to mark a shift in the often-staid politics of the Egyptian art scene. Curated by the institution’s new director, Mohamet Talaat, the selection of thirty-three artists ranged from sixty-something pillars of the art establishment to younger artists active in the independent sector.
Given the bifurcation of the Egyptian scene into independent and official, contemporary and traditional, the presentation of all these artists under one roof seemed a laudable step. Here was a chance to engage with work independently of the baggage of affiliation and tendentious identity politics.
Still, the old order exerted its influence. On entering the main gallery hall, viewers were met by the works of some of the most favored stars of the establishment, some of which might have been better suited to the buffed halls of the Ministry of Tourism. The hieroglyphics, abstract gold-leaf calligraphy, and futuristic metal assemblages of Farouk Wahba, Emad Abu zeid, and Adel Tharwat presented an unsubtle celebration of Egyptian identity. Complementing those works was a video by Susan Hefuna, an artist who lives between Egypt and Germany. In Ana/Ich, a black screen displayed the word Ana (Arabic for “I”) in large font, while a sound track presented voices repeating the word over and over.
Complexity and nuance were notably lacking in many works, which featured untheorized nostalgia for an exalted Egyptian past, along with facile criticism of the West. Hazem Taha Hussein’s Memories from the East on the Way to Münster, a series of photographs that negotiated identity and memory through countless layers of Photoshopping, demonstrated the problem. The sixteen black and white images juxtaposed “symbols showing the culture of Eastern societies” — idyllic scenes of children playing on the street, old fishermen pulling in the day’s catch, street vendors, and quaint weddingdress stores — with memories of his train rides in Germany, including text on an LED destination board and faint images of a scantily clad female model on a billboard. The effect was frustratingly glib and simplistic.
‘What’s Happening Now?’ claimed to be an exhibition of new works produced during the month of September 2007 at a governmentsponsored workshop. But several of the works, independent productions like Wael Shawky’s video The Cave (2005) and Amal Kenawy’s You Will Be Killed (2006), had been exhibited earlier in other venues. Indeed, the administration later retracted its claim, explaining that the framework of the workshop had not been suitable for all of the artists. In the end, only a few engaged with the idiom of the “workshop” per se.
George Fikry, for example, presented a video installation, Everything Is Alright, the product of a workshop he held on the grounds with young artists and former students of the Faculty of Arts. The installation included his signature collaborative charcoal drawings hanging in a stairwell; the centerpiece of the installation was a video documentary of each participant’s response to the question, “What’s happening now in Egyptian reality?” It was, the artist explained, an opportunity to reflect on the prevailing economic and social situation in Cairo. (The answer, from the evidence on display here: not so much.)
Mohamed Abla and Shady El Noshokaty, for their part, were more successful in thinking about the event. Both are also arts educators and have been active in organizing workshops as elements of their teaching in recent years. El Noshokaty presented a video, A Lecture in Theory. It was the second part of his ongoing project Stammer, initiated in June of last year, in which the artist gets up before a class and barks out terms and definitions, drawing diagrams with abandon until his etchings become a web of indefinable lines and squiggles and he begins to stutter. It was tempting to consider this work in light of the theoretical rigidity of the arts academies in Egypt and arts education at large. Abla, for his part, presented Out of Water, highlighting his recent feud with the government over the planned expulsion of the inhabitants of Qursaya Island to make way for urban development. Using photographs of the villagers and an interactive aerial map of the island with pop-up windows that presented the inhabitants’ personal stories, as well as newspaper clippings about the lawsuits, he made his case and invited the audience to sign a petition on a black wall in the space.
Hassan Khan presented a new two-channel video work called Host. In front of the video, a raised platform held a sound mixer and speakers playing the artist’s musical compositions — what he described as “invitations” to view the work as a machine of thinking about perceptive and conceptual processes. On the left screen were the “conceptual processes” — scenes of three actors improvising a performance of life in an imaginary mental hospital. It was a discomfiting video of jittery handheld shots of the performers, half-dressed in something between underclothes and doctors’ uniforms, rebelling, waiting, assaulting, entrapped. On the right, a red screen was said to represent “modes of perception”; it slowly shifted into shades of another color.
Khan described the work as “a springboard for the exploration of the drives and dualities latent within civilization and its power structures.” There in the middle of the Palace of Arts — the official gallery of the Ministry of Culture — his rumination on civilization and power seemed an especially productive one.
Green Zone / Red Zone
October 20, 2007–January 31, 2008
The Hague, seat of government of the Netherlands and home to the International Criminal Court, does not immediately conjure up images of a contemporary arts hub. Still, it may well be that its particular situation renders it a compelling locale for a venue focusing on arts and politics. Gemak was born out of a partnership between the Hague’s municipal museum and the Free Academy and opened its doors to the public on October 20, 2007, with the exhibition ‘Green Zone / Red Zone.’ The opening exhibition took Iraq as its primary referent in investigating the myriad ways in which control is exercised within urban settings.
The tone of ‘Green Zone / Red Zone’ was set by two works one encountered on entry: Dutch artist Marc Bijl’s Triumph: Proposal for an Iraqi Memorial (2007), originally commissioned by London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts for its 2007 ‘Memorial to the Iraq War’ (and reproduced especially for Gemak), and a car wreck from a suicide car bombing in March 2007 on Baghdad’s Mutanabi Street, painstakingly imported from Iraq to the Netherlands. The juxtaposition of Bijl’s statuesque piece and an object of war devoid of traditional “art value” (save for its placement in a gallery space) seemed an encounter between two seemingly disparate discourses. Bijl’s sculpture, a deconstruction and material interpretation of the Iraqi flag in its original colors, was a fourmeter-high, three-star structure with the original flag’s “Allahu Akbar” scrawled in graffiti on the green star. A white star sported a reference to the army, under the epithet “To serve and obey.” As much as one might have wanted to read Triumph’s comment as an ironic one, the sheer monumentality of the piece ran the risk of encouraging a monolithic literal reading.
The car wreck, on the other hand, offered a more nuanced set of questions for audiences to linger over: Is it ethical to place the detritus of a mortal attack in an art space? Is it ethical for the viewer to admire its sculptural forms of contorted iron? What do the decontextualization of an object, by stripping it of its historical locus and narrative, and its subsequent recontextualization, by placing it in a foreign environment, mean? In the end, what saved the wreck from falling into the trap of spectacle and artistic instrumentalization was the fact that it wasn’t appropriated by an authorial artistic or curatorial voice, and that it was free of exploitative news-media packaging.
Personal narratives figured heavily in the Open Shutters Project, which featured the stories and photographs of eight Iraqi women. Even those inclined to be skeptical of the artistic value of “humanitarian art projects” — the United Nations Development Programme was one of the funders of Open Shutters — had to admit that the photographs and accounts succeeded in blending a distinct poetics with the gravity of their subject (gender issues, terror, confinement). The project’s flaw lay in its presentation: why did the Open Shutters organizers opt for an Orientalist ornamental design, which clustered the photos and narratives together in a visual spread that resembled the imprisonment of a harem, complete with minimalist bows and arches?
Most works in ‘Green Zone / Red Zone’ didn’t deal directly with questions of territoriality and control as described in the show’s mandate, but rather investigated loss — of discourse, of meaning, of language — within a context of protracted violence and strife. In that sense, the exhibition’s title was misleading. Adel Abidin’s video installation Common Vocabularies (2006), for example, was a case in point. A looped onechannel installation showed us a young Arabic-speaking girl struggling to pronounce a dictionary of war: “massacre,” “suicidal,” “ration share,” “elections,” “terrorist,” “fucking bad luck,” “improvised explosive device,” “hegemony,” “occupation,” “reconstruction.” The repetition of those seemingly random words, by a girl too young to know their meaning but old enough to be consciously exposed to them on a daily basis, became a rehearsal in depleted semantics. Accompanying the installation were stacks of takeaway cards with the words written in Arabic script, their phonetic Roman transcription, and their English translation. The cards’ uniformity and disposability signaled the incapacity of language to express the traumas of war but simultaneously reminded us of the short-lived and expendable news value of those words.
