Bidoun is a loaded word. One meaning is a name given to 180,000 people who, although they live in the country of Kuwait, are officially noncitizens. They are, in many senses, stateless. They have no passport, no official status other than the designation of a people without citizenship: bidouns. No matter how long or hard they work, they will never belong to a country they consider home. The situation connected to this meaning of the word is sad and unjust.
But it its simplest form, in both Arabic and Farsi, the word bidoun means “without.”
It can mean without a home, without a country or without judgment. In our understanding, it can also describe someone who feels comfortable living in many different worlds, but who does not belong to one in particular. It describes the undeniable warmth upon entering a Middle Eastern store in a foreign city or the surprising familiarity when meeting someone who is also from that region. It defines the positive feeling of participating in many cultures, of being stateless, and in a sense, free.
When we first began working on the concept for this magazine, I was shocked to discover that something like it didn’t already exist. Why was there no platform for the people of the Middle East, when we are so many, scattered all around the world? Why was there no place for our artists? The answer I received while talking to the business executives I had come to for advice was, “It’s because no one cares what is happening outside of their country. Why should an Iranian living in Los Angeles care about what an Egyptian is doing in Cairo?”
We beg to differ.
And that’s why we decided to just go ahead and make this thing. We cannot say definitively what it means to be Middle Eastern. What we can say is that it is a part of this world that has been misrepresented for too long. This magazine is a place where art stands for itself, unencumbered by editorial superficiality and unmarred by media-fueled misconceptions. Just because there is a scarf on a broom’s head doesn’t mean it is a _____. We would like to create a place where Middle Easterners can just _be.
Almost everyone we have met in the last three months while traveling through the region speaks at least three languages. But they are not speaking to each other. I invite you as readers to meet each other here and to voice your opinions to us.
The bigwigs in the high-rises, who I went to for advice, told me that this magazine was a bad idea. They looked at the mock-up for Bidoun and then looked out the window, raising their hands as if to show me the view. “Contemporary art? You are going to raising so many problems. Why don’t you write about positive things? Look outside — the sun is shining. Why don’t you write about the sunshine?”
We have chosen not to take the easy route, not to just “write about the sunshine.” I hope for so many things for this project. But most of all I hope that you understand what Bidoun means, and that you like that fact that in Farsi it also means “to know.”
8th Istanbul Biennial: Poetic Justice
September 20–November 16, 2003
The Istanbul Biennial has ventured a leap into the elite international league — but at what price?
The dazzling city of Istanbul, framed by the Golden Horn, the Bosporus and the Marmar Sea, played host once again to the Istanbul Biennial. Situated at the crossroads to Asia, Istanbul became the meeting point for 85 artists from 42 countries, enticing art enthusiasts to enjoy the beautiful surroundings of this new hotspot for eastern art exhibitions. The continental crossover has played a significant role in Istanbul’s history, putting a unique stamp on the city. The character of Istanbul invites one’s imagination to leap between the East and the West. This connection between eastern and western elements, so often considered incompatible, seems effortless here — at least upon first glance.
Compared to previous Biennial shows, what immediately became apparent was the increased number of art critics, curators and cultural journalists who flooded the city during the opening week of the event, due to Istanbul’s growing stature as “the city to be,” gained over the last few years. Perhaps even more significantly, the Istanbul Biennial has carved a reputation which can no longer be ignored. This year’s poster featured the theme “Poetic Justice,” and was flaunted at the entrance to the main exhibition hall on the harbor side of Karaköy. However, the allegory of this theme — the weightless feather of a dove lost in the midst of a blue sky — poses various questions in terms of what the artist is trying to tell us. Poetics — meaning light and free as a feather or lost in space? The plume of a true poet who is able to show us a way out of misery and leads us to a freedom which is just — but justice for whom? Does the combination of the terms describe a just poetry — or a poetic justice?
These questions may lead us down a rabbit’s hole. Nevertheless, once an exhibition is framed in a metaphorical way, as the curator Dan Cameron has done, things tend to become problematic. Through this curatorial superstructure, not only Dan Cameron but all the artists and visitors involved fall into the same trap:the search for a form of justice which is universally valid. Unintentionally, many presentations merely meet one another within the confines of a bubble. The title “Poetic Justice” hovers with pregnant meaning over the exhibition while at the same time hanging a Damocles’ sword over the artwork. And as hard as the viewer may try, she is not able to remove the tinted glasses that this title has placed before her eyes. She may try to study the works with concentration, squint her eyes together or take a step back from the piece she is regarding, but in the back of her mind a nagging question always seems to crop up: What is the link to justice? Once the works are judged in terms of their “poetic justness,” the “poetic” tends to quickly fall away. And then only “justice” remains in its condensed form, fluttering down at the spectator’s feet. It may very well be that Dan Cameron was cunning enough to understand this as the process of “poetic justice” in a figurative sense: the impossibility of a truly unbiased contemplation and therefore its non-existence; a synonym for the impossible search for “justice.” TO what bar can justice be measured against in light of its daily infringements, the misuse of the term itself and its continually expandable interpretations? An extremely vague interpretation …
But Cameron has not done any favors to the artists being shown under this title. Despite the fantastic quality of many of the exhibition rooms and interesting presentations, many of them appear to be isolated or even lost within the space. This particularly applies to works that, while attempting to deconstruct the subject of “poetic justice,” merely remind one of a quiet echo to bygone times and are left sitting in the room without fully taking shape.
Such is the case with the video piece Surrounded 2003 by Danica Dakic (Bosnia-Herzegovina/Germany), placed on view in the historical rooms of Tophane Amire Cultural Center, a former war and cannon manufacturing facility and barrack, first constructed in 1451 and now converted into an exhibition space. A 20 minute film loop runs on a screen attached to the ceiling of the room. Within the inviting darkness of the historic exhibition room, the light of the video work entices the viewer onto a circular, velvety mattress. One perceives various voices filling the room in alternating intervals projected from several loudspeakers. Lying back and staring at the ceiling, the spectator gazes upon a scene which takes on the appearance of a holy apparition: six naked figures as God created them — men and women of various colors — gathered in a circle and filmed by a camera rotating clockwise. Face forward, they crawl on all fours towards the circle, where they crouch over a book and begin to read. What the audience hears are passages from the holy scriptures of the six main religions.
Any initial pleasure upon viewing this scene is quick to pass — what remains is the sense of having been deceived. Something has been glossed over: unclear religious elements have been removed (the depiction of naked humans symbolizes the origin of mankind; in their bareness all people are equal). This is combined with hippie and pop art quotations from the 20th century (John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream”), blended together into a tidy television commercial using the most convincing advertising aesthetics. The “United Color of Ben” … sends its regards! Maintaining a balance between intellectual sophistication and pleasing one’s audience is always risky.
But there are also counterexamples. The exhibition’s concept functions best with those works that are developed freely from the task at hand. A good example is Emily Jacir’s (Palestine) “Where We Come From,”1 a piece originally developed for her own community. Jacir examines in quiet fashion the idea of what wishes she can grant to her compatriots who aren’t able to travel to Palestine, either because of possessing the wrong passport or having none at all. Within this context, Hana (born in Beirut to parents who fled from Haifa) asks Emily to travel to Haifa and play soccer with the first Palestinian boy that she meets. Abdulhadi (born in Kuwait, parents from Abu Dis, East Jerusalem) asks her to eat knafa from Jafar Sweets in Jerusalem. And then there is Mohannad (born in Cairo, parents from Jerusalem) who requests Emily to light a candle upon witnessing the first rays of sunrise over the beach in Haifa.
Equipped with a camera, she investigates these wishes and documents their realization. In her presentation, each photograph is accompanied by the written request as well as brief biographic data of the person involved. “Where We Come From” is an installation of photography and text which achieves its own form of reduced poetry. This is a quiet, personal pictogram of Palestinian history, the restrained quality of which stands out agreeably against the surrounding cacophony of loud and attention-grabbing pieces. It is also one of the few exhibitions in this Biennial which comes close to achieving “poetic justice.”
One may suspect that the inability of some works to speak to the viewer stems from a lack of communication between artist and curator on the subject of “poetic justice.” In talking to the young artists, a general dilemma surrounding overambitious exhibition concepts was confirmed: the lack of time as well as the large number of participants made a creative exchange between them impossible. Contact was limited to a written invitation from the curator. Discussion did take place about whether it really makes sense to compete in an artistic league that includes Venice and Kassel — or whether Istanbul should reorient itself completely.
Where does the Istanbul Biennial stand today? After the experiences of the last 16 years, it certainly seems plausible that the Biennial has achieved its goal of international art show status. never before has the Biennial attained such a high level of media interest and discussion in international trade magazines. So it comes as no surprise that the who’s-who of the self-proclaimed curatorial elite were flown in. Befitting the theme of the Biennial, the panel discussion entitled “Justice and the Creative Art” included Carolyn Christov-Bakargiew (curator and writer, chief curator at Castello die Rivoli Museo d'arte Contemporanea, Rivoli, Torino), next to such luminaries as Christian Haye, Vasif Kortun (Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center, Istanbul) and Professor Ute Meta Bauer (Founding Director of the Berlin Biennial for Contemporary Art, Office for Contemporary Art, Norway). During the podium discussion, which was surprisingly free of content and does not deserve and closer rendition, panelists examined the age-old question of whether art merely serves itself or carries a social responsibility. One advocate of the ‘pure’ art message (l'art pour l'art) was the New York curator Christian Haye. He maintained that art should not be burdened with the dilemmas created by politicians, and went on to say that art only serves itself and should therefore simply be allowed to exist, free from expectations.
The fact that Dan Cameron does not entirely share this opinion can be seen not only in the title — even if contested — of this year’s Istanbul Biennial. It also becomes clear after having worked one’s way through his eight page preface to the catalogue. In addition to statements about art and its responsibility to society (“The role of the artist is to call attention…”), he uses this platform to support his personal opposition to American politics. His text is framed by contributions from prominent, open-minded thinkers such as Arundhati Roy, including a wonderful excerpt taken from her last book, Power Politics. This writer and activist from India discuss the privatization of her country’s energy sector and the politics of writing. Here, powerful governments and their corporations become the modern Rumpelstiltskin, the potentate, powerful, pitiless and armed to the teeth.
