Lies, crimes, and stereotypes…pulp is the kingdom of the obvious and exaggerated, the sensational and the predictable, peopled by detectives, werewolves, and robot girls. In pulp loves comes in two flavors; saccharine sweet and raunchy porn. Pulp is worth exactly the paper it’s printed on—the cheapest paper in the world.
Pulp means paper; or rather, the mulch from which paper is made. And it is this relationship to the physical that is the key to pulp, as genre and as critique. Pulp can be a painting, but not art. A book, but not literature. A movie…but not cinema.
Pulp is a load of crap.
But then why are we bothering with this shit? Why look at, read, or watch pulp at all? Or at least, why admit it?
Pete Woods, a British connoisseur of five continents’ worth of trash films, provides one answer in his book Mondo Macabro:
Horror films, sex exploiters, and monster movies…are usually avoided by heavyweight histories. Which is odd, because in our encounters with Filipino action heroes, Hong Kong horror stars, and Japanese bondage queens, we’ve learned far more about their respective countries than from any number of serious art films…Genre films…always grow out of their country’s most deeply ingrained traditions. Like crates of oranges with their brightly colored labels, these films are always instantly identifiable.
The allusion to oranges is oddly appropriate. Pulp is everything that gets strained out to make juice. But where pulp ends and juice begins is completely a matter of taste…taste, and the width of your straw.
The suckers with the widest straws are artists. The artist can exploit the rawness of even the most elevated cultural material. Like archivists, they make meaning by selection; like B-movie moguls, they embrace appropriation; and like librarians, they manipulate content through context.
In her project Untitled Polaroids, Haris Epaminonda turns her camera on her private library, photographing photographs from the pages of books; the result is a series of images that reads like a gauzy travelogue of a trip to a vintage encyclopedia. A similar journey is evident in the works of our own Babak Radboy, whose textual still lives are scattered throughout this issue—spoils of his recent excavation of Beirut bookstores, informed by his complete ignorance of Arabic and a keene eye for conspiracy. Ahmet Ötgüt presents a photo-series celebrating a neglected form of national poetry—the rhymes and sayings Turkish truckers splash across the backs of their rigs.
Although there’s plenty to ogle, we know you only read Bidoun for the articles… In “Thirty-One Flavors of Death,” Achal Prabhala profiles Omar Ali Khan—ice cream magnate, schlock-horror cineaste, and Pakistan’s unlikeliest cultural tastemaker. Sophia Al-Maria’s “Beauty As the Beast” evokes a pulp pantheon of femme-dom-fatales whose tales are accompanied by portraits from the ejaculatory ballpoint pen of artist Cary Kwok. And Anand Balakrishnan provides a thrilling pastiche of pulp non-non-fictions in his most honest and exaggerated Bidoun treatment yet, “The Toughest Man in Cairo vs the Zionist Vegetable.”
All this, plus beach fashion, a drinking game, and editor Negar Azimi’s intimate evenings with the Iron Sheik. And all of it printed on the thinnest, cheaper paper we could find.
7th Gwangju Biennial
September 5–November 9, 2008
This fall, Okwui Enwezor offers his own rethinking of the biennial format with a three-part exhibition. ‘On the Road’ is a roundup of exhibitions from the past year — an acknowledgment that globe- trotting biennial audiences miss many museum and gallery shows — including shows of Hans Haacke, Gordon Matta-Clark, and David Adjaye. ‘Position Papers’ consists of “curatorial proposals and experiments in exhibition practice” by an international group of five curators. Newly commissioned projects by artists such as South African photographer Jo Ractliffe, Cairo-based Iman Issa, and nouveau réaliste Jacques Villeglé — comprise ‘Insertions.’ In addition, the Gwangju Biennale presents Global Institute: Experiments in Transnational Education, a program focusing on topics such as how globalization has influenced artistic production and the current state of Asian art and institutions.
The Greenroom: Reconsidering the Documentary and Contemporary Art
CCS Galleries and Hessel Museum of Art, CCS Bard
September 27, 2008–February 1, 2009
It would be impossible to overstate the importance of the documentary in contemporary art, yet while it’s frequently touched upon in art criticism, little in the way of satisfying, in-depth investigations have been produced. To rectify this, CCS Bard and Berlin- based artist Hito Steyerl initiated a collaborative three-year research project on the subject. ‘The Greenroom,’ an exhibition curated by Maria Lind with related screenings and discussions, is its inaugural event. Although the larger project has a historical overview, this show of nearly sixty artists features work almost entirely made in the past few years, including some surprises alongside the expected. Especially considering that recent New York shows on more limited “subcategories” (the archive, surveillance) have proven somewhat disappointing, the scope of ‘The Greenroom’ is ambitious: from Stephen Shore’s colorful photo-travelogues to Walid Raad and the Atlas Group’s photographs of car bombs during the Lebanese civil war (My Neck Is Thinner Than a Hair); from Iñigo Manglano- Ovalle’s full-scale reconstruction of a supposed mobile biological weapons lab,
as described by former US Secretary of State Colin Powell to justify the invasion of Iraq (Phantom Truck, 2007), to Michael Rakowitz’s well-traveled installation of looted Iraqi artifacts refashioned out of ephemera (The Invisible Enemy Shall Not Exist); from Marysia Lewandowska’s research into Polish amateur films to Omer Fast’s video installation featuring interviews with Polish extras from the Hollywood film Schindler’s List (Spielberg’s List, 2003). A new video by Rirkrit Tiravanija will be featured among the screenings.
PS1 Contemporary Art Center
October 19, 2008–January 19, 2009
The videos of Yael Bartana are testament to the extent to which politics — as identity, ritual, or whatever other form they take — infuse every aspect of life in her native Israel. King of the Hill (2003) documented men off-roading their SUVs, maneuvering up and down dunes of sand and dirt while others watched and cheered them on. Although the work was understated, the combination of the machismo, the tank-like vehicles, and the never-ending, slip-sliding, uphill battle formed an undeniable and powerful metaphor. Cars were also captured in a politicized moment in Trembling Time (2001), but there the ritual was prescribed by the state: sirens wailed to signal the start of a minute of silence to memorialize soldiers who had died in Israel’s wars, and drivers on a Tel Aviv highway came to a stop. No longer isolated individuals speeding through space, they were forced into a collective body. Construction in Palestine — an act intimately allied with Zionism — got turned on its head in Summer Camp (2007), as volunteers rebuilt the house of Abu Ahmed Al Hada, which had been destroyed by Israeli authorities. These last two videos, plus three more, will be featured in Bartana’s solo show at PS1 Contemporary Art Center, her first large-scale exhibition in New York.
Adel Abdessemed: Situation and Practice
MIT List Visual Arts Center
October 11, 2008–January 4, 2009
The highlight of Adel Abdessemed’s recent show at PS1 in New York was Birth of Love (2006), a video in which a cat devoured a rat — it was nasty, brutish, and, at one and a half minutes, mercifully short. Abdessemed has made numerous videos featuring animals — including boars, a lion, and a snake — in “performance” on the streets of Paris, where the Algerian artist now lives. (Some have proven controversial; earlier this year the San Francisco Art Institute suspended an exhibition of works by Abdessemed after animal rights groups objected to his “animal snuff films.”) His more explicitly political sculptures have included destroyed airplane fuselage and oversize drill bits, as well as neon signs placed above doorways that read “exil” in place of the usual “exit.” Abdessemed’s exhibition at the List Visual Arts Center will feature a mini-retrospective of his performative works, several new sculptural works, and, possibly, street actions in Cambridge itself.
Singapore Biennale 2008
September 11–November 16, 2008
Two years ago, the wealthy island nation of Singapore entered the international biennial circuit. Featuring enigmatic catchphrases such as “Let the enchantment begin” and “Intrigue your senses,” the Singapore Biennale website might read like the press release from a bureau of tourism, but the multi-site exhibition — organized around the theme of “wonder” and once again directed by Fumio Nanjo, who heads Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum — sounds impressive. While less sprawling than 2006’s program of more than ninety artists and artist collectives, this second iteration maintains the first’s mix of the international and the regional. The fifty- plus artists hail from all over the world, but more than sixty percent are from the Asia-Pacific region. Artist Shigeru Ban’s Containart Pavilion, constructed out of 150 shipping containers and his usual cardboard tubes, will hold installations by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, Anthony McCall, and Hans Op de Beeck. A new art fair, Showcase Singapore, will premiere during the biennial’s opening days, and numerous museum exhibitions are scheduled for the following two months. As in 2006, the Singapore Biennale takes place at the same time as the Gwangju and Shanghai biennials; the ambitious art traveler can also catch the end of the Biennale of Sydney the week before and then visit the Yokohama Triennale afterward.
June 6–September 7, 2008
In 2005, the British Council and Tate Britain initiated an arts exchange program between teenagers in London and Damascus, and the resulting work was featured in the 2006 exhibition ‘Nahnou-Together’ (nahnou is the Arabic word for “we”). The endeavor soon expanded to include Jordan as well. The two-year dialogue that provided the material for ‘Nahnou-Together Now’ took place between sixty youths aged thirteen to twenty-one as well as teachers, Tate curators, and artists — Faisal Abdu’Allah and Maria zeb Benjamin, from Britain; Reem Al- Khatib, from Syria; and Samah Hijawi, from Jordan. On view alongside the participants’ creative efforts were two films that documented the workshops themselves. The London exhibition also attempted to contextualize somewhat the participants’ work (and that of the Syrian and Jordanian partner institutions, Adham Ismail Centre and Darat al Funun). The most important part of the show, however, may have been the encounters between the young Syrians, Jordanians, and Brits, from a wide variety of backgrounds, who traveled to each others’ countries and made art together.
July 19–November 2, 2008
The latest edition of Europe’s itinerant biennial takes place in multiple locations in the southern Italian region of Trentino. The curators — Adam Budak, who lives and works in Graz, Austria, and Krakow, Poland; Berlin-based Anselm Franke and Hila Peleg (working as a team); and Raqs Media Collective, who live and work in Delhi — each organized an exhibition in Rovereto, Trento, and Bolzano, respectively, as well as collaborating on a show in Fortezza. Franke and Peleg’s The Soul (Or, Much Trouble in the Transportation of Souls) features “miniature museums” related to the history of Europe and the soul, conceived by a wide spectrum of contributors including artists Rabih Mroué, Natascha Sadr Haghighian, and Rosalind Nashashibi and anthropologist Michael Taussig (author of the field cult classic My Cocaine Museum and Walter Benjamin’s Grave). The group- curated ‘Scenarios,’ on the other hand, was inspired by its site, a fortress built in 1830 by the Hapsburgs and continually modified to prepare for a battle that never arrived. Sound installations, scripted by writers such as Arundhati Roy and poet Saadi Youssef, investigate how imagination and projection play as critical a role as the visible and material.
The last Manifesta, canceled due to political complications in Cyprus, turned into a roving educational platform that has appeared in Berlin and Mexico City and even taken up permanent residence at New York’s New Museum. It remains to be seen if the actualized Manifesta 7 will have such an afterlife.
Walid Raad: A History of Modern and Contemporary Arab Art: Part I
July 17–November 8
Walid Raad’s first solo exhibition in the Middle East also marks the first public outing of a new project exploring the building blocks of an infrastructure for the fine arts in the Arab world. ‘A History of Modern and Contemporary Arab Art, Part I, Chapter 1: Beirut, 1992-2005’ features six new works that use materials about the emerging arts industry as elements of unabashedly formalist images.
But as one might expect from Raad’s work, there are numerous layers beneath the artist’s overt consideration of the political, economic, and ideological motivations behind branding geographic locales with culture. The starting point of Raad’s current project is the artist and theorist Jalal Toufic’s concept of the “withdrawal of tradition past a surpassing disaster.”
One work in particular, a wall mural painted with help from local art students, reproduces but rakishly distorts fellow artist Walid Sadek’s 2006 installation Love Is Blind. In that work, Sadek tried to access the early twentieth-century Lebanese landscape painter Moustafa Farroukh but failed. In this work, Raad tries to access Sadek trying to access Farroukh. The underlying questions here are: first, how has art been materially and immaterially affected by wars in this part of the world; second, how might artists in the region begin to reference each other again, and invest with meaning artworks that are contingent on other artworks (as opposed to civil wars); and third, how might a productive art historical lineage proceed from here?
Farhad Ahrania: Stitched
Leighton House Museum
August 13–September 6, 2008
‘Stitched’ is Shiraz-born artist Farhad Ahrarnia’s first show in London. It includes photography, video, and a series of embroideries-on-canvas, in which the artist sews stitches in bright threads over blurred images of modern-day media “celebrities” — from Iranian ex-royalty to young Britons suspected to have taken part in riots and American soldiers killed in action in Baghdad. “By embroidering the grid-like canvas, he undermines the autonomy of his chosen subjects, interrupting their sense of completeness and permanence,” writes curator Rose Issa. “The act of pulling thread through the fabric is a literal and metaphorical attempt to pull hidden meanings from within the images.” Ahrarnia’s work in video includes Mr Singer, inspired by Sergeant zinger, a character in Simin Daneshvar’s novel Savushun, who acted as a neighborhood spy while selling Singer sewing machines to affluent Iranian families in the 1930s and 1940s.
The Third Line
September 25–October 25, 2008
In this solo show at The Third Line’s new branch in Doha, California-based Amir Fallah teases out a long-standing preoccupation in his work. In his previous series of paintings of boys’ camps and dens, shown in 2007 at The Third Line (with Ala Ebtekar), it was the background horizon and stormy skies that dominated; now he turns to the landscape itself in a series that takes on iconic Hollywood-esque scenes of the desert and canyons of the Wild West. As ever, Fallah’s modish titles refer to a contrived, emotional personalization of nature, but his work has taken on a newly expressive, even whimsical quality — a far cry from his tightly controlled, poppy canvases of a few years back.
Darat Al Funun
October 11, 2008–January 8, 2009
Amman’s erstwhile creative hub Darat al Funun hosts London-based artist Mona Hatoum in residence throughout September. Come October, she’ll open an exhibition of new work created in Amman with local artisans and materials, shown alongside older works that form part of the Khalid Shoman Private Collection. These include iconic works, from the 1983 video installation So Much I Want to Say to 2007-08’s Misbah, a rotating lamp that throws military shadows onto the walls. Hatoum’s exhibition is accompanied (in Darat’s Blue House gallery) by Return of the Soul, an installation created by Scottish artist Jane Frere and volunteers from refugee camps in Palestine, Jordan, and Lebanon, to mark the 60th anniversary of the Nakba. The work, made up of hundreds of ghostly wax figurines, was originally shown at the Palestinian Art Court, Al Hoash in East Jerusalem in May 2008, and tours to Ramallah and Edinburgh before Amman.
Ayam Beirut Al-Cinema'iya
October 16-24, 2008
Beirut’s fifth Ayam Beirut al-Cinema'iya (Cinema Days of Beirut) is still gathering submissions from regional filmmakers, but this year it could be all about the sidebars.
The defiantly grassroots festival is presenting a retrospective of films by Abdellatif Kechiche (La Faute à Voltaire, L’Esquive, La Graine et le mulet), and the feted Paris-based director leads a workshop with actresses Élodie Bouchez, Sarah Forestier, and Hafsia Herzi. Forums on developing independent cinema and establishing a Lebanese film fund run alongside a pitching session for documentary filmmakers. And an exhibition of Egyptian movie posters marks the 100th anniversary of the industry. The festival closes with the Middle East premiere of Cannes favorite Je veux voir (I Want to See) by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, starring festival guest Catherine Deneuve. Elsewhere in the Arab world’s post-Ramadan festival splurge, the Beirut International Festival runs October 1–8 while Abu Dhabi’s international industry talkshop, the Middle East International Film Festival, will be held on October 10-19.
November 13-December 4, 2008
The Khatt Foundation, innovators in Arabic typography, ran a competition during the summer, charging its members with developing designs for large-scale vinyl wall art (the latest trend in interiors, produced by specialist sticker company Mosaiques). The twenty shortlisted designs are being selected by a jury that includes Khatt Foundation director Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFares, traffic design gallery owner Rami Farook, artist and designer Nadine Kanso, and furniture designer Nada Debs. Works will be exhibited and sold at traffic in November as limited editions.
November 11–December 11, 2008
“Ya Ali madadi” is the phrase pahlavans — traditional Iranian wrestlers or strongmen — utter before attempting a particularly strong weight, calling on Ali’s assistance. In his first solo show at B21 gallery, Khosrow Hassanzadeh presents a new series of silkscreen prints of the zurkhaneh (gymnasium), overlaid with words and images in acrylic, titled and inspired by the adage. These new works on paper — far more dense and layered than his previous works on this theme — will be displayed alongside a series of open-sided boxes, each featuring a painted backdrop of pop icons (the exiled singer Googoosh, more pahlavans), surrounded by twinkling lights, jewelry, flowers, and other treasures from the bazaar, in a kind of ironic shrine to iconography.
The Third Line
November 13–December 3, 2008
Cairene artist Huda Lutfi is known for her exploratory, playful practice. Working as something of an urban archaeologist, she reworks and repositions found objects. Her first solo show at The Third Line is a homage to Umm Kulthum. Alongside installation and sculptural objects, it includes a series of collages that play with classic Kulthum iconography — the legendary singer’s hair in a low bun, black clothes, a string of pearls. The exhibition also marks the publication of a new book about the artist, published by the gallery.
November 19, 2008–January 9, 2009
Kader Attia continues his exploration of “emptiness” — developed through recent works such as _Ghost, an installation of 150 kneeling, faceless figures made from silver foil — in this show of new work at Albion’s London gallery. Attia relates the “post-utopist, post-ideological, post-belief” current era to 1950s France and its battles in Indochina and Algeria amid the stagnating atmosphere of the Cold War — a time that led Yves Klein to consider “the nature of the void.”
The November show includes video, sculpture, and installation (using plastic bags and a “beer can crowd,” along with other materials) and seeks to re- appropriate the bombastic language of globalization, refashioning it on a poetic and personal level as a discourse relevant and accessible to those outside the West. The exhibition is accompanied by a new book published by Albion with an essay by Octavio zaya.
Museum of Islamic Art
Opens November 22, 2008
Qatar’s Museum of Islamic Art is the sole survivor — at least for the moment — of the raft of supermuseums announced four years ago by Sheikh Saud Al-Thani, and it’s almost been opened several times over the past two years. Still, by all reports, the MIA was worth the wait: while the interiors are being kept under wraps, the exterior of IM Pei’s project is stunning, and the collection of Islamic art and artifacts — built up over the past decade at vast expense — is known to be one of the most significant in the world. The collection’s seven hundred objects, spanning three continents and thirteen centuries, are housed in galleries that circle a five- story-high domed atrium, inspired, said the architect, by the “austerity and simplicity” of the thirteenth-century sabil (ablutions fountain) of the Ibn Tulun Mosque in Cairo. The MIA’s opening exhibition, ‘Beyond Boundaries — Islamic Art Across Cultures,’ is a collaboration with around twenty international institutions, each of which has loaned a single object.
The education wing includes a library, classrooms, and workshops, plus the region’s first conservation laboratory. Other developments in the pipeline include the Museum of Modern Arab Art, home to six thousand works (and growing) collected by Sheikh Hassan Bin Mohammed Al-Thani. It moves into a temporary space in 2009 and should have its own home by 2012.
Located out near Dubai’s racecourse — Nad Al Sheba, home to the world’s richest horserace — an arts center is housed in a mid-1980s-era white stucco building that began life as a supermarket. Tashkeel offers the only open studios for artists and designers in the Gulf; the fledgling organization is hoping to foster an artists’ community in Dubai.
In a town where ethnicity is paramount — local newspapers identify everyone by race, schools are defined by their curriculum and catchment group, and job specifications can be racially specific — Tashkeel has an unusually easy, open ambience, and its makeup reflects Dubai’s mix of Emiratis and expatriates.
The arts center has its origins in a special project of Sheikha Alia bint Khalifa Al Maktoum, wife of the late former ruler of Dubai. In 2003 the ex-supermarket became Latifa College, then the UAE’s only dedicated fine arts school. Its student body consisted of eleven local graduates of the Latifa School for Girls, including Sheikha Lateefa bint Maktoum, Sheikha Alia’s daughter.
In its second year, Latifa College became affiliated with zayed University. But when the main campus began offering arts courses, and the original cohort graduated, it folded. The culmination of the bijoux college’s career was ‘e11even,’ a graduation show at the Dubai International Financial Centre.
Planning for Tashkeel (Arabic for “to form”) began almost immediately. Working with the college’s director, Jill Hoyle, Lateefa bint Maktoum set out to turn the space into a “hub for creative minds” and a lifelong learning center for artists in the UAE. The facilities include studios for printmaking, silkscreen, and textile printing; a painting room; and a TARDIS-like darkroom. In addition to Mac workshops, large-format printers, a mini film studio, and a small library with international art magazines and books, Tashkeel boasts a light-filled lobby that doubles as a gallery space. Although there is work for sale, the venue has a low-key, discerning sincerity, in contrast to some of Dubai’s more dollar-driven startups.
Members pay Dhs7,500 ($2,000) a year. Currently there are about thirty, working in a range of media. Still, Tashkeel has some way to go before it becomes a buzzing community. Hoyle and Maktoum have been organizing workshops, exhibition openings, and the like, but the center’s location and serious artistic — as opposed to high-society — bent means it has to work extra-hard to attract members.
One of Tashkeel’s most important initiatives is its residency program, one of the few such opportunities in the Gulf. The first exchanges, with artists from Rome and Berlin, were too brief, and the participants were housed away from the center. Tashkeel aims to develop longer-term, more process-driven residencies; they’re in discussion with artists’ groups in China, Japan, Italy, and the UK.
Tashkeel launched around the same time as Dubai’s new, ambitious Culture and Arts Authority (DCAA). Under the direction of ex-Berlin Opera chief Michael Schindhelm, the DCAA has announced a Universal Museums project, a kind of meta-institute based along the Creek that will offer a permanent home and collection-sharing opportunities to a band of brands (such as the Louvre, the British Museum, the Hermitage, the Getty, New York’s Metropolitan, and so on). A
new Rem Koolhaas-designed temporary visual and performing arts center will open in Creek Park in 2010. And, this past June, the government also announced plans for a Museum of Middle Eastern Modern Art, designed by the Dutch firm UN Studio. The behemothic structure will be included in the real estate development Culture Village — although details such as what collections or works will be displayed, and when it will be built, remain vague at this stage.
Amid this plethora of plans, public libraries are to be revamped and an arts academy launched. But, breathtaking as they may be, these ventures will be some time coming and will arrive weighed down by the baggage of government zeal and public anticipation. Tashkeel reminds us that sometimes it’s the quiet initiatives that count.
There have been six auctions of modern and contemporary Middle Eastern art in Dubai and London over the past two years. Records have been broken, particularly for Iranian artists. At Christie’s fourth sale in Dubai in April 2008, works by sculptor Parviz Tanavoli and modern calligraphic painters Charles Hossein Zenderoudi and Mohammed Ehsai all sold for over one million dollars, with Tanavoli’s The Wall (Oh Persepolis) fetching $2.8 million, a record price at auction for a modern or contemporary Middle Eastern artist. Of the top ten lots in that sale, which included Arab and Western art, seven were by Iranian artists.
Contemporary practitioners such as Rokni Haerizadeh and Farhad Moshiri are attracting the attention of supercollectors, including Charles Saatchi and Steve Cohen. New galleries spring up each month in Dubai and elsewhere in the Gulf, many specializing in Iranian art. Of course, Tehran has long had a market of its own and boasts the largest network of galleries in the Middle East. But this explosion of international interest has certainly had an impact back home.
Bidoun posed questions to a panel of artists, gallerists, curators, collectors, and critics, aiming to generate debate on how the Dubai frenzy is transforming the Iranian art market.
Antonia Carver: How has the art market in Iran changed over the last couple of years? Is there really a revolution taking place?
Rose Issa: Yes, it’s part of a wider movement that includes Shanghai and Delhi as well as Tehran and Dubai, but in Iran now, people are selling works before they even buy them. It’s an upheaval. Artists are at a loss sometimes — they cannot price their work, they do not belong to any professional gallery that can control prices, there’s collector/speculator’s greed, and they are trying to find the middle way. It’s not easy to handle.
Lili Golestan: The change in the last few years has been huge. Our regular collectors have been joined by new, young people who know they can sell on next year for double the price. My openings every Friday are very crowded.
Rokni Haerizadeh: These are mainly people in their thirties and forties
who were educated abroad and came back to Iran as entrepreneurs, starting lucrative businesses and beginning a new trend of investing in contemporary art.
Kamran Diba: For the first time, there’s a speculative market. The foundations were laid in the 1970s by the generation that includes Zenderoudi and Tanavoli. There weren’t so many big collectors then, but people bought and lived with their art. What Tehran has is talent, energy, dynamism, and individual initiative; it’s been further energized by this new market and will remain a powerhouse.
AC: Is this solely owing to the “Dubai effect”?
Anahita Ghabaian-Etehadieh: Yes, particularly the Christie’s and Bonhams auctions in Dubai. The number of artists exhibiting has increased, and their prices [have increased] by ten to one hundred times.
Sohrab Mahdavi: There’s no denying that the Dubai art phenomenon has affected the Tehran scene, but so have Nike, brand consciousness, market populism, Hollywood, and countless other items that influence the way artists see the world. The Dubai phenomenon — and its scale — is new, so the dust that it’s raising gets into your eyes faster.
Fereydoun Ave: The interesting story here is the banks — of course, Tanavoli’s The Wall was put on the market by an Iranian bank. The new blue-chip stock for the banks is contemporary Iranian art, which is cheaper than real estate and more portable.
AC: What about the wider, international impact on Iranian art?
Sohrab Mahdavi: Iranian artists are now aware of a huge opportunity beyond Iran’s border, after watching the success stories of Rokni [Haerizadeh] and Farhad [Moshiri]. This does not necessarily mean immediate international recognition, though I do believe that the tumid Dubai market will encourage Iranian curators and organizers, like the Iran Heritage Foundation and Morad Saghafi [curator of ‘Collected Memories’ held in London in October 2007], to continue with their efforts to cash in on the Dubai boom elsewhere.
Anahita Ghabaian-Etehadieh: The Dubai effect is so obvious in Iran, but it hasn’t influenced sales in Europe [yet]. Chinese art, for example, is now a part of most European art fairs, but Iranian art doesn’t figure. And Sotheby’s auction [of Middle Eastern contemporary art] in London in October 2007 didn’t cause an extraordinary leap in prices [like the Dubai auctions have].
Amirali Ghasemi: I can track two major trends in the history of exhibitions tagged “Iranian art.” Both use the art and artists to create a political image, either positive or dark, and both are destructive. The rest of the shows suffer from a lack of discourse, turning them into nothing more than a bazaar — even with their fancy names and prestigious venues — showcasing more or less the same list of artists.
AC: A year ago, there were clear steps up in price between artists’ studios, Tehran galleries, Dubai galleries, and then Dubai auctions. Is this still the case?
Sohrab Mahdavi: Due to steady inflation, the rising oil price, and the fiscal policies of the Ahmadinejad government, the price of most commodities in Iran has been so erratic as to defy any logic. The new “rich on inflation” are looking at art as an investment, one that also carries the mark of ‘taste,’ an essential for an economic class that also needs to prove that it deserves social recognition.
Fereydoun Ave: Generally, there’s been a 50 to 400 percent rise in prices in Tehran galleries over the past two years. I had a show by Ramin Haerizadeh at 13 Vanak Street recently, and the prices were almost the same as in Dubai, and they sold well.
Bita Fayyazi: The price increases concern all artworks: those [that] were greatly undervalued and also the mediocre. We believe it was about time that the world realized that there are good artists here working hard to express themselves and be recognized internationally.
AC: Are long-term Tehran collectors being priced out of the market?
Kamran Diba: Yes. These collectors are the bread and butter, but now it’s Iranian expats [who] are buying. There’ll be some correction, and the inconsistencies need to be ironed out — many artists will realize that they should focus on the local market first.
Bita Fayyazi: The old collectors find popular artists increasingly unaffordable and often expect high discounts. Most of the time they give up trying to bargain and leave the studio empty-handed.
Sohrab Mohebbi: Old-school collectors in Iran in a way are still more interested in their own generation, and most downgrade the young artists — I think there is some sort of an “old vs new” war going on, which is so Iranian.
AC: Who is collecting in Iran now?
Sohrab Mohebbi: There is this wave of new, post-revolutionary, rich collectors [who] have money but don’t know what to buy. Many of the decisions are made depending on how and through whom they are introduced to the art world.
The Dubai scene has made Iranians outside more interested in collecting, and there’s some sense of a national pride involved, in collecting and also boosting the value of the art.
AC: What are the dangers inherent in this market boom?
Rose Issa: Now everybody is a collector, an advisor, a curator. Impressionist dealers and collectors and art funds are now “contemporary” experts, with exhibitions in London and the USA. Anahita Ghabaian-Etehadieh: [For] a gallerist, this Dubai effect has advantages — Iranian art is getting the reputation it deserves — and disadvantages — some artists’ prices are flying up, cutting out collectors who piece together collections over time. Most of the collectors are Iranian or based in the Emirates, which isn’t necessarily good for the presence of Iranian art internationally.
Fereydoun Ave: The generation that includes Mohammed Ehsai, Zenderoudi, Tanavoli, Saidi, and Assar is established, and finally getting prices above $100,000. This is justice. Farhad Moshiri hasn’t had his head turned by the auction prices and continues with a gradual pricing of his work, still putting his work on the market for $150,000.
Lili Golestan: But some young people, who don’t have a background, want the same prices, and can probably get them. But I’m not going to allow this in my gallery. I encourage these young painters to sell more for less and increase their collector base.
Sohrab Mahdavi: It’s too soon to say. The obvious danger, of course, is that some artists may go after what they think the market wants. Still, there are artists who have used the market boom to hone their skills and to critically look at their society and the world. For Rokni Haerizadeh, for example, Dubai has done good. Others, I’m not sure about, especially those who are now focusing on calligraphy simply because it may sell.
Amirali Ghasemi: From an outsider’s perspective, the current Tehran art market has an oligarchic structure. It’s a closed circle. This temporary, artificial power structure makes everybody speak about money. The artists I work with seem to ask “What’s in it for me?” more and more and are becoming disinterested in experimental projects or even international projects abroad. Dubai for me is a one-way export route: have you heard anything coming from Dubai to Tehran except gossip and auction reports? It’s fashionable to say that Tehran has nothing to offer except certain artists, but what we’re really missing is art education and research, and Dubai, with all its power, hasn’t invested in this at all. [In Iran] the toddling independent art scene is commonly ignored by both elite intellectuals and the few existing art magazines with their limited readership.
Kamran Diba: The Iranian government didn’t take the opportunity to collect [contemporary Iranian art], and now it’s likely that they can’t afford it. This is a national loss. There’s a strong regional museum building program, but the art world would appreciate more. Another point is that Tehran is isolated [internationally] — once artists make money and become secure, they think about leaving, and then we have a possible talent drain.
AC: Could it be a bubble?
Lili Golestan: Everyone asks this in Tehran, but we have a lot of very good young painters, such as Rokni Haerizadeh and Golnaz Fathi, and they should be famous in a few years – providing they have the support they need. This generation of young painters can hardly breathe at the moment, and they need time to know who they are.
Fereydoun Ave: There’s a flood of Iranians abroad wanting to sell their collections in Iran and Dubai. Is there an appreciation for art or just art prices? In Dubai, I fear some of the support is artificial.
AC: What impact is this having on artists?
Kamran Diba: It’s good for most artists — some have more money than their collectors now! Some will break away from the pack and lose the national tag — become “artists” rather than “Iranian artists.” Sohrab Mahdavi: We’ve seen higher prices for established artists, but I believe the third generation of Iranian painters — Ahmad Morshedloo, Golnar Tabibzadeh, Golnaz Fathi, Samira Alikhanzadeh (who is also working with photographs), Shantia zakerameli, for example — has been affected most, and it will continue to impact the next generation even more. Although, again, the Dubai phenomenon is in its nascence… Rose Issa: And it will be difficult for artists to work and sustain the prices without major public shows. Artists need exhibitions, publications, recognition, international exposure, and hopefully good representation, wherever they are. I’m happy that many are now living comfortably. That will encourage them to produce better works and enjoy the success.
AC: Obviously some artists, particularly painters, have been more “successful” — in terms of price, at least — in the Gulf than others. Has this created a two-tier system?
Fereydoun Ave: Yes. In Tehran, there are auction artists and non-auction artists, and the two camps are divided on price, even though the former might not be any more talented or international — they are just caught in the hype. Unfortunately, the auction houses want artists with an auction track record, so they end up with the same artists every time.
Amirali Ghasemi: Yes, to a degree. There are more and more young, middle- to upper-class artists joining in, especially in new media and video. They are not necessarily producing anything market-ready — safe from this fuss, they’re riding their own bicycles!
Sohrab Mahdavi: Artists making interesting work in video, installation, and photography — like Barbad Golshiri, Jinoos Taghizadeh, Neda Razavipour, Shahab Fotouhi, and Arash Hanai — don’t stand to benefit at the moment. These “minority artists” remain a force against the dominant current, even if they are outside the sphere of representation and the cycle of capital.
Ramin Haerizadeh: Although hopefully the ongoing Sharjah Biennial and the opening of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will build a wider platform for Iranian art, whatever the medium.
Sohrab Mohebbi: I personally don’t see that much of a two-tier system. The Tehran art scene is basically private. Galleries exhibit to profit, and even public places like Farhangsara Niyavaran or Tehran Gallery are state-run private galleries. You need permissions for publishing and performances but not for visual arts — I think that gave artists a better chance to evolve.
AC: Is the gallery system working?
Sohrab Mohebbi: Apart from Fereydoun Ave, most Iranian gallerists are still dealing with the new current in the art market. They don’t sign artists, yet expect them not to work with other galleries — so they end up losing the good ones. The prestige of a gallery in Tehran seems to be down to whether it is fully booked or not, rather than what it actually shows. The Iranian art scene still lacks professional workers — gallerists, curators, advisors, and so on — although with the rise of the market, some took on these roles. And “advisors” — people who know the artist or know people [who] have bought their work — appear out of the woodwork.
Ramin Haerizadeh: Rokni, Bita, and I discuss this — the whole “Dubai art affair” has started a new culture here in Tehran, and galleries are acting more enthusiastically than they used to five years ago. Even so, Dubai is more professional at the moment, and viewers there are more open [to new work], even though we share the same “red lines” [religious restrictions].
Fereydoun Ave: Many [new collectors] go straight to the artist, and there’s this mass-buying from studios. In general, there’s little allegiance and no contracts between gallerist and artist. So when it comes to the galleries, prices are stronger, but nowhere near auction houses.
Kamran Diba: And if artists sell out of their studios and become merchants, this weakens them and the gallery system.
Lili Golestan: Collectors do come to the gallery, they ask questions about the work and what they should buy. But we need more of this, more analysis, more discussion.
AC: So what about critical discourse, building a canon that isn’t “checkbook art history”?
Lili Golestan: The lack of critics is a problem — unfortunately, most of the media just describes what’s happening and the auction results, that’s it.
Bita Fayyazi: Yes. There’s a lack of in-depth professional discourse and critique. The movement is bringing increased recognition for artists, but it has a long way to go yet in terms of becoming a healthy, sound art scene.
Amirali Ghasemi: It comes back to the education issue. Many Iranian artists haven’t seen contemporary art beyond their books or computer monitors. There’s a lot [that] has to be done, from inviting international artists to hold exhibitions in Iran, to organizing workshops and talks to break the old-fashioned ways of categorizing art and opening up ideas of what can be considered contemporary. Rarely discovered places such as Azad Art Gallery are forward-thinking enough to host these kinds of gatherings.
I almost missed Nairy Baghramian’s contribution to the 5th Berlin Biennial, and I couldn’t have been the only one. According to the official map, Baghramian’s work was to be found in the Neue Nationalgalerie, between a work by Thea Djordjadze and another by Susanne Kriemann. There was no “x” to mark the spot: the map showed two identical black squares, one inside and one outside the glass wall of the gallery designed by Mies van der Rohe.
But when I stood on the spot, I saw nothing but a large dirty windowpane. Was that Baghramian’s work? Beyond the blurry glass, outside the museum, another spectator suddenly appeared, looking just as lost. Perhaps we were the installation: living versions of the map’s two black squares, which recalled another modernist hero, Kasimir Malevich.
After consulting a living guide, I finally found Baghramian’s contribution, La Colonne Cassée (1871) (The Broken Column (1871)). A guide showed me where it was, located just a few glass panes away from where I had been standing (the dirty ones belonged to Djordjadze’s installation). Instead of one broken column — or two black squares—there was a pair of towering metal rectangles, one inside and one outside the gallery, both bent into an L-shape to stand on their own and painted black. At first I mistook them for twins, since each bore several holes, as if someone had been using them for target practice (or someone else had used them to take cover). Somehow Mies’s glass wall, sandwiched in-between, had survived intact.
But these were no identical twins. The holes formed two different patterns, which suggested that two different battles had taken place. While the work’s title alluded to the barricades of the Paris Commune of 1871, the work’s date — 2008 — paid tribute to the barricades erected forty years ago in the same city during the general strike of May 1968. Artists played a role in each popular uprising by intervening in public space. In 1871, the painter Gustave Courbet — then known as “Citizen Courbet” — successfully argued that the Vendome column should be broken and removed, as it glorified Napoleon’s imperialist conquest at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805. When the Communards were quashed, Corbet was ordered to pay the hefty bill for the column’s resurrection; instead he exiled himself to Switzerland, where he died shortly thereafter. By 1968, the Situationist International had prepared the ground for the student insurrection and the general strike by provoking citizens with everything from graffiti to pamphlets to posters. Baghramian’s work — bound to both historical uprisings — recalled the changing fate of art in public space: from monuments to honor the past to revolutions to change the future. Indeed, barricades are another form of public sculpture. In light of their temporary nature, it seems only fitting that Baghramian’s columns would end up wandering away from their designated location on the map.
The experience of searching for artworks — instead of having them presented in a traditional manner (on a pedestal, inside a frame, or at least with a visible label) — was at the heart of the 5th Berlin Biennial. Consider the Skulpturenpark, where a hole in the ground could have been just a hole or a work of land art. That type of oscillation, between absence and presence, is central to Baghramian’s oeuvre. In her work, the artist mixes minimalist sculptural elements (metal sheets, black frames, glass panes) along with color photography (usually of women). The mixture, however recognizable, is presented in a way that often leaves viewers wondering where an artwork begins and ends — if they have any luck finding the piece. When we’re forced to search for art, whatever its nomenclature and final appearance, we suddenly become open to the full potential, of every object and ourselves as spectators, to have other meanings. When the once-passive viewer feels herself actively making this discovery, even the readymade starts to look like a limiting proposition.
My search for Baghramian’s La Colonne Cassée (1871) in the Neue Nationalgalerie and my hunt for art in the Skulpturenpark were both uncannily reminiscent of the time I spent last summer wandering through Münster trying to locate Entr’acte (Intermission, 2007), Baghramian’s contribution to Skulptur Projekte Münster. In terms of visibility, Intermission seemed to exist indefinitely, without a main performance to decide the beginning and end of the break. I arrived at the spot designated on the map — a pedestrian island in a sea of passing cars — only to find a banal block of concrete that seemed to be part of the surrounding construction site. A cellphone call confirmed later that I had indeed been standing right in front of Baghramian’s work, including the white tarpaulin flying wildly over the concrete (the graffiti turned out to be a later addition from an anonymous collaborator).
