On August 17, 1635, the wealthy Amsterdammer Jan Hendricxsz Admirael demanded eleven paintings and one Lucas van Leyden print from the art collector Marten Kretser. The two men had agreed on the price for these artworks: a number of valuable tulip bulbs and the sum of 180 florins. Kretser had reneged, so Admirael took him to court. The judge ordered Kretser to meet the terms of the agreement, and the case was settled.
Admirael was a prosperous businessman who lived on Prinsengracht, the Prince’s Canal. He had two gardens, one at his house and the other in the north of the city, and was an active tulip trader. Many of the deals made in the thriving Dutch tulip exchange were connected to the art world, with bulbs regularly exchanged for paintings. At that time and in that place, art and nature were equals — it could be said that the painter of landscapes and still lifes entered into competition with his subject, which, though ephemeral, was oftentimes more valuable than its oil-on-canvas counterpart.
Trade with Asia Minor, Turkey, and Persia was flourishing then, and with it a passion for unknown flowers and plants. The tulip is thought to have originated in Asia Minor, coming to Europe by way of Constantinople, where the flower was also greatly admired. When a ship docked at Middelburg, Haarlem, or Amsterdam, botanists, experts, and hobbyists flocked to the harbor to inspect the cargo. From these shipments, scientists created herb and flower gardens, botanical guides for obscure plants, and encyclopedias where also were recorded newly discovered species of birds and insects.
As scientific interest grew, so did an aesthetic interest in the tulip. Indeed, it lacked any scent or curative powers and seemed to exist solely for aesthetic pleasure, for its myriad variations of color and shape. “Here in this country people value most the flamed, winged, speckled, jagged, shredded, and the most variegated,” wrote tulip connoisseur Joost van Ravelingen in 1618. “The ones that are the most valued are not the most beautiful or the nicest, but the ones which are the rarest to find; or which belong to one master, who can keep them in high price or worth.” The veneration of the tulip became a symbol of Dutch interest in the exotic, especially among well-heeled collectors. As the value of the flower skyrocketed, servants, gardeners, and thieves began pilfering them from the stately gardens of the city’s patricians.
Today we continue to see financial speculation in matters of aesthetics. Damien Hirst’s auction of his work in September 2008, just before the credit crisis, generated 133 million euros, including the highest amount ever paid for an individual work of art, 13 million euros for his Golden Calf. During the so-called “tulip mania” of the seventeenth century, the value of some flowers equalled the value of a house on one of Amsterdam’s canals. In a way, Hirst’s work with butterflies, sharks, and calves can be seen as a reiteration of the seventeenth-century passion for natural artifacts and “artificialia” — tulips of a different variety.
This year the Prince Claus Fund is focusing on the theme “Culture and Nature.” The theme is important not only because of the current precarious relationship between humanity and the natural world, but also for the shifts that can be observed when we look back historically. In the Golden Age, culture was placed above nature, but by the seventeenth century the worship of nature’s beauty and diversity paralleled the valuation of man’s own creations. These days, we value natural things because they threaten to disappear. But ecology encompasses a great deal — we intend to look also at the relationships between cultures and societies, which tend to be linked to the exploitation of nature: in the search for oil, which is at the root of many current conflicts; in the scarcity of water, for a significant cause of internal displacement and unrest in places like Sudan; and in ruinous global tourism to palm-fringed Caribbean beaches and Southeast Asian jungles.
Flowers is a collaboration between Bidoun and the Prince Claus Fund Journal and takes its cue from the “Culture and Nature” theme. This issue of Bidoun draws attention to rare varieties of flowers, loosely defined. As transient, beautiful, and vulnerable as flowers are, so too are we.
The Ultimate Experience
Al Riwaq Gallery
March 10-31, 2009
Al Riwaq Gallery will be opening a new 650-square-meter space devoted to contemporary arts in Al Ali Mall, Bahrain, on March 8, 2009. Inspired by the particularities of its new location, the inaugural exhibition, entitled ‘The Ultimate Experience,’ will be a multidisciplinary group show of artists from the Arab world. Curated by William Wells of the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo, the show’s focus will be how consumerism shapes identities. The exhibition will run together with a film program curated by Karim Tartoussieh (starting on March 9) and talks by sociologist Mona Abaza and architect Maan Alsalloum on mall culture (on March 29). Events will also include a commissioned fashion show by Mohamed Khafagi, artist-in-residence programs, and workshops.
GothGulf Visual Vortex GGVV
The Sultan Gallery
March 31–April 2, 2009
A group show curated by Khalid Al Gharaballi and Fatima Al Qadiri, ‘Goth Gulf Visual Vortex GGVV’ will explore the late arrival of goth subculture to Kuwait in the early 2000s. Having passed through the filters of third-world cyber aesthetics, MTV pop-goth videos, and trashy Kuwaiti fashion trends, the subculture ultimately came out “wrong,” a distinctively cheesy local manifestation. Arabic pop music and poetry’s predilection toward sadness and solitude added a sense of familiarity to the genre. Garnering the interest of local “noir journalism” — tabloids devoted exclusively to “exposing” the occult — goth kids were automatically branded as Satan worshippers. In juxtaposition, the show will address dark aspects of Kuwaiti culture, such as the practices of black magic and zeeran (exorcism rituals) and the Muslim belief in jinn (demonic spirits), as well as the haunting destruction left behind after the invasion of 1990-91. The show will feature work from Khalid Al Gharaballi, Fatima Al Qadiri, Tareq Al-Sultan, Bassem Mansour, Monira Al Qadiri, and Lauren Boyle.
Tehran / San Francisco
Taraneh Hemami: One Day — A Collective Project
May 22-June 22, 2009
September 16–November 7, 2009
California-based installation artist Taraneh Hemami is working on a long-term, two-city project, compiling a collective narrative of everyday Tehran. Besides writers, performers, and musicians, the project includes artists Nima Alizadeh, Saba Alizadeh, Nazgol Ansarinia, Mehraneh Atashi, Mohammad Ghazali, Ghazaleh Hedayat, Abbas Kowsari, Mehran Mohajer, Neda Razavipour, and Homayoun Askari Sirizi, who have been charged with responding to the mundane through observations of people, objects, and rituals. Collectively, the participants will “examine the relationship between the patterns, rhythms, and systems that emerge from their everyday experiences.” The Tehran stint will be a “collective dialogue,” which will then be presented in an exhibition format at Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco in the fall.
June 7-November 22, 2009
The United Arab Emirates is the first Gulf state to have a national pavilion at the Venice Biennale. The organizing team, led by Dr. Lamees Hamdan, a well-known art collector and a board member of the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority, made the gutsy choice of Berlin-based critic Tirdad Zolghadr as curator. Zolghadr has centered the show on the young photographer Lamya Gargash, best known for her series of images of abandoned villas, exhibited at the Creek Art Fair in 2008. Gargash’s new series will be accompanied by an additional digital exhibition of work by UAE-based artists, including Hassan Sharif, Mohammed Kazem, and Tarek Al Ghoussein.
Zolghadr is expected to dodge the usual promotional fare in favor of a challenging approach that will include an exploration of the “grand exhibition” itself. The UAE Pavilion will be co-designed by Emirati designer Rami Farook, of Dubai’s Traffic gallery, and young Belgian architectural collective D’haeseleer & Kimpe & Poelaert.
In addition, federal capital Abu Dhabi is jumping into the Venice game solo, presenting a “platform for Venice” curated by Paris-based Catherine David. Aiming to “reflect the conditions within which Abu Dhabi / UAE culture is being generated,” this group show will include a “bank of images and representations” developed by filmmakers, photographers, and artists from the region and abroad. Designed by Sauerbruch Hutton, the exhibition will be located behind the Arsenale, in Thetis space number 102.
Venice Biennale: Lapses
June 7–November 22, 2009
Curated by Basak Senova, the Turkish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale will take on the theme of “lapses.” It will privilege the question of perception: how can lapses in collective memory inspire different conceptions of the same event, and by extension, history as we know it? The project will be realized through the works of two artists. Banu Cennetoglu’s Index for Self-Organized Criticality is a rumination on the different lives photographs may take, assuming the form of a fastidiously organized mail order catalog. Ahmet Ögüt’s Exploded City, is an exploration of the lives of destroyed buildings past and present in the form of an installation. Three books will be presented on the occasion of the biennial, one featuring each of the artist’s work, a second compiling philosophical treatises on the question of “lapses,” and a third built around four projects and case studies: “Park Hotel” by Ceren Oykut, “Kriegspiel” by Mushon Zer-Aviv and Alex Galloway, “Postcapital” by Daniel Garcia Andujar, and “Master Plan” by Yane Calovski.
March 12–April 30, 2009
Tashkeel’s January show, ‘Point of Encounter’ — featuring UAE-based Alia Al Shamsi, Janet Bellotto, Muna Al Ali, and Patricia Millns — was a strong multisensory set of installations and photography. Now the Nad Al Sheba–based gallery and studio center continues its run of exhibitions with an open call to local artists to focus on the “fifty percent of communication that is unspoken and relies on human actions, reactions and expressions,” and the cultural mismatches and misinterpretations that result. Artists are challenged to “provoke a silent conversation in any medium.”
Bastakiya Art Fair
March 15-22, 2009
Alongside Art Dubai and the Sharjah Biennial (previewed in Bidoun issue 16), the UAE’s March arts extravaganza also includes the former Creek Art Fair, which has had a name change and something of a makeover in 2009. Managed by dynamic Abu Dhabi-based curator Emily Doherty on a shoestring budget, it may, perversely, come into its own as the credit crunch bites the U.A.E., shying away from glitz to focus instead on small curatorial initiatives. The old stone houses, grouped around organizer XVA Gallery in Dubai’s historic quarter, will host individual artists, including the influential artist and gallerist Fereydoun Ave, designer Zain Mustafa, and photographer Mark Pilkington, as well as local galleries. Highlights include installation artist Buthayna Ali at Green Art Gallery (one of the oldest Dubai galleries, now undergoing some innovative changes under new director Yasmine Atassi), and the Third Line, which will give over its house to work by a new signee, the Emirati conceptualist Ebtisam Abdulaziz. International participants will include Saatchi Online editor Rebecca Wilson and London-based curator Sara Raza, who will be curating a daily BAF Art School, held over brunch each morning. Bidoun will also be hosting artists’ work.
Idris Khan: Be Lost in the Call
March 14–April 25, 2009
Elementa is something of a well-kept secret in Dubai. Off the beaten gallery track, located in an unpromising block in the airport zone, it nonetheless is making a place for itself with a strong run of serious shows by Emirati, South Asian, and international artists, mostly organized by in-house curator Mehnaz Tan. In March the warehouse gallery will give the celebrated British artist Idris Khan his first show in the Gulf. A set of new works made for the Dubai show will include photographs combining analog and digital techniques based on musical scores, books, and Sufi texts. The artist will debut a single-screen version of his recent film Lying in Wait, made in collaboration with the British contemporary choreographer and dancer Sarah Warsop. The Elementa exhibition will also include a series of images inspired by Rumi, via American minimalist Agnes Martin. “I found similarities in the way she put emphasis upon line, grids, and fields of extremely subtle color and the way Arabic calligraphy is laid out on a page,” says Khan.
January 20–April 16, 2009
Including work by several generations of Emirati artists, this grand survey exhibition is curated by Anne Baldassari, director of the Musée National Picasso, Paris. It sets out to “present a harmonious blend of traditional and contemporary work in which the national culture can be represented visually and symbolically,” displaying the work of sixty-four artists in a dark, dramatically lit “black box” at the self-proclaimed seven-star hotel–cum–exhibition venue. Alongside work by established contemporary artists such as Lateefa bint Maktoum, Ebtisam Abdulaziz, Lamya Gargash, and the pioneering brothers Hassan and Hussein Sharif, is a clutch of newcomers; the result is something of a mixed bag. Aspects of the show — including the employment of a curator from afar, and a lack of catalog and texts in Arabic — are, according to local artists, problematic. Nonetheless, the endeavor has resulted in a rare and much-needed burst of documentary material, including a film about the artists by Emirati directors Khaled Al Subaihi, Ahmed Arshi, and Fadel Al Muhairy. It is certainly worth exploring.
Reza Aramesh:Between the eye and the object falls a shadow…
April 14–May 7, 2009
Following a run of shows by Tehran-based stalwarts, including Khosrow Hassanzadeh and Bita Fayyazi, Dubai’s B21 gallery has scheduled a show with its latest signee: London-based photographer Reza Aramesh. The show will include his 2008 series Between the eye and the object falls the shadow, which draws on both Goya’s The Disasters of War (1810–1820) and Reuters photojournalism of war and conflict in the Middle East from the 1960s to the present day. Aramesh has these scenes reenacted by nonprofessional actors of mostly migratory backgrounds within the incongruous setting of stately and historic homes in the idyllic English countryside.
Jeremy Deller: It Is What It Is — Conversation about Iraq
February 11–March 22, 2009
On March 15, 2007, insurgents detonated a car bomb on Baghdad’s al-Mutanabbi Street — home to the city’s historic book market — killing thirty-eight people and wounding over a hundred. The explosion also destroyed fifteen cars, one of which will be on display at the New Museum as part of British artist (and Turner Prize recipient) Jeremy Deller’s endeavor to stoke conversation about the current state of affairs in Iraq. The carcass of the automobile will serve as an artifact of the war, and of the pre- insurgency, cultural and intellectual life centered on al-Mutanabbi Street. Deller and a rotating cast of journalists, military veterans, scholars, and Iraqis will chat up museum visitors. One imagines a Baghdad teahouse transported to the secure environs of the downtown institution, the quotidian reflections on ethnic cleansing and the destruction of Iraqi society as related to visitors stopping by on their way to the museum cafe.
Or not. The title of the show suggests an effort to present, with a shrug of acceptance, the facts on the ground, as evidenced by the burned-out car. But the goal is conversation, not just communication. So how might visitors respond to this information? And is the desired event — a conversation — an end in itself? Deller and his cohorts will find out, and not just at the New Museum: the project will travel, via RV, throughout the country, exploded car in tow, stopping at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and ending up in Los Angeles at the Hammer Museum. Co-organized by New York public arts presenter Creative Time, the road trip promises to test Americans’ willingness to engage in a conversation that has to some degree been shelved as the explosions have waned.
Emily Jacir: Where We Come From
February 6–April 15, 2009
For Where We Come From (2001-2003), Emily Jacir asked Palestinians throughout the world, “If I could do anything for you, anywhere in Palestine, what would it be?” Then, during a sojourn in the Palestinian territories and Israel — a trip made possible by her American passport — Jacir fulfilled their requests, among them “Go to Haifa and play soccer with the first Palestinian boy you see on the street.” The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art recently acquired the piece and exhibited it this winter. The work was accompanied by a jarring wall text informing viewers that “works of art can engender valuable discussion about a range of topics, including those that are difficult and contested, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” It then directed viewers to the Haas Atrium, where they could find “additional information about Emily Jacir’s Where We Come From, including a list of frequently asked questions.”
One can assume that such directives and qualifications will be jettisoned with Jacir’s solo exhibition at the Guggenheim this spring, on the occasion of her receipt of the $100,000 Hugo Boss Prize. It is strange that while one institution feels compelled to qualify Jacir’s political concerns and set them at a distance, another sees them objectively as cause for celebration — but it’s not inexplicable. Jacir, a Palestinian-American artist who divides her time between New York and Ramallah, doesn’t mince words, which is part of the reason why visitors to the Guggenheim this spring can expect a show that will “engender valuable discussion about a range of topics.”
January 15-March 29, 2009
Since its inception in 2007, the Museum as Hub project has taken an aspirational model of identity and art practice — the free flow of ideas across borders, supported magnanimously by international cultural institutions — and given it a semipermanent anchor on the fifth floor of the New Museum. After exhibitions in Mexico City, Seoul, and Cairo, all complemented by the New Museum’s programming, Eindhoven’s Van Abbemuseum took up the topic of “neighborhood” last year with a contentious foray into the realm of global capitalism and its discontents.
‘Be(com)ing Dutch,’ which finished its run at the Van Abbemuseum in September and will be on exhibit at the New Museum starting January 15 (along with the customary lecture and panel fare), reflects on the prosaic questions of national identity, migration, and social conflict with a welcome shot of ambivalence and occasional violence.
In the video Freedom of Expression, Lidwien van de Ven re-edits footage from the hearing at which Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-Dutch politician and feminist critic of Islam, presents her case for European Union protection against threats on her life. Hirsi Ali resigned from Parliament after it was discovered that she had misstated her name on her asylum application, and she now lives and works in an undisclosed location in the Netherlands. In the video, she is shrouded by men in dark suits, her face slipping in and out of view as they plead on her behalf.
Michael Blum’s Exodus 2048 installation offers a vision of Hirsi Ali’s past, as imagined from a point in the future. He takes us into the family quarters of a refugee camp for Israelis exiled to the Netherlands in the year 2048, after an explosion of the Palestinian population and the political decline of Israel’s allies has decimated the country. The result is something between kitsch and trauma: Imagine Anne Frank’s hideaway occupied by despairing teenagers armed with graffiti pens, clippings from celebrity magazines, and salvaged scraps of nationalist propaganda, waiting for their asylum applications to be processed.
Emerging Artists’ Exhibition
Beirut Art Center
April 14–June 6, 2009
For its second exhibition to date, the newly launched Beirut Art Center will debut what will soon become an annual program devoted to emerging artists from Lebanon and the greater region. Earlier this year, a call for proposals went out near and far; a committee invited especially for the occasion will select artists based on their submitted proposals. The subsequent show will provide an important follow-up to the new nonprofit space’s successful launch this past January (see reviews).
Queens Museum of Art
May 10–August 2009
Curated by Leeza Ahmady and Iftikhar Dadi, ‘Tarjama/Translation’ will feature the works of artists from the Middle East and its diaspora who explore questions of “translation” through their respective practices. Encompassing a variety of media and artistic strategies, ‘Tarjama/Translation’ treats the multiple processes of translation as dynamic and complex, from linguistic and textual maneuvers, to the expansion of consciousness engendered by an increasingly globalized world. Aware of the loaded nature of sweeping exhibitions that take the Middle East as referent, organizers hope equally to take on the unwieldy question of how work from the Middle East is understood in a Western context. What is gained and what is lost in the process of speaking for and about the region? Ambitiousness aside, the lineup looks promising and includes, among many others, Lara Baladi, Gulsun Karamustafa, Emily Jacir, Farhad Moshiri, Wael Shawky, Solmaz Shahbazi, and Mitra Tabrizian. In addition to the exhibition program, supplemental programming will include public discussions as well as individually commissioned artist projects.
In 1965 Hürriyet, an influential Turkish newspaper, announced the Altin Mikrofon. Analogous to the contests that were already creating legions of “garage bands” in cities and towns across Europe and North America, Altin Mikrofon was, in some sense, a glorified battle of the bands. And yet the golden microphone played a unique role in shaping the popular culture of Turkey at a vulnerable moment in its history. From another angle, it might be thought of as one of the most successful cultural nationalist projects in the golden age of cultural nationalism.
As Hürriyet explained, “The Altın Mikrofon contest aims to open up a new space for Turkish pop music, using techniques, formats, and instruments of Western music.” Some room already existed — Turkish musicians, some of them educated abroad, had been playing R&B and rock since the late 1950s. The Shadows had been highly influential at the start of the decade, not least because their flamboyant instrumental music could be appreciated without knowing or caring much about the English language.
But the Golden Microphone laid down a particular gauntlet: Contestants had to play Western instruments, and they had to play “Turkish music.” At a minimum, that meant inventing new Turkish lyrics to go along with borrowed melodies from abroad. But it could also mean seeking out songs from the rural areas far from Istanbul, played on traditional Turkish drums and stringed instruments like the saz or bağlama, and rearranging them for the standard Western guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards (and sometimes saxophone). It was like a pop-era cover of Ataturk’s retro-futurism: insisting on complete modernity while turning to the past for inspiration and a sense of belonging.
Contestants were evaluated first by a jury of music-related personalities. Ten finalists were then flown to perform three songs each at concerts for an array of VIPs in major Turkish cities, with the winner chosen by secret ballot from the crowds in attendance. The winner was promised a nightly gig (and monthly stipend) at a then-new club in Istanbul, The Oriental, as well as the chance to put out a 45rpm single, garnering any profits from sales. It was a national not-for-profit promotion and sales initiative that in turn helped spawn a consumer culture of record-collecting across the country.
Between the riches and the glory, nearly every aspiring musician was moved to enter the contest. An awesome hodgepodge of styles was presented alla Turka, including peasant songs and nursery rhymes; the twist and the cha-cha; bossa nova, swing, and surf. Ironically, the winner of the very first Altın Mikrofon was Yldrm Gürses, a huge-voiced crooner whose dirge “Gençlie Veda” (Farewell Youth) was among the least contemporary-sounding songs in the competition. But second place went to a fresh-faced five-man combo called Mavi Iğıklar (Blue Lights), whose song “Helvaci” sounded like a eerie yet cheerful collision between doo-wop pop and belly-dancing music. When the single was released, it was a huge hit. The newspaper was pleased, writing of itself: “If Turkey has a band called Mavi Isiklar right now, we owe this to the Golden Microphone by Hürriye.”
Over the next three years, Altın Mikrofon became an institution. New bands and new faces arrived on the scene, even as older groups splintered, traded members, mutated. The 1966 winner, Silüetler (Silhouettes) — an instrumental group obsessed with the Shadows — and 1967’s runner-up, Apağlar (Apaches, named for a Shadows song), combined to form Moğollar (Mongols), named for the conquering horde. Moğollar combined musicianship with an increasingly sophisticated take on what “Turkish music” should mean (and a deliberately unsophisticated idea of what a Turkish rock band should look like — where many of their contemporaries imitated Western hipsters, Moğollar made a point of wearing ethnic costumes and fuzzy white sheepskin boots).
The 1968 competition was the most epic yet. It would also be the last. Seven bands — thirty-two musicians and their families — set out by bus on a seventeen-day tour of the entire country, battling it out in the outer reaches of the Anatolian heartland. Moğollar placed third with “Ilgaz,” a love song for a mountain, while fashion plates Haramiler (Thieves) took second with “Arpa Bugday Daneler” (Pieces of Barley). The winner was T.P.A.O. Batman Ochestrasi, whose entry “Meselidir Enginde Daglar Meseli” (The Mountains Are Stronger Far Away) was a cheerful-sounding throwback to the Turkophone vocal groups and R&B acts from the inaugural contest of 1965.
But history, this time, belonged to the losers. The fourth-place finisher was a little-known group called the Erkin Koray Dörtlüsü (Erkin Koray Quartet). Though their entry, “Çiçek Dagi” (Mountain of Flowers), was danceable enough, it barely intimated the shape of things to come. Over the next decade, frontman Erkin Koray would create an unparalleled body of work, fusing metal, American blues, Anatolian folk, and Egyptian film music, all flavored with the smoldering fuzz of his electric guitar. (Koray was often referred to as the “Jimi Hendrix of Turkey.”) In 1974 he released his first studio album, Electronic Türküler. Türkü are folk ballads from the countryside, and on this album Koray achieved the comprehensive synthesis of his virtuosic talent for rock music and his consummate skill at arranging traditional songs. It was, you might say, the ultimate expression of the Golden Microphone aesthetic.
The Golden Microphone’s passing was mourned — another newspaper tried unsuccessfully to revive it a few years later — but it had achieved its goal. When Moğollar released its first album in 1971 — a stripped-down, wall-of-sound psychedelic fantasia — they called it Anadolu Pop (Anatolian Pop), and no one wondered that meant.
Translated by Mona Abu Rayyan, Photography by Nadim Asfar
At Naya’s pub — known by regulars as Abu Elie’s — pictures of communists line the walls. Among them, Che Guevara emerges the hero. He’s in more than thirty photographs hanging in the space, which fits four tables and a wide bar. He watches from every corner: a dreamer in his military uniform, a worker in his bare chest, bewitching in his smile concealed behind a Cuban cigar. But at Abu Elie’s, he’s not the same Che as the one adorning t-shirts. Here, he rules by virtue of his intellect, not by the magic of his image alone. The customers here are revolutionaries in his presence.
Abu Elie’s given name is Naya Chahhour. The story of the pub is the story of him. It’s the story of a fighter who committed to the Lebanese Communist Party and took up arms for the cause; the story of a host who, after “fighting hours,” spent his time greeting customers in the first restaurant he opened in 1975.
Abu Elie was born in Achrafiyeh, Beirut, in 1956. In 1970, he applied for membership in the Lebanese Communist Party. He claims that it wasn’t strange for a son of Achrafiyeh, an area the right-wing Lebanese Forces considered its stronghold, to sign up for the red party. After all, his grandfather was an atheist who once took a barber’s razor to a comrade’s neck because he disagreed in opinion with Stalin; his father was also never far from the world of atheism: “If God’s there, he’s cruel; and if he isn’t there, why fear him?” In addition to the family, Abu Elie cites another reason for the Communist presence in the Saifi area of Achrafiyeh; it goes back to the historical relationship between Orthodox Christians and Russia.
The local political spirit in Naya’s emanates from the photographs of George Hawi, otherwise known as Abu Anis. Hawi was the late secretary general of the Lebanese Communist Party and founder of the National Lebanese Resistance Front, which confronted the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and its capital, Beirut, in 1982. “I was one of the bodyguards in his personal security team for seven years. I used to eat, drink, sleep, and wake with him… That’s why… it’s not easy… it’s not easy!” Abu Elie says in reference to the news broadcast on June 21, 2005, announcing the assassination of Hawi by a car bomb not far from his home in Beirut.
Abu Elie’s relationship with Abu Anis grew stronger in 1973, when Naya and his family moved from Achrafiyeh to Anis’s hometown, Btighrein, in the Metn area of Mount Lebanon. There, Abu Elie took up arms and fought with comrade units in the area. “I went with the party and with the Palestinian Resistance… We were allies. In fact, I guarded over Tel al-Zaatar camp.” By 1975, Naya was an active full-time member in the party. The same year, the civil war officially broke out. The young man was forced to flee from Metn to the Caracas district in Ras Beirut. The battle lines were openly declared and ideological and sectarian cleansing the norm. But Caracas was, and still is, an area of the sort of sectarian mix that is not “sectarian,” and at the time, was militantly leftist — hence, relatively peaceful.
While in Caracas, the Chahhour family opened a tiny restaurant; he says it was even smaller than his place today. It consisted of three tables and served sandwiches, the legendary Lebanese minced raw meat dishes, marrow and tongue, complete with every kind of alcohol. The restaurant was managed by father and brother; the mother served food cooked at home. Naya helped out whenever he found time.
In 1985, Naya asked to be given permanent leave from the party. Why? “For reasons that seem far away now… it was disagreements with the party’s politics. But I kept paying my membership dues and participated in the activities I was convinced of.”
His request to be “relieved” of his duties was accepted by the party one year later. Abu Elie spent his newfound time engaged in another routine with his comrades. Night after night, they would meet and weave stories from various memories.
The name of the first place he opened after leaving the Communist Party was “Mezzeh.” This was where he nurtured his first clientele, “from young men and women in all the different parties in that milieu — the Murabitoun, the Progressive Socialists, the Communist Party — as well as a mix of ‘civilians,’ journalists and, of course, students… there were lots of students.”
In 1987, the Syrian Army returned to Lebanon, reasserting its authority over the country. “I went on my own to Rmeileh [a Communist stronghold on the coast, just south of Beirut] … I was wanted.” Why? He doesn’t know to this day. Or so he says. Members of the Syrian Army took his wife and interrogated her. Next, they robbed his restaurant. They harassed him and made him understand that he was persona non grata in Caracas from that day forth.
In Rmeileh, he moved from one location to another. Wherever he moved, he created a gathering place for comrades. They sat on the chairs he brought next to the charcoal barbecues he provided. Customers grilled their own food and drank Abu Elie’s alcohol. It was like a restaurant, but without having to deal with other customers; as if you were home, but with none of the responsibilities. He spent five years in Rmeileh and produced five different “restaurants,” all of which radiated Abu Elie’s special character. He went from a place with two tables and one barbecue pit, to another with 150 chairs, a bar, and four waiters, then sixty chairs, and so on. And the customers? “My clientele used to come from Beirut, and I had friends from the Popular Nasserite Organization who came from Sidon. I also had friends from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who came from the South… Basically, my clients, my customers, were the remnants of the Nationalist Front and the Palestinian Left.”
Did he kick out customers he didn’t like? Yes. “If I didn’t like the way someone looked, I would tell them, ‘The place is closed,’ or something like that. We used to ‘sift’ things, so to speak. To keep problems at a minimum.” Abu Elie tells things the way they are. Indeed, it is this equation that still rules in his bar today.
In 1992, during visits to Beirut, he began to feel as though the Syrian veto on his presence had finally abated, until one day he sensed that it no longer existed. He found a billiard place that he fitted with a few tables and an abundance of mezzeh. Once again, he greeted his customers, in the same building where his bar exists today, the Yacoubian building, but on the other block.
The Yacoubian building is immense — no one living in Ras Beirut can ignore it. Built in 1961 by architect and contractor Rafiq el-Muhib, the structure was financed through the People’s Bank of Russia. It’s one of a group of 1960s structures in Beirut — grand, architecturally unique buildings, such as the Gefinor building in Hamra. These monolithic structures benefited from a “single apartment” zoning law enacted by the then president Camille Chamoun. This law and Lebanon’s banking secrecy laws made Lebanon a haven for wealthy investors, bourgeoisie, and capitalists escaping Nasserism and the movement to nationalize assets in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, and later Libya and other Arab countries. The new zoning law allowed single apartments in buildings to be sold as individual units, duplicating the sale value of the land in each story sold. The residents of Beirut called these individual units or apartments “bachelor pads”; they were sold to fleeing bourgeoisie and artists or rented to expatriate students or young, independent individuals.
In 1994, Abu Elie moved from the billiard place to the space where the bar exists today. One side of the bar’s red visit card reads “NAYA’S PUB” in English and “Abu Elie” in Arabic, and on the other side is a single verse from the ninth-century bacchanal Arab poet Abu Nawwas: The wretched sought a vestige to call upon and I sought to call upon the town tavern.
Abu Elie’s is the town tavern.
A list of the bar’s Ten Commandments hangs on the sliding door entrance:
Parking in the building’s parking lot is forbidden
Discussing politics is forbidden
Disturbing behavior is forbidden
Raucous behavior is forbidden
Interfering with the music is forbidden
You’re welcome to come in, but mind your own business
No nagging allowed
Religious talk is forbidden
No debts allowed
Yes, today there are only nine rules. The original third — “The bar is officially closed on Monday” — was rescinded; the cancellation of this commandment is signed by the “Administration” and decorated with a photograph of Abu Anis.
Abu Elie stands behind his bar, holding the paring knife that he uses to carve the space of the place, drawing borders around his memories. He slices a lemon, an apple, a kiwi, filling the small plates he generously spreads out before his customers, next to the pistachios, the lupin, the sunflower seeds, and Chinese mixed nuts. He will serve anything the agricultural season provides, many times home-cooked delicacies he has brought with him that day — dandelions cooked in olive oil, lentils or spicy minced raw meat — all of which are served with no charge to the customers. In Abu Elie’s etiquette book, this is the minimum a host can do for his guests.
Regulars love Abu Elie and poke fun at his commandments, but few dare to cross him. They ask about his health, give him a taste of a new wine they have brought along with them. They reminisce with him, exchanging different versions of the same memories, as he brings to their tables whatever their bodies require to maintain their energy until the evening ends, even if that happens to be at dawn. When the electricity cuts, the candles and battery-operated transistor come out, and the evening continues without pause.
Even the music at Abu Elie is communist, from Marcel Khalifa to Sheikh Imam — sprinkled with the angelic sound of Fairouz, the deep resonance of Umm Kulthum, and the sounds of Aleppo. The flags are Lebanese, Soviet, and Cuban. There’s also an Argentinean flag, and a Greek one. There are photographs plastered all over: of George Hawi, Samir Kassir, Farajallah el-Helou, Sheikh Imam, Suha Bechara, Kamal Jumblatt, Mehdi A’amel, Maroun Baghdadi, Assi Rahbani, Anwar Yassin, Ziad Rahbani, Abu Ali Mustafa, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Mahmoud Darwish, Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Fairouz, Pablo Neruda, Nelson Mandela, Raffi Shanka, Kozo Okamoto, and many others. On one wall is a cutout of a photograph from a newspaper with the caption: “Palestinian demonstrator bites the finger of an Israeli soldier during a protest yesterday against the separation wall in the village of Beit Sira in the West Bank (Reuters).”
Other souvenirs hanging on the walls tell of the civil war and its aftermath, the revolution of liberation and international socialism. Among them are two rifles left in Abu Elie’s possession after the rest were stolen from the bar. They hang in places of honor, objects of sentimental value not for sale, one an FM48 of Belgian make, with its bullets lying next to it, the other English. The “money” wall behind the bar was constructed over time with currency bills from countries all over the world, left behind by customers come and gone, oftentimes with notes to Abu Elie scribbled upon them.
Naim, a man in his mid-forties and a regular at the bar, adores Abu Elie. He stands behind the bar helping Naya out on Naya’s son’s day off, and says, “Everyone, from the taxi driver to the cinema director, from British MP George Galloway, to singers, broadcasters, and even the sons of right-wing parliamentarians — all of them come here. The Norwegian Ambassador to Baghdad comes by Abu Elie’s every time he comes to Beirut, and has been coming here since the siege on Baghdad. A ‘committed’ Italian family sent a huge block of Parmesan cheese with me as a gift to Abu Elie. All of them have a history here… stories of war and peace, of drunkenness and sobriety… The whole country could fit in Abu Elie’s.”