Significantly more controversial than the official podium discussions at the Biennial was the theme discussed at an event hosted by the International Association of Art Critics (AICA). With a workshop series entitled “East from Europe,” the Turkish section of the AICA directed its energy towards young curators and art historians from more eastern regions — that is, eastern from the viewpoint of Western Europe. The young representatives from countries such as Lebanon (Sandra Dagher), Egypt (Mai Abu El Dahab, Khaled Hafez), Greece (Efi Strousa), Serbia-Montenegro (Zoran Eric) and Georgia (Tea Paichadze) exchanged their experience and insights while debating on the side about issues surrounding the current Biennial. All were unified in declaring both the title of the exhibition problematic as well as the reduced participation from artists in the region named above. Levent Calikoglu, one of the representatives of the Turkish section of the AICA, pleaded for a stronger integration of the Biennial in regional environments, with all its associated challenges. Despite the Biennial’s reputation and international inclusiveness, the status of Turkish artists has barely changed, according to Calikoglu. Although a select few have achieved the leap into international recognition, not much has changed for local artists. What is the sense and purpose of a Biennial in Istanbul: securing an international audience or securing stronger integration into the regional environment? Artists from non-European regions are still branded with the stigma of gaining recognition primarily as representatives of their home countries, and not for the uniqueness of their art itself.
This position also received support from independent Turkish artists, such as representatives from the group “Oda Projesi,” an artists’ initiative in Istanbul, which seeks a stronger exchange with artists from the Near East and hopes that the cautious process of convergence can be accelerated. A stronger reflection of the political and social environs was also requested by the Lebanese gallery owner Sandra Dagher — especially in a city whose neighborhoods have just recently been coming to terms with terminology such as “justice” and “terror.” But as the curator Mai Abu El Dahab (Cairo) formulated in her closing remarks, despite this critique, it must not be forgotten that the reality in Egypt as well as in most other countries of the Near East makes it extremely hard to offer a Biennial of an equivalent artistic and organizational standard. “Let’s not kid ourselves — we would be overjoyed to host a similar Biennial!”
From a political perspective, weak regional integration of the Istanbul Biennial can only be expected. Istanbul — less of a bridge between the Orient and the Occident and more of a springboard towards the West? Beginning with the legacy of Attatürk’s work towards integration within the European Union, Turkey has not necessarily been sending positive signals towards its eastern neighbors. Similarly, the government’s tortured decision-making process during the second Iraq War has clearly shown the precarious balancing act which Turkey is forced to maintain: on the one hand, the desire to ally itself more closely with the West, and on the other hand, remaining a good eastern neighbor. With a majority Muslim population, Turkey’s tightrope walk will continue to be a very difficult venture. Certainly the geographic position of Istanbul, as well as its democratic situation, offers the city the chance to serve as a bridge. But little in this direction can really be perceived yet. However, with encounters such as the one made possible by Beral Madra with the AICA event, first steps have certainly been made. These could give wings to the Istanbul art scene for further leaps between the East and West.
1 Installation with 32 mounted photos of variable sizes, 30 framed texts and 1 American passport.
Between September and November last year I was fortunate enough to participate in a visual arts residency program at the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo. Living and working in Johannesburg, South Africa, I find many similarities between the two largest cities on the continent. Both Cairo and Johannesburg are bustling with people at all times of the day, the traffic is terrible and pollution is a real problem, but they also are the cultural and artistic centers of their respective countries. Despite these commonalities, Cairo and Johannesburg might as well be worlds apart economically, politically and culturally. The identities of both these countries are continuously shifting within their respective histo-political contexts, yet both define themselves as African cities.
This concept of “African-ness” that exists in both these very different cities is an intriguing one. During my time in Cairo, I often heard discussions among artists around the issue of identity and what it meant for a Cairene artist. While one cannot argue that Cairo is a city in Africa, Egyptians also bear other labels associated with their proximity to the Middle East, such as “Middle Eastern,” “Arab” and “Islamic.” Some artists felt that current Western curatorial practices have used these labels to scout work from a certain location, which conformed to certain political, economic or social agendas.1 And that this has often perpetuated particular stereotypes that favor work from countries that deal foremost with socio-political issues.
It would certainly be justified for African artists2 to feel aggrieved at the expectation that work from Africa has to be about political or unjust social happenings in their societies, because a similar expectation does not exist for Western artists. While political unrest, unjust social laws and poverty may be dominating forces in African countries, they are not the only valid representations of a continent that continues to thrive, produce and participate in all forms of cultural events.3 We cannot deny that problems do exist in many African countries, but to constantly foreground them in the arts is to continue to perpetuate a rather biased view of Africa.
Cairo-based artist Basim Magdy says that this inclination towards work dealing with socio-political issues might even affect the diversity of art being produced in the country. The challenge facing African artists is finding ways to change these preconceived notions. One thing to do could be that work should be chosen on the basis of concept and theme predominantly rather than on the geographical location and socio-political context. Another option is to try and break free from the ethnocentric labels that bolster western concepts of Africa and “African-ness.”
While the casting away of such labels seems like a logical step, one must wonder if it is in fact possible. Human society is made up of labels. They separate you from the other, defining your identity and helping you define theirs.4 South Africans too, struggle under labels (black, white, Colored, Indian) inherited both from colonial and apartheid times. While one can hope for world in which such labels and their presuppositions would disappear, realistically, new ones would only replace them.
However, even if this were at all possible, I would not wish for current labels to be forsaken post-haste. To discard such terms as “Middle Eastern,” “Arab,” “Islamic” and “African” is to leave all of their negative connotations and presumptions unchallenged by those directly affected by them — and who better to change stereotypes of Africans than Africans themselves? But, for one to challenge these misconceptions, one has to be rather self-aware and self-conscious of what one is or is not. Ask most people from Cape Town, South Africa to Alexandria, Egypt and they will say that they are African, without having a clear idea of what this means. What does it really mean to be African? Is the geographical positioning of a person the sole factor in determining whether one is African or not? How little do we as Africans know about each other’s cultural systems in comparison to what we know of European and American society?
It continues to be quite alarming how little Africans know about their own continent. Even the art world in Africa is not immune to this. I knew little of the contemporary art scene in Egypt, as did Egyptian artists of the South African scene. While it is disconcerting that Africans are consistently looking to the West as the preeminent standard of art, it is even more disturbing that these large Western art shows continue to present our work on such a stereotypical platform. What is thought of as “African-ness” in these shows is filtered through Western expectations and understandings of Africa. In Edward Said’s seminal text Orientalism (1978), one can substitute “Africa” or the “Middle East” for the “Orient” and find many of the same evaluations of the power relations between the West and the Orient. As with the discourse of Orientalism, the West’s power relations with Africa is always one of a “positional superiority” that is sustained through various guises (what Said lists as power intellectual, power political, power cultural and power moral). Art is also affected by this. African creativity is judged by, contrasted against and encouraged to emulate a western standard.
There are different approaches to challenging these practices. One could be that so-called Third World artists take up the task of deconstructing terms like “African,” “Middle Eastern,” “Arab” and “Islamic,” analyzing the various nuances and negative implications attached to them. Edward Said’s usage of the term “Orientalism” is useful in the rethinking of terminology. Said realized that the word “Orientalism” had negative colonialist connotations embedded in it, which were recognized by scholars who wanted to discard the term at the time he was writing. Instead, he “appropriated” it by first taking the term apart and then examining its discourse. Said deduced that even if Orientalism did not survive in the same form as it always did, it would continue to live on through the academic discourses concerning the Orient, and would thus retain its negative connotation. Similarly if such labels of Africa, the Middle East, and the Arab world were to be discarded in their current form, their negative identity would remain, never to be deconstructed by the people defined by them.
Walking in the streets of Cairo, I was often asked about my country of origin. Being a South African Indian, nobody guessed I was from South Africa. This challenged my own thinking of what I considered African — bright, colorful streets filled with the smell of food, the constant noise of people, objects and music, and the warmth of complete strangers. But unlike the city streets and buildings of South Africa, Cairo seemed rather muted in color — shades of cream and brown. It was there that I realized I had myself defined “Africa” according to my own limited experiences, and created my own stereotypes of “African-ness.” I am not suggesting that self-definition would bring a truer notion of Africa, nor am I idealistic enough to believe that it will be able to prevent alternate stereotypes from developing. I do however advocate that more contradictory and complex definitions and imagings of Africa are desperately needed.
In “The Fact of Blackness,” Frantz Fanon asserts this positioning of agency, self-determination and self-reckoning when he says, “I resolved, since it was impossible for me to get away from an inborn complex, to assert myself as a BLACK MAN. Since the other hesitated to recognize me, there remained only one solution: to make myself known.” Fanon recognizes that you allow people to tell you who you are, when you, yourself don’t have a clear idea of who you are. It is only in achieving self-definition and understanding, that we can begin to refuse to be portrayed in stereotypical contexts and to say, rather loudly, what we believe we are, no matter how contradictory it is to established notions of Africa and the Middle East.
1. For instance, contemporary Egyptian artists Wael Shawky and Moataz Nasr, who participated in the 2003 Venice Biennale, felt rather upset by the presentation of their works in contexts and under “labels” in which they weren’t necessarily created for (discussion at Townhouse Gallery, September 2003).
2. This argument can be extended to Middle Eastern or any other artist from the Third World who works under similar expectations.
3. This participation, be it in the arts or sports, is also not without a sense of humor and criticality.
4. In “The Fact of Blackness” (1952), Frantz Fanon understands the notion of labeling especially in regard to “fixing” the identity of the Other. Fanon’s journey in a white world makes him slowly realize that under the white gaze he has already been dissected under “white eyes, the only real eyes” and that now he has become “fixed” — a fixed identity, a generalized stereotype, “a Negro!”
Going Places: A Project for Public Buses is happening on Cairo’s crosstown buses from October 2003 to March 2004. Four Cairo-based artists, Iman Issa (1979), Hassan Khan (1975), Maha Maamoun (1972) and Basim Magdy (1977) were commissioned to create two-dimensional works to be placed on the advertising boards of public buses. The project is supplemented by an advertising campaign for which the artists themselves expanded their projects and produced related images that were placed on postcards distributed at venues throughout the city.
Iman Issa’s first two-dimensional project is a computer generated collage of kitschy posters depicting paradisiacal landscapes enveloping a nondescript apartment building. It is both critical of the contradictory opulence sold by the language of advertising, as well as a reflection of values inherent to aesthetic judgement and the rift between the aesthetics of the desired and those of the lived. Hassan Khan’s striking portrait of an anonymous man is a simple presentation of the unrepresented; its confrontational impact compels the viewer to define their position in relation to an individual with no place in public dialogue. Maha Maamoun’s hypnotic architectural landscape uses as its basic component the Mugamma (a gargantuan socialist-era building dominating Cairo’s central Tahrir square and an icon of institutionalism) creating an image that is visually captivating, yet disturbing in its implications. Basim Magdy’s photograph of a hot air balloon floating in a gloomy sky claims “Superman will save us all” questioning the extent to which the media has influenced our personal sense of empowerment.
