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More conversations, arbitrary and definitive.

    Letter from the Editor

    We’ve been thinking about growing up. In March Bidoun had its fifth birthday, which we celebrated with a party on a converted golf course in Dubai. Five years is a long time. There are weddings and funerals and make-outs and breakups and victories and defeats. A lot of parties, actually. Five is like thirty-five in magazine years, and whether you were here with us at the beginning or just hopped on the bandwagon, we’re truly glad to have you.

    The theme of this issue is INTERVIEWS, and inside you can spend time with Ghida Fakhry, coanchor of Al Jazeera English’s Washington bureau; or Banu Cennetoglu, currently representing Turkey at the Venice Biennale with what might be the world’s largest artist’s book; or the geeky gang of four behind Samandal, the Middle East’s first trilingual comics anthology. Pop star Maya Arulpragasam, aka M.I.A., relates Qaddafi’s style tips and the games young Sri Lankan people play.

    But thinking about growing up has also meant thinking about getting old, and as it happens, some of our favorite encounters this time out are with the elders. Lawrence Weiner took our man Babak Radboy to school, creating a kind of dialogical “letter to a young conceptual artist.” Alejandro Jodorowsky, the famed director and magus of psychomagic, shared some surmises as to what makes Israel a holy land—and it’s totally not what you think. Lynne Tillman sat down with Lebanese writer Etel Adnan to discuss exile, existentialism, and the politics of poetry. Mohammed Mrabet gave us his recipe for fish soup Tangier-style while denouncing his old boss and collaborator, Paul Bowles. John Wilcock, cofounder of Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, delivered a hands-on master class for making memorable conversations. Tony Shafrazi explained how the young conceptual artist who defaced Guernica as a political act founded a go-go contemporary art gallery in the last days of the shah’s Iran. And then there is the quietly epic story of what happened when Gini (Alhadeff, memoirist) met Hampton (Fancher, screenwriter, actor, dancer).

    This is our second issue devoted to interviews. This one is twice as thick and three times as sweet. At least, we hope.

    Next time,

    Lisa Farjam


    Privilege escalation

    All images courtesy of CAMP

    A peculiar thing happened at the 9th Sharjah Biennial. Night after night during the exhibition program, dozens of people gathered near this little emirate’s pastel-colored port to listen to homemade pirate radio broadcasts. Iranian shop owners, traders from Gujarat, and Somali shippers occupied the radio waves, talking about their work, exchanging songs, and communicating with people as far away as Oman or Boosaaso, on Somalia’s northern coast. This port, far more modest than neighboring Dubai’s, and full of ancient-looking wooden boats, serves as a nexus for the exchange of people, goods, and ideas among the Emirates, Iran, India, Somalia, and well beyond — as it has for centuries.

    The Wharfage project was the collaborative work of a Mumbai-based workshop — they resist the term “collective” — called CAMP. Born of weeks spent in and around the port talking to persons whose lives and livelihoods depend on these waters, Wharfage not only took the biennial’s top prize, but also served as a compelling entry point into thinking about a biennial’s relationship to its host city. Art historian and Sharjah-native Murtaza Vali spoke recently with CAMP about sea life, piracy, and the promise of radio.

    Murtaza Vali: What is CAMP?

    Ashok Skukmaran: Shaina Anand and I co-initiated CAMP with Sanjay Bhangar in late 2007. We’d all been working with each other for years, and CAMP was simply an extension of this impulse. It began as a way to have a space in Bombay, where such spaces are rare, and create a bit of structure that would anchor ongoing projects. Nida Ghouse and Hakimuddin Liliyawala have been working with us for awhile, and the two of them spent the most time in Sharjah.

    Shaina Anand: We are not an artist’s collective, but a coming together of ideas and intentions. The ability to enter into certain settings and activate transformations, sometimes even temporarily, is important for us.

    AS: We resist “collective” because CAMP’s boundaries are not closed — people enter and leave. And there are different modes and scales of engagement possible. If a collective is a sealed entity, it functions too much like a traditional solo artist.

    MV: Your mission statement emphasizes an exploratory, research-based approach, one that doesn’t a priori prescribe the limits of art and activism — as captured in your name, an acronym with thousands of possible meanings.

    AS: The litany of 100,000 possible “backronyms” for CAMP was a way of emphasizing just this, that the definitions are changing, that the naming of things, especially longer-term initiatives, can presume ability and results. We chose CAMP also because large research institutions with such acronyms — CSCS (Centre for the Study of Culture and Society), CSDS (Centre for the Study of Developing Societies), CSSS (Centre for Studies in Social Sciences) — are common in India.

    SA: NGOs in India love acronyms. CAMP has ten different business cards, each for a different set of people. My favorites are “Challenges After Media Practitioners,” which has an image of CCTV cameras sitting on telephone wires like crows on a cityscape, and “Culture According to My People,” which is for sarkari (government) use and has a flaming pink lotus. There is also “Comrades After Missed Promises,” for our exhausted activist colleagues.

    MV: How does this open-ended approach work out on a practical, day-to-day basis?

    AS: CAMP and the projects are somehow separate — the projects are born from the organization but may grow beyond it. When we started out, we were very interested in exploring the medium of video in its “community media” avatars — as television, as surveillance, as archives. This is not to flatten its range but to think of ways in which these avatars might be brought together, which led to the online video archive project, Similarly, other projects cross disciplines. We’ve just started working with GBGB Andolan, a housing-rights group in Bombay. There’s also an ongoing project on elite culture, in the city and beyond. Different people are involved, but strategies and resources can be shared.

    SA: The first thing we do, especially when working in different locations, is quickly suss out our position in relation to hierarchies of power. We then, to use a computer term, see what forms of “privilege escalation” are possible. The username “artist” can sometimes provide access to state systems or resources or normally inaccessible material. How we distribute that access then becomes the core of the project.

    MV: Though the avant-garde has often experimented with alternative distribution mechanisms, distribution is not conventionally considered to be an artistic activity. You, however, identify both production and distribution as activities CAMP might engage in. Is this a specific response to the lack of developed arts infrastructure in India, or a broader concern with the state of art globally, its co-option by capital and transformation into spectacle?

    AS: The “distribution of the sensible” is a well-known artistic agenda by now, thanks to Jacques Rancière!

    SA: It’s a general concern about the state of art practice, but especially in relation to India. Artists are obsessed with the market and paranoid about their limited editions; filmmakers won’t let you copy their DVDs. Our micro-media practices also make interventions in distribution necessary.

    AS: We’re interested in places where the idea of the “open” meets notions of enclosure. This isn’t just a simple binary. In our Jogeshwari water project, films were a way to distribute knowledge about local infrastructure, to allow people deeper access to the stories and the actual mechanisms of municipal water, plumber mafias, groundwater, et cetera. We collaborated with an anthropologist and two local youth groups to produce the films, which were screened and are now available on cheap DVDs. We also want to ensure that this material, quite dense visual and textual material, is stored, and so we created archives,, online, as well as a physical archive in Jogeshwari.

    MV: Let’s talk about Wharfage. Could you describe how it all happened?

    SA: In late December, on a research trip to Sharjah, we were immediately drawn to the port. Something about horizons — as in, “the horizon” — appeals to us. We could sense “downtime” in the shopping area — workers hanging around, waiting for jobs, the shops across the port nearly empty. Conversations with sailors revealed that almost all of them are from Gujarat, which we did not expect. Then came the next discovery: the sailors were all headed to Somalia. And everyone — from Iranian businessmen to Somali traders to Emirati cops — spoke some Urdu or Hindustani.

    AS: And there was the fact that, by contrast with the streets, the port was rather busy.

    SA: And then, our position in all of this. How might the biennial framework, with its royal patronage, be used to challenge prevailing ideas about… normalcy, Somali pirates, dangerous waters, war-torn semi-nations —

    AS: — and the idea of “business,” this fairly non-romantic dhow trade, cutting through this, perpendicular to it.

    MV: Your project made visible the millennia-old nautical ties among South Asia, the Gulf, and East Africa — a history often overlooked or hidden because of current geopolitical hierarchies and race and class politics in the UAE. With its focus on trade, and specifically sea trade, your project recasts the Indian Ocean as a space of contact, not separation, a space that links the lands that surround it.

    SA: Our subsequent research, much of it conducted by Nida, revealed that almost no information about this prolific dhow trade with Somalia was available. Stories about pirates predominated.

    AS: This provided an opening, a point of engagement.

    Nida Ghouse: A common language was integral to the project. The Somali traders — the ones in Sharjah and the ones the Gujarati shippies meet when they land in Boosaaso — speak some Gujarati. The historical linkages you refer to, as they get enacted every day on the port, pointed us toward considering the dynamics of this trade and the kind of story it might tell about engagement with Somalia. We tried to emphasize these ties as historical, yes, but also as something very new.

    SA: The dhow as vahaan, or vehicle, is also central. In Salaya, Gujarat, where the dhows are made, they are called vahaanvatti. They are getting bigger and bigger, to accommodate the growing trade between Sharjah and Somalia. In other contexts, vahaan can also refer to radio.

    AS: The medium of radio, which relates back to our work in media and networks. Radio is quite a provocative medium. Its unauthorized transmission is banned in most countries.

    SA: We love radio. there’s something magical about being able to broadcast from up close, to have access to the control station, to be able to listen and wander in and out of soundscapes.

    MV: Let’s return to radio in a moment. I wanted to ask you about the book you produced, a collection of ship manifests, which reveals what Ashok described in the biennial catalog as “the particular materiality of trade,” its peculiar asymmetry.

    AS: The manifest is exactly not a balanced sheet. The book is a list or litany, a collection of such unbalanced sheets. The “unbalance” suggests that someone is driving it, holding it up. It has to do with the way language abstracts certain forms of transfer and movement. The list in the book is meant to counter this. It was much harder to assemble than it appears — it was pieced together laboriously from bits of paper, numerous files in Arabic, handwritten logs, manifests, and customs receipts.

    SA: This unbalance is not a systemic WTO unbalance. It is not like the World Food Program sending in boats of food — which, because of piracy, they don’t really do now, anyway. Hence all the macaroni, cooking oil, onions, et cetera, on the manifests.

    MV: It functions as a reversal of statistical scale, from the macro level of import-export quotas to the micro level of exactly what and how much goes back and forth on a daily basis, ship by ship.

    AS: Nida, Hakim, and Shaina had to “extract” this information. This relates to another phenomenon of interest, the objet trouvé. The “found object” is rarely found anymore, as if lying unclaimed on the street — it has to be extracted from regimes of power. In times of excess information, it has to be extracted from apathy or bureaucracy — we have to “care” about it. This entirely changes the nature of working with the found or the readymade. The list does this in a provocatively “objective” way.

    SA: Which also relates to the politics of “making visible.” Here, a set of facts becomes productive — and the act of publishing is the intervention.

    AS: Of course, it’s technically public information.

    MV: How does the public function in a monarchy? Does the public sphere in its traditional democratic sense exist in Sharjah? Did you have trouble getting access to public information?

    NG: I had just been to Cairo, where the idea of accessing official records for art — or almost any purpose — is almost unimaginable. In Sharjah we had to wait two weeks before gaining entry to the office where the records were kept. Our request probably confused people. Why would we want any, let alone all, of these records? But we came with the sheikh’s patronage, and once we finally entered the office, everyone was very helpful. Though things were in disarray — the record system is not exactly digital yet.

    AS: It is public in the sense of being “non-classified.” we didn’t encounter a law that prevented access to them.

    MV: Were you surprised by the disparity in materials traded — a wide variety of consumer goods, new and used, to Somalia, and charcoal coming back?

    NG: We were expecting livestock from Somalia. Goats in particular.

    SA: The absence of livestock was a sad shock.

    NG: More and more boats are returning empty from Somalia, so directionality becomes interesting here. The Indian shippies would often say, “Wahan pe kuch bhi nahi hai,” there is nothing there. They carry supermarkets full of stuff on their dhows to Somalia. Although it costs them to return empty, Somalia is still the region with the greatest demand for general dhow cargo trade.

    MV: A key part of this project, and of your practice in general, is revealing hidden asymmetries. In the essay in the book you state, “Symmetry occludes our sense of beginnings and ends, lacks and excesses, overflows and residue, desire and drive.” In a sense, a harmonious bottom line occludes disparities, which brings me back to the radio broadcasts. Were they smooth sailing, so to speak, or did they reveal or create tensions as well? Jean-Luc Nancy speaks of an always fraught “being together” and a celebratory “being of togetherness.” The couple of times I stopped by, it looked like a party.

    AS: There are parties, and then there are party politics. There were disagreements regarding who would have more airtime, why this and not that should get broadcasted. Questions were raised about whether it was right to just talk about the boats and to discuss Somalia from afar. The radio does give rise to certain anxieties of “broadcast” in a way distinct from the book.

    MV: How so?

    AS: Radio is ephemeral and live, but also spoken, nonliterate. It creates a space that is perceptible in other ways. You could hear the broadcast, walking around the back lanes of the market. Someone called in from Abu Dhabi saying they could hear it. The anxiety and thrill of radio is that you never know who is listening in at any given moment. People would walk over from nearby apartment buildings and from shops deep in the market. So yes, there were certain kinds of friction, but that wasn’t the major story.

    SA: Because of some sort of audit the port authority was doing on the crew, certain sailors were confined to their ships for those four days of our broadcasts. The khallasi, the lowest rung, were not allowed to cross the road or move in the city. The radio became a celebration of voice, of song, and the creation of a listening space. We started with songs in Gujarati and Kucchi, but then the Sindhi loaders from Dera Ghazi Khan showed up, then Somalis, Pathans, Iranians, Egyptians, and the Punjabis from the buildings across from the port, and so on.

    AS: There was also a distance we chose to maintain, with regards to the biennial audience, to avoid a different kind of friction. We set up a listening station on the roof of a heritage building adjacent to the art museum, to discourage them from coming to the port. Originally we thought there should be a sight line between the roof and the station/boat, so you could see it in the distance, on the horizon, if you like. But then we decided that wasn’t important and, in fact, it was good that the biennial audience had to search it out. Many biennial people didn’t have the time to look for us, but they saw the book and heard bits of the broadcast on the roof.

    MV: It was literally outside the biennial. You could have set up a listening station in the museum itself, in the cafe, for example.

    AS: Yes, it was “next to” the biennial, but also next to the port. At the same time, the museum guards were tuned in all the time on their cellphones. In the end it was largely about people, Somali traders, shippies, Iranian shop owners, sharing. Half the airtime was left open for people to bring in and broadcast songs…

    SA: … which they would Bluetooth from their phones to ours or to the computer. Programming grew, people made farmaishes, or requests. Or demands.

    AS: In the end, there was some great music, singing, poetry even, and a lot of terrible music, too. People would stop by and talk about the previous night’s broadcast. Someone would express sadness over not having a certain song they wanted to hear, someone else would find it. We even replayed songs that were part of I LOVE to YOU: Workers’ Voices in the UAE, e-xplo and Ayreen Anastas’ project from the last biennial. Hakimuddin gave a long talk on what he had been doing on the port for six weeks. I did live interviews in the shops across the road with Iranians who participate in the dhow trade with Iran, which involves smaller boats. Together, the book and radio broadcast worked as a strange couple, describing a series of oppositional binaries — record/live, written/oral, goods/people. About a port/on a port.

    SA: March 21 was Norooz, so the Iranian shop owners came over and participated and requested lots of Farsi songs to celebrate the new year. The captain of Nazre Karam, the boat where we had the station set up, tuned in to single-sideband (SSB) radios in Salaya and Mandvi in Gujarat and spoke to boats in Oman. Nida had call-ins from Boosaaso, where the boat Sabir Priya was docked.

    NG: I had spent some time on that boat, and they had helped me a lot during my research. It would have been great if they had been in Sharjah, but then that’s what it’s like when you’re on a ship, I guess.

    SA: The always leaving.

    MV: Was the title, Wharfage, just a description of the site, or was there more to it?

    AS: The word “wharfage” refers to both the actual site of the docks — the Sharjah Creek Wharfage — and the fee charged for docking.

    NG: It has a deeper relevance and reveals particularities about these trade patterns. The ships operate out of Sharjah because it has really low docking fees. The first six days are free, after which it’s 20 AED per day.

    MV: You’re currently in London working on a project about Edgware Road, a neighborhood populated with immigrants, predominantly Middle Eastern, but also Asian and African. Did you pick it after your experiences with Wharfage?

    SA: We didn’t pick it, but honestly, our diet hasn’t changed for six weeks — great Middle Eastern food and so-so Indian food. The Serpentine Gallery has just initiated an eighteen-month public program called the Edgeware Road Project. We and Ultra-red are the first artists in residence. The rumor is that this will tie into the Serpentine’s upcoming exhibition on the Middle East.

    MV: What are you planning?

    SA: The problem of itinerant, socially engaged art is something we had to address head-on in this case. So:

    AS: We’re setting up a local “infrastructure,” a process for publishing material, online and off.

    SA: The structure includes ideas for editorial committees, meeting together to publish “documents,” and these texts coming back onto the street in the form of place mats and veritable photo-roman strips.

    MV: Now that you mention it, how did you address these problems in Wharfage?

    AS: There isn’t a really good answer to how much time produces change or provokes thought. We’re still thinking about it, engaging with different timescales, ways of working, alliances, and neighborhoods. If you think of it spatially, these projects are in a “neighborhood” as well, not the same but not entirely separate — not just “one place after another,” to quote Miwon Kwon. We’re trying to bring them into some structures of thinking, of working.

    SA: Being from the outside can be liberating. Documentary filmmakers have exploited this “confidant” thing with impunity. But for us, distribution is vital. The agency offered, received, and distributed in the process is key. As is the distribution of privileges accorded to the “art project” or “artist” in the first place.

    Johan Grimonprez & Tom McCarthy

    If you see yourself, kill him

    Johan Grimonprez, still from Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y. Leila Khaled, 1969. Courtesy Sean Kelly Gallery, New York

    Artist Johan Grimonprez and author Tom McCarthy became acquainted at a 2005 screening of Grimonprez’s film Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (1998), a montage documentary about the rise of skyjacking, set to excerpts of Don DeLillo’s novel Mao II. McCarthy, who had recently published his acclaimed novel Remainder, was on the post-screening panel, and Grimonprez was in the audience. An academic complained that the film “didn’t render ideology as ideology,” McCarthy recalls. He responded by comparing its structure to Greek tragedy, with the modern terrorist as Antigone, “who sets herself against the state by invoking a higher, more divine law.” McCarthy and Grimonprez went out to dinner afterward and were soon collaborating. Grimonprez premiered his new film, Double Take, which was written by McCarthy, at Sean Kelly Gallery in New York this winter. It traces the recent history of doubling through taut collages linking Cold War anxieties, the introduction of the television commercial, and the life and work of Alfred Hitchcock, a longtime obsession. (The film started as an offshoot of Looking for Alfred, a book that grew out of a Hitchcock lookalike casting call produced by Grimonprez.) Besides being a novelist, McCarthy is the author of the critical study Tin Tin and the Secret of Literature and acts as general secretary of an obscure group called the International Necronautical Society. Grimonprez, who is based in Brussels but spent the past year teaching in New York, spoke to me at Bidoun HQ in Manhattan, with McCarthy joining us on the phone from his home in London.

    Johan Grimonprez, still from Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y. Raffaele Minichiello, Rome, November 1969. Courtesy Sean Kelly Gallery, New York

    Alexander Provan: The first words we hear in Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y are, “Shouldn’t death be a swan dive, graceful, white-winged, and smooth, leaving the surface undisturbed?” Yet for much of the film death is deferred, the eventual crash is delayed.

    Johan Grimonprez: The advent of the airplane and cinema were concurrent — the technologies infiltrated the realm of dreams simultaneously. And with the appearance of television, the image of the airplane gave way to the image of the airplane disaster, and the drama of flight developed around this narrative of impending catastrophe, where the postponed disaster of a hijacking gives the drama room to evolve. That’s why there are so many images in the film that deal with floating, being between two states, between ascent and descent, hanging in the air. That is a crucial metaphor. For the Palestinian skyjackers, especially.

    AP: The protagonist in Remainder is also hanging in the air — inhabiting a space between the past and the present — for much of the novel, as he meticulously reconstructs the scene of the accident that has damaged his memory, an accident about which we know little beyond the fact that it “involved something falling from the sky.”

    Tom McCarthy: Both Remainder and Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y start with something falling from the sky. In the film, one of the first images is this stunning picture of a house falling from the sky and crashing to Earth. And in fact, at the end of Remainder, the hero hijacks an airplane and is flying it in a figure eight just to get that moment where it kind of turns, where it bends, where it achieves zero gravity — that moment of being suspended in the air, held above gravity, weightless.

    AP: Which is the physical manifestation of his mental state throughout the novel.

    TM: Exactly. He’s in a holding pattern between two catastrophes. I’m pretty sure I had seen Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y when I wrote Remainder.

    JG: And I read Remainder when I was starting on Double Take.

    TM: The figure of the terrorist outlined in Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y appears in Remainder. There’s a character named Naz, the “facilitator,” who sets up a kind of plane-bombing for the hero — or anti-hero — at the end. But in a way, terror, in both Remainder and Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, is a metaphysical condition. I was thinking about a line from Rilke, from the beginning of the Duino Elegies: “For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure, / and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us. / Every angel is terrifying.” It’s an amazing line. Reversed, it’s almost like, “Every terrorist is an angel.”

    AP: Which is equally true — a kind of angel.

    TM: There’s a kind of beauty that terrorizes us, a kind of terror that is beautiful. After September 11, people like Stockhausen — who called it “the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos” — got into so much trouble for drawing attention to the most blatantly, glaring obvious aspect of the event, which was its aesthetic dimension. I was talking soon after to the Czech artist David­ Cerný — he was the one who painted the tank pink in Prague back in the early 90s — and his take on it was that they got the aesthetics wrong. “The planes shouldn’t have exploded at the last minute,” he said. “They should have dumped their fuel so they just stuck in the tower!” He had a purely aesthetic take on it, and the political dimension was utterly irrelevant for him.

    Johan Grimonprez, still from Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, Anonymous Skyjacker, St. Petersburg. Courtesy Sean Kelly Gallery, New York

    AP: It’s interesting that you mention angels. In the biblical tradition, avenging angels t take two forms: those who carry out God’s justice on earth (“The riches unjustly accumulated shall be vomited up; an angel shall drag him out of his house”) and those dark angels who are themselves born from Satan’s fall from Heaven. I think these contradictory images are part of what make the figure of the terrorist in Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Yso seductive.

    JG: Ah, the beautiful ones, they hurt you every time! Or so Prince claims. But I don’t think there’s aesthetic redemption here. Many of the skyjackers — especially Rima Tannous Eissa, who hijacked the Sabena plane in 1972, and Leila Khaled, who hijacked TWA Flight 840 in 1969 — both of whom look like the women in a Godard film (the beautiful ones!) — take a very fierce pro-Palestinian position in interviews from that time. They say, You’re all seduced by the rhetoric of the media. Then they’ve produced this entire spectacle which is itself a terribly seductive media event.

    TM: There’s another kind of mythical figure of the angel. Walter Benjamin describes the angel in Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus, who’s looking backward as he travels forward — as if he’s facing backward in a plane — as the angel of history. Where we might see one event, followed by another event, and then another event, he just sees this continual, amassing catastrophe, which is what we call history. The angel in this case is not the person who causes the disaster, but the person who understands it.

    AP: Johan, were you thinking about these differing conceptions of the generative forces of history during the production of Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y?

    JG: Well, I was thinking about it on less of a holy and more of a profane level, in terms of the seduction of the commercial image. Maybe that’s why communism fell, because the spectacle began to be projected into society differently, with the seduction of the commercial competing with the seduction of the political. Heiner Müller, the great German dramatist, has said that the commercial was the most loaded political message East Germany inadvertently received from the West. In Double Take, we’ve literally inserted five breaks for Folgers coffee commercials. They keep you from getting bored, but bit by bit they’re inscribed into the narrative and subvert the plot.

    AP: One of DeLillo’s lines from Mao II, “What terrorists gain, novelists lose,” is repeated throughout Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y. But the end of the film seems to suggest that the media is now the ultimate author of fictions that transform themselves into events as they’re broadcast.

    JG: DeLillo’s narrator suggests that the terrorist is better equipped to play the media, and traffic in this sort of seductive imagery. So he concludes that his role as a writer may be obsolete. But Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y follows that trajectory even further, suggesting that the media controls the spectacle, and has hijacked the hijacker.

    TM: The disaster is not taking place in the airplane with the machine gun, it’s happening with the camera and the microphone. That’s the vehicle, and also the space in which the disaster is visited upon us. The relationship between death, mediation, and technology is a triangle. You couldn’t have one without the others.

    AP: Mao II is colored by this anxiety about novelists not being able to captivate the cultural narrative anymore, and about whether literature is still capable of producing events in the same way.

    TM: I think DeLillo is taking a very nineteenth-century model of the writer — the kind of person who declares the way the world is and maybe changes it through that declaration. The writer is perhaps obsolete in that sense, and the terrorist is a good index of that obsolescence. But the twentieth-century modernists — like Beckett, for example, or Blanchot, or Alex Trocchi — recognize that obsolescence, and argue that the task for literature is now to accomplish its own dying, not to contain the world heroically and serve it up to itself, but to manage or mediate a kind of slipping away into silence.

    Johan Grimonprez, Anonymous Skyjacker, Panama, 1970. Courtesy Sean Kelly Gallery, New York

    JG: Oh, so that’s why you’re so invested in necrophilia.

    TM: I’ve never touched a dead body! Let alone fucked one.

    JG: But you have a necrophiliac society, right?

    TM: It’s not a necrophiliac society, Johan.

    AP: Unless there’s a secret brotherhood within the International Necronautical Society.

    TM: That’s right, you need to get to the highest level, the zeta level. You need to be at the Tom Cruise level of initiation to access that level. But it’s interesting that you chose that passage from Mao II, Johan, because it’s about the status of the writer, and you’re making a film about television. The way that literature understands the event is quite interesting, because way before technological modernity came along, the “event” in literature had always had the aspect of something that was scripted and could be activated — but an event doesn’t really happen out of nothing. This goes way back to Oedipus Rex. The event has already happened — he married his mother, the event was scripted by the gods, even before his birth — and what happens in the play is the archeology of that event. The only action available to Oedipus is to do what he was always going to do anyhow.

    AP: In so many of Hitchcock’s films, the general action is scripted. You know there’s a dead woman waiting for you at the end of the film.

    TM: Yeah, in order to die again. Like with Orpheus and Eurydice — she’s already died, but he recovers her in order to kill her again, effectively.

    AP: Beyond Oedipus and Orpheus, traditional communal or mythological narratives are truly scripted. Each time you tell that story, it’s the same — the action and the plot are inevitable. Of course, these narratives actually differ with every telling because of who’s telling it and how. The context changes, the narrative slips, the meaning is altered.

    TM: You get that in modernism, too, in a play like Beckett’s Happy Days, which consists of a woman half buried in the sand, who does the same set of actions every day. She takes out her handbag, a mirror, a shaving brush, and a gun. But she’s aware of it. She says, “I am now going to take out the mirror, I am now going to take out the gun, and I did it yesterday, and the day before, and I’ll do it tomorrow.” There’s this sense of time not moving in a line, but in a loop, and as a protagonist you enact these moments within the loop, even if you’re conscious of enacting them. Still, there’s always the possibility of breaking out of the loop. Toward the end of Happy Days, Winnie’s husband takes the gun and is crawling toward her like he might shoot her, but he doesn’t — so everything is going to repeat again. The script may be changed, but not escaped.

    JG: Maybe I’m the necrophiliac: though Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y declares the death of the novelist, it’s also based on a novel. It’s the same with Double Take, which is all about the rise of television at a time when cinemas were closing down and Hollywood had to redefine itself, but takes on Borges and Hitchcock as its authors. The film is rooted in a story in my book Looking for Alfred, which goes like this: Hitchcock walks around the block and drops his hat. He picks it up, walks around the block, and meets himself picking up his hat. He continues around the block and meets himself seeing himself picking up his hat…

    AP: Double Take contains the injunction, written by Tom, “If you meet your double, you should kill him,” and toward the end, one Hitchcock holds a gun to the head of another Hitchcock.

    TM: Yes, they’re in a John Woo–style standoff. I can’t even remember where I heard that, but it’s an old mythological dictum. If you see your doppelganger, you’re seeing a premonition of your own death — one of you is going to die. The double is a constant theme in literature: Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. By the end of Frankenstein, the monster and the creator are just chasing each other around the Arctic regions. They can’t even be distinguished from each other — they just merge into one black, fleshy mass.

    JG: In your book Tintin and the Secret of Literature, you take on the characters of Thomson and Thompson, the identical, but unrelated, detectives.

    TM: Derrida mentions them in The Post Card. He writes about how they repeat each other in what is, for him, a figure of originary repetition.

    JG: That’s where we’re arriving in the digital age. Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y was about the transition from film to video, to around-the-clock news, while Double Take is about skipping from one image to another — instead of rewinding or fast-forwarding — or zapping, and how that makes you relate in a different way to the image.

    AP: Throughout Double Take, the US and the USSR are represented as doubles. With the introduction of television, these doubles could see each other.

    JG: I grew up in Belgium, jammed in between the USSR and the US and their respective ideologies. You’re split always between two languages, Flemish and French, so you live with subtitles. When you buy a bottle of milk, it always comes with a translation in the other language. When I was growing up, I would watch Star Trek and The A-Team with subtitles. So I always related to this doubleness, this experience of living at a certain remove from the original — which can be seen in Tintin’s Thomson and Thompson, who cut a very Belgian figure. That’s also where Magritte’s “this is not a pipe” underneath the image of a pipe comes from. It’s a subtitle just like the ones you see on Belgian television.

    AP: This means that you live with the constant sense of decoding the information presented to you.

    JG: Exactly. And that may be why identity in Belgium is so strongly tied to irony.

    TM: It’s funny that you say irony, because Paul de Man, the literary critic, argues that irony is a direct response to what he calls dédoublement, or doubling.

    JG: He’s Belgian, right?

    Illustration by Babak Radboy

    TM: Absolutely! He’s Belgian. But he moved to America and became an English-language speaker. He wrote this really brilliant essay in which he says that the basis for comedy is doubling. So comedy is basically, like, a man falls over in the street, and we watch him and we laugh. That’s basically it, right? But de Man says that some people can be both the man who trips and the man who is aware of the trip and laughs. Only a special few can do this, only artists and philosophers. And this is both a blessing, because we’re elevated to the position, but at the same time it’s a curse, because we’re splitting, having both experiences — we’re doubled, and we can never be an authentic, singular self. Our only response to this condition can be to repeat the experience of doubling on more and more self-conscious levels. And he calls that irony, which he says is the mode of the novel.

    JG: That’s also what happens in the introductions to Hitchcock’s TV show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

    TM: Totally. They’re very funny, but very melancholy as well. Hitchcock enters a Hitchcock lookalike competition and gets eliminated in the first round. In another scene, he’s led away by psychiatric nurses who think he’s mad for thinking he’s Hitchcock.

    Ron Burrage, Hitchcock double, London casting, June 2004. Photo: Theo Volpati. Courtesy Sean Kelly Gallery, New York and Zapomatik, Brussels

    JG: It’s sad. But if he didn’t lose, it wouldn’t be ironic. The thing is, they’re all Hitchcock — he’s losing to himself. He’s really embodying the Thomson/Thompson principle, being the one who trips and at the same time laughs. In 1956, when Hitchcock was approached to do the series, playing himself and introducing the films that were shown, he was very much hammering away at the format. He had reservations about the fact that stories were told differently on TV than in cinema, that the films were being interrupted by a commercial break. But at the same time, he was inventing the medium, or already reinventing it. He would talk about the commercials in a sardonic way, trashing the sponsor. I read recently that he was also trying to come up with a way of doing the commercials himself. He would vacuum the whole set, and then at one point it would explode, or he would brush his teeth and his teeth would fall out.

    TM: In the ’90s, there was an advertisement for car insurance in the UK that was made using still frames of Hitchcock. They put the frames together in order to make him say, “Buy this type of insurance — it’s very good.” So he’s kind of the Frankenstein’s monster who was reanimated long after his death.

    AP: I remember something similar happened to John Wayne. There was this technology that was introduced in the mid- to late ’90s with which you could revive dead celebrities and put words in their mouths without having to get anyone’s permission. It was cheaper than a lookalike.

    JG: No other figure is out there to such a degree as Hitchcock. He’s proliferated to such a degree that there are many different Hitchcocks, as Thomas Elseasser has written — the Nietzschean one, the Heideggerian one, the Foucauldian one, the Lacanian one. I imagine them sitting around the dinner table, having their own discussion.

    Johan Grimonprez, still from Double Take, 2009.
    Courtesy Universal, Sean Kelly Gallery, New York and Zapomatik, Brussels

    AP: It’s interesting that these people, these characters, despite their own deaths, are still caught in the scripts that have been created for them, and that are still being created for them. Ultimately, you’d think that characters who become conscious that they’re trapped in a narrative loop would want to escape. But even death is no escape.

    JG: Toward the end of Double Take, Hitchcock realizes that he’s going to be killed. And he is killed. But then the loop repeats itself, and suddenly it’s 1980, and the young Hitchcock is now the old Hitchcock, threatened by the younger version of himself. But isn’t that the paradox of time travel? That if you go back in time, there is either a parallel timeline or the other has to be replaced?

    TM: This is what Chris Marker’s film La Jetée is about. He travels back in time to try to save everything, but what he ends up doing is killing himself all over again, or witnessing his own death and failing to stop it. The only way you can see yourself is dead.

    JG: So we’re back to necrophilia.

    TM: Or necroscopia, at least.

    AP: Freud wrote, “It is impossible to imagine our own death, and whenever we attempt to do so, we can perceive that we are in fact still present as spectators.”

    TM: Exactly. It’s the one event that can’t be contained ontologically or conceptually. Cinema literally moves in a loop. It’s a spool, a reel. Joyce has this bit in Finnegans Wake where he talks about the real world, spelling it “reel.” He was completely perplexed by the cinema in that book, and its circularity. But it seems that at the end of Double Take, there’s a surprise ending. You think all the way through that cinema is going to be killed by television or television is going to kill cinema or America is going to kill Russia or Russia is going to kill America. But at the end, it’s the third one, the new one, the younger one, that comes along and kills them all — which I guess in media terms would be the Internet, and YouTube, which in the film is represented in some ways by that wonderful Donald Rumsfeld clip where he talks about known unknowns, and unknown unknowns, and known knowns.

    AP: The film enters into the Cold War through scenes from the televised “kitchen debate” between Nixon and Khrushchev in 1959, during which Nixon boasted of the US’s superior domestic appliances. The analogy to the here and now is pretty clear, known unknowns aside.

    JG: Well, the sense of fear that was projected out into society then is revisited in the end. What was going on in 1962 happened again in the ’80s, and is happening again now. You see Reagan and Gorbachev, but today it’s not much different. As we were finishing editing the film, media was fixated on the so-called new cold war.

    AP: But the way in which events were produced changed dramatically in the time period that you track in Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, because of the ability to organize an event around the arrival of the video cameras.

    Johan Grimonprez, still from Double Take, 2009. Leonid Brezhnev–Nikita Khrushchev, April 17, 1964. Courtesy Sean Kelly Gallery, New York and Zapomatik, Brussels

    JG: Yes, but the arrival of the commercial break had a different impact, which was further enabled by cable, video, and the remote control, so that we were able to zap, and even zap away from commercials; whereas zapping — or rather skipping nowadays, with digital media — has affected the way we mediate reality. Why were we talking about the death of the novel? Because of television. Why are we talking about the death of television? Because of the Internet. Everything accelerates, and the novelist or filmmaker has to position himself within that accelerated world where everything is now measured in terms of download time. Now that doesn’t mean those ways of mediation will disappear, they just coexist, one affecting the other — just as in the ’80s, CNN utilized Hollywood codes to stage the news, and vice versa.

    AP: Tom, has this sense of acceleration affected the way in which you write or consider writing novels?

    TM: Not really. I agree with Johan that every media, every art form, is continually negotiating itself out of obsolescence. The writer has to confront the gauntlet of other media and all the other ways of figuring symbolic information out there. Literature is, and has always been, aware of its own impossibility. You can trace this right back to the beginning of the novel. Don Quixote is a book about how novels don’t work anymore. This guy tries to live like he’s in a novel, and it just doesn’t work; there’s a sort of systematic failure. With so much of Joyce, or later writers like William Burroughs or Thomas Pynchon, they’re saying, What do we do now that we’ve got cinema? You can see the same crisis in painting when photography comes along, which has been a good thing. After that crisis you have artists like Gerhard Richter really coming to grips with what it could mean to paint after photography, after mass production.

    AP: This anxiety is manifest in various forms in Double Take. The Folgers commercials feature a woman who’s having trouble preparing coffee to her husband’s liking, a suspenseful situation made all the more unnerving by the use of Hitchock’s famous line, “Television has brought murder back into the home, where it belongs.”