During my last visit to Calcutta, I visited the Tagore Palace. It was the closest I could get to the Bengali mystic and poet beyond communing with his poems and paintings. The palace is one of the places he lived and where he created music and wrote plays. Wanting to elevate and liberate his nation as well as others in the same dilemma, Tagore promoted Asian unity and connected with intellectuals who had the same goal he did: to bring culture to the masses. I couldn’t find any proof at the palace that Tagore knew the Egyptian poet Ahmed Shawki, but I felt that he may have. The simplest thing was to check the Internet; all I could find, however, was an obituary sent by Tagore on the occasion of Shawki’s death in 1932.
Upon my return to Cairo, I learned that Shawki’s villa had been purchased by the Ministry of Culture and made into a museum. The street where it sits is called Ahmed Shawki Street. At one time, the gardens of the villa extended up to the Nile; later they were cut away to make a big street. Shawki’s was a European-style villa, but as soon as I climbed the marble staircase into the reception area, the Orient welcomed me with intricate arabesque decorations on the walls and ceiling. An Arab wall lamp with a multicolored glass shade subtly gave color to the space. One of the workers there greeted me as if I were an old friend.
I asked the guide if she knew of Tagore, and if the Bengali had ever visited Ahmed Shawki. She told me there was a box once sent to Shawki by Tagore, but it was unavailable, as it was being restored. She had no more information.
The poet’s bedroom was down a corridor behind the reception area and was of Western decor. Once I passed the mirrored doors, there was a brass bed and two armchairs, a cupboard, and a lot of other furniture that forms a clutter in my memory. These days the windows offer little by way of a view; in the past, the view was of fields and the pyramids, so it must have inspired the feeling of being in one of the great spaces of rural Egypt.
As I walked around, I learned some things about the poet known as the prince of Arabic poetry. Unlike Tagore, Shawki was not awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Like Tagore, he felt that poetry and music would touch the masses. He wrote many songs for Umm Kulthum, including one entitled “The Nile.” The composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab was his protégé and lived with him for many years. I don’t know where they met, but on his deathbed Ahmed Shawqi said to his valet to send his greetings to his son Mohammed, from where I assumed Abdel Waheb was the son of his loyal valet. The room Abdel Wahab occupied is quite spacious, with a sofa and an armchair. A wall light shades the room in lines, creating the appearance of musical scales. Black shades cover the green sofas. The fabric isn’t actually purely green, but in my mind it’s green, like the color of Egypt.
I walked around the small reception space where Ahmed Shawki would have received his most important guests. (His close friends were received in his bedroom, where he also worked.) His office overlooked the Nile, with a big balcony like a terrace that must have been a pleasant place to sit. A golden clock stands on his table, along with some other objects that I don’t recall, probably more decorative than essential. There are two libraries for his books. In his wife’s bedroom, there’s a poem written by him on the back of the bed.
As I walked down the stairs, I saw that the fer forgé railing is very French, as well as musical in line. Shawki had lived in Paris and Spain; he was a man who was aware not only of his own culture but also of European culture, like most of the bourgeoisie of Egypt of that time.
On my second visit, I walked around again, and I noticed a small yellowish card in the reception room, faded from time, with information typed in English about a particular event attended by the nationalist leader Saad Zaghloul, then the head of the Egyptian Parliament, who postponed a parliamentary session for a few hours in order to be there. On that occasion Abdel Wahab sang and played the oud. (Also at the museum is a photograph in which Shawki sits with young Abdel Wahab and Zaghloul.) The song was written by Shawki: “I Am Anthony, I Am the Killer.” The lyrics revolved around the battle of Actium and compared it to the defeat of British colonization. The great Alexandrian poet Constantine Cavafy, who also was a friend of Shawki, had written a poem on the subject, entitled “God Abandons Anthony,” in 1913. The poem addressed the fall of Alexandria, so it seems to have been a subject that was much discussed and related to at that time. Unfortunately, after the party, the poem was destroyed, and no one has heard of it since.
With all the music, lights, and history evoked, the room around me moved to life. The red velvet chairs and the arabesque decorations became like qasida from a poem. The Ahmed Shawki Museum offers a glimpse of the life of a man who interacted with the world and gave a great deal to his culture. The library contains photocopied poems by him, though unfortunately there are no translations into any other language, so they can only be read in Arabic. The museum is theoretically open every day from 10 am to 5 pm, but it’s best to check before visiting. You can take three photos of the museum. It is possible to draw the space, but better still to do it fast because the guide is always with you.
6 Ahmed Shawki Street, off the Nile Corniche, Giza
Dunepark (2009), a forthcoming project by the French artist Cyprien Gaillard, will take place in the Dutch coastal town of Scheveningen. The Netherlands, as Robert Smithson once wrote, is “an earth work in itself,” a nation- size readymade, formed from dams and artificial deltas, of land clawed from the sea. Dunepark, though, is concerned with a deposit of another type of territorial expansion. On an outcrop above the beach, Gaillard will excavate a WWII-era German military bunker, exposing its concrete mass to twenty-first-century eyes before returning it to the sands.
In a way, Gaillard’s project recalls Smithson’s earth-heaped Partially Buried Woodshed (1970) at Kent State University, Ohio, the title of which can’t be beat as a description of its physical form. But while the American land artist’s work suggested a future in which nature would reclaim space from manmade structures, Dunepark is an archaeology of the proximate present, with its violence and its complicities, its checklist of things to forget. The bunker resembles (in stark contrast to the muscular, rather camp classicism of the Nazi architectural ideal) a modernist sculpture, and anticipates 1960s brutalism, although it is not a structure that was built with aesthetics in mind, but rather pertains to what Gaillard terms “the architecture of emergency.” Designed to withstand the bombs and machine-gun fire of the Allied forces, its form didn’t anticipate its peacetime repurposing — something that would amount, if similar bunkers on the British coast are anything to go by, to a place for teenagers to smoke joints and make their first exploratory forays into each other’s jeans. Abandoned after the war’s end, it has been slowly swallowed by the earth, as if the earth were a nation consuming its own painful, shaming past. Contemplating the bunker’s half-buried form, I got to thinking about Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” (1818), in which he relates a vision of a shattered statue of the pharaoh Ramses the Great, its inscription — “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” — mocked by the “lone and level” desert that surrounds it. Sovereignty, even the sovereignty of tyrants, is in geological terms a fleeting thing. It tends toward entropy, just as Gaillard’s unearthed concrete mass will one day be reduced to sand.
Dunepark might be thought of as a cousin to Gaillard’s recent Cenotaph to 12 Riverford Road, Pollokshaws, Glasgow (2008) — an obelisk cast from the remains of a Glaswegian modernist social housing project, demolished in advance of the city’s hosting of the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Placed within a wasteland-like “secret garden” in Hubert Bennett’s iconic brutalist Queen Elizabeth Hall (1967), London, the work, unlike Cleopatra’s Needle directly across the Thames, is half-hidden from the public, visible only through the internal windows of the concert hall’s foyer, or on an organized tour. Not a display of colonialist spoils, then, but rather something close to a resurrection or reincarnation. The word “cenotaph” betokens a monument to someone or something whose remains are elsewhere, and at first reading this seems an inappropriate designation for this obelisk — it is formed, after all, from the leavings of the building it memorializes. Perhaps, though, what is being remembered here is not the physical stuff of concrete, brick, and glass, but rather a devalued history, and a devalued dream. The fortress walls of the Queen Elizabeth Hall afford Cenotaph a level of protection uncommon to works of public sculpture. One chapter in the history of modernist architecture enfolds another, and a second, half-secret life is eked out. Looking through the windows of the concert hall’s foyer, the casual visitor might imagine that Gaillard’s obelisk (with its trans-historical form) has stood in that space since long before the building’s birth.
Gaillard has said that “No one wants monuments anymore,” and perhaps this is why his obelisk is half-hidden, and why Dunepark’s bunker will be returned to the earth. To view them, however briefly, is to be reminded not only of the past, but also of the past’s (sometimes welcome) frangibility. The ruin is not a matter of if, but only of when.
There is something delightfully thrilling about looking at Mounira al Solh’s artwork. It’s not only that she dares to address delicate issues of femininity and nationality in unexpected and even humorous ways, or that she takes on her immigrant status as a Lebanese living in Europe. Rather, it’s the intensely personal nature of her work that strikes viewers most. She puts herself, her family, and friends firmly on the line, offered up for our sometimes reluctant but always enthralled scrutiny. We’re all voyeurs by nature and can’t look away when an individual’s vulnerability is on display; but voyeurism alone isn’t enough to explain why we keep watching all the way to the end.
Over the past few years, Al Solh has become known for closely observed and intimate narrative pieces that, at first sight, look most obviously like documentaries. Works such as The Sea Is a Stereo, in which she portrays the lazy days of a group of Lebanese men who swim and sunbathe at Beirut’s Sporting Club, tell a simple story. Yet as we listen to their tales of swimming, tanning, and exercise, it’s hard to forget that Al Solh, a young woman, is the person behind the camera. The interaction is sometimes too intimate for comfort, marking a subtle line between straightforward documentary process and relationships that seem to be born of a longer history of family ties and acquaintance. As viewers, we keep watching to see if some kind of fictional mask will slip to let in the revelatory light of the real — without being quite sure what such a moment would look like. The fact that Al Solh dubs their responses to her questions with her own voice lends an effeminizing touch and only accentuates the strange tension. (It’s funny, too.)
Another video work, Rawane’s Song, takes on Al Solh’s personal emotional threshold more openly, offering an occasionally painful explanation as to why she, as an artist, can’t talk or make work about the wars in Lebanon these last years. Tracking across a studio floor as she walks, the camera moves as if her gaze is averted from our eyes. She relates her ambivalent feelings about being an artist and, occasionally, her envy of other artists’ work. A third piece, As If I Don’t Fit There, is about people’s failure to deal with personal dreams, presenting oddly posed images of young women as a series of generic immigrant artists, with texts explaining why their disposition, origin, ethnicity, or family made them abandon art for some more conventional profession. The artworks that accompany them comprise these former artists’ artistic production. Disappointingly, they utterly fail to live up to the women’s grand statements. Instead, they appear as diminished or direct copies of already existing pieces.
All of these works hover around questions of belonging, identity, and the tendency to give in to conformity at some level as a woman, as an immigrant, or as an Arab in and out of one’s own society. Two works in progress extend these questions — this time through the medium of fiction. The first project, Fais ce que voudras (Do What You Want), concerns a deceased Lebanese painter named Mohammad Haidar. Al Solh’s plans include presenting a number of the late painter’s works, collecting his lost quotations, and, finally, organizing an international retrospective. Why one artist should invest so much time memorializing another is never made clear, just as Haidar’s full biography seems to have glaringly ambiguous elements. He is obsessed, for example, by Otto Dix — a potentially natural affinity for an artist experiencing war firsthand, even if under very different circumstances. But then the artist becomes equally enraptured by Rene Daniels, an artist who suffered a stroke at the height of his powers. In both cases, it’s as though Haidar has a premonition about his own early death. Or is it perhaps a sign that he’s not quite the figure he thinks he is, obsessed with notions of his own position in an artistic canon? The paintings themselves are often direct copies of familiar elements of figures, spaces, or compositions with the addition of traces of Lebanese street elements, or Arabic script indicating another location or origin. Al Solh will also reveal her discovery of two short films Haidar made with his sister.
Of course, fictionalizing facts (and vice versa) is a familiar Lebanese artistic trope. But there’s also an added layer in Al Solh’s work due to the awkward relationship depicted between a dead male artist and a living female artist, as well as the appropriation of European artistic positions — emphasizing the peculiar postcolonial conditions under which these paintings could be seen as reversing the Orientalist gaze of colonial-era Western artists. By “discovering” Mohammed Haidar, Al Solh provides herself with generous space to play with a loaded relationship between here and there, immigrant and native, that could otherwise be all too easily essentialized in European eyes. How this project will unfold in public, and the reactions it might elicit, will prove fascinating to follow.
A second work in progress is much more direct, and far more disturbing. Entitled A double burger and two metamorphoses: a proposal for a Dutch Cat, a Dutch Dog, a Dutch Donkey, a Dutch Goat and finally, a Dutch Camel, this video work will take on Al Solh herself, amateurishly made up as each of the animals mentioned. She’ll mimic their cries in an imagined conversation with a fellow member of each species. The conversations, subtitled in English, will reveal the artist’s pleas for marriage, understanding, help that will allow her to stay in the Netherlands and continue her work. Playful but harsh, it puts her in the position of an unreasonably demanding but necessarily seductive bitch — a precise and sharp description that, as an outsider in the Netherlands myself, I imagine will be only too familiar to others assuming the role of the foreign.
Sherif El-Azma’s career up to this point, as an artist and experimental filmmaker, is bookended by two works that are formally very different but, thematically, seamlessly connected. On one end is Order in Satellite City (1997), a short piece shot on lusciously grainy Super 8 film. On the other end is The Psychogeography of Loose Associations, a live performative lecture that positioned the artist behind his audience, narrating a text while images, photographs, statistics, and videos were projected onto a screen up front. Maurice Luca, one-third of the electronic music group Bikya, contributed live sounds while Nermine al-Ansari, using an electronic pen, produced live drawings of urban grids and other seemingly random doodles and notations.
The lecture unfolds like the presentation of research findings regarding the casual formation of informal psychogeographical societies in Cairo. Azma finds, or imagines, these societies to be leisurely, recreational affairs. (The term psychogeography was, if not exactly coined, then at least memorably defined in 1955, by Guy Debord, as the study of how cities are organized and of how their various levels of organization affect individuals who live and work in them, move through them, use them, and explore them.) Though many contemporary psychogeographical societies are directly inspired by Debord and the Situationist International, the groups of Azma’s study are more straightforward hobbyists, weekend warriors, and urban explorers; their activities have more to do with practice than with theory. For about an hour, The Psychogeography of Loose Associations, which Azma has been touring since 2007, accumulates thoughts and textures—and then it disappears. Like Order in Satellite City, it considers the shifting urban arrangements of contemporary Cairo and the mechanisms that structure people’s lives, from state surveillance to satellite television.
To a certain extent, Order in Satellite City diagnosed a condition, and The Psychogeography of Loose Associations picked up where it left off, prescribing—without ever being overt about it— a kind of cure. Azma carefully resists the heroic but with great subtlety pushes for an experience of the city that involves carving a poetic path, seemingly aimless and unfettered by impositions or constraints. He deciphers ordering systems, it seems, for the purpose of circumventing and, finally, escaping them.
“If you had a psychogeographical society in Cairo,” Azma asks, “how would it function? Do you have the authority to survey the city? In a way, this is tied to the state security and paranoia of the 1960s, and [the impossibility of] going around collecting traces and not getting caught. If you have a psychogeographical society in Cairo, they’ll come find you, because what are you looking for? Years ago, New Cairo, which are now wealthy suburbs, were no-go zones. They were military zones, paranoiac zones, and you could not enter them. The military is less than it was since 1973. With the notion of psychogeography, I use it as an excuse to look at how institutions are built, how institutions network, and how people become institutions. It’s more about systems, really. It’s fun to play with the idea of psychogeography, because it’s a form of playing with the city more generally.”
What is strange, then, is that the slew of works that came between Order and Psychogeography might well be the output of another artist entirely. With only a few exceptions, his works from that ten-year stretch are all videos, all tethered to television (as a subject, a flatness of surface, or a format, such as the soap opera), and all concerned, in a major way, with gender and class more than urbanism.
Considering the arc of Azma’s creative output, one can detect in its shape the story of video art in Cairo, the story of the city’s independent art scene. Works such as Fish Soup and A Prayer to the Sound of Dogs (both 2001) have the messiness and playfulness that characterized experimentation with the medium when it was almost hopelessly low tech, and when artists had yet to formalize their styles or their visual codes.
Not surprisingly, Azma was one of nine artists who participated in Transit Visa, a video workshop organized by Akram Zaatari and Mahmoud Hojeij back in 2001 in Beirut. Fish Soup, a one-minute video, was made for that occasion. Borrowing a slogan prominent in South Lebanon at the time (“We do the liberation, you do the reconstruction”) it imagines the country’s political condition as an amorous encounter, though the Lebanese specificity of the situation is amusingly undercut by a voiceover recorded in heavy Egyptian slang. “What if Hizbullah was a guy and Lebanon was a woman, and they met on the street in a solicitous way?” Azma asks, revisiting this and other examples of his work. Fish Soup shares a certain exuberance and an enthusiastic testing of visual effects with Zaatari’s early videos, such as Red Chewing Gum, How I Love You, and Crazy of You, and with Hojeij’s Shameless Transmission of Desired Transformations Per Day. It is also, like those videos, among the few artworks from the region to treat (or even allude to) sexuality as a subject.
A Prayer to the Sound of Dogs illustrates why such works remain so few in number. One of the first works ever banned by state censors while it was on show at Cairo’s Townhouse Gallery, it was attacked by the local press for being pornographic. “It was a weird time for video,” says Azma. “The art scene was so young, video was so young. I think it confused people. I was considered this feminist director,” after his video Interview with a Housewife (2000), which he ruefully describes as “the all-time curator favorite.” But some considered A Prayer to the Sound of Dogs excessively macho. “I felt I had to look at myself and my complexes and desires,” he says. “I wanted to do something with young men. I wanted to explore the line between homosexuality and homoeroticism, which is a very fine line in Egypt. I also wanted to explore the line between being a super-bitch and a liberated woman. But with censorship, you can attack people two ways: through politics or through sex.”
The press chose the latter, and to make matters worse, Azma was out of the country at the time the show featuring his work was shut down. A Prayer to the Sound of Dogs was shown publicly only once, which is a shame, really; it’s far from pornographic. The piece is actually a surreal rumination on the performative aspects of identity, gender, and class. One female character, Doa, discovers the handbag of another female character, Marwa, and by degrees Doa imagines the life of Marwa, befriends her, and becomes her. Toward the end of the video, Azma opens the seams of the work and reveals the process of making it in a rip-roaring fight between director and actress, questioning the mechanisms of control involved in the creation of an artwork. Few artists have been so brave in laying bare these kinds of conflicts, which are nonetheless inevitable in any practice.
Azma may be one of the foremost practitioners of video within Cairo’s independent art scene, but still, he works firmly outside even that system. He says he fails to understand why anyone would show a video or a short film in a stand-alone art space rather than cinema-style, on a screen with a seated audience. He keeps to himself and occasionally drops off the scene entirely (there are gaps in that bookended decade). He’s a solitary person, self-effacing, a bit of a loner. He doesn’t actively promote his work. He’s far from prolific. And he prefers teaching classes in experimental film at the American University in Cairo to committing everything to his art. “I would go crazy if I were an artist full-time,” he says.
Interview with a Housewife and Pilot for an Egyptian Air Hostess Soap Opera (2003) are arguably Azma’s best-known works. The latter, which screened at the second edition of the Home Works Forum in Beirut, is nearly an hour long and something of a masterpiece. It features four young women at the outset of a training program for a fictional airline. The initial sessions make clear that the environment fostered by this bland and literally whitewashed multinational corporation will seek to “nullify local culture,” explains Azma, “and to manufacture a space where cultural signifiers are no longer present. So how do you de-sexualize and de-Egyptianize these women?”
Azma is almost preternaturally attuned to the bitchiness that can characterize relations among female colleagues; part of the genius of Hostess is the manner in which protagonists and antagonists shift their roles within a confined space. And it’s that, that attunement to shifting roles and relations, that links Azma’s genderand class-based melodramas, his claustrophobically flat videos, with his first Super 8 film and his last live performance. Like the flaneur who is never fully present in Order or Psychogeography, the characters in Hostess, in the more documentary-style Donia: Amar, and in the many as yet un-synthesized chapters of the so-called Kenya Tapes—a fragmentary work in progress that stems from a 2004 trip to Kenya and a series of workshops with actors and musicians—are all struggling with manners and methods of confinement.
For the Kenya Tapes, Azma constructed a fictional tourism company that is in the process of devising a marketing campaign, replete with logos and mission statements and uniforms and so on. But one of the company’s employees keeps wandering outside the dull white cube that is her office. She keeps drifting into a bizarre Technicolor landscape that periodically appears onscreen. She, like so many of Azma’s characters, cannot be contained. With this gesture, Azma takes an empty adage about thinking outside the box and makes it, for once, mean something.
The term “Irangeles” is a verbal portmanteau for “Iran” and “Los Angeles.” The City of Angels is home to the world’s largest Iranian expatriate population, currently estimated at around ve hundred thousand. “Irangeles” (or, alternatively, “Tehrangeles”) has come to be suggestive of that community’s reputation for super uous hedonism, an unmatched hair-removal industry, and world-class chelo-kabab. In 1993 the University of California Press published a book by the same name; it has since gone out of print and achieved cult status. Irangeles is a comprehensive volume of essays, interviews and, most impressively, more than 150 stirring black and white photographs. Most of the photographs were drawn from the late 1980s, when, in a time of war and uncertainty in the motherland, its young diaspora blossomed in places named Westwood, Sherman Oaks, Canoga Park, and Beverly Hills. It was the beginning of Irangeles’ global Persian satellite and radio reach, where laser-beamed soundstage music videos were in their infancy and Persian pop culture was being refashioned.
It was, too, a time for egalitarian rhinoplasty, for yellow sport coats that matched yellow sports cars, when the spiced oral scent of Bijan cologne permanently lingered on Rodeo Drive. Pro-this and anti-that protests in front of the Federal Building in Westwood were plentiful, as were weekly “Persian Nights” at clubs across the San Fernando Valley.
In Irvine, Orange County, thirty thousand people showed up for an annual Persian New Year picnic at a public park. In short, it was a magical time, and it’s captured in this magical book. In the pages that follow, Bidoun has picked through this broad selection for the cheapest, the loudest, and the seediest photographs to share with you…
It’s raining green, by the pond blue flowers!
It’s totally raining green, pouring blue flowers!
I smell the bees and the birds blue flowers!
Different aspects of life.
For every “first” attributed to Barack Obama, there is an attendant fear that he is being miscategorized, misrecognized. Barack Hussein Obama? In the wake of victory the notion that he is not what he seems not only persists but proliferates. The first black American president, after all, is also the first biracial president. (officially, at least. African-American lore counts five black or blackish presidents. Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Harding, and Coolidge, with Clinton sometimes thrown in for effect.) The seventh president with a foreign-born parent is also the first from Hawaii, although to this day there are those who insist that Obama was actually born in Indonesia, Kenya, or perhaps Seattle, and that his father was not Barack Sr. Of Kisumu, Kenya, but Malcolm X himself. Along the outer reaches of the American political discourse, Obama the born-again Christian is cast as a Muslim, a partisan of Afrocentric liberation theology, and a marauding anti-life atheist-in-chief.
One of the most powerful fantasies of the 2008 presidential campaign was the notion that the bruising yet exhilarating contest could put an end to the very racial confusions that gave it such unique, well, colorings. It was a fantasy shared, it seemed, by the new First Family itself. As Michelle Obama told journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, “People have never met a Michelle Obama. But what they’ll come to learn is that there are thousands and thousands of Michelle and Barack Obamas across America.” Leaving aside the obvious fact that whatever ordinariness the Obamas might once have had has now been sacrificed on the altar of the White House, the First Lady’s hope that she and her husband might serve the great righteous work of racial demystification is belied by the fact that the president takes such pleasure (and has found such power) in the myths, lies, and anxieties of race.
Consider the wry half-inward, half-defiant smile that ghosts the president’s lips whenever he refers to himself as a “mutt.” Or recall the passage, early in his 1995 autobiography Dreams From My Father, where Obama notes the amusement his maternal grandfather took in toying with young Barry’s racial ambiguities. “Sometimes when Gramps saw tourists watching me play in the sand, he would come up beside them and whisper, with appropriate reverence, that I was great-grandson of King Kamehameha, Hawaii’s first monarch. ‘I’m sure your picture’s in a thousand scrapbooks, Bar,’ he liked to tell me with a grin, ‘from Idaho to Maine.’”
Stanley Dunham died in 1992, five years before the boy he and his wife Madelyn helped raise won his first seat in the Illinois state senate. But his words were prophetic. It has been estimated that since November 4, 2008, close to 300 million scrapbook-ready magazines and newspapers have been sold with Barack Obama on the cover, enough pages to stretch from Idaho to Maine many times over. Even Dunham’s reference to Kamehameha seems slightly uncanny. Hawaii’s great unifier brought the disparate islands under one-man rule in large part by outspending his enemies, the other rulers playing overmatched Clintons and McCains to his Obama. Kamehameha’s last opponent, Kaumualii, gave up without a fight after watching him amass the biggest armada the islands had ever seen, with newfangled foreign-built schooners and cannons. The triumphant warrior-king showed a great interest in the problems of war and the treatment of noncombatants, promulgating the doctrine of Mamalahoe, or the “Law of the Splintered Oar,” which asserted the right of “every elderly person, woman and child” to “lie by the roadside in safety” during battle. Looking forward, Kamehameha’s grandson, Kamehameha III would assert that “God hath made of one blood all nations of men to dwell on the earth in unity and blessedness” preceding Obama’s career-making assertion at the 2004 Democratic National convention that “there’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America” by 165 years.
Indeed, if there is a racial fantasy worthy of consideration, it is not the oft-bruited suggestion that Obama is a Muslim or a Marxist or an Indonesian, but Stanley Dunham’s sly assertion that his grandson was the scion of Hawaiian royalty. For Obama, oddly enough, bears more than a passing resemblance to Queen Liliuokalani, the last reigning Hawaiian monarch, deposed in 1898; she looks like she could be his mother. His regal posture and multilayered, sun-kissed skin tone, with its ghostly archipelago of freckles, suggest a genetic transit that skips the American heartland altogether, jumping from Kenya to the middle of the Pacific in one hop. His grandfather, who had been primed for such insights after being instructively misidentified as “some kind of wop” by his wife’s family, could not only see this connection but made it possible by picking his family up and planting it on Hawaii’s fertile volcanic soil in the 1950s. Obama’s autobiography describes at great length how his grandparents were unsuited for life in the moist, conflicted American South, and drifted steadily west, like pollen caught on the wind.
In the dog days of August 2008, as the presidential contest gathered momentum, ABC News talking head Cokie Roberts lambasted Obama’s decision to take a week off to go back to the land of his birth. “[G]oing off this week to a vacation in Hawaii does not make any sense whatsoever,” she blustered for the camera. “I know his grandmother lives in Hawaii, and I know Hawaii is a state, but it has the look of him going off to some sort of foreign, exotic place. He should be in Myrtle Beach…”
Roberts was castigated at length for her assertion, which was taken to reveal the bland yet tendentious herd mentality of Washington’s commentator class. (After the death of Obama’s grandmother the day before the election, Roberts’ riff seemed especially churlish.) But she may have had a point. Hawaii is a state, yes, but is there another state constitution with a clause as exotic as §5-7.5 of the Hawaii Revised Statutes?
(a) “Aloha Spirit” is the
coordination of mind and heart within each person. It brings each person to the self. Each person must think and emote good feelings to others. In the contemplation and presence of the life force, “Aloha,” the following unuhi laula loa may be used:
“Akahai,” meaning kindness to be expressed with tenderness;
“Lokahi,” meaning unity, to be expressed with harmony;
“Oluolu,” meaning agreeable, to be expressed with pleasantness;
“Haahaa,” meaning humility, to be expressed with modesty;
“Ahonui,” meaning patience, to be expressed with perseverance.
These are traits of character that express the charm, warmth and sincerity of Hawaii’s people. It was the working philosophy of native Hawaiians and was presented as a gift to the people of Hawaii. “Aloha” is more than a word of greeting or farewell or a salutation. “Aloha” means mutual regard and affection and extends warmth in caring with no obligation in return. “Aloha” is the essence of relationships in which each person is important to every other person for collective existence. “Aloha” means to hear what is not said, to see what cannot be seen and to know the unknowable.
(b) In exercising their power on behalf of the people and in fulfillment of their responsibilities, obligations and service to the people, the legislature, governor, lieutenant governor, executive officers of each department, the chief justice, associate justices, and judges of the appellate, circuit, and district courts may contemplate and reside with the life force and give consideration to the “Aloha Spirit.”
Just about every state constitution evokes one or another higher power — “We, the people of Colorado, with profound reverence for the Supreme Ruler of the Universe…” — but few have the mythopoetic pretensions of the “Aloha Spirit” clause. Of course, the preamble to Hawaii’s state constitution makes vague reference to Judeo- Christian providence — “the people of Hawaii, Grateful for Divine Guidance,” etcetera — but the moral universe of “Aloha” speaks directly to the islands’ unique history and status as the most diverse state in the American union. While Lou Dobbs and his legions worry over the pending reconquest of the American Southwest by some dead-but-dreaming Aztec empire, Hawaii is already eight shades of brown, with three-quarters of Hawaii’s islanders claiming heritage in East Asia or the Pacific rather than Anglo- or Euro-America. (A third of them are Native Hawaiians, people who can claim descent from the indigenous, post-Polynesian inhabitants of the defunct Hawaiian kingdom.)
The “Aloha Spirit” law’s incantatory evocation of “life force” is also a kind of indigenous demography, although the natives in this case are drawn from the plant and animal kingdoms. Hawaii is the most biodiverse state in the union, with close to 20,000 terrestrial and marine species, half of which exist nowhere else on earth. Were its small landmass to sink beneath the waves, close to a third of the United States’ terrestrial biota would drown. This profusion allows us to make further distinctions between the opening evocation of a rotely capitalized “Divine Guidance” and the subsequently elaborated “Aloha Spirit,” for if Hawaii is a state constitutionally bound to honor a unifying world spirit, this essence may be largely understood as a kind of oceanic and vegetal consciousness, slow moving and implacable. Insomuch as Aloha suggests human attunement to a humming natural chorus, the four-legged and wingless have relatively recent and small parts to sing, the bulk of the score belonging to trees, ferns, and flowers; to fish, turtles, and sea mammals; and to swarms of insects carried along great distances by Makani, the spirit of the trade wind; by Kane, spirit of the clouds; and by Laniloa, spirit of the waves and currents. Against such a spiritual backdrop, it’s no wonder that in the fantasies of tourists and natives both, Hawaiians are an even-handed, mellow bunch. Even Pele, the impulsive avatar of the volcano, spends most of her time burrowing into the moist, dark ground in search of a place of geologic peace and quiet, an end to restlessness and wanderlust.
Barack Obama set out to be president of the United States — still the most powerful man on earth — which does not, as such, seem especially Aloha in spirit. And yet there is something about him that does suggest that he, like the public servants of his home state, “may contemplate and reside with the life force.” Commentators praised his preternatural calm during the race, his unflappability, as contrasted with John McCain’s stilted yet manic energy. Last July, when his campaign plane nearly lost control in midair, the few journalists who covered the story were unsure what to be more astounded by — Obama’s serenity during the emergency or the presence of mind he showed afterward in refusing to discuss what one newspaper breathlessly described as “the most serious incident in presidential aviation ever!” When a young woman abruptly broke off from a photo-op hug to shriek that a centipede was crawling up his arm, video cameras recorded that Obama neither started nor shook. “Is there?” he asked, before picking the insect up between two fingers and dropping it gently to the ground.
Obama is sympathetic to Hawaiian nationalism — he supports the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act, also known as the Akaka Bill, which would apply Native American–style tribal rights and prerogatives over all of Hawaii, with consequences for the state’s sovereignty (and lingering litigation by the descendants of Queen Liliuokalani against the United States government) to be determined. But in his writings he has been loath to attribute to Hawaii or its people much in the way of credit for his demeanor. As he tells it, his grandparents lent him their Midwestern pragmatism and optimism, his mother taught him political idealism, and his Indonesian stepfather taught him to box and warned against wasting coins on beggars, while from his father came his dreams (and the title of his best-selling autobiography). If what can be shorthanded as Obama’s “cool” has a self- acknowledged root, it is in the diligent study of black male affect he undertook on the basketball court and during his time among the African-American students at Hawaii’s universities and on the mainland in the black enclaves of Los Angeles, Upper Manhattan, and Chicago.
There is something 1950s about Obama’s trim suits and closely cropped hair, something of Malcolm and Martin, of Harry Belafonte (over whom his mother never tired of swooning), of Patrice Lumumba in horn-rimmed glasses sitting at table in Leopoldville about to reclaim the Belgian Congo. The cultural change many see in Obama brings us back to a future interrupted by the gyrations of the 1960s and 70s, as if Miles Davis had never discovered free jazz and electrified instruments, as if cool had never turned hot. We can spy this same turn down a road not taken in Obama’s recent political trajectory. Chief among the candidate’s pivots was a disavowal of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose Afrocentric Trinity United Church of Christ was not only where Obama was born again, but where he picked up the signal theme of his political life — the audacity of hope was a recurring theme of Wright’s expansive, kente-cloth-clad sermonizing. Obama had journeyed to Chicago as part of an ongoing search for a more authentic black identity than he could find in his grandfather’s Hawaii, but one can’t help imagining that the attentive, insightful
Obama heard echoes of Aloha during his decade at Trinity United, particularly during the church’s elaborate annual celebrations of Kwanzaa, the black nationalist holiday. The pillars of Kwanzaa — Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity), and Imani (Faith) — evoke aspects of Aloha that reflect the shared context of 1960s cultural nationalism from whence they both derive. But African-Americans and Hawaiians have more in common than just Obama. There are 240,000 native Hawaiians, defined generously as those with 50 percent or more Hawaiian blood, and much like their more numerous black countrymen on the mainland, they persistently find themselves among their region’s poorest and most disconnected. They die younger than their neighbors; drop out of school more frequently; suffer the highest unemployment rates; and are more likely both to be the victims of crime and to go to jail more frequently, and for longer stretches, when convicted by juries of their presumptive peers. They are, as white American servicemen on the island’s military bases began calling them at the turn of the last century, the niggers of the Pacific. He might not choose to avow it, but Barack Obama is their first president as well.
