Failure is one of the great themes. Rather than theorizing about failure with a capital F (Failed states! Failed elections! Failed development!), for this issue we veered toward personal stories.
In these pages, Kai Friese weaves a sweet tale of growing up in the waning days of Non-Aligned India, when second-rate seemed perfectly fine; Anand Balakrishnan recounts a season in Cairo spent learning Arabic (badly) from one of Egypt’s leading yet unheralded failures; and Gary Dauphin traces the route of a Northern Californian youth named John Walker Lindh as he moved from true-school hip hop aficionado to Muslim convert to wearer of the bizarre mantle “American Taliban.” Sophia Al-Maria describes her family’s doomed attempt to overthrow a government, while Nimco Mahamud-Hassan describes the Somali streets of her youth, between the wars and before the implosion of that East African country. Failure here is an invisible thread that generates identities—imagined and real—and perhaps even determines the way we explain the world around us. In that way failure is a generative force. Yes, failure is a good, if not enormously enlightening thing.
Our regular columns tackle the decline of the new in art and criticism. Look for a portrait of Nazi architect Albert Speers by Benjamin Tiven, as well as Jace Clayton’s meditation on the legacy of the late, lamented Muslimgauze, the original champion of Hizbullah-chic.
London / Liverpool
Tate Modern, Tate Liverpool
In Focus is a massively ambitious, ongoing project curated by Predrag Pajdic, engaging artists whose work refers to the Middle East from their own cultural, social, historical, and political contexts. Not surprisingly, it aims to destabilize prevailing conceptions of the region, many of them painfully essentialist in nature. The program is loosely split into three parts: an anthology of films, which travels to Tate Liverpool after the Tate Modern; Undo, an exhibition on view from June through July, featuring work that has never been shown before on the subjects of conflict, tension, and bereavement; and The Breath, a large-scale show including seventy-two artists, which is running from June through September in an old warehouse in London’s Finsbury Park area.
The film program includes a retrospective of Akram Zaatari; the series Lens on Syria: 30 Years of Contemporary Cinema curated by Rasha Salti; and a number of other tightly curated video programs that include works by the likes of Omar Amiralay, Ahmed Khaled, Mahmoud Hojeij, and Annemarie Jacir. In addition, a series of performances (such as Rabih Mroué’s Make Me Stop Smoking) as well as over one hundred educational activities round out the program.
Memorial to the Iraq War
May 23–June 27, 2007
Just when we all desperately wanted to start taking the politics out of art, the ICA has invited twenty-six artists from around the world to make proposals for a memorial to the Iraq War. Organizers have (wisely) announced that their intention is not “to find a definitive memorial,” but rather to create a platform for diverse reactions to the ongoing conflict. This is a tall order, especially given the dearth of cultural expression that has emerged as a response to this particular war. But if a show at the ICA could bring us one step closer to engaging with the current mess in a slightly nuanced manner, we’re all for it. Presumably, the ICA’s location in a memorial-dense part of London will give the show added resonance. Memorial to the Iraq War features work by Lida Abdul, Marc Bijl, Christoph Büchel, Tony Chakar, Yael Davids, Jeremy Deller, Sam Durant, Chris Evans, Matias Faldbakken, Michael Patterson-Carver with Harrell Fletcher, Liam Gillick, Natascha Sadr Haghighian, Iman Issa, Sanja Ivekovic, Erik van Lieshout, Nate Lowman, Michaela Meise, Roman Ondák, Khalil Rabah, Collier Schorr, Vahid Sharifian, Sean Snyder, Jalal Toufic, Klaus Weber, and Keith Wilson.
Roody Nadim Khalil: Around the City
Galerie Janine Rubeiz
June 13–July 20, 2007
In Crossing Reds, two bent pieces of metal frame a nocturnal street scene lit by the blurred red taillights of several cars illegally crossing an intersection. In White Strokes, a smattering of white clouds, ranging from wispy to turgid, dominate a deep blue sky anchored by street lamps and rooftops that appear fragile in comparison.
Roody Nadim Khalil’s photographs, featured at Galerie Janine Rubeiz for the young artist’s first solo show, Around the City, are neither monumental nor grand. Khalil approximates the style of street photography pioneered by Helen Levitt—accidental, ordinary, and transient, yet capable of tragedy and tenderness all the same— and throws his sense of humor into titles aerated with double meanings and pop references.
The city center of Beirut, partially reconstructed in bizarre and highly politicized fashion, is largely off-limits to local artists, who anyway have long dismissed the area as a fiction, a stage set, and a farce. Yet Khalil wrenches a series of surprisingly vigorous images out of the downtown district. He does as Levitt did. The only difference is that he looks up.
June 16–September 23, 2007
For the past year or so, the people behind Documenta have had many of us vaguely related to the art world pondering their three grand leitmotifs: “What is bare life?”; “Is modernity our antiquity?”; and, perhaps most enigmatic, “What is to be done?” Sufficiently lofty and vague, these themes will hopefully come together under the guidance of artistic director Roger M Buergel and art historian Ruth Noack. Organizers have been strenuously mysterious about the identities of the artists involved, only revealing in the weeks before the opening that a third of the artwork will in fact not be contemporary (including an anonymous Persian drawing). The artists whose participation has been leaked include Saadane Afif, Ricardo Basbaum, Sheela Gowda, Imogen Stidworthy, Ai Weiwei, and Artur Zmijeski. But the full list will be revealed one week before the exhibition — evidence that this Documenta’s emphasis is on process and “exhibition as medium” rather than a climactic opening ensemble. The community around Kassel, interestingly, has been engaged in a series of experimental exhibition practices, including tours of the show care of various art “mediators” and even local teenagers. A magazine project (in which this magazine is involved) has brought together over ninety arts and culture journals from around the world through a number of workshops and conversations in cities from Johannesburg to Hong Kong.
June 20–August 27, 2007
Taking its inspiration from the enormously well-attended Tenth Venice Architecture Biennale in 2006, Global Cities is a major exhibition addressing ten global megacities: Cairo, Istanbul, Johannesburg, London, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Mumbai, Sao Paulo, Shanghai, and Tokyo. The show will feature newly commissioned work by architects including Nigel Coates, Zaha Hadid, Fritz Haeg, Rem Koolhaas, Nils Norman, and Richard Wentworth and existing works from artists such as Maha Maamoun, Hala Elkoussy, Huseyin Alptekin, and Osman Bozkurt. The exhibition at Tate Modern will use London as a concrete point of reference and comparison with the other nine cities. Issues ranging from migration to mobility, from social integration to sustainable growth will be broached, while five themes will form the centerpiece: size, speed, density, form, and diversity. Finally, the exhibition will act as a platform for debate, both informally and through public programs. “Debate London,” the Architecture Foundation’s series of four discussions about the current state of the UK’s cosmopolitan capital will take place June 22 through 25, and a program of film screenings will take place on Sunday evenings over the course of the summer.
September 8–November 4, 2007
There’s nothing the peripatetic posse of international art critics likes better than to trash a biennial. But Istanbul’s ninth edition, curated by Charles Esche and Vasif Kortun, was roundly welcomed — in particular for its low-key yet in-depth focus on the city, its use of interstitial spaces, and its artist-led approach. The tenth biennial has a lot to live up to — but uber-curator Hou Hanru is no doubt relishing the challenge. Again, the focus will be on artistic production and practice and urban issues, and the biennial looks to be furthering its exploration of Istanbul’s spatial politics. The exhibition sites, including the Istanbul Textile Traders’ Market and santralistanbul, an Ottoman-era power station currently being converted to a cultural center, are off the tourist map, selected instead for the ways in which they are “culturally and politically symbolic of the question of modernity.” Satellite programs include Nightcomers, a dusk till dawn street project involving viewers as participants, based on Hanru’s concept of “dazibao,” in reference to the wall-mounted posters produced by the Chinese public during the Cultural Revolution.
Athens is about to join the ever-growing roster of capitals that boast an art biennial, with Destroy Athens, the first behemoth exhibition for the Greek city, opening in September. Promising a vehicle that “functions as an agent of change and innovation, as a platform for creativity and dialogue, and as an observatory, which will include the elements of contemplation and elaboration of collective issues,” Athens intends to play on its ambiguous position as neither center nor periphery.
The exhibition takes place in Technopolis, a complex of buildings covering thirty acres and including an industrial museum located in an old gas factory, and is curated by a local team: artist Poka-Yio, critic Augustine Zenakos, and Xenia Kalpaktsoglou, director of the DESTE Foundation Center for Contemporary Art. While the final selection of artists is likely to be international, the theme of the show takes Athens as a metaphor for the limitations imposed by stereotypes — both positive (tourist ad–typical antiquities, the Olympic games, and so on) and negative (pollution, recurrent political demonstrations); the destructive theme is to do with taking on predetermined behaviors and prescribed identities. The satellite activities include a conference (titled Prayer for (Passive?) Resistance) that took place in February; a series of publications launched throughout 2007; a bilingual online magazine; and artwave radio, which has been broadcasting online since April.
Share The Kiwi: On The House of World Cultures, Berlin
The name says it all, really. Take a moment to savor it, as it rolls word by word off your tongue. The. House. Of. World. Cultures. Like sweet fruit, faintly exotic, yet familiar — a kiwi perhaps, whole and unpeeled. The skin’s furry surface tickles the roof of your mouth. It’s too much to swallow.
In a nutshell, the state-funded House of World Cultures is the reversal of the Goethe Institut. If the latter’s mission is to bring German Culture to the World, the HWC’s is to bring the World to Germany, in the form of art exhibitions, theater, literature, music, dance, and more. The way the program is currently framed, the HWC transforms every visiting performer, speaker, and even curator into, well, not just a semi-exotic kiwi, sweet, soft, and hairy, but into a demonstration of Globalisierung or, more precisely, a flattering manifestation of German hospitality. The HWC team is well aware of this, and regularly engages in flurries of auto-deconstructive new institutionalism, sparking debates, both public and internal, that are often very rewarding. Fraught issues are broached, such as Germany’s approach to its colonial past and the entwinement of that past with Nazism, reminding one of the magnitude of the issues at stake.
But these discussions rarely, if ever, move beyond the self-critique, as there is always, alas, a financial, political, ideological, administrative, logistical, or strategic hindrance blocking the road to renewal. The shows, concerts, readings, and panels can be as well researched and interesting as you please — but their architects continue to transfigure the material into tokens, samples, and specimens. The visual arts sector, under the dexterous Shaheen Merali, is a notable example of curatorial intelligence thwarted by context. Guest curatorial interventions, meanwhile, are rendered a painful ordeal by the sheer indifference and bureaucratic incommunicado that reign.
Now as the burgeoning art world discussion of new institutionalism suggests, institutional self-critique may be a dangerous contradiction in terms. Critique from outside, some claim, is preempted in a manner that renders it yet another kiwi, cute and harmless, with cultural directors skillfully upgrading their venues with so much user-friendly critical veneer, you can no longer tell the forest from the trees.
But I beg to differ. On the one hand, the few institutions that systematically and rigorously deconstruct the trappings of their success and authority, such as the one-time Kunstverein München under Maria Lind, or the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven under Charles Esche, have simply produced outstanding projects and exhibitions, tout court. To my knowledge, tales of sociopolitical castration have yet to surface. On the other hand, the phenomenon is far from common. The overwhelming majority of institutions regard self-reflection as narcissistic, irrelevant, or simply unmarketable.
Allow me, at this stage, to clarify something by way of an anecdote. Just last month, I attended a Rotterdam conference on “new audiences” featuring, among other speakers, the suave European curator of a cutting-edge art space in East Asia. His epistemics were ethnographic, his jokes were borderline racist, his agenda was a classic example of unrepentant art world expansionism. But it was deeply, self-ironically sexy and pleasant and, above all, cosmopolitan, which is more than most conference contributions can boast. So it passed. It was even something of what you call a highlight.
That item on the program was followed by a conversation between myself and a young cultural journalist recently appointed director of a top-down post-Theo-van-Gogh multicultural initiative. Her discourse was well intentioned, politically simplistic, and, above all, redemptive. To state the obvious, she was all but lynched after the talk by an audience hungry to flaunt its unflagging suspicion toward old-school cultural diversity.
In light of such double standards, I invite you to ponder which standard-bearer your own favorite cross-continental initiative chooses: those who can mask their agendas with irony and gloss, or those whose earnestness makes them look worse than they are? Anyone who denies the role of, say, the Cold War in modern art history, or the abundance of career opportunities in the Middle East today, is horribly dishonest. Personally, I see a lot of merit in what I call “terminological Birkenstocks.” Even if painful to contemplate, at least they’re not out to fool anyone. Art never “stands for itself,” and it’s naive to think the more cutting-edge venues can uphold autonomy beyond agenda. The problem faced by the HWC, in other words, is one of degree and packaging, not of fundamentals.
It’s a problem compounded by the fact that, breathtaking as its high modernist architecture may be, the venue’s isolation, nestled within Berlin’s largest park, right by the federal chancellor’s office, doesn’t do it any favors. The ghettoized, Freak-Magnet potential of the HWC became clear to me personally when exhibiting an installation at a show on “Iranian art,” early in 2004, as a member of the Shahrzad collective. We replicated there a glass display case from the Khomeini Museum, Tehran, featuring the man’s personal belongings, including slippers, documents, and a bottle of Chloë by Karl Lagerfeld.
Though intended as a jab at the tokenism of the exhibition, it was perceived as a celebration of Khomeini by many among the leftist intelligentsia in exile, which prompted petitions, demonstrations, sabotage, and all sorts of aromatic conspiracy theories. How many contemporary artists can garner as much dramatic attention? But tensions, of course, can only run so high when the material is framed accordingly, which is, I assume, the reason why the HWC has a clear raison d'être and is spawning ever more replications, in Holland and elsewhere. Even though they were virtually unknown in the Eighties, you now find kiwis in every supermarket.
Share The Limits of Tolerance: Going Dutch at the Van Abbemuseum
Just two weeks ago, I heard that a Dutch university professor had given a lecture in which he justified racism as a form of free speech. “You may not like it, but the right to say what you think is part of our value system here,” would rather crudely paraphrase his argument. His position is not uncommon in the Netherlands these days, where the harshness of a so-called “new realism” invades populist political debate on every side of the ideological divide. Increasingly, the values of Dutchness are set against an imagined enemy, always vaguely defined, who threatens to undermine the core beliefs of a nation of agnostics.
Contemporary Dutch identity has its origins in the social revolutions of the 1960s. The decade that nurtured and championed peaceniks, drug culture, rampant permissiveness, and individualism was taken to heart here just a little more than elsewhere in Western Europe. The values espoused by a generation of new social radicals resonated with older notions of Dutchness, rooted in toleration through social separation and even a sort of magnanimous indifference toward one’s neighbors. This novel mingling allowed for the (re)invention of a national identity that was both tolerant and individualistic, creating a society of singular beings who coexisted in what was more or less mutual ignorance. The Dutch grew markedly antiauthoritarian, welcomed self-expression, and agreed on the importance of the sovereign rights of the individual. And so the Netherlands emerged from the 60s in good spirits, its collective cultural project determined and shaped by a call for individual emancipation. After the dour and guilt-ridden post-imperial years of the 1950s, the shift was a welcome relief and manifested itself everywhere from immigration politics to the cultural realm.
Even the more traditional cultural fields benefited from the atmosphere of the times, afforded as they were the room to be experimental while supported by plentiful financial investments from the state. As a result, the Netherlands nurtured the production of some of the most avant-garde museums and institutions in all of Europe. Art was an undiluted good, a value that the state espoused, and the more provocative or transgressive, the better. In short, those years were the hey-day of what much of the rest of the world still thinks of as characteristically Dutch.
I came to the Netherlands two and a half years ago to assume the directorship of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven. The city is small (200,000 inhabitants) and developed out of a workers’ dormitory that once served the Phillips Corporation. Though the museum has an enviable international reputation, I became concerned with its particular place in the city during my first months of living here. It seemed estranged from the local art community, insulated by its claim to world-class quality and cut off from the immediate surroundings. I worried whether such a fine art bubble could survive for long, when pressures on public funding were growing and faith in internationalism was abating. I also wondered whether such indifference to place was even justifiable in the context of a contemporary art world in which biennials and major exhibitions are increasingly concerned with the relations between the local and the global. I wondered, who was it who gave the Van Abbemuseum its mandate, beyond the aged instincts of a discredited cultural elite?
As my colleagues and I pondered how to respond to these questions in the context of the museum, the Dutch government announced a national competition for an initiative related to issues of cultural diversity. The competition became our excuse to formulate a proposal for a project we would call Be(com)ing Dutch — an attempt to raise questions surrounding nationalism in the context of art in “post-national” Western Europe and to see whether that context could give us a different lens through which to view the critical, social, and cultural change that surrounded us. The Netherlands seemed an apt starting point, particularly given the anti-immigration backlash born of the 2002 murder of right-wing parliamentarian Pim Fortuyn.
Why Be(com)ing Dutch? In assuming what we hope is both an ambiguous and provocative title, we wanted to avoid a politically correct spin on a subject that seems urgent in a way much artistic work does not. Be(com)ing Dutch doesn’t propose pat solutions to the difficulties that arise from cultural difference, immigration, and nation-state policies. Instead, it hopes to depict and reflect on the processes through which one acquires national identity, pointing out that between being (a static, defined position) and becoming (an uncompleted process of discovery), there lies a world of difference, both cultural and political. Becoming, after all, is by definition a dependent process and one in which we all inevitably participate.
Be(com)ing Dutch seeks to put the very idea of Dutchness on display, both Dutchness as it is inherited and that is in the process of being made. Speculating about what it might need to be in the future to live up to its past and picturing Dutchness other than it is now is the project of Be(com)ing Dutch, with diverse viewpoints, drawing upon artists from around the world. It’s also about imagining the imagination of the Other — a difficult task, but one that only art allows us to broach. At the Van Abbemuseum, we’re also trying to change some of the accepted or traditional parameters of the art museum. We’re investing in discussion and debate as much as in the production and acquisition of objects. We’re imposing a concept on artists and attempting, at various levels, to undermine the authority structures inherent in an art museum. The program intends to share its development and uncertainties with the public, permitting those encounters to impact outcomes.
Be(com)ing Dutch will take place over a span of two years and be developed jointly by everyone working in the museum, with curator Annie Fletcher taking the lead. It began with a three-day gathering in January, where artists and writers from the Netherlands and abroad were invited to speak about their sense of how one becomes Dutch and how that might be rethought as a process in global terms. In November, the museum will host three weeks of debate with leading international thinkers and a microschool for participants to share in the development of specific art projects by artists such as Phil Collins, Surasi Kusolwong, and Mario Rizzi, to name only the first participants. An exhibition in May 2008 will begin with the 1960s as the point of departure for a series of works made in Eindhoven, and a publication to be prepared for September 2008 will archive the project as a whole, including discussions and the responses born of them.
Perhaps the most interesting question will be whether such a politically determined project, with many unartistic ambitions from both the funding bodies as well as the museum itself, will be able to create compelling conditions for the production of art. If we’re successful, we’ll have created an important space where issues of community engagement and artistic autonomy aren’t in conflict, and where the public interest mission of a museum is in harmony with the artistic will to create in a non-private sector setting. It might make sense of museums again — decoupling tolerance from indifference through participation and a renewed critical engagement with culture.
Share Chungking Mansions: The meta-hotel as micro-city
In many ways, Chungking Mansions appears to be a system on autopilot, a sort of urban artificial intelligence. It’s also an illustration of ground-level globalization (it’s estimated that at least twenty percent of all mobile phones in usage in Africa have passed through #36-44 Nathan Road at one point) and a condensed model of world catastrophe.
Up in my room, things are quiet. Though there’s a softly whirring fan and water dripping in the airshaft, the ancient, wall-mounted television doesn’t rise above a murmur. Down in the street, on the other hand, the world runs at full volume. On a typical night, the sidewalk of Hong Kong’s Chungking Mansions is roaring. In contrast to the sedate Peninsula Hotel just across Nathan Road (the colonial grande dame of hotels, where white-gloved waiters serve tea), there is no marble reception desk here — there is only pavement.
On this night, eight young Indian guesthouse touts form a gauntlet, each trying aggressively to persuade a dazed Australian backpacker and a broad Nigerian businessman that his establishment is top of the line. Some of the men are doing double-duty, simultaneously pushing restaurants or tailor-shops, fake watches or hashish. The Nigerian waves them away: he has been here before and knows exactly where he’s going.
Heading to the elevators, he passes a gaggle of women in bright blue salwar kameez, changing rupees at one of the many exchange booths that line the entrance. Young Chinese women with frizzy hair sit behind the bulletproof glass with sour expressions. He zigzags toward the bank of elevators at Block B and joins the queue. The dazed Australian ends up there, too, with a guesthouse worker practically clinging to his backpack to make sure his “sale” won’t get stolen away. There’s a lanky Somali woman with a swaddled baby, and a young boy laden with takeout containers from a restaurant.
The elevator rises and stops at the seventh and fifteenth floors; the Australian and the Nigerian are staying in different guesthouses. Doors are opened. Fans and televisions are switched on and off. Rates are bargained down. Keys are handed over. And, because no traveler wants to sit in a bed-sized room watching the fuzzy Nepalese news on mute, guests lock their bags in their rooms and head back to the mainframe.
This massive complex of five blocks (A–E) and seventeen stories was completed in 1961, originally intended as luxury flats for Hong Kong’s elite. But when the Mansions was opened, a different brand of clientele moved in. The first tenants were hardscrabble immigrants from the mainland, who in turn sold units to members of Hong Kong’s resident Indian community. As a major transportation hub (Victoria Harbor, the Kowloon-Canton Railway, old Kai Tak Airport), Kowloon had long been a natural magnet for travelers. The Mansions gained a seedier reputation in the 1960s and 70s, due in no small part to hordes of American servicemen on shore leave.
Decades later, Chungking isn’t just a hotel space; its nearly 1,000 guestrooms have lent shape and purpose to the structure as a whole. Although the rooms belong to roughly ninety distinct guesthouses, these distinctions begin to melt as the greater design of the Mansions reveals itself.
The rooms are almost all the same — large enough for a bed (a rock-hard twin kitted out in faded sheets bearing the visage of Mickey Mouse), a single square-foot window, and, if one is willing to upgrade to what is termed “ensuite,” a telephone booth-sized bathroom. Some rooms are a bit more “business motel” (double beds, pastels) in nature, others more “flop-house” (six Indian restaurant workers sharing the floor of a forty-square-foot room). But since few of the guesthouses are anything more than a blank hallway punctuated by five to ten doors, there’s little space for the expression of individual hotel identity. Chungking Mansions is a meta-hotel.
Within the main building, guests may choose from several dozen restaurants or order room service (all the restaurants deliver). For entertainment, cheap DVDs and DVD players, both bootleg, abound. Internet cafes and international calling-card shops (“$1 per minute to Ghana”) serve as a kind of business center, and restaurants that stay open late double as hotel bars. (There’s also an all-night 7-Eleven around the corner, which is the prime place to pick up female company for the night.)
Most of the waiters, cooks, touts, and men pushing boxes through the hallways, as well as the women who “work” the place (primarily Indian, dressed in bright saris and far too much makeup), are travelers themselves. This is another remarkable feature of Chungking Mansions: the guests are, in essence, running the hotel. Those who own property and shops in the building have proper immigration papers or Hong Kong residency, as do the managers they hire. But the managers then rely on temporary, illegal labor to run their businesses. Because of tight visa regulations, many of these temporary workers must return home fairly frequently or go on exit/reentry runs to the mainland or Macau. Some may continue this cycle, coming and going, for years.
But while illegal labor is rampant, and prostitutes and drugs are never in short supply, Chungking’s current illicit activities pale in comparison to those of the past. In a city with relatively few ethnic minorities and very little poverty, Chungking has been more or less the only ghetto in Hong Kong. The 1980s were a golden age of gonzo criminality, and the Mansions became a haven for heroin and hashish smugglers, arms dealers, and arsonists. In one three-year period, twenty-nine fires were reported, including one in which a Danish tourist died jumping out of a guesthouse window. And once, a long-term C-Block resident, a man from New Zealand, was discovered to have turned his room into a DIY bomb-making workshop.
In many ways, Chungking Mansions appears to be a system on autopilot, a sort of urban artificial intelligence. It’s also an illustration of ground-level globalization (it’s estimated that at least twenty percent of all mobile phones in usage in Africa have passed through #36–44 Nathan Road at one point) and a condensed model of world catastrophe. There are currently 2,500 refugees and asylum-seekers in Hong Kong, most of whom have stayed in Chungking Mansions or used services there.
Ironically, it seems that Chungking Mansions may outlast most other Hong Kong landmarks, despite its almost ethereal transience. Because the colossal structure is owned by so many individual property owners, a developer wishing to buy them all out would need about 20 billion Hong Kong dollars (roughly 3 billion USD) — far more than any new development could possibly justify. Perhaps, with the Peninsula Hotel down the street evoking fading colonial grandeur, Chungking Mansions is a window (one square foot, covered with a Snoopy drape, facing an air-shaft) onto the future.
Share A Defense of Culture: Art and occupation in Palestine
The Israeli Army desecrated both the Palestinian Culture Ministry and the Sakakini Cultural Centre when it invaded Ramallah in April 2002, even though both buildings were empty at the time. Already for many years before that, culture had been the arena for significant claims and counterclaims, a tool for self-assertion or, alternatively, for denying the enemy’s legitimacy. (We have witnessed, for example, Israeli attempts to appropriate falafel and traditional Palestinian embroidery and to claim monuments of Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman architecture as Jewish.)
Ever since the 1936 uprising against the British Mandate, the Palestinian national movement has had its own cultural spokespersons: poets, novelists, singers, musicians, artists, and, for the past thirty years or so, filmmakers. Following the establishment of the PLO, some of these individuals were directly affiliated with, and employed by, political groups; others remained independent but still deeply attached to the political fate of their country. Palestinians, like other colonized peoples in history, very quickly understood that a project such as Zionism could conceivably lead to their cultural devastation.
Foreign occupation — as we have learned from Iraq — may bring about civil strife on a mass scale. The fact that it can also set off cultural wars may be less self-evident. In the past year or so, the internal ideological and political battles between Hamas and Fatah, for example, have assumed an openly cultural character, as when the Hamas Ministry of Education in the Occupied Territories attempted to force school libraries to destroy copies of Qoul ya Tayr (Speak oh Bird), an anthology of Palestinian folklore, for containing material “unsuitable” for young minds. (Incidentally, the minister was forced to back down because of public outrage and the brave refusal of some teachers to follow orders.) And this is to say nothing of the virulent war of words that Israeli propagandists have been waging against the new Palestinian school curriculum, particularly the historical narratives it contains, which, they claim, call for Israel’s destruction.
Is culture frivolous in times of hunger and violence? In 2006, a young woman wrote to me complaining that an exhibition we had organized in the cities of Ramallah and Al-Bireh was disconnected from the realities of poverty, unpaid wages, and despair that followed the international boycott of the democratically elected Hamas government. Talk of identities and aesthetic form in such times was, she felt, precious and irrelevant.
We know, however, that people never cease to write or sing or draw, even in the worst circumstances; the story of the Leningrad Philharmonic performing under Nazi bombardment is just one famous example. In Palestine, where I have been involved in cultural development for more than nine years, there have been similarly noteworthy projects in music, visual art, film, puppetry, the circus arts, theatre, folkloric dance, and other art forms. What makes these important and even necessary?
It’s useful here to consider culture in its widest possible sense, what the French philosopher Michel Serres calls the sum total of human invention — techniques of irrigation, in this view, are as cultural as musical traditions. In this enlightened, generous sense, we simply have no choice but to engage in cultural activity, by dint of living, learning, working, and producing. Culture is not only necessary, but also inevitable.
The important question then becomes not whether culture should exist or not — it always has existed and always will — but what form of culture we want in our lives, now and in the future. Do we want the variety that is useful only for ideological mobilization or the kind that helps us liberate ourselves and better understand the complex world around us (and perhaps even believe that we may be able to change it)?
In Palestine, cultural production has evolved as the nature of the Occupation has changed and as the Middle East has opened up to trends, technologies, and ideas from the rest of the world. Early on, cultural expression was most often a means of national self-assertion (take, for example, the heroic, masculine poetry of Abu Salma or Ibrahim Touqan). But very quickly this tendency evolved into sophisticated, often innovative, and critical aesthetic forms, which have influenced the region and beyond; Habibi’s ironic fiction, Khleifi’s poetic cinema, and Darwish’s tragic poetry demonstrate this.
For some time, the PLO had its own subsidized artists and writers, but the Oslo Accords brought new challenges: firstly, notwithstanding talented individuals, a fundamental weakness in the skill base and in artistic education as a whole quickly became apparent; secondly, there were no laws to govern copyright, encourage investment, or streamline public aid; and finally, any trace of physical infrastructure to support the arts was nonexistent.
Today, obstacles persist: roadblocks, the Wall, curfews, fragmentation (Gaza and the West Bank are effectively separate entities, as is East Jerusalem and the 1948 Palestinian areas, not to speak of neighboring Arab countries). Yet there have been initiatives to surmount these challenges — this despite the fact that funding is often precarious, concentrated in the hands of international agencies, with few local sources.
The Al-Kamandjati Group, launched by a young musician from Al-Amaari Refugee Camp with a group of his French colleagues, now runs a music education program across the West Bank, including Nablus, despite the city’s having been under intermittent siege for more than six years. In Haifa, the poet Siham Daoud single-handedly runs Masharef Journal, one of the finest literary magazines published in Arabic. A group of artists have begun work on the creation of a fine arts academy in Ramallah. And as part of the Palestinian Audio-Visual Project, we at the Qattan Foundation have organized a two-year training program in various film disciplines that has included young people from across historical Palestine and from Jordan. The Project has also set up forty-five film clubs in schools across the country. And this is just a partial list of the initiatives existent today.
These initiatives and others like them are popular and often successful, but above all, they are vital. Not only have many people’s livelihoods come to depend on them, but they are also of great symbolic significance, emblematic of the psychological power born of resistance under occupation. To produce culture — in whatever form — is to create conditions of possibility for a people who might otherwise sink into despair. And so, in the end, I found myself responding to the young woman who wrote me that letter, offering my strongly held belief that culture is not only worth investing in, but an essential means of survival in times like these.
“Let’s not create a mythology here,” says Walid Sadek, with a gentle smile and an inward laugh. “We didn’t always meet on Tuesday.” Sitting in the back corner of the Benedorme Cafe, a coffee shop tucked into a lackluster strip facing Beirut’s sea-swept Corniche, Sadek is recounting the past and possible future of Group Tuesday, a collective comprised of himself, Bilal Khbeiz, and Fadi Abdallah. It is Tuesday night, and the Benedorme happens to be their usual gathering place.
Group Tuesday first appeared as such during the third edition of Beirut’s Home Works Forum in 2005. There, at the annual meeting of artists, the trio presented a piece they calledPublic Time, a “file” filled with interlocking Arabic texts written over the course of eighteen months, during which Sadek, Khbeiz, and Abdallah endeavored to witness (rather than document) a number of rupturing events that are never explicitly named. Group Tuesday itself had not yet been named.