Installations by UK-based Iraqi artist Rashad Selim sought to recover meaning within multilayered compositions. Chaos was framed by the semblance of (a past) order in the found debris that constituted Souvenir from the Ministry of Justice (2007), while in The Flower of Baghdad (Ministry of Interior) (2007), viewers were offered a tableau that took the map of Baghdad as its base, with a flower pattern ornamenting the Green Zone made of the smallest Iraqi coin denomination. This flower, which blooms around a highly controlled and surveilled patch of green amid the red, is only accessible to those who can afford it, and in that sense it doubles as Baghdad’s anus of consumption and commodification, designating the nasty and wry economy of war. In that respect, Hana Mal Allah’s textured canvases dialogued well with Selim’s installation pieces. In Manuscript of Mutanabi Street (2007), Baghdad City Map (2007), and Omen of the Burning City (2007), Mal Allah designed a cartography of obliterated memory and unmappable loss by combining shreds of burned cloth, geometric patterns, and patches of paint.
A similar preoccupation with texture was to be found in Iraqi-Dutch artist Nedim Kufi’s Song of the Rain, which combined a poem by the Iraqi poet Badir Shakir Al Sayyab with silk-screen prints, as well as in the huge photomontage canvases of British duo Peter Kennard and Cat Picton Phillipps. Kennard and Phillipps’s fusion of blown-up media images (featuring, among others, a more-than-life-size Tony Blair and Gordon Brown), with newsprint smudged with paint and charcoal, effectively bled and oozed out of their frames. At times, the pieces verged on hyperbole and sensationalism; yet the strongest works in the series, such as Presidential Seal (2006) and Control Room (2006), articulated a landscape that vividly captured the chaos and underlying power dynamics of war.
‘Green Zone / Red Zone,’ though skillfully connecting different genres and discourses, did have its flaws. As mentioned, the exhibition didn’t necessarily do what its title suggested. Moreover, the copious amount of documentary film, such as Paul Chan’s Baghdad in No Particular Order (2003) and material from the Independent Film and Television College in Baghdad, seemed superfluous to the exhibition, there as filler. And appropriate contextualization for the works on display, in the form of proper labeling, would have been appreciated — by this reviewer, at least.
Kader Attia: Sleeping From Memory
Institute of Contemporary Art
November 14, 2007–March 2, 2008
In Sleeping from Memory, recently at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, Kader Attia excised the forms of sleeping children from a composition of fleshy foam mattresses on shoddily constructed bedframes reminiscent of those he slept on as an Algerian immigrant living in the suburbs of Paris.
Across the river from artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s pile of candy, on concurrent display in Cambridge, Attia’s installation exposed a paradox at the heart of the late Gonzalez-Torres’s formal and ideological interrogation of the process and politics of recollection.
In disrupting the right angles and flat planes of what otherwise would have been a minimalist grid of roughhewn plywood beds, Attia was, like Gonzalez-Torres, intent on inserting a politics of the body and of memory into minimalist forms usually hostile to such concerns. In carving out impressions left by bodies borrowed from Boston-area youth, Attia, unlike Gonzalez-Torres, presented the residual effects of bodies in space as a sort of residue in reverse, in which memory doesn’t so much accumulate in objects and spaces as wear them down and away.
If Gonzalez-Torres’s iconic mounds of gleaming gold-foil-wrapped candies were saccharine substitutions for flesh — his way of capturing the immigrant experience as subaltern — then Attia presented nothing but wrappers, the waste memorializing a physical encounter between bodies and objects rather than an approximation of the body’s weight and heft.
Anyone calling Attia’s exhibition “trash” (it was, in truth, aesthetically rough around the edges) was, then, perhaps more astute than accusatory. Rather than presenting memory as embodied in objects or space, Attia presented it as an act of consumption, in which one ingests and digests spaces and objects in the process of encoding them in one’s mind. In this light, the scooped-out forms of sleeping children were less the fleshed-out memories of bodies once present and more the residual damage from memory’s cannibalistic siege on spaces and objects.
Attia’s works often perform a kind of violence. In his Flying Rats, first shown at the 2005 Lyon Biennale, mounds of birdseed were patted into disturbingly burger-esque approximations of small children, who were accordingly sandwiched and stuffed into sunbonnets and sailor suits and subjected to the merciless pecking and prodding of pigeons in a cage that doubled, in not-so-subtle fashion, as a metaphor for an “urban jungle.” Over the course of the biennale, the pigeons transformed children at play into an apocalyptic nightmare of scattered seed.
In other works, refrigerators etched with windows and clumped together like a city skyline (Fridges, 2006) and figures of praying women formed out of aluminum foil like fancy containers for restaurant leftovers (Ghost, 2007) sculpt the act of consumption into a vision anything but filling and fulfilling. The empty refrigerator bellies and aluminum-foil ladies reverberated with Attia’s (at times heavy-handed) interrogation of Western capitalism and consumer culture.
Attia’s brand of consumption empties out and absents rather than filling in a tried-and-true critique of the dynamics of capitalism. His grappling with the ill effects of globalization and the pervasive international influence of Western modes of consumption on a purportedly purer non-Western realm often obscures his more resonant examination of memory as both space and process.
For Attia, memory is anything but architectonic and anthropomorphic. Through Sleeping from Memory, Attia disabled the near-ubiquitous notion that the psychological structure of memory can somehow be conveyed through architectonic constructions, as in the omnipresent double entendre that wants to consider the space of memory both a metaphoric structure and a real built environment.
The concrete structures occupying the gallery were not meant to materialize memory as process or as space, but rather to expose the implied absence at the heart of negative space, evacuating the efficacy of any attempt to cram that absence chock-full of matter.
Attia completed Sleeping from Memory during a residency at the ICA that coincided with the grand opening of its Diller Scofidio + Renfro–designed building. Situating a work about remembrance in a sparkling new structure with little institutional memory to speak of was one way to disengage the space of memory from any architectonic implications. More covertly, Attia imagined the new museum as a site of possibility that artists needn’t necessarily fill with objects but can instead leave resonantly empty, a space beyond consumerism, colonialism, and their critique.
Meeting Points 5
November 1–30, 2007
With 11 cities, 31 venues, 87 artists, 98 performances, 48 exhibitions, 45 film screenings, 6 far-flung curators and a core team of 15, the month-long contemporary arts festival Meeting Points 5 was an exercise in mad ambition and obsessive-compulsive organization. Flip open the catalogue that accompanied the festival and one finds an explosion of intersecting lines plotted along multiple axes. Splashed across the booklet’s first full spread, the graphic is more illustrative than legible in representing the schedule of events that cast Meeting Points 5 across the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe for thirty days and nights in November (plus one in December and another ten in January).
Spearheaded by the Young Arab Theater Fund in Cairo, Meeting Points grew out of the group’s work on supporting and restructuring art spaces in the Arab world to make them more capable and better equipped to initiate, host, and tour new productions in dance, music, theater, film, performance, and the visual arts. The first three editions were modest affairs, taking up residence one city at a time in Alexandria, Amman, Cairo, and Tunis. The fourth iteration extended its reach and tackled seven cities at once: Alexandria, Amman, Beirut, Cairo, Damascus, El Minia, and Tunis. Meeting Points 5 engineered a pivotal shift in the project’s structure and scope.