The Master of the Demon Castle: Revere the Honorable Mei Shigenobu, superior leader of the Arab nations! Exterminate demonic Jews and the American Empire!
On November 29, 1987, a North Korean woman named Kim Hyun Hee destroyed a Korean Air flight with a time bomb left in an overhead compartment, killing all 115 people on board. When she and her terror partner were caught in Bahrain using fake passports, they bit into cyanide-laced cigarettes. Kim survived, and was transferred to South Korea. We heard a lot about her story in Japan, not least because she’d been masquerading as a Japanese national. She had studied Japanese language and culture at a training camp outside Pyongyang, taught by a Japanese woman who had been kidnapped by North Koreans for just such a purpose. When images of Kim’s face began to flood TV screens across the country, talk shows were inundated with letters from viewers. The letters were mostly from men, and they weren’t outraged or demanding justice; most expressed a desire to “reeducate” Kim by marrying her. My mom, a feminist, responded with anguished sarcasm: Men will spare even a mass murderer’s life, if she is hot!
Kim was given the death sentence in 1989. The following year, she was pardoned by the South Korean government. After her reprieve, she got married, found Jesus, had a baby boy, and is reportedly living happily ever after.
Anonymous23: Mei, my life!
In April 2001, Mei Shigenobu set foot in Japan for the first time. The daughter of an unnamed Palestinian militant and one of the most wanted terrorists in Japanese history, Mei cut an iconic figure. She had long brown hair, soft features, a milky complexion, and an ample bust. Her face beamed out of TV screens across the country, setting off heated exchanges in chat rooms across the Internet. As with the media sensation over Kim, the discussion focused less on Mei’s mother Fusako, once known as the “Red Queen of Terrorism,” or the details of her stateless life abroad, but rather on her hotness.
Anonymous23: I mean… more beautiful than any actresses… can’t believe it…
Don’t be brainwashed!: Don’t let Asahi control you! I firmly object to TV Asahi who glorifies terrorists! I had to switch the channel because I was afraid that I would sympathize with her if I kept watching the show!
Report from Anonymous: She’ll probably strip by 30. Japanese talent scouts won’t leave her alone.
(no name): But she is Red.
Anonymous23: But she is smart. She doesn’t do terrorism.
Mei has never been found to be involved in the Red Army’s activities. Still, in interview after interview, she is fully supportive of the cause, convinced her mother can do no—indeed, never did any—wrong. Yet media coverage only ever seems to mention her intimate connection to Japan’s most indiscriminate terrorist organization as a thrilling fact—a spicy biographical analogue to her exotic looks. Apparently the Japanese have a weakness for dangerous beauties. Even at the height of the Red Army’s terror campaign in the early 1970s, Fusako Shigenobu was praised as a rare flower. Today the website dedicated to supporting her fight against imperialism features photos from her youthful days, promoting the seemingly widespread belief—or hope?—that no one so beautiful could possibly commit the atrocities she is accused of.
(no name): So back then they wanted a simultaneous global Communist revolution of some sort, see.
Among the items on display on Fusako Shigenobu’s blog, The Bulletin of the Olive Trees, there are photos, news items, and poems. There are haiku about the anniversary of her arrest, about her father, about a cold morning in her jail cell. There is also an MP3 of a song she managed to write, record, and upload, entitled “For Japanese Revolutionaries”:
In the midst of a battle
We were brought up
Do not fear betrayal, incarceration
March on, march on, freedom warriors
We are the sons and daughters of the comrades
It is an oddly childish song, as though Fusako herself were not a comrade whose actions more often than not entailed the death of innocents. As though she were, in effect, her own daughter. Fusako remains close to Mei, and to her two adopted children. (When the three children’s names are combined in a certain way, the resulting characters spell “victory of revolution.”) Not long after her arrest, Fusako published a book, her sixth, in the form of a letter to Mei: I Decided to Give Birth to You Under the Apple Tree (2001).
Fusako Shigenobu founded the Japanese Red Army (JRA) in 1971. It is not to be confused with the Communist League–Red Army Faction, the late-1960s radical student group whose members (including the bass player of the visionary Japanese noise band Les Rallizes Dénudés) hijacked a Japan Airlines flight in March 1970 with samurai swords and a bomb. Nor is the JRA the same as the United Red Army, a paramilitary ultra-leftist group as infamous for murdering its own comrades as for its major terrorist operations, a robbery at a gun shop and a hostage-taking at a ski lodge. But the JRA was related to both groups, as indeed it was related to the Red Army Faction of Germany and the Red Brigades of Italy, and, especially, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).
The Japanese Red Army was actually based in Beirut, Lebanon, where Fusako and her crew had journeyed in 1971. Like other aspiring radicals at the time, Fusako was inspired by the dramatic successes of the Palestinian movement, especially the PFLP, which had inaugurated the era of international terrorism in 1968 with the hijacking of an El Al jet. The JRA would learn from and collaborate with the Palestinians in their struggle against the Zionist entity, while building up a revolutionary base from which, one day, they would return to Japan and lead the student left in overthrowing capitalism and the monarchy.
Over the next two decades, there would be hijackings and hostage-takings in Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, Dhaka, Jakarta, Manila, Rome, and Naples, among other places. There was the occupation of the French Embassy in The Hague in 1974, an operation that netted the JRA $300,000 and the release of a captured comrade, and for which Fusako was ultimately convicted. The group’s most notorious action was the 1972 assault on Lod Airport in Tel Aviv. Three JRA members opened fire on a baggage carousel, killing twenty-four people and injuring seventy-eight more. The name Mei translates from Japanese as “life,” but the daughter Fusako bore in 1973 was named after the English word for the month of the Lod attack. (Indeed, her name is sometimes given as May.)
Fusako was arrested in 2000 near Osaka, Japan, shortly after her secret return to the country of her birth. She officially disbanded the JRA from her jail cell, though the group had been moribund for years—the passing of the Soviet Union and the other Eastern European communist states in 1989 had wiped out the last vestiges of a support network that had sustained groups like the JRA, while the rise of Islamist tendencies in the Palestinian national movement and the signing of the Oslo Accords further undermined the JRA’s ideological position. From her jail cell, Fusako has written books about her life and Palestine and maintained her blog, full of hope and idealism in the face of oppression by her old enemy, the Japanese state. A book of her haiku, Jasmine on the Muzzle, appeared in 2005.
Anonymous-San@My Belly is Full: I don’t care, just let me fuck her!
Mei Shigenobu is now a media celebrity. She hosts a news program on TV Asahi, one of Japan’s largest networks. She has written two books, including From the Ghettos of the Middle East (2003) and Secrets: From Palestine to the Country of Cherry Trees, Twenty-Eight Years with My Mother (2002), the latter an account of her life growing up without a nationality in and around Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. And she has become a kind of muse for aspiring radicals, as well as some members of the older generation, for whom her mother once played a similar role. Needless to say, she is involved in the Free Fusako Shigenobu Committee, though its efforts have not thus far had the desired effect. (Fusako is nine years into her twenty-year sentence; she will be seventy-five when she is released.) She is, in her own way, an incredibly effective spokesperson for the Palestinian cause, which has led to protests from at the Israeli Embassy. Of Japan she observes, “I always felt I should be here. I’d never been before, but always felt I belonged. I think it must be the same feeling that young Palestinians who have grown up in camps have about their own homeland.”
Mei’s most remarkable role in her new Japanese life is her star turn in director Nobuyuki Oura’s “avant-garde documentary” 9.11-8.15 Nippon Suicide Pact (2005). A philosophical road movie and journey into the visual and political history of twentieth-century Japan, the film stars Ichiro Hariu, a seventy-something leftist critic of literature and art, and Mei Shigenobu, who is described by the director as “an embodiment of the past and the future, dream and reality, nihility and hope, discontinuity and solidarity.” In one scene, Mei visits the home of Chi-Ha Kim, a South Korean poet, philosopher, and democratic activist. Mei tells him that her name means “life” in Japanese. She explains that she was exposed to many wars growing up—the Lebanese civil wars and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—and that the experience taught her to respect the lives of everyone she encounters. Kim says he identifies with Mei as a fellow global citizen, that the meaning of her name resonates with him. He says he has a hunch that Mei will contribute immensely to world peace in years to come. In the 1970s, Kim was imprisoned for seven years and routinely tortured by the South Korean government for his advocacy of democracy; so perhaps his intuition is worth considering.
In a YouTube clip related to the film, Mei talks about her experience acting in Suicide Pact. At the time of the interview, she was thirty-four years old, and right away one thing is clear: she is hot. As her various media images testify, she is charming and articulate, “one of us,” if not a better person than most of us. As her writings testify, she is knowledgeable, down to earth, and compassionate. What seems eerie—to me, at least—is the interview’s complete normalcy. In Mei’s world, her mother never killed anyone, never conspired to kill anyone; she is not contrite, because she is innocent. And based on the interviewer’s tone of voice, it wouldn’t be surprising if he turned out to be Anonymous23 from the chat room. Mei seems to respond to his flirtation, which in turn is directed to the viewer. She is talking about how she always wanted to be an actress, how she has finally managed to step out of her famous mother’s shadow. Dreams that any girl would entertain. Lightness surrounds her. In this lightness, unburdened by the trail of dead bodies her mother left behind, Mei Shigenobu bobs from screen to screen, her hot face shining through each one.
A home video camera follows a rail- thin teenager wearing strenuously applied makeup, an old rug as a dress, and an onion sack for a wig. Framed by a dirty white curtain, he sings classics by some of the greatest female voices of Arab song, from Umm Kulthum to Sabah. No one seems to mind the presence of a boy dressed as a girl, gently swaying his hips and flipping his wrists. On the contrary, the people around him whistle, whoop, and applaud as if the scene before them were the most normal thing in the world.
Bassem Feghali was born in the very small Lebanese town of Wadi Shahrour sometime in the 1970s. Perched high in the mountains along the Beirut-Damascus road, Wadi Shahrour is probably most famous for being the hometown of the legendary singer and actress Janet Feghali, popularly known as Sabah. Bassem is a distant relative of Sabah, and, following in her platinum- blond footsteps, he is en route to achieving a comparable stardom. A man who mostly plays a woman onstage, Bassem has secured a place as one of the most admired performers in the Arab world. Impersonating the likes of Haifa Wehbe, Nancy Ajram, Assala, Shakira, and of course Sabah, Bassem also boasts a cast of his own characters — living, breathing Lebanese stereotypes, each one more withering than the next.
Take Madame Antika Sursock, the embodiment of Lebanese Christian aristocracy living in the East Beirut neighborhood of Achrafieh. Antika speaks perfect French, interspersed with the (very) occasional Arabic word. A typical dialogue runs as follows: “I had put some money aside to donate to the Lions, but instead, I bought a coat. And the rest I was planning to use for the Murex d’Or, but instead, I had Botox for lunch. I am reminded here of the Italian philosopher, Francesco Zabrollo, who said that sex is like bridge; if you don’t have a good partner, you’d better have a good hand.” Well into her seventies, she claims to have been a childhood friend of Dalida. Coco Chanel, she adds, was once her house seamstress. Plainly, Antika knows all the great families of Lebanon and refers to most as “the son/daughter of so-and-so.” She is also, for lack of a better term, in constant heat — hitting on fathers and their sons, once even faking a heart attack so that she could demand mouth-to-mouth resuscitation from a handsome TV presenter.
Watching Sursock chase hot young men around the stage, no one seems to mind that a man, Bassem, is flirting with another man. Like the canonical madman who is coquettish in Arab cinema — or, say, the prattling of Dame Edna on Australian television — Bassem’s particular brand of gender play is both polite and clownish enough to be depoliticized. At his best, Bassem leaves no one untouched, from the typical slightly overweight, very overbearing Sunni Beiruti housewife who idolizes her children and curses her philandering absent husband in the same sentence, to Stridea Geagea, the wife of the far-right Christian leader Samir Geagea.
Another Bassem original is Hala Tamarzof, a young grocery girl from Keserwan. Hala is a slightly arriviste character who runs three conversations at once — without saying much of anything. With blond braided hair pomaded with gel, piles of foundation, and a too-tight tank top, she’s a bit of an eyesore. Hala reads all the gossip magazines, embraces horoscope culture, and, like the worst of us, equates fame with success.
If Bassem’s DVDs are a hit and his live performances are often sold out, it was 2006 that truly put him on the star map. It was that year he was given one of the most coveted spots on Arab television: the Ramadan Fawazir, the daily program that families across the Arab world watch during the traditional fasting month (audiences captive to a food coma). Every night, in Alf Wayle Bi Layle, Bassem took on the persona of a different Arab singer who would then, in turn, try to seduce the emir in a camp-meets–1001-Nights setting. In one memorable episode, the now beatified Umm Kulthum (on a black-and-white screen, as played by Bassem) visits the emir; Bassem also dresses up as the young and scantily clad pop singer Dana (whose nickname is inexplicably “Dudu”). We see Dudu slithering around the floor in nothing but hot pants, a bustier, and a red top hat, as the elder queen of Arabic song grows more and more distressed by the cheap theatrics before her. “Kharra! Eh da ya basha?_” “Shit! What is this, Your Highness?” exclaims Kulthum, as the emir’s eyebrows move up and down in time with his shoulders and he grows more and more excited.
To understand how Bassem came of age in a mainstream entertainment industry that doesn’t necessarily nurture individuality, one need only go as far back as Studio El-Fan, the Lebanese predecessor to the Star Academies of today. Launched in the early 1970s by Télé Liban, and later bought by the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC), this annual televised competition has become a Lebanese institution, watched throughout the country, cementing the fame of many of the Arab world’s brightest stars, Ragheb Alameh, Wael Kfoury, Elissa, and Assi El-Helani among them. Contestants compete in several categories, from singing and poetry to comedy. There are gold, silver, and bronze medals, and each year’s grand winner secures a coveted contract with legendary star-maker Simon Asmar.
Bassem made his Studio El-Fan debut in 1996. Impersonating as many men as women — footage from the time occasionally reveals jury members’ confusion — his performance climaxed with “El Helm El Arabi,” a Pan-Arab anthem that anybody would be hard pressed to question. He followed with an effervescent Sabah impersonation that left both the jury smiling and the live audience gyrating in their seats. He eventually won the competition, signing a ten-year contract with LBC and from there going on to perform skits and sketches on almost every prime-time LBC show. As the number of Arabic pop singers, especially busty female ones, multiplied, so did Bassem’s repertoire of characters. He has also been known to take on Madonna, Britney Spears, Beyoncé, and even Marilyn Monroe.
Still, all these laurels have not spared him a fair share of prejudice. Bassem remains, after all, a man in drag in a notoriously macho society. Rumors regarding his sexual orientation abound — rumors that, if ever confirmed, would surely spell the end of his public career. He is guarded very carefully by his agency, and notoriously wary of unsanctioned interviews. He is rarely seen in public outside of his performances, and some say that he doesn’t even live in Lebanon. Bassem is also known as an intense perfectionist, recording his own music, designing his own costumes and scenes, and writing his own scripts. Occasionally, it is said, he will go so far as to follow a strict diet and workout regimen in order to mold his physique into that of his subjects. He rehearses his voice to no end in order to better capture a particular regional accent (his Dalida is especially exceptional) or turn of phrase.
And while a man in drag in the heart of the Arab world may appear a cultural import, inspired by the most licentious aspects of the West, this actually isn’t the case at all; in a way, his is also a uniquely Arab story. Let us remember the khawal tradition of days past: throughout the Islamic world, and perhaps most notably during Mohammed Ali- era Egypt, men once assumed female roles in plays and dances, as women were forbidden to appear in public. A new breed of entertainers grew out of this peculiar set of circumstances. Belly dancing men became the rage in Egypt, and slowly men were sought after not only as performers, but also as companions and lovers.
Today, in a different time and space, Bassem Feghali invokes the khawal tradition, now reconceived and reincarnated as Haifa Wehbe and her sisters. And we’ve all fallen for it. We mouth along when he struts about in a boa-thong singing “Boos El Wawa.” We knowingly laugh when dressed as Fairuz he simply dismisses interviewers with a flick of the hand. And, of course, we all want very badly for Antika Sursock to finally get laid.
From the center of the world
In the holy land
From Northeast Africa
There is a special band
Known by the name of the soul messengers …
—“Equilibrium,” Soul messengers
Maybe you’ve seen them in Times Square, in Union Square, or on 125th Street. Half a dozen black men dressed like characters out of an old Sinbad movie. They wear black robes and bracers, helmets and knee-length boots. For all you know, they’re hiding scimitars and broad axes underneath their capes. And what are they doing? Screaming about the “white devil.” Hollering at white men and women, who somehow can’t help gathering around them to listen with hostile curiosity and shame. These are the African Hebrew Israelites, and here in New York they all seem to be nuts.
But there’s another story about the Hebrew Israelites, one rarely told and little known. It’s about a group of black Americans who followed the gospel of Ben Carter, a former foundry worker from the South Side of Chicago who began preaching in the 1960s about Zion. Ben Ammi Ben Israel, as he renamed himself, was so charismatic that he convinced his followers to leave the United States and create a new homeland in the deserts of Israel. They are still there today. They don’t wear costumes out of bad movies, and they don’t scream on street corners. They live on a vegetarian diet, they run their own kibbutz, and some of their children serve in the Israeli army. This is the other face of the Hebrew Israelites, and I have seen it.
I visited Dimona in the summer of 2006, during Israel’s war with Lebanon. It’s a hardscrabble town in the arid Negev Desert, thirty-five miles west of the Dead Sea. Track 12 of a recent CD, Soul Messages from Dimona (Numero Group, 2008) refers to Dimona as the “Spiritual Capital of the World,” even though its rocky landscape looks remarkably like the surface of the moon. In addition to the African Hebrew Israelites, Dimona harbors Bedouins, goats, and a nuclear weapons facility. Because of the colorful street dramas I’d witnessed enacted in New York by the Black Hebrews — an older white woman harassed to the point of tears, a white businessman pressured to get on his knees and kiss one of their boots in payment for the sins of his race, a Jewish college kid debating the algorithm that compared him to Hitler — I wasn’t sure what to expect when I showed up outside the compound’s metal gate. “Village of Peace,” the sign read.
“Oh, we left that anger behind,” Sister Aturah told me on a tour of the grounds. “We don’t sing the blues anymore.” She was the latest wife of a man called Dr. Khazriel, who had a few wives and many, many children. He had come from Detroit as a teenager decades ago and was now head of Dimona’s School of the Prophets, a kind of college. Sister Aturah was a more recent immigrant, originally from the Bahamas. The sun was going down over the village, and there were happy children bouncing around all over the place like jumping beans. “Avner! Yeshaia! Bashan! Zehorah!” their mothers called from the doorways of little tarpaper shacks. “Dinnertime!”
Sister Aturah showed me the birthing center, the bakery, the fitness center, the sewing center, the worship center, and the school. I was duly impressed by the oasis the African Hebrew Israelites had built, out of nothing, in the sand. It was something like a Native American reservation, an independent nation within a nation, only without the alcoholism and casinos.
So how were the African Hebrew Israelites supporting themselves? They’ve been in the holy land for forty years, but they’re not exactly a part of it. Israel doesn’t recognize them as Jews. They’ve recently gained permanent residency status, but not the rights of full citizenship. Sister Aturah and Dr. Khazriel explained that the community grows much of its own food, sews most of its own clothing, and even operates a couple of vegetarian restaurants in greater Israel, but I wondered how they made their living if they weren’t a part of Israel’s economy. As it turns out, they’ve been doing it all along, with music.
Soul Messages from Dimona is compiled from a series of LPs recorded in Tel Aviv in the mid-1970s, a few years after the community established itself in the desert. Most of its sixteen tracks are by a horn- drenched funk band called the Soul Messengers, whose core members got their musical start in the mid-60s as session players in a band backing Chicago R&B group the Leaners. It was a turbulent era for black America, a time of social protest and awakening reflected in the pounding sound of its music. Martha and the Vandellas’ hit Motown single “Dancing in the Streets” and James Brown’s civil rights anthem “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud” were used by young black demonstrators as rallying cries for change. Bass player Charles “Hezekiah” Blackwell, guitarist Thomas “Yehudah” Whitfield, and singer John “Shevat” Boyd helped make that sound. When they weren’t backing the Leaners, they were attending Hebrew Israelite meetings to study the Bible.
In a poignant memoir, The Impregnable People: An Exodus of African Americans Back to Africa, Hebrew Israelite Prince Gavriel HaGadol writes about that time:
We were a nation of rejects … The realization of the plight of the “negro” in America — the continual victim, the constant target, the “national” object of hatred, bigotry and oppression — were devastating … We were at war and didn’t realize it. Our foxholes were the deepening pits of denial and dehumanization; our bunkers were the crumbling tenement slums. Facing these harsh realities confronting our people, Ben [Ammi] and I asked the questions, “Where do we go from here? Is there no help for us? Why are we in this despicable condition? Should we join one of the existing Black movements and seek to negotiate our freedom or attempt to arm ourselves and take it?
As Prince Gavriel suggests, the Hebrew Israelites were one of several Black Power groups to emerge in the 1960s. Members of other groups, such as the Black Muslims, accused them of being timid, anti-revolutionary Bible lovers, suckered by the white man’s book. In fact, Ben Ammi taught his followers that the Bible bridged a gap between social and religious activism. It contained explicit directions to reconnect them with their original land, language, and culture, and was therefore a true black nationalist text. He taught that the Bible was a black history book; that its characters were black; that the sorrow songs they’d grown up singing in church about Zion and crossing over the Jordan River were not metaphors but literal truths; that heaven was not a pie in the sky but a place on earth, located in Israel; and that as Hebrews that was where they belonged. Rhythm and blues, with its deep gospel roots, was yet another expression of their history as a chosen people. These ideas resonated deeply with the musicians. In The Impregnable People Hezekiah is reported to have said:
I had always been in the church singing about Zion and singing about crossing over the Jordan River, so it was something to hear the teachings and find out that it was our people we were singing about. Folks were saying that the Bible characters were Black folks and it was Black folks who sang “Go Down Moses.” When I found out that Black folks were really “the people,” it all made sense, ’cause I used to always wonder why would Black people sing all these songs about white folks. It just didn’t make sense. When I found out Blacks were the people in those songs, it made more sense why these songs had meant so much to me as a youngster.
To symbolize strength and unity as a people, they clenched their fists, called one another “brother” and “sister,” refused to salute the American flag or sing the national anthem, studied Hebrew, kept kosher, dressed in dashikis, and changed their names.
The path to the Promised Land was not straight. Steeped in the prophetic tradition of Marcus Garvey, Ben Ammi first led a group of approximately 350 Hebrew Israelites — Hezekiah, Yehudah, and Shevat among them — to Liberia. West Africa may have been the endpoint of Garvey’s Zionist dream, but for the Hebrew Israelites it was just a weigh station on their exodus to Israel, which they perceived as the homeland of their forefathers. Their tradition holds that whereas the Jews descend from Judah, the Hebrew Israelites descend from Adam, the original man. Over two thousand years ago they were exiled from the Holy Land and migrated southward, down the Nile. Over the centuries, they drifted westward to the coast of Africa, where a great number of them were captured and shipped into modern Babylon as a curse for sinning against God’s law. (The Hebrew Israelites distinguish their curse, referred to in Leviticus and Deuteronomy as a great dispersal and a voyage into captivity by boat, from the eternal curse of Ham, which was used by white slave owners to justify slavery. While Ham’s curse cannot be redressed, the African Hebrew Israelites believe their curse can be, by right living.) They decided to follow the route by which their people had come to America, to trace their footsteps home.
Liberia was where their ancestors had departed from God’s grace; it was also part of a continent that had been brutally raped by Euro-Gentiles of its precious resources: diamonds, grain, coffee, gold. For the Hebrew Israelites, going “back to Africa” was synonymous with going “back to the land,” a geographical and psychological journey to leave urban blight behind.
The Hebrew Israelites practiced for their return by camping at a forest preserve. When they arrived in Liberia in 1967, they were gob-smacked by culture shock. Life in the bush was hard; even harder, some admitted, than life in the ghetto. They set up in Sears-Roebuck tents a hundred miles from the capital and tried to build their utopia in earnest. Then came the mamba snakes, malaria, driver ants, and endless rain. The tents began to rot. A faction of women mutinied against the institution of “divine marriage” (polygamy). A few of the children died from malnutrition. When the plot of land they farmed failed to produce enough crops to feed the community, dozens returned to the United States. Neighbors in Liberia were never entirely welcoming; although the Hebrew Israelites were not to be confused with the Americo-Liberians in power, they were also not recognized as Africans. Driven by hunger and with their families’ lives at stake, Hezekiah, Yehuda, and Shevat traveled a hundred miles to Monrovia with their instruments in hand.
The gamble paid off. After performing James Brown’s “Cold Sweat” at President Tubman’s inauguration, the trio quickly became one of the most popular live acts in Liberia. Local demand for America’s soul hit parade ensured the band’s success. The liner notes to Soul Messages from Dimona argue that the Soul Messengers (as they became known) were the first funk band to land on the African continent. While Fela Kuti was still playing highlife in Nigeria, these three American expatriates were gigging night after night to support their families. They built a happening nightclub in Monrovia called the Soul Spot. Soon, the entire African Hebrew Israelite settler community was dependent on the band’s income.
By 1969, Ben Ammi was ready to make the final push to Israel. Liberia wasn’t the land of milk and honey, Dr. Khazriel explained to me, it was a place for the African Hebrew Israelites to “cleanse ourselves of the slave mentality” and to “shed our American identities.”
But when the Afrocentric group of Americans arrived in Zion with their Old Testament names, Israeli officials weren’t sure what to do with them. The Black Hebrews weren’t Jews, according to the Chief Rabbinate, so the Law of Return did not extend to them. They were African Americans who, having been historically rejected by America, had rejected it in turn. America was their Egypt. They believed they would die in the States, dispossessed, degraded, and oppressed. This was their Exodus, and they saw themselves as one of Israel’s lost tribes.
Dr. Khazriel maintained that the Law of Return was altered because of the African Hebrew Israelites. He claimed the only proof Jews used to need to be registered in Israel was an innocent declaration. The modification to the law came shortly after the arrival of the first Hebrew Israelites from Liberia, whereupon Jews came to be defined as people born of Jewish mothers or who converted to Judaism. “It’s not a coincidence. It’s a conspiracy,” he said, likening the law to the grandfather clauses used to block African Americans from voting during Reconstruction. “The question of who is and isn’t a Jew has never been under such scrutiny as when those of African descent return to the Holy Land.”
Of course, the Hebrew Israelites see themselves as the original Jews. Upon their arrival in 1969, they refused to convert, calling the Israelis “heathens” and publicly threatening to run them into the sea. When it became clear Israel wouldn’t legitimize their brand of Judaism, they made a desperate bid for political asylum on humanitarian grounds. Whether or not their claims were legitimate, it might have damaged Israel’s public image to deport them. In any case, they were allotted temporary visas and allowed to squat in Dimona, where through the practice of polygamy and wide-scale proselytizing efforts in major urban cities throughout the U.S. and the Caribbean, the numbers of Black Hebrews (as they are known in Israel) began to swell. There are now an estimated 2,500 of them living in the desert — the largest group of black Americans living outside America today.
As the community began to grow, so did the Soul Messengers. By 1972, newcomers Amnon, Ahman, and Abshalom rounded out the group on trumpet, tenor, and alto sax, respectively. The musicians practiced from dawn till dusk. As in Liberia, the livelihood of the entire community rested upon the success of the band. The Soul Messengers tirelessly toured the tiny nation, performing regularly at small clubs and discos, changing the lyrics of hit songs to reflect their beliefs. Steam’s “Na Na Na (Kiss Him Goodbye),” for example, became “Our Lord and Savior” (track 2).
Natives looked on the Soul Messengers as a charming curiosity. Then in 1973, the Yom Kippur War provided the Soul Messengers with a unique opportunity that made them the hottest, most sought-after party band in the country. Perhaps seeking to court government favor, the group volunteered to perform at Israeli Defense Force military bases for free. With their spirits lifted by hard-hitting funk, the troops began spreading the word about the Soul Messengers. Soon the Black Hebrews were booking street festivals, theaters, weddings, and bar mitzvahs. With the Soul Messengers at its heart, the stage show eventually grew into a sprawling musical supergroup that included the Tonistics (a boy group inspired by the Jackson Five), the Spirit of Israel (a gospel inflected women’s choir), and the Sons of the Kingdom (a message-oriented soul quartet).
Seizing the opportunity to capitalize on their wild success, CBS Records’ Tel Aviv arm booked the Soul Messengers into a recording studio in 1975. Six of the tracks they laid down at that session are included on Soul Messages from Dimona. (Due to a rift between the band and the label, however, the record never saw wide release.) In 1976 the band recorded another album, Sweet Land of Mine, which featured the satellite acts on the Soul Messenger’s bill. “Dimona (Spiritual Capital of the World)” reflects what the town had become for the African Hebrew Israelites:
Dimona, the opposite of all the wicked nations / Wicked rulers, wicked governments of the third dispensation
These lyrics also reflect how the group speaks out of the nineteenth-century Christian tradition of Dispensationalism. Back in the late 1800s, a strategy of black theologians was to critique America’s pretensions of being the Promised Land. They saw Western Civilization-worshipping Anglo-Saxonism instead of Christ. This civilization corrupted Christianity by preaching racism and would destroy itself in the End Times. Dispensationalism appealed to them as a plan of divine human redemption. As certain blacks saw it, the role of Shem, the Semites, was to preserve the word of God. The role of Japeth, the Europeans, was to preach the Word of God. Ham, the Africans, had the most important dispensation. Their role was to put the Word of God into practice.
Later in 1976, Ben Ammi ordained the Sons of the Kingdom ambassadors of funk and sent them to tour the U.S., Africa, and Europe to entertain and indoctrinate, armed with a 45 RPM single. Its two tracks, “Hey There” and “Modernization,” are included on the Numero Group compilation and were written to recruit more blacks to the faith, with the mission of saving the world.
The CD documents a turn from anger to praise, from Babylon to Zion, from oppression to self- reliance, and even, on ”Go to Proclaim” (track 6), from English to Hebrew. This song is the best in the collection. Sung with the burning honey of Al Green at his most yearning, it’s a stirring mix of sacred and secular.
But what happens to black music when it’s no longer blue?
The compilation’s more infectious tracks are its sad and angry ones, the ones that let the finger linger on pain’s jagged edge, the ones that bleed a little. Take “Modernization” (track 9). Reminiscent of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” the tune opens up with inner-city street sounds — honking horns and sirens — then opens out in protest:
High level apartments
Tower in the sky
What kind of people desire to live so high?
Tower of Babel and everybody’s confused
I think I’ll stay on the ground
One level house is all I’ll use
People are dying from fires in the sky
Fireman, please save my baby
“Sorry lady, my ladder don’t go that high”
This song, “Burn Devil Burn” (track 1), and “Equilibrium” (track 7) are the songs that make you want to dance, even as their overt politics date them squarely in the post–Civil Rights era of black social protest. They are righteous and blisteringly exuberant. “Junky Baby” (track 13) is something like Diana Ross’s “Love Child” — it sounds almost like a caricature of itself, but it’s got undeniable soul. “Born in sorrow, born in pain,” it cries, and you could weep. “Daniel” (track 4) is a gorgeous straight-up gospel song with a psychedelic twist, like something out of Godspell. “Equilibrium” is saturated with complex polyrhythms and a funky guitar digging out an infectious groove. “Listen to the voice of peace,” it beseeches, like an earnest and anguished prayer.
But when we get the voice of peace in “A Place to Be” (track 14), it sounds exactly like the Partridge Family.
It’s a place that’s free and easy
It’s a world of love and peace
Maybe you should come and see it
It’s the place to be!
I just wanna live in Israel
Live a life of purity
Away from the wild and wicked world
Teach my children how to be free
Just to see my children play
On a hillside as free as can be
They will never ever know
The pain of slavery
Stripped of pain, it’s stripped of soul. Without that heavy bottom to underscore its joy, the song comes off as anodyne and flat.
This is the kind of music I heard when I visited the Village of Peace almost thirty years after the original Soul Messengers disbanded. Sister Aturah led me to a recording studio built in a disused bomb shelter. I watched a band rehearse there, a group of Israeli-born outsiders who no longer thought of themselves as on the fringe. Though they stood on the shoulders of the Soul Messengers, their music was forgettable. Sister Aturah was proud to report that in recent years, singers from the community have twice represented Israel at Eurovision. They did not win. “We have a new musical genre now. We call it Songs of Deliverance,” she said, kindly offering me a few sample CDs of the African Hebrew Israelite’s new sound. I listened to them once. Once was enough.
At the top of an escalator in Harrods, the Knightsbridge department store owned since 1985 by the Egyptian soft drinks salesman-turned-billionaire businessman Mohamed Al-Fayed, stands what might be London’s oddest work of public art. Entitled Innocent Victims and designed by Bill Mitchell, Harrods’ chief architect for some forty years, the life-size bronze depicts Al-Fayed’s son Dodi and Dodi’s lover, Diana, Princess of Wales, who died together in a car crash in Paris on August 31, 1997 — an event that Al-Fayed has alleged was orchestrated by the British secret service agency MI6 on the orders of the royal family. Mitchell shows the pair boogying barefoot, she in a negligee, he in testicle-hugging slacks and a tight shirt unbuttoned to the waist, as though on the dance floor of an upmarket Mediterranean fleshpot, or on the poop deck of a burnished yacht. They appear to be about fifteen minutes away from slipping off to bed for a night of flashy, trashy sex — of posh lust and poshlust. Before that, though, there is one piece of business to attend to. Staring into each other’s eyes, Di ’n’ Dodi release an albatross into the sky, its two wings inscribing the initials “D.D.” into the department store’s perfumed air, with its Obsession and Samsara, White Shoulders and l’Eau Sauvage.