    JG: Yeah, you have all these guys talking about their rockets, and then you have all these women who can’t make coffee, but by the end the tables turn: the coffee turns into poison. Truffaut talked about how Hitchcock’s films always portrayed murder as an act of love, and vice versa. For me, that’s the crux of Double Take — these contradictions, one act masquerading as its opposite. At the end of the film, the Folgers commercial is subverted in such a way that its message, “Drink Folgers,” becomes coded as part of a murder plot.

    TM: By the way, I have a Rear Window situation here. I’m sitting in my apartment, looking at the rear windows of all the other apartments.

    AP: I can hear the cars going by occasionally.

    TM: Yeah. It’s a more modernist version of Rear Window — I can see maybe fifty different apartments.

    JG: It’s very similar here. We’re doubling.

    TM: One of my neighbors did murder his wife and put her in a box. This was about seven years ago…

    AP: He put her in a box — ?

    TM: He murdered his wife, and he put her in a trunk, and afterward the police came and interviewed everyone in the building. And when they were at my flat, I was just going, “Oh my God. He’s been watching Hitchcock. Have you seen Rear Window?” And the cop said, “Yes. Yes, I have.” And he gets back to talking about this man, and I said, “No, no, no! He must have watched Rear Window! He must have seen that! Or the other one, Rope.”

    JG: Was that before or after Remainder?

    TM: I started Remainder just before I moved into this building. But I finished the second half of it while I was here, so it really informed the second half of the book. I remember seeing Rear Window when I was twenty-two or something, and it had a huge influence on me. The funny thing is that the hero in the film is paranoid. There’s no actual evidence that the guy has killed his wife, it’s all a fantasy. But it turns out to be true. I just thought it was absolutely brilliant as a metaphor for the Cold War, for America’s paranoia. [Noise]

    AP: Are you playing a horn into the phone, Tom?

    TM: No, it’s just the cops going by — again.

    Banu Cennetoğlu

    Legacy of fragility

    BAS Space, Istanbul. Photo by Banu Cennetoğlu

    The first thing you notice about Banu Cennetoğlu is her seriousness. Even as she smiles her shy smile, her eyes show her reticence. She wants to know what the interview is going to be about; the way she asks makes it seem like there is a wrong answer. She is a control freak, she will later admit, after some of the wariness has worn away. At one point she stopped answering questions about her most popular publishing project for a year, for fear that people would like it the wrong way. When it is all done she will observe, correctly, that we have talked too much about too many things. But then, in the end, it was fun.

    I met Cennetoğlu at BAS, her space near Tünel Square in Istanbul, down the stairs from the funicular and around the corner from one of the city’s finer manti restaurants. BAS is a wisp of a storefront, with narrow tables strewn with books along either wall and a desk in the back. Decoration is minimal — a large cut-out collage of an upside-down library anchors one wall, while a copper plate with a self-portrait by the late Masist Gül, a self-styled “Mature Sufferer Art Specialist,” stands guard over BAS’s occupants. A tiny sticker announces “this is shit” over a slender pigeon-bespattered window in the back.

    Cennetoğlu is part of a generation of Turkish artists relatively unscarred by the excitement and trauma of the 1970s, an era of experimentation in music, film, and art that came crashing down with the military coup of 1980. In the last five years a small flurry of spaces have opened, including BAS, 5533, PiST, and Rodeo Gallery. But in the Turkish context, Cennetoğlu is best known as an apostle of the artist’s book. BAS is, among other things, a public archive of artists’ books in Turkey. With the Dutch artist Philippine Hoegen, she founded Bent, the first publishing house devoted to the promotion and realization of the form in Turkey. And though she is not represented by any gallery, she has made a career out of making small, sometimes dense, books of text and photography, including False Witness (2003) and 15 Scary Asian Men (2005), along with photographic installations and the occasional video. Now, to her surprise and perhaps delight and perhaps also slight consternation, she is one of two artists representing Turkey at the Venice Biennale.

    Michael Vazquez: So what is your project for the Turkish pavilion at Venice?

    Banu Cennetoğlu: It’s called Catalog, and it’s a simulation of a mail order catalog. I wanted to create a big, thick, performative book. The idea was to challenge the idea of the artist’s book and the idea of the catalog at the same time. It is an artist’s book — six copies will be on display in the pavilion. But it is also a catalog, which has this function, to advertise its contents.

    MV: How does it work?

    BC: So the viewer comes into this small room, which is quite formally set. Very dry, all in gray — nothing warm or welcoming. On each table there are two books. You can sit and look. The book itself is organized by fifteen categories, inspired by those of stock photography, like FAMILY, YOUTH, SPORT, HOLIDAY. So Catalog’s categories include COMPOSITION, VANITY, INVASION, and SEIZURE. In each category there are a certain number of images, unequally distributed. There might be sixty-three, there might be four. The only thing that changes from page to page is a little square on the top right corner of each image, with a code in it. There aren’t any headlines or titles, just pages and pages of images, bound into a book. The paper is quite thin. And if you like anything in the catalog, there’s a little form on the table that you can mark with the code of the photograph that you like. You take the form home with you, and you can go to the website, write in the code, and the photo is yours. You can download the image for free… exclusively during the Venice Biennale.

    MV: How many images do we get to choose from?

    BC: Four hundred fifty-one. That’s what I found interesting, the choosing. The relationship between the photographs and the category they are placed in aims to question the classificatory methods of the viewer, as well as the effect photography has as a medium. While turning the pages of Catalog, there’s a possibility that the viewer might choose one or a few among many photographs. One’s likes and dislikes become part of the work. They have to act if they want a part of it. The compilation is very diverse, from very normal scenes to iconic ones. There is a whole series from Yugoslavia after the war — suburban neighborhoods, government buildings, landmarks such as the Sarajevo Public Library. And there are images of the World Trade Center on that morning, in the moment of the fire, after the first plane crashed.

    MV: Which category are those in?

    BC: EXCURSION. I’ve never used them before. So I’m interested to know what criteria people will use. Will they choose the one that has the better composition? Or the one that seems to be already part of this collective memory that we have for the iconic imagery of 9/11? From my perspective, I wanted to criticize the attitude of the artist or photographer who goes to a place, spends a few days there, gets what they can, and then makes a work out of it. There is a sense in which this book is meant as a kind of monument to the fragility, the weakness, of photography.

    MV: Are all the images yours? Your photographs?

    BC: Almost all of them. There’s a game in it, too, Foto Quiz, filed under LOVE. Eighteen images of mundane objects, photographed in this very weird position, from the 1960s. Those are not mine.

    MV: I like that the book is at once inviting, in its format and with this “special offer,” and forbidding, in its size and heft and uniformity, its lack of context.

    BC: Yeah. I have been dealing with this question since I started making books. False Witness was the first real book I made, the first one to be mass produced. It was about the manipulation of sources, parallel approaches that had nothing to do with one another. One was the photographic documentation I had made at an Asylum Seeker’s Center in Ter Apel, the other was sentence fragments containing the word “measure” that I’d taken from this corpus-based data. And nobody knew what to do with it. There wasn’t enough information. A very few people were pleased or interested enough to talk to me about it, if I was around. But for most people there wasn’t enough motivation. And so people went away with the idea of just random images, one after another, which was not what I meant at all. Now I think of that book as a kind of trial for something more like Catalog. It only took me six years to figure it out…

    MV: You started your career in New York, right?

    BC: I moved from Paris to New York in 1996 — I had an offer from an agency. I did documentary and fashion photography for a few years. But I started to feel really uncomfortable with the whole system of commissions. You get an assignment and you put your whole brain and heart into it, and you’re all excited it’s going to be published. And then you see it in the magazine and you’re like, What the fuck is this? Even with a magazine like Purple. I’d started traveling in the former Yugoslavia and Georgia and here in Turkey, to the southeast. And it became problematic for me, taking this quite fragile material and contextualizing it in this pool of beautiful images. It seemed too poetic in this very random way. I needed to be more concrete. So I worked on my own for a while, and then I just kind of quit and I applied to the Rijksakademie. And I got in, and I moved to Amsterdam.

    MV: When was that?

    BC: In 2001, just after September 11. The Rijksakademie was great — two years, they give you the opportunity to research, housing, project money, anything. You can do whatever you want. It’s a dream. Especially for someone coming from New York, so narrow and vertical, where I was so broke. Suddenly I was in Holland, in Amsterdam, in this huge studio. I was like, “What do I do here?”

    MV: So what did you do?
    BC: Amsterdam was where I really got involved with artist’s books. In New York, when I got stressed out about the whole system, I would hang out at Printed Matter. It was a place where I could stay for hours, just learning things and meeting people and not spending even a penny. It really was my ideal place, and over time I kind of found my way to working with books. My application to Rijksakademie was all these handmade books, actually. And in Amsterdam there was a similar place, Boekie Woekie, this super-tiny bookstore that is really full, full, full. You enter and they have originals of Fluxus publications, things I had never seen with my bare eyes. That is also a kind of heaven for me.

    MV: What was the appeal of the artist’s book?

    BC: The idea that I don’t need to go out to exhibit my work, I could just be on my own in my little room. I don’t need a curator, I don’t need an editor, I don’t need anyone to judge my work. I could be all those things. And the thing that ties it all together is binding. The act of binding is very violent — you force images to coexist in this very physical way. And it forces you to confront what happens to these images, stories, compilations, when you put them in sequence. How can I deal with this togetherness? That was how I started to make books.

    MV: And how did you start making books with Philippine Hoegen? Had you met her in Holland?

    BC: No, we met here, funnily enough. I had moved back to Turkey in 2005. Philippine was living in Istanbul and we met and we hit it off. She said she was thinking of starting a magazine. I talked about my passion for artists’ books. And so we came up with the idea of a periodical — an un-periodical periodical. An artist’s book — but in a series. And that became Bent.

    MV: And BAS is you? Or this space?

    BC: Yeah, BAS is this space. Someone offered this spot to me, sponsored, and I took it. BAS is basically a kind of roof. And Bent is the main production project of BAS. That [points at a pile of books] is Bent. And that [points at a pile of books] is the punk book, which is its own thing. An Interrupted History of Punk and Underground Resources in Turkey. I did that with two other editors, Sezgin Boynik and Tolga Güldallı. I never had a punk history, personally. I kind of didn’t believe it ever really existed in Turkey. It always seemed very formal to me, something imported from abroad. So this project was a way to investigate that. So BAS is the result of several collaborations and the generous help of friends. But officially I run the space alone. And it is important for me to keep my sense of freedom. I can close this place whenever I want — if I want to just disappear and move to Mozambique, I can.

    MV: So what exactly is BAS? It is not so easy to pin down.

    BC: People come here and they see different things. BAS is not really a bookstore, it’s not a gallery, it’s not a publishing house. It’s a constellation of things.

    MV: It’s not a store? You do sell things, don’t you?

    BC: Only the books that we produce ourselves. But all of this [gestures at the long tables] is not for sale.

    MV: Is this all your own personal archive?

    BC: No. Well, it started with my private archive, when we opened in 2006. But it has grown since then. Developing the archive is one of the main goals of BAS. So we buy things, we barter, we go to artist’s book fairs. And people send us things. Now it’s officially the BAS collection. These days I prefer “collection” to “archive” — the point is that it’s on permanent display.

    MV: What does BAS mean?

    BC: Bas is an imperative, an order. From basmak, the word for “print.” So it means, “Print!” Basmak also means “to step,” like if you step on something, and also to catch someone in an inappropriate situation. Like if you find your spouse with someone else.

    MV: To bust.

    BC: Exactly. And it’s also a Dutch male name, Bas. [Laughs]

    MV: And Bent?

    BC: Bent means reservoir.

    MV: So the first thing you and Philippine did as Bent, the first edition, was the hand-drawn Masist Gül book that we featured in the PULP issue of Bidoun?

    BC: Bent 001 was an edition of six books, the first-ever reproduction of these books Masist Gül made in the 1980s. He called them Kaldırım Destanı — Kaldırımlar Kurdunun Hayatı. Kaldırım is pavement, Destanı is myth. The full title is “Pavement Myth — The Life of the Pavement’s Wolf.”

    MV: So Masist Gül exists, right? Or existed, I mean. He was a real person?


    MV: [Laughs] Because I have to say, when Bidoun first found out about him, and then again when we worked with you and you were so sparing with what information you would give out about him, we began to wonder whether you had made him up.

    BC: No, no, he was an actor. In lots of movies, from very famous ones to super-shitty ones, always the same character — this big, bad guy.

    MV: Do you draw?

    BC: Do I draw? No.

    MV: Not at all?

    BC: Just a stick man. Nothing, unfortunately. [Laughs]

    MV: OK, fine. So how did you find out about him?

    BC: To make a super-long story, super-short… . In 2003, I was still living in Amsterdam, but I was back here in Istanbul for the summer. I was working on False Witness, actually — I printed and launched it here. It was July 2003, and one of these stupid TV news channels said, “Masist Gül, one of the very famous extras of Turkish cinema, has been found dead in his Tarlabaşhi house.” Tarlabaşhi is this dodgy area. I mean, the government says it’s dodgy, it’s a little bit more dangerous compared with the rest of Istanbul. And they showed excerpts from his films, and him — this super-powerful figure with this big mustache, a bodybuilder type of appearance, and always fighting. And they said that he was found in a very nasty… . At that time I was thinking of making a work about heroism — the title was going to be Disposable Heroism, and I was interested in why people become heroes, and when you stop being a hero. So this kind of powerful figure, so fragile and so vulnerable. It just struck me, and I wanted to know more about him, about the life he had lived.

    Bent promotional card. Photo by Arslan Sukan

    MV: You had never heard of him before?

    BC: No. But when I saw him, I recognized him from films and even, I realized I had seen him around, because he was always walking. So then I went looking for more information. There is a street here, Yeşilçam Street, where all those kind of second- and third-degree actors hang out and wait for directors to come and pick them up. It’s a famous street. There are a lot of trees above, so it almost feels like a covered street with plants. You should go, it’s a nice one. And there is a teahouse. So I went there and asked about him, and one after the other people guided me toward this secondhand shop. “Talk to Irfan,” they said, “maybe he has some material, maybe some film stills.” But nobody told me about Gül’s artistic practice. So I went to Irfan and I asked if he had anything about Masist Gül. He looked at me, disappeared, and came back with a huge bag. I was like, “What is this?” and he was like, “All of his stuff.” So I went through it quickly, and I saw some drawings and some photocopied portraits, and I said “How much?” And he said, “Ten thousand dollars.” I’m like, “Well, sorry. Forget about it, I don’t have that kind of money and will never have that money to give you. But what I want to do — I am an artist, I work with books, and this is what I do. Maybe I want to make a book about him one day.” And he said, “Well, this is what it is.” I kept going back. Soon, you know, we were drinking tea and blah blah blah, and finally he allowed me to take a few images and photocopy them. And I took the photocopies with me to Amsterdam. I never did manage to do anything with them because it always felt wrong. Too easy to dramatize, too easy to take advantage. But then years later, when I started Bent with Philippine, I said, “Let’s see if it’s still there.” We went back to the junk shop and it was! And the guy was like, “Wow! You came back.” So what we proposed to him was a collaboration. We said, “We don’t have any money, but we want to publish a book, we can edit a book on his work.”

    MV: And he said OK.

    BC: No, he didn’t say any OK.

    MV: Sorry — so you’re still going through the bag in the store.

    BC: Yes, and then suddenly we were going through this big bag, and we found the Kaldırım Destanı. These six little books. And we realized we had to publish them. We didn’t need to make an artist’s book about him — he had made the artist’s books himself. But we said we had to publish all six of them. So I started to work it out in my head like a problem — we were going to have to find his family, and get permission, and we said to Irfan, “OK, work with us, allow us to use this and then we will make a note about your space, people will come and buy his stuff from you!” And he said, “No, no, I need cash money right now.” We went back and forth, back and forth. And finally he understood that ten thousand dollars was, like, impossible.

    MV: Did he sell anything in his place for ten thousand? Or was he hoping to cash in?

    BC: He was hoping that I was a dealer or something. But he eventually understood that I am broke. And then finally, after all this time, two and a half years, right before I was leaving the country, he said, “Yes, you can buy them, for one thousand.” Even that I didn’t have.

    MV: You could have everything?

    BC: Everything, whatever was there. So I kind of found that amount, and we took it all home, and that was the start. That was November 2005.

    MV: And when did BAS officially open?

    BC: March 2006. A really official inauguration, announcing what we were doing. And then we published Kaldırım in May 2006.

    MV: So you found his family, then?

    BC: Well, everyone in Turkey was dead. At one point we heard that Masist had a half-brother in France who was alive, but we had no idea where. And then by chance, coincidence really, we found him. We had found a reference to another brother who had died, and I went to see where he’d lived, and one of the neighbors just gave me the number of the half-brother in France. That was the end of a chain of miracles. There were lots of lawyers and Armenian graveyards and funeral homes. Masist was Armenian, you know.

    MV: Did you meet the half-brother?

    BC: Yah. He was very serious, a very hard, very beautiful man.

    MV: Very big, like Masist?

    BC: No, very small. But built up. And I found him.

    MV: Can I ask how Masist died?

    BC: He died… I don’t really want to go into it. The thing is, when you read all of his material, he wanted to die. The Armenian church told us that they were giving him cash for a little bread or for cheese or whatever, and he was using the money for alcohol — not beer, but pure ethyl alcohol, like, something that you cannot even smell.

    Something happened in the mid-1970s. He fell in love with a woman, and the woman didn’t want him, and for him that was like a curse on all mundane daily pleasures. So he said, “I will never ever taste any pleasure in this world.” And all of his drawings are based on this, too, it’s the same story over and over. People ask me, because he was Armenian, you know, “Is he talking about identity, or anything political?” Absolutely nothing. His brother is very political, very angry toward the Turkish authorities, but Masist never mentions anything about those issues. It is always super-personal, about love and not being loved, about not finding the right nest, you know? And because in this costume he was always such a powerful and mean guy, but he was such a fragile soul, I mean so fragile, and his work is so detailed. From this big man you see these little drawings, so detailed and crazy. I am in love with them, so I cannot really…

    People say he was always quite introverted, always drawing. And there is a letter, actually — we always show this letter when we exhibit the work. We would never have dared to publish if we hadn’t found this letter. It’s a crazy letter, very short, and it’s to his potential audience. It says, “I know one day you’ll find this, so I am not worrying about that. I didn’t do this to victimize myself, or to gain power, or to patronize anyone. I did this because I needed to do this, and I know that one day people will see it.”

    MV: Is there a lot of other work?

    BC: There’s a lot. He has another book, actually, he calls it a sourcebook. There are pages and pages of — I don’t know if there is a name for it. It’s always four lines. It’s a kind of poem. And it’s crazy, it’s violent, it’s pornographic, some of it. It’s always about the same characters and same story but it doesn’t have endings or beginnings. I assume that he wrote this and then he took from it and finalized it as Kaldırım. Or maybe he was going to continue the story, or he was going to create a new series. We don’t know.

    It’s not really a sketchbook because he does not make mistakes. It’s not about trial and error, really he is just rhyming, and it’s all fucking rhyming.

    MV: Wait, it rhymes?

    BC: It’s madness. I mean, it is so beautiful. And then there is some kind of drawing. When we exhibited his work we filmed this book and we showed it as a video piece, just a few seconds for each page, so that you could feel the intensity, although you couldn’t really read it.

    At one point he calls himself “Mature Sufferer Art Specialist: Masist Gül.” And Gül means “ash” but Gül means “rose,” also. And this [points at image] is his logo, this kind of thinking man — he always uses this as his signature.

    MV: So that was your first project? [Laughs] And right away you put out another book.

    BC: Yes, one month after we launched the first of the Masist books. Kaldırım Destanı actually came out over six months, because Masist had conceived it as a monthly magazine. But it was important that we do something completely different. As I say, the idea of the artist’s book was — is — still very vague in Turkey. So people thought we were just publishing comic books or facsimiles of old journals. A lot of people came to us with their drawings and their comics, and we had to say no.

    MV: I can see how one might get confused after seeing Masist’s work.

    BC: So Bent 002 was a montage of phrases from three language phrasebooks: two Turkish–French and one Turkish–Japanese. And as you read it, you realize that it is a crime story. Takip/Poursuite — in Turkish and French, “pursuit.” That was by Aslı Çavu¸so˘ glu, one of the very few people here working with literature and visual art. And it was all text, no images, and the artist was, you know, very contemporary, conceptual, and also female. Kind of the furthest extreme possible from Masist. [Laughs]

    MV: How did it come about?

    BC: Well, knowing me and knowing BAS, Aslı sent just a one-page sheet with the idea about this contextual appropriation of literature and guidebooks, with these ready-made sentences arranged so as to tell a story. I liked it very much, and I introduced it to Philippine, who agreed, and so we proposed that she work on a book using this method and see what happens.

    MV: Does the story resolve? I mean, is the crime solved?

    BC: Little bit. Do you read French?

    MV: I do not. See? You can’t spoil it for me because I can’t read it.

    BC: Yeah, at the end of the day, you know who murdered whom.

    MV: When you were choosing the artists that you were going to work with, did you look for people whose works already exhibited a tendency toward artist’s books?

    BC: Actually it’s the opposite. We prefer to work with people who’ve never done a book before. We wanna be the first! Though in fact there aren’t many artists working with artist’s books, and if a famous artist wanted to make one, he or she could just propose it to their institution, anyway. They wouldn’t need us. We want to work with people who have a great idea and don’t yet know how to realize it.

    So in fact Aslı had never made a book before, but since Takip she’s made four more artist’s books.

    MV: That’s great.

    BC: And similarly with Emre Hüner, who did Bent 003. He’s a fantastic artist, but nobody knew him in Istanbul until our book launch. And now he has a gallery, he’s in the New Museum…

    MV: That’s great, too.

    BC: He’s amazing. That book he did for us took a year. He only worked on this book the whole time. It’s a crazy production.

    MV: Did he approach you, then?

    BC: No. I’d seen a video of his in Tirana when I was there for the Tirana Biennale. We went to an opening in an apartment one night, and there was this huge projection of Panopticon. And I was just mesmerized. Normally I spend, like, three minutes with video work. So this was unbelievable. And again, I told Philippine about him, and we met him at one point when he was coming to Istanbul, and we said, “Would you consider making a book?” And he was interested in this challenge.

    Of course, we had no idea what he was going to do. And up until the very last moment, we still had no idea what he was doing. He was like, “I don’t know, I’m just working, I don’t know, I’m just working.”

    MV: And again, that book was completely different from either of the two books that preceded it. As was Bent 004, Cevdet Erek’s SSS, which might be the weirdest book you’ve done.

    BC: SSS is a very personal subjective manual for imitating the sound of the sea by rubbing a carpet. It’s very nice. I’m very pleased with the way it turned out, though it was difficult in a different way. That book grew out of a performance of Cevdet’s, something he does all the time in a very instinctive way. And suddenly he had to be able to conceptualize what he was doing and be able to articulate it. And he had no experience with writing. He’s an artist and a musician, but he’d never worked with text. The risk with this was that we didn’t want the book to be just the documentation or the illustration of his live performance. But it worked. And for what it was — a manual for simulating the sound of the sea by rubbing a carpet — it sold very well. [Laughs]

    MV: And then you just released a new book in May.

    BC: Yah, Kılavuz. It’s a book of tests, kind of like the Scholastic Aptitude Tests, but the Turkish versions, which are more extreme and more stupid. It’s by Altıkunst, an artists’ collective of three women. They came to us because they have this email project where every week they create and send out a kind of digital sticker, from out of the week’s news. They said they wanted to make a book of those stickers. And we said, “Why? This is an Internet project, leave it like that.”

    But we were interested to work with a collective, especially a female collective, and we were interested to work on a very local topic. So we told them to come up with a proposal for a book, and they came back with this idea for a book of SAT tests. Periodically the newspaper gives trial tests to students, which reveal the ideology and the moral values of the Turkish state. So they collected those tests and chose very peculiar ones and edited it in such a way that it shows the absurdity of the situation. And at the end there’s an index, which is very important, it’s a kind of semi-factual, semifictional index. So when you read the words one after another, you really kind of read the subtitles of the whole thing. It’s all in Turkish, this one. We didn’t translate anything — because of the localness of the material, it would be impossible to translate.

    MV: That sounds amazing. I think you might be underestimating foreign interest in the peculiarities of Turkish nationalism — there must be dozen of us who would read that in translation. But I hear you.

    Actually I want to go back to Masist Gül — especially in the context of all these other books, as part of Bent, alongside all these artists, and also in light of the exhibitions of his work that you’ve organized in Brussels and Berlin. I guess I’m wondering about the choices you’ve made. I mean, you have this person whom you desperately want to work with, who doesn’t exist anymore. And you can’t not do something. But then it’s totally up to you to decide how to present him. And there is a sense in which, for example, Masist could be read as an outsider artist.

    BC: Yeah, exactly. Like when people think about Henry Darger and make connections.

    MV: But in your presentation, he is very much a… contemporary artist. [Laughs]

    BC: This is a super-personal subject. I am not a critic or a historian, but I found that his approach doesn’t make him an outsider for me. From what I understand about outsider art — and as I say, I am not an expert at all — there is something more raw about their production, a sense of naiveté. Masist’s technique is very raw, but when you see the work it is very aware, and this awareness creates a strange irony with this rawness. I think that is why I cannot really call him an outsider. Did that answer your question?

    MV: Kind of. There is still a bit of a disconnect for me. I can’t think of anyone who could have been an outsider artist who debuted as a contemporary artist.

    BC: That’s true. And Philippine and I are artists. Maybe if we were dealers or collectors we would have presented his work differently. But we don’t think it’s our job to do this.

    MV: You are not his gallery.

    BC: No. And we don’t want to be.

    MV: But you have his archive.

    BC: And I want to have his archive, I don’t want to sell it. It is something that I want to show my daughter when she’s old enough. It’s a very ethically problematic situation. After the Masist exhibition at the Berlin Biennial, we started getting even more invitations, and we said no. We say yes to certain things, but it’s a lot of work, we want to make sure it’s done right. Not exoticized or sensationalized. Already, with the books, the work is circulating from Santa Barbara to I don’t know where, in very different geographies. There are very big risks to doing all of these things.

    MV: I guess the question occurred to me because of what seemed to be a relationship between Masist’s hero, the Pavement’s Wolf, and older Turkish heroes, like Tarkan or Karao˘glan, that were big in the comics and the movies in the 1960s and ’70s.

    BC: Well, Tarkan is a rural figure, whereas Masist was playing with this very urban figure, this kind of urban Robin Hood with the shoes and the big mustache and the open shirt.

    MV: Wait, that’s a type?

    BC: Not even a type, it’s a cliché. We call it Kabadayı in Turkish. He protects the poor and the weak, but he is also quite raw.

    But this question is something I think about a lot. I gave a presentation a few years ago about artists’ books, and especially Masist’s work. And I said to the students, “What is the difference between an artist’s book and a comic book? If Masist had had the chance to get Kaldırım published, could he have been a Tarkan?”

    The question was, could Kaldırım have been a comic book? And there is no real answer for it. But for me, I don’t think so. When you know his character, when you know his darkness, when you know his obscurity, when you know his other work and his relationship with books and journals and collages… it is an artist’s book. But I don’t know his conditions back then, I can only judge from what I am seeing right now. I can never prove that in a different context and a different time, it might not have appeared as a kind of Tarkan-style series. Who knows? Though the thing about comics is that kids read them, and Kaldırım is very violent. There are pages and pages of the witch torturing the kid who later becomes the hero. It would be inconceivable to show this to a child — it’s hard for some adults. Anyway, we are not in a position to talk about this. From my perspective, I found in the books the intention and the production quality, so that I could say, “Yes, they are artist’s books.” But it is very, very, super-subjective. There is no rule for it.

    MV: Did you ever get tired of it? Tired of him?

    BC: Yeah. Right after we launched. The Turkish press did a lot of interviews at first. But actually we made a conscious decision that we were not going to tell Masist’s story at all. When people asked, “How did you find him?” We would say, “Just coincidences.” I didn’t say anything about him or his personal life for a year or two. The work had to be the focus. Because it’s so easy to just go to the story instead. The story was so juicy! People got so involved in it, some people cried, I was like, “Oh my God!” I didn’t even tell you all of the details, so many strange coincidences… . So then people get excited about the story more than the work.

    MV: I mean, it is a great story… Do you think you might tell that story some time? With all the details?

    BC: No. Some people are like, “Will you make a film?” and I am like, “No!” My aim was just so that more people should know him, and now more people know him. That’s enough. We have other things to do.

    Mohamed Moussalli

    The King of Portraits

    Moussalli standing, in front of portraits of Tammam Salam (left) and Amin Gemayel. Courtesy Mohamed Moussalli

    From the late 1960s to the ’90s, Mohamed Moussalli’s signature graced portraits of nearly every Lebanese political figure. From the Shia spiritual leader Moussa Al Sadr, with his wise-man’s gaze and perfect imama, to former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, with his big-boss stature and bushy eyebrows, Moussalli’s portraits radiated a distinctive magic that was equal parts father figure, film star, and cowboy. Before becoming known for his political faces, he was painting icons of modernity for advertising companies — from gleaming refrigerators to sports cars to American cigarettes. Today, at sixty-eight, the man once known as the King of Portraits is retired, though he still spends his days in his overcrowded studio in Dahieh, Beirut’s southern suburb, amid jars of paints and brushes and beat-up projectors. On rare occasions, he regales visitors with tales from the past, especially lingering on the subject of how his art forever changed with the advent of computers. Here, he speaks to Zeina Maasri, graphic designer and author of Off the Wall: Political Posters of the Lebanese Civil War.

    BMW Ad. Courtesy Mohamed Moussalli

    Zeina Maasri: How did you get your start painting?

    Mohamed Moussali: I started drawing when I was between five and six. No one taught me. I developed on my own and finally made painting my profession.

    Merit Ad. Courtesy Mohamed Moussalli

    ZM: And what kind of painting was that?

    MM: Every kind — oil painting, portraits of notable figures, decorative murals, ceramics, and advertisements for big brands. I did plenty of the mega-scale billboards, the ones that used to line the main highway leading to the airport. I don’t know if you recall those big Marlboro ads?

    ZM: Were you ever interested in an academic training in the arts?

    MM: I wanted to go to art school in Spain, and many established artists in Lebanon encouraged me to do so. The school required a portfolio of drawings and paintings. I prepared all the requirements except for the female portrait. I didn’t know whom to paint, and no woman would allow me to. So I chose for a model my cousin, who later became my wife… [Smiles] She was still a little girl, very beautiful back then, maybe fifteen years old. It was very innocent. At first she refused, but then accepted on the condition that her sister sit with us as chaperone. She wore a purple and white dress, her hair was long with a golden color, and she let it down on one side.

    Moussalli standing in front of a portrait of Issam Fares. Courtesy Mohamed Moussalli

    ZM: What happened? You didn’t make it to Spain, did you?

    MM: My father burned the portrait. He set fire to all the paintings I had prepared. He was a very religious man who believed that God forbids painting and representation of human figures. I continued painting while he kept on repeating that I would eventually lose my sight because I used to spend whole evenings working. He was right about the sight, I guess.

    ZM: How did you start working with ad agencies?

    MM: They were all lined up on Khan Antun Beyk in the old souks of Beirut. I can’t remember all their names: Decora, Bahlawan, INA, Adverco… the best ad agencies in town. I was around thirteen when I knocked on their doors. They used to hire this one artist, an Iraqi or Jordanian, I can’t remember, to draw their ads. When I showed them my work, they hired me instead and never commissioned him again. They would show me a picture or express an idea, and I would just draw it. I drew all sorts of things in different scales: airplanes, wheels, and cars… all the modern products that came to Beirut in the ’60s. I got into trouble, of course. I once painted a mural right next to a chic beach resort on the southern outskirts of Beirut. I drew a girl half-naked in her bikini. The ad was for modern refrigerators — Frigidaire — so the girl was supposed to be feeling hot in the summer. That was the idea. [Laughs] The next day, the police arrested me. The wall I drew on turned out to be an abandoned church, which filed charges against me. The owner of the ad agency came to my rescue and apologized to the parish priest.

    ZM: And political figures?

    MM: Sure, I had waiting lists of two to three months of political figures during parliamentary elections. There is this great mural of Nasser that I did, too, with his sunglasses on and fighter jets soaring around him.

    ZM: When was that?

    MM: That was already in the late ’60s. And then I painted a great number of candidates’ portraits for the elections that took place just before the 1975 civil war.

    ZM: You mean the 1972 elections?

    MM: I think so — the dates elude me. I still remember the total number, though: it was 3750 paintings. I would do seventy to a hundred identical portraits for each candidate. If you compare the first to the last one, you’ll see that they are exactly the same. I painted fifteen to thirty portraits per day. I used to line them up on the street outside my studio so that they would dry fast in the sun.

    ZM: That’s an incredible number. It’s what a printing press would do. Why wouldn’t they simply print posters instead?

    MM: At the time, the largest size of a printed poster would be a maximum of 60 centimeters, and it would be of low quality, mostly in one color. Whereas I could do a much bigger-scale colored portrait that they would put up on the street. This brings more authority and grandeur to the subject. You know, politicians like that. I did this portrait once that was 14 meters in height and 6 meters wide… [Laughs] It broke during the rally, so they brought it back to be repaired.

    ZM: Did you have any competitors?

    MM: No, I was the best. Sometimes, I had no time to eat! My wife would feed me sandwiches while I would stand and work. She also helped me trace the lines to make the copies.

    ZM: Did you ever design a poster that got printed?

    MM: I think I once designed a poster. It was for the Palestinian resistance. I drew a tree trunk formed by a group of fida’iyeen, symbolizing land and resistance. These were popular issues back then. I also painted a portrait of the Egyptian writer Taha Hussein that was used for a book cover.

    ZM: Do you remember whose portraits you did? Were there any political groups you worked with in particular?

    MM: I don’t recall all their names now, but they were esteemed figures. I worked with various parties and political factions. I might have served more those who were within my area, that’s normal. When you live in an area controlled by one political group and they treat you well, you need to reciprocate. I didn’t hold a specific political adherence to any of the parties, so I didn’t scrutinize the commissions I got. It’s my profession after all, and I don’t get myself entangled in the politics of this country. I did portraits of Salim Al Hoss, the former prime minister, Moussa Al Sadr, I did three or four different portraits of Al Sadr. Amin Gemayel — I painted his portraits on large sheets of canvas in the ’80s, when he was the president of Lebanon… . And many more that I don’t remember. That’s all in the past for me now. Those days are long gone.

    Marlboro ad. Courtesy Mohamed Moussalli

    ZM: Any interesting story that marked you or incident you want to share?

    MM: [Smiles] No, it’s all work… off the record? I’ll tell you later, you have to visit again. I never really had a major problem. It’s actually my brother who managed the business — he knew how to deal with the politicians. The key was to make sure that appointments would never overlap. The politicians would send their agents to pick up the work, and they’d all be armed with Kalashnikovs. I was worried that if opposing groups met, they would start a fight. The war days were very dangerous. I worked on a portrait once for a member of an influential non-Lebanese political group. the next thing I know, militiamen pulled me out of my home late in the evening. We were all very scared, my family and I. I had no idea what they wanted. It turns out that their boss was very pleased with the portrait and wanted to give me a treat by inviting me to dinner. Eventually, I was trapped. They forbade me to work for anyone but them. I was told that evening that I was to become the official painter of the party. I tried to get out of it, but to no avail. They told me, “These are your choices — either you work for us or we cut off your hands. You choose.”

    Taha Hussein. Courtesy Mohamed Moussalli

    A few months later, the Israelis invaded — it was 1982 — and the party’s headquarters was bombed, and they were forced out. I took my first opportunity to get out of the country, and stayed away for a while. They never paid me, by the way, not a single penny, for all the work that I did. I didn’t really care then, though, I just wanted to get away.

    ZM: Was there any particular technique you used?

    MM: I worked on the basis of a photographic portrait, which I would divide into a grid of small modules and then enlarge. Later I started using a projector that allowed me to enlarge on a much bigger scale. Of course, I didn’t need it when I was doing a series of the same person — once I had done it a few times, I would have memorized all the traits and could paint without referring to the picture. Why do you care? These methods are obsolete — my work is of no use to anyone now. With one click of the computer, you can get the largest portrait, in color. Look around you, Beirut is filled with politicians bigger than I could have ever imagined. They look real, but they have no life!

    ZM: Well, most of them are dead, anyway. But what do you mean?