Six months later, the three of them performed Public Time in a reading at a symposium held at Modern Art Oxford, as part of a group exhibition called Out of Beirut. Not insignificantly, they swapped roles and recited each other’s texts instead of their own. Nearly a year after that, and with a war in between, Group Tuesday minted their name for a piece they produced for the eighth edition of the Sharjah Biennial this past spring.
Tragedy in a Moment of Vision and Knowledge of the Expelled, their most recent works, are two related pieces that tease out meaning through their close proximity to one another. The former consists of a tiny tripod holding up a tiny projector, which seems to be tilting its head in thought, alongside a stack of books filled with Khbeiz’s poignant account of Beirut after the summer’s war, written as if he were, to borrow a phrase from Sadek’s writing, casting wounded eyes over the devastation, physical and otherwise. The latter consists of ten museum tags for absent paintings depicting variations on “Roman Charity,” the story of Cimon and Pero, in which a starved father is offered clandestine sustenance by his daughter.
Both pieces hinge on a withdrawal of images. In Tragedy, viewers must follow the (subtle) instructions offered and place the book in front of the projector to catch the image of a young woman seated with her back to a television broadcasting images of Beirut in the process of being destroyed. The image frustrates, tells you nothing. In Knowledge, the viewer must conjure the missing paintings from the texts provided. The image of a father being breastfed by his own daughter floods the imagination with excess; it’s somehow too much for the mind to bear.
“The three of us, we are very critical, even doubtful of images,” says Sadek, “although we have not ceased writing about images. The image is pivotal. We do not entertain any notions about the primacy of written over visual language. We are obviously disturbed by the prevalence of images. What we try to do when we write is slow images down. We try to give them weight. We experience, we who live in the third world, that to be in an image, to be photographed, is almost like a death warrant. But we are equally uneasy about standing behind the lens. We work and live somewhere between the lens and the photograph.”
It is perhaps a concession to the logic of an international biennial that their participation at Sharjah forced Sadek, Khbeiz, and Abdallah to choose a name for themselves. Group Tuesday is not a collective in the painfully clever sense now commonplace in the art world. “We all three work on the edge of our respective disciplines,” says Sadek, who is the only one of the group to have trained as an artist (Khbeiz is a poet and writer; Abdallah is a poet, writer, and musician and is particularly mistrustful of the power politics inherent to museums — he regards them as spaces to use but where one should leave no trace behind). “I quit art a long time ago,” says Sadek. “But I think what the art world allows us to do, we cannot find anywhere else. It gives us leeway to think and to produce work that is hard to define, and in that sense we are still working on the edge of the art world.”
Still, the name Group Tuesday does have added resonance in Arabic. Jamaa, the verb, means “to be gathered or grouped.” Al-Thuletha, the subject acting on the verb, takes its root from “three,” for the third day of the week. Tuesday is that which has made the group.
Meanwhile, Sadek describes artistic process as a means rather than an end. Following that logic, the visibility of Group Tuesday calls attention to a particular practice — the circulation of texts as an artistic strategy — that has been operative in Beirut for years but has always been overshadowed by video work. The point of Group Tuesday, it seems, is not to produce work per se. Rather, it is to imagine a set of relations and experiences that cannot, for various reasons, be forged in public life, and to realize them through writing — in Group Tuesday’s case, through writing extensively, rethinking, and writing anew. At the end of the day, to work collectively without consensus, and to welcome dissent as critically productive, suggests a progressive political project.
Kbheiz acknowledges that Group Tuesday’s work often bears witness to loss, but he maintains no illusions that theirs is a process of nascent nation-building. “If not the nation, there is this sense that a sort of sociality is a curse here,” he says. “You recognize that it is impossible… Everyday your work is [to] concoct and perform this sociality. You constantly undo it and put it together again.”
Public Timeremains an open file that Group Tuesday considers unfinished. They return to it on occasion. Khbeiz says writing about Western cities as he has written about Beirut — as the flipside to Orientalism, for example — is an idea he considers seriously. “It’s a tool,” he says, “but with this group we try to make these tools to work through our relations with modernity, democracy, and citizenship. These three matters are always in the background of our discussion.”
Having completed two projects to date, Group Tuesday, it could be said, is moving forward by looking back. Reconsidering the strengths and weaknesses of past pieces is an integral part of their process, as is sifting through old material to detect the lingering questions that continue to be most contentious among them. The dynamic of Group Tuesday relies on, even relishes, a certain sustained tension. Currently, Khbeiz and Abdallah are raking through alternative readings of their last work as well as the formal concerns raised by its installation. Sadek, for his part, is preparing a text-based piece for the Venice Biennale, where Lebanon will have its first (and fraught) national pavilion. Beyond these projects, there is little about their future that is fixed.
“Inevitably, I think, we will continue to work together, and inevitably, I think, we will do something again soon,” says Sadek. “But Bilal, Fadi, and I have no necessary loyalty to Group Tuesday. It came out of the pleasure of being together as friends and working together. We may end it tomorrow. Or do something else. We have not invented a brand.”
Yael Bartana has described herself as an amateur anthropologist. In works such as the brilliant, frightening Kings of the Hill (2003) and Wild Seeds (2005), the artist has documented both the deleterious and the cathartic aspects of group activity. In Kings of the Hill, Bartana filmed a barren site outside Tel Aviv, where brawny men entertain themselves by revving their ATVs up the hillsides. Wild Seeds showed a group of teenagers in the Occupied Territories playing a made-up game called “The Evacuation of Gilad’s Colony” (the objectives of which are self-explanatory). The artist has also engaged the ritualistic quality of collective activity: in Trembling Time,
which observes the moment of remembrance on Israel’s Day of the Fallen Soldier, cars come to a sudden stop on a busy motorway and drivers step out, as if in a trance; it’s at once eerie and beautiful.
Bartana’s new video installation, Summer Camp, feels like something of a departure, in that it depicts a collective act of resistance as opposed to compliance — and one likely doomed to failure, at that. Summer Camp documents the activities of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), a nongovernmental organization dedicated to rebuilding Palestinian homes in the Occupied Territories. The Israeli artist filmed ICAHD’s volunteers in the summer of 2006, in the West Bank town of Anata, as they worked on the house of one Abu Ahmad Al Hadad. His home had been torn down by the authorities in June 2004, and at the film’s start, the site is little more than rubble punctuated by torn concrete reinforcements that twist jaggedly out of the dust.
ICAHD’s volunteers, a motley international, intergenerational crew, many wearing green baseball hats, form a production line and, assisted by Palestinian builders, begin their work. The film — at least in its current draft version — ends with an exterior view of the completed house, a rudimentary one-story building that looks out across the hills of the West Bank. Call it Extreme Makeover, Israeli-style.
So far, so dull — or at least, not so different from dozens of well-intentioned EU-sponsored “development films” that document, brick by sundered brick, the work of the Caterpiller D9, the IDF’s bulldozer of choice. But Bartana has bigger fish to fry.
The orthodox anthropologist must remain apart from the group, even as she becomes immersed in its activities; Bartana has set out to ensure that the viewer not feel any sense of belonging while engaging with her works. “I am interested in shifting the viewer into the role of outsider; whatever the image’s subject might be, it still remains distinctly alien and allows examination and reflection on the event.”
This quasi-Brechtian approach is emphasized by Summer Camp’s planned installation in a wooden hut that borrows from the aesthetics of 1930s cinemas. As Bartana describes it, it is shaped like a long tunnel and “looks a bit like a garmoshka, an old-style camera.” The tunnel is intended to direct the gaze of the viewer, “in the same way that propaganda films are made to influence your mental and ideological awareness.”
But the film itself is plenty estranging. The soundtrack features music from Zionist propaganda films of the 1930s, such as Helmar Lerski’s 1935 film Awodah (sweeping melodies courtesy of the Budapest Symphony Orchestra), and footage from those old Zionist films is interspersed with the contemporary footage of ICAHD in action. In Awodah, muscled workers drill for water. The camera cuts from farmers and children harvesting corn, to bricks being laid and a house being built in Tel Aviv. The Star of David is erected on the roof frame. In quoting the old films, Bartana, in her own words, shows “the resemblance of the ideological and visual relationship between building as a form of resistance against the Occupation and building as nation-building of Israel by the Zionist movement.” Thus ICAHD’s earnest volunteers mimic a production line of happy Jewish settlers picking oranges or laying bricks, and in both old and new footage, rural elements lightly disrupt the promise of an unadulterated new world: skinny livestock and boys on donkeys plod past tractors, irrigation pumps, and unsightly concrete mixers.
Summer Camp also takes on less obvious parallels with its Pathé-era predecessors. Just as it is possible to detect an element of melancholy even in some of the most triumphalist Zionist films — admittedly, this effect is augmented by benefit of hindsight — there is an element of uncertainty here, too. Abu Ahmad is aware that his new home may not survive for long, and that it may be demolished again by the Jewish municipality. In the penultimate shot, the camera looks through the window at Abu Ahmad’s family moving about their new home, until someone inside draws the curtain.
In the summer of 1997, dressed in the black shorts, cleats, and red jersey of the Albanian national soccer team, carrying a ball and sporting a backpack outfitted with a little Albanian flag and a radio broadcasting a soccer match between Italy and Portugal, a young Kosovar Albanian artist named Sislej Xhafa roamed the grounds of the 47th Venice Biennale asking other visitors to play soccer with him. That year, the teeny Balkan republic of Albania was not among the countries represented in Venice — despite the fact that only the Adriatic Sea separates them. Xhafa had decided to change that, transforming himself into an artwork he would later call the Clandestine Albanian Pavilion, an unassuming performance that raised difficult questions about the countries invited to such rarified events and why those that are not, are not. Why, for example, does Luxembourg — with fewer than 500,000 inhabitants — warrant a pavilion, when India — with more than a billion — does not? And who gets to decide?
Clandestine Albanian Pavilion introduced biennale-goers to a constellation of concerns that have suffused this now thirty-seven-year-old artist’s subsequent work. Its mobility and surreptitious, nominally criminal nature (Xhafa had entered the giardini illegally) spoke to the tenuous circumstances of the hundreds of thousands of Albanians who emigrated — often illegally — to the West during the early 1990s. And Xhafa’s decision to appear in the uniform of the Albanian national soccer team highlighted not only the nationalist character of events like the Venice Biennale, but also the degree to which sports and leisure may become stages for political negotiation (witness the intense politicization of the Iraqi soccer team’s exploits in the 2004 Olympics).
In hindsight, it seems entirely appropriate that Xhafa’s performance — the work that first brought him widespread recognition — was predicated on questions of absence and invisibility. Although the Pavilion performance was an artwork, realized in the context of a major international exhibition, it hardly announced its status as such when it was performed. Rather than a young Albanian artist making a political statement through his art, viewers met a young Albanian man (and a fellow visitor to the biennale, at that) cheerfully encouraging their participation in an activity of communal recreation. In a way, the biennale audience’s failure to recognize the work as a work — abetted by the artist’s subterfuge — mirrored the marginalization of Albanian immigrants in Italian society. At the same time, Pavilion provided a potent testimony to the very real impact of immigrants and other “invisible” constituencies on the daily life of their communities.
In the ten years since his Venice debut, Xhafa has developed a body of work that has subtly and consistently drawn attention to the invisible, often unjust, systems that structure our lives. A consummate bricoleur, he eschews allegiance to any one style or medium, pursuing instead a kind of aesthetic realpolitik. Issues are approached obliquely rather than confronted head-on; and while unjust conditions are exposed, solutions are rarely offered. The challenge, as he sees it, is to be provocative without being didactic, to unsettle, not to hector. Only in that way can dialogue remain a real possibility. Xhafa’s work is “political” in that it disrupts the order of things, the allocation of experience — what Jacques Rancière has described as the “distribution of the sensible,” shaped by various forms of policing, both juridical and social. It’s a politics of interruption, upsetting the configuration of forces determining what is visible and what is not, what forms of speech are understood as discourse and which are only perceptible as noise, who is designated as a speaking subject and who is merely spoken to. No matter the circumstances, for this artist, indifference is never an option.
The paradoxical invisibility of Europe’s large (and growing) immigrant communities has been a particular focus of Xhafa’s work. In Elegant Sick Bus, first performed at the 2001 Istanbul Biennial and reenacted more recently in 2006 at Art Basel Miami Beach, a group of men pushed a mirror-plated tour bus through the streets, ostensibly in search of the nearest repair shop or filling station. On one level, the work highlighted what Xhafa calls the “forced hospitality” imposed on local populations by a tourist economy. But the vehicle’s mirrored surface also complicated the conventional directionality of the touristic gaze. As it was pushed through the streets, the bus itself became the spectacle, even as it reflected the image of the local community — including the laborers themselves — back onto itself.
By contrast, Xhafa’s 2002 sculpture Ali Hamadu, a four-and-a-half-meter ebony figure of a briefcase-toting Senegalese businessman clad in a designer suit, depended on the withdrawal of visual information. Ali Hamadu, said Xhafa, had to be exhibited in total darkness — a phenomenal situation in which skin color (not to mention most normative criteria for judging works of art) becomes irrelevant. In this project, Xhafa replaced Elegant Sick Bus’s effect of heightened visibility with an almost purely tactile experience, as the viewer had to blindly probe the darkened hall in search of a statue whose monumentality was perversely matched by its invisibility.
On June 21, 2000, wearing a sharp black suit, Xhafa (who cuts a handsome, swarthy figure with his ambiguously Mediterranean visage) stood under the arrivals/departures board in the railway station in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Gesticulating wildly with the manic energy of a broker on the trading floor, he called out the train schedule to an audience of bemused and bewildered travelers. Xhafa’s deceptively simple, almost Fluxus-like action — delivered in the context of Manifesta 3 — lent itself to myriad readings, not the least of which was a powerful indictment of the market-driven nature of the “art tourism” that is so ubiquitous today.
Two years later, Xhafa offered Étant donné MD 1946–1966–2002, a clever impromptu reimagining of Marcel Duchamp’s meditation on vision and carnal desire. Having arrived in Pescara to install a work in a group show, Xhafa was struck by the view from one of the gallery’s windows. Abandoning his planned installation, the artist covered the window with blackout paper and in front of it installed a small wall of rustic masonry and a plywood door with a jagged hole punched through it. As viewers, stooping slightly, peered through this aperture and a tiny hole cut in the blackout paper behind it, they discovered — instead of Duchamp’s reclining nude — a sign demarcating a Sisley boutique across the street. Étant donné directed the viewer’s gaze outward, transforming the gallery itself into a frame for the outside world. And by playing on the homophony between his own name and that of the cheesy Euro-fashion label, Xhafa ceded the moral high ground, pointing ambiguously to his own role in an economy that constantly threatens to transform art into the stuff of high-end luxury goods.
For all his Duchampian proclivities, however, Xhafa has perpetually sought ways to redefine and renew the potential of an art engagé. Barely six months prior to installing Étant donné, Xhafa had erected Job Center, a four-meter-high, thirty-meter-long cinderblock wall cutting diagonally across a busy square near the university in the northern Italian city of Torino. A neon sign, installed above an automatic sliding-glass door in the center of the wall, announced in no uncertain terms the edifice’s purported identity as an employment agency. Behind the door, however, was neither job nor center, only the same identical façade reproduced on the other side of the wall. A locally specific temporary intervention in Torino residents’ habitual trajectories through the city, Job Center’s blank façade and generic, bluntly descriptive signage nevertheless effected a crucial shift in register from the particular to the universal, translating into spatial terms the Sisyphean experience of workers caught in a cycle of unemployment and temporary, low-pay wage-labor.
Since leaving Albania in the early 1990s, Xhafa has lived a nomadic existence. Living first in London, then in Italy, and — since the year 2000 — in New York City, he’s become remarkably attuned to the positive as well as the negative aspects of what is blithely referred to as globalization. Despite a geopolitical landscape increasingly resistant to dialogue, Xhafa has maintained an intuitive commitment to the productive force of difference and disagreement. And so last fall, when he was invited to install a “non-commercial” work at the Galerie Michael Neff in Frankfurt, he responded by “installing” a professional locksmith who, for the duration of the exhibition, ground copies of the key to the gallery’s front door and sold them to visitors for ten euros apiece. Xhafa insisted that the normal contents of the gallery (computers, libraries, records, perhaps even other artworks) remain — unguarded — on the premises throughout the month-long exhibition he called MN Unplugged. But what might initially have seemed like a relatively straightforward test of the dealer’s trust quickly revealed a much more complex dynamic.
As a sort of art-world version of prisoner’s dilemma, MN Unplugged pointedly asked us to consider the slippery generation of “value” in the context of an art space. As commercial enterprises, art galleries are dependent on a certain physical infrastructure (read: the gallery itself) in order to carry out their work. Within the terms of MN Unplugged, the artist had to trust both dealer and visitor to acknowledge that the conceptual value of the art trumped the material (and functional) value of the gallery’s commercial infrastructure. In the language of game theory, within the triad of artist, dealer, and visitor, it is the artist who must cooperate and trust both of the other two players to cooperate as well. Consequently, it is the artist whose position is most precarious, for if either of the other players defects (in this case, by breaking the ethical compact initiated by the work), then the attempt to transform a zero-sum game into a non-zero-sum game is lost.
MN Unplugged called forth a notion of politics as a site not of consensus but of conflict, an arena in which cooperation is less the product of universal agreement than of repeated negotiation. The ultimate goal of such a politics is the acknowledgement of the community as a heterogeneous polity in which no constituency is rendered invisible and in which every subject is a speaking subject.
The strength of Xhafa’s work lies in what might be called its politics of perception. In a world where the operations of power are often hidden from view, any form of real political resistance must be rendered visible. As Xhafa’s recent gray-on-gray détournement of that ubiquitous catchphrase of post-9/11 paranoia suggests: If you see something, say something.
Share The Muse of Failure: Egypt and the grandest narrative
I vowed to write upon water,
I vowed to bear with Sisyphus
his speechless rock.
I vowed to stay with Sisyphus
suffering the fevers and the sparks,
and seeking in blind eyes
a last plume
that writes for autumn and grass
the poem of dust.
I vowed to live with Sisyphus.
— Adonis, “To Sisyphus”
The Arabic word for failure is built from the tripartite root of f-sh-l to become fashil, the harshest, most damaging word in the language, at least the way my Arabic teacher pronounced it. The word often twisted his dyspeptic mouth, spattering our lessons like ordnance from a cluster bomb. Everything was fashil. Me as a student, himself as a teacher, Cairo as a city, Egypt as a state, the Middle East as a region, Asia as a continent, communism as a theory, democracy as an ideal, Islam as it was practiced, humanity as a species, and, in the summer when the smog congealed, the sun as a source of light.
“Shams,” I said, when he pointed at the bright yellow ball in our Arabic textbook.
“Fashil!” he exclaimed. “The sun is a failure in Cairo.”
“Ragol,” I said dutifully, when he pointed at the picture of a cheerful-looking man standing next to a well-fed family.
“Fashil! A man cannot earn enough to support his family. All modern men are failures.”
“Al’iqtisad al’arabi,” I read out loud from the chapter about the victories Arab states had won in the face of foreign neoliberalism.
“Fashil! There is no Arab economy!”
Thoroughly imprinted by the speech patterns of my teacher, my practice sentences began to read like the polemics of a fed-up dissident (or, perhaps, a smart-ass American — the line is a fine one):
Ahmed failed to walk to school. His father failed to pay for gas. The official failed to stamp the passport. The glorious culture of Al’Andalus failed to keep the palm trees alive. The third-world dream of Nasser was an awesome failure. The Arab League failed to do anything about Sudan. The UN fails to do anything ever.
Luckily for me, my practice was not wasted. It was 2004. Failure was in the air and all over the Arabic headlines. The American invasion of Iraq was fashil. The fruits of the Arab Spring? Fashil, dead on the vine. And the two-state solution was fashil, as always. As I read the newspapers for my Arabic exercises, it became clear that journalists fell into two camps: those who used the word fashil and those who didn’t. Of the former, the leading light was Abd al-Halim Qandil, whose weekly denunciations of the Egyptian government’s rhetoric and policies introduced me to a dozen synonyms for failure. Arabic is a rich language, book two of my textbook series informed me, rich in nuance and history. A good deal of this nuance and history, it seems, is preoccupied with the meaning of failure.
At a moulid in Sayyeda Zeinab, a group of people gathered around a one-armed man from Afghanistan. Compared to the other sights to be seen-the fire-eating, the exorcisms, the three-armed man-the Afghan was a minor curiosity. He had light gray eyes, partially occluded by bangs, and carried himself with an unwieldy grace, turning and dipping his armless shoulder to make his way quietly through the crowd. Somehow word got out that he was Afghan, and, within the whirlpool of the crowd, an eddy formed as men lined up to shake his hand. Several addressed him as Batl, or Hero. One well-dressed sheb passed around his Oakland A’s hat to start a collection, and an old woman with a faded blue tattoo on one cheek burst into tears. It seemed as though the madness of the moulid had only intensified the crowd’s psychic investment in Afghanistan. The Afghan thanked everyone in exceedingly formal Arabic. “Allah Khaleek, the Arabs and the Afghans will always remain brothers.” Then he slipped away.
Intrigued and tactless, I followed. It was dusk, and lights were going on in the apartments around us — warm yellow rectangles punched out of concrete walls. I stumbled as I caught up with him, and he turned around to see me trip. “Your arm,” I blurted out, my attenuated language skills overwhelming my sense of propriety. “Your arm, why has it failed?” The Afghan, who turned out to be a former Arabic-as-a-second-language student himself, was forgiving of my linguistic butchery.
We walked back to the apartment he shared with two other men, a Malaysian and a Somali. By the time we got there, it was night. The apartment was simple. There were two bedrooms, and the third man slept in the living room. The Afghan offered me tea, and we drank it standing in the kitchen, which was lit by a single bulb hanging on a wire from the ceiling. All three men were seminary students at Al’Azhar; all three were in their mid-forties or so. And all three, strangers in Egypt, clung to each other. The Afghan showed the others the money he’d collected. “Good,” said the Malay. “Keep it up, and we’ll be able to begin jihad again.” He looked at me. “Jihad is extremely expensive. If we’re lucky, the Egyptians will give us enough money and guns to free our nations.”
“And if we’re even luckier, we can get shot and go to school for twenty, thirty years more,” deadpanned the Somali without looking up from his book.
I must have looked confused.
The Afghan explained. “It was the Arabs that got me,” he laughed, “not the Soviets.” A visiting Saudi mujahid had mistaken him for a Russian soldier. “It was noon, though, so I understand.” He didn’t harbor a grudge. The Saudi had felt so terrible about shooting him in the arm that he sponsored his education at Al’Azhar. The one-armed man hadn’t returned to Afghanistan since beginning his studies twenty years ago. “We got the Soviets out. We got the Taliban. America got the Taliban out. We got the warlords. That Saudi’s bullet probably saved my life.”
The Somali laughed. “I call it the Failed Jihadi Scholarship Fund. He gets to learn Arabic and understand the secrets of Islam.” He put one long finger against his lips. “Don’t tell anyone — it’s a secret.” He picked up his book again. He was reading a faded copy of Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones. Sayyid Qutb came to the United States in 1948 before publishing Milestones, a text that some believe inspired a later generation to fly planes into the World Trade Center. Since those attacks, hundreds have traveled East to pursue the story of those men who traveled West. One day I will compile the thousands and thousands of pages produced by these crisscrossing intercontinental passages into an anthology called A Thousand and One Nights of Al Qaeda: A Tale of Tales of Terror. It will be filled with Arab characters whose names are now the stuff of myth — Sayyid Qutb, Ayman Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden — and the khawegga who try to understand them — Lawrence Wright, Patrick Fitzgerald, a revolving cast of freelancers and academics.
In A Thousand Nights and A Night, fear lends Scheherazade eloquence: a failure to amuse means death. In my version, fear of another terrorist attack will lend a similar urgency to the narration. There will be two differences, however: first, the goal will not be to amuse, but to explain; second, a thousand Scheherazades will die, killed not by an emir but by the knife of another storyteller, eager to spin a tale.
Patrick Fitzgerald appears early in the anthology to tell of his prosecution of the 1998 embassy bombing in Kenya. He speaks in the short, clipped rhythms of a man who knows that time is a privilege he does not have. He will describe the formation of the terrorist plan, outlining with bullet points the backgrounds of the various figures involved, presenting his case to the court.
Next in the book is a series of memos, the interdepartmental chatter of the CIA, to explain what the spooks knew before 9/11. Later still, Lawrence Wright will introduce Sayyid Qutb. Later still, Lawrence Wright will introduce Sayyid Qutb, the prudish Egyptian whose experiences led him to write “The America I Have Seen” (1951), a sweeping critique of the country, from its racism to its spiritual emptiness to its bad taste in haircuts. From there, I will excerpt from books by historians tracing the roots of Islamic extremism, sociologists tracking the relationship between socioeconomic frameworks and the development of terrorist cells, psychologists studying the seductions of terrorism, internet chatroom transcripts, short stories, and flowcharts of terrorist networks and anti-terrorist networks. The anthology will be a cacophonous mess, a contest of clashing cadences and incommensurable registers. Each of its thousand and one narratives will be a failure.
Peter Lance will appear at some point to argue — as he does phlegmatically in Triple Cross (2006) — that Patrick Fitzgerald and his team of lawyers failed to recognize key pieces of information that could have stopped later terrorist attacks. Lawrence Wright will describe the institutional dynamics and skewed priorities that undermined CIA efforts to track terrorist threats. A curmudgeonly historian will snipe at Lawrence Wright, dryly suggesting that it takes a writer to attribute such far-reaching impact to Milestones, a mere book.
It is possible that the anthology will remain a work in progress. The literature of terror is just beginning to flower. But if the long peace were to come and failure no longer sent writers East in search of stories to tell a hungry audience at home, I would grudgingly end the book with excerpts from Bernard Lewis. Not because Lewis is right or wrong, but because, in doing so, I will ensure that no knife remains unsheathed:
In the course of the twentieth century it became abundantly clear in the Middle East and indeed all over the lands of Islam that things had indeed gone badly wrong. Compared with its millennial rival, Christendom, he world of Islam had become poor, weak, and ignorant. In the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the primacy and therefore the dominance of the West was clear to all to see, invading the Muslim in every aspect of his public and-more painfully-even his private life.
The failure of his grand narrative of failure will practically guarantee me a sequel.
According to the political-science graduate student who sat next to me on the plane to Cairo, Samuel Huntington’s thesis in The Clash of Civilizations is wrong. I forget the precise contours of the student’s critique, but I do remember the contents of his carry-on bag. We were both subjected to a random search by airport security; I pulled out the second set of clothes that my mom makes everyone in our family pack (in case our luggage goes missing), and a copy of Amitav Ghosh’s In an Antique Land, which I was inexplicably embarrassed to be caught carrying. The political science student pulled out the latest copy of Foreign Affairs, Hannah Arendt’s On Violence, and his Arabic-English dictionary. He studied the political economy of fear, he told me, as I watched the plane’s shadow crawl over the skin of the Atlantic. The governments of the Middle East had become anxious institutions, he said, both fearful of the governed and determined to inspire fear in them. “These are total institutions of loathing,” he said. “It’s really just misleading to say that you can separate the people and the sovereign when one is constitutive of the other.” I didn’t fully follow what he was saying, but he spoke with a confidence borne of countless hours of impassioned fighting over methodology, and I myself had nothing at stake. Hours passed; conversation ebbed. The kid in the seat in front of me excitedly pointed at the sinuous curves the wind carved out of the desert. A tiny sandstorm rose up miles below us, giving shape to the air. The kid laughed. “Imagine the tiny people!”
We were over the pyramids when I could no longer dodge the question of why I was going to Cairo. “Well,” I hedged, embarrassed, “there’s a book I like, and I have a job for a year.” He pressed me on the book. “It’s more of a short story,” I admitted grudgingly. “By Abdel Hakim Qassim, I said. “‘Good News From the Afterlife.’” I tried to describe it to the political-science student. It’s a difficult story to describe because it doesn’t have much of a plot. A man, an Egyptian peasant, dies. His body decomposes, and his soul is judged by two angels of death — Naker and Nakeer. A small child sits on his grave and falls asleep. The centerpiece of the story is an extended dialogue between the angels and the man’s soul about the nature of the law and duty, prophecy and authority, knowledge and fear.
I began to wax eloquent. Qassim had managed to blend Islamic theology with a distinctly modernist sensibility, a marriage of deep religious rootedness and existential transcendence. He had spent time in Europe, I explained, but had never left Islam. His challenge was that of our times — to free religion from itself without leaving religion.
My new friend looked at me quizzically. He had read another novel, The Seven Days of Man. “Qassim did a fine job depicting the life of the rural poor,” he said. “That’s important. Literature informs our understanding of politics.”
We lost each other in the snarl of traffic after trading e-mail addresses and making the traveler’s promise to see each other soon. Six months passed before we ran into each other again, and, over a beer, it became clear that the Middle East is an especially exciting place for a political scientist. His research was coming along wonderfully, he said, though his focus had changed from terrorism to something more hopeful. It was the first blush of the Arab Spring: Yasser Arafat was dead; Saddam Hussein was in an Iraqi jail; an energized Egyptian Left, with its slogans of Kifaya, had impelled Mubarak to announce fundamental electoral reform. A younger generation was emerging, less rooted in the dogmatisms of old — more open-minded, ready to rise to the moment.
The way he described it, a transformative politics was supersaturated in the air. Its crystallization merely awaited some missing ingredient that would trigger an alchemical reaction in the Arab world. His eyes glowed in the dim lights of the Zamalek bar. This was, I supposed, what a political scientist waits for: a moment when theory is measured against the exigencies of reality, and the social world becomes a living laboratory for the success and failure of ideas.
He asked me how I was doing. I made a noncommittal shrug. He had arrived right on time; I was too late. I had gone seeking Qassim and his Egypt, but the writer was long dead, his body decomposing and his soul judged. I worried that he had been found wanting. His books are perennially out of print.
I ran into the political scientist again another six months later. We were in Tahrir Square and he pulled me into the coffee shop where he sat with his papers. He looked no less excited than before. “The question I now ask is different,” he said. “It is a question of why change fails.” Since I’d seen him last, change had, in fact, failed. Mubarak and the NDP stayed in power; Hizbullah rallied for Syria to stay and Lebanon’s fragments hung together by the loosest of threads; the death toll in Iraq continued to mount; and the Sunnis continued to feel isolated and marginalized in their newly liberated nation. And the political scientist had traded in Arendt for Foucault. It was now a political economy of failure that he was planning to explore — the way “the sovereign and the people alike constituted and were constituted by ossified structures that prevented change.” His eyebrows went up with the phrase “were constituted by.” He used the word aporia a few times, and I nodded gravely as if I understood what it meant. I surreptitiously wrote the word down on a tissue so I could look it up later. He asked me what I was reading, and I told him I was reading a book by Son’allah Ibrahim. He pulled the tissue from my hands to write down the name. Noticing my handwriting, he tucked the tissue into his pocket and, smiling gently, explained what aporia meant.