Innocent Victims is, by almost every measure, a terrible work of art. It fails as a realist work — his stomach was not that flat, nor was her nose that irredeemably beaky. It fails as a symbolic work, too — the albatross, post–Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798), commonly speaks either of divine grace or of the burden and eventual expiation of guilt, neither of which seem appropriate to the couple’s short history. Most of all, it fails as a representation of love, at least between Dodi and Diana. Fumbling for eroticism (his bare chest, her swollen pubic mound) it slips closer to a soft-porn fantasy about an Arab “entering” the British establishment — something that Al-Fayed, with his failed passport applications and rescinded Royal Warrants never quite managed to do. (Prince Philip, identified by the Harrods’ proprietor as the prime suspect in the alleged MI6 plot, withdrew his official patronage of the store in 2001, following what his office described, in a masterful understatement, as a “significant decline in trading relationships.”) At the very least, the sculpture seems to be a vision of what a wealthy, unimaginative man of humble birth might want for his son — a princess, utterly pliant; a princess, to make of him a prince. Innocent Victims is a memorial, then, but not so much to the actual Dodi as to a version of him — an Arab blight on an English rose — invented by the tabloid media and appropriated by Al-Fayed for his own, establishment-baiting ends. Here, the beloved departed is remembered only as a sexual martyr, a man who possessed a queen who never was.
Emad El-Din Mohamed Abdel Moneim Fayed (“Dodi” is a nickname, derived from his childhood mispronunciation of his proper moniker) was born in Alexandria on April 15, 1955, to Al-Fayed and the Turkish-Saudi novelist and socialite Samira Khashoggi. Up until his relationship with Diana, he lived mostly in obscurity (or whatever form obscurity takes when you are the son of a very wealthy man and have access to many of the people, places, and things that our blue planet affords). At nineteen, he was sent by his father to Sandhurst, the British Army’s officer training facility, to pursue a sixth-month course in what amounted to playing soldier, a program popular with rich foreign nationals keen to give their sons a little backbone and public- school sheen. The only appreciable upshot of this experience seems to have been Dodi’s new hobby of collecting regimental uniforms, which he’d wear to parade around his apartment (idle thoughts turn to him and Diana role-playing Richard Gere and Debra Winger in An Officer and a Gentleman). After falling out, he floated into a life of semi-indolence, supported by a monthly allowance of £400,000, which he reportedly often spent within the first week. A Ferrari dealership funded by his father came to nothing, as did a seat on the board of Harrods, prompting Al-Fayed to refer to him behind his back, according to Dodi’s PA Pamela Maestre, as “my stupid son.” Dodi met with more success with his occasional work in film, gaining an executive producer credit for the multiple Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire (1981), the tale of an Anglo-Jewish runner who defeats anti-Semitism to compete in the 1924 Olympics, and an associate producer credit for Hook (1991), the Steven Spielberg–directed reworking of J.M. Barrie’s 1904 stage play and later novel, Peter Pan and Wendy. Even here, though, it’s hard not to think that he wasn’t so much working as toying with Daddy’s money — Al-Fayed paid for much of Chariots, and Hook could not have been made without his permission as partial copyright holder of Peter Pan. “Playboy” is a word often used by the tabloid media to describe Dodi, and one that carries with it, alongside the usual associations of cocktails and louche daywear, the suggestion of heartlessness, not least to the Princess of Hearts. Perhaps. What seems more certain is that, as with Barrie’s creation, the billionaire’s son was a boy for whom life was a thing of little weight, a boy who wouldn’t, or couldn’t, grow up.
Despite the glossier kind of gossip columns linking him with, among others, the actresses Brooke Shields, Britt Ekland, and Julia Roberts, Dodi only truly passed into the popular imagination in July 1997, when he embarked on a love affair with Diana while holidaying in St. Tropez on Al-Fayed’s yacht, the Jonikal. The media response to this relationship — accompanied by blurred, long-lens paparazzi shots of the couple riding jet skis, alighting at marinas, and, famously, sharing an awkward, rather teenage kiss — seesawed between fascination and repulsion, with Dodi presented along old-school Orientalist lines as a simultaneously rapacious and impotent pasha (a headline from an August 1997 issue of People Weekly is typical: “In her first real post-Charles romance, Diana takes up with a controversial playboy. Is he a dreamboat — or a deadbeat?”). Although they were never given unambiguous voice in the mainstream press, the underlying set of anxieties about race, class, religion, and bloodline were clear enough. Ever since OPEC, Britain had seen wealthy Arabs make increasing incursions into, if not quite the establishment, then at least the establishment’s playgrounds, and here the son of an Egyptian tycoon — and, what’s more, one who had helped end eighteen years of Conservative rule through his part in a 1994 political scandal in which he allegedly bribed two Tory MPs to table parliamentary questions — was sharing a bed with the former wife of the first in line to the throne, and mother of the second. Despite the divorced Diana’s lack of a constitutional role, there was a definite feeling that territory had been taken. Albion’s body politic had been breached by a man who, in the confused fantasies of the media, was half-Saladin, half-robed seducer à la the TV adverts for Fry’s Turkish Delight.
The rest is history — or rather, a cacophony of competing claims of more or less dubious provenance (he was cheating on her, she had called things off, he had asked her to marry him, she was pregnant with his or another man’s child), not one of which, it seems, has entirely succeeded in drowning the others out. The press is determined that the Princess remain a restless ghost, and so, it follows, must her lover. There’s little dignity to be gained in going over this material here, and what’s significant is not what the butler or the best friend claims to have seen, but the fact that a large portion of the British public remains obsessed by the affair some twelve years after the crash. Governing this are at least two “what if?” scenarios. In the first, the crash never takes place, and the romance matures, with Diana eventually converting to Islam, marrying Dodi, and bearing him a child, a brown brother or sister for Princes William and Harry. In the second, the crash does take place, and Al-Fayed’s suspicions about the involvement of MI6 and the Royal Family are proven to be correct. Either of these scenarios would have resulted in the erosion, if not the wholesale destruction, of the House of Windsor as we know it, and their constant playing and replaying in the private imaginings of the British public points to a fuzzy dissatisfaction with being a subject people and a willingness to countenance — with mixed horror and glee — an alternative constitutional reality. Like Dodi’s military costumes, these scenarios allow the nation to imagine how it’d look as a republic, without ever committing to a fight.
Drawn in two dimensions by both his father and the media, the real Dodi is unknowable (he may not even have known himself). For the British public, however, he functions not only as an exotic Other, but perhaps also as a counterintuitive avatar of the everyman. In a monarchy, most of us are as remote from the royal bloodline as any Arab lemonade seller’s son. In a monarchy, most of us are Lost Boys, politically unwilling or unable to grow up. This enforced childishness gives rise to childish fantasies — fuck the Royals and there’s a chance you might just really fuck the Royals, and in the process open up a path toward a new, more equitable world. I suspect this is why Bill Mitchell’s sculpture of Dodi wears such tight-fitting trousers. Wouldn’t you, if you were packing a republican icon — however feeble — in your pants?
It is said that arrows fired at the Buddha fell to his feet as flowers.
On October 21, 1967, the French photographer Marc Riboud took a series of photographs of a Vietnam War protestor in front of the Pentagon. A seventeen-year-old girl in a flowery chemise, heavy-jawed, Beatle-haired, is seen in profile facing left. In one shot, she stretches her arms out, at once flirtatious and Christ-like, a flower just visible in her right hand. In another shot, the iconic one, she holds the flower before her mouth. It’s a large white daisy, or perhaps a carnation. She faces a stolid line of helmeted soldiers, rifles at the ready. The bayonets, sheathed, seem to line up one behind the other, like shadows of each other.
Later, Jan Rose Kasmir moved to Denmark, had a daughter, and became a massage therapist. She recalled of that day, “All of a sudden, I realized ‘them’ was that soldier in front of me — a human being I could just as easily have been going out on a date with. It wasn’t a war machine, it was just a bunch of guys.”
“I was a good heart trying to follow the light,” she said. “None of this was planned.”
On the same day, Bernie Boston, an American photographer for Life magazine, took a single black-and-white shot of a Vietnam War protestor, also in front of the Pentagon. In the Pulitzernominated photo, “Flower Power,” a young man gently inserts the stem of a flower into the barrel of a gun whose bearer stands just beyond the frame. Another soldier reaches out to finger the flowers already dangling from the end of his gun. It’s unclear from this soldier’s expression whether he is trying to remove the flowers or to fix them or just to touch them to see if they’re real. As for the eighteen-year-old protester, his profile reveals nothing but intent, his seriousness at once heightened and undermined by his bulky ribbed turtleneck sweater.
Later, George Harris grew a beard and named himself Hibiscus. He moved out west, joined a commune called KaliFlower, and started the Cockettes, a psychedelic drag performance troupe. He died of AIDS in 1982.
In 1999, Odile Lobadowsky, president of Kenzo Parfums, decided to create a scent based on Riboud’s picture: “a flower stronger than a gun.” As maestro perfumer Alberto Morillas concocted the fragrance, the concept was refined: a red flower in the city, growing against a backdrop of skyscrapers and asphalt, both delicate and resilient. Kenzo introduced it in 2000 as Flower, a reminder that the autumnal day at the Pentagon three-plus decades earlier must have had a smell. Flower’s glass bottle is slender as a rifle barrel, but curved and yielding, a long-stemmed poppy seeming to float inside it. It’s so tall that stores have to display it lying on its side. The perfume smells like no particular flower and like every flower in the world combined. The marketing materials read, “No one plants or chooses me. I simply grow.”
The gun is an invention, designed to conform to the human hand, made of honed wood and forged steel. A signifier of violence, an emblem of power and control. Irrevocable. A flower is a natural thing, perishable and pliant, alive in the moment. A gift. Something beyond vulnerable, because why would you hurt it?
The flower in the gun is disarming; it makes the gun a vase of sorts. An absurd, earnest, melodramatic gesture. A plea to the universe. The universe. An excuse not to fire.
I still remember the first time I saw her. I was on my way to school in Ammo Mohammad’s carpool. It was a sudden jolt, so fast it took me a few hours to piece together the reason for my shock. I’d seen the posters every morning on the same drive, and the faces changed often; there was always a new one papering over the old. Then suddenly I realized what was so strange about this new face: the smooth skin, the thick profusion of hair pouring out from under her red beret, stood out amid the multitudes of beards and moustaches. She was the lone woman in a sea of men.
After that I looked for her every morning, praying for traffic to slow us down so I could memorize all the details of her face. It must have been after a few days of this routine that Ammo Mohammad took notice. He turned to me. “You know who that is? That’s Sanaa, my niece.”
That was the year the boys at school started calling girls “germs.” If you were a boy and a “germ” touched you, on purpose or by accident, you had to wipe the offended body part against a wall three times—preferably with a look of deep disgust on your face—while exclaiming how horrified you were that you’d been contaminated.
My two best friends were twin boys in my class, but although we played together almost every day after school, I didn’t approach them or have any contact with them at school. It was a bizarre, disjointed existence: enemies before 3pm and best friends after. Still, I never questioned the order of things. I was a “germ” after all, and I understood that it wouldn’t do for them to be seen talking to me. I spent recesses mostly alone. None of the girls in my class wanted to be friends with a girl who was friends with boys.
On the morning of April 9, 1985, Sanaa Mehaidley got into a white Peugeot 504 laden with more than 200kg of TNT and drove south from Beirut. She stopped at the Jezzine checkpoint, one of the few places to cross into Israeli-occupied South Lebanon. When soldiers approached to inspect the car and its occupant, it exploded, killing two men and injuring two others. Sanaa’s remains were gathered and taken into custody by the Israeli military.
We were asked to prepare a project in class about great minds, and I wanted to do mine about a writer. I decided to write about Beverly Cleary, whose fictional Klickitat Street—with its wide suburban lawns and quiet parks—I practically lived on that year. My father found me sitting at the dining table, painstakingly etching my title onto the poster in tall, slanting letters: BEVERLY CLEARY: MY FAVORITE WRITER. My father laughed, and said something about age being the greatest teacher. I asked him what he meant. “Well, this woman writes children’s books. I’m sure they’re good, but when you’re a little older, you’ll get to read books by the real greats, books that will open your mind about the world, show you what it’s all about.”
“Like who?” I asked.
“Like Shakespeare and Milton, Voltaire, Proust, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Al-Mutanabbi, and Mahmoud Darwish. Those are real writers, writing about real things.”
Suddenly Beverly Cleary sounded terribly silly, a middle-aged housewife going on about dishwashing and child-rearing in the company of intelligent men, who indulged her with a smile and rolled their eyes when she finally bustled out of the room.
The poster I presented finally ended up being about Shakespeare, with an expertly shaded sketch of the Bard drawn by my father. “Shakespeare:” it said at the top, “The Greatest Writer Known to Man.”
A young woman from Ankoun, near Saida, gave up her life in the full flower of youth in resistance to the ongoing occupation of Southern Lebanon. The Bride of the South, Sanaa Mehaidley, was no stranger to tragedy: born on August 14, 1968, she lost her mother when she was only three years old. At the age of ten, she watched Israeli tanks roll in and cut her off from her beloved South. Inspired by fellow martyr and Syrian Social Nationalist Party member Wajdi Al Sayegh, Sanaa joined ranks with the SSNP in early 1985 and gave her life for the cause on April 9 of the same year. She drove a car full of TNT into an Israeli convoy at the Jezzine checkpoint, killing two soldiers and wounding two. She is survived by her father, stepmother, and four half-brothers.
“You know her?” I asked. Suddenly Ammo Mohammad took on another aura. I’d always thought of him in his car, confined to that space while we were free to leave it, but now I could see something else about him, something noble. It was Sanaa, her essence, her quiet, knowing look. Suddenly she was no longer just a face on a poster; she was real. Here was living proof that Sanaa had deliberately moved through this world and just as deliberately chosen to leave it.
“Yes,” he said, “of course. I told you, she’s my niece.” I stared at her face again, smiling from the red posters wallpapering the fences behind what was then Beirut University College. She had brown hair and eyes like mine, and she was beautiful. It wasn’t so much her features as it was just something about her, her easy comfort in her fatigues, the confident angle of that red beret. I’d never seen a girl who seemed so much like a boy.
“She was a sweet little girl, just like you, but she could never stand injustice. She’s a martyr now, she died saving our country from the enemy.”
“I’m sorry,” I stammered, unsure how to convey the sincerity of my condolences.
“No!” he roared, “Don’t be sorry! Sanaa didn’t want anybody to be sorry. We should remember her and laugh. Remember her bravery, her sacrifice! Sanaa was willing to give her life for the country she loved and believed in. How many people are willing to do that? The politicians talk and talk about their beloved Lebanon, but are any of them willing to give up their lives for it? Sanaa was. She killed fifty enemy soldiers in one blow! A few more and we could have ended the war. Sanaa is a hero, we are not sorry for her. We don’t cry for heroes.”
It was that year that I discovered the school library, an open, airy space with green carpet and blond wooden shelves crammed with books. There was one corner where I especially loved to sit, which had a window overlooking a riot of hibiscus, oleander, and bougainvillea, the red fields filled with Syrian army tanks and soldiers (who were at this time usually running in place), and beyond them, a little sliver of sea. I read everything I could get my hands on, mostly Beverly Cleary, Nancy Drew, and a series named after its protagonist, Trixie Belden, who lived on a crab apple farm in upstate New York and solved mysteries with her best friends on the weekends. Every afternoon I climbed the four flights of stairs to the library, leaving the school and its clamor below, and dove nose-first into other worlds. I lived vicariously through the characters, just as fascinated by the mundane details of their everyday lives as I was by their adventures. When Nancy used a toaster, or Ramona picked up the phone and called her friend on the first try, or when Trixie turned on the lights and they obediently flooded the room, I felt a thrill that left me weak with both desire and resentment. No laboring at their homework under the squeal of battery-powered neon for these girls! No worried parents discussing politics late into the night, no impossible phone lines or taking freezing showers in a bucket or being yelled at for playing on the balcony if there was shooting. They made brownies on Sunday afternoons and had perfect white teeth and shiny hair, their names were easy to pronounce and the food they ate was neat and clean and…normal. I came home one afternoon and announced my intentions to my mother: as soon as I turned sixteen, I was going to dye my brown hair blond, buy blue contact lenses, and change my name to Jessica. When she laughed at me, I cried. She didn’t understand the rules of that other, better world.
At sixteen, while most girls are getting their driver’s licenses, going on their first dates, and daydreaming about being prom queen, a young woman in the Middle East was planning a deadly terror attack. While others her age attended dance parties, Sanaa Mehaidley signed up to join the ranks of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, known to be a notorious breeding ground for terrorism in the region. Reportedly “inspired” by Wajdi Al Sayegh, a militant who carried out a suicide attack in 1984, Sanaa, with the help of higher-ranking party members, recorded a sinister video bidding her parents goodbye and announcing her intention to kill herself and “kill as many enemy soldiers as possible.” On the morning of April 9, 1985, she drove a TNT-loaded car into an Israeli convoy, killing two soldiers and wounding two others, and leaving all the mothers on either side asking one question: Why?
Every night at seven o’clock, between the six o’clock and the eight o’clock news, my brother and I could be found in a rapt trance in front of the television set, watching Grendizer. My father would turn on our little generator at five minutes to seven, while we sat in our places, waiting for the blank screen to hum to life and the theme song to blare, so we could sing along in our crappy phonetic Japanese. There were many Japanese cartoons dubbed into Arabic, and we watched most of them, but Grendizer was superior to them all. We grit our teeth and punched the air with excitement as Daisuke powered up his giant robot, Grendizer, to fight the evil Lord Vega, and sighed with relief as Grendizer overcame evil forces and managed to keep the earth safe for one more day.
Afterwards, while my parents watched the news, we would go into the hallway and play Grendizer. To the background drone of death counts and politicians’ speeches, we fought over who would play whom. We both wanted to be the hero. We both wanted to save the day.
We are proud to report that at 11am on April 9, the martyr Sanaa Mehaidley carried out her heroic operation, exploding a car filled with more than 200kg of TNT, successfully killing seventy-five of the enemy’s soldiers and grievously wounding another hundred. In her farewell video, the brave Comrade Sanaa implores us not to mourn, but to celebrate, for her blood is now watering the fertile earth of her beloved south. She will from now on be known as the Bride of the South, and will be remembered as the first woman brave enough to give her life for the sake of her country and its freedom. We hope the success of her mission will inspire others, men and women, to sacrifice for their country, and for the causes of freedom, socialism, and justice for all.
At night I put myself to sleep imagining how I would load a car up with TNT and drive down to the border where the enemy stood leering, waiting for women and children they could disembowel and torture. I would wait for them to stand all in one place, and then I would press down on the gas pedal, hard, and plow right into them. The car would explode and I would die, but I would kill enough of them with me that the war would end.
I lay in bed and cried, imagining my parents and brother crying, missing me, but then I imagined them walking in a parade with the rest of the country. Everyone would be there: my aunts, uncles, cousins, and neighbors, my classmates and teachers. And they would all walk hand in hand down to the south, and they would tear out the roadblocks and checkpoints and barbed wire with their bare hands. They would cry with joy, and dance, and feast until the stars wheeled to the other side of the night sky. The long war would be over. And I would watch them from posters, my eyes remote and full of grace, focused on a future I would never know, a future made possible through my sacrifice. In thick calligraphy, it would say my name, and above it, my title: The Hero of Lebanon, the Girl Who Ended the War.
“Sanaa had a very keen sense of justice. Ever since she was a child, she always knew when someone was victimizing someone else, and she couldn’t stand it.”
Sanaa Mehaidley’s mother is a simple and modest woman, still wearing black in mourning for her daughter, who blew herself up on April 9 next to an Israeli checkpoint at the entrance to Israeli-occupied South Lebanon, killing two soldiers and injuring two others.
“I know she said we shouldn’t mourn,” says Mrs. Mehaidley, wiping at her eyes, “but a mother can’t help but miss her child.” She pauses. “Even if I’m very proud of her. Very proud. At least she left me with that. Tell me, if I don’t have my pride in her, what else do I have?”
My parents never told me about the civil war. What they did speak to me about was the Israeli occupation of the South of our country. It started the same year I was born, 1978. And I remembered the siege of West Beirut in 1982, and I knew about a terrible massacre whose name my mother couldn’t pronounce without crying.
My mother also told me about Palestine, about another occupation that started the year she was born, in 1948. About Auntie Samia’s parents being homeless, and how the key that hung on the wall above their couch was the key to their home, the home they could never go back to and in which another family now lived.
“How can this just happen?” I would rail at her. “Why doesn’t someone do something, say something?” And she would only look at me sadly and smile.
Tuesday, April 9, 1985. The skies are mostly clear, but the sea is gunmetal gray as she drives down the coastal road, heading south. Her hands on the wheel are small and thin, the nails bitten down to the quick. There is a picture of Wajdi Al Sayegh taped to the rearview; her eyes linger over it every time she looks into the mirror. She steers the white Peugeot smoothly, guiding it through the midmorning traffic. Just past her hometown of Ankoun, she signals to turn and climbs onto the winding mountain roads towards the Jezzine crossing into the occupied south. As she approaches the checkpoint, the car slows down, then comes to a complete stop. A moment of silence as a soldier approaches.
Then the car explodes.
I sat down to write my final note—my last words to the world, to the people I loved. I decided to turn mine into a letter to my mother. I asked her not to cry, not to mourn, but to celebrate my bravery. I told her to tell my brother and father that I loved them very much, that my brother could have my toys, and that he could now consider himself Daisuke/Grendizer for the rest of his days. I told her that while I knew there was no God, because she had told us so, I refused to believe that there was no heaven. And so I would be watching them all from that place, watching them the way one watches a television set, excited and cheering for the success of the people inside the box, but separate from them, alone.
When I gave the letter to my mother, she was quiet for a long time, and then she called me to sit by her.
“Did you write this all by yourself?” she asked. I nodded.
“Where did you learn this word from?” She pointed to the word “testament.”
“From Nancy Drew,” I said.
“You have a good memory and a very vivid imagination,” she said. “Maybe you want to think about being a writer when you grow up.”
“I want to be a hero,” I said. “I want to save the world.”
“There are many different ways of saving the world,” said my mother. The next day she gave me a diary. The first entry reads:
August 5, 1985 Yesterday I decided I want to be a writer when I grow up because Mama said I have a very vivid imagination.
I wake up and can’t tell if I’ve actually slept. I feel wound up with energy, my heart pounding from every pore of my body. I let its rhythm guide me. It’s brought me this far, it can take me all the way to the end.
I’m trying not to think about what will happen afterwards; I’m more afraid of the pain than the aftermath, anyway. I wonder if that makes me a coward. There is no turning back.
I put on my shoes, lacing them up tightly, all the while thinking how little it matters. It only matters if my lace should somehow get in the way at the final moment, and stop me from doing what I need to do. When my duty is over, so will my life be. And when my life is over, so will my duty be. There is something so neat and beautiful about that, and I know that I don’t need to believe in God to perceive a perfect order in the world.
The car feels strange. It’s so heavy, I’m afraid it won’t make it up the mountain. I have to be extra careful; a traffic accident now would be a terrible disaster indeed. The giggle escapes me before I can stop it, and then I am laughing in the car all by myself, and the sound fills my ears, it fills the entire space surrounding me, so that it feels like another presence in the car. It strikes me suddenly that I have never been this alone, never shared such a moment with myself like this. I look at myself in the rearview mirror, and the girl in the mirror smiles back, her face right next to Wajdi’s. Wajdi, the hero, the man who, in another life, a life without this occupation, I would have followed over the threshold of our home instead of into death. Everything is so funny, so perfectly self-contained in this car, so quiet, so complete. The sea is a churning blue-green. This is the last time I will see the sea. I wish it were a perfect blue, burnished by the sun. That’s how I always loved it most.
As I drive higher into the mountains, my heart is now pounding so hard, I feel my skeleton rattling. It is a war drum. It knows the end is coming. The bile rises in my throat, and I fight the urge to throw up. I just need to hold it in for a few more minutes. And then. And then it won’t matter anymore. The sky is clearer here—I can see the last of the winter snow on the peaks in the distance. The checkpoint is up ahead. I slow down, like I was told to do. Two soldiers approach, one of them hanging back and the other leaning into the car. I look into his eyes. I think we are the same age. Wajdi, I think. There is no turning back.
The bougainvillea-draped, marble-tiled, baked-stucco compound where I gave my first blow job. It had been years since I’d spent dusk on a school night sprawled in the gravel and wet grass of one apartment’s back garden, testing out my gag reflex.
As I pulled up to the coppery gate, the tinted window of the security kiosk slid open. A familiar Indian guard with epaulettes on his short-sleeved shoulders leaned out the window, belly and all, to squint into my vehicle. He looked exactly the same, except his thin mustache had gone gray.
At sixteen, this was the guy I was most terrified of. I was sure he was going to rat me out to my brother sometime when he came to pick me up from my “study session” with the French girls. “Oh that girl,” the guard would say. “She’s the compound slut.”
I was in a fragile state of permanent alarm. Each time I’d be driven up to the speed bumps in front of the gate, this guard would grill me.
“Which number are you going to? What family name?”
And once, upon seeing a towel hanging out of my purse: “You can only use the pool if you live here, Miss.”
I just knew that he knew my towel was actually intended for spreading out on a dusty back balcony in one of the unlocked vacancies and rolling around in various states of undress with my first and (I thought) only love. I couldn’t distract myself from the guard’s stern stare of disapproval. I tried to convince myself that the stare had just been blank, and that his judgmental chin-set was merely an expression of terminal boredom. My boyfriend repeated, “Nobody knows, no one can see us,” to soothe my quaking nerves whenever I went down on him in an overgrown driveway or under a dried-out hedge.
In retrospect, the guard was probably more wary of my surly brother, with his heavy beard, than of my gawky teenage self.
This time I had every right to drive on Al-ب’s streets, all cactus and palms, and park next to the dimly lit playground rimmed with impossibly green grass. This time he waved me through with a respectful nod. My hosts were a married design team who had been living in the compound since before I was born. I didn’t know them back in the day, but they and their ilk were the architects of my sixteen-year-old Eden. The lax, mostly Euro, parents of Al-ب let my friends — their children — throw house parties and ride in taxis and date. Karl’s parents never bothered about why two Arab kids were scrambling over their back wall into the unkempt garden next door; Paula’s mother just giggled when she noticed my hickeys. Back home I wove long and complex lies to explain my need to stay so late after school, why I didn’t answer my phone on the first ring, and how a lead necklace had left circular discolorations all
over my neck.
If you ever speak to a girl about dating in the Gulf, she can confirm that the process involves some, if not all, of the following tactics (a few of which are international tricks of the sneak-around trade for those born into strict families).
There’s the old switcheroo. Convince your chaperone to drop you off at a sympathetic girlfriend’s house. Leave with her driver, cover your face, and voila! Daddy won’t ever know he’s been duped!
There is the dangerous but rewarding trunk-dunk, which involves smuggling a boy in the trunk of your car. Back up to the ladies’ entrance of your house during Friday prayer or a big sale in the souk. Note: Stay on the phone with him while driving, to be sure he’s not suffocating.
Then there’s cross-dressing. This is self-explanatory, though I’ve never tried it. Dressing down is an approved variation. If your boyfriend can pass for Indian, make him wear a T-shirt and dirty baseball hat. To anyone who asks, reply indignantly: “What? He’s my driver.”
Having an active sex life in the Gulf is a multilevel, multiplayer, impossible to control (or beat) game of sexual espionage, riddled with gun-slinging religious police, car chases by angry relatives, and a terrifying Qur’an- and/or sword-wielding imam and/or executioner at the end of every level. The hypertension that leads up to every carefully arranged meeting, the glimpse of one another from across a crowded intersection, the gift delivered to your door by his clueless little sister, a kiss stolen behind a dumpster at the back entrance of a Fuddruckers… all are worth the risk, even if it means game over.
But back to my raging hormones.
I was sixteen.
I was in love.
I was religious.
I was in way over my head.
I was prepared to do anything, really anything, for my one true love.
But so was every other girl in my class. The week before school let out, I conspired with the daughters of various ambassadors to smuggle our respective boyfriends into a safe house while their parents were away in Mecca. We settled on ج’s place. ج was the daughter of the Saudi ambassador. Her two younger sisters wore flannel pajama sets and lurked behind low cushioned couches, observing the four of us, dolled up under our abayas, drinking Nescafe and exchanging “How far have you gone?” stories while we waited for our cue. Their house was grand, with marble floors and mirrored windows and three stories of parlors and guest rooms, opening up onto a circular pool that was half indoors and half outdoors. The pool was the only place in the house free of surveillance cameras and staff at 8pm on a Thursday night. The back entrance/escape route was a ten-foot concrete wall with a camouflaged door that could be accessed by parking at one of the fish restaurants on the beach and mincing along the gravel seashore for a quarter of a mile.
Our signal to flip the surveillance cameras on and off came when ج’s boyfriend called as he was just out of range of the cameras. ج ran to the fuse box and doused the lights for no more than twenty seconds — enough time for ف and I to open the secret door, flag the boys in, and slam the door shut again. Here they were, our ragtag bunch of beaus, looking terrified. These were very possibly the four young males our families would least like us to see, and they were valiantly risking their lives to make out with us. For س, the Iraqi straight-A student — the class-A drug-dealing dope. For ف, the aristocratic Kuwaiti — a skeezy mall rat. For ج, the Saudi princess — a Sudanese DJ. And for me, ش — a devout Muslim, who was always rebuking himself (and also, me) for our furtive encounters. None of the boys had known each other before, and I rather doubt they stayed in contact.
There was the grating tinge of danger clouding the meeting, along with the equally uncomfortable hint of “orgy” wafting in the air as freshly waxed thighs were spread and saliva swapped and fingers banged. Each couple retired to an unsurveilled corner, getting comfortable on countertops and cardboard boxes and deck chairs.
But the night came abruptly to an end when a bumbling handyman came upon me in the darkened storage room where ش and I had taken refuge. I rose from a squat from behind a stack of broken-down boxes. He let out a yelp — of surprise or fear, I couldn’t tell.
“I thought you were a jinn, Miss.”
“Haha, yes. Well, I was just looking for some Fanta!”
ش hid behind the open door. I led the handyman over to a refrigerator in the stairwell and asked him to look inside for Fanta. I was practically pushing his head into the refrigerator as I jerkily motioned for ش to make a run for it. It was all very situation-comedy, in a very unfunny way. He scurried out just as the handyman gave up searching for the orange soda bottles. I don’t know how they all managed it, but by the time I had dispatched the intruder and returned to the pool area, all the boys were gone. Of course, the cameras had been left on.
ج didn’t show up at graduation. ش and I spent our last few liaisons in the back gardens of Al-ب. The summer was approaching, and with it the broiling sun, making our usual hideaways on balconies and back patios impossibly hot. (I had only to lay my bare buttocks on the glaring white cement for them to sear with a pitched hiss.) Salty sweat dripped into our eyes and mouths as we kissed. Whenever I looked at ش, trying to memorize how he looked before I left for college, I’d half-faint from the psychedelic floaters taunting me and obstructing his face.
By the middle of July, we’d given up on liaisons. There was no shady place to seek refuge, and I couldn’t stay out much later than sunset prayer. We said goodbye in a silver shop where he’d had two rings engraved, one with my name on the inside and one with his. The silversmith rolled his eyes as we awkwardly exchanged them. ش promised he’d visit in ط City, and I promised to be faithful and return to him after college. I left first to go find my driver; he waited behind five minutes before leaving the jeweler’s. Later that night I received a text while I sat weeping on my roof: “Wait for me in ط City.”
I spent the better part of a year waiting in ط City, chained to my phone. I almost never left the female side of the dorm. After a few harrowing trips downtown, with a near-constant array of men making rude comments, I avoided the city as much as possible. I didn’t even go to see the spectacular ن Mosque until May of that school year. Instead I watched the “community activities” going on in the courtyard below through my ornamental window grate. There was no one at the college who knew me to take me aside and tell me what a scrooge I’d become. I reported every prank call I received to the reception desk and called the floor manager if the fat-assed Kuwaiti girls blasted their Gulf-pop past 1am on a school night. They clobbed back and forth in their heels both on my floor and on the floor above, coming home from dates at the Hard Rock Cafe, squealing into their cellphones. I hated them.
Luckily, I shared my tiny tiled dorm room with an equally bitter person, a veiled Jordanian girl from Sheffield who used to cut herself along her stomach with plastic knives before bed and then tell me over cornflakes and canned milk the next morning, “We have a jinn in this room — look what it does to me at night!”
My weekdays were a simple trajectory from bed to desk to library to bed. Though ش called less and less, I didn’t want to meet anyone new. I hadn’t learned to trust myself. I was afraid of liking someone a little too much and so spent my free time composing elaborate love letters to the ever-receding boy back home. Every Friday night I lay in my twin bed, belly-down on my sheepskin, reading Isabel Allende novels. It was self-imposed mental and physical isolation.