    MM: It’s not the same. Portraiture is an art, you see — it’s not a matter of getting the portrait as close as possible to reality, but of rendering the figure more appealing than reality. The painter’s brush and his eyes bring emotion and life to a painting. The agents who used to pick up the finished work would be startled. Once, I realized that I had maybe gone too far, I made the man look handsome when in fact he was far from it. I was worried that it would not be accepted — the agent noted the difference, but seemed pleased with it. Okay, here’s another story: Once there was a portrait that I couldn’t finish. Something was odd with the eyes. If I fixed it, I thought, the man would not look like himself. The agents arrived, and I still wasn’t done. I told them, there is something wrong with his eyes; I can’t finish the portrait. They were of course upset and called the deputy to complain about the situation. And it turned out that in fact he had a problem with one eye that made it look different than the other one, but no one had noticed before — or at least, never dared to say anything.

    Rafik Hariri. Courtesy Mohamed Moussalli

    ZM: Were any of your portraits failures, in your eyes?

    MM: I was once commissioned to do a portrait of Abdallah El Yafi [former Prime Minister of Lebanon], so I based it on an available newspaper photograph. It turned out really bad. I realized when I saw a good picture of him that I had made a fool of myself. So I redid the portrait and delivered it to his house. His wife called the next day asking for twenty-five more portraits identical to the last one, which I did. A few days later, they asked for another set of twenty-five, and then another twenty-five — they just wouldn’t stop. I ended up knowing all his features by heart.

    ZM: When did you stop working?

    MM: My last job was in the ’90s, it was a portrait for General Aoun [head of “The Free Patriotic Movement”], or maybe Rafik Hariri. Since then, there’s been the invasion of computers. They wrecked everything. Anyway, as you can see, I’m losing my eyesight… I don’t paint anymore. [Laughs] These politicians have spoiled my eyes.

    Mohamed Makiya

    Deeply Baghdadi

    Guy de Cointet, The Tattooing on his Back…, 1982. Photo by Marc Domage. All images courtesy Greene Naftali Gallery New York, Air de Paris Gallery, Paris, and the estate of Guy de Cointet

    Mohamed Makiya’s mother used to say that her son was born the year the British entered Baghdad, which puts his birthday sometime around 1916. By 1932, the British had left, leaving behind a Saudi-born king behind named Faisal to steer a country awkwardly cobbled together from three far-flung regions of the Ottoman Empire. By 1935, Makiya had gone to the UK to study architecture on a coveted state scholarship. Returning after eleven years away, he found Iraq at a crossroads, at odds with a weakling monarch imposed from without and fitfully struggling to find its place in a world on the brink of transition. That energy culminated in a revolution in 1958, ending the monarchy and placing Iraq at the center of a pan-Arab movement that spanned Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and beyond.

    Though Makiya’s training in architecture had been firmly modernist — his referents were Bauhausian above all — he developed into a passionate advocate of Mesopotamian and early Islamic heritage. In 1963, he would refurbish and artfully transform a ninth-century Abbasidera minaret, once part of the caliph’s palace in central Baghdad. It was this mosque project, called Khulafa, as well as the design of his family seat — sometimes called “the Mansour House,” after the neighborhood in which it was located — that would make him known as an architect of a distinctive vernacular modernism. Makiya would go on to carry out projects in Bahrain, Riyadh, Oman, and Kuwait, from opulent palaces to banks to major urban mosques. In 1959 he founded Iraq’s first school of architecture at Baghdad University.

    By the late 1960s, the Arab world was stunned following defeat at the hands of the Israeli state. In its aftermath, Iraq’s ruling Ba’ath party, in power since 1968, would be known to carry out routine sweeps in the name of weeding out fifth columnists, mostly described as British spies, Jews, or conspirators at large.

    While away on a job in Bahrain in 1972, Makiya’s name ended up on a blacklist — as a Freemason, of all things. Though they never learned quite what inspired it, the Makiyas — Mohamed, his British wife Margaret, and their two children — were forced into exile, settling in London, where Mohamed opened an architectural office called Makiya and Associates and carried on with projects from his new home.

    And then in the 1980s came a curious invitation to return to Iraq. It seems that the Khulafa project, now two decades old, had caught the eye of a certain Saddam Hussein, the thickly mustached, former army general from the northern city of Tikrit who had been leading the country since 1979. Makiya consented, and the ensuing period, one in which reams of petrodollars were devoted to grandiose architectural projects, witnessed a host of ambitious schemes — from the Baghdad State Mosque, to a parade ground in Tikrit, to riverfront schemes for Baghdad, and more than one university campus. Though some of Saddam’s plans were sidetracked by his nine-year war with Iran, many did materialize during this odd time.

    In 1990, Saddam invaded Kuwait. Around that time, a series of books chronicling Saddam’s crimes appeared under the pen name Samir Al-Khalil. A year later, the exile who famously shrouded his face during television interviews finally revealed himself to be Kanan Makiya, the architect’s son. In addition to Cruelty and Silence and Republic of Fear, Kanan, who had himself studied architecture at MIT, had penned The Monument, an epic treatise on the nexus of kitsch and power in Saddam’s Iraq. The son would make his name deriding the regime that his father had worked for.

    Some years later, Makiya the younger would become one of the main exiles advising the Bush administration as it prepared its case to invade Iraq. The elder Makiya remains in London, surrounded by his massive collection of Iraqi art and antiquities, as well as his memories of an Iraq long gone.

    Guy de Cointet, Back in Jamaica, 1983

    Guy Mannes-Abbott: Could you describe the world you were born into?

    Mohamed Makiya: It was like the Middle Ages. I wouldn’t have to read about a medieval city because I lived it. There was no electricity, no water, no sanitation. I’m very much influenced by it. I’m deeply Baghdadi, and I’ve been thinking of Baghdad all my life. My father died when I was young, and as a child I worked for my uncle, who had a shop in the souk. Every day, I opened the shop for him. When I got out of school, I did my lessons in the shop. I had to hide my books under the counter so my uncle wouldn’t see me — he wanted me to pay attention to the customers.

    We lived in a prominent Shia neighborhood called Suq Al Ghazl, very central, and close to something called the Weaver’s Mosque that went back to the Abbasid period and Baghdad’s founding. Our family was a prominent weaving family. My father would get the materials from the Silk Route and from China. He was one of the main dealers, and my cousin had one of the best shops in Baghdad for textiles. Later he started bringing them from Italy, but before that we brought everything from Aleppo, Syria, because the industry there was very good. Modernity first came to Iraq from Damascus, Syria, and the Mediterranean.

    GMA: So if, as you say, you are Baghdad, if this upbringing is in all you do, how did the actual house in which you grew up influence you and your work?

    MM: At the time, I didn’t think about the design of my father’s house. It was only later that I came to appreciate it. It was a masterful study of space. How could an area of less than 200 meters house five families? There was a central court and a diwan and a basement. There was a bent entrance and within it a place to sit so that somebody could read the Qur’an if they wanted to. Above, there were five rooms, but the roof was a sleeping space. I learned then that the sky is a roof itself. The whole idea of the house was very important to me.

    GMA: You told me about the importance of environment, or Al Mamour — habitat, as you translated it — in your architecture and thinking. How much of that was rooted in old Baghdad?

    MM: I was interested in the influence of the climate on architecture in the Mediterranean. I call it “zero architecture.” It relates to the natural order of things. When we went to the School of Architecture in Liverpool, we all came back trying to be modern. It was “to hell with the past.” Everyone was concerned with the best of the Bauhaus, Le Corbusier, and everybody who worked in the international style. I did practice modernism as a student in Liverpool. And I did very well — I had to, because I wanted to be as good as everybody else. But I was also influenced very much by the English vernacular, the Cotswold stone architecture, and so on.

    GMA: How did the time away from Iraq influence you?

    MM: I came back to Baghdad in 1946 after spending eleven years away. I’d spent one year in the civic design department in Liverpool, the only one in the whole of England. After that, I was lucky enough to stay for my PhD at King’s College at Cambridge, where the only thing I did was go to the library. There was no professor who could tell me anything about Islamic architecture there, so they left me to be free.

    The Cambridge years were very influential to me and later influenced my plans for the university at Kufa. Years later, when Walter Gropius came to my house in Baghdad, I criticized his design for the University of Baghdad campus, built in the ’50s, because… it didn’t have intimacy. It was just a very broad street with landscaping. It was good professionally, but to me, it had no character, intimacy, nor the closeness that even Cambridge had. Most of my colleagues don’t believe in tradition. To me the modern really has to have an identity and a philosophy. And the philosophy is the trinity of human values — man, space, and time. These are three. They become the human scale.

    GMA: You told me that the 1950s were a glorious time, a golden period in Iraq. Did you feel you were at the center of something important happening in Baghdad?

    MM: In the 1950s, we brought the giant architects of the world to Iraq. Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Gropius, Sert — all these people came to my house, the Mansour House. I took Frank Lloyd Wright around in my car.

    GMA: And what was he like?

    MM:* Very bossy! Oh, very.

    GMA: There’s a famous photograph of you greeting a young King Faisal II at a modern art exhibit along with the artists Jawad Salim and Khalid al-Rahal, two other key modernists of the time.

    MM: I was the president of the Arts Society, which I founded in 1950 or so. I invited Frank Lloyd Wright! I showed him all around, and Jawad Salim was there, and he was keen to talk to him and have his signature. Rahal was there, you know the one who did that monument at Baghdad’s parade grounds. But you see, the artists didn’t care for aristocrats and things, and most were socialists. Even in Cambridge, socialism had been very much present. I once drove my car from Baghdad to Moscow, you know. When the first Russian went to the moon.

    GMA: What were you looking for?

    MM: I probably went to see Moscow. I drove my car into the Red Square! The car had a number plate in Arabic.

    GMA: What was the monarchy’s relationship to the arts and the modern moment when the king was still alive?

    MM: In the ’50s, Iraqi artists were bohemian. And I was a stranger to them because I am not a painter, and they thought that painting alone was art. I believed in applied art, and they looked down upon it. To me the carpenter and the blacksmith are artists… the other artists think art must involve a canvas. Canvas in a climate like ours! It’s odd! [Laughs] So I said, we paint on the wall! we use ceramics, we don’t use brushes. Jawad Salim always supported me because he’s very intelligent. the others were very obsessed by ideas about painting. I never painted in my life!

    GMA: They must have thought you were being traditional?

    MM: Yes. In fact, when I came back to lecture at the engineering college, there was no department of architecture. I went to see the head of the school, and I said we should have one. The civil engineering department refused. I said alright, I could give a lecture a week to the fourth-years on the appreciation of architecture. To me, the whole dilemma was that the civil engineers were not cultivated. They were not civic, they were civil, and that is the trouble! I asked the students to draw the houses they lived in, to draw the kitchen their mothers used, and so on. Once I took them to draw the whole coast of Baghdad, from the north to the south, from the suspension bridge to Kadamiyah. We went on a boat with Lorna Salim, who worked in the department…

    GMA: Is that Jawad Salim’s wife?

    MM: Yes, she’s an excellent painter, one of the best. She recorded Baghdad. She’s very well known now. Then, in 1960, when the new president of the university came, he immediately agreed to launch an architectural department. But later when the Ba’ath came, they finished it. I used to employ the best brains, and when they came, I had to dismiss anything American or English and keep only the people from the Eastern Bloc because of…

    GMA: … the Cold War?

    MM: Yes, and because of the Suez.

    I wanted the creation of the School of Architecture to have a legacy, so one can speak of a Baghdad school of architecture, the way the Jawad Salim school today is a Baghdad school. But unfortunately, during Saddam’s regime, all the good architects left.

    GMA: What made you return to Iraq after your long exile?

    MM: When it was announced that Iraq would be the site of the conference of the Non-Aligned Movement, the mayor of Baghdad invited me to come back. He said, “We want to show Baghdad at its glory, and we have millions and millions you could, you know, spend.” We asked everyone — they said, “Well, Dr. Makiya is the only one who used to speak about tradition. Why don’t you bring him?” So the invitation arrived, and of course I had to refuse it, because Kanan and my wife wouldn’t allow it. Then it came again in a very nice way. The ambassador delivered a letter from the president with the confirmation that I was to come as a guest and leave any time without complication. That was before the Iranian war.

    GMA: And the war with Iran began in September 1980?

    MM: It happened at the very end of that stay. On my last day I was supposed to meet with Saddam to tell him about my plans to redesign Baghdad’s riverfront, the Nawaz Street project. And then he invaded Iran! I was staying on the eighth floor of the hotel, and I got up very early, and there was an airplane, an Iranian airplane coming back to bomb us. I got out shortly afterwards.

    Guy de Cointet, Poor fellow, he took off his gloves … , 1978

    GMA: So what exactly made you go back that time? And continue to work with the regime for some years after?

    MM: I wanted to do something. I would have even accepted to do the Ba’ath Party headquarters in an international competition, because I knew this building ultimately would be ours! Kanan was against that, of course. Kanan wanted me to give up, I shouldn’t have stopped the office — Makiya and Associates.

    Kanan said I can’t ever work with Saddam’s regime. You’ll be talked about like Hitler — he had, what’s his name? Albert Speer. You are that. But it’s not that. I hated the man, but to me Iraq is not him. I don’t want to see those swords again! It’s hideous! It’s ugly!

    GMA: You mean the famous crossed-swords sculpture at Baghdad’s parade grounds, the ones that Kanan wrote about in The Monument

    MM: You know Saddam gave me the parade ground in Tikrit to work on. It was huge! About 1 kilometer square. You saw it, it’s one of the very best designs I’ve done. He wanted it the way he had in Baghdad with the swords! So the army could promenade through it like they do in Red Square. I ignored this request. I designed a complex for it — for festivals, for the feast, not for the tanks. Of course, it was never built.

    GMA: Do you feel compromised by having worked under Saddam? Do you have any regrets?

    MM: Yes, but it doesn’t mean I am pro-Saddam. I hated him. The Ba’ath were very keen for me to speak on television when I was in Iraq. They said, “Say something nice, that the president loves tradition and you love tradition and he’s keen on it.” I kept on postponing the interview.

    GMA: Saddam was not actually interested in tradition, in the sense of heritage was he? Wasn’t he more invested in crude political nationalism?

    MM: He was clever. When I talked to him about design and things like that, he listened carefully. He liked to learn, and to use knowledge for his own glorification. For example, I told him about brick culture in Samarra, with the traditional mud and brick. When one goes to Salahaddin [University] near Arbil, the topography is more marked by stone, like Mosul or Jerusalem. All of a sudden, every building Saddam asked for was made of stone, though we are mostly a brick country. The Abbasid tradition is brick! But somehow this was his way of bringing the stone culture of the north [where he came from] to Baghdad. He wanted to show the culture of the north penetrating to the center.

    Once I was giving a talk, and he came in late. He said, “Repeat the lecture from the beginning!” I didn’t care, and I continued it. At the end when I had finished, he stood! He never stood for anybody in the world. He said, “Don’t you wish to say hello to me? And to sit next to me?” He wanted to win me over back then.

    GMA: Did he ask many questions?

    MM: Only questions about cost, more or less, but with the Abu Nawaz street project to restore the riverfront in Baghdad, for example, I said there were more important subjects to discuss. Instead of having eucalyptus trees, as planned, I said, “Let’s have palm trees.” With palms, when you walk, you can see the sky, whereas with those stupid trees brought in from Australia, you couldn’t see anything. These are pillars from heaven. The palm tree is a blessing from God. And another time, I proposed a new design for the flag that was rejected. I said we must have green. I pushed for blue, too, like the sky; sky, water, and the green. And the stars should have been vertical, not horizontal! We are not horizontal, we have nothing to do with Egypt and the Arab world. But we are related to the north, the middle, and the south. We are Assyrian, Arcadian, and Sumerian — we are the three.

    GMA: Do you remember Independence in 1932, what it meant? What memory do you have of first encounters with the British?

    MM: The British occupation could no longer be tolerated or accepted at that point. But yet we also had the best doctors, the best people, we had the best college in the world, and we had the best architecture. Colonial architecture of that period, through the influence of people like Edwin Lutyens or Harold Mason and James Mollison Wilson, was very important. In that period, we had the Parliament Building, and many others done. Then Philip Hirst came from Liverpool, and he did the Rafidain Bank, which was completely modern.

    GMA: Do you think the British understood the Iraqi context?

    MM: Unfortunately, we had a British architect called Baxter. He was very good, but he was trying to make things Islamic. So he made a tomb as if it were Moroccan or “Islamic”! To me, Iraqi-ness is more important than being Islamic. So that is the trouble, that’s what they did with the grand mosque at Muscat. And the sultan’s palace, with all its red stone.

    My designs there were interfered with. They menaced them with all kinds of decorations and things, copies, in the Andalusian style. It was careless.

    GMA: Which are your favorite buildings or schemes, built or not, and why?

    MM: All my jobs are incomplete. When I designed that mosque in Muscat, I wanted people to relate to it as a cultural center. The building went right up to the water, the sea, and the mountain. Because Oman is defined by the rock and the water. And they ruined it by having an 80-meter street passing right by the mosque! To me the mosque is not a place to worship only, it is a place of rendezvous, like a national park. Children could come and play and all that, have a parade, and people could picnic there and all that. Then they could pray if they want to, in the thousands. Kanan still says about that project, “They didn’t even invite you to the opening!”

    GMA: Why was that, do you think? You said earlier that the sultan wanted to claim credit, regarding the architect as merely paid help?

    MM: Jealousy. They spoiled the interior. And they raised the minaret more than necessary. They had four towers, and they said, “Make them higher!” It’s not right, because they were more balanced [before], but [they made] them higher so they [would be] more dignified, more ambitious. Another thing about the Muscat mosque was my lettering, my calligraphy. My lettering is like a Mondrian, abstracted.

    There was the Kuwait State Mosque. They said, “We cannot read the calligraphy.” I say you’re not supposed to read them! My god, this is poetry, this is mood. Singular and vertical, you don’t read them. You don’t ask the birds, “Tell me what you’re singing”!

    GMA: Tell me about your proposal for a university at Kufa, which was never realized.

    MM: Saddam refused the University of Kufa.

    GMA: Why? Because it was associated with the Shia and Shia particularism, whereas Saddam was a Sunni?

    MM: Oh yes, they thought Kufa was the capital of Shiism. It was the first capital. [The historian] Albert Hourani called it Athens of the East. So we had a huge international response, from the Russians, the Americans — to help with scholarships, send professors. It was the first university that would not be governmental.

    The Kufa proposal was for a city. For a complex, complete university with living and everything in it. It was a university town, not a university institute. And within it there would have been another city, which would be called Pilgrimage City, you know, Traveler’s City, and another city, Economic City. There were many universities being built at that time for the Ba’athists — Rashid University in Baghdad, and one in Arbil.

    GMA: Can I ask about Saddam’s kitsch recreation of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar’s Palace, which began in 1982? What was your reaction to such a commission, the process, and how far did you get with it?

    MM: I refused to work on it and gave a report against spending so many millions on a new Babylon. In the Department of Antiquities, nobody dared to say no. Even the consultants. Everyone said, “Dr. Makiya is emotional, and we can make money out of it.”

    The same thing happened with Nineveh. I went with one of the top consultants from the Department of Antiquities and said ancient Nineveh is one of the most wonderful things in the world, and they want to bulldoze the thing so that they could build houses for the teachers. I wrote a letter, and they stopped the project. That way, I saved Nineveh.

    GMA: I have to ask you this small thing, this rumor that Saddam was quite a good draftsman. Was Saddam able to draw quite well?

    MM: No, no, it was a scribble, the scribble was very naive.

    Etel Adnan

    Children of the sun

    Etel Adnan, Untitled, 2013. Oil on canvas. Courtesy Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut and Hamburg

    In the late 1980s, I was phoned by poet and critic Ammiel Alcalay, who urged me to hear Etel Adnan read the next night at the Graduate Center. He told me Adnan was an Arab-American poet, writer, playwright and painter, born and raised in Lebanon. Since he had never urged me to attend an event before, I decided to go. The lecture hall was filled. I remember Edward Said and his wife were in the audience. Adnan took her seat behind a table at the front, and, from the moment she began reading, her passion, great intelligence, and sensitivity to language and form felt palpable. It was a rapturous night, during which I said to myself, I’m so glad I came. Imagine if I’d missed this.

    Adnan writes about exile and place, women and men, war and nature, paying homage to the beauty, complexity, and even the horrors of our lives. She is a philosophical poet. She is the author of, among others, the acclaimed novel Sitt Marie Rose, which has been translated into ten languages, including Urdu and Bosniac, and the epic poem, The Arab Apocalypse. Her paintings have been exhibited internationally and are included in various museums and collections. Adnan’s plays have been produced in San Francisco, Paris, Caen, Dusseldorf, and Beirut, her poetry set to music by composers such as Gavin Bryars, Henry Threadgill, Tania León, Annea Lockwood, and Zad Moultaka. Her latest books are In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country and The Master of the Eclipse.

    After I heard her read that night, I made contact with her. I saw her twice in New York City, when she was on her way to Paris. I phoned her there a couple of times, and we maintained an infrequent correspondence. I read her books. Her partner, Simone Fattal, who is the publisher of the Post-Apollo Press, always sent me her new books, and Etel always signed them affectionately. Having the chance to talk with Etel Adnan for Bidoun, at length and in her home in Sausalito, was a gift.

    Lynne Tillman: You’ve written that you can never separate experience from theory.

    Etel Adnan: We don’t just speak out, we order our thinking. If that’s what’s meant by theory, then you can’t escape it. If one means, rather, that any time one speaks, what one says is predetermined — for example, this is my way of speaking, I will conform everything to that style and approach — it is not only bad, but it also doesn’t work. It is why, sometimes, my work seems to go in many different directions. It could be harmful, but I can’t do otherwise. But to do that doesn’t mean not to have direction in one’s thinking or to be lost. I want to accept things as they come and see what to do with them.

    LT: One’s own experience of the world might always fall into a category or theory one believes.

    EA: I accept contradiction when it happens. Today I may say something philosophical — if I can talk of the idea of “being” separated from objects, then I can also say there is no “being” outside manifestation. One month later I might write its opposite and be aware of it. That doesn’t bother me, because I seek new connections. Of course, you must have some points of reference in your life.

    LT: War is an enduring point of reference for you.

    EA: I have become politically nonviolent. I’ve reached a point that this feels right. I will not compromise that. On other matters, I feel a kind of absolute, if we can use that word—I do not accept the sexual abuse of children. But I have very few of those absolutes. Everything else is in flux.

    LT: I admire writing when I feel there is an intelligence behind it, that the language is closely handled, in whatever form the writer happens to choose.

    EA: I don’t privilege one approach over another. I don’t privilege it within my own works. Some people are prisoners of the decisions they make.

    LT: It’s fascinating in Sitt Marie Rose, your novel about the Lebanese Civil War, the variety of styles and forms you chose. First, what does “sitt” mean?

    EA: “Sitt” is an Arabic word, used in Lebanon and Syria mostly, and Egypt, to mean “madam.” It’s not formal. A girl of five years old in conversation can be “little sitt so-and-so.” “Sitt” can also be for married or single women. It’s a colloquial way to address a woman. It carries some respect.

    LT: How did Sitt Marie Rose come about? When did you write it?

    EA: I wrote it before the end of 1976. The event it’s based on occurred in early ’76. The Christian Phalangists kidnapped a woman whose real name was Marie Rose. People immediately recognized her when the book came out.

    LT: You wrote it in French.

    EA: I was in Paris and had read in Le Monde about Marie Rose Boulos’s being kidnapped. I knew she was already dead. I became upset, and wanted to write it down. You are a writer, you know one discovers through writing matters that wouldn’t occur to you otherwise. I wanted to find out — all cultures include violence — which forms the Lebanese culture has taken. We don’t know any human group in history that hasn’t been violent. I don’t believe any nation is better than any other on that score. But what attracted me to this violence was my knowledge — the young men who kidnapped, tortured, and killed her, I had grown up with them. I knew Phalangists, and she was Christian, too. Through her they wanted to teach a lesson to the various factions.

    People use religion to excite people and send them to war, like Bush with the word “democracy.” It’s dogma misuse. The Phalangists were, in their minds, defending Christian values, but in fact they were defending their power against the Muslims. There are Orthodox Christians in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon. The majority of Christians in Lebanon are Catholic, so they had links with Rome, and the French, a Catholic nation. The French created a place where these Christians would have their own country — after World War I, when the big powers carved up the Middle East. But if everybody were Christian, the new country would have been too small. So they included territory inhabited by Muslims. This is the key to the Lebanese problem — the Christians of Lebanon say, and it’s true, the country was created by the French for them. But after two generations, the Christians found they were no longer a sizable majority. Today they are not the majority. It’s the source not of hatred but of the antagonism in Lebanon.

    LT: Your novel shifts and flows, from politics with its varied discourses, through voices and styles. One of its brilliant inventions is the deaf-mute schoolchildren.

    EA: What you call a silent majority.

    LT: [Laughs] They are taught by Sitt Marie Rose. They don’t speak — she is the only one who is kind to them. The four male characters, who represent various factions of the Christians, speak — they are all anti-Muslim. Sitt Marie Rose is sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.

    EA: Which was why she was killed.

    LT: The deaf children are presented “speaking” in the first person. Throughout all the formal changes, I was able to understand where I was, who was speaking; you included politics but didn’t re-create politics. You re-imagined everything — desire, impressions, feelings.

    EA: And the description of the state of war in a specific place. Politics is such an important part of our lives, whether we like it or not. Why shouldn’t it enter novels? In poetry, people mostly avoid politics. They think it’s not poetic. But The Iliad is a political work. I became an American poet by writing against the Vietnam War, I joined the movement by writing against the war, spontaneously.

    I feel the first thing is to be true to oneself. Now you will say, what if you are a monster and are true to yourself? [Laughing] If you’re a monster, you’re going to be true to that self anyway. But a movement of poets against the war didn’t happen with Iraq, which is as monstrous a war and as long. Why? We are in a period when there is, funnily enough, more poetry being written in proportion to the population than during Vietnam. Poets have followed the general apathy of the Bush and Reagan years.

    LT: Maybe that speaks about where poetry is in terms of its relationship to society. Some writers may feel themselves at a great distance.

    EA: It’s because of the kind of poetry they are writing — a very abstract poetry. They are discovering new forms, by complicating form and by avoiding anything that would smack of a message. And, like all great writing, it can defend itself beautifully.

    LT: In Virginia Woolf’s essay, “The Death of the Moth,” she observes a day moth — which lives twenty-four hours — and watches it die. By looking at it, she understands the struggle to live, the finality of death.

    EA: You’re right, one can express anything, in the most unexpected way.

    LT: What I want to suggest is that fiction and poetry need not be specific to a political event to embrace the effects and depredations to life because of war, violence, injustice.

    EA: No. I went to Iraq twice, and, in spite of Saddam’s dark side, there was great vitality, artistic vitality — it had the biggest readership of contemporary Arabic literature. Iraq had great painters, musicians. It was the most dynamic Arab country for some thirty years, with an excellent medical system, the best in the Arab world. So the destruction of it…

    Simultaneously, Saddam was an excessive character. You were for him or against him, no in between. In that sense, he was a total dictator. Still, something was happening there. There was the same oppressive rule in Syria, but without the counterpart in culture Iraq had. When America attacked Iraq, each time they moved, they destroyed it. I didn’t feel my best friends, poets or non-intellectuals, really cared. Though when you think about it, there is so much going on in the world, and Americans cannot care for everything. But this is something that America started and did.

    LT: There’s a passage from Sitt Marie Rose, which, though it came out here in 1982, could have been written now: “In this society where the only freedom of choice, when there is any, is between different brands of automobiles, can any notion of justice exist and can genocide not become an instable consequence.” It articulates the horrible sense of possibility of genocide.

    EA: Hatred can lead to genocide. You don’t win, so you will tomorrow, or after tomorrow, but you’ll keep going. There is no real rationale to it. The US is not immune, but prosperity made America relax. If this financial crisis goes on, ten people will fight for one job, and race or religion might lead to, “How come the Chinese and the Latinos have a job and I don’t?” To a degree, American prosperity created a certain benevolence.

    America is interesting — everything is true about it, and its opposite is true. There can be an atmosphere of benevolence, but the word “socialism” is taboo. In one way, we have a people’s country, there’s no aristocracy. We have a democracy in many ways, really. But people are horrified by universal health care, which Europe and Canada have as a matter of course.

    LT: I believe that existentialism as a philosophy is important to you.

    EA: Yes, I went to Paris as a student in 1950. Sartre was the great thing, and I had not heard of him in Beirut. It was like a miracle. I had come from a culture where we lived on a more basic level.

    My father was highly educated for those days, my mother was not. We had no books at home. My mother had the Gospels, she was a Greek from Smyrna — Greek Orthodox. My father was a Muslim from Damascus in the Ottoman Empire. He had the Qur’an, he knew it by heart. Amazingly, the books existed on a shelf next to each other. So I have no problem with coexistence. I grew up with it. People finished their education — if they were lawyers they went to law — but that generation didn’t have books in the home.

    In Paris, everything was new, astonishing, until I was thirty. I was in a stage of discovery for thirteen years, until I started teaching, which gave me a distance from reality. I was immersed in reality until I was thirty.

    LT: How do you mean, “reality”?

    EA: In the present — that type of reality. When I read Sartre, I was floored because I’d attended French Catholic schools, they were the only ones you could go to, and they hammered us with religion — you’re moral because you follow religion. Sartre said you could be moral without being religious.

    LT: Did you hear Sartre speak?

    EA: No, but his philosophy changed my life. Its second idea was about responsibility, and that is empowerment. I didn’t have the word or concept then, but it’s what existentialism offered people. Coming from a Catholic school, I know firsthand that you are meant to follow the church, the priest — then you are a good person. You go to confession. By saying you are responsible, you are your decisions — I think that’s liberation. It’s not, “Obey and shut up.”

    LT: I’m curious how your parents met. A Muslim from Syria, a Greek Catholic from Smyrna.

    EA: They met during WWI, in Smyrna, in the street. He followed her. They got married. He already had a wife and three children in Damascus, but he didn’t tell her. She was so poor that, for her, it was a fairy tale. He was governor of Smyrna, a top officer; he’d been Atatürk’s classmate, because though my father had been stationed in Damascus, the sole military school was in Istanbul. Then the war was lost, and my parents went to Beirut. From there it was downhill.

    LT: They were poor, but you were well educated.

    EA: I was educated because I went to a French school. But about my social class — I didn’t identify with the rich or the poor, though my father’s family in Damascus were among the top families. My mother was extremely poor when she grew up. She used to say there were only two jobs in Smyrna for women — to pick grapes for raisins or be a prostitute.

    LT: You often write about prostitutes.

    EA: If my mother hadn’t married my father, she may have been one. She was sixteen when he met her. Then the Greeks in Turkey were in concentration camps. Not like the German ones, more like the Japanese camps during WWII here.

    LT: Were they comfortable letting you go to Paris?

    EA: My father was dead by that time. It broke my mother’s heart. I was twenty-four when I went. I had a French government scholarship for three years.

    LT: How did that happen?

    EA: I worked from the age of sixteen. I was the only child. We needed money. I cut school for a year, and one day I was crying in the office, and my boss, a Frenchman, asked, “Why are you crying?” “Because everybody goes to school and I don’t.” He said, “Why not? I’ll help you.” But I said, “I work all day, there are no night classes. But I could take morning classes.” He let me come to the office at 10am instead of 8 — I made it up at night. I finished the whole program in two months instead of eight and received a baccalaureate, which allowed me to go into the third year of a French school that specialized in literature. I quit the first job and found one doing almost nothing, for a man who wanted to write a novel. He thought if I just sat there, he would write it. He didn’t, for two years, but I was paid every month. I read books in his library. [Laughing]

    In the French school, Gabriel Bounoure taught us Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Verlaine. He wanted literature to be free from the Jesuits, and he taught poetry. Thanks to him, we got an enlightened education. He’s the one who encouraged me to apply for a scholarship to Paris. I told him my mother didn’t want me to. When I told her, she went crazy. I was her only child, and I’d be in a foreign place. But I went.

    LT: You were very brave.

    EA: Brave in many ways, but also brave with no sense of the future. It was day-to-day bravery.

    LT: It raises the question of developing character, your character, and how you respond to others, and fashioning characters in fiction.

    EA: Some people have hardships that kill them. Others are made so bitter they have no hope. But hardships can also, in some cases, become experiences one can grow from.

    LT: Often in your writing, there are questions of liberty and madness. In Of Cities and Women, set in Barcelona, in the Ramblas, a woman walks down the street completely naked: “After she passed me I saw her from behind, and was wondering if she was really naked. She was. She continued down the avenue probably heading for the red light district… . Was this a scene of absolute liberty or of insanity?” I don’t know, sometimes, what I’m seeing.

    EA: That’s interesting, to say you don’t know what’s happening.

    LT: I’m wary of making judgments, generational ones — “In our day, this or that.” Nonetheless, what is being free or crazy? What’s possibility or breakdown?

    EA: They’re both such flexible notions. We don’t know completely what we mean by freedom, especially when freedom is used as a nuisance to others. We also don’t really know what insanity is.

    LT: We don’t know what the benefits or disadvantages of certain behaviors are or will be.

    EA: Insanity, as a category, has mostly disappeared. But how do you run a society between these two notions, both boundaries, which in effect include disorders? To implement law, what do you do when you have power? How do you use it? Stop? How to integrate contradictory rights?

    LT: In your poetics, you are very free. In Of Cities, you employ the epistolary form.

    EA: Because it gives one freedom. I wrote it because my friend Fawwaz wanted me to write a paper on feminism.

    LT: “Several questions come forward at the same time, pushing each other. Calling us or escaping us. Should we wish for the acceleration of this process, which is that women become more like men, or should we rather hope for the metaphysical distinctions…” You’re so succinct, discussing a complex issue that’s still very much with us. I’m not an essentialist, but how do we maintain differences and reduce inequality?

    EA: I have no answer, but it is a genuine question.

    LT: It’s also similar in regard to varieties of cultures and societies, religions — can we respect differences amidst, for lack of a better word, globalization?

    EA: The trend is toward uniformity. Obviously women have been acculturated to use their femininity, men their masculinity. I don’t think that we want to keep everything we have called “the feminine.” We need societies to maintain what I’d call a metaphysical balance, the different qualities of masculine and feminine. Aggression is part of life, but we also need a counter aggression. We need men who are against war as much as women — though there are more and more women for war. We need diversity and balance in the sexes.

    LT: It’s in your writing, though I don’t know if I’ve read the word as such: forgiveness.

    EA: Goodness of the heart. That is the core of Christ and Christianity. Everything else is an invention of his followers. When Jesus said, “I am the Son of God,” he didn’t mean it the way it’s interpreted. In Semitic languages, in Arabic, to be a “son” is an everyday expression. For example, a man might say, “Young man,” take him by the hand, then say, “My son, do you know what time it is?” To be the son is to be accepted. It’s a friendly word. When Jesus said, “I am the Son, Father,” he meant “I am accepted, and what I say is agreeable to the Father, to God.” He spoke in Aramaic, older even than Arabic.

    LT: In The Arab Apocalypse, an extraordinary epic poem, I noticed the word “sun” throughout. I’d never encountered “sun” presented in so many ways.

    EA: As a child, I had a strong sense of the presence of the sun. In the summer, the sun is very vivid in Beirut. I was fascinated by the shadow my own body made, when going for an afternoon swim. In my twenties, I heard the French say that Arabs were the children of the sun, les enfants du soleil. It was said with disdain — Arabs were irresponsible, grown-up children. And I remember walking into the mountains of my village, never wearing a hat, being very aware it was hot, feeling surrounded by the sun like a thief by the police. As I said, we didn’t have many books, and not having brothers and sisters, I was more involved with noticing what was around me.

    LT: In all of your work there’s a strong emphasis on nature and relationship to a sense of place. It’s as if to lose one’s place, to feel in exile or be in exile, focused you.

    EA: You’re absolutely right. My relation to place is also a desire to know where I am. When I arrive somewhere, I want to know, where’s south? My partner, Simone, asks, “Why do you bother?” I like to be oriented. I grew up as an anguished child, partly because of not having brothers and sisters in a society where I was marginal. My father, an Arab from Damascus, living in Lebanon — I was born and raised in Lebanon, my mother was Greek. The French were ruling Lebanon, so we were also marginal in relation to a colonial power. And my parents were a mixed marriage — there were few. I think I compensated by trying to know always where I was.

    LT: The Arab Apocalypse takes a unique approach to writing on the page — you use signs, lines, curves, symbols.

    EA: The signs are there as an excess of emotion. The signs are the unsaid. More can be said, but you are stopped by your emotion.

    LT: The word “stop” is in capital letters throughout. As in, “Stop This War.”

    EA: I wrote The Arab Apocalypse when Tel al-Zaatar was under siege. Tel al-Zaatar is a neighborhood in Beirut, where twenty thousand people, not all Palestinian but mostly Palestinian, lived underground. The Phalangists and their allies attacked in ’76. Maybe the fighters in the camp had some advance notice and left. But the women, children, and old people who remained were slaughtered. It was worse than Sabra and Shatila.

    LT: Worse than Sabra and Shatila?