Son’allah Ibrahim is Egypt’s reigning bard of failure. Ibrahim is sometimes described as the Arab Kafka by dint of his early novella, Al’Lajna, or The Committee, a deeply paranoid story of bureaucratic decadence and autosarcophagy. But Kafka didn’t use footnotes; Ibrahim does. They proliferate obsessively in his work, peeling off from his fictional narrative to tell parallel stories of history and politics. As the narrator of Amerikanli describes, in sometimes excruciating detail, his failure to control his sexual urges during his trip across the United States (hiding behind trees to watch the American girls walk by, then masturbating afterward), footnotes march along in the bottom margin, explaining in small print the cavalcade of failure that is the history of the United States. In Zaat, chapters detailing the heroine’s struggle through life during the era of Infitah — buying a busted television, masturbating while thinking of Nasser, learning to wear the hijab — alternate with chapters composed of snippets of newspaper articles cobbled together to tell true stories of state corruption, of grand engineering projects left unfinished after their budgets disappeared into the private coffers of Sadat’s ministers, of government bread baked with one part wheat and three parts stone — in short, the true story of the failures of the Egyptian state. Ibrahim’s stories are comedic without being cheerful, just as the masturbation he inevitably depicts is pleasurable without being fulfilling. The history of failure marches on with every turn of the page; any moment of triumph is necessarily fleeting, a brief respite before the next disappointment.
Ibrahim was part of the 1960s generation of intellectuals, a group whose story is inextricable from the history of political events. There were the secular hopes and promises of Nasser, the ‘67 defeat, the crackdown on civil liberties and political dissidents, the dissolution of Arab unity, the rise of Sadat, the peace with Israel, the entrenchment of Mubarak. It’s not a hopeful history, and — as my Arabic teacher pointed out — it was Abd el-Hakim Qassim who described it best when he titled another allegory of Egyptian history and politics Qadar al-Ghoraf Al-Moqbeda, or Destiny of Gloomy Rooms. “Compared to Qassim,” he said, “Ibrahim’s a failure as a pessimist.”
My Arabic teacher and I were walking through the streets of Ain Shams at night as we talked about Qassim. The uniform apartment complexes, with unfinished upper floors, wore the melancholic, sepia tones of the street lamps. I had told him I had read and liked that story “Good News From the Afterlife.” And my teacher, of course, exclaimed “Fashil! The title is mistranslated.” He explained why, though the differences were minor. He was quibbling as a point of pride; he had known Qassim and claimed special knowledge of the man and his work.
Qassim’s life was a series of interruptions. Born in a village near Tanta, he studied law at the University of Alexandria but never finished; after working for the postal service, he was arrested and spent several years in prison on suspicion of leftist activity. After a few years working in insurance, he went to Germany to start a dissertation on Egyptian literature, which he later abandoned. After more than a decade in Europe, he returned home, settling in Cairo. He became increasingly religious and began writing for the Islamist newspaper Al’Shab. He ran for a parliamentary seat in 1987, but was partially paralyzed by a severe stroke during the campaign. He died three years later, dictating his final literary works to his wife.
My teacher knew Qassim during those last years. They would meet once a week and he would take dictation from the paralyzed writer, editing and assembling the final product for his Al’Shab column. My teacher was younger then, more hopeful, and far more secular. He was ideologically opposed to Al’Shab and to the Islamist project in general. The two of them would argue, he said. He still felt terrible about it. Qassim had strong convictions but a faltering voice. My teacher was young enough that he substituted volume for logic and was quick to lose his temper, shouting Qassim down when a disagreement arose, calling his choices mistakes, angrily denouncing his decision to turn on his secular friends and join the Islamists. And then, fuming, my teacher would read back Qassim’s latest column for Egypt’s premier organ of Islamic dissidence and quietly accept corrections.
My teacher’s desire to correct language was obsessive. When we watched Al Jazeera, he made a teaching moment out of the commentators’ every dropped tanween. He read books and newspapers with a pen, ready to correct copy editors’ failures and writers’ misuse of classical Arabic. He corrected every written word that crossed his path, without prejudice as to the source: the speeches of doddering Wafdists, the Islamists of El’Osboua, the Naserists of Al’Arabi, the jesters of Al’Dustour, the liberals of Misr Al’Yom and al’Ghad; e-mailed bank statements; flyers from grocery stores; film advertisements; the dropped nuqta of my Arabic textbooks — none were exempt from the judgment of his pen. I once watched, fascinated and a bit horrified, as he compulsively corrected the corrections an elementary school teacher had written over his daughter’s handwriting. “Fashil! She is teaching the students to ruin Arabic lettering.” He looked up from the three-inch daad his daughter had written in crayon and stared at me. “Even you, even you, can probably write a daad better than a modern Egyptian schoolteacher.”
Qassim and my teacher were both born to deeply traditional families in small towns outside of Cairo. They were attracted to Cairo through a love of books and an appreciation for the history of a language that represented the fading dreams of Arab nationalism, Islamic glory, and a way out of their sometimes stultifying homes. And, in the decade after Qassim’s death, they grew more similar. Six years ago, my teacher stopped going to political meetings. He started to pray, grew a beard that he kept neatly trimmed, and stopped talking to most of his old friends. But he would never join the Islamists, he said. People would call him and ask him to go to Kifaya meetings and protests, but he refused. I asked him several times why he made the choices he did. He didn’t give me a straight answer. “My choices are wrong, of course,” he’d snap at me, before asking why he had been cursed with such a terrible student. “How can you understand me when you can’t even write your sentences properly?” He underlined a sentence in my notebook: They failed to restore the Caliphate. “Yafshilo!” he corrected. “Present tense.”
Share Collapsing Foundations: Death and the architect
As if seeing himself disappearing, my father would look at his hands and say, “I don’t know what is happening to me.” He wanted to correct some of the proportions of a villa he was working on. He asked for his drawings, and I helped him sit up. His lines, ordinarily sharp and confident, wandered into each other; his crosshatching was muddled. He couldn’t lift his pencil off the paper. He was producing a building that was structurally unsound: the foundations were giving way, and the house was collapsing on him.
As the violence of death made its presence felt in the advanced stages of my father’s cancer, I watched doctors and nurses scramble to give form and shape to what was essentially crumbling. Functionality and productivity were maintained in a body already docile to the mechanics of its labor. Urine, stool, and blood samples were regularly taken, blood pressure and temperature closely monitored. Antibiotics were administered orally and intravenously. My father collaborated in this process, and reacting to the immanence of his death, he obsessively maintained order in his ever-changing diet of drugs.
In bed, he would constantly revisit his CAD drawings. With a pencil, he increased shading around the pillars of the front elevation of the house to accentuate their presence. With horizontal markings, he indicated that he wanted to increase the height of the facade and enlarge the windows in order to let in more light. He meticulously added details onto the fer forgé feature on top of the entrance, as well as lines demarcating individual bricks that were to cover the front walls.
His colleagues would apply the changes indicated, rarely mentioning deadlines or updating him on the client’s feedback. Everyone — doctors, nurses, visitors, architects — was in on this elaborate and collective act of fiction with my father. Visits and conversations became prescribed, with no talk of the odds of survival. Through the cracks of this system of not speaking so as not to die, more layered forms of communication gradually arose between us. As if slipping coded messages past the presence of a supposedly silent narrative, he would measure his new, skinny knee between his thumb and his index finger and compare it to mine. Our dynamic was redefined with the worsening of his health. There was now a context for physical contact as I would help him to sit up, for example. Tiny gestures became loaded with meaning.
It was after one such disguised display of affection that my father delivered his most damaging and complex act of defiance against the normalizing mechanisms imposed upon him: he produced the blueprint for a failed monument. It was a villa that could not stand. Its tiles were disintegrating, its furniture was sliding inward. He had increased the size of the openings on the outside, while inside he had done away with some windows entirely and changed the contour of the house to accommodate box window appendices. He had scrambled the geometric pattern on the marbled floor of the entrance, removed doors, and shifted walls. In the main hall of the house, my father had jotted instructions to move the staircase away from the wall: he had collapsed the stairs into formlessness.
During the funeral sermon, the priest continuously referred to Papken the architect. He said a prayer and looked around and smiled. Coming over after to pay his respects, he went through the ritual of remarking how much I had grown since the last time he had seen me. “Yalli khallaf ma maat,” he said. (“He who begets does not die.”)
It is no surprise that we find comfort in the continuity of the narrative axis, which by definition is directional and endless. But my father’s villa drawings were not intended as a last attempt by an architect to concretize a trace of passage; on the contrary, they were an act of erasure. As he quietly died one night, shutting down his body organ by organ, he dissolved the foundations of the buildings he had spent his life erecting. Diligently, he eliminated anything that would distract him from setting himself free in the entropy that is the process of returning to dust.
In 1973, I was ten years old, my best friend was Ashish Deshpande, and our favorite activity was dreaming. In our favorite dream, we would acquire a large airplane and fly away in it. We researched our dream-scripts in the pages of Hamlyn’s Pocket Guide to Aircraft. For some inexplicable reason, we selected the Fairey Gannet, a spectacularly dowdy machine, as our transport of choice.
It was an odd plane, with two counter-rotating propellers on its nose. And it is odd, now, to remember such nuggets of childhood memory so clearly. But what seems really odd is that we actually used to do this, settle down to spend an afternoon dreaming.
Ashish and I shared another daydream, which later became a wager: that our fathers would become Brain Drains. We wanted them to get jobs in the West and take us away from Delhi, from India, forever. I still have the sketchbook on the back of which we both signed the deal: “If you go first, I pay Rs 100.”
Neither of us had a hundred rupees. But I never stood a chance. Ashish’s father, Sharad Uncle, was an underpaid research scientist who did unspeakable things to cats at the Patel Chest Institute. But he had prospects. Whereas my father had already flown away — to India. He was a peculiar German, who had come to study at the Delhi School of Economics and stayed on to earn a comfortable living in the Press Department of the West German Embassy, fighting Communism (or at least, the Press Department of the East German Embassy). What really killed me was that, before I was born, he had worked for Lufthansa in New York City. So why in the third world were we stuck in Delhi? Sharad Uncle and Baba were like counter-rotating propellers. I still owe Ashish a hundred bucks.
After Sharad Uncle got a job at Johns Hopkins, I didn’t see Ashish again for ten years. Then, in my twenties, on my own way to an American university, I went to spend a weekend in Baltimore with the Deshpandes. Ashish and I chatted away, even after the lights were out and we were in our beds, catching up with the slight reserve that comes from knowing too little and too much about one another — until we started talking about girls. And Ashish shouted, “I love sex!” with such enthusiasm that we both dissolved in laughter. It was good to have something new in common.
Maybe we dreamed so much back then because we didn’t have TVs. When my cable connection died earlier this year, I decided I couldn’t be bothered to replace it. Lately, I’ve been spending a lot more time in my head. Not dreaming so much as remembering. I realize that many of my childhood memories are preserved in the sharp vinegar of embarrassment.
I’m still embarrassed. I’m embarrassed at how viscerally I craved the provisions of the first world. I knew this world existed because in 1969, we had gone to visit my grandparents in Germany and my aunt in America. I can still remember the shock of seeing a car on display in the concourse of Frankfurt airport. A whole car! In a building! It was just a lottery prize.
We came back with fat catalogues from German department stores — Kaufhof, Quelle, and Karstadt — and I spent many hours poring over those encyclopedias of the unattainable. That same year I was sent to the British School in Delhi, where many of my classmates were the children of diplomats. They came and went in a convoy of exotic automobiles: Mercs and Toyotas, Peugeots and Holdens, Fords and Vauxhalls. And they smelled different. They were perfumed with wealth. These kids washed with foreign soaps, used imported detergents on their imported clothes, wiped their bums on Andrex toilet tissue. They ate Danish ham and Tiptree’s jam. They wore braces gummy with Marmite, Nutella, and Kraft cheese.
At home, we had a small larder, kept under lock and key, which contained an assortment of these goods and an indescribably luxurious aroma of its own. But my father was a local employee at the embassy, and our quotidian consumer goods were Indian, the classic products of those days of import substitution industrialization. They had their own hierarchy. Soap, for example, ran from the yellow ochre sticks purchased by the inch for the kitchen sink, to the dull-red Lifebuoy, which smelled of servants, to the indigenous opulence of Moti sandalwood soap. But mostly we used sickly green bricks of Hamam and Cinthol. Even our toothpaste was green — Binaca Green.
In the mid-Seventies, I went to see a film at Archana Cinema and came away feeling utterly repulsed. It was Soylent Green with Charlton Heston, set in a Malthusian post-consumerist dystopia where even jam has become a luxury item. The masses subsist on green biscuits — the Soylent Green of the title — which the Soylent Corporation maintains are made of kelp and plankton. Heston’s character, a detective, finds himself investigating the “euthanasia centers” where the poor and the elderly go to die. At the end of the film, he screams aloud his harrowing discovery: “Soylent Green is people!” What made me sick was that it looked suspiciously like Hamam.
It’s true, we are what we eat. Import substitution is people too. I’m one of them.
I remember things past. Things like biscuits (Britannia Nice and Bourbon), soap and detergent (Tinopal, Tinopal, Tinopal!), and cars (the Standard Gazelle — based on the rakish Triumph Herald but indigenized to the point that it became dowdier than a Fairey Gannet). And telephones (trunk calls and lightning calls, and our first telephone connection — 40537, a number I will never forget). The elastic belts from my sister’s Carefree sanitary napkins, which I used as slingshots. The ersatz colas: Pepino, Double Seven, and Campa. RimZim and Gold Spot (“Jee bharke jiyo, Gold Spot piyo”). Canvas jeans from Jeans Junction. Nativist burgers (spicy patties, fried buns, and thick slices of onion). The buxom, bouffanted plaster mannequins in their silk saris at Handloom House. The comic books: the Phantom.
More than anything else, I remember the ritual of listening to the radio with Baba. The sense of urgency at tuning in to the BBC World Service in the evenings, the trilling pipes of “Lily Bolero” followed by tantalizing time pips — and then the news, which washed in like cargo on the surging crests of short wave, our tenuous link to the distant West.
But the program that really defines this era for me was the weird and poetic News Read at Slow Speed on All India Radio. This was an afternoon service — almost a liturgy — that we would often catch at the table, when Baba came home for lunch and a siesta. The grey Grundig would buzz and hum with importance as it pronounced: “This… is… All… India… Radio Bzzzz The… News Hmmm Read… at… Slow… Speed Bzzzz by… Surojit… Sen.” The portentous pauses were intended to help provincial correspondents take notes. But the news was never news. We would hear instead that the procurement target of twenty million quintals of rice from the kharif crop had been met. Or that the Romanian minister for culture and cooperation had arrived on a state visit. And yet it crackled with significance, like it was intended for news of an assassination. Which did come, eventually.
Usually my father would give me a sideways glance at the end of the news, and a complicit smile would wrinkle the thin crescent etched on his cheek. Jawaharlal Nehru had the same crease. It is a line I hope I’m beginning to acquire, too. It was a smile that said: this is silly, but it’s not so bad, this life lived at slow speed.
Baba was fiercely proud of his degree from the Delhi School of Economics. As a child, I struggled to comprehend how he could be so dismissive of the lecture halls of Hamburg University, which he had abandoned for this new Valhalla, peopled by Indians with names like Jagdish Bhagwati, Amartya Sen, and Manmohan Singh. His particular favorite was Professor K. N. Raj. In later years, he made regular pilgrimages to visit his old tutor. This was troubling. Baba was a gentle but committed cold warrior. He was ten when World War II ended in his country’s liberation, and like many of his generation, he was not just pro-America, he was madly in love with it. With jazz and movies and moonrockets and the Kennedys. Yet as far as I could tell, the old professor was a Communist.
It’s still a puzzle. I know now, as my father must have known then, that Surojit Sen was only speaking his lines. It was K. N. Raj who wrote the script of the News Read at Slow Speed. He was the man who first advised Nehru to “hasten slowly.” I know that K. N. Raj was at least half in love with the Soviet Union. And I know he was an honorable man.
I fantasized that my father was a spy for one side or another. When we heard on the news that the minister for railways had been mortally wounded by a mysterious bomb, I knew something was up. That was in January 1975. Five months later, I followed my father, now a foreign correspondent for German newspapers, to attend a rally at the roundabout outside the prime minister’s bungalow. He wanted me to translate. “Conspiracy,” she said. And, “Foreign hand.”
I remember the eighteen months of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency as a time of danger and excitement. There was the cult of personality that surrounded Indira and her thuggish heir apparent, Sanjay, the shuttered newspapers, the locked-up parliamentarians. At last the secret was out: The government was bad, everyone good was underground or in jail, and Baba was a spy, or something similar, smuggling reports out through strangers at the airport and writing under the code name Jens Nielssen.
My daydreams became increasingly complex. Without Ashish, they were more solipsistic, even a little sinister. There were only two of them. In the sweeter one, I found myself alone in the world with Helen, a Dutch classmate I had fancied for years. We traveled around the desolate, abandoned country for a while, taking what we wanted from shops and diplomats’ houses. Then we flew out of Palam Airport in a 707 to live off the supermarkets of the West.
In the other, more disturbing dream, I worked out that everything in the world — or rather worlds, first, second, and third — was a fiction, an elaborate psycho-theatrical experiment with me as its subject. Nothing was as it seemed. It was Surojit Sen who finally broke the news to me. He took his time.
That daymare came back to me years later, watching The Truman Show and The Matrix. But by that time India was a very different country. I had returned from my American college in 1990, a failed Brain Drain, having taken four years to complete a one-year MA. Just before I left New York, I watched the world change on TV, as the Berlin Wall fell and the Iron Curtain parted. At the same time, a friend of mine, a successful Brain Drain who works as an oceanographer in Kiel, was on a polar voyage. He returned with tales of partying with colleagues at Dakshin Gangotri, India’s Antarctic station. Afterward they ferried glum scientists from the East German outpost back to a country that no longer existed.
In India it seemed that our homespun khadi curtains were fluttering. My worried parents pushed me into a job in what was then Bombay — at a venerable magazine that survived, sleepily, on handouts from the equally venerable Tata Corporation. I was hectored by a lovely old Parsi bird called Lulu Mehta who threw the colonial canon of copyediting (“Fowler, Partridge, and Quiller-Couch!”) at me every chance she got. One afternoon the entire office assembled in the garret of the Army and Navy Building to listen dutifully to a tape-recorded address, “On Excellence,” from the chairman himself, JRD Tata. Then we applauded.
But Bombay was too glamorous and energetic for me. There was an unsettling entrepreneurial buzz about it, and a careerist chatter that made me nervous. Longing for the old torpor of Delhi, I quit my job and came home. I struggled as a freelancer quite happily until one day it was 1993, I was married, my father was about to retire, and the quiet D-School professor Manmohan Singh was India’s finance minister. None of this troubled me, actually, but Baba seemed to know something I didn’t. He nagged and nagged and pushed me into another job, a proper job, at a newsmagazine.
At thirty, my long afternoon of underdevelopment was over. I had a career. A terminal condition, it seems. Just before I quit the newsmagazine to move on and double my salary, I had my first presentiment that the country was changing again. I set out to write a satirical essay on the dinosaurs of bureaucracy that had survived Manmohan Singh’s first wave of economic liberalization. I was quite pleased with the title — “Bureaucratic Park” — though it never saw the light of day. But the real thrill was finding myself back on very familiar turf. Grimy corridors, supplicant citizens, and the “concerned officer” enthroned on his swivel chair. I loved the scenery — the towel on the backrest, the psychedelic paperweights… the papers beneath them.
There was the Commission for Scientific and Technical Terminology, an Orwellian outfit that produced a Comprehensive Glossary of Administrative Terms in English and the vernacular. “Hindi is very poor in terms,” a commissioner told me. Another office nurtured the remains of Indira Gandhi’s 20-Point Program from the Emergency days. “We look after points 1, 5, 8, 11, 14, 15, and 16,” a man told me. “The other thirteen have been dropped.” My favorite was the Office of Stationery. “Please apply in writing. In triplicate,” they told me. I went to visit them instead, and found the assembled staff standing hushed and yes, stationary, at their desks. It was a moment of silence for a fallen colleague, a bureaucratic wake.
Today Manmohan Singh is our prime minister, and my home is cluttered with pre-liberalization memorabilia. I have two black rotary-dial phones with trilling electromechanical bells and a bakelite radio that buzzes and hums. I have assorted Nehruviana, including a Publications Division comic on Nehru and the new temples of India, and another book called Rhymes on Nehru. I have World’s Wisest Wizard: Sanjay Gandhi. I have a bust and three statues of Ambedkar. (If I could find one of Indiraji, I’d buy it in an instant.) One lucky day, I found a copy of Following Lenin’s Course, The Speeches and Articles of LI Brezhnev. The speeches are peppered with four kinds of applause: “applause,” “prolonged applause,” “stormy applause,” and “stormy prolonged applause.” In his speech to the Eighth Congress of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany in June 1971, the floodgates burst: “‘Stormy, prolonged applause.’ All rise. The Congress delegates and guests remain standing till the end of the speech… ‘Friendship!’ ‘Long live the CPSU!’ ‘Hurrah!’”
Outside my house, a consumer revolution is turning my country upside down. The revolution is televised. In fact, to a large extent, it is television. But I don’t watch TV anymore. Sometimes I watch DVDs. Just days ago, I saw Good Bye Lenin!, which belongs to a genre the Germans call “Ostalgie.” (Germans are wittier than you think.) It follows a young East German man who tries to shield his dying mother from the reality of reunification by constructing an elaborate televisual Truman Show around her. But it’s really about respecting the past you share with the ones you love. I never cry at movies, but this one nearly got me. It ends with this monologue from the hero, Daniel Brühl:
Das Land das meine Mutter verließ, war ein Land an das sie geglaubt hatte… Ein Land das es in Wirklichkeit nie so gegeben hat. Ein Land das in meiner Erinnerung immer mit meiner Mutter verbunden sein wird.
The country that my mother left was a land that she believed in… . A country that was never quite what it seemed. A country that in my memory will always be bound to my mother.
My mother, God bless her, is still with me. It’s my father he’s talking about.
I’ve lost some of my childhood enthusiasm for air travel, but these days it seems I go to the airport every other month. To pick up my wife, or a relative, or a friend. And nowadays it’s not the cargo I look forward to so much as the people. Maybe one day I’ll meet Ashish here. Standing in the crowd behind the fence in the international arrivals lounge, we all stare expectantly down the long passage toward the doors of the baggage claim hall. There’s a TV monitor where we can see the apparition of long-lost loved ones materialize for an instant on an escalator. They pass like newly molded foreign goods into the hands of customs and immigration.
But I keep my eyes on the doorway where they emerge, stamped and certified. They walk slowly into focus, looking more and more familiar, until they find the face they’re looking for and we’re strangers once again. More than once I’ve caught my breath at the sight of Baba walking toward me. But he never arrives. It’s just a dream.
We lived on Fucking Street, the only street in Hargaisa that had a name (or the only memorable one, anyway). Our neighborhood was more orderly than most places in Somalia. The houses were in rows. But, as if to redeem this concession to logic, the numbers weren’t in sequence. Our house was number 117; next door was 82; and the house after that didn’t have a door at all. A crazy old woman called Ardo Balwo lived there, along with her goats, cats, and son, known in the neighborhood as Mohamed Cawar — Mohamed the Cross-eyed. She acquired him as a deposit for unpaid rent for the house across the street, which she let out to the local prostitutes. Mohamed’s birth mother was a prostitute, famous for her big tongue. She had no known name other than Big Tongue.
Mohamed was very loyal to his adoptive mother. She called him Mohamed Gini, after the twenty-shilling guinea note, because he was so precious to her. When someone called him Cawar, she’d respond by sizing up the offender and describing the most private part of their female or male anatomy as “crossed.” (Such abuse was considered inoffensive, quite normal, in Somalia.) In his twenties, Mohamed was still there, sitting slightly apart from Ardo Balwo with a flicker of embarrassment on his face. I don’t know what became of them. When remembering Ardo, Mohamed, and other neighbors of ours, my sister always prefaces her remark with “May they rest in peace,” as it is safer to assume that they have passed away. And if someone died before the war, we add, “So-and-so died, but before dying became commonplace.”
Though Ardo Balwo lacked a door, she did have a doorway. Every night she spent at least an hour carefully placing upright pieces of wood across the entrance — but would readily dismantle her makeshift door to answer any insult to her or her son with her studied reciprocal putdowns.
In the daytime, the doorway stood empty. Each morning she went to the rubbish dump to find things for her house, such as broken glass and burned cans and bits of cloth to tie around herself. She would return around eleven to milk the goats. The animals used to chew khat and we would see them high up on the house or the sole mirimiri tree in the street, enjoying the stimulation and the breeze. She used to pay me one shilling and a half to hold the ears and horns of the goats while she milked them. She then fed the milk to her cats, saving a bit for Mohamed. I looked forward to the payment, though I was ridiculed for it. I spent the money on Coca Cola, the only commodity that was widely available in Somalia, along with God.
Ardo Balwo was rare among Somalis for keeping pets. The only other Somali with a pet cat, to my knowledge, was General Mohamed Hersi, known as the Butcher of Hargaisa because he leveled the city (and worse) before he left. My sister flew out of Hargaisa on the same small Fokker plane as the general, who kept a large panther on a long leash in the hold, allowing it occasionally to snarl into the faces of passengers and the wounded soldiers lying on the floor. It smelled blood, and its agitation made everyone nervous. Hersi enjoyed it. He and his panther occupied the only two seats that hadn’t been ripped out to make space for the medevacs.
Hersi was less than sane, too, in his own special way. We preferred our local crazies. Ardo Balwo may not have had as impressive a cat as the man who destroyed our city shortly after she died, but she made up for that with the sheer quantity of felines that roamed the compound and greeted her as she turned the corner from the marketplace, laden with the lungs and intestines she had bought. Every Somali clan refuses to eat a particular piece of the anatomy of a slaughtered animal, and she would diligently collect these totemic rejects and feed them to her herd. She sat in front of her house, first holding the bits in her mouth, then cutting them into small pieces before carefully feeding her pets.
Many Somalis have nicknames. Ardo Balwo only ever used her own invented nicknames for others. She called my father Garaad, which means “wisdom.” I think he earned this nickname because he was respected, perhaps even feared, by the children in the neighborhood; when my father was around, they didn’t dare mock Ardo Balwo. His name was a reward for those brief respites of politeness. My mother she called Haweye Damakaweyne, which meant “a woman above any other.” My brother Hassan was Miciyo Libaax (Fangs of a Lion), while I was known as Kinsi Garaad, which has no meaning known to the sane. My sister Hodo was Harruuri. Ardo Balwo loved to call out to us with her slightly husky, almost goat-like voice. Harruuri itself had no meaning but was often joined to Hoor Ka Cad, which meant “the one whiter than the foam that forms when milking a sheep or a goat.” (Hodo had pale skin.) “Harruuri!” Ardo Balwo would shout. “Come and have some of this stomach lining; it is very tasty, tasty, tasty, tasty, tasty!” Ardo Balwo was always generous with her food, but it wasn’t appealing to eat the food of a cook who bathed once every two years.
Of all the mad people in our neighborhood — there were more than I can remember — Ardo Balwo stood out as the only one who was a proud homeowner, had a child, and kept domestic (if not quite domesticated) animals. When she was younger, she was quite well off, running an import-export business between Somalia and neighboring countries, of which there were many. The young Ardo Balwo fell for a truck driver famous for his amazing good looks and glowing skin. (She was beautiful herself then.) She referred to him simply as “the glowing one.” Like many truck drivers, he spent his nights in many different places and had lots of admirers across Somalia and probably elsewhere, too. Despite this, Ardo Balwo was happy with him until he cheated her out of her money and abandoned her. She never got over it, and her neighbors found this a logical explanation for her madness. It was commonly understood that unrequited romantic love could make people go insane.
We used to use the mad people as landmarks. For example, Heeryo Busto was the man who used to stand by a particular cafe, always at the same particular time. Then there was the one who used to go the cinema. His name was Rooraaye (The Runner). He’d get there before the film started, usually the only one to arrive on time. The owner would wait until there was enough of a crowd to justify starting the generator. Half of the cinema was covered, half was open to the stars. (On rainy nights, unsheltered seats were cheap.) We watched Indian movies that had no subtitles. Sometimes the reels were even in the right order. Most of the time, while the film was on, the audience would discuss it, only occasionally agreeing. Huge arguments would break out over the subject of the film or the direction of the storyline, and afterward different versions of the plot would be retold. But the best moment for me was right at the beginning, when the national anthem was played. Old men with sticks waved them angrily at the screen and everyone sang the rude version, which translated as, “It’s a big penis with pubic hair, and it fits the queen and whoever else needs it.” Those words suited the music better than the official lyrics, which I cannot remember. The anthem was also played at the end, but no one stayed around that long. Crazy Rooraaye was the first to leave, jumping up and pushing his way through the crowd. That was how he earned his name.
Bisadaaye (Catty) made funny noises but wasn’t violent and didn’t run after children, so he was of little interest to us.
Cumariid used to pray, when he wasn’t swearing at us. We used to call him Cumariid Ina Jibaax — Cumariid, Son of the Wanderer — as he was praying, and he would stand up and instruct his prayer to remain suspended while he turned and abused us in very imaginative ways that usually involved adults engaging in terrible sexual acts. The curses would follow us as long as we were within sight; then he would resume his praying. Cumariid used to stand in the Djibouti Bus Terminal, a grand name for a piece of sand like a soccer pitch.
For us, the best crazy man was Ibrahim, whose insanity took the form of obeying whatever instructions we children would give him. If we told him to run or sing or dance or take his clothes off, he would dutifully do as we asked. He had a crooked grin and a slow wiggly dance that didn’t require him to move his feet. We were told that he had fallen in love with a woman who had bewitched him, and the legacy was plain to see. It was inconceivable that someone could be bewitched in Somalia, so his curse was attributed to foreign parts, most likely Kenya or Ethiopia. Other than taking our orders, Ibrahim never talked. We thought it was the funniest thing. He might have been the only Somali who ever followed instructions.
I am hurt when I find a black American fighting the Muslims under the American flag.
— Ayman al-Zawahiri, deputy chief of al-Qaeda, May 5, 2007
I am Suleyman Lindh. Eater of much wheat crop, drinker of much buffalo tea.
— John Walker Lindh, madrassa guestbook, Bannu, Pakistan, June 2001
The Messenger of Allah, may peace be upon him, was asked: What deed could be an equivalent to Jihad in the way of Allah, the Almighty and Merciful? He answered: You do not have the strength to do that deed.