A proper curatorial team — including Frie Leysen, founder and director of Belgium’s Kunsten Festival des Arts, and Maha Maamoun, an artist and a principle player in Cairo’s Contemporary Image Collective — came on board for the first time, establishing an organizational core that will allow subsequent teams to rotate in and out for future editions. Leysen and Maamoun looked beyond the region that has historically been Meeting Points’ sole geographic concern and invited artists not only from the Middle East and North Africa but also from Europe, Asia, and South America. They dropped Berlin and Brussels into the program alongside Alexandria, Amman, Beirut, Cairo, Damascus, El Minia, Rabat, Ramallah, and Tunis. And they added two new elements to the Meeting Points enterprise — a mobile DVD library and ‘Unclassified,’ a series of six exhibitions rooted in six cities by local curators who were tasked with creating site-specific urban interventions to complement the festival’s whirlwind schedule of traveling productions.
Meeting Points 5 came at a crucial time. The independent contemporary art scenes in cities such as Beirut and Cairo, and to a lesser extent in Amman and Alexandria, have about ten years of history to consider and critically assess. Cultural production in the Arab world is on the verge of fairly dramatic change. The international art market has arrived in the region — courtesy of newly opened blue-chip galleries and regional outposts for the auction houses Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Bonhams, and Osian’s. Establishing a paper trail of prices and connecting values to works like any other commodity, these firms are in effect rewriting the region’s art history. And lurking behind them, of course, is the specter of Gulf money, which is financing a dizzying array of future museums, trusts, and foundations that will, in time, overhaul the economy of artistic practices across the Middle East and North Africa.
This puts fiercely independent, politically critical, and notoriously nimble art scenes in the uncomfortable position of appearing suddenly and unexpectedly at risk not from the intricacies of local politics but from the force of global capital. Meeting Points 5 effectively ran a diagnostic on them all — exposing their strengths and weaknesses and testing their fortitude in the face of future challenges.
In a sense, the festival circulated a compilation of greatest hits. Meeting Points 5 presented works by quasi-generational art stars such as Walid Raad, Yto Barrada, Rabih Mroue, Wael Shawky, Amal Kenawy, Khalil Rabah, Hassan Khan, and Sherif El Azma, often referred to as the usual suspects. Local audiences that had, in all likelihood, some knowledge of these artists but no firsthand experience of their work could meaningfully engage with them in a hyperactive atmosphere. Meeting Points 5 created a network of local partners and proceeded to poke and prod their respective competencies. Were they sufficiently equipped to host contemporary productions in multiple disciplines? Could they draw a crowd? Could they field works of relevance beyond the immediate locales in which they were created? Did such works travel well?
Three of seven projects that were commissioned by Meeting Points 5 faltered (Amal Kenawy’s performance Cairo … Eating Me Inside), fell apart (Khalil Rabah’s TVZero123), or failed to be completed in time (Wael Shawky’s Telematch trilogy). While miserable for the artists and mildly irritating for audiences, these were precisely the technical and curatorial glitches that all involved in the festival should take as tough-though-necessary lessons learned.
The dance program was the strongest and most international, ranging from Hiroaki Umeda’s sensual yet cerebral While Going to a Condition and Accumulated Layout and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s brainy and abstract Fase: Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich to Bouchra Ouizguen’s awkwardly moving Aita (one of the festival’s more successful commissions). The video program, recycling works that already travel with ease, came off as uneven and occasionally indulgent. Alongside the power and simplicity of, say, Wael Shawky’s Al-Aqsa Park or Yto Barrada’s The Magician, works by Roy Samaha and Rami Sabbagh failed, again, to do much more than exasperate viewers. (The DV-Theque, by contrast, was a treasure trove, and the only downside was that it didn’t stick around anywhere for long.)
The unnamed godfather of Meeting Points 5, at least among the more streetwise works, was none other than Guy Debord. Sherif El Azma poignantly ripped off Debord’s ideas (with spirit but without acknowledgement) in his performance of The Psychogeographies of Loose Associations. And the timeless appeal of The Society of the Spectacle, all rebellion and agitation, underpinned several of the ‘Unclassified’ programs.
In Alexandria, Bassem El Baroni conceived a clever art project as a high-concept public-relations firm. In Amman, Oraib Toukan’s Can You See Me: Monologues in Air manifested urban myth and a critique of acquiescence about the war in Iraq through a set of orange arrows on rooftops. Maha Abu Ayyash hit the streets, literally, with stenciled footprints that asserted the presence of pedestrians on streets overrun with vehicular traffic. Leena Saoub disrupted the commercial onslaught of advertising billboards. Samah Hijawi staged public interventions. And all of the ‘Unclassified Amman’ projects, curated by Hijawi and Makan’s Ola Khalidi, smartly articulated the otherwise unspoken ways in which Amman is physically and mentally changing, flush with one million Iraqis, the latest wave of migrants to a city that thrives on its ability to absorb them.
In Beirut, Raed Yassin’s The Secret of the Peripheral City codified the concerns of a generation with his homage to the trash and comics culture of the 1980s. Staking a claim to the city that is drastically different from the work of Walid Raad, Akram zaatari, Walid Sadek, Jalal Toufic, and Rabih Mroue, Yassin pulled together a video by Ali Cherri, a photo installation by Reine Mahfouz, a mischievously performative piece by Shawki Youssef, and more. Vartan Avakian’s tailored and tweaked pinball machine was arguably the most outrageous piece in the entire, panArab extravaganza.
Avakian, a mechanic’s son, took two old pinball machines, took them apart, and rebuilt one, titled, with tongue firmly in cheek, The Time of Heroes. The game, which was installed like an altar in the crypt of St. Joseph’s Church, evokes “the lost time between the 1980s and the 1990s, of checkpoints and Maradona, Nirvana, and Sami Clark [a cheesy Lebanese singer who recently made a questionable comeback], the cold war and devil worshipers, Madonna and Madonna [the Haifa Wehbe of her day], the disappearance and reappearance of Saint Chabel and Ron Arad,” and so on. Actually and endlessly playable, the “flipper” allows you to kill the bad guys (whoever you decide they are), as well as smuggle arms, run guns, and, of course, money-launder for points and additional balls. (There is also a bit about sleazy adventures under moonless skies in the game’s instructions.)
The touring program allowed for a much-needed exchange of comparative experiences. But ‘Unclassified,’ stitched as it was into each of its six cities, gave rise to more visceral experimentation. And in calling on the critical resources of a younger generation of artists to curate, it also addressed what may be the region’s most pressing need — the ability to sustain but reinvent those independent art scenes that will soon require some serious regeneration to survive.
Nina Katchadourian: Enrichment
Sara Meltzer Gallery
November 17–December 22, 2007
Nina Katchadourian’s Zoo made itself heard long before it could be seen. A balloon vendor greeted visitors at the entrance to the multichannel video installation, in a video that showed the frazzled zoo employee amid a bobbing mountain of mute parrots and grinning tigers. An alarming cacophony issued from the gallery beyond: bleating sheep, squawking birds, braying-and-cacklingtype noises of indeterminate origin, screaming children, and what just might have been a merry-go-round.
Inside the immersive environment of screens, projections, and noise, an appropriately zoolike chaos reigned (minus the smells). Ambient noise bounced through the space; none of the sound tracks to the fourteen videos matched the visuals. Sound and image fell into strange pairings, as with the pulsating jellyfish bleating in their aquarium. A giraffe observed the proceedings impassively; headless polar bears floated in a murky blue haze. ‘Enrichment,’ the title of Katchadourian’s exhibition, referred to the human tactics meant to stimulate animals — by setting up challenging “natural” environments, for example, to draw them out of the lethargy of their caged lives. As a representation and evocation of various manmade environments, Zoo hinted at the humor, pathos, and banal realities of animal life under surveillance.