    EA: It was as bad and worse. There was only one well, so women would go there for water. Maybe twenty, to make sure one got back. They were surrounded by snipers. The Arab Apocalypse is about Tel al-Zaatar — the hill of thyme — but its subject is beyond this siege, which was the beginning of the undoing of the Arabs. This war was the sign of disaster coming, that by mismanagement and mistakes, the Arabs would undo themselves.

    LT: The form and content of The Arab Apocalypse are imaginatively fused: “A sun and a belly full of vegetables, a system of fat tuberoses. A sun which is SOFT. The eucalyptus. The Arabs are under the ground. The Americans are on the moon. The sun has eaten its children. I myself was a morning blessed with bliss.” What’s produced is a sense of survival, even in the midst of atrocious conditions and behavior.

    EA: I started this book when I lived in Beirut. It’s fifty-nine poems, the same number as the days of the siege. I could hear the bombs from my balcony. For fifty-nine days, they didn’t let any food in, water, nothing. I saw a manifestation of pure evil. In metaphysics there is no word for that. I saw evil.

    LT: In Paris When It’s Naked, you quote Delacroix, who said he had to satisfy “something black” in him. It relates to your saying that violence or evil has no one country.

    EA: We have institutions, we try to control it. Or we decide to unleash it. But there is evil in every person to different degrees. Evil is part of being.

    LT: I think of it as cruelty to other people, to life.

    EA: And oneself. Power creates a temptation to be abusive. Nations that feel immune, or superior, sure to win, are not wise. Like the Bush administration, a folly of arrogance. In nature, there is danger, too. Because the sun is dangerous. It can kill you, burn you. But the sun is also life.

    LT: The Arab Apocalypse is a superb example of a poem that pays attention to poetics and place, war, politics — literally, what happens in the city.

    EA: There is the presence of war in almost everything I write. Beirut’s importance is because of war, it’s a child of WWI. In 1920 we had refugees from Armenia. WWII brought foreign armies, not bloodshed. Beirut profited, because when armies are around, there’s money. In ’58 a little civil war started. In ’67 another batch of refugees. In ’71 the Israelis bombed the airport. In ’75, the start of fifteen years of civil war. In 1982, the Israelis entered Beirut. There were other Israeli incursions, constant bombing of the south. Beirut was done and almost undone by war.

    LT: The Arab Apocalypse is like a jeremiad.

    EA: Yes. It’s pessimistic. I sometimes think I’m an optimist because I always advise myself to go on, overcome. But my vision of the world is pretty dark. I try not to forget the good of this world — not only good people, but the sunshine, the trees. There is also happiness in this world.

    LT: In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country is written in paragraphs: “A person. People here to portray there is a person who loves me to death. Not to my death or hers, but to the death of the person I loved… . I wonder who invented the ugly word punishment. It was probably God, who established the word and the deed.” From the word “person,” the paragraph leads to an unexpected end, to the possibility of people hurting each other.

    EA: Not the possibility. My heart had been broken. It’s full of allusions to my biography.

    LT: In the paragraph “Place,” you wrote, “I moved from city to city, traveled from person to person and then I tried to define myself through writing. But that doesn’t work. No, not at all. It adds fiction to the fiction I became… . I’m in a disorienting wilderness.” I want to focus on fiction itself. I think you’re trying to make a place from writing.

    EA: There is a sense of exile in everyone. We are exiled from each other, to a point. It’s what relationships are about — to close that gap as much as possible. Writing is a dialogue with that deep feeling. Some feel they came from somewhere. They have a strong illusion of belonging. Other people, or groups, have a special restlessness and understanding, a nomadic spirit. We’re so used to it, we don’t know how to be without it. Everything has its advantages. I don’t envy a French peasant in a village — I’m happy that she’s happy, but I can’t figure out that happiness.

    LT: You’ve said history is incorporated in individuals.

    EA: We are the result of history, more than we know — we think we are free from it. Nietzsche said, If you believe in freedom, you are stupid, but if you don’t feel freedom, you’re doomed. You function in relation to the entire moral code that is based on responsibility and, therefore, freedom of choice.

    LT: In Sitt Marie Rose, your protagonist maintains her freedom by not trading places with her Palestinian lover. She won’t let him be killed instead of her.

    EA: She chose to die, she didn’t want to die. The Phalangists offered to trade her—that would have been treason to her.

    LT: Sitt Marie Rose was an extraordinary woman. You represent women and their place in the world — not just in the Arab world — and also in terms of their feminism.

    EA: I am a feminist, first because I was a rebellious child. I was not a conscious rebel, but an instinctive one. I couldn’t get along with my mother. I wanted to do what I wanted to do, like taking a taxi in Beirut when I was sixteen — girls didn’t take taxis. I took a particular pleasure in it. I wouldn’t walk in the streets, I’d always run. I didn’t want to get married — I thought marriage was a prison. I became more politically involved when I attended Berkeley. Society is conservative, you always have to behave. I was a natural rebel.

    LT: I was intrigued by a statement of yours, that you fear Western civilization.

    EA: Conquering is always at the expense of somebody else. Western civilization behaves as if it offers redemption — the Israelis were the last example of that. They came as Westerners, Europeans, but Western civilization, like all civilizations, had invaded others. But most of the other civilizations tried to integrate the indigenous people — the Romans had emperors who were Arabs, Alexander wanted to join East and West. The Chinese had many ethnic groups. The West is the most racist of civilizations. It eradicates the conquered people. For example, Belgium was responsible for twelve million Congolese deaths. When the West couldn’t eradicate outside its boundaries, it eradicated within, as Germany did. Western civilization speaks about itself as a model, but it has a very dark side.

    LT: You became a pacifist. What other great changes have you undergone?

    EA: I had no interest in politics until living in Paris in 1950. Israel was just being created, it didn’t exist in my head. In 1956, at Berkeley, I joined the Arab Students Association and met a young Palestinian woman, the first I knew. My position then was that Palestine had to be liberated, in any way — we had to win that war. This was the case until the Oslo Accords, ten years ago, when I decided I was not against peace. Oslo was a turning point — it made me a pacifist. I still believe the Palestinians have a cause, but I believe it is natural that we live together and build anew.

    Writing also changes me. I don’t lie when I write. Something happens, and I must discover it. Writing forces one to go to the bitter end of what one thinks.

    Click here to read Etel Adnan’s musings on the life of small magazines.

    Sonallah Ibrahim

    Odd man out

    Illustration by Babak Radboy

    In October of 2003, Sonallah Ibrahim was named the Arab Novelist of the Year, one of the greatest honors in Arabic literature. At the ceremony at the lavish Cairo Opera House, he slowly and calmly walked up to the stage where the minister of culture stood. Ibrahim, who is rail thin with a frizzy shock of silver hair, pulled out some prepared remarks and proceeded to read into the tiny microphone what amounted to a rejection letter. “We no longer have theater or cinema or scientific research or education. We only have a collection of festivals and conferences and a bin of lies,” he said, going on to eviscerate a “government that lacks credibility,” and citing “the oppression of the people by the Egyptian political system.” He then exited the stage just as calmly as he had entered it. Eyewitnesses report that the minister’s face turned blue as the hall broke out in bouts of confused but hearty applause. From that day, Ibrahim’s quiet but devastating indictment of his would-be honorers has come to be known as “the Opera incident.”

    Ibrahim is no stranger to iconoclasm. In the 1950s, after half-heartedly studying law at Cairo University, he joined the Egyptian Communist Party, a crime that landed him in prison for five years, from 1959 to 1964. Out of that experience came Tilk El Ra’iha (Smell of It, 1966), a uniquely bleak tale of a man’s psychological odyssey following his release from prison. The book was swiftly banned — ostensibly for its frank sexual content — and would spend the next decades making its way around the black market.

    Ibrahim went away to East Germany to work at a news agency, and later to Moscow to study cinema on a scholarship. There he collaborated with Syrian filmmaker Mohamed Malas on a film about Egyptian political prisoners, but soon realized that literature was his true calling. He returned to Egypt in 1974 and went on to pioneer a distinctive literary style that often incorporated documents drawn from real life — newspapers, transcripts of radio and television broadcasts, and other bits of pulp ephemera. His concerns were varied but almost inevitably zeroed in on the lives of little people — bureaucrats, failed revolutionaries, writers, artists of all stripes — at the mercy of the powerful.

    His works include: Najmat Aghustus (Star of August, 1974), a tale of the building of the Aswan Dam; El Lajna (The Committee, 1981), a curious allegory about multinational corporations and their discontents; Beirut, Beirut (1984), a stylized depiction of Lebanon’s devastating civil war; Zaat (1992), the tale of a masturbating female civil servant interspersed with a surreal litany of headlines drawn from Egyptian newspapers; Warda (2000), an account of a revolutionary woman in the Sultanate of Oman; and Amerikanly (2003), which portrays Egyptian-US relations with the story of a visiting Egyptian professor at an American university. His latest books are El Amama wa El Qubaa (The Turban and the Hat, 2008), which addresses the French occupation of Egypt under Napoleon, and El Qanoon El Ferensy (The French Law, 2009). This past April, Ibrahim sat down with theater director Ahmed El Attar in the writer’s tiny, overfull Heliopolis flat to discuss the legacy of his time in prison, the question of engagement in literature, and the curious state Egypt finds itself in today, six years after “the Opera incident.”

    Ahmed El Attar: When did you realize you were to become a writer?

    Sonallah Ibrahim: I decided I would be a novelist in prison. I’d had a passion for journalism since I was young. Later, in my twenties, I got into political work and decided to become a twenty-four-hour revolutionary. Gradually, I began to feel like that wasn’t for me either, and this feeling became more profound in prison, where I was with great leaders, intellectuals, heroes, college professors, workers, and other strong, extraordinary personalities, who were able to influence others. I felt I was incapable of doing what they did, and I felt that writing was the only way for me, because it provides great freedom. One isn’t obliged to be sensitive to things or the words of a person responsible for you, who tells you what to do and what not to do. You’re free to do whatever you want.

    AEA: You wrote a manuscript in prison that you published many years later as Memoirs of the Oasis Prison.

    SI: It’s true. It’s a diary that I wrote on cigarette papers I had smuggled in while in the Oasis prison. That was 1963. The book is divided into three parts. The first is a biography that addresses how I ended up in prison. The second was a diary that literally recorded what was happening on a daily basis — to the point that there are things in it that are naive, others that are funny, and still others that are quite ambiguous. Afterward I made notes or references in which I described these things. They really do represent a genuine daily diary, which I smuggled out of prison and carried around with me for forty years. I finally said to myself one day, I want to publish this. Basically, it’s a literary composition. It’s an anthology about issues related to writing, like, To whom should I write? How should I write? It’s about the idea of commitment. I didn’t write so much about personal incidents or events. I was more concerned with the issue of writing itself.

    AEA: I’ve always appreciated the way you present political and social issues through documents and historical records. Although it probably can’t be claimed that this kind of approach makes for an objective presentation of events or history, it allows readers to see the entire picture in a neutral way.

    SI: You can say “objective,” not “neutral” — “neutral” has unpleasant implications.

    AEA: At the same time, you’ve had a clear political and social stance since the 1960s. How do you explain your very specific political orientation and the fact that you still manage to present issues in a balanced way?

    SI: There are two explanations. The first is, I was young when I began my political life, and I held a singular vision. I was a fanatic and biased about it and couldn’t see much of anything else. Later, I went to prison, and while there I had the chance to listen to many different points of view. I matured and began to contemplate many issues, even confronted myself… And secondly, when I start working on any subject, any novel, a very personal factor figures in. For example, there may have been a love experience that leaves me trying to understand a particular thing, or trying to understand a psychology that isn’t my own, or even trying to understand why multinational companies behave in whatever way they do. For example, with Beirut, Beirut

    AEA: Weren’t you in Beirut during the war?

    SI: For a very short while. I went during a truce or something, for a period of about a month, in which a love story took place. Just before, I had written The Committee and Smell of It, and I said to myself, “Enough of this… I want to write a love story.”

    And as I began to write, I found myself getting caught up in the Lebanese Civil War, saying to myself, Shouldn’t I try to understand exactly what this is all about? So I began to research. I found films, documents, and so on, and went to the archives…

    AEA: The appropriation of all kinds of documents and documentation in your work became a fundamental part of your style. In spite of the fact that it has many positive aspects, do you also see it having a negative side as a literary form?

    SI: Of course, some readers may feel that this documentary style is pointless. And that the ideas within could have been presented through the progression of the story itself. Others think that there is no place for such external ephemera in the novel itself. But I don’t agree, because the novel in itself can cope with many things, just as theater or cinema can.

    Still, the use of documentation could drive the reader away from the main story line or even lead him to ignore it. For example, the novel Zaat has both a narrative section about a character and a section of newspaper cutouts along with it. I know that some readers followed the narrative alone, while others followed the newspaper cutouts only, depending on their degree of interest. Sometimes I wished that the documentation could actually evolve into something concrete within the story itself. But, this is often difficult. For example, in a story like Beirut, Beirut — if I didn’t insert a twist in the narrative by adding these documents, I would have needed to present characters from every side, and that would mean reflecting twenty or thirty different sects, each one having to express their side, and so on.

    AEA: But I see that it’s a fundamental element of your work because it provides for a general framework, one that’s more intimate or specific to the narrative. And I don’t consider the events themselves as intrusive — rather, they play a complementary role. This is what gives the work its political and social dimension.

    SI: You see them as complementary and not essential. How do you mean?

    AEA: When I read, I read things as a whole. That is what drew me into all these works, as was the case in Zaat, Sharaf, and Warda — all of which paved the way for me to research specific subjects in my own work. This was also a fundamental part of my reading of Honor and The Committee — because what I found in the archives and documentation you included was not always represented in the main plot but rather presented in the subplots, as you also did in Beirut, Beirut. We’re not always reading about a progressive or socialist party in Beirut in the book — we read about this man who killed that man, or raped that woman, or about the woman they married off to that man. All these elements present different dimensions that comprise a journal of sorts.

    When we criticize the government in Egypt, we’re used to facing excuses. We come up against definitive and indisputable arguments backed by “evidence.” One says to the government, for example, “The streets are teeming with garbage,” and they respond, “You have no idea how many billions we’ve spent on this problem, and therefore you must stop insisting on what you perceive as our lack of credibility.” So my question is, what is your relationship to these “facts” as substantiated by newspapers, magazines, and books? Is this the government’s way of dealing with the skeptical citizen?

    SI: Yes. These documents also conceal certain truths about the issues addressed… One senses when one reads today’s newspaper — for example, take Al-Ahram — one finds what is written within it is contradicted by what is written in another daily, Al-Masri Al-Youm. Some subjects, such as strikes or demonstrations, are completely nonexistent in Al-Ahram.

    AEA: There’s a feeling of void, of emptiness in your works, a feeling that things rarely change. A main character might wake up in the morning, drink coffee, leave the house, meet this or that person, and then return home, without any excitement or enthusiasm. This is the feeling that we’re living with today in Egypt, that we’ve been living with for the past fifty years. Or perhaps all of this is based on your personal feelings?

    SI: Of course, it’s most likely that it’s a personal sentiment coming from inside me. There’s an inner feeling that all of it is in vain. I really can’t judge. But, deep inside me there’s a pessimist. At the same time, I sometimes resist this feeling with a rational outlook, and I feel like there’s a possibility for optimism, and that I can still do things.

    AEA: You chose a clear political posture and social stance during the Opera incident, and then you wrote a small piece about it. When I read that piece, I wanted to cry. It was unprecedented. Intellectuals, artists, and writers tend to talk too much without really saying anything. Your words were so categorical and so precise. You simply said, “What’s going on?” Has your political or social stance changed since you spent time in prison in the ’60s?

    SI: Politically and intellectually, I don’t believe I’m the same as I was fifty years ago. And that’s because I’ve gained more insight, and I’ve come to realize the error in some of my thoughts and ideas. And I’ve evolved in my ways of thinking and in the way I present subjects, because of the way the world has changed. Today I understand family, women, and social relationships at a more profound level than when I was twentyfive.

    AEA: I know that you like to stay away from the spotlight, but with the Opera incident, you chose direct confrontation.

    SI: That’s true. In the past, I was always putting off conflict. But I feel that the situation has reached a breaking point, and that we’ve been placed under an unbearable degree of stress. It has inspired rebellion in people for the first time, an emerging vitality of the “other” point of view. When I think back, it’s true I didn’t feel like I could go and receive the award and go through all those congratulatory formalities, which I can’t stomach very easily anyway — but at the same time, I saw it as an opportunity to speak my mind. So I decided not to decline. I went in order to let it out, to say and project all that people wanted to say but could not. I believe that it was a successful initiative from one perspective, from the perspective that my appearance was a surprise for them. They didn’t anticipate that I’d actually come. So they weren’t able to react fast enough, and that’s why I escaped arrest. Anyway, things have changed. Today there are no media blackouts, as there were before. Today you’ll find attacks against President Mubarak and others in the press, and scandals and whatnot are being exposed as never before. I remember that when I got home that day, I felt serene and at peace with myself.

    AEA: It was rare not only for Egypt but also in the Arab world. People don’t refuse awards from the government — any government. This is, unfortunately, especially true in the recent period. At the beginning of the last century there were several writers who took clear political stands, like Abbas El Akkad. Good writers still exist, but their political stands are vague. Naguib Mahfouz is a case in point.

    SI: That’s true. Someone like Naguib Mahfouz is an example of the small employee who chooses to stay close to the wall and who plays out his intellectual adventures within his novels — in the end, he’s still an employee.

    We have another example, the leftist writer Abd El Rahman El Sharqawi, who has held all manner of official positions, revealing a complete double standard that’s unlike even that of Naguib Mahfouz. I was at the founding elections for the Writers Syndicate back in the 1970s, and Sharqawi was present. We all refused their list of candidates, and he hid in one of the rooms, talking to and receiving instructions from one of the government’s men, Youssef El Sebai or one of those characters.

    AEA: Writers today — or those we label as writers — don’t take specific stands on the issues at hand. Why have writers become so reticent?

    SI: From my point of view, the issue is tied to the weakness of the middle class. Every country has witnessed a problematic relationship between its intellectuals and the authorities. Take, for example, the American model. During and after World War II, intellectuals were with the Left. During the McCarthy era, a total collapse ensued, which revealed that even Elia Kazan was working for the authorities and giving away names, despite the fact that he was a great director. This reveals a weakness before the authorities. This is a problem that exists, and it is a problem that increases the weakness of the middle class. In England, a stable, industrialized society exists where there is a strong middle class, and there is an agreement as to the breadth of freedom of speech, which can go as far as criticizing the king. But we don’t have anything of the sort here. Instead, we have an unstable middle class, due to several factors, including the Ottoman legacy, the modern “monopolistic” state established by Mohammed Ali, the English colonization, and so on. Furthermore, the prevailing ignorance that existed didn’t allow for the middle class to develop.

    [The nationalist industrialist] Talaat Harb tried to do something for the country in the earlier part of the last century, to gather finances and establish factories. And this was a very important moment of awakening for the middle class. Had this continued, it could have generated a middle class that was economically strong and viable and therefore had political clout. But he couldn’t. Talaat Harb couldn’t sustain these initiatives due to colonization and weakness, and because of the role the feudal lords played. After all this, most of the shares of these companies ended up in the hands of the feudal lords, the English and other foreigners. And this is part of the explanation for the weakness of the writer’s economic status. The great majority of writers have to work in other fields because they can’t make a living from their writing. Therefore, in one form or another, the writer is dependent on the state institution as a result of the weakness of his economic class.

    AEA: You’re the only Egyptian writer — or, at least, one of the few Egyptian writers — who doesn’t write for newspapers. You only write novels.

    SI: There are more and more of us. This itself can be considered an expression of the degree of change we’ve witnessed in this country. When [writer and former Minister of Education] Mohammed Hussein Haykal wrote Zeinab he claimed that it was the work of a peasant, and he didn’t sign the book. Or, look at Tawfiq El Hakim, who used to work in the union, and was self-conscious about his writings and his plays. But society today has evolved, and the idea of the independent writer has evolved. Ten years ago, for example, when I went to the tax revenue department to submit my annual tax forms, I had to list that I was a composer, in the “field of occupation” section. The tax department employee said, “If you’re a music composer, that means you must make a lot of money.” But today, one can actually say that one is a writer. On my last national identity card, they refused that my occupation be listed as “writer” and instead insisted that I am a member of the Writers Syndicate. Nevertheless, it was a great step in defining the status of the writer in this country.

    As for the newspapers, I just didn’t consider that my profession. I wanted to have a defined career, as a writer, and as a writer dedicated to writing narratives specifically. Furthermore, I don’t have the capacity to write a column every week. It’s quite impossible to do so when it comes to the question of remaining independent of the “system.” And along with my isolationist tendencies, my health and nerves just don’t permit me to work on two things at the same time.

    AEA: It’s clear from what you’re saying that the writer is also independent in spirit. However, there are practical needs in life that don’t allow a writer to subsist on writing alone, including a need for some kind of connection with these institutions.

    SI: Conditions in society and even marriage, children, schools, can paralyze a person. Fortunately, my wife and I got married thirty years ago. At the time, I worked in a publishing house, and I got married with the understanding that I would work from home. Naturally, at first, this was very difficult. I was obliged to do other things, like translations and children’s stories, to make money. But, at the same time, I was raised as a simple person, with little desire for material possessions or wealth beyond the minimum needed to make ends meet.

    AEA: This is rare in Egyptian society, which is extremely consumer driven.

    SI: Society imposes many things on us. I have a doctor friend, for example, who is astounded that I don’t have a satellite dish. He’s even offered to raise money to get me one. And other people are surprised to learn that I don’t have a car. In fact, my wife had a car that she bought and I got rid of because it was a headache… repairing it, maintaining it, the traffic. These are examples of the bourgeois ambitions of Egyptian society.

    Imagine if the problem of transportation had been dealt with from the beginning, and, for example, the bicycle became accepted as a means of public transportation, like in China and France, where you can rent a bicycle at numerous locations, use it to get to where you need to go, and leave it at another location for the next person to use… or, the use of small vehicles like the tuk-tuk was accepted. But we have the naive desire of the peoples of the third world, who depend on flaunting big cars to show one’s social status or success in life.

    AEA: So in a society such as ours, the indication of success for all occupations or professions, whether they’re doctors or writers, is material. Does this have ramifications for the writer? Are you bitter that there are few cultural venues for discussing literature, for example?

    SI: No, honestly, there is no bitterness. In fact, what’s strange is that there’s a feeling of comfort, because there is a mania with the persona that comes with becoming a star or celebrity. The “star” went to that place, the “star” went home to sleep, the “star” is present at a certain occasion, and so on. And being away from all of this commotion is a source of comfort for me.

    AEA: In the past, I’ve held performances at the American University because my plays have complicated technical requirements. Also, it means I don’t have to deal with the government union — and the only stage available is at the university. During the last Iraq war, I had a performance there and wanted to invite you, but people said that you wouldn’t come because of the venue. Is that true?

    SI: It began with invitations to meet with students. After a while, I began to feel a contradiction between my political stance toward the Americans, and these meetings with the students at the American University, because it is an American institution. The week before, the Al-Masri Al-Youm newspaper had revealed how much money [the university] had taken from the Pentagon for its research. This matter is not tied to why I don’t go to the American University. I can go there, but I don’t want to.

    AEA: You’ve spent time in America. You’ve also lived in Amman, Moscow, and Beirut for a short period. How do you feel when you’re outside of Egypt?

    SI: I also lived in Germany for three years. Still, I’m unable to adapt to life anywhere outside Egypt. I mean, here, I’m so irritated most of the time by the dirt, the noise, and the commotion, but nevertheless I find that I can’t live anywhere else. For example, I lived in France, for three months in Bordeaux, and I was tired…

    I also don’t have a talent for languages. I don’t even have the ear to take in or absorb another language. So there’s a barrier whether I study German, Russian, or English, and despite the fact that I have had to deal with English for the last forty years, and even translate from English to Arabic and vice versa — despite all this, I’m still uncomfortable. This was the decisive factor in making me unable to adapt in these societies. For example, I didn’t stay in Germany, although I had a girlfriend there and [it] would have been possible. I can’t imagine myself wearing a hat and carrying an umbrella. The sun is important to me, tied to my physical constitution.

    But still, for me, language is the fundamental basis of all relationships. For example, if you’re with an Egyptian woman, with one word or letter or gesture, you may find common realities. This is something we can’t achieve in another language, so the relationship always remains slightly formal — even if there is sexual compatibility… there will always be a distance. Unless you have a strong command of a language, like my mother and father had when they met. So this relationship to language came to me at a very young age and very naturally. And that is another story.

    Omar Sleiman

    Beirut book bazaar

    All images courtesy Lana Daher

    Last year, Bidoun took a field trip to Beirut to attend the Home Works Forum hosted by Ashkal Alwan, to collect phrenological data, and to go book shopping in preparation for our PULP issue. The books, magazines, and pamphlets that would appear in that issue came almost exclusively from two West Beirut bookstores owned by one man — Omar Sleiman.

    Sleiman’s stores are a dying breed. One doesn’t enter a store like this looking for a specific volume. Instead, the book finds you. Order and disorder intermingle in a way that seems to discredit both. Books are organized by size and format — or else by subject matter — sometimes vertically on the ground, other times horizontally on shelves. And there is, of course, a basement.

    Within the disarray, an ethos is at work, and it’s one that is arguably more democratic and more true to the nature of the history, memory, and gestalt mode of cultural production that books are supposed to represent than of any Dewey decimal. Here, there is a small and particular collection of political books translated into Arabic, which Sleiman publishes himself. These books, with their clumsy clip-art covers, happen to appear in the front windows of almost every bookstore in West Beirut. They represent a strange constellation: 1984 by George Orwell, The Antichrist by Friedrich Nietzsche, Das Kapital by Karl Marx, Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and the Kabbalah. Bidoun sent Lana Daher to Book Bazaar to talk shop and try to learn more about where this peculiar canon is pointing, and why.

    Lana Daher: Do you collect things at home that you don’t share with the store’s clientele?

    Omar Sleiman: Anyone who owns a bookstore — especially if it’s old — has a private collection. The collector doesn’t know what he wants to do with this collection, but he knows that it would be a shame to sell the books in it or give them away. I don’t know what I’ll end up doing with my books, but I would never sell them.

    LD: Do you at least share them with friends?

    OS: I don’t show them to people, because if I do, they’ll want to buy them, or get them one way or another. I don’t let anyone visit me at home. I have around two thousand books there, each one organized in crates or on shelves.

    LD: Are there things that some people buy more than others?

    OS: No. You give customers a huge collection to choose from, and they leave with one book. There is no money in the book business.

    LD: Do you find people are reading more or less these days?

    OS: I’m not talking about reading, I’m talking about buying. When the situation in the country is good, they buy. After Hariri’s assassination and the war in 2006 and the events of 2007 and those of May 2008… all of these situations have affected the economy. In the past four years, in Hamra alone, ten bookstores have closed down, among them some very important ones, like Nawfal and All Prints and Maktabat Ras-Beirut. Many others are practically closed down but have not made it official yet. Of course, these stores are also closing down because people just don’t read anymore.

    LD: When did you open this store?

    OS: I’ve had an interest in collecting since 1974, when I started buying books in France, where I lived for six years. I used to buy books and send them to Lebanon. But the idea of opening a shop didn’t really mature until sometime between ’95 and ’98. By that time, I had crates filled with books, and I had no more room for them.

    This shop opened on September 4, 2001, seven days before September 11. You know, I predicted that event back in July 2001. I knew that on September 11 something massive would happen, but I didn’t know what. I thought something would happen in Lebanon, though. I thought that there would be inflation, that the Lebanese lira would drop and the value of the dollar would increase. So I advised all of my friends to exchange their money and convert it to dollars, which they did. But as we know, what happened on September 11, 2001, had nothing to do with inflation or the Lebanese lira.

    LD: Have you ever inherited books from anyone?

    OS: Yes. My sister once wanted to throw out some books. I put them inside of the trunk of my car and went off to sell them. Before selling them, I skimmed through the stacks and selected a few for myself. One of them is my most prized book, The Road to Authority, by Fouad Awad. This book truly touched me. He was responsible for the revolution, or the attempted coup by the Syrian Social Nationalist Party in 1961. He wrote the book after spending ten years in jail, after they tortured him and fucked him and his comrades. In this book, he explains how the coup attempt went wrong.

    When I read The Road to Authority in the early ’90s, I was a major in the army. I was shocked. I felt cheated. I couldn’t understand why I knew nothing of this story. Something historic had taken place in the army and in my country, and I had never even heard of it. I had never heard of Fouad Awad either. Maybe the coup attempt was a mistake. That’s just a matter of opinion. But whether it was a mistake or not, it resulted in the condemnation of tens of thousands in ’62 and ’63. I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t heard of this event. Isn’t it my right to know what happened in the army? Could the Lebanese army be without memory? This shocked me. I realized I needed to read, or I would never know anything.

    You see, when I started to collect books, I stopped reading them, especially after I got my engineering degree from France. I was studying textiles and chemistry in Lille from 1974 until 1980. I used to think that the limits of the world were one’s major in college, and I mostly read technical books on topics related to my field, though I would still collect the rest.

    LD: Were you collecting books during the Lebanese Civil War?

    OS: Of course. I never stopped. When I returned to Lebanon, I became a lieutenant in the army. At first, I was single, and my pay was meager. It barely covered my expenses, and there was no way I could afford a house on my own, so I lived with my parents. Then there was the chaos of 1980 and ’81. I was still in the army, and in 1982 and ’83, my salary increased, thanks to General Tannous. Then there was the intifada in 1984, and my salary went through the roof, jumping from $300 to $1500 per month. Later that year, political parties began to take over the area… and there was inflation. By 1986, my salary had fallen to $20. But there were always a lot of books available for cheap — and no one was reading, so book merchants were selling at low prices.

    LD: What do you read now?

    OS: Well, I don’t read technical literature anymore. I stopped reading that sort of thing in 1995 — six years before I left the army as a colonel. Since then I’ve been reading history, philosophy, politics, and a little bit of psychology. I also read Le Point, a weekly magazine that I’ve been collecting at home for nine years.

    LD: Do you feel you have any competition now?

    OS: The field has no competition, because there are no customers. When there are a lot of clients, you can fight with your neighbor over them, but now there are no clients to fight over. Big companies are monopolizing the market, and what the little people are fighting over is just the remaining 20 percent. In Lebanon there’s also a linguistic problem. When you say “bookstore” (maktaba), people think you sell stationery. This is the Lebanese population for you! If they find books in a bookshop, they are surprised. When I started to sell books, people told me to sell stationery, too. Without newspapers, magazines, and stationery, you won’t make any money, they said. But I refused.

    LD: Do you ever buy books because they’re aesthetically appealing?

    OS: I don’t buy things because I’m attracted to them. I buy what I think my customers will be interested in. One book is popular this month, I get a stock of it. Then next month it’s dead. Every once in a while, political books get popular, so we translate and publish them. Then all of a sudden, no one wants to read them anymore, they completely die, so I’m stuck with an overstock. I don’t understand it. I should just make my predictions. I work with numbers.

    LD: Is this kind of predicting something you’ve done since you were young?

    OS: No. But since 1998 I’ve been predicting all kinds of events based on numerical proofs related to past events.

    LD: Does it work?

    OS: Sometimes yes, sometimes no. But people get stupefied — they always come back when it works. Of course, they also come back to tell me when it doesn’t work. I predicted Hillary Clinton would win the American election. People came back to tell me that I had lost and Obama had won.

    LD: What was your last prediction?

    OS: I can’t tell you.

    LD: Do customers ever buy books that make you roll your eyes?

    OS: I am vicious, very vicious. I have no taboos. Sex, erotic novels, porn. I read porn. Every once in a while I enjoy reading an erotic novel. I don’t draw a line between good and evil, and what I allow myself, I allow for others.

    I don’t like poetry. I don’t know how to evaluate it or estimate its price — it means nothing to me. So I don’t get much of it, unless it’s in high demand among university students. But now they all photocopy everything. I don’t think they know that they can get the books from my store for even cheaper than the photocopies.

    LD: You should advertise that fact with a poster. I can do it for you.

    OS: No, I’d rather not. It’s their own problem if they don’t know. People don’t know anything anymore. They don’t understand marriage or politics or anything, because they don’t read. And their parents didn’t teach them anything. Thirty or forty years ago, mom and dad used to teach their children everything they knew, but now they rely on schools. Mothers work and can’t be bothered to spend time with their kids at the end of the day, so they put them in front of the TV.

    You sleep for eight hours, work for eight hours, commute for an hour, eat for two hours, and there are five hours left. What do you do in those five hours? TV from 7 to 11. Poison hours of propaganda.

    How does reading decrease? You add distractions to the world. You can’t even speak in restaurants anymore, because you can’t hear the person sitting in front of you. The transmission of knowledge takes place through words, and they are trying to drown out words, and our voices, with these distractions.

    LD: Tell me about the books you publish.

    OS: I choose them based on my own political feelings. All the books that I translated and published had a big bang; they started a revolution in this city. I prepared the titles, published them, and they became number one in the Arab world. They include The Gambler by Dostoevsky, The Prince by Machiavelli, The Jewish State by Theodor Herzl, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and lots more.

    You know, reading keeps you away from obsessions and rumors, which are some of life’s many traps. I used to be obsessive about conspiracies. I used to be sick and depressed. Then they discovered that I was psychosomatic. I went to many doctors, but eventually I saved myself by reading Health Makes Miracles, Gaylord Hawerz. That book saved my life.

    Lawrence Weiner


    There’s a scene in the 1991 cult classic Slacker in which a young man’s plans to burglarize a house are foiled by the arrival of the house’s owner, an aging anarchist who literally disarms him with nothing more than his coolly existential elocution: “Don’t worry, I won’t call the police — I hate them even more than you do.” Eventually the burglar stuffs his gun in his pants and the two take a walk along a grassy knoll, discussing JFK and the Spanish Civil War.

    When I visited Lawrence Weiner in his West Village home studio, I didn’t intend to rob him. But I was planning on shooting him the next morning with a large format camera, and I had come armed with a 1983 issue of Real Life magazine featuring an interview with him.

    In it he remarked that most artists could not properly conceive of their work in the context of society because they saw their work as an act of production, when in fact it functioned within a service industry — that the real content of an artwork in society was not its manifestation but its very reason for existing.

    Twenty-five years later, I interpreted this to be an appealing subversion of the agency of the artist. A fatalistic notion that simply by deciding to make art, the artist enters into a nonnegotiable relation with the mode of production.

    As it turned out, I had completely misunderstood his statement, and for reasons I could not have anticipated. Neither could I have anticipated just how incredibly generous, warm, and charming I would find Mr. Weiner, how disarming this would be, and how much I would learn from our misunderstanding.

    Babak Radboy: I want to understand this statement about art as a service industry.

    Lawrence Weiner: I really believe this shit, you know, that’s part of the problem. I’m not a Frank Capra person, but I like Frank Capra movies. I really believe that the reason that art functions in our society — and it has a real function — is that you are having a conversation. You are building objects that allow people to find out where they’re standing in relation to the world. And the work itself has to develop. When you have a specific form for something, that form, then, becomes exotic. But if there is no specific form, it can take any form. It can be a hole in the wall, it can be language, it can be aural or visual. That allows that work to continue to exist within society — without forcing society to give it reverence. That’s our job. Not to make commodities to be sold at Christie’s and Sotheby’s.

    Art has to be sold in some way so that artists don’t have to maintain a relationship with the people they are criticizing. Art is all about criticism. It’s all about anger. If you are happy with the way the world is, why would you need art? But if you make art that doesn’t have a specific form, it doesn’t have to adapt. It curves itself around the changing patterns of the world, without changing its own meaning. It accepts the fact that the meaning is there. I found that so simple, and it became such a radical thing. It’s like saying that a work of art, if you can get the meaning across, doesn’t necessarily have to have a form. It could be in any form that you see it in. That’s not a radical thought. And that’s not even a radical interview.

    BR: Maybe not, but it had an effect on me. I guess I find myself in a position — I mean completely in my own head and regarding my own work as an artist — of being pensive at a door of participation, trying to decide if art works at all within culture. And regarding my own work, I’ve always thought in terms of a product. That if I was to have agency in the process of production, the content of a work would be the product, and the message of the work would be the way the product interacted with the world. Imagining art production as a service industry kind of pulled the carpet out from under me…

    LW: Sorry about that.

    BR: No, No!

    LW: No, but in fact the product, the object that you’re talking about — which we all make, in some way — matter, or form, if it can enter into a discourse with society, even if to be rejected — serves its purpose. When you have an idea that your work is useful in society — and I do — when you make a thing, an object, a specific object, that enters the world, that becomes part of the discourse of the world, it’s very different than when you make something, you put it in a gallery structure, you get it accredited, it’s there, and then you say, “This is what it means.” Obviously, it didn’t mean it, because people aren’t stupid. They really aren’t. All this signage in museums is a waste of time. People figure it out for themselves.