— Hadith, quoted by John Walker Lindh, e-mail from Yemen, February 24, 2000
It may be difficult to remember now, with the American occupation in Iraq crumbling and the Taliban creeping back into Afghanistan, that at one time the most vexing war-related question facing the United States was, “What the fuck is wrong with John Walker Lindh?” Lindh, you may recall, is the pale-faced California youth who converted to Islam and who, by dint of zeal, bad timing, and other misadventure, found himself pledged to the defense of Taliban Afghanistan on the eve of September 11, 2001. Routed by US airpower in the opening days of the American invasion that November, Lindh’s Taliban contingent marched over fifty miles to surrender to Northern Alliance forces, and the young American was imprisoned along with other “foreign fighters” in a dank fort basement near the town of Mazar-e-Sharif. Within days a POW uprising produced the first American casualty of the Afghan campaign — CIA asset Johnny Michael Spann, the only victim cited during Lindh’s trial for treason — not to mention over 300 functionally nameless Taliban dead. Lindh’s talismanic American-ness was found bleeding amid the rubble, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Lindh became an instant media sensation, and his capture spawned an electric, all-purpose, all-capped, mass-media meme: AMERICAN TALIBAN. The phrase, in all its novelty and oxymoronic giddiness, was a hit. The idea of a so-called American Taliban suggested a bracketing, self-sufficient alpha and omega in which “one of our own” could be both the Muslim maniac and his American victim. Lindh managed to appear as the most evil of turncoats and also the most clueless of post-hippie, Northern California rubes. (Ex-President George H W Bush dubbed Lindh a “misguided Marin County hot tubber,” even as George W. disappeared him into the new American terror gulag.) In classic ugly American fashion, the US had gone tripping off to an exotic locale, and once there, found itself with nothing to talk about except other Americans.
“John Walker Lindh: American Taliban” soon found a set of emblematic images in the form of: a collection of closely cropped vidcaps lifted from a CNN broadcast. Taken just after the dust settled at Mazar-e-Sharif, a recumbent, wounded, curiously interstitial Lindh is interviewed while his mind clearly wanders elsewhere. How did I get here?, he seems to be asking himself, a tragically lonely, vaguely symbiotic echo of the collective question being asked about Lindh by his countrymen. It is also the most torturously rhetorical thing he could possibly be thinking. The cast of Lindh’s features in these images suggests he knows exactly how he got there. How could he not? His own trajectory seems to be playing over and over in his mind’s eye in indelible and excruciating detail.
With these CNN images, Lindh became a bona fide object of American fantasy. He is fixed in our memories as a not unpretty young man, the kind of kid who might have a tough time in a civilian lockup in the States. His captivity and our attendant feeling that the boundaries of a private suffering have been transgressed combine with Lindh’s not unprettiness to lend the scene an overtone of emasculation. Smudged by successive cycles of cropping and enlargement, the images began to seem the product of painterly intention, a study in the psychology of violation. Lindh appeared to have been turned out, rendered thoroughly passive by war, the US Marines, Islamic fundamentalism, or some combination thereof. Or rather, as Lindh’s defense attorney argued in his closing statement, his client had been “overcome by history.”
There was a second group of emblematic “American Taliban” images, a set of military-produced photos documenting the security measures applied to Lindh during his transport back to the States. In these snapshots, the atrocities at Abu Ghraib in 2003 are literally prefigured. Lindh is bound, blindfolded, stacked like an object waiting for transport. The black metal walls in the background — Lindh spent two weeks bound to a stretcher locked in a shipping container — suggest the American Taliban has been extraordinarily rendered all the way to the Death Star, the precise locale of his torture unknowable.
But torture it clearly was. In one image, SHITHEAD has been scrawled on Lindh’s blindfold. In another his wounds are being meticulously photographed — whether for documentation or as trophies, it’s hard to say. Lindh was the first victim of the torture regime that would later take shape in Guantanamo and Iraq. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld instructed his agents to “take the gloves off” when interrogating Lindh, and one can imagine the Bush Administration’s rage at an American traitor setting the tone for later assaults on more properly foreign enemies. At the time of his capture, Lindh already seemed to intuit that he would have a special role to play in the historic drama to come. “If you’re concerned about my welfare,” he told the CNN cameraman, “don’t film me.” This was not merely a demand that no images be made; it was also an almost legalistic affirmation that, being of sound mind if not body, Lindh understood the kinds of hell that would soon be raining down on an “American Taliban.”
In the interval between these two sets of images, that rain had arrived. The man in the transport shots could be asleep, drugged, or dead; but despite being tied and blindfolded he also seems engaged, expectant even. More torture is in the offing — he will be kicked and spat upon; he will accuse soldiers of trying to kill him during a deliberately clumsy attempt to remove a bullet from his leg — but for now Lindh just seems to be waiting. Of all the awful things he will soon experience, surprise is not among them, not because he believes that he deserves his fate but because the only thing that could possibly surprise John Walker Lindh would be fair treatment at the hands of the US government. He said as much to the CNN correspondent, explaining that the rebellion at Mazar-e-Sharif was broken when the surviving Taliban prisoners realized that, “I mean, if we surrender, the worst that can happen is that they’ll torture us or kill us, right?”
Lindh’s family has argued that young, starry-eyed John didn’t understand what the Taliban actually represented at the time of his enlistment in its irregular army. And yet, although consistently imagined by his family and lawyers as a naive Bay Area liberal, Lindh did not adopt any of the imaginary postures of that classical archetype when confronted with an impending American invasion. Lindh claimed no special American privilege, never sought to interpose himself between his countrymen and his fellows, never attempted to speak power’s language in hopes of cushioning the blow about to land on him or his compatriots, never appealed to America’s better nature. What would be the point? The Americans and their allies were acting exactly as Lindh expected them to act. “The worst that can happen is that they’ll torture us or kill us, right?” He was prescient, to be sure, but he was also experiencing a moment of wish fulfillment. Even the victims of Abu Ghraib have gone on record testifying to being surprised that America, of all countries, could have done such a thing to them, but the son of Marin County expressed no surprise.
Despite his disavowal of America, it is precisely this presumed intimacy with his country’s ways and wherefores that lent the scene of his torture its particular and disturbing ambivalence. For Lindh’s images were always immediately understood to depict an American. Our aghast consideration of his nakedness, frailty, and abjection was easily distracted by the chiaroscuro afforded by the paleness of his skin and the dark, Mansonian luxury of his hair and beard. (Did any prisoner in Abu Ghraib have locks so extravagant, so Californian? If they did, the images of their suffering have yet to surface.) There was an erotic subtext to the images that was entirely absent from the more famous snaps of torture at Abu Ghraib, even accounting for the nudity, simulated sex acts, enforced bondage poses, and homosexual taunting. What happened at Abu Ghraib was in essence political and racial, not sexual. Sadistic, yes — but it was flatly impossible to imagine any form of desire, expectation, or wish fulfillment at play in the experience of any of its victims. Whereas Lindh’s very American-ness, even in its denial — especially in its denial — made possible a more properly Sadean engagement between victim and victimizer. Conservative US talk show host Rush Limbaugh’s comment that the incidents at Abu Ghraib were analogous to “fraternity hazing” found its only plausible referent in the torture of Lindh. In the logic of the American fraternity you are desperate for the man behind you to abuse you: his violence is not just what makes him who he is, it is also what makes you his brother.
By the time the CNN and transport images were out of heavy rotation on American screens and newspapers, the main front in the war to imagine John Walker Lindh had moved back to California. Not six months of invisible captivity had passed before newspapers in his native Bay Area had peeled away enough layers from his strenuously progressive childhood to reveal the inevitable strata of American tabloid scandal: Lindh’s father, his chief spokesman and defender, had apparently left his mother for a man when Lindh was a teenager. The factoid allowed commentators already tut-tutting over his home-schooled hippie upbringing to murmur that the son’s fundamentalist turn might be understood as a form of adolescent rebellion.
Time magazine would mine the same territory to diametrically opposed effect. Mangling the Borat-like statements of a Pakistani acquaintance — “He was liking me very much. All the time he wants to be with me. I was loving him” — the magazine intimated that although Lindh had gone overseas for language instruction, he had also gone in search of carnality (of a sort that had somehow eluded him growing up just outside of San Francisco with a supportive gay father). The gay-Pakistan-idyll storyline was later debunked, but even in disrepute the idea that something was rotten in the Denmark of Lindh’s manhood took hold in the popular imagination, aided and abetted by the limited visual record and as impervious to contrary fact as the belief that Saddam Hussein had colluded with al-Qaeda to take down the World Trade Center.
Attempts to queer Lindh were so successful because the rumors indicated something true about him. But it wasn’t Lindh’s heterosexuality that was unstable; it was his whiteness. Long before he was the American Taliban, Lindh had been a member in good standing of a chimerical pop-cult tribe that has, in various permutations, served as an ubiquitous feature of the American imagination for over half a century; that by now pedestrian oxymoron, the White Negro.
First identified by Norman Mailer in his 1957 essay “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster,” the White Negro is defined by his (almost always it is a he) subversive, countercultural intent and by his deep identification with black people or, at least, black music. For the original generation, it was jazz: Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and bebop as a style. In the late 1960s, free jazz sounded the (blaring, police) siren song that seduced the White Panthers and other revolutionaries. But by the 1980s, the predominating black musical idiom was rap, and in the age of hip hop, the White Negro was often called, mostly disparagingly, the wigger.
Lindh was a white fan of hip hop, a dedicated listener who fantasized about becoming an MC himself and whose identification with “the culture” bordered on the obsessive. As it happens, Lindh’s desire to transcend (or at least, transgress) his racial origins is not completely distinct from the story of his conversion to Islam. Indeed, wheels-within-wheels, it was a transformative encounter with one of the great black narratives that set him on the road to Afghanistan. Lindh saw Spike Lee’s X at the age of twelve. Nearly every witness, feature writer, commentator, and lawyer describes young John as having experienced a kind of roadside conversion in the darkened theater, his boyish mind especially blown by the scene his mother describes as “showing people of all nations bowing down to God.” This was the climactic re-staging of Malcolm X’s first hajj, when the icon of African American self-determination and American self-creation is introduced to a “real” multiracial Islam, quite unlike the thoroughly syncretic, black-only religion he had practiced as a member of the Nation of Islam. (It was after this hajj that Malcolm took his “proper” Islamic name — Al-Hajj Malik al-Shabaaz — and soon after that he was dead. For Lindh, a lifelong fascination with Malcolm began that day. The film’s assertion that Islam allowed Malcolm X to transcendently reconsider (re-reconsider, really) the nature of being a black American clearly spoke to a deep and tumultuous need in Lindh’s own life.
As James Best, writer for the East Bay Express, reported, “[Lindh’s] admiration for Malcolm was channeled into an exploration of the black nationalism and quasi-Islam that saturated much of the hip-hop of the late 80s and early 90s. His posts on the online message boards of the Usenet — particularly the newsgroups rec.music.hip-hop and alt.religion.Islam — are a strange and public window into a young man’s discontent… [T]he Web gave him the space to visibly and coherently remake himself as ‘an intelligent MC smashing empty-minded pimps.’” Most of his posts are still readily searchable using Lindh’s decidedly un-Islamic e-mail address as a parameter: [email protected]. They reveal a tellingly banal cross section of earnest, brainy adolescence, from boastful, typo-filled posturing —
I don’t read this newsgroup often, because collectively it’s users are little more than worthless dickriders and overly competitive pretend MC’s trying to prove themselves to the rest of us. However, when I come here I do enjoy your many posts, and the hilarious lyrics. It’s impossible to tell whether your comedy is intentional or sarcastic, but it’s undoubtedly brilliant.
— to touching angst about the permissibility of his various interests:
I’ve heard recently that certain musical instruments are forbidden by Islam. There is nothing in the Qur'an that I can find relating to this matter, and the Hadith that I’ve read were fairly vague. My question is this: are in fact certain musical instruments haram, and if so, which instruments or types of instruments are they? Thanks in advance to anyone who can help.
Most curious were the e-mails wherein Lindh pretended to be black, hectoring his presumptively black correspondents for what he asserted was their betrayal of a deeper, truer hip-hop aesthetic. In many of the postings, Lindh enacted the specter of his own racial unmasking, accusing his correspondents of “acting black” even as he reserved for himself a higher form of black consciousness.
When I read those rhymes of yours I got the idea you were some 13 year old white kid playing smart. That “Every Black Man Should Read This Rhyme” read like a child’s poetic attempt and deepness, and was further hindered by lines like “Why do these collad greens taste so good?” It was clearly implied that the answer to each of your questions was “because you’re black,” but how does African heritage and a good hearty dose of melanin make greens taste good?
That whole rhyme was saying essentially that all black people should just stop being black and that’d solve all our problems. Our blackness does not make white people hate us, it is THEIR racism that causes the hate. That collad green line alone leads me to believe you’re one of those white kids who thinks that if he eats enough collad greens, watermellon, and fried chicken, and sags his pants low enough, he’ll attain the right to call himself “nigga.”
Lindh’s tone was most often that of what hip-hop aficionados call a backpacker, a hip hop fan of any race who has decided to renounce the genre’s late turn toward bling, bullets, and bitches in favor of a conceptually and aesthetically pure old-school or “true-school” practice. Unlike rappers whose fame depends on ill-gotten wealth, a propensity to violence, physical charisma, and/or hypermasculinity, the backpacker — think Talib Kweli — is ascetic, diligently focused on rigorous rhyme schemes, oppositional politics, black uplift, and a monkish devotion to one or another body of arcana. This tendency to textual geekery can as easily find an outlet in Marvel comics as in the Qur’an; very commonly it involves both. Hence the backpacker’s fascination with the Five Percent Nation, an African American sect that split off from the Nation of Islam in 1964 and whose gods and earths, supreme mathematics, and cryptographical enthusiasms (ALLAH: Arm Leg Leg Arm Head) put the sect well beyond the pale of nearly all Muslim practice and theology.
For a while, all these true-school tendencies were legible in Lindh, his performance a high-wire tightrope walk of identification where aspiration and disavowal constantly threatened to throw the would-be racial daredevil off balance. Lindh’s e-mail expressed a communion with a pure, iconic blackness, even as he vehemently attacked what he viewed as a fallen and polluted black cultural mainstream, a cesspool of market-driven hip hop and bourgeois assimilation. Lindh played a fanciful game of Blacker Than Thou, his rectitude and faithfulness having allowed him to discern something fundamental in hip hop that the vast majority of black fans and artists had either missed or lacked the strength to properly contend with.
The problem, Lindh finally concluded, was with the Negro. In this conclusion, he has not been alone. Blackness is a god that fails as often as it delivers. For blacks, there are time-honored, ritualized ways to respond when iconic darkness fails: you can become a black conservative; embrace black separatism; devote yourself to integration or assimilation; or disappear into the American mosaic, the pools of miscegenation and hybridity. If you’re white, though, and the Negro disappoints you, if the revolution in consciousness that you depended on the Negro to spark fails to ignite, your options are significantly more constrained. You can return to a stable form of whiteness that predates your own untrustworthy racial identity (ie, white supremacy) or you can keep on moving, in search of a new covenant with someone purer still.
John Walker Lindh seems to have decided in 1997 to keep moving. That year, at the age of sixteen, he officially converted, pledging himself to an Arabic, as opposed to Afro-Atlantic, Islam. In one of his last posts to the newsgroups, he launched an attack on Nas, a rapper with well-known links to the Five Percent Nation:
Is Nas indeed a “god”? If this is so, then why is he susceptable to sin and wrongdoing? Why does he smoke blunts, drink moet, fornicate, and make dukey music? Why is it if he is a “god” that one day he will die? That’s a rather pathetic “god” if you ask me. …Perhaps one day the members of the 5% will wake up and see who is in fact the slave and who is indeed The Master.
Gone is the pretense of one African American trying to save or teach another. Lindh’s smug, self-satisfied sneer now bespeaks fundamental elevation, a moral vantage point from which the benighted African American, perennially mired in his classic vices of drinkin’, druggin’, fuckin’, and dancin’, can be perceived in all his debauched entirety. It is as if Lindh, having misunderstood the lesson of Malcolm X’s hajj, finds in himself the strength (or, more accurately, the freedom) to do something Malcolm quite literally died rather than do: abandon the misbegotten American Negro to his lot.
This radical disappointment with the African American’s refusal to play his appointed role in white fantasies of absolution and purity has a long history. Michael Taussig writes in Mimesis and Alterity: A Peculiar History of the Senses about the late nineteenth century fascination with phantasmagoric “white Indians.” Even as African Americans agitated for equal rights (or, at least, freedom from fear of lynching), individuals and institutions became obsessed with reports of blond, blue-eyed Indians roaming the interior of Central America. Having effectively done away with the North American native, and having remade the African as the troublingly in-between African American, the white unconscious seized upon the White Indian as its last best chance at a meaningful encounter with nothing less than authenticity itself.
The White Indian was, of course, not just non-African, but also non-Oriental and non-Hindoo — a creature imagined as unspoiled, nomadic, and antagonistic to every aspect of the modern. Their (largely imaginary) blondness was as shocking to the nineteenth century as blond, blue-eyed Muslims were to Malcolm X on the hajj. And what better way to describe how “traditional” Arab Muslims must have appeared to John Walker Lindh than as “White Indians?” For an isolated California teen whose entire connection to the Arab world was a Spike Lee movie and the internet, an ex-White Negro disappointed by his chosen race’s fall into sloth, faithlessness, and (ultimate irony) irreducible American-ness, Islamic fundamentalism must have been a bracing, nearly inevitable tonic. The African in America will always disappoint the white American; it is why he exists. But the righteous, energized, clean-living foreigner? That is another matter altogether.
Lindh threw himself into his new religion with impressive vigor. He visited a nearby mosque in Redwood, only to decide that the place was too lax to meet his needs. He preferred the Mill Valley Islamic Center, nine miles away from the his parents’ house, which required Lindh to take the bus or ride his bicycle. Within weeks of converting, he was wearing flowing white robes and a small round hat, a sartorial choice that earned him stares and worse from the general public but also the grudging respect of his new coreligionists, many of whom favored Western clothing. His best friend at the mosque made a point of introducing Lindh to other Muslims, hoping that the convert’s zeal might prove infectious.
When he began researching foreign places to go to study Arabic, Lindh gravitated to Yemen, where the spoken language was purported to be more lyrical, closer to the Arabic of the Qur’an, than the lesser dialects spoken across the Gulf. Upon arriving at language school in Sana’a, Yemen, a disappointed Lindh berated his hosts for their integrated (that is, male and female) classes and tried (unsuccessfully) to wake them at dawn each morning to answer the first call to prayer.
He was, in other words, a true-school backpacker for Allah, dismayed to discover that being in a Muslim country, even a conservative Muslim country, was no guarantee that real, flesh-and-blood, born-not-made Muslims would match his devotion. Restless, he moved on to Pakistan, where he traveled the storied Northwest Frontier in search of an amenable madrassa. He found one at Bannu, near the Afghan border, with a headmaster who spoke passable English. Lindh spent nine months there, devoting himself to the project of memorizing the Qur’an. By now reasonably fluent in Arabic, Lindh — or Suleyman, as he called himself — learned about the great battles taking place in Palestine, Kashmir, and Afghanistan.
The Afghan story seems to have struck a particularly resonant chord. Afghanistan under the Taliban seemed to represent the oldest-school interpretation of Islam in the world, a place where the orthodox Muslim true-school had taken power and instituted the most ascetic form of Islamic governance imaginable. It was a vision that inspired his teacher at the madrasa, and it spoke to every fantasy of exactitude and rigor the young Lindh had ever had. At about this time, Lindh read Join the Caravan, a book by Shaykh Abduallah Azzam, a Jordanian-born fighter and theorist whose central theme was the importance of jihad — not merely in the sense of “striving to overcome one’s personal faults,” which Lindh had described in his statement to the court, after his trial — but in the taking up of arms to defend Muslims wherever they are under attack. Azzam had died fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, and many believed that the Taliban’s struggle against the Northern Alliance was a continuation of that fight. For Azzam, jihad was as fundamental to Muslim practice as fasting for Ramadan or praying five times a day or making the hajj. It was the ultimate test of faith; if necessary, it would entail making the ultimate sacrifice. (Azzam famously called the jihadist movement a “caravan of martyrs.”) One day in May 2001, Lindh decided he was ready. He left the madrasa, received several weeks of military training, and finally arrived in Kabul. Six months later, he would have his encounter with history.
Since its diagnosis in Mailer and other mostly white male Jewish writers of the Beat Generation, the White Negro has been obsessively concerned with the question of his own manhood. For Mailer’s generation, the dangerous game of transracial identification required one to keep cool at any cost, for fear of appearing “impotent in the world of action and so closer to the demeaning flip of becoming a queer.” Eager to cast off the slur of Jewish weakness by valorizing a connection to a rough-and-ready black masculinity, these writers echoed the German Zionist’s striving for clear heads, solid stomachs, and hard muscles, with blackness standing in for physical labor and outdoorsmanship. In the iconography of the White Negro, these white men had tested themselves through immersion in one or another black-male-identified context: the playing field, the bandstand, the street corner, or (most iconically) the criminal underworld and the prison house. Those who passed their test were afforded the presumption of manliness, the removal of a stain as foundational to their identity as the presumption of their racism.
In order for such tests to have any power or meaning, there has to be an element of risk. No catharsis is possible without the possibility of failure, and for the White Negro the arbiters of this failure — the judge, jury, and, if necessary, exacter of punishment — are black men. Against the backdrop of this fantasy of black hypermasculinity, anyone who fails the test of manliness is revealed to be the black man’s opposite, which, in the way of such things, is not the white or the female but the homosexual. And the ultimate penalty for failure — for doing the crime without doing the time — is rape.
This penalty of rape for manly failure is so fixed and overdetermined that it is not merely white men who have to fear it. For black men like Malcolm — that is, for the vast majority of black men who convert in jail — Islam (syncretic or otherwise) brings with it a restoration of dignity, the recovery of a lost or debased manhood. This is a reflection of Islam’s emphasis on moral rectitude, to be sure. But it is also a function of the pragmatic benefit that comes with group membership inside the American prison system. The brotherhood of black Muslims serves as a bulwark against both predatory sexual assault and the ever-present lure of male intimacy during decades of incarceration. For the convert, Islam is the guarantee that he has neither violated nor been violated — or if he has, that that failure has been washed away, along with all the others, in the course of his remaking.
Is it any wonder, then, that the photographs of John Walker Lindh at the end of his long journey from Marin Country to Mazar-e-Sharif have the air of the prison house rape to them? His expression suggests a soft American boy who has decided to ride the wrong whirlwind. He is depicted as utterly alone, with no Taliban and no Malcolm to protect him, his only brothers the American soldiers who will surely abuse him. After Lindh returned to the States, after he had been tried and sentenced to twenty years — stiffer punishment than any other American citizen accused of post-9/11 crimes — the American narrative about the American Taliban would focus exclusively on the persistence of his faith in prison despite near-constant harassment. But on that late November day in Afghanistan, Lindh appeared as a man who had failed some or another well-imagined test. Whether betrayed by non-martyrdom on the battlefield or the softness of his convictions or by the memory of his violation by men or armies or history, he now seemed to be asking himself whether he had engineered this test in order to fail it. This was, after all, a man who’d styled himself a black man once, and if the logic of “asking to be raped” has any currency, it will be found in the scorn heaped upon men who assert for themselves reserves of masculinity they turn out not to possess. There are hundreds of rap lyrics that talk about this exact dynamic, including some of the oldest rhymes in the genre, like in “The Message” (1982) by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five:
You’ll admire all the number book takers Thugs, pimps, pushers and the big money makers Driving big cars, spending twenties and tens And you wanna grow up to be just like them, huh, Smugglers, scrambles, burglars, gamblers Pickpockets, peddlers even panhandlers You say: “I’m cool, I’m no fool!” But then you wind up dropping out of high school Now you’re unemployed, all non-void Walking ‘round like you’re Pretty Boy Floyd Turned stickup kid, look what you’ve done did Got sent up for a eight year bid Now your manhood is took and you’re a may tag Spend the next two years as a undercover fag Being used and abused to serve like hell
John Walker Lindh must have heard those lyrics dozens of times during his backpacker years. He may even have quoted them approvingly in his struggle to save hip hop from itself, before he he set out for the lands of Islam. Did he remember them that day in Mazar-e-Sharif? Did he think about his father?
The Senegal of the Mind is especially lovely this time of year. Its capital is Dakar, the Paris of Africa, where the ancient Moorish civilization of black Africa speaks French to power. The Senegalese of the Mind are also very fond of Beirut (the Paris of the Middle East), as well as Buenos Aires (the Paris of South America) and Paris (the Paris of France).
The Senegal of the Mind was discovered by Tracy Chapman in the 1980s. Also present at the founding were Gil Scott-Heron, Jean-Michel Basquiat, the Joseph-Désiré Mobutu shirt and horn-rimmed glasses, the Kaunda suit, the Badu twist, Indonesian tie-dye, various Yoruba goddesses, the music of the anti-apartheid movement, Fela Kuti’s sweaty abs, and a guy called Enrique who makes hats in Brooklyn.
Zap Mama was not present at the founding, though she would become the mother of the nation in the late Nineties, by conquering it.
Marie Dualne, or Zap Mama, was born of a Belgian father and a Zairois mother. Her father was killed during the riots that led to independence. Her mother fled, with Marie in her stomach, to the Congo forest, where they were rescued by Pygmies. She was born in the forest without anesthetic, and she was named »«¿¿¿, which means “the Queen With Colliding Arrows and Upside Down Question Marks.” (In French, this translates as Marie Untoilette.)
Decades later, she made a pilgrimage back to Africa to meet the Pygmies, and they treated her specially because she could sing like them. Her Congolese homecoming was only the beginning of her Afropudlian idyll. In 1997, she had a baby she named Kesia, and she went to Mali. “A man in Mali told me that there are seven senses,” she said. “Everyone has five, some can use their sixth. But not everyone has the seventh. It is the power to heal with music, calm with color, to soothe the sick soul with harmony. He told me that I have this gift, and I know what I have to do with it… I’m looking for instruments that have vocal sounds, forgotten instruments like the guimbri.” She had embarked on a Pan-African search for some quality me-time, a quest that could only end in Senegal.
Marie Untoilette started to recruit revolutionaries for the attack on Fort Greene, Brooklyn, the heartland of the Senegal of the Mind. She worked with Michael Franti, Limp Bizkit, the Butthole Surfers, Rob Zombie, the Foo Fighters, Erykah Badu, and the Wizards of Ooze to make the soundtrack. Luckily, she had studied “polyphony in Asian, Arabic, and African contexts,” which came in handy during the fighting. One fine morning Marie and her shock troops (including a contingent from HEMP: Hair Empathy Messes Patriarchy) descended on Dekalb Avenue wielding vodoun essential oils and candomblé drumbeats, beating up people with perms. Some of the extremists pulled women out of their storefronts and gave them jojoba scalp rubbings. Afterward, negotiations with the long-haired pimp look of Fulton Mall were dreadlocked for months, until Marie went directly to the Taiwanese Mafia and made them pull all lye-based products from all shelves and replace them with shea butter, Rita Marley Pancake Mix, Wyclef Jeans, and Gorée Hand Cream.
“Now, my massage is that we need to go down to our roots!” she said, strumming her endangered instrument as the crowds cheered.
She declared independence in 2000 and was registered by the United Nations World Music Council.
Location: within 500 yards of any outlet that sells Putumayo products to black people in every major city in the world
Credit Rating: above 700
Border countries: Ali Farka Toure, Bahia, Jamaica, Toronto, Salsa, and Yassa rice
Maritime claims: all offshore territories in the world where black people look beautiful and are artisanal and musical
Terrain: generally low, rolling voices with riffs and instruments made of earthy products, set to a retro beat by a DJ who is very cool
Yugoslavs are the real friends of the Arabs… Yugoslavia is a real socialist country and not something else.
— Muammar al-Qaddafi, 1974
On September 3, 1989, Libyan President Muammar al-Qaddafi stepped off an airplane at Belgrade’s airport. Dressed in white, the colonel-turned-president nodded to onlookers as ground engineers set about emptying the contents of his plane. His entourage of all-female bodyguards — Amazonian both in scale and beauty — stealthily dispersed, as they tend to. They surveyed the grounds. The following day, the Libyan and dozens of other heads of state were to assemble at the ninth summit meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement, the international organization of over 100 “developing” states, spanning from Cuba to China, that had made a vaguely yet romantically defined “Independence!” — be it from the shackles of imperialism or the influence of any and all superpowers — their war cry and raison d’être.
Under former President for Life Josip Broz Tito’s tutelage, Yugoslavia had reached out to Qaddafi, eventually playing a prominent role in the development of the North African state. During the next twenty-eight years, several thousand Yugoslav citizens moved back and forth between the countries, taking part in elaborate infrastructural projects in the desert, from building hospitals to paving roads. The large and complex naval academy in Tripoli, for example, was the work of Yugoslav architects employed by Energoprojekt, a company with multimillion dollar contracts throughout the country. The building was simple, modern, orthogonal, fashioned from prefabricated concrete, and, in true international corporate style, set in an office park. In return for the assistance, Tito received barrels of Libyan oil at bargain prices. It was, you could say, diplomacy by way of barter, and it managed to bring Tito’s Yugoslavia into the world market. Positioned between East and West, a member neither of NATO nor of the Warsaw Pact, the country benefited economically from Tito’s dealings with Libya: it was good news for the economy.
In Qaddafi, Tito (who along with Nehru, Sukarno, Nasser, and Nkrumah was one of the founding fathers of the Non-Aligned Movement) found a partner in shaping his vision of an exciting new geopolitical front. The Libyan, after all, was especially good at positioning himself in relation to master-narratives, be they religious (Pan-Islam), geographic (Pan-African), ethnic (Pan-Arab), or winning-team (I heart Tony Blair) in nature. And so in the 1970s, Qaddafi found an unlikely ally as he fashioned his “Islamic socialism.”
I liked the freedom enjoyed in Yugoslavia and the way in which its peoples respect each other and draw together, although they are of several different nationalities. I also noted with pleasure that the Moslems are free and respected and may practice their religion as they wish. I saw many mosques being built in Yugoslavia. Its millions of Moslems form a very strong element of friendship between Yugoslavia and the Moslem countries, including the Libyan Arab Republic.
But when Qaddafi arrived in Yugoslavia in September 1989, the honeymoon had come to an end. Tito had been dead for nearly a decade. The Yugoslav economy was sputtering. A fractious nationalism was on the rise, and the first calls for self-determination were emanating from Kosovo. A certain Montenegrin named Slobodan Milošević was the new despot in town, and within a decade he would destroy Yugoslavia, not least by destroying the tolerant, multi-denominational framework of Tito’s mid-century creation.
The airplane that brought Qaddafi to Belgrade was full of tribute. It carried one ton of Arabian sand brought from Libya, a massive white tent (de rigeur for the president, who only slept in his own tents), and a small number of camels and horses (Qaddafi was a devotee of camel milk). A selection of gifts for his hosts included traditional Bedouin folk craftwork and pieces of highly geometric, highly modernist Libyan art. Later those mementos were placed in shiny glass cases in one of Tito’s many palaces used as receptacles for gift eclectica.
Habituated as he was to getting his way, Qaddafi asked that he be able to ride atop one of his horses to the 1989 summit’s opening ceremony. Instead — Milošević’s people said no — a compromise was struck. Arriving in a black stretch limousine, he would step onto custom-made Serbian-manufactured faux Persian carpets laid out just for him. His white tent was erected on the grounds of the obliquely named Libyan People’s Bureau, just a few hundred yards from Tito’s former home. Ordinary people who drove by every morning still recall the sight of a cordoned-off miniature zoo of camels and horses that was set up beside the president’s white tent. Camels were milked on the lawn every morning. At conference end, Qaddafi donated them to the Belgrade Zoo, where at least a couple of them remain to this day. They are tokens of that time.