Katchadourian spared us the sight of whip-wielding lion tamers or performing dolphins — the ethos of “enrichment” is all about a happy, healthy, and abuse-free experience of captivity. But Katchadourian’s camera sought out the darker edges of that cheery facade. A video zoomed in on a sign describing a creature that remained hidden from view: “What is that bear doing? You may have noticed that the female Sloth Bear sometimes displays a strange ‘rocking’ behavior. She acquired this habit before she came to the London zoo, probably because her previous enclosure lacked opportunities for stimulating activity.” The reader was assured that everything was being done to “cure her of this habit.” As one imagined the lone bear rocking in a corner, it was tempting to read the work metaphorically, to find echoes of an increasingly controlled society within that microcosm of manufactured “enrichment.”
In the upstairs gallery, Fugitive extended the theme by inverting the immersive formal organization of Zoo and arranging a circle of TV sets around a column. An orangutan silhouetted against a dull gray sky swung from one screen to the next. As it reached the side of one monitor, the next monitor flashed on, pulling the viewer with the animal on its endless trajectory. The only sound track was a low static hum. Here enrichment and stimulation met their opposite: the dull monotony of captivity, tracked in the orangutan’s circular path.
Did ‘Enrichment’ offer any insights unavailable at your typical menagerie, be it gallery space or wildlife preserve? The answer lay in the experience of encountering the work, and its chaotic yet oblique demands on the viewer’s attention. Katchadourian evaded simplistic social critique by scrambling her coordinates; her Zoo was less an observation station than an entry point into a multiplicity of views. Most demonstrations involving other species are intended to drive home well-meaning anthropological points. ‘Enrichment’ evaded such a functional role: the approach was too scattered to instruct, and the deadpan humor defused the critique.
Continuum of Cute, across the gallery, was a small shelf supporting a stretch of wallet-size animal snapshots arranged according to their degree of cuteness, ranging from scaly insects to furry round things, with some bizarre, unidentifiable creatures in between. Continuum restaged the “cute” phenomenon — itself a vast continuum, spanning Hello Kitty culture and PETA marketing campaigns, both of which capitalize on the human instinct to cuddle, protect, and own animals — but remained within the bounds of its two-dimensional appeal, never hinting at the serious mechanisms at work beneath the winning facade.
Within her consistently eclectic body of work, Katchadourian’s observations, interventions, and collaborations transform the everyday in a pointedly modest manner, often risking their own relevance and communicability to pursue personal concerns. Past works have seen her “mending” spiderwebs, “translating” the sound of popping corn by reading it as Morse code, and persuading office workers to communicate in semaphore with random observers looking through a telescope on the street (her recent public project Office Semaphore reprised on the gallery’s terrace, having lost some of its quality of random surprise within the rarified confines of Chelsea). Using strategies inherited from Duchamp and Cage via her teacher, Allan Kaprow, Katchadourian reframes elements of the found environment, both visual and aural, and opens them up to a heightened form of alertness.
If the animal balloons at Zoo’s entrance were overblown stereotypes that said more about representation than reality, the videos within were an attempt to get past that, to create a space of unexpected possibilities, a means to arrive at something more genuinely interesting. In the end, Katchadourian succeeded in communicating a rare curiosity about the workings of the world. Her sensibility rendered familiar situations strange enough to invite reconsideration, setting the stage for new forms of encounter, perception, and interaction.
Sorry, Out Of Gas
Canadian Centre for Architecture
November 7, 2007–April 20, 2008
In 1973, the Livelihood Club Consumer’s Cooperative was holding one of its regular meetings in a living room in downtown Tokyo. The Livelihood Club was and is an organization of radical housewives (including, notably, my mother) founded in the late 1960s to foster alternatives to consumerism; the name translates from seikatsu-sha, “one who is engaged in living.” Like everyone else in the Japan, co-op members were talking about OPEC, the oil embargo, and its devastating impact on the nation’s economy. Then as now, Japan was completely reliant on foreign oil, and the country was in crisis mode, rationing consumer goods and bracing for runaway inflation. At one point during the meeting, an errant guest opened a closet door while looking for the bathroom, unleashing an avalanche of stockpiled toilet paper. The assembled ladies gasped in disbelief, shocked by the hoarder’s bad faith. Today the Livelihood Club maintains a bank, a political party, and a network of cooperative stores, but people still talk about that meeting and the “toilet paper affair.” They also, more fondly, recall the local politician who drove around the district during darkest days, dispensing black-market toilet paper from the back of his pickup truck.
Scarcity was the looming backdrop of ‘Sorry, Out of Gas,’ an ambitious exhibition at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal. The problem was posted in the central room, where looping interviews of global leaders addressing an apprehensive world testified that Tokyo housewives were not the only ones in a frenzy. There was Richard Nixon, urging his public to turn the thermostat down to 68 degrees, while the Saudi oil minister Sheikh Ahmed zaki Yamani, a trace of a smile on his lips, said, yes, the price hike did imply an adjustment of the world’s power structure. Yet the oil crisis of 1973, triggered by OPEC’s price fixing, was artificial. Thirty-five years later, the energy crisis is real, compounded by climate change and environmental devastation. Today, as various sectors attempt to consider greener alternatives to deal with the “inconvenient truth,” the CCA show proposed a reconsideration of the last crisis and the spasm of creative responses to it. Curator Mirko zardini aimed to provoke today’s architects by showcasing the example set by their 1970s counterparts: the architect as an innovator and renegade.
Organized into four groups — Sun, Earth, Wind, and Integrated Systems — each room contained research conducted in apparent isolation. But there was more to link the work than the faceted black display case that contorted its way from room to room: there was the willingness to work free from the debates and styles of the day, the enthusiasm for forging a new style based on experiment and discovery.
Many of the experiments in 1970s sustainable housing were the work of hobbyists, hippies, and engineers rather than trained architects. Michael Reynolds created “earthships” out of recycled tires and empty beer cans to great textural and light effect, while Steve Baer used aluminum pie tins to create cheap and powerful forms of insulation. Of course, one reason today’s architects tend to resist green technology is precisely the stereotypical images of giant roofs clad in photovoltaic panels and inclined toward the sun. President Jimmy Carter, an engineer himself, installed solar paneling on the White House; Ronald Reagan, upon taking office, had it removed, and few protested.
Another common approach in the 70s and 80s was to berm or bury the building. Architect Mark Mack proposed buildings that could be pulled out of hillsides like kitchen cupboards. In addition to providing natural insulation, building underground allowed designers to sidestep the question of style that had bedeviled the solar architects. Their underground interiors gave them away, however, for many were caricatures of their aboveground counterparts, with photographs of natural scenery taped on the walls to mimic the view from windows. In one design, families stood smiling around a barbecue grill, white picket fence and blue sky painted
on the wall, a giant ventilation shaft towering above them.
The perfect home to satisfy every constituency is, of course, a fiction. But while every practitioner was preoccupied with technology, none of them believed it would be enough to solve the problem of scarcity. Not only would you be living in a different kind of house in the future, you would be living differently.
Perhaps the most useful role models for today’s architects could be found in the Integrated Systems room. These groups of thinkers and practitioners conceptualized energy not as a discrete issue or sum but as part of a system, and devised solutions integral to various human necessities. The New Alchemists in particular stood out for their rigorous approach toward living itself as an experiment. Working out of a former dairy farm on Cape Cod, they recorded every worm they found on cabbages, every cabbage they fed to rabbits, and every tilapia that fed on worms and created windmills to pump water into the pools where the tilapia lived. The purpose of their investigations was to find comprehensive answers to the problems of scarcity and sustainability.