    The artist is asking a question. And some questions hit the point. And I mean, sometimes you lose. You know that, don’t you? When you make a product, you never lose. You’re always unappreciated, ahead of your times — they have lots of words for it. You make a product that is just ultimately rejected, but you’ve designed the product in such a manner that they can’t reject it without telling someone about it. I got an award once, and I thanked the people for having hated what I did so much that there wasn’t a person in the world who didn’t know about it. It was very much like the African native who had never seen a motion picture, but damn well knew that Greta Garbo wanted to be alone.

    BR: Ha!

    LW: And you know something? Everybody laughed. Because in fact that’s not personal. Why should they have accepted me coming along saying that we have to change things in the art world? It’s not about that. The artist doesn’t know better, the artist is asking a question.

    Let’s try to make something that really and truly fucks up the world, that doesn’t come in with authority. And as it begins to acquire authority, let’s hope we all develop to a point where what we did is what we’ve learned from, and what we do is what we’re questioning now. In the aftermath of what you’ve done — that’s a service industry. Paying attention. Most art doesn’t pay attention to the culture it comes from, it just uses it.

    BR: I wonder if I’ve misunderstood. I find that when I read post-Marxist discourse from the ’80s, I know that I’m looking at it in a perversely disconnected way.

    LW: I know — it doesn’t relate!

    BR: I mean, I didn’t go to school, and my reading is really random anyway. I don’t know if other people have the feeling that they have a foundation, but I definitely just jump in at all these different points.

    LW: They have a foundation — based on the biases of who their teacher was. I left school at a certain age, just walked away from it.

    BR: Did you drop out?

    LW: It wasn’t called that in those days.

    BR: What was it called?

    LW: I had to be a beatnik, and I had to go to California. So I went to California. It wasn’t called anything. Anyway, I went to a city university, they couldn’t have cared less if I disappeared or didn’t disappear.

    BR: I went to Art Center… for five days.

    LW: My God.

    BR: It was terrible.

    LW: I gave a talk there once. I was disappointed in the education system.

    BR: I was, too.

    LW: The discourse was not about reorienting the way that you see the world. It was about understanding the world in a way that was left over, in my eyes, from structuralist discourse, where deconstructing something is interesting. I mean, I love detective movies, simple ones — you deconstruct, you figure something out. But it’s always a static truth. And art is supposed to be taking into account that it’s not a static truth. What it is, is a static fact. There is a difference between a static fact and a static truth. A static truth has already proven that it has a use. A static fact is in use, but it hasn’t yet proven that it has a continual use at the moment. That’s what I meant about your service to the society. It’s to not take yourself as if you were the sundial. The sundial only exists with the sun. Otherwise, it’s just a sculpture.

    BR: I think that’s actually the point where I’ve misunderstood — maybe in a constructive way — the whole thing, because in the generation I come from, the word “service” never has a positive connotation.

    LW: Oh God, what does a doctor do? What does the post office do? What does the police, in the best sense, do? Protect and serve. So I repatriated a word. You know, one of the things people really adore about working in Spain is that it’s a restaurant culture. When you go into a restaurant, you get served extremely professionally. They don’t fawn over you, but you do get incredibly good service, without servility. You’re being served that way because that is part of the job description of serving. There’s a dignity involved in it — it’s a job. Well, making art is a job, and there should be a dignity involved in it. There has to be a way for an artist to be a functioning member of society. And you know the horrible thing is that some people are better at it than others. That’s not a meritocracy, that’s not anything, it’s just that some people make a better omelet. And so they get asked to make omelets a little more. It’s not a big deal, is it?

    BR: I guess not.

    LW: Everybody is capable of making an omelet. But some people’s omelets are really okay, they got the right flick of the wrist. I’m doing this show in Castellón, all about gesture. I was fascinated by Conchita — the woman who died recently, in her eighties — who was one of the first women matadors. She was a star in Spain, she was a star in Portugal. Her thing was, she was a little clumsy at the beginning, until she discovered that if she could just get it right, the animal died instantly — its brain no longer functioned. That’s a flick of the wrist, and it’s done like this. [Makes a downward arc with his hand] The European community really hates bullfighting. I don’t know why, but they do. I’m not a great fan, but I can appreciate it and understand it. The Taliban hates the exact gesture the other way — flying kites. And to kill a bull and to fly a kite is just a flick of the wrist.

    BR: That’s great.

    LW: The only thing that fucking matters is the thing that ends up on the table. That’s it. There’s something that I learned about class: the person who is serving you is watching the same things you are. Now why shouldn’t they come to the same conclusions, often? It’s that simple. Instead of spending all their time telling you what they are not doing, which is what people with a bourgeois background do when they’re serving somebody in a restaurant — they’re an actor, they’re a this, they did their PhD. They tell you about themselves. They never learn anything, because whatever they know about themselves they knew already. That’s the difference, you know. I’m serious.

    BR: Between?

    LW: What I consider squishball and reality.

    BR: Nice.

    LW: Yeah. I mean, you’re in a situation where you can watch a bullfight. Why do what’s often called in New York “Stuttgarting”? Somebody comes by to visit, and you have to be someplace, and it’s nice, they’re a nice person, you’re interested. You get on the subway, and for you that ride from 14th street to 52nd street or 42nd street — it allows you to stop being, to stop doing what you were doing, and be in the subway with a lot of people. It’s called subwaying. You fade in and you pay attention to where you are. It’s like a gift — you get ten minutes to figure out who you are in the middle of a busy day. And somebody’s next to you telling you that the subway here is different than in Stuttgart, the people are dressed different than in Stuttgart, they’re not doing like in Stuttgart, they’re not doing that. It’s called Stuttgarting. It’s happened to you fifty times before with people, no doubt.

    What they never understand is that the whole point is to get on the subway and subway. Maybe there’s something that’s happening, it’s the sound, they’re telling you how different it is from what they knew. Well, that’s something that their brain should have been trained to process. Well, water used to be wet, now it’s dry. That’s all I’m saying. And that’s art — art is not about telling people what you used to know. It’s telling people what is happening right this moment. That’s what makes an artist an artist. Somebody willing to say the emperor has no clothes. You didn’t say anything bad about the emperor, you just said the truth. You know the Alhambra?

    BR: Yeah.

    LW: There used to be a restriction against depicting human beings. In the Muslim world, the same as for Judaism. At the Alhambra they used to say, the caliph, the wonderful, magnificent caliph, with the big red nose and the big, too big, belly and the weakness for pomegranates and girls with big tits. They used to say that. And when he died and there was a new caliph, they painted it out and put in another one. So people could get an idea if they saw the caliph, what the caliph was supposed to be like. Okay, it’s a narrative portrait, but it’s still a portrait, the same as a picture. I find that fabulous — it’s pretty damn good, isn’t it? That’s the end of what I have to say about the whole East-West difference.

    BR: I get that.

    LW: They had it together. And of course they killed all the Moors. Because they were becoming Sufi.

    BR: It wasn’t just in the ’80s.

    LW: No, it wasn’t. It was at the time of Alhambra. That was the time of Cordova and the whole Andalusian experiment. But when you talk to me about West and East and Bidoun, and the whole sense of what the thing is — I’m a real fan, as you know, of the magazine — but I don’t think it’s going to help. Do you know why?

    BR: You tell me.

    LW: Because one of the things that an artist has to decide — and it sounds extremely pretentious, and I’m sorry, I’m very tired — one of the things that an artist has to do is to take the risk of losing the love of their parents. Now use that sense of “their parents” in terms of the culture that they’re comfortable in, the same as Darwin, the same as mathematicians. That’s the risk you’re going to have to be willing to take to make art. You have to be willing to give up the comfort of déjà vu.

    BR: Who are our parents, though?

    LW: Whatever culture you are comfortable with, whatever you identify with, wherever you think that your success would mean something. Or, your biological parents.

    BR: Those are very different things.

    LW: Not necessarily. They’re just a representation of another culture. Being contemporary is simply the ability to leave behind the comfort of déjà vu. You might find yourself in territories that you can’t relate to. How can you feel that you’ve accomplished something in a territory, in a configuration, that you can’t relate to?

    BR: How do you mean that in relation to Bidoun?

    LW: Bidoun is trying to make a reconciliation between legitimate intellectual discourse and the production of the art world as we see it. And also to keep your feet on both sides. The real problem is when you have a foot here and a foot there [makes a motion to kick BR in the crotch] it’s very dangerous. [Laughter] And that’s the danger that artists take.

    That’s what makes it a worthwhile profession. That’s what makes it that you can say, “Hey — I need an hour to think.” I remember during the Second World War, the French discovered that intellectual activities required more food energy than digging a road. The thinker and the ditchdigger both need to eat. But a person who goes up on a high wire — they’re not really higher than anybody, but when they come off of the high wire that’s what they do. They require a different lifestyle than the person who goes to an office every day. They need a different thing in order to feel well enough to get back on the wire and go out again. And artists get out on the wire, performers get out on the wire, musicians go out on the wire. Anybody that does the service to society by trying to deal with what happens besides making shoes and milk is on a high wire. This used to be called “bohemian life.” It just requires something a little different, not much. The mistake Europe made was implying that art was not part of the society — they gave artists, when they couldn’t make enough money, more money than the person who made shoes. No! They should have given them the same money. And let them go as long as they wanted. There was a commercial structure out there. If you chose not to deal with it, you knew that you had enough money for bread and milk and a doctor for your kids, or a doctor for yourself. That’s fine — that’s a choice.

    BR: But what they did is based on this problematic image of the artist. Sometimes I feel there are these romantic humanist understandings of the artist in society, and no matter how many essays are published to the contrary, the value of art — I mean the commercial value of art — is still based on redeeming the rest of production.

    LW: No, no, no, the commercial value of art is based upon somebody sticking up above somebody else. [Holds up his middle finger] The problem is, go in a field, there’s always something else sticking up somewhere. [Raises a second middle finger] You understand, see that’s not a point. I found a story in the second book of the rules that are linked with the Talmud — the same story is in the book that goes with the Qur’an — where there’s this son who comes home after a long journey, and his father asks, “Well, son, what have you accomplished, what do you bring me, I’m dying, you disappeared. My other sons, they built a little wealth here.” And the son goes [Lawrence whistles a strange melody] and the father says, “Oh! That’s wonderful!” And dies, because he had been brought something worth something.

    BR: But how do we know it’s worth something?

    LW: Well, you ought to know. If you go to a dentist, you expect them to know how to fix your teeth. You make mistakes, yes. Everybody does. But the point is artists ought to fucking well know what they’re doing. Or you shouldn’t be doing it, just because you want to be part of the circus. It’s all pretty calm, pretty simple stuff. I don’t know why it has to be couched in all this special terminology. Because it’s not special. Art is special. A good omelet is special. Somebody who can teach kids is special. They’re all special. This is supposed to be a world that has so many resources that everybody can be special. Ain’t nothing wrong with it.

    Some people are more special than others in their jobs, but not as people. They don’t get an extra vote — they get an extra joint. No, I mean that. Somebody who gets up and sings for you all night, they get a couple of extra hours of sleep in the morning. Big deal. A person who makes shoes all day doesn’t need a foot-rub, they need a hand-rub.

    BR: That logic is bulletproof. But it is a form of compensation — a massage. The issue I have is that I sometimes feel the art world is siphoning people out of reality who could be acting and serving reality.

    LW: You don’t think art is acting and serving reality?

    BR: Sometimes I feel the museum and exhibition infrastructure creates a Platonic space in which something can —

    LW: Yeah, but there are other structures in the world. And the museum structures are the least problematic. They’re the least reactionary. They’ll adapt to anything. People wanted to make big sculpture — they built big museums. Then all of a sudden they started making small sculpture, and they have to figure it out.

    BR: But are they really so separate?

    LW: It depends on whether you want them to talk to your parents and tell them how wonderful you are, or whether you just want to show your fucking stuff. Aha. You’ll always fit into one of the shows that they’re doing, if you’re really doing something. But they may not praise you. Okay, we had to put so-and-so in the show. Because they belong there.

    It helps in life if you’re intelligent, but essentially, you just have to be honest about questioning the things that bother you materially. Without using all the other clothes around it. That’s why when you’re talking about the clothing for a shoot —

    BR: Well, we wanted to do something different.

    LW: We have to figure out how you can get what you want without having to do Vogue.

    BR: Yeah, I don’t —

    LW: You know what I mean. I just did things, like I said, with so-and-so’s clothing. Hooray, so they fit me. The YSL jacket didn’t quite fit, but it looked great in the photo. It was too small. My arms are longer than they thought. I have arms like an ape.

    BR: It wasn’t about clothes per se, there’s just something about editorial portraiture, of men, of a certain age, of men who do things. It can all be so predetermined.

    LW: I do think that I’m quite capable of looking at a camera and breaking down this whole male patriarchy thing — and it doesn’t matter that I have a cock, and that I happen to have a beard, it doesn’t seem to matter. Or it’s not supposed to have to matter — it becomes obvious that I’m not playing the Ralph Lauren game. It becomes obvious that this is not what this is about. I’m photographed a lot, okay?

    BR: Well, I’m just going to obsessively go back to service.

    LW: Ask me direct questions, and I’ll give you direct answers.

    BR: Let me think about it.

    LW: I only worked as a server once in my life.

    BR: Where did you work?

    LW: On a tugboat. I was on a tugboat, and I’d gotten on the crew, but I wasn’t strong enough to do what I had to do. I was too young, and there’s a difference between young muscles and the older muscles. And they didn’t know what the hell to do with me — we were at sea — so the guy who was working — serving — was strong enough. This was obviously not a highlevel job — I had to pull chains and things, and they switched off and they put me in the galley, and I had to serve everybody on this bouncing ship for a long time. And every time I spilled something, they hit me. And I did it, and at the end I made more money than if I had just worked on the ship, because each one of the sailors, when they got paid, put money on the side for me. I’d done my job, I was there at four o’clock in the morning, I was there at six o’clock at night, I was there in the middle of the night. I was where I was supposed to be. But I wasn’t even doing it that well. Anyway, I was seasick half the time.

    BR: Where was this?

    LW: That was off the northern coast of Canada. It was rough water. It was the kind of water where, if you fell in, you died. Not right away, but by the time anybody got it together to get you out, you were dead.

    BR: I know about this water, I grew up in the Northwest.

    LW: Oh — I used to hitchhike to Portland, catch the boat, go Portland–Seattle, Seattle–Vancouver, Nome, back again. And then I’d hitchhike back to New York. I was going to school, so I really had no time for any exploration except for what I saw when I was hitchhiking. It was a different time. It all sounds so romantic now. It was a time when you could even get truck drivers to drive you across… You didn’t have to be a very tough person, you just had to persevere and know that you wanted to get to the other side.

    BR: This is in the ’50s?

    LW: Late ’50s. Life was a different story, as it should be. It’s gotten better now, and it’s gotten worse. In the same way, you can’t just put your thumb up and go west — there’s a good chance that you’ll end up, male or female, you’ll end up pregnant.

    BR: That’s the confusing thing with my generation.

    LW: Yeah, you got screwed.

    BR: I always had this impression of an American — an American, to me, was such a different thing from what’s advertised, especially since the ’80s and stuff. My dad had this girlfriend who was in her sixties who was a Communist. She had been in the Communist Party since she was in her twenties, and he was like forty at the time.

    LW: Yeah, the Wobblies were out there.

    BR: Yeah. But she was always part of my impression of an “American,” this sixty-year-old Communist woman.

    LW: I hope she was pretty.

    BR: She was.

    LW: Isn’t that nice, lucky for your dad. Because somebody at least believed that human beings could change. That human beings were essentially good. I don’t know if I still do. My socialism is much more humanist than it is believing that human beings are essentially good. They don’t seem to prove it to me very often. So what else do you want to ask about service?

    BR: Yeah, I’ll keep asking. The way I read it is, you’re saying that the content of the work is its reason for existing. Now the way I took that line was that the fact that an artwork has a reason to exist, that it’s in the mind of the person making the artwork, that’s the commodity at play.

    LW: Oh, okay, but then you get into another conversation. You get into this problem that I don’t quite understand, that Japanese culture seems to understand, where they call somebody a living treasure. A treasure within their society. Now why shouldn’t every artist be considered a living treasure, because they’re willing to engage with their society? And I don’t mean the MFAs. The people who have the booklet already that tells you what they’re going to make for the next ten years so you can rest on it — they really and truly don’t count. They come and they go, talking of Michelangelo. But they don’t exist. Open art magazines from twenty years ago. All the people who thought they knew what they were going to do for the next ten years — I don’t know what they’re doing, but there’s no public record of it anymore! It disappears. What? Do you need rolling papers?

    BR: You’re a genius.

    LW: I have these, they’re rice paper and they have no gum. I don’t roll my own for any class identification, I like the taste. Other tobacco gives me a headache. I have had emphysema since a child. I got it working on the docks and unloading boats as a kid, like thirteen or something.

    BR: You worked on the docks when you were a kid?

    LW: I was a big kid. No, that’s another whole, that’s a funny, strange thing. You know how you’re sometimes out in the middle of nowhere, and some guy, this hulking guy, is standing there, and you realize that the both of you got put to work too young? I grew up in a place where I needed the money. I had a nice childhood, no problem. Economically, it was a little bit dicey.

    BR: Yeah, same here. I started working when I was young.

    LW: As a child my parents were not happy about me. They expected me to be working for them. My father had a little grocery, candy store or something, in the South Bronx. My mother’s first comment to me when I said, “Listen, I’m sixteen, okay, I’m going to be an artist” — I had already graduated from high school, I was fast developing in those days — and she looked at me, and she said, “Oh, Lawrence, you’ll break your heart.” And I said, “Well, what do you mean?” And she said, “Art — that’s for rich people,” and she didn’t seem to understand either. Pity.

    I had a public talk once with Jorge Pardo in Basel. It was a very interesting talk, because I like Jorge, he gets me, we’re friends. Jorge is of a totally different generation than me, but he grew up in a Cuban-American family, and dicey economics. You know, you always have food, but they didn’t understand art.

    Jorge and I had this talk, and you know what came out of it? The people there were very upset that we determined that our backgrounds in no way, manner, or form informed the work we were doing. Just by chance had come from that lower-lower-lower middle class, upper-working class, where there was enough to eat. You didn’t live in a car, you didn’t live in a tent, but it didn’t inform anything. All it was, was that it fucked up my body. That’s it. Because they put you to work too young.

    BR: So you don’t think that some of the ethics as far as materials is concerned, that you were talking about earlier, come from the way you were brought up?

    LW: No, it shouldn’t. Jorge Pardo would have existed whether I did or not, and I would have existed whether John Chamberlain existed or not. And yet John was a great supporter for me, and I was a great supporter for Jorge. Fine. Nothing. It doesn’t matter.

    BR: Your reputation seems to have caught up with you in the last few years.

    LW: The last ten years, it’s been overwhelming. No loss, but it’s been overwhelming. I think of it as a service, I try to be as decent about it as possible.

    BR: Talking about service again?

    LW: Yeah, why not? It’s what you came for.

    BR: I came for it, and I want to ask more about it, because it relates to me personally.

    LW: Yeah, but I don’t know what you think service is.

    BR: I know, and that’s why, I mean…

    LW: What about service just being able to question what is questionable? And doing it — having the guts and the physical acumen to do it. It’s being able to walk over when you’re watching a whole bunch of kids from one ethnic group beating up a kid from another ethnic group. And they could kill you. And you can walk over and somehow or other save the kid from getting kicked in the head. That’s service, that’s what art does.

    BR: Well, that’s the thing, that’s the issue…

    LW: Art saves some kid from getting kicked in the head.

    BR: But then the issue…

    LW: But it doesn’t save them from getting kicked in the arm or the leg, because there’s nothing you can do about that. You’re not strong enough.

    Tony Shafrazi

    All lies

    An enraged man sprayed the words “Kill Lies All” on Picasso’s painting Guernica at the Museum of Modern Art yesterday. He was seized immediately and the red-paint lettering was removed from the masterpiece, leaving no damage.

    The vandal, who shouted that he was an artist, was identified as Tony Shafrazi… As the guard grabbed Mr. Shafrazi, the man reportedly dropped the can and demanded, “Call the curator, I’m an artist.” He was taken to the West 54th Street station house and was charged with criminal mischief…

    Mr. Shafrazi, who was born in Iran, spelled his name for those in the gallery as he was led away…

    Several artists who were involved in picketing and protests at museums remembered Mr. Shafrazi as a fringe member of now-defunct protest groups.

    “He was a wild Persian,” said Alex Gross, former head of the Art Workers’ Coalition. Mr. Gross said he had never seen any of Mr. Shafrazi’s work. Nor did he know what it was. Another painter who knew Mr. Shafrazi, John Hendricks, said he thought the suspect was “a conceptual artist.”

    —The New York Times, March 1, 1974

    There’s a story about Tony Shafrazi. Actually, there are a lot of stories about Tony Shafrazi. He’s a wild Persian. He’s totally Armenian. He gave Keith Haring his first solo show. He gave Jean-Michel Basquiat his last solo show. He defaced the most beloved antiwar painting in the world. He worked for the Shah of Iran. His first day in New York, he met Andy Warhol. He was there, in Texas, when Robert Smithson died.

    We sought Shafrazi out this spring to learn more about the Tony Shafrazi Gallery — not his current space, in Chelsea, and not the 1980s SoHo hotspot, but the first one, in Tehran, which opened just months before the fall of the shah. There was a story about the gallery that we wanted to hear, about its first, last, and only exhibit, ‘Gold Bricks,’ by Zadik Zadikian. We wanted to know more about the gold bricks and the Iranian Revolution, and how the conceptual artist who sprayed KILL LIES ALL on Guernica to protest the Vietnam War became the Iranian royal family’s go-to guy for contemporary art.

    We got our answers in the end, nested inside another set of stories about the underground filmmaker Jack Smith, Tarzan, and the Thousand and One Nights — but only after several marathon interview sessions in his New York gallery. Very specific questions provoked fantastically meandering responses. We grew frustrated and thirsty. But his gallery staff was accommodating and would on occasion delight us with the excellent Armenian sour cherry drink Shafrazi loves. And we were, of course, very grateful to Shafrazi himself. We know Larry Gagosian would never have given us this much time.

    Bidoun: We’re interested in the first incarnation of the Tony Shafrazi Gallery, in Tehran, and the Zadikian show.

    Tony Shafrazi: Well, in 1973, I was in the desert with Robert Smithson. He was desperate to make an earthwork — he hadn’t made anything for many, many years. I had been getting ready to go to Amarillo, Texas, because this gentleman, a big shot — owned a television station and a radio station, all the land you could see—and his wife, who came from a cattle family, they had millions of heads of cattle—they had invited me to come. I had met them in Tehran the year before. An artist friend had told them to call me up, and I took them around, we went to Isfahan. And you have to realize that being an artist in the late Sixties, early Seventies — even the well-known artists had to teach to survive, they made very little money, and at that time so many colleges were on strike, anyway.

    I had been teaching a bit, and it was not easy — I planned my summer around little gigs that would make me a little money, knowing that I could go to Texas for a well-to-do holiday for a month or something. It was great. And then Smithson asked to come with me. I felt a little awkward because the people I was going to see didn’t really know him, but he was such a good friend, and being older and more experienced at these things, he persuaded me. And he sort of took over the trip. We flew in a plane. There was a lake a few miles out on this property that he became interested in. He started circling the lake — it was a terrible flight, the wrong kind of plane, you had to tip the wing to see out of the window. The lake was maybe five or six hundred feet across and seven or eight hundred feet long, and there was a little dam four or five feet tall that had been built to gather water for irrigation, all this rainwater and the silt, which was very fine earth that had come from mountains miles away. So he loved this thing and kept going back to make drawings and circle it in the plane. I had a very bad dream one night that something was going to happen, but he went back up. And then the plane crashed, and he died. It was a gigantic shock for all of us.

    I was very close with Robert and his wife, Nancy Holt, and I came back to New York with the body. Virginia Dwan of the Dwan Gallery arranged a gathering of artists at her house up on Central Park West. I was still unknown then. We had a little bit of food, and everyone asked, “Well, what are you going to do now?” and I said, “I have to get back and finish Robert’s piece.” There were only four or five stakes stuck in the lake, but I knew the piece because he had drawn it for me. We had stayed up until four or five in the morning talking about it that week we were there, before he died. So Nancy said of course she was going to come, and Richard Serra said he would go. So the three of us spent forty-five days together in the desert, all these cactuses and rattlesnakes, making this thing. Richard was very helpful because of the forceful nature that he has.

    Bidoun: You finished Smithson’s last earthwork?

    TS: Yeah, it’s called Amarillo Ramp. It was quite a chore. You had to break the rock on a hill and then drive it in this truck and dump it into a bulldozer. The work is a spiral that starts from the water and comes to the beach, a rising spiral, the rocks tumble down so it’s wider. On the second day the guy fucked up, he sort of banged it, and I got mad at him and I took over the truck and built the whole thing.

    Bidoun: Did Zadikian figure into this?

    TS: So basically we spent forty-five days building this thing. And Richard Serra had an assistant, a very strong young man who had been helping him do these black wall drawings, really large canvases, with oil sticks — he would rub them really hard and it would leave this residue. That guy was Zadikian, a young guy who had escaped from Armenia, which was then the Soviet Union. He had very good energy. We became friends.

    I followed his career. He had been working in tar and then suddenly he was working with color. There was a house on Greene Street where he knocked out a window and then sprayed the whole interior yellow with this gigantic industrial sprayer. It was wild — nobody had done that. And then he was at PS1, which had just opened — it was still an old, dilapidated school. He applied gold leaf to the whole entrance, the wall, the ceiling, the floor, everything. You were surrounded by gold. It was the best thing there. Walking into the space had a really dramatic effect. When the light hit it, it radiated tremendous fractured light.

    Bidoun: How did the show in Tehran come about?

    TS: There was all this stuff going on in Iran at the time. The empress had this whole cultural program, which was based on the five fingers of the hand. There was the Shiraz Arts Festival, focused on dance and performance, which had been going on for years and was radical beyond belief — to this day I think the most ambitious theater Robert Wilson ever did was this weeklong performance in Persepolis where the audience sat in the mountains and watched it like a picnic. There was the Tehran Film Festival, where people like Carlo Ponti and Pier Paolo Pasolini would show their films and talk. There was a big new Carpet Museum of Iran, which assembled the finest carpets in the world — which actually meant buying a lot of them back from the Vatican and palaces in England and France and Germany.

    So I had heard talk about a museum of modern art. I asked around and knocked on doors and it was true, and eventually I found a building that was being built and got to know Kamran Diba, the architect. This was the Museum of Contemporary Art, and they wanted to build a major collection. When I got back to New York, I started going around to all the galleries—I didn’t trust the Persians, still don’t, as you can imagine — and got people to write me what was really a letter of recommendation, “To whom it may concern,” you know, giving an account of how they knew me and that if something happened with this museum, I would be the best person to make the collections really worthwhile. And it worked. They had acquired some important pieces before I got there, but then after, the acquisitions became quite rapid, much more focused on the 1950s and onward, very good pieces, a first-class representation of what the global culture was at the time. The idea was that I’d be building a bridge, a great vehicle for European and American friends and artists to come to Iran and travel to various villages, which in turn would allow up-and-coming artists from Iran to come into contact with European artists.

    Bidoun: Where did the idea to start a gallery come from?

    TS: Things started slowing down — the museum was taking longer than I expected, and I was frustrated. And I saved and saved and borrowed money from my father, and I decided to open a gallery. I thought maybe with the museum nearby, someone, one of the well-to-do families who knew me, might buy something, or maybe a museum would buy something. And maybe eventually this would enable me to have a gallery in New York, which was my goal.

    Bidoun: And Zadikian?

    TS: We decided to go with Zadikian, and the idea was to do something with gold leaf and bricks. We found the most primitive place where they made bricks from mud packed together and baked in a kiln and then each brick was sanded and sanded until it was perfect, absolutely beautiful, glorifying it in the form that it was. So it was a thousand-odd bricks, and when the gold was applied it was incredible, an absolutely fucking piece of work.

    Bidoun: Okay, so you open a gallery in Tehran in 1978 and the first show is a pile of gold bricks. And the country is on the brink.

    TS: Yes.

    Bidoun: We’re interested in the show as a kind of historical allegory relating to your own life and to that specific moment. It actually came to our attention through a work by another artist, Michael Stevenson.

    TS: In England? I heard about something, but I never saw it.

    Bidoun: He did a recreation of the opening in Iran. He actually rebuilt it from what he —

    TS: What he heard about it.

    Bidoun: Yeah, he just approximated what that first show looked like in half-ruin.

    TS: Uh-huh, in a state of half-ruin. Well, it wasn’t like that, but okay.

    Bidoun: All right, so what was it like? Didn’t the opening take place under martial law?

    TS: Yes, everyone had to be home by seven o’clock or you’d be arrested or shot. The military out in the street, tanks, trucks, the army — everybody is out there. Only a few people came to the opening, some Iranians and Europeans. People were already afraid. We had a little bit of food, some photographs were taken. And after that, I left. Maybe a day or so after the shah.

    Bidoun: Did you close the gallery?

    TS: I left it to my family. I was still thinking that things would get better eventually. Later all the artwork was taken and stored in the garage of my father’s apartment.

    Bidoun: So the story about the bricks being stolen from the gallery isn’t true?

    TS: No, it was — all the bricks were stolen, they broke into my father’s garage and took everything, stole everything. It disappeared. Sure, it was nothing compared to the devastation other people were suffering. It was nothing compared to being taken up to the rooftops and shot or hanged in public for kissing someone, or losing your family or all your properties. And that’s not even counting the war with Iraq, another ten years of devastation.

    Bidoun: It’s the stealing of the gold bricks by the revolutionaries from the gallery… even just displaying a pile of gold bricks in a gallery in the middle of a revolution. There seems to be an inescapable irony.

    TS: Not really, no. This was also about taking dirt, the earth of Iran, and gilding that. There was a remarkable force about it, about using gold as a material in art, the literal impact that has, with the balancing of the light. I think his understanding was also about arriving at a place of glory. I mean, if you look at the history of ancient times, of the arrival of gold and the function it played in the first coins, for example, it was all about this idea of value, which is sort of godlike, that everybody agrees upon. Even in ornamentation, or let’s say, in the bulls or in animals.

    Bidoun: But that’s such a plastic definition. It’s almost an abstract expressionist way of defining a substance. But you know better than anyone that by the time it came out, all this different stuff had come into art. Including politics. What gold is, is also, you know…

    TS: Firstly, I think you have an association that is not true, which the press always said, which is that I built the collection for the shah of Iran. It wasn’t the shah of Iran. The work I was doing was for the program set in place by the empress. The shah was not at all involved in the cultural program. I think he had heard about it, of course — he attended the opening of the museum. But he was busy doing other things. So it wasn’t a collection for the shah at all. That’s the first thing. But also about the so-called revolution, I don’t consider it a revolution. It happened over one night. I went to see it, I checked it out. I saw streets with every business that had to do with the West — cinemas, music shops, computer stores — completely destroyed. Three hundred, four hundred stores, everything pulled out into the middle of the street and set on fire, all this while the military and the army is there. How is this possible? With, like, two hundred, three hundred people there? In the course of three or four hours? Impossible!

    Bidoun: It looks like there are thousands of people in photographs from that time.

    TS: Even if you have thousands of people, it is impossible to do that much damage. With tanks and the military on the street? Impossible, impossible, impossible, impossible. Unless it was planned.

    So, unfortunately, this is the theater in which I am trying to do my little bit. And so we opened the gallery where we were glorifying the earth of Tehran, turning it into gold, and what happened? The Tehran museum says, “You’re independent, you don’t belong to the museum.” I didn’t get a penny out of the Tehran museum, not even a ham sandwich, after I helped them make close to a billion-plus profits and the cultural advantage of having the best pieces.

    Bidoun: It just seemed ironic, the revolutionaries stealing the gold — and from you, a man famous for his political intervention on another work of art. It feels like in America you were on a different side of the struggle.

    TS: You have to realize the passage we’d gone through. I came from a radically revolutionary bearded background. I mean I wasn’t in the SDS or the Weathermen or whatever, but I was pretty radical and involved with students who participated in the marches and the Art Workers’ Coalition. Witnessing what the AWC did, making the world aware of what the military was doing and to take a position — all the artists participated and an artistic dialogue was taking place and the work that was being made addressed that. Protesting became part of the art. But for me, now, coming to Iran, seeing that there was a need, I thought I could serve the purpose of opening the door through culture. Young Iranians could get closer to that and engage in a dialogue.

    Students who hadn’t had the opportunity to participate in the kinds of protests that the French, American, and German students had in the Sixties were taking to the streets. And their so-called banner, their enemy—well, the shah was going to be their enemy. And why? I am convinced that there was a planned program that was put into place to dismantle Iran and bring down the shah, because Iran was making tremendous headway into becoming a wealthy country and America was going through a devastating recession. Cities were on fire. I remember seeing the Watts Riots, visiting my mother’s house in Los Angeles and watching on the TV that another part of the city we were in was on fire. And meanwhile we were still hearing of lynchings going on in the South, town halls taking part in lynching, people coming out into the square in their nice white suits, smoking cigars, standing around as if it was a ceremony, taking pictures with these bodies hanging from the trees. And this is the Western world that started telling the Eastern world about human rights, telling it how to behave. Jimmy Carter was a stupid, idiotic, moron peanut farmer from the Midwest with an alcoholic, beer-drinking pig of a brother, and of course nobody today really analyzes the fact that Carter was probably one of the worst presidents America has ever had, as far as foreign relations are concerned.

    Bidoun: But didn’t you identify the political aspirations of at least the Iranian left with those of your peers in New York in the AWC? Or the protestors in Paris?

    TS: Of course, by 1977 you could sense things were happening, the level of anger was there. But the suspicions weren’t very well founded. And the people who had suspicions — they were not of the kind that you would have any respect for, I’m sorry to say. The so-called revolutionaries were not the kind of people who had participated in New York or Paris. But the media in America made them into that. The information and the misinformation and the pictures that were broadcast to the world about the palaces and the jewels and all the wealth and riches were contrary to reality. The picture that was painted of the shah as this horrible, corrupt person, killing people and torturing people, mischievous, secretive. And all of a sudden this godlike guy comes along. When I came back to the States, I found my colleagues, buddies like Richard Serra, people I worked with, were glorifying Khomeini. The American media invented Khomeini, they are the ones who helped create the Shiites, they helped create Al Qaeda, they created it and let it become out of control, and now it is completely out of control. It’s like playing with a bee’s nest, in a way, by purposely destroying it. What did the resulting fractured animosity and hatred do to that country or those cultures? It sent them back to pre-medieval ages.

    Years and years and years ago, I remember always being frustrated at the uneducated aspect of Iranian culture that I come from. Back in ’76, ’77, when I took visiting American artists out to see the mosques and all that, you realize what a miserable pit that it is. You have all these people stinking with the worst stinking feet, I’m sorry to say. And you can always say that it’s because they’re poor, but it wasn’t about being poor. And here the paradox was between the stinking to high heaven and the great grandeur of the mosque. But the mosque had been built generations earlier by extremely competent craftsmen. When the shah’s father came into power, he actually — with tremendous cruelty — he had whitewashed, just taken out all the riffraff with incredible strength. I remember driving around Iran, there were certain places that you would go through these desert-like hills, and there were these pillars that were said to be people turned into pillars of salt — much like the ancient biblical story, I suppose. But he had been the one who had modernized the country, the shah’s father. So, when you went to a mosque, you saw this wonderful replica of what was left of Islamic architecture, and then here are all these people with their stinking, really primitive behavior. Not poor—not at all like the people in even the poorest villages. I admired those people because they were clean. They have cultural traits that are sophisticated, as poor as they are. Their clothes might have hundreds of stitches, but there is beauty, there is glory, they are glorious people. But this was unimaginable, nothing came out of it — the voice of the mullahs praying or talking came out of cheap loudspeakers. Even that, based on Western invention. These people have contributed absolutely nothing, zero, in the last how many centuries? And now they want to jump into nuclear war. You know, the mystical image of Khomeini as the people’s hero, the radicals and the left-wing media glorifying him, the idiotic young students, they all bought into this stupid so-called revolution, and their revolution became something else. I don’t consider it a revolution.

    Bidoun: So you don’t see it relating to your Guernica action?

    TS: No, no.

    Bidoun: Let’s talk about Guernica, then. Because we’ve always understood what you did as very much a political act. And we still want to know — you know, what was going through your head at the time? Were you thinking about the historical legacy of what was happening even as you were doing it?

    TS: Basically, a thought came to me at a critical point of my development. I was working with words, phrases, speech — it was what we were dealing with at the time. And I thought, well, where else could the phrase go? A phrase taken out of context, with no subject, no I. We were all into the business of dislocation back then. Displacement. Smithson, for example. Taking a thing from one place and putting it in another was a concern of Lawrence Weiner, as well. So a thought occurred that in this process a phrase could literally slide off the page and then travel onto the wall. And then another thought occurred, which was that if a phrase could slide off the page and travel onto the wall, what would happen if it met a painting? What if it then went across the painting? I thought, wow — a whole new thing would occur then.