This project is an entry point; an attempt to infiltrate Cairo’s public space — a space monopolized by the combined institutional grip of both corporate and governmental powers. This infiltration was made possible by appropriating the tools of these authorities highlighting the irony that is a pertinent facet of urban life in this city: Access to the public realm can only be realized through privatization.
Going Places is an independent project curated by Mai Abu ElDahab, currently director of La Oficina para Projectos de Arte (OPA) in Guadalajara, Mexico. For further information please see www.cairobus.com
or email: firstname.lastname@example.org The project is made possible with the support of the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Cairo, Arabica Café, e-flux, Cairo Times and www.egyptiankleem.com
Amir Fallah calls himself a cultural hybrid. He is caught between his Iranian and American identities, but instead of having them play against each other in his mind, he has combined the two to create art. In his personal statement, he writes, “As a naturalized US citizen, who has lived in this country (US) for fifteen years, my upbringing has not been one of typical American youth. Traditional Persian cooking, speaking in Farsi, and being surrounded by a tight community of Iranians are all constant reminders that no matter how long I live in the US, I will never fit the idealized definition of an “American… I am held in a state of limbo by two cultures.” Fallah’s work combines Latinized Persian text and symbols of Persian architecture with graffiti art and raw bursts of energy. But it doesn’t stop there, he is also a talented graphic designer and magazine publisher. Amir is currently pursuing his Master of Fine Arts, studying under the prominent artist Larry Pittman at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The greatest influences from American popular culture on his work are skateboarding, graffiti art and punk rock. The impact of these three things led him to create Urban Decay, a magazine dedicated to these interests. For most people graffiti is a public nuisance and an example of illegal marking. For some it’s a spontaneous form of art and expression. I asked Amir what his definition of it was. “Graffiti art is lettering/imagery created without permission in the public arena. Once graffiti leaves behind the illegal element it is simply a characterization or illustration of graffiti. The very essence of graffiti art is the rebel mentality that goes with it. The lettering/imagery is simply an afterthought or a mark of the event that took place.”
Amir’s first significant foray into the arts began at school. “The first time I really took art seriously was in eighth grade, when I started taking art classes at my junior high. There was a competition for a small mural at the school.” He won.
Amir was fortunate that in the first years after discovering this talent, he was encouraged by those around him to continue exploring it. Very often children tend to be steered in directions that will help them get good jobs and the spheres of arts and culture are relegated to the realm of hobbies and external interests. Luckily for Amir his family did not try and suppress his creative spirit and during my discussions with him, I sensed the stabilizing force this support played in his life.
It was during his sophomore year in college that he first began to let his Iranian identity come out in his work. Since then Amir has continued to combine the eastern and western influences in his life into one. Through his work he manages to identify himself as both and Iranian and an American. Upon first glance, his paintings resemble street graffiti that one may find on city walls. But try reading the text and you realize that the letters are not forming English words. Amir uses the alphabet he knows to phonetically write in Persian, a language he can speak but whose script he cannot read. His earlier works are bursting with the things he wants to say. His statements are light hearted but poignant in their innocence of exploring his “Iranianess.” The following excerpt is taken from Amir’s artist statement:
Modern graffiti and Islamic calligraphy have many similarities. Both forms of art deal primarily with the manipulation and stylization of text. They both are intricate and do not rely on scenery or realistic renderings of figures. Islamic calligraphy deals with the use of repetition in patterns while graffiti artists use the repetition of their nickname or “tag” for recognition by other artists. In both
forms, the oral tradition of teaching the art is also practiced. A master calligrapher hands down his knowledge of calligraphy to an apprentice and a skilled graffiti artist, hands down his knowledge in letterform, style and technique to young inexperienced writers also known as “toys.” Both forms of art rely on the use of architecture as a compositional factor. These and other similarities between these two styles.
Today, Amir’s work has become less full. He adds large planes of flat bright color. But within the planes there are moments of chaos — Persian words written with English letters, designs, patterns and icons reflecting his impressionable environment. He calls his paintings intuitive. He takes time to find inspiration and then translates those into ideas and images in his mind before putting them on canvas. His work is a direct reflection of how he filters the comings and goings of his surroundings, both conceptually and emotionally. I asked Amir what is the greatest part of being an artist? He states, “Ever since I was a young kid, I have always had a problem with other people laying out my future and telling me what sort of job or education I need. Maybe this is a result of being born in a country that tells you what to think, believe and do or maybe I am just stubborn. I can’t think of any other job, career, hobby or passion that gives one the freedom that art gives. I feel that I have complete control (to a certain extent of course) of which direction I can go and how I can go about it. This freedom mixed with an outlet to express myself and the events around me is the greatest part of being an artist.”
For many, perhaps the theme of cultural identity is blasé and has been overworked, but the creative process is one of the most poetic forms of exploration. Amir’s art not only explores the cultural disparities that exist between Middle Eastern and American culture, but also demonstrates how he has adapted to the differences and formed his own unique identity.
Although not an artist herself, Salwa Mikdadi Nashashibi is a pioneer in contemporary Arab art. Her objective as an independent curator is to humanize the voice of Arabs to the western world through art. In Nashashibi’s view, contemporary artists themselves are living and breathing contemporary culture. In 1989, inspired by this philosophy, she established the International Council of Women in the Arts (ICWA). ICWA’s mission is to promote the contemporary artistic practice of the Arab World through exhibitions and educational programming, and although the organization’s title would indicate a dedication to women artists, it has been involved in promoting both male and female artists since its inception. Nashashibi explains the personal appeal of her endeavor: “I look at art as the best medium for communication and the artist as the ideal representative of culture and time. They are the first to feel change, culture and growth. Humanity is represented in their works and that is what motivates me.”
Her passion to mobilize a resource for contemporary Arab artists ignited when she moved to the United States in 1972. Thereafter, she soon realized how very little the outside world knew about the Middle East and North Africa, the Arab peoples and their cultures. She decided to attempt to humanize this vast region for strangers through the voices of artists. As Nashashibi began to introduce the contemporary art of Arabs, she was immediately confronted with the realization that most westerners were only aware of the traditional arts from this region and did not imagine that
contemporary art even existed. This fact inspired her to make a lifelong commitment to sharing the contemporary, progressive and intellectual minds of the living Arab World through their fine arts.
Nashashibi grew up in Jerusalem and later lived in Lebanon, where she attended the American University of Beirut. In 1968, she organized her first exhibition of a Palestinian artist in Lebanon. In 1985, after moving to California, she curated her first exhibition of the works of Joumana El-Hosseini. While she found it easier at the time to introduce individual artists versus assembling group shows, Nashashibi quickly recognized the need for a larger, more broad introduction in the United States to contemporary Arab artists. So for five years, she worked to create Forces of Change, a traveling exhibition of 160 works by seventy contemporary female Arab artists from 15 countries. The largest collection of its kind ever presented in the United States, it opened at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC in February of 1994.
As a curator, Nashashibi does not just aim to create visually thought-provoking exhibits, but is equally committed to the educational programming that surrounds her projects. She believes that exhibitions do not simply stand alone, but are capable of providing a platform for understanding cultivated through education.
Today she is working on a most hotly-anticipated project — The National Arab-American Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, due to open in October of 2004. The institution will celebrate the Arab-American lifestyle and cultures with 38,000 square feet containing permanent exhibitions tracing the Arab immigration, stories and accomplishments. Nashashibi is curating a temporary exhibition of 15 contemporary Arab-American artists for the grand opening. The show will feature works that discuss and reflect the in-between world in which many bi-cultural Arab-Americans live.
Nashashibi is also currently at work on the “Cultural and Visual Art Resource,” a division of ICWA. This web-based resource will serve as a comprehensive site that documents, archives and highlights artists’ accomplishments and important events surrounding the Arab art world. It will make possible the exchange of articles, online exhibitions and other resources with artists, curators and gallery owners interested in understanding contemporary Arab art on a global level.
Salwa Mikdadi Nashashibi is a rarity in the art world. As an independent curator, she has dedicated herself to providing platforms for creating greater understanding of a region of the world that is now more misunderstood than ever. She receives no funding from any organization or government, and yet has managed time and again to open the eyes of the west to the talented artists of the Arab world through her curated exhibits, research and in-depth knowledge of contemporary Arab art. Nashashibi has not spent her years researching artists from afar, but has instead devoted considerable time and personal resources to travel all over the Arab world and become intimately involved with the artists. In doing so, she not only honors the art but above all pays respect to the artist and their creative process.
In 1982, when I was sixteen years old, I started taking notes of what I did every day, a daily account of what happened on the political and military scenes. The notes included weather reports and later film reviews, as I was getting more and more interested in Cinema. in the same year, I started using my father’s camera, taking photographs of events that took place in the vicinity from our apartment in Saida (South Lebanon), notably during the Israeli invasion in June 1982. I was fascinated with the sight of air strikes and ran to the balcony every time I heard the whistling f sounds of Falcons and F-16s. In the same year, I was gradually getting used to recording sounds, radio news, and music.
—From “This Day” by Akram Zaatari. All images courtesy of the artist
If you want to meet Akram Zaatari, you should go to Café Rawda — an open air tea garden emanating a 1970’s charm at the sea front of Beirut. Zaatari comes to this place nearly every day. Above your head planes are on course for Beirut every five minutes, and Zaatari followers their approach with a high-tech miniature camera — click, the 314th shot. With a smile, he apologizes for the documentation of what appears to be a banality. Inhaling from a water pipe, he searches the sky for his next shot.
Akram Zaatari is a video artist and curator who lives in Beirut. He is a creator of more than 30 videos, among which are How I love you (29 min, 2001), Her + Him Van Leo (32 min, 2001), All is well on the Border (43 min, 1997) or The Candidate (10 min, 1996). Zaatari is also the co-founder of the Fondation Arabe pour l’Image (FAI) in Beirut, a nonprofit organization, run by a group of artists and critical theorists, that collects, preserves, interprets and presents photographic works from the Middle East, which resulted in a series of exhibitions, as for example “The vehicle: picturing moments of transition in a modernizing society” or “Portraits du Caire: Van Leo, Arman, Alban.”