Early on, Baghramian treated her exhibitions as expeditions. At her debut show at Cologne’s Galerie Nagel in 2005, the towering sculpture Teestube (Tearoom, 2005) was sealed off behind a wall and could be viewed only at an angle through a mirror. In Baghramian’s treasure hunts, it’s unclear what the treasure is: the artwork, the spectator, the site, or the very conflation at the moment of viewing that occurs between all of these elements.
Baghramian herself is far more conspicuous than her work. Okay, she’s petite, but her laughter is resounding and infectious. When we have met at exhibition openings in Berlin in the past, we’ve often ended up at bar 3, an artist haunt where Baghramian installed works from her recent solo show at the Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden, including Grosse Klappe 1, 2, 3 (2008), a freestanding folding metal panel that is nevertheless meant to stand closely against an existing threshold. (The translation of this title would be Big Flap 1, 2, 3 or Big Mouth 1, 2, 3, depending upon your familiarity with German slang.) Photographing Grosse Klappe 1, 2, 3 for the exhibition catalogue as it was arranged at the bar was likely a way to prove that this sculpture was not entirely site-specific, even if the flap-mouth appeared to be custom-made for the entrance door it guarded inside the Kunsthalle.
Perfectly fitting into two sites without belonging to either one — that might be said of Baghramian, too. To my mind, she’s a Berliner, albeit with a more subtle sense of humor. It never dawned on me that she might come from another country, let alone from Iran, since I have heard only perfect German coming out of her mouth. Of course, as a Canadian, I am deaf not only to most foreign accents in German but also to the exotic trajectories that Germans often hear in foreign names; as the offspring of a refugee, I know not to ask more than I am told about anyone’s past.
Baghramian told me that she was born in Isfahan, Iran, in 1971, came to Germany when she was fourteen, and has lived in Berlin ever since. At some point, there must have been another trip back to Iran, at least if one judges from Es ist ausser Haus (Empfangszimmer), or It is out-of-house (Reception room), 2006. Baghramian secretly took a snapshot during a tour inside a museum that was once the palatial residence of the last shah. The slightly blurry color photograph shows what appears to be a luxurious living room with a sofa and a few family photographs displayed on a table. But when scrutinized, the “family” turns out to be a series of dictators, including Mao and Hitler; the museum, curated by the new regime, has chosen to display the most contentious portraits from the dynasty’s collection of diplomatic and state gifts. While the public is allowed to see the photographs, it is forbidden to take pictures of them.
Baghramian’s photograph of the photographs is protected behind glass and partially encased in a slab of cement; the “frame” appears almost as a thin, vertical house. There’s a strange oscillation between private and public in this construction. Initially diplomatic gifts, the public portraits of state leaders were then displayed in the shah’s private residence; the artist repeated the museum’s gesture of making a private photograph public, since her photograph was taken illicitly and now hangs in art galleries. How she managed to take the picture is as mysterious as how the heavy work manages to hang on a wall; its historical origin is as improbable as its material existence.
THE IRON TABLE
In light of such shifting interventions, it should come as no surprise that Baghramian has no interest in representing Iran: as revolutionary, refugee, emigrant, citizen, woman, or artist. Apart from Es ist ausser Haus (Empfangszimmer), the most overt reference to her native country is Waves (am kaspischen Meer), or Waves (on the Caspian Sea), 2000. The two color photographs — taken a frame apart and thus almost like two film stills — show the artist in front of the oil-rich sea that is a geopolitical interval bordering Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and the Russian Federation. It’s hard to recognize her, since she’s wearing a black ski cap that effectively covers her hair, her neck, and most of her face. Beyond the incongruity of someone wearing a ski cap instead of a swimming cap on the beach — or of wearing a ski cap instead of a headscarf in Iran — there seems to be a shift in gender from the first frame to the second frame. What initially appears to be a dark winter scarf flung around the artist’s neck turns out to be a man’s blue tie, which is blown into full visibility by the wind. These duplicitous self-portraits — skiing or swimming, ski cap or headscarf, woman or man, sea blue or tie blue — appear once again in another work as two framed prints, except one hangs on the wall and the other juts out at ninety degrees. But New Waves (2001) erases the reference to the location of the turbulent sea foaming behind the artist. Like Grosse Klappe 1, 2, 3, the pictures of the waves become site-specific to (at least) two places: the Caspian Sea and any old sea. In the movement from Waves (am kaspischen Meer) to the more generic New Waves, the frame creates its own sense of space as a portable corner, which juts out from the wall instead of simply hanging. Although working with photographs, Baghramian evokes the indifference to location that was responsible for the spread of international architectural modernism around the world. Yet another version of the same two photographs reveals the tie-maker and, with him, yet another form of internationalism in fashion, equally indifferent to location: Yves Saint Laurent (am kaspischen Meer), 2008.
Baghramian’s most open confrontation with Orientalism and its discontents lies in The Iron Table (2002), an installation named after an incomplete short story by Jane Bowles. In the story, which is just two and a half pages long, Bowles describes a married couple arguing about going to the desert in order to escape the West’s contamination of Muslim culture. While the husband insists that the desert is the only place where culture has remained “untouched,” his wife doesn’t believe that there’s any way to escape Westernization (as Westerners themselves, they would only bring impurities to the desert). Only Jane Bowles could fit such a debate into such a short story, along with a clash of husband and wife. For her part, Baghramian created a sculpture around a sailing mast, which nevertheless seems better suited to the desert than the sea. Despite its clean and sharp edges, its sleek industrial design values, the work looks like a sailboat that was created by a pure land- dweller, someone who’s tried to recreate the experience of sailing based on secondhand information from sailors. Looking at the wooden waves around the mast, one can imagine an experienced informant explaining the wind’s chopping impact on water. Instead of a sail, the mast carries a string of triangular spike flags, which are used for racing signals, not for catching a breeze. Like the wife in Bowles’s story, Baghramian suggests there are no “pure” cultures because none exist in isolation; encounters produce the strange hybrids of desert-bound ships. Instead of Bowles’s “West” and “Muslim culture,” tradition and modernity clash. Traveling with the wind at sea — a traditional form of transportation and the main tool of colonialism and the slave trade — becomes modernized as a sleek designer object. Like most utopias, the finished work of Baghramian’s ship looks good but would immediately sink. This means of escape gives only the impression of movement. Perhaps a bit like modernism itself.
My favorite Baghramian work is Half Way House (1999), which, like Entr’acte, suggests yet another interval, and, like Laverrière’s mirrors, deserves far more attention. The work has two origins. The first is Agnès Varda’s black and white film Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cleo from 5 to 7, 1961), which records an early evening in the life of a young woman who learns that she has breast cancer. The second is a telephone booth, which Baghramian built in a former aristocratic mansion that has been transformed into a halfway house for battered women in Berlin. Varda’s film — hovering, through illness, between private and public life — allowed Baghramian to see the Berlin women’s shelter as an extension of the film set, albeit inhabited by women whose stories could never be made into movies. Her telephone booth sits at the bottom of a grand staircase, whose spiral only serves to amplify every conversation. Outside the shelter, Half Way House exists only as a series of photographs: three black and white photographs (a still of Cléo walking through her apartment along with two images of women lingering in the halfway house and looking like actresses from other scenes in Varda’s film) and two color prints (one of the booth in the stairwell and another of the halfway house dining room).
Not exactly public, nor entirely private, the halfway house bears the traces of its former grandeur, now caught between the needs of a public clinic and the necessity to create a private refuge for each resident. The photographs cannot be easily inhabited by our eyes; it’s hard not to be struck by the clashing signs of domesticity, from the long-gone aristocratic family to the contemporary abused women. A Greek mythological painting in a wood panel sits uneasily with an overflowing bulletin board, while the dining table is covered with a welcoming cloth but devoid of chairs. Like WG Sebald, Baghramian situates her work between documentation and fiction. Her suspension of reality is directly linked to the women’s suspension of their regular domestic routines, once they become residents inside the clinic. The halfway house is a stop on a journey, with a starting point that has been left behind and a destination that still requires directions. Indeed, the “whole-way” house lies at the end of a fictional route that each woman must create — and then live — for herself.
THE POLITICS OF THE WALKER AND THE WALKED
‘The Walker’s Day Off’ that ran recently at the Kunsthalle Baden-Baden involved the usual treasure hunt in the intervals between presence and absence. In the title that welcomed visitors, it was clear that the walker was missing from the exhibition, although he might have been the handsome blond in eyeglasses on the poster (who looked something like a model for YSL). Perhaps each visitor, wandering through the show, was mimicking his movements, if not replacing him for the day. Whoever the walker was, it was unclear also what was being taken for a stroll. In addition to Grosse Klappe 1, 2, 3 guarding a threshold inside the Kunsthalle, there were Spanner I & II (Turnbuckle or Peeping Tom or Loiterer, 2008). From afar, each one appeared like an empty clothesline, stretched to hang perfectly taut across an otherwise empty exhibition room (in fact, the suspended lines were made of chromed brass pipe, rubber wire rope, painted metal rings, and, to fit the room perfectly, adjustable turnbuckles). Another threshold was guarded by the Türsteher (Doorman or Bouncer, 2008), a partially polished aluminum number, which didn’t block our passage but rather arched elegantly from one side of the doorway up and across the top of the frame. Like Grosse Klappe 1, 2, 3, Spanner I & II and Türsteher could be understood, and translated, in several ways while belonging to both art and architecture. Also like Grosse Klappe, these works were photographed at specific sites in Berlin for the Baden-Baden catalogue — Spanner I & II at the alternative bookstore bbooks and _Türsteher in the Scharoun Bar inside Galerie Bremer. Each work fit at least two meanings, two media, and two places.
This not-quite-site-specific quality could be understood as a metaphor for the displacements, forced or chosen, that link a person’s life to two or more countries, histories, languages. The installation of works in between—rooms, walls, countries—suggested that there are no clean breaks with the past, no neat arrivals in the present. Even the passages were blocked. That may be a pat explanation, but art doesn’t carry a passport. For me the political dimension wasn’t metaphorical but emerged through my experience of absence as a visitor. The main room in the Kunsthalle hosted Klassentreffen) (School Reunion, 2008), from a series of seventeen sculptures originally titled Gehhilfen I–XVII (Walking Aids I–XVII, 2008). They possessed the lightness of Vassilakis Takis’s Signals (1955–), the organic aerodynamics of Brancusi’s Bird in Space (1932–40), and the haptic quality of Franz West’s Paßstücke (Fitting Pieces, 1976–), which viewers were once encouraged to carry around.
Far from dog walkers, Baghramian’s sculptures looked more like walking aids for giants with various disabilities, although each aid came with its own diminutive built-in support — a base, a pedestal, an extra leg — which helped the work to stand on its own. Baghramian created an image of a collective body based on its absence and infirmity. These prostheses suggested not so much particular bodies with peculiar handicaps but rather the state of having a body as both a condition for belonging and a sign of incommensurability. The community assumed to be created by aesthetic pleasure isn’t complete or universal; visitors to a show can’t be interchanged with each other, although an exhibition is designed for an ideal spectator: you, me, anyone. For Baghramian, neither the viewer, nor the exhibition is ever a given; they have to be negotiated with each step. That’s the most overtly political — and the most inconspicuous — part of her work.
Shady El Noshokaty came into his own as a Cairo art world darling in 1999. His solo show was one of the first exhibitions at the Townhouse Gallery; months later he was representing Egypt at the 48th Venice biennale. Central to the self-mythology of the independent art scene in Cairo has been its provision of an alternative to the state’s domination of cultural activity.
This role is validated by the government’s longstanding discouragement of any significant organized activity outside its direct supervision. Noshokaty’s success was rare in its ability to flatter both sides of the deeply ingrained government–independent binary.
He cut a romantic figure. Noshokaty belonged to no camp entirely, produced work with a raw, often personal edge, and, eventually, pioneered new media art studies at a public institution, his alma mater, Helwan University. Though his role since that time has become somewhat less clear and his work has occasionally felt heavy-handed, Stammer (a lecture of theory), a recent video performance, aligned some of the most effective elements of his early and later approaches to art-making.
The work premiered last winter at the landmark state-sponsored exhibition ‘What’s Happening Now?’ at the Cairo Opera House — a show notable for including independent artists outside the aging boys’ club headed by Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni. In Noshokaty’s twelve-minute video, the artist adopted the role of the teacher at the head of the class, with the obligatory props and gestures of his profession. The lesson of the day was Property Dualism Theory. He demonstrated an abstract principle, read in Arabic a scientific-sounding phrase, and turned to draw a spiral, which began tight and reasonable but soon grew unwieldy and erratic. “What is the hypothetical relationship between the mental and the physical?” “A crowd gathers to watch the man next door hanging by his tongue from a hook outside the window.” As he repeated them, the sentences became increasingly fragmented. He stared silently at the camera as often as he spoke.
The lack of reference points meant the viewer couldn’t tell what texts Noshokaty was reading from or why. The blackboard drawings looked like diagrams or explanatory sketches but were also inscrutable as such and much more seductive for their combined unreadability and the mysterious aggression with which they were executed. The dissolution of the artist’s language into half-sentences, the intermingling of theory and poetry, and the recurrent lapses into silence all served to obscure a discernable message.
This opacity became a kind of medium in its own right, furthering fundamentally formal goals. Thus, the recurring theme of dualism was reiterated at the level of content but remained weirdly inaccessible until activated by the artist’s performance as a primarily formal phenomenon. At this point “dualism” began to develop its own conceptual weight and texture. This was true to such an extent that when a single tear rolled down the artist’s right cheek, some ways through the video, the occurrence failed to strike this viewer, who cringes easily, as sentimental or superfluous. It seemed entirely appropriate to a lecture conducted without words on the nature of duality and, for those in the know, property dualism theory.
Is it crass to interpret this piece in relation to Cairo’s cultural institutions, state and independent? Such an interpretation, which I find reductive, might go something like this (spoken earnestly): “In a recent video performance, Cairene artist Shady El Noshokaty commented on the reproduction of cultural knowledge and artistic practice as an essentially formal process, stripped of the ability to engage any real content-driven discourse and intended primarily at furthering institutional stability.” Was Stammer in fact a comment on the irrelevance of content in a context wedded to the stability of socioeconomic constellations of people and resources? The question applies equally to the state and independent cultural spheres. Did Noshokaty unveil both art worlds’ ultimate discomfort with content, the investment in an empty, if productive, formalism? While it might ring true, this framing fits awkwardly.
Stammer suggests that these binaries — form and content, government and independent — are both inescapable and irresolvable, a speech impediment and a necessary prop. This staging of a handicapped attempt to articulate a field struck a chord in the context of an Opera House exhibition whose title asks ‘What Is Happening Now?’ Already, the question felt frustrating.
Noshokaty plans to work on a future iteration of the project, titled Stammer Statements, for show in a second exhibition of ‘Occidentalism.’ The work will invoke two audiences — Arabic- and English-speaking — as a response to art market enforcement of an imposed idiom of “Middle Eastern art.” Drawing on a similar choreography, Noshokaty will read one hundred “statements” — phrases, words, the rare full sentence — proclaiming cliché images of life in the Middle East in an intimate tone, evoking again the diary style found in the original Stammer video. While the statements will be read in English, an Arabic language introduction will indicate to viewers who are able to understand the artist’s message that they are the intended audience: they are let in on the joke because they recognize the statements as platitudes. Whether this approach can continue to complicate rather than answer insistent demands for information and explication is another question.
The artist and filmmaker Rania Stephan is probably best known for the series of short, potent vignettes that she made in Lebanon during and after the war with Israel in the summer of 2006. These five to ten-minute films, such as The Bridge and The School, depict incongruous, poignant, yet paradoxically humorous, wartime moments — a Hezbollah supporter strutting around the Dahieh like a peacock and unnerving a civil society group’s do-good demonstration; three kids in a refugee relief center complaining about how boring mainstream media attention has become.
Stephan works by walking and meeting people by chance. She films, waits, and listens. She has seemingly unlimited reserves of patience and allows her subjects to ramble — to the point that a finished work might consist of the final minutes of an hour’s conversation or more. These films, which continue to grow in number as Stephan returns to the original footage to edit anew, have been screened in several different configurations under the title Lebanon/War. They have also toured widely since fall 2006, exemplifying the use of art in general, and cinema in particular, as a viable mode of expression, even resistance, in the aftermath of a catastrophe.
But there is another, parallel, equally compelling strain running through Stephan’s work. While Lebanon/War and the video Terrains vagues (2005) — about some of the more unexpected reverberations of the Martyrs Square demonstrations in Beirut — belong wholly within the realm of social documentary, Stephan also makes films in a decidedly more experimental, avant-garde, and essayistic mode. Years ago she made a dreamy piece about the old Beirut–Damascus railroad called Train/Trains (1999), coproduced by the now-defunct Ayloul Festival, which dwelled on rural residents, including a would-be film star, living near the derelict stations. Before that she made a similarly gauzy work called Tribe (1993), an homage to Marlene Dietrich, Super-8 film stock, and the long forgotten Hi8 format. These works are notable both for their attention to material and texture and for their concern for iconic or enigmatic women. They collapse subject matter and medium into videos that undertake a kind of archaeology of desire.
The Three Disappearances of Souad Hosni, Stephan’s current work in progress, takes the same approach but extends it considerably. The piece focuses on the Egyptian screen siren known to all as the Cinderella of Arab cinema, who, through her films and the characters she played, touched the nerve of basically every major social and political moment in modern Middle Eastern history at the same time she fell apart, repeatedly and tragically, onscreen.
The loose facts of Hosni’s life are these: She began her career singing for a children’s radio program and was discovered by Abdel Rahman El Khamesy, who got her cast, at the age of seventeen, in Henry Barakat’s 1959 film Hassan wa Nayima. Then she played every type imaginable — innocent village girl, sexy secretary, floozy, tart, go-go girl, earnest revolutionary, aging nightmare, and more. She married four times. She suffered a miscarriage, a freak accident, and a spinal fracture; a mysterious illness; and several bouts of depression. She was romantically linked with Abdel Halim Hafez for ages. Rumor has it that the couple was secretly married for six years, though both denied it during their lifetimes. Hosni’s death, supposedly by suicide but under murky circumstances, came on the legendary singer’s birthday. More rumors suggest that, at the time, she was preparing a biography that would have implicated “important people in Egypt” in her life and in her occasionally haywire lifestyle. She was found facedown on the pavement outside of her apartment building in London in 2001. Some say she jumped, others say she was pushed, still others say she was killed inside the apartment and then unceremoniously dumped out the window.
But Stephan’s Three Disappearances is after something other than pathos. It is composed only and entirely of VHS footage from Hosni’s eighty-two films. The narrative of Stephan’s film, insofar as it exists, is built up exclusively from sounds and images, bits of dialogue and scenes of intrigue, that the artist culled from cheap, pirated videotapes procured from suburban Cairo street stalls. Stephan has tracked down seventy of the films, and she’s still in pursuit of the final twelve. She’s completed ten minutes of the film so far, and something about the agonizing process of accumulating the tapes, completing the collection, representing an actress’s oeuvre with material filched from the city, and then working gingerly with a format already obsolete and compromised by time feeds into the strange, elegiac atmosphere of Three Disappearances.
Stephan’s interest in Hosni grew out of her education. She earned two degrees in cinema studies — one in Australia, the other in France — and her essayistic works take an academic approach to film. “Through cinema studies I understood the world,” says Stephan. As a student, she encountered Japanese, Italian, French, German, and American cinema, she recalls, “but nobody ever said anything about Arab cinema.”
So Stephan went looking for it, and what she found was Souad Hosni. “She had talent and intelligence, she was beautiful,” says Stephan. “I had known Egyptian cinema but not as a body of images and thoughts. Souad Hosni was this pop heroine, but Arab intellectuals used to call Egyptian cinema false, an opiate. I saw it as the opposite.”
In this she was not alone. The filmmaker, novelist, and critic Mohamed Soueid wrote about Hosni in his novel Cabaret Souad and created a character that was fascinated by her in his film Civil War. He has described her as an earthly actress “ground by the tumult of temperament, swings of mood, and intense sentimentality.” Other contemporary artists — ranging from Akram zaatari and Raed Yassin to Chant Avedissian, Youssef Nabil, and Laudi Abilama — have broached the lives of other Egyptian film stars in their works, attracted, no doubt, to the subversive potential of high art and low art and the proximity to the real that lurks somewhere in between. Their works, along with Stephan’s, temper the rigidity of those Arab intellectuals she refers to who fail to take popular art, which was once the lingua franca of the Arab world, seriously.
Through Hosni’s films, Stephan grasped the representation of women, sexual politics, and gender relations. “I was following her work, and then she disappeared in 1991, and when I heard that she had committed suicide, it was shocking. I thought it was not possible for her to die without her work being restored.”
Stephan began collecting her films, “and I started to break them down,” she recalls. “There’s no official biography of her, only gossip from trashy magazines. She’s dead, so she can’t tell her own story. And she dedicated her life to cinema and never had a private self. It was as if she burned herself into the film when Egyptian cinema went down the drain. She was stuck. She was stuck in her image.
“She didn’t construct a life for herself,” says Stephan. “She was out of control within her own body.” Through her films, “you see her young, you see her old, and you see her crumbling physically. You see that something is wrong in her life. You see her changing.”
Three Disappearances portrays Hosni as an actress who is seemingly without depth, as a fitfully shifting representation, and, perhaps most intriguingly,
as an image built onto VHS as a material support — a disintegrating form for a shattered subject.
“Being an artist’s assistant is really hard work, you know,” Seda Naiumad tells me over a cup of fair-trade FrauenPower tea. “Not everyone can do it — I mean, traveling around the world, setting up shows, coordinating shipping, schmoozing, researching, occasionally acting as stand-in. It’s tough.”
Seda is Natascha Sadr Haghighian’s assistant. A striking, raven-haired firecracker with a jagged edge, her Lotte Lenya-voice is thick with nicotine. I had written to Natascha to talk with her about her ongoing project, Solo Show, but I was directed by the artist to meet with her assistant; attached to her email correspondence was a still from the 1964 film version of the musical My Fair Lady, depicting a crowd of Edwardian-era ladies and gentlemen at the Ascot Racecourse on Opening Day. With this in hand, I met Seda at her Altbau apartment in Berlin’s historic district of Mitte on a spring afternoon.
Seda began our encounter by referring back to 2005, when she and Natascha attended the opening of the Sharjah Biennial. “I looked great,” Seda beamed. “I was wearing my asymmetrical Comme des Garçons dress and even brought a pair of binoculars to get a closer look at the sheikha’s diamonds!” Once in the crowd, Natascha and Seda started chatting with Uwe Schwarzer, founder of a Berlin-based production house called mixedmedia. Packed as they were into a brightly lit, overly air-conditioned gallery, Uwe was able to point out a work that mixedmedia had produced, leading to the inevitable question: How many works in the exhibition, and in other exhibitions, had been produced with the help of a production company?
Hearing this story, I couldn’t help but think of the image Natascha had sent me from the racecourse scene, particularly when I imagined Seda wielding her binoculars in the midst of the crowd. In the 1964 film adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play, the aristocrats, dressed in black, white, and gray, parade about with parasols atwirl, awaiting the start of the horserace. They raise their field binoculars toward the track and watch as the horses gallop by. “’Twas a thrilling, absolutely chilling running of the Ascot op’ning race!”
Performing a Wikipedia search of the Ascot Racecourse, I came across the following statement: “Over 300,000 people make the annual visit to Berkshire during Royal Ascot Week, making this Europe’s best-attended race meeting. Many of the visitors know nothing about racing, and are there purely for the social side and to drink large quantities of champagne.” Sound familiar? Welcome to the art world.
“Won’t give away any names,” Seda said coyly, “but next time you’re in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall and there is a massive chunk of super-polished steel in front of you, or when you wonder how the familiar roster of artists manage to make a new work for their fifteen-or-more exhibitions annually, a production company is probably somewhere backstage.” Indeed, such pieces could be anywhere — in the heterotopia of exhibitions, biennials, and art fairs, the same audience encounters the same art, displaced from both the local context and any sense of origin.
Seda poured herself another cup of tea and continued. “I started thinking that it would make my job much easier if Natascha just worked with mixedmedia.” The still from My Fair Lady began to make sense. For the past two years, Natascha has been preparing for a solo exhibition at the Museo d’Arte Moderna in Bologna. The invisibility of any effort would be paramount in realizing a strong solo show. Everything would have to be installed with perfect precision and on time, freeing the artist to bask in the glow of the opening. This is where Solo Show enters the picture.
Most of Natascha’s past works could simply be packed up and thrown into a bag. Others have taken place in a single moment, like her invitation to the curatorial team of Manifesta 2002 to visit the zoo in Frankfurt, Germany, and look at the new tiger display that claimed to have recreated the tigers’ natural habitat (and yet no tigers could be seen behind the lush forest!) Some have taken place virtually — such as the project bioswop.net, a CV-swapping service for artists that has managed to raise questions as to the relationship between an artist’s biography and her market value. Now, for the Bologna show, would she seek the help of a production company, as Seda suggested, and perhaps produce bigger, more market-oriented work?
The art production industry caters to artists who think big, work big, or simply need something truly big. Dating back to 1999, mixedmedia is a relative newcomer to a scene that goes back decades; Gratz Industries in Long Island City, New York, for example, was founded in 1968 and has produced works for Donald Judd, Barnett Newman, and Sol LeWitt, among many others. Today the industry has spread internationally, providing bespoke services that include brainstorming but are most attractive for their professional efficiency and invisible hand.
Seda did indeed manage to sell Natascha on the idea, but the latter had a larger experiment in mind. Natascha approached mixedmedia in 2006 on behalf of an artist of her own creation, Robbie Williams. Engaging in a series of conversations with Uwe and his team, Natascha, through Williams, assumed the role of the ambitious artist mid-spotlight. Robbie would be able to fulfill the de rigueur expectations of a solo show. His work, produced entirely by mixedmedia and presented as a show of its own in Bologna, would be an inverted mirror-reflection of Natascha’s, with its shiny, complicated technical assembly; yet the process behind the manufacture of Williams’s show would remain invisible — the thirty-plus names, including Natascha, Uwe, and the entire mixedmedia team would be nowhere to be found. Much like our scene from My Fair Lady, the sight of handsome horses comes without the acknowledgment of the sweat and tears that went into the performance in the first place.
Staging situations in which the lines between backstage and onstage blur is a recurring preoccupation of this artist, inspiring a productive tension that, at its best, yields little moments of insight into the subjects of authorship, division of labor, value, and vision. Natascha will also present her own work in Bologna, alongside Robbie’s. One can only wonder who will out-show whom.
There’s a Taj Mahal Hotel in nearly every town in India. According to my phone book, there are two in Delhi. One of them I know well, a towering slab of luxury on Mansingh Road in New Delhi. But the other has an unfamiliar address: 747 Church Mission Road, that must be somewhere near the Old Delhi Railway Station I dial the number and, warbling with excitement, ask if this is indeed the Taj Mahal Hotel. I’m answered by a long sigh. “You want five-star?” The man’s voice is thick with years (twenty-five, it turns out) of patience, resignation, and disappointment.
Of course I did not want. I wanted this dame. Well, grand dame anyway. I had seen a photograph in a magazine once, all flouncing balconies and frilly stucco.
It’s only when I turn onto Church Mission Road that I realize I’m walking the Old City’s hotel strip, the road connecting the Fatehpuri Masjid, at the top of the seventeenth-century Mughal high street, with the Victorian railway station. I pass the Imperial Hotel, the Astoria, the Vaishnav Hindu Hotel, and St Stephen’s Church, with its prominent signboard (“This is a typically designed church in the gothic style in 1867”). I pass scattered sex clinics; a “specialist in diseases of women and children”; “dealers in all kinds of copper and aluminum scraps”; a tractor parts dealer. Tiny alleys snake off beyond still more signs. Walking in Old Delhi I sometimes feel like a small child lost in a rustling labyrinth of tall pleated skirts.
And suddenly, nearly at the end of the road, there it is. The voluptuous façade billowing like late-Victorian bloomers, still flashing the postcolonial street below. The Taj Mahal.
Climbing the steep flight of stairs to the first floor lobby, I step into a classic atrium, with a nautical railing on the second floor gallery and a clerestory above. The walls are paneled with charming art nouveau majolica glazes, the doors topped with transom windows.
It’s all crumbling, of course. The floor, which is clad in geometric Minton tiles, has cracked down the middle like the spine of an old book and is folding alarmingly in two. The entire space seems mildly out of alignment with the staircase and the street; it’s like walking into an elaborate dollhouse made of buckling cardboard. There’s a wonderful first-floor terrace, looking out on the vibrant chaos of the street, but no one seems to use it. The hotel’s catering license expired a couple of years ago.
Parvinder from reception offers me tea, and I settle down in the lobby to savor the atmosphere. Maybe I’ve just read one too many Jim Thompson novels, but I’m intoxicated by the gritty tableau, which transforms every passing figure into a character. Parvinder himself is an enigmatic presence. Tall and muscular, taciturn and a little shabby, he has an unthreatening but unmistakable physical confidence, which is slightly at odds with his perch, a candy-striped Formica reception booth. But he runs a tight hotel. There’s a sign that says “non-alcoholic zone” hanging at reception. Another forbids cigarettes. “It’s my only complaint,” says Shyam Prajapati, a cloth merchant from Jodhpur who’s staying here for the second time. “Back home, even the Taj Hari Mahal allows you to smoke. And drink. Oh, and TVs in the rooms would be a good idea.”
Parvinder observes my interview but remains insouciant, unflappable. Guests like this place because of the high ceilings and good ventilation, he says. All the other hotels here have refurbished their rooms and made them smaller. The hotel is something like a hundred years old, he says, but no, he doesn’t have any stories. I am subtle but persistent. Mostly persistent. “A famous guest, perhaps? Or an infamous one? A murder? Surely? No? Not one murder in a hundred years?” Parvinder looks at me with gentle concern. I’m beginning to feel like a character myself.
Before I go, he tosses me a scrap. “Three months ago they shot a film here, called Dev D, starring Abhay Deol and some new actress, Mahi Gill.” Dev D turns out to be the latest remake of one of modern India’s foundational fantasies, Devdas: a 1917 Bengali novel by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, then a movie in 1929, and then another in 1935, and in 1936, 1937, 1953, 1955, 1979, and 2002 (twice). It’s about a tragic love triangle. Devdas, the eponymous hero, doesn’t have the backbone to marry his childhood sweetheart, Paro, so he drinks himself to a deranged blubbering death under the sorrowful gaze of Chandramukhi, the whore who really loves him — though he manages to drag himself back to Paro’s doorstep when it comes time to sleep the big sleep. I really don’t know how to explain the story’s enduring appeal. Jules et Jim on pathos crack?
Dev D is still in production, but I read later on the director’s blog that this will be a “twenty-first century Devdas,” where the sweetheart is no virgin, the whore is a college girl, and the hero’s buddy Chunnilal roams around brandishing a vibrator. And Devdas himself? Well, according to Parvinder, “he doesn’t go nuts, he just keeps picking up girls and bringing them back here.”
“Oh? Which room?” I ask.
He gives me that look again. “Number 16.”
Taj Mahal Hotel.
Tel: 23964055, 23964697.
Rooms: Rs 120-250
Tucked in the back of the University of Oxford’s cathedral-like neo-gothic Museum of Natural History, dinosaurs, fossils, and paleolithic worms, is the innocuous entryway to the Pitt Rivers Museum. A vast compendium of ethnographic and archaeological artifacts from around the world, the PRM is a touchstone of modern anthropology. It’s also the coolest place in Oxford, a clutter of dusty vitrines crammed with objects both magnificent and mundane, tagged with labels in the founder’s own minuscule cursive and set on top of stacked drawers, all full of equally strange things.
Museum guards wander through this glass and mahogany jungle dispensing wind-up flashlights and genially overseeing the mayhem of excitable school kids running around in search of shrunken heads. They also point out objects of particular interest — on my last visit, a tiny pair of dancers, figurines from early 1900s São Paolo. Their top halves are made from the heads and thoraxes of large mosquitoes, while Barbie-style legs poke out of the bottom of their stiff, lacy dresses.
There seem to have been few selection criteria guiding the PRM’s collection, other than most of the objects having been made by human beings. (The study of man prompts some curious archival impulses; see also the Peabody and the Musée de l’Homme.) The museum’s founder, Lane Fox — or Lieutenant-General Augustus Henry Pitt Rivers, as he was later known — intended his collection to demonstrate the evolutionary development of civilizations and the “phylogenetic unity” of the human species. If artifacts of the same type were placed in close proximity, even the most amateur anthropologist would be able to spot human progress — culminating, of course, in the West.
But the sheer randomness of the collection confounds this positivist intent. The “Toys and Games” cabinet contains footballs made out of plastic bags, rubber bands, and condoms from all over Africa, as well as polo balls from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. Arrangement according to theme means that you get to spot a hundred different variations on the same object, spanning centuries and the entire globe. The contents of “Keys and Locks” encompasses ornate sixteenth-century European constructions, complex wooden bolt mechanisms from Nineveh, and pronged wooden padlock keys from Bahrain. While many cultures had whistling arrows, the Japanese attached special crescent blades to theirs, the better to sever the rigging on enemy ships. More countries than you might think had bagpipes; everyone made charms to ward off the evil eye.
The provenance of most of the collection is as random as the objects themselves. “Forms Suggested by Natural Shapes” includes a “natural stone resembling a monkey’s head” found in Marston, near Oxford, in 1900. PR himself bought the bulk of his contribution at auction, but many items were deposited by anthros returning from overseas and even by museum employees. A bong made from a Coca-Cola bottle purchased by a curatorial assistant on Oxford’s Cowley Road a few years ago is displayed in “Smoking and Water Pipes.”
Some artifacts are almost certainly the consequence of overeager tourism. A painted black wooden jackal from Ancient Egypt looks like something knocked out quickly by a Cairene souvenir seller when he saw the proverbial sucker coming. Captain Cook’s second South Seas voyage also appears to have been one big shopping trip, with the natives taking the explorers for quite a ride. As a museum placard explains, the voyagers were surprised to find the price of things changing drastically from one day to the next. “Tools” contains bamboo knives from Vanuatu, Melanesia, that are said to have been thrown away after their first use — leaving one to imagine the donor, the intrepid Reverend Coddington, scrabbling through the village bins.
For the most part, the dubious origins of some of the older objects evoke nineteenth-century anthropologists participating in a colonial barter game. The PRM proudly includes fake shrunken heads among the real ones, as if to suggest that their significance lies in their makers’ recognition that their traditions were turning into collectibles (though the fakes are flagged, as if to reassert the discernment of the collectors). Some trophies arrived in Oxford via direct acts of colonial plunder, including treasures from the sacking of Benin during the “Punitive Mission” of 1897 and a choice ostrich fly whisk belonging to a Nuer prophet, requisitioned in Sudan. (The British authorities detained its owner in 1928 as part of a crackdown on Nuer prophets, but he escaped, minus his whisk, at which point the governor of the region relayed the object to the museum.)
The PRM’s colonial heritage and paternalistic bent is evident throughout, reflective of the prevailing orthodoxy of the times. But the founders’ wincingly un-PC curatorial instincts may be partly redeemed by the fact that the collection is not limited to the “outside.” There are numerous objects of British origin, among them drawerfuls of braided wheat decorations and magic charms from Oxfordshire, including “slug on a thorn,” a mollusk impaled on a thorn and pickled, which was once supposed to ward off warts.
The PRM is a glorious jumble of tat and splendor, like a flea market for the world. There are essays to be written on any number of its collections, including the desert-loving Wilfred Thesiger’s entire photographic archive; Berber trepanning tools; cases of model ships; little boxes of “asses skin glue used as a drug”; and more. PR wrote of his museums (there is another in Dorset) that “if no more good came of it than to create other interests, which would draw men’s minds away from politics… good would be done.” The effect is exactly opposite, at least for me — but thanks, Foxy.
A vanload of city kids takes the wrong turn in the wrong jungle. Witchcraft ensues. Of course, they pass a river polluted by industrial waste. Of course, there is a tribe of cannibalistic zombies who live on its banks, who take a culinary interest in one of our city slickers. And of course, there is a serial killer in a burqa who greets the rest of them with a whirling, spike-studded flail. And there’s a midget. This, in brief, is Zibahkhana, Pakistan’s first high-definition video film, and the brain-hungry lovechild (or love- hungry brainchild?) of Omar Ali Khan, a forty-five-year-old first-time director and schlock-horror cineaste whose kingdom was built on ice cream.
Omar began his tour d’horreur as the black sheep of a prominent Pakistani family. He was not conventionally ambitious. He went to college in America and graduate school in England, but couldn’t bring himself to become an academic. Upon returning to Pakistan, he failed the civil service exam (to the amusement of his father, a diplomat) and took a job teaching high school, which he did for almost ten years, though he found it boring. Mostly he did what he loved — he watched movies. All kinds, from mainstream Bollywood epics to obscure second- and third-tier Hollywood films to the indigenous outpourings of Lollywood, Pakistan’s own film industry. And he ate ice cream.
He ate a lot of ice cream. Having gone to college in Boston in the 1980s, the golden age of the independent ice cream store, he had acquired a taste for natural flavors and organic ingredients, as well as admiration for the “smoosh-in” (the original ice-cream-and-candy-bar hybrid). But the ice cream back home was brightly colored, generic, and tasteless. Worse, the ice cream shops in Islamabad were aimed squarely at children, complete with Mickey Mouse murals. One day Omar decided to try his hand at making ice cream for himself. When the results were encouraging, he thought about selling it to others, and in August 1995 he and his younger brother Ali opened a makeshift business out of their parents’ Islamabad home. It would not be safe for children. They called it the Hotspot.
Omar and Ali’s ice cream was gourmet — no artificial coloring, no preservatives or additives. Instead of plastic buckets, they used wooden tubs. All the ingredients were fresh: August is mango season, so that became one of the first flavors. Scraping imported beans from Madagascar and soaking them overnight in cream lent their vanilla its exquisite richness. (They weren’t wholly virtuous: they also featured Malted Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough.) Despite their odd location, the lack of seating, and a limited range of flavors, customers showed up in droves. One year later, when a restaurant in the shape of a railway coach at Gol Market closed down, the Khans gleefully relocated.
In Islamabad there was not much by way of cafe culture, no teenage hangouts as such, and young people flocked to the Hotspot. The space itself was decorated like the inside of Omar’s head. Lurid movie posters lined the walls; assorted horror props hung from the ceiling. The soundtrack was a careful mix of period funk, nightclub numbers from swinging Lahore, Bombay disco from the 1980s, and the occasional Blondie track. Thus emboldened, Omar and Ali started publishing the Scream, a newsletter about ice cream and movies that would grow into a full-fledged fanzine devoted to “Horror and Cult, Trash and Z-Grade” cinema. Improbably enough, the formula was a success. Today there are five Hotspots, including a flagship store with an expanded menu of organic dishes and a bookshop at Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore, where the country’s major international cricket matches are played.