    Bidoun: It almost sounds as if it occurred to you as a formal, conceptual act before it became a specific, political act.

    TS: Oh, yes.

    Bidoun: So it wasn’t that the MoMA was having a particular show and you were upset about the Vietnam War?

    TS: Oh, no. But then the next thought was that if a phrase were to travel across a work of art, what work should it be? I didn’t want to go all the way to ancient history, it was too big. But even limiting yourself to the twentieth century, you still had to think about what painting, what artwork, would be the most desirable or the most implicitly significant. I thought about Jackson Pollack, Barnett Newman. I’d always considered Picasso as like a grandfather or a father. And Guernica… Contrary to what a lot of people seem to think, I know the painting extremely well. At my very first art school, I had made sculptures of parts of it, the horse’s scream, the cockerel. There was the expressive nature of it and the originality of its forms. It took into account the scale of cinema — the black and white of it had a lot to do with cinema, a large-scale cinematic reckoning of the horror of war — but also the way it was constructed, the various elements, the buildings, the window, the animals, the baby on the floor. It’s beyond magnificent, there’s no parallel. Even just as a painted surface, it’s very alive, very radical and super fresh. To me it was the most important painting of the century.

    Anyway, I was tormented by the idea. It would break all kinds of taboos, of course. But I struggled with the idea for six months, grappling with the consequences — would it be sensible, would it damage the painting, would it be considered a criminal act? I mean, it’s unknowable. But it dawned on me that the singular family that I’d been drawn to since I was nine or ten — my family, really — was the art world. So my greatest fear was that I would literally be hated by everyone, cast out, so to speak, from the family of art. Which would be like going off a cliff for me. And then most likely deported — I didn’t have an American passport — very likely imprisoned. But you’re dealing with the unknown. I was so focused on this business of dislocation, of taking a word out of one context and applying it somewhere else. And you don’t know what could trigger in somebody’s mind. I could be shot — I thought of that being a real possibility, having lived through the Sixties and all these assassinations. And the personal part of it — what would my father say? But the idea wouldn’t go away.

    I found myself thinking a lot about Dada. That was one of the first instances where art stepped into the real world, you know? There was Duchamp and the Mona Lisa, of course, but there was also Arthur Cravan, probably the most far out of the Dadaists — big, tall fellow. He challenged Jack Johnson, the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, probably the strongest man of the twentieth century, to a fight. He arranged a public match, went into the ring —

    Bidoun: That’s amazing! Like Bob Dylan challenging Cassius Clay.

    TS: And that realness was very important — he could have got killed.

    So it was… it wasn’t going to be a sort of hit-and-run situation. I didn’t want to go at night, or when nobody’s looking, or run away and blame it on somebody else. I had to finger myself, even. Because the other thing was that I wanted the Guernica to be on the front page. It had to be world news. Of course, it had been world news, it had itself addressed a world news event. It had addressed the bombing of Guernica, yes, but it also addressed the war we were in right then, the war we’re in now. Any contemporary war. And at that moment, in 1974, the cataclysmic disaster that was still going on, the war culminating more or less in the chaos of impeachment, people in top government brought down, headlines from one side to the other — at a time like that, it was crazy to me that a painting like the Guernica was seen, if at all, through a haze of ignorance and smoke, relegated to a place of absolute insignificance. The force, the power, the real significance that art could have, that Picasso had, that that painting had, had been shoved aside somehow, had been… what’s the word?

    Bidoun: Gagged?

    TS: Exactly, gagged. And I felt that that was the real crime, that the Guernica had a voice, it had something to say — that art had to be the thing that wrecks the world. And so all of the things I had been involved in with the AWC, all the marches, were about the role and function of art in society. And I thought that if I could bring it back onto the front page, maybe it would have a tremendous effect. In the context of this world in crisis, where there was assassination after assassination and bombing after bombing, the Guernica might trigger an awakening…

    There is an idea in Zen — “sudden awakening,” they call it — where at a critical moment of his journey, a monk would go to the room where all the Buddhas were and actually strike the Buddha physically. Not out of hatred, but as a kind of ultimate interaction with it. And I imagined my action leading to a kind of emanating sound, a voice. And, you know, I was also thinking about American movies of the Thirties and Forties, when the Guernica was made, black-and-white movies. Someone would hold up a newspaper and suddenly you have a closeup of it that says, “READ ALL ABOUT IT.” And so, you know, the idea of this phrase on the painting becoming a headline, KILL LIES ALL — which could be read either way, “lies all” or “lies kill” — and the Guernica, back on the front page.

    Bidoun: So there was a definite political idea.

    TS: Where we had arrived after the Sixties — you cannot imagine what I am talking about, because you weren’t there. Imagine you are eighteen, nineteen, twenty, and all this new technology is developing. Color television in your home. And what is the first thing you see in color? The napalm bomb. Napalm was remarkable, I mean devastating — these bombs being dropped over these villages and these palm trees, the most exotic greenery, and these yellow flames. Imagine seeing that night and day, night and day.

    The power of the war industry had a dire impact on the independent life of the artist, on the independent language and freedom of their vista, what they’re looking at, at their sense of play, and it castrated us to the point of sort of a revulsion. And everybody involved in it was so criminal. It had to be ripped apart, so that the fabric of this misrepresentation, this lie, had to come apart.

    Anyway, at a certain point, a rendezvous was made. I realized that I had to go through with it — I couldn’t do anything else.

    So I prepared myself. I had my passport, my traveler’s checks. I was ready to be banished or expelled or jailed. I even called UPI and the wire services so that they would become aware of it as it was being done. And then I did it. I was all dressed and clean, very calm, very clear. It was very pure. And as I approached it, I was in probably the clearest and calmest place I’ve ever been. That’s what was going through my mind.

    Bidoun: And then the next thing you did was Moogambo, an artist’s book that you published with Printed Matter in 1976. It’s such a strange book, photographs and a story. It has the air of a French costume drama or a 1940s Hollywood film — many of the images would not look out of place on the cover of a glam rock album, actually. It was your last major work as an artist, before you became a gallerist. How did that happen?

    TS: Well, at this point I started to get some attention as an artist. I was very involved in conceptualism, making short conceptual texts and little performances. I showed in Belgium, Florence, Milan. Of course, in those days, you would have three or four shows a year, and you would make at most a couple thousand dollars from a show, if you sold something. So we were living on $15,000 a year. It was pretty extreme. And then as I started doing shows, you know, I would sit in a hotel room and wait in my room to perform a line or two of text at whatever gallery. You wait one day, you go back, you wait, you go back, you wait.

    It was so stagnant. We were all doing our things, but the results… as interesting as it was, it was pretty miserable. Most of those concerns ended up miserable. Look at someone like Che Guevara, this great-looking guy, very enigmatic guy, who gets involved in the idea of revolution. And when the revolution he fought for in Cuba isn’t working, he leaves to find something even more idealistic. Which even he knows is a lost cause. And then the image of his body, riddled with bullets and gaunt — as beautiful and saintly as he was, he was such a morbid waste. Maybe one hopes that this is an example, that it will provoke something, maybe it’ll change things a little bit. But then, who controls the way it gets documented? The stories that are translated and represented and misrepresented make up a totally different reality than the one that actually happened.

    Bidoun: How did you break out?

    TS: Shortly after the Guernica, I had moved to the East Village, which was a desolate, miserable place, all burnt out and broken down. At night there were fires and drugs and all sorts of gangs, you were barely able to walk from one street to another. Your body language and how you maneuvered yourself was really a matter of survival. All that stuff from the underground comics of that time, S. Clay Wilson — all the rough guys with machetes and tattoos, this tribal world out of control — all that reflected a real neighborhood experience that came alive at night. Cops hardly ever visited there. I mean, this was way before crack, but it was pretty frightening. It was very cheap and very poor.

    And then one day I ran into Jack Smith on the street. He was a real underground hero, a radical outsider. More far out than anybody. Jack was a very tall guy with a hook nose — he had been a very good-looking guy, there are pictures of him from the early Sixties, but then everything went crazy, he had drifted somewhere. Jack was the one who had really influenced Andy Warhol to go into movies — Andy said that in his diaries. There was talk that Fellini had seen Jack’s film, Flaming Creatures, and that the whole Fellini world was somewhat influenced by it. Jack represented this whole subversive experimental beat druggie otherworld, very different from the art world that I had been a part of. I had seen Flaming Creatures in 1965 when I visited New York, and then after I moved here in the late Sixties, once in a blue moon, there’d be a play. I went with Richard Serra a few times. There would be soft or sometimes scratchy music from some late Forties Hollywood romance, like you’re in Hawaii or Egypt or some exotic place. Very tropical, Oriental. Very hypnotic. You’d start to notice the set — falling apart, a little ripe, with many references to childlike dreaming, but all funky, fragmented. And little by little this mood would start to happen, there’d be incense, blue light, and then you might see a shadow of some old person, like an old woman with a huge nose, with a vacuum cleaner, and then she would vacuum the carpet, very slowly, for half an hour. And that would be the play.

    Bidoun: So Jack Smith marked a moment…

    TS: Jack Smith represented something totally outside of the moment. His performance was sort of this nonexistent fragment, absolutely outside of anything normal.

    So Jack Smith saw me in the street one day, and he said, “Oh yeah, that’s right, you’re the guy.” He was looking up at the sky, far away, and he said, “Hmm, yes, I always considered that the most revolutionary thing, the most responsible thing, any of us have ever done.” He was talking about the Guernica.

    And I thought, Wow, that was really something, coming from him. Jack was never impressed by anybody, he would hardly even look at people. He only ever appreciated the most radical art. And he insisted I go with him to his place. It turned out that we lived half a block from each other. I was on 2nd Street between Avenue B and A, he was on 1st between B and C. He lived in this absolutely dilapidated building — you went up these stairs, and you could barely open the door. The place was collapsed decay, mildew and mess, the heater… Forget about any sense of order. It was chaos and cockroaches everywhere, you could barely walk. You knew the insanity was so dense that once you were in it, you were really in it very deep. And yet within that he would find his interpretation, his dream.

    Bidoun: How did you fit into this? It doesn’t really seem like your scene, exactly.

    TS: I think for Jack, I came from the place he was dreaming about, the place Hollywood had dreamed about at its origins. I came from the Sinbad the Sailor place. And, you know, smoking a little hash and putting his music on… . He asked me to work with him. At that point, he was making slideshows. So I started taking pictures for him. We would go on these excursions, and he would pose like Sabu from the Thief of Baghdad, enacting the Hollywood air, and it was like any corner could be a set. He was so far out. He would be all dressed up with makeup and long nails and a goatee beard, carrying around all this trash and garbage so he could make some sort of costume with it. So we would go around and find a dilapidated corner or a ruined building and something would strike him. And he had these glasses, big reading glasses he had that he wanted to use for a shoot, and I put them on the floor and crushed them, and when I saw it got his attention I took them and got some Scotch tape and taped the broken parts together. And then I got a lighter and I lit the whole thing on fire with a candle so that it was half smoke and half glued and half burnt, and he saw it and he said, “Genius.”

    So this went on for a few months. I thought the photographs were really great, and Jack dug them, too, but the other thing was that the interaction was very strong. I was always trying to talk a little sense into him, trying to get him out to do things. And he got this big break, an invitation to go to Rome. He had this thing about a crazy penguin, taking a penguin — oh, I can’t remember all the details. It was the star of his…

    Bidoun: Was it a person?

    TS: No, it was a penguin. A statue, all dolled up, crazy things done to it. So one day I get this phone call saying that he was sending me a ticket to be a major part of this thing. So, sure enough, since I was in Milan anyway doing a show, I flew to Rome. And I went to where Jack was staying, which was the gallery where his thing was taking place. You could sleep in the gallery — it was very beyond revolution, beyond all that stuff. There was a mattress, I could stay there. So then we spent the whole day in this big, huge, windowless cavern of a place, him making bits and pieces of costumes. So come evening time, a lot of people leave the place, and I said to Jack, “I’m hungry, you want to go and eat something, Jack?” And this guy we were with, this good-looking black fellow, said, “Yeah, let’s go eat something or go see a movie or something.” So I said, “Okay, Jack, let’s go, let’s get outta here and get some air and maybe eat something.” And he says, “Oh, eh…” So I went with the guy, and when I come back it was pouring with rain. It was after ten o’clock and sort of dark, and I was getting really wet — I had a leather jacket, I remember — and I was knocking on this old wooden door in an old part of Rome. And after a while the door opened a little crack and there was this hook nose, rather like the witch out of A Thousand and One Nights. I said, “Jack, it’s raining.” And a hand came out with my beat-up brown leather suitcase, just a hand. And then he put it down and closed the door. “Jack,” and there’s no response. “What are you doing? I have nowhere to go!” Nothing. I didn’t know what to do. I was wandering around in the rain getting soaked. The only thing I could think to do is go to the train station. I took an eleven-thirty train to Milan. So all the way, I’m devastated. I’m broken, shocked, can’t figure out what the fuck it was about. No response, of course he has no phone to call, there’s no means of communication.

    So I’m back in Milan, where I have a show to do, anyway. But to do the show I have to wait, I have to sit around waiting, in that agitated state I was in. And Italian life is such that by noon, twelve-thirty, everything shuts down. So I remember looking through these shutters, the sunny day, midday at lunchtime. Being an outsider, being outside, a foreigner, no purpose, no program, looking out the shutters of the hotel room. Looking at the street, bright. And yet nothing moves, the shutters are all closed. Nothing can happen. You can’t do anything. Boring. Dead. Another half-hour. The seconds, hours, and months start ticking away, nothing to do. And at five o’clock everything starts again, you go back to the gallery, read a few words. And come back the next day.

    Bidoun: Wait, did you ever find out what happened with Jack?

    TS: Many years later I ran into him somewhere, and I asked him why he had shut the door in my face that night and left me in the rain. And Jack was really out of it and kind of looked up in this childlike, dreamy way and said, “You took my chocolate.” I thought he was really out of it, and I didn’t ask him what he meant — but years later I realized that he meant that boy I went to dinner with.

    Bidoun: Ha!

    TS: So anyway, there I was staring out of the shades. And I suddenly felt open to anything. I had reread A Thousand and One Nights back then, and it had a revelatory impact on me, having done all my reading of Sartre and having gone back and forth to Iran. The unknown takes you somewhere else, and that takes you somewhere else, one step after the other. So you’re witnessing at the same time you’re participating.

    So little by little, being in Italy, I started thinking about Fellini and the magic that cinema had had, La Dolce Vita, the energy, the creativity involved. And then this fucking art world, the draining sense that you have to wait, you have to do a fucking word that’s on a wall, you have to wait, smoke, like, fifty thousand cigarettes, wait, have three beers with boring, unimaginative people, over and over again. It becomes so monotonous, so fucking dreary, everybody is so square and drab, and all the work was like, you glue a few things down on a piece of paper. Or you play with a video camera and you make the most monotonous things imaginable, fucking boring as shit. And I couldn’t stand it anymore. What had started with pop art and miniskirts and sex and color had ended up with beards and long hair and revolution. And at the end of it all, this is where we’re going? I said, “Fuck that.”

    The only places to go to in Milan were the coffee shops and the ice cream stores. There’s nowhere to go. So the only thing there was the newsstand. You go to the newsstand and you see what magazines there are. There was a lot of black market stuff happening in a very naive way. They had things called fumetti, little comic books, in Italian. It was all erotic stuff… people fucking and sucking each other. Businesspeople would buy those. But they also had old comic books. Except they weren’t old. I suddenly found comic books from my youth — the original Tarzan comic books, drawn by Burne Hogarth. And suddenly all the longing and the dreams and the wonderful fantasies I had as a kid, seeing my first comic books—cowboy comics, Batman, horror comics, with their incredible drawings — suddenly all these years later, I found the intricacies of the beauty. There! They’re right there! Newly printed, a mad stack of them. It opened up a whole world for me. I realized then you could actually re-track back.

    Bidoun: The comics.

    TS: It was like a goldmine. I wish I’d taken those comics and made objects out of them, paintings out of them. It was that kind of enormous discovery, the same kind of radical excitement that I found in Warhol when I first saw the paintings, and I loved them, worshipped them, and they touched me so much. The same way as with Lichtenstein’s work, the brushstrokes. But these comics were at the origins of that. And finding them again — especially because they were new. It wasn’t like finding them in a secondhand store — it was a kiosk, a newsstand. Nobody understood the value, but they were putting it to use.

    Bidoun: And all of this came together in Moogambo?

    TS: Yes. I mean, I had come there to work with Jack, but he had literally left me out in the rain. And I had my Thousand and One Nights and my Tarzan comics, and I just started to do things with sets and with random people I found. I had an intense energy, nothing mattered except making it happen. There was a Fiorucci store that was closed for renovation, and they had hundreds of tropical plants inside, and I knew I needed them for a photo. So I went in the store and I started pleading with them that they had to let me borrow their plants — I told them that I would give them back and that they were beautiful and I had to have them, and somehow eventually they agreed because they knew I wouldn’t leave otherwise.

    Another time there was this miserable march going on, these Italian communists, bearded kids in fatigues like we had worn in New York ten years earlier, marching for some reason or other, chanting. We set up a shot right in the middle of the protest. The cast all had the most outrageous brilliant clothes and colors and psychedelic paisley prints and crazy hair — I did all the makeup myself — and the police came in with jeeps and automatic guns and they told us we were under arrest. And we completely, totally ignored them. We didn’t say a word, and they just stood there with their guns, watching, and I kept doing the makeup and setting up the shot. I was working so intensely. Eventually they just left. But you know, there we were, in the middle of these gray, dreary protesters, and everyone thought we were the disruption. I knew we were way, way ahead of these people.

    Hampton Fancher

    Pray for rain

    Gini Alhadeff is a writer, editor, and translator, and the author of The Sun at Midday, a memoir, and Diary of a Djinn, a novel. Hampton Fancher is a writer, producer, and director whose film work includes The Minus Man, The Mighty Quinn, and Blade Runner. They spoke at his Brooklyn home on March 9, 2009. Hampton thought he’d be interviewing Gini, who thought she’d be interviewing Hampton. “That’s fine,” Hampton said. “That’s like being married to dead people.” Afterward, Gini edited herself out of the transcript of their conversation, rearranging sequences while respecting the original wording, turning the whole into a sort of joint work of fiction.

    Yeah, I’ve had that kind of fear, sometimes so bad that if I’m driving, I have to stop. One time in Paris I crawled out on my hands and knees because I couldn’t stand up, I was so frightened. I was at the Printemps Department Store, and I was with this woman who was not a maternal woman, she’s not kind in that way at all. And I disappeared because it was happening. I sat down in a corner. She came over and I looked up at her, and she knew. She took my hand and got me out of there. I still think about it. Goddamn, how did she know? To be understood is the consolation. It’s so hard to be understood.

    I always thought if I was in a plane crash, I would grab whoever I was next to — an old man, a kid, whoever it was — and I would kiss them. For years I thought that, because I always think I’m gonna crash. And then it happened. They couldn’t land, they said they couldn’t get the landing gear down, they were flying back and forth. They wouldn’t even talk to us. It’s a weird atmosphere that occurs, there’s a silence — it was horrifying. And this woman next to me goes nuts. I talk her down — forty-five minutes — and I’m telling her why we’re going to be fine… I’m perfect for her, I’m telling her all these things, her eyes are fixed on me, and it just keeps going. And finally they say, “We’re going to have to do it — we’re running out of gas.” It was a Washington, DC, to New York flight. They’re coming into La Guardia, and we get into the crash position, and this is it. We’re going to die. And I remember as I was talking to her, I could see the ocean through the window, to the east. Then we pulled up, and I could see Manhattan. I thought to myself, “Don’t go in the buildings,” but what I said was, “It’s nothing, here’s why.” I lied. I told her I knew how to fly these planes, why it was normal, and she was hanging on every word.

    Inside I was scared, but outside I was doing this. So we’re coming in and everyone is in the crash position, and I know I’m dead. It was everything I could do not to do two things, honestly: I had this overwhelming need to vomit, and I thought I was going to shit my pants. I was that rollercoaster-scared, and suddenly she grabs me and says, “Kiss me!”

    And I couldn’t. She put her mouth on mine. It must have felt like a chicken beak, I couldn’t open my mouth. I thought, “You’re an asshole, Fanchi, saying you’re gonna kiss the person you’re next to when you die!” I was just not there for it. But it all worked out. I mean, we’re alive. When I talked to her later, she wouldn’t believe that I was frightened. She was crying. I was beyond crying.

    Actually, that’s the easiest thing to do. You get into situations where you’re in trouble, and if you can help somebody else — it’s an old acting trick, really — you’re okay.

    I’m curious about people who believe things. Updike was Episcopalian, and he said, “I couldn’t live without it.” And Anthony Burgess, Graham Greene, John Donne. I can’t quite understand it, the need for it. I was raised by Catholic nuns till I was six, and I believed those things till I was six and a half and then really got rid of it by the time I was nine or ten. Not because I was precocious, but just because I was primitive. I am going to change clothes. I don’t like to have clothes on in the house. I don’t usually wear the Chinese jacket — that’s out of deference to you — I don’t want you to see my ugly, goat-like body. I wasn’t brought up to wear clothes in the house, and as soon as I walk in the door, I take my clothes off.

    We were a pretty naked family — I had a sister, a father, and a mother, and we weren’t nudists, but nobody seemed to pay much attention to clothes, I mean wearing them, when we were in the house. Sometimes it embarrassed me, actually. My mother wore no underwear, and she was very extravagant with her body. She loved dancing. Probably that’s why I became a dancer, because of her.

    I started dancing when I was very young. I just had a proclivity for it, from when I was six or seven years old. And there was a woman I really loved when I was a child, Milada Mladova. She was a premiere dancer. She was around the house, and they would all listen to music and dance, and my sister became a dancer. So I was dancing, I was interpreting. You know how kids play games? I would make up dances. By the time I was ten or so, I was choreographing things for my sister. And by the time I was thirteen, I was dancing professionally.

    I didn’t speak until quite late, and I had my own language for a long time. I didn’t go to school, I couldn’t say the ABCs, I’m dyslexic and all that, but I was interested in languages. As a child I was fascinated by words; they used to call me the little lawyer in the family. My mother’s Mexican — do you mind if I smoke? — but she didn’t speak Spanish until she moved to Mexico. My parents moved there in the ’50s, and her accent was like a gringo’s. I spoke Spanish as a child because I lived with my mother’s aunts from the ages of three to six in East LA, the Mexican part of Los Angeles, the Barrio. They were Indians, basically. My great-grandmother was a full-blooded Yaqui Indian. She was from the border… puro India. Nina Ornales. Scared me to death. I was horrified of her.

    Here’s my father when he was twenty-two. And my mother when she was sixteen. You can see the Mexican there. Yeah, she was beautiful. She used to laugh at herself because she was so beautiful, all the time I was growing up, and then she became a little old lady, and it was amazing to her — I mean, I know the feeling, I have it myself right now. She couldn’t stop laughing at the idea that she’d turned into her parents. She was five-foot-eight and regal, she looked like Ava Gardner, and then she turned into a little Mexican woman, and she would laugh so hard, there were tears in her eyes. I’m not like that. I mean, it’s funny, but I take it more seriously. I hate it.

    Was I good-looking? I heard that all my life. Women, people, magazines — all that stuff. I used to eat that up. I’d pretend I was asleep just to hear my mother and her girlfriends talk about me. It’s one of the foundations that you build your life on without even knowing it. And then when people stop looking at you across the room, you are aware of it, I think. You can’t have it any other way, so you have to enjoy it — the adventure, the drama, the self-drama of it, the novel of it, as in the story of your life. Because you never expect it to happen.

    I never thought I would live long enough to get old. I just never considered it.

    Recently someone asked me my definition of beauty, and this sounds maudlin, but I think it’s just a fact: it’s when the child remains in the face. I know people who are so beautiful, it makes me want to cry, and someone else thinks, “Oh, they can’t be a movie star — they’re not beautiful enough.” And they’re so much more beautiful than any movie star. I mean, beauty: I’m talking Botticelli. And it’s because that vitality remains.

    My sister and my mother, they used to dress me up. They’d curl my hair, put makeup on me. It was all fine, kid games, and I liked it. Probably I liked the attention. My father must have been horrified. But really, I was only encouraged at home. I mean, I had some sense, when I became a dancer, that my father wished I had become a marine. But he would come and see me dance and seemed to be quite pleased at people applauding his son.

    My father was very masculine. He was a boxer. I box — I mean, I just hit the speed bag. But I was brought up going to boxing places. I met a guy a few years ago, and he said he boxed at the Upper West Side Y, and I said I’d like to do that, too. So I joined, and there was a trainer that was there. His name was Spider, and he was an old killer. No, literally, he was a mafia guy who had retired and was working at the Y. I liked to talk to him and tried to make friends with him, and it was hard. He was an enforcer, so I asked him what he did. “Well, you know, they would fly me down to Miami to collect debts.”

    I said, “Did you ever get on anybody, you know, like that?”

    “No, you try not to do that,” he said. “They don’t like that.”

    “But you did it anyway, right?”

    Then I asked him, “Did you ever kill anybody?”

    And he said, “Don’t talk to me about that.” Of course he has. So we boxed, and he’s much older than me, and he’s a real fighter, and I’m not a real boxer. And when you get hit by somebody, it brings out something primitive. He was hitting me and I wanted to cry, and I couldn’t stop laughing. I’d be up against the ropes, and he would be like, Bam, Bam! It made me giddy, like hysterical, and I couldn’t stop laughing. The thing is, you don’t want to hit anyone in the face, because of the helmet, it’s a no-no. You’re only supposed to do body punches. And he kept yelling at me, “Come on, Fancha!” — he called me Fancha. He said, “You got a great jab, use it!” He kept yelling at me, and I threw my jab, and I got him right in the face, and it was the wrong thing to do. I felt terrible. There were people watching, and they looked at him and said, “Just finish him! He knows the accent but he don’t speak the language!” I liked that, he knows the accent but doesn’t speak the language.

    But I do like boxing. I like to do it. I love Muhammad Ali, that Dutch woman… she’s half black, half white. There’s a film you should see, Shadow Boxers. It’s about three female boxers. The others aren’t interesting, but she’s fascinating, the Dutch girl. I was hitting the speed bag one time, and the guys who were in there — Dominicans, Cubans — they don’t like me, they’re talking, and I’m really self-conscious of them. And then suddenly they stopped. I looked to see what happened, and there’s this 5’3” girl, and she comes in and looks around. And I was like, “What’s wrong with you guys? Are you guys shy? What’s happening here?”

    And they said, “She’s golden gloves, she’s a champ.” And I went up to her and I asked her, “You’re a champion boxer?” And she stood there, real shy, and she said quietly, “Yeah.” And I talked to her for a while — they were very respectful of her — and I asked her, “How did you start?” And she said she was from Harlem and had a lot of brothers. So then I said, did you see that film? And she said, “Yeah,” and she names that Dutch girl, and she said, “I just fought her.” She said she knocked her out in the second round.

    The next time I’m in the gym, there’s a retired cop who I box with sometimes, and I ask him if he knows that girl, and he says he does. “What’s the story with that girl?” I asked. And he gave it to me…

    “So I’m on the subway and there was a sketch of this guy — you know the ones that say WANTED, and there’s one on the subway at my stop. This guy had been ravaging people in the subway — big black guy — he would beat people up and rape them and steal from them, and they had been looking for him for a year. So she’s sitting on the subway, sitting in the first seat in the first car going home, going to Harlem, reading a magazine, with the golden gloves that she won around her neck. And this guy, who’s 6’4” and 250 pounds, is walking through the aisle, and he sees them, and he comes up and hits her in the head to grab the gloves — and this is a little girl, 5’3” and 120 pounds, so innocent you’d never look at her twice. And now he’ll be in the hospital for the rest of his life, brain-dead. They figured it must have been seventy times in the head.”

    I don’t remember her name.

    You know, the most famous boxing gym in the world is here in Dumbo. And I go there two years ago, and I’m standing there talking to the owner, and all of a sudden she comes in with her posse. Immediately he goes over to her. And then I go up to her and say, “I don’t think you remember me,” and she says, “No, I remember you, I remember you.”

    A couple of years ago I met someone who hadn’t seen me since I was twelve. She said, “God, you haven’t changed.” I said, “In what way haven’t I changed? Man, I’ve changed.” She said, “No. Everything that you say and do, just the way you move your arms, your legs, the way you look, the way you talk — it’s just the same as when you were twelve years old.” I was astounded by that. And then I thought, “Oh fuck! That’s the same with everybody. We don’t change.” I met a guy in the hallway the other day — he’s this humorless, soulful guy. If I’d met that guy when he was seven years old, he’d be just like now. He’s been to school, he’s become a lawyer, he’s married, he has kids, but I’d be looking into the same soul, those same eyes. He doesn’t know irony, you know? And somebody else I meet, they knew irony when they were seven.

    In every society, especially capitalistic society, meritocracy is everything. And it’s terrible. That writer — what’s her name? — that English writer said, “It’s arguable that it’s better for a man to have to pray for rain than scramble for advancement.” She’s, like, a hundred years old, and she’s still feisty… Sybille Bedford! “Better for a man to have to pray for rain than scramble for advancement.” It’s in her book, A Visit to Don Octavio. She’s on the east coast of Mexico in this horrible little village, and there’s a bunch of guys sitting up against the wall on the street, and it’s raining and she’s studying them and she’s looking at them. And she thinks that. It’s a romantic notion in a way, but I like it, it makes sense to me. In fact, it’s not a romantic notion, it’s a fact. I’ve known too many Mexicans, country Mexicans who are so wise, as opposed to some Mexican lawyer in Mexico City or whatever.

    Have you read Castaneda’s books at all? The first two are really interesting. That guy Don Juan, he’s one of those Mexicans. Uneducated, brilliant. I lived next door to one down there once. He got me so good.

    This guy, he was an Indian, a completely uneducated man — a peasant, a peon, he doesn’t even have a home. I had this little villa on a lake — in fact she wrote about it, Sybille Bedford, it’s right in Xicotepec, on the west end of Chapala. I had rented this place for a few months. And I would see him once in a while; there was some acreage next to me on the waterfront. He had a little hut made out of grass and sticks, and once in a while I’d see him at the water’s edge, and I wondered how he lived, though I didn’t want to get to know him. Someone in the village told me that he was a witch, and that made me curious. Because he was like a little Indian guy, ancient.

    One time I saw him digging a hole in the ground to get some water from the lake so that the children there, little ragamuffins, could bathe. I went down to that place with a friend of mine who was visiting. I told my friend, “Here’s my camera, I’m going to talk to him, shoot a picture that you see is interesting.” So I go and I’m talking to him, and he’s very deferential, very humble, soft spoken, not a man of words. And I’m asking him a few questions and Joe, my friend, can’t make the camera work. He’s telling me in English, “I can’t get the camera to work.” I didn’t want to make a big thing about it in front of the old man — Don Jose — so I say, “Let me try it. You talk to him.” I took the camera and it wouldn’t cock. Then the shutter worked — but not when I was pointing it at him. Finally I got it to work, and I said to my friend, “Here, try it.” And Don Jose says to me, “You trying to take a picture of me?”

    He was barefoot. “Here, cross this line,” he said. He goes like this, in the sand. So I cross the line, and he says, “Now tell him to take a picture.” Click — it worked.

    Then I asked him in Spanish, “Tu eres un brujo, verdad?” You’re a witch, aren’t you?

    And he said, “No, I’m not a witch. The witch lives up on the hill, in the jungle. Look what he did to me.” He opened up his shirt, and there was this horrible burn scar across his belly. I don’t believe in witches, but I’m fascinated by this guy. He’s got this warmth, this intelligence on his face. I liked him. So that was that. I would see him once in a while, I’d wave at him, but we don’t talk.

    When I got back to civilization, I had the film developed: it was all black. But that’s not the story.

    It’s the night I’m leaving, and the whole trip has been a disaster. I was trying to write and it wasn’t working, it didn’t work at all. I had used all the money I had, and it was the last night. I was sitting in front of a Smith-Corona, and I started to cry. I had my face in my hands. I wanted to die; I wanted to kill myself. I’m thinking, I can’t go back to California. I have nothing. I’m in despair. And it’s, like, twelve o’clock at night.

    Now, Don Jose goes to bed when the sun goes down, in his little hut. But I look up and through my window I see him on the other side of the foliage, and it got me — what’s he doing awake? He was turned away, I could only see the back of his head. I went to the window, and he was just standing there. I went outside and I said, “Don Jose!” And he looked at me, and he was stricken. His face looked terrible. I said, “What’s wrong?” and he says, “I’m nothing, I’m shit!”

    “What do you mean?” I said.

    “What does your father do?” he asked.

    I said, “He’s a doctor.”

    “He’s a doctor, he went to school. Has he got a car?” “Oh yeah, he has a car — he has two.”

    “Has he got a television?”

    “Yeah, he’s got a television.”

    “He’s got a home?”


    “He’s a doctor. He’s a great man.”

    “No, no, no. He’s not a great man.”

    He said, “Well, he’s something, I’m nothing!”

    I said, “Don Jose, you are wrong! You are one of the greatest people I’ve ever met. My father… my father is a drunk.” He would commit suicide a year later. I said, “My father doesn’t know who he is. He can’t live. You have knowledge, you have wisdom, you understand everything, you understand the earth, you see things, you see through everything, you’re brilliant.” And I kept talking to him, and he goes like this — “Really? Is that true?”

    And I said, “Oh, Don Jose, you’re so lucky not to have a television.”

    And he said, “Oh, I think I can sleep now — thank you, thank you!” And he went into his little hut. And I was transformed. I felt fine. I felt like a million bucks! I went back into the house and it hit me: he did that. He saw, he knew I was in trouble, and he knew how to get me out of it. He knew that if he could get me to love something outside of myself, to love him, I’d be okay. And that’s what he did. So that’s that “pray for rain” stuff for me.


    Brown Girl In the Ring

    Hooded jacket by Jen Kao. Leggings by Jeremy Scott

    The musician Maya Arulpragasam calls Muammar Qaddafi her style icon. Certainly no more than five feet tall, she could be the lovechild of Lionel Richie and Wonder Woman. Or Benazir Bhutto and Michael Jackson? A mass of dangly, actress-y black hair covers most of her forehead, while two thick strands of henna-stained brown come careening down from either side. She speaks with a strangely Valley Girl–inflected South London accent. Her music, like her style, is the music of pastiche, of cut and paste, fax and Xerox — whether dancehall, hip hop, bhangra, or punk. It is, let’s say, twenty-first-century world music — angry, irreverent, unapologetic, and on occasion giddy. And unlike a bevy of other celebrities who fall into politics après le fait, Maya, who goes by the stage name M.I.A., lives and breathes it. Her songs are about prostitutes, druglords, diamond dealers, Palestine, and, especially, her beleaguered Tamil homeland. Refreshingly, and sometimes worryingly, there is little that’s rehearsed about her politics — whether it finds its way into her music, as it often does, or an interview like this one.

    I picked up Maya this past May at her hotel in New York’s Lower East Side, with her new baby, the improbably named Ikhyd Edgar Arular Bronfman, in tow. She told me she had canceled an interview with the Los Angeles Times Magazine for Bidoun, as well as a chance to sing for Michelle Obama (“I’d rather just speak to her than sing to her from the stage”).

    She hadn’t managed to sleep the night before. Eight hours into her Bidoun photo shoot, though, she was going remarkably strong, dressing and undressing in all manner of costumery amid dangling red lights and mirrored walls in a gnatty subterranean Indian restaurant in the East Village — the kind with all-you-can-eat buffet, stale candied cardamom, and table-size curry stains on every surface. When we walked in, they were literally playing one of her songs, leaving her convinced that they knew who she was. It turns out that they were just playing the soundtrack to Slumdog Millionaire.

    Baby Ikhyd, whom she calls the “oppression baby” because he’s part Sri Lankan Tamil and part African American Jewish, sat content the entire time with his dangling Indian charm necklace around his neck as his mother put on T-shirts emblazoned with peace symbols, a hoodie-cum-hijab, sparkly red tops, and even a yarmulke. The next day, we sat down and spoke of Boney M mix cassettes, her first days in England, and what she hates about interviews.

    Gloves by Ashish. T-shirt by Gerian Jeans

    Negar Azimi: Brooklyn or Manhattan?

    Maya Arulpragasam: Brooklyn.

    NA: Bill Cosby or Yasser Arafat?

    M.I.A.: Yasser Arafat.

    NA: Dodi or Princess Di?

    M.I.A.: Princess Di. You know, I predicted her death.

    NA: No!