Zaatari is one of the artists who studied abroad but decided to live in Beirut permanently, even though art has played a marginal role there during the last 10 years. Like in most other Arab countries, artists in Lebanon have to work on the side as teachers, professors or journalists. What seems to be a problem at first glance is regarded as an opportunity by Zaatari: “Artists should be able to produce their ideas without regard to institutions and funding. The danger of having to please the financial backers is too large.” New institutional structures wouldn’t make the situation of artists in Beirut easier, he added. “In contrast, this situation has forced artists to look for their own spaces — and to organize their own exhibitions. This has created a basis for some fantastic projects.” If someone asks Zaatari to describe his relationship to his social and political environment, he would answer that it is that of an archaeologist. It is not a question of nationality or ethnic roots, like many journalists or art critics from Europe or the US often intend to see. “I live here because my relationship to this area is interesting to me — the mutual give and take between myself and the city,” he explains. “In general,” he points out, “I think that the idea of nations is no longer valid today. Each person is the sum of various influences and you can choose your own way of living.”
After the Fondation Arabe pour l’Image had been established, he found himself playing the role of an archaeologist sifting through the past — an area which has been neglected for far too long in Beirut. Until now, photographs have been assigned to the private sphere, but the archiving by the Foundation has lifted them out of their inconsequence. “History has often ignored simple people. This collection sheds lights on areas of this country which up to now have remained undiscovered,” marks Zaatari the Foundation’s aim. His latest work “This Day” (2003), shown at the “Forum of Cultural Practice — Homeworks II” in Beirut reflects this perspective particularly.1 But words would do not justice. You have to see it yourself. “This day” will be shown at the museum “Nicéphore Niepce” in Chalon-sur-Saône, France on the 15th of March 2004. (For more details see: www.museeniepce.com)
1. Homeworks II, which took place from the October 31–November 6, 2003, is an exhibition series in Beirut initiated and organized by Christine Tohmé, the founder and the president of Ashkal Alwan (email@example.com), an association for contemporary art.
I am sitting in the sparsely furnished office of Lebanese architect Bernard Khoury. The only embellishment in the room comes from a large window, from which I can see a panoramic view of the city below. Opposite me sits a tired looking Khoury. He says he hasn’t slept much and needs to eat something. We go to a chic French restaurant called Balthus. In the past, Khoury has worked for its owner, creating the concept for the popular bar, aptly named because of its location, Central. At Balthus, we are given a rundown of the day’s specials. Behind us sits one of the most feared men in the city. Plates clatter, knives, spoons and forks jangle. Welcome to the new free Beirut.
Ten years after the end of the civil war, the former Paris of the Middle East has been given a make over. Maybe that’s too mild a description, some parts of the city look more like they have been surgically enhanced. This is down town Beirut where women frequently gloss their silicone-enhanced lips, restaurants and luxury shops shoot up like mushrooms, and stretch limousines wait in front of towering steel and glass buildings. Here, things that hark back to the city’s traumatic history have been bulldozed, all traces of battle erased. A new urban space has been created and the historical facades are restored with oriental motifs. The reconstruction firm Solidère was commissioned by the city to revive Beirut’s image. And some may think they have done well by creating this picture-perfect idyll. A quarter of a century of war has been masked over, all cracks and wrinkles smoothed, it looks like a city with repressed memories. But there are some who are fighting this, acting like psychologists who want to bring the trauma out of the psyche and into the open.
So you will find in some places that this new polished image has been rejected. An architectural maverick crept onto the stage and created a nightclub and two restaurants that stick out like sore thumbs. Bernard Khoury designed these buildings and they are like weeds in the otherwise immaculately manicured lawns of the new Beirut. Khoury has found his niche in post-war Beirut by creating uncomfortable architectural visions. He hacks away at the smooth surface created by the official reconstruction firm, and erects jagged and poignant structures. His buildings are marked by playful forms which hold a mirror up to the inhabitants of Beirut with brutal honesty. “Beirut is a hyper-contemporary end vision of a capitalist system which has spun out of control. There are huge social, economic and political contradictions and discrepancies between the meanings of culture, civilization and community. Despite the glamour, you are still subject to the foul-smelling scent of the city. However, I am fond of Beirut; it is an absurd reflection of Western societal development. Clean-cut and severe.” Bernard Khoury claims to be speeding up Beirut’s unequal development of power and wealth through his work, pushing it to its own breakdown, so that ultimately it will explode out of itself.
Khoury studied at the Rhode Island School of Design and did a Masters in Architectural Studies at Harvard University in 1993. He initially found it difficult to accept the system in Lebanon where, the architectural sector is not considered a cultural asset; rather it is subject to hard economic rules. “In Beirut I was forced to free myself from this custom. Every structure is an expressive force.”
And at no other time was this principal more apparent than during the construction of the B018 nightclub in the La Qarantina harbor district on the northern access highway to Beirut. The club sits on the grounds of a former Palestinian refugee camp whose inhabitants were massacred in December 1975 by Christian militias. The area was later leveled by an earthquake. It is, for the time being, home to the first alternative music club of the postwar period.
“At first it appeared to me completely out of the question to construct a building for a relatively frivolous purpose at such a location, instead of a memorial. But why can’t a restaurant, a shop or a club be an architectonic memorial? These so-called profane buildings in particular should be considered the true political reflections of society. This is an exciting area, as one is given the chance to work with norms and disruption.”
Khoury developed a concept free from moral categories. B018 sums up Beirut’s current sociocultural situation while at the same time confronting society with the past. The amusement temple is embedded deep within the earth. From the outside, the property is reminiscent of a missile silo. Guests approach in their limousines which are arranged according to size and “draped” dramatically in a semi-circle around the entrance. From that point on the irony of it all is thrust upon you.
One enters the club by descending a bare flight of stairs, which leads the visitor layer by layer to the historical site of the refugee camp. The space has been given the form of a coffin — a single elongated room with a curved roof, which opens up via a mobile panel construction. The front wall of the room ends with a gigantic mirror over the bar, reflecting both the revelers inside and the city above. But the structure’s homage to death and remembrance doesn’t end there. Khoury’s tables are adorned with black and white photographs of dead singers and the seats are upholstered in morbid deep red velvet. Once folded together, they turn into miniature sarcophagi. But the appeal of this club doesn’t only lie in the design’s harsh reminder of the site’s past. Just as death comes knocking on our doors at some point, the grim reaper is already waiting in the wings for B018. The site was rented for a ten-year period. In 2004, the lease runs out, the club will be destroyed and become yet another part of La Qarantina’s history. But Khoury’s willingness to confront the past doesn’t end here.
A short drive from B018 one can find the gourmet sushi restaurant, Yabani. It sits on what was the Green Line, which during the war divided the Lebanese capital into East and West Beirut. It was the site of bloody battles between the various factions fighting for the city. Once again, Khoury felt that erecting a restaurant here seemed both vulgar and absurd. But he accepted the commission and just like his nightclub, this restaurant is situated underground.
A glass spot lit rotating elevator slowly carries patrons to the lower level. A video camera films their entrance, transmitting the images live to several television screens in the restaurant. The ride down ends in the middle of the dining area, the elevator shaft is surrounded by a bar. Those arriving get a good view of those dining and those dining can easily see whose arriving. Its effect is that of a showcase and one gets a feeling of being terribly exposed. The glossy up market sushi haven sits juxtaposed against its surroundings. On the street above pedestrians go about their business and the house next door is a bullet riddled shell which is home to several families.
Some may say it’s a provocation, but for whom? Khoury’s clients are the movers and shakers of the city. An elite group of people bent on creating a wonderland out of a war zone. But this architect doesn’t want to play by these rules. And so each project is a fine balance between pandering to their wants and maintaining his integrity. “We are playing with the needs of the upper class to dramatize their lives, but at the same time allow them to sense the absurdity of these desires. But flirting with the ‘noblesse’ [his clients] is like a constant tightrope walk. A game of temptation. I only accommodate them up to a certain point. That is my way of disrupting society. I am not cynical — rather I am frustrated. It’s useless to pretend to be an intellectual or an academic, or that one is working against the capitalist regime worldwide. Each one of us is a freeloader, when viewed from a critical perspective, as we can only exist if we tap into the system — we are only kidding ourselves if we say we’re independent. My work serves first and foremost the needs of the rich, but I try to subvert their impact. And at the same time, I undermine the foundation upon which I have built my constructions,” Khoury adds with a grin.
We are now at his office. Khoury stares into space for a moment and then suddenly his face takes on a serious expression. “This balancing act can be very frustrating, as I am constantly peering over an abyss. No one cares if I topple over — and when I fall, it will be a long drop.”
There’s no address but the directions are specific enough: just off Tschaikowskistrasse in the district of Pankow in northeastern Berlin, at the back of an inocuous office park. It takes a moment before you notice the building in the right rear corner: identical to the others but for the overgrown bushes and trees, the broken and boarded up windows, the wide steps and balconies strewn with junk. A heavy metal fence runs in front of the entryway and driveway. The front windows and upper floor balconies are quiet, dark, forlorn. Hints of missing detail suggest a once-ornate entrance, subsequently stripped of insignia. In fact there’s no signage of any kind, no names on the doorbell, no plaques or emblems, no flag on the pole. The front gate is padlocked with a heavy chain. The gate and fence are hardly chest-high. There’s no “No Trespassing,” no Betreten Verboten sign, the locked gate is a hindrance to nobody but the postman. Go ahead, climb over to the other side of the fence…
Welcome to Iraq.
Courtesy of the German Democratic Republic.
You are now in a sovereignty-free zone.
The house was abandoned rather hastily, from the look of it, around a decade ago. Before that, we were told, it housed the official diplomatic mission of the Republic of Iraq. So this was sovereign domain, a special territorial status — “The premises of the mission shall be inviolable” — accorded by Article 22 of the 1960 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which Iraq ratified in 1963. The “premises” were granted, in this case, by the German Democratic Republic, itself a once-sovereign domain created in 1949 in territory that, since the end of WWII, had been designated simply the Soviet occupation zone. In 1990, the GDR ceded its sovereignty to the Federal Republic of Germany; in 1994 all international treaties signed by the GDR were legally “dissolved.”
Officially, there was no such thing as private property in member states of the so-called Communist Block. But issues of territorial demarcation and control remained acute. Just three blocks west of here was the Berlin Wall, erected in 1961 by East Germany’s ruling party, the SED or Socialist Unity Party of Germany, on the territorial border with the FRG. Some time after that, this little plot of land must also have been legally appropriated by the GDR, then ceremonially handed over — sold, in fact, for a one-time payment of hard currency — to the State of Iraq, more specifically to delegates of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, which took control after the 1968 Iraqi Revolution.
In one neighborhood, two extremes of the adage “good fences make good neighbors”: the Berlin Wall, or “anti-fascist protective barrier” as it was officially called in the GDR (notwithstanding the fact that the prototype for the “fascists” that the Wall was built to protect against also had called themselves “national” Socialists); and this metal fence, a less obtrusive demarcation of a more amicable arrangement between “brother” socialist states. According to article 22.2 of the Vienna Convention, “The receiving State is under a special duty to take all appropriate steps to protect the premises of the mission against any intrusion or damage and to prevent any disturbance of the peace of the mission or impairment of its dignity.” A wall within the Wall, a kind of diplomatic island enclave. Safe harbor for the socialist jet set — while it lasted.