I was confirmed in my solitary habits by my new best friend, ک, a princess with thick streaks of Wahhabi running through her. I’d met her during Ramadan that year, during an Iftar I’d tried to avoid in the cafeteria. She was intimidating, gorgeous, with long black hair that she oiled regularly. She wore high-waisted mom pants in 1996 and somehow managed to pull it off. She had a pear-shaped body — like literally resembling a pear, her thin torso and tiny belly giving way to smooth, sloping, fleshy hips and thick thighs. She always covered her tight jeans and permanent camel-toe with long flowing tunics and the ends of her hijab. But I remember ک best in her Garfield pajamas and matching slippers, which she always wore to relax in her room. The prank callers I used to tattle on had started to call her room just to hear her husky, sophisticated, French-accented voice. We worked together, got waxed together, ordered in Mehndi together, rode to school together, prayed together, and fasted together. To ک, everything was borderline haram, including the fact that my beloved ش, spelled his name without capitalizing the “Allah” in it.
But that spring ک got a full scholarship to go to Cambridge, and as I thought about living in the dorm without her, I realized that I was restless, tired of hiding away. (I was getting tired of waiting for ش too, though I couldn’t admit that.) When I decided to move out of the dorm and get a place of my own, I justified it to myself with the idea that I was doing it for ش too — when he did come to ط City, we’d have a lovely little nest just for the two of us. But even then the ring with his name inside had turned my finger green, and the skin underneath was dead-looking and translucent.
I moved into an old art deco apartment with two bedrooms, a long dark corridor to a kitchen, a sideboard full of someone else’s family photographs, and five couches in the living room, two of which didn’t have any cushions, which I repurposed as bookshelves. I couldn’t really afford the place by myself, so I got a roommate. A revolving cast of improbable people traipsed through my extra room (and expanded my universe). First there was an American girl, who taught me to “do the shag” our first week together, before we discovered we didn’t get along. There was an Italian girl who claimed to be dating a local pop star; a Japanese girl who turned out to be a nudist; a Macedonian who ate only canned peaches and left the cans in the sink; a Jordanian whose unfortunate habits taught me what “freebasing cocaine” meant; and a young German divorcee who’d moved to escape her motherly duties. Some stayed only a few weeks, some a few months. Sometimes I was alone in the house. It didn’t matter so much, actually, because usually I was upstairs.
It all started when I met ص in our wobbly two-person elevator with the broken mirror and swinging doors. He invited me up to listen to music. ص was from Alaska and had bright green gecko eyes that wobbled back and forth unsteadily. His arms were covered with self-inflicted burn marks and branding. He was in ط City, as he said, to “study his Deen.” But along his path there was hash to be smoked and prolonged circular debates to be had with the other men he shared his apartment with. The mu’mins, or “dudes,” were writers, roustabouts, and law students who went by nicknames like Sunny, Mido, and Bo. They were smart and incredibly serious about their observance, and they thought it was funny to call me “unclean” to my face while getting high and listening to Leonard Cohen. It later emerged that two of the men I used to mull over “Everybody Knows” with went on to be jihadis, a strange disconnect I could never really reconcile with their personalities. But that’s another story. This is about the unwaged battle for my flower and the secret I tried to keep everybody from knowing.
As Ramadan began, the dudes became more agitated about my presence among them, ruining their fasts with my unclean self. So I spent more and more time where I was wanted, in ص’s room, soaking up long meandering anecdotes about burns and hobos and high-school kids and American life. I prized from him every remembered detail of his three-year journey hitching his way down the West Coast, bussing tables at random greasy spoons and diners and blowing all his money on drugs. He regaled me with stories of his old girlfriends: broad-shouldered hippie chicks, pixieish punk girls, bottle blondes, Mexicans, drunk girls, stoned girls. It sounds like a catalogue, but every woman on his list had her love story, an elaborate drama that I listened to with amazement. The concept of being in love with more than one person was still baffling to me. ص told me about the girl he had left back in Anchorage. He told me about her curly golden locks, and how she taught their parrot to swear, and the name she called his dick — and how she always went to sleep at 9pm, but if he put in a tape of Marty Stouffer’s Wild America she’d wake up and watch attentively through the whole thing. Most of all, he told me how much I’d love her someday if we ever met. She hadn’t accepted his conversion to Islam, so they’d separated. Now here he was, a twenty-nine-year-old ex-punk convert with an extremely confused teenage girl practically living in his bedroom. He started asking me to stay over during our late-night conversations, and after a while I started accepting his offer. Nothing happened for a long time. He remained on his side of the bed, and I’d be lulled by his breathing, woken by his comforting snore or the occasional straying hand or leg.
One evening just after sunset, I fell down a flight of stairs. The stairwell light had gone out, and I slipped and landed on my knees, my hands scraped and bleeding from clawing at the rough concrete wall. ص heard the crash and came running down. He held me in his arms and told me it was going to be okay, and took me to a hospital where they pumped me full of muscle relaxants and painkillers. The doctor inquired about our relationship but dropped it when I started weeping hysterically. We were there for a long time, waiting for the radiologist. As it happened, I hadn’t broken anything. Any bones, at least. But while we were sitting there, ش called for the first time in almost a month. He had big news: he’d gotten into a fancy university in Canada, and he’d decided to go. And he was coming to visit me. I had been waiting for ش in ط City for a year and half, and he’d never visited. Now he was going to be there in a week.
I didn’t really know what to do with that information. What I did know was that I felt almost completely out of body. ص took me home and laid me tenderly in his bed. I hadn’t eaten anything all day, of course, and had broken my fast with a horse pill that made me drool on myself. One of the dudes yelled into the room — “respecting me” by not looking around the doorjamb — “Did you break anything, unclean one?” It was a classic dude moment, and it pissed me off even through the veil of my drug-induced haze. What had I done to deserve such bullshit? The dudes, the men on the street, and even ش tried to make me feel that I was to blame for… for what, exactly? For exposing them to the feminine mystique? For opening some locked door where they kept their boners? For luring them into dangerous situations in the Saudi ambassador’s house? It was the final straw on my hymen’s back. When ص came back with tea and juice and a plate of rice, I looked him in his bright green eyes and asked him to have sex with me.
I think I asked him to “do it to me.”
ص was stunned. He looked like a little boy, not believing he’s finally been given the toy he’d been begging for for months. He looked suspicious, even.
“Really? Are you sure?”
At that moment, I had never been surer of anything in my life. I could barely move, so he ceremoniously undressed me and himself, his scarification ridging down his forearms and across his back. There was a one-eyed rattlesnake, its head at his right shoulder blade, its body curled across his back and its tail kinked at the top of his left ass-cheek. ص asked again if I was sure. He lit a cigarette and drank my tea as I lay there prone. He sat down naked and cross-legged next to me and told me the story of his first time. How he was thirteen and she was older, the lodger at his friend’s parents’ house, and how she had huge saddlebag boobs, and how it hadn’t lasted long. Almost on cue the brassy keyboard warble and husky baritone of Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man” came rumbling up through the parquet floor:
If you want a father for your child
Or only want to walk with me a while
Across the sand
I’m your man
It didn’t last much longer than ص’s first time. And I didn’t feel much of anything, with all the painkillers, though I bled a small oblong heart-shape onto the sheet. He helped me out of bed, took me to the bathroom, and washed me off with a washrag while I sat on the toilet. I ran my finger along the inside ridge of the snake scar, and we sat in silence for a bit, listening to the athan ringing from the loudspeakers on the mosque across the street. After rinsing out the washrag, he put his cheek on my knee and said, “Thank you.”
The stereo was silent downstairs. The dudes had obviously left the apartment. I was certain that everybody knew what had happened, and this time, I was glad.
Naturally I fell in love with ص. A desperate, clinging, guilt-wracked love, but love nonetheless. We spent most of the following week in bed, me trying out new
roles as an invalid and as a girl who has sex. ص set about his task with gusto. He used a jewelry-box mirror to watch from different angles, and tied me up with an old shoelace, and carried me back and forth to the bathroom, where he bathed me and shaved me and told me I was destined to become a sex ninja, though I’d never felt less sexy than strapped naked to the rack of guilt and self-loathing.
The sun rose and set, and the athan crackled through the clogged mosque speakers, and the dudes flipped the Cohen cassette and ص humped away, and I took note of the street crud in the treads of his shoes and the cobwebs in the corners of room, and without my noticing it, the week passed and ش was due to arrive. I didn’t sleep the night before he came. I wasn’t worried — I couldn’t process much, let alone a complex feeling like worry. I waited for the sun to flap in through the dirty wooden shutters and slowly came out of my drowsy misery as I watched a big daddy-longlegs-type spider crawl toward me on the rumpled linen. ص awoke and palmed my breasts and threatened to give me a hickey if I didn’t stay in bed with him, but I mustered all my energy and left for the first time since that first night. My fall had left me sedated in every way.
ش arrived wearing his dad’s oversize leather bomber jacket, and when he hugged me it creaked. He was happy. He was going to go to Montreal! His excitement had nothing to do with seeing me after over a year.
I noticed he wasn’t wearing his ring.
But then again, neither was I.
We were finally alone with no authority figures, no uncles or silversmiths or compound guards between us.
It was terrible.
It was weird, actually — fraught and empty at the same time. The distance between us and accumulated anxieties of years of covert courtship had made even the idea of holding hands in public nerve-racking, let alone the thought of sleeping alongside one another. All that, and the possibility of running into ص loomed ever larger in my mind. When ش suggested we take a trip to ت Town to look at the ruins, I immediately agreed.
We didn’t speak much on the train to ت Town, and I measured our progress by the number of times the tea-man shuffled past, balancing stacked towers of thick glass cups full of sopping tea grinds. The mountains jolted past the window at high speed, and we arrived at the old station in a daze. A taxi took us to the corniche, where we strolled up and down until we found a hotel that would let us get a room together without a marriage certificate.
We checked into a musty old place on the fourth floor of a stately resort building, with a windy balcony overlooking the waterfront. We stood on the threshold. A twin bed on a rickety short bed frame sat in the middle of the room. It was covered with an itchy-looking wool blanket. A wardrobe with one leg propped up on a stack of newspapers stood beside the window, while a painfully bright neon light with a pull-string flickered next to the door. The room was anonymous, the ideal location for young lovers to obliterate themselves into nowhere. But we weren’t ready to go there yet.
So we went out.
It was stormy and cold. ت Town seemed surreal after ط City; it was like the entire place was on mute. The waves crashed against the barriers, but there was barely a sound, and our heels didn’t clack against the pavement. There was no honking of horns, no shouting or radio or TV blaring. The town was virtually deserted in the evening. Shadowy figures ducked into alleyways, doormen eyed us silently, and waiters didn’t seem to notice us when we entered.
We were out to find a fish joint, the kind where you get to pick from amongst the day’s catch, where morel and crabs and all sorts of saltwater seafood are lined up, gutted and finned on a bed of ice, and you check for clouded eyes or bloody gills and say “I’ll have him fried” or “Let’s eat that one grilled.” Then you wait at a plastic-covered table until they lay out tahini and hummus and pickled peppers and soft round pitas that steam when you rip them open, and after ten minutes the fish arrives, kitted-out on a bed of lettuce and tomato and tin foil, the meat curled back and crisped around the slits in its side. ش was a fish lover, and with a swift swipe had split his open and flipped it in half, removing the spine and ladder of ribs from the black-specked and thread-veined flesh.
He dug in while my attention alternated between the TV tuned to Rotana and a loud family of middle-class locals sitting beside us. The dad wore a heavy mustache and leather jacket like ش’s, and the kids climbed under the table and around the chairs in sand-blasted jeans and jackets printed or patched with nonsense English words. The mother was done up in a peach-toned hijab and matching lipstick that made her look peaked. I realized I felt a little ill myself.
I excused myself and dashed across the street to the wall of the corniche and took a few deep breaths of the frigid night air. While leaning over the cobbled wall fighting off nausea, I had the distinct sensation of being on the edge of a pitch-black sea, and even though I was a strong swimmer, I was being dragged out by the undertow. I spit a few times, wondered idly at how awful it would be if I were pregnant, and closed my eyes until I felt the fog behind them abate.
Back inside, I couldn’t remove the bones from my own fish, so ش had to do it for me. I took this opportunity to offer myself. I said it with total conviction in my most determined voice, a tone I rarely use and find hard to modulate.
“We need to have sex.”
The mother’s ears pricked up under her hijab, and she dropped her cutlery before turning to stare at me in disbelief and disgust. ش’s expression wasn’t dissimilar, and he paused his operation on the fish.
“But we’ve already waited so long. What’s a few more years?”
“You’re going to Canada. Who knows when we’ll see each other again?”
He said the right thing: “I’ll wait as long as it takes.”
I said the wrong thing: “I won’t.”
I then backed up my callousness with “If it’s not you, it’ll be some other guy. I want it to be you.”
ش and I went out onto the dark street and walked along the stormy corniche toward our hotel room. A boy with a wheelbarrow filled with ice and gelato bins shivered in the wet sea breeze. We shared a paper cup of lemon-lime gelato, and ش shielded me with his leather jacket and squeezed me to him and kissed the top of my head.
ش slept heavily, despite the fact it was our first time in an actual bed together. I had stripped down completely, but he had modestly kept his boxer shorts on. The mattress was lumpy, but it hardly mattered — I’d have been uncomfortable on a waterbed covered with the softest sheepskin. After what felt like hours, I felt myself drift off, and I worried foggily that I’d spill my secrets in my sleep. When I came to, ش was already awake.
It was cold outside the covers, so he wore socks and his leather jacket over his boxers as he dashed to the toilet. When he came back, I noticed from my angle how tall he was. I couldn’t help but observe how his mustache had grown thicker and his shoulders broader and his smile brighter.
Even dressed like a fool, he looked like a prince.
We’d spent almost twenty-four hours together and had only pecked at one another. Even after we’d both washed up and brushed our teeth, we only paused and kissed with shut mouths before leaving the privacy of the room. We gathered up our things and headed to Our Lady of ت to see the mosque that had been a cathedral and now was largely a tourist attraction. ش had heard there were medieval chastity belts on display. The old structure was ت Town’s famous remnant of the Crusades, half hidden by new construction. It was what we’d gone there for, but the doors were shut when we arrived. We lingered at the site, once guarded by the Knights Templar, until it was time for our train. On the ride back, we very rationally discussed the possibility of losing our virginities to other people and then resolved together to take each other’s on his last night in ط City.
I think we both knew our relationship was over, but we kept at it for the next five days, busying ourselves with errands in half-hearted preparation for the big night. On Friday I went to Jum’a prayer with him and spent several hours afterward separated by the post-prayer crowd.
Later that day we went out of our way to find a pharmacy I never went to, to buy condoms. My own pharmacists never seemed to recognize me, anyway, but I was completely paranoid. As we headed back through the market, we passed a combination lingerie shop-perfumery. The shop was crowded with shelf after shelf of mannequin pelvises in a metallic shade of black. Each pelvis wore a different style of crotchless or bejeweled or battery-operated “singing” underpants. ش had always been into lingerie and suggested I go inside and choose something appropriate. By which he meant, something white. “Get something white,” he insisted. “You never wore white ones.” I obsessed over his use of past tense and picked a bridal pair with white mesh and fake white feathers woven into the front panel in the shape of a heart.
We returned to my flat, and he made phone calls while I went out to buy groceries for dinner. I was making kofta and headed down to the butcher’s next to an old coffee and nargileh joint. (The meat there was heavily exposed to apple tobacco and ash, and I swear that made it taste better.) My heart skipped a beat when I noticed ص sitting at a backgammon table with the dudes, smoking Marlboro Reds and drinking his Turkish coffee. I approached the butcher’s without making eye contact and was greeted as soon as I came under the low-hanging awning by the faintly metallic smell of fresh blood on stainless steel hooks. I ordered half a kilo of lamb to be ground and turned toward the street to find ص in the door, leering with one arm resting on the concrete wall and the other holding a cigarette. I still can’t understand the absurd ease with which this American kid had settled into ط City; he walked down every street as though he’d lived there all his life.
“How’s the Arab? Did he shave his cheesy little mustache?”
I didn’t answer him. I hadn’t seen ص in four days. I didn’t know what to say, and it didn’t sound like he knew what to say either.
I had a second request for the butcher. I asked in Arabic, so ص wouldn’t catch on to what I was doing.
“Could you maybe put a little blood in this bottle for me?”
I handed him an empty mango juice bottle, and he looked over the glass counter with a bemused smile.
Just like the guard back at Al-ب, I knew he knew exactly what I was doing.
“Are you up to some kind of black magic?” he asked.
I was flummoxed, because of course the answer was yes. He bobbed his head at me and twirled his hand in an expressive “whatever” gesture. ص stood on the threshold as the butcher took the bottle into the back and returned, wiping it off with an already bloody rag. “Have at it,” he said.
I was faithful to that butcher shop until I left ط City, in no small part because it was where I bought my honor back with half a kilo of freshly ground lamb and a bottle of chicken blood.
I stood with ص for a few minutes on the sidewalk amid honking horns and the covert attention of the dudes, pretending not to look over their steaming teas and their backgammon boards.
ص had something big to tell me, too. “ ز is coming to ط City. I think we’re getting back together. My ex, remember?”
“Is she going to live with you?” I know my lip started to quiver before he even answered, because he closed his eyes and leaned his head back, opening them to stare at the highway overpass that hung low over us.
“I fucked up.”
I turned so the dudes wouldn’t see the fat tears as they started to roll down my face, and I dodged through the traffic to our side street. I spent a few minutes in the elevator, the same elevator where I’d met ص, prodding my eyes with a tissue and trying to soothe my puffy red face. I sniffled there for a few minutes before pressing the button and returning to my apartment and ش.
He was still on the phone when I came back, ticket information scattered on my coffee table, the box of condoms in the crook of the couch, and him making plans with a cousin to visit London.
I set the lamb on the counter to let it bleed and hid the bottle of chicken blood in a cupboard while I lit the gas oven and chopped the garlic and parsley for the kofta.
I was about to try pulling off a trick my old friend ک had read to me out of a book. It had come up in one of our many discussions concerning our then-intact hymens. There were horror stories about good girls whose deflowering failed to provide its proof. One failsafe involved keeping a small baggie of blood beneath you during sex. So I took a thin plastic sack, the whisper-thin kind that nuts and seeds come packaged in, filled it with a few tablespoons of chicken blood, and stashed it in a mug on a shelf next to my bed.
The meal was a bust. Even though I’d been smoking up and screwing, I’d never had alcohol before, and neither had ش. We shared a bottle of sour red wine and cuddled on the couch until he suggested going into the room.
I leaned in for a long kiss by reflex.
When I closed my eyes, I couldn’t see ش. I couldn’t imagine what ص looked like. All I could see was the back of my eyelids as my mouth filled up with an anonymous tongue.
I shifted to autopilot, guilty sobs spasming up from my stomach. I’d imagined this moment so many times. Spent so many weekends writing passionate five-thousand-word emails about our wedding night. It had been so real; we’d fantasized about it for years. It would be in a tent on a beach. It was his idea to go swimming afterward to make my wound heal and then dry ourselves in the air under the full moon.
ش reiterated a line that had come up in the Friday sermon, about our journey through this life into the next.
“Man is always, ever, impatient.”
Imam’s words usually go in one ear and out the other for me, but I’ve remembered those words from ش’s lips ever since.
And once again I was suddenly sure that the man before me knew more than I thought he did.
Even as I took my bra off from under my dress, ش still didn’t want to do it. Over the course of our relationship, we had made out naked, gone down on each other, dry humped each other raw… all that was halal enough. But now he was genuinely worried for my honor. Freaked out that my family would find out, kill me, bury me in the desert, and then come after him.
He kept muttering that I’d hate him in the morning.
For my part, I kept quiet and concentrated on having my way. I had to give him what I’d promised before we finally said goodbye. I was convinced that faking my virginity and offering it to him would be “doing right” by him.
What selfish logic.
The white, feathery underwear made him laugh when he lifted the ridiculous peasant dress that I’d hoped would evoke rustic innocence. He bunched it up around my neck and tried going down on me, but he sputtered when a feather got caught in his mouth.
I laughed but didn’t think it was funny.
When he rose to get a condom, I reached for my little plastic bag and deposited it under my ass. I didn’t dare move for fear I’d bust it before it was time, and lay there trying to cup the baggie in the small of my back. I hovered imperceptibly over the sheet while he figured out which way to unroll the rubber. He stretched out flat on top of me, and I felt the bag burst and the wetness start to pool before he’d even entered me. I winced when he pushed in.
“A-a-ouch,” I said.
My second first time lasted a lot longer than the first. Long enough to make me sore.
I became obsessed with the notion that the bag of blood had popped upward and onto my back rather than downward, and that this would reveal my perfidy.
He took a break and hitched up my legs to see the blood.
I struggled to frame the stain in a more convin-ing spot, knocking skulls with him as we both looked down at the result.
Thankfully, the baggie stuck to my back, and I asked ش to get me a washrag. He got up, pulled the condom off, and went to the bathroom. I peeled the bloody plastic from my back and plopped it back into the mug. I lay down again, rubbing the blood off my back and onto the sheet like a bear against tree bark. Now it was spread all over the bed and had formed more of a dry bloody shadow than a heart.
ش returned with a wet rag. He asked how I was feeling and lay down beside me, pulling up close to me to spoon. I turned over so he wouldn’t notice the stain on my back. We napped for a few hours and did it again without a condom before the sun rose.
Occasionally between humps he would whisper, “I’m sorry.”
I held his torso tight to my chest and cried, swallowing back whimpers as his breathing grew faster. His feelings of guilt were multiplying my own — for every thrusted apology of his, I owed him a thousand. At that moment, with the love of my young life reluctantly fucking me, Islam and the dudes upstairs and the men on the street were right: All of it was my fault.
ش left the next day; I took him to the airport. Our goodbye was stilted. We hadn’t really broken up, but we hadn’t restated any vows, either.
I said I was glad he “did it to me.”
We kissed, cold and wet, and I wept, more out of relief than anything else.
When I returned home, I went straight to my bed. It was empty and covered in loose white down and browning chicken blood. I slept for two days. I didn’t wash the sheets for a month. I slept on the couch until a friend came to live with me and I had to get on with things.
It was easy, it turns out, to pluck my own blossom; but it was a lot harder to shrug off a lifelong habit of guilt and masochistic moralizing. I unplugged the phone from the wall and closed the drapes and locked myself in my bedroom, where I stayed, constructing a new wall between me and men and my Muslimness. My hymen was all ripped up and my religion was in tatters, and every floodgate that had kept me righteous in the face of accusation and insinuation was weakened or busted. For years after, I was repentant, confusing virginity with honor and pride and worth.
Then, a few months ago, I received a poem from ص in Alaska. It was a vivid account of a hunt, the story of his patient stalking of a bear in late winter. He winds a wolf-rib into a lump of seal-blubber and leaves it for the bear to swallow. He follows her to the edge of death, waiting for the rib to pierce her from the inside, and after many days he comes upon her body, still warm.
I hack a ravine in her thigh, and
eat and drink,
And tear her down her whole
And open her and climb in
And close her up after me, against
ص’s poem and the email it came in were full of discomforting love and undeserved gratitude, and somehow they made me feel my insides again. Pricked me into an awareness, an independent solitude that I’d forgotten. Can I say they made me feel like a virgin? They made me feel like a fucking virgin.
Celastrus orbiculatus is a woody, deciduous flowering vine better known as “oriental bittersweet.” I like to call it “ob.” Its common name sounds like the title of a dreamy, mildly offensive romance novel, set on a swank naval vessel docked somewhere in the Pacific. The vine is cloaked in an aura of domesticated exoticism.
First imported into the United States in the 1860s, OB blooms fierily in late summer. It flourishes from Maine to North Carolina, west to Illinois. Once you know to look for it, you’ll find it coating everything, a flowering kudzu-like thing.
Its small greenish flowers of spring give way to blood-red fruits. Delicate and inconspicuous petals harden into vinyl-like wrappers. These fuse into a capsule that surrounds the central kernel, whose shiny scarlet skin peeks out from gaps between triangular sheaths. Over the course of a few months, these glow yellow, then ochre, then pumpkin orange. Finally they split open. Sometimes the color pops out so bright that its hue recalls traffic cones or construction netting. The leaves are spherical, as “orbiculatus” implies. (The Latin name means something like “cloaking circles.”)
As the days of summer wane — in the sticky months of August in the Northeast, October farther south — Oriental bittersweet’s leaves drop one by one. They pile up near the plant’s base, coating front yards and back yards, alleyways and roundabouts. The flowers don’t wilt or droop, however. They become harder, firmer, brighter, lighting up their graying branches. (Only later do the berries fall, snacks for birds whose droppings spread the seeds far and wide.) As winter approaches, the seed pouches decorate the outdoors like ornaments. This ornamental quality is what today lands Oriental bittersweet — despite being classed by the Environmental Protection Agency as among “America’s most dangerous invasive species” — on restaurant dining tables as a featured centerpiece, and as the touches of color in innumerable decorative wreaths, seasonal and comfortably nondenominational in their palette of gutsy yellows and oranges. This loveliness is also what brought OB to America in the first place.
Native to Japan, Thailand, China, and Korea, Celastrus orbiculatus was spied by an American trader in Asia in the late 1850s. He noticed the vine and its beautiful berries and imagined that, with the right name and the right sales pitch, it might do well at home. Imported Asian flowers were all the rage at that time, and so the plant was christened Oriental bittersweet — a name intended to evoke its exotic origins while serving as an elegant contrast to “American bittersweet,” then a popular plant.
As the Western territories and Midwestern states continued to attract settlers, homesteaders acquired land that seemed barren in comparison with the lush Northeast. Alongside their new homes, settlers did their best to create miniature landscapes, replacing native foliage and grasses with cultivated botanical specimens drawn from distant lands. Despite increasing restrictions on Asian immigration in human terms, Oriental bittersweet initially received a warm welcome throughout its adopted country, a living exemplar of the Orientalist design craze of the time. By 1882, the year of the first Chinese Exclusion Act, herbaria featured specimens prominently. Botanical gardens put it on display.
But things soon went awry. A few decades later, the exotic import had been reframed as an unwelcome immigrant, a class of pernicious, promiscuous, and ultimately destructive “alien” beings. In the late 1910s and early 1920s, nativist sentiment reached its peak. “Foreign orchestrated” anarchist bombings prompted the Palmer Raids, which indiscriminately targeted leftists and immigrants. New restrictions on immigration and naturalization followed — the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, and the National Origins Formula and the Immigration Act of 1924. The idea of a botanical “invasion” resonated.
A few years earlier, panicked botanists in Indiana and Connecticut had first identified so-called “naturalized” specimens of OB. (In the botanical world, weeds just start growing.) OB flowered around houses, choking the local flora and cutting out light and access to soil nutrients. Oriental bittersweet strangled mighty oaks and maples, killed roses, and even smothered ivy. In the 1930s, government officials worried that OB outcompeted American bittersweet and its associated subspecies. Where it did not outright supplant the native species, it infiltrated the genetic makeup of the American plants, corrupting them with the taint of the Orient. The panic over OB’s nefarious fecundity continues to this day; the website of Indiana’s Cooperative Agricultural Pest Survey warns, in boldface, “Note: do not buy, sell, or plant Oriental bittersweet,” while Massachusetts recently made it illegal to bring OB into the state.
For a brief spell during World War II, the invasive species was redeemed by exactly its own cloying nature and frightful rapidity of growth. Up and down the Atlantic shoreline, where coastal parks and island hospitals were turned into naval bases and army bunkers as part of the U.S. coastal defense strategy, anxious officials found an exceptional material to conceal military sites. Seeded around the perimeters of deep cement bunkers built on state forests and hospital grounds, Oriental bittersweet grew in no time into a disruptive pattern material — a living camouflage. Earth was laid atop the military buildings, and the vines reached up to cover the sodden roofs.
I recently did an art project at the site of one of these former military installations, on Bumpkin Island, a small sunflower seed–shaped landmass in the middle of Boston Harbor. Oriental bittersweet covers the island’s natural features in a fashion either destructive or decorative, depending on one’s point of view. Overgrowths of vines coat the deteriorating surfaces of a century-old hospital for “crippled children,” a U.S. Navy training camp used during both world wars, a cold war retreat for polio patients, and an eighteenth-century homestead. The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, which manages this island, supports OB’s destruction as a nonnative and undesirable species. But at this late date, it seems slightly perverse to distinguish between natives and settlers, with flowers as with peoples. While the government classifies Oriental bittersweet as one of the nation’s “least wanted alien plants,” florists still purchase it, tons every week, to make arrangements for swank bars in foreigner-savvy New York. Count me with the florists.
Moonlight poured into the garden. She stood on the threshold, looking out at the flowerbeds patterned in silver light and black shadow. A cool wind blew up from the river. All around the teak veranda, hibiscus blossoms were falling. She longed to catch them, to feel the cool petals against her upturned palms.
She stepped off the veranda and onto the gravel footpath. Dew-heavy petals rained down upon her gold silk dupatta. Impulsively, she flung it off, and the wind carried it deeper into the garden. Petals kissed her cheeks as she chased the golden glimmer through the roses.
She felt the thorns tearing at the thin skin of her kurta and she stopped, panting, the roses pressing all around her. The moon had vanished, enveloping her in utter darkness. She could see nothing, hear nothing. She inhaled the scent of the roses. Their wild sweetness flooded her being, and she thought she might drown in the fragrance. She struggled against the thorns, and suddenly the moon returned. White light penetrated the darkness. She was face to face with a tiger.
Fear thrilled through her, causing the breath to catch in her throat. The great cat was perfectly still, crouching beneath roses that glowed blood red in the blanched night. Silently, the tiger glided toward her, taut muscles working beneath the thick velvet of his brilliant coat. She struggled harder, but the thorns held her fast. The beast drew closer. Closer. She felt his heat as he lunged at her, blocking the moonlight, filling her field of vision. The world went black, but she could still see the tiger’s eyes blazing, one green, one blue …
Shameena awoke, gasping. Her body shuddered in anticipation of a velvet impact that did not arrive. Trembling, she ran her fingers across her eyebrows, her jaw, down her throat, tracing the curved lines of her collarbones. She was whole. She was safe.
She tried to banish the vision of the tiger, but those eyes — Shameena shuddered again. Those eyes — the baleful, divided gaze. It seemed as though it were riving her in two, as though she were caught between blue and green stars, exploding.
She leaped from her bed. She was no longer a child, to be frightened by tigers in the night. She slipped into a rose-silk kurta and moved to the window. Standing in the pale moonlight, she possessed an almost ethereal loveliness. Her face was fine-featured with fair, glowing skin. She rarely smiled, but when she did, her rosebud lips parted to reveal small, even teeth, like pearls. Slender brows arched inquisitively over large, luminous eyes tipped slightly at the corners. Her eyes were jet pools touched by moonbeams … water in the fountains of a midnight garden … black crystal.
The moon plunged behind a cloud, and she could no longer make out the bougainvillea and passionflowers blooming just below her secondstory window. She sighed, restless, strangely awake, body thrilling with a kind of contained lightning.
The zenana was hot and dark, and the air smelled thickly of the thousands of flower species that flourished in Nawab Al’Saif al’Dawla’s gardens. The palace gardens were intricately arranged with interlocking flower beds bordered with red sandstone, each bed containing blossoms of a different color. There were walled courtyards for animal fights and stone platforms for dancing; there were bamboo stands and cypress trees and orchards with hunting villas, mosques, arcades, and baradaris. The various buildings of the palace complex were interspersed throughout the gardens — towers and bathhouses enclosed gardens of grapes; pavilions surrounded waterfalls; countless terraced buildings with baluster columns and walls carved with flowers — all connected by paved walkways and water channels, bounded by the Gomti River to the north. In the Holy Qur’an, paradise is described as a garden of perpetual bliss, rivers flowing beneath, bubbling up in clear fountains from which the righteous drink. The gardens of Saif al’Dawla fulfilled that image of eternal beauty. It would be difficult to call the majority of its inhabitants righteous, however.
Shameena was no longer a child, but she did not want to be a woman. She wanted to be free to wander the palace gardens, learning the secrets of the orange-belled buddleia, hiding in the bowers of scarlet cypress vine, shaking rain from the lantana, marauding for guavas and mangoes with the noisy green parrots. Shameena gazed into the darkness, surprised by a sudden rush of tears. She pressed her fists against the cool stone on either side of the window.
Why couldn’t she be a spirit of the lilac? Why couldn’t she sleep under the stars? Why couldn’t she live in the orange groves, barefoot, weaving wreaths of fragrant citrus twigs? These days the arcades and pavilions of the palace were always thronged with residents, guests, transient pleasureseekers, craftsmen, and servants; the Nawab’s retinue was always growing. The palace echoed with the sounds of construction, of girls practicing their scales, of cooks bellowing, maids shrieking, awful foreigners muttering in their many languages, the arrogant laughter of British traders. How much longer could she even expect to enjoy what freedom she had? Shameena tried to push back the thought, but her mind raced. The eerie night had opened the door to all her anxieties, fears she suppressed by the light of day.
Lucknow was the wellspring of Indian culture, and the court of the Nawab was the heart of Lucknow. Thanks to Nawab Al’Saif al’Dawla’s generous patronage, the palace buildings housed innumerable luminaries — philosophers, astronomers, painters, sculptors, poets, musicians — as well as stranger, sometimes less savory, figures: dervishes, religious pilgrims, and foreigners from every country in Europe. These foreigners drank and gambled alongside the Indian courtiers, passing around jade goblets of heady liqueurs, sharing hookahs, even wrapping their odd, brightly colored hair in turbans and donning jeweled slippers. Europeans, particularly the British, had become an increasingly noticeable presence in recent years. Shameena despised them all. They were the force transforming her paradise garden into a lurid lair, a place of sensual rather than celestial delights.