    M.I.A.: On the day she died, I went to this party and fell asleep at my friend’s house. I woke up at four in the morning and I’d dreamt that I was on a motorbike and I was getting chased by all these people and then I crashed, and it was, like, loads of people trying to take photos of me and stuff. The whole thing was the same except for — instead of Princess Diana, it was me. And I woke up and I said, “Oh, my God, I just had a dream that I died!” And we were, like, well that’s crazy, and I told my sister, she was there, too, and then we all went back to sleep. Four or five hours later we woke up and the first thing we heard on the radio was about Princess Di.

    NA: That’s insane.

    M.I.A.: I know, it was nuts. And then we ran to McDonald’s because we didn’t have a TV.

    NA: Madonna’s?

    M.I.A.: No, McDonald’s. The McDonald’s down the road had a television and everyone was watching it. But yeah, it’s crazy. And I was like, thank God I woke up and told people, because no one would have believed me.

    NA: Benazir Bhutto or Indira Gandhi?

    M.I.A.: That’s a close one… I remember Indira Gandhi, her dying — I was in school then — so she’s affected my life more than Benazir Bhutto. And she was the youngest, like, female president. Probably the youngest president. Right?

    NA: Yes, maybe. Yemen or Yerevan?

    M.I.A.: I’d say Yemen.

    NA: Short or long?

    M.I.A.: Long.

    NA: Nail polish?

    M.I.A.: Yes.

    NA: Velvet Underground or Modern Lovers?

    M.I.A.: Uhhh… well, Modern Lovers. But I like both.

    NA: If you could meet someone who’s dead and bring them back and have lunch with them…

    M.I.A.: Aaliyah.

    NA: And your biggest fear?

    M.I.A.: My biggest fear. I don’t know, I guess? I’m not really sure.

    NA: We’ll come back to it.

    Ben Bronfman: [Interjecting] Rattlesnakes.

    M.I.A.: Yeah, snakes. Rattlesnakes. There’s some in my backyard in LA.

    NA: Do you have good or bad experiences with interviews?

    M.I.A.: I haven’t really been doing interviews recently, but when I started I was really enthusiastic. I wanted to tell everyone everything about my experiences, things that I thought counted, things you could learn from. But then people never write those things. I did a Los Angeles Times interview last year, and we got into a bit of a situation. The guy who interviewed me used to be a radio show DJ, Nic Harcourt — he did this show called “Morning Becomes Eclectic,” which I’d been on, and it seemed pretty liberal and world music-y and all that. I always thought of him as a serious dude who’s really worldly. And he came to interview me and suddenly I felt like he was trying to corner me. “Oh, what’s it like being a terrorist,” and “You’re just doing it for shock value so people will buy your records.” And then he said, “When I was young…” and I was like, “What?” and he said, “Oh, when I was young, before I formed my political opinion, I used to think John Lennon was cool.” And I was like, “So that means after you formed your political opinion, you didn’t think he was cool, because you thought they were all, like, wanky left-wing liberals. And that means you’re a right-wing conservative, so you’re going write me up as a terrorist.”

    NA: Did he actually use the word “terrorist”?

    M.I.A.: Yeah. And I was just really disappointed that I could be labeled like that when something real is going on in Sri Lanka. It’s a thirty-year war. And he just sat there thinking, well, you’re a Tamil, therefore you must be a Tiger, and just because you have Tigers on your t-shirt you must be a Tiger… and it’s just so boring to be going over that same thing again and again. And I just thought, You don’t even have to listen to me anymore to know how difficult the situation is. Why don’t you just fucking sit down and read. Or, Google.

    NA: He didn’t want to listen.

    M.I.A.: Yeah. People still want to talk about Sri Lanka and how the war is between this side and this side, but that issue’s long gone. We know that. It’s more complicated. Things evolve and situations change. That’s like saying… Israel and Palestine. Palestine has an issue with Israel, and you’re like, “Duh.” I mean, even my cat knows that.

    NA: How do people most commonly describe you when they write about you?

    M.I.A.: I mean, it’s always the same. I’m a rebel. “She’s a rebel, blah blah blah.” They just want to make me into an acceptable American. Oh, this is what I wanted to tell you about, actually — on the plane to New York, this guy swapped seats to sit next to me to talk to me because he was writing his thesis on me for NYU.

    NA: What?

    M.I.A.: Yeah.

    NA: Wait, was he stalking you?

    M.I.A.: No.

    NA: That’s so weird.

    M.I.A.: It is really weird. He thought about me for so long — you know when you focus on something for so long, and you conjure it into being?

    NA: I’d still be scared.

    M.I.A.: I know, it’s true.

    NA: Especially if it’s a dude.

    M.I.A.: It’s true, when he saw me, his eyes lit up and he was like, “Oh, my God!”

    NA: Is he someone that you feel like you’d be friends with?

    M.I.A.: No. And his dad is Paris Hilton’s lawyer. So if I wanted to sue Paris Hilton, that’s who I’m going to be dealing with. But yeah, he was writing his thesis and I thought he was joking, and then he showed me his computer and it was true. He had written this whole thesis, and the title was “M.I.A.: Globalization Affecting Pop Culture” or something. And then he talked about MTV the whole time, and I was really offended. He kept saying, “You know, Americans made you into this global icon, be grateful for that, MTV really did that for you.”

    NA: That’s a super-American way of thinking.

    M.I.A.: I know. And I was like, “MTV? They did jack shit for me!”

    NA: You aren’t even on MTV, right?

    M.I.A.: None of my videos were on MTV. Only “Bucky” was on MTV, because I made a stupid video for it. That video should have been shot in the favelas in Brazil, but I was working with a bunch of people who were like, “We don’t have time, we need to go shoot this now.” And, you know, maybe I wasn’t strong enough and I compromised some of my shit.

    NA: Where did you shoot the video?

    M.I.A.: In the desert in Nevada. On my second album, I got more brave to say, “Fuck it, I’m going to have better shit than this.” And I did “Boyz” and “Bird Flu” and stuff like that by myself. But MTV played “Bucky,” this wishy-washy nondescript piece of bullshit. Before that I made “Sunshowers” in the jungle in India with Rajesh Touchriver.

    NA: He’s a film director, right?

    M.I.A.: Yeah, he’s really talented. No one wanted to talk about him. And then I made “Galang” with Stephen Loveridge, and he was spray painting all the stencils in a carpark in the rain and stuff. And that video got turned into something else, like, even though that had more to do with my art background and using my own pictures and my own stencils and all that sort of stuff, people said, “Oh, this is where she’s endorsing the Tamil Tigers,” because there’s a tiger running in it.

    NA: So the most boring, watered-down video made it onto MTV…

    M.I.A.: Yeah, it’s the one that’s going to get paid. It’s really weird. And then they also had “Paper Planes,” but they only wanted to play it with the gunshots taken out.

    NA: One thing I love about your videos is that they’re super lo-tech. A lot of them seem purposely amateur, cut and paste, like a collage.

    M.I.A.: It’s not particularly amateur. I’d love to make a slick video. I’m just not technically equipped to do it. I don’t get time to get things together enough so I do shit on the fly and then make the most of what I have. There’s no point in doing flips half-assed, which is what happens to me when I go slick, like when Interscope says, “Hey, we’ll give you, like, two hundred grand to make a video,” and you try doing that, and it looks awful because my hair is not going be like Lady Gaga’s hair. You know what I mean? I’m not going look like that in a pair of tights, so it’s just wasted.

    NA: Do you remember the first cassette tape you owned?

    M.I.A.: My first cassette was Boney M. My uncle brought it with him from Italy, and he would get really drunk, come home at two in the morning and play the tape and wake me up and make me dance. He’d throw stones at me if I didn’t. So at two in the morning in my nightdress I had to do, like, disco dancing to Boney M, or him and his friends would throw stones at my feet. Tears would well up and…

    NA: You were asleep!

    M.I.A.: Yeah, and they used to make me do it for hours. And they laughed, it used to be entertaining for them, just the sheer length of time I’d do it. [Laughs] I could do it for three or four hours. They used to do it for fun all the time, and after a while I was like, Okay, I’m going do this, I’m going to start getting into this. So that was my first tape. And Boney M is forever ingrained in my mind. “Brown Girl in the Ring.” It goes [sings] “Brown girl in the ring tra la la la la.” [Laughs]

    NA: Wow.

    Hooded jacket by Ashish. T-shirt by Cassette Playa

    M.I.A.: So that’s how that started. And then I had, like, a Michael Jackson tape, and that’s really it. I had two tapes for ten years and I listened to them every day. When I got to Colombo, as we tried to make it out during the war — we were there for three months, waiting for our visas or documents or whatever. That was the first time I’d heard any other music. We used to play tag and run through everyone’s houses in the neighborhood. And I saw all the different TV sets with people watching, like, WHAM! and Tina Turner and Madonna and stuff like that. All these Eighties people. And I was like, “Whoooah.” Because I came from a village where the TV had, like, two channels.

    NA: Did you get to watch movies?

    M.I.A.: We had one television for the whole street. So when a movie came on, everybody in the street came round to the one house. Three hundred people would pack into this one little house.

    We’d rent the video deck for one day a month, and then we had screenings so everyone would come around and we’d play, like, three movies back to back. Usually I’d bunk school and come home when that happened, I’d fake a stomachache and stuff, because I just loved movies. In the village they used to call me an old woman because at the age of five or six I knew who was in what film and what song was in what film and everything to do with Tamil films.

    NA: Tamil films?

    M.I.A.: Yeah. From India. Like Tamil Bollywood. We used to get those. And we had a refrigerator — we had the fridge for the whole street. My uncle who was abroad bought the fridge, and everyone used to call it “cridge.” Tamils couldn’t say “fr.” They used to go, “Can you put this in the cridge?” [Laughs] And we’d go, “Okay.”

    This was all before the war. When the war happened, things changed… All the hierarchies disappeared. There was a doctor family, and they were always too good to play with us. And then there was the milkmaid family — the person who had the cows, who used to sell the milk to everyone — they weren’t good enough to play with us. And then everyone became equal.

    As a child I remember the people that lived across from us were just the most perfect family, and they had the most amazing driveway and a car and stuff like that. And then one day the dad got caught in a crossfire, just randomly coming home, and he was paralyzed from the neck down. It really changed my understanding of life. Because up to that point, I never really thought about family situations and stuff like that, and automatically assumed that’s the perfect model to live by, and I was just glad to have seen it. And then when that got broken, it was pretty devastating. Even more than the war affecting my life, the fact that it affected theirs was really difficult for me…

    NA: What games did you play as a child during the civil war?

    M.I.A.: I dug tunnels.

    NA: You dug tunnels?

    M.I.A.: Yeah. A lot of tunnels.

    NA: Just outside, in the yard?

    M.I.A.: Yeah, I could make it to the next-door neighbor’s house through the tunnels. I was really good at it. I mean, I used to dig tons of tunnels. [Laughs] They nicknamed me ostrich. I used to jump off buildings a lot, too.

    I was quite boisterous. I used to always hang out with the boys. And sometimes I’d cook — that was what we played, cooking — so I used to pick loads of flowers and stuff and make curry out of them. [Laughs]

    NA: I know your song “Jimmy,” the one that repeats, “Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy Aaja,” is a remake from the film Disco Dancer, from 1982. Do you remember the song from when you were a kid?

    M.I.A.: Yeah, I used to do a dance to it. “Jimmy” was a Bollywood song during the war. When it was really expensive and stuff… people used to just hire my sister out. She was really pretty, so they’d say, “Can she be in the wedding and stuff?” And my mum was like, “Yeah, cool.” [Laughs] So my sister would go off and they’d make a dress for her, stick it on her, and she’d be at some wedding and pretend to be related to everyone, and then we’d come home. [Laughs] And then I used to be the dancer at these parties, so I had this cloak and a cardboard guitar and stuff, and “Jimmy” was like my theme song, and I had a little radio thing, with a tape, and I used to go put it on and do this routine. I used to start out at one end of the room and shuffle all the way to the other end. Then I’d jump on a few tables, swing on a few curtains, and do some twists, and then when the song finished I used to come home. And, you know, we used to get paid, and it sounds like it was child labor, but I liked doing it.

    NA: Sounds excellent.

    M.I.A.: I used to get paid in cakes and food and stuff. It was really hard. Like one egg, during the war, cost something like 200 rupees. For one penny I could get like ten sweets, and one egg cost 200 rupees. I mean, that’s just ridiculous. So we used to go and bargain with people. If you grew vegetables, then they gave you that and you gave them something that you had, and that’s how people got on.

    NA: What about when you eventually moved to London? What music did you listen to? Did you connect to black culture at all?

    M.I.A.: I automatically thought I was black. Straight away. For some reason, I felt the beats more, and it also felt like no one knew this world because it was just starting to creep into England, you know, and I caught the first leg of it. Hip-hop came out and everything else just looked really silly and stupid and pathetic. It was so much harder, and more fun, and it had its own culture, you know what I mean? The way people dressed and the way hip-hop magazines looked and, you know, it was just the whole way of life. It was amazing. And it was amazing that you had to go and find these people that you connected with. You had to travel to all the nooks and crannies of London to say, “I met this one guy who has the most wicked haircut and he’s got the baddest pair of sneakers,” that you’re supposed to have met, but he lived all the way across town, you know? So when you’re on the train and you meet someone else who’s into hip-hop or whatever, and you do the secret nod, it was just really cool.

    NA: How much was developing your own personal style part of that cultural scene?

    M.I.A.: It was really important. My uncle — my mum’s oldest brother — he was one of the first brown people in England to have a market stall in East London. Like in a flea market. He had a clothing stall, and he used to sell clothes out of the boot of his car, and he made it. He became, like, a millionaire, from getting into clothes and stuff in the Sixties. So then he went to Germany and he was doing fashion. For my mum’s generation, he was light years ahead of anyone I knew in Sri Lanka or any brown people I knew in England. He was really inspiring. He was the uncle that helped bring us over to England, actually. And he used to send us bags of clothes that didn’t sell. So at ten years old, me and my sister had these crazy body-con dresses with lace on one sleeve, and you know these denim jackets with crazy studs on them and stuff, so we had a mish-mash of refugee clothing and this sort of weird, high-end fashion. Yeah. [Laughs] And we used to cut it up because we didn’t know the value of it, either. We’d get my uncle’s clothes and cut those and then jam it with these and make our own hip-hop clothes. So we had really weird style.

    And my sister, she wanted to look like Neneh Cherry, and my sister kind of looks mixed race, so she had a long corkscrew perm, she got her hair permed and stuff. All the boys used to chase her, all the, you know, hip-hop boys. and she got me into clubs when I was young, fourteen, fifteen, and I grew up as the tomboy sister who is really into dancing, and she was the one with the tits. But I had more of an individual fashion sense because of that. I used to go to the clubs and compete with the guys, so I’d be on top of my sneakers and my clothes.

    NA: It sounds like you were sampling with your clothes in the same way you do with your music. Like when you riff on the Sex Pistols or the Clash or New Order or Jimmy.

    M.I.A.: I think England is just really great for music. Americans will never understand that. America produced hip-hop, but we have way-better radio stations and culture to get that out. So when I got to England, I could lie in bed and just twiddle my radio, and you go through so many more genres than here in America. The pirate radio stations — like, every area had a pirate radio station, you know. It was amazing. So you had sixteen-year-olds that ran your radio station — imagine how cool that was. America has such corporate wanky bullshit radio stations nowadays, you know? You never hear that sort of freshness. Dialing through those stations was like sampling, or like listening to a mix tape. And you felt like you owned all of it. So you could go from Paula Abdul on the pop station and then get right into the nooks and crannies of someone who’d just made a record that evening and put it on the radio, straight from Brixton or Jamaica or from wherever.

    NA: Was is hard to adjust to life in the UK?

    M.I.A.: When we first got to England, I didn’t speak English. For three months we had to live out in my cousin’s house, and the council would drop off beanbags, black bags full of clothes, and they were, like, ten years behind. But to me, they were like the freshest shit ever. I had these mad Seventies clothes on in the Eighties. Then they gave us these fluorescent socks, and I remember wearing—

    Gloves and sweatshirt by Ashish

    NA: Like the clothes you’re wearing now?

    M.I.A.: Probably… no, it was like Seventies mad clothes with, like, fluorescent socks. And I remember we always slept in the same bed, and my cousin was just laughing and laughing at us because he just saw three pairs of feet sticking out — fluorescent yellow and fluorescent pink and green. And it was me and my sister and my brother.

    NA: You eventually studied film and painting.

    M.I.A.: Yeah. I did film. I used to do artwork, and then I did clothes for people, like in the beginning when I made print hoodies before anyone else had them. So I was making shit like that at a friend’s shop. Me and Kerry Cassette Player, we both worked at a shop in London with this lady called Annette Olivieri, and she was kind of like our mentor. I had a yellow jumper on and she liked it, and she was like, “Hey, do you want to do some artwork?” She just gave me a chance, and I ended up doing her shop, me and Kerry used to do window displays and stuff. And then I did a collection of clothes for her, and then I did all this album artwork for that band Elastica. Whatever I came up, really. I’d earn something like fifty dollars a week. But it was enough. And then the music thing came, and I knew for me to sustain my motivation and interest, I had to change the process every time, so that was my thing. Like on the first album, there were things that were important that weren’t important to me on the second one, and the second one was more about turning over rocks in other parts of the world and working on production and being able to produce myself and making beats, whereas the first one was more about vocals and writing songs and lyrics and things. You know, it was an art form that I’d just discovered.

    NA: I’m curious, what were your paintings like?

    M.I.A.: I did this one, the one that got nominated for the Alternative Turner Prize, with an Iraqi woman getting executed.

    NA: And that was 2002?

    M.I.A.: It’s weird because when I got nominated for that piece, I hadn’t actually done it yet. I’d only done it in, like, a little version, but when they saw the picture of it, they nominated me, so that I had to make the piece that same day.

    NA: Oh, that’s awful. And amazing.

    M.I.A.: So I woke up in the morning and was like, fuck, I’ve got to make this thing by six o’clock. I made the whole piece in the morning — I have a picture of me doing it. I managed to make it… and pretend that I’d made it a year earlier, you know? [Laughs] That’s kind of how it works with me. Everything gets made on the same day.

    NA: Where do you travel to next?

    M.I.A.: I got asked to go to Angola next week. But I don’t think I’m going to go anywhere with the baby just yet. I think I’m going to wait until he’s six months, so I can get vaccinations and stuff.

    NA: Tell me about the Grammys. You performed while super-pregnant. You went into labor that evening!

    M.I.A.: I was okay. I was in the studio still working with Rye Rye and stuff. My thing with pregnancy was just that people kept wanting to film interviews with me talking about Rye Rye, and I was super-bloated and big and I was just like, I don’t want be doing press, I just want to eat popcorn all the time, you know? I felt weird because also America is not used to big pregnant women going, “Buy this club song, it’s coming out next week!”

    But Kanye was really cool with the Grammys. For some reason, rappers are really comfortable with pregnancy. they can deal with it. Way more than indie rocker guys.

    NA: How so?

    M.I.A.: Rappers are used to getting girls pregnant. [Laughs] I didn’t feel so bad, and then Kanye said I should be there because “Paper Planes” had been nominated, and it’s a way bigger song than “Swagger” and blah blah blah… I just went because Jay-Z, TI, Kanye, and Lil Wayne were sweet. And Lil Wayne and TI especially were extra-sweet towards the baby and stuff, and they just made me feel really comfortable. That whole Grammy drama is just, whatever.

    NA: Will you stay in LA, where you’re living now?

    M.I.A.: I think I’ll stay in LA for a bit before he starts talking, but as soon as he starts talking, I’m out of there. They say that your kid’s fully formed by the age of three, so I think I can just spend, like, a year there, and then get him out of there and spend the rest of the two somewhere else.

    NA: Does LA feel like a different planet?

    M.I.A.: Yeah. People just talk at you, and then you tell them something, and it just doesn’t compute. It doesn’t go in their brain. They just know what they know and then talk at you, and then they say, “Great!” and you’re like, “No, I’m feeling really pissed off today, I’m having one of those days. Did you even hear me?” People don’t have pissed-off days in LA, like you never hear people just say, “Oh, fuck it.” They just don’t. Everything is always great.

    NA: People want consensus. They don’t want confrontation.

    M.I.A.: I’m from England, where it rains all the time, and we’re really pissed off and depressed all the time, and we just go “Shut up” to people’s faces. It’s worse than New York. In New York you’ve got neurotic people, but they go to therapy and they eat organic. So, to go from England to LA is weird…

    NA: What do you like about it?

    M.I.A.: It really is about the weather. It really is. There’s nothing else, because we’re so anti-celebrity-ness and fame — you know, in England we grow up without the need for that shit. And the way the British press is… I mean, we’ve got the tabloids and stuff, but we don’t uphold celebrities and idolize them. We rip them to shreds.

    NA: That’s interesting. That’s the first time I’ve thought about it that way.

    M.I.A.: Yeah. So for me, when I say, “I just came here because of the sun,” they say, “Yeah right. You love Hollywood. Now you want to be a star, don’t you.” It is weird living there. It’s like living in a bee’s nest and complaining about getting stung. And it’s especially weird with the Sri Lanka issue.

    NA: How so?

    M.I.A.: The largest Sinhalese population outside of Sri Lanka is in California, in LA. They’re the people that want to kill me. They’re racist. They have zero tolerance toward Tamils; they’re the ones perpetuating this myth that all Tamils are terrorists. And they have a weird relationship to fame, because they live in California. So they want their kids to be celebrities and singers and the next big thing, but then this weird Tamil comes along and fucks up the whole game for everyone else, and she doesn’t even do it well. She isn’t doing the fucking dance routine, which they’re all trained for — everyone’s a cheerleader — so everyone’s pissed off at me. They’re really confused about my success.

    NA: Like one instinct is, let’s claim her because she’s Sri Lankan. But then —

    M.I.A.: Yeah. And the other one is like, yeah, she’s a Tamil. They even had a rally outside the Grammys, one hundred people with placards saying “M.I.A. M.I.A., TERRORIST TERRORIST” kind of thing. And sometimes I’ll get emails that say, “I hope you die” and “I hope your baby dies” and stuff like that. It’s just really difficult.

    NA: What do you say to people who say you’re romanticizing violence, romanticizing revolution?

    M.I.A.: I’m not romanticizing it. I wish I had the luxury not to even think or talk about it. It’s a luxury not to address it. A lot of people are really lucky because they don’t. They choose not to, and they can sleep at night. I just think it’s ironic that one of the first famous brown people is a Tamil, and those are the people that really have the least say on the planet at the moment, you know. They really do. And it’s a fucked-up situation because, on the one hand, the only representative for the Tamils are the Tigers, and they’re such a fucked-up group. It’s a shame for those people — a shame for us, I should say — but the Tigers killed off all the other Tamil groups, including my dad’s. So we only take note of the Tigers, which is the Tigers’ doing.

    NA: What’s your first memory of your father?

    M.I.A.: You know, I don’t remember much about him. And for a long time I thought he was my uncle.

    NA: What was your first vision of him?

    M.I.A.: My first vision is my dad with glasses on, when someone said, “That’s your dad.” But I didn’t know what having a dad meant. Because I didn’t really miss having a dad. So it was just another person I’ve got to get to know in my life. And it wasn’t even like people were like, “Oh, you should get to know him” — it wasn’t like that. He was literally there for twenty minutes. My dad used to climb in through the window at three in the morning and wake us up, so we were always half asleep. Later people used to tell us stories, like, “Oh, your dad came and showed us how to do this,” or “Oh, your dad’s great, and did this and did that,” and we were like, “Cool.” And toward the end, when we left, I remember riding out on the bus, and there were posters of my dad in the street because he was the most wanted guy. They found out my dad was really good at making weapons and stuff, back in the day, as a teacher and stuff. And he went to Beirut…

    NA: Do you know what year?

    M.I.A.: No.

    NA: Like when the PLO was around, maybe?

    M.I.A.: Yeah, I’m not really sure. But you know, I think it’s interesting. He told me about getting arrested at the airport in Beirut. And he was tried in a military court. And when you go to Beirut to train, each person is given a different identity. So if you go there, you’d be, like, a Pakistani instead of, like, whatever. And they’d tell me that I’m from Mauritius or Trinidad or whatever. You get given a fake identity.

    My dad was really smart. He had lived in a mud hut, on a huge farm with nothing and no one around. Right in the middle was this mud hut. You had to get the water from the well to drink, and you had to swim in the lake for a bath, and when I went to stay there years later, the lake was blocked and it was really stinky, because the water wasn’t running. It had been a river, but it was a lake by the time that I went. And I just remember having to bathe in the stinky lake, and I felt like I was getting more dirty than clean. They used to take me around and we would watch people plow the rice paddy fields, and there were elephants there and all these wild animals, and my dad was putting up all these refugees that were living there in tents and stuff. My dad wasn’t even on the farm when we went to live there, but all these people were telling us that because of him they lived there, and he’s so great.

    NA: What have you learned from him?

    M.I.A.: He’s taught me a couple of things, and one of the things that he told me a lot was that when he went away to college in Russia, every cafe in Moscow had typewriters under the table because that’s how important thinking was, and writing and liberation and revolution…

    NA: So anyone could just pull out a typewriter.

    M.I.A.: If anyone at the cafe had any interesting ideas, they’d pull it out and write straight away. So you could organize a demonstration within an hour. You just had the idea after a chat with someone, write it up, go to the printer’s next door, print it up, stand on the end of the street and hand it out to, like, eight hundred people, and in an hour — you have a rally. And I was like, wow, that’s crazy. Imagine being able to live like that.

    Necklace by KTZ. T-shirt by Cassette Playa. Leggings and shoes by Ashish

    Photography by Marcelo Krasilcic. Styling: Jason Farrer at DeFacto. Styling Assistant: Richard Munson. Hair/Color: Aura Friedman at Bumble and Bumble. Style: Amy Farid at See Management. Make-up: Devra Kinery at Art Department.


    Super friends

    Courtesy Alinall Azalwaer

    Sometime in the middle of the 1970s, a glistening, barrel-chested, tri-colored robot of Japanese provenance entered the lives of Lebanese youth. Wing-like protrusions emerged from his incongruously teeny head like a set of bull’s horns. His arms were Herculean, substantial enough to hurl any enemy into a distant abyss, while his robot hands seemed always to be clenched into little balls of fury. On occasion, he would commune with a flying saucer, which allowed him to soar over the sky at light speed as he battled a malicious empire run by a galactic dictator named Lord Vega the Great and his equally malicious associates. The robot, the savior of humanity, was called Grendizer.

    It was more than a little tempting to extend this tale into the lived world; Lebanon was in the midst of being torn into a million pieces care of its civil war, and later, by Israel, as that state’s forces marched into southern Lebanon in 1982. Grendizer’s text, translated from the Japanese to French, and then to Arabic, would call for the forces of good… To battle the infidels! To seek honor! To demand resistance! Indeed, the lines between Mughamarat Al-Fadaa, or “Space Adventures,” and real life became confused. Legions of children grew obsessed with Grendizer. They memorized the theme song, sung by a cheesy Lebanese pop star named Sammy Clark.

    Like many members of his generation, Fadi Baki (inexplicably known to his friends as Fdz) cut his teeth on the giant robot, collecting his action figures and comic books. Grendizer was a crucial part of his subcultural education, a milestone on the road to nerd-dom. Years after the civil war had come and gone, after college at the American University in Beirut (AUB), and even after going away to London to study film, he and three similarly inclined friends came together to create a comic book of their own — in, of, and for Lebanon. One of them, Omar Khouri, had gone away to the States to become a painter. Another, Lena Merhej, had gone to New York to study design. And there was Hatem Imam, a shaggy-haired polymath who had also studied fine arts in the UK. By 2000 or so, the four of them were back in Beirut, communing in the cafes of Hamra and scheming their separate schemes. And then, like a band of heroes — or, perhaps, a Japanese robot — they came together to create an incubator for local versions of the pop-cultural products they’d imbibed as kids. Drawing from the world of superheroes, from science fiction, and from history, as well as the incomparable stuff of everyday life, their trilingual anthology of comic art was launched in late 2007, with some meager funds for printing, a lot of will, and very little sleep. Four issues later, the Samandal gang are still at it, plotting the conquest of the Middle East and teasing each other in the meantime.

    Negar Azimi: Who was the biggest Grendizer head among you?

    FDZ: That would be me. My first email address was My earliest memory was of the cartoon playing an hour after I came back from school. My watching ritual always involved me stuffing my face with something sweet. I’d either be neck-deep in a jar of Nutella or chugging my fiftieth Pepsi or whatever would drug me into sugary nirvana as Grendizer beat the shit out of other giant robots on TV. This conduct hasn’t changed much over the years. I played with the action figurines, too, the sugar blinding my rationale to the point where I’d shoot Grendizer right out our seventh-floor window to make a giant dent on our poor neighbors’ cars beneath. I have a clear memory of losing my favorite Grendizer toy at one of my mother’s hairdressers. I had a figurine that was fully articulated, with arms that could shoot out and a flying saucer that he could be inserted into, and I was using the salon’s various equipment to unleash giant robo-hell upon its customers. The hairdresser, a man called Mimo, was a towering militia-type with a jet-black Gandalf mustache and a frizzy Afro. He claimed that he was a Grendizer fan, too. As he surgically operated on my mother’s bouffant, we hit it off. I was proud of myself, a noisy seven-year-old with a budding camaraderie with an older man — especially when Mimo held up the figurine in admiration and demonstrated to everyone his knowledge of all of Grendizer’s weapons. When we finally left, Mimo gave me a wink and a Halls drop, and I was smitten. I was going to grow up to become a hairdresser. When I got home, my action figure was gone.

    NA: Wait, do you think Mimo stole it?

    FDZ: Yeah, a few hours later I realized that I didn’t have my action figure with me anymore. My mom immediately called the salon to see if it was there, but Mimo said it wasn’t. The fucker stole it! I still catch myself festering over that toy, boiling with the knowledge that somewhere Mimo’s mustachioed child is playing with my Grendizer instead of me.

    NA: Okay, so who among you is the biggest comic geek, historically?

    FDZ: That would be Omar.

    Omar Khouri: I practically learned Arabic from comics. I read Grendizer, Batman, Asterix, Calvin and Hobbes, Garfield. I liked Superman, too. It was translated from the English. The pages were printed as mirror-images of the originals so that they could be read from right to left, as Arabic is read. So the “S” printed on Superman’s torso became a “Z.”

    NA: What about the rest of you?

    Lena Merhej: I read Loulou wa Tabouch, Samer, Glenat, and later L’association, the French comics. I had a boyfriend who was into them. I got into them again years later, when I was living in New York and I started writing to Omar. I wanted to keep a comic journal from New York, like Julie Doucet or Linda Barry. Before that I would read German children’s books at the Goethe Institute in Beirut. But I couldn’t speak German, and I guess this gave me the interest and later the motivation to “write” in images.

    Hatem Imam: The first comic I read as a kid was Majallat Majid. I was living in Abu Dhabi back then. I read all of it, the comics, the letters to the editor, the submission guidelines, the text in the subscription call out… It was the only thing available to read.

    NA: What about TV? Did you watch TV?

    HI: It’s a completely different thing.

    FDZ: You can’t take TV to the toilet.

    HI: For me, comics were always related to bedtime. I read them there. I can only read them in bed. I’m pretty much the same now.

    FDZ: I read while I’m on the toilet. I guess I had difficulty transitioning. I have a bookcase in my bathroom.

    HI: But you don’t have any space in your bathroom! You can hardly fit into it.

    NA: Tell us more about Majid.

    HI: It was a mix of influences. I think it was published in the UAE by Al Ittihad Publishing House. Some of it was done by people in the Gulf. I remember one story clearly: “Moza and Rashoud,” on the last pages. I think it was actually illustrated by an English person.

    Sandra Ghosn, from Samandal 3

    NA: Were Moza and Rashoud lovers?

    HI: No, they were “friends.” Actually it was pretty boring. Most of the stories were boring. All of them were mediocre, somehow. It was the idea of having a comic that was most thrilling. There was a section in the magazine where readers would fill in blanks of text and send in their submissions and win prizes.

    FDZ: Did you ever write to them?

    HI: No. I was lazy. But other people did. You could also write to all the characters. When they raised the price to 3 dirhams, people wrote in complaining. The characters would write back. There was one character I remember distinctly, called Kaslan, or “Lazy.” Anyway, Abu Dhabi was just really boring. I rarely left the house. Sometimes we went to the beach. School, which was all boys, was horrible, I had no friends.

    NA: What was the typical storyline of a Majid story?

    HI: It was pretty preachy. Like — it was no good to be kaslan. Bad guys were always losers. There was religion, too. Actually, there was one more exciting story, called “Shamss wa Dana.” I think they were stranded on this island and had a weird relationship to animals.

    NA: Like, they had sex with them?

    HI: Negar! No! Magid never had sex in it.

    FDZ: How old were you, anyway?

    HI: Twelve or thirteen.

    FDZ: And you already had dirty thoughts?

    HI: No, that was later…

    NA: Fdz, what was your first comic book memory?

    FDZ: For me, it came in phases. I was in Beirut until I was eight, reading Superman in English and locally produced Grendizer. I also read comics on the back of cornflakes boxes. Then I moved to Syria during the war. There were no cornflakes in Syria. So I stole Asterix from the library.

    NA: Stole?

    FDZ: Stole. The librarian trusted me, and I abused that trust. And then I finally came back to Beirut, and I remember the first MAD Magazine I saw. And I tried to read Arabic Superman, and my father was like, What are you doing? That was what I spent my pot of money on, Arabic Superman.

    NA: Zuperman!

    FDZ: I didn’t know it was translated! Arabic Superman was original Superman for me. They were translating stories from the golden era of Superman… with Krypto the Superdog. I only noticed later that in our version they covered the short sleeves, and they drank juice instead of booze.

    NA: Who did the translations?

    FDZ: It was done locally by Al Imlaq publishing house in Beirut. And it was out of order. That was the general problem in my childhood — all our childhoods, I guess. Bad serialization. It was all out of order! Same thing with television.

    Mazen Kerbaj. From Samandal 2

    HI: Yeah, cartoons were just filler to the station, so, like, forty-five minutes into a show, they would just cut it off —

    FDZ: — and you’d be devastated because you would have no idea what happened at the end.

    HI: You know Jazeerat Al Kanz? Treasure Island. We would all go home at 6pm on Thursdays and watch it. They showed all of them except the very last episode.

    NA: What about Grendizer, was that dubbed?

    FDZ: Again, we never thought it was dubbed. It was just Arabic.

    HI: It was proper fossha — classical Arabic.

    FDZ: It was the most exciting cartoon on television. Giant robots, giant dinosaurs, explosions, everyone looking for their dead mother or father, high drama, post-apocalypse. What can compete?

    HATEM: Remi?

    FDZ: Remi!

    HI: I hated that shit. For me there was Tom and Jerry. Except, whenever there’d be any flirtation between Tom and some female cat, they’d cut that out [in the UAE].

    FDZ: And if they got drunk…

    HI: They got drunk a lot!

    FDZ: They would cut that, too.

    NA: Wait, did you mean Remi Bandali?

    FDZ: No, it was a Japanese program based on a nineteenth-century French story. The terribly depressing story of an orphan child sold to a mentor with dogs. A monkey and dogs that would get rabies?

    Fouad Mezher. From Samandal 1

    HATEM: Yeah, it was depressing. Everyone dies, actually. In the last episode, Remi finds his mother and his brother, and his brother is a cripple, and they all live on a boat.

    FDZ: That is pulled by two horses.

    NA: A boat pulled by horses?

    FDZ: Yeah. And in the last minute of the last episode, the horse runs, and the brother is in a wheelchair and it rolls into the river, and while he’s sinking, he’s looking up at Remi.

    HI: It was sad, but we used to watch it anyway. There was nothing else.

    NA: Did you watch Grendizer, Hatem?

    HI: Of course.

    FDZ: That show was awesome to watch. They got really good voice-over actors, like theater actors, and we had at least five years of really excellent dubbing. What’s the studio called? Studio Baalbeck or something. They had great voices.

    HI: And good names, too. “Oloolo” was one of the monsters.

    FDZ: The T. Rex general of Satola’s Dinosaur Army!

    HI: And they used fossha in exciting ways. Fossha was always related to geography and reading class and suddenly we had fossha — but talking about dinosaurs and robots. Which shows you the richness of the language. Fdz and I have long conversations in fossha. It’s great, you can find the weirdest adjectives.

    NA: Why was it so awesome?

    HI: It was just crazy. They would say things like “Oghrob an wajahi ayuhal waghed” for “Get out of my face, you bastard.” It’s a bit like making jokes in the language of the Qur’an.

    NA: Language seems very important to you guys. As far as I can tell, Samandal is the first trilingual comic ever. Very Lebanese.

    HI: We wrote Issue 3’s editorial in fossha. To me, it’s hilarious. We’re used to this kind of thing, encountering fossha in Grendizer or dubbed.

    NA: Where did you get the idea for Samandal?