To get inside the building you have to clamber over the balcony to the second floor, then squeeze through a hole hewn through a boarded-up window at the back of the house. You tread cautiously from room to room through hallways of peeling wallpaper, decaying plaster and rotting carpets — notoriously cheap East German construction materials unable to withstand exposure to the elements. Only the plastic fixtures and electric outlets remain intact, as though oblivious to their obsolescence. In the library, a jumble: German dictionaries, lesson-books, atlases of world history. What remains are the by-products of two cultures, two languages, two systems calling themselves socialism and supported by two visions of “world history” that strove to converge here. In retrospect, of course, nothing more than an enormous coincidence, an historical-political accident that hardly lasted two decades.
Abandoned by history, the wreckage of two “revolutions.” On the floor underfoot, a magazine in colorful large-format: Fao. Die Geschichte der Befreiung (“Fao: The Story/ History of Liberation”), a commemorative document of Iraq’s most decisive military victory in the war with Iran. On the cover, a single soldier stands atop a sandbag bunker amidst desert sand-dunes, triumphantly holding aloft an Iraqi flag in one hand and a Kalashnikov rifle in the other; behind him, in a circular inset against the blue sky, like a large desert sun, a smiling Saddam Hussein. Inside, photographs of picturesque oases, scarred desert battlefields, cheering crowds of soldiers, and of course many pictures of Saddam Hussein: greeting soldiers, inspecting equipment, meeting with generals, receiving congratulatory phone calls at his desk. And even the text of Saddam Hussein’s speech on the occasion of awarding medals to the Republican Guards: “[…] With God’s help you were able to defend the law and destroy these units of the enemy. And so with God’s help you will bring defeat to the enemy elsewhere.”
A plot of land: granted, protected, inviolable; then dissolved and abandoned. “To abandon” has two related but quasi-antithetical meanings: to relinquish control of something to another controlling agency, or simply to cease to control, protect or preserve something altogether. The word itself is derived from the Old German bannan, to “command” or “summon,” which in turn, depending on the context or the character of the ruling authority, could also mean to censure, to curse, to excommunicate or prohibit — as in “banned books.” Since then, the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, and indeed the sovereign State of Iraq as such, has also ceased to exist, its territory “liberated” into an indefinite state of foreign protectorship. As a consequence, this building and the land that it occupies has fallen under a virtual “ban” — expropriated, excommunicated, accursed. As a non-property, a Niemandsland, it has outlasted even its much more famous and once formidable neighbor, the Wall and the “death strip” (Todesstreifen) it enclosed, nearly all of which has since been reappropriated as public or private land (down the street it has been repaved as a jogging path). In the flood of property claims that swallowed the territory of what was formerly East Germany over the past decade, this piece of land was somehow left an uncharted island. Now it has become a virtual un-territory — a land without qualities awaiting the man without qualities.
Today, over a decade after the end of the Cold War, one could argue that Baghdad marks the same implacable battle line between East and West, Orient and Occident that once ran through the center of Berlin. Others might argue that it’s not so much a clash of conflicting cultures as rather a battle between democracy and totalitarianism, freedom and tyranny — and both might be right. In any case it is a conflict currently characterized by competing uses of terms like “liberation” and “freedom.” One needn’t necessarily resort to Arabic etymology: consider the German term used by the Iraqi translators: Befreiung. This contains the Old German root frei, from this stems the English “free,” whereas “liberate” stems from the Latin liber, also meaning “free.” It is almost as though, in the American usage of both of these terms, you could still hear echoes the encounter between the legions of the Roman Empire and the Germanic tribes, the Vandals of northeastern Europe, Caesar versus Arminius/Hermann, “civilization” versus “barbarianism” — that is, until both of these terms were assimilated into a single set of meanings, and a singular sense of civilization, that was henceforth opposed to all that resisted it: the subterranean forces of “terror” versus the airborne forces of “shock and awe.”
A dusty, decaying waiting room in an abandoned diplomatic mission of extinct states. Plastic chairs waiting haplessly to be sat and waited in. A reception counter, on which an unopened envelope lies smudged with dirt — as though it had already been dropped and stepped on, then somehow made its way off the floor and back to its place; delivered, yet still waiting to be opened and state its business, reveal its message. But really, aren’t you happy not to know, happy not to have had to enter this room and endure its ambience back when it was still a place where one still had to sit and wait, in fear or hope, for anything? Nevertheless, you pick up the letter, open it — plain white paper, hand-typed in German — and read:
Peace on Earth ……. Peace on Earth …….
Very Honorable Mr. President Hussein!
Very Honorable Mr. President Bush!
Men who pray to the ONE GOD are with one another
and celebrate the festival of the birth of Jesus—
God comes to make peace.
Children, many children and young people, parents and
old people are with one another.
They ask for peace!
You, highly respected Mr. Presidents, can grant this request.
The undersigned — Leipzig Christians — believe
that the path to peace is the Will of God.
God bless you on the path to peace!
Under the typewritten text, and continuing on a second page, eighty signatures in black, blue, and red ink. The uneven, quasi-legible signatures reflexively remind you of the Declaration of Independence — another revolution, another war of “liberation.” Another battle line, another gulf between incompatible systems of belief and versions of history, demarcated by that loaded-empty word “peace” (Frieden) — the forgotten shibboleth of the Cold War.
Of course the choice to view this house on Tchaikovsky Street as an aesthetic object is more than just a question of taste. Aesthetically nondescript, politically all but nullified, neither entirely empty in the present nor undeniably haunted by its past, it is almost as though the building itself were holding its tongue. Not as though its tongue had been torn out, not quite — though the many hanging curls of wallpaper tempt such grim associations. Nor is it exactly speaking in tongues, though the books in many languages scattered on the library floor silently babble reminders of Babel’s toppled tower, whose legendary location is just west of Baghdad. Rather, behind its blank façade this building seems to have simply fallen silent, resting its tongue like the chiffon curtain resting patiently on the chair in the dining room, apprehensively tasting the wreckage of history that surrounds it, as reticent and elegant as Klee’s angelus novus as imagined by Benjamin.
Climbing back over the fence as though disembarking from a peculiarly disconcerting carnival ride — call it “Journey to the End of History” — you re-enter the historical-political present: in the newly unified capitol of recently unified Germany, at the center of unified Europe, in an innocuous office park just off Tschaikowskistrasse, in the district of Pankow in northeastern Berlin…
Veil: Veiling, Representation, and Contemporary Art
Modern Art Oxford
November 22, 2003–January 25, 2004
Modern Art Oxford is staging Veil, an exhibition devoted to exploring the significance of this most controversial, symbolically loaded item of female dress — an item weighed down with political and religious baggage in western societies, particularly post–September 11.
“Debate around the veil is one of the remaining subjects which persistently invokes the tired and clichéd binaries of east/west, black/white, male/female,” says Veil curator Jananne Al-Ani.
To western eyes, the veil has come to represent Islamic fervor and/or the oppression of women. Instead, the exhibition rejects such simplistic labels, exploring the veil in its many dimensions, with its contradictory potential for spiritual expression, political subversion and mixed sexual messages.
Gillo Pontecorvo’s classic 1965 film, The Battle of Algiers, shows resistance fighters switch between Islamic and French-style dress to further their struggle for independence. In one scene, resistance fighters slip through French security after cutting their hair and changing into sleeveless dresses. In another, an Algerian woman hides a stolen gun beneath her veil.
On the other hand, Majida Khattari’s 2002 video installation, Fashion Show, explores clothing as oppression. Filmed at Paris’s Centre Georges Pompidou, what starts out as a catwalk show ends with models fighting to escape the confines of increasingly tight drapes, to the point where they stumble and even crawl down the runway.
Photographer Shirin Neshat explores the failed promise of the Iranian revolution, where women who supported radical Islam ended up constrained and excluded by the regime that they had helped to create. Neshat’s series Women of Allah shows stern, veiled women facing down the barrels of rifles, their faces and feet obscured by intricate webs of calligraphy.
Among the most striking images come from Moscow collective AES art group, whose digitally manipulated images of western cities provide a humorous, yet hard-hitting critique of knee-jerk prejudice against immigrants and growing western hostility to the perceived Islamic “threat.”
And so, New Freedom 2006 from the 1996 series Witnesses of the Future shows the Statue of Liberty wearing a burqa. Meanwhile, London 2006 shows Britain’s Houses of Parliament topped by green minarets, clusters of bearded merchants in flowing Islamic dress gathering in the streets outside. The two controversial AES images were banned from a previous UK show: immigration remains a highly sensitive issue across Europe today.
Iranian photographer Shadafarin Ghadirian recreated a royal studio in her Tehran home, a painter friend reproducing backdrops from the Qajar dynasty. Her 1996 Qajar series shows women dressed in courtly period costumes, staring out from among domestic accoutrements such as step-ladders and piles of clothes, in sharp contrast to the lush pastoral backdrop.
Throughout history, the veil has served as a blank canvass on which outsiders have projected their fantasies and preconceived ideas — about women, about Islam and about the orient in general. Colonial artists and photographers clothed their Middle Eastern subjects in clichéd roles: odalisque, harem dancer, white mistress and black slave.
French-Algerian artist Zineb Sedira initiated the Veil exhibition, working with fellow artist Jananne Al Ani and writer David A Bailey, on behalf of London’s Institute of International Visual Arts (inIVA).
The exhibition is accompanied by a beautifully-illustrated guide, Veiling, Representation and Contemporary Art, written by Bailey and inIVA director Gilane Tawadros, with a narrative on the history and meaning of veiling that brings together exhibited work by artists including Ghada Amer, Emily Jacir, Shadafarin Ghadirian, Ghazel and Mitra Tabrizian.
It includes contributions on the meaning of veiling from some of the Middle East’s greatest writers, including Edward Said, Fatima Mernissi and Ahdaf Souief, and from Frantz Fanon.
“For women who wear it and artists who represent it, the veil is a garment whose meaning cannot be contained,” explains writer Reina Lewis. “It is a garment fought over by adherents and opponents, many of whom claim that their understanding of the veil’s significance is the one and true meaning.
“This project demonstrates that if the secret imagined to lie behind the veil reveals one thing, it is that it cannot be contained within a single truth, experience or understanding. The veil emerges as a form of clothing rooted in specific historical moments and locations… its adoption, adaptation and rejection is always itself relational.”