It is fittingly (and fleetingly) ironic that today, twenty years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and at a time when the Non-Aligned Movement has all but lost what cachet it once had, the two former allies — each one reborn in a new historical moment — are once again becoming fast friends. Qaddafi, after all, had famously shaken hands with the Western devil, his theatrical contrarianism all but shoved under the proverbial faux-Persian rug as he embraced reform, dismantled his weapons of mass destruction, and started playing golf with the likes of John Negroponte. In 2006, the US State Department announced that it would restore full diplomatic relations with Qaddafi, the onetime godfather of terrorism. Serbia, meanwhile, was now one straggling piece of what had once been a gloriously unified Yugoslav nation. The country was a shadow of its former self, trying to regain a foothold — economically, politically, culturally — in a new Europe.
And so, in January 2005, when a delegation of politicians from Serbia boarded a state-sponsored flight to Tripoli, it seemed that change was in the air. Within its ranks were politicians and businessmen, including Boris Tadić, the president of Serbia himself. (It should also be noted that within the entourage were one dozen female singers — traditional, neo-folk, and what they call turbo-folk, in style, temperament, dress.)
The long-dormant friendship had rekindled. Energoprojekt would prove to be one of the primary beneficiaries of this rekindling, winning the rights to construct Libya’s new thousand-mile-long railway system. Contracts for thermoelectric systems, harbors, and arms were also signed. Even without the ideological umbrella of non-alignment to grease and propel exchange, it was back to business as usual. Business, after all, is the original non-aligned movement.
Share The Way of the Ostrich: Or, How Not to Resist Modernity
…[to] all the Youth of the Al-Murrah who face probably the greatest changes of any people in the world.
— Donald Powell Cole, dedication to Nomads of the Nomads, 1975
In a darkened room of the Qatari National Museum, three screens play silent films of Bedouin life. The images are washed out and damaged from thirty years of continuous play. On one screen, my grandfather stands with a group of men squinting into the camera, raptors flapping. The men are falconers, and their birds cling blindly to their forearms. The corners of the images have collected a grainy residue; sometimes the picture skips. On another screen, an elderly woman, face veiled in black, two long braids swaying down her back, waddles across the frame behind a small herd of goats. This room is an anomaly in a museum dedicated to pearls and oil and dioramas. Amid the sample oil drills, limestone cross sections, and restored pearling dhows, it is strange to see the disintegrating footage of the Al-Murrah proudly bearing their swords and rifles, posing as though for a still photograph while the camera pans up and down their straight-shouldered frames. No one visits this room. No one seems to visit the museum at all. The films play on repeat, wearing out their images.
The museum was an ambitious project conceived and completed by Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad Al-Thani in 1976. It was built to represent 200,000 years of human history and fifteen centuries of Muslim values in the Persian Gulf. The structure of this history-palace is a refurbished complex of royal residences. The castle is uncharacteristic of modern Gulf architecture, which reflexively replaces decaying buildings with bigger, shinier buildings; Khalifa was a traditional leader, concerned with the welfare of Qatar’s values against the dizzying g-force of sudden wealth and foreign infiltration. He seemed to be grasping for an authentic Qatari experience that could resist the onslaught of the oil conglomerates and the largest Dairy Queen in the world. So he did two things to ensure that Qatar would not lose its cultural heritage. He built an ambitious museum of the state and sea, and he strengthened his military by drafting the symbolic old guard of Arab honor, the Al-Murrah Bedouin: my family.
It is weighty, this name. I come to it the old-fashioned way, by my father, a modernist. He left the Empty Quarter to go to college in Montana. The Saudi government paid for him to learn business, while he secretly made plans to become a long-haul trucker. He was one of the first of our clan to go to America, and he was the first to marry a white woman. The first to marry outside the family, even, though there would be others. It continues to be scandalous.
We are a fierce and honorable people, we Al-Murrah, at odds with the world and the desert and the people of the towns. I know this to be true, because I read a whole book about it. About us: Nomads of the Nomads: The Al-Murrah Bedouin of the Empty Quarter. Though by the time I found the book, browsing the picked-over offerings in the library at the American University in Cairo, many of us, including my siblings and our extended family, were living in Qatar. By the time I read the book, in fact, many of our men were in jail in Qatar. Or, like my father, in exile.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
We acquired our reputation in the desert. The most deserted desert in the world, a vast sea rippled with ridges and waves and islands of sand. The Rub el Khali, we call it — in English, the Empty Quarter. Desert people do desert things, like herd goats and ride camelback and plunder the occasional village for essentials, while finding ways to work around the sweltering heat and aridity and the delirious hallucinations that ensue. At some point, we stopped pillaging the towns and started offering “protection,” although there were always broad-backed men with black camels ready to take up arms for glory or profit. In this way, the Al-Murrah were crucial to the success of Prince Abdul Aziz al Saud, a ruthless raider whose exploits along the Gulf’s coast emboldened him to create the Saudi kingdom as we know it today. In this way, too, the Al-Murrah and other Bedouins became the core of the Saudi Arabian National Guard. We would play this role for decades. For our fine work, we were rewarded with Land Rovers and houses and passports. Perhaps these were “the greatest changes” faced by any people in the world? In any case, at the age of twelve, my father went to town for the first time to buy his first pair of shoes, and at the age of twenty, he was sent with a cousin to study in America on scholarship.
He returned, but not to Saudi Arabia. Thousands of us — and there were only thousands of us to begin with — had moved to the country that likes to think of itself as “the finger of Arabism in the Gulf.” Newly minted Qatar (est. 1971) was fast becoming one of the wealthiest plots of sand on earth, and Sheikh Khalifa naturally moved to consolidate his regime and demonstrate to neighboring emirates that tiny Qatar would nonetheless possess an outsize and formidable military. More than half of the men in my immediate family found work in this way, where the sheikh’s generosity (and racism) helped them get promoted ahead of the Pakistani and Yemeni fighters who made up the bulk of the Qatari army. It may have helped that we were coreligionists, as well: like the sheikh, the Al-Murrah were fervently Wahabi. Various Al-Murrah tribesmen became military colonels or police captains. Great Uncle Hadi, my father’s uncle, became a pilot. We had influence, free healthcare, a small share of the country’s wealth, and a big share of its pride. For two glorious decades, all was well between the Al-Thani royals and their Al-Murrah loyalists.
In June of 1995, Sheikh Khalifa flew to England on his private jet for a shopping spree. While cruising the streets of London, Sheikh Khalifa was dethroned by his son Hamad. The newspapers hailed the “bloodless coup” as a “civilized overthrow.” It was clear to many that the younger, more corpulent sheikh, who had been educated abroad, had become frustrated by the slow pace of change in Qatar. Inspired — or, perhaps, humiliated — by the United Arab Emirates, which was expanding in every direction, from architecture to tourism to political clout, Hamad wanted more for Qatar than concrete castles, pearl diving, and isolationism. He saw Doha as the next Dubai: a haven for “forward-thinking” Arabs from across the region and America’s right-hand peninsula in the Gulf. He saw a new world of glass skyscrapers, sleek minarets, and lots and lots of high-end shopping malls. His father was not part of the plan.
And nor, it must be said, were the Al-Murrah. It is difficult to say what would have become of my family in the Doha of the Future, had we embraced it. Although what remained of Bedouin ways would likely have been further eroded by the gale winds of progress unleashed by the new sheikh, in retrospect things could not have gone much worse.
The “bloodless coup” was not without its critics. Some argued that the younger sheikh had behaved ungratefully, a traitor to the ancient codes of paternal respect and decorum. Perhaps others were offended by the bloodlessness. I cannot say; I was twelve years old and living in Washington State at the time, and I am female, so what I know about the momentous events of these days comes two or three times removed, from overheard conversations between my grandmother and my aunts and the gossip of the prisoners’ children I’ve since met. What I do know is that for some of the men of the Al-Murrah, the young sheikh’s coup was an affront to honor and the harbinger of a future they wanted nothing to do with. And far be it from the Al-Murrah to allow their legacy to go down without a fight.
It ended badly. A dozen army officials imagined a glorious and bloody overthrow that would change the fortunes and legacy of the Al-Murrah and bring glory back to the people. Passing whispers in the mosque, covert meetings in the Majlis, secret handshakes, and military bravado — maybe too much bravado. One or two or half a dozen informers passed hints of unrest on to the new sheikh’s men. Before it really began, the counter-coup was over.
It was never clear how many Al-Murrah men were involved. Several of them are still in jail twelve years later; some of them, close members of my family, sit on death row to this day. There have been allegations of torture. In any case, it was not long before the authorities had acquired a list of names that comprised much of the male Bedouin population. Over the next year hundreds of men were rounded up, while thousands more were exiled or blacklisted.
By the time I came back from the States in 1999, the only Al-Murrah left free in Qatar seemed to be elderly men and women, although most had had their citizenship revoked or suspended some years before. One great uncle had fled across the border to El Hassa in Saudi dressed in his wife’s Burqa. Dressing as a woman was a stroke of genius for the old timer. But it was also emasculating, and he is still spoken of within the family as a joke, not as the daring practical thinker he proved himself to be.
The nomads of the nomads have been tamed. Under Sheikh Hamad’s direction, Doha can now boast the WTO Conference, the largest American military base outside the US, the 15th Asian Games, Al Jazeera, a female parliamentarian, and the biggest concrete shopping cart in the world. And he has been kind if not magnanimous in the later years of his victory; today most of us are once again Qatari citizens. Grouped together in government projects just west of the wretched Doha International Zoo, the Al-Murrah spend their days looking toward the Saudi border, dreaming of the past.
Sometimes on a Friday afternoon after prayer, my great uncle takes the younger children across the highway to break zoo regulations and feed the sad menagerie. He laughs at the way the boys and girls dote on the ostriches and insists that they haven’t lived until they’ve hunted a wild ostrich of their own. Like most kids these days, they ignore the old man, pausing barely a second to look the ostrich in the eye while feeding it sugar cookies. The unsuspecting heirs to our great loss trot off to chuck potato chips at the chimpanzees until sunset, leaving Great Uncle to the contemplation of the molting ostrich in her chicken-wire cage, mulling the greatest change of all: irrelevance.
Back at the fin de siècle, I, like many New Yorkers, noticed the group now known as Nuwaubians: young black men in white turbans and djellabas selling bizarre looking pamphlets on street corners and in the subway. They were an aesthetically interesting phenomenon, but they never wore the right shoes. Instead of Islamic-style laceless slippers, they wore sneakers. So many American cultists seem to falter at the point where their feet touch the ground — a highly symbolic nexus. The exotic beauty that transformed the bodies and heads of these young men missed their feet.
As a devotee of Noble Drew Ali and the Moorish tradition in America, I appreciated some of the hundreds of pamphlets produced by Dr Malachi York (aka the Mahdi, aka Rabboni Y’Shua ben al-Haadi, aka Malchizadok York-El) for their highly original treatment of the material. Rumor had it that his writings roused the dangerous ire of the Farrakhan-led branch of the Nation of Islam. Whatever the truth of this, at a certain point York’s young pamphleteers vanished from our streets. After a few years, we learned from the newspapers that Dr York had undergone yet another religious transformation and become an ancient Egyptian deity, A’aferti Atum-Re. Deep in the rural South, he and his followers built a vast complex of pyramids and sphinxes, not very solid, but quite lovely.
In the end, fraud, racketeering, and child abuse brought down the sect and landed the deity in prison; he is due for release on December 15, 2119. The pyramids have been bulldozed. Still, the failures of sects and cults don’t necessarily invalidate their teachings — otherwise all religions would be in deep trouble. (As, indeed, they are.) Even madmen may be illuminated. Mystical experience and esoteric knowledge need not comport with ethics or even sanity.
There exists among the Moorish Americans and the Black Muslims and the Rastafarians a weaving together of esoteric strands called “the Knowledge,” compounded of numerology and gematria, myth, Afrocentric history, African-American paganism and HooDoo, freemasonry, Sufism, and dozens of other elements. It circulates at the level of oral transmission, video, and samizdat. Academic scholarship has paid almost no attention to this tradition. Like freemasonry, it is a subject that official historians rarely deign to touch.
Racism, of course, plays a role in scholarly neglect of the Knowledge, but the prejudice goes even deeper, down to a layer of bedrock consensus rationalism that results in actual blindness to certain forms of mysticism and art. Moreover, the Knowledge can’t be limited to African-American influences. Asian, American-Indian, and EuroAmerican strands are present in the weave. Noble Drew Ali identified the latter threads as Celtic in origin. The whole phenomenon actually escapes the categories of race so central to American consciousness, making it even more invisible to the famous gaze of instrumental reason.
In his Vision, William Butler Yeats said that the spirits told him they’d come to bring him new metaphors for his poetry. I admit that my aesthetic appreciation of the Nuwaubians, and of the whole of the Moorish tradition, guides my approach to the photographs collected here. But poetry demands actual participation in the forms it explores, and since 1964, I’ve been a member of the Moorish Orthodox Church of America, a “Celtic” offshoot of the Moorish Science Temple and a wandering bishop in the tradition of Apostolic Christianity. I guess you might call us distant spiritual cousins of the Nuwaubians. Their bible, The Sacred Records of Neter: Aaferti Atum Re Amunnubi Ruakhptah for the Secret Order of Wa-Set Lodge #1-19, presents a cosmology reminiscent of esoteric Scientology, complete with pyramids on Mars, divine invasions, crop circles, pyramids, Biblical exegesis, sexology, Sumerians from outer space, and other interesting tropes. It’s bound in black imitation crocodile skin with gold hieroglyphic cartouches, gilt-edged pages, and a yellow ribbon.
As literal dogma, this bible fails to move me, but if I think of it as poetry, I’d rank it far higher than “El” Ron Hubbard’s sorry SciFi Crowleyite melange. These photographs of Dr York in his many religious incarnations constitute a visual poem in which a kind of subjective revelation unfolds.
This conversation with Julia Meltzer and David Thorne, also known as the Speculative Archive, took place after a screening of We will live to see these things, or, five pictures of what may come to pass at the 2007 Images Festival in Toronto, where it won the award for Best New International Video.
Naeem Mohaiemen: This was the second time I saw the film, and again I was struck by its pitch-perfect observational style. But one thought occurred as we watched it in that Toronto audience. I felt some discomfort during chapter four — the sequence set inside the girl’s Qur’an school. Even though there was nothing of this in the filmed image, I kept worrying that the audience was going to project its own fantasies and fetishes onto that sequence.
The Speculative Archive: In the Qur’an school section, it is possible that some viewers might see a kind of failure represented in it: a failure of secularism and Western liberal democratic values to triumph over a faith-based worldview, for instance. Yet those who espouse a society ruled by Islam might see this section as hopeful and positive.
The section in the Qur’an school, as you say, works through a kind of mismatch between the visual and audience expectation. The images of young children in the mosque — beautiful and impressionable young girls, for instance, reciting religious texts — are potent and compelling. Perhaps what provoked your discomfort as you viewed this section is the possibility that an audience, particularly a Western one, is prone to project into the future, when looking at these images, and to ask the questions: What will these children become? How will these texts shape them? Is this education good for them? What kind of force is this in the world?
But rather than images of young men or boys in madrasas, or any of the other endlessly repeated representations of the threat of Islam, we focus on a more mundane view into the daily life happenings of a religious school. We chose to concentrate on the tension between moments of memorization, instruction, and devotion, and moments of kids being kids.
NM: There are five discrete films, all set in Syria — although I felt they could be other places I have known — but you very deliberately stitched them together in a particular sequence. There is a cumulative and sequential effect on the viewer. You used a similar story-in-chapters structure in It’s not my memory of it, although there the time and place is more scattered. But Take into the air my quiet breath also exists as a single channel piece broken out from the quintet, and Not a matter of if but when is a piece filmed in Syria around the same period, but not dovetailed into We will live. Can you talk about your method, structure, summing, and subtracting, quintet vs. single piece, et cetera?
SA: The structure of We will live to see these things is, as you mention, a sequence of five discrete “films.” Each section is conceived as a separate story with a distinct approach to the image, the text, and the music. And each section is conceived in relation to the others. The thread is that each section takes up a particular way that people imagine the future in the particular place called Syria. These “pictures” of the future are: one, everything remains as is — the prevailing sense of stasis will prevail; two, a perfect leader will arrive to steer a proper course through the difficult times; three, a space for democratic politics will open up further; four, God, through the faithful, will light the way; five, the pressures from US policy in the region will bring greater chaos. These five pictures were the ones we most frequently encountered and discussed during our time in Damascus, and each became the focal point for a section of the film.
We are distributing and exhibiting the first section of the film, which focuses on a building in downtown Damascus, on its own under the title “take into the air my quiet breath.” This section works well by itself because it has a very clear voice and narrative arc. In terms of the longer film, the ways the sections play off of each other and the cumulative effect for the viewer of watching a carefully structured sequence are important.
The other work we produced out of this time in Syria is Not a matter of if but when, a series of monologues by Syrian performer Rami Farah. We originally thought we would mix this material in with everything else, but as we edited his monologues, it became clear that this was an entirely separate work, even if some of the motivating questions and ideas behind it are shared with We will live… Our main interest in all of these works has been to develop narratives about the difficulties of thinking about the future differently in a time when so much conflict and destruction stem, in part at least, from convictions that people hold about the future.
NM: Both dialogue and text are at every point natural and unhurried. One part that’s really striking for me is the song that builds to a steady crescendo during the horse jump session. Is that really not the Bashar Assad national anthem? If it’s not, it should be. Anyway, how do you build your dialogue and stories, and that mesmerizing text sequence at the end? How much lived experience bleeds into text; how much invention comes from unconscious osmosis?
SA: The first section about the building is based on interviews with architects, engineers, and urban historians. We developed a script for the narration from both the facts and the feelings of these interviews. There is a fairly loose approach to accuracy in terms of the timeline of the construction of the building, in part because the timeline is not so clear, but also because we wanted to amplify something about the experience of time in, around, and through this building as a metaphor for the Syrian regime.
The text in the second section, with the horse jumping, is written as a kind of incantation or poem, with words drawn from what we might call the general repository of expressions that have to do with desire for a leader and from the rhetoric of propaganda. The text is delivered in Arabic by an older man and in English by a young boy, and this alternation emphasizes the familial, the generational, and the historical.
The interview in the third section is an interview. There is nothing invented about it, though some viewers have asked if the interviewee is an actor. (He is not. He is Yassin Haj Saleh, a Syrian dissident intellectual.) We approached this interview in a very conventional documentary way. What hopefully shifts the ground of it, and the impact of what he says, is the way it is built into the whole piece.
The section in the Qur’an school is also approached in a very straightforward, almost vérité manner, visually speaking, but we structured the material as a story that focuses on the process through which children learn faith. The final section is the most “invented,” but draws from the rhetoric of neoconservatism and the ways in which fantasy has been articulated as policy under the current US administration. The text is structured around a grammatical motif — “I see X” — but rather than being spoken by the source of the vision, it is introduced through the voice of someone upon whom this vision has been imposed, a voice that has been forced to see according to someone else’s vision and to live with its effects.
Most of the time, we start with an idea for a visual approach. In the case of the equestrian competition, we were searching for a way to represent the desire for and the myth of a perfect leader. We worked through many texts until we found something that seemed to click in a very rough form. From there, we edited and rewrote until the section flowed and felt unforced. In general, we strive to develop texts that are emotionally resonant and contain some element of the ideas we have been discussing over the course of the project. That text can be ten or one-hundred steps away from where we started.
NM: Your process blends fiction and fact, archive and fabrication, document and ephemera. It’s been there throughout your work, but the new project digs deeper into a DMZ of anti-reportage. What are the research, storytelling, and political objectives in play for you?
SA: In all of our recent work, there are facts and fictions, but we call the work “documentary.” Not “experimental documentary,” not “mockumentary,” not “quasi-fictional documentary,” or any of the other new genres that point to some kind of crisis of the real. We went to Syria and we made some documents and we put them together to make a documentary — a record of a particular time in a particular place. For instance, we looked at the building in downtown Damascus and asked, “What is this building a record of? And what visions of the future are embodied in it?” It is not always possible, and maybe not even desirable, to separate fact from fiction when it comes to answering such questions.
NM: After you won the prize at Images, one of you wryly commented to me, “There is big money in this field if you stick with it” — obviously a tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact that there is, in fact, not much funding for certain kinds of politically engaged work. How do we carve out supportive structures for this kind of practice, since it can’t just be made, and artists can’t just live on thin air?
SA: In the world we live in, doing anything creative that doesn’t generate a living income can be something of a struggle. The question “Why are we doing this?” comes up often. But with each successive project we have worked on, we have tried to push ourselves to a new level of craft, story, and form around a complicated set of ideas. Certainly, more than the economic rewards, it is this learning process that drives us. Somehow with each project new doors keep opening up. However utopian it may sound, we try to maintain some belief and faith that work that engages with contemporary political and social issues, and is simple, elegant, and focused, will speak to an audience and will ultimately find support.
And of course, deep down we know that as artists, in fact, it is possible to live on thin air.
The Speculative Archive produces videos, photographs, installations, and published texts. From 1999 to 2003, Archive projects focused on state secrecy and the production of the past. Current works address the use of documents-images, texts, objects, bodies, and physical structures-to project and claim visions of the future. The Archive is a collaboration of Los Angeles-based artists Julia Meltzer and David Thorne.
Naeem Mohaiemen works on projects in Dhaka and New York.
Share Dear Catastrophe Architect: Albert Speer and the Garden of Spandau
I have never believed the innovators who maintain that pillars and portals are no longer permissible.
— Albert Speer, from Spandau: The Secret Diaries
During his 1946 Nuremberg trial for war crimes, Albert Speer, Hitler’s chief architect and minister of armaments, gave calm, rational testimony that hinted at remorse. He claimed that Nazi Germany’s vast apparatus of genocide had been largely unknown to him; he had simply done what his country required of him. He had also been assisting the Allied forces with the planning for reconstruction in the months before his trial, and some speculated he was destined for acquittal. But Speer had superintended Germany’s wartime military production, masterfully coordinating industry and material and relying heavily on slave labor. He was sentenced to twenty years in Spandau, a massive nineteenth-century prison complex in West Berlin.
Untenanted save for Speer, Rudolf Hess, and five other Nazi military officers who had managed to avoid execution, Spandau was a vast echo chamber. In secret diaries, Speer reminisced about dinner parties with Hitler, wartime decisions that might have gone better, and the details of his architectural ambitions. It was a lonely existence; despite their shared history, he and his fellow inmates revived old grudges and alliances, and petty disputes were inflamed by the boredom of prison life. Speer was especially ostracized for his critical take on the former regime, and for his stated determination to finish out his full sentence, even as the others schemed for backchannel pardons. Speer felt he deserved his punishment.
Spandau prisoners were denied access to contemporary journalism, mail had to be smuggled in and out, and the rare visit from a spouse or child was strictly monitored. Isolated, Speer read every book he could find. And he wrote, mostly on cigarette wrappers and toilet paper: the diaries, his memoirs (multiple drafts), a history of the Third Reich, a treatise on the history of windows. He also kept up his drafting skills, hoping that he might reestablish his architectural practice upon his release.
In the summer of his fifth year, to keep active, Speer took over stewardship of the prison’s courtyard vegetable garden. He drew up plans to recreate the space with elaborate landscaping based on designs he and Hitler had once made for Berlin. Speer’s rock garden was organized around a north-south axis, with elaborate topiary arrangements along either side. The project took him three years to complete.
At the end of his eighth year, in the autumn of 1954, Speer happened upon the idea that would occupy him for the remainder of his sentence. He began to keep meticulous track of every meter he walked in the garden during his daily perambulations, imagining, with the aid of travel guides from the prison library, that he was walking to other cities and other lands. His first trip took him to his family home in Heidelberg: 626 kilometers. In his diary, Speer wrote, “This project is… a battle against the endless boredom; but it is also an expression of the last remnants of my urge toward status and activity.” The walking project took on unexpectedly vast dimensions: from Heidelberg, Speer set off through Eastern Europe to Istanbul, passing through Afghanistan into India, through China and Russia all the way to the Bering Strait — which he crossed — continuing south down the western coast of North America. His trip ended twelve years after it began. In his final week in prison, Speer sent a postcard to a friend, asking to be picked up some thirty kilometers west of Guadalajara, Mexico. His diaries tally the total distance he walked: 31,936 kilometers, enough to have circled the globe at the equator.
As an architect, Albert Speer is most famous for the public works he designed for the Nazi regime — the Nuremberg Zeppelin Field, the Reich Chancellery in Berlin, the German pavilion at the 1937 International Exposition in Paris. They share a simple visual vocabulary: large-scale stone exteriors whose cuts imply immense thickness in the wall, tall windows set low to the ground, axial symmetry, lots of columns. His imposing stone buildings quoted equally from the long line of traditional Prussian neoclassicism, the wild drawings of revolution-era French architects Boullée and Ledoux, and the emerging archaeological evidence of the ancient Greek world, much of which had been excavated by German scholars. (Speer specifically cited the austere Dorians as an influence — a pitch-perfect choice, since the terror regime that controlled Sparta presaged Hitler and Stalin with uncanny accuracy.) But despite the mash-up of aesthetic citations, the resonance of the classical — its appeal to some vague notion of tradition, to governmental stability and authority-provided just the façade Hitler wanted.
The Third Reich was meant to subsume and reenact all the great empires that had come before it, including at the level of style. Of course, the only visual cues left by those empires were their massive and mysterious ruins. So, in a twist of thought so wildly illogical it somehow makes perfect sense, Speer set out to create buildings that would retain their gravity and power even after they had collapsed. Under the rubric of an idea he called “ruin value,” Speer designed ruin-friendly structures made out of natural stone blocks, with heavy exterior walls that would stand even after upper floors were gone; with open courtyards and long hallways. One fine day, centuries into the future, his buildings would remind the world of a once-great Germanic empire, the way the ruins of Greece or Rome remind us of ancient powers today.
Though it did have roots in the nineteenth-century architect Gottfried Semper, who advocated using natural materials and who had developed a baroque neoclassical style of his own, Speer’s ruin value — misreading the trajectory of the ancient world and then fetishizing its traces — was a thin disguise for his larger rejection of modernist architecture, perhaps even the modern more generally. The formal, material, and aesthetic revolutions in architecture that began in the late 1840s and culminated in the Bauhaus were, to a large degree, tied to the use of new building technologies, chiefly poured concrete over reinforced steel frames. In 1923, Walter Gropius, then director of the Bauhaus, had announced that “a new aesthetic of the horizontal is beginning to develop which endeavors to counteract the effect of gravity.” It was poured concrete that made this kind of aesthetic possible, and during the early decades of the century, architects like Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Auguste Perret, and Frank Lloyd Wright all made substantial use of it. The impact of technology on building practices, and thus the nature of what buildings were supposed to look like, was uncertain, if also exciting and charged with potential. But in speeches and essays, Speer rejected poured concrete outright, arguing that its limited lifespan and poor weathering made it unsuitable for the great public works of the Reich. It was not grand, not classical, and would not look good after catastrophe. Of course, to keep pace with Hitler’s frenzied building schedule, Speer had to use contemporary tools and technology: beneath his limestone exteriors, he later admitted, there was often reinforced concrete framework.
In an essay on Hitler’s architecture, Speer once wrote, “My buildings were intended, as I specified in 1936, not only to express the nature of our movement. I went beyond that. They were to be a part of the movement themselves.” And sure enough, Speer’s buildings embodied the jumbled, confused, self-contradictory, and even self-hating relationship with modernity that National Socialism espoused. He ultimately came to feel that his greatest contribution to the Nazi regime wasn’t architecture at all, but rather his plan for the 1934 Nuremberg Party Congress. It was Speer who visually coordinated the columns of marching soldiers, and Speer who turned the imposing array of aircraft searchlights toward the night sky, what became known as the “cathedral of light.” The outdoor rally was so mediagenic that it became the centerpiece for Leni Riefenstahl’s film Triumph of the Will.
Speer’s greatest gift, it turned out, was not for architecture, but rather for set design. He imagined radical possibilities for the visual presentation of power: the style and placement of Hitler’s rostrum, the endless repetition of the Nazi flag, the parade routes that moved motorcades of politicians through vividly symbolic scenery. Nazism had a whole host of mythologies, public rituals, and invented traditions that had to be playacted at elaborate social gatherings. The historian Peter Fritzsche explains that the Nazis created a parallel world for their citizens: “Amidst a familiar universe of stable links to family, region, and social milieu, the Nazis constructed a second world out of a network of organizations in which the traditional criteria of social worth and social placement had no validity.” Seen in this light, Speer’s work makes a different kind of sense. He was to build the scenic backdrop for a fascist dreamworld, stage managing the theatrics of social control among set pieces he had specially designed.
As it happens, the idiom of fascist architecture is actually quite generic. During the 1930s, the style known as “stripped classicism” (or “modernized antique”) was as popular with the Works Progress Administration as it was in greater Europe. Paul Cret employed Speer’s beloved large-scale Doric motifs for his United States Federal Reserve Board building in 1937. In Berlin it would have stood for National Socialism, but in Washington it symbolized democracy. So what distinguishes the two? Speer’s work is fundamentally defined by its theatricality — the sacrifice of use value in favor of aesthetic and historic value, since the main purpose of the Nazi-built environment was the production of its own identity. To that end, Speer ran counter to the essential modernist tenet that form ought to follow function. For him, form was paramount.
Descended in spirit from Germanic classicists such as Semper and Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Speer derided and ignored the intellectual ferment of the day, clinging to the nineteenth century’s great fable of the reconstituted classical (which was, it should be noted, a critical expression of the modern consciousness in its time). Speer’s was the last gasp of the Romantic traditionalism that the Deutscher Werkbund and the Bauhaus were systematically dismantling. But unlike Gropius, Mies, or Le Corbusier — “Of course, I know them all,” he ruefully noted while in prison — Speer did not believe in architecture as architecture, as a practice on its own terms. No one who did could build failure into the works themselves. Speer didn’t believe his buildings ought to survive.
Of course, nobody wants to live in a Le Corbusier building, either, these days. The rationalist salvation promised by modernism proved hollow in its own way; the buildings were as inhumanly proportioned as anything Speer designed, and drew myopically from a limited repertoire of shapes. Today their aesthetic rigidity bores and agitates architects and audiences alike. It is possible, perhaps, that Speer’s engagement with traditionalism gave him a more realistic sense of his work’s impermanence, unlike his contemporaries and their quest for the radically new. In any case, failure unites all the branches of the modernist tree.
Albert Speer had been an unworldly and unsuccessful architect when he joined the Nazi party in the early 1930s, in the midst of the global depression. Hitler was his ticket out of perpetual underemployment. Speer proved so adept at pleasing the Führer’s particular taste that he became the leading architect in Germany without truly completing his studies. Speer’s Wanderjahre, the travels one undertakes as part of one’s apprenticeship, came to him late: he never actually saw the world he helped destroy until he walked through it in prison. And in the safe, comforting routine of Spandau, his Wanderjahre mutated into a wistful wanderlust. The regime he’d enabled had forced millions into labor, death, or the stateless wandering of exile, and his punishment afforded him more than a decade of exploratory tourism.