How should today’s architects deal with the unanswered questions of 1973? It’s not immediately clear; one obvious direction would be to build less, possibly eliminating the architectural profession as we know it. On one side of the architectural spectrum is Rem Koolhaas, who seems to believe that Armageddon is coming, anyway — so why not dream great dreams, build big, and die beautiful? But those architects who are engaged in building for living confront a different kind of heroic task, as we continue to reexamine our relationships to cities and to nature. ‘Sorry, Out of Gas’ reminded us of the stakes, while also suggesting that a house built out of Schlitz cans might be genius and that stocking twenty thousand tilapia in your pond because they’re the easiest fish to herd is magical thinking of the best kind.
Life Drawing: Approaches to Figurative Practices
The Third Line
December 19, 2007–January 13, 2008
‘Life Drawing,’ the most recent of The Third Line’s occasional group shows featuring emerging female artists from the region, presented four distinct encounters, in different media, grappling with the fraught question of representations of women in the Middle East. The artists addressed familiar (Western) feminist concerns about the status of women in the Middle East — the veil, violence against women, the lack of equality, rights, education, etcetera — but they managed to introduce complexity and nuance into traditional, often frustratingly onedimensional, depictions.
The veil may be the handiest, most unimaginative symbol of Arab femininity. UAE-based artist Lamya Gargash’s trio of video portraits of women wearing the black abayas preferred in the Gulf took on the associated clichés. Working from neutral raw footage, short loops of her subjects posing against a nondescript backdrop, Gargash digitally dissected each image, excising the exposed face and hands from the folds of the abaya. In the final works, each separated element played on half of a split screen. Isolated in white fields, the surreal, floating faces and hands forced the viewer to register the unique expressions and gestures of each subject. Izdihar (2007), young, pretty, preened coquettishly, repeatedly adjusting her scarf for maximum effect, while the older Lee (2007), serene and composed, barely moved, holding her hijab firmly in place. Reducing the female body to a disembodied mask, these videos seemed to support psychoanalyst Joan Rivière’s famous assertion that femininity is inherently a masquerade. Alternately, the animate but empty black shells looked positively spectral, phantom reminders of the quiet violence of stereotypes.
Hayv Kahraman’s precious Matrioshka (2007) sculptures provided a more humorous take on the veil, adapting the traditional Russian nested doll for the Middle East. Smooth, shiny, and black, the outermost doll was a burqa-covered woman with a golden grille, at eye level. With each nested doll, the underlying figure was gradually exposed, finally revealing a golden-haired woman in an off-the-shoulder dress. Accompanying the sculptures was a (somewhat overwhelming) selection of Kahraman’s trademark sumi-ink paintings, some augmented by acrylic and watercolor, which drew from Japanese and Chinese art, Persian miniatures, and the melancholic yet exuberant art nouveau illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley, to explore diverse subject matter to varying effect. Many addressed the oppression of women in the Middle East, especially under war conditions, as in Kahraman’s native Iraq. Trains of captive women appeared in Kurdish Women Dancing (2006), Chained Women (2006), and In Line (2007), where the bodies were largely reduced to irregular, oblong forms, mimicking the dolls. In Honor Killings (2006), repeated sets of minimal forms depicted a dozen veiled women dangling by their necks from the branches of a barren tree. Strangely auto-Orientalizing, the skillful execution and formal elegance of these works seemed to grate against the ideological weight of their subject matter.
Refreshingly, Ghadah Alkandari sidestepped much of this prickly terrain in her quirky line drawings and colorful paintings, which featured a cast of dour-faced women, each sporting an austere bob. Writ large in Kahraman’s paintings, women’s oppression was more insidious in Alkandari’s drawings, hidden in quiet hysteria. Sometimes accompanied by text, each drawing was a vignette from the humdrum life of a housewife. An oppressive, almost palpable, ennui pervaded these scenes, which seemed stuck in the interminable moment before something happens: before the door is answered, in The Door I-III (all 2007), or before a rival is struck, in The Slap (2007). In Feeling Pretty (2007), the never-ending quest for beauty was a fraught balancing act, the protagonist teetering on one big toe atop a slender Vimto bottle. The Rehab (2007) showed a quartet of women with shopping bags, the title suggesting that shopping might be both cure for and symptom of their ills. Read against the backdrop of Dubai’s fashion-crazy mall culture, Alkandari’s wry drawings seemed to question the emancipatory claims of the modern Gulf woman.
While distinct in media and affect, Neda Hadizadeh’s expressionist canvases — attempts to capture the frustration and angst of her fellow denizens of Tehran in paint — resonated unexpectedly with the other works. In Untitled (10) (2007), the figure was fragmented and reduced to its most expressive elements, its eyes and hands, in extreme close-up, painted in thick black brushstrokes against a yellow background. Untitled (19) (2007) adopted a somewhat different approach; twisted figures were sketched in quivering white lines against black backgrounds, occasionally obscured by overlaid patches of color. Struggling to emerge into view, the body seemed to resist resolution, remaining unformed. Indeed, even the gender of Hadizadeh’s subjects was inconclusive. Not unlike the other works in the exhibition, her figures seemed to embody and express a poetic uncertainty and, finally, a subtle resistance to the neat, essentialized confines of stereotype.
By Hamdy El-Gazzar
Translated from Arabic by Humphrey Davies
American University In Cairo Press, 2007
Some street photographers liken taking pictures to kissing. Some photojournalists compare it to wielding a weapon. But for Nasir, the volatile protagonist of Hamdy el-Gazzar’s debut novel, Black Magic, photography is an act of total, relentless possession.
“I was about fourteen the first time I took a camera in my hands,” he recalls. “I fell in love with its coarse black body, infatuated with the feel of it between my hands, and with its large, protruding wide lens…. When I got that little Yashica just as I stood at the threshold of adolescence, things became mine.”
With his left eye pressed against the lens and his right eye blind to the world, Nasir sees differently than before. Faces, streets, cafes, and marketplaces become “more beautiful, more expansive, cleaner, more radiant, better defined.” But over time, his vision shifts. Truth, honesty, and “good-natured artlessness” give way to the cruelty of artifice. Nasir’s camera, once innocent and passionate, becomes cynical and depraved.
Just as the camera doubles as Nasir’s tool and alter ego, Black Magic layers a toxic story of sexual depredation over a philosophical treatise on the degradation of meaning and the treachery of images in contemporary visual culture. The camera loses interest in reality, writes Gazzar. “It doesn’t express anything other than itself.” Similarly, when Nasir lurches into a relationship, his lust takes on a life of its own, completely divorced from the woman who inspired it.
Gazzar, thirty-seven, was born in Giza and studied philosophy at Cairo University. He’s a playwright as well as a novelist and has penned short fiction and nonfiction, too. When Black Magic came out in Arabic two years ago (under the title Sihr Aswad), it earned both popular and critical acclaim and garnered the 2006 Sawiris Foundation Prize in Egyptian Literature. But the English-language translation — by Humphrey Davies, who won the first Banipal Prize for Literary Translation for his work on Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun — is a daring choice for the American University in Cairo Press’s Modern Arabic Literature series, which, though historically strong, rarely includes young authors writing so explicitly about sex in a milieu that, for all the experimental prose, is recognizable as contemporary Cairo as opposed to its glorious past filtered through nostalgia.