That Pakistan’s most distinctive cafe chain and South Asia’s most discerning horror movie resource should have sprung from ostensibly serene Islamabad makes a perverse kind of sense. A young city of under a million people, it was created in the 1960s by Pakistan’s first military leader, Field Marshall Ayub Khan. It is unrelentingly rich and unrelentingly clean. Traffic flows demurely, gigantic homes are tucked inside high compound walls, and the effect is an eerie stillness. There is no street life to escape to, no crowd within which to get lost. There are few public spaces, save the shopping mall. Islamabad’s elite tends to do as it pleases (behind locked doors), and despite fluctuating undercurrents of class resentment and moral fervor, the arrangement is usually acceptable to all. Sometimes, however, it is not. The occasion for the bloody siege at the Lal Masjid in 2007 was a vigilante raid on a well- known brothel by female students from the mosque. Still, if there is a prevailing mood in Islamabad, it is one of listlessness. In a city of such peculiar calm, it seems appropriate that a horror-themed ice cream parlor should be the center of social life.
I did not come to Pakistan for the ice cream. Nor was I primarily interested in talking about Zibahkhana — I hadn’t managed to see it yet. My first interest was in
the Hotspot Online, the website Omar Khan launched in 2000 as an archive and extension of the best of the Scream. By now there are hundreds of thousands of words on thousands of movies — Hollywood, Bollywood, Lollywood, and then some— as well as film clips, hand- painted copies of movie posters for sale, travel writing, a “rough guide to Islamabad,” and incredibly weird blog posts (most recently, a contest gauging the dictatorial prowess of Pervez Musharraf as compared to Idi Amin). It was at the prompting of the Hotspot Online, for instance, that I was encouraged to seek out the 1990 Punjabi-language hit International Gorillay. Its principal character is a criminal mastermind named Salman Rushdie, who sets out to destroy Islam by luring Pakistanis into gambling, dancing, and all manner of sundry sins. Rushdie tortures his prisoners by reading to them aloud from The Satanic Verses; the brave mujahids out to stop him are disguised in Batsuits; and in the end, a quartet of levitating Qur’ans shoot laser beams into Rushdie’s head, causing him to explode.
Omar’s site had already acquired an international cult following by the time I heard about it, but I was suspicious. I had spent a futile year trying to write about two Indians actors, Govinda and Mithun, who together had starred in the majority of the most outlandish Bollywood offerings since the late 1970s. The problem was getting the tone right; I couldn’t find a template. I read books on film theory and found them useful, but professional theorists seemed not to allow for the possibility that one might actually enjoy watching the thing one is theorizing. And yet enjoyment was not without its hazards; so much middle-class appreciation of “low” culture amounts to intellectual slumming, and I knew too many snobs in Soho and Shoreditch and Bangalore who enjoyed bad cinema badly. But it turned out that Omar’s criticism was visceral, sincere, and sharp; loving yet caustic, like the work of a film theorist on truth serum and crack at the same time. I had found my model. I kept browsing, and found Omar’s own extensive writings on my putative subjects. I quietly shelved the project.
You can lose yourself in the forest of text and image that is the Hotspot Online (and not only because the site map is incredibly confusing). Reading Omar’s reviews scrambled my mental geography; his Pakistan is a land of mayhem, whimsy, and all-encompassing strangeness. Places that only existed for me through newspaper accounts of Taliban strongholds were repopulated with lecherous beast-ladies hell-bent on plunder.
Omar’s predilections notwithstanding, the majority of Pakistani films are not particularly subversive or strange. And the actual history of Lahore’s film industry (the “L” in Lollywood) predates Pakistan. The city’s first films were made in the 1930s and played to a wide subcontinental audience. In fact, colonial India’s first film with sound, Alam Ara (The Light of the World), was made there in 1931, inaugurating a musical genre that continues to this day.
Lollywood and Bollywood both flourished in the decades after partition. On the Pakistani side, the industry was given a boost in 1965, when the longstanding ban on Indian films was suddenly enforced after armed conflict in Kashmir. Lahore was producing a record number of films in a wide variety of genres, including one brief but crucial foray into horror. Zinda Laash (The Living Corpse) was a brooding 1967 black and white thriller starring an up-and-coming actor named Rehan as Professor Tabani, a sort of Dr Jekyll and Mr Dracula. Zinda Laash made Lollywood film history twice — the first horror film, and the first and only film to earn the label “For Adults Only,” after the board of censors accused the film of being “corruptive and evil.”
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s Prime Minister during this “golden age,” is sometimes credited with creating an open climate for cultural expressions. In retrospect, however, his 1977 decision to ban the sale of alcohol (perhaps a last-ditch effort to appease conservatives) was the beginning of the end of the era. Bhutto was promptly overthrown by General Zia-ul-Haq; two years later, after consolidating power (and executing Bhutto), Zia moved to enforce the ban. Out went the bars and nightclubs where alcohol had been served — and with them, the paradigmatic Lollywood “nightclub number.” More significant, if less dramatic, was the widespread introduction of VCRs, which allowed increasing numbers of Pakistani film viewers to circumvent the Bollywood ban in the privacy of their own homes. (The Urdu language spoken in most song-and-dance Lollywood films is the same language as that spoken in Bollywood films, and the “family melodrama” has been the dominant mode in both Lahore and Bombay.) By the early 1990s, there were those who believed that the industry might never recover.
The decline did not affect all segments of the film industry equally, however, as Hotspot aficionados can attest. A number of epochal Punjabi films, and even a few in Urdu, still managed to get made in the late 70s and 80s, while cinema in Pushto, the language of Pakistan’s oft-lawless northwest corridor, went completely berserk.
Consider Aurat Raj (The Reign of Women), a rare and rarefied Urdu classic. In 1979, the bodybuilder, singer, and actor Rangeela added another line to his resume: director. His film had a beguiling premise. A group of women discover a bomb that switches gender roles and seize power by setting it off. In this brave new world, women wield machine guns and flick their cigarettes with an easy flair, while the men twirl in slow motion and swing their hips coquettishly. “I used to be Sultan Rahi,” simpers one of the ex-men, after he is saved from molestation at the hands of a vengeful band of marauding women. There’s not a trace of camp in the scene. And it’s a beautiful moment because he really is Sultan Rahi, the actor best known as the ax-wielding macho man Maula Jat, an archetypal Punjabi folk hero whose eponymous vehicle was also released that year.
But where Aurat Raj came and went, Maula Jat was a genuine blockbuster — a gory tale set against a backdrop of feudal injustice and told in a continuous high-pitched scream. It didn’t invent the character — Sultan Rahi’s first time out as the hearty peasant with arms of steel and a heart of gold was in Wehshi Jat, four years earlier. And it almost didn’t happen at all — Maula Jat’s anti-establishment ethos caught the attention of General Zia, and it missed being banned by a whisker. Maula Jat became one of the highest grossing films in Pakistani history, transforming Sultan Rahi into a superstar and spawning a slew of unofficial sequels that are still being made. The plot of the film is simple or complicated, depending on how you look at it. Suffice to say that it involves our rustic vigilante, some bloodily detached body parts, and an exacting feudal villainess who shoots her brother through the heart for failing to adequately rape the village belle.
Tales of feudal injustice are not uncommon in Bollywood, either. But the most distinctive of Pakistan’s film industries, Pushto cinema, is unlike anything else. In Pakistan today, it is a byword for porn (or “fully-clothed porn,” as Omar would put it). And its titillations are nearly completely unpredictable; recent films have involved floating phalluses, lascivious hairy she-beasts, all-cavewoman catfights, even the odd amorous grizzly bear. Its leading ladies are, almost to a lady, incredibly fat. Perhaps Lour Da Balaa (Daughter of the Beast), a 1999 film featuring a female monster given to brutally raping soldiers and a woman who fellates a pistol, is perfectly sensible to audiences on the outer fringes of Peshawar; as for me, it rearranged my molecules. Naturally, Omar gives it loving attention on the Hotspot Online.
I ended up spending several days in Lahore. In the daytime I met with Omar and toured both Hotspot locations. It was at night, however, that I truly saw the sights. I can confirm that for all its manicured suburbs and ancient monuments, and even without nightclubs, Lahore remains a hotspot for sin and sinners.
I discovered this mostly thanks to Mohsin Raza, aka Sattar Masihi, one of the last of a dying breed of billboard painters. For decades, movies had been advertised by lavishly detailed billboards. But in the new millennium, with the advent of digital printing technology, this art form has almost disappeared. Producers and theater owners prefer digital prints, which are cheaper, faster, and more realistic. Artists like Mohsin face either unemployment or a future of painting shop signs. Inevitably, Omar Khan is a fanatical lover of the artisanal craft of billboard painting, and tucked away in a corner of the Hotspot Online, you will find scores of two-by-three-foot movie posters for sale, hand-painted by Mohsin and his ilk. Omar first met Mohsin several years ago at Royal Park, Lahore’s legendary movie studio, and recently curated an exhibition of his work in London.
Mohsin loves theater. Every night in Lahore at ten o’clock, the curtain rises on a series of live tableaux, enacted with song and dance by female performers. The most famous, like Madam Nargis, are superstars whose recordings sell internationally; newcomers, meanwhile, usually resort to wardrobe malfunctions to pull in the crowds. Regardless of the stature of the performer, almost every theater is booked out every single night, at a cost upwards of 2000 rupees per (male) head. Live theater here is not exactly a secret. It is heavily advertised on the street and prominently featured on Fridays and Sundays in Pakistan’s highest-circulating Urdu newspaper, the Daily Jang. But its public nature is no indication of its respectability, and the clearest sign that it might be frowned upon is a recent film from one Rasheed Dogar entitled Sachaday Night. I had earlier squirmed through another of Dogar’s creations, Murdar (by which I think he meant “murder”), so I was acquainted with his oeuvre. It is rich in “impact shots” — a favorite technique of Indian soap operas too — where the camera zooms in on a particular scene and jerks up and down and sideways, as if caught in an emotional earthquake. The protagonist spends his Saturday nights preying on live theater actresses (who are, of course, all prostitutes). On the pretense of a quick romp, he takes them home, kills them, and has his father hide the bodies in his backyard. Eventually the police track him down and lock him up. Upon further reflection, the policemen realize that he’s been performing a valuable service by eliminating vice and temptation, and, in the best interests of society, they let him go.
When asked to account for his love of film — and his taste for trash — Omar, in a time-honored maneuver, blames his parents. His father is a Hitchcock obsessive; his mother’s family, devotees of the tear-jerkingest Lollywood melodrama. But the primal scene of his childhood, his initiation ritual, if you will, transpired during a full moon in Kent, England, where the five-year-old Omar and his parents attended a nighttime showing of The Wizard of Oz. “I was dragged out of the cinema in a state of total hysteria,” he says. “Traumatized into a state of unsurpassed fear, and loving every second of the sensation.” Like many children, Omar had a favorite character. Unlike many children, his favorite was the Wicked Witch of the West. And unlike nearly everyone, the character Omar identifies with (or at least, most closely resembles) is not plucky Dorothy Gale or the Cowardly Lion but the man behind the curtain, the great Oz himself.
Omar is a highly hands-on manager, meddling daily with one or another aspect of his businesses, up to and including the songs on the jukebox at the various cafes. But he prefers to be hands-on behind the scenes. He is strikingly introverted, preferring not to leave home if he can help it. He spends most days in cotton pajamas, working out of his house in Islamabad, near but not within the fabled “posh sectors.” (A newspaper report of a recent attempt at bombing the Danish Embassy took care to mention that it had happened in “F-6/2 posh sector”). His living area is dark and furnished with a variety of state-of-the-art electronics, including a professional projector that beams onto a giant collapsible screen. The whole house is a sort of deluxe version of the Hotspot idea. There is a bookshelf filled with biographies of serial killers and a desk with a computer jacked into what must be one of the best internet connections in Pakistan. Original movie posters line the walls, including the Gunmaster G-9 classic Surakkshaa, the pioneering Wehshi Jatt, and Saw, a Hollywood film that Omar doesn’t like but wistfully admires for having initiated a genre called “torture porn.” Food is usually ordered out from the Hotspot, though his custom does not usually include ice cream. Omar has all but lost his passion for it — and if photographs of him circa 1995 are any indicator, he’s lost a lot of weight as well. On the outside, his house is plain, worn, and somewhat unadorned. In Bangalore, where I live, this would be another ordinary upper-class dwelling; in status-conscious Islamabad, it looks positively mysterious.
This summer, all of Pakistan was thrown into a cycle of power outages, causing untold damage to his filmic explorations. Omar was sanguine about it, and it seemed as though he relished the idea of conversation as a kind of novelty. But he remains the kind of person who luxuriates in his privacy. He was at his most animated discussing, say, the minutiae of the life and death of Silk Smitha, South India’s greatest vamp, or when talking about music.
During one our evenings together he recorded his radio show, “Mondo Bizarro,” which broadcasts nationwide on CityFM. The previous week he had announced a quest for the world’s worst song. “Really awful stuff,” he said, proudly. “The most unlistenable songs ever.” There were a number of contenders. Bappi Lahiri’s “You Are My Chicken Fry” from the film Rock Dancer seemed like a possibility, though Omar is a huge Bappi fan generally. Anu Malik’s “You Look to Me a Virgin,” from his English album entitled Eyes, was near the top of the list. Then Omar heard “Desire” from Deepak Chopra and Demi Moore — a florid Sufi poem set to a Buddhist beat — and he knew he had a winner. Later on in the broadcast, he relented a bit. “I think I’ll just play some Sylvester and tell people they’ve got to live a little, you know?”
To live a little, or indeed at all, is not a choice available to most of the characters in Zibahkhana. The story of the film is every bit as serendipitous as Omar’s career itself. In early 2001, he was contacted by Pete Tombs and Andy Starke, a British duo who had discovered the Hotspot Online. Pete was a London-based writer and author of two cult books: Immoral Tales, on the erotic horror films of Europe, and Mondo Macabro, a global survey of “fantastic cinema.” The British duo were preparing a television series based on Mondo Macabro for Channel 4; they also planned to launch a DVD label devoted to recirculating lost genre classics. It was a meeting of like minds, and the beginning of a series of collaborations. Omar appeared as a “talking head” on the South Asian episode of Mondo Macabro TV; shortly thereafter, a joint Mondo Macabro/Bubonic Films edition of Zinda Laash was released under its English title, The Living Corpse, with plans (as yet unrealized) for an edition of Aurat Raj.
When Omar decided to make his own movie, Pete and Andy were the first people he talked to. They decided to produce the film together, Pete assisting Omar in the
writing and Andy taking charge of the editing. Omar would direct. The script was a tribute-laden horror film set in modern day Pakistan, an “ode to the masked slasher” from trash-splatter landmarks like Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Their first attempt at production was derailed by the Kashmir earthquake of 2005, in which close to eighty thousand people died. The shoot finally began on July 10, 2006 — just in time for the monsoon. Start to finish, it took one month, during which time the Islamabad police found two dead bodies in the forest where the film was being shot. (It turned out that their chosen forest was a choice dumping ground for inconvenient bodies.) A few scenes were reshot in November, the post-production was insanely rushed, and in March 2007, Zibahkhana made its world premiere at Denmark’s national film festival.
Zibahkhana is a supremely satisfying romp. The Burqaman — definitely the world’s first burqa-clad serial killer — is an instant icon. Omar admits that the idea derived from a childhood fear of the burqa, “a fantastically gothic and dramatic outfit that manages to strip all expression, emotion, and warmth from a human face.” He is both perplexed and delighted that it didn’t cause more controversy. But the Burqaman is just the beginning. The film is studded with tributes and in-jokes for the cognoscenti (which is to say, readers of the Hotspot Online). While the film’s teenagers are a mix of up-and-coming actors and absolute beginners, most of the other characters are played by legendary but forgotten or underrated actors. Rehan, the vampire-scientist from Zinda Laash, has a pivotal role; the late Najma Malik, famous for playing a maniacal witch in the television serial Ainakwala Djinn, plays the Burqaman’s maniacal mother. The soundtrack consists of sizzling, scratchy tunes from old Lollywood dance sequences.
And though Omar bristles at the idea that his film is some kind of political statement, his characters do tend to be rather heavily oppressed: the hijra, the single mother, the abandoned poor, the miserable Christian, the misunderstood Faqir, and the mama’s boy who was raised like a girl. None of them are straightforwardly sympathetic characters, and this may be why Omar hurls abuse at those who would mistake Zibahkhana for anything less (or rather, more) than a good old-fashioned horror film.
After a brief tangle with the board of censors, who rejected it outright at first,
Zibahkhana opened in Pakistan at a cineplex in Rawalpindi. Remarkably, it was certified for “General” consumption. Rawalpindi is Islamabad’s older, louder, dustier sibling, a city in comfortable disrepair and renowned for a brand of illustrated cigarette lighter that comes in three main designs — Osama, Benazir, and Musharraf. The film was a mad success, running for ten straight weeks. A private screening for students in Lahore turned into something of a riot. Outside Pakistan, Zibahkhana has traveled to dozens of film festivals, horror and otherwise. At last year’s Fantastic Film Festival in Austin, Texas, it won the award for Best Gore. This year it took the top prize at RioFan, the Brazilian festival of fantastic cinema.
Certainly, there were setbacks. Zibahkhana’s Lahore release coincided with Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, and the film was promptly pulled. The Pakistani commercial rights — DVD included — were negotiated hastily, resulting in little revenue. Then there’s the small matter of the seventy-five thousand dollars invested in the film that’s yet to be recovered. Still, the film made its mark in Pakistan, and in its own weird way, put Pakistani cinema on the map.
As is usually the case with Omar, there are plenty of plans in the pipeline. There are more film festivals to enter, screenings to attend, and awards to collect. There is a suitcase full of scripts waiting to become films, including Jhabarjhilla, a genre-busting women-in-prison meets porn-factory meets monster-spectacular. There are films new and old to be reviewed for the website; new ice cream flavors to be invented; a possible new source for vanilla beans to be explored. In short, the mundane work of magic-making. And through it all, there is a small but determined army of Omarites, in Pakistan and beyond, following his every move.
Cute little Leila. We smiled with her smiles and wept with her tears in Appointment with Happiness. Now little Leila is a head-turning beauty with a blooming femininity… Leila was played by Nadia Zulfiqar, Faten Hamama’s daughter, who once seemed like she might become an Egyptian star like her mother. But Nadia grew up abroad, and her stay in the land of the West has turned her into a Hollywood girl.
Today, Nadia is Omar Sharif’s secretary, responsible for his affairs. Faten and Omar have divorced, and Nadia’s mother has gone back to her country and her people to live the sorrows and joys of the Arabs. As for Nadia, there is fear for her upbringing. The interviewer felt a lack of patriotism in her, especially in that she is working as Omar’s secretary, and he is surrounded by Zionist celebrities who consider Israel a state. If the Zulfiqar family does not quickly take charge of their daughter and bring her back home, they will be held responsible should anything happen to her—before God, her country, and her dead father, whose remains lie under the ground of his homeland and who directed more than one powerful Arab film.
“Save my daughter…Save her!” cries Ezzeddine Zulfiqar from beyond the grave.
During Nadia’s stay in Beirut to watch a game of bridge that the divorced debauched husband Omar Sharif was playing, we interviewed the beautiful Arab secretary… with the weird lifestyle.
I saw you a few years ago in Appointment with Happiness, after which you stopped acting?
*Appointment with Happiness was the first and the last. I was six at the time. My father was the director and my mother the lead actress. They chose me because they needed a small girl to play the part, and I was the closest in age to the character. I stopped acting to continue my education.
What led you to become Omar Sharif’s secretary?
Because I like traveling and visiting places and the lifestyle. Any girl my age would want this job. This job is paradise, why would I refuse it?
You are constantly moving from one place to another. How do you think you could have a long-term relationship with anyone with this lifestyle of yours? Your life is dictated by Omar Sharif’s schedule. You have no privacy.
I don’t agree. When you get used to the idea of traveling and you roam the world, you become more self-confident. As for my privacy…I have friends in every country. I am not always with Omar. I spend most of my time going out with friends. I’m free most nights—that’s not counting my days off. If I had neglected my private life, I would have died a long time ago.
I met Omar Sharif’s previous secretary, Caroline Faifer, and she said she had to quit because of the lack of stability and privacy?
Caroline is a whole different story. Look at the age difference—I’m in my twenties and she’s over thirty. She quit because it was time for her to think about her future.
You are very young. But you still travel so much, living the life of celebrity—maybe you’re just bored and going through a phase?
I am not going through any phase. I’m all eyes and ears for anything that is new. I see the whole world in its diversity. Where is the boredom in that? I have no time to be bored.
I don’t think he is treating you like a secretary. Don’t you think he’s exploiting you?
Whatever—work is work. But Omar is an easy-going guy …he doesn’t ask for much. During the day I go to the studio with him for a little while. At night he sits by himself and reads or sits with his friends and plays cards.
When you go with him to the studio, do you find that acting is harder than people think?
It’s a very tough job, even for the silliest of movies. Of course, there are innumerable good things about this type of career.
You have met many celebrities, for sure. Who is your favorite?
I would say Michael Caine, for the men. I don’t know which women I like.
Do you want to be famous? Who would you want to be if you were famous?
Frankly, I don’t want to be famous. But I would like to have my mother’s reputation.
Which one of Omar Sharif’s movies do you like the most, and do you watch anyone else’s movies?
I’ve seen most of his movies. I liked Lawrence of Arabia. I hated The Appointment. I watch all kinds of movies. I like movies. When I can, I watch Arab movies.
Do you think you are a talented actress?
I am not talented. I get nervous even in front of a photo camera.
What language do you speak most of the time?
It depends on where I am. I speak Arabic when I don’t want anyone to understand me.
Maybe for swearing?
I never swear.
Do you have a certain literary favorite?
I read a lot of novels and detective stories.
Who chooses your clothes?
What’s your sign?
Your favorite color?
Your favorite precious stone?
I collect leather belts. I have a very old one that might have been used as a saddle.
Mode of travel?
Your favorite city?
Are you in love?
Aren’t all people in love?
What do you hate the most?
People who gossip.
What are you afraid of?
I have none.
I’m still a novice.
Do you believe in luck?
Yes. I am very superstitious, and I’m constantly knocking on wood.
Are you honest?
Sometimes I’m strong, sometimes not.
Are you clever?
What do you think?
Do you want to go back to Cairo?
This is the second time I’ve been here. I was ten years old the first time.
How is it different/
I was interested in different things then.
Do you want to get married?
I don’t know, maybe… yeah totally, I hate spinsters.
And the moon?
Let’s get Earth under control, then we can talk about the moon.
What’s bothering you?
People talking bothers me. I"m tired of gossips.
Why do you think we are talking to you now? Is it because you are Faten Hamama’s daughter, or because you are Omar Sharif’s secretary, or because you are Nadia Zulfiqar?
Maybe you should ask yourself that question.
Get it get it, get it get it
Get it get it, get it get it
(Do you like it)
Get it get it, get it get it
(This feels good)
—Britney Spears, “I’m a Slave 4 U”
Messenger of fear in sight
Dark deception kills the light
Hybrid children watch the sea
Pray for father, roaming free
—Metallica, “The Thing That Should Not Be”
According to my old neighbor, Kamal Hanafi, the vegetables in Israel are huge and good for only one thing. “The cucumbers,” he exclaimed, eyes lighting up, “are this long” — he stretched his hands more than a foot apart. “They are this wide” — he made a circle with his two hands. “And they taste like shit, all chemicals and unnatural fertilizers.” He spat. “No one can eat vegetables that disgusting. The only people who use them are the women, who sit like this” — he spread his legs to demonstrate. “And the men, of course.” The invisible cucumber in his hands jabbed sharply up. “And now they’re sending their vegetables to Egypt to fuck us all.”
Kamal could see it. A flood of Israeli vegetables, inundating the Egyptian market, washing away the old dream of agricultural self-sufficiency. More pernicious still: the image of oversized Zionist produce coming for his two young daughters. Kamal was very concerned with what his children put in their mouths. “It is difficult to keep them pure,” he complained, before listing the few shops that still sold untainted greens from Umm Al'Dunya.
But it wasn’t just the vegetables. In the years since Sadat’s policy of infitah liberalized the Egyptian economy, delectable imports have come dancing through the open door to tempt the girls of Egypt. It began with foreign banks, foreign aid, and joint ventures with Xerox, Colgate-Palmolive, and Ford; and it culminated in a torrent of chocolates from Hershey’s and Nestlé, as well as Dove Bars, Lay’s potato chips, Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, acid-wash jeans, waffles, bikinis, rap music, exercise videos, Britney Spears, and lesbianism.
If he had a son, things would be easier. But Kamal has not been so lucky. He’s been trying to have a son for years. He tries every night, he told me, but all his wife has given him are girls he will lose one day to a wet t-shirt contest and the all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet in Sharm el Sheikh.
My friendship with the Hanafi family was my proudest accomplishment in Cairo. Kamal, his wife, and his two daughters lived just down the hall in my building, a not-so-solidly middle-class apartment complex in Sayyida Zeinab. Kamal was an old friend of my Arabic teacher and, soon after I moved in, I began an aggressive charm offensive. In the afternoons, I came back from my job editing English translations and stopped by their apartment for tea, practicing my Arabic with Kamal while the two girls practiced their English with me. I made a point of bringing them tasteful and conservative gifts (Egyptian-made, of course). Colored pencils, expensive stationary, pale white dolls with long, knotty hair and ugly lace dresses. I sat with Kamal day after day and held my chin thoughtfully through long lectures on the dangers of foreign involvement in Middle Eastern affairs. One day, after polishing off a plate of kunaffa, I criticized the idea of US intervention in Darfur.
“It is an Arab problem,” I said. “And the Arab League can solve it. The United States is treating Sudan like Iraq — a staging ground for imperial expansion.”
Kamal nodded, gazing approvingly at me through his large square bifocals. From then on, he had his daughters refer to me as “Uncle.” I had succeeded. I had friends.
My conquest was not complete, however. I could not, and never would, win over Kamal’s wife. Rania taught literature in an adjunct capacity at one of the universities in town. I would ask her about Arabic literature and poetry, about her classes, her family, politics, movies — she was never anything but cordial, but there was something about the perfunctory way she answered my questions that made me think she was wary of my presence.
She had cause to be wary. Soon after he declared me an honorary Arab, Kamal embarked on a courtship of his own. It began with a series of quiet taps on my door. It must have been sometime after two in the morning, and I was lying in bed, neither awake nor asleep, paralyzed by the heat and a nameless anxiety. The taps sounded like Morse code. An SOS? I tiptoed to the door and looked through the peephole. I saw Kamal’s face, stretched and distorted, peering back at me. I opened the door. Kamal was wearing his pajamas. He was barefoot. And he was holding a trembling pack of Cleopatra Superlux — super, because they came in an extra-wide hard pack; lux, because they were extra-long.
I asked him if something was wrong.
He shook his head, no.
I asked him if he wanted to come in.
He showed himself to my couch and sat down, placing the pack of cigarettes on the coffee table. He had something to ask me, he said, and he didn’t want me to take it the wrong way.
He wanted me to blow smoke in his face.
I looked at the cigarettes and hesitated. It was an odd request. I didn’t smoke. Even in Cairo, where everybody smoked, I had only ever gone in for melon-flavored shisha, and even then I hadn’t really inhaled, secreting the perfumed smoke in my cheek.
I explained this to him, slightly chagrined.
Ah, but he wasn’t asking me to smoke! He used to smoke two packs a day, he said, back before he got married. His wife had made him promise to quit, and he had. But he still liked the smell, and I wouldn’t have to inhale. He looked very innocent on the couch, with his thick bifocals and his pajamas and his black dress socks, and I didn’t mind the smell of smoke, either, so I agreed.
I sat on the couch with Kamal and tore the plastic off the cigarette pack. The couch was a gift from my boss, an ancient, leonine woman who had grown up in the days of King Farouk, drank gin straight, and muttered angrily under her breath at the sight of muhajabahs.
She must have been very fashionable in her twenties, which was when she bought the couch. It was faux-French, with dark green fabric in a paisley pattern. There were cherubic faces on the wooden backrest, carved in bas-relief, blowing whorls of wind from pursed lips.
Over the decades, a rusty spring had cut its way through the center of the couch. Six inches of jagged metal wobbled between Kamal and me. I’ve never been very good with matches, I’m afraid, and I had trouble lighting the cigarette. Each failed attempt added to a small mountain of matches on the table and a stench of sulfur in the air.
Finally, it caught. The cigarette flared as the paper started to burn, and I carefully drew a cloud of smoke into my mouth. I held my breath and leaned in, over the paisley print and the exposed spring, within inches of Kamal’s expectant face. He had removed his glasses for the occasion. I could see the pores on his skin, the light razor burn on his left cheek, the mustard-colored stains on his incisors, a testament to years of heavy smoking and poor oral hygiene. I thought he would close his eyes, or at least look away, but he stared right at me: I noticed for the first time that his light brown irises were speckled with flecks of gold. Then I exhaled, releasing a stream of smoke that traveled in a long, unbroken line before curling up into his nostrils. The scent of his cologne mixed with the bitterness of the tobacco. Kamal threw his head back, his eyelids fluttered, his upper lip quivered, and his cheeks hollowed as he sucked away in my direction.
Somehow I had not noticed the awkwardness of the whole scene until that very moment. I busied myself with the cigarette and the ashtray in an attempt to hide the mixture of embarrassment and amusement I felt at Kamal’s evident pleasure.
After I’d stubbed out what remained of the cigarette, Kamal relaxed into the couch. He spoke wistfully about his life before Rania, when he’d spent nearly all his time chain-smoking with his old friend Wagdi Lewis. If smoke represented freedom, Wagdi and Kamal had spent the 1980s liberating Egypt. Kamal chuckled as he described the quantities of tobacco they burned — fields of tobacco as wide as the Sahara and as tall as the pyramids.
It wasn’t just cigarettes, though. There were modest amounts of alcohol, as well, and some (wink wink) hashish. And there were politics. Wagdi was a secular leftist, and so deeply principled as to exert a gravitational force on those around him. He easily indoctrinated Kamal, who recounted with pride tales of Wagdi’s struggle with the corrupt Egyptian government and its foreign backers. Unlike Kamal, who retreated into a stultifying world of domesticity, Wagdi remained politically engaged. Even after starting a family, he had spent five years in prison for attempting to stockpile explosives. Wagdi had changed in only one way: he’d quit smoking. Not because anyone told him to, but because even homegrown Cleopatras were no longer 100 percent Egyptian.
In Kamal’s Egypt there were four types of men. There were the men over fifty, who were castrated by the events of 1967, and those under thirty, who suckled on the weak milk of Lebanese music videos; between them was Kamal’s own generation, men who had seceded from society to create inviolable nation-states of their families. And then there was Wagdi, a category unto himself, the toughest man in Cairo, a superman who did not know the meaning of the word “defeat.”
The night ended as abruptly as it began. Kamal issued a brief but vitriolic attack on USAID. He made fun of my sneakers. He looked around the living room of my apartment and told me I needed a woman to take care of me. Then he stood up, thanked me for my hospitality, and tiptoed down the hallway to his wife and daughters.
Our secret relationship went on like this for months — the nocturnal visitations, the secondhand smoke, the stories about Wagdi. Every few days at one or another inappropriate hour, Kamal would knock softly but insistently until I woke up and let him in. Sometimes I tried to stay up to wait for him, but his comings were unpredictable. He would probably have come every night if he could have, but he had a whole series of deliberate precautions, designed to hide his perfidy from his family, and after a while I just accepted it. I still stopped by Kamal’s apartment after work sometimes, but less than before; I resented the pretense, the highly mannered welcome Rania gave me when I came in, the hungry look in Kamal’s eyes when I left.
One afternoon I stopped by the Hanafis to drop off a plate of sweets my coworker had given me; it was more than I could eat myself. The door was open, and I stood at the entrance for a moment without announcing myself. Kamal and Rania were having an argument. She wasn’t blind to Kamal’s indiscretions.
“Admit it,” I heard her saying. “You’ve been smoking again. I can tell. You go out at all hours of morning and then come sneaking home, washing your hair in the dark.
"It’s the foreigner who smokes,” Kamal said. His voice sounded desperate. “He is Hindu, from America. They have terrible habits.” And then, self-righteously, “I have never smoked.”
“This is just like the Wagdi situation. Your friends are a terrible influence on you.”
“But I stopped seeing Wagdi… ”
“And you will stop seeing this man, too.”
“But he is a foreigner! He has no family, no friends.”
“He is not to come into our house.”
“Darling, don’t do this,” Kamal pleaded. I couldn’t take it anymore. I left the sweets by the door and crept away, feeling sick to my stomach.
I was the bad influence? Two months into our relationship, I’d become an addict. I had begun to smoke on my own, squirreling away a pack of Marlboro Reds in my bedroom where Kamal wouldn’t find them. I had started inhaling. And I… well, I didn’t have many friends, actually, but I didn’t need to hear about it from Kamal, and I certainly didn’t need his pity.
A week later I heard the familiar tap-tap-tap on my door. I lay in bed, ignoring it, hoping he would go away. But he kept drumming his fingers, and despite myself I let him in and once more acted out the ritual. Looking nervous, he asked where I’d been, why I hadn’t come by his apartment. I told him I’d been busy. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him I’d overheard their conversation, and he couldn’t bring himself to tell me not to come by. We had achieved a kind of equilibrium. I mostly stopped listening to the stories he told, chain-smoking the time away till he was done. His visits became less frequent — his precautions had become still more elaborate, I guess.
One night Kamal appeared at my door in a state of extraordinary agitation. I was already smoking; in fact, I was marinating in smoke.
He sat down next to me. “My wife is leaving tomorrow,” he said. She was going to Beni Suef, to visit her family. “Freedom,” he sighed. Then he leaned across the metal spring and put his hand on my arm. “I need your help,” he said, his voice dropping conspiratorially.
“Sure,” I responded. I was mesmerized by the smoke’s languorous ascent through the air to my ceiling. My dignity and I had parted ways some time ago. I probably would have agreed to anything.
He had made plans to see his old friend Wagdi. The toughest man in Cairo, remember? I nodded. It was to be a reunion of sorts. He wished I could meet him, he said, but it was not in my destiny; I had my own, very important, role to play. He needed me to watch his daughters while he was out.
I saw it all in my mind right then, the whole arc of our relationship: my courtship of Kamal and his family, Kamal’s courtship of me. Kamal’s betrayal of me. And now, suddenly, my betrayal of Kamal. My hand shook. “They can stay in my apartment,” I promised, hoping my voice did not betray my excitement. “It will give me great pleasure to welcome your daughters,” I said, in exceedingly formal Arabic.
When he left, I lay in bed, sweating through my sheets. It was a hot night, and it was almost impossible to sleep. I lit cigarette after cigarette and stared at the light cast on my ceiling by the street lamps outside. I woke up covered in ash.
My recollection of the next day is hazy, filtered as it is through my guilty conscience. I remember running to the corner store and the look on the cashier’s face at the sum I spent. I remember slowing my sprint to a walk when I passed a security officer, as though he could see my intentions or, worse, what was in the bags I was carrying. I remember closing my curtains because the sunlight hurt my eyes. And I remember hearing Kamal’s familiar knock at an unfamiliar time of day. He stood in the hallway, dressed in a suit, with his hands on his daughters’ heads.
“Good morning,” he said, beaming.
The girls must have sensed something was wrong. They looked into my dark, drab apartment with trepidation. Kamal was oblivious. “Go on, my ladies. Uncle will take care of you today.” He noticed the cigarette in my fingers and said something vaguely disapproving, but he hurried away with a wave before I could respond. The girls filed in, reluctantly.
I should say that my intentions were not evil. I did not intend to hurt the girls. They were merely pawns in a game their father had set in motion. I swallowed hard. Sit down over there, I said, gesturing toward the couch with my cigarette hand. I told them not to be frightened, that we were going to have a special English lesson, that we were going to have a good time together. Ash fell on the floor as I spoke, my hands moving dramatically with my words. We’re going to play now, I said, smiling.
I was calm at the time, but in retrospect I must have seemed kind of crazy. I was dimly aware of how things must have looked through their eyes: the precipitous ceiling fan and the bare light bulb, the couch with its rusty spring, the bizarre cherub carvings, the spinning shadows. I saw myself: wild-eyed and disheveled, shouting things in English, waving my arms in the air while holding a lit cigarette. The older girl, Reem, held a protective arm around her sister Haneen, who looked like she was about to cry. I wanted to stop — honestly, I did — but I couldn’t. Their fear made me feel crazier. Is this what it feels like to be dangerous, I wondered? Well, then, I was dangerous. I was Dracula, bizarrely accented creature of shadow. I was Shaitan, my apartment a trap for the unwary. I was Hindu, my gods many and many-armed, my habits terrible. I was the darkness, the ugliest American, the lord of imports. I was the terrible Zionist vegetable.
My glasses slipped down my nose. I pushed them back up with a talon. I’ll be right back, I said. Don’t move! The girls looked at each other in fear. I returned with the plastic bags from the corner store and placed them on the coffee table. “What’s in the bags?” I asked them in English. They didn’t respond. “What do you think is in the bags?” I asked again, in Arabic this time, pointing at one especially bulky bag. Nothing. I cleared my throat and was all set to ask them again when I realized that with each question, spittle was leaking from the corners of my mouth. I was foaming. The girls were trembling. This had to stop. I had to stop it. So I jumped up, took hold of the bulkiest bag and turned it upside down. Suddenly, the table was covered in… chocolatescandiescookiescrackerschipssicecream-deliciousness!
MERRY CHRISTMAS, I bellowed in English. The girls were in shock. MERRY CHRISTMAS, I shouted again. Reem stopped crying and Haneen looked slightly less anxious. I yelled again, louder this time: MERRY CHRISTMAS! I pulled open a box of Raisinets and threw them in the air, laughing as the American chocolate rained down upon us. MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!
Amazingly, all of the tension disappeared. Reem replied “Merry Christmas” rather matter-of-factly and smiled, and Haneen rolled her eyes. Pretty soon we were all sitting on the floor, tearing open candy wrappers and eating bite-size Snickers bars. I taught them to say “candy bar” and “ice cream” and “whatchamacallit.” After a little while they asked if we could have music, and the girls went through my MP3s. They jumped around the tiny room, mouthing the sounds to Britney Spears songs. I helped them. It was a fine English lesson. Then they developed a synchronized dance for “I’m a Slave 4 U,” spinning until they fell giggling and flailing into twin nests of discarded candy wrappers.
“Get it get it get it get!” they laughed.
I started to feel self-conscious. “Maybe we should be quieter,” I said. Reem smiled a gigantic smile. “I mean it. Let’s make this our secret, OK? We should be careful.”
“Aiwa!” They agreed. “Secret!”
But we weren’t careful enough. I lost track of time, and when the door to my apartment opened without warning, the girls were spinning madly again, mouths smeared with chocolate and nougat. I was clapping my hands out of time, pausing occasionally to toss candy wrappers in the air like confetti. It took us all a moment to register Kamal’s dark, angry face in the doorway. I tried to sweep the candy wrappers under the cherub couch with my foot. “It’s not what it looks like,” I stammered. “It’s nothing. I was teaching them English.”
Kamal grabbed his daughters by the wrists. “Haram aleik!” he yelled at me. “You have betrayed me!” He turned and slammed the door, leaving me standing alone, Britney Spears still playing on the laptop, a half-eaten Dove Bar melting in my hand.
Kamal never forgave me. And there remained a part of me that wished things had ended on a more graceful note. After our mutual betrayal, our shared hallway continued to reverberate with ill feelings, and at any other time of my life I might have dreaded leaving my apartment on the off-chance I might encounter him or his family. But thanks to Kamal, I was a changed man. I was shameless. I wore shorts in the hallway and t-shirts in the street. I smoked a pack a day. I started drinking. And what’s more, I was obsessed with Wagdi Lewis.