In prison, Speer returned to the primal act of his craft: walking. The construction of space, physically or symbolically, depends on that space being experienced, demarcated, mapped, and comprehended on a human scale. Before recorded history, before even the most rudimentary stone cairn, there was the path. To pass away his interminable present, Speer pretended to walk the earth, and unwittingly walked himself deep into the distant past. His working life had rested upon a wild restaging of history, and here, with every loop around the endless courtyard — touring ancient and modern cultures simultaneously — he lived out the same failed idea that sent him to prison in the first place.
Share The Magic Kingdom: How not to think about Dubai
This question bugged me as I read and reread an essay by the eminent urban chronicler Mike Davis, published in New Left Review, titled “Fear and Money in Dubai.” One of the fiercest and most consistent critics wedded to the plight of the political Left, Davis has authored a number of books that stake out his position, including City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear. Wherever there has been social injustice played out as urban drama, Davis has been swift to criticize the insidious powerlessness of the most impoverished and underrepresented — the so-called “silent majority.”
In his New Left Review piece, Davis systematically derided Dubai as one of the most spectacular neoliberal “evil paradises” today, (rightfully) reminding us that Dubai’s speedy rise to global visibility has been in part due to shady goings-on. The plight of disadvantaged migrant laborers, the alleged laundering of bin Laden capital, and corporate-inspired self-aggrandizement come together in Davis’s corrosive Dubai formula: “Albert Speer meets Disney on the shores of Araby.”
For many liberal-minded friends and colleagues of mine, Davis’s comprehensive critical dissection of Dubai summed up their own worst fears: that Dubai is all sickening shine and no soul, an air-conditioned bubble of hype whose hubris guarantees imminent cultural and ecological Armageddon.
When I for my part raised my eyebrow at Mike Davis’s critique, then, I hit a raw nerve. But when I ask the question, “When do critics fail?” I mean it quite seriously. I’m not trying to imply any insistence upon ethical decency between critic and subject; we ought to be able to take that for granted. Rather, I am pondering what happens when a critic is confronted with an alien place that may bear superficial resemblance to what he has known but also may be critically different.
From my limited view, Dubai’s desert experiment is akin to a petri dish of fast-track dreams and global ascendancy, like those natural history TV shows wherein millennia of evolution elapse in seconds. From an urban, political, and anthropological perspective, Dubai makes for compelling drama, offering a case study of twenty-first-century mutant economies growing outside of Europe and the US. This may be problematic for a number of reasons, but I’m not convinced that Dubai is a monoculture of “evil,” as Davis would have us believe.
For all its sardonic, rancorous vim, Davis’s hatchet job seems too perfectly neat in its structured negativity. Did he write with a critic’s sleight of hand, in the name of the Left? And might the Left, like the Right, also have its own critical apparatuses that forsake the reality in front of them in favor of an obligatory idealism? Are both sides equally guilty of fantasizing about the future only on their own terms? Is the Western critic’s disgust with Dubai simply a veiled disgust with the West?
Fear in loathing
In their recent research on the Gulf, published as Al Manakh, architect Rem Koolhaas’s think tank AMO deemed Davis’s invocation of Disney as part of Dubai’s DNA to be an echo of William Gibson’s 1994 condemnation of Singapore as “Disneyland with the death penalty.” AMO’s text went on, “The recycling of the Disney fatwa says more about a stagnation of the Western critical imagination than it does about Gulf cities… . To be a critic today is to regret the exportation of ideas you have failed to confront on your own beat.”
This past May, Koolhaas went even further at a lecture at Dubai’s first International Design Forum, comparing Davis’s use of the word “evil” (as in, “evil paradise”) to George W. Bush’s infamous post-9/11 neocon slogan, “the axis of evil.” (“I’m always nervous when Americans use the word ‘evil,’” Koolhaas confessed.)
Was Koolhaas’s a harsh comparison?
Maybe. But he and AMO make this point: When critics bring their conclusions, a priori, to a place, it prevents what could be a productive confrontation between critic and site, in turn preventing any unexpected or unforeseeable critical responses. Predestination, instead, governs. There’s no self-criticism, no threat of mea culpa, and no promise of unsettling Alterity. Hard empiricism sometimes gives way to the delusional hypothesis.
I too would like to suggest that places such as Dubai (importantly, an ex-colony) act as a kind of narcissistic, mutating mirror to the emerging anxieties of the West. Lacan pointed out in “The Mirror Stage” that a subject can only understand her or his own being-in-the-world by seeing a reflection in a mirror, by comprehending the self as an image.
What if this vindication and assurance sought in the projected image of the Self-as-Other could also be extended to nation-states and civilizations?
Dubai operates as one of these Zeitgeist mirror-surfaces for the West (and, increasingly, for other parts of the Middle East, such as Bahrain and Qatar). For the neoliberal Right, Dubai is a phantasmagoric setting crafted in the perfect image of unbridled market capitalism (minus the democracy). For the political Left, Dubai may be just a grotesque reflection of the West’s worst endgames, manifest as that evil paradise.
Dubai’s urban physiognomy is one of the most recurrent targets for critiques and complaints. Where there ought to be pedestrian paths, they say, there are only clogged motorways. Where there ought to be public plazas, there are shopping malls. Where there should be local and contextual architecture, generic skyscrapers arise that many imagine will remain unpopulated yet grossly overvalued. The accusations boil down to these well-worn one-liners:
It’s a theme-park.
It’s all fake.
It’s not sustainable.
Let’s, for one minute, look more closely at the nature of the accusations and the tropes they belong to:
NO HISTORY: There’s a persistent hue and cry over Dubai’s supposed lack of history and the excess of newness. The critic rolls her eyes and sighs, “In Dubai, even the old is just new-old.”
SHORT-TERMISM: Dubai builds at an unprecedented rate. Skyscrapers jolt into the skyline like cutouts advertising a futuristic utopia that could never really materialize. Yet there they are, offering millions of square feet of potentially inhabitable space to live, work, and shop in. The doubtful ask whether these buildings will ever see actual lived life. How can Dubai try to be the world’s biggest transient hub and also a place of permanence? The orgiastic frenzy, they say, can’t be sustained.
ECOCATASTROPHE: Creating an indoor ski slope in desert climes emphatically declares that ecology is not something to be tethered to, but to be augmented or even completely negated. As the ecologically conscious in the world strive to avoid eco-meltdown, Dubai flouts contemporary reality with oblivious arrogance, an act of total irresponsibility at the nation-state level.
INAUTHENTICITY: Westerners seem to be on a desperate hunt to seek “reality” in Dubai. When they don’t find what they’re looking for, in their ensuing disappointment, they have no other choice than to yell, “FAKE!” What such critiques fail to highlight is that there is, of course, a reality in Dubai, and a history.
Dubai’s reality is one that not many have known. Copies and imitations are not abstract ciphers but productions of reality in their own right. (A fake Gucci handbag is still a real handbag.) And with each imitation and recreation, the status of the so-called “original” alters.
In the meantime, traces of civilization in the emirate go back to 3000 BC. More recently, Bur Dubai, the original settlement along the Creek, became independent in 1833. The phenomenon of tax exemptions for foreign traders began in 1894, with exports of pearls and dried fish, and imports from India to East Africa. Already by 1908, there were 400 shops huddled around the Creek. The area has a deeply embedded relationship to a past structured around the movement of people and of products, arguably the very thing that has become the supermodern visage of Dubai today.
Fear of fear
When Dubai fails the Western critic’s litmus test of a “good city,” it fails because it doesn’t exhibit (or, worse still, even try to exhibit) Enlightenment values and forms. Political representation; the disestablishment of royal rule; the manifestation of “society” in institutions like museums, libraries, and universities: these are all in short supply.
If the Enlightenment mandated the rule of reason over received convention, the modern city in the mid–twentieth century became the rationalist apogee of such principles, rigorously flat and therefore emancipatory.
With the modern city (a la Hilbersheimer or Le Corbusier in the 1920s) having already unapologetically deleted all references to the past in favor of the ultra-new, is Dubai any worse for pulling out fantasies of the fictional past from its virginal desert? Perhaps there’s a sense that Dubai’s searing skylines, where towers congregate in a vision of ungrounded liberation, is what we in the West had predicted for our own cities back in the 1950s and ‘60s. Dubai, Singapore, Shanghai — they’ve built what we once proposed. And they’ve built it without our blessing or our cooperation.
In a few years’ time, we’ll likely reach that mythic moment when China and India will become the first and second economies in the world. After all, they’re already the largest in terms of sheer population. Outsourcing and imports indicate that there’s about to be even more of China, India, and the Middle East flooding the streets of Europe and the US. Surely the free market saw this coming?
Given this imminent emasculation of the West, does the critic scald and sneer precisely because he knows that the West created the first versions of the very things that places like Dubai now want — skyscrapers, central business districts, air-conditioning, frappucinos, Topshop, Justin Timberlake, the illusion of an endless power supply, corporate corruption, infinite consumer choice, and promiscuity without penalties?
In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Dr. Frankenstein’s biggest disappointment was that his creation didn’t love him. His biggest regret was setting the precedent in the first place.
Story of the story
So when do critics fail? When they form intractable judgments before they’ve even begun to open their eyes. It’s interesting to note that much of the critical dismissal is based on aesthetics. Endless acres of mirror-glass facades and a compulsive sampling of the world’s best (and worst) bits signify supposed aesthetic “unoriginality.” Here, aesthetics are read as an embedded form of political and ethical agency. In this reading, Clement Greenberg’s disdain for kitsch reigns supreme. Today’s heavyweights likewise deplore kitsch because it signifies depoliticized frivolity and easy, mindless foreplay for the masses.
The real story behind the phenomenon of Dubai is the “story of the story.” And that narrative is maybe more telling than anything you’ll find sprouting from the desert on the “shores of Araby.”
What is the story of the story? It’s the future history to be written about the unwieldy cast of players, crooks, charlatans, saviors, doom-mongerers, cowboys, and visionaries who have rushed or been pushed to commit to Dubai. This story will contextualize the myriad motives that drive the migratory mobilization: desire, hope, desperation, fear, and the belief that for this moment, this is the place to be.
Share Loud, Insistent, and Dumb: Shaabiyat and the return of the moulid as charged referent
Abdoh El Rewesh is screaming himself hoarse. His partner, a female vocalist who has a great ability to inject each syllable with just the right amount of erotic suggestion, is answering in the perverse voice of an eight-year-old girl asking her father to buy her lollipops and a variety of other phallic sweets at the moulid, a popular Egyptian celebration of a saint’s birthday. El Rewesh warns her (and her brother and, implicitly, all of us) to stay away from the festivities, where thieves are busy stealing little children. He goes on, telling of a man riding an elephant through the phantasmagoric celebrations.
This is the hysterical, charged world of Cairo’s newest cultural innovation — a wave of cheaply produced tapes fueled by insistent tabla workouts, obsessively phrased percussive synth riffs, and overdubs with the aggressive MCing of the likes of Abdoh El Rewesh (Cool Abdoh), Nasser El Sakran (Nasser the Drunkard), Ashraf El Brins (Prince Ashraf), Sameh El Mor’eb (The Terrifying Sameh), and Tarek El Aguib (The Bizarre Tarek).
Sometimes great upheavals and shifts in the very logic of cultural forms are palpable. We witness a sense of potential and possibility where the structure itself starts to tremble. It seems that this is one such moment.
The moulid is the central metaphor of many of these albums. Larger moulids attract millions of people from all over the country who camp out in the parks and on the streets of the different villages and cities where these seasonal celebrations take place. Zikr music is played in tents and courtyards, families visit shrines, merchants make deals, and sideshows, games, and amusements are all around the corner — everything can be found in one form or another.
Album titles such as Moulid El Magnouna (The Madwoman’s Moulid), Moulid El Sakrana (The Moulid of the Drunken One), Moulid El Segn (The Prison Moulid), and Moulid El Serk (Circus Moulid) sum up the radical, hallucinogenic spirit of these colorfully packaged tapes. The moulid here simultaneously stands for both the everyday world and its potential mirror image.
In Moulid El Segn, the slippage between the spirituality associated with the moulid and the concrete description of the conditions of life (one big prison) is palpable in both the music and the lyrics. A slow, heavily accented zikr beat is augmented by a raw, gruff voice declaiming “Prison! Prison!,” answered by the chorus “Has made it easy for us/We are at ease now.” In Moulid El Serk we will “walk on the walls” and “sweat oil,” and in “Moulid 2004” (included on Oul HaHa — Say HaHa,) the first compilation I bought a couple of years ago) the track ends with a simple and elegant sound summarizing the whole conundrum: “Boom.”
Pills and thrills
The influence of a specific drug culture on these musical productions is clear. Rather than stoned bliss-outs, we get the speedy, paranoid hysteria of amphetamines and the pumped-up confidence of Cairo’s very own Saliba pills. Drum machines and/or sampled and looped, slightly distorted tablas; the repetitive riffs and hoarse aggressive exhortations; spoken word and brief sung snippets all build to an almost unbearable state of tension and expectation. The MC regulates the release of this charged tension. A cycle of tension and release creates a state of suspension.
The carnival sideshow or bestiary is an apt metaphor for the world described by the MC, a world transformed into a cabinet of curiosities. It’s not romantic lyricism that our attention is drawn to, not virtuoso connoisseurship or even subversive class-consciousness anymore, but rather a brutal and obsessive sense of self. What is radical and new is the way the alien and fantastic becomes part of an operation in which a self is produced through the experiences of urban contemporary life. The popular form plunders its own heritage and twists its meaning to rearticulate a new reality suited to a new context, a reality which it then presents as a simulation.
Hence both pills and thrills are equally unreal, phantasms that exist within a self under stress, a self whose historical conditions were never on its side. In the space beyond meaning and categories there exists an unknowable surplus (what Bakhtin calls the “man in man”), a core that lies undefined, a quantity beyond measurement — yet this seeming transcendental surplus can only be enacted in daily life, in the culture we produce and consume. It is both surface and depth. If airbrushed pop can only present us with glossy escapist fantasies, a fleeting three-minute daydream best encapsulated in video-clips blaring out of TV sets, before returning to the trappings of a failed society, then Shaabiyat is a more material struggle with the surplus of that urban condition — a coming to terms with it that leads to the violent desire to claim power over the social space, desire that can only be purged by the production of new pleasures. This is that crystal-hard space in a social system where irrationality and neurosis can function as valid drives rather than being categorized as guilt-ridden sublimations of lived conditions. Therefore what is perverse in mainstream media (the eroticism of a child’s voice, for example) is here no longer perverse. Taboos aren’t broken, but relocated. The taboo has finally become totem.
Different forms of structural trembling
This is a genre that suddenly erupted without the requisite token star or charismatic figure. Shaabiyat (differentiated from the now more classical genre of Shaabi) is supported by a series of music labels devoted to the genre, each with its own stable of musicians and MCs. The tapes are distributed through a largely informal network of kiosks and street sellers. The competition remains fierce, though that doesn’t stop rival MCs and labels from sampling the hell out of each other.
A deliberate sense of amateurism and bluntness within this genre stands in stark contrast to the more classical Shaabi’s use of innuendo, which has been discarded in favor of the harsher and more damaging approach. The vulgar asserts itself as it is and frees itself from explanation, even pride. An aesthetic of reified brutality strangely fitting to the current historical moment is at play in both musical arrangement and the way the voice is treated and used. Different vocal samples — such as the speeded-up, slightly insane laughter of children — punctuate the distorted and heavily compressed megaphone shouts and groans. Female choruses (and on rare occasions second solo vocalists) moan in the throes of lustful hysteria. In some songs, deliberately bad covers of icons like Om Kolthoum are a retranslation, rather than an interpretation of the canon, productive in its magnetized violence.
One of the songs on the album Moulid El Sakrana, “The Man from Istanbul,” takes its lyrics from a nonsense children’s song about a man, his wife, his son and daughter, and her hair. The song breaks down when the main vocalist’s voice is suddenly accelerated — is this subversive humor or a darker sense of loss? Is it the form dissolving or rationality itself slowly breaking down? It might be that these productions point to a moment when a certain aspect of popular culture is rearticulated, a structural tremble made more potent through its origins in a popular mode.
Why the Korg Triton has become the guitar of a hundred slums
The perfect instrument for reflecting this kind of musical shift seems to be the shiny silver, highly flexible Korg Triton. The capability of the Triton to simulate many Oriental instruments while transforming them into electronic bits of sound seems to be part of its popularity. The wide array of novel sounds also feeds an audience hungry for titillation or a sense of wonder.
Maybe Cairo is finally waking up to the loss of pathos and emotions, laments and wounded machismo. Here there is no sympathy and no redemption anymore; here we are as hard as nails. Although we might still shed tears about the cruel world, double-crossing lovers, and the betrayal of friends, somewhere between the pounding drum machine and that insistent, radical synth riff, there’s no space for real lament. There is no claim to authenticity, only self-conscious performative gestures — in short, a simulation.
Dissonant riffs are repeated through a cloud of stabbing chords that punctuate the syncopated beat. Quotations from popular heritage are legion but drained of all their previous associations and, most importantly from any shred of nostalgia. In a process of willful dumbing down, heritage becomes an object. The popularity of phasers, flangers, reverbs, and other electronic sound effects help signify this transition.
Emptiness and automation
Shaabiyat is a genre that can potentially evacuate itself to present us with a form that is open enough for an engagement that is not merely based on interpretation. This is a genre that refuses to be ruled by the logic of any of the master signifiers or tropes of Egyptian popular culture. Class, although implicit, has been abandoned as a subject; eroticism is practiced rather than represented; and narratives to draw lessons from have disappeared. We’re left with a charged object to be encountered, loud, dumb, and present. Anger is one of the charges through which this music can become an object (ie something to encounter rather than material to interpret), through which the form itself can be born. Another is pleasure, and an apocalyptic sensibility. The message does not actually exist anymore; instead we have a friction with a specific sensibility.
In a popular culture where emotion has been substituted for kitsch in all dominant discourses, evacuated forms like Shaabiyat offer a new potential. Hence the deliberately amateurish delivery of a large number of the vocalists on these tapes is not merely an act of iconoclasm (this is not Sid Vicious singing Sinatra) but something more mysterious. The glamour of subversion is exchanged for something more automatic and basic, and thus more terrifying. This is a cultural product that can’t be assimilated by the mainstream because it is content, gesture, and empty space. A presence that is, rather than a category of meaning. Dichotomies of interiority and exteriority are thus rendered inoperative; there is only automation and pure presence.
Insistence and obsession rather than hypnosis and trance are the defining elements of these long, repetitive tracks. The solo doesn’t meander from the roots of the rhythm to soar up into transcendence, as it does in zikr or classical Arabic music, but persistently snakes itself around the pulse. The pounding beat is not a deep-down funk as much as a light laceration to the skin of the city.
The paradox of a fantasy that is deeply grounded in a social reality presents us with an ambiguous cultural moment. Voices that emerge from this deep dark space are ciphers of a negative mirror-image. It is as if larger cultural formations possess the same narcissistic relationships to their self-image as the lone individual does. Emergence — of voice, sound, place or an entity — is cyclical in nature and thus always lies in thrall of its own potential demise.
The cycle functions as a trap, a gap, a moment where repetition is enacted.
Share Muslin Gaze: The enigmatic afterlives of Bryn Jones
Death has had no noticeable effect on Bryn Jones’s musical output. If anything, he’s releasing music faster than ever. No fewer than fifty posthumous albums have hit the market since the passing, eight years ago, of the percussionist and electronic musician better known as Muslimgauze. There are now at least 180 Muslimgauze releases, and more are on the way (though Jones’s habit of mailing lengthy recordings to collaborators, with no instructions on what to do with the material, guarantees that nobody knows when the next will arrive). Staalplaat Records is offering a discount subscription — “for every new Muslimgauze limited release” — only fifty euros. Reissues keep appearing as well, often in new packaging, though much of his Borgesian discography remains out of print.
Jones’s work has only become more controversial in the years since an unspecified “blood fungus” killed the 37-year-old musician. His project began in 1983 as a personal response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. “Muslimgauze,” Jones tirelessly explained, “are pro-Arab/Palestinian and detest the vile stench of Israel.” Gone was EG Oblique Graph, his earlier nom de guerre. Jones reinvented himself, titling his project after a clumsy pun. Many of his album titles are unmistakable in their bias — The Rape of Palestine, Vote Hezbollah, United States of Islam. His song titles — “Submit to Sharia,” “Rabid Zionist Dog Muzzle,” “Israeli Bullet Passing Through the Body of a Palestinian Child” — followed suit. From the beginning, Muslimgauze’s album art revealed a predilection for repurposed Koranic calligraphy, the Ayatollah Khomeini, and photographs of veiled women hefting guns. It’s a cumbersome, intentionally provocative oeuvre. Especially for a white British guy with no familial ties to the Middle East. In fact, Muslimgauze wasn’t even a Muslim. He was a reclusive bedroom producer in cultural drag, who never set foot in an Islamic country.
I stumbled across Muslimgauze as a teenager, digging through the “experimental” crates of a record shop in downtown Boston. I was an industrial kid, a devotee of Test Department, amused and intrigued by the visual extremity of the expensive UK imports. On a listen, I was hooked: Jones’s influences were mine, too — Jamaican dub, Northern European industrial bands, avant-garde electronics. The Muslimgauze sound has ranged from moody ambience to tribal dance floor workouts. He worked primarily with drum machines, ethnic percussion, synthesizers, and tapes. Occasional melodies alluded to Arabic scales. Street recordings with snatches of Arab voices provided Jones with vague geopolitical verisimilitude, although there were never full vocals or lyrics. “Everything is very experimental,” he said. “A piece can be marvelous or shit.”
Folks whose first Muslimgauze encounter lay at the shit-end of the spectrum are often turned off for good. And some albums do sound like reverb-drenched World Muzak. Others stall out into painfully repetitive drumbeats. “You need Afghani opiates or Moroccan kif to enjoy it,” runs a common Muslimgauze joke. It’s not unfair to say that much of his output feels like the artifact of a ritual or drug reverie.
The electronica boom of the 1990s won Manchester’s bedroom visionary a new generation of fans, drawn to his restless experimentation. The minimal percussive pieces of his early years evolved in two directions. One branch continued to explore looped drums and distortion (though perhaps “explore” is too strong; certain tracks change so little that they sound like a skipping record). On the other hand, Muslimgauze‘s strongest work blossomed into hypnagogic soundfields, simultaneously tense and seductive, estranging and compelling, full of half-buried signifiers. The listener could never be sure how to fit it together, nor how to fit in. At its finest, Bryn Jones’s music emits a dark, dislocative power, a sonic illustration of what Freud meant by “the uncanny.”
Listening to songs like “8A.M., Tel Aviv, Islamic Jihad” helps one understand the strange genius of Muslimgauze. He had no interest in making Middle Eastern-sounding music. Jones was after Middle Eastern-sounding sound. He fetishized the poor (re)production quality of its cheap cassette tapes, obsessively reproducing those sonic effects. He made audio environments instead of songs. Distortion was his most obvious production trick, but Muslimgauze had a subtle and masterful hand with reverb — the art of positioning sounds in space. Indistinct noises swirl around, implying multiple narratives on the brink of intelligibility. If you hear his songs as space, their length and repetitive nature seem less like mistakes. But then you remember their titles. 8AM, Tel Aviv, Islamic Jihad! Regardless of one’s stance on the Arab-Israeli conflict, it’s unnerving to think of oneself as grooving along to a call to arms.
So why do I like this song as much as I do? I suppose it’s that I perceive his core convictions as at odds with his art. The Englishman’s fiercely black-and-white politics steamrolled Israeli humanity with such gusto that the texture and polyvalent reality of Arab life was flattened as well. But Muslimgauze’s music is too weird, too intrinsically vague to serve any political purpose. We face an awkward possibility: to hear Muslimgauze, we must not listen to Bryn Jones.
Nor pay much attention to his cover art. Although Muslimgauze’s imagery has always suggested to me some neo-Orientalist version of Leila Khaled’s cosmopolitan Hepburn-as-hijacker chic, it barely made an impression as I started to listen. As far as I could tell, knowing little about Jones, the band was steeped in industrial music’s culture of provocation. Laibach had the totalitarian-irony look down pat; Coil opted for a gay-magick vibe; Psychic TV fetishized Charles Manson and Jim Jones; Muslimgauze embraced militant Arab agitprop. Every “transgressive” band needed an outrage, and their album covers were neither more nor less meaningful than anyone else’s. Under the assumption that Muslimgauze was a group of British Arabs (secular, who probably dressed like Goths and wore eyeliner to the clubs), I disregarded the album art and dived into the music. It’s harder to do that now.
I wasn’t the only one who learned of his uncomfortable biographical details by reading the obituaries. Articles half-forgotten in underground magazines began circulating online; fans and critics started putting it all together. Christoph Fringeli, who runs the Praxis label, noted in his magazine Datacide that Jones himself insisted that his musical inspirations were entirely political, admiring “leaders such as Arafat, Khomeini, Qaddafi, Saddam, Abu Nidal, etc, as well as organizations such as the PLO, Hamas, and Hizbullah.” A grab bag of Islamists, communists, and old-fashioned Arab nationalists — “in short, everybody and everything that is waging war against Israel.”
“My enemy’s enemy is my friend” is dubious politics at best — especially for a white armchair Arabist making proclamations about a land he’d never visited. “Bryn Jones’s core convictions could only be maintained by massively simplifying tragically complex conflicts,” explains the Loosavor blog, “and they led him to develop a rather unwholesome fascination with, and even support for, despots and their repressive regimes.”
In a 1994 interview, Jones said, “I wouldn’t talk to any [Israelis]; the whole people are disgusting, so no, I wouldn’t.” A year later, Jones said that “Muslimgauze have no link with any Palestinians. They have enough trouble without having a Mancunian’s music thrust upon them. It’s the vile regime they have to live under that Muslimgauze finds so unacceptable. The situation will slide downwards into a final outcome, in the Palestinians’ favor. Any direct action taken in occupied Palestine is justified.” These themes remained constant. What to do about all the hate mail accusing Jones of bigotry and anti-Semitism? “Tell them to fuck off,” he told his webmaster.
And the albums keep coming. Some new Muslimgauze releases are being put out with even more controversial artwork. The No Human Rights for Arabs in Israel LP released during Jones’s lifetime came wrapped in a wonderfully understated sleeve made from handmade paper. Titles were impressed into the paper. The two posthumous versions by Staalplaat display a color photograph of a bloodied boy in bandages, one eye swollen shut. The image is photojournalism, a real artifact of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It’s no longer about art.
Or is it? I’m not the only one struggling to come to grips with the music’s context. One commentator on the music networking site Last.fm advises newcomers to “get past the ridiculously fundamentalist/trollish titles of his tracks and albums as they bear no relation to the music at all.” At the other end of the spectrum, a French fan lauds Muslimgauze for evoking Middle Eastern historical glories that span millennia: “Every piece recalls to us the Orient of Saladin, of the Great Father of the Martaque and his Hashascheem, Baalbek and Babylon, Baghdad and Jerusalem, Darius and the Persia empire.” (And I thought I was a careful listener!) London-based musician Seth Ayyaz notes that Muslimgauze “was about intensity, anger, fear, rage, injustice, no hope… the older generations of [Arab] musicians, they couldn’t get it.” And yet, Bryn Jones “made perfect sense to those of us growing up as part of the UK Muslim diaspora, unable to identify with white British culture, nor [the culture] ‘back home.’ Deep in Thatcher’s capitalist bunker, miners’ strikes, unremitting pro-Israeli propaganda, the man was a fractured lock groove, and a kind of hash-hashin of early techbeats. At once of the traditions, but very alien from it.”
A few months ago, my band, Nettle, performed in Berlin. Among the other acts was Geert-Jan Hobijn, Staalplaat label-boss and de facto executor of Muslimgauze’s work. Hobijn was responsible for the photo of the brutalized boy on No Human Rights. The Dutch musician had been invited to DJ unreleased Muslimgauze music.
After our gig some German friends apologized to me backstage. “A lot of people wanted to see you play, but they boycott anti-Semitic music like Muslimgauze.”
Earlier that night I’d caught Hobijn’s sound check. He had arranged four or five air-raid sirens around the room and stood onstage by a table with DJ equipment. The rumbling soundtrack made me think of war-sudden volume spikes, indistinct murmurs, uncomfortable sounds. Loud. Other people’s sound checks are always annoying, but this one was excruciating. Hobijn’s air-raid sirens had been wailing for five straight minutes. He frowned, fidgeted with his equipment. “They are glorifying the ambiance of war,” I told myself, “taking pleasure in simulating a Western media-fantasy of the Middle East, configured as both conflictive and timeless.”
The sirens continued. My bandmate Abdelhak Rahal, a Moroccan, was grinning. The klaxons blazed on. What had it been — ten, fifteen minutes now? People had their fingers in their ears. The bar-staff had left, shooting Hobijn ugly stares on their way out. Hobijn — primary caretaker (or occupier) of Muslimgauze territory — couldn’t switch off his own alarms. Abdelhak had to shout for me to hear him over the din. “These sirens… It’s just like Fez during Ramadan! This is how they call everybody to dinner!”
He closed his eyes, nodding appreciatively as a nostalgic smile spread across his face.
In its twenty-fifth year, Tehran’s Fajr Film Festival featured sixty films in several competitive sections, selected by a board of gatekeepers who adhere to conditions laid out by the Ministry of Culture and decide what should be shown when and where.
Twenty-eight features, plus a fifteen-director portmanteau film, Farsh-e Irani (Persian Carpet), competed for the Crystal Simorgh in the national film competition. Deemed the highlight of the festival before it began, Farsh-e Irani attempted to take on the subject of one omnipresent cultural element in Iranian life.
It’s a testament to the power of the Iranian carpet that the big names of Iranian cinema — including Majid Majidi, Behram Bezaii, Bahman Farmanara, and Abbas Kiarostami — were brought together “under one loom” for the first time. The film, when considered as a single feature, was a disappointment. Jafar Panahi’s standout contribution, which focused on the pecuniary aspect of the rugs and how investing in them affects family relations, was a standout, however.
Audiences at Fajr tend to be quite participatory when it comes to the crowded public screenings of competition section films. Directors either relish the recognition or lash out indiscriminately, depending on the reactions of audience and the jury to their work. Competition winners invariably maintain that winning the award will make their work harder to do next time, but in practice their subsequent films often seem more conservative. Meanwhile, those who feel shortchanged usually provide no shortage of drama; that drama has a special place in Tehranis’ hearts and is an integral part of festival entertainment.
The awards ceremony is quite distinct from the popular vote. Those who abide by conditions set by the Ministry of Culture tend to be the ones who both distribute and receive awards. Even this year’s “controversial” winner, Khoon Bazi (Mainline), generally followed approved trends, featuring drug problems in a broken family.