Diverging sharply from the prevailing staid realist tradition of Arabic fiction, Gazzar’s prose trips and tumbles in a headlong, hallucinatory rush. The plot of the novel follows no set structure but careens from moments of icy self-possession on the part of the protagonist to his total submission to manic emotion.
Black Magic sets out as Nasir, who has abandoned his cinema studies to work as a hack for state-run television, moves into a decrepit apartment near El-Rashidi Street, above a shop manned by the silent Rihan, who every day sews and unravels shrouds for the dead. Next door is Guma, who beats his three sisters and denounces them all as “filthy whores.”
“Light and dark are the law of my life,” says Nasir, “which is tied to this strange device.” Light and dark are also represented, by the calm and kind Rihan, on one side, who observes all and wisely says nothing, and Guma on the other, who is bleary-eyed by his own rage and in one particular passage, which comes late and unexpectedly in the novel, stumbles onto the street with a knife, plunges it deep into the chest of an old man who greets him, and then crashes into a police station to confess what he’s done, to anyone moved to listen to his screams.
And light and dark are ultimately what attract Nasir to Fatin, and then repel him. She’s considerably his senior, recently returned to Cairo after fifteen years in an unnamed Gulf city awash with petrodollars, ex-pats, adventurers, and scavengers. She has left her husband, a heart specialist, in an acrimonious divorce precipitated by an affair with a sleazy young Frenchman named Didier.
Nasir is nursing his own wounds. It’s been three years since his last girlfriend, Mayy, left him. She married and divorced him, then shot back into his life one day with a stream of words (“I missed you”) that struck Nasir as utterly meaningless. Neither Nasir nor Fatin wants commitment or love or anything meant to last, because for both of them, nothing does.
Yet they put each other through the ringer all the same. With his camera, Nasir can be aggressive and cold. He’s used to taking hold of things and distorting them or laying them bare. With Fatin, he can’t, until one day she jumps around on his bed like a silly schoolgirl and demands he take her picture. He refuses at first, delivering a cutting verbal account of the intimate relationship he sustains with his camera alone. She insists, sticks out her tongue, and winks playfully for his lens. The resulting image is harsh and rough, exposing a tired woman in her fifties flirting hopelessly with a younger man. From there, the affair veers into hysteria.
Like the poets of Roberto Bolaño’s novels and stories, whose written works are mere aftershocks of the adventures that fuel them, or Danielle Arbid’s treatment of the French photographer Antoine D’Agata in her film Un Homme Perdu, in which crafted images are only the lingering traces of extreme experiences, Gazzar’s Nasir emphasizes practice over product. For him, the act of taking pictures is more important than the pictures that result.
At one point in the novel, he flips through his prints distractedly. The images he’s produced are incidental to the instants that flash before him. As the novel progresses, such instants blur the line between Nasir’s waking life and his nightmares. As his affair with Fatin ramps up for a final showdown, his images, like violent ruptures of the real, escape both his camera and his control.
Black Magic doesn’t so much tell a story as sustain a pattern of laudable literary bursts. Gazzar’s asides on Cairene society, on intellectuals and artists, on politics, and on sexual hypocrisy are both outrageous and astute; they’re also short-lived. The occasional gem doesn’t add up to an artful narrative. The pacing of Black Magic is patchy and uneven, and Gazzar’s character sketches are tantalizing but not fully realized. Occasionally the author seems to lose heart, as if declaring Nasir’s life trivial and uninteresting, unfit for a book.
In the end, Gazzar sets up a great portrait, but he doesn’t quite master the shot. It may be an opportunity lost, or simply symptomatic of a young writer who hasn’t yet perfected his style. Still, Black Magic takes ample risks with Nasir’s aggressive sexual escapades, and the novel is charged with the anomie and nihilism of a generation whose voice is rarely heard, much less translated from Arabic to English by a major publishing house. That in itself makes Black Magic a compelling, if occasionally disappointing, read.
By Ahmad Nagi
Dar Malamih lil-Nashr, 2007
It’s not easy to talk about Rogers, Ahmad Nagi’s deliriously vexing new novel. It helps if you’ve read his excellent blog, in which the twenty-three-year-old writer limns his various obsessions, including psychedelic English rock bands, Japanese pop culture, Orientalist erotica, and Egyptian politics. Born in the 1980s, Nagi seems uniquely compelled by the decade that preceded him, which set the terms, if not the scene, for the phantasmagoric amalgamation that was Egyptian popular culture in the 1980s and 90s.
Rogers is the story of — see, it’s not actually the story of any one thing. But there is a narrator, at least, a child or boy who wants to escape, by any means necessary. For him, what that means is less an AK-47 than, say, an ancient bird of mythic provenance, or a mountain bike, or perhaps a giant robot of his own. With lyrical petulance, he whines to his mother, “Don’t I have a right to ride the roc and glide far from the war? Don’t I have a right to drive McFair and smash everything entangled, knotted, and painful, and not see it?” (The question of the correct verb to use when … using … a giant robot bedevils engineers and translators in any language, including Arabic.)
McFair is a “nuclear generator that works on perpetual energy, a hovercraft that works unplugged or connected to the electrical electronic brain.” This is not a bad description of Grendizer aka Grandizer aka Goldrake, the Japanese super-robot from the weekly anime series of the same name, which was broadcast across the Middle East in the 80s and 90s and dubbed into Arabic by Lebanese actors. McFair may elicit a smile from the reader’s lips, but, as in the passage above, the super-robot is often the object of the boy’s most existential fantasies, locus of his tears and pain.
There are fascists, too, evil fascists who are vanquished after a revolution that the narrator incites at his school. This rebellion is a spark that spreads to every quarter and street, creating an atmosphere that resembles that of the Lebanese civil war. There is something of Ziad Rahbani’s music here, and also the film version of Pink Floyd’s The Wall — the strong link between the implacable system of the revolution (its hierarchies and laws) and its madness (the killing, the wanton destruction and shedding of lustrous red blood). Among the multifarious texts Nagi evokes in Rogers, these two texts are the only ones that the writer takes completely seriously. In the preface to the novel, Nagi suggests that “to get the most pleasure out of this game, please listen to Pink Floyd’s The Wall while reading.” And one of the narrator’s friends is named Ziad — an homage to Rahbani, almost certainly, especially given some nearly word-for-word excerpts from The Mind Is an Ornament.
Myths also battle one another in the novel. The street on which the narrator lives is The Dragon That Was Eaten by the Sun Street, so named because the narrator’s uncle once vanquished a dragon on it, thereby humiliating the sun, which was left with no alternative but to go one better and burn the dragon up in the street, so as to win the approval of God the Almighty. Shortly before the end of the book, the narrator learns that the street has been renamed Abu Bakr al-Siddiq Street, in reference to the mosque that a professor from Dar al-Ulum has founded on it, a mosque that houses a piece of that venerable companion of the prophet’s clothing, as well as his sword. Thus one myth is replaced by another, a myth fashioned by the writer with one fashioned by society. In light of the neutral tone used by the narrator to tell his story, both myths have the same value, the two of them forming no more than a fertile soil for intertwining narratives.
Authorial subtlety is one of the central qualities of this novel. The presentation of all stories without a deep engagement with any, contiguity rather than accumulation, a focus on the elegance of transition not from incident to incident but from one parodic performance to another — these are the novel’s characteristics. It’s a narrative roundelay, a pulp experiment in contemporary mythography. Or, in the words of the preface: “a game in which music mixes with hallucinations, memories, and illicit literary appropriations; and even though it is not to be expected that all readers will find it an easy game to play, my hope is that it will be as enjoyable as eating pasta, which I personally like to eat with ground meat, which, as everyone knows, comes from cows, and cows, as we know, in winter, and with the right wind, can fly. We ask, therefore, of the High, the Almighty, that He make us one of those of His slaves who are a benefit to the Muslim nation, and now I’ve said my say, the game’s afoot, we’re on our way.”