Often Shameena would fall into reverie in the gardens, dreaming beside an ornate gate twined with Porana paniculata. The tiny pure-white flowers opened in the light of either sun or moon. Standing under the arch of the gate, surrounded by the masses of florets and drooping white bells, Shameena fancied she was inside a cloud. To the foreigners roaming the grounds, smoking cheroots, swigging whiskeys, titillated by signs of the Nawab’s boundless wealth, the girl with the upturned face in the bower of green vines and white petals, the graceful figure draped in white and gold muslin, looked like an angel from the Christian Bible.
“If this were London, she’d act like an angel, too!” That afternoon a British captain had caught sight of her in the gardens. Older hands in the Empire’s service enjoyed boasting to recent arrivals, awkward adolescents from Oxford and Devonshire who had yet to experience the wonders of the Oriental fantasia. The captain shook his large head, a knowing expression playing across his florid, detestable face.
“London ladies,” he’d sneered. “Nole me tanger-ing a man to death, swaddled up to the chin in itchy cambric or trussed up in metal underwear. In Lucknow, my boys, the women look like angels, but they practice the devil’s art.” Chuckling lewdly at the mixture of abashment and eagerness in the younger men’s eyes, the captain continued. “Fornication. Not just practice, mind you, they’ve perfected the art. I thought I’d done it all, but they taught this salty dog a few tricks, let me tell you.…” And then he did tell them, in lurid detail, orating loudly to the circle of leering young men. Each had pricked his ears to the captain’s words, eyes fixed on Shameena, who came to awareness gradually, her reverie interrupted by the boisterous chuckling and back-slapping of the booted officers. She turned the black fury of her gaze on the drunken louts. How she disdained their tobacco- and saffron-stained teeth! Their bloated and bleary faces! The way they swayed and held each others’ shoulders for balance, belching and laughing, licking their lips in her direction!
The British! They were crude. They were impossibly decadent. They pandered to the most excessive aspects of the Nawab’s character. It seemed to Shameena that court life had ceased to revolve around the appreciation of art, of nature, and instead revolved around acquisition and the satisfaction of base desires. Around pleasure. Pleasure.
Shameena had just celebrated her seventeenth birthday. Girls who came of age in the palace — girls who showed any hint of cultivation, who had beguiling faces or endearing manners, whose voices were melodious or whose bodies swayed invitingly — made advantageous marriages for their families, or else joined the ranks of Lucknow’s elite courtesans, many of whom lived in the palace complex. Shameena knew that it was only a matter of time before her father married her off to some foul-smelling zamindar. She imagined her existence as a zamindar’s wife. There were many of them at the Nawab’s court, women at once beleaguered and dissolute, as grasping and money-hungry as their husbands. Shameena wanted no part of it, of any of it. She rested her forehead against the stone. She felt helpless. Everything was spinning away from her — her hopes, her dreams. Shameena had grown like a wild flower, untended. Her mother had died in the birthing bed while Shameena drew her first breaths; her father’s interest in his daughter did not outlive his wife. Her nurse had always tried to show the motherless girl affection, but from the very beginning, Shameena was a skittish creature, shy and fragile but also proud. As a young girl, Shameena would escape the stifling heat of the zenana and sit by the flowing fountains in the quieter corners of the garden. She would sit alone, dreaming or painting. Sometimes she would beg audience with one of the court artists. From these men, Shameena learned of Mughal miniatures, Persian manuscripts, Urdu literature, and the finer points of calligraphy and composition. She would come back to the zenana as the sun sank over Lucknow, eyes sparkling, her shining black hair disordered and cascading over her shoulders. In her hair and in the folds of her silk shawl, she carried the scent of budding things, and her bare feet were always glistening with dew. She would pick at a plate of saffron rice, lost in her imagination, oblivious to the women around her, and the nurse would look at her radiant face, fearing for the girl, knowing that her unmistakable beauty would be her curse — a flower of such wild beauty was bound to be plucked. The nurse only hoped the hand would not be rough.
The clouds broke open, and again moonbeams fell on the garden, illuminating the narcissus that encircled the white marble fountain. Shameena’s mind was unquiet. She needed to taste the night air, to be cradled in the arms of a banyan tree, to feel the moon’s caress. She couldn’t bear the still, close, sickly sweet air of the zenana a moment longer.
She crept down the stairs and ran out of the women’s quarters into the small chaharbagh. Even the brightest flowers glimmered palely in the moonlight. The garden was silver and black, like a dream. On their own, Shameena’s feet found the cold stone pathway around the fountain, and she skirted the narcissus, letting her fingers sweep the wet petals, which surrendered their silkiness. She headed north, toward the river. Her heart was thudding queerly. The night was so hot, she felt as though the air were liquid. The air was oil of roses. As she passed the jasmine bushes, she could taste the jasmine on her lips.
What was the hour? She guessed from the moon and the heaviness of the dew that it was just before dawn. The night’s dancing and feasting would have ended long ago. Shameena came to a baradari at the intersection of causeways and entered the open-sided pavilion. It smelled of sandalwood, and she could see a low ember where incense still burned. Giddy, she spun in circles, arms thrown out. The moon passed through the perforated marble screens and dappled her body in an intricate pattern. Shameena imagined that she too was white marble: beautiful, inviolable, a changeless part of the palace landscape, without master, never to be possessed. The incense choked her, and she burst out again into the night. She could hear birds moving in the treetops. She called to them, a low musical note, and was surprised by the sound of her own voice. She realized she could hear other voices, that the darkness was alive. Parrots? Parakeets? Shameena hesitated. She heard cries and whispers, and then — distinctly — a woman’s laugh, fullthroated and rich with promise. Shameena cast her eyes about wildly, but the shadows between the trees and causeways revealed nothing. More cautiously now, she picked her way toward the banyans along the Gomti. She was close enough to the river to feel the cool breeze stir the silk around her legs. The touch of the fabric caused her chest to burn.
What was wrong with her tonight? In all her years, she’d never felt so aware of her skin, of the way fabric lay against the curve of her hip, the way the river breeze moved her hair across her cheek. Running, compelled by an urgency she did not understand, she abandoned the path and entered the orchard, weaving through the fruit trees. By day, the oranges hung red and round, fiery globes, but the moonlight leached everything of color. The oranges looked like so many smaller moons, silver-white globes suspended in the shining dark of the leaves. Gazing up at the oranges, Shameena almost stumbled into shadowy forms that at first seemed one with the trees. She heard a woman’s bangled wrists chime and saw the glimmer of the bracelets. She froze. A man’s voice was whispering, a stream of soft sounds, rising and falling. Shameena caught the flow of his cadences and made out the words. The man was reciting a poem:
Amidst flowers, wine in hand, my
lover I embrace
King of the world is my slave on
such a day in such a place.
Bring no candles to this, our
festive feast, tonight
Full moon is pale beside the light
of my lover’s face.
Shameena caught her breath, willing herself to be invisible. The lovers were leaning against an orange tree. She could make out a woman’s slender back and tumbling, moon-gilded hair. The heat that had been concentrated in Shameena’s chest radiated out through her body. Her hands and feet were tingling. She felt faint. The man was still reciting, but he had tightened his embrace; his face was pressed in the woman’s throat, her shoulder. His words were muffled, coming in broken phrases. The fragrance of your hair. Speak not to me of sweetness. Since my lips. Your treasures.
Shameena let out strangled sob, and the man lifted his eyes, gazing at her across the woman’s shoulder. The ruins of my heart, he whispered, and he smiled, tauntingly, at Shameena, his fingers moving through the thick black hair of the woman who leaned into him with more insistence, her wrists crossing above his head, knuckles pressed against the orange tree. The man kissed the woman’s shoulder, eyes still locked on Shameena, and the woman turned her face to intercept his kiss. It was the delicate profile of her childhood friend, Nadira, now a courtesan at the palace. She was smiling, her face sheened with sweat, lips curving. Shameena turned and fled, heedless of her crashing footfalls. When she reached the banyan trees on the riverbank, she bent double, gulping thick air, arms hugged around her body. Finally, she righted herself. She nearly staggered to her favorite ancient banyan, complex roots and branches twisting over one another, forming handholds and small nooks, perfect perches for the slender girl.
It was to this place that she used to retreat. A larger branch thrust from the trunk of the tree, making a strong yet gentle V, a perfect seat. Shameena climbed nimbly to the V and sat with her back against the tree trunk, legs hanging down. The river breeze stroked her flushed face. Raising a hand to her cheek, she realized she was crying again. Hot tears splashed down. The taste of salt on her lips now mingled with the sweetness of the garden’s perfume. She imagined again that she was made of marble — untouched, never to be caressed by a human hand.
She shook her head to banish the torrent of images. The man’s glistening face, his lips parting. His hands plunging into Nadira’s long hair, twisting the locks in his fists, as he pulled her toward him …
“I just want to be free,” whispered Shameena, desperately. “I want to be left alone. I want to live among the palace roses, to paint them, to answer to no one. To be free. I want …”
Why did she feel as though the world were spinning too fast? Why did she feel so trapped and yet so … lonely?
Shameena jolted, nearly falling from her branch. The sky erupted in green light. The boom came again. Again. Fireworks were bursting over Lucknow. Smoke drifted along the river. Shameena stood, balancing, one arm braced against the trunk. She looked back over the moonlit gardens, in whose shadows lovers lay locked in fervent embraces. She turned to the river. Green flowers of light bloomed in the darkness and faded.
Another celebration at the British Residency. At the brink of dawn, no less. Green sparks floated in the breeze. The world was striped in moonlight and shadow. Tiger stripes. The green sparks drifted close to her outstretched fingertips, then vanished, consumed.
Shameena shut her eyes tight. The afterimage burned — green sparks, doubled, against her eyes. The wind picked up. She felt it rake through her hair, her clothes. She curled into the banyan tree, and finally she slept.
Falling from Earth, Chadi Zeneddine’s first feature film, is an intimate cinepoem that evokes Lebanon’s various wars — each of its three chapters is marked by a significant political date — through an oblique, at times surreal, inquiry. Each chapter is a portrait of a character in a discarded family snapshot gathered by Youssef (played by pioneering theater actor Rafik Ali Ahmad), an old man living alone in a semi-derelict building, who acts as a verbal and visual framing device. Zeneddine offsets any sentimental notes in the film through dry humor and minimal, wry dialogue.
Since its debut at the Dubai International Film Festival in December 2007, Falling from Earth has been screened in over twenty festivals, including the Rotterdam Film Festival and New Directors/New Films at MoMA, New York, among other festivals. The film is in general release in the Arab world in April 2009. Here Zeneddine discusses the film that has marked him as a promising new talent.
PROLOGUE AND CHAPTER 1: 1990
Youssef leads us through the film. He’s a witness to the stories in the photos that he collects and allows their subjects to lead a second life. He is the one who’s still alive, still experiencing and sharing emotions, while the other characters are trapped in the turmoil of the ongoing dilemma between life and death. At the end of the film he experiences a kind of revelation: all is here, we shouldn’t be waiting for heaven or Godot …
The Youssef scenes are filmed in a wonderful, miserable location — a school, bombarded during the civil war, in Souk el-Gharb, Mount Lebanon.
How did I cast Rafik Ali Ahmad? I used to sit at Cafe Rawda, by the sea in Beirut, where Rafik is a daily customer. This man has one hell of a look, a lion-like presence on- and offstage. I never dared to speak to him. I used to try to go up to him but end up walking past and going to the bathroom instead. In the end, I called him, and ironically we met at the same cafe. We talked for twenty minutes, and without reading the script, he told me he was in.
It took three years to make this film. My friends and I began shooting on 35mm — starting with the simple idea of three separate stories — though we didn’t have any financing. It was an adventure, which is now inspiring others.
This scene, when a random Italian actor shooting a film in Lebanon shares a cigarette with Youssef, is Felliniesque — I wanted to introduce Youssef as if he is in a kind of space that ceases to have any logical sense, time, or place. So here is this “crusader” coming to invade Beirut in the twenty-first century.
Is he, with his clichés about “bellissima” Beiruti women, the snow and sun, a portrait of the ultimate foreigner in Beirut? He’s actually the epitome of a Lebanese abroad! We are over-proud, just like the Italians. Wherever I go, we all promote Lebanon that way. The fact that it’s a foreign actor repeating those same clichés is just absurd.
CHAPTER 2: 1975
Here we have Jad, a security guard, who watches a public toilet and contributes to a graffiti chain on a toilet door. At the beginning of the scene, he seems to be burying a body, and by the end, it seems as though he’s seeing himself on the CCTV. It’s also one of my favorites, the darkest chapter in the film. He’s a witness, his past ghosts are coming back, and he seems to be letting them in. It’s the story of a young man trying to communicate his love through a restroom door. The chapter is 1975 for obvious, symbolic reasons.
We built the set for these scenes in a studio twice: the first time was at Université Saint-Joseph, Beirut. We built it all, but then didn’t receive the particular film stock I wanted and had to cancel the shooting. After six months, we rebuilt it in this warehouse with a sticky smell and roaring generators. I had to involve everyone, even my father. Funnily enough, some industry people visited our “studio,” and it’s since become one of the biggest hotels in Beirut…
In the end, it was the toughest shoot.
CHAPTER 3: 1982
Lamia’s lover “disappeared,” and she’s living with her memories. Where did we shoot the scene where she’s looking down a “tunnel”? This was a very spiritual experience, as I was in the destroyed school at twilight and felt as if I was in a mirror with an endless reflection, looking down this series of holes in the building. So I created the scene for Lamia, for her to go back in time. This location is so fitting to the film — it’s as if it were constructed or left aside especially for one of my characters.
I’m obsessed with the frame. As a filmmaker, it’s the only way you can play God! Sometimes the location would impose itself into the frame, and sometimes I would create the exact frame.
Falling from Earth is a film about impressions drawn from life rather than a narrative story. I took this “journey” because I didn’t live the wars, and I always felt weirdly guilty being excluded from it. It’s a sort of poem to myself and to my city.
In a grand reception room, little girls holding candles circle a throng of chanting adults; Kuwaiti men recline in sofas, dazed, smoking what appears to be hashish; and two German shepherds are caressed by the writhing, just-short-of-orgasmic hostess, Soraya. Stumbling in by chance, a fellow named Anwar recognizes her and recalls their meeting and short-lived affair of years past, back when she was an exotic dancer in Bangkok. A little later, we learn Soraya is having an affair with her mother-in-law, an old woman dressed in an Abaya and confined to a wheelchair.
Welcome to the world of Thiab la ta’kol al laham (Wolves That Do Not Eat Meat). Occasionally referred to by its second name, Kuwait Connection, Wolves was made in 1973 by Lebanese film director Samir A. Khouri with the cooperation of the Kuwaiti Ministry of Communication. I was introduced to Wolves by a friend in the fall of 2005, in Kuwait. I swiftly made a small batch of bootleg copies of the already pirated DVD and gave them to many others, both at home and abroad. I was in love with the huge cop cars, the cops’ tight-waisted pants, the Kuwaitis wearing dishdashas with aviator sunglasses (doubtless inspiring the drooling of any gay child), and the old Hilton as a mecca of bad behavior.
Here’s how the story goes: Anwar, a former journalist of ambiguous provenance, commits a murder and is chased by the cops into the desert. Half-awake, he walks into a mansion, meets his ex-lover Soraya, and is nursed by her, promptly inspiring the resumption of their affair. As he recovers, he learns that Soraya’s husband is not entirely thrilled by his presence. Soraya, as noted, is also involved with her mother-in-law. In one scene, we see her thigh-high suede boots rocking back and forth on a swinging garden seat in front of the old lady (Kuwaiti actor Mohammed Al Mansour in drag), who confesses, “You’re the only one who’s obedient and loyal to me, so much that you haven’t withheld your soft body from me.”
Anwar and Soraya later become embroiled in a fast-paced gang plot, having stolen money from a group of American gangsters staying at the Hilton. Another chase takes place. Meanwhile, Soraya’s husband is killed, and the entire house is under investigation by the Kuwaiti police, who later pinpoint the mother-in-law as the culprit (who turns out to be Soraya’s daughter-in-law’s fiancé dressed up as the old woman). The film ends with the cops and robbers chasing Anwar and Soraya onto a beach at sunset. Their jeep comes to a halt as they die from bullet wounds while contemplating their doomed love. A backdrop of slow-motion shots of the main characters in skull masks, running with outstretched arms toward the camera, ensues.
What sort of country could have inspired such a strange tale? Kuwait in the 1970s was hardly a conservative place. After all, how many countries could boast a water tower holding a state-of-the-art disco with breathtaking views? (An exceptionally odd combination of utilitarianism married to debauchery.) ABBA, James Brown, Boney M., and Andy Warhol were among the many artists who played in this tiny, unassuming state. This was the world of Wolves That Do Not Eat Meat, a film romp through that decade, care of Kuwait’s old souk, baroque mansions, deserts and beaches, the sheep market, and — perhaps most iconic — its original Hilton Hotel. (Partially demolished sometime in the 1980s, its ruin is now a pitiful simulacrum of its former self.)
Of course, whether Kuwait was swinging or not, the film’s pan-generational lesbianism alone would have audiences running into the streets screaming, back then or today, especially when coupled with witchcraft, drug-taking, brutal sheep killing, and sex involving live animals. In one particularly memorable scene, Anwar and Soraya rub doves on their bodies in the bedroom of a slow-moving yacht. (In another scene on the very same yacht, the lovers spill champagne on each other and make out with surprising vigor.) But the film’s penultimate scenes’ unusual candor — with the exception of the use of fleshy tights (a strange form of censorship) — seems more liberating than sinful. The fact that Anwar and Soraya are portrayed, in all their soft-focus glory, as happy and innocent during their lustful times in Bangkok seems to confirm that.
The saving grace of Wolves may have been its particular moral universe. Indeed, on some level, Wolves also operates as a traditional tale of good and evil. All the characters who have sex in the film end up dead or, in one case, betrayed beyond belief. Anwar, in the meantime, has been thrust into a life of violence and decadence due to the many horrors he witnessed in his former life as a journalist. The most moving, and also perhaps most disturbing, scenes in the film pop up as he recalls the horrific faces of the dead at the site of the massacre of Deir Yaseen, where countless Palestinian lives were lost.
What the Kuwaiti state was doing funding such a film remains a mystery to this day. Was it to present a “liberal” face to the world? All we know is this: Khouri, the film’s foreign-educated director, considered his an artistic film rather than a simple B movie. He produced two other films in his lifetime. One, the Eyes Wide Shut-esque Sayidat el aqmar el sawdaa’ (The Lady of the Black Moons) was filmed in the streets of Beirut and was equally racy, marked by just as many generous shots of thighs and other unmentionables (remember, films with the standard codes of international intrigue — tough guys, hot girls, and drug cartels — were a dime a dozen during this time). Years later, in 1984, Khouri directed Amani tahta qaws el qozah (Amani Under the Rainbow), a weirdly stirring, if histrionic, musical about the Lebanese civil war, featuring child star Remi Bandaly.
As for Wolves, it did not enjoy the level of success his first film did, nor that of The Cats of Hamra Street (Qotat sharia el hamra), which was released the same year and remained one of the few R-rated Arab films produced, screened, and released as such. And though Wolves was screened successfully in Lebanon and Tunisia, this perfect meeting point of tragicomic play and porno was banned in Kuwait, the country of its birth, three days after its cinematic release and also banned in Egypt, the film-industry capital that could have made it famous.
I bought my first accordion in Ukraine. It was shiny and red, small enough to carry back on the plane to New York but with a big sound, bright yet mournful. I could bring that little accordion anywhere. “Hey, weren’t you the one playing accordion?” People would say. From impromptu shows in Philadelphia and Estonia, I discovered that my accordion could start conversations where I thought I had nothing to say.
In 2007, I got a fellowship to report in Afghanistan. As my date of departure approached, I started to freak out. What did I know about Afghanistan beyond what anyone could see on the news? I didn’t speak Dari or Pashto. And if there had ever been a good time to be an American in Kabul, that time was over.
So I had brought my little red friend with me when I landed at Kabul Airport. Customs gave me a raised eyebrow but let me through. A few days later, on a freezing Kabul night, I was typing up some notes by the woodstove in my rented living room. My colleague and translator Najib lay on his back doing abdominal crunches. He’d fling his legs into the air with a loud grunt; another guy, a house guard, would grab them and fling them back down. The room was dead quiet except for his exertions. I went and got my accordion, and Najib seemed thrilled — he started doing his crunches even louder and faster. I played another song, and then a third, and that’s when Najib stopped, looking surprised.
“Hey!” he asked with a smile. “How do you know Afghan music?”
I looked at him, utterly confused. “This isn’t Afghan music,” I said.
“Yes, it is!”
“No, it’s not — this is a folk song from the 1960s called ‘Those Were the Days.’ My mom used to sing it.”
“No!” he insisted, equally confident. “That song was famous for being sung by a singer who was our Casanova. His name was Ahmad Zahir. Famous Afghan singer.”
He and the guard sang the song for me. It didn’t sound anything like the song I knew, and as a result, I dismissed the incident.
But then the same thing kept happening. Every time I played my songs for people I met in Kabul, they’d say, “Hey, isn’t that by Ahmad Zahir?”
I asked Najib to help me do some research. He handed me a CD collection of Zahir’s music. Each colorful CD sleeve featured a stout Afghan man with smoldering eyes, a cocksure smile, and thick sideburns. The ’burns and his big pastel collars made him look a lot like Elvis Presley. “They called him the Afghan Elvis,” Najib said.
I put on the first CD. Zahir’s songs had all the elements of traditional Afghan music: the tabla, the wailing strings of the dumbra, the crooning vocal style. Yet as I listened to more of his records, I heard one Western riff after another. There was a lot of Elvis, yes, but also John Lennon and Nat King Cole. Some of the melodies seemed like Afghan versions of Western songs. When I listened to the song “Tanha Shodam Tanha,” the one Najib thought sounded like the song my mom used to sing, it did sound familiar. I emailed the track to a friend in St. Louis, who wrote right back: Oh yeah, that’s an old Western disco hit, “El Bimbo.” He was right — it was “El Bimbo,” same melody, same key. But something didn’t fit. “El Bimbo” had been an international hit in 1975, recorded by a pair of French guys who called themselves Bimbo Jet. But “Tanha Shodam Tanha” was the big hit from Zahir’s album Lylee, released in 1971. So Najib had been partly right. Even as Ahmad Zahir was cleverly, lovingly Afghanizing everything from Elvis to folk rock and film scores, at least one of his songs was being craftily, cannily Westernized.
I insisted that Najib tell me more of the story, though it turned out almost anyone could have told me about Zahir, one of the best-loved figures in Afghan history. His father had been a diplomat and politician and had hoped his son would follow in his footsteps — which he did, after a fashion. Zahir toured several neighboring countries, including Iran in 1973 at the invitation of the empress. And his lyrics, some of them based on folktales and old ghazals, were interpreted as radical by the government as well as his legions of fans, some of whom began to call him the “Conqueror by Music.”
Najib then drove me to the outskirts of Kabul, where we knocked on a locked gate — a piece of corrugated tin — until a man with white hair opened up. This was Sadat Dardar; he’d known Zahir since the fourth grade. The gate closed behind us, and suddenly the scene changed: we walked out into a garden with flowers and a small pond. Dardar pointed to a moss-covered stone fountain. He said something to Najib, and Najib started laughing. “He says, this is the fountain where Ahmad Zahir used to sit and play his accordion,” Najib translated. “And forty girls were lying around here listening to him play.”
While I processed this news — Ahmad Zahir played accordion? — Dardar recounted the dark end of Zahir’s story. In the 1970s, as the winds of change swept over Afghanistan, his freedom-loving lyrics and his fiercely apolitical stance infuriated some in the government, especially the Communists. The Communist Party would ask him to play its dreary political showcases, and he would refuse. At the same time, his own concerts were always sold out.
In 1978, Nur Muhammad Taraki seized the presidency with the help of the Soviet Union. Many of Zahir’s friends fled the country and urged Zahir to follow; there were murders and rumors of torture in Taraki’s secret prisons. Taraki had a personal grudge against Zahir and had him arrested a number of times on various charges, though nothing he did could diminish the singer’s popularity. When Taraki’s own daughter was getting married, she demanded to have Zahir play at the wedding. She didn’t know that Zahir was, at that very moment, sitting locked up in one of her father’s prisons. President Taraki begged her to accept any substitute, but she stamped her foot and demanded Ahmad. So Taraki had little choice. He sent his officers to Zahir’s cell. The singer agreed to perform but refused to change out of his prison garb. The ballroom crowd gasped as he strode onstage in a dirty uniform and started to sing. Women swooned. The president seethed.
On June 14, 1979 — his thirty-third birthday — Ahmad Zahir was killed. The government said he had a traffic accident; everybody else says he was shot in the head. News spread through the country like a shock wave. Young girls committed suicide. Mourners were so numerous at his funeral that people were trampled in the crowd. Later it was said that when Ahmad Zahir died, he took the light of the country with him. A few months later, the Russians invaded, and Afghanistan plunged into war. The war with the Soviets was followed by civil war, and then by the Taliban. The Taliban tried to obliterate popular culture. They banned instrumental music and destroyed the small monument that had marked Ahmad Zahir’s grave. Only when American troops arrived in 2001 did the radios came back on. And whose voice came out of them? Three decades after his death, Zahir was still the top-requested artist on Afghan radio stations. His iconic style reminded Afghans of happier times.
For me, Ahmad Zahir was an unexpected entrée into Afghan culture. It was as if, when I played my music, music I thought of as my own, Afghans heard it as something uniquely theirs.
I experienced this a few weeks after that first performance for Najib. I was up in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif, reporting a story for National Public Radio about a big music festival there. I came to the last standing theater in the city, where one of the bands was playing traditional Afghan music. I had brought my accordion with me, thinking I might get the chance to jam with some musicians after the show. But being the only Westerner in the room, I stood out, and the festival director saw my instrument and asked me to perform.
I didn’t know what to say. These men in the audience were not Western-educated types like Najib and his friends. These were traditional men who had come to see traditional music. Then a short man with a long beard was shoving me onstage. I introduced myself to the crowd, and then I played a song I knew well, by the late great American singer Johnny Cash. The tune was “Ring of Fire.” I hit the chorus and the whole theater went wild. They cheered and clapped so loudly I could barely hear my own voice. I pumped my little red accordion as loudly as I could. “Drowned, by desire,” I sang.
Throughout the latter half of the 1940s, the reigning champion of squash was a dapper Egyptian by the name of Mahmoud El Karim. Tall, elegant, and handsome, Karim embodied all the attributes of the consummate sportsman. Ever cool, his style was well admired both on and off the court. He donned smart white flannel trousers, paired with delicate cashmere sweaters. It is said that his movements were so graceful, no one ever heard his feet touch the ground.
By 1950, Karim was the top professional at the prestigious Gezira Sporting Club in Cairo, with four British Open titles under his belt. (At that time, the British Open was the equivalent of a world championship.) In other words, things were looking good.
But the dapper Egyptian’s luck would take a turn for the worse in 1951, as an unknown man by the name of Hashim Khan would make his debut in the prestigious world of international squash. Sent by the newly born nation of Pakistan to compete in the British Open, Khan hailed from a small Pashtun town outside of Peshawar, where his father was once chief steward of the colonial officers’ club. Age thirty-seven at the time, he was 5’4” and balding, carried with him a Buddha-like potbelly, and, appallingly, wore short shorts in clubs where starched pants were common decorum. Khan was literally self-taught; he had mastered the game through endless matches of what he referred to as “Hashim vs. Hashim.” In other words, this smalltown Khan embodied none of the attributes typical of his fellow sportsmen. The matches he played in Britain were the first for which he had ever worn shoes.
But the story of Hashim Khan is the story of the victorious underdog — he’s the true-life version of Daniel LaRusso, Happy Gilmore, and the Jamaican bobsled team rolled into one. To the disbelief and chagrin of squash aficionados everywhere, Hashim Khan beat Mahmoud el Karim three sets to none that year — and again the next. By 1958, at the incredible age of forty-five, Hashim had accumulated a record seven British Open titles from various opponents, including his younger brother Azam Khan and cousin Roshan Khan (Hashim was the first in an extraordinary dynasty of Khan squash players who would dominate the game for the next fifty years).
Although Khan’s early playing style was simple and inelegant, his speed, fitness, and understanding of the game were wholly unrivaled. Many consider Khan, a true flower, to be the first squash icon. His fateful timing would also make him Pakistan’s first national hero, winning his inaugural British Open just four short years after partition from India and inextricably linking him to the establishment of his young country.
But Khan is a humble man and steers clear of heavy praise. His public voice is limited to a neverending stream of charming and often comedic truisms (“Watch ball, walls don’t move”) delivered in his signature laconic English, a style that could best be described as a cross between Mr. Miyagi, Yoda, and a fortune cookie. The resulting persona is almost too perfect, too caricatured, too sweet. One is left wondering if Khan is not playing life with the same keen cunning with which he played his sport; if his overly amiable and perhaps faux-naïf character is in large part what made his acceptance into squash culture so seamless. But just as we will never know if Azam Khan deliberately lost those three British Open finals out of respect for his older brother, we will likewise never know what was going through Hashim Khan’s mind as he single-handedly executed his glorious athletic coup d’état.
We can all, however, stand to learn something from the squash champion’s 1967 quasiautobiographical Squash Racquets: The Khan Game:
Keep eye on ball.
Move quick to “T.”
Stay in crouch.
Take big step.
Keep ball far away from opponent.
Have many different shots ready so opponent does not know what you do next.
Do not relax because you play good shot; maybe opponent retrieves that ball; better you get ready for next stroke.
Soon as can, find out where opponent has idea to send ball, then quick take position for your return shot.
Have reason for every stroke you make.
After passing the British Open torch to his brother Azam, Hashim accepted a lucrative professional post at the Uptown Athletic Club in Detroit in order to support his (impressive) family of twelve children — five of whom would become squash professionals themselves. Today, a hobbling ninety-four-year-old Khan, now even more diminutive, resides in the quiet, middle-class Denver suburb of Aurora, Colorado. There he’s a revered fixture at the local athletic club, where if you can’t find him playing a geriatric (read, stationary) version of his favorite game on the Hashim Khan Court, you can probably find him loafing about the Hashim Khan Trophy Room, dispensing Hashim Khan wisdom to his myriad fans. “I do not want to talk like I am proud man. I tell you such things about me so you can understand why I win matches. Maybe they help your game!”
Crossdressing is a project by Simona Schneider on merchandise and border crossing. The free-trade zone in Ceuta, the autonomous Spanish city on the northern tip of North Africa, sees goods from all over the world, from booze, cloth, old shoes, dead bolts, and flour to notebooks and toilet paper as they make their way into Morocco. Ordinary citizens who are otherwise unemployed must placate two different masters, Spanish and Moroccan, in order to move their wares. One guideline set by customs says that smugglers should not flaunt the size or content of their packages; they must be as discrete as possible about their compromising forms.
I was named after the great Armenian hero Vartan Mamigonian.
Also known as Vartan the Brave, Red Vartan, or alternatively, St. Vartan, Mamigonian was a descendant of a renowned and influential Armenian family. The Mamigonians were among the major nakharars, or feudal lords, in medieval Armenia. Many Mamigonians held the position of commander of the army, or sparabed. Vartan led the Armenians in their revolt against the Sassanid Persians, who ruled the eastern provinces of Armenia at the time.
So Vartan the Brave is a warrior’s name. His name is red and he is a saint. The cover of my third-grade Armenian history textbook featured an illustration of Vartan in his military costume holding a sword with a cross engraved upon it. The history textbook at school taught me a great deal about the brave warrior-saint. The story it told goes like this: Vartan Mamigonian led Armenian forces to fight the Persians in the battle that came to be known as the Holy Battle of Vartan, or Sourp Vartanants. The Persians were trying to convert the Armenians from Christianity to paganism. The two armies met on the shore of the river Tghmut in the Avarayr plain, not far from Mount Ararat. On May 26 of the year 451 AD, the 220,000-strong Persian army clashed with 66,000 Armenians under the command of Vartan.
Vartan and 1,036 Armenians were found worthy of martyrdom for fighting for, and finally falling for, what they believed. They preferred honorable death to servility. Because they perished fighting for the preservation of Armenian culture and identity, their defeat entered Armenian lore as a great moral victory. Conveniently, Armenians, like the French and their histoire, have a single term for story and history. And so, embellished or not, that was the (hi)story of the Holy Battle of Vartan, according to my third-grade book.1
One thing the textbook failed to explain fully was the meaning of the warrior-hero’s name, my name.
Who would have thought that Vartan — synonymous with glory and defeat and the tragic essence of Armenia — is in fact a Persian name? In Armenian, vart means rose. But its root is non-Armenian and can be traced back to the Pahlavi (middle Persian) vard/varda (värdä in Assyrian, ward in Arabic), whose root the great Armenian linguist Hrachia Ajarian finds in the old Indo-European urdho (thorny bush), which gave rise to the Avestan (east Iranian) word varƏδa: rose. The name Vartan was also used in Iran. There, it signified a rose-giver, a bearer of roses. Ajarian also sites the Armenian verb vartanal—literally, to become pink, which has since dropped from usage.
Red Vartan, then, turns out to be not so red, but rather pink in hue. Nevertheless, the Armenian Apostolic Church ordained him as a saint. On Vartanants Day, always celebrated on the first Thursday before Lent in February, an ode to St. Vartan from the Divine Liturgy of the Armenian Apostolic Church is recited:
Martyr, chosen Vartan, ordained captain of the host.
Many soldiers with thee were proven holy and brave martyrs.
Imbrued in their rose-colored blood, they inherited the kingdom.
They saw the heavenly light and were deemed worthy of the crown.