One tale in particular fascinated me. Kamal and I had been driving from the airport to our apartment building. I was returning from a short visit to the United States and had thought it very kind of him to make the hour-long drive on my behalf. When I came out of the terminal, luggage in hand, I looked around to find Kamal standing by his car, a gleam in his eyes and a pack of cigarettes in his hand. He had missed me.
On the drive home, Kamal refused to open a window. I puffed and he vicariously inhaled until I grew dizzy and Kamal, drunk off the smoke, began de-claiming. “The toughest man in Cairo,” he announced, and I knew what was coming. “One time in the 1980s,” Kamal told me as he pulled his rusty Fiat into a gas station, “when Sadat was in power and everyone was being arrested all over again, the police tied Wagdi to a chair and beat him with their fists until the chair broke. Then they took the chair and tore the legs off and beat him with the legs of the chair.” I tried putting the cigarette out in the car’s ashtray. Kamal intercepted it and began waving it up and down in a chopping motion to demonstrate the violence of the torture. “And after they broke the legs of the chair on his body, the police looked down at Wagdi Lewis, lying on the concrete floor of the police station in a pool of blood. There were splinters everywhere. They squatted down and yelled at him. ‘Are you ready to talk?’ they yelled. And you know what happened?” Kamal stopped and stared intently at me, like I was one of the cops. His eyes were wide and distorted behind his thick lenses. “Nothing. Nothing happened. He was asleep. Snoring.” Kamal rolled down the window and tossed the cigarette out onto the ground of the gas station. I cringed. “Now that’s courage,” he said.
Maybe he was right. Maybe that was courage and not just psychological trauma. All I knew now was that I wanted to meet this man who had yawned in the face of torture. I wanted to see just how tough he was, how strict his principles were. If they were anything like Kamal’s, I was pretty sure I could break him.
Finding the toughest man in Cairo was remarkably easy. My Arabic tutor knew him and arranged a meeting: 3:30, Saturday afternoon, Midan Orabi. Deciding what to wear was more difficult. I initially thought about wearing my suit, the same one I’d worn to meet Naguib Mahfouz a month earlier, but thought better of it. A suit was meant to impress, or, at least, to insinuate. I wanted to intimidate. I found my most shameful possession, a shirt so embarrassing I had repressed its existence by wadding it into a ball and burying it in the deepest crevice of my bureau.
The shirt belonged to my father. He’d bought it when he came to visit me, during a trip to the beaches of Dahab, on the Red Sea. I’d lied and told Kamal we were going to Aswan, to see the treasures of ancient Egypt. I knew that if I told him the truth he would scoff. Prostitutes and Israelis, he always said, those were the only things that existed in Dahab. He was wrong: There were shirtless Australians as well, and a class of Egyptian salesman evolved specifically to seduce my father. They called my dad Amitabh Bachchan, and he was flattered; he thanked them in Hindi, and they complimented his Arabic. Within hours of our arrival, my dad, giddy with the attention and the power of the dollar, had bought three t-shirts, two with a camel and a pyramid, and, more humiliatingly, a third emblazoned with an image of the Stella beer label. He wore the shirt for the weekend. He wore it proudly, smiling and waving every time someone would yell “Hey, Mr Stella” as he walked past.
I pulled the t-shirt on and stood in my bathroom in front of the mirror. I rehearsed talking points to my reflection: The war in Iraq, I said, was necessary to disturb the unproductive stasis of Arab politics. I turned so I could look at myself in profile. Opening the Egyptian markets to foreign goods was necessary to shock a stagnant economy into action. I sucked in my stomach. It was Hayek who said it best. Or Milton Friedman. I shrugged. It didn’t matter. Liberal interventionism would trump Oriental despotism.
I was ready.
I arrived early for our meeting. Wagdi was two hours late. I waited for him in a coffee shop and got a table in the center, strategically located underneath a ceiling fan and next to a giant plastic bust of Umm Kulthum. Her impressive head gazed impassively at the hordes of teenagers roaming outside. Most of them were playing Amr Diab ringtones on their phones and sweating; others were buying bodybuilding magazines and tabloids with news about Hollywood celebrities from a group of old men who seemed to despise their customers as much as their wares. I had a hard time knowing what Umm Kulthum was thinking. Each lens of her iconic sunglasses was the size of my face. I don’t think she was happy with what she saw.
It was warm in the coffee shop, and I dozed off. A rough hand on my shoulder woke me up. It was Wagdi. His broad, ugly, pockmarked face was inches away from mine. He smiled.
“Sleepy Mr Stella,” he said. He roared with laughter.
I looked down at my watch. “I guess I should have assumed,” I said, as coldly as possible, “that everything in this country will be two hours late.”
Wagdi seemed stung by my insult, which boded well for the afternoon ahead. He apologized and promised to make it up to me by giving me a walking tour of Cairo I would never forget. Outside, Wagdi grabbed a poorly dressed sheb by the shoulder and pointed to a large sweat stain on the man’s underarm. “That’s where we are. And that…” He ran a thick and calloused finger along the man’s sternum, following the outline of his slightly distended belly. “That is the Nile.”
Whatever advantage I might have gained with my putdown was lost in this disturbing geography lesson.
“That makes his stomach Zamalek,” laughed one of the old men who sold newspapers off a mat made of newspapers. Our human map wriggled like a fish caught on a hook.
“We’ll head here first,” Wagdi pointed at a small island of sweat that had accumulated, oddly, below the man’s left nipple. “The Mugamma.”
“So, what’s that, then?” The old news man pointed to the man’s back, soaked with sweat, the sopping, nearly transparent fabric outlined by a thin, white line of salt. I thought it looked like the African continent. Wagdi thought it looked like Israel, which was, after all, behind everything. “We’re not going there,” he laughed. He let the kid go.
Wagdi ploughed his way through the crowded streets of Cairo. I followed in his wake and tried to keep up as people scattered before his intimidating bulk. As we walked he told me about his life. He was born in Shubra, to a poor Coptic family with too many children; his dad was a butcher; he was precociously literate; he went to Cairo University in the mid 1970s, where he was politicized, secularized, met his first girlfriend, went to his first protest, and got arrested for the first time. His life from that point on followed a dogged pattern: join underground cell, plot era-appropriate destruction. 1977–1980: Assassinate Israeli officials operating in Egypt; 1985–1988: Assassinate Israeli and Saudi officials operating in Egypt; 1993–1996: Assassinate Israeli, Saudi, and American officials operating in Egypt. He never actually assassinated anyone. He never even got close. He held meetings, penned pamphlets, organized rallies, smuggled weapons, and then, like clockwork, the police would descend, and he was back in prison. When they released him, the cycle began again. It would continue, he said. It was a question of principle.
We stopped in front of the Mugamma. Wagdi put his arm around my shoulder and guided me to the very center of the plaza. Wagdi’s arm was solid. Extremely large. Strangely comforting. In comparison, my own arms felt soft and weak; they dangled uselessly at my sides. I stuck my hands in my pockets, tried not to slouch, and we stood like father and son in front of the Mugamma, our shadows stretching away at an angle towards Sharia Tahrir. “This is the glory of the Egyptian state,” he said. “A thousand bureaucrats trapped in an unassailable fortress.” I waited in silence for Wagdi to continue. I started counting the windows from the top-left of the building, and when I got to one hundred and twenty-four, began to think that Wagdi had nothing left to say. I looked up at him. His body almost eclipsed the afternoon sun; a blinding corona met the edge of his silhouette. Turning back, I blinked at pinpricks of light that danced between the Mugamma and myself.
I tried to make a noise that would express condescension or knowing skepticism. It came out as a croak. He was so large! And as to the corruption of the third-world bureaucracy, Wagdi and I were in agreement. I knew I had to say something. I could show no weakness. For had not TE Lawrence (or was it Thomas Friedman?) taught me that Arabs only respond to ostentatious displays of strength? I tried to rally.
“I think the building looks like it’s reaching out to give us a hug.” The building had two wings that jut out, four window-lengths, on either side. They looked like arms extended in friendship and in love to the traffic of Midan Tahrir.
Wagdi’s face turned hard. “The Mugamma is a fortress. It embraces nothing. It crushes the life out of those who work inside, and of those of us who live and work outside, as well.” The weight of his arm on my shoulder was heavier now.
We began walking down the Corniche. I took the offensive, complaining about the traffic, the dirt, heat, the crowds, the noise, the poverty. “Look at other developing countries,” I instructed Wagdi. “India, South Africa. There is hope for those countries. They have industry, a growing middle class. There is nothing here.” I tugged on my t-shirt. My sweat had made it stick to my skin. Wagdi was quiet. I continued, “National pride means nothing without real economic progress. That progress can only come through liberalizing the economy.”
I looked to see if any of my words had registered with Wagdi. I looked at the scar that extended from just below his right eye to the corner of his mouth. “Mr Stella,” he said, “you should meet my son. You remind me of him. He is an idiot.” He held my hand in his calloused mitt, and as he led me off the Corniche and into the city, I began to wilt.
Wagdi took me to Midan Attaba, where he lived in an apartment on the eighth floor. We went up. His apartment was empty, except for a mewling mass of cats. Wagdi gave me a glass of ice water and directed us all onto the balcony.
Wagdi picked one cat up by the scruff of its neck and trained its eye on the Tiring Building, a decrepit Viennese-designed department store languishing in Midan Attaba. On the top of the building was a sculpture of four Atlases holding up the world. I thought that the Atlases were somewhat ugly, and the globe, disproportionately small. I made one final attempt at critique.
“I don’t understand why it takes four Atlases to do what one Atlas can do anywhere else.”
“It is simple, Mr Stella. The weight of the world is heavier here in Cairo.” And with that, I gave up. The man, like the Mugamma, was a monolith. I was crushed. I squatted and started playing with the cats. Wagdi looked down, pleased to see that we were making friends.
Then a door slammed inside. Startled, I stood to see Wagdi shifting his weight from foot to foot. “My son,” he said. “My son has come home.” The cats were perturbed. They started clambering on one another, as though attempting to form a feline pyramid. Wagdi’s son, a scowling, insouciant fourteen-year-old wearing tight, torn jeans and a black Metallica t-shirt, walked onto the balcony. The cats darted past him into the apartment.
“Dad,” Wagdi’s son yelled. “The cats are inside. How many times do we have to talk about this. The cats live in the street. People live in the apartment.”
Wagdi began apologizing to his son. “Don’t apologize,” the son said, “take the cats downstairs.” Wagdi began apologizing to me. I made what I thought were reassuring gestures with my hands. It was a strange scene. The toughest man in Cairo, pleading with a teenager. Wagdi seemed to feel it, too. He followed the cats, leaving me alone with his son on the balcony.
“God I hate those cats.” He looked me up and down. “Are you American?” he asked, and when I nodded, he began to speak in English.
“What the shit are you talking for to my dad?”
“He is a motherfucker. I hate him.” He produced a pipe and a crumpled cigarette out of a pocket. “Like Sherlock Holmes,” he said. He pronounced the L in Holmes. He broke the cigarette in half and poured the tobacco into the bowl of the pipe. He struck a match and almost lit the scraps inside, and then leaned against the wall, sucking on the pipe with exaggerated pleasure.
“Damn, that is smooth.” He passed me the pipe. I played along and sucked air through the pipe. The faint, faraway taste of the tobacco reminded me of a more innocent time, now long past, when I didn’t smoke at all.
After a few seconds, I passed the pipe back to him. It was dark out, a development that clearly irritated him. He grumbled and turned on the light on the balcony. A moth began to attack the light bulb. It was a losing battle, but the moth was tenacious, throwing itself mindlessly against the glass again and again. The fluttering shadow cast by the moth just made Wagdi’s son angrier.
“That moth is stupid,” he complained. “Egypt is shit,” he said. He pointed the stem of the pipe at the Tiring Building. “That is shit.” He pointed at the green lights of the mosques in the distance. “Religion is shit.”
“Religion is shit?” I asked, feeling like I should say something.
“I hate God.”
“You hate God?”
He looked at me meaningfully. “I hate America more than I hate God.”
“You hate America more than you hate God?” I felt stupid repeating his words but I wasn’t quite sure what to say. I was beginning to empathize with the cats.
“I hate Britney Spears more than I hate God. But I hate Amr Diab more than I hate Britney Spears.”
“And the cats?”
“Those cats are pimp motherfuckers. I hate my father more than I hate Amr Diab more than I hate Britney Spears more than I hate Egypt more than I hate God.” He looked satisfied with himself, like he had just solved a puzzle. He passed me the pipe, and I obediently took another puff.
“So what do you like?”
He lifted in a fist in the air and made the devil’s horns. “I love metal.” He stuck out his tongue and thrashed his head around. Just as suddenly, he was still. “Stop smoking. The pipe doesn’t work, you asshole.”
In 1902 Theodor Herzl, president of the Zionist Congress, published Altneuland (Old-New Land), a fantasy novel about an impossible Zionist utopia. A pair of European travelers, having spent twenty years on a deserted Pacific island, visit the Palestine of 1922 to discover a modern cosmopolitan Jewish society. The Jerusalem Herzl’s characters find is a world-class industrial city where the Jews speak German, go to the opera, and picnic along the Mediterranean. There is a kind of united nations at a glorious Palace of Peace. And there are Arabs, who are fine with the whole Jewish thing. More than fine — "It was a great blessing for all of us,“ proclaims Mr. Rashid, referring to the benefits of the New Society as well as the higher property values the arrival of the Jews entailed.
The book was translated into Hebrew the same year, under the title Tel Aviv — from tel, "ancient mound,” and aviv, “spring.” In 1909, a new Jewish town on the outskirts of Jaffa was renamed Tel Aviv, after Herzl’s novel.
The book appeared in English for the first time as Old New Land in 1941, six years before the Jewish state of Israel.
The capital of Lebanon is the second thing that comes to mind when the college student hears the word Beirut.1
TO PLAY THE GAME OF BEIRUT, YOU WILL NEED:
TWO (2) TO FOUR (4) PEOPLE
A LONG, RECTANGULAR TABLE, LIKE A PING-PONG TABLE
20 16-OUNCE PLASTIC CUPS
PLENTY OF BEER
TWO (2) TO FOUR (4) PING PONG BALLS HAND–EYE COORDINATION2
TWO (2) CUPS OF WATER
STEP 1: FILL CUPS WITH BEER
FILL 20 CUPS 1/3 FULL WITH BEER.
TIP: THIS GAME DOESN’T CALL FOR THE FINEST MICROBREW. THINK CHEAP AND LIGHT FOR A SMOOTH JOURNEY DOWN THE HATCH!
Thinking back, I believe that the game got its name based on an analogy between the ping-pong balls flying across the table and landing on the opponent’s side and an idea that the US should bomb Beirut as a result of the casualties in the area […] The name of the game reflects respect for the Marines and US losses in the region.
— Duane Kosten ‘86 , President of Theta Delta Chi3, Lehigh University, 19854
Beirut, October 23, 1983
The first distant, soft tremor wakes me up. It is a bright morning and the sea outside my balcony is splashing in a friendly way against the promenade. Bomb explosions, shell-bursts, are heartbeats in Beirut now. I decide to sleep in. It is Sunday morning. A few seconds later, another gentle quake, a very slight, intimate change in the air pressure in the house. A second bomb. I lie in bed for another four minutes.5
33º 49’ 45” N 35º 29’ 41” E
USMC Barracks of 1st Battalion 8th Marine6, Beirut Airport
STEP 2: ARRANGE CUPS
ARRANGE THE PLASTIC CUPS IN TWO TRIANGLES OF 10 CUPS EACH ON OPPOSITE ENDS OF THE TABLE WITH TIPS POINTING TOWARD THE CENTER.
The father of the game was Brian “Stubby” Poultron, a brother at Theta Delta Chi. There is even a story that Stubby visited nearby Bucknell University 7 and spread the game there as well. However, according to an email written by Stubby, he had actually discovered Beirut in its incipient and crude version at Bucknell University in 1983. When Stubby came back, he showed it to the rest of his brothers, who took to the game immediately.8
[The phone rings.] Landlord:7
Mr. Robert, Mr. Robert, it is me, get up, get up. They have bombed the Marines. Mr. Terry and Foley are leaving.
23 October 1983
STEP 3: PICK TEAMS
PICK TEAMS OF TWO, ONE FOR EACH END OF THE TABLE.
“The popularity of the game stemmed from its being a faster alternative to beer pong and taking almost 15-25 minutes for the consumption of over 10 beers. As one brother put it: “Since if you played, you got bombed”.” 13
Attack type: Suicide truck bomb
Foley8 [face is fixed on the road and he talks without looking at me] “They got the Marines and they got the French. Car bombs. That’s all the radios are saying.” Fisk “How” Foley “How the hell do I know? It may be a load of crap but I heard the explosions”
The airport road is deserted but there is a cloud of white smoke steaming upwards from the far end where the Marines are based. Fisk “We’ll find Bob Jordan 10. You try to find him in the press room, I’ll look for him in the BLT”
(…) Anderson stops the car. He is frowning.
STEP 4: Toss ball into cup
One person begins the game by trying to toss a ping-pong ball in one of other team’s cups; it doesn’t matter which one.
The toss is all in the wrist: hold the ball at about eye-level, lean in, and lob it up so it drops down into the cup.
“In addition to organizing Beirut tournaments, the brothers of Theta Delta Chi created a Beirut table with the map of Beirut in 1986. But the poor judgment and behavior the game encouraged, however, troubled Kotsen: “As a matter of fact, when I spoke to my successor as president of Theta Delta Chi, I told him that one of the things he could do for the benefit of the house would be to cut up the Beirut table with a chainsaw” Kotsen’s successor did not cut up the table, but the original Beirut table did not survive into the 1990s.” 13
18 Navy Personnel
3 Army Soldiers
1 Suicide Bomber
Anderson9 “Where’s the BLT?” Fisk “At the other end of the fence Terry.” Anderson “It’s gone” Fisk “It’s behind the smoke” Anderson “It isn’t. It’s fucking disappeared”
STEP 5: If the Ball makes it in…
If the ball makes it in, a member of the opposing team has to drink the cup of beer it landed in. If the ball misses, it’s the other team’s turn.
“The Other Beirut creation legend asserts that the game was first played at Lehigh, but it was not until 1986 that the brothers of Sigma Nu, not Theta Delta Chi, first conceived of the sport” 1
March 16 1984: William Buckley, C.I.A. station chief in Beirut, is kidnapped
May 8 1984: Rev. Benjamin Weir is kidnapped.
Dec. 3 1984: Peter Kilburn of the American University of Beirut is kidnapped.
Jan. 8 1985: Rev. Lawrence M. Jenco is kidnapped.
March 16 1985: Terry A. Anderson 9 of The Associated Press, is kidnapped in Beirut
May 28 1985: David P. Jacobsen of the American University Hospital in Beirut is kidnapped.
June 9 1985: Thomas M. Sutherland of the American University of Beirut is kidnapped.
Sept. 14 1985: Mr. Weir is released the same day
Oct. 4 1985: Islamic Holy War says it killed Mr. Buckley. His body is never found.
April 17 1986: Mr. Kilburn’s body is found. His kidnappers say he was killed in retaliation for the American bombing of Libya two days before.
May 25 1986: Mr. McFarlane, Colonel North and other American officials fly to Teheran. They spend four days meeting with Iranian officials in trying to win the release of all the American hostages. They are unsuccessful…
July 26 1986: Father Jenco is freed.
Sept. 9 1986: Frank Herbert Reed is kidnapped.
Sept. 12 1986: Another American, Joseph James Cicippio, is taken hostage.
Oct. 21 1986: Edward Austin Tracy is kidnapped.
Nov. 2 1986: Mr. Jacobsen is released.
Jan. 24 1987: Alann Steen, Jesse J. Turner and Robert Polhill, and Mithileshwar Singh, are kidnapped at Beirut University College.
When the Iran-Contra scandal broke, J-C 15 and I cursed our lack of initiative.
I had been told the Americans were in Tehran the previous May. I had not understood the significance of this.
STEP 6: If ball lands in empty cup …
If you accidentally throw the ball into your opponents’ already-empty cup, you have to drink one of your own beers.
TIP: Set aside a cup filled with water on each side of the table so the ball can be rinsed off if it lands on the floor.
“On playbeirut.com, a site devoted to cataloguing everything Beirut, two brothers of Sigma Nu at Lehigh claimed that their fraternity had created the game in 1986. Scott ’87 of Sigma Nu writes: “your website correctly attributes the game’s origin to Lehigh, but it was Sigma Nu fraternity class of ’87 that originated it , and it was Sigma Nu class of ’88 that made it famous” 13
Aug. 6 1985: Mr. McFarlane briefs Mr. Reagan on the Israeli proposal to sale American anti-tank missiles to Iran through Israel.There is dispute on whether the President approved this sale.
August: The President approves the shipment of arms by Israel to Iran, according to his initial statement to the Tower Commission. Later he says “I don’t remember” when asked about approving the shipment.
Aug. 20 1985: Israel sends 96 TOW anti-tank missiles to Iran.
Sept. 14 1985: Israel sends 408 more TOW missiles to Iran.
Nov. 24-25 1985: The C.I.A. arranges for a shipment of 18 Hawk anti-aircraft missiles from Israel to Iran aboard a C.I.A. front company plane. Iran rejects the missiles within days after test firing one of them and finding that they do not meet Iran’s requirements. Later, some of the American officials involved in arranging the flight said they thought the plane carried oil-drilling parts, not weapons.
Jan. 17 1986: President Reagan signs an order authorizing arms shipments to Iran in an effort to both improve relations with officials in Iran thought to be moderates and to bring about the release of the hostages.This order authorizes the C.I.A. to assist “third parties” as well as friendly foreign countries in shipping weapons.
Feb. 17 1986: The United States sends 500 TOW missiles to Israel, from American stocks, for shipment to Iran. No hostages are freed.
Feb. 27 1986: Another shipment of 500 TOW missiles are sent to Israel, once again for shipment to Iran. Again no hostages are freed.
May 23-24 1986: 508 TOW missiles and 240 spare parts for Hawk missiles are shipped to Israel.
May 25 1986: Mr. McFarlane, Colonel North and other American officials fly to Teheran, carrying with them spare parts for Iran’s Hawk anti-aircraft missiles.
Aug. 4 1986: The United States sends Iran a shipment of spare parts for Hawk anti-aircraft missiles.
Oct. 28 1986: Another 500 TOW missiles are sent from Israel to Iran.
I had clung on in Beirut because I believed it to be the best Arab capital for a Middle East correspondent; but when I was given accurate information about the hostages, I had chosen to ignore it on the grounds that it was not credible.
STEP 7: Reform triangles
Reform the triangle as you play: When there are only six cups of beer on a side, make a smaller triangle. Then do so again when there are only three cups.
“We were the first ones to play because we broke all of our ping-pong paddles and wanted to free-throw. Not satisfied with the one-cup-on-each-side setup we decided to cover each end of the table with beer-filled cups” Geoff Hill ’87 of Sigma Nu
Nov. 3 1986: A Lebanese magazine, Al Shiraa, discloses that the United States sent arms to Iran and that Mr. McFarlane visited Teheran.
Nov. 6, 1986: President Reagan appeared on national television and denied that weapon sales with Iran had occurred
Nov. 13, 1986: President Reagan returned to the airwaves to affirm that weapons were indeed transferred to Iran, but that the United States did not trade arms for hostages.
March 4,1987: In a nationally televised address to the nation, President Reagan took full responsibility for any actions that he was unaware of, admitting that “what began as a strategic opening to Iran deteriorated, in its implementation, into trading arms for hostages.” 16
Neither J-C nor I had believed in Reagan’s moral fervor. We had laughed at his crusade against ‘terrorist blackmail’. But when he gave in to just such blackmail, we were amazed. Guns for hostages, missiles for prisoners.
STEP 8: Winning
Keep going until one team wipes out all the cups on the other side. As the winner, they get to make the losers drink the remaining cups on their own side! 19
“Then why was the game called Beirut?” Scott states in his post “something military happened in Beirut, something that was all over the news. The Tower Commission report on the Iran-Contra affair had just been released and the American hostages were all held in Beirut. We wanted to bomb Beirut and free the hostages.” 13
Dec. 7 1985: A meeting is held at the White House with Mr. Reagan, Secretary of State George P. Shultz, Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, Mr. McFarlane and Admiral Poindexter at which the Iran initiative is discussed. Participants at the meeting have different recall of what took place. Some suggest that a consensus was reached to end arms shipments to Iran. Mr. McMahon has said no such consensus was reached.
Jan. 6-7 1987: The Senate and the House set up committees to investigate the Iran-contra affair.
Feb. 26 1987: The Tower Commission issues its report. Among its conclusions is that the President’s top advisers were responsible for creating the chaos that led to the Iran-contra affair. It asserts that President Reagan was largely out of touch with the operations undertaken by his National Security Council staff.
Aug. 3 1987: The Iran-contra hearings end after more than 250 hours of testimony from 28 public witnesses.
Nov. 18 1987: The Congressional Iran-contra committees issue their report.”
But we understood the significance of the revelations. Terry Anderson’s 9 predicament, like that of the other American hostages, was now far worse.” 18
1- Laura Berner, “On Language Princeton Style: The history of ‘Beirut’”, The Daily Princetonian, Friday Nov. 19th 2004.
2- Hand–eye coordination refers to the control of eye movement and the processing of visual input to guide bodily movement.
3- Theta Delta Chi is a social fraternity that was founded in 1847 at Union College. a Since 1847, Theta Delta Chi has believed that it is the duty of every member to improve himself intellectually, morally, and socially through friendship.
4- Lehigh University is a private, co-educational university, established in 1865 by Asa Packer, located in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, U.S. Motto: Homo minister et interpres naturae (Man, the servant and interpreter of nature)
5- [marines badge]
6-Robert Fisk: The Independent Middle East Correspondent
7-The landlord: Lebanese owner of building in which the characters live.
8-William Foley: Associated Press photographer Beirut, later Time magazine photographer
9-Terry Anderson: Associated Press bureau Chief in Beirut
10-Bob Jordan is the Marines press officer.
11-Robert Fisk, Pity the Nation: Lenanon at War, third edition, oxford university Press, 2001 [pp.511-513 ]
12-Bucknell University is a private university, founded in 1846, located in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, U.S.
13-Anoop Rathod, “Without a paddle: The true origings of Beirut and Beer pong”
14-Sigma Nu is an undergraduate college fraternity founded in 1869 at the Virginia Military institute. Creed:” To believe in the Life of Love, to walk in the Way of Honor, to serve in the Light of Truth. This is the Life, the Way and the Light of Sigma Nu. This is the Creed of our Fraternity”
15- J-C [Juan Carlos] Gumucio: Associated Press correspondent, Beirut, later CBS bureau chief, Beirut, and reporter for London Times and Diario 16.
16- Reagan, Ronald (March 4, 1987). Address to the Nation on the Iran Arms and Contra Aid Controversy. Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation.
17- “IRAN-CONTRA REPORT; Arms, Hostages and Contras: How. A Secret Foreign Policy Unraveled” New York Times. November 19, 1987
18-Robert Fisk, Pity the Nation: Lenanon at War, third edition, oxford university Press, 2001 [pp.619 ]
19- www.howcast.com [how to play beirut?]
20- map reference
“Perhaps we will never know the true story of Beirut. We do know, though, that is was the brainchild of foreign-affairs-conscious fraternity brothers who felt the need to link current events with a sport of drunken debauchery.” 1
In the beginning, there were Phoenicians. More recently, there was Lebnaan, reminding the Lebanese of their beginnings. The paper’s founder and editor, Said Akl, deplored classical Arabic and printed his own language in its place: “Lebanese,” he called it, a Latinate version of colloquial Arabic, rooted in ancient Phoenician script.
Akl’s approach to the spoken Arabic was controversial from the start. Especially critical were calligraphers, who insisted that the language was inseparable from the script itself. But for Akl the Arabic language was the Lebenssprache of its speakers in their own place and time. He didn’t advocate a literal return to the language of the Phoenicians, but rather to the spirit of their contribution to all languages, the phonetic alphabet. He might have found more allies if he were not given to proclamations like “I would cut off my right hand just to not be an Arab.”
Akl signed his contributions to Lebnaan “Melqart, king of the city,” after the legendary demigod and protector of the Phoenician city of Tyre. His cosmology had a similarly epic scope. For Akl, Lebanon was the center of the universe, the seat of Canaan; its people, the ancestors of the Jews, had invented the written word, the color purple, and Europe.
Though Akl’s own personal journey was and remains idiosyncratic — it was the poet who suggested to General Michael Aoun to begin his speeches with “O Great People of Lebanon” rather than, say, “Ladies and Gentlemen” — his desire to create a new form equal to the task of representing contemporary speech was something he shared with many of his political enemies. A secularizing Pan-Arbaism was one of the forces driving the movement to formalize Modern Standard Arabic as a literary language not exclusively rooted in the Qur'an. A similar animus towards ecclesiastical authority led to the Latinization of the Turkish alphabet in 1928 as part of Mustapha Kemal’s modernization project. And a very different form of neo-Arabic has achieved far greater success across the Arab-speaking world — an unintended consequence of the rise of text messaging, whose practitioners deploy a combination of Roman characters and Arabic numerals to express the full range of Arabic consonants.
Lebnaan persisted for nearly fifteen years, despite finding limited favor among the people it aimed to seduce. (Not only was the language invented, it was an idiom specific to his hometown.) Yet it has readers. “In the Soviet Union,” vouched S. Yazimoov, the Soviet ambassador to the country, in a 1984 issue, “when we want to know what’s happening in Lebanon, we always read what Said Ald writes.”
You can buy everything with money except a gold medal.
—The Iron Sheik
Every 1,000 years, history gives us one Michael Jordan, one Muhammad Ali… and one Iron Sheik.
—Eric Simms, ESS Promotions
One hot, sticky afternoon last May, the former professional wrestler known as the Iron Sheik stood before a full-length mirror in his home in suburban Fayetteville, Georgia. Later that evening, before a not-quite-sold-out crowd, the sixty-six-year-old would be inducted into the National Wrestling Alliance Hall of Fame at Atlanta’s Philips Arena. He examined himself from the front, the side, the back. He has always been a large man, but over time his vast Herculean figure has gone soft, settling into a less distinct, though still formidable, girth.
He wore a blue pinstriped suit, a brightly colored vest of ambiguous ethnic origin, and a red and white checkered kaffiyeh on his head. Around his neck hung a gold medal he won as a Greco-Roman wrestler at the Amateur Athletic Union national championship in 1971. It is easily mistaken for Olympic gold, which is, of course, the point. The Sheik, pronounced “chic” by his followers, massaged his twirly moustache with a dab of gel. “Let’s eh-go,” he said.
One hour and one trip to the liquor store later, he rolled up to the arena’s back entrance with an entourage that included his agent Eric and his driver Eddie, a chronically stoned Puerto Rican with an extravagant lisp who never seemed to be in any condition to drive. Five young fans stood outside a modest barricade, dressed
in black and waving publicity photos of the wrestler performing his trademark move, the “camel clutch.” They yelled “CHIC! CHIC! CHIC!” as he lumbered out of the car. He turned to one of them and offered a wide grin, revealing huge white teeth. “Okay, Baba, who is the best? Who is the best, Baba?” They yelled again, “CHIC! CHIC! CHIC!”
Like Bon Jovi, Margaret Thatcher, and Don Johnson, the Iron Sheik is a product of the 1980s. The 80s were his decade, his coming out, his alpha and his omega. On December 26, 1983, not three years after the release of the last of the American hostages in Tehran, an Iranian would take home the crown jewel of the wrestling world in a title bout that would change the sport of wrestling forever. It took all of ten minutes. The Sheik slammed, suplexed, clotheslined, pinned, and washed and dried six-time reigning world champion Bob “Howdy Doody” Backlund until his manager threw in the towel, leaving the former champion splayed out motionless on the sweat-drenched mat. “Victory!” cried the Sheik’s manager, “Classy” Freddie Blassie, as he leapt up into the ring. The audience was aghast. It was the dawning of a weird and occasionally twisted age that wrestling’s most ardent fans still refer to as “the golden era.”
But who was this camel-clutching, curly mustached, genie-booted Iranian who had taken the world by sandstorm?
Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri was born on March 15, 1943, in the South Tehran neighborhood of Char rah-e Galobandak, not far from the capital city’s labyrinthine bazaar of carpet dealers, tea merchants, and hustlers. His father, Haji Ghasem Vaziri, was an illiterate farmer who grew pistachios outside the city and wrestled in the neighborhood zurkhaneh, or traditional wrestling house. Hossein had a sister named Masoumeh and two brothers who were named after the prophet’s sons, as he was.
Iran in the 1950s and 60s was a country of stark contrasts. While the vast majority of Iranians carried on with their traditions — toiling on the land, marrying children off to their cousins, saving up for a decent burial spot, and so on — the country had become an especially sweet place for people with money. Under Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s tight-fisted rule, oil prices were soaring, expatriates headed many of the country’s schools and companies, and rich young people socialized in the fashionable clubs of Lalezar Street.
At the time, the country’s greatest hero was a wrestling legend named Gholamreza Takhti, a four-time Olympic gold medalist who, like Vaziri, had spent his childhood in the neighborhood around the bazaar. Vaziri and Takhti could almost have been brothers, with their square jaws and puppy-dog eyes. It was this heroic doppelganger that inspired the scrawny fifteen-year-old Vaziri to try his hand at wrestling. Later he would have the number 90 tattooed onto his right arm, just below the elbow: Takhti’s weight in kilograms when he won his first Olympic gold. Takhti was, in Vaziri’s words, “the greatest eh-wrestler in the history of the eh-Persia.” (Like many Iranians, Vaziri adds a telltale “eh” before most any English noun.) “I wanted to show my parents I could be big just like him.” Three years later, following in the illustrious footsteps of his hero, Vaziri won the national high school championship in both freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling.
Vaziri next joined the military for his mandatory national service, where he swiftly took the army wrestling championship. He went on to work as a technician for the state television, occasionally tending to the lighting at fancier events such as state visits and concerts. When the Empress Farah Dibah launched her avant-garde arts festival in the city of Shiraz, Vaziri was picked out of the crowd to work as a bodyguard.
A sequence of black and white photographs he keeps in clumsy plastic covers, Weegee-like in their accidental art, sit in his home as a trace of that time. There is the empress with her exquisite cheekbones, surveying a modern art exhibition of some sort, and there is Vaziri in the corner of the photo, stone-faced, a curious footnote to someone else’s history. Vaziri speaks readily of the empress, whose name he pronounces with two short bursts of air. “FA-rah! She was eh-Woman of the Year. She was very kind to me,” he told me, evoking the creepy intimacy that exists between people who have never properly met.
In 1968, Takhti — the legend — would meet his end in a hotel in downtown Tehran. Though his death was ruled a suicide, thousands of Iranians believed that the shah’s secret police, the SAVAK, had put the chivalrous, if slightly autistic wrestler to sleep for his political activities (he defended the poor). Vaziri went into a deep depression. “I knew I had to leave. If Iran was not good for eh-Takhti, it was not good for me”. He moved to America and got a job with the Minnesota Wrestling Club as an assistant coach. There, he met and married his wife, a blond girl named Carol Jean Peterson who worked at a Ramada Inn. He took the gold at the AAU championship in 1971 (Muhammad Ali gave him the medal) and served as assistant coach to the US Olympic squad. In 1979, after years in the regional leagues, Vaziri made the leap to the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), wrestling as “the Great Hossein Arab.” An Iranian impersonating an Arab dressed as a Turk, he was part pirate, part djinn, all man. The WWF that Vaziri joined was in the midst of reinventing itself under the leadership of Vince McMahon Jr, wrestling’s very own Hugh Hefner. Where professional wrestling had generally involved a patchwork affair of small-time regional clubs, each with its own stars and champions, McMahon imagined wrestling as a form of “sports entertainment,” with a nationwide audience. The typical WWF story line was not unlike a soap opera with its share of jealousies, domestic abuse, and torturously elaborate yet clumsily choreographed narratives. Through its scripted performances, professional wrestling evoked the circus, the variety show, and the high-camp musical at once.
There was a pleasing consistency to these storylines, as if the use of an imagination would be superfluous or even threatening to their inner workings. In these narratives, the “faces” (good guys) inevitably confronted the “heels” (bad guys) in bouts that would continue literally and figuratively outside the rubber ropes. Heels, whose ranks included the Undertaker and the Mongolian Butcher, were choleric, hirsute, animal-like. They threw chairs, they wielded knives with abandon, they often traveled with henchmen, they cheated. Faces, or babyfaces — Andre the Giant, Sting, Hulk Hogan— dedicated their victories to their mothers, waved to wheelchair-bound children in the crowd, and always insisted on playing by the rules. Some storylines went on for the length of a match. Most went on, like the best soap operas, for years, occasionally for decades. The faces always won in the end.
By the early 80s, with the advent of cable and pay-per-view, wrestling had become one of the top-rated shows on television in America. McMahon’s primary contribution to sports entertainment was undoubtedly WrestleMania, a pay-per-view extravaganza that was and is the Super Bowl of wrestling (now in its twentieth year, it continues to attract millions of viewers around the country).
Enter the Iron Sheik, the wrestler fans loved to loathe. Iran, with a scowl-faced ayatollah at its head after the 1979 revolution and with American hostages
in its grip for 444 days, had become the locus of a new form of fear-mongering and hysteria in Ronald Reagan’s America. He bore Khomeini’s face on his paraphernalia, occasionally muttered a few words of incomprehensible Farsi along with resounding calls of “Ya Abolfazl! Ya Hossein!” before a match, and brought traditional Persian wrestling batons along with him, challenging his opponents to an unfamiliar show of acrobatic strength by swinging them over his head. (Few took him up on it.) In the anti-elliptical lexicon of wrestling terms, this was Vaziri’s “gimmick”.
School children around the country rooted for the Sheik to lose, while the goths and malcontents cheered him on. Of course, the Sheik was only the latest product of a marketing machine that had been generating heels and faces for decades. Just as every superhero has his nemesis, every babyface has his heel. The Iron Sheik was blessed to play heel to one of the defining faces of the 1980s, “Hollywood” Hulk Hogan. In their encounter, the old formula came to life under a spangle of neon lights and before an audience of heavily intoxicated white men: an American hero, defending all that was good, decent, and free against a defiant minion of the ayatollah.
The rivalry between Hulk Hogan and the Sheik is undoubtedly one of the most epic stories in wrestling history. Hogan, who was snatched up by WWF’s McMahon after making his acting debut in Rocky III, would defeat the Sheik a mere four weeks after the Iranian took the championship from Backlund. In their epochal 1984 match, the Hulk lifted the Sheik up in the air by his chin, spat on him and executed the “Boston crab,” which involves sitting on your opponent’s ass while forcing his legs toward his head. Though the Sheik was stripped of his belt that night, it went down as an honorable loss. Later, it was revealed that Verne Gagne, Vaziri’s former coach, had offered him $100,000 to break Hulk Hogan’s leg. The Sheik refused. “I am Shia Muslim,” he explained, when I asked him about the incident.