By Mahmoud Dowlatabadi
Translated from Farsi by Kamran Rastegar
Melville House, 2007
Even as a trickle of Iranian artists, writers, and filmmakers — indeed, even as Iran itself — finds its way into the collective consciousness beyond fear-mongering stereotypes about ayatollahs, hostages, and great satans, a deep reservoir of Iranian culture remains unexplored. Take, for example, the work of Mahmoud Dowlatabadi (b 1940), widely regarded as one of twentieth-century Iran’s most influential writers, but hardly known outside of his country. A leftist who didn’t leave the country after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Dowlatabadi has remained a strong advocate for freedom of thought, becoming, famously, the target of an assassination attempt in the 1990s, by a rogue unit of the Ministry of Intelligence, that in the end managed to silence at least half a dozen other public intellectuals. Kelidar, arguably his most iconic work, is a sprawling multigenerational tale, five volumes in all, of a Kurdish family. And then there is Missing Soluch, a novel written in 1979 during the bloody days of the Revolution, which has just been translated into English by Kamran Rastegar.
Missing Soluch begins with the mysterious and inexplicable disappearance of Soluch, father of three — Abbas, Abrau, and Hajer — and husband of seventeen years to Mergan, the central protagonist. From this simple premise, the novel radiates outward to transport the reader across a landscape of densely interwoven lives set against the backdrop of an impoverished rural Iranian village called Zaminej. An ensemble of characters, settings, and events comes together to evoke some of the social and psychological conditions of life, love, and loss among a marginal people navigating the unpredictable contours of history.
The narrative arc of Dowlatabadi’s novel is punctuated with great adventures and palpable excitement — gambling! arm wrestling! feats of strength with camels! — and political and social intrigue, as competing families, blocs, and classes within Zaminej struggle to assert their power while the meager agricultural surplus accumulated through cultivating and selling corkwood, melons, and other basic foodstuffs on increasingly barren land grows even scarcer. (A grinding poverty has started to affect the lives of landless peasants and small and large landowners alike.) The novel is also marked by its reliance on an idiom that is both poetic and notable for its inclusion of colloquial aphorisms, including such gems as: “The cat’s prayers won’t bring rain”; “A snake knows the good of your soul”; “But you can’t kill someone for being self-preserving. Goats have hair, and sheep have wool.” This is but a sampling of the various small elements that cohere to lend texture to the story.
Out of stark human drama, Dowlatabadi meticulously draws connections between the harsh economic conditions and social realities facing the inhabitants of Zaminej and the ongoing evolution of their familial and social relationships. Mergan, the pivotal character in the novel, is both a compelling and a contradictory woman, seemingly abandoned by her husband, scorned by some members of her family and her community, yet persevering in order to maintain her livelihood, her sanity, and some measure of control. At times, she is successful; other times, less so. Dowlatabadi situates Mergan at the epicenter of those disruptive forces producing memory and forgetfulness, loss, survival, and individual responsibility.
The evident ease with which Dowlatabadi and his characters move from the most banal activities necessary for survival all the way up to the heights of existential anxiety and revelation creates dramatic tension throughout the novel. The pressures induced by clamorous individual identities and desires are nicely posed against the restrictive but also productive forces of social and familial relationships and obligations. As transformations in land tenure, irrigation, and agricultural production push Zaminej inexorably toward modernity and progress and their attendant displacements, social relations in the village shift. Toward the end of the novel, Abrau, Mergan’s younger son, a headstrong and stubborn figure, becomes a lens through which the reader contemplates the imminent resolution of the story:
[Abrau] no longer saw things as he once did. The earth, his home, his brother and mother, these all had new meanings for him. Something had collapsed under its own heavy weight, imploding, and its bits and pieces were scattered in the shifting dust and smoke. The scattered pieces were no longer recognizable. They were part of the original object, but had lost their original mass. They were now scattered, lacking identity. Each of them no doubt sought a new identity, but Abrau couldn’t recognize them. Among the pieces were Abbas, Abrau, Hajer, Mergan, and — perhaps — also Soluch. These were the elements of their family, but none of them comprised the family on their own. They were all individual elements to themselves.
In the end, the complicated ways in which these “elements of family” interact with one another and with other villagers, in order to find both individual and collective solutions to their problems, are the same elements that make this work such a rich reading experience. Missing Soluch, rendered in lucid translation by Rastegar, who teaches Arabic and Persian literature at the University of Edinburgh, ought to make its mark on the emerging canon of world literature, for its beauty, for its satisfying story, and, above all, for its imaginative horizons.
By Elias Khoury
Translated from Arabic by Peter Theroux
Archipelago Books, 2007
Elias Khoury’s latest novel, Yalo, maps the muddled recollections of a Lebanese man in the midst of a forced confession. It is the 1980s in Beirut, and Daniel Jal’u, called Yalo by his friends, is arrested on charges of stalking and raping a woman named Shirin.
Yalo first spent ten years as a fighter for one of the many factions of Lebanon’s fifteen-year civil war (pointedly, we never learn which). Eventually he deserted and spent a season in Paris, a lost soul. Then back to Beirut, where he worked on and off as a night watchman and committed, or failed to commit, the crime of which he is accused.
As an interrogator asks him about the events leading up to his arrest, Yalo can remember only fragments of scenes drawn from his childhood. He recalls that he left school to join the war, but he can’t exactly recall, for example, the nature of the crimes he committed in its name. Neither can he recall the details of the night he rapped his Kalashnikov against the window of a car in which Shirin sat with a man who was not her husband. He speaks instead of his grandfather, a deluded priest who, though a Syrian Christian, was raised by a Muslim Kurd; and of his mother, who went mad as a result of her own vanity (she never gave up on a lover who wouldn’t leave his wife for her). Yalo speaks of these things until, at a certain point, you realize he hasn’t uttered a word. He has been silent in the face of his interrogator’s questions; a stutter that has stayed with him since childhood renders all of his reflections and confessions one long interior monologue. When he’s finally forced to speak, he can vocalize only the most ephemeral bits of his memory. His interrogator persists, and an alternate version of his story is produced. It’s impossible to draw conclusions about his guilt or innocence by following the muddled trail of his confession. By the time he’s done, the narrative has folded back in on itself, such that the two versions of the story, internal and external, have become indistinguishable.
Yalo is wholly unable either to tell the truth or to recognize what that truth is in the first place. After he’s tortured, his confessions ring no more true — or false — than before. In the end, it’s hard not to feel sympathy for him, in spite of the grotesque nature of his acts, committed in the name both of love and of war. Khoury’s greatest gift lies in subtly tracing for us the factors that have led to his protagonist’s perversion.
Recording the Truth in Iran is a monument to Kaveh Golestan, the distinguished Iranian photojournalist, who died in 2003 after stepping on a land mine in Iraq. Golestan, who mentored a generation of Iranian photographers, was most active in the years during and following the Iranian Revolution, and his tremendous body of work seems to have had a distinctly heroic agenda: to bring harsh social realities to light, no matter how unsightly. This book — the most significant to date on Golestan’s life and times — especially privileges his work on workers, the mentally ill, prostitutes, and revolutionaries. Writes Maziar Bahari in the preface, “Journalism in Iran is a cat-and-mouse game, and Kaveh mastered the art of dodging the cat.”