Zeid and Yasmine Hamdan are Soapkills, a young band looking to express the feelings of the post-civil war generation in Lebanon. Their melange of western and traditional Arab music styles is gaining popularity not only in Beirut but in Paris, London, and Berlin as well. The power of their music has been captured by filmmaker Elia Suleiman, who used their version of the old song “Tango” in his film Intervention Divine.
Late one night, Bidoun went to Zeid Hamdan’s practice space, an underground studio in the heart of Beirut’s clubbing scene. “No one can hear you and disturb you when you compose down here,” says Zeid.
Alia Rayyan: Soap Kills is an unusual name for a band. What is the story behind your name?
Zeid Hamdan: Well — honestly there is no story or official version. The name Soap Kills is linked to the day to day situation in our country. How people deal with problems, how people deal with the reconstruction of the city… the “cleaning up” of the city — just a big cleaning up. The whole procedure is just so brutal and inefficient. We are all lost without an identity — and without any knowledge of our history.
When you talk to the common Lebanese man, he will tell you about the disco/pop music charts — that comes from Egypt. That has nothing to do with music — with artists — and is just mainstream. Here, you never meet anyone with a vision concerning his music. They are only dolls that are manipulated by business men.
AR: How would you describe your music?
ZH: Our music is a correct mixture of Arabic and western styles. Yasmine has lived in Greece, Beirut and Dubai, and is very much in touch with the Arabic style of singing — I have lived in France and Lebanon, and grew up with grunge and rock music styles. Our music developed naturally and we didn’t plan it that way. After the old band split, Yasmine and I had to look for other possibilities to create music — and we discovered electronic music as a way to realize our ideas and feelings. If our band didn’t split, we would be the same old rock band as before. This type of trance music just occurred, and in a way, came out of our souls. And the so called “trip-hop” style is very important here in Beirut. After all this time of civil war and negativity, it is important to have something to trip out to… cause it gives you the chance to escape the reality — the every day situation.
AR: If you have to point out three main problems in Lebanon, what would they be?
ZH: Well, first — lack of democracy. Then surely, that we do not have a secular state. Religion still affects our lives, like the fact that you are Muslim and I am Christian would make it impossible for us to marry in this land! There still exists a huge gap between the sects — it’s an obstacle to peace and understanding.
The third problem is that we suffer from capitalism — under the waves of the Gulf States’ influences. They do not have a notion about human respect, and their money establishes fool rules among the people here. Really, we have achieved a situation where people are blinded by the sight of money. They would sell their mothers to earn more, you know?
AR: What does it mean to you to belong to the Middle East?
ZH: As a Lebanese and an Arab, you get to be very ambivalent. My mom spoke to me just in French — as her mother used to do with her, because they belong to the nobility. In my childhood, I lived in France for many years yet never really felt at home there. Back in Lebanon I recognized that I somehow belong to this region and that I do feel like an Arab. I do know how the structure functions here, and I realize the deep gap between my mother and our surroundings in Beirut.
But still it is not easy. I want to belong somewhere — and until today I never feel comfortable… not in Lebanon, not in France. So I travel every three months from one place to the other. I am really so confused about that, and I don’t know where I want to grow old. I feel very much alone — I need a home, need a place to stay.
Hip-hop was born in the Bronx in the early ’80s. Expressing existing inequalities, hardships and the general life circumstances of minority groups, or maybe not the minority but the most hard done by in US society, the music quickly took hold and spread.
In the 1990s, the Algerian youth living in France discovered hip-hop for themselves. Adapting what the music stood for, with “homemade” elements taken from traditional styles of North African and Arabic music, like raï and tarab, they created their own version of hip-hop. And to a greater extent than any other type of music, Arab hip-hop made its way back home to the Maghreb. Today there are more than 100 hip-hop groups in the Algerian capital alone.
And regardless of where they live, Lebanese, Egyptian, Turkish and Palestinian bands are following suit. In recent times, groups like Aks’ser, DAM, MWR, Iron Sheikh and Clotaire K have been making a name for themselves in the Arab music scene. Their hip-hop talks about the current situation in their home countries, the need for social change and attempts to create a cohesive Middle Eastern identity that the people of the region can identify with.
In the rest of the world, hip-hop attracts a certain type of audience and the number of listeners is much smaller compared with those that tune into more mainstream music. However, this is not the case with Arab hip-hop. In terms of demographics, many Arab societies have a majority population below the age of 30. Add to that the social and political dimensions experienced in this part of the world and you are talking about a large number of people that have so far had little representation in public life. They are unhappy with the way things are in terms of the social, economic and political and many see Arab hip-hop as the one avenue where their feelings and opinions are being voiced.
This was reason enough for Bidoun to take a closer look at this emerging music genre. In this and some of the following issues we will talk to some of the people on the Arab hip-hop scene.
Name: Clotaire K
Lives in: Paris and Beirut
Album: Lebanese, 2002 www.clotaire.com
Our first specimen is a young musician from Lebanon, Clotaire K. Fittingly enough, Clotaire is one of the many Arabs that have been brought up away from their country of origin. His father is Egyptian and his mother is Lebanese, but he was raised in France. But regardless of his western upbringing his childhood was shaped by the sounds of Abdelhalim Hafiz, Um Khalthum, as well as Tony Hanna and Fairuz and to a certain extent it’s the rhythm of this type of music that he has come back to.
During visits to the US as a teenager, Clotaire was introduced to hip-hop, and the rest as they say is history. Well not quite. Throughout his childhood in France Clotaire constantly felt like an outsider, for him hip-hop was not only a way to express those feelings but also led him back to his “real home,” Lebanon. It was here that he finally found what he was looking for, a way to combine the style of hip-hop with the sounds of his past. Specifically, for Clotaire, it was the rhythm and melody of tarab, the traditional Arabic music he used to listen to as a child.
And Clotaire carries off the combination of these two different styles of music with great success without falling into the trap of making his music sound like kitschy fusion. He has been on stage with the Asian Dub Foundation, Natasha Atlas and Cypress Hill. He has opened for the band Manu Chao and has been nominated for the Emma-gaala music awards.
Bidoun sat down for a chat with Clotaire K before his concert in Seville. While band members fetched their belongings for the sound check, Clotaire deals with the technicians, takes care of the catering for his crew, talks to the stage manager and puts his PR material in order. Then he suddenly blocks out the chaos around him and gently pulls out his beloved oud (an Arabic lute). “It’s the direct connection to my soul. I taught myself how to play. I am not brilliant, but it’s alright.” It’s a strange sight to take in at first. Sitting in front of me is this trendy hip-hop artist caressing a traditional musical instrument. When Clotaire talks about how he found his roots, his eyes dance and the story of how he discovered Beirut has an almost fairytale-like quality. You get the feeling he had a bit of an epiphany.
Clotaire K: All of a sudden I felt that there was this place where all these people like myself, lived. That I was just like everyone and everyone was like me. I was no longer different and became just a regular guy, which was very striking to me. I felt like a fish in its aquarium and it was a good feeling. It took me three days to come back to the language and to speak again, which was amazing for my relatives and me. A real miracle. I really felt part of the society and I felt that I was finally finding something that had been hidden to me for so many years. I can imagine living there again one day…perhaps when I am old, even if it’s raising goats. The simple life.
Bidoun: But don’t you feel that you are drawing a very romantic picture of Lebanon and its society?
CK: Sure, but I prefer to see just the beautiful side of the picture because it is so important to me.
Bidoun: So you are happy to see it through rose-colored glasses. Isn’t that, sorry to say so, a bit ignorant?
CK: Well yes, maybe ignorant or whatever. But I want to keep the nice part of it. Of course I know about the bad sides of Lebanon, all the religious and political problems and stuff. The rich people, who are so proud of their cell phones and their Mercedes and their show-off mentality, but I do not care about them, they are not important to me. The good side is much more important for me. I see it in the real and simple people who have to care about the real things in life, which we have forgotten. We, those of us who live in the US or in Europe, even me, I have forgotten them.
Bidoun: Your life as a musician seems then not to be part of your ideals?
CK: Yes and no. Sure, I don’t actually live that simple life, yet. But I use my music as a tool to fight for my people. I want to reach the people through my music. I want to enter their ears, to say things to them and express myself in a truly simple way, to be in a way my own media. At the same time, I want to revitalize the words of great poets like Khalil Gibran and musicians like Abdelhalim — or at least, I try to.
Bidoun: When someone asks you where you are from, what do you answer?
CK: I guess I say that I am Lebanese, brought up in France. That’s all. But my music is a much better image of what I am. My lyrics are a mixture of Lebanese and French.
Bidoun: What is your mother tongue?
CK: Difficult to say. Sure my mother spoke to me in French, although her mother tongue is Lebanese. So I should say French. But I love Lebanese or Arabic, because it is very poetic. So I could say Lebanese although, I am bad at writing in Arabic. I do it in my own way, I do not care. I just want to express myself.
Bidoun: What comes into your mind, when I say the word “Middle East”?
CK: Hmm, a mixture of culture, as well as a mixture of religions. Many differing ideas and ideologies. I guess also because I like stories, I think of leila wa alf Leila (1001 Nights). Then I think of the beauty of the landscapes, the mountains, sand and the sea. Shame, as well because we don’t have our feet on the ground, despite the rich culture and heritage we have.
Most clothing designers fabricate escapist fantasies into physical form, generating collections that play and prey, on people’s desire to achieve social acceptance, status and sex appeal. Miguel Adrover is more interested in offering his clients the opportunity to embrace an ideal of individuality. His creative philosophy is rooted in an expansive and generous view of global reality, one that embraces the common man and woman’s everyday actions and appearance.
Born in Majorca, Spain, of mixed Arab and Spanish parentage, Adrover has been a clothing designer for the past ten years. He has lived in three different countries and traveled through many others. Although he currently resides in New York City, Adrover is more accurately described as a citizen of the world.
His irreverent approach to institutional fashion has generated feverish press coverage from his first show, which dramatized the plight of the Manaus tribe, victims of American industrial expansion into their homeland within the Amazon jungle. The following season his career took flight with his tongue-in-cheek remix of corporate luxury logos into the poetic presentation of his signature, avant-garde-influenced sportswear. The collection coincided with a moment when the fashion world was obsessed with branding and when established names such as Burberry and Louis Vuitton were enjoying unprecedented financial success. Adrover’s ability to keep one finger on the pulse of the fashion moment, while simultaneously subverting that moment to his own stylistic message made him the enfant terrible of American fashion. A few months after his season-defining collection he was acquired by the Pegasus Group, a venture capitalist group seeking to compete with LVMH and the Gucci Group on the global fashion stage.