Over the following years, the Sheik would do battle with Sgt Slaughter, an American patriot who eventually had a GI Joe character named after him. He also teamed up with Nikolai Volkoff, whose gimmick entailed singing the Soviet national anthem. (The duo won the World Tag Team Championship in 1985.) Perhaps it makes perfect sense that WWF wrestling came of age during the 80s. It was a wondrous time: actors became presidents; Michael Jackson changed colors; Tom Hanks became famous for dressing up like a woman on TV. Only in this weird new world could an Iranian become a “sheik.” He went to coke parties with Cyndi Lauper and Mr T and starred in a Toyota commercial. And he, too, was immortalized as an action figure, his likeness stamped in plastic — a tiny mass-produced monument to wrestling greatness.
One day in May of 1987 on the New Jersey Turnpike, the bubble burst. In town for a wrestling event and fresh from the Newark airport, the Iron Sheik was pulled over by state police with fellow wrestler “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan — his most recent enemy. Face or no, Duggan was drunk and had weed on him. The Sheik was high on cocaine, with more stashed in his suitcase. The scandal shook the wrestling world: sworn enemies in the ring were not just caught together, but caught getting fucked up together. Duggan was let off with a warning, and the Sheik received a one-year probation. “In the New Jersey, you cannot drink and drive,” he reflected when he told me the story.
It went downhill from there. Vaziri left the WWF in 1988 and reappeared only in 1991, just as the first Gulf War was brewing. Like the hostage crisis, the war provided a narrative that could propel him into the limelight. It also provided him with a new identity: the Iraqi Colonel Mustafa. The Colonel was allied with General Adnan, an (actual) Iraqi wrestler, as well as with Sgt Slaughter, who in the intervening years had turned heel and become a Saddam sympathizer. Hulk, in the meantime, toured US military bases as the bombing began, draping himself in the American flag with every victory. But the Mustafa gig couldn’t outlast the war itself. The Sheik made one final appearance on the scene in 1997 as co-manager of a wrestler called the Sultan, but it was clear the glory days had passed.
Wrestling, too, was suffering. There were allegations of steroid abuse, sexual abuse, corruption. Wrestlers were dropping dead before the age of 50 — from car accidents, suicides, drug overdoses, heart ailments. When television ratings started to dip in the early 1990s, the sport had to reinvent itself to keep people coming back for more. There were declarations of a “new generation.” There was more sex, more scandal. Traditional babyfaces like Hulk Hogan turned heel in what was referred to as the “attitude era.” When in 2000, the World Wildlife Federation forced the WWF to change its name, it truly marked the end of an era. To old-school fans, World Wrestling Entertainment had surrendered to crass, crude commercial values. That same year, the Sheik sold his pointy wrestling shoes on eBay for a hundred dollars.
I met the Sheik in Fayetteville, a sleepy suburb of Atlanta, after calling 411 for his number. My initial phone calls were met with a confused rumble, and then deferral. “Call back tomorrow, it is better,” as if he had a terribly tight schedule. Most days the line was busy, sometimes even disconnected. Eventually, I arranged to visit him, driving up to a small apartment, half of a simple one-story house with a leaky ceiling, wall-to-wall carpets, and all the ambience of a Motel 6. Everything was brown. In the living room sat the Sheik, supine in his throne, a plump rocking couch that was the sole piece of furniture capable of accommodating his size. The room was sparse, with a mat depicting the Grand Mosque in Mecca (he is a haji, having gone to Mecca
as a child), two creased WWF posters bearing his oiled physique, an Iron Sheik action figure, and a small, simple factory-made “Persian” rug. The Sheik was not above asking strangers for help. Over the course of the day we spent together, he asked me for money no less than three times. “Something small, Baba. Anything from my countrywoman?” (When I told him that I, too, am from Iran, he would not stop calling me his “countrywoman,” which was mostly endearing, until I began to worry it might be interpreted as the mistress from the country house.) “Please Baba? I love you forever.”
Also at the Sheik’s Fayetteville apartment was Eric Simms, who has worked as the Sheik’s manager and booking agent since 1988. They make for an odd couple. Simms, a pale, big-eyed native of New Jersey in his forties with a Sopranos accent, started out as a wrestling fan, eventually hanging out with the wrestlers after hours and booking gigs on the side. The Sheik ordered Eric around, plainly enjoying the idea of having someone who “manages” his affairs. “Eric Baba, get me the
belt. Eric Baba, let’s have a drink.” For the most part, Eric ignored him. “My job is to make the Sheik shine,” Simms rapped. One does not doubt that he is skilled in the art of bullshit. The Sheik turned, smiling, “You see he is a Jew, Baba, and I am a Persian. I am open-minded guy.” Eric was Jew Baba. I was Country Baba. Khomeini was Ayatollah Baba. Everyone the Sheik deems okay enough is a Baba.
Over the years, Eric and the Sheik have seen the worst of times together. At times, their script seems to borrow liberally from that of Cops. There have been legal problems, various shades of bankruptcy, accusations of alcoholism and drug abuse, a car accident that left the Sheik with an artificial knee. And there have been tragedies of a different order, as well. In 2003, the Sheik’s daughter was murdered by her boyfriend. And earlier this year his wife of almost forty years left him. Sometimes he blames her for his present difficulties with money. He subsists on a $725 check from Social Security every month, which he supplements by signing autographs at area high schools (when the school board approves), sports bars, and Wal-Marts; quickie appearances on the radio; and even, yes, The Jerry Springer Show (for which he received $500 and a limousine ride). “I can take him anywhere, restaurants, clubs, everywhere. His personality, his charisma, you can’t go anywhere without someone recognizing him,” Simms told me.
In 2007, a producer from the Howard Stern show heard him on a small-time radio station and invited him to be a participant in the program’s Killers of Comedy tour. In the show, he plays himself. He wheezes, grunts, explodes into Tourettic fits — insulting Jews, homosexuals, blacks, Hulk Hogan, whomever. (He has been temporarily suspended from the show for insulting Beetlejuice, a dwarfish actor with an unusually small head, but seems confident that he will be reinstated.)
Type “Iron Sheik” into YouTube and you will find a world of videos, all wincingly adolescent and more or less a variation of the same three themes:
Iron Sheik smoking crack 2007. Iron Sheik’s views on Jews. Iron Sheik talks about having sex with Hulk Hogan’s family.
Some have been viewed by nearly a million people.
In one video, the Sheik gets increasingly intoxicated and ejects a steady flow of verbal flotsam:
You fucken piece of shet… You suck Hulk Hogan ass, you suck Hulk Hogan deck…
“The videos help us get the Sheik gigs,” Simms told me.
The Sheik’s other daughter lives about five miles away. Along with Eddie the driver, who was still too stoned to drive, we made the short trip to a gated community of Lego-like ranch homes. “Say hello to Baba Sheik!” He was very excited to see his two tiny granddaughters, each with very thick, very Iranian eyebrows — a genetic gift from their Baba Sheik. One room in his daughter’s home serves as an archive of Sheik ephemera. There are stacks of old wrestling magazines, trophies, medals, pictures with Cyndi Lauper. It was here, with his family and most intimate possessions, that I thought I might get a glimpse of Hossein Vaziri, the man. I tasked him with a series of hopefully pointed questions.
I asked him about the greatest day of his life: “December 26 1983, the day I take the WWF title in the Madison Square Garden.”
about his favorite place:
“The Madison Square Garden in the New York.”
about his father:
“He was very strong man.”
about the Iranian Revolution:
“That was the hardest thing in the eh-Persia.”
about Ayatollah Khomeini:
“Some people think he was good for Iran, some not.”
about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:
“Some people like him, some not.”
Switching from English to Farsi, his native tongue, didn’t help; he delivered the same truisms in both languages. There was no “offstage,” no knowing smile, no moment of candor. Worryingly, it seemed as though there was little beyond the gimmick.
Gazing at his WWF title belt hanging on the wall — a copy, mind you — he seemed intensely sad for one moment, his brows furrowed into a crooked V. All of it came together — the exile from Iran, the foiled Olympic dreams, the short-lived WWF title, the days of wandering the country doing gigs at Sizzlers and gnawing away at a schtick that went stale long ago, the bitter knowledge that Hulk Hogan had his own reality TV show and he didn’t.
My heart went out to him. I suggested a drink, and it was like the world had been born anew. A smile! A massive one! In a world of unlimited possibilities, the Sheik is a simple man with simple wishes: “I love to have eh-drink.”
Later that evening, after veering off the highway to buy vodka coolers (no cups!) en route to the awards ceremony, we spoke about how wrestling had changed. The WWE was riding high again, blanketing airwaves with a range of programs, from WrestleMania to Raw to SmackDown. But the new generation had strayed from the noble intent of the elders, he told me. This new wrestling was flashier, higher tech, less sincere. “Less psychological,” he said. The Sheik’s story, his bittersweet descent from meteoric success, seemed a distinctly American one. Hossein Vaziri had engaged in this mysterious thing called “show business,” had seen the top, had been inducted into a Hall of Fame or two. “I born in Iran, but I be in Madison Square Garden. For me, America was good.”
Terrorists look good. Those scarves and the things over their eyes… it’s a good look.
The marrow of the bones of the wives’ legs will be seen through their flesh out of excessive beauty.
—Al-Bukhari, on the subject of a martyr’s promised virgins
Smut is an underexposed, overdeveloped stretch of cinematic history, an aesthetic smeared with the detritus of erotic affect and empty attainment. Think Tura Satana’s faked orgasms, Russ Meyer’s empty promises. The ember of a small-town starlet’s Hollywood dream stubbed out in the carpet of an LA motel room. In smut, the interval between agency and abjection is ground down on a mirror and divvied into rails; corn syrup, mixed with real blood and splattered onto the porcelain face of Dyanne Thorne: Ilsa.
She doesn’t flinch; her crazy-eye twitches and her lucent teeth glint in the camera’s light. Her evil Nazi master plan is now complete. Katsina, an unwitting suicide bomber, has just humped the sheikh to his bloody death. “A fitting end for a man who lived by the flesh,” Ilsa tuts to Commander Adam, her CIA lapdog. He feigns disapproval. “But what about her, Ilsa?”
The year was 1976. Dyanne Thorne was the reigning queen of the Nazploitation genre, the latest offspring from the high-acid loins of men’s adventure magazines like Champion, Argosy, and Male. Her character’s name was Ilsa, but her epithets ranged from She Wolf of the SS to Tigress of Siberia to, most thrillingly, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks. As for Su Ling, the actress who played Katsina, she disappeared without a trace. Only the glimmering light of her fading porn star keeps her memory alive. Before she vanished, Su Ling appeared as a sex worker in Russ Meyer’s Up! and (uncredited) as a prostitute in Farewell, My Lovely, a murder mystery about a missing “dancer.”
For all the abasement of playing prozzie, Su Ling is absolutely arresting on the screen; it’s almost uncomfortable to watch her. She radiates a strange power as she slinks in the flickering shadows of El Sharif’s palace. Her presence seems dangerous, even wrong at first, but something in her is bizarrely rosy. Su Ling is in possession of a weapon more devastating than the plastic bomb attached to her cervix. It is what feminist theorist Audre Lorde called “the assertion of the life- force of women; of creative energy empowered.” Su Ling is haunting because a transparent “life-force” emanates from her body. Like a Bukhari virgin, she almost explodes with “excessive beauty.”
This also makes her a bad actress.
Smut is no place for the erotic. Despite all her blond and buxom might, Dyanne Thorne couldn’t wield that “replenishing and provocative” force the way Su Ling did, making Thorne paradoxically the better actress. But her performance was devoid of what Lorde calls “revelatory exposure.” Thorne was a pastiche of the worn-out taboo of feminine power, while Su Ling was simply taboo.
Flanked by her waxed and greased warrior-girls, Velvet and Satin, Ilsa deploys the de-eroticizing tools of camp. She plays down her real pleasure by hamming it up, moans louder and thrusts higher so as not disturb the boundaries of fantasy. Hers is the sensual distortion of big boobs and bare buttocks, a mannequin with a whip and jodhpurs. The suppression of Eros is an important part of her job as she paces about the threadbare plot, overseeing the sadistic high jinks that take place in her harem while priming her wenches for sex and/or death.
Indeed, this is the work of camp. John Waters would never have gone anywhere if he hadn’t dyed the pubic hair blue, concealed bad acting with worse dialogue, or taken the tang off ingesting dog feces by slowing twenty-four frames per second into a few stills of Divine’s shitty smile at the conclusion of Pink Flamingos. Still, Divine’s dry heaving over a plate of fresh poodle poop was so… evocative… that first-run audiences were given special barf bags. This was a tongue-in-cheek precaution in the event that the ecstatic communion of voyeur and viewed became too much to stomach.
It was this emotive intensity, both on the stage and in films like Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, that underwrote Divine’s persona as a self-described “drag queen terrorist.” Her power was not merely vomitorial. Divine incited heckling, licking, sniffing, singing, snogging, loathing, and laughter, often at the same time. Grotesque, sexy, and swaddled in spandex, Divine’s riotous presence onscreen was
that of the ultimate Other, and she was there to assail the public with unstifled Self. The New York Times allowed that she had a “genuine talent” and an “uncanny gift.” It was a small nod of legitimation to the power of her highly erotic terror grotesquery. When Divine died in 1988, it was a decidedly uncamp end for the explosive chimera of vilified and devalued sexuality the former Harris Glenn Milstead had come to embody. Right before she was scheduled to appear on the sitcom Married with Children, her heart blew up inside her chest, vaulting Divine into oblivion.
In a 1992 interview, John Waters drifted from the subject of his lost muse Divine to the person of Dhanu, the assassin who had killed Rajiv Gandhi in a suicide bombing the year before. Waters invoked the image of Dhanu kneeling at the feet of Rajiv Gandhi before she carried out her suicide attack. In a photograph taken before the explosion, white bows bloom at the roots of her braids; underneath her clothing she was wearing a denim vest laden with heavy steel pellets and nitroamine. She was photographed in mid-rapture, emoting the “internal sense of satisfaction,” of completion, that Audre Lorde described as the goal of all erotic experience. It came as little surprise that Waters would be enthralled with the “look of bliss” on Dhanu’s face right before she detonated herself.
“To me there’s something very appealing about that. I couldn’t imagine doing what she did, but that’s why I’m fascinated by it. If I could understand, I wouldn’t be interested.” Like porn or snuff, Dhanu’s photo exerts a morbid magnetic pull that stirs the “measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings.” Printed, ogled, and censored, photographs of this temporal moment of “erotic actuality” refract and distort in the wake of woman-wrought carnage. Images of female suicide bombers resonate with the public in ways that bearded or masked males never do. Young women are the noblest martyrs and the most dangerous threats.
When women openly display the erotic (and I don’t mean lift their skirts and spread-eagle), be it expressed in sexual desires, spiritual aspirations, or political agendas,
it can cause a frenzy in those who witness it. Instinct instructs the fearful and weak to stop her from coming into that power, to sequester the menstruating, hide the beautiful, and lock up the insane. But it is precisely these maligned women, wiser and empowered for having dwelled in obscured and darkened places, who are dangerous.
Dhanu’s story is shrouded in mystery; even her date of birth remains unconfirmed. Allegations by journalists that she was propelled toward suicide-terrorism by a childhood sexual assault have been denied by the Indian authorities. But perhaps her motives are best kept muddled. More defiant than enraged, more righteous than religious, more strategically powerful than a legion of men, the female suicide bomber creates a vortex of fascination. She may never get her seventy virgins, but she gains a world of reluctant admirers.
It’s dangerous to be a woman so empowered. Irma Grese was one of the legendary she-devils of the Nazi regime. Dubbed the “beautiful beast” by her prisoners at Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz, she was accused at her trial of sadistic torture, murder, and sexual excess during her time as guard in various women’s camps. In photographs both before and during her trial at Lüneburg, Irma exudes an intensity and wide-eyed derangement akin to Charles Manson, combined with the unapologetic conviction and fervor of one of his “family.” She was both monster and maiden under prosecution. The arguments of the British prosecutor, one Colonel Backhouse, hinged on Irma Grese’s choice of attire and weapon within the camp.
He coaxed her in a patronizing sexual tone, asking if she liked having a revolver strapped to her waist or if she enjoyed wearing heavy boots. She matched his perverse prodding with shameless admission:
Backhouse: You thought it very clever to have a whip made in the factory, and even when the Kommandant told you to stop using it, you went on, did you not?
Backhouse: What was this whip really made of?
Irma: Cellophane paper plaited like a pigtail. It was translucent like white glass.
Backhouse: It was just your bright idea?
Irma knew exactly what she was doing.
Grese went to the gallows in 1945, along with a slew of male SS officers and only two other women. She had admitted to agency and awareness, and she wore it on her face. According to witnesses, it was apparent in her demeanor that she had taken personal pleasure from breaking bones and wielding her see-through whip. On the day of her execution, Irma Grese stepped to the chalk mark on the trapdoor and refused a hood. Her neck did not snap. She hung for twenty minutes before the doctor cut her down.
Much of the controversy around Irma Grese’s guilt springs from issues of conscious decision and agency. Although it is clear from her testimony that she was well versed in everything going on in the factories and camps, her supporters (and there are many) cling to images of her lovely face and refuse to believe such a beauty could choose to become such a beast.
In 2004, photojournalist Rita Leistner captured on film the female patients of Baghdad’s Al Rashad Psychiatric Hospital. They formed a motley crew of battered wives, murderesses, nymphomaniacs, and handicapped. In her pictures they prowl unsterile daiquiri-colored hallways, smoke, and bite their nails behind makeshift hospital curtains made of patterned sheets. Their heads are shaved, teeth missing or broken, cheeks sticky with tears and snot. But Leistner captured a boundless beauty in her subjects. They are strange, disturbing, aesthetically arousing.
Four years later, the replacement director of Al Rashad, one Dr Sahi Aboub, was arrested by American troops. The hospital was raided for medical records and clues to a sinister plot. On February 1, two mentally ill women from Al Rashad had been passed to Al Qaeda. Sold into terrorism and outfitted with crude explosives, they were sent into a crowded pet market and detonated by remote control.
It was a baffling attack for Baghdad, one that elicited shock from a city plunged so deep in horror that only the most despicable acts still had the power to outrage. Eyewitnesses described the mangled confusion of human and animal corpses. The dust and blood and bones of Al Qaeda’s unwitting martyrs smoldered on the streets, as the cowards with the triggers got away. Su Ling made one last fleeting appearance on celluloid, a ten- minute rumble called Catfight in Mini Skirts, in which she and a blonde named Angie wrestle on a mangy orange carpet. The blonde swings her head back and forth to violent effect as she pretends to choke her opponent. This superfluous thrashing gives Su Ling her opportunity: she flips the blonde onto her belly, and after a few genuine smacks and hog-tie crunches, Angie turns to rubber. Her limbs flap pointlessly. Without resistance, any hint of eroticism is sapped right out of the fight, but the elastic of Su Ling’s garters hold tight and her ferocious strength is apparent as she squats on Angie’s back and arranges her into a backwards pretzel. Angie plays KO facedown, and Su Ling places a stacked heel on her vanquished ass. The camera zooms in on Su Ling’s mouth, an expressionless oval, closed. She’s dead-serious about winning. Like the hyper-focused faces of girl bombers and monster maidens, Su Ling’s is determined, bold, and a little berserk. This fight was beneath her; she stooped to conquer. The film immolates in a greenish fizz, and Su Ling is gone without a trace, her whereabouts as of this writing still unknown.
Paperbacks and war go together. The first American paperback was published by Pocket Books in 1939; by 1943 these small, soft-covered, portable volumes were being produced in the millions in special Armed Services editions to be given free of charge to soldiers abroad. Platoons of sex-starved servicemen came home with a taste for reading and a hunger for stories as hard as the action they’d faced on the front. Four-color men’s magazines had hardboiled novels with lurid covers catered to the masculine appetite, though prurient content was often couched in scientific, literary, or historical terms to discourage “obscenity” prosecutions.
One sexual revolution and several successful court cases later, pornographers were finally free to anatomize the sexual Zeitgeist with total abandoned—and numbering precision. By the 1970s most every freak and fetish had its own imprint. Early in that decade one could still find books about sex with schoolteachers, stewardesses, and hitchhikers. But as the porn movie industry took off, publishers turned to themes too extreme for even the most Vaselined lens. “Adult books” tackled incest, beastiality, and pedophilia, as well as graphic tales of torture and sexual violence. American Art Enterprises led the pack, with a roster of imprints that included the “Sex Brutality,” “Captive Women,” and “Female Prisoner” series.
In 1979 the mob-owned Star Distributors of New York launched its “War Horrors” imprint, a repetitive catalog of perversions and ethnic caricatures, set in a variety of exotic locales and unapologetic in its race to the bottom line. Women get captured, raped, tortured, and turned out by Koreans(The Communist Slaughterhouse), Russians(Siberian Sex Farm, Slaves of the Kremlin), Vietnamese (Nurse Prisoners of the Cong, Saigon Hell Hole), and especially the Nazis(Gestapo Stud Farm, Swastika She-Devil, Nazi Rape Squad, Dominatrix of Dachau, ad infinitum). But the hoariest and most stereotypical episodes involved the Arabs. Sex slaves and harem girls abound in War Slaves of the Sheik and Slaves of the War Sheik, two completely different books published within months of each other. There is a sense in which all the myriad villains of the ethnographic rogue’s gallery that is “War Horrors” are interchangeable, save for certain telling details. In Prey to Arab Lust the rapists wear white robes and the blond-haired victim is a recent graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism.
In the 1828 proto-Victorian classic The Lustful Turk, two Englishwomen learn to love their captivity in the harem of an Ottoman dey. The plot has been applied to so many novels, pornos, films, urban myths, postcards, and photo stories since that its moral has seeped into the cultural unconscious; whatever you do, avoid Turkish prison.
Turks weighed heavily on the English mind at the time of its publication, as a result of the Greek struggle against the Ottoman empire. Romantic poets like Lord Byron imagined themselves heirs to a European cultural patrimony stretching back to Greco-Roman times. Byron went a step further than most, heading south and lending his sword to the fight. (He died of a cold in Messolonghi, not quite a martyr to the cause.)
The Greek struggle figures directly into the dramatic conclusion of The Lustful Turk, which was published four years after Byron’s death and four years before the Greeks won their independence. One day the orgy comes to an adrupt end when the lascivious dey moves to take the “second virginity” of the new girl in the harem, a gift from one of his officers. Finding the thought unbearable, the Greek maiden draws a blade and castrates her tormentor before plunging the knife into her own heart.
After tending to his wounds, the dey, in surprisingly good spirits under the circumstances, summons his English roses and presents them with his dismembered member—his shaft and “receptacles of the soul-stirring juice,” preserved separately in winew-filled vases. The girls would be allowed to return home, the eunuch no longer requiring their services.
It is impossible not to marvel at the strange levity in which the dey accepts the caponing of his breech. Is the agency of the Turk so inconceivable to the English imagination that he suffers not the loss of his balls? Be he Oriental, he he Turk — if you de-prick him, doth he not freak out?
Photography Jason Nocito; Styling Avena Gallagher; Art Direction Babak Radboy; Model Lindsay Carol at New York Model Management; Hair & Makeup Kristin Gallegos at Bryan Bantry; Prop Stylist Amy Henry; Stylist assistants Peju Famojure & Jardena Jackson.
Legend has it that when the Devil first came to Beirut, with his black Slayer t-shirt and long, greasy hair, he slipped into our school and strutted down the hallway like he owned the place. As he walked by, half the girls felt a chill run down their spines and rose brokenly from their desks like marionettes. They walked out of math and English, left metal rods dissolving in beakers of hydrochloric acid on chemistry tables — oblivious to the indignant shouts of their teachers — and stood silently in classroom doorways up and down the hall, watching him go by. I didn’t see him myself. All I remember was the mooning, hundred-lunged sigh that lifted my physics exam clear off my desk and out of the window, down along a shaft of cool air to the street, where it was shredded beneath the wheels of a passing car. I got a zero. The teacher called me a smart-ass when I told her my exam had taken off on its own.
Afterward, people pointed to proof of his continued presence: pentagrams scrawled on desks and walls, the anarchist “A” with a circle around it carved into a blackboard. An English assignment was handed in — I knew three people who swore it had happened in their class — consisting entirely of the words “Kurt Cobain lives” written over and over again. Bloody rags were found stuffed into garbage cans in the girls’ bathrooms; it was said that when the janitor emptied the garbage, one of the rags unrolled to reveal a tiny fetus. We’d just finished studying reproduction in biology. I imagined it whole and perfect with bulging, membrane-sheathed eyes and tadpole appendages, a map of veins visible beneath its translucent skin. But my friend Fadi insisted it would be a mangled clump, like discharge from a heavy period. (He lived with his mother and sister). Whatever it was, it was clearly a DIY abortion: a child sacrifice. A Nirvana mix tape was also found on a shelf nearby, two parts Nevermind, one part MTV Unplugged. This, more than the fetus, was deemed incontrovertible evidence. The news spread in whispers across the city. The girls in that school are bad—they belong to the Devil.
I knew it had gotten out of hand when my grandmother asked me about it.
“Teta, that music you’re listening to, it’s not devil-music, is it?”
“No, Teta,” I said. “It’s Tori Amos.”
“Why’s she screeching like that?”
“She’s angry,” I told her. “About men.”
My grandmother nodded her head and went back to coring her koussa.
“There’s a lot to be angry about,” she agreed. Then, after a pause, “Just be careful. Men never want to marry angry girls.”
This was fifteen years ago, just about. At the time we used to go to this bar on the east side where we could sit in bamboo chairs under the open sky and order apple arguilehs and cheap, watered-down shots. I’m not sure what was a bigger rush, the illicit liquor or the journey east. The civil war had just ended and we still weren’t used to this new city grown overnight out of the dead ends of the old one. We drove recklessly in our parents’ Datsuns and Volvos without licenses, past the ghosts of militiamen and the sad, broken-down relics of their checkpoints. It seemed like the beginning of something endless, a whole new city, bruised but united; our lives.
One night, we were all at the cheap-shots place: me, Omar, Michael, and Fadi. It was early spring just before senior year, and the night was sweet-scented and encrusted with stars, a self-contained pocket in space-time. We were talking over each other as usual, each person braying louder than the next until Omar got self-conscious and shut us up. Then we built the decibel level back up again. I turned away for a second to pull a battered cigarette from beneath the pile of textbooks in my bag. That’s when I saw him. He was pale and awfully thin, but he had these amazing, deeply-etched half-moon dimples. He looked up and caught me staring. Gave me a wink and a wicked smile, like he knew exactly what I was thinking and was with me on everything. I could barely breathe.
“Look,” I said, trying to catch the boys’ attention. “It’s him.”
When I looked back again, he was gone.
At the beginning of senior year, I developed a crush on a boy who liked evil girls. Not evil-evil, but self-sufficient and prickly, quick with a Zippo, a sneer, and a comeback. The sorts of girls who were evil to me. If the Devil was around, I figured, maybe he could help, because the other guy sure wasn’t listening to my prayers to make the boy like me. At worst, I would pick up some of his devilish charm, which might help my much-lacking bad-girl image.
I approached Nadine, one of the girls in my class.
“Do you know how to make a Ouija board?” She seemed like the person most likely to know something like that. I’d seen her wearing an Iron Maiden t-shirt several times the year before.
“Sure,” she replied. “All you need is some cardboard, a marker, and a bottle cap. I saw it on one of those Mexican soaps.”
We waited until Nadine’s younger brother was out and snuck into his room, on the theory that his Metallica posters and the papier-mâché effigy of Kurt Cobain would be more conducive than the pink-and-purple color scheme in her bedroom. We lit candles, turned off the lights, and sat, fingertips fluttering in anticipation. She did all the talking.
“O Spirit,” she asked, in a loud, authoritative voice. “Are you here?”
The bottle cap trembled, swept over to “No,” then quickly to “Yes” and slowly back to
“Oh, wow,” I breathed. “It’s really real! It’s moving!” She smiled at me smugly.
“Spirit,” she continued, “can you tell us if this boy likes Lina?” She pointed to a yearbook photo of the boy in question.
Again the “No-Yes-No” swing, so fast this time my fingers could barely keep up.
“Having trouble making up his mind,” I muttered. “Shh!” she warned. “You have to stay focused!”
“Spirit,” she continued in her loud voice, “what can Lina do to make this boy like her?”
R-U-J-U-I, it spelled.
“What the hell does that mean?” I hissed. “Quiet,” she said. “Maybe it’s the boy’s mother’s maiden name.”
“I’ve never heard of Beit Rujui.” My confidence in the whole thing was flagging.
“Well, then, maybe he’s not in the mood. Shit, we should have asked him first if he minds being bothered. It’s more polite.”
“O Spirit,” looking out into the middle distance, serious as can be, “are your intentions good? Are you pleased to be among us?”
The bottle cap trembled and swung decisively to “No.”
“Oh fuck! Let’s get out of here!” she shrieked.
We made a mad dash for the lights, put out all the candles, and crumpled up our makeshift Ouija board, tossing it out Nadine’s fifth-floor window along with the bottle cap and marker.
“Why are we bothering with his minions? Maybe we should just find the Devil and ask him in person,” she suggested, after we’d stopped our hysterical giggling.
“Really?” I asked. “You know where he hangs out?”
“Sure,” she said. “Everybody does. Friday, Saturday, he’s always at American Dream, watching the metal bands. Sometimes he even jams with them.”
“Hmm,” I said. “Not sure if that’s my, you know, scene.”
“Oh, it’ll be fun,” she said. “You’ll see. And it’ll give you a break from pining over that comic book nerd.”
I dyed my hair black in anticipation of the big night, then spent the next couple of weeks laying as low as possible, waiting for the stains to wash off. I almost looked the part. Then, just before I was due to make my debut as a metal chick, the news came that a boy from the school across the street from ours had killed himself.
People were talking about it everywhere, including during the Sunday morning coffee klatsch at my grandmother’s, when the neighbors came calling.
“It was the drugs,” said sixth-floor Hiyam. “The marijuana.”
“It was all that ‘rock’ music he listened to,” said fourth-floor Youmna. You could actually hear the quotation marks in her voice. “That music tells people to do drugs if you play it backwards.”
“We never had any trouble with our young people before that American rock music arrived,” said third-floor Ghida, whose son had recently graduated from militiaman to minor politician, and who lorded her consequent rise in status over everyone.
“Devil-worshippers,” snorted my grandmother with contempt. “They always get what they deserve.”
“It’s all bullshit,” said Michael, later. “It was an accident. I know some of the people who were with him that day. They were having some beers by the sea. He was trying to show off, do this crazy dive, but he misjudged the depth. Leapt off the cliff and hit his head on a rock, broke his neck. I don’t know why everyone’s saying he killed himself.”
In the end, the details didn’t really matter; whatever it was that had happened, the Devil was to blame. I never did get to see him at American Dream. Shortly after the controversy, he blew out of town as fast and soundlessly as he had come. I imagined him on the bus to Damascus, biting his nails and looking out to sea. He’d only meant to have some fun, play a few pranks, seduce a few girls. He never imagined people would take him so seriously, not in Beirut.
I thought I spotted him during my semester at university in Canada, sitting up front in the Milton seminar.
He was older and had gothed-up his look somewhat, but the dimples were unmistakable.
“Who’s that?” I whispered to the girl sitting next to me.
“Some asshole,” she replied. “He’s bad news, always strung out on something. Thinks he’s a goddamn poet.”
Later, in her dorm room, she lit an incense cone, drew a pentagram with some chalk on the floor, and took my hand. “Chant with me,” she said. “It’s Samhain.”
“Is this like some kind of devil-worship?” I asked excitedly.
“Jesus, no,” she said, looking disgusted. “It’s Wicca. Man, patriarchy sure has done a number on your brain.”
After graduation, I got a job in an advertising agency in Beirut. When people asked me what I did, I told them I worked for the Devil. I felt bad taking his name in vain like that, because he’d seemed so nice in a bad-boy kind of way. I hoped wherever he was, he was trying to be happy, or at least working through all the guilt. I was big on working through guilt at the time, probably because I was working in advertising.
One day, without any warning, he came back to town. This time they discussed his presence on talk shows, on the news. He’d decided to make some sort of comeback, apparently. His name was on everybody’s lips; everyone claimed to have spotted him somewhere. I was disappointed. How like a former rebel to sell out. I’d expected better of him.
For a while, he was all my colleagues could talk about.
“I don’t let my son go to the movies alone anymore,” one of them said. “There’s devil-worshippers everywhere.”
“You know they summon him at night in graveyards?” said another. “They have orgies, and then they sacrifice children. They cut fetuses out of women!”
“That fucking hack,” I muttered. “He’s cannibalizing his own work.”
They tsk-tsked their throats dry while I finished my sandwich. I tried to avoid the kitchen at mealtimes after that.
A while later the government got involved. They raided a few nightclubs on Saturday nights, lining up drunken revelers and making them turn out their pockets and hand over their IDs, herding them like cattle into the backs of armored vans. Over-zealous volunteers handed out leaflets on street corners with a bizarre mishmash of advice, information, and warnings about Satanists. A friend of mine was arrested for a passing resemblance to the Devil; it’s true they wore their hair in the same way, shoulder-length and tied back, but that’s really where the likeness ended. He wound up missing a job interview and wasn’t given another appointment — no self-respecting company wanted to hire a suspected devil-worshipper. During those two months, the police also busted into people’s houses and proudly announced on television how they were keeping the peace, keeping Beirut the safe place we’d all grown used to since the end of the long-ago war.
It was in the midst of that furor that I saw him last. I was dropping a friend off at the airport, and there he was, in the departure line. When they asked to search his bag, he was polite and deferential, but there was an air of disinterest about him. All the fire seemed to have gone out of his eyes. I regretted having disparaged him. It was no wonder he’d been repeating himself; he wasn’t so much a hack as a person uninspired. Once again, it seemed, Beirut had let him down.
It must have been only a few months later that a massive explosion shook the windows of the office and sent us all scurrying to our houses until the country figured out what the hell was going on. In the midst of all the tumult, no one once thought to blame the Devil. It was like he’d never come.
He hasn’t been back since, but the new checkpoints seem like they’re here to stay. None of the armed boys who check my papers and search my bags have even an ounce of his charm. Last month as I bent down to collect spent rifle shells from in front of my building,
I thought about the Devil and his grin, from those days long ago, when we were both younger and stronger.
I miss him. He was one of the good guys — just a little misunderstood.
Ubbad Al-Shaitan (Worshipping Satan)
Devil worship recently cropped up in Europe and the United States. Founded by the Jewish Israeli American, Anton LaVey, who established the Church of Satan in San Francisco, he authored “the Satanic Bible,” considered by many to be the constitutional reference of devil worshippers. Their holy book, the Black Bible, is printed in Israel.
Israel is considered the primary source for this group, as it supported and propagated these sects inside the United States and some Arab countries, namely Egypt in 1996, Jordan in 2001 and Lebanon in 1993.
This religion is considered the high-fashion of the nineties, as Existentialism was in the Fifties and the Hippies of the Sixties and Seventies. The involvement of the Israeli Secret Service (the Mossad) has been repeatedly linked to the spread of these beliefs in many countries, causing widespread panic due to their queer and maniacal behaviour.
Their parties begin with loud, raucous Black Metallic music, which is purported to induce a psychological state which can weed out the strong, ambitious types with strong imaginations, musical abilities and an intellect close to Satan and the diabolical.
When the music gets louder, the members of the cabal begin taking drugs, stripping (a symbol of the breaking away of shackles) and when the dancing reaches its fervour they practice unsafe, group sex and faggotry, many men ganging up on a male or female participant, and all natural order is lost.
Devil worshippers visit rural graveyards by night or day to have sex in front of unearthed bodies or to perform necrophilia. They find freshly interred bodies and their elders dance before them sacrificing cats which are considered the wards of Satan. They drink blood and smear it all over their bodies and faces before moving to abandoned places where they spend days alone in the dark, without even lighting a candle. The act of digging up corpses toughens the heart and brings one tangibly close to nihilism where he can learn to kill without batting an eyelash. By smearing blood all over the hands and body the devil worshipper turns rabid and violent, without fear of death or murder and slave to no one but power.
And that is the final stage a member of the cabal can attain, whence they offer their soul to Satan so that he may turn them into demons. They release their souls from their bodies to the tunes of the Black Metallic which transmits subliminal messages to its listeners like: kill yourself, kill your parents, kill the priest and destroy holy places.
These subliminal messages have been analyzed by experts and proven to get stuck in the subconscious, where they alter behaviour, leading to depression and suicide. Believing that the devil himself is calling, the individual commits suicide leaving a note to his family forbidding any kind of burial and preferring to be cremated and released into the air in the form of black ash.
Thousands of similar suicides have been reported in the West, where the act is committed en masse through the internet. The same is happening now in Arab countries, with cases numbering in the hundreds.
One evening in 1967, a young Armenian-American intellectual named Bob Avakian visited Eldridge Cleaver at his apartment in Oakland. Avakian was startled to find a large poster of Mao on the wall. It seemed an incongruous pairing, Red China and the Black Panthers. Weeks later, Avakian worked up the nerve to ask him about it. “We have that poster of Mao Zedong up on our wall,” Cleaver said, “because Mao Zedong is the baddest motherfucker on the planet earth.”
Avakian would go on to become a Maoist and the chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA.
Cleaver’s Mao poster had likely arrived via Foreign Languages Press, the Beijing-based publishing house that sent vast reams of cheaply printed Marxist books, pamphlets, and posters out into the world in over a dozen languages. During the Cultural Revolution, FLP went into overdrive, producing complete and selected works of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, as well as more obscure titles with spectacular names like Irresistible Historical Trend, Long Live the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, and Exploring the Secrets of Treating Deaf-Mutes; chapbooks for revolutionary operas by Mao’s wife, including Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy and Red Detachment of Women; and inspirational booklets like Forty-One Red Hearts Beat with Chairman Mao Forever and Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong, better known as The Little Red Book. (Copies of these publications can sometimes be found at Revolution Books, the RCP-USA’s bookstore, though generally at bourgeois prices.)
In 1968 over a million Chinese marched through Beijing in solidarity with the black power movement in the United States.
This was the golden age of communist internationalism — and of the communist internationalist pamphlet. From its headquarters in Havana, the Organization of Solidarity of the Peoples of Africa, Asia, and Latin America (aka OSPAAAL) inundated college campuses across the globe with copies of Tricontinental, its unflinchingly third-worldist bimonthly magazine. A copy of the March 1971 issue, with a cover story on the Young Lords, a New York-based, Panther-affiliated, Puetro Rican street gang, passed through the research library of the Palestine Liberation Organization before settling into a disused book store near the American University in Beirut, where we purchased it for 75 cents.
The bookstores of Beirut bear witness to an estuarial flow of printed matter. Whole sedimentary geologies are described in layers of dust.
Egyptian celebrity rags about conspiratorial tracts on Freemasons and Kabbalists; politics, porn, news, gossip, philosophy, and comics mingle as promiscuously in the stacks, boxes, and shelves in Beirut’s basement bookstores as they do in the city’s history.
Internationalism was one discourse about the world. Globalization is another. The Japanese anime UFO Robo Grendizer was dubbed in Arabic and broadcast across the Arab world, spawning comic books and magazines, tributes and knockoffs. At one point during the civil war, a group of Palestinians set its eyes on Jesus — or rather, a giant Jesus statue, a copy of the one in Rio de Janeiro, which happened to be placed on a strategically important hill in Beirut. To disguise their intentions from enemy forces, the young comrades referred to the location on shortwave by codename: GRENDIZER.
“It pisses me off when I see people from South America, Australia, Florida, or the Middle East trying to pretend they’re Vikings. I respect Norse mythology — I’m a cosmopolitan person. But you also have a rich culture. Try to celebrate that.”