Armenians have never claimed that all days are Vartanants and all places Avarayr,2 but they believe that the Vartanian martyrs were victorious in dying for their beliefs. More than a thousand years later, the Persians themselves would raise the banner of Intisar iddam ala il sayf (the victory of blood over the sword). Adopting the Shia branch of Islam, they became champions of a culture of martyrdom centered on Imam Hussein, the grandson of the prophet, who fell on the fields of Karbala in the seventh century and became the patron saint, as it were, of the Shia faith. In many respects Vartan Mamigonian is the Hussein of the Armenians — or Hussein is the Vartan of the Shia.
Today, Vartan Mamigonian continues to be one of the most important icons linked to Armenian identity. Drawings of him are found in churches, in history books, on copper plates in Armenian homes, in restaurants — the infamous Varouj restaurant in Beirut, for one — and even on YouTube.3
The same textbook I once set my eyes on as a child, with that red illustration of the Brave Vartan on the cover, is still used in Armenian schools in Lebanon. The book is out of print, so the publishers, Hamazkaine, distribute black-and-white photocopied versions of it. So while Vartan in Hayots Badmoutyoun, or The History of the Armenians, seems to have lost his color, he has not lost his stature as the most important figure in Armenian history.
1. In 451 AD, Armenians’ cultural sovereignty was threatened from two sides: Byzantine Roman hegemony on their western flank and the Sassanid Persians to their east. Byzantium had convened an ecumenical council at Chalcedon with a central Christian leadership that tried to impose control over the Armenian churches, while the Persians were pushing their version of the ancient pre-Islamic religion of Zoroastrianism.
2. In comparison to “all days are Ashoura’ and all places Karbala.”
3. Recently, an Armenian-dubbed re-edit of the film 300 appeared on YouTube. The short film is entitled Vartan Bastermamigonian. The Persian King sends a delegation to get odorless Armenian basterma (a pressed meat, an Armenian delicacy) from the world’s most famous basterma maker, Vartan Bastermamigonian. But the Shah wants his basterma expunged of its odor. Vartan refuses to renounce his beliefs about the proper pungence of true basterma, and the Shah sends his armies against Vartan and his small but valiant Armenian army. Vartan’s army clashes with the larger Persian army. He dies bravely in battle, unbending in his allegiance to smelly pastrami.
Yto Barrada’s Straight Project began in 1998 as a series of documentary photographs and other artworks made in and around the city of Tangier, Morocco. In the years since the project’s inception, Tangier has changed a great deal. With the government’s support, developers are transforming pastures, markets, forests, beaches, and historic buildings throughout the city into commercial properties, in what looks like a push to recreate Spain’s Costa del Sol — a dense sprawl of sunshine tourism and service economies. Iris tingitana, the “Moroccan Iris,” grows where the botanical landscape meets the urban. It shoots up among endangered wildflowers on construction sites; among discarded sunflower-seed wrappers; among men sleeping in public parks; and among the clusters of pink geraniums — always out of season — crowding traffic islands. It is as if a new generation of decision makers has arrived bearing flowers, to mark the burial of the old Morocco.
In this new homogeneous landscape, the only indigenous species visible in public are those that have been branded by modernity or neatly framed by their folkloric status. As Barrada documents these developments, her portraits of plants may quietly — and with some humor — suggest a strategy for resistance to the taming of the city.
Beirut Art Center
January 15–April 2, 2009
More than a thousand people attended the opening of the Beirut Art Center, many of whom described the event as “magic.” The project took nearly five years to realize; initiators Sandra Dagher and Lamia Joreige dodged one political crisis after another while searching for a space, raising funds, and creating a framework for public programming.
If the art center represents a major piece of what had been missing from the cultural scene in Beirut, then its inauguration also marks the symbolic end of an era. For the last fifteen years, Beirut’s contemporary art scene has been constantly on the move. It has appropriated the elements of an alternative infrastructure and assembled a strong semblance of a community along the way, but it has always been peripatetic and not entirely institutionalized. This aspect of the Beirut art scene has been, to some extent, romanticized. It is now, for the most part, over.
The Beirut Art Center’s inaugural exhibition, titled ‘Closer,’ addressed notions of privacy and intimacy, considering the point at which personal narratives become material for public expression as artworks. Considered in a wider context, the possible meanings evoked by the title of the show could also be read in relation to the lack of public spaces, spheres, and institutions in Lebanon, and in light of how the boundaries between public and private are constantly redefined by cultural initiatives such as the Home Works Forum organized by Ashkal Alwan.
These and other ideas about audience, infrastructure, urbanism, and the state lay just beneath the surface of the exhibition. They were never explicitly articulated, though, as the primary concern of ‘Closer’ was artistic practice itself. The show included the work of eleven artists, working in video and photography as well as text- and web-based media, who all directly or indirectly staged some aspect of themselves in their work. The eclectic choice of artists — from the Lebanese composer and sound artist Cynthia Zaven, who was showing her work in Beirut for the first time; to Akram Zaatari, Tony Chakar, and Lina Saneh, who have been ubiquitous in the local art scene for a decade or more; to Anri Sala and Antoine D’Agata, who have rarely, if ever, shown their art in the region — raised questions, created curious correspondences, and gave rise to multilayered readings of works that were already, in some cases, quite familiar (Chakar’s 4 Cotton Underwear for Tony; Zaatari’s Saida. June 6, 1982).
But still, one could ask of the title, Closer how, closer to what, closer to whom? How close, for example, was Lisa Steele’s twelve-minute black and white video from 1974, Birthday Suit, with Scars and Defects, to Lina Saneh’s 2007–2008 web-based project Body pArts? Both works drew on the history of body and performance art. Yet the technologies employed distanced them substantially, as did the works’ political undercurrents.
In Birthday Suit, Steele set up a stationary camera in a room, took off her clothes, and proceeded to approach and retreat, offering a closeup of a body part with each pass and showing, for example, the mark on her finger, nearly severed at age five; the permanently discolored nail on a toe stubbed while running barefoot at age six; and the scar below her left breast, from the removal of a benign tumor when she was twenty-six. The artist’s methodical presentation and the flatness of her narrative voice were at odds with the tender manner in which she touched each scar and defect with her fingertips, as if summoning the memory of being either physically or emotionally hurt. Here, the camera acted as an agent.
Lina Saneh’s mediation was more contractual. For Body pArts, she attempted to circumvent Lebanon’s religious laws, all of which prohibit cremation, by creating a website through which fellow artists might “sign” different parts of her body, a transaction that effectively turned them into artworks (“the signing of the artist’s share of the total fee paid for the work will constitute 65 percent”), in return for their promise to incinerate the “parts” in the event of Saneh’s death, thus achieving cremation through the mechanisms of the art market and the internet. Saneh countered the objectification and commoditization of the body with what resembled an emancipating gesture; she fought one system (religious laws) with another (the art market), but at the point where those two met were the engaged and often emotional statements of her fellow artists, whose interventions gave the piece its power.
In work after work, ‘Closer’ posited the individual, the voice, the story, the anecdote, against the grand sweep of history and its accounting of political, geographical, and even spatial realities. Antoine D’Agata’s grainy self-portraits were taken in brothels from the Canary Islands to Gaza. The images captured the artist’s disintegrating, ghostly body, caught in the midst of an action that nearly reduced his form to abstraction. The squares of the room and the bed (and in them, the blur of a brief lover) created the frames through which D’Agata penetrated different geographies. The camera alluded to stories without really telling them. The location of each image, in parentheses next to the photographs, suggested adventures without ever disclosing them.
The works in ‘Closer,’ then, might have played with privacy, but the “I” in the pieces shown — the personal, the intimate, the interior — was always staged and always performed. There seemed to be an inherent and possibly productive contradiction in the fact that the Beirut Art Center had chosen the theme of privacy for the opening of a public space. It was an awkward encounter, a first date, a relationship between the space and the public that ended, as the best first dates do, by getting a little closer.
Carsten Holler: The Double Club
Since the early 1990s, Brussels-born Carsten Höller’s activity as an artist has stretched from designing carousels and developing narcotics to producing goggles that allow viewers to see the world as it really is, upside-down. The Stockholm-based artist shapes experiences more than objects, and the objects that he does produce resemble scientific tools, precision instruments in stainless steel, untouched by the dirt of daily life. This professionalized approach depends upon a high level of specialization, consultation, and research. (It is unsettling, though perhaps unsurprising, that in a previous life Höller trained as a phytopathologist with a special interest in insect communication.) A great deal of this research-based practice is directed toward understanding the construction of experience. How can we say that what we’re feeling is real at all?
The Double Club (2008-9), his most recent project, ventures far from the laboratory, with the Stockholm-based artist recasting himself as an itinerant entrepreneur, part philanthropist part self- appointed cultural attaché. Conceived by Höller but financed by the Fondazione Prada, The Double Club inhabits a Victorian warehouse complex down a dingy backstreet of Islington in North London. Here, the favored strategy is separation over miscegenation, with the menu, decor, and music policy receiving equal space but split down the middle. Cheerfully ignoring the formula for culinary fusion that became popular in restaurants a few years back, Höller’s hope is, presumably, that division will engender dialogue.
Open for just six months, The Double Club comprises three rooms: a bar in a spacious covered courtyard, a small nightclub with a revolving stage, and a cozy restaurant in which designer tables share space with molded plastic furniture. Built from imported wood and corrugated iron, the Congolese bar is modelled on Franco’s in Kinshasa and sits back-to-back with a polished-copper pub, above which a pink neon sign announces the “Two Horses Riders Club.” The nightclub section can be glimpsed through a two-way mirror surrounded by an azulejo mural of Russian architect Georgi Krutikov’s 1928 drawings for flying cities (a work that Höller previously quoted in a piece shown at the 2002 São Paulo Biennial). In the club itself, an LED-illuminated palm tree refers to Chez Ntemba, a popular Kinshasa nightclub. One half of the menu, in the meantime, is braised beef and terrines, the other kossa kossa (spiced shrimp), fumbwa (salted fish, peanuts, and yam leaves), and pig trotters. Höller plays curator, too, selectingğalong with Germano Celantğa curious range of works by Andy Warhol, Carla Accardi, and others, alongside Congolese artists Chéri Samba and the Kinshasa- based Monsengwo Kejwamfi.
Equally split down the middle is The Double Club’s music policy, with Western nights on Fridays and Congolese on Saturdays. Still, sometimes this equitable approach doesn’t seem to run all the way to the top. The layout was realized by young London-based architecture studio Carmody Groarke; the Western interiors were managed by Kram/Weishaar (who designed Prada’s concept store in Beverly Hills); while Höller himself dealt with the Congolese section. Similarly, there appears to be little Congolese input at management level: the enterprise is overseen by Mourad Mazouz, founder of Momo and Sketch, and Jan Kennedy, who founded Quo Vadis and ran Damien Hirst’s ill-fated Pharmacy restaurant. For a project that makes much noise about showcasing the best of two cultures, it is both telling and uncomfortable that The Double Club won’t venture beyond two affluent cities — from London it tours to the Rem Koolhaas- designed Fondazione Prada in Milan —nowhere close to Central Africa. Which leaves us with the following dilemma: should The Double Club be considered a brave artwork or a canny franchise, a politically loaded exploration of ethnic marketing or yet another example of finely produced cultural imperialism?
Importantly, The Double Club’s opening coincided with one of the most difficult years in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s fraught history. Following the 2008 failure of a seventeen-thousand- strong UN Peacekeeping Force, at the beginning of 2009 around forty-five thousand Congolese are dying every month due to famine and disease. Since the Second Congo War began in 1998, over 5.4 million lives have been lost, more than in any conflict since World War II, and fighting continues in the east despite a peace treaty in 2003. Indeed, since the Belgian colonization of the DR Congo in the late nineteenth century, in which around half the population was killed over the course of twenty years of ruthlessly surveilled rubber production,
the country has seen virtually continuous fighting. Prada seems to have realized only late that, as brand alignments go, civil war may be just a little too edgy; the venture was originally floated as the “Prada Congo Club” but rechristened “The Double Club” when its opening last November coincided with a further three-thousand troops being sent in to the DR Congo by the UN. A percentage of the profits are being donated to the UNICEF charity City of Joy. Laudable as this is, however, it’s not clear whether the club was originally planned as a charitable venture.
Far from a rose-spectacled tourist, Höller has been traveling to Kinshasa for some years now, having recently made a film about the music scene there. But while his hopeful attempt to compare and contrast different approaches had a troublesome genesis, more problematic is why the Congolese and Western models are being treated as opposites in the first place. Drinking aside, visitors to The Double Club are unlikely to see double, as these visions of a restaurant/bar/nightclub aren’t so different. The copper-plated dividing line enforces a split that many of the clientele just as happy to party in Dakar as nearby Shoreditch (where the unfortunately titled club Favela Chic can be found) won’t recognize. Höller favors what he has referred to in the past as “influential environments,” though few visitors to The Double Club will be pushed toward anything so troublesome as doubt or disorientation. At least as interesting as The Double Club’s replication of the DR Congo is the scrambled construction of its Western half. Where exactly is this meant to be? And when?
In “Politics of Installation,” a recent essay printed in issue two of e-flux journal, Boris Groys criticizes the popular view that installation art “democratizes” an artist’s practice, challenging the supposition that it acts in the name of a certain community. The large-scale installation is far from democratic, Groys continues, because “the visitor leaves the public territory of democratic legitimacy and enters the space of sovereign, authoritarian” control. The visitor is “on foreign ground, in exile.” The Double Club may profess to act in the name of the DR Congo at least insofar as much-needed charitable donations are concerned but in practice it’s more concerned with enforcing the divide between social models that are neither so specific nor so separate as it hopes. Using Groys’s terms, it’s difficult to forget that it is Höller and Prada who maintain sovereign control over the venture, which doesn’t care to stray too close to the troubled state that it borrows credibility from. Far from being on foreign ground, or feeling productively lost, the visitor to The Double Club feels all too comfortable.
Elad Lassry: Three Films
Whitney Museum of American Art
January 22-April 19, 2009
Elad Lassry’s first museum exhibition in New York brought three of the Los Angeles-based artist’s 16mm color films together in a compelling triptych. Organized by Gary Carrion-murayai, senior curatorial assistant at the Whitney, the films were presented as loops, with each projector positioned atop a pedestal in a simple blackbox setting. The low whir and modest scale of teh projections made for an immediately sculptural presence.
Derived from an array of textbooks, magazines, and photography books, Lassry’s films originate in still images, often taken contradictory contexts, and their translation into moving images. Untitled (Agon) (2008), for example, appropriated visual cues from a 1958 manual called The Art of Making Dances, published by choreographer Doris Humphrey. A pioneer of modern dance — who, like Martha Graham and Louise Brooks, got her start in the popular traveling shows of the 1920s Denishawn Dance Company — Humphrey’s instructional photodiagrams proposed a formula for breaking down traditional dance movements and forms with the use of still photographs. By transposing selected images from the manual with a pas de deux passage from George Balanchine’s neoclassic ballet Agon (1957), Lassry imagined a collaborative moment that never existed, displacing the austere lyricism of Balanchine’s balletic forms with how-to imagery, and vice versa.
In each of his pieces, Lassry explored the relationship between photography and film, theatricalizing their overlap through the formal tropes of filmmaking. Borrowing from structuralist film tactics of the 1960s — fixed camera positions, predetermined sequencing, and simplified action — Lassry articulated the limitations of the film camera’s frame within a lexicon of staged gestures and mannerisms taken from theater, advertising, fashion photography, and, in the case of Untitled (Agon), dance.
Employing professional dancers Megan LeCrone and Ask la Cour, Lassry recreated the last minute of Balanchine’s seminal work in a New York City Ballet rehearsal space, beginning each shot from a predetermined vantage point and posture borrowed from the Humphrey book. As the dancers broke their poses and crossed before the camera, repeatedly filling the frame with fragments of studied movement, the man and woman ceased to be merely performers embodying a duet and became the subjects of an elaborate study in contrasts. The gridlike outline of the barre, Balanchine’s trademark black and white costuming, and the immediate legibility of the neutral dance studio were offset by the dancers’ awkward bearing just prior to repeating the routine.
Zebra and Woman (2007) similarly engaged a conventional scenic device, in the form of a black backdrop that effectively erased depth of field and accentuated gesture and motion — a tactic used to emphasize the act of viewing that extends back to early photographic motion studies and time-lapse films of plant and insect behavior, but also to W.K.L. Dickson’s first experiments in Edison’s Black Maria laboratory and anthropological and ethnographic films. That this neutral backdrop would also become a standard mis-en-scène for film and photo shoots — from Warhol’s screen tests to countless music videos and fashion spreads — was evoked in Lassry’s dual portrait. Comprised of a slow left-to-right panning shot, the film started with the twitch of a zebra’s tail, proceeded along the black and white sheen of the animal’s flank, past its muzzle and skittish glance, to end on the smiling profile of an attractive blond woman. An exercise in the most basic principle of cinematic montage — the bringing together of contrasting or seemingly out-of-sequence images as an associative prompt to the viewer — Lassry’s use of the steady pan distorted our perception of the unexpected woman while also fluently referencing what film historian Tom Gunning has termed “the aesthetics of astonishment,” which characterized so many spectators’ incredulous response to early moving pictures.
In the most involved scenario of the trio, Untitled (2008), the artist departed from a trompe l’oeil photograph found in a 1971 science textbook, intended to show how visual perception works. Lassry replicated the floor diagram of the houselike structure — painted in a Josef Albers-esque combination of light blue and yellow — and engaged three young women and a man to interact with the optical illusion. Negotiating their positions in order to maintain the illustrative effect, the models held poses and repeated gestures for the camera in scenes that resembled a commercial audition.
Employing again what appeared to be industry professionals, Lassry accumulated gestures and highly staged interactions in durations that disrupted their potential use-value as commercial images: a windowpane framed a man and woman mouthing melodramatic dialogue; a woman struggled to hold her pose in the illusion’s doorway, falling in and out of character; while another model flashed her perfect smile over and over. Perhaps the least amenable to the triptych format, this piece nonetheless intimated the possibility of a more overt, sustained engagement with theater in future projects.
In the Middle of the Middle
November 19, 2008-March 21, 2009
Catherine David’s reputation preceded her. No one expected the curator responsible for the political edition of Documenta or the exhaustively discussed, but never presented outside of Europe, Contemporary Arab Representations project, to arrive in Beirut with an exhibition of artworks from the region that were sensual and seductive as opposed to cold and critical.
With its enigmatic title, so much like a riddle, ‘In the Middle of the Middle’ was the first show curated by David to be conceived for and exhibited in an art space in the region. In the past she’d gathered works, positions, authors — she chooses her nouns carefully — and shown them elsewhere, provoking endless debates on issues of geographic representation and art’s ability to travel or translate. This time around she shared her research with a public that lives in, or at least closer to, the sites of her fieldwork.
The truth is that actual traffic in and discourse about art between cities of the Arab world is less common than it should be. This is due to the cost of travel, the time required for obtaining visas, the hassle of crossing borders, the insularity of urban art scenes, and the abject failure of local publications to reach beyond the immediate milieus of their readers. ‘In the Middle of the Middle’ was, as a result, full of surprises, even revelations. And it begged the question: What, really, do Beirutis know about artists who live and work in Cairo, Damascus, Ramallah, or Jerusalem’s Shofat refugee camp?
Whether or not the show was tailored to accommodate the fact that the art space in question, Galerie Sfeir-Semler, is a commercial enterprise — with imperatives to sell rather than simply display work — mattered little in the end. With ‘In the Middle of the Middle,’ David pulled off an exhibition that thwarted expectations, having keenly internalized the artistic strategy that characterizes the artists she champions most: the refusal to use artistic practices to offer straightforward information, reduce the history of violent conflicts to digestible bits, or package geopolitical contexts as easily legible. There was some debate around the opening of the exhibition as to whether the gallery, or the curator, should have been kinder to the audience by offering more explanatory wall texts.
This in and of itself was arguably the intellectual undercurrent of the show, challenging viewers to consider what they want from art and how they respond to material they don’t already know. It was an exhibition that elicited gut reactions rather than intellectual justifications.
Was it a perfect show? No, and the spatial layout was the most palpable weakness. ‘In the Middle of the Middle’ featured the work of twelve artists working in various media, and the hugeness of Galerie Sfeir-Semler nearly swallowed some of the pieces whole. The Beirut-based painter Ayman Baalbaki, coming off a much better and more substantial solo exhibition at the Agial Art Gallery, was probably the most ill-served by the space. The strength of his piece Ya Abati, from 2008 — of kafiyyeh-clad fedayeen on a vegetable seller’s cart, transformed into a Byzantine-style triptych covered in gold and embellished in lights arranged like the Big Dipper — was lost on the wall. Two gorgeous series of works on paper by the Cairo-based Anna Boghiguian were unduly separated and somewhat unmoored. Those works — one honoring the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy, who is rivaled by none in his sad, sensual verses capturing the decline and decay of Alexandria, the city of his birth; the other a string of self-portraits depicting an enormous, spectral woman looming over, entering, and then defecating on Cairo’s City of the Dead — demanded intimate engagements. They were at once tender and delicate and explosive and uproarious. They deserved a shrine more than an expanse of bland white wall.
Better suited to the venue was Wafa Hourani’s madly obsessive and monumental replica of the Qalandia refugee camp, fast-forwarded to 2048 and the centenary commemoration of the creation of the Israeli state. Essentially an amplified diorama, replete with gold fishbowl and a series of television antennae shaped into fey dancing wire sculptures, the piece held its own by molding an entire world, insanely detailed and craftily jerry-rigged. Among the totally tactile and formally seductive works were Simon Kabboush’s oil paintings of Damascene teenagers and Hani Rashid’s wall-size grid paintings on cardboard; both their works were slightly larger than, but similar in style to, old-school album covers and depicted bursts of street-savvy pop culture that simultaneously obscured and revealed a vocabulary of social, economic, and political anxiety. Akram Zaatari’s subtly humorous video, L’Enlèvement, part of his ongoing Hashem El Madani Project and an intriguing consideration of the image, felt slightly out of place here, as did Walid Sadek’s beguiling Death and the Sun (What my father sees, most probably), with two trumpet mouthpieces jammed into a wall like eyes in a vacant stare.
The biggest, but least surprising, disappointment was Waël Noureddine’s A film far beyond a god, a title that would have been so much better without that last indefinite article. When an earlier film of Noureddine’s, Ça Sera Beau (from Beyrouth with Love), started making the rounds in Beirut in 2005, it was thrilling in no small part because some of the city’s many film festivals were enthralled with it but terrified to screen it. Shot on 16 millimeter, it was also a lush, concise, and accomplished work. Everything Noureddine has produced since, however, has wallowed in self-indulgent nihilism. A film far beyond a god, with its tedious rock-star badness, its evocation of “Che Guevara and Co.,” its convoluted socioreligious critique, and its scenes of the artist with camera and gun, was unfortunately more of the same.
Khosrow Hassanzadeh: Ready to Order
November 11–December 11, 2008
Khosrow Hassanzadeh is probably best known for his screenprints of traditional kushti wrestlers, for which he reworks large pieces of thick brown kraft paper, applying bright acrylics with wide brushes. In his recent exhibition at Dubai’s B21 gallery, ‘ready to order,’ Hassanzadeh introduced a new, more sculptural body of work, modeled after the gaudy vernacular of shop windows in downtown Tehran.
Beautifully constructed boxes dotted the exhibition, acting as shrine-portraits of family, friends, and iconic figures such as pop singers Javad and Googoosh. The portraits were composed of layered cardboard cutouts surrounded by props, including wooden clubs used by wrestlers for exercise, curtains, flashing lights, beads, wigs, plastic flowers, and a number of other artifacts collected from local bazaars. These items, viewers were led to presume, were odes to the portraits’ subjects, reminiscent of the shrines that dot Iran’s many postrevolutionary cemeteries. The result was a series, titled Ready to Order, of visually overwhelming vitrines, rich in information, that engaged viewers in intricate, life-size narratives.
Ready to Order’s concerns bore much in common with previous works by the artist, particularly his Terrorist series, in which he portrayed his mother, sisters, and assorted others with biographical memorabilia referencing their personal and religious beliefs. In that work, ordinary Muslims were presented as potential victims of Western media scrutiny and racial profiling. This recent work may not have aimed to make the same sort of heavy-handed social or political statement as its precursor, but it maintained Hassanzadeh’s concern for “the popular people of Iran,” as stated in the exhibition catalogue.
Still, questions remained about the work’s intentions. Was the brashness of the window displays a simple celebration of kitsch? Or was this reappropriation metaphorically layered in its bid to represent its subjects and their cultures from a closer proximity? “I love the richness of my culture and traditions,” wrote Hassanzadeh, “and I embrace the often surprising and humorous way in which they penetrate and express themselves in contemporary society.”
Alongside the storefront portraits was a series of vibrant large-scale paintings on canvas entitled Ya Ali Madadi — the title taken from a Sufi prayer traditionally uttered during nightlong dhikrs, when the pious would call for the support of Ali, the first imam of the Shia faith. The prayer is popular among Pahlavans and other athletes, whose quest for moral and physical strength incorporated Sufi spirituality and meditative techniques.
These paintings, a continuation of previous works on brown paper that used the same bank of images, were comprised of monochromatic grainy screenprints applied over highly colored backgrounds, which the artist then overlaid with Ta’aliq-style script of Ali’s name, as well as extracts of religious duas including Tawwakaltu ‘Ala Allah (“I trust in God”). Many of these utterances have taken on superstitious significance and are used as colloquialisms; they can be found painted or applied as stickers on the backs of cars and trucks in just about any country with a Muslim population.
Despite these references, the paintings, writ large like the vitrines, didn’t reference popular culture with the same directness as the Ready to Order boxes. The “pop” here was channeled through the language and history of painting: the pieces evoked Warhol’s single-color silkscreen formula. Hassanzadeh’s approach was also somehow strangely reminiscent of Pierre Bonnard’s richly textured candy hues. Bonnard would rarely paint from life, preferring instead to photograph or draw his subject from observation and then color in the drawings at a later stage, a technique we see echoed in Hassanzadeh’s black screenprints later glazed in color.
While both the Ready to Order and the Ya Ali Madadi series expressed Hassanzadeh’s mastery of composition and brimming bag of artistic tricks, the link between the two series was more tenuous. The layout of the exhibit, in B21’s admittedly small space, accentuated the lack of synergy between the two, with the vitrines on one side of the gallery, the paintings on the other. This organizational decision, along with that all-too-common tendency of many commercial galleries to want to cram as much work as possible into a single space, detracted from an otherwise engaging experience and the excitement of exploring the new sculptural direction taken by one of the more interesting painters working out of Iran today.
PhotoCairo 4: The Long Shortcut
December 17, 2008–January 12, 2009
When are informal modes of operation and self-styled systems of production more arduous and exhausting than the official channels they seek to circumvent? When does direct and efficient action start to seem like running in circles? When do shortcuts become longer and more taxing journeys? These were some of the questions at play during Photocairo4, subtitled ‘the long shortcut.’
Cairo’s first arts festival devoted exclusively to photography, video, and film has been around since 2002, and its roots run even deeper, to the shortlived but legendary downtown Nitaq Festival. As in past years, the fourth edition coincided with the Cairo Biennale, and to see them side by side was an exercise in understanding how the Egyptian capital’s independent art scene has trounced its bigger, betterfunded, government-sponsored rival. But while a certain competitive streak was evident, PhotoCairo4 was also an occasion for reflection and critical reassessment.
Curated by Edit Molnar and Aleya Hamza, the general director and in-house curator, respectively, of the Contemporary Image Collective (CIC), which organized this year’s festival, ‘The Long Shortcut’ featured the work of twenty-two artists from thirteen countries, with sixteen curators, scholars, graphic designers, and editors participating in the festival’s parallel program of events. Half of the projects on view were specifically commissioned for the festival.
The exhibition portion of PhotoCairo4 was threaded through four locations in downtown Cairo, with a fifth hosting two symposia like bookends for the event. In many cases, the exhibition required viewers to physically navigate the same terrain that the artists were considering conceptually and aesthetically in their work. The curatorial gestures of Hamza and Molnar played with resonance, whereby disparate works reverberated common themes and strategies — the shifting iconography of Egyptian nationalism; the decentralization of Cairo and the prospects of regeneration in the downtown district; censorship; cinema; and the poetics of daily life in times of political crisis. In some respects, the ambitions of PhotoCairo4, and the issues it set out to tackle, were more impressive than the works produced. Many of the new projects showed promise, but they also betrayed weaknesses, particularly with regard to form and a tendency to pound certain themes and formats, such as the archive, that have already been beaten to death.
Hala Elkoussy’s room-size installation of some three hundred images and objects, for example, entitled On red nails, palm trees and other icons, offered a sentient, seductive take on the archive. The artist collected old photographs and personal effects and placed them in a gorgeous but intentionally dilapidated setting, replete with retro furniture, plush curtains, and crystal lighting fixtures. The idea was to create a record of the things that downtown denizens cherish — images of young soldiers, film stars, sexy singers, postcards, loved ones, children’s playing cards — but by merely presenting rather deeply exploring the material, the piece risked fetishizing the vintage (to borrow a phrase that two of Elkoussy’s fellow Cairene artists, Hassan Khan and Sherif El-Azma, are fond of using). Elkoussy’s cache of stuff had potential, but her treatment of it — or her pathway through it to a more meaningful point of her own — needed further development.
Similarly, Maha Maamoun’s single-channel video, Domestic Tourism II, considered the ways in which the Pyramids have been portrayed over decades in Egyptian cinema, and how, as tourist icons, they have shifted from emblems of a civilization’s achievements to ominous signs of foreboding, a backdrop to crimes, tragedies, and disaster scenarios. Again, fabulous material, but by simply stringing together excerpts from existing films, the artist’s intervention remained shallow (a cozy sofa in front of the screen didn’t make the extreme length of the work any more palatable).
Further along were single-channel videos by Raed Yassin and Mohamed Allam and a video installation by Ala’ Younis (with two great older pieces by Babak Afrassiabi and Hassan Khan). Like Maamoun’s work, Yassin’s twelve-minute loop, The New Film, presented a succession of film scenes. But Yassin’s rhythm was swifter, his editing eye sharper, and his incisions into the body of Egyptian cinema more precise. He raked through some five hundred films and came up with a pattern of visual and verbal tics — the ubiquitous image of President Hosni Mubarak in crime capers that inevitably pause in Cairo police stations; the common vocabulary of insults traded between male characters; the expressions of power, aggression, and fear that have shaped and reshaped a nation’s psyche through its cinematic output.
Equally self-contained, Allam’s seven-minute video, A Stream of Holy Words, featured a screen divided horizontally. On top was the text of a jumbled argument, flashing like stylized supertitles in English and Arabic. On the bottom was a young man’s face, cropped beneath the nose, voicing the altercation that appears typed out above. As if the Egyptian body politic were a madman muttering to himself, the bifurcated face ranted about the weight of history, the fading relevance of heritage, and the role of religion, all while proposing and rejecting, articulating and confusing, various positions on the margins of mainstream society.
Ala’ Younis’s installation Nefertiti delved into the artist’s discovery in a Cairo marketplace of hundreds of locally produced Nefertiti sewing machines, all discarded in a kind of industrial graveyard. The piece consisted of five of the machines, each displayed like a precious object on a white pedestal, alongside a video that narrated the history of the contraption and personal stories of those who used it, fixed it, and eventually rejected it. The Nefertiti, developed after the 1952 revolution as part of an effort to nationalize Egyptian industries, was groovy, curvaceous, and intended to empower women — but the machine only reinforced the notion that women were confined to the domestic sphere and, moreover, suffered serious design flaws and mechanical failures. The specificity of the subject, the skill with which Younis kept nostalgia and critique in check, and the artfulness with which she used a random household product to synthesize ideas about pride, loyalty, and disappointment (along with a predilection for repair and reassembly that seemed entirely characteristic of contemporary life in the Egyptian capital) made Nefertiti one of the highlights of PhotoCairo4.
El Sawy Cultural Center
December 5, 2008
Sudden darkness, and then the vocal clash of three live muezzins calling to prayer. So began Stefan Kaegi’s latest production, Radio Muezzin — quite literally mimicking the sound of Cairo at dawn. Like so much documentary ethnography, this opening will claim to transport us somewhere else.
The three muezzins then begin, somewhat tediously, to introduce themselves. Two are employees of the Ministry of Religious Endowment, and one is an informal muezzin. They take us on a tour of where they live and work, peppering their talk with details about their relationships to their calling, augmented by a backdrop of demonstrative video sequences that display their homes, their neighborhoods, and, most importantly, their mosques.
At first I am surprised and confused. The performative presence of the non-actors seems to have been left totally up to them. Soon enough, though, my surprise wears off as I realize that perhaps Kaegi has never really been interested in his subjects, but only in their ability to act as ciphers, to demonstrate their affiliation to a culture and to act as guides into that space. In that case, such “unworked non-acting” must suit his intentions, authenticating the experience and providing the audience with emblems of the “real” — but what that means in terms of actual performance is that the protagonists invariably revert to the default gestures of official-speak: didactic, monotonous, and uncomfortably formal.
The impact of this approach upon the formal structure of Radio Muezzin is entirely negative as the pace quickly drops into a litany of monologues. The muezzins recount their biographies, expound on how they began their careers, and pontificate on their choices of beard — snippets of information that, besides lacking any fascination for us locals, are also quite clumsy and obvious in their desire to appear to shed light on practicing moslems. Notable was an almost infantile interest in signifiers of otherness — beards, uniforms, interiors of mosques, here gaining a new currency as they become transformed by the context of stage and audience. Kaegi’s refusal to stylistically and aesthetically register that transformation, however — to work with his acting subjects on the level of presence, on how they would inhabit that stage — meant that the material remained merely ethnographic and thus fetishized.