Expectations for his next collection ran high, perhaps unreasonably high considering that Adrover was still a fledgling designer. Reports began to emerge of intra-company conflict between Adrover and his corporate minders. They sought to tame his signature irreverence, the very quality that had made him so desirable in the first place, in order to meet their bottom line. In the end, Adrover’s history with Pegasus was determined by factors far more fearsome than corporate greed.
In February of 2001 Adrover presented his Egyptian collection, inspired by a sojourn in Egypt during which he immersed himself in the native Bedouin culture. Reactions were dramatically divided, with many editors protesting that his collection was too literal of an interpretation, not to mention sexist, even misogynistic. Seven months later, one day into the beginning of the next round of New York Fashion Week, the World Trade Center attacks occurred. Suddenly the stakes surrounding Adrover’s collection were much higher. Retail orders were cancelled, editors balked at lending his collection press coverage, and finally, Pegasus abandoned him. Miguel Adrover, once fashion’s favorite new face, was discarded as quickly as he had been embraced.
Flash forward two and a half years later. Adrover has taken stock and reestablished his business. Awake to the harsh realities of the fashion system, he is doing things differently this time, but true to his nature, he’s still doing them his way. Self-financed for the moment, he shows Fall/Winter and Spring/Summer collections at the same time, once a year, in a massive runway presentation. He continues to fill private orders for the coterie of private clients who remain devoted to his painstaking craftsmanship and innovative aesthetic. He persists in his pursuit of an alternative to establishment Fashion. And he continues to speak with passion about the things closest to his heart: people, clothing and the possibility for change.
Bidoun: What were your initial impressions of the Middle East, following your trip to Egypt?
Miguel Adrover: My visit to Egypt was something very special for me. Living in an Occidental world and going to the Middle East was a big culture shock. I saw the differences between what we have and what they have… in many ways I think we’ve lost a lot of our humanity that they still have.
Bidoun: What inspired you to create a collection based on the region?
MA: Most of the time fashion is only based in the Occident and kind of rules the rest of the world. It was a way of expressing what is another culture, what is another religion, what is another way of living, besides where we live. By that point also there was such an overdose of sex all over the world. I saw sexuality in the Middle East in a very different way than the way we see it. I tried to show another way of dressing.
Bidoun: How did you see sexuality expressed?
MA: I see it as being a little more pure. Not as exploited. In the United States and the Occident, sex is like Coca-Cola. It’s very easy to get, it’s just about going to a bar and having a drink and having sex. It’s not very difficult but at the same time we’ve lost the purity that sex can give to people, the intimacy. We’ve made it into something we can buy and sell. But at the same time, in Islamic countries, sex is controlled and manipulated too. There’s some good things in both places…I think it’s more about taking the good from both places and finding a way to mix it up.
Bidoun: Your Egyptian collection met with mixed reviews. Some editors loved it, while others found it to be too literal. Then several months later September 11 happened and all of a sudden it was seen in an entirely different context. Were you aware of a sudden shift in people’s attitudes towards you and the collection?
MA: Oh yes. I think it was pretty normal though. It would be the same thing if I had done a show dedicated to the people of Iraq before we went to war.
Bidoun: So, it wasn’t the styling or the presentation?
MA: No, just the timing.
Bidoun: How much of a role do you think that collection played in creating business problems for you? Do you think if you had shown a different collection things would have played out differently?
MA: Oh yes. But I think the honesty of our work always interests people, because we don’t try to please people to make the business people happy. But at the same time we don’t take so many positions. We just put the characters out there and let the people judge, while making sure to be respectful of the cultures and characters that we are representing. The way we work is very based on the way we live today, and what is the situation on the planet and what the newspaper is talking about. It’s not based on trends, or bohemia or the ’70s or the ’80s. It’s not based on Brigitte Bardot. Most of the time it’s just based on reality and the moment in which we live.
Bidoun: Mixing up cultures seems to be a goal of yours. How is it possible to impact the world with clothing?
MA: Well because I think that clothing and advertising campaigns are some of the biggest communicators in society. They manipulate new generations to take them in the direction they want, to consume the products they are selling. I chose clothing to express myself. I’m trying to say things that people who work in fashion are not usually trying to express. At the same time I think fashion, as a system, has lost some of the power it used to have. Before it was more related to normal people, to the people who live in the street… there was a communication. Now it is so much more about status. You need to have status even to think about it really, and to buy it. What I’m trying to do with my work is to embrace people who have never been represented and to give voice to people who have never had a chance to talk. I take advantage of my situation to try to speak for people who don’t have a flag, and maybe who don’t want a flag.
Bidoun: But to whom are you really speaking? Aren’t the only people who can afford to buy your clothing rich by definition?
MA: It doesn’t matter. The people who inspire me are being represented already. They are being embraced for the way they are. A woman working in the country in Egypt, carrying things on her head, I know she will probably never be able to afford the clothing, because the workmanship and fabrics make it very expensive. But you will see it on the catwalk, and maybe when you see that woman in real life you will pay some attention to her. Maybe you will see her individuality. It’s not about who is wearing more expensive stuff… it’s about style and individuality, and you cannot buy style. Society has been so manipulated by fashion that it has made us lose control of our sense of ourselves. We feel like if we don’t have the right outfit or bag then we aren’t good enough to participate in certain activities or go to certain places. I’m trying to reverse that.
Bidoun: Besides just representing them do you see other more concrete ways to change things through fashion?
MA: Of course. I would like my customer to be socially and environmentally conscious. There are many disasters in our world, and I’d like to dedicate part of my work to try and make things better, or at least to make people aware of what the situation is. People think that maybe this isn’t possible with a global business, but I think it is. I think that business is related to humanity… they’ve been separated for a long time but I think people realize that we need to change a lot of things if we are going to continue. What is fashion really about now? It’s almost totally superficial… most of the time there’s nothing to touch because it’s just an illusion. It changes so quickly… it’s so frivolous and so capitalist, that it isn’t even that interesting.
Bidoun: Well, that’s not necessarily true. There are several designers who are successful who work at hard at evolving certain aesthetics and ideas.
MA: Maybe. Let’s talk about Dior for example. What is Dior doing for society? Most of the time people just embrace their own empire and their own label..they don’t embrace the people or individuality. I don’t want people to dress like Miguel Adrover. I want people to dress like who they are.
A force in New York’s avant-garde fashion scene since 1999, Hushidar Mortezaie (Hushi to his friends) and Michael Sears have honed an over-the-top aesthetic while producing pulse-quickening fashion shows. Their work combines colorful aspects of their native cultures into a madcap marriage that spans continents. Like many other designers, they eschew overt political claims for their collections, preferring to let their clothing speak for itself. They hold a mirror up to the world they inhabit, reflecting back images of the American and Arab “street” and then channeling them through a surreal prism.
The two fashion provocateurs met through happenstance. Hushi’s story begins in Iran, which he fled with his family in 1975 to escape the Shah’s corrupt regime. He arrived at the age of three in Marin County, a conservative section of Northern California, where, growing up he had a “blissful Northern California suburban mall/bohemian life, filled with Mrs. Field’s cookies juxtaposed with chelo kebab… Charlie’s Angels juxtaposed with [Iranian Pop idol] Googoosh.” This intercultural mix allowed his imagination to soar beyond his immediate surroundings, laying the foundation for the fantastical fashions he creates today.
Michael Sears grew up amid the flash and dazzle of Las Vegas, where he immersed himself in the exotic artifice of his surroundings. Like Hushi, he was mesmerized by the vibrant images that confronted him in every direction. The two met in 1990 while living in San Francisco, where they found common design ground despite hailing from different corners of the globe. They became fast friends, designing outrageous outfits to wear to parties together and four years later they moved to New York.
The designing duo first gained notice with their East Village boutique, Sears and Robot. The store sold an eclectic assortment of clothing and accessories, including T-shirts printed with Iranian imagery, intricate jewelry and custom-made dresses, blouses and skirts.
After a few years they became more focused on designing their own collection and they decided to change the store’s name to Michael and Hushi, to reflect a new level of commitment to developing their own label. Their partnership functioned with an interesting dynamic: Mixing pop-cultural imagery with provocative Middle Eastern elements, they brought a much-needed creative jolt to New York’s typically staid fashion scene with their first full-fledged runway show (“the Persian Collection,” February 2001, in an artist’s loft on the Lower East Side of Manhattan). “We combined romantic gypsies with revolutionary, Islamic glamazons,” says Hushi, a look that translated into tailored evening dresses cut from traditional Palestinian fabric “showing the beauty of the culture’s struggle.” Recent collections have referenced Ronald McDonald, Parisian chic and bike messenger style, combining visual elements into a powerful Pop Art pastiche.
Their insistence on taking creative risks has been both a blessing and a curse. While they have attracted press coverage in some of the most prestigious magazines in the world and the support of influential magazine editors, like Alex White of W and Lori Goldstein of Italian Vogue, the burgeoning design team has not found a major investor or backer. And although their clothing is available in a selection of stores in Japan and the United States, they have yet to find any major commercial success. Hushi says, “In the US you starve if you want to make nontraditional sportswear. As a result, we’re broke.”
Commercial obstacles aside, Michael and Hushi continue to forge ahead with their sometimes brazen, often brilliant, exploration of postmodern American and Middle Eastern ideals of glamour. Moving forward, Hushi sees great potential for further cultural cross-pollination. “Fashion is in the future of the Middle East and the Middle Eastern aesthetic will definitely impact world fashion in ways other than just the image of hijab.”
In September 2003, after a six-month delay due to the US-led invasion of Iraq, Beirut hosted a Food and Design exhibition. The public and the press escaped the summer heat and headed to Comptoir, a successful Lebanese shop and wine bar to view the installations. The history of this particular project dates back to the 2002 International Design Biennale in Saint-Étienne, France.
The organizers of the event, Table Rase which is a group that promotes design in the Middle East, chose food design as the theme because they wanted designers to work on a “mass appeal” subject. The objective of the exhibition was to increase the local population’s awareness of different types of art and also to stimulate Arab creativity using a novel medium. The selected designers were successful in proving that they can be innovative when it comes to preparing and presenting food. But more importantly, the designs provided a critical insight into how some artists view their culture and surroundings and how they translated this into the physical.
The week-long event also encompassed several lectures and seminars conducted by both regional and international players on the arts scene. Issues like the role of art and creativity in the Middle East and need for its development was at the forefront of discussions. While the exhibition, installations, and lectures mainly contributed to delight the senses of the visitors, it also set the stage for the acknowledgement of design in the region and coincided with the launch in Beirut of the ADAPO, or Association for Design and Architecture in the Middle East.