Exiles, Diasporas & Strangers
Kobena Mercer, Editor
MIT Press, English, March 2007
What challenges does migration pose to a Eurocentric history of modernism? Exiles, Diasporas & Strangers, the fourth in London-based scholar Kobena Mercer’s series Annotating Art’s Histories, looks to the “hybridity, contingency, and diversity” of exile and diaspora communities to problematize the prevailing modernist narrative of Enlightenment rationality. Earlier texts in the series “opened” abstraction and pop art by looking to their dynamic, pluralistic production and reception across cultures. Steven Mansbach’s “The Artifice of Modern(ist) Art History” is the link here; though by no means the first essay to confront the ideological underpinnings of modernist purity, Mansbach’s examination of the postwar reception of the Bauhaus historicizes the institutional powers, particularly Alfred H Barr’s MoMA, that canonized the story of modern art. Mercer’s archaeology looks to divest modernity of Eurocentric provenance: hence Ikem Stanley Okoye’s study of twentieth-century Nigerian architect James Onwudinjo, whose deployment of vernacular materials brokered a modernism stripped of naive utopianism. The final essay, Jean Fisher’s “Diaspora, Trauma, and the Politics of Remembrance,” recasts the relationship of the personal to the political, locating communal identity in a cross-cultural matrix of trauma.
I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have To Be Destroyed By Me
By Trevor Paglen
Melville House, English, 2008
Since the Civil War, the US military has produced thousands of decorative patches to identify its various units and activities. Curiously, as artist–geographer Trevor Paglen notes in this study of “black world” heraldry, the Pentagon has continued that tradition for programs so secretive that nothing about them is — or can be — known, apart from their patches. Iconography is abundant even where information is practically nonexistent, and Paglen adroitly decodes the available emblems to provide a window into a world that, officially, has no windows.
The patches bespeak a culture reveling in its own esoteric imagery and proud of the secrecy with which it conducts itself — “I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you” appears in many forms. Other credos include “A lifetime of silence,” and “NOYFB” (None of Your Fucking Business). Lightning bolts signify electronic warfare; stars reveal base locations. Cloaked wizards wielding staffs are juxtaposed with Greek letters; mythological creatures share space with swords shaped like stealth aircraft. The references are rich and varied, from The Twilight Zone to Virgil’s Aeneid, from Caligula to Sneakers.
Paglen shows how these programs represent themselves but can say little about the programs themselves. The patches are tantalizing but, ultimately, conceal more than they reveal; they are, as one disenchanted exile from “the black world” says: “Those are gang colors.”
An Atlas of Radical Cartography
Edited by Lize Mogel and Alexis Bhagat
The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest Press, English, 2008
Any unmapped space might as well not exist; so runs one prevalent attitude. This is as true for the uncharted ocean floor as for the shantytowns rising daily on the outskirts of Beijing and Rio de Janeiro — both exist in the liminal zone between the known and the imagined.
An Atlas of Radical Cartography aims to dispel that attitude, along with the related notion that what is mapped exists as official cartographers have represented it. The book, which consists of ten essays and corresponding maps, takes its cue from the upturned Mercator projection in which South displaces North, turning the colonialist model of cartography on its head.
Jai Sen maps squatter settlements in Calcutta that government maps have labeled “vacant land,” laying the foundation for residents to demand their basic rights. The Institute for Applied Autonomy tracks the spread of surveillance cameras in Manhattan, providing residents with an online map of “routes of least surveillance.” Elsewhere, water use is quantified, the New York garbage-collection mafia is exposed, and the frantic movements of would-be North African immigrants are detailed. The world is not flat, the radical cartographers insist, and the myriad processes concealed by maps of that world charge to the foreground.
Zeina Arida wears many hats. Since 1997, the Lebanese-born, French-educated culture worker has been the director of the Beirut-based Arab image Foundation, a group devoted to promoting photography in the middle East and North Africa by locating, collecting, and preserving the region’s photographic heritage. Zeina is also a trustee of the newly-created Arab Fund for arts and Culture, whose mandate is to support artistic expression in the Arab World through philanthropy. She is also an indefatigable muse, famous (to those in the know) for cameos in the works of artists such as Lamia Joreige, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, and Lara Baladi, among others. A few know Zeina as a culinary queen, her strengths in the kitchen unrivaled. With the help of her daughter Iris (who stirs) and her little dog Stella (who licks up any fallen food), she prepares a recipe of Bukhari rice and spinach that was passed on to her from her grandaunt Mai, who lived in Palestine and Jordan in the Middle East of yesteryear. Zeina keeps all her cuisine notes in one book and invites every guest to her home in Beirut’s Ras El Naba’a to contribute two additional recipes for her growing archive of Lebanese, French, and Asian dishes.
1 KG KNUCKLE OF BEEF, CUT IN LARGE CUBES
4 ONIONS, PEELED AND SLICED
1 WHOLE ONION
7 LARGE CARROTS, PEELED AND SLICED
1 CAN CHICKPEAS
11⁄2 CUPS LONG-GRAIN RICE
21⁄4 CUPS MEDIUM-GRAIN RICE
1 TSP GROUND ALLSPICE
1 TSP FRESHLY GROUND BLACK PEPPER
1 TSP GROUND CARAWAY SEED
1 TSP GROUND CARDAMOM
1 TSP SALT
1 DOSETTE GROUND SAFFRON
1 CINNAMON STICK
Soak the rice in water for one hour.
Cook the meat in 1.5 liter of water with the whole onion, salt, pepper, and cinnamon stick for 1 hour. The meat should be tender (the cooking time may vary depending on the quality of the meat). Set the meat aside and filter the stock. Set 6 cups of stock aside that you will use to cook the rice.
Fry the onion in butter and vegetable oil until light brown. Set aside. Fry the meat in the same oil (you can add some more oil or butter if needed) for 5 minutes. Set aside. Fry the carrots for 5 minutes and set aside. Fry the chickpeas for 5 minutes and set aside.
In a medium-size nonstick pan, arrange some onion in the middle and the meat all around. Over the onion, add a layer of carrots, then the chickpeas. Drain the rice and add it to the pan, using a large spoon to pack it tightly. In a separate pan or pot, add the spice to the meat stock and boil.
Set the pan with the rice, meat, onion, carrots, and chickpeas over medium heat. Gently add the stock with a ladle. When the stock begins to boil, cover the rice and reduce heat. Sim- mer it over a low fire for 30 minutes.
Pack the rice again with a spoon before inverting the contents of the pan onto a serving platter.
½ CUP TAHINI
½ CUP WATER
½ CUP LEMON
½ CUP YOGURT
½ CUP CHOPPED PARSLEY
½ CUP CHOPPED RADISH
¼ CUP CHOPPED GREEN ONION
Mix the tahini with the water and add the lemon, yogurt, and all other ingredients. Stir well. Your sauce is ready!
Serve the rice with the sauce on the side and suggest to your guests that they spoon some sauce into a separate small bowl and eat it with the rice.
ONE TBS BLOSSOM WATER
ONE TSP SUGAR
ORANGE OR LEMON PEEL TO FLAVOR
Bring to a boil one cup of water with a tablespoon of blossom water and a teaspoon of sugar. Add orange or lemon peel and serve hot.
2 KG SPINACH
2 CLOVES GARLIC OIL FOR FRYING
Wash the spinach, spinning or shaking off as much water as possible, and cut into strips. Put some in a dry pan, cover, and allow to steam in the water that clings to the leaves, a few minutes only. Repeat until all the spinach has been lightly steamed. Set aside, drain, and wring out or roll in a clean towel to eliminate excess moisture.
Fry two onions until they turn dark brown. Remove from pan and set aside. In the same pan, gently sauté two cloves of garlic, then add the spinach and cook, stirring, for a few minutes. Add salt to taste.
Serve cold and with the onion on top. Provide lemon juice for your guests.