Things get even worse as the muezzins interrupt their monologues to pedagogically demonstrate how children memorize the Qur’an, how to perform ritual ablutions, and, ultimately, the Islamic act of worship itself. The critical moment is when the muezzins reenact their prayers onstage. An act transformed from living ritual to merchandise derives its meaning from the expectations of the audience rather than the emotional investment of the participants. Thus we, the audience, find ourselves in the space of voyeurism, colonial history, and its contemporary descendant: tourism. The parallel to the tourist experience, where a tour group is treated to tribal dances, is inescapable. The performance is complicit in the production of certain types of pleasure; it feeds a gaze that is hungry for nostalgic, made-up images of primitivism, sensuality, and violence.
Radio Muezzin grew mildly interesting when it introduced the issue of the ministry’s plan to centralize the call to prayer through a broadcast operated by the state. But although it seemed at one point that this might have been the central axis of the show, the way the performance meandered through its material made it hard to discern what was actually central; everything tended to become incidental detail. Near the end, a fourth muezzin, named Mohamed Aly — one of the thirty chosen by the ministry to perform the future broadcasted calls to prayer — is introduced. He is clearly more affluent than his colleagues and of a different class background. Kaegi may have been striving to make a point about the social transformations Egypt is undergoing, but it’s a point superficially made, reduced to a metaphorical duel between Aly and Abd El Moaty (the informal muezzin) by juxtaposing their respective biographies one an immigrant worker in Saudi Arabia, the other a highly respected international Qur’an reciter—a contrast so simplistically drawn as to be reminiscent of the high melodrama of commercial Egyptian cinema of the 1940s.
Kaegi, member of the celebrated Berlin-based troupe Rimini Protokoll, has carved a niche for himself within the world of contemporary performance-based arts by focusing on a documentary theater, anthropological in tenor that takes its subjects — usually members of marginalized communities — and proposes to put them center stage. The implicit claim is that in doing so, he humanizes unknown Bulgarian truck drivers, Indian phone operators, and Egyptian muezzins, providing them with a platform while allowing the audience to move beyond its comfort zone. It seems, however, to be more a service for the guilt-ridden colonial consciousness, a form of (in a term coined by a smart and secretly angry friend) “poornography.” The privileged audience gets a taste of its unknowable nemesis, demystifying the enigma while paradoxically enhancing its mystique — a night out with a shot of feel-good humanism.
Never before had I seen an audience so neatly divided — almost all the Egyptians present (of different generations, backgrounds, and artistic persuasions) were in a silent state of shell-shocked anger, either clapping perfunctorily or refusing to clap altogether, while the sizeable foreign contingent enthusiastically applauded.
After years of engaged discussions, one knows only too well that it’s pieces like Radio Muezzin that will receive the support of institutions; that otherwise critical voices will laud what they’ll call a courageous exploration; that different criteria are applied when art travels; and that formally weak, conceptually poor, badly performed pieces will be triumphantly touted as examples of successful engagement with the Other.
Museum of Islamic Art
Open to the public December 1, 2008
Amid the murmurs of appreciation and click of well-heeled shoes at the private opening of Qatar’s new museum of Islamic art, came the occasional soft thud of a forehead against a glass cabinet. Like most other materials used in the museum’s interior galleries — designed by renowned French museocologist Jean-Michel Wilmotte — the five thousand square meters of glass was of a particular, reassuringly expensive, quality, uniquely non-reflective and polished to a high degree of transparency.
Viewed from Doha’s Corniche, I. M. Pei’s “last building” — the ninety-one-year-old architect was brought out of retirement to design the museum — is almost modest in scale, though no less majestic for that. Built on its own manmade island, the building is accessed down an avenue of palms or by dhow across the harbor. In preparation for the project, Pei reportedly embarked on a six-month period of study across the Middle East and beyond, and his design nods as much to Cairo’s ninth-century Ibn Tulun Mosque as it does to his own Louvre extension. A serene monument amid the clamor of Gulf capitals, it is perhaps the most architecturally significant public building in the area to date.
Inside, galleries ring off a fifty-meter-high central atrium topped by a faceted stainless steel dome; they are home to the significant collection of Islamic objects built up largely by Sheikh Saud Al Thani, who in the early 2000s made himself known as the biggest art collector in the world. Islamic art experts have always maintained that Sheikh Saud had an especially good eye. His spectacular fall from grace in 2005 amid speculation of financial irregularities left him under house arrest and caused a ruckus in Islamic and other art markets. (At the opening, there appeared to be a rapprochement of sorts, and Sheikh Saud is now rumored to be taking an advisory role.)
In addition to a smattering of heads of state, the opening last November 22 was attended by a coterie of dealers, collectors, museum directors, and auction house specialists, some excitedly taking snapshots of coveted objects. (Incidentally, Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood, White Cube gallerist Jay Jopling, and artists Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons were also sipping juice at the opening night bash.)
On the museum’s first floor, the galleries were organized according to artistic tradition (calligraphy, the figure, and so on), while the floor above was chronological. A central first-floor gallery provided an overview of sorts and included a collection of prized objects dating from the ninth century to the Ottoman empire of the eighteenth, displayed against the museum’s “Wilmotte gray” walls, or in glass cabinets dramatically lit. An exquisite ninth-century earthenware bowl from Iraq, probably from Basra, included a perfectly poised calligraphic inscription in cobalt blue; a Leila and Majnoon embroidery had silver-wrapped silk thread on silk velvet from 1570s Iran; a page from a tenth-century North African Qur’an, in gold ink on deep blue parchment, was surprisingly undimmed by time.
The galleries were deeply reverent, and the objects — including small jewels such as the seventeenth-century jade amulet Shah Jahan wore to commemorate his wife Mumtaz — were monumentalized by the dark rooms and strategic lighting. An interiors specialist listed the building materials as though reading the specials of the day in a five-star restaurant: metalized and stained Louro Faya Brazilian lacewood; dark grey Argentinian porphyry stone, polished for the floors and striated and bush-hammered for sections of the walls.
Audio guides offered some description, but the galleries themselves were otherwise almost devoid of information, and objects were displayed in a highly contemporary fashion, with minimal labels. A collection of astrolabes, for example, was stunningly exhibited along glass shelves, as though it were an installation, aestheticizing the ancient astronomical brass instruments.
For the informed viewer, the exhibits may have boasted their own particular logic. But in general, objects were imbued with power and meaning more through the aesthetics of display than for their place in history, which set up an interesting relationship between ancient and contemporary art in the region. And while that didn’t seem to be the MIA’s goal, per se, a potential dialogue does lie in Qatar’s future network of museums and an impressive state collection that takes in Richter, Bacon, and Hirst as well as Moshiri and Hefuna. In addition to the MIA, Qatar is in the midst of planning for a National Museum designed by Jean Nouvel, a Museum of Modern Arab Art, and a Heritage Library to house its collections.
With the opening of the MIA, Qatar may have beaten its neighboring Gulf States in the museum–building race underway — although in the current economic climate, it’s perhaps only Abu Dhabi that is now a truly active competitor. (Rumors abound that even its clutch of arts-institutions-to-be, including Guggenheim and Louvre outposts, a Zaha Hadid–designed Performing Arts Center, and a Maritime Museum by Jean Nouvel, are on “go slow,” particularly the latter two.) Perhaps the MIA is the last pre-credit-crunch jewel box.
All of these activities beg an obvious question: why are the Gulf States so keen to build grand monuments to the arts in the first place? In addition to the obvious Bilbao-inspired brand-building potential of a museum, and cities’ associated desires to situate themselves “on the global cultural map,” there does appear to be a genuine desire in some corners to provide educational opportunities for local young people; the development of museums seems to go hand-in-hand with the accompanying opening of universities in the region, from Virginia Commonwealth University and Carnegie Mellon in Doha, to NYU and the Sorbonne in Abu Dhabi.
And of course there is the possibility of “building bridges” — a hackneyed concept tacked on to nearly every cultural initiative in the Gulf. Well, why not build bridges through art? At one point in the MIA’s opening tour, museum director Dr. Oliver Watson went out of his way to point out a set of wooden doors from Cairo with ivory inlays: one featuring Coptic crosses, another, Islamic inscriptions. Just as the aesthetics of a gallery’s design have the potential to connect artifacts with contemporary works, such moments in the tour provided food for thought and the vague yet fascinating possibility of “reclaiming” Islamic history and, through it, the Islamic present.
By Sahar Mandour
Dar El Adab, 2008
To Arabs of the vaguely openminded persuasion, Beirut may hold the greatest promise for an alternative urban environment. Alternative, that is, to the arabic-speaking world epitomized by Cairo. It seems the closest thing to a pluralistic and au courant arab city. Like Istanbul, it benefits from eastern and western tides of the mediterranean. Like Paris, its small and occasionally snobbish, simultaneously multifarious and xenophobic. But it resembles Cairo in one sad respect: It operates on the assumption that there is nowhere else.
So, too, does the book Hobb Beiruti (Beiruti Love) by Sahar Mandour, a non-novel about love lost that seems to embody Beirut’s I-am-the-world-and-the-world-is-me inclinations more often than it questions or criticizes them. With the exception of a similarly hard-to-classify book — I Will Paint a Star on Vienna’s forehead, an even slimmer volume published two years ago — Mandour has little experience with the Arab publishing world (which no doubt contributed to the freshness and positive reception of I Will Paint a Star). She comes from a journalistic, rather than a tormented-artist, background — always a good sign. Yet this new little Dar Al Adab number is perhaps more than anything an example of how a prose poetry aesthetic that flared up in Egypt and Lebanon during the 1990s, only to die out almost as soon as people started noticing it, has been finding its way into vaguely narrative form.
Told mostly from the viewpoint of the male partner, this story of a Love-Affair-turned-abortive-Matrimonial-Project-turned-Open-Relationship displays all the trademarks of the so called Nineties Generation: vernacular irreverence, focus on the body, attention to quotidian physical detail. It does away with grand narratives, grand personalities, and grand claims of any kind; draws on Western as well as Arab pop culture; and cites nothing more authoritative than Wikipedia in its amazingly eclectic list of references.
Hobb Beiruti is thus typical of an existing — not to say exhausted — trend. What could be more routine in contemporary Arabic literature than mixing a standard idiom with the spoken dialect of the setting? What could be more humdrum than the boyfriend running away when the girlfriend suggests they get married? Nor does Mandour give these motifs a particularly interesting twist. Even the most determined argument with form requires more formal rigor than she provides. And it takes more than a desultory tone or an explicit scene divested of eroticism to say something truthful about ennui or desire.
It is through sheer force of identity with the city, rather, that Hobb Beiruti stands out. The book has been criticized for actually saying little about Beirut; only those intimately familiar with the Beirut-specific references that it makes will fully appreciate its implications, goes the argument. Yet it is precisely this failure to make provisions for the non-Beiruti that gives the book its authentically Beiruti flavor. In making the outrageous assumption that, as soon as the Rawda Café is mentioned, the reader will instantly see a downscale open-air garden with nargiles and coffee urns covered with saucers on the tables, where the immediate prospect of the rocky beach gives onto the distant hills above the water, Mandour is being true to Beirut.
She is being true, specifically, to the notion that there is nowhere else. And there is a lot more in her text to corroborate the idea that the love she expounds on really is Beiruti Love. The combination of earnestness and informality; the concerted disorder of the text; the tendency of people to appear and disappear before you’ve had a good look at them, and the lightness with which they carry their war scars; the intensity of emotions expressed as opposed to emotions actually experienced; the inadvertently jarring juxtaposition of elements; the tendency to transform a simple function or exchange into a performance and the abiding insincerity that goes with that tendency: all reflect the originality, the madness, and the magic of Beirut. It comes almost as a surprise when, by the end of the book, you suddenly realize that nothing so extraordinary has occurred. But then again, perhaps Beirut is not as magical as it seems.
A Life Full of Holes
By Driss Ben Hamed Charhadi
Recorded and translated by Paul Bowles
It is 1961 in Tangier, and “a singularly quiet and ungregarious North African Moslem” decides to go to the cinema. The bill includes an Egyptian historical film depicting the destruction of Cairo. Our protagonist emerges from the theater puzzled and on the way home stops in to see an acquaintance, the American novelist Paul Bowles. He wants to ask the writer whether it’s possible for such a great city to be destroyed without anybody hearing about it on the radio.
Bowles explains that the film is a fiction, a story. The man frowns; it is forbidden to lie. Bowles says, what about “The One-Thousand-and-One Nights;” we don’t call that lying. “That happened long ago, when the world was different,” he replies, shaking his head. “And books, like the books you write,” continues the man, who is completely illiterate, “they are all lies too?” Bowles insists: his books are stories, like the men from the countryside tell in the marketplace. “But then anybody would have the right to make a book,” the man says, half to himself.
Driss Ben Hamed Charhadi (as the man, Larbi Layachi, will be known to the world) telephones Bowles a few days later. “I’ve been thinking. I want to make a book, with the help of Allah. You could put it into your language and give it to the book factory in your country. Would that be allowed?” Everything is allowed, says Bowles, who is skeptical. Warning Charhadi that books are a lot of work, and reserving the right to reject the project, Bowles agrees to try a session with a tape recorder.
“After a long time he began to speak,” relates Bowles, in his indispensable introduction to A Life Full of Holes. “Immediately I knew that whatever the story might turn out to be, his manner of telling it left nothing to be desired. It was as if he had memorized the entire text and rehearsed the speaking of it for weeks… Nothing needed to be added, deleted or altered.” Over a series of sessions, and after recording two short stories, Charhadi began his great work.
Bildungsroman is too hopeful a word to describe A Life Full of Holes, which Bowles transcribed and translated from Maghrebi Arabic and promptly sold to Grove. The book recounts less a construction of identity than a systematic destruction of innocence, and the travails of its solitary narrator, Ahmed, leave Voltaire’s Candide looking like a Disney tale.
Ahmed begins life as a rather thickheaded child; at the age of eight, he spends months lost in Tétouan, because he can’t tell anyone his mother lives in Tangier. Once home, he’s unhappy, leaves, and spends days searching for a boarding school he’d loved briefly attending — but he never asks anyone for directions. He finally gives up on school and happiness and goes to work.
Working, not working, working: as a shepherd for a rich man, a money changer and a delivery boy, a street vendor, assistant to a baker, and a carpenter. Some better jobs, some worse, but nothing really good. Empty pockets, empty stomach, beatings, cheatings, days barefoot in the cold, and nights sleeping rough are routine.
Crime serves him no better. Ahmed pulls off one botched robbery. When he scores three kilos of kif in the mountains, his buyer in Tangier turns out to be an informer for the French-administered justice system and their brutal Moroccan cops. He joins a clumsy jailbreak from the Malabata Prison and stupidly remains in Tangier, sitting around in cafés with only a hooded djellaba to disguise him. He’s quickly returned to prison for a spell; then follows a heartbreaking love affair, nixed by the girl’s parents because he’s too poor. He goes back to prison.
Ahmed finally discovers the El Dorado of a certain class of hard-luck Tanjaoui: a gay Frenchman hires him as a houseboy. Male homosexuality has never been especially taboo here when performed on Nazarenes (the charming local term for foreigners, who all presumably worship the man from Nazareth), and Ahmed tells François, “Every man has a body to do what he likes with.” Ahmed’s work, decently paid for once, is in the house and the kitchen; the work in the bedroom is taken over by streetwise Omar, who feeds François the tongue of a dead donkey mixed into his food. This piece of mind-control witchcraft works perfectly — François gives Omar all of his money to get married and buy a house, and the Frenchman moves from his villa into a filthy shack nearby with another hustler. Soon they’ve drunk up the remaining money and stop paying Ahmed his pittance. When Ahmed complains, the Frenchman fires him, and Ahmed goes to sit in a cafe.
Ahmed’s tone is deceptive in its acquiescence. He observes the conventions common to poor Muslims, accepting that all of life is the will of God, including poverty and injustice. “Even a life full of holes, a life full of nothing but waiting, is better than no life at all,” Charhadi comments to Bowles, as they discuss a Maghrebi saying. This quietly fatalistic voice retains narrative heat while never boiling over into drama; Charhadi’s phrases have a rhythmic economy, which Bowles — a composer and musician before he was a writer — carries elegantly into English.
But as the rhythm of the story hammers away, the reader begins to sense Ahmed’s critical intelligence forming as a function of survival. A deliberate constant anger inoculates him against any self-pity. He becomes careful in his judgments, unequivocal in their expression, and fearless in acting upon them. The system may be shitting all over him, but there are no flies on Ahmed.
With the book’s English publication, Charhadi began to understand how radical his apparently straightforward storytelling really was. Ahmed speaks in terms of resignation; Charhadi’s flatly honest act of creation unleashed a savage indictment of social and political injustice in Morocco for any reader who knew another world. As the French edition from Gallimard in 1965 approached, Charhadi’s concern mounted about “possible official reaction” from the system he exposed. God forbids us to lie, but sometimes men forbid us to tell the truth. Bowles thought it best to procure him a visa for the U.S., and he left with William S. Burroughs on the transatlantic liner Independence, never to return. Larbi Layachi died in California in the late 1980s. But Charhadi would live on.
Some people’s Orientalism-detectors start beeping when they learn of the highly visible role of the Nazarene Bowles in the publication of dozens of books and stories composed by five Moroccan storytellers, including Mohamed Choukri, Ahmed Yacoubi, and Bowles’ friend and sidekick, the still-prolific Mohamed Mrabet. Clearly Bowles’s literary reputation, his own writing, and the many decades he spent living as Tangier’s favorite adopted son, were enriched by these collaborations. His translations were generally perceived as faithful (except for a contentious dustup with Choukri), and the translator tried to ensure his authors a fiftyfifty split of such money and publicity as he could extract from publishers. Perhaps it’s not his fault that with each passing edition, his name as translator tends to expand, relative to the authors’ names, on book covers.
Indeed, Bowles’s name is writ large on the front cover of this new HarperCollins release of Holes, while the back promises readers “a fascinating inside look at an unfamiliar culture.” If Charhadi could somehow be brought home to Northern Morocco to see this release, it’s a fair bet he would be unmoved by the type sizes and more struck by how little the city’s poor backstreets have changed in a halfcentury. This story — by a man who believed it was forbidden to lie — still hits with the clear ring of truth.
Off the Wall: Political Posters of the Lebanese Civil War
By Zeina Maasri
IB Tauris, 2008
Zeina Maasri’s off the wall: political posters of the Lebanese Civil War is based on a collection of some seven hundred political posters that the author, a graphic designer and professor, culled from the American University of Beirut’s archives and then complemented with materials found in the media offices of various political parties, among the personal effects of former partisans, and amid the portfolio of artists, illustrators, and designers whom she interviewed over the course of her research.
In April 2008, Maasri shared the visual component of her project in a meticulously installed exhibition titled ‘Signs of Conflict,’ which was produced by Ashkal Alwan for the fourth edition of the Home Works Forum in Beirut. Eight months earlier, the artist Rabih Mroué had staged the hometown premiere of his performance piece How Nancy Wished That Everything Was an April Fool’s Joke, which narrated an episodic history of Lebanon’s civil war through the experiences of four fighters, using manipulated versions of Maasri’s posters projected on four screens to illustrate the tangle of loyalties and lies the characters tell onstage.
In the five years since she began her research, Maasri has been collecting, documenting, and digitally archiving her poster collection, and she brings to her work a designer’s touch for making the material accessible and interactive. Anyone can visit AUB’s website and spend time with the posters online. But it’s the arguments she makes and the conclusions she draws in print that set Off the Wall apart from other iterations of her project.
Maasri’s book has its share of weaknesses. Like several tomes published by I. B. Tauris, it is relatively expensive, extremely specific to Lebanon, and lacking the heavy editorial hand it could have used to finesse the language in certain sections. That said, Maasri’s central thesis is a valuable one, and her book is an important contribution to both art historical studies and political analyses of Lebanon, because Off the Wall combines the best of both disciplines. Maasri argues confidently and convincingly that Lebanon’s political posters do not constitute propaganda campaigns but rather form symbolic sites of hegemonic struggle. She reads the signs, symbols, texts, and images of the political posters that were produced during the civil war as evidence of how different communities and factions fought to define, articulate, and assert themselves on Lebanon’s social, cultural, and political landscape.
Off the Wall considers the political posters of Amal, Hizbullah, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), an assortment of independent Nasserite movements, the Lebanese outpost of the Ba’ath Party, the Communist Party, a conglomeration of other leftist groups, the Palestinian Liberation Organization in Lebanon, the Progressive Socialist Party, the Kataeb Party, and the Lebanese Forces. Maasri groups them into themes — leadership, commemoration, martyrdom, belonging — and explores the visual iconographies and textual strategies at play.
She examines several instances in which different posters wrestled to vest meaning from the same event. She uncovers a caché of SSNP posters in which partisans who had signed on for “martyrdom operations” took photographs of themselves and wrote down a few final words before blowing themselves up (the appearance of their posters on the streets of Beirut signified the sad, sordid execution of their missions). And she explores the role artists played in the war for visual dominance on the streets.
Because Maasri approaches political posters through visual culture and cultural studies, she grabs hold of an argument that art historians would likely dodge and political scientists would likely dismiss — namely, that artists are not apart from politics, that their work is not merely responsive but actively engaged, that the aesthetic object is not isolated but rather is implicated in conflict, and that artistic practices are not necessarily removed from the waging of wars. If the political posters of Lebanon’s civil war informed the construction and articulation of political identities and positions, then the artists who made them bear some responsibility for shaping that discourse. Artists, in this regard, were partisans rather than bystanders. Even if they did not fight themselves, they helped to mold the minds of the subjects who did.
The only really questionable part of all this is that when you burn through Maasri’s book, you might end up thinking that Lebanon’s secular leftist political parties won the war. They certainly made the best posters. But they are overrepresented in Off the Wall, as are posters made before 1982 that were more about Palestine than Lebanon per se. Maasri acknowledges at least one reason for this. Right-wing Christian parties fought out their images and identities primarily on television. But if they were battling it out in other media, then perhaps Maasri should have either broadened the scope of her book to include TV, dreadful as it may be, or reduced it to focus on just a piece of Lebanon’s political spectrum within a tighter temporal framework.
On the second page of Animal Shelter, a new biannual magazine based in Los Angeles, Paul Gellman asks his coeditor Hedi El Kholti what their little experiment is all about in the first place. After all, they had intended to produce a simple gay journal. They ended up with something altogether different, in the form of a quirky space that is part intellectual roaming ground, part DIY zine, 100 percent smart and irreverent. Taking the underground-press sex culture of the 1970s as its inspiration, Animal Shelter boasts contemporary art and photography (ranging from collages by L.A.-artist Alice Konitz to the personal photos of Paul Bowles), personal and critical essays, and even some poetry. In this debut issue, Abdellah Taïa contributes a melancholy story about visiting Jean Genet’s tomb in Larache with his cool older cousin (whom he never sees again). Paul Gellman recounts his relationships with “strays,” or straight men gone temporarily gay. There’s a story about an abandoned letter, and another about the end of a relationship. All this, plus discussions of Georges Bataille, William S. Burroughs, and more Genet (who manages to pop up in almost every piece, like the intelligent, gay-zine version of Nabokov in The Emigrants). The tone ends up being pleasantly surprising, pleasantly relevant. Not to say that it’s all so serious. Artist-curator Rebekah Rutkoff talks about art, photography, film, and Alicia Silverstone’s bad skin. There’s a poem called “Dinosaurs in My Vagina.” As Hedi says in their introductory chat, “We both love sincerity.” And Paul answers, “We both still need to find good psychiatrists.”
The current issue of Chimurenga, the journal of Pan-Africanish writing published out of South Africa, is split in two, each part titled Dr. Satan’s Echo Chamber. There’s a reason for the title, which would be impossible to explain here (because it involves diaspora and Deleuze and pages and pages of tiny words) but which speaks to the content of the issue — in which many diverse pieces appear almost as echoes. An article on South African jazz is followed by green, foggy, and very, very pulpy stills from a “sci-fi horror comedy soft-porn take” on postcolonialism, set in Cameroon in 2025. A Congolese photographer, Baudouin Mouanda, contributes fluorescently lit photos of dancing men in electrically bright suits. Eyal Weizman contributes an essay on the Israeli “architecture of occupation.” The echo chamber is huge, and its other half is equally extensive. Made up of mostly fiction, the other issue features an excellent story that assumes the shape of an email exchange. A widow wants to donate her late husband’s fortune to needy orphans, and a Samson Batsotso is just the man for the job. Soon everything gets so weird that it becomes difficult to tell who exactly is scamming whom. The stories then just keep coming, without much room to breathe in between. Young stick-fighters battle it out in the down-and-out flats of Cape Town. A young American meets and sits down with Farouq, a Morroccan; the bulk of the story is their slow conversation over Chimay and cigarettes. This last piece is a welcome break from all the other noise and text in the magazine. Two men, just sitting, listening to each other.
By Mohamed Choukri
In a 1998 interview, Paul Bowles complained about the famed Moroccan writer Mohamed Choukri’s accusations — in a German newspaper article entitled “Paul Bowles Is an Exploiter” and elsewhere — that he was “a CIA spy, a neocolonialist, a racist, a dangerous criminal who should be thrown out of Morocco, a robber who had stolen royalties from Moroccan writers, and a hater of the religion and the government, among other things.” These defamatory remarks had come at the tail end of a three-decade relationship, during which the American writer had translated Choukri’s work, attained for him a publisher and an advance for his first book — an unsparing memoir of the author’s hardscrabble adolescence in Tangier called Le Pain Nu (For Bread Alone) — and acted as his advocate and friend. He had also, according to Choukri, mythologized Tangier for the benefit of the Western reader and taken most of the money earned by the phenomenal success of Choukri’s memoir.
In Tangier collects Choukri’s accounts of three literary relationships — with Bowles, Tennessee Williams, and Jean Genet — in the cosmopolitan Moroccan capital in the 1960s and 70s. Williams he knew only briefly, and though he developed a real rapport with Genet, trading epistles that discussed Egyptian letters and Stendhal, it was Bowles, a longtime Tangier resident, who was his companion and occasional agonist through the decades. In these accounts, Choukri conveys the range of feeling, from exhilaration to despair, gratitude to jealousy, experienced by a perpetually sodden man who sought out the company of foreign writers but ultimately couldn’t join them. It was illegal in Morocco until the mid-90s to read his memoir of petty crime, drugs, sex, and blasphemy; he achieved international renown thanks to these other writers’ appreciation of his work. On the streets of Tangier, he recounts with bittersweet relish, he was known as “Monsieur Le Pain Nu.”
Farafina, the literary magazine based in Lagos, invited Moroccan writer Laila Lalami to guest-edit its latest issue. In her editorial note, Lalami, whose latest book is the novel Secret Son, remarks that hers is an endeavor to “reclaim North Africa for Africa,” to bridge the gap — at times imposed by others, at times suggested and perpetuated by Africans themselves — between the lands on either side of the Sahara. Lalami and her contributors are keen to point out the ways in which geographic and racial lines have been drawn to delineate southerners and northerners, blacks and Arabs: the African wing of the museum and the Islamic wing, the sounds of Fela and the sounds of the Casbah. If nothing else, the preponderance of Africans now “are united by the suffering and painful marginalization in the age of globalization,” Anouar Majid points out in an essay called “Remapping Africanness.”
But is that such a change? Does the knowledge that your poverty as a Nigerian can be traced to the same global forces as the poverty of Algerians qualify as a shared identity? The reading of Africa’s recent history and presentday politics presented by Lalami is at times tendentious, occasionally quixotic, but generally pointed and provocative. From a critique of “the mental and ideological distance that some discourses have managed to place between North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa,” to a note regretting the lackluster Nigerian performance in the Beijing Olympics, to an essay on Chinese investment in Africa and its political impact, this issue of Farafina pieces together ideas that concern and affect people from Cape Town to Tangier and all points in between.
Gelito Italian Ice Cream
Raouché, Al Shamas Building
Tel: 01 809 550
Opened April 1986 by Yahya Ibrahim
Précis: Mr. Ibrahim, an extraordinarily tall man from Nabatiyeh, once owned a small stand that sold “merry cream,” soft-serve, and slush ice. Achieving modest success in that venture, he expanded into the space that Gelito occupies today, overlooking the Mediterranean on Raouché’s bluff above the city. Mr. Ibrahim’s ice cream is made in Lebanon, but the dishes and furniture hail from Rome and the inspiration for the pasta-themed ice cream also clearly comes from Italy. Highlights include “Spaghetti Ice” — a mound of gelato strained like spaghetti, layered with a strawberry-flavored “tomato sauce,” and drizzled with coconut “Parmesa” — and the boat-like “Cup Lazania.” In the words of one regular customer, Mr. Ibrahim’s ice cream, which comes in fifty different flavors, “tastes like childhood.”
“It’s a little like watered-down milk,” she continued. “Or like ice cream when it melts off of a cheap cone and onto your hands.”
Gelito is part of a long-term project by Lana Daher on ice cream and the coast of Lebanon.
Every year, during the two weeks on either side of the spring equinox, Iranians around the world participate in a series of celebrations for Norooz, the Persian New Year. On the eve of the New Year, families congregate for a traditional meal centered around a dish of white fish and herbed rice called sabzi polo mahi. Children put on their newest outfits and look forward to receiving gifts from their elders. In some families, parents put on bad pop music, twist their wrists around in the air, and gesticulate with their eyebrows, as Iranians are prone to do.
Like most pre-Islamic Persian traditions, Norooz is rife with symbolic gestures and associated objects. Traditionally, a table is set in the home featuring seven items that all begin with the Perso Arabic letter س (“seen”), each with a particular significance: sabzeh (germinating sprouts) for rebirth, samanu (wheat-germ pudding) for affluence, senjed (dried oleaster fruit) for love, seer (garlic) for health, somagh (sumac) for sunrise, and serkeh (vinegar) for patience. Today, most haft-seens boast far more accoutrements than the now passé original seven. Little goldfish swim about, coins ensure prosperity, and, depending on the family’s disposition, a Qur’an, Avesta, Bible, Torah, or good old-fashioned Divan of Hafez watches over the table’s constituents.
On the last Wednesday before Norooz, known as chahr shambeh soori, celebrants jump over bonfires in order to lose their woes of the past year in the rejuvenating life force of fire — a reoccurring theme in Zoroastrian traditions. Thirteen days after the new year, the revelry concludes with a climactic event called seezdah be dar, in which Iranians have occasion to engage in two of their favorite pastimes: gathering in large numbers in parks and, once again, eating copious amounts of delicious allegorical foods.
In commemoration of the Persian New Year, which falls on March 20 of this year, Bidoun presents recipes for a classic Norooz dinner for you to prepare with loved ones. Noroozetan Pirooz!
SABZI POLLO WITH MAHI
FOR THE SABZI POLLO:
3 cups basmati rice
3 tablespoons salt
1/3 cup vegetable oil
3 cups finely chopped herbs from among the following:
Fresh parsley, stemmed and rinsed
Persian chives (Tareh), rinsed
Fresh cilantro, stemmed and rinsed
Fresh dill weed, stemmed and rinsed
Fresh fenugreek (Shanbelileh), stemmed and rinsed
3 cloves garlic
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ cup melted unsalted butter
FOR THE MAHI:
3 pounds white fish fillet
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground saffron
Vegetable oil for frying
Salt and pepper to taste
Lemon for garnish
FOR THE SABZI POLO:
Rinse the rice thoroughly in water. In a large bowl, combine the rice and salt and let it soak in water for 6 to 8 hours. Drain the water.
Bring a 6-quart pot, three-quarters full of water, to a boil over high heat. Add the rice. Reduce the heat to medium and boil gently, stirring occasionally, until most of the rice rises to the surface. Drain well and rinse with approximately 4 cups of warm water. Spread the vegetable oil on the bottom of the pot. Cover with one-third of the rice in a single layer. Spread one-third of the chopped herb and garlic mix over the rice and fluff them by hand to incorporate. Sprinkle cumin and cinnamon between the first and second layers.
Repeat this process twice.
Cover tightly, place over medium heat, and steam the rice for approximately 90 minutes. Mound the rice on a platter. Prior to serving, pour melted butter evenly over the top of the rice.
FOR THE MAHI:
Mix the saffron with half a cup of boiling water. Let it cool and then pour it over the fish. Lightly dust the fish with flour, salt, and pepper, then fry it in vegetable oil until golden-brown on both sides.
3 cups finely chopped herbs from among the following:
Fresh parsley, stemmed and rinsed
Persian chives (“Tareh”), rinsed
Fresh cilantro, stemmed and rinsed
Fresh dill weed, stemmed and rinsed
Fresh fenugreek (“Shanbelileh”), stemmed and rinsed
Fresh spinach, rinsed
3 cloves garlic
½ cup coarsely chopped walnuts
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
Salt and pepper to taste
Vegetable oil for frying
In a large bowl, lightly beat the eggs. Add the flour, chopped herbs, walnuts, garlic, and spices.
Beat well until fluffy.
Heat the oil in a large frying pan, add the egg mixture, reduce the heat, and smooth it with the back of a spoon. Cover immediately and let it cook until it’s golden and springs back when touched. Flip it and continue to cook it uncovered until golden. Transfer it to paper towels to drain, then cut it into 8 pieces. Serve with yoghurt.
2½ cups fine sugar
1 cup water
½ cup rosewater
Vermicelli rice noodles, broken into 2-inch pieces
Garnishes: pistachios, sour cherry syrup, fresh lime juice, mint
Boil the rice noodles for no more than 20 seconds. Remove the noodles, run under cold water, and set them aside. Combine the sugar, rosewater, and water in a pot and boil for approximately 5 minutes. Let cool. Working in batches in a blender, purée the crushed ice and chilled syrup. Transfer the mixture to a bowl and stir in the rice noodles. Garnish with fresh lime juice, sour cherry syrup, mint, or pistachios.