Khoon Bazi was about the prevalence of illegal drug use among Iranian youth. It was a somewhat unusual award-winner, given its quality and theme and the fact that it was a largely independent production. Bani-Etemad wanted to shake up middle-class cinephiles, and the film is a worthy, sharp reminder of the extent of hard drug use in Iran. But there was something of a conflict between the film’s innovative style — handheld cinematography, use of black-and-white with sepia, and febrile acting, especially by Bani-Etemad’s talented daughter, Baran Kowsari — and its message, which seemed to posit wayward family values as the source of the problem.
The Crystal Simorghs this year was shared by Rakhshan Bani-Etemad and Mohsen Abdolvahab’s Khoon Bazi and Mohammad Hossein Latifi’s war drama Ruz-e Sevvom (The Third Day). Despite multiple nominations, critical favorite Otobus-e Shabaneh (The Night Bus), an original take on war by director Kioumars Pourahmad, was largely overlooked.
As mentioned, controversy is as much a part of Fajr as predictable awards ceremonies, and a bit of media hype can work wonders for ambitious producers. Ekhraji-ha (The Outcasts), a comedy about four hoodlums who enlist in the army during the Iran-Iraq War, drew massive crowds during the festival, causing traffic jams around the theaters. None of the lead characters go to the front for the usual heroic reasons, and the film’s message is ultimately one of tolerance—something of a U-turn for the director, Masoud Dehnamaki, who was known for publishing right-wing periodicals before he turned to directing films.
Convinced he would bag Best Film, Dehnamaki found that his film wasn’t even included in the official competition. At the closing ceremony, called onstage by producer Mohsen Kasesaz, who generously offered him his award, Dehnamaki declared cynically that “Iranian cinema is like its politics, and its politics is like cinema,” before leaving the stage, swearing about the bourgeois organizers. The Outcasts began its general screening during the Nowruz holiday in April and continues to break box office records.
In comparison, the sideshow of international films (including Bobby, The Caiman, and The Illusionist) was somewhat dull in entertainment terms. The festival should be commended for offering local audiences and critics the chance to see films denied distribution during the rest of the year, even if many of them end up cut by up to thirty minutes. Some local critics, while questioning Fajr’s censorship policies, tempered their comments by comparing Fajr’s international outlook to this year’s Cannes Film Festival program, which, unusually, didn’t include a single Iranian film — a decision which, in Iran, is generally understood to be political, rather than one of aesthetics.
Much as in the case of its American cousin, the Academy Awards, there is no competition as such at Fajr, and, in common with many international festivals, the Tehran showcase tends to be something of a formality that reflects the worldview of its organizers. For ten days a year, it entertains critics and audiences — but not always in the right way or for the right reasons.
— Hamed Safeaee
Translated by TehranAvenue
February 8–18, 2007
After a golden 2006 festival, when Iran alone had seven films screened, this year’s Berlinale was something of a washout for Arab cinema in general and Iranian cinema in particular. Quizzed as to why the only Middle Eastern films present in competition were from Turkey and Israel, Berlinale director Dieter Kosslick pointed to the films outside the official selection, which were being screened for buyers and industry delegates in the market, rather than admitting to any bias or making reference to the humdrum state of filmmaking in the region. Most of the market films, however, had already premiered elsewhere; some, such as Bahman Ghobadi’s Half Moon, were festival veterans.
Joseph Cedar’s Beaufort, the story of the last unit of Israeli soldiers to be pulled out of southern Lebanon in 2000, had a good run, taking the Best Director prize, while Dror Shaul took the Generation 14plus award for young filmmakers with Sweet Mud, starring young discovery Tomer Steinhof.
In the Panorama sidebar section, Özer Kiziltan’s outstanding Takva: A Man’s Fear of God was presented as a cinéma vérité portrait of Muharrem (Müfit Aytekin), a debt collector and devout member of a conservative Islamic sect. Berlinale darling Eytan Fox delivered a fresh, if flawed, take on life in Tel Aviv with The Bubble, the story of three young gay peace activists (played by Ohad Knoller, Daniela Wircer, and Alon Friedmann) who befriend Ashraf (Yousef “Joe” Sweid), a Palestinian. They help him to stay on in Tel Aviv illegally, before politics catches up with their friendship.
Meanwhile, Hiner Saleem, of Vodka Lemon and Kilometer Zero fame, delivered more of the same with Dol, another road trip through Kurdistan defined by the Iraqi Kurd’s laconic style and ironic visual humor.
The participation of young Arab and Iranian filmmakers in Berlinale’s Talent Campus, a series of workshops and discussions, did offer some hope for future years. The talk at “Ex Oriente Pix,” a seminar led by seasoned directors and producers Ferid Boughedir, Michel Khleifi, Irit Neidhart, Simone Bitton, and Dora Bouchoucha, centered around that periodic question of whether it is possible to produce films in the region that aren’t defined by bombs, checkpoints, or war — or rather, whether it’s possible to gain international funding and distribution for individual tales that diverge from the expected.
— Marleen Dyett
Istanbul International Film Festival
March 31–April 15, 2007
Istanbul’s annual film showcase is traditionally more international than its older cousin, the Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival, but this year’s event felt almost like a celebration of homegrown cinema. The festival screened 237 films and featured a range of curated events, including master classes and talks by renowned directors such as Gus Van Sant, Tsai Ming-liang, Park Chan-wook, and Paul Schrader, but — reflecting the current buoyancy of the local industry — much of the focus was on the sixteen Turkish films in the national competition.
In previous years, festival programmers have found it difficult to select enough local films for the festival, given the paltry number produced; this year, production was up to over thirty (both commercial and “art”) films, and their quality as well as quantity was reflected in the festival’s program.
Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Climates (which won the Best Turkish Film award) and Zeki Demirkubuz’s Destiny (Best Turkish Director and FIPRESCI awards) have both been hailed internationally, but there were also new discoveries — particularly Özer Kızıltan’s Takva: A Man’s Fear of God and Dervis Zaim’s Waiting for Heaven, an attempt to explore the possibilities of two-dimensional Ottoman miniature aesthetics on film.
Other films were indicative of new themes in popular Turkish cinema. Home Coming (Ömer Ugur), Zincirbozan (Atıl Inaç), and Beynelmilel (Sırrı Süreyya Önder and Muharrem Gülmez) all dealt with the (formerly taboo) subject of the 1980 coup d’état and its aftermath. These films have opened up an atypical, public space for discussion of the political and social consequences of the coup — something local audiences took up with enthusiasm. The Taylan brothers’ The Little Apocalypse and Onur Ünlü’s Police were also novel in their attempts to break down the boundaries between mainstream and art films, to be experimental while achieving the broad appeal of popular cinema. The Taylan brothers’ thriller, centered on an anticipated future Istanbul earthquake, was an especially noteworthy example of auteur cinema working within popular conventions.
In addition to the competitions, established sidebars, and inspired sections devoted to directors Pier Paolo Pasolini, Gus Van Sant, Bob Fosse, and Hayao Miyazaki, a small new section curated by celebrated author and film critic Fatih Özgüven, was a compelling and resolutely local element. Titled “Tears on Burning Rocks,” the section was dedicated to Rainer Werner Fassbinder and included some of his films, plus others that somehow touch or were touched by Fassbinder’s cinema. Directors such as Douglas Sirk and François Ozon were included, as well as some Turkish films Fassbinderesque in their treatment of gender, sexuality, and oppression. This section of the festival made for an exceptional dialogue between national and international films.
Over the past few years, Cairo has seen a large number of independent short video productions that have garnered attention, hailed as manifestations of a vibrant new alternative scene. In light of the hype, it’s important to take a step back and question whether the euphoria is merited. How do the works operate within their own contexts as art? Why do local audiences and international curators privilege them in the first place? Perhaps it would be productive to begin by acknowledging these as diverse works that don’t so much constitute a scene as comprise a variety of responses to the lack thereof — a register of a time and place, but not a place of action.
A young man pins his friend against a wall outside a building in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Cairo. The camera pans left to frame a wild dog ambling amid the trash and concludes the pan with a shot of the street opening onto a sky of nothingness. This is how Folous Mayeta (2006), directed by Rami Abdul Jabbar, ends, after the men have evolved from illegal street merchants into killers extracting retribution of “dead money” for their lady boss. Engaged in a fight over the spoils of their work, their animosity comes abruptly after a night of drunken debauchery — then the film ends. In many circles, and most recently by a major critic, the film was framed as a daring and comic social commentary about street youth. Still, its weakly structured plot, bolstered by techniques that seem directly informed by commercials for Melody satellite channel (caricatured characters) and Egyptian television programs (wide-angle zoom and slapstick plot developments), fails to deliver an additional spin on popular culture or a more profound understanding of the tools used. And thus the film fails to engage knowingly in the terms of its own discourse.
Central (2005), directed by Mohamad Hammad, proves to be another film distinguished by an over-reliance on stylistic technique. Narrated by a veiled girl who operates a telephone call center and passes her time listening to the customers’ calls (all of a clandestine or sexual nature), the film presents the hypocrisy of social masks, embodied in religiously signifying clothing and behavior underneath which characters are revealed to be perverts, deviants, liars, thieves, and adulterers. Again we’re presented with caricatures, a whole parade of them. The graphic and stylistic elements are pronounced in a way that directly reference Egyptian TV without offering any kind of commentary — stylistic, narrative, or ironic — on this heritage. Despite its promising and intriguing premise, it is, in short, an opportunity lost.
A third film that attempts the dramatization of real social issues with poorly executed representations of street culture is Rajulha (2005), directed by Aytin Amin. Ostensibly about the plight of lower-class women, the director reveals her own presumptions, assuming the right to represent her subject and seeming to exploit that subject in order to market the film as a “feminist commentary.” In the end, the film provides only a reductive view of female relations within this class, complete with crude performances by unconvincing actors who seem to have little in common with the women they’re portraying. The conceit of exploring an unspoken dimension of woman-to-woman relations among the poor through the “shock” element of a lesbian seduction scene, relies on the seductive topicality of lower-class women to cover the film’s weak conception and structure. The short story by Ahdaf Soueif on which it is based, about a woman who schemes a way to dispose of her husband’s younger second wife, loses something in this adaptation to screen; there is no tension built into the women’s relationship. Instead, the plot rushes towards the seduction and its mistaken “feminist statement,” which seems targeted towards those who might read the film as “representative” of social and gendered realities among the Egyptian poor.
Strangely, these films are deemed by local cineastes as emblematic of a brave new world of independent filmmaking. But they seem to be confused as to what that world is. Could such praise be inspired by the mere “shoestring budget” aspect of films made by individuals working outside of an established, mainstream film industry? Truly independent cinema was originally identified for its counter-voices, counter-techniques, and counter-arguments to hegemonic cinematic systems and discourse. Shallow in content and overly concerned with the stylistic embellishments made easy with digital video, most of these Cairo films seem invested in the technology of production rather than ideas or content.
So why have these films acquired such local acclaim? Is there such desperation for new forms, new voices, new approaches to what has been felt for so long to be a crisis in Egyptian cinema and culture that anything will do? Have those who hail these films forgotten their criteria, or do they simply not know what independent cinema is? Has Egypt become an advertising-driven economy to the extent that the youth are salesmen first, before they are artists? Why hasn’t the country’s long history of cinema filtered into the visual vernacular of these films in a conscious or creative way? (Historically,independent cinema is very conscious of its forebears and points of departure.) These questions are difficult to answer.
When we watch these films, lured by the promise of a “new independent film scene,” we find there is nothing new about works that mimic television styles and narrative tricks and the generic social stereotypes that are profligate in Egyptian literature. In trying to impose the labels of “new” and “scene,” we just widen the perceptual/social/cultural void that Egyptian artists and intellectuals have been decrying since the 1980s (caused by bureaucratization, oligarchic governance, and lack of human rights). We need to engage critically with these films, even if they don’t engage their own subjects, because they’re part of a wider cultural context.
And so, in grasping for newness, without interrogating the frames of reference, we are only reinventing the wheel. It seems a far stretch to define these few films as “independent” in any meaningful sense, despite the fashionable currency of such terms. Perhaps this is where we should be, at the zero degree looking into the chaos, rather than in reactionary mode against the void.
Make Everything New: A Project on Communism
Edited by Grant Watson, Gerrie van Noord, and Gavin Everall
Book Works, 2006
Over the past couple of years, philosophers and artists have slowly begun to question the doom-and-gloom pessimism that has defined far-left attitudes toward utopia since the end of the Second World War. For the Frankfurt School, Enlightenment rationalism led inexorably to fascism. For the deconstructionists of the 1970s and 80s, “progress” was intimately connected to systems of oppression, violence, and colonization. Today, by contrast, a growing body of post-Marxist literature suggests that workers’ movements have perhaps less to fear vis-à-vis the future than was previously thought.
Take Empire (2000), for example, Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s ode to the decline of the nation-state, in which they argue that the deregulation of markets and the proliferation of the internet are having the paradoxical effect of allowing workers to organize, coordinate, and articulate their interests quickly and efficiently, albeit on an ad hoc basis. McKenzie Wark’s A Hacker Manifesto (2004) makes the point that internet file sharing, open-source networking, and DIY activism are positing new ways to think about agency and political change. Moreover, Make Everything New: A Project on Communism (2007) asks us to consider the ways in which art
can participate in helping us better understand the complex relationship between politics and social change. Inspired by the writings of Giorgio Agamben and Machiavelli, it addresses “the microfascisms… that stitch together our sense of being and bind it to power.” The book catalogs a range of strategies for thinking about community, in an effort to question prevailing assumptions about efficiency, individuality, and the relationship between production and consumption.
A central concern of Make Everything New is the importance of trust in contemporary politics — as well as the opportunities that trust may afford us in negotiating new territories and new models. Artist Maria Eichhorn, for example, discusses a project in which she used her production budget for the Yokohama Triennale “to open a joint bank account, which would be freely available to all.” She explains that the idea was to make “each participant… equally responsible for their own transaction.” Also in the book, in an interview with Rene Gabri and Ayreen Anastas of 16Beaver, Martha Rosler talks about her present work on criticality and information exchange, as well as the “need for social transformation.” Rosler recounts why she made her private library available to the public in 2005 and 2006, and how the bartering and sharing of knowledge raises central questions about the market economy and its place in information-centered societies. Finally, AA Bronson recounts his involvement in General Idea, a multimedia artist and design collective that was dedicated to devising cooperative and consensus-driven approaches to art-making, from the 1960s to the 90s. “Morning coffee and dinner were always done as a group,” she notes.
And then there’s that familiar elephant in the room: capitalism. In an echo of postmodern critiques of Marxism from the 1970s and 80s, Michael Blum talks about the way in which the utopianism of the early twentieth-century design avant-garde was co-opted by large-scale corporate interests after World War II. “Today, utopia’s remnants are made available worldwide by IKEA,” he writes. Earlier in the book, in an interview with Aleksandra Mir, Jim Fitzpatrick offers a stranger-than-life account of his role in designing the famous black, white, and red silkscreen poster celebrating South American revolutionary Che Guevara. First printed in 1968, the poster was meant to be copied and reproduced. Fitzpatrick intentionally never claimed copyrights for it, which, as the interviewer points out, proved to be both a blessing and a curse.
While not exercising his intellectual property rights allowed Fitzpatrick to disseminate his ideas widely and helped galvanize the cause of leftist radicalism, over the long term it made Fitzpatrick’s work (not to mention Che’s image) vulnerable to exploitation and appropriation. As Mir put it, “the whole industry of Che imagery, the mass industry of Che paraphernalia now, from mouse pads to ashtrays to T-shirts, is mainly using the silkscreen process, which means they are mainly referring back” to Fitzpatrick’s poster. “So your creativity is always going to be part of that whole industry.”
The strength of Make Everything New is its diversity of voices and its interest in exploring politically engaged art (which we see all too seldom in the American art scene). The piece by Eichhorn is particularly strong in the way that it interrogates the economic underpinnings of artistic production with the precision and moral indifference of Franz Kafka’s Josef K, Eichhorn positions herself as a collector of facts rather than artifacts, which bespeaks the way in which today’s growing fetish for information management and data control is redefining concepts of value and authenticity in the arts. On the other hand, the book is also flawed, in that many of its contributors fail to articulate and explore the broader implications suggested by their work. Martha Rosler’s collectivized and cooperative forms of expression sound great in theory, for example, but they can also lend themselves to predatory cultural practices. Although she fashions her e-flux project as a democratic experiment in knowledge-sharing and information exchange, she could also be said to be participating in the outsourcing of artistic production. (People write her books, yet she ultimately “owns” them.) Why is there not a strategy for dealing with questions of ownership and property in Rosler’s recent work? And is there a difference for her between access and exhibitionism?
While Make Everything New raises salient questions about the relationship between art and politics, it fails to scrutinize the ways in which countless existing cultural venues, from MySpace to YouTube, already utilize interactive and user-driven strategies of communication and knowledge production in order to leverage their commercial and financial interests. Notions such as “community” and “cooperation” do represent potentially interesting new directions for artists and activists alike, but to explore these relationships, we need to see a more rigorous critical examination of the concepts and the contexts of interactivity, access, and trust. In the end, Make Everything New may leave you feeling encouraged about the nascent activism and engagement in some corners of the art world, but it may also be myopic, overlooking some less uplifting, and in some cases decidedly unsettling, territory. This is not to say that community and cooperation should be consigned to the dustbin of history, but a more skeptical engagement with the Now would have made for more valuable reading.
Tal’aat El Badan
By Mosaad Abu Fajr
Over the past two decades, a trend known as the “literature of the desert” has emerged in contemporary Arabic letters. A treatment of desert life and a focus on the anthropological details of desert cultures are its defining features. Writers such as the Saudi Abd El Rahman Munif, the Libyan novelist Ibrahim El Kony, and young Egyptian writer Miral Tahawy are all exponents of the genre. Munif’s rigidly political perspective focuses on the demographic and social changes wrought upon Bedouin society by the appearance of oil, while El Kony attempts to trace the mystical and existential dimension of Bedouin life, and Tahawy presents a detailed depiction of the life of a wealthy Bedouin family living on the borderline between desert and countryside, as told from a female perspective.
Mosaad Abu Fajr’s debut novel Tal’aat El Badan, however, is quite different amidst this crowd. Abu Fajr’s focus is on the nomadic Sinai Bedouins, wandering between the Sinai desert and the expanses of Palestine through porous and imprecise borders drawn over the years by the various occupation forces, Ottoman, British, and Israeli. He looks at how the tumultuous political history of this region has played a violent role in shaping the lives of these tribes. Abu Fajr’s most important contribution is his attempt (not wholly successful) at introducing through the novel
a new individuated Bedouin subjectivity.
The novel opens with the narrator contemplating his face in his pickup truck’s side mirror, describing a scar that his mother, under the advice of the tribal fakir (a sort of local witch doctor), had inflicted on him as a child to protect him from harm. With this image Abu Fajr boldly lays down the first details of what promises to be a complex portrait of a character and a society. Unfortunately, it’s a portrait that by the end of the novel seems incomplete.
The conflict of the Bedouin with the world around him is what motivates the action of the novel. Abu Fajr charts the tense relationship between the Bedouins of Sinai and the centralized Egyptian government. When narrator Rabie’ and his friend Ouda contemplate a historical object at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, depicting the pharaoh of Egypt humiliating a Bedouin on one of many punitive campaigns, the two friends are gazing into a past that only leads them back to the present, where the brutality of police officers is a daily reality.
But still, the Bedouins aren’t depicted solely as victims. Abu Fajr honestly portrays their disdain for the peasant dwellers of the Nile valley. “[The] Bedouin is willing to give up his life for freedom,” the narrator says, “while the peasant forfeits his freedom for life.” The free Bedouin is pitted against the peasant, who succumbs to the central power of the Egyptian government, which in turn grants him the irrigation rights to farm his land.
Freeform associations between different voices and registers propel the text; the personal history of the narrator and his friends are intermixed with the tales of their ancestors, revealing parallels among the different historical conditions under which the Bedouin experience has been formed. The opportunity to tackle the forging of an individuated subjectivity in relation to an external force, be it the state or the peasant, however, isn’t utilized.
Similar dynamics are evidenced in the author’s treatment of the tourist presence in Sinai. The presence of different Europeans is significant and is integrated, through his part-time work as a guide, into the life of the narrator; their presence, by extension, is seen as part and parcel of the contemporary Bedouin experience. Galit and Thomas, a Romanian photographer and a German Satanist, are two tourists whom Rabie’ joins in various small and ultimately ridiculous adventures. But the narrator’s voice remains embedded in its past, his subjectivity stuck between the tribal collective and his attempts to stand distinct from it.
Cairo, where the narrator spends his university years, is another lost opportunity. Although the city, in its overwhelming anonymity, is a prime environment for the crystallization of an individual voice, its presence within the text is faint. Rabie’ only mixes with his fellow Bedouins and his Yemeni friend Hemeid; even his colleague, Zohra, who falls in love with him during his student years, hails from Bedouin origins.
In Tal’aat El Badan, standard contemporary Arabic idiom is used in favor of classical poetics, allowing for an easier integration of the Bedouin dialect and the usage of a few Hebrew sentences without having to rely on textual clarifications or overwrought linguistic translation. In the case of the Bedouin dialect, Abu Fajr gambles on our growing sense of proximity to the culture to be able to decipher the dialect, while in the latter case he allows us to guess meaning based on the context, a task made easier by Hebrew’s phonetic similarity to Arabic.
Notwithstanding the dominance of the novel’s subject over formal aesthetic concerns, it’s still a decent read. But it needed more precision, greater rigor, tougher editing, and, above all, a stronger narrative voice. Interestingly, Tal’aat El Badan (literally, the arising of the body) is the name of a mountain situated in the heartland of tribal territory that bears more than a passing resemblance to a human body rising out of the sand. Similarly the hero of our novel remains, without much of an inner world, stuck like Hegel’s sphinx — while his head is lifted to the sky, he’s half-immersed in sand, a striking metaphor for the novel’s failure to represent a fully formed individual consciousness.
Creative Reckonings: The Politics of Art and Culture in Egypt
By Jessica Winegar
Stanford University Press, 2006
The assumption of an anthropological posture in art contexts, if done right, can have the effect of the strategic name-drop, intended to inspire anxiety in others and signal one’s own familiarity and access. The earnest and diligent approach of the true anthropologist can seem dull by comparison.
Better perhaps to be suggestive and opaque. Creative Reckonings, Jessica Winegar’s recent book on “what it means to practice modern art from a location and history traditionally positioned at the periphery of Euro-American modernisms,” was researched over a period of eight years (1996–2004), during which time she intermittently visited and lived in Cairo. Winegar is careful to point out that hers is not a formal analysis of artwork or discussion of the merits of individual artists; hers is a piece of anthropological scholarship, and this approach, she asserts, is in fact appropriate to the concerns and discourse-based dynamics of her subjects: Egypt’s “arts interlocutors.”
The “nation” functions critically within Winegar’s analysis as a framework for “perceiving and evaluating artworks, for articulating one’s understandings of history and social change, for making sense of one’s experiences, and for making, staking, and organizing political claims.” She understands the nation — rightly, I think — as a lens through which artistic and intellectual practice are defined and pursued, enforcing always the validating concept of “the modern.” Egypt’s uneven neoliberal reforms of the 1990s opened the country up to foreign investment and financial restructuring, while the development of organized arts activity outside the sphere of state hegemony was treated as a threat, not only to a post-revolutionary, government-sanctioned cultural production, but also to its attendant agendas of social policy and national image-management. As Winegar tells us, the establishment of commercial and independent galleries and a novel outside interest in young Egyptian artists reinvigorated old tensions whose dividing lines and loyalties — in a context variously iterated as postcolonial, quasi-postsocialist, and quasi-neoliberal — are far from straightforward. Her introductory discussion argues compellingly for a highly contested field in a state of flux, an arena of visual arts production fundamentally informed by an awareness of art practice as a mode of self-representation situating the artist in relation to long contested tropes of culture and nationality.
Though the nation is a recurrent theme throughout, Winegar also insists on the importance of generational interrelation and class-related dynamics. A chapter entitled “Freedom of Talk: Cultural Policy and the Transforming State” looks at the role of state institutions in defining the “position-takings available to artists” and government arts policy from Nasser to Mubarak. Other chapters deal with arts education in the public sector, practices and ideologies of collecting, the relationship of artists to the public, and discursively defined ideas of artistic authenticity. She ends with a discussion of the development of the private sector and the increasing interface between “local” and “international” arts practices. Perhaps the most important aspect of this work is its act of articulation; the complexity underlying the dynamics of art practice, exhibition, and selling in Egypt is rarely spelled out, as though to do so were somehow bad form.
At times, though, Winegar’s brand of anthropology seems to be just that — a brand, a mode. As soon as her “arts interlocutors” and “subjects” step outside the asserted scholarly frame of research, the impulse to document and explain feels somewhat perverse. Awkwardly personal and confessional passages meant to acknowledge her involvement within the sphere she is documenting are interspersed with overly schematic mappings of the discourses people draw on to represent and situate themselves socially, politically, and culturally. Individuals, conversations, and casual moments are made to represent aspects of her analysis. She visits a young collector whom she describes as “exemplify[ing] how neoliberal capitalist globalization has actually enhanced the national attachments of some of its biggest Egyptian beneficiaries — especially in the realm of the collection and display of culture.” Yet the passage opens with a disclosure that serves only to signal Winegar’s superficial investment in the situation and rather gauche and unimaginative “cultural” frame of reference: “As an anthropologist from the United States, I always have to wonder what is going on when I enter a fieldwork situation and suddenly become very comfortable. Cultural differences seem to fall by the wayside, and you feel as if you are just hanging out with ‘one of your own.’”
Explaining the intricacies of artistic practice and discourse in Egypt is certainly worthwhile. Ultimately, however, Winegar’s approach seems to offer little while claiming much. Her studied analysis lacks a sense of poetics and fails to capture how and why self-conception and representation are necessary and deeply compelling in these contexts. One is left with good intentions, a certain amount of valuable information, and an introduction to a complex and highly loaded situation. But one also has the sense of having been cheated out of a more compelling reality.
Share Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige: Circle of Confusion
Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige: Circle of Confusion
April 22–June 2, 2007
Lebanese artists who’ve taken the aftermath of the armed conflicts in Lebanon between 1975 and 1990 as their point of departure have seen their individual interests crystallize into a kind of unanimous poetic sensibility. Artists such as Walid Raad, Tony Chakar, Akram Zaatari, Jayce Salloum, Jalal Toufic, and Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige have translated an insidiously complicated political situation into a kaleidoscopic metanarrative. Merging structuralist resolve with cynical disbelief, scientific objectivity with stabs of emotion, they describe what it is to live between a “surpassing disaster” (in the words of Toufic) and its (premature) reconciliation: a chain of events, images, denials, and orphaned memories.
In Circle of Confusion, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s first New York exhibition of photo and video works at CRG Gallery in Chelsea, the artist and filmmaker couple/team show a number of works of this vein. Circle of Confusion, the central work of the exhibition, features a large-scale cityscape of Beirut as seen from an approaching aircraft. (The term “circle of confusion” is used in photography to describe the circular shape of the “optical spot” made by out-of-focus objects.) The image is cut into a grid whose sections can be removed by viewers to expose patches of mirror beneath. When a viewer removes a section of the grid, she finds “Beirut does not exist” written on the reverse. The exposed patches of mirror interrupting the cityscape make Beirut appear to be psychically bombed-out, the result of a systematic process of elimination.
The pair’s iconic Wonder Beirut (The Story of a Pyromaniac Photographer), 1998–2006 is accompanied by a narrative of the titular photographer, Abdallah Farah, who was ostensibly commissioned by the Lebanese state in the late 1960s to take photographs of the Lebanese Riviera and Beirut’s hotels, for eventual publication in postcard format. In 1975, as fighting began, Farah began carefully burning his images of a leisurely day-glo Lebanon, in such a way as
to correspond to and mimic damage done to the real locations represented. What results is a kind of spontaneous portraiture whose uncanny correlation to war-ravaged Beirut speaks about the inexplicable dimensionality of images themselves.
The name of the series comes from the most iconic of the works, a postcard in which the text WONDERFUL BEIRUT has been partially burned to leave the ambivalent WONDER BEIRUT. Excavating the story of Abdallah Farah, Hadjithomas and Joreige become researchers displaying their findings and recontextualizing found objects. As artists they fabricate a position of objectivity and removal, boosting the integrity of the objects themselves, rendering history and source contestable. It’s a game of belief and disbelief played by more than a few Lebanese artists — they give you a lie, and you’re left to respond by declaring the truth as it applies to you.
On the facing wall, another work considered to be a part of the Wonder Beirut series, called Latent Images, features photographs of undeveloped rolls of film accompanied by indexed lists of images supposedly latent in the rolls. As the inverse of the “overexposed,” scorched images of the Wonder Beirut postcards, which have been “seen to death,” in a certain sense, the latent images are images not yet born.
Another large-scale work in the exhibition, 180 Seconds of Lasting Images, contains another narrative. This work is made of prints from a three-minute Super-8 film shot by Joreige’s uncle, Alfred Keecineh Jr, before his abduction in 1985. After having been left in a house that sustained shelling and bombings, the reel of film exhibits not only the images that were recorded intentionally on the film, but also a material memory of being burned and scorched by bombing. Hadjithomas and Joreige display the small and insignificant prints in a cubic spiral that opens from a center, staying true to the coiled layering of a reel of film. Certain patches are scorched, some on the exterior only and some penetrating deeper.
By identifying certain structural loopholes, Hadjithomas and Joreige hit upon forms through which the repressed memory can be displayed alongside the expressed. The lightness of their touch (or its purported absence) claims that this repressed aspect is already near the surface, and that only a slight gesture is required to bring it out to stand openly alongside the form that contained it.
In a separate room, a video piece called Distracted Bullets features five “manifestations of joy,” all shot from the same vista overlooking Beirut. The five filmed events, ranging from New Year’s Eve 2005 to Samir Geagea’s release from prison later that year, are celebrated with fireworks and gunfire reminiscent of an air raid. The sense of doom accidentally expressed by these manifestations reveals an uncanny flipside to the celebration, and in so doing, triggers the harrowing thought that, in a politically charged situation, every gesture contains its inverse.
A Forest and a Tree
March 15–April 14, 2007
The presentation of non-hegemonic artistic positions at the Kunsthalle Exnergasse isn’t new. On the contrary, this decidedly alternative Vienna art institution has historically made a conscious effort to include feminist, young, unknown, and even non-Western artists in the space’s diverse themed exhibitions — all without seeming to labor under the burdensome rubric of “otherness.” But a recent exhibition at the Kunsthalle took a stab at a different approach. A forest and a tree, organized by Pelin Uran, proposed to raise the question of whether it is possible to engage with works outside of standard national, ethnic, and cultural frameworks — a worthy endeavor, to be sure. In spite of its noble ambitions, however, there was little that connected the individual works within the exhibition beyond their being vaguely political and the products of rather established artists.
Yael Bartana’s video Trembling Time (2001), for example, has made countless appearances, already having been shown at the 2003 Manifesta in Ljubljana, among other locales. The video, which depicts a moment of silence on Israel’s national Day of the Fallen Soldier, shows a multi-lane motorway on which drivers suddenly slow down for the brief pause of remembrance. The artist blurs the lights, slows down the video’s movement, and in this way charges this nocturnal ritual with an eerie, almost unsettling effect; even to viewers unfamiliar with the specific context, this appears as a subtle meditation on the power of ritual.