So says Ashmedi, founder and frontman of Melechesh, a black metal band from East Jerusalem and an advocate for aggressive localism in metal. From their lo-fi debut, 1995’s As Jerusalem Burns, to their most recent full-length album, 2006’s Emissaries, Melechesh has eschewed the hyperborean visions of black metal’s Scandinavian wing, preferring equally harrowing legends drawn from the region’s pre-pre-Islamic past.
The group also incorporates elements of Middle Eastern vernacular music into its sound, especially the baladi and malfuf rhythms (mainstays of Arab pop and Egyptian dance tracks, as well as belly dance music). And their songs, at times, present distorted versions of melodies that have long signified “the Orient” in horror films and other popular entertainments the world over.
The remarkable thing is that it works. The fusion of metal’s darkest subgenre (characterized by blast-beat drumming, incessant nasal guitars, barely decipherable lyrics) and vernacular sounds of and from the Middle East ends up making perfect sense. Although, I should admit, it has always made sense to me. My family moved to Saudi Arabia when I was kid, and it was there that I discovered metal. My memories of Jubail, the newly industrial city where we lived, include listening to bootlegged cassettes of Iron Maiden and Ozzy Osbourne on my walkman while walking past minarets and souks. As I’ve developed my collection of Arab music, I hear perfect metal riffs in Abd al-Wahhab’s string sections, while the heavy male choruses that provide many a Fairuz song with its minor-key refrain could easily turn up at the end of a song by Judas Priest.
Ashmedi’s introduction to metal came courtesy of Mötley Crüe’s Shout at the Devil, a quadruple-platinum album that, when it arrived in East Jerusalem, might as well have come from space. He was nine years old at the time. “I flipped. It was so scary!” No one else was into it. “I said, ‘You guys don’t know what I listen to. It’s awesome!’” He got more and more into metal — an enthusiasm that was helped along by his family’s brief relocation to California. And he was intrigued by what he discovered. Metal bands had been drawing on Arab themes (or should I say, “Arab” “themes”) for years. “Eighty percent of your dark, black metal band names come from cities or situations that happened in the Middle East — Gehenna, Bethlehem, Bethel, Megiddo, Sodom…” Another touchstone for many extreme metalheads was the Necronomicon. A fictional tome invented in the 1920s by the dark fantasy writer HP Lovecraft, the Necronomicon, or Book of the Dead, suddenly appeared in a mass-market paperback edition in 1980, full of spells and rituals and stories drawn from Sumerian and Mesopotamian mythology.
It was precisely this occult fascination with the ancient Near East that led Ashmedi to create Melechesh. “Many Assyrians identify as Christians, and they’re proud of it,” he says, “but they forget where they come from.” Metal helped him “remember,” as it were. “I realized, I am an Assyrian, this is my culture.” This is, of course, the language of the blandest kind of multiculturalism, and there is often something naive about Ashmedi’s pronouncements. But his sentiments are banal only if taken at face value. When he says “this is my culture,” he’s not taking sides in Iraq, nor doing outreach to the Chaldean diaspora, nor making a plea for minority rights in Israeli society. He is, rather, making a home for himself in glorious ruin. His ethnic awakening was fueled by reading books on mythology, which in turn fuels his own songwriting. Tales of Assyrian gods or demons (sometimes the same thing) appear in songs, as with “Kurnugi’s Reign,” off 2001’s Djinn, a brisk summary of the descent of Inanna, aka Ishtar, goddess of love and war, who goes down to the underworld (Kurnugi) only to be torn limb from limb by her jealous sister Ereshkigal, goddess of the dead:
Remember ceremonial forms for her sister?
Recall the spiteful guardian from the gates of ganzir?
IAK SAKKAKH!! IAK SAKKAKH!! IAK SAKKAKH!!!
Probably not coincidentally, the tale of Inanna’s descent, with a few choice Lovecraftianisms and not a few “IAK SAKKAKHS,” takes up half a chapter of the Necronomicon.
But then, this is how metal works. Metal is a quest for extremity; different musicians find different elements to push to the nth degree — speed, volume, distortion, lyrics, costumes, stage behavior, in one or another combination. Melechesh takes black metal’s already severe ethno-mythic tendency up several notches; it’s “extreme identity politics,” if you will, though in this case it leads not to church- or mosque- or temple-burnings, but to a wide-ranging spiritual quest.
Melechesh left East Jerusalem ten years ago. Ashmedi reconstituted the band in Holland (that is, the Netherlands), assembling a mixed crew that currently consists of Moloch — Palestinian, guitarist — and Xul — Dutch, drummer. (The Ukrainian Al’Hazred, their bass player for many years, recently left the group.) The move was primarily for professional reasons, he says, though he confesses that he found it increasingly difficult to navigate the conflicting worlds of his Israeli and Palestinian friends. Melechesh recently signed with Nuclear Blast, one of the most important metal labels, and just finished a massive European tour. Ashmedi is an ambassador for a lost civilization, and there is something awesome about the idea of rapt audiences singing along to, say, “Touching the Spheres of Sephiroth.” Metalheads are cosmopolitan, after all — most anything can get a hearing, so long as you can bang your head to it.
One Pig City high-rise can accommodate every need of 96,000 pigs living a healthy, urban lifestyle. Residents spend their days rooting in the dirt under apple trees in high-ceilinged loft spaces, sunbathing on suspended balconies eight hundred feet in the air, and enjoying the comfort of unlimited straw dispensed from huge rolls hung from the ceiling like toilet paper.
Food is produced in a closed cycle: the pigs feed on fish that feed on pig excrement (though only after it has been harvested of biogas). A 110,000-square-foot floor plan is repeated for forty stories, accommodating all of the animals in one building; a series of lifts deliver the pigs comfortably to the slaughterhouse on the ground floor, where they are processed at a rate of 120 slaughters per hour.
The Pig City stack farm is the creation of Dutch architecture firm MVRDV. Their number-crunching, data-intensive research often leads to outcomes far removed from conventional architectural practices. They’re relentlessly pragmatic, which results in experimental and often polemical work. Their 2001 proposal for Pig City began with a chain of statistics and circumstances about pig-farming in the Netherlands, proceeding from the observation that the pig population there is nearly equal to the human population. Framed with the urgency of a “pig crisis” after outbreaks of several livestock diseases in 2000, MVRDV made their argument by layering data concerning production and land use, food security, the environmental and hygienic benefits of organic farming, and the physical and economic needs of running a farm. They concluded that, while organic farming is a cleaner, more secure, and more humane practice, the conversion of all existing pig farms to organic practices would require 75 percent of Dutch land, leaving only 25 percent of land for all other activities. Their solution combines organic farming with a concentration of production to create a vertical city of pigs.
The project received wide media coverage, and a fierce debate arose around the concept of stacked animal farms. Concurrently, the Dutch government proposed a massive indoor farming operation at Deltapark, which helped to broaden the debate. It’s undeniable, of course, that the pigs of Pig City would have access to the outdoors, plenty of exercise, food, and hygienic conditions; that the farm would be organic and sustainable, a marvel of recycling; that food, waste, and energy cycles would be closed, even offering positive output; and that the stress on the animals of being transported would be eliminated. That all sounds great — until you picture a skyscraper the size of the World Trade Center with 10,000 pigs inside, awaiting their turn at the slaughter chute. “Animal Farm” takes on horrifying new overtones. So horrifying, in fact, that MVRDV claims that the Dutch right-wing politician Pim Fortuyn (described by the firm as “upcoming”) was assassinated by a militant animal rights activist for merely having mentioned the possibility of stacked farms in a book. This is not the mainstream interpretation of Fortuyn’s murder, which is typically linked to his fierce anti-immigration and anti-Islam rhetoric. However, MVRDV’s invocation of such a polarizing figure can’t help but push their hyper-rationalist analysis to the brink of totalitarianism.
In American cities there has been less interest in large-scale urban agriculture projects. Until recently, that is. But the surge of concern about climate change, the dramatic escalation of oil prices, and the ascendency of various food movements have helped pave the way, and Dr Dickson Despommier, a microbiologist from Columbia University, has emerged as the go-to guru of vertical farming in America. He envisions skyscrapers that would plug into city blocks and sustain year- round agriculture using hydroponics, providing food for as many as 50,000 people. Despite the fact that none of the designs based on his proposals have come anywhere near to being realized, he’s cut a swath through the American media, showing up in popular science magazines, the New York Times, environmental blogs, and even on the Colbert Report.
The main payoff for both MVRDV’s and Despommier’s vertical farms is food security, against the threat of epidemic diseases and shortages caused by an increase in catastrophic weather events. Both proposals rely on a faith in densification. Despommier, in full prophet mode, extrapolates a seemingly endless list of local, regional, and global benefits that derive from concentrated urban farming activities. Yet his musings haven’t generated a fraction of Pig City’s controversy. Perhaps it’s that MVRDV’s cynical teleology is replaced with expansive idealism (Colbert cornered Despommier into predicting that “if vertical farms become popular, maybe there won’t be any homeless”), or that Pig City’s singular focus verges on the absurd, while the vertical farm rather suggests an open-ended, fill- in-the-blank bounty of production. Perhaps Despommier skirts the ethical questions by ignoring animal production. And there is certainly some disciplinary bias as well — we are much more willing to accept architecture from a scientist than we are science from an architect.
Playing in architecture’s sandbox, Despommier persuasively argues that building
technology can be used to produce a food factory within the city. The cycles of farming are overlapped with loops of sustainability; paradoxically, the urban farm becomes more natural and integrated than the conventional Middle American factory farm. Yet the scale of a project that would re-formalize the farming industry is obviously huge. To succeed, it would require the support of a government agency with a vested interest in controlled farming (think NASA, not HUD) or a cash-rich client like Dubai Holdings. Even then, it would take years before providing measurable results, let alone the utopian future of Despommier’s pep talks.
One interesting project has actually been produced: a farm literally built on a sandbox. Public Farm 1 by WORK Architects was the most recent incarnation of the Young Architects Program, an annual outdoor installation that converts the courtyard of PS1 in Queens, New York, into a temporary park and music venue. In a marked departure from previous YAP pavilions, which have tended toward isolated formal exercises (variations on the digitally morphed bench/canopy snaking through cursory water features),
PF1 abstracted the idea of the farm from the ground itself, lifting it into the air and arching it above the courtyard. The architects used wide-bore cardboard tubing as a structural material as well as the vessel in which a variety of crops and flowers were grown. These planters interconnected in a honeycomb configuration that created a continuous yet modular surface, providing gaps for access from below. The project was 100 percent solar powered and watered through a direct irrigation system supplied by a cistern catching runoff from the roof of the museum. Did I mention that it was really fun? With farm sounds and bright green garden aprons, baby chicks and a solar-powered cellphone station, the underlying message was not one of shoring up for an insecure future, but of celebrating an intensified present.
PF1 offered a very different take on the idea of the vertical farm, more a hybrid of farm and beach than of farm and building. The focus was less on technological innovation than on the connections made among organizations, volunteers, and the PS1 partygoer. Utilizing the institution of PS1 as a platform, WORK was able to change the stakes of the pavilion by transforming the lightweight program into a tool and an example. They not only engaged the public through an educational and participatory environment but also were able to utilize existing city resources. In this way PF1 was a cousin of the entrepreneurial home-growers in Havana, Cuba, and the community outreach-oriented farm on a former playing field in Red Hook, Brooklyn. (All of the seedlings for PF1 were grown at the Queens County Farm Museum, a recently re-energized urban farm.) There were still some questions, as of this writing, as to what exactly would happen to the produce once it was harvested, but given the extremely limited budget and time for the project, that was hardly much of a concern.
If there’s going to be an urban agricultural revolution in America it will doubtless need the motivation of slightly more severe circumstances. Until then, small-scale operations and practices will continue to emerge, simultaneous with large proposals awaiting institutional backing. The role of architecture is critical, and not just as a sexy container for skyscraping greenhouses. Architecture is an organizer of communities, a rhetorical tool, and ultimately a test lab for possible futures, whether they involve towers of livestock marking the periphery or a nonstop supercity of elevated community gardens snaking throughout the urban grid.
French screen icon Catherine Deneuve stands before a high-rise window looking down at Beirut’s hazy skyline, her back to the camera. Various apparatchiks of image-making crisscross the frame and hash out a plan to have “Catherine Deneuve” drive into Lebanon’s war-ravaged south with Lebanese actor “Rabih Mroué” (also playing himself), their day-trip filmed for posterity, Cannes, Canal Plus, etcetera.
An offscreen voice lists the array of logistical issues and hazards the project will encounter — UNIFIL, the Israelis, land mines, Hizbullah, Deneuve’s fame — and then stops to ask, fairly straightforwardly, why? Why does Mme Deneuve, in town for just a few days to attend some poorly explained gala, desire to embark on this foolhardy expedition?
“I want to see,” Deneuve responds, straightening her spine and gathering herself up to a height befitting a Gallic legend. As the camera stares out at a generic wide-angle shot of Beirut, she repeats herself, emphatically. “I want to see.”
So begins Je Veux Voir, the second feature-length film from Franco-Lebanese artists Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige. The duo is perhaps best known for minimalist hybrid documentary-videos. In Khiam (2002) they told the story of a notorious Israeli-sponsored prison in South Lebanon by presenting the testimony of ex-prisoners, who returned to the camp to describe the small acts of resistance by which they survived ten years in captivity. The Lost Film (2004) was a winning anti-whodunit, in which a print of the filmmakers’ first film, Around the Pink House (1999), is stolen in Yemen on the tenth anniversary of Yemeni unification, and the filmmakers, less outraged than curious, set out to discover just who in Yemen would care enough about their movie to steal it. See’s frame is a similar mix of large and small aspect ratios, the historical and the personal, with the addition of a novel frame: global celebrity. Call it Deneuvision.
The journey south (destination, the Israeli-Lebanese border) is a cagey mash-up of documentary and fiction. The leads play themselves, of course, and their interactions feel largely unscripted. They also feel largely unmotivated. Deneuve’s (and the film’s) statement of purpose strikes the ear as simultaneously grandiose and inadequate, despite its undeniable immediacy. She is known for her commitment to worthwhile and progressive causes, so her presence seems plausible enough, but the reasons for this trip remain obscure. At one point along their drive, Mroué asks Deneuve whether she plans to return to Lebanon one day. The starlet says nothing. The camera keeps running while Mroué waits for a response, but Deneuve is out of lines and there is nothing in her backstory to indicate how she should respond. All she can do is look out the window.
Looking out the window is actually the better part of valor here, as See is appropriately gorgeous to watch. Cinematographer Julien Hirsch wrangles consistently arresting images from the journey — shots of Beirut streets perched between demolition and reconstruction, the bombed-out town where Mroué grew up, a seaside dump where whole ruined cities seem to have been discarded. Hadjithomas and Joreige refuse to fill out their high concept with much in the way of incident; nor do they pretend that their central conceit will shed any light on either the actors’ or Lebanon’s inner life. There is a great deal of honor in this reticence. And with its broken fourth wall and reflexive narrative hijinks, its willingness to put its leads ever-so-faintly in harm’s way, See is also a riff on the celebrity travelogue, the French star on the sort of camera-strewn “fact-finding mission” usually reserved for UN special ambassadors like Angelina Jolie. See is, in a sense, a rejoinder to the egomania and dishonesty of such documentaries as I Am Because We Are, Madonna’s Excellent Malawian Adventure, which also screened at Cannes this year. No one learns anything of import in See; there’s no redemption or apotheosis, no geopolitical problem magically alleviated through the grace and intercession of celebrity. At the end, there is only Deneuve and Mroué. She meets him for the first time in the morning and that night introduces him as a friend, smiling her legendarily blank yet overpowering smile at him.
Although Deneuve’s face turns out to be See’s most filmed landmark, Mroué is the more intriguing character. The artist and occasional actor (he also appeared in the directors’ first feature, 2005’s A Perfect Day) wisely refuses to play the local avatar, deferring to Deneuve’s fame and demurring that he’s honored and curious to be taking the journey with her. He is charmingly neither starstruck nor indifferent. At one point, in a lovely set piece, the screen goes black and he recites her lines from Belle de Jour to her, first in French, then in Arabic. Mroué knows the lines best by their Arabic subtitles, and when Deneuve says that the lines sound beautiful in translation, the exchange takes on a sudden and thrilling intimacy. Talking about movies and things read on screens brings the two actors together at precisely the moment their own screen is blankest and most empty.
In the way of such things, though, Mroué’s refusal to stand in for his country leaves the Lebanese half of See’s duo with an even less appealing role to play: the chauffeur. A man the filmmakers describe as “our favorite actor” is in the main reduced to driving Deneuve around, while the Frenchwoman natters on about seat belts or asks questions (“What’s that?”). At one point she even dozes, and the camera drifts into a soft-focus reverie, leaving Mroué doubly alone as he drives down the road. He’s not so much isolated as absent, the fade-out tracking from Deneuve falling asleep directly to her waking, her point of view inviolate.
This problem of Mroué ultimately becomes the film’s problem as well. See never pretends or aspires to be anything beyond what it is — a document of two actors going on a drive down a somewhat melancholy road. There’s a great, bracing honesty in that simplicity, but there is also attendant risk. For all the archival and documentary pleasures associated with the road, Je Veux Voir is the kind of rigorously conceptual filmmaking that can just as easily be read about as, well, seen. Perhaps that’s the point. But one can only imagine the screening at Cannes, a roomful of Deneuves dozing while their talented and thoughtful Lebanese directors keep driving and filming in silence.
Film festivals, where screenings begin at 8:30am to the groggy, jet-lagged dismay of critics, are not always the best places to debut a film. Between the early starts and the five-hour cine-essays about ethnic abjection or industrial ruin, it’s easy to get jaded. Still, the highlight of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, for me as for many of the assembled pen-pushers, was Waltz with Bashir.
Directed by Ari Folman, it’s an animated documentary about the massacres that took place at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in 1982. Those massacres are hardly unknown; indeed, they were declared acts of genocide by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1982 and led to Ariel Sharon’s dismissal from the post of defense minister. Folman’s innovation was to use them as the apocalypse of a more personal narrative based on his own experiences as a draftee.
Waltz with Bashir begins with him, now an established writer and director, confiding to a friend a recurring nightmare in which he is chased by savage dogs. This is interpreted as having something to do with his military past, a past he has blocked out over subsequent decades. He decides to track down and interview fellow IDF soldiers who were serving at the time and who bore witness to the bodies of the dead, in order to recover, or at least reconstruct, his lost youth. The stories he hears — about shooting and being shot at, about the disdain many of them held for Palestinians — amount to a form of “memory work,” an anti-Grand Tour of his ballistic biography.
The film, realized with the help of art director David Polonsky and animation director Yoni Goodman, was initially conceived as a small-budget short. Four years and two million dollars later, Folman had created a bold synthesis of investigative documentary and arresting animation. The voices of his interviewees, among them a falafel magnate living in the Netherlands and a karate-chopping, patchouli-oil-addicted tough guy, have been retained, their stammers, mumbles, and testy pauses lending grit and texture to their words.
Waltz with Bashir’s ninety-page script was filmed with live actors and the footage hand-drawn by a team of artists working at the rate of six minutes of the story per month. What makes the finished work so arresting, though, is its skill at depicting the surreal, jumbled-up lives and experiences of its callow teenagers. Startling images of dying horses and a young girl’s head sticking out of the rubble are supplemented by bawdy sequences in which soldiers watch porn films involving German plumbers and trippy, hallucinatory scenes in which Folman dreams of resting his head on a giant, naked woman floating out to sea.
Elsewhere, OMD’s “Enola Gay” provides the soundtrack for soldiers on a commando boat, hollering cheerfully, in a heady evocation of soon-to-be-lost innocence; images of Sharon are underscored by PiL’s “This Is Not a Love Song.” Paranoia, the discombobulation of war, the difficulty of recovering authentic experience from the distortions and erasures of the media archive: the film resembles, and certainly mines themes explored by, Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly.
Some critics have remarked, acerbically, that few Palestinian directors would have been financed to create this withering a denunciation of the Israeli war machine. Others have quibbled over the film’s treatment of some of the more nuanced historical details. But that shouldn’t take anything away from the boldness or artistic success of Folman’s undertaking, itself part of a wave of recent Israeli documentaries — among them Ari Libsker’s Stalags, an exploration of the early-60s vogue for Holocaust porn, and Jonathan Ben Efrat’s Six Floors to Hell, about Palestinian illegal migrants scrabbling for jobs — that are willing to enter and navigate paths through previously hidden corners of Israeli society and culture.
There will be those who fundamentally disagree with Waltz with Bashir’s suggestion that Israeli soldiers were as much victims of their nation’s war machine as they were its agents. Yet it seems to me that Folman already dramatizes vividly the fuzziness and sometimes elusory nature of ascertaining truth — especially around such a historically contentious event. There is something valuable, too, in seeing the history of the massacres from the point of view of the aggressors, and in the way Waltz with Bashir poses for Israelis the question of how to engage the legacy of shameful memories perpetrated in their name.
Syrian documentary filmmaker Omar Amiralay is considered one of the pioneers and driving forces of nonfiction auteur cinema in the Arab world. Beginning in the early 1970s and continuing to the present day, his filmography spans more than fifteen films, among them al-Hayat al-Yaomiyyah fi Qarya Suriyya (Everyday Life in a Syrian Village, 1974); Masa’ibu Qawm (The Misfortunes of Some, 1982); al-Hubb al-Maow’ud (The Sarcophagus of Love, 1984); Par un jour de violence ordinaire, mon ami Michel Seurat… (On a Day of Ordinary Violence, My Friend Michel Seurat…, 1996); Tabaq al-Sardin (A Plate of Sardines—or, The First Time I Heard of Israel, 1997); and Tufan Fi Bilad el-Ba’th (A Flood in Baath Country, 2003). Amiralay is an avowed influence on numerous filmmakers across the region, including Mohamed Soueid and Akram Zaatari; recently he joined the faculty of the Arab Institute for Film (AIF) in Amman, teaching classes in screenwriting, directing, and film theory and history. Currently, Amiralay is working on a filmic biography of his grandfather, a former general in the Ottoman army who held high-ranking administrative posts in the “troublesome” late Ottoman Arab provinces, namely Palestine, Yemen, and Syria (Aleppo and Damascus).
You have said that you never intended to be a filmmaker. But were you impressed by cinema, at least? Did it capture your imagination?
I remember the film that impressed me the most as a child: Picnic (1955), with William Holden and Kim Novak. For years it stayed with me, and for the life of me I cannot explain why. I was ten years old, I watched it in a movie theater in Damascus, and it just haunted me. The film is not bad at all. I believe it was regarded as daring in its day. I saw it again as an adult, and while it was an interesting film, I could not elucidate my mysterious childhood obsession with it.
Was the story particularly attractive or unusual, or was it Kim Novak and William Holden?
The plot covers twenty-four hours in the life of a former football star, played by William Holden, who arrives in a small town and seduces a girl, played by Kim Novak, who is either engaged to be married or hitched to another man, I cannot quite recall. At the end, Holden leaves town without having won her over.
Were there no Arab films that impressed you or inspired you to make films?
Documentary cinema in the Arab world is yet a young adventure. When I was of an impressionable age, there was practically nothing in the genre.
What inspired me to make films was actually witnessing the 1968 student uprising in Paris. It was almost happenstance that I had signed up at the Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques (IDHEC) in Paris. I had been interested in painting, drawing; then I drifted toward theater. Even when I was a student at the IDHEC, I did not take cinema seriously, even though some of our teachers were master filmmakers, like Jean-Pierre Melville. I could not take fiction cinema seriously.
But the student uprising interrupted my studies. Our courses that spring semester were being held at the Nanterre campus, which is where the revolt began. My late friend Saadallah Wannous and I had followed the students the day they moved from their headquarters at Nanterre to the Latin Quarter in Paris. I was carrying a 16mm camera. We were at the end of Guy Lussac Street when we saw a student in one group stop to pull a cobblestone up from the sidewalk — the road was under construction — and throw it at approaching police. Paris was then lit by gas lamps, and the film in the camera was barely 100 ASA. I strongly suspect that I filmed the first action of this sort by the students. At the end of that day, I returned to the office that students had assigned to media communication and gave them the footage. In the days that followed, I became impassioned with filming more action. I have since come to believe that cinema does not need imaginary plots and characters, arcs and actors. Everyday life, everyday people, large and small, have a lot more interesting stories, in which they cast themselves all the time in a variety of roles.
How about feature films?
Let’s just put the notion of watching someone’s work that “inspired” or “motivated” me to make films aside. In spite of my deep suspicion of fiction cinema, there are feature films made in the Arab world that I appreciate profoundly, experiments I have tremendous respect for. One of my favorites is Bas Ya Bahr (The Cruel Sea) by Khaled al-Siddiq. It was made in 1972 in Kuwait. It tells the story of pearl divers, one of the main sources of income to the native population prior to the discovery of oil. Al-Siddiq learned filmmaking in Hyderabad, and he cast real pearl divers in his film, no actors. The cinematography is fabulous and the storyline very well crafted. You know, pearl divers’ lives are drenched in sorrow, poverty, and tragedy. Al-Siddiq didn’t compromise the vérité tension in the film, nor did he fabricate a narrative that obeyed the imperatives of mainstream cinema. He was pioneering as a filmmaker in Kuwait, but also in the neorealist trend in Arab cinema. There was a captivating poetry in that film — it exuded from the frames and characters.
Has the film screened a lot? Did it mark a generation?
Al-Siddiq was an important and promising filmmaker then. He made two more films and stopped, then he shifted to working in advertising. The Cruel Sea was Kuwait’s first feature film. It traveled to important festivals in the region and in Europe. Al-Siddiq also adapted Tayeb Salih’s The Wedding of Zein, a laudable gesture, in my view, that should be a cue for filmmakers working in fiction because one of the most glaring weaknesses of Arab fiction cinema is that filmmakers are far too seduced by the lure of “auteur total.”
The trouble with this film, as with many other non-mainstream Arab films, is that it
is impossible to access them. The notion of a legacy, shared knowledge of Arab cinema across generations and across the Arab world (or even the mashreq) is entirely framed by mainstream Egyptian films. Any knowledge outside that box depends exclusively on individual effort. Where would films like The Cruel Sea screen today? Or even ten years ago? I’ve noticed of late that Arab satellite broadcast entertainment stations like Rotana and al-Shashah have begun to screen a few non-mainstream classics of Egyptian cinema, as well as films from Lebanon and North Africa, from the 1970s and 1980s. It has helped me, and no doubt others, catch up. However, our conversation about The Cruel Sea remains entirely virtual. Can you point to a good Egyptian or Arab feature film, a classic, so to speak, that might have transgressed?
Our generation was lucky in many respects. We were not the founders, we did not bring cinema to our societies, but with the emergence of the auteur and the celebration of subjectivity in filmmaking, we certainly felt this art form was undergoing a revolution, and we were its enthusiastic harbingers. Everything was up for grabs, the history of cinema was ours for the making. We possessed the skills, we created our own language, we established the spaces (like ciné-clubs and festivals) and a discourse (critical writings), and we found our audience. It wasn’t easy. The deck was not stacked in our favor. Not only were we dissident against mainstream culture and market-oriented production, we were also critical of our governments; public institutions were not within our reach. On the other hand, the idea of sponsorship and philanthropy (let alone grant-making international institutions) was not common to our mindset. However, imagining an alternative counterculture was possible, so we established networks of ciné-clubs, we published pamphlets and magazines, we collaborated on each other’s films, and we were in communication with like-minded filmmakers, artists, and dissidents in the region and in the rest of the world. Sadly, however, what we built was shut down, and we have been unable to transmit it to generations that followed. This is why when I defend The Cruel Sea, all I can do is describe it and encourage you to seek it out, I cannot hand you a VHS tape, let alone a DVD. I cannot guide you to an archive…
I understand your frustration. but again, I am too skeptical of fiction cinema to indulge in appreciating what have been declared “classics.”
Why are you so skeptical of fiction cinema? Does that include auteur cinema? You have made reference to the “auteur total” in your reply earlier.
I don’t understand the initial premise. Why would anyone invent a story, ask actors to pretend they are characters, create sets, costumes, when life, history, memory, are a dizzying meshwork of fictions. Every public square, neighborhood, or home is a set, has been designed as such, and is the site of imagined projection and an organization of space and decorum. I have found the contrived fictions in our own cinema to be far less fascinating or captivating than what I witness every day, in my neighborhood, on the street, in the midst of families.
You ask about the “auteur total” — well, it is where I find most of the trouble to lie, a strong penchant that Arab filmmakers have been enraptured with. In other words, they write the script and direct the film. Filmmakers are not necessarily good storytellers, nor can they de facto write good dialogue. The Arab world is rife with extremely wonderful, award-winning, innovating novelists and writers. Collaborations would have been so enriching, so challenging — but most unfortunately, filmmakers have almost systematically turned their backs to them. There are a few exceptions, here and there, but not enough to build a trend, let alone a tradition. Instead we have a corpus of cinema that seems to betray the fantastic complexity of our realities, of how people are, how their destinies are woven.
What about contemporary nonfiction cinema?
It is true that lightweight and low-cost video and digital technology has had a democratizing impact on production — however, what has been lost is discipline and rigor in filmmaking, in approaching the subject. When we were working with 35mm and 16mm, because film reels were very expensive, we could not afford to film sparingly. In documentary, or nonfiction, we spent hours and hours talking to subjects, studying angles, familiarizing ourselves with stories and places, because when it came time to shoot we had only the space of a few takes. This time spent in proximity and profound engagement obviously translated to the final product. Not only did we as filmmakers become involved (if not embedded) in the story, but the ambiguities of each character or situation became tangible. With digital video, that imperative is nonexistent; filmmakers can film for as long as they want until they get what they deem satisfactory. The time invested without the camera filming, that profound engagement, is practically lost. That discipline and rigor in approach is key to auteur cinema.
There are interesting filmmakers, courageous and bold who dare to break with convention. My experience with teaching at the FIC has reinforced
my optimism. The hardest part is the deprogramming, or bringing them to some sort of a clean slate where they can begin to perceive cinema, its tools and language, in a radically different light. The second hardest part is strengthening their confidence in themselves and in their subjectivity to dare find a voice, their voice.
A Principle of Assumptions
April 17–May 31, 2008
Curated by Krist Gruijthuijsen and Sylvia Kouvali, ‘A Principle of Assumptions’ explored how we build, store, and consume knowledge. The works on display revealed the ambiguity inherent in using narrative tools to make meaning of the past and the difficulty of relying on shared assumptions that shape social knowledge and history. Loaded in content yet still playful, the exhibition reflected on knowledge — how it is stored, worshipped, and disseminated. The exhibition, which hosted four international artists, marked Rodeo’s deft debut on the Istanbulite art scene.
In proposal for an infinite library (2008), artists Haris Epaminonda and Daniel Gustav Cramer dissected two books and then rebound them in a manner that mixed the pages into new and unique volumes. Among the thirteen volumes realized so far (the series is ongoing), proposal included three adjoining pages from Jukes Roger Sauter’s book on mineral photography (Brasilien–Paradies der Edelsteine, 1982) with pages from Rudolf Pfister’s book on residential architecture (150 Eigenheime, 1932). With these hybrids, the artists suggested an alternative purpose for books and at the same time defied thematic categorizations and the notion that knowledge is authored. As the combined content ultimately turned out to be coincidental, viewers encountered objects with open-ended potential.
Installed next to their work, Adam Leech’s video Lots of Money (2008) also concerned the coincidental aspect of communication and knowledge sharing. The work featured a bizarre dialogue conducted in an interview format, in which the interviewee gave nonsensical responses to the interviewer’s queries, using random words and a mechanical tone. The fixed camera captured a closeup of the interviewee, whose posture and gaze were also fixed or frozen. Scripted by Leech, the broken dialogue and awkward body language not only triggered an eerie feeling but catered to the viewer’s voyeurism. The video diverted the focus away from
the interaction between interviewer and interviewee, underlining the performative aspect of the work. Lots of Money challenged assumptions about how knowledge is conventionally transmitted, with an absurd articulation of communication breakdown.
Tamar Guimarães’s Listed Entries (2006) consisted of archival research on Jan Leton — a black slave put in the charge of the bailiff of Skagen in Denmark in the early nineteenth centur — presented on a black and white poster, along with a sound piece and a projector that merely reflected its own light. The historical “facts” on Leton and Guimarães’s research process were arranged into an index with missing letters and no clear chronological order. The entries — such as “Ship which brings Jan to the shore,” “Stowaway,” and “While in Skagen” — covered a period of 178 years, from 1827, when Leton died, to 2006, when Guimarães assembled the archive. Guimarães’s work borrowed the methodology of historiography by combining primary sources and oral accounts, including death registers, newspaper clippings, and personal conversations. It also challenged the alleged truths of the historical material as it suggested a flowing and dynamic definition of the archive as incomplete and non-chronological. Viewers were immediately drawn into the work, presented under a strong spotlight in a relatively dark gallery space, and compelled to categorize the entries.
In addition to works focused on archival research, Christodoulos Panayiotou’s installation Act 1: The Departure (2008) explored the infinite possibilities of narrative by using a folded theater backdrop, along with an old image of it unfolded to show the head of a ship at twilight. The image was hung high on the wall, while the folded backdrop sat on the floor. Resisting the temptation to unfold the backdrop, viewers were invited to assume that the crumpled backdrop portrayed the same scene and draw associations between the two. Depicting the first act of a colonial story, the installation proposed various readings for its following acts. Although it excluded the stage and the actor, Act 1: The Departure suggested the theatricality of storytelling and historiography and, as a result, piqued curiosity and stimulated the imagination.
While ‘A Principle of Assumptions’ successfully raised interesting issues about knowledge, archive, and history, viewers were sometimes left to contextualize individual works and the exhibition as a whole entirely for themselves, as if they had stumbled upon a story that remained incomplete. Still, while the exhibition delicately challenged viewers’ shared desire for orderly narratives, it also allowed them the pleasure of exploring works on their own and making their own connections between them.
Art Now in Lebanon
March 4–June 5, 2008
The exhibition ‘Art Now in Lebanon,’ curated by Andrée Sfeir-Semler for Darat al-Funun in Amman, was neither a retrospective nor a survey. But it did pose an opportunity to reflect on the art scene that has developed over the past fifteen years in Beirut.
With thirty-nine works by fourteen artists born between 1964 and 1983, the show gathered, once again, the figures who have increasingly been considered
a group, if not The Group — Walid Raad, Akram Zaatari, Rabih Mroué, Walid Sadek, Jalal Toufic, Marwan Rechmaoui, Lamia Joreige, Paola Yacoub, Joana Hadjithomas, and Khalil Joreige. These artists were all represented in Darat al-Funun’s main exhibition venue, and as a result, the lineup echoed past exhibitions privileging Beirut or Lebanon as curatorial conceits — shows such as Catherine David’s first iteration
of Contemporary Arab Representations and Suzanne Cotter’s ‘Out of Beirut’ for Modern Art Oxford.
The difference was the time and the place. Shows determined by their artists’ origins tend to provoke criticism, and more often than not, such criticism is justified. Exhibitions of Middle Eastern, Arab, Lebanese, and Beirut-based art, when staged abroad, can seem as though they’re chasing fashion or assuaging guilt. They can appear more responsive to cultural politics than to artistic practices. When The Group from Lebanon shows in Europe or the United States, for example, there is an implicit expectation that the works will provide viewers with information. The war on terror, the war in Iraq, Lebanon’s civil strife, and the Arab-Israeli conflict will be reduced to digestible bits. Each work will provide a thoughtful, sensitive engagement with a complex situation that the artist has already cut down into a series of choice aesthetic or conceptual morsels.
But it’s worth noting that nothing on this scale has ever been shown in Beirut. And the last time anything similar was staged in the region was seven years ago, when Ashkal Alwan’s Christine Tohmé curated ‘Missing Links’ for the Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art in Cairo. Much has changed since then. An alternative infrastructure for the production and presentation of contemporary art has taken hold in several cities across the Arab world. The underlying ambition of ‘Art Now in Lebanon’ was educational, to bring to Amman’s burgeoning art public an exhibition of strategies and subjects and to give the city’s young artists and curators a sustained glimpse of what they had been hearing about through word of mouth, and reading about for years in catalogues and magazines that travel more easily than bodies.
Moreover, ‘Art Now in Lebanon’ came at a time when the dynamics of Beirut’s art scene seemed to be shifting dramatically, and thus captured a pivotal yet highly ambiguous moment. Walid Raad’s large-scale photo-works — entitled Scratching on Things I Could Disavow and featuring pristine arrangements of, say, stray bullets that the artist collected and tagged with austere descriptions that trigger rich and evocative narratives—may have been either the last bracket on his long-term Atlas Group project or the bridge to a future body of work drastically different from his previous concerns. Akram Zaatari’s installation Earth of Endless Secrets — consisting of posters, a video loop, a large-scale photo montage, and smaller images that relate to earlier works such as This Day and In This House—was in many ways a precursor to his book of the same name, which ordered his research into themes that point toward the artist’s articulations to come. Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s Landscapes of Khiam — paradoxically gorgeous photographs of busted billboards that look like toys on the twice-wasted terrain of Israel’s former detention center in South Lebanon — effectively closed the circle that began with the artists’ Khiam documentary in 2000. In all of these works, images that were once latent, or impossible for the artists to reach, were made manifest. In that sense, they were culminations, and so ‘Art Now’ signaled the end of an era and the beginning of the art scene’s historicization.
The most troublesome aspect of the show was the title. It was simple, it was clear, it was wrong. It meant nothing. In fact, Sfeir-Semler was quietly broadcasting several curatorial channels at once. Works like Walid Sadek’s Mourning in the Presence of the Corpse, Marwan Rechmaoui’s Beirut Caoutchouc, Raad’s I Only Wish That
I Could Weep, and Rayyan Tabet’s Fossils — these were landmark pieces, greatest hits, in a lineage of works worthy of being acquired for a museum collection that doesn’t exist anywhere but the imagination. The inclusion of a second venue hosting the work of Tabet, Ziad Antar, Randa Mirza, and Mazen Kerbaj was an attempt to both complicate the hegemonic understanding of the group and highlight the work of an elusive “time of Nidhogg.” Splitting the exhibition may have forced an art historical division that could not be sustained by the works themselves, only perhaps by the artists’ dates of birth.
But that curatorial gesture did reveal the ways in which younger artists are, at times, more emotive and tactile, less clinical and conceptual.
One could thread the emotional resonance of Tabet’s Fossils, an arrangement of concrete-covered suitcases emblematic of the artist’s childhood (always keep your bag packed, always be ready to go), through Paola Yacoub’s photographs of a wrecked city as a playground for young lovers, Zaatari’s recollections of his first efforts at making images, and Raad’s trading of ominous trinkets with, among others, his sister and an old girlfriend. The younger works cast meaningful light on the older works.
Some of the artists here could have been better represented — Rechmaoui, Lamia Joreige, Kerbaj, and Antar have all made far more interesting works than the ones included in ‘Art Now.’ But in terms of bringing everything back closer to home, the exhibition took an important step. Next stop, Beirut.
April 25–May 1, 2008
In a blacked-out basement during a bombardment at the peak of the Iran-Iraq war, a man began to shave his brother-in-law’s long dervish beard. When the raid ended and the lights flickered back on, half of the man’s face was unshaved. Born in 1979 amid
a revolution, and with a war with neighboring Iraq to come, Ali Chitsaz has heard his share of war stories such as this one. Those experiences, sad and darkly funny at once, often find a home in his work. In his latest show at Tehran’s Golestan Gallery, the young painter captured that same spirit, with aesthetic influences ranging from Persian miniatures to Qajar photography.