Bidoun spoke to one of the designers at the event. Ali Hussein Badr was born in 1967 in Kerbala, Iraq. He went to Yugoslavia to study, but by the time he received his diploma, Iraq was under sanctions and half of his family had disappeared under the former Ba’athist regime. Today, he is employed at an architectural firm in Switzerland, where he resides as a political refugee. Besides his work as an architect, he does some research on the interactions between politics, space and art.
Bidoun: Designed in 2002 for the Saint-Étienne Biennale, your meat grill “Let’s Meat” perfectly anticipated the events that occurred in 2003.
Ali Hussein Badr: More than ever! But I already had a strong feeling of the upcoming drama. As a matter of fact, my prototype is a multiple-meaning statement. First of all that the Iraqi people are like a piece of meat caught between two egocentric ambitions. They can’t do anything. They’re “cooked,” forever incapable of escaping from the game masters’ vice. Then, that the victim of war is never found on one side or the other, but in the middle. As to the executioners, they are united, mutually using pretexts to enslave their population. Finally, once the meat is cooked, what is left is the sad pleasure to cut into pieces the portrait of one of the two criminals. Me? I just leave them face to face. I don’t eat meat anyways.
Bidoun: What place is there today for Middle Eastern designers and creators in general?
AHB: Whether you are a film director, an architect, a designer or an artist, any creative individual in the Middle East must face several adversaries: a still very traditionalistic and community-oriented society, an economically and intellectually poor environment, a repressive government. But its role is essential because it is the only one to offer alternative views and to open tracks for reflections to society so that it may question its identity and its values. Its combat takes place in the universe of signs, language and senses. But he must also be heard, which is obviously quite difficult due to the absence of freedom of speech in Arab countries, and when you’re in forced exile like me. This is why every one of our interventions must be made with an undertaking spirit, but without losing the sense of derision…
Bidoun: Are you going to go back to Iraq, to Kerbala some day?
AHB: This is as if you asked me to go back into my mother’s womb; it was pretty difficult to get out of it. And I’m not sure to be very welcome when I go back. I have an Iraqi identity that has opened and become enriched since my passage in Belgrade and my stay in Switzerland. Just like Iraqi culture enriched from the contact of the Persians, Turks, Arabs, Kurds, Jews etc. But there are few people to admit this truth, especially in Kerbala. As a matter of fact, I will go back there, but incognito — to see, first. For the moment, I consider that there’s still a lot of work to do to modify the lamentable perception Westerners have of the Arabs, Persians, Turks and Muslims. Giving an alternative to the image conveyed by western media, this seems to me a constructive way of questioning the Iraqi identity.
If I am to be perfectly honest, when one thinks of Dubai, art and culture are not high up on the list of associations. Frankly there is very little of it around. But, fingers crossed, I won’t be able to say this for long. Kitsch 22 is company that has taken it upon itself to help bring about this change and they are doing it from the grass-roots level up. It’s really quite difficult to outline what they do, have done and will do. The best way I can think of describing Kitsch 22 is as, and I am sorry for the cliché, having fingers in many pies.
The main players are two young and lovely gentlemen, Shahreyar (Shaz) Sheibani and Shehab Hamad, who set up the organization. Think of it as an umbrella (trust me it’s easier this way). The two of them grew up in Dubai, went to university in other parts of the world, came back and saw a decided need for things around here to be different. I sent Shaz a text message asking him what they do and the reply I got was, and I quote: “Arts and music events, fashion distribution and whatever else we may think of doing.” And yes, this is exactly what they do, but there is just so much more to it.
Under the company Kitsch 22, there is 9714 which is run by Shaz, Shehab and Rishi (a childhood friend and like-minded individual). It organizes events which cater to those with slightly less mainstream tastes. 9714 brings out DJs from around the globe, throws fantastic parties and gives the art-starved Dubai inhabitants much needed nourishment. They have brought out Canada’s DJ Tiga, who didn’t actually wear his sunglasses at night, London-based DJ Che, who also happens to be a friend of the Kitsch family, DJ U-Cef, and the Egyptian-born American DJ Mutamassik, to name a few. They also introduced us to the magical voice of Samita Sinha, whose singing style combines classical Hindustani and jazz vocal techniques. 9714’s events have exhibited works by Rana Salam, whose creations were a tribute to Middle Eastern popular street art. Their very first event paid homage o the photographic legacy left by Paul O’Flynn, a Dubai-based Irishman who captured the essence of Arabian life through the lens of his camera. But apart from these large, several-hundred people in attendance-type international cultural injections, 9714 also ensures that the talented people of Dubai get a chance to strut their stuff.
For the past couple of years they have been hosting regular shindigs, where local DJs, artists, photographers and musicians are given the chance to shine. The initial weekly gatherings were aptly dubbed “subsistence.” For the first time in Dubai, creative individuals here were given a forum to meet and share their work, ideas, and whatever else they may want to to exchange. The most recent installments go by the name “fertiliser” and so far they have showcased a singing Scotsman — who was just beautiful — an Iranian photographer, a jazz band, and so many more that I can’t mention because of my word-count limitation. 9714 pushes envelopes, entices you to live outside the box and helps you remember Dubai’s international dialing code. But Kitsch 22 doesn’t end there. Hell, these guys are so nice they are even willing to put clothes on your back and shoes on your feet.
5Green enters from the left wing to take centre-stage.
Shehab and his sister, Shahi, are opening a shop. If you haven’t already cottoned-on, then let me elaborate. The store will be called 5Green, it will sell clothes, shoes, accessories, art, music, books and cameras. As Shehab says, “…it’s a lifestyle baby…” Again here, these wonderful people, will provide us with something a little out of the ordinary. The clothes are from labels like Fidel, Paul Frank, Nonsense and X Large. Urban wear for the urbane. And the cameras too are definitely not normal. Mr. Hamad is the Dubai ambassador for the Vienna-based Lomography Society. The Lomo cameras as they are known to close acquaintances, and there are about ten different types, are very special indeed. I am so attached to mine, I think everyone should be given one at birth (for more information on these ingenious little contraptions please go to www.lomography.com or pop into 5Green).
The birth of Kitsch 22 heralded in an age of cultural enlightenment in Dubai. If it wasn’t for them, the people of Dubai who are interested in any form of creative expression would have developed a variant of rickets due to insufficient amounts of Vitamin Art. They would have pulled out their hair from frustration and resigned themselves o a life of premature and self-inflicted baldness. And those gifted, dazzling and inspired people who live here would have packed up, caught the first Toyota Land Cruiser out of here and shifted shop. Luckily, none of these scenarios will need to be considered as long as Kitsch 22 continues to do what it does. If you are wondering what Kitsch 22 will think of doing next then join the club. Actually I am not even sure Shehab and Shaz know either. But I am not too worried about it because whatever it is, I know it will be something I like, need and want. What more could one ask for?
When the magical Moroccan author Fatima Mernissi agreed to provide a recipe for our cooking section, we knew it would be special. Here, she reveals the recipe for her secret aphrodisiac fish dish, Qurb, which she writes of in her book Scheherazade Goes West.
“The most difficult thing is to find the supposedly aphrodisiac fish, the qurb, in the first place. Qurb is the Arabic word for “coming closer,” and ever since I first arrived in Rabat as a student, I have heard about its wonders. In my own hometown of Fez, which is three hundred kilometres from the sea, we never knew such a magical fish existed. But here, you can’t get qurb easily because the whole Rabat population is always looking for it, scavenging the fish markets along the beaches that stretch towards Casablanca. To increase your chances of finding the treasure, you have to be out searching at 5 am But fortunately, at least we Rbati, or people from Rabat, don’t have to compete with the three million citizens of Casablanca. The Casablanca people are like Americans: they focus on money, not sensuality.”
1 cup dried mint
1 cup green tea
3 cups water
Bring to a boil. Add sugar; serve in small glasses with much panache.
None would be complete without including Moroccan tea, which is served constantly from morning to night.
The Moroccans use dried mint and green tea, boiled and brewed together and mixed with so much sugar you could cut through it with a knife. Feel free to mix with fresh mint, which always impresses foreigners.
2 tbs fresh ginger, finely grated
3 cloves garlic, finely crushed
Juice of 3 lemons
1 tbs fresh coriander, finely chopped
7 tbs fine olive oil
Macerate the two filleted halves of the qurb in all the ingredients above. Leave for at least 3 hours.
Broil the fish for 5–7 minutes on each side, sprinkling with lemon as you go along.
The most important part of the recipe, of course, is the presentation. Fatima urges us all to serve the qurb on a terrace overlooking the ocean on the fourteenth night of a lunar month, when the moon is full and round. “And,” she says, as I scribble down the recipe in her warm kitchen, “speak softly.”
Tchoutchouka can be served hot or cold, as a starter, or with just about everything. Make a lot — it goes fast.
2 pounds green peppers
2 pounds tomatoes, peeled and diced
2 sprigs parsley, chopped
2 sprigs coriander, chopped
4 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tsp hot red pepper powder
½ tsp cumin
½ tsp salt
7 tbs olive oil
You can grill the peppers in the oven if you don’t have a grill. Just put them on the racks, turning occasionally, until blackened on all sides. Then let them cool in a covered bowl for about an hour.
When they are cool, peel the skins, which will come right off. Dice.
Mix all the ingredients together and cook in a large pan over medium heat for 35 minutes, stirring frequently until the juice has been absorbed.
Lamb Tagine with Prunes and Apricots
Doctor Latifa Jamai is a brilliant woman. She was the first female gynecologist in Morocco, opening the doors for other women to practice. We were lucky to meet her in Rabat, and discovered that she is also an excellent cook. She happily divulged her recipe for Gynecologist’s Tagine, otherwise known as Lamb Tagine with Prunes and Apricots.
3 pounds of lamb shoulder cut into pieces
3 large onions, finely minced
2 large cloves garlic
4 ounces butter
1 tsp ginger, finely minced
½ tsp salt
½ tsp saffron threads
3 pints of water
1 small glass of honey
1 bouquet of coriander, tied together with herb string
2 pounds of prunes, (dried, pitted)
1 pound of apricots (dried)
2 oz toasted sesame seeds
Crush the saffron seeds in a mortar, making a fine powder. Cook meat, onions, garlic, butter, ginger, salt, saffron, coriander and water in a half covered pan over medium heat for 1 hour.
Add the honey, cinnamon, prunes and apricots and simmer for 20 minutes.
Serve the lamb in a round dish coated with the sauce and sprinkle with sesame seeds.
The tagine is usually served by itself, but if you are feeling extravagant, enjoy with couscous.