Equally minimal in nature, Jakub Ferri’s piece commented on the commodifying tendencies of the art world. In Save Me, Help Me (2003), the artist, sitting on his bed, addresses potential collectors and curators, trying in his broken English to sell his works to them. In doing so, he presents not only his own works, but also himself: a young cultural producer, utterly exotic, bowing to the logic of the neoliberal mode of exchange.
While Ferri treated his desire to attain success unceremoniously and used irony to riff on the world in which he is situated, Emily Jacir, Phil Collins, and Esra Ersen address serious political and aesthetic concerns, admittedly of a diverse nature, in relation to the themes of cultural identity, dislocation, or exile. In from texas with love (2002) Emily Jacir drives her car for an hour on a Texas highway. The video screen showed a typical American landscape; viewers could listen with headphones to a soundtrack chosen by the artist’s Palestinian friends. Jacir seems to imply, a borderless journey such as this one would never possible in Palestine. In addition, the link Jacir establishes with Palestine on her drive through Texas prompts consideration of the similarities between the Israeli wall and the recent construction of the Texan “Tortilla Wall” to keep out Mexicans, not to mention the problematic notion of “freedom” that is embedded in the American vision of self.
Resonating with Jacir’s video is Collin’s how to make a refugee (2000), which treats the depiction of refugees in the international media; Collins questions the mechanisms by which the media constructs reality, as well as the documentary genre itself. Esren, in the meantime, follows the life of street children in Istanbul in her wryly named video documentary This is Disney World (2000). The video provided a sensitive depiction of children on the fringes of society. Sislej Xhafa also addressed the brutality of everyday human experience; his video Stock Exchange (2000) draws an illuminating analogy between the flow of money in the stock market and the flow of people through a train station, a treatise on the brutal nature of human migration.
Ahmet Ögüt, for his part, presented a double-slide projection entitled Somebody Else’s Car (2005). Here, the artist turned two parked cars into a taxi and a police car, in a sort of performative vandalism. His intervention, though amusing, could have benefited from an emphasis on a specific context that bred the work, and left me pondering the value of straying from the particularity of geography or politics.
In the end, Uran’s intention was to create conditions in which one could see ‘the forest and the trees,’ both the universal and the specific. It was, in effect, the trees that were sometimes missing from the show, as in Ögüt’s video. Uran’s critique of the Western art world’s fixation on the Other didn’t stop her from selecting already well-established works within that very canon of otherness (there is one).
But perhaps her aims are unrealizable, for it is difficult to describe processes of exclusion and inclusion in the art world without falling into the very trap one is trying to step away from. The exclusive presentation of so-called “non-Western positions” invokes that very “thinking of difference” that the curator obsessively attempts to resist. Perhaps we’re better off simply engaging with artworks without the strenuous attempt to divest them of context.
Share Ramin Haerizadeh: The Melancholy of the Everyday
Ramin Haerizadeh: The Melancholy of the Everyday
March 15–April 15, 2007
Flooded by tourists keen on cheap beer and curry, London’s traditional garment district, Brick Lane, is often referred to as “Banglatown” these days, though Bangladeshis are only the most recent arrivals among rolling waves of immigrants. (One famous Brick Lane monument started life in the seventeenth century as a church for Protestant Huguenots fleeing France; became a synagogue in the nineteenth century for Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe; and today welcomes the faithful as a mosque, the Jamme Masjid.) This jumbled, somewhat chaotic area was the perfect setting for an exhibition that inverted and warped familiar scenes, deliberately leaving the viewer feeling dizzy.
Despite the pointed title, The Melancholy of the Everyday — a saturated world of distorted objects, mirror games, and vile bodies arranged around the compact walls of Brick Lane’s Studio 1.1 — was hardly melancholy. Within each shiny landscape and portrait, which artist Ramin Haerizadeh flooded with blues and yellows and decorated with theatrical costumes and daisies, lurked “reflected” characters that had been digitally sliced and flipped in on themselves. Morphed torsos, grotesque genitalia, and distended bellies created a carnival not of melancholy but of a macabre, almost gleeful chaos at the heart of otherwise mundane images: a mirrored blob of flesh lounged beside a pool in a bikini; a fruit tree spread cloned evil from the edge of a rapeseed field.
Haerizadeh’s photos screamed — in a few wide-jawed cases, literally — from a brash, dangerous, yet alluringly exotic undercurrent just below the surface. The effect was disorienting, perhaps because the photos were only a few mouse clicks away from the lazy Sundays and coffee-shop corners of what we casually refer to as “everyday life.” Against this backdrop, the artist’s repeated mirror motifs appeared to be searching for a universal truth for us all to hold on to.
The search, for Haerizadeh, goes back to 2004, when he took a road trip around Iran’s central desert and found himself wandering the mud-walled alleyways of the city of Yazd. Rounding a corner, he came across a Zoroastrian fire temple perfectly reflected in a long pool, and as he stood admiring the symmetry, the temple priest came out to join him. After a while, with some intensity, the priest observed that “things find completion through their reflection[s].” The phrase struck a chord and became the inspiration for the experiments with mirrors that run through this exhibition.
The Melancholy of the Everyday drew heavily on the artist’s previous series, Pray and The Wonder of the Creatures. This time around Pray’s textile stick figures put on weight, and cloth ropes gave way to abstract tessellations of Haerizadeh’s generous stomach and thighs. Thrilling with bodily contact, these digitally configured mazes of folded flesh injected some of the original animal passion back into the Islamic geometry favored these days by Iranian graphic designers.
Haerizadeh’s attraction to chaos can mask the care with which he manipulates icons and symbols. While his dressing-up antics in this show took a swipe at official pomp and ceremony, random fruits and vegetables inserted into his compositions seemed to make fun of the symbolic apples and pomegranates that pepper Persian art. Haerizadeh grew up on the dregs of the Islamic revolution, and the vibrant fantasies played out in his work can seem, at first glance, like escapism from a fairly depressing political atmosphere. On closer inspection, however, it’s clear that the artist focuses his energy not on the rapidly changing phases of his country’s politics, but on rattling the enduring Persian culture beneath it.
Despite the precision of his individual compositions, Haerizadeh’s willingness to repeat motifs, concepts, and sometimes entire images from earlier series lent this exhibition a somewhat haphazard air. Some twisted portraits from The Wonder of the Creatures resurfaced, others were rejigged from new angles, while the artist’s elaborate use of costumes returned: mirrored images of men in makeup, army garb, and electric hair reveled in the camp drama of a culture that loves a man in uniform. In a flood of images that ranged from farms in western Iran to road scenes, the uniforms struggled for the limelight.
Years ago, Haerizadeh’s grandfather founded Cinema City, the Cinecittà of Iran, in a huge lot on the outskirts of Tehran; Haerizadeh’s work draws the viewer in with the seductively tricky vanity one would find on a film set or in a theater. But still, despite the meticulous application of grease paint and bright lights to amplify the sinister side of life, the sheer profusion of symbols and recycled themes in The Melancholy of the Everyday ran the risk of leaving some individual photographs hanging about like talented extras in search of a part.
The Politics of Fear
March 27–May 31, 2007
The title of this group exhibition by eleven international artists was likely a reference to Frank Furedi’s book, The Politics of Fear: Beyond Left and Right (2005), which addresses the exhaustion of public life in the UK and the US. In his text, Furedi argues for a new conception of politics, one that re-moralizes, and finally humanizes, the political realm.
As interesting as the allusion was, it was difficult to identify a common thread that united the artists in this exhibition and in turn tied them to Furedi’s notion that fear is now both zeitgeist and also cause for resistance. The works on display included projected image, film, performance, interactive video, assemblages, and sculpture from around the world (the global reach was considerable). Spread out in Albion’s spacious circular gallery, each artist was given the opportunity to address their own conception of the “culture of fear” in different ways. Nevertheless, the show’s inclusionary instinct was not always effective, as at times one felt that certain pieces had been thrown in simply to fill the space.
A perfect example of such a hit-and-miss approach was Shilpa Gupta’s work. Untitled evoked a poetic approach to politics, exploring the impossibility of creating borders and boundaries to separate the mutable elements of rain, clouds, and the sky. The power of the text piece came from the material employed; made from the kind of tape used by the London police to cordon off areas of the street, it was evocative of conflict and war, and of the impossibility and necessity of boundaries and borders. But this subtlety was lost in the accompanying photographs of metal fences covered in the same tape and in a confusing and banal interactive video installation of teenage girls dressed in combat clothes performing a series of mechanical gestures.
A similar problem beset Rashid Rana’s Meeting Point, a digital animation of two planes flying toward each other, projected so that the corner of the gallery wall became their implied destination. The work had none of the impact of his large-scale collages, displayed elsewhere in the exhibition, particularly Veil, which, like much of his work, relied on the difference between seeing at a distance and seeing from up close. From afar, three veiled figures emerged from a grid of what appeared to be the enlarged pixels of a photograph; closer inspection revealed that the entire image was comprised of minute pornographic photographs. The inversion of Orientalism as a grid of representation was wonderfully developed — the pornographic gaze, and the desire to see, know, and control aroused by the veil as a Western construct, came together to make us think about the connections between vision, violence, and lens-based media. This kind of attention to the tyranny of the visual was evident throughout the show, but not always managed as successfully.
Reza Aramesh’s I Am A Believer was a powerful enactment of the ritual changing of the guards, staged in Trafalgar Square in 2006, using second-generation immigrant men. Nevertheless, the performance lost its powerful ceremonial quality when projected in the gallery space, making it appear too casual and accidental an event to pose an impact.
Perhaps the most problematic work on display was that of artists Jorge and Lucy Orta. Fallujah-Clinic Variations, consisting of sets of hospital cots and children’s body bags, created a deeply chilling effect but was seriously undermined by Fallujah — In the name of God, which ran the risk of reifying a pornography of violence. A large grid of journalists’ photographs of the war in Iraq, including pictures of the notorious torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib, were placed behind a pair of open metal doors that resembled the back of an ambulance van. Surely the circulation of such images on the internet no longer necessitates the need to hang them in galleries as if to expose political realities? We should be skeptical of such crude forms of artistic resistance and protest.
The curatorial intention behind this exhibition seemed to be the offering of a collective response to a perceived political crisis. The press release referenced the prevalence of fear in the current political moment, against which these artists proposed to speak with a unified voice. Last autumn’s Uncertain States of America at the Serpentine Gallery and Media Burn at Tate Modern, too, were symptomatic of an ongoing attempt within the arts to resuscitate collective opposition. But they remain, in the end, attempts; with such lofty ambitions, we have a long way to go.
Share Lapdogs of the Bourgeoisie: Class Hegemony in Contemporary Art
Lapdogs of the Bourgeoisie: Class Hegemony in Contemporary Art
Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center
January 23–March 3, 2007
Curated by Nav Haq and Tirdad Zolghadr, Lapdogs of the Bourgeoisie was presented as a series of international shows and discussions related to the question of class hegemony. The long-term project, process- and research-oriented rather than purely an exhibition of artworks, aimed to investigate the manner in which socioeconomic background may define artists’ careers — and at what point the trajectory of their careers might reflect the hierarchical nature of class. Following the project’s debut in London, the exhibition traveled to Istanbul’s Platform Garanti, moving from there to venues in Stockholm and Cairo. In Istanbul, in particular, the show provided a space for a productive discussion about institutional critique vis-à-vis contemporary practice.
In its Istanbul incarnation, two works in particular stood out, mapping the often intimate relationship between institutions and their branding at large. Artist Annika Eriksson invited the security guard at the gallery, Fevzi Çakmak, to select works from Garanti Bank’s corporate collection for display. Marion von Osten produced a video, a kind of tableau vivant based on a recent H&M marketing piece, featuring Madonna and her crew posing on plinths in front of a white wall alongside the Platform Garanti team. A reference to the original H&M campaign, the installation was an attempt to dwell on the representation of inequality within the art world and reflect on the normalizing function of art and creative labor.
Some weeks after the opening, there was an unexpected critical attack on the show from members of the local art scene. Art critic Ahu Antmen, of the newspaper Radikal, for example, asked Eriksson whether her intent had been to portray the “low taste of a Platform employee.” Aside from the fact that it is unlikely that Eriksson ever set out with that intention, her Istanbul critics all appeared to miss the point of the work, perhaps due to the rather too-subtle nature of the artist’s institutional critique.
Around the same time, the Istanbul Modern, one of several museums in Istanbul founded by the private sector, had programmed a show titled Modern Experiences, which appeared to be an attempt to legitimatize the museum’s collection with a rather select presentation of Turkish modern art history. It served as an interesting parallel to the collaboration between Eriksson and Çakmak, providing us with the opportunity to consider how reflexive “choices” are linked to the meta-system of contemporary art practice and exhibition today. The two approaches, of the Istanbul Modern and of Eriksson, could not have offered a greater contrast: one appeared to institutionalize a particular history of painting for the new bourgeoisie, using old-school marketing strategies, while the other highlighted the class-based nature of the decision-making process involved in curating a collection (hence the controlled shock value of asking a security guard to intervene).
Lapdogs of the Bourgeoisie did give visitors a glimpse of how contemporary practice is professionalized, and how it could be a source of critical debate. But did it do enough to engage with local debates?
Though San Keller showed images of local artists’ works in their homes and at their parents’ places — hence managing to steer the discussion toward the particular context of Istanbul and raising interesting questions with regard to presentation and reception — the bulk of the exhibition failed to interrogate the specific context of Platform’s position as an exhibition space, culture, and even lifestyle.
Haq and Zolghadr have written that they aimed to map “how art institutions reproduce forms, models, and identities of ideologies, moreover legitimize the given structure through reproducing it.” But this ambition also requires monitoring the “medicine” these institutions take: today, self-administered critique functions as a sort of quick-fix pill for museums and other institutions that control the production and exhibition of art. They and the arts professionals who run them all have aches and pains from time to time, of course — but many have longer-term ills and seem determined to ignore them. One can only hope that when the show arrives in Cairo and Stockholm, it will have a more profound relationship to place, and a longer-term engagement with the tricky question of class.
Share Sharjah Biennial 8: Still Life: Art, Ecology, and the Politics of Change
Sharjah Biennial 8: Still Life - Art, Ecology, and the Politics of Change
Sharjah Art Museum and various venues
April 4–June 4, 2007
The Sharjah Biennial continues to exist as a critical aporia of sorts. Much has changed in the UAE’s contemporary art scene since the event’s impressive seventh edition in 2005. A frenzied, unabashedly commercial market has emerged out of nowhere in neighboring development-mad Dubai, while Abu Dhabi’s ambitious Saadiyat Island project has embraced “art as cultural tourism” with such reckless abandon, it has ruffled feathers as far away as France (the French, of course, know absolutely nothing about building a tourist economy around art and culture). Such high-profile initiatives have drawn much criticism from an occasionally condescending Western media, which has unfairly overshadowed Sharjah’s commitment to creating both infrastructure and space for a critical contemporary art practice in the region; it appears that guilt by association has replaced relative obscurity as the biennial’s main hurdle to recognition.
The chosen themes of the current and previous editions (“belonging” was one past theme) evince self-examination and reflection about the role of the biennial as an institution deeply implicated in the problematic economic, political, cultural, and developmental processes of globalization itself. In addition, tempered by concerns about censorship, these themes have afforded opportunities to obliquely critique the biennial’s specific site. This obliqueness has encouraged curatorial creativity and artistic ingenuity and modesty, ensuring the kind of measured balance between poetics and politics that can provide for the most interesting art.
Recognizing the impossibility of an ecologically sound biennial, this edition’s organizers presented their exhibition as a platform through which issues of environment, ecology, and sustainable living could be raised and debated. Deploying its reported three-million-dollar budget to commission fifty-three new projects, the biennial encouraged an ecological rather than object-based practice, asking artists to respond specifically to and interact with Sharjah’s environment and inhabitants. A number of public projects throughout the city explored the limits of art’s own ecology by engaging local audiences outside the white boxes that are the Sharjah Art Museum and Expo Centre.
Ecology was a gutsy choice, considering the UAE economy’s reliance on fossil fuels and the unbridled pace of development in the region that has profoundly, and probably negatively, altered the landscape. Refreshingly, these issues were addressed most directly by artists from the region rather than those hailing from outside — testament to the fact that the biennial could provide a platform for critical local debates. Noor Al-Bastaki’s Steps and Paths (2005) used photographs and video of teenagers playfully balancing on oil pipelines as a metaphor for the region’s precarious reliance on this natural resource. Hassan Meer’s The Oil Camp (2006) and Huda Saeed Saif’s Some Vision (2006), both multi-channel video installations, deployed a more documentary mode to examine the deleterious effects that oil industry infrastructure and real estate developments, respectively, have had on local communities.
The theme also allowed artists to explore the long history of adaptation to and manipulation of the environment necessary for surviving the local climate, most recently manifest in the reliance on air conditioning and desalination. Maha Mustafa’s Landscape Minus 37°C (2004) — a large, frosted-over cooling unit humorously recreated the common problem faced when using an air conditioner in the extreme heat and humidity, while Gerda Steiner and Jörg Lenzlinger’s The Desalination Plant Waste Garden (2007) combined the briny waste of the desalination process with urban detritus and plastic flowers to create a wonderfully kitsch hanging garden. Marjetica Potrc and Tue Greenfort executed more direct interventions: Potrc installed a functioning solar-powered desalination device in a local school — solar power is a surprisingly underused alternative energy source in the region — while Greenfort demonstrated the impact of an infinitesimal adjustment in energy use by raising the museum’s temperature by two degrees Celsius, using the money saved on air conditioning to purchase a plot of rainforest.
The local culture’s strong tie to both the desert and the sea, two vastly different ecologies, was eloquently captured in Luca Vitone’s trio of large “monochrome” Landscapes (2006–07). Over a period of months, Vitone exposed blank canvases to the environment at three very different sites — an oil well in the desert, a TV tower by the sea, and a crane in the harbor — and let the city paint its own self-portrait. A comparable economy of form, concept, and material — a sustainable art practice, if you will — was evident in other works, such as Suchan Kinoshita’s Isofollies (2007), shiny black pods created by compacting the biennial’s waste and SOI Project’s Cloud (2007), a delicate canopy at the Expo Centre created using just sheets of paper and clips.
And what of the peculiar ecology of labor that we hear so much about? After all, a recurring preoccupation of the international human rights movement is the gulf’s problematic human rights record: seventy-eight percent of the population is expatriate, much of it comprised of exploited migrant workers with limited rights, much less any political agency. The subtlest meditation on this theme may have been Victor Arkhipov’s Naming Forms/UAE (2007), an installation of borrowed found objects — a fan, a thread stand, a mirror — presented along with the names and numbers of those who made them, all migrant laborers. These modest ad hoc possessions communicated both disenfranchisement and agency, while the accompanying contact information provided visibility and accessibility. The work was thoughtful and nuanced — a final proof that the biennial could inspire work that was both critically relevant and innovative, born of the specificity of place and yet of the world.
Total Arts at the Courtyard
March 21–April 17, 2007
Amid the extraordinary clamor of the DIFC Gulf Art Fair — during which host town Dubai was championed as the next art market capital — a quiet and thoughtful show opened not too far away at a local gallery called Total Arts. The intent behind Dubai, Dubai was contemplative and noncommercial. Curated by artist Nadine Hammam (who had a sound piece in the show), the exhibition offered viewers an opportunity to consider the nature of the Emirate independent of its often overwhelming PR-driven hype. Eight UAE-based artists, working across a range of media and hailing from a plurality of backgrounds and philosophies, were invited to reflect on the cultural and physical landscapes of Dubai and surrounding areas.
The photographic work in the show was particularly rich and engaging. Tarek Al-Ghoussein’s somber yet poetic series of photographs Untitled 1-5 (C Series) (2007) and one-channel video Blue (2007) alluded to a sense of unattainable longing. Making use of the scrappy desert beyond the city, the works reflected a concern with barriers, land, and belonging, illustrative of the artist’s long-term exploration of his relationship with Palestine as a homeland. The near-monochromatic nature of the images drew the viewer’s eye to the only color in the frame, a vivid blue tarpaulin flapping and struggling in the wind.
Mohamed Kazem’s Autobiography 1993 Version II 2006 (2006), a series of sixteen photographic prints of everyday objects placed on a kitchen scale, was also well executed. Kazem’s work draws upon notions of time, memory, and materiality, questioning the value of object over memory. In the context of Dubai Dubai, the work seemed especially apt, commenting as it did on the Emirate’s consumerist bent. The piece was originally produced in 1993 and recreated in 2006 — a ploy, it seemed, to ironically recontextualize an old idea.
Total Arts, one of Dubai’s most established and independent galleries, is located in Al Quoz, the city’s industrial center, in a warehouse block that owner Dariush Zandi has transformed into a “street” of galleries and interior design shops. Artist Shaghayeq Arabi worked within the atrium space above the gallery entrance to create an aerial installation for the exhibition, hanging melancholic figure-like mesh sculptures from the ceiling, which visitors could maneuver with a pulley system.
Layla Juma’s fax paper installation Errors (2007) and Nasser Abdulla’s film Silent Men (2007) also functioned well given the show’s thematic intent. Sarah Ayoub Agha’s large-scale paintings, critiquing the objectification of women, were, in contrast, awkward. Although Agha’s vivid graphic style was engaging, her canvases — such as Silence A (2006), a portrait of a “voiceless” woman with no mouth — did little to advance feminist discourse. It would have been interesting to see Agha, or another painter, take on a more specific, local subject — perhaps one more obviously connected with the theme of the show.
Emerging artist Karima Al Shomaly constructed a large white box-like structure in the middle of the gallery, complete with peepholes along the sides, some of which revealed portraits of Emiratis who appeared to be silenced with tape across their mouths. While somewhat clunky, this installation did invoke multiple readings and encouraged viewers to recognize their own easy assumptions as such — for the peepholes necessitated a narrow gaze.
The exhibition’s critical attitude toward the rapid change taking place in Dubai was unusual for the UAE, where celebratory or romantic images of both city and desert tend to prevail. Indeed it was something of a relief to see local artists and an arts organization opting to explore Dubai from a critical perspective, instead of wrapping themselves wholly in the commerce of art.
With satellite branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim due to open in Abu Dhabi in the next five to ten years, and the likely institutionalization of the DIFC Gulf Art Fair as an annual event, it seems vital that Dubai and the other Emirates develop their own strong, local artistic voices — along with the venues to support such work. Total Arts goes some way toward providing that support by interspersing more commercial shows with increasingly challenging new work.
March 13–April 15, 2007
West London’s Knightsbridge area isn’t known for its contemporary art spaces; visitors to this affluent district are more likely to be doing a spot of designer shopping or taking in one of the many embassies and international cultural institutions in the surrounds. Artists’ Studio, located in a Victorian house in this neighborhood, is a temporary project space on loan from a benefactor. Over the course of a year, seven artists have been invited to develop projects that “undermine or interface with the space of the apartment or studio.”
Khalil Rabah’s recent exhibition at Artists’ Studio seemed particularly fitting given the area’s institutional tenor. Consisting of one work, the hypothetical office of a United States of Palestine Airlines, the installation was an offshoot of Rabah’s own established “institution,” the fictional Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind. (It followed the presentation of 50,320 Names, an installation at the School of Oriental and African Studies’ Brunei Gallery.)
The United States of Palestine Airlines had just become a sponsor of the Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind in an agreement, we were told, worth £2.5 million over five years. The museum director — Rabah himself — is thrilled. “The sheer size and scale of this deal is an amazing opportunity for us,” ran the quote in the museum’s newsletter. “We are delighted to have Palestinian Allied Airlines [sic] as our sponsor.” Naming rights to a new gallery in the museum, of course, was one of the conditions of the lucrative deal. The letters of the fictional airline’s logo were made up of the logos of existing national airlines. (Some were easily recognizable, some less so — world travelers visiting the exhibit had the advantage.)
The airline’s office looked fully functional, and the aesthetic was clean, simple, and subdued. The components of the corporate feng shui within the confines of the space included a sofa, some glass and metal barriers, an enlarged version of the type of model airplane you might find in a travel agency, a map of the world emblazoned with the company logo, and three clocks in a line on the wall, two of which gave the same time. The overall sense was of entering a brand-new office where the staff had yet to move in. As a visitor in the role of faux-client, I felt as though I might have arrived too early.
Rabah is a veteran of the art scene in Palestine, and his project at the Artists’ Studio was a continuation and extension of the Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind — exhibited in 2005 at the Istanbul Biennial, among other venues — and developed further its fictional scenario. Indeed, the work’s raison d’être was dependent on the museum and required some knowledge of that project, and of Rabah’s oeuvre in general, to be really effective. Rabah’s work falls within the lineage of such museological projects as Marcel Broodthaers’s Museum of Eagles or, more recently, the work of Mark Dion, who tends to use idiosyncratic and parodic archiving and display as a strategy for critiquing art institutions. But Rabah’s work casts a decidedly wider geopolitical net.
Compared to the substantial Palestinian Museum project, however, Rabah’s United States of Palestine Airlines appeared more limited in scope, reflecting solely on the issue of restricted mobility. The link to the museum through the idea of patronage seemed a little simplistic and could well have been explored in greater depth. Mobility is, of course, a constituent of cultural freedom; as obvious as this may seem, it is certainly worth considering in an exhibition context. However, the installation as ultimately configured felt like little more than the sum of its parts. Like most West End galleries, the Artists’ Studio tends to attract almost exclusively an art world audience; the unrealized potential relationship between the fictional airline and the local environment accentuated this, leaving the viewer with a taste of a hermetically sealed office that seemed to speak to just a few “clients” in the know.
Share Sharing Ladders: Notes on the group show as format
It is rumored that artists have fabulously large egos, that they are difficult, bitchy and competitive, especially when forced to share the limelight and the space. In my experience, however, we have usually managed to put our differences and egos aside in these situations — both in terms of helping each other, and by generally being quite reasonable and civil (at least before sunset).
The implicit assumption is that we are all on the same side. Together we have cursed evil curators, while sharing the one ladder to be found in a museum; sworn under our breaths at insensitive ignorant administrators who know nothing about what we are doing, while downing the third shot of grappa; vowed revenge on museum directors and accountants who’ve been slow to reimburse our flight tickets or deliberately neglected to tell us where and how we could get our per diem. Ironically, it is in the context of the group show — where competition should be fiercest — that I personally have experienced a sort of solidarity, albeit a vicious one.
I am not going to suggest anything as stupid or naive as doing away with the group show. Neither am I interested in demonstrating the essayist’s erudition of quotations and obsession with etymologies, nor in providing the entertainment of the journalist’s little gossipy stories. What follows are only a few ideas in response to one of the main activities of the working artist today — participating in large-scale, well-publicized international group shows documented by book-thick colorful catalogues.
Group shows are where you shake hands with politicians and kings in front of cameras, where the sidelong glance, the half-smile, or the deliberately insolent response are all carefully weighed and utilized. Where seated dinners in medium-priced restaurants go on for slightly longer than they should, and where invariably someone confuses someone with someone else. It is where, in retrospect, you realize that the question of losing yourself was actually pertinent.
Because group shows are usually marketed with a specific, clearly articulated political position (solo shows are also, of course, but less so — the stakes being smaller) one is immediately implicated and reduced by the logic of that agenda. Why participate, then? One highly intelligent, charming, and seriously concerned friend speaks of strategic essentialism as a way out. You use the conditions to slide your own agenda through — you accept being labeled (as Arab, African, Asian, et cetera) to get noticed and move on.
Solo exhibitions remain, almost by definition, a rare currency. Risk-taking, and having to truly invest in an individual artist and his moods, make it at best a long-difficult endeavor. It also means the curator, institution, and location ultimately become less important than the artist.
The argument for group shows, on the other hand, is that by placing works together, a resonance can be discovered, and the public may come to understand a context (of conflict, production), a condition (of malaise, neurosis), or a state (of urgency, emergency) and therefore discover more about what’s going on right at this very moment around the world. The curated group show usually attempts to bring works together that possess some (at many times tentative due to artists’ healthy insistence on producing what they want) relation to a theme or an idea or an approach or a strategy or a word or a fashion, by commission or selection or, as usually is the case, a mix of both. It thus positions the artwork under the thumb of a cruel, heartless, automated master sign; the individual logic of presence of each work is denied, while the possibilities of ambiguity are rejected. We, by extension, as the producers of these works stand categorized, framed, and explained. The very format ensures that the viewer is in a position in which the aesthetic experience has been transformed into the activity of gathering information. The viewing process has itself become functional and instrumentalized.
So we’ll have exhibitions fueled by the deep hunger for spectacle, information, and a well-orchestrated, carefully designed sense of urgency (I was recently addressed by a curator on the phone as an “urgent artist” — I imagine wailing sirens on my head). It seems, at the current historical moment, that this is an unavoidable condition. What responses are possible? Shall we engage with the conditions we operate under? Can we infiltrate the alienated logic of an economy of production and consumption? Can we be part of it without ever becoming it?
I personally would rather be a rock; obstinate and hard, yet willing to negotiate my head off.
In group shows, people look at a collection of objects (and they remain objects, whether they are ephemeral gesture or a performed intervention) and invariably compare. The hierarchy (of artworks and artists, of approaches and locations, of the powerful and the weak) stands firm, no matter how transiently or relationally the whole experience is framed. Personally, I am all for hierarchies. The game of cultural subversion where we act as if the hierarchy has been successfully negated seems to be just one more minor element in a much more complex and real power structure. All pretensions otherwise are at best a sort of willful mystification.
On the other hand, artists, of course, have fabulously large egos.
Share Bidoun Armenian Phrase Book: The contemporary traveler’s indispensable phrases
Soviet Armenia, the descendant of the Great October Socialist Revolution, is a good example of how building a socialist order has transformed our mountainous country and the lives of our people.
The ancient state of Urartu once occupied the area of the Armenian highlands. Its cultural monuments are still preserved in Armenia.
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In implementing V. I. Lenin’s instructions on socialistic industrialization, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union has always paid special attention to national republics that were economically retarded during the Tsarist regime.
The remarkable results of the party’s policies are manifest in the example of Armenia. Years of building socialism have led our country to remarkable progress in the area of economic development, mainly in the industrial field.
The GDP of Soviet Armenia grew dozens of times after the October Revolution. The Armenian village has changed cardinally. The collective economy created necessary prerequisites for overcoming enduring poverty and providing for the growth of agricultural production.
Armenia is one of the oldest agricultural centers in the Soviet Union. Archaeologists have unearthed evidence that Armenians cultivated soil for thousands of years before us. But before the October Revolution, our villagers cultivated their fields with very old tools, almost like the ones used at the beginning of our century.
Armenia has never seen such population growth as now. In 1957 the average growth of population for every thousand was 31.1 percent. If in pre-Revolution times thousands of people left Armenia every year, then during Soviet rule almost 175,000 people returned home.
The poor and retarded city with clay houses and muddy streets has now become one of the most beautiful cities in the USSR, with a population of more than one million.
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