The seventeen canvases on view at Tehran’s Golestan Gallery in this first solo show were painted in cheerful colors. Their naive style, complete with distorted dimensions and gawky perspectives, resembled that of traditional Iranian ghahve-khane (coffeehouse) painting. And they were funny. In The Invisible Rainbow (2007), one of many men in enormous turbans sat on an even larger Kent cigarette box; the turbans’ shape was repeated in a bouquet of flowers depicted in the upper-right-hand corner of the painting. The latter motif was also taken up in Camouflage (2008), in which two bearded and turbaned men, holding leaves in their hands, disguised themselves in a flowerpot. The figures in The Battle of Mamasani (2008) shot and stabbed each other behind the giant crowned head of a Qajar king.
While the artist at times seemed satisfied with a cheap laugh, Chitsaz generally avoided falling into the realm of simple caricature. His attention to the nuances of Persian art history was impressive; his chaotic battlefields, for example, owed much to the great fifteenth-to-sixteenth-century Herat School painter Kamal od-din Behzad — a sea of galloping men, hands holding weapons, chopped-off heads. A man or two stared out of the canvas, gazing straight into the eyes of the viewer, and you felt as if you had been caught witnessing a massacre you were never meant to see.
At times, Chitsaz’s turbaned men evoked Ottoman sultans or Muslim clerics, and his works mixed men in the dress of the Safavid (1502–1736) and Qajar (1794–1925) dynasties. Indeed, some of his figures appeared to have come straight out of Qajar-era photographs of the shah, clerics, and infantrymen posing with furious miens. Chitsaz came off like a mutinous artist who, bored with making portraits of the ruler, secretly paints loonies and vagabonds on the streets without the shah’s permission. While coffeehouse paintings and miniatures illustrate well- known stories such as the Shahnama (Book of Kings), Chitsaz’s works told a story of his own imagining, an occasionally violent, often absurd world that served as a poignant metaphor for the times.
The paintings at the Golestan exhibition were hung in the sort of faux-rococo gilt frames one finds in downtown Tehran semsari (pawnshops), giving gallery visitors the sensation of walking into a nineteenth-century kakh (palace), decorated with recently dusted oils. But these frames, like the artworks themselves, pointed to one of the dilemmas of contemporary Iranian painting, and Iranian visual art in general: the work — as technically strong or, in this case, visually appealing as it was — dwelled in the past, using it as a pat metaphor for the present. While this trend has met enormous success in the art market recently, one hopes that younger artists will deviate from what has become a formula, daring to fashion new vocabularies for the present.
Ayman Ramadan: Hekaya
June 8-30, 2008
Artist Ayman Ramadan’s personal story (hekaya, in Arabic) is one that critics, curators, friends of Townhouse Gallery, and, perhaps not least, Ramadan himself all love to tell. Born in a small village outside of Cairo, Ramadan came to the Egyptian capital more than a decade ago. He has worked myriad jobs ever since — from microbus ticket vendor, coffee boy, and car mechanic to security guard at a certain downtown gallery. The Townhouse community proved to be a nurturing one — so much so that in 2001, Ramadan, who had had no formal art training to speak of, held his first exhibition there.
From the start, Ramadan’s singular biography has intersected with his work in multiple ways; he’s managed to bring the dusty reality of Cairo’s backstreets into the gallery space. Projects such as Baladi Bus, Coffee Shop, and Iftar (all 2004) offered the viewer a slice of Egyptian life that was an alternative to the postcard perfection of pyramids and the grandeur of a mythologized past. These works captured the urban, political, psychosocial, and religious complexities of working-class Cairo.
Installations such as A Downtown Street and The Waiting Room (both 2002) stressed the invisibility of the lower classes in stark yet subtle, often beautiful, sculptural forms fashioned from spare car parts. The recycling of automotive detritus into a social and artistic statement exemplified how the sculptural enacts material presence and how material “speaks” beyond its mimetic representation.
In the case of Ramadan’s crude metal figures — at first glance anonymous and uniform, yet never lacking individual qualities — the suspension of upward social mobility was literally inscribed in the sculptures’ poses. At the same time, inertia was performed by the use of rusty scrap metal as medium and matter.
In Ramadan’s most recent exhibition at Townhouse, ‘Hekaya,’ the artist combined video with the physical, sculptural component. While many of Ramadan’s previous installations were mixed-media in nature, his title piece signaled development and maturity in terms of content and aesthetics. It alleviated the crowdedness of earlier projects and moved toward the metaphorical, with Ramadan diverting human subjectivity to the realm of the imaginary. As a result, location and temporality became unspecified, creating more space for the viewer’s interpretation.
Made after a year of study at the Academy of Art in San Francisco, ‘Hekaya’ was a bleak minimalist piece. Rather than engendering participation or empathy that was so central to works such as Baladi Bus, Coffee Shop, or Koshary min Zamman (2006), ‘Hekaya’ instead inspired a sense of contemplation and introspection.
The installation consisted of a rusted swing hanging five meters high in the center of the gallery. A spotlight pointed to its cage-like seat, creating an eerie shadow play. In the background, a looped video projection showed the swing swaying in solitude. Bathed in darkness, the huge construction appeared menacing and intimidating and was anything but a cheerful recollection of childhood. Though it was amplified
in scale and more closely resembled an elaborate torture device than a playground toy, the residue of memory still clung to the swing and faintly suggested a time when life may have been happy, even uncomplicated.
The soundtrack, a recording of creaking swings and muffled conversation in a Cairo playground, was far too loud and repetitive. It felt like a superfluous add-on and, unfortunately, distracted from the ambiguous character of the swing, which visually operated simultaneously as a plaything devoid of functionality, a vehicle of collective and individual memory, and the seat of an uncertain future.
The swings had become a sculptural object in the gallery space. Its uprootedness was further denoted by the word hekaya, carved in Arabic on one of its hinges. It was as if this act of naming ensured and validated the singularity of the piece, transforming it into something verging on the monumental. Indeed, the swing became the inert materialization of loss, albeit undefined and unarticulated. This sense of loss heightened by the contrast between the stasis of the actual swing and the video showing the swing in motion. Movement, mobility, and change did seem like possibilities, but they remained idle and unfulfilled.
The looped motion became a senseless one, mere mechanization, without a human subject on the swing to enjoy its workings.
In that respect, it was telling that Ramadan insisted on the singular use of hekaya, and not its plural, hekayaat. It was as if the artist were telling us that there is but one generic story we all find ourselves in eventually, in which the future is unpredictable and replete with promises it can’t keep.
I Dream of the Stans
March 20–April 26, 2008
At first glance, ‘I Dream of the Stans’ appeared to be a compelling exploration of virgin cultural territory — one that stretches seductively across China, Russia, and Iran and counts the politics of Islam and the Soviet Union’s legacy among its complicated assets. Just as the economic prosperity of the New Silk Road has cemented the independence of former Soviet states, the internationalization of the art world has given their artists unprecedented access to platforms and markets.
Officially, the trend kicked off with the Venice Biennale’s Central Asian Pavilion in 2005 and continued last year in New York with the gallery show ‘The Paradox of Polarity’ at Bose Pacia. Then came ‘I Dream of the Stans,’ curated by Leeza Ahmady, Murat Orozobekov, and Edward Winkleman.
While most of the seven videos in the exhibition were displayed on monitors, Said Atabekov’s Neon Paradise (2003) was projected large against the gallery wall. In the piece, a shaman-like figure repeatedly bowed to ￼an impersonal modern building, whose glass doors slid open and closed in response. The Kazakh artist baited the modernist structure, using props like his pointy hat and Soviet water jug to add to the absurdity of the ritual. The video lent portability and posterity to his performance, but there wasn’t much to be grasped once the tradition-meets-modernity premise was established. Vyacheslav Akhunov’s Cleaner (2007) was likewise caught up in absurd (and prolonged) rituals: the video documented the veteran Uzbek artist undertaking a “pilgrimage to the United Kingdom” to polish monuments with a toothbrush.
Not all of the artists treated global heritage so gingerly or with so little visual interest. In Rustam Khalfin and Julia Tikhonova’s video projection Love Races (2001), a naked couple documented themselves with a shaky handheld camera as they made love on the back of a horse — an admirable balancing act, whichever way you look at it. The work updated the soft-porn appeal of nineteenth-century illustrations, only this time it was the protagonists who recorded the scenes.
Almagul Menlibayeva upped the ante and gave ethno-glamour a catchier title. Jihad (2004), filmed within the mausoleum of Turkic saint Ahmad Yasavi, showed the artist writhing and struggling with vivid swaths of fabric, rubbing herself against the walls with a savage relish that would have put Andrea Fraser to shame. The exception, of course, was that Menlibayeva’s wild diva wasn’t critiquing the institution but celebrating its ornate, photogenic glory. Was this a subversive reworking of a politicized term or a narcissistic restaging of Orientalist kitsch? It was tempting to assume the latter.
Rahraw Omarzad’s Opening (2005) was just as visually pleasing and politically noncommittal but posed its dilemma with greater stylistic restraint. A shy peek from beneath a veil raised the usual cliché expectations vis-à-vis the female gaze. But once scissors cut into the fabric, a hand emerged and embroidered flower motifs around the hole. Again it was hard to decide if the work affirmed the tarnished history of, say, Muslim women’s rights in Afghanistan, or if its ambitions were more decorative.
Capitalizing on the lack of knowledge in the West about the region, ‘I Dream of the Stans’ reproduced the allure of Central Asian-ness that gets curators and artists equally excited. Given the years of austerity imposed on those states, the return of ethnic, mystical, and regional identities should be understandable, even liberating. What’s wrong with mausoleum erotica, cultural mythologizing, and ethnic exhibitions embroidery?
Despite their quirky collective name, the Stans aren’t an imagined locus of dreams. They are complex societies sitting atop profitable energy resources. Autocratic rulers have embraced the ethnic turn as national policy, commissioning tourist brochures as they barter with past and present superpowers. In these circumstances, identity-centered aesthetics come worryingly close to late-capitalist propaganda; actual social conditions are swept under the rug while artists and curators enjoy their ambassadorial status.
Of course, not all the artists consulted their inner shaman. Some approached the landscape of cultural representation more directly. Jamshed Khalilov’s Bus Stop
(2006) articulated the very framing device of the exhibition with a slide show of photographs showing Tajik bus stops built in bizarre styles — Soviet, Islamic, and so on. Like the exhibition’s curators, Khalilov had an eye for surreal hybridity but was more straightforward about his own role in appropriating and decontextualizing what he found. Gulnara Kasmalieva and Muratbek Djumaliev also gave the exhibition a more sober and reflective touch. In Something About Contemporary Nomadism (2006), the artists snuck a camera into an airport to film banal scenes of security searches. Nomadism was appropriated not for picturesque pathos but for relevance as a metaphor — and a refreshingly pessimistic one, at that.
Taken together, the seven videos were less about dreams of place than about narratives — and products — of globalization. Most of the artists continue to live and work in Central Asia, and all are prominent figures in their emerging art scenes — running art spaces or teaching university courses. Concerned with the forces shaping their histories and realities, they’re also aware of the market for savvy, self-styled cultural representatives. And that awareness often overwhelmed the work in this show, resulting in digestible binaries and celebrations of alterity. One couldn’t help but suspect that the artists were capable of more.
Tala Madani: Aas-as-sin: hashish, anyone?
April 25–May 1, 2008
In 2007 Tala Madani presented ‘Smoke and Mirrors,’ her first solo show, at Lombard-Freid Projects. This year the twenty-six-year-old, Iranian-born Yale graduate continued to provoke. Beginning with the show’s title — ‘ASS•AS•SIN: hashish anyone?’ — Madani lent dark humor to the political and cultural murk that seems to be her home and homeland. “Assassin,” of course, derives from “Hashshashin”—a militant Muslim sect that, from the eighth to the fourteenth centuries, murdered in secret its political rivals while gainfully high on hashish and opium. But Madani made her interest in the clandestine, violent, hazy, macho element of her native culture seem not only somewhat creepy but also, occasionally, fun.
Madani’s small-scale, lushly expressionistic mise-en-scènes read more like cartoons, as if each strange canvas were a panel in a larger, more perverse strip, with Li’l Abner played by sundry versions of a stereotypical middle-aged Middle Eastern man: brown, hairy, stupid, and endowed with a big nose. They played games with each other, games which usually involved some mix of weird sex and/or violence. In Apple Job (2007), one such man showed off his bra, each cup stuffed with a green apple, as another, holding a knife, snuck up from behind and copped a feel.
The birthday cakes that were often central to the absurdist setups in ‘Smoke and Mirrors,’ returned in spirit; in Blowing Bright Eyes (2008), a man blew out two birthday candles, only they didn’t sit in a cake but were jammed into another man’s eyes.
Madani also explored pedagogical themes. Many of the scenes were set
in a room where the perspective had been shoved to the front so that half of the painting appeared as a blackboard. In these classrooms, the teachers were
as dense as the students (who were apparently fond of mooning), and there was little difference between an ass and a bird in flight or a Star of David, between
ejaculate and chalk.
Madani conjured these bizarre scenes with her inventive way of pulling, turning, and pushing color to create her characters. The result was a lack of physical detail that echoed the placeless, timeless quality of the works yet left them full of thick painterly gestures and vigorous colors. Flashes of an apple green or hot pink thong leavened otherwise grim subjects. However, the bright room in the painting Pink Western, which should have brought merciful cheer to an uncomfortably rendered homoerotic cowboy game, instead, like a serial killer in clown makeup, just made everything seem more sinister. The small scale and formal obfuscation of Madani’s works allowed for outrageous articulations; her tone was so heavy that detail would have been overkill.
Unfortunately, the large canvases in the show didn’t play to Madani’s strengths. Her deft, sometimes calligraphic strokes got lost in a format that also quickly exhausted her themes. In the bigger pieces, Madani drew more than she painted. Paradoxically, the larger canvases lacked the airiness that ameliorated her weirdness in the smaller works. The larger works also used more blatant art historical references, which young artists love, but whose effect can be plodding.
Madani’s exhibition also featured unexpected first-time experiments with animation. Using a stop-motion method, Madani meticulously painted each frame of her characters acting out their escapades, capturing their movements. Viewers had to look into a wooden conduit to see the small screen at the end, becoming totally absorbed. In Chit Chat, the profiles of two arguing men morphed continuously, from grotesque features to a devil and a chorus of blabbing heads. There was no sound, nor any need for it, as both men were obviously yelling but expressing nothing. The films bespoke Madani’s gift for improvisation, humor, and immediacy. They felt satisfyingly quick despite (or somehow because of?) their dour subjects and the tedious process that yielded them.
At her best, Madani gave us almost no pictorial detail in terms of place, time, or distinguishing features that could humanize her men, letting them instead personify only the vague, shadowy nature of the West’s “East.” In the small paintings, Madani’s strokes and colors elicited pleasure — they obscured but also extemporized the action in the vignettes. As a comment on the West’s understanding of the East, this sadistic stereotyping might have been a little obvious. But for the painter of Panties (2008), subtlety was of little concern. Nor should it have been. The intimacy and skill of Madani’s work let her get away with it.
The Anxious: Five Artists Under the Pressures of War
February 13–May 19, 2008
There has been a marked tendency within the art world in recent years to veer toward a sort of lens-based anthropology. While this is often celebrated as a welcome “return of the real,” it has just as often blunted art’s ability to deal with the real in any genuinely heuristic way. If art does not first attend to its own historical conditions of possibility and use, what can it possibly tell us about the world around us that we don’t already know?
That mainstream art-world institutions are all too happy to underwrite this tendency was once again borne out by ‘The Anxious: Five Artists Under the Pressure of War,’ shown in the fashionable Espace 315 at the Centre Pompidou, presenting “works of five artists who share a sense of personal involvement in dealing with the subject of the war in the Middle East. They are artists of a younger generation able to translate the oppression of a conflict into an alternative language based on the critical analysis of its causes and background in a continual reflection upon the instruments of its representation.” Or so claimed the visitor’s guide to the exhibition. But what was one to make of the wishy-washy personalizing of engagement (“a sense of personal involvement”), the dubious insinuation that art is some sort of “translating” device for elected themes, or the intellectually bracing lip-service to “critical analysis,” however unmerited? What was the point of such rhetoric, and the curatorial choices it sought to legitimate, if not to allow the institution to flirt with social engagement without offending its patrons?
Rabih Mroué’s truly stellar video Three Posters (2004) tackled head-on both the politically symptomatic issue of the reorientation of the Lebanese resistance movement from progressive to fundamentalist and the role of video itself in the representation of the civil wars. Aside from that, though, the works in the show paid scant heed to how a uniquely self-reflexive and reality-probing activity such as art can provide irreplaceable insight into political conflict.
Hanging like an animated bas-relief just above the entrance of the exhibition, Yael Bartana’s Low Relief, a four-channel video installation depicting a crowd marching in the name of some unstated or unknown cause, seemed a textbook example of the aestheticizing of politics. Ahlam Shibli’s photographs of the West Bank village of Al-Shibli were conservative examples of a documentary genre so well known as to be tedious; indeed, human interest notwithstanding, one had to wonder whether constantly reproducing this same documentary form does not tend to reinforce and stereotype perception rather than pry it open. And though Akram Zaatari is one of the most thoughtful videomakers of his generation, the film he made for the show — depicting the “should I stay or should I go” quandaries of two resistance fighters — occasionally verged on manneristic.
Though the show described its chosen participants as “under the pressure of war,” the only evocation of the ongoing Iraq debacle was in the work of Omer Fast. His four-channel video Casting (2007) was a fictional testimony from an inexperienced American GI who mistakenly opened fire on a civilian vehicle in Iraq, killing its occupants. The four-screen installation reinforced the schizoid account of the soldier, who skipped seamlessly between his account of the events in Iraq and the apparently no less traumatic evening he spent with a racy girlfriend in Germany, where he was previously stationed.
Which brings us back to Rabih Mroué’s Three Posters, initially a performance piece but far more incisive in video format. The film was at once a seventeen-minute presentation of the extraordinary case of Jamal El Sati, who in 1985 carried out a suicide bombing against an Israeli military post in South Lebanon, and an overlapping dissection of the performance that Mroué had produced in 2000 on the same theme. Here art reflected on itself and on a decisive political issue. Decisive because prior to blowing himself up — before becoming a martyr, that is — the Communist activist videotaped several versions of himself recounting his as-yet unaccomplished deed as if it were already done, speaking from the ghostly perspective of the dead, as if martyrdom began not with death but with the tape. Mroué, addressing the viewer against a plain white background, compellingly pointed out how this raised an almost unfathomable paradox of political ontology.
But Mroué’s contribution couldn’t be expected to save an otherwise limp exhibition. Billed as highly loaded, ‘The Anxious’ turned out to be exasperatingly under-loaded — which was somewhat scandalous, given that there won’t be another occasion anytime soon in that institution to do a survey show of artists from the Middle East whose work addresses the endemic wars in their lives. And the title? Every artist in the world is “anxious” — but there was little to inspire viewers’ anxiety in this politically correct, politically boring show.
Jeffar Khaldi: Wish You Were Here
May 13–June 12, 2008
Jeffar Khaldi’s most recent solo show in Dubai, ‘Wish You Were Here,’ featured large-scale canvases that appeared, at first glance, pervasively sweet and generous but that were, on closer inspection, dense and demanding. A Palestinian painter who was born in Lebanon and lived in the United States before settling in the UAE ten years ago, Khaldi has mounted several of his own exhibitions at B21, the Dubai gallery
he founded in 2005. Along the way, he’s developed a highly individual and recognizable vocabulary of conceptual signs and painterly gestures. His work is as much about aesthetic investigation and material experimentation as it is about semiotic and political concerns. In relation to the artist’s overall oeuvre, ‘Wish You Were Here’ brought these two strains into their clearest focus to date.
In the painting Phase Two, a nude figure stood in tall grass, back to the viewer, gazing at a landscape and leading the viewer to look in the same direction. The figure was rendered in harsh strokes. The sharp white contours on the head appeared to refer to tribal face paint, but then they repeated in the landscape as cobwebs on a mountain of boxes, shipping crates, tents, domes and houses, all floating on a wooden ship in a minuscule bay. Surrounded by volcanic pink and orange, the ship sat heavily, obviously not going anywhere. The figure cradled a patch of red that hovered between becoming a bleeding heart and remaining a simple brush stroke. Applying paint in a dynamic way — fluid and thin here, sharp and determined there — Khaldi revealed his subject slowly.
In Sooner or Later, a row of camouflage warehouses receded into the distance; dwarfed villagers and trees were pushed to the periphery by the monumental structures. White forms shaped like boulders or sandbags seemed to guard the warehouses. A predatory creature strode ahead; at his feet were decapitated bodies, stumbling around like chickens. In South-West, viewers stood on the other side of the wall. The warehouses were in the distance. Bricks fell from the sky, and a tornado
of black paint rose from the bottom of the canvas. A deer stood awkwardly on a patch of green, a hilarious reference to traditional landscape paintings of vistas and animals at pasture. Khaldi’s deer was docile, oblivious to the apocalyptic surroundings.
There are very few painters among the contemporary artists in the Arab world who have risen to international prominence through biennials, festivals, curated exhibitions, and other such critical platforms, as opposed to the more commercial avenues of auction house catalogues. But to consider the history of art in the region requires meaningful engagement with a storied lineage of works on canvas. The difficulty in confronting Khaldi’s work is determining where and how to position him — and in relation to whom.
Even those who would rather not make political art can find it impossible to escape the politics that implicate an artist with or without permission or intent. Artists in the Arab world expend a significant amount of energy dodging labels. And while some fold that effort into their practice, others find sanctuary in formal abstraction (generally guaranteeing that they’ll be abandoned by critics). But there are signs pointing to a revival of figurative painting in the region. Khaldi himself has gradually moved away from abstraction, the focus of his early works, toward representation.
One may read this shift as a rejection of multiculturalism, identity politics, and those forms of art-making, so popular on the international biennial circuit, that claim to be critically engaged but turn out to be disappointingly bland. In their celebration of the diverse and the marginal, such forms demand that viewers respect a vacated, decaffeinated Other, paradoxically deprived of agency and retaining only superficial signifiers of cultural specificity — the Muslim hijab, the Mexican sombrero, Asian politeness, Western European courtliness, Eastern European roughness, and so on.
Khaldi’s work lives entirely outside the realm of identity politics. His paintings don’t didactically tax viewers with Arab or Palestinian signifiers (his whimsical use of the Palestinian flag notwithstanding). His subjects don’t ask for forgiveness or understanding, and he doesn’t indulge in self-pity. His paintings are sometimes ambiguous, sometimes blunt. They are, for this viewer, like a double espresso after too many years without caffeine.
Mitra Tabrizian: This Is That Place
June 3–August 10, 2008
The title of Mitra Tabrizian’s exhibition at Tate Britain, ‘This Is That Place,’ emphasized photography’s ability to eliminate distance, to bring Tehran to London and vice versa. Tabrizian’s early images, including Governmentality and College of Fashion, were staged tableaux that drew on psychoanalytically inflected film theory and were symptomatic of postmodern conceptual photography from the early 1980s. Divided into two rooms, the exhibition charted Tabrizian’s work from the beginning of her career through the late 1990s. Some of her pictures reflected on corporate culture; others were inspired by the writings of Jean Baudrillard. A recent body of work, Borders, featured large-scale portraits of Iranian exiles.
In the interview with curator Rose Issa in the accompanying catalogue, Tabrizian described her panoramic image Tehran 2006 as a response to Iranian cinema, its poetics of the everyday and its use of real people as opposed to professional actors. However, as TJ Demos pointed out in the catalogue’s foreword, there were many similarities between Tabrizian’s works and Jeff Wall’s photographs. Indeed, one would have been hard pressed to see exactly how Iranian artistic or cinematic practices figured into Tabrizian’s work, and this may have been the problem.
Her photographs of Iranian exiles were reminiscent of the heroic social realist paintings typical of Soviet art in the 1930s. Perhaps this was in keeping with the cross-cultural theme, previously examined by the art historian Peter J Chelkowski, of exchange between Iranian revolutionary art and Soviet socialist imagery. But what was of interest in ‘This Is That Place,’ given that it was a rare opportunity to see Tabrizian’s work, was the chance to assess the artist’s place within wider debates on photography’s role in postmodernism, drawing on popular culture and the production mechanisms that promote global capital in the privileged form of digital imagery.
In Tabrizian’s show, there were some familiar echoes of earlier preoccupations from the 1980s, including a series that evoked Michelangelo Antonioni by way of the filmmaker’s interest in the work of architect John Hejduk. However, Tabrizian’s captions, packed with theory, served as awkward explanations of otherwise compelling images. Given that contemporary viewers are probably quite familiar with the cross-fertilization between photography and film — and the narrative concerns of each genre that Tabrizian’s early work helped to pioneer — the expository wall texts were unnecessary. They also distracted from the details that the eye would otherwise gradually have sought out in a work such as Beyond the Limits (2000-01), which reframed the drama, found in early Tabrizian images influenced by film noir, to make it appear almost as a ghostly double to popular television’s obsession with criminal psychology.
Beyond the Limits reinforced the notion that digital photography is no longer indexed to the real. The surface, as Fredric Jameson noted, has been emptied of the psychological interiority that once gave modernism its direction. Andreas Gursky’s Atlanta (1996) indicated the uneasy spaces that digital photography has come to occupy, serving corporate culture and high art at the same time. One was left either in awe of his visual repetition of the production of capital as a kind of postmodern sublime, or so removed that one slid over the surface in a manner that suggested boredom.
In Beyond the Limits, one found the critical possibility that treating simulacra as a surface might create the occasion for a stage rather than a grid of representation that merely homogenized. Finding a falling figure trapped within the otherwise uniform lighting of an anonymous office block, one realized that that figure could also act as a decoy, a conceptual trap that appeared to show everything; only later did one discover that another event was concealed within the same frame.
The smaller scale of that particular image and of Silent Majority (2001) maintained a sense of private contemplation. These were perhaps the strongest of Tabrizian’s images, and they jarred with the more empathetic representations of aging businessmen. On the one hand, it was tough to feel compassion for CEOs. On the other, these works pointed something that was at stake in Tabrizian’s work: the poignancy of corporate executives being rendered redundant by capitalism’s fascination with the new and the young.
Safar Khan Gallery
April 23–May 23, 2008
On principle, I should hate Anna Boghiguian’s work. Dervishes, Indian poets, expatriate Alexandrians from the golden age of cosmopolitanism, mysticism and a fascination with the more picturesque and exotic aspects of popular life have never really been my cup of tea. It is therefore perhaps surprising that on the contrary, since I was first introduced to her work during my childhood, I have always been struck by its vibrant intensity.
Unfortunately, her latest solo exhibition at Zamalek gallery Safar Khan was a more uneven affair than usual. Although Safar Khan is one of Cairo’s older and better-known galleries — a commercial venue mostly focused on the lucrative trade in twentieth-century Egyptian modernists — it is a cramped, pretentiously decorated space that rarely does justice to the works on display.
The uneven tone arose from the puzzling mix of older and newer works and the sudden shifts in size and material, from small charcoal drawings to large oil paintings. The marked difference in tenor from piece to piece lent the show a feeling of unintentional randomness. Fauvist flower paintings sat next to brutalist urban sketches. The variation generally managed to diffuse rather than enhance the overall charge of the exhibition.
Boghiguian is in the special position of being respected as an artist by most of Cairo’s art world, spanning generations, trends, and political affiliations — an achievement in itself. And Boghiguian has managed, over the years, to develop her own unique and highly recognizable world. What one finds truly surprising is her ability to tackle such chic and kitsch subjects as the moulid, peasants, and historical sites, while still retaining a bold sense of urgency and immediacy.
Boghiguian’s charcoal smudges and her jagged brushstrokes and skill at using color as pattern, field, and source of illumination, give her work a luminescence and a sovereignty that is truly remarkable. Her focus on details and simultaneous refusal to fall into naive realism creates a hallucinatory quality correlative to the painter’s subjective vision of the observed world. We experience a sense of engagement (rather than fascination) that renders what could have been merely exotic into a highly personal language.
Boghiguian has always possessed an intuitive understanding of the cultural and historical significance of spaces (one suspects that her study of various literary sources, from Cavafy to Mahfouz, has served her well). Whether she’s tackling historical visionary subjects from Egypt and India (a country she has visited many times over the decades), poets such as Rabindranath Tagore and Ahmed Shawqi, or presenting a series of landscapes inhabited by ancient buildings, her paintings are always able to communicate something of that accrued weight and significance.
The background is usually flattened, only to highlight the busy interaction between the elements that compose the whole. Although these are vistas that manage to go beyond the simple Orientalist gaze, it’s important to remember that Boghiguian, an Armenian Egyptian, has a strong connection to the tradition of the traveler-artist that has informed her practice since at least the 1970s. This gives stronger works a sense of restlessness and curiosity, while weaker ones tend to fall into the traveler’s familiar traps: fascination, voyeurism, and nostalgia.
A postimpressionist sensibility — much indebted, it seems, to the likes of Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall — at times veers dangerously close to the saccharine but is balanced by the more brutal and untamed charcoal drawings. Her interest in contemporary urban life (Cairo’s Hidden Scissors, one of Boghiguian’s most powerful series, consists of drawings in which the streets are literally populated by scissors) and the immediacy of capturing the action provides a counterweight to the meditative tendency of the larger oil paintings.
Charcoal’s pliant and flexible nature allows Boghiguian a physicality that translates well. The scratches and marks left on the paper seem to document a bitter struggle among the observer, the observed, and the medium. Oil seems to be the right medium for landscapes where the sky is solid. Here, equally thick and viscous under the burning sun, lie the ruins of ancient civilizations as well as the chaotic lived-in cities of today.
A great strength of Boghiguian is her ability to load historical landscapes and portraits with an implicit charge that is directly linked to their sense of solitude and isolation. This charge isn’t usually expressed directly but is always latent in the work. One of her central preoccupations may be the question of belonging. Variations on The Stranger — from holy fool to visionary leader — abound. These figures who lie outside consensus are suitable material for a meditation on the conditions of the group itself; we’re never far from history and civilization in this Nietzschean world.
Unfortunately, this time around, it seemed that an interest in making the work more topical, or communicating a specific political message, betrayed the rich ambiguity of earlier works. A portrait of what seemed to be an Indian politician was populated with political graffiti (on the order of “Fight Terrorism”) that turned the figure into a mere conduit for the message. Gone was the ineffable and sometime painful sense of separation in favor of more sentimental melancholy.
Home Works IV
April 12-20, 2008
“Homework” has always implied taking home exercises or preparation for lessons of the following day. Not only does homework present the possibility of personal reflection — which, in turn, can be brought back to the classroom as material for dialogue and debate — it is also a preparatory exercise in the development of the public sphere. But what if there is work to be done, but home is no longer a given because one’s house, city, or country has been occupied or forcibly taken away? What does “homework” mean for an exile? The condition of exile remains all too familiar in our time — even while national origin and locality have long since been argued away as insufficient to make sense of a culture or of people’s individual lives. Home has become mobile, provisional, a place inhabited but unsettled, less than secure. Seen from this perspective, we might say that for those who are forced to make a foreign place their home or, conversely, whose homeland is occupied, homework is filled with checkpoints, detours, and the necessity of thinking outside the comfort of habit. The character of everyday discourse — in language and phrases, in the ways and gestures of the body, in the memories embedded in objects or in stories recounted — embodies the anguish that surrounds the concept of home and occupancy.
Six years ago the nonprofit organization Ashkal Alwan (the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts) began a project entitled ’Home Works: A Forum on Cultural Practices’. Under the direction of Christine Tohmé, the forum was proposed as a space for dialogue devoted to the Middle East and its diaspora. Remarking on the title, the organizers have written that it suggests an intertwining of public and private spheres, the outside world of work and the inside space of home. In referring to the exercises, lessons and research problems worked out by students repetitively and in solitude, Home Works implies a process of internal excavation, digging and burrowing deeper while constructing and accumulating new practices. The metaphor is telling, recalling Freuds fascination with archaeology as analogous to the work of psychoanalysis, invoking ruins like Pompeii, whose former inhabitants, long since dead, still cast their long shadows across the streets and houses in which they once lived. But the metaphor goes further to suggest the work of transformation, the possibility that through this ceaseless work of unearthing, one may find a provisional way forward.
The fourth iteration of Home Works took place this past April. Forum IV was organized, as it has been on each occasion, around nine days of lectures and panels, live performances, daily film and video screenings, exhibitions, and publications. Participants and audiences hailed from Lebanon, the Middle East, and the Maghreb, along with other parts of the world. Artists including Emily Jacir, Khalil Rabah, and Michael Rakowitz participated in the exhibition program. Videos and panels represented participants and subjects from across the Middle East, and the program of talks featured Tony Chakar, Tom Keenan, Elias Sanbar, and Brian Holmes. Held primarily at Masrah al-Madina theater on Hamra Street, this gathering unfolded as an extraordinary collective immersion in the voices and sounds of those involved, exploring points of continuity and dissonance. It was, if you will, an attempt to seek to provide a provisional home away from home in which one could identify the lessons of the day.
In phrasing “disaster, catastrophe, [and] recomposing desire and sex practices” as the thematic axes of this year’s event, the organizers had already borne witness to the difficulty of speaking beyond the givens, disaster and catastrophe. It was as if the very phrasing, the spacing between each term as the phrase awkwardly moved forward to “desire and sex practices,” acknowledged the difficulty of the endeavor. There was no straight line here, and yet it suggested again the idea of archaeology as analogous to the work of psychoanalysis and the work of the unconscious. The proposed themes were redolent of a shifting of terms, not simply from that of the impossibility of loss to one of lack, but more an appeal to “recompose” what Maurice Blanchot has called the “unavowable community.” This is not a space of mourning or melancholy but rather a form of inter- subjectivity, a convalescence that implies hospitality, a way of welcoming the stranger in one’s midst — as much to accommodate the absent other in one’s home as to live with the dead.
Fittingly, Rabih Mroués How Nancy Wished That Everything Was An April Fool’s Joke touched upon this very presence of the dead. Written by Mroué and Fadi Toufic, the play which was performed twice over the course of the forumrevolves around four protagonists from the Lebanese civil war who recount stories of how they died and eventually were resurrected as heroes through their realignment with and appropriation by various political parties. The lives of the city, the homes of its inhabitants, are inhabited by the dead. To go back, then, is not a point of arrival but of departure, the lessons to be taken.
To speak of homework is to speak of the work to be done now. Six years have passed since the first Homeworks: to live in Lebanon now is both experience more of the same, yet different. There is a fragility to which writers, philosophers, artists, and filmmakers come, this city in which to gather and congregate. Together they live in an estranged destitute time bathed in the glow of persistent after-images cloaked in the substance of the real as they occupy and circulate within the public realm
as much as the privacy of one’s home. This is a world of smoke and mirrors
in which one lives a present time exorbitant unto itself — an anxious world, waiting, suffocating, seeking to trace the lineaments of a way forward.
The forum took place after a hiatus of two and half years, a hiatus caused by another war with Israel. (The third forum had also been postponed, due to the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and the public protests that ensued.) No timetable insures its arrival, no calendar guarantees its occurrence. Home Works happens when it can. It happens in between time, an event measured by the unpredictable threat of occupation through which, as much as against which, it has been forced to define itself.
When the forum does happen, it is always underwritten by a sense of provisionality — a space in time seized as precious, however tentative it may be. Only two weeks after the forum ended, the city and country again was at war with itself. Walter Benjamin
once remarked that we live in a state of permanent exception, not one of rule. In Ashkal Alwan’s March 2008 newsletter, the editors observed: “At this point ‘Home Works Forum has (we think) settled into a regular schedule of regular disruptions. This unpredictable dynamic has become a rhythm, a paradoxical routine.”
The New Normal
April 26–June 21, 2008
In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, Vice President Dick Cheney justified the expansion of state surveillance (legalized by the Patriot Act) and the abridgement of civil rights by saying that these conditions constituted a “new normalcy.”
For Cheney’s many critics, his comments marked a rupture in traditional understandings of the private sphere. But Cheney was onto something. Spying and prying aside, the internet makes personal information more accessible to more people, and online social networking encourages people to “broadcast” information
about themselves to wider and wider audiences. Privacy has become both rare and precious. ‘The New Normal,’ guest- curated by Michael Connor, explored the shifting contours of public and private through thirteen works drawing on intimate information about strangers, public figures, and the artists themselves as raw material or subject matter.
Jennifer and Kevin McCoy’s Vice Presidential Downtime Requirements (2008) turned the tables on the secretive patron saint of surveillance. Guided by a leaked memo listing his hospitality requirements, the artists constructed a Cheney-friendly hotel room in the gallery. But though there was a palpable thrill to intruding on Cheney’s privacy, the accumulated store-bought objects — a queen-size bed, a microwave, a pot of decaf brewing in a coffee maker, bottles of water and cans of Diet Caffeine Free Sprite carefully arranged on a desk — were unremarkable and only dimly enhanced by a television broadcasting ominous Fox News footage.
Introducing the private into art’s rarified public sphere is not a novel strategy. Much feminist art did the same — remember “the personal is political”? — by challenging the traditional gendering of private and public as feminine and masculine, respectively. Two of the strongest works in ‘The New Normal’ reflected this genealogy. Sophie Calle’s Unfinished (2005) documented her struggles
to create meaning out of a set of surveillance images captured at an ATM, including shots of a woman being mugged. A playful and performative exposé of artistic process, Calle’s many fruitless tangents sketched out the complex ties between surveillance, the documentary image, capitalism, death, and art’s symbolic value.
In Calle’s practice, confession and surveillance are tinged with longing and desire. Indebted to Calle’s early work, Jill Magid’s Lincoln Ocean Victor Eddy (2006–07) hit a similar register. Magid explored the changing relationship between citizen and state in the information age and consciously deployed seduction as a mode of resistance. Initiated in response to the changing security conditions on the New York subway — increased police presence, random searches, the omnipresent demand for peer surveillance (“if you see something, say something”) — Magid coyly approached a male police officer in 2006 and asked to be searched. Though he refused, Magid persisted and developed a strange intimacy that afforded her unauthorized access to state power. She narrated her experiences in a novella, copies of which were available during ‘The New Normal’ for perusal.
Hasan Elahi utilized an arguably more masculine approach, countering surveillance with “aggressive compliance,” satisfying the state’s demands for transparency and access but reclaiming agency for the citizen. The subject of an invasive FBI investigation based on suspicions of terrorism, Elahi created Tracking Transience, a real-time, self-tracking website that documents his travels — meals eaten, bathrooms used, airports slept in, etcetera. The exhibition included a pair of videos, each composed of seven constantly changing images used to locate him, and a list of credit card transactions distributed across a grid of shiny metal sheets. In both cases, viewers were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information, which limited its value as intelligence. It was precisely this slippery threshold between information and noise that was key to the project’s success as a political act.
The omnipresence of state surveillance has inspired a comparable omnipresence of exhibitions and artworks exploring the subject, beginning with the eerily prescient ‘CTRL [SPACE]: Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother,’ a survey that opened at Karlsruhe’s ZKM Center for Art and Media a month after 9/11. While ‘The New Normal’ covered similar terrain, it also tried, somewhat unsuccessfully, to move beyond the public and political territory of surveillance and control by focusing on the private sphere as a unit of sociological analysis.
Jon Thomson and Alison Craighead’s Beacon (2007), a real-time video projection of phrases entered by anonymous users into internet search engines, demonstrated how the web documents and archives our wants, desires, habits, and curiosities in highly accessible formats. Strangely engrossing, this fluttering collection of keywords produced a linguistic portrait of the internet and reproduced the slight substance of our lives.
Mohamed Camara’s Les Rideaux de Mohamed (The Curtains of Mohamed) (2004) delved into domestic space. Fearing that his camera would be stolen on the streets, Camara documented interiors of friends’ and relatives’ domiciles in his hometown of Bamako. Focusing on the flapping, diaphanous curtains that separate private and public, Camara’s beautiful, meditative video emphasized the fragility of the divide.
‘The New Normal’ could have benefited from the nuances of what Paul Virilio calls the “democratization of voyeurism.” The social networking tools that define Web 2.0 are transactional, after all, and our contemporary obsession with reality television and celebrity culture suggests that we are privacy violators as well. Acknowledging that we agents who desire and demand intimate access to the lives of others may be the key to unlocking the ethical dimensions and implications of Cheney’s bizarre “new normalcy.”
April 10–May 10, 2008
Anyone heading into the still-sleepy neighborhood of Mar Mikhael, which caps the far end of Beirut’s rather trendier enclave of Gemmayzeh, would have had a hard time missing the glass facade that offered fleeting glimpses of Nadim Asfar’s photography exhibition this spring. Curated by Naïla Kettaneh-Kunigk and Sandra Dagher and installed in the ground floor and basement of an otherwise abandoned building, Asfar’s ‘Immaterial World’ made for an intriguing encounter with the street. The encounter recalled Asfar’s series Constellations from 2008, which was hung opposite the vast windows looking out onto Mar Mikhael’s main drag, a transparent vitrine in full view of gallery visitors and casual passersby. Constellations consisted of nine large-scale works, each featuring a geometrically arranged grid of small photographs of pedestrians, merchants, and cars negotiating the same street, shot from above. (The studio where Asfar lives and works is located just a few hundred meters further down the road.)
The reflective interface between the gallery’s interior and the street’s exterior triggered a correspondence between the space and the city, and between an art- specific audience and the Beirut public at large. It also accentuated the fact that this particular building, unlike so many in Lebanon, asserts no real identity of its own.
Although the building is owned by the family of Kettaneh-Kunigk — a well-respected arts patron who directs Galerie Tanit in Munich — it has no name and likewise no future. It will be torn down soon and replaced with another, taller, more profitable structure.
But before that happens, Kettaneh-Kunigk and Dagher, who ran the gallery Espace SD in Gemmayzeh for seven years and co-commissioned Lebanon’s first pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale, have transformed the building’s lower floors into flexible and necessarily temporary exhibition spaces. Since late 2007 they have organized several shows there, all emphasizing photography and video. But they have not put forth specific aesthetic criteria or a critical direction, let alone established a niche or even much of a presence. Nor have they burdened the space with a name. This is a refreshing incongruity on the Lebanese art scene and for heterogeneous interventions.
The mirror effect of Asfar’s exhibition in a space destined to disappear provided an interesting setting for the artist’s research on absence and presence, material and immaterial, in relation to photographic practice. This relationship is, of course, central
to many current and historical debates on the image and the politics of representation, but rather than engaging with critical discourse, Asfar’s photographs played with the medium and its perceptive possibilities.
This playfulness ran throughout the show by way of several seemingly self-contained series. One could trace five discernible image groups with different styles, formats, and subject matters, from cities and streets to flowers and empty beds (reminiscent of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled, 1991). The diversity of content paralleled experiments with technique, such as Asfar’s rayograms and an allover saturation of red titled Portrait á 3200 ASA, which referenced the film stock Asfar used to shoot it.
Asfar’s formal innovations depart from the conventions of the medium for the purpose of evading stasis. His research is like a game of hide and seek, with the added tactics of shifting points of view and various framing devices, color treatments, and exposure times. The risk in such experimentation is to fall into an easy mode of abstraction using light, movement, and rhythm. However, Asfar, while not explicitly problematizing his relationship to the objects he sees, does fill the space between the photographer and the world with tension. “Whatever the actual nearness of my body,” he said in an artist’s statement, “a distant power appears and sculpts what links me to what I perceive and what separates me from it, an elastic and sensual distance.”
In Camera Obscura, another photograph named for technique, Asfar captured a reflection of Beirut on an empty bed. The absence of the body and the presence of the city, which materialized from nothing but light, gave form to the ephemeral sensations of loss and desire.
Asfar’s immaterial world was perhaps misnamed. He constructed not a world but a universe, characterized by porous thresholds — from street to gallery, from foreground to background, from nowhere to somewhere — in which private and public were fused in an amorous relationship.
That kind of emotional charge sets Asfar’s work apart from the work of his more clinical peers. And it was evidenced in the recent video work Print (1), which debuted during Ashkal Alwan’s Video Avril festival in 2007. In that piece, Asfar narrated the end of an affair through a succession of still images and subtitles. The narrator, the artist himself, confessed that he was no longer a photographer when he was in love. Perhaps Asfar’s notion of immateriality owes something to Roland Barthes, who once wrote that only “love, extreme love … could erase the weight of the image.”
In the Arab World … Now
Edited by Jerome Sans
Galerie Enrico Navarra, 2005
With three volumes that come to 1001 glossy pages (an intentional detail proudly printed at the beginning of each volume), In the Arab World… Now is a pretty heavy object. I should know, because I dragged it from Dubai back home, and it added a few kilos to my luggage. Disclosure is in order here — I was returning to Cairo from Art Dubai, and the books were in my bag because I am, along with other artists, writers, cultural producers and almost everyone else I know, featured in the volumes.
A few months earlier, after making initial contact, a “creative team” with thick French accents came to my house and pranced around taking pictures of everything they saw, letting out a “Supercool!” every few minutes while interviewing me. An earlier effort by the same team, Made in India, was left on my table, and before I knew it, the entourage of designers, photographers, musicians, and curators was gone, and I was left alone to suffer Coffee-Table Book paranoia. The process did eventually develop into a pretty extensive online interview with Audrey Mascina that I’m happy with — but I can’t say the same for the project as a whole.
This is not a naive rant against commercialism or even the (unavoidable) processes of selection. A case for the type of eye candy that coffee-table books strive for can always be made. Mundane generalizations and the literal gloss-over — grave mistakes like confusing the Cairo-based Contemporary Image Collective with the Alexandria Contemporary Art Forum — are systemic, one suspects, to the genre. They are not the source of contention here.
A few questions to start: Why Arab art? Why now? And, who exactly was behind this?
The man behind the project is Enrico Navarra, a well-known dealer and major player in both the Indian and Chinese art markets. Navarra’s endeavors in promoting “new markets” seem to have served him well, as did his earlier dealings with lucrative safe bets like Warhol, Basquiat, and Picasso. My aim is not to criticize Navarra but rather to learn from him which way the wind blows — for the appearance of such a book is the sign of a specific moment in the art world, or in the culture business at large, and its failures are ultimately indicative of deeper issues.
We are, after all, living through seismic changes, when undeserving retro-modernists sell for 200K-plus on the Sotheby’s and Christie’s circuit and Dubai continues to beat its chest with a hysterical splurge of dollars. Is it possible to explain it all away with financial analysis of the potential of “emerging markets”? Or is there a more insidious process in which power operates? One wonders, for example, why in the 1960s, when a strong and active cultural movement in the Arab world was at its apogee, it was largely ignored by the more traditional centers of cultural power. Were they rejecting the idea of a postcolonial state’s emergence? Was their disinterest related to the movement’s strong sense of localism? Were wider transformations and shifts in power reflected in cultural value and its assignation?
The gesture of an encyclopedic endeavor such as In the Arab World… Now is essential in maintaining the illusion of a healthy environment that is ripe for investments of all sorts. The elephant in the room is the transparent attempt at raising the cultural capital of all involved — from city to dealer, from artist to public art space, and ultimately the value of the specific ethnicity in question through the evocation of a general ambience (travelers’ notes, maps, etcetera). Implicit is a denial of the work’s validity as an independent formal proposition — it is only through their association with a series of cities, presented as hip and hyper-modern yet foreign (like Dubai, Beirut, and Cairo) that the artist is validated. The book presents its readers with a seductive blend of capitalist-driven modernism and the erotic exotic. In the Arab World… Now (the three- dot pause is meaningful) presents its artists only in relation to their assumed ethnic affiliation; it becomes difficult to see them any other way. Although this is a technique that has made many a fortune — the Chinese example being the most striking yet — it has failed to acknowledge artists as producers within the very center of contemporary discursive practice.
On a more positive note the generous space given to in-depth artist interviews and hi-res images of their work allows us for once to get close to actual content. Here at last one manages to get some sense of what the artists included are involved with on both conceptual and formal levels.
In the Arab world… Now teaches us more about the idiosyncrasy of the art market than about the “Arab world” of the title. It is a market (especially in its emerging sector) that lacks the confidence to allow creative forces to operate outside its control. Its failure is epistemic more than anything else. Thus, all is well — the great drama of the emerging contemporary Arab market (accompanied by a background of occupations, military interventions, and tottering stifling dictatorships) unfolds.
Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria
By Brian Larkin
Duke University Press, 2008
How would we talk about media if Nigeria was our point of departure, and not Europe or the United States? Brian Larkin uses this question to frame his first monograph, a story of colonial development, media technology, and shifting social forms set primarily in the northern Muslim city of Kano. Nested within this story are tales of British colonials introducing the city to the magic of electric lights, mobile cinema units that interspersed instructional hygiene videos with Charlie Chaplin, and half-broken TVs playing poorly dubbed VCDs packed with all manner of prostitution and incest. Thus banal media has come to symbolize postcolonial informal economies — watching an Indian film, the crackle of Hindi voices on a bootleg VHS signifies the degraded quality that mass-piracy fosters; Chinese subtitles overlaid with Hausa Arabic reveal a film’s circuitous route to Nigeria; and the video distributor’s pixelated logo indicates state-of-the-craft computer technology.
In Larkin’s world, the lines between media and infrastructure are blurred. His media theory concerns itself with railways, roads, and electricity. With electrification came radio, which began as a wired and state-controlled operation but was eventually undone by the introduction of wireless, allowing competition from independent broadcasts. Mobile cinema units traveled the newly paved roads of Nigeria showing public service films on agriculture and health care, eventually disappearing with the advent of TV and the increasing prevalence of commercial cinemas.
Both these narratives seem to move from state-controlled, publicly oriented media forms to media designed for private use and individual leisure time. At first glance, this may sound like a tired parable for the decline of the paternal state and the shift to a neoliberal wonderland of capitalistic play — and to some degree, it is. But Larkin reminds us of the complexities of the situation. The technologies at the endpoint of this story — TV, commercial theaters, and pirated video — continue to exhibit traces of their colonial roots in both form and content. The postcolonial state persists in exhibiting its own brand of (often ridiculous) pomp and doublespeak, though the form of transmission has passed from radio through mobile cinema and has now ended up on TV. And the commercial theaters — the few that still exist — are constantly under surveillance by the authorities, who tend to view them as dens of iniquity. One of the book’s most enjoyable sections follow Larkin as he peels away from a theater on the back of a motorbike, hoping to make it into the city before the police start hassling moviegoers.
And of course, there’s also the Nigerian video scene. While previous innovations shifted from colonial control technique to locally made Nigerian media (wired to wireless, didactic mobile cinema to leisurely moviegoing), Nigerian video film debuted with this trajectory already collapsed within itself: films are produced DIY and assiduously pirated. But their content unabashedly displays remnants of colonial imperatives — northern films, for example, often sensationally feature witchcraft and ritual abuse, only to castigate them in the end. This is done to admonish un-Islamic local practices, an approach at least partly linked to colonial methods of control.
A welcome peculiarity of this book is its emphasis on the role of religion. By centering himself in Kano, Larkin avoids reiterating much of the extant literature on Ibadan- and Lagos-based Nollywood video and is able to weave Islam into his story. In the North, an Islamic “film culture” is sought by promoting particular narratives and genres. Melodrama is a favorite for tackling issues pertinent to Islamic life within its generic confines, such as forced marriage or witchcraft. Many Indian films are also accepted, despite ostentatious song and dance routines, as the moral lessons they deliver reinforce ideals of Islamic rectitude.
Larkin is obviously concerned here with media only as it manifests in Kano. His conclusion provocatively deflates the importance of what is commonly referred to as “African cinema.” The films of Ousmane Sembène, Souleymane Cissé, and Djibril Diop Mambéty — names that may be better known in Paris or New York than Dakar or Lagos — live mostly on the international festival circuit and in Criterion Collection reissues, with little impact on the African media world as lived. Larkin claims that these films “construct Africa as being apart from the world, eliding its long historical connections to places elsewhere.” However, media that actually lives and breathes in Africa has no choice but to wear its history on its sleeve — scratched camera lenses signal participation in an informal global economy, and fuzzy radio news is persistent evidence of the failure of colonial development. Larkin succeeds in exposing us to marginal, flawed, and noisy African media forms, the forms that flourish in African urban life, without foreign backers or coproducers.
This is a rare book. Stuffed full of Larkin’s anecdotes and observations of Kano and written with clarity, its academic innovations and arguments are easy to digest. And pictures! Nearly every chapter has some visual accompaniment from Larkin’s collection of Nigerian movie posters, radio ads, and photos from the field. Anyone interested in media, Nigerian film and video, the history and fate of the postcolony, or the informal yet global economies of contemporary city life will appreciate Larkin’s insights.
Wolves of the Crescent Moon
By Yousef Al-Mohaimeed
Translated from Arabic by Anthony Calderbank
A Bedouin man named Turad hesitates at the late-night ticket booth. He can’t decide which bus to take as he slowly deciphers the names on the signboard. Finally he gives up, collapsing into a stiff plastic chair to watch the ebb and flow of travelers passing him by. A cup of lukewarm tea in his hand, Turad muses pitifully on the lives drifting around him and on his own life, his thoughts meandering from thwarted love to crumpled pride, sexual deviance to religious turmoil, exile to senility. He is — unfortunately for readers of Yousef Al-Mohaimeed’s Wolves of the Crescent Moon — a mopey, unlikable lead.
Our anti-hero mires in his existential crisis as he sits in the Riyadh bus station. By his stilted interior dialogue shall we know him; and so, after a clumsily translated series of internal exclamations (Good grief! You oaf! and Son of the free tribes!) we learn that Turad is unemployed and homeless and has a tragic story of shame and ostracism to tell. He is, moreover, missing an ear.
What he doesn’t miss, alas, is any opportunity to entertain a veritable busload of angsty regrets. Al-Mohaimeed never digs much deeper into Turad’s troubles than when he describes an intense jealousy directed toward men who possess two ears. Moreover, his internal monologues are difficult to believe; Turad is meant to be a hardened ex-brigand, a man of considerable age and experience, not the brooding self- flagellator that he is.
As if the painful private mutterings of this disgruntled Bedu were not enough, Turad happens upon the “personal dossier” of an eye-less orphan. Al-Mohaimeed’s explanation for this gruesome narrative trope is that a hurried bus passenger left it on a nearby seat (along with his tea). Wolves of the Crescent Moon opens on this dismal note, weaving together the tale of half-deaf Turad with the life story of a blind bastard, as well as that of a third character — a Sudanese eunuch.
There is much to roll the eyes at in this novel, though to be fair, Al-Mohaimeed’s ambitious storytelling often sketches an accurate likeness of the Gulf and its discontents. And it’s nearly redeemed by its final chapters, in which Al-Mohaimeed unflinchingly relates the story of how Turad lost his ear. The end of the story is a brutal and vile scene of horrific detail — an extremity equal to the task the author has
set for himself. But Wolves should have been a devastating read from beginning to end.
In an interview with Penguin, Al-Mohaimeed cited Dickens, Faulkner, and Saramago as literary influences. Not surprisingly, deformation, inadequacy, and ostracism were starting points for all of these literary giants, each of whom is known for treating human suffering as an allegory of his time. But unlike The Sound and the Fury’s mentally handicapped Benjy Compson, or Bleak House’s ill and orphaned Esther Summerson, or one of Saramago’s nameless yet unforgettable characters in Blindness, Al-Mohaimeed’s paper- thin protagonists are nearly incapable of inspiring sympathy. These maimed men lack the strength to carry the story.
Not that women fare much better. The only significant female, an unnamed woman with a body like (you guessed it) “ripened fruit,” is little more than a prop. She’s inserted mid-book, to be impregnated in a Toyota Cressida in the shadow of a poster of the ill-fated Egyptian film star Suad Hosni. We learn nothing about her other than that she was “clamoring” for love and once wore a wide red blouse with Salha flowers on it. She gives birth to a main character, then promptly, conveniently — and, indeed, mercifully — disappears. She is less plausible even than the archetypal women portrayed in melodramatic Bahraini miniseries.
In 2007, another Saudi novelist, Rajaa Al-Sanea, took on the subject of women in her Girls of Riyadh. As overwrought and unbelievable as some parts of the plot may have been (glamorous TV jobs, weekend getaways to Europe, clockwork gossip-sessions), she at least managed to create plausible characters and, what’s more, believable relationships. Her clever, if not highbrow, concept was maimed by sluggish English interpretation and attempts to market her book as a representation of Gulf women at large. But that is the fate of most Arabic-to-English translations. And thanks to those same marketers, her book became a bestseller and an international sensation of sorts.
Wolves is no bestseller, but it has acquired a raft of critical acclaim. Hanan Al-Shaykh, the author of Beirut Blues, proclaims at the top of the Penguin edition: “At last an authentic voice from Saudi Arabia.” One is invited to imagine that the authenticity derives from Al-Mohaimeed’s decision to make all of his characters representatives of lower social classes. There is something to this, I suppose — Al-Mohaimeed “exposes” lives of suffering in a place where the widely assumed and propagated myth is that there is no poverty and no pain. But his societal stock characters can only evoke authenticity for those on the outside looking in.
Al-Mohaimeed self-righteously defended his choice of subject in an interview. “The truth is, we have a high percentage of unemployed and many problems in higher education. I am less concerned about the lives of the upper classes in my society than I am with people who live in difficult circumstances.” With that depressingly well-intentioned quote, I think we can safely call Wolves of the Crescent Moon a classic case of literary slumming.
“Today I decided to rob a bank.” With these words, Magdy El Shafee’s graphic novel, recently out from Dar Malamih Press and believed to be the first Egyptian work of its genre, opens. The work revolves around Shihab, a computer engineer specializing in electronic security systems for banks and businesses. Shihab’s small firm has suffered huge losses and gone bankrupt because of corruption and big business market domination. While planning to rob a bank, he accidentally turns up evidence that implicates corrupt businessmen in embezzlement and finds himself pursued by them and by the police after the former have accused him of a murder he didn’t commit. So it goes in the cruel world of Metro.
El Shafee’s novel is divided into chapters, each of which bears the name of a station (itself named after a former president of Egypt) on Cairo’s underground rail network. In moving from one metro station to another, the author provides a survey of Cairo’s various contrasting quarters, starting with the slums of El Marg, Guiza, and Feisal and ending with downtown Cairo’s belle époque quarter. Similarly, the author uses the metro to move Shihab between two worlds — that of marginalized Egyptians (embodied in the person of Uncle Wannas, the shoeshine man) underground, and the aboveground businessmen who supervise the stealing of elections. Recent Egyptian political events, in the form of demonstrations, elections, and torture at the hands of officials, comprise the backdrop. By the end of the novel, Shihab has discovered that everyone lives in a mousetrap and, though the trap is open, people are too afraid to leave it. Shihab chooses to leave the mousetrap and abandon any respect for the law, which he sees as no more than a means for the strong to dupe and dominate the weak. No sooner, however, has Shihab gotten out of his personal trap than he discovers that there are other escapees who are even more frightened than those still inside.
The political thread in Metro is one that has begun to emerge in a number of Egyptian literary works written in recent years, largely as a result of the country’s political ferment. What distinguishes Metro from other works, however, is the author’s choice of the graphic novel, a medium new to Egypt’s creative arena, to express his preoccupation with this reality. This choice reflects the opposition’s efforts to find new artistic forms for presenting its positions. The author does not focus exclusively on marginalized classes to illustrate the impact of corruption on the country — in contrast to most Egyptian works dealing with the political situation from a leftist perspective, which views the conflict as simply taking place between the oppressed and the oppressor, the good and the bad. The author concentrates on characters from the middle class, whom he attempts to portray as human rather than angelic. Thus Mustafa, Shihab’s friend, does not, at the end of the novel, stand by his friend, but takes the money they have stolen from the bank and escapes abroad with it, leaving Shihab behind. Similarly, the novel refuses to offer a solution pleasing to all parties, or to allow good to triumph over evil. Shihab merely satisfies himself with embracing his girlfriend in the metro station while life aboveground continues at its normal pace.
The same atmosphere is reflected in the language in which the author chose to write his novel. Since images carry the story, words only had to express dialogue. El Shafee eschewed obscure and standard formal language, instead depending mostly on colloquial Egyptian to lend realism to his characters and to generate satire. He also refused to exercise any form of censorship over his writing; The novel contains a number of expressions that some may find unacceptable or obscene, but the author views these as ordinary expressions that we hear almost every day. His use of these expressions presents a panorama of Egyptian realities: crowding, hiring thugs to influence elections, economic slowdown, unemployment, Muhammad Abu Treika (darling and role model of the poor), cellphone ringtones, etcetera.
Magdy El Shafee’s illustrations are entirely in black and white and employ a line intentionally chaotic and interwoven in order to evoke for the reader a sense of the chaos of Cairo’s streets. The most corrupt characters in the novel have faces that are drawn from real life, faces constantly seen on television and in the press, and the same is true of those characters who struggle for a better society and fight corruption. In this way, Metro reflects reality not only on political but on social and cultural levels. This aspect of the work is embodied in the character of Dina, Shihab’s sweetheart, an idealist who takes part in demonstrations in hopes of transforming not only the political but also the social reality. She is determined, for example, to keep her relationship with Shihab outside the standard Egyptian social framework of marriage. El Shafee uses this relationship to provide his novel with a romantic dimension and, at one point, to present a scene of frank eroticism between Shihab and Dina — this at a time when the professors at Cairo University’s Fine Arts Department are clothing the nude statues used by students learning to depict the human body.
Unfortunately, Metro’s realism is more than Egyptian officials could stand. This April, shortly after Metro’s publisher Mohamed Sharkawy was arrested for advocating on behalf of workers, the press’s offices were raided by the vice squad. (Sharkawy, incidentally, has been a much- publicized victim of torture at the hands of authorities in the past.) All copies of Metro on hand were confiscated. Since then, Sharkawy and El Shafee have been charged with “offending public morality.” And, as ever in Egypt, people must negotiate the black market to find their way to this timely text.
A Blue Hand: The Beats in India
By Deborah Baker
One has to wonder why we need another book on the Beats. Accounts of their lives and loves — and sometimes, of their works — range from the salacious to the cerebral. Many of these accounts have been by the Beats themselves. Prodigious and prolific, they wrote about themselves, they wrote about each other, and they wrote to and for each other. So what else could there be to say?
Deborah Baker’s A Blue Hand provides one answer: an account of the fifteen months that Beat-in-Chief Allen Ginsberg spent in India in 1961–62. This is not an untold story, exactly; for one, it was told by Ginsberg himself in a manically detailed yet sprawling jumble of writings — breathlessly lyrical and visceral records from his journal of what he saw and felt as he sought from the East answers that the West would or could not provide him. He also wrote letters, reams of them, to his father and family and, of course, to his fellow Beats: Gregory Corso, Lucien Carr, Jack Kerouac, and William S Burroughs.
Yet Baker does a remarkable job of telling her story. It is as if she is the mythical swan that separates milk from water as she dips into the hysterical treasure trove of text the Beats generated. Hers is a story of presences and absences — of Peter Orlovsky, Ginsberg’s off-again, on-again lover, who lived with him in Calcutta; of Gary Snyder and his wife, Joanne Kyger, poets on similar journeys; of Corso and Kerouac, who stayed behind; and perhaps even of Neal Cassady, with whom Ginsberg had been so hopelessly in love. Burroughs, whom Ginsberg had regarded as a spiritual guru as well as a literary mentor, figures especially prominently, especially by his absence.
(Ginsberg had had a spiritual epiphany in a Harlem apartment fifteen years earlier — a powerful aural experience of William Blake reciting his poem “Ah! Sunflower” — and his various journeys, physical and pharmacological, were efforts to recapture that moment of perfect intensity and veracity.)
The search for a new guru fueled Ginsberg’s magical, mystical tour through India. But perhaps the most compelling presence/absence in this book is that of the unlikely-named Hope Savage, a kind of muse or siren whose role in the lives of the Beats was so poetically apt that if she had not existed, someone might well have invented her. (I, for one, wondered whether someone had — there is scant information about her anywhere in the vast literary outpouring of the Beats, save between the covers of Baker’s book.) This elusive creature seems to have served as an evanescent metaphor for Ginsberg’s own quest for a truth that would liberate him. Though it was Corso who was desperately in love with her, in Baker’s account, Ginsberg, too, became obsessed with the girl called Hope as she appeared and disappeared, far away but so close, even as Ginsberg pursued a transfiguring life experience that was always just out of reach.
Baker also excavates the Bengali poets that Ginsberg spent so much time with in Calcutta, a city that had its share of madmen-mystics and seekers who were as dedicated to the idea of poetry as Ginsberg was. These are the pages that really come to life — not only because Calcutta was where Ginsberg had his deepest relationships with Indians, but also perhaps it is the city and the milieu that Baker herself knows best. In the rest of the book, India hardly appears at all, as we are constantly inside the poets’ heads, looking through their glass, darkly. Bombay was the hub of Indian poets writing in English at that time, but Ginsberg’s readings in that city are given short shrift, despite the fact that it was the “thin-lipped poet Nissim Ezekiel” (a great admirer of Beat poetry and a man profoundly moved by his own experiments with LSD) who persuaded Ginsberg to contribute his new poems to the Indian journal Quest that Ezekiel edited at the time, a contribution that affected the way Indian poets wrote in English for decades after.
Given that Ginsberg’s writings from this period form the bedrock of Baker’s work, and that they are entirely if not obsessively chronological therein, one might ask why Baker’s constructed narrative Christoph Keller Editions of those fifteen months from 1961 to 1963 (and a few short weeks in 1971) breaks in and out of linear time, dragging the reader to early twentieth-century Bengal and back, cutting and pasting, as Burroughs might have done, between letters and journeys that all occurred and were represented in linear time. The technique seems forced. But perhaps it was necessary after all — it lends A Blue Hand its uniqueness, and for such a well-traveled subject, that is no small achievement.
Book Works, 2008
Part of Singular Sociology, a project curated by Nav Haq for the London-based publisher Book Works, Rosalind Nashashibi’s new publication is part art book, part publishing curio. The eighty-page volume, sensitively and simply designed by Sara De Bondt, gathers found and re-photographed images into ten chapters. Each sequence invites the reader to form a narrative fragment, a kind of surreal storyboard for a static film. The images — culled from the covers of old Penguin books (Palestinians: From Peasants to Revolutionaries by Rosemary Sayigh, for example) and newspaper clippings (Russell Crowe being arrested) and even a bread necklace — are presented without captions on glossy paper (image details are gathered at the back). The only potential prescribed framing comes from a short fiction text by Will Bradley, but this is presented on different paper, as though as an accidental insert, another curated “object” in the book that entices a free association from the viewer. This is a slim, precious book that attempts no answers.
_Celebration at Persepolis _
By Michael Stevenson
Published to coincide with Michael Stevenson’s ‘Persepolis 2530’ at Arnolfini, Bristol, in February 2008, Celebration at Persepolis is an artist’s investigation of the $300 million party hosted by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1971, in a tent city built beside the ruins of Persepolis. The Bristol exhibition was an expanded version of a project presented at Art Basel 2007, which included the reconstruction of one of the guest tents in its current dilapidated form. Stevenson’s small hardbound book, with its grainy black and white photos (by Simon Wachsmuth, Abbas, and others) and glossy jacket of marching soldiers, resembles the kind of dusty 1970s handbook you’d find in the bookshop at the Laleh Hotel in Tehran. Besides Stevenson’s own text, there’s a conversation with a structural engineer regarding the construction of the tent and a historical narrative by Martin Clark. Stevenson muses on his fascination with HIM (His — and Her — Imperial Majesty, the shah and shahbanou): “Persepolis was His stage, His shortcut to the future.” His rambling, occasionally touristic but fascinating text takes in — among others — Warhol and his role as “court painter” to the former monarchs; Tony Shafrazi, the former Tehran (now New York) art dealer; Kamran Diba, architect and first director of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art; and the Houghton Shah-Nameh, swapped for a de Kooning by the TMCA during a clandestine meeting at Vienna Airport.
By Rabih Alameddine
Knopf / Picador, 2008
Rabih Alameddine’s third novel represents a major leap in the writer’s ambition. Alameddine’s previous books, Koolaids and I, the Divine, were experimental in structure and innovative in style. But The Hakawati is a masterpiece, worth every one of its 513 pages. Alamaddine romps through appropriations, embellishments, enhancements, and, in some cases, restorations of such classic literary texts as Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Homer’s Iliad, the Old Testament, the Qur’an, Levantine folktales, Ahmad al-Tifashi’s medieval treatise on homoeroticism, and uncensored versions of the Thousand and One Nights and Kalila wa Dimna. The skeletal story here is of a son returning to Beirut after twenty-six years in Los Angeles to spend time with his dying father. But it’s also an occasion to tell a wildly complex and interconnected tale of love, lust, loyalty, and betrayal through the centuries. Alameddine’s protagonist, Osama al-Kharrat, has inherited the art of storytelling from his grandfather by way of his Uncle Jihad. As he tells his unconscious father tale after tale, readers catch a glimpse of the Ottoman expulsion of Armenian orphans, the Mediterranean between two world wars, Lebanon at independence, and Beirut during nights of war and days of reconstruction. Though Alameddine is proudly and forcefully claimed as Lebanese by Lebanese, his latest novel makes a boisterous case for cultural miscegenation.
_An Interrupted History of Punk and Underground Resources in Turkey 1978-1999 _
Edited by Sezgin Boynik and Tolga Guldalli
Turkish and English
If you expect Turkish punk to sound like agglutinated Sex Pistols, you’re in for a surprise. In the 1970s, punk meant funk in Istanbul, as in the Curtis Mayfield-infused guitar of legendary rockers Tünay Akdeniz and Cigrisim. Something resembling suburban American headbanger rock followed, with song titles and band names that limn a similar anger and despair: “Violate the Newborn” by Deathroom, or “Condemnation (Fuck You USA)” by Turmoil. But this was not the outgrowth of mere adolescent angst; in Turkey, the oppression was real. An Interrupted History argues that political events of the times — such as the terror of the nationalist Grey Wolves in the 70s and the military coup of 1980 — brought forth this sharp musical transition. Interviews with musicians and other participants, over a hundred images, and an accompanying CD help complete this portrait of the Turkish underground music scene.
Pars Pro Toto: Susan Hefuna
Edited by Hans Ulrich Obrist
Kehrer Verlag, 2008
Arabic and English
Pars Pro Toto presents a comprehensive look at a career that has moved logically and fluidly from video to installation, from sculpture to woodwork. Interior space is a theme throughout Hefuna’s work: vitrines, wooden cages, mashrabiya screens, and large-scale architectural installations. The texts are provided by the book’s editor, the ubiquitous Swiss critic and curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. The first text is an interview Obrist conducted with the artist, in which Hefuna discusses her German and Egyptian background, the complicated nature of cultural identification, and her interest in both display and concealment. A second conversation takes place with Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih. A selection of poems by the Syrian-born Adonis are also included.
Arabesque: Graphic Design from the Arab World and Persia
Edited by Ben Wittner and Sascha Thomas
Die Gestalten Verlag, 2008
Arabesque covers a wide range of graphic designers and artists across the Middle East — indeed, the book is so ambitious that it seems daunting at first, jumping from graffiti art to font designs to calligraphy-based artworks. But by far the most interesting, and important, inclusion is a collection of contemporary fonts in Arabic script; these are accompanied by interviews with the designers. The effort to compile and define graphic identities is particularly critical given the hegemony of the Roman alphabet in print. Despite the Arab and Persian worlds’ rich calligraphic traditions, their graphic design scenes are quite young. Instead, artistic endeavors have focused on fine art featuring stylistic exaggerations of calligraphic extracts. Arabesque provides an inspiring view of a new generation that is now returning script to its proper place: as text.
_Exit-Architecture: Design Between War and Peace _
By Stephan Truby
In the aftermath of the bombing of the House of Commons in 1941, Churchill observed that first we shape our buildings, then they shape us. As a testament to that building’s psychological power, it was rebuilt identically. These moments of construction and reconstruction represent the neuralgic point in the development of a culture: artistic production becomes a representation of survival and a coping mechanism in and of itself. Starting with Roman triumphal arches, author Stephan Trüby explores how war and fear have shaped architecture. His analysis of exit and entry points in buildings, from fire stairs to corridors, highlights the discomfort in modern architecture, cornered between the supposed rationalism of safety measures and the desire to provide cultural meaning. Examples such as the Pentagon and the Jamarat Bridge in Mecca reveal the modern-day obsession with risk management — what the author calls “anti-panic design,” appropriate for a world in a permanent state of emergency.
_Otto Neurath: The Language of Global Crisis _
By Nader Vossoughian
Nai Publishers, 2008
Otto Neurath is best known as a sociologist and political economist who was a member of the Vienna circle in the 1920s. But some of his most significant work was in urban planning and development, which developed as a field in the twentieth century. Neurath’s ISOTYPE (International System of Typographic Picture Education) project was unique in its early utopian belief in urban planning on a global scale, and in its use of visual media to understand the space of the city. Curator and critic Nader Vossoughian, who recently organized an exhibition on this subject at Stroom Den Haag in the Netherlands, provides a thorough overview of Neurath’s work and describes the exchange of ideas that occurred between intellectuals of the period, from Adolf Loos to Le Corbusier. One hopes that this book will bring Neurath to the forefront of discourse on urban planning and lead to a greater appreciation of his significance.
Donghuamen Night Market — a row of standardized food stalls stretching westward
from the Wangfujing shopping district in downtown Beijing — is the stage for a culinary-theatrical carny hustle on the theme of Crazy Things Chinese People Eat. Self-consciously exotic displays of skewered snakes and skewered frogs and skewered centipedes and skewered testicles transform passersby into gawkers. More typical street food — fried banana balls, minced-pork sandwiches, fried noodles — is available for the less adventurous.
It takes a little while to learn the ropes. Salted silkworm pupae are tasty enough, but at five fat ones to a skewer, a single order is best for sharing (unless you really love chitin). Foreigners in search of “authentic foodways” might begin to notice that the Chinese themselves are whipping out their camera phones and giggling before they try the leggiest, crawliest morsels. Indeed, many of the things on skewers are flatly impossible to eat in this manner (whole, on a stick, with your teeth). Like a crawfish, for example.
But then, in Stall 56, where a red cloth flag certifies his sanitary bona fides, there is Zheng Zhongbin. Zheng has been at Donghuamen since 1991, and for the last twelve years he has held the monopoly on scorpions. He has big, black, shiny scorpions for 50 yuan, and an assortment of other arthropods, including crickets. But he recommends the small, drab pincer scorpions, for 15 yuan. “Of all the food that I sell,” Zheng said, “the scorpions sell and taste the best.”
Due to hygiene regulations, Zheng’s scorpions are canned in brine. “No doubt, the live ones taste better,” he admitted. He prepares them by soaking them in fresh water, then giving them a preliminary fry in oil to make them look nice. When a customer orders a skewer, Zheng gives it a final flash-fry. This is the crucial part — too long, and the taste gets bitter; too short, and the flavor doesn’t fully develop. The oil is a standard cooking variety. “If you fry them with pure sesame oil, they will taste even better,” he said.
Foreigners usually buy one three-scorpion skewer at a time. Chinese people might buy ten. (Some people buy them as medicine; they’re said to be cooling and cleansing and good for the complexion.) Sometimes Zheng cooks scorpions for himself at home, he said, and eats them while drinking erguotou liquor that he’s infused with herbs. Big restaurants like the Quanjude duck chain might sell scorpions, too, he said, but he doesn’t recommend ordering them there; the cooks don’t get enough practice.
“I’m not trying to talk big,” Zheng said, “but I am confident in saying that, speaking of frying skills, I’m the best in this market.”
DEEP-FRIED SCORPION KEBAB
1 CAN EAST ASIAN PINCER SCORPIONS IN BRINE (APPROXIMATELY 20 SMALL SCORPIONS) COOKING OIL, FOR FRYING
GROUND RED PEPPER
Drain the scorpions and soak them in fresh water for at least one hour to remove excess salt.
Heat the cooking oil over a medium-low flame, about 120 or 130 degrees Celsius.
Spear the scorpions on wooden skewers, three to a stick, and fry them in oil for about a minute, until the carapaces look firm. Set aside.
Just before serving, fry them another minute or two.
Remove them from the oil and sprinkle with salt and red pepper to taste. Serve hot.
Makes 6 or 7 skewers.
LAMB PENIS KEBAB
1 LAMB PENIS
COOKING OIL, FOR FRYING SALT
Wind the lamb penis around a wooden skewer, piercing it at either end.
Heat the oil over a high flame.
Fry the skewered penis in oil for 1 to 2 minutes.
Remove it from the oil and season with salt and cumin.
PORK-INTESTINE SOUP WITH PANCAKE
FOR THE PANCAKE FLOUR
￼￼￼FOR THE SOUP
DOUFU RU (SALTED FERMENTED BEAN CURD) JIU CAI HUA (SALTED GREENS)
For the pancakes:
Combine the flour, water, and a pinch of salt to make a dough about the consistency of pizza dough. Let sit for 15 minutes.
Tear off a tennis-ball-sized portion and use a rolling pin to make a cake about 15 cm across and 2 cm thick. Cook this in a frying pan over medium heat for 8 to 10 minutes.
For the soup:
Chop the organs into chunks and simmer for at least 5 hours in water, with the fried tofu, ginger, leeks, soy sauce, and star anise.
Just before serving, add a pancake to the soup and boil it for 3 to 5 minutes. Remove the pancake and chop it into smaller pieces.
Remove a chunk of each kind of organ meat and chop into smaller pieces.
Put the chopped pancakes and meat into a bowl with fried tofu and add broth. Add the jiu cai hua, green coriander, doufu ru, sesame butter, and minced garlic and serve.
FLASH-BOILED LAMB STOMACH
JIU CAI HUA (SALTED GREENS)
DOUFU RU (SALTED FERMENTED BEAN CURD)
Precook the heart, liver, and lung in boiling water, with leeks, the ginger, and the star anise, for 5 hours. Drain and slice the organ meats into strips.
Boil the cooked strips of meat in a new pot of water, along with leeks and black pepper. Slice the raw stomach into strips.
For each bowl of soup desired, cook about 200 grams of the stomach meat in the broth, using a slotted spoon or dipper, for about one minute.
Fill the bottom of a soup bowl with chopped green coriander. Fill the bowl with broth and stomach meat, either alone or combined with the other meats. Add jiu cai hua and doufu ru and serve.