    OK: I was working on this comic (“Salon Tarek El Khurafi”) in 2006 and wanted to publish it in Lebanon. It needed to be serialized, and there was no publisher here that did that with comics, so I thought I could give myself, as well as other frustrated aspiring comics artists like me, a periodical platform to show our work. I was reading a lot of Japanese manga at the time and was fascinated by their magazine formats, where you get about six hundred black and white pages a week of different comics, some serialized and others complete, as opposed to American comics, which are usually single issues of about twenty-four pages. I thought something similar on a smaller scale would be appropriate, especially since it would allow a number of artists from different places, using different languages, to mingle. The size of Samandal is also taken from manga, Book 1 of Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo-sensei. We also got a push after Hatem and I went to a talk by Jad Khoury at AUB. He had started his own comic for adults in the 1980s with some friends, Beirut 89. They had a collective called the “Jad Workshop” — him and his wife and some other people, who lived in the same house during parts of the war and produced this thing. So we went to him after the talk and explained our idea for Samandal.

    NA: What was his response?

    OK: He urged us to do it in Arabic. Beirut 89 had been in Arabic. And he had his doubts we could pull it off. He didn’t think we could get one hundred pages together!

    NA: What is your relationship to a place like Egypt, where fewer people speak English, and even fewer French?

    FDZ: You know, our first expansion would be to Egypt. One of the first reactions we got was, “You can’t do this Lebanese shit in Egypt.” But at the same time, people read us there. Well, there’s a huge readership of comics there.

    HI: There’s a tradition of illustration, too. And then there was the whole children’s books thing back in the 1970s. There was a sense of the whole world being consumed by Arab nationalism, and you see that in the children’s books. Children were the future. Now there is something similar that binds us — but instead of Arab nationalism, it’s that we despise our own regimes and are fed up.

    NA: What’s the relationship between children’s books and comics in the Arab world?

    HI: All those guys, Hejazi, Mohieddine El-Labbad, Helmy Touni, they were producing comics for kids. Their work was often ideological, most of them were secular progressives.

    FDZ: And you also had Dar El Fatah El Arabie here in Lebanon, too, a Palestinian publishing house that produced children’s books. Some of those artists were involved in pan-Arabism, the Palestinian situation.

    HI: There was this book called El Beit (The House) that went around to international festivals and won awards. El Beit starts by saying that the chicken has a home and it’s called a coop, the horse has a home and it’s called a stable…

    FDZ: … and the Palestinian has a home and it’s called Palestine — but wait! He doesn’t, really.

    HI: And then you turn the page, and there’s an image of a Zionist, and he has fangs and is all green.

    FDZ: Isn’t he in a tank? The Zionist?

    HI: Really?

    FDZ: There’s a Kalashnikov, anyway. And these guys were doing comics!

    NA: But that generation of Egyptians was somehow important to you?

    HI: Yeah. Labbad has a series of books that deal with visual culture, including one about hieroglyphics. He talks about Western comics — he looks at Tarzan, and it becomes a critique of colonialism. It’s the best writing on visual culture in Arabic I’ve ever read.

    LM: My favorite book as a kid was The White Sail, and it was produced by Dar El Fatah El Arabie. I was mesmerized by the character drawn by Hejazi. And the boat was made out of a newspaper in the book. But I couldn’t even read it at the time. I only started reading Arabic for pleasure in my late teens.

    NA: Tell me a bit about your comic in Samandal, Lena. It’s about you and your mother, right? Does she read it?

    LM: I read it to her. She’s losing her sight, so I’m trying to finish it at least so that she can see it, but it’s hard for her to read.

    NA: And why is it called “Yogurt and Jam”?

    LM: She eats yogurt with jam, and in Lebanon we eat it with cucumbers and salt. So I felt that this was a German way… the stories are real from my memory. Some of them are about us during the war, about her being a foreigner in Lebanon. My mom was born in Germany and met my father in Beirut when she was working here.

    NA: You guys prepared a comic for Bidoun once that was a collaborative effort and dealt interestingly with sex, in the form of a hot flight hostess and also some of the horrors of puberty — like getting your period and stuff. How do you guys treat issues like sex in Samandal — as part of being young, as part of the scenery, or what?

    FDZ: Well, I personally want more sex in the magazine. But we know that we’re going to get in trouble if we get any more explicit. We had a sex scene in Issue 2, and we had to keep discussing what will fly and what won’t — that was the first time we had to wonder whether we’d have to censor comics that we publish. But sex shouldn’t be a topic reserved for private screenings in art-house theaters.

    NA: Do you guys have a policy about censorship? I mean beyond avoiding it?

    FDZ: Well, now we do, which came out of that experience with Issue 2. We toyed with the idea of blacking out offending appendages. But found ourselves revolted with the notion. So we decided to go with it and then advise artists to not get explicit with penises and stuff.

    HI: We’re lucky that a lot of stuff can go under the radar, since no one takes comics seriously.

    FDZ: Ogdie submitted something for Issue 1 that was essentially one long sex-and-drugs scene. We’d love to publish that.

    NA: And?

    FDZ: But the consensus was that it’d probably land us in jail.

    HATEM: Big time.

    NA: Who is Samandal’s target audience, anyway?

    HI: We don’t all agree. I think Omar dreams of having a much wider audience than we have now.

    LM: This access and class thing is important to us. How do we get Samandal out? But it’s difficult. Still, I know people from the Palestinian camps who know it.

    OMAR: It’s true, I want it to be as accessible as possible. I think everyone should read comics. They’re an amazingly efficient way to get information across. Comics have just as much potential to be insightful literary and visual masterpieces as they do mindless flashy entertainment, or just a combination of both. As for artists, the point is to popularize it enough here so that it can become a profession and not just a hobby.  

    NA: Did you ever think you would grow up and make comics?

    OK: I wanted to become a paid comic book artist when I was fifteen. I think Fdz as well. But it was completely unrealistic, given the country we live in. It would be cool if someday soon a fifteen-year-old kid can aspire to get a paying gig at Samandal

    HI: I feel like we don’t have to worry too much about people reading it. If we make a good comic, people will come. My dentist has Issues 1 and 2.

    NA: Besides your dentist, who reads it?

    HI: Realistically, people from Beirut. People interested in visual arts.

    FDZ: I’m not sure about that…

    HI: Illustrators, graphic designers, filmmakers. Adults. Though we do have contributors and readers in high school, too.

    FDZ: There’re people who pick it up because they used to do comics.

    NA: I feel like you guys are somewhat at odds with the prevailing tendency of the art world here. Your experience of the war was via pop culture. You’re less precious about your experience of being Arab, being the product of war, being Lebanese…

    HI: Being Lebanese is overrated. But with pop culture, sure. When our parents were watching the news, we were watching Jazeerat Al Kens. To me, that show is more about the war than all the documentary footage that we see on Al Jazeera today.

    FDZ: I think what happens is that, naturally, the following generation deals with the products of war rather than the war itself. So being Lebanese is about speaking three languages — because everyone emigrated during the war. It’s about being obsessed with Japanese manga and anime because we relate to the battle against invaders and the missing fathers.

    NA: How do you guys position yourselves in relation to the art scene?

    HI: One foot inside the circle, the other outside. Sometimes I feel the circle is not interested in the work I do, particularly Samandal.

    NA: It’s not serious or critical enough?

    HI: Exactly.

    NA: Who needs them?

    HI: Well, we all do. They’ll come around. The whole world is taking comics more seriously. We also need time — I think in a few years, the material in the magazine will be so much better.

    FDZ: I’m not too sure about that. I think the interest in the Arab world and comics is frivolous. It’s a fad. In a few years it’ll be GI Joe and China. But we need to milk it for what it’s worth.

    HI: I disagree. Maybe Samandal will be a fad, but using comics to make art…

    FDZ: Comics as art comes and goes.

    HI: When did it come? The entire world is into comics now because a bunch of them are being turned into movies — Sin City, Batman, Daredevil, Superman

    HI: I think it’s the other way around. It’s the world is interested in these books that they are being turned into movies.

    FDZ: Perhaps. But the same applies to the Arab world. The world’s ears perked up after 9/11. Soon it’ll be someone else.

    NA: Okay, so who contributes to it, besides you? Who’s your youngest contributor?

    FDZ: Hashem Raslan. He’s in high school. He sent us a comic about killing his teachers. I think he’s the youngest. Then there are the girls in Tripoli — they’re maybe nineteen.

    NA: Who are the girls in Tripoli?

    OK: They contacted us with a submission. They are very shy and quiet — three veiled girls who are influenced most by yaoi manga, which are Japanese comics about beautiful boys that fall in love with each other. It’s a genre. I found it very peculiar.

    NA: Do they know Japanese?

    OK: No, they were reading online fan translations, which have horrendous English. They even have Japanese nicknames for one another. The comics they wrote were oriented from right to left, like Japanese comics, and their writing was in English. The girls submitted tales of unrequited love!

    NA: What is the most surprising response, whether fan mail or criticism, you’ve gotten?

    FDZ: We’ve received an odd, quasi-fundie threat telling us that we have been warned and to expect sudden death at any time, from anywhere. It was probably spam mail, though.

    NA: What about politics? You’re a comics magazine for adults in a particular region at a particular time. I’m thinking of Omar’s comic, “Salon Tarek El Khurafi.” In Issue 2, your protagonist is arrested for manufacturing “imaginary artifacts.” He’s encouraging escapist, individualistic thought in pretty subtle ways. Do you see Samandal as an alternative space for…

    OK: Definitely. For me, Samandal was a way to do political commentary in a way we don’t see it in Lebanese literature or media. Because commentary here is always so direct and tends to offend people in such a charged climate. Whereas this is a bit like Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta.

    LM: I think the best thing about Omar’s comic is his ease with the unknown, the imaginary. We rarely see comics or books that go into the fantastic and the magical.

    NA: Is there a tradition of science fiction in the Arab world?

    OMAR: There used to be a tradition of fantasy a long time ago, like 1001 Nights — that’s extremely rich. I wanted to revive that and modernize it. My themes touch on religion, and I guess that’s very closely related to imagination and the unknown for me.

    NA: Who are your characters?

    OK: I have three main characters. Sura, a second-year design student who is trying to express her imagination visually in a place that heavily censors it. There’s Lulwa — her and Sura grew up in the same village. She’s moving to the city for the first time and is forced to stay with Sura. And there’s Malek, a physics student whose family life was ruined by a religious party.

    NA: Heavy. Do any of them stand in for you?

    OK: All my characters are different facets of myself. But I’ve heard people say that the one that is most like me is Sura. Yesterday someone told me that they found it funny because she looks like my wife, wearing my glasses, but speaking like me.

    NA: I like that, Omar in drag. Talk to me about “The Educator.” It’s very… evocative. It feels very Orwellian in ambition and tenor.

    FDZ: Everyone loves “The Educator.”

    HI: Not everyone.

    FDZ: I think his art is quite striking. And when rifling through the magazine, it just leaps at you.

    NA: And the girl is hot.

    FDZ: The girl hangs in my bedroom.

    NA: How so?

    FDZ: A drawing. In a frame.

    HI: Fouad Mezher, the creator, has managed to use the genre in a suitable way for Lebanon.

    FDZ: “The Educator” is a subtle way of dealing with the situation. So is Omar’s comic.

    HI: We totally need a crime-fighting vigilante.

    FDZ: I don’t think we do. They’re all fucking vigilantes.

    HI: But they don’t have cool costumes…

    FDZ: Masks and costumes will only make them worse.

    HI: I’m just saying, it makes sense for costumed heroes to appear in today’s Beirut.

    FDZ: So Omar can liken the government to puppeteering automatons. Fouad can say that the institution is doping the people into submission. And I imagine we can get a lot nastier and specific and still get away with it. Ali Dirany deals with Lebanon in a very interesting way as well, in his comic. The main character lives in a constant state of psychosis, his eyes stare out vacantly, he walks around with a wrench through a psychedelic rendition of Beirut.

    HI: I love how radical he is.

    FDZ: And he deals with its best and worst with the same blasé numbness. I personally find Ali Dirany’s work, Misbah, more directly political.

    HI: I agree. No allegories.

    NA: I want to ask you guys about how you work. Where do you meet?

    HATEM: In our homes.

    NA: Which?

    FDZ: Those that don’t have cats.

    NA: You hate cats?

    FDZ: No, Hatem is mortally allergic.

    NA: So he’ll die?

    HI: No, I’ll sneeze.

    NA: What was the last big fight you had?

    FDZ: We try to have them on a regular basis.

    HI: It’s healthy.

    FDZ: The makeup sex is good.

    HI: What do you want to know? We’re not too keen on publishing our dirty laundry.

    HI: I can say that the difficulty comes in part because of the crossing of friendship and work. That’s where things get messy.

    NA: You and FDZ are BFF, right?

    FDZ: Not forever.


    FDZ: We do ten-year contracts. With the possibility of renewal.

    HI: I gave you my heart.

    FDZ: That was ten Christmases ago.

    NA: But seriously, you met at AUB, right?

    HI: Yes, we met at AUB. Fdz was the weirdest dude in class.

    FDZ: What?

    HI: And I was an absolute nerd. I was the loner. I had a cap on for a whole year. No one ever saw my hair.

    FDZ: But we had different sides of the studio. Hatem was the unassuming gem in class. But too bad, he was surrounded by weirdoes.

    HATEM: Fdz spoke of comics and radioheads and Star Wars.

    FDZ: He sat next to Texas Boots.

    HI: We used to call him Pifpaf. He was a pair of boots that grew appendages and stumbled into graphic design. He was known for his striking yellow turtleneck with black leather.

    FDZ: And he had his phone in a hip holster.

    HI: I would love to meet him again. He had the coolest rings.

    FDZ: If we remembered his name, we’d show you his Facebook account.

    NA: Is he, like, a venture capitalist now?

    FDZ: Nah, he’s likely a shoe salesman.

    HI: Or a dentist.

    NA: Always with the dentist.

    FDZ: Or a comics artist!

    HI: Yes!

    NA: Okay, we’re digressing. Last question, and it’s odd that I didn’t even think of this earlier. Why Samandal anyway, why this name?

    HI: It’s “salamander” in Arabic. I guess it’s somewhere between picture and text. Like a salamander is between water and land.

    NA: Salamanders are from fire, right? According to legend. And why is the subtitle Picture Stories?

    HI: There’s no one word for comics in Arabic!

    FDZ: But we’re kind of trying to change that.

    Mohammed Mrabet

    Fish soup

    Even today, the Storyteller haunts the town, barely visible yet palpable, like an ocean vapor. Sightings are infrequent. At seventy-five, Mohammed Mrabet prefers to stay home, in his tidy, windowless studio, in his four-story house, in a Tangier neighborhood full of auto body shops, picturesque vacant lots, and graffiti-spackled alleys. Home with his grandchildren, his drawings and paintings, his tea and pipe and old cassette recorder. The house is on the city’s inland side, far from the Atlantic, the Strait, and the Mediterranean, far from the old casbah and the medina, farther still from the foreign cities where Mrabet’s name invokes a lost century.

    His health is gone, Mrabet says, and one day soon he will die. When he does, in those cities, strangers will pick up and weigh again his dozen books — including Love with a Few Hairs, The Lemon, M’hashish — and countless stories, published in journals like Antaeus and The Transatlantic Review. And his art — the intricate, layered, kef-infused, often ugly drawings and paintings of humans, animals, snakes, fishes, and ingrown forms which “cannot be called primitive,” according to William S. Burroughs, “for the draftsmanship is quite sophisticated. On one hand, the paintings derive from the classical Arab tradition, as expressed in mosaics; there is also some resemblance to the spirit pictures drawn by Eskimo shamans.”

    For now, though, hamdullah, he is alive, and from time to time Mrabet appears, cloaked in a djellaba, at Merkala Beach, where the wooden shanty-cafes are almost gone, forced into the sea by the new corniche. Or he alights briefly at a back table at the Café Tingis in the once-storied Petit Socco, former heart of the old Interzone, where nothing was true and everything was permitted, and where today all the old men look like ghosts of that former time, skeletons in suits shiny with age.

    Fifty years ago, as a young man in the Petit Socco, Mrabet met the Europeans who would come to haunt him. Burroughs; the painter, writer, and sound artist Brion Gysin; Truman Capote; and Tennessee Williams, the only one for whom Mrabet retains affection. In the photos from that time Mrabet is quelque chose de magnifique — sleek dark hair, a boxer’s lean body, watchful eyes with the smile of a charmer. The world in these images is one of cultivated leisure, Tangier as an artsy, literary, and unabashedly gay counter-Riviera; the pictures suggest other, untold stories outside the frame.

    The old pictures in which Mrabet looks most at ease are those he shares with his unquietest ghost, the one who will not leave him be. Bowles. Anything but a tourist, Paul Bowles, the ultimate expatriate, left New York on a literary safari and never went back. After four decades abroad, the name “Bowles” (Jane as well as Paul) had become synonymous, in those faraway cities, with Tangier and the whole northern spur of Africa, where Morocco — full of complicated visions, stories like riddles, and hypnotic rhythms — pushes insolently against anxious, Orientalist Europe.

    Most days, Mrabet has little good to say about his translator, agent, employer, and (according to Bowles) close friend. The literati who made the pilgrimage to Bowles’s apartment for his afternoon open house described Mrabet as the gatekeeper, who would begin to sharpen a large knife when the visits dragged on, or hand an over-loquacious visitor a spliff so potent they would be struck dumb. Today, what remains of their forty-year relationship is a lingering sense of betrayal. Mrabet’s stories are full of Europeans (or Nazarenes, in Tanjawi parlance — followers of the man from Nazareth) scheming to exploit the locals for their sunripe essence — and getting a harsh comeuppance at the hands of the spiritually superior Muslims and the thousand-and-one saints who protect them. (The casbah cat who stole Capote’s voice comes to mind.)

    It may be hokum to call Mrabet the Last of the Beats or the Bard of the Interzone or a late exemplar of the Mediterranean oral tradition, born from Homer’s primeval sea of stories. The man who answers the door on the quiet street is tiny compared to all that, in height and weight and presence, a plainspoken Tanjawi by his manners. But as he sits on the floor in his usual spot, legs stretched out before him, and begins to speak, reaching for tea, for his pipe, for photographs and drawings and objects to illustrate his point, the Storyteller again becomes visible, making windows in the simple room with his words.

    Sean Gullette: Salaam Alekum, Maalem.

    Mohammed Mrabet: Bonjour, ça va, labess? Come sit.

    SG: So tell me, what was Tangier like in the old days? What did it smell like?

    MM: Tangier smelled like… a soup made of seawater. Fantastic. Something truly… something that doesn’t exist now. Now there are maybe thirty Tangiers, not one. Bigger, lots of work, lots of people, oh, la la. Then, there were not even 100,000 people.

    But lots of Europeans. Thousands of Europeans, really, everything: Español, Français, American. Une salade niçoise. And all of those Europeans were here — you know why? To live, like, for free. A big house that costs nothing, 200, 400, pesetas a month. The woman who works in the house, the chauffeur, the gardeners, and there’s money left over. The European has found like a Chupa Chup. A lollipop. [Laughs]

    SG: How did you meet all these Europeans?

    MM: It was 1950, ’51. I was sitting in a cafe in the Rue d’Espagne, drawing. I would do these drawings and just leave them there. Those days only the Europeans would buy my paintings. American, French, a few Italians, Dutch, Germans. Not expensive — nothing, 100 dirhams, 50 dirhams.

    One day this European came in. He came and took five drawings. And he gave me 100 dollars. I laughed! And one day, after that, I was drawing and this woman, a European, looked over my shoulder. And she said, “magnifique, fantastique…”

    She said, “What’s your name?”

    I said, “Mohammed Mrabet.”

    She said, “I’m Jane Bowles. Please come sit with me.”

    I said, “Jane, I’m going to finish what I have to do, and I’ll come sit with you.”

    That’s how that happened. And I brought over a cup of cafe au lait in my hand, and I was with her. I started to smoke and drink. She said, “Are you married?” and I said, “Yes.”

    I said, “Are you?” And she said, “Oh, my husband’s in the Sahara recording music.”

    I said, “Oh, that’s good, he’s going to make a lot of money.”

    Jane looked at me and laughed and made a face. At that moment I thought, This woman might be… sick. And I said to this woman, “Alright, I am going to tell a story.” And she said, “What? A story? Good.”

    And I told a story. She started to laugh. She said, “Really, magnifique.” I told another story, and she said, “Ah, fantastique.”

    Later, I said, “Alright, I’m going to leave you, I’m going home, to sleep. It’s two-thirty in the morning.”

    The next Saturday, Jane was there. The same thing: I told two or three stories, she went crazy. Another Saturday she was there, and she said, “This is my husband.” I shook his hand and said, “Hello, hello, ça va?” I was laughing. He said, “Why are you laughing?” and I said, “I know you. I’ve seen you on the beach. I was fishing. And you were with many people.” Really, he was always with many people. William Burroughs, Brion Gysin, Ahmed Yacoubi, Temsamani, Corso, Capote.

    He said, “Oh yes, I remember, you had a lot of fish. My wife has told me a lot about you, that you have a lot of stories. It’s fantastic. I can do translation, I can do a book in America, you can get a contract, get money.” [Laughs] I looked at him like this. [Totally blank features] I believed nothing he said to me.

    But Jane hassled me. So I went to visit. “Ça va, hamdullah, come in, what do you want to drink?” I said, “Me, I don’t drink alcohol.” Really, I don’t drink alcohol. I went in the kitchen and made myself a coffee. We started talking. Jane said, “So you have a lot of stories?” I said, “Yes, lots of stories and lots of novels, too.” Rewayats. Before television, before radio, men in the cafe would smoke and drink tea and tell a novel, every day for two or three hours. The rewaya would finish in a week.

    SG: How did you work, exactly?

    MM: I went in with Paul, and Paul gave me a big machine, with big tapes and a microphone, and I told twenty-seven stories. And afterward, over at their place, I did the translation with him. He said, “Can you help me?” He said, “I don’t understand Darija [Moroccan Arabic].” He understood nothing, less than nothing. Jane, yes, she spoke very well. And I started translating the recordings into Spanish. He told people he did translations directly from Darija. Into English. Not true. Really, not true. I touch the machine like this and the machine says my story in Darija, and I tell him in Spanish.

    And he did the translation into English, and he typed them on the machine. All the books, like that. He sold the twenty-seven stories, all of them. In America.

    Then I did my book Love with a Few Hairs.

    I finished, and I told Paul, “I finished the film.” He said, “The film?” We Moroccans say rewaya, film, story. Europeans say “novel.”

    Jane said, “We’re going to translate it,” and I said, “Alright.” We started doing the translation, and he finished this Love with a Few Hairs. He called Jane to come down, and he said, “This Mrabet, he’s something else, a magnificent thing.” And the people in New York said, “Yes, we want to publish this novel.”

    So I brought him another one. “I’ve finished another rewaya,” I said. He just looked at me, shocked. I said, “The title is Citron. The Lemon.” And it went like that. [Laughs]

    SG: Where did you find the ideas?

    MM: I don’t know. I can’t say anything. Really. You are in front of me, I look at you, and I could do a story about you — really, a horrible story. Or a magnifique, fantastique story. I’m like that. I’m telling the truth — even me, myself, I don’t know where all that comes from. And when I start to do a drawing, I don’t know what I’m going to do — I start, and at the end there’s something there.

    SG: Where did these stories come from?

    MM: I have no idea. I could say the fish brings me the stories, the big fish whose life I saved. In the Cave of Hercules.

    My wife was sick. Pregnant. One night she said to me, “I want fish. Go fishing.” I said to my wife, “It’s night, there’s rain, the sea is high — five-meter waves! How can I go fishing?”

    So I went out at six in the morning, to Hercules Cave, and the water had gone down. I went down to the sea with my tackle, and I started climbing over the rocks by the sea. Down there, when the water goes down, there’s always some water that stays in the holes on top of the rock. So I’m looking for baitfish in the holes.

    Then I hear, “Aaaaahhhh!… Ha-uaaaaahhhh!”

    I got up on a rock and looked.

    And I see this fish. Oh, la la! Like five, six, meters long.

    Something magnifique. I went over to him, I looked at him, I laughed. I looked up at the sky and said, “Hamdullah,” thanks be to God — oh, la la. This fish — maybe 500,000, 600,000 dirhams.

    And he answers me. He says, “If you sell me, if you eat me, you’re going to lose a lot. Your whole life.”

    I said, “You talk?”

    He said, “Yes. I’m a fish, but I’m very different. I came from far, far away, I don’t know how many thousands of kilometers, with my wife and kids. And I find it magnifique here. It’s peaceful. There’s a lot to eat — magnifique. And I stayed here with my wife and kids. And now you can help me. Save my life.”

    And I said, “How can I, you’re so big?”

    His head was here, his tail here. [Mrabet’s arms spread energetically] Enormous. He was lying on the rock with his head over the edge. On the tail, there was a big fin. And I pushed it this way, that way. And while I pushed, he moved his head like this. And we pushed. And after a long time, he got his head over the edge and psssssssshhhhhhh… He went out into the water.”

    A few minutes later he came back. With his wife and kids, everyone. One of them said, “Merci beaucoup, Monsieur Mrabet. You saved our father.” And the fish said, “I’ll come to visit you. Au revoir, au revoir.” He left. I started fishing, and I caught a lot of fish that morning. I cleaned them there, prepared them, and I went home.

    Truly, that’s how it happened. I’m not crazy. I swear by my God that’s how it happened.

    One day, later, I’m here in my house, in my studio, like this, and someone pushed my shoulder. I look over, it’s the fish. And he said, “I am the fish, your friend, whose life you saved, and I bring something good for you.”

    He told me four stories.

    That’s how it happens. He comes, he tells stories. He told me lots of stories. His name is Mehend. Ah, Mehend, Mehend… There are three Mehends. There’s Mehend who drinks only milk. Mehend who takes the rock and makes rope from the rock. And Mehend who takes a mountain, like this, and then another mountain, and joins them.

    And the son of Mehend, he fell out of a tree, a big tree, the little Mehend, and he slid down all the way to the sea. The big fish came out of the sea. And he found his kid lying by the sea. And he began giving of himself, until the little one grew up.

    SG: Do you ever think your life would be different if you hadn’t met Jane and Paul?

    MM: Why? Why different? I was born writing, I was born painting. I did books before I knew Bowles. Truly. I have a new book coming out. I’m going to do another new one. Truly. Ah, oui. Want to see the contract? Look. It’s called Allah M’ahnik — “God be with you.” They want to change the title to Manaraf, which means “I don’t know.” Good. Let them change it. I think Allah M’ahnik is perfect.

    I am a man who — always I’m seeking. Always I search. I work here, I do something here. I could never waste my time in the bars, in the discotheques, no, no, no. That means nothing to me. “Come on, let’s go eat in the restaurant.” That’s zero to me. I do my own cooking, with my hands.

    When I cooked at Paul’s, Jane and Paul said, “You are going to work with us.” I did the cooking. Chauffeur. Bodyguard. Eighty-seven kilos. At that time, I was something magnifique. And I didn’t know fear. Fear for me meant nothing. And I cooked, everything, whatever he wanted, I did it. Everyone happy. The people who came, they eat what I cook, very happy. But Jane is not happy. Always fighting with Paul. She was right. Really, she was right.

    SG: What about Burroughs?

    MM: Monsieur Burroughs… [He goes out and returns with a painting by another artist, of Burroughs bleeding, gunshots behind him.] That’s how it went at the end. When he fell down, the blood came out of his mouth. You know something about Burroughs? William Burroughs killed his wife — why?

    SG: Well — he said, evil spirits.

    MM: Hmm? Accident? Ha. You know why? And why did he kill his son? Every day, he gave him a big thing of cocaine, horrible. He finished the son off. The son was very sick — the liver. The liver became completely white. That’s how he killed his son. After that, he stayed with a pretty kid that he brought from Africa somewhere. He found something good there and brought it back with him. And after what happened? The pretty kid, he stole everything there was. And Burroughs started trembling, his hands shaking like this… I’m not laughing at him. He smokes, he drinks, always he has a bottle right here. And the sniffing, and — ha ha ha — the white flour in the nose. The shots. And lots of aspirin, I saw lots of aspirin, red, green. I don’t know. Always nervous.

    SG: Was he a good man?

    MM: Not a good man. Not him, not Bowles, not Bryon Gysin. There was one magnifique, Tennessee Williams. I knew him here, I knew him in Hollywood. I knew lots of people over there. Even Elia Kazan.

    SG: What were you doing in the States?

    MM: Oh, they hassled me. So I went there. And looked at lots of things. Everyone happy with me, a Moroccan who writes. All the Americans wanted something from Mrabet.

    SG: How can you say Bowles wasn’t a good man — after everything you did together?

    MM: He did lots of harm. A big racist. I can say that. Even if I went to America, I’d say that. He did harm to me.

    SG: How?

    MM: I published I don’t know how many books there, and I never got the interest. The interest goes directly to Paul. He did a big scandal with the contract. It said Mohammed Mrabet, Paul Bowles. But in the book it says Bowles, then Mrabet.

    Then he took my story and made a book. The story of Mrabet with the name of Bowles. Please. You know what he did? People would come to the house. And when they wanted to talk to me, he’d say, “Oh, be careful of Mrabet. Mrabet is very dangerous.” Please. When there were women, he’d say, “Be careful of Mrabet.” I’m not a dog. I have a lot up here. [He picks up a stone.] Me and this piece of rock, it’s the same. I have nothing, no school, never did anything. I don’t know how to read. But my head has always stayed magnifique. I didn’t lose my head in the schools.

    At the end of the day, after I finished cooking and put everything away, cleaned everything, left the kitchen comme il faut, I would go into the living room and say, “See you tomorrow, good night.” And I went home. And when I get home, I take off my robe, I put on another robe. And I have a son and a daughter! Ah! And we play… sometimes we sleep like this all together, the boy on this side, the girl on this side. Until the morning, magnifique. Two little kids. The best thing in the life of a man. Nine kids that are mine; four of them lived. All of them are married now. This one is married now, with a Spanish woman. They have a kid who is just — magnifique.

    That is life. You’re born, you grow up, you make your kid, you’re dead. Adieu. Ça y est. Finished. That’s it. That’s life.

    Like the birds, now, this time of year. This month, the birds come here to Tangier, they cross the sea, there are two, three thousand birds, over the sea. You’ve never seen that? I have. The bird, he travels. From the Sahara he comes here. From Spain he comes here. And when summer is over, he goes back. Always he’s looking for a place where there’s sun. Like us. The bird comes here and lays his eggs, they hatch, and adieu.

    Me, now it’s over. Finished.

    SG: How do you spend your days?

    MM: I sit here. I take the machine, I push the button, and start talking. [Laughs] And I talk, I talk. Then I stop. I sit a little. Then bam: I talk. Then I stop, and I start painting. Then I put down the painting and take this recorder. That’s my life.

    And after, I go out. I buy some potatoes, this and that. The fish, I go down to the town, I have fisherman friends who bring me live fish. And I prepare it, tajine or in the oven. I do a lot in the kitchen. A lot of the time, I make fish soup.

    SG: We all eat soup in Tangier. What’s your recipe?

    MM: Well, I go to the sea. And I catch little fish, lots of them. And I bring them and I have a bag, I put all the fish in the bag and close it. There’s a big pot full of water and maybe some vegetables. And boil-boil-boil-boil!

    And after, I press the bag, and all the liquid falls back in the pot. And what’s left in the bag — garbage. After that, if you want vegetables, do that, or you can do pasta. Oh, la la, that’s good.

    Fish is the best thing. Sometimes if I take a big fish like that, like a loup de mer or a pargo, something big, I clean it real good, I put two kilos of salt on him and — in the oven.

    SG: Those fish don’t tell stories?

    MM: No, no, no. I eat the fish who doesn’t speak. I don’t eat the talking fish. The talking fish is very dangerous.

    Every week, three, four, days he comes. A great friend. I listen to everything he says. And everything he says. Super. You know, saving someone’s life, you know what that means? A lot. I’ve saved a lot of lives, in the sea. Truly.

    At that time, I made a living from the sea. Fishing. And every day I caught two big buckets full of fish and sold them. And always there was lots of fish at my house, fresh, living. Now I don’t eat much meat, sometimes I eat some chicken, but not electrique chicken. The real chicken, I kill with my hands, I prepare with my hands, I clean it very well. I cook him in water, take off the water, he dries off, then in the oven. And in the water that came off the chicken, I cut up the vegetables, and there’s a soup.

    SG: What will Tangier be like in the future?

    MM: I will be dead. I don’t know. I can’t say anything. I can’t invent something I know nothing about. Maybe magnifique. Maybe horrible. Maybe bessara, split pea soup. I can’t say anything. Tangier has changed. Not 100 percent — 10,000 percent. When I leave my house, I think I am a tourist. My friends, none of them exist now. No cafe, no restaurant. I go out if I have to buy something or I have a meeting with someone. I’m here, working. And when I get tired I go out, and I walk a few kilometers and come home. That’s it.

    SG: Are you happy with your life?

    MM: I’m very happy, hamdullah and shukalillah. A man’s life, he could live until sixty, sixty-one, years old. That’s the end. God gave me ten years more. A great gift, hamdullah.

    SG: Thank you.

    MM: Thank you — just “thank you,” and that’s all?

    I expected this and end up paying Mrabet rather too much for a photograph in a broken gold frame. It’s him, around twenty-five, sitting in the driver’s seat of somebody’s car, with a dark European-style winter overcoat on. Very cleanly shaven with sideburns, looking a bit like a young Johnny Cash, eyes down, not at the camera, at something in his hands, tired and a little worried. Gray light outside, rain on his lapel and in his hair. A winter day in Tangier in the late 50s.

    Alejandro Jodorowsky

    The unthinkable spring

    As one approaches Alejandro Jodorowsky, one must be ready to experience an expanded reality, where every gesture is charged with transcendental significance. We met for the first time in Milan at an exhibition in which we both participated.

    I said, “Alejandro, how are you?” He replied, “I don’t know, let’s see.”

    Immediately I recognized in his words the estrangement he learned from Alfred Korzybski. As we waited for the show to start, I asked him, “Would you give me a tarot reading?” He pulled out a deck and asked me to choose four cards

    I did. His interpretation of them didn’t satisfy me. I started to explain to him that I thought they meant something different. “So you think you’re very smart? Shuffle the cards and pull out four cards one more time,” he said.

    So I did. PUM, PUM, PUM, PUM. To our surprise, defying astronomical odds, the same exact four cards sat in front of us.

    “Now, you read the tarot to me,” he said.

    I thought to myself, How could I pretend to read the tarot to the world’s authority on the subject? “Please pull out just one card,” I said. He did, and took out the Hanging Man card. Not daring to reverse roles with the master, the only viable exit I had was to play dumb. Smirking, I interpreted his card upside down. “You are a balloon full of hot air who wants to go to the sky, but you are tied to the root of a tree.” He hit me on the head, shouting, “Don’t you know how to read? You are reading it upside down, you fool! Hahahahaha — this is a good relationship!” A few days later, I visited his house in Paris, where this interview took place.

    Pedro Reyes: What advice might you give to those who wish to perform psychomagical acts?

    ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY: Well, one cannot start off from a point of ignorance. To perform psychomagical acts, one must understand what psychomagic is. One needs to read my books on all this. The first is called Psicomagie (Psychomagic) and the other La danza de la realidad (The Dance of Reality). Also, La trampa sagrada (The Sacred Trap). After reading those books, a person must learn an art. No one can perform psychomagic without being an artist. One must also have some concepts of psychoanalysis. If they don’t, of what use would it be to them? A bit of knowledge about psychogenealogy is also necessary. When one knows all that, the person can practice psychomagic without danger. But not before. One does not make acts of psychomagic just like that.

    PR: There are some aspects of the method that I would like you to explain. For example, what is the purpose of planting a tree at the end of certain acts?

    AJ: All psychomagic acts have to finish with something positive. The human being has a tendency to have pent-up rage. If you off-load this rage onto one of your archetypes — your mother, your father, teacher, grandmother, whatever — after doing so, there is an emptiness and also a sense of guilt, so then there is the need to anticipate the guilt and do something positive, for life and not death. Every act has to end with an offering. Planting a tree is cleansing. What is most dangerous is that if you don’t, nothing will change for you.

    PR: And so the saying, “What goes around comes around,” or “What you give is for you, and what you don’t, you hold on to”?

    AJ: The world is a unified package. We are based on awareness. The world is a product of consciousness. I call it divine awareness, which produces energy. Everything is consciousness, everything is energy, everything is love. They are all connected. What I give to the world, I give to myself. And if I don’t give something to the world — well, it is taken from me.

    PR: You have said that when someone asks forgiveness from someone else, that they should also ask for something in exchange.

    AJ: We are talking about forgiving, not about asking to be forgiven. Forgiveness, Christian forgiveness, doesn’t really function unless you say to the person, “This is what you did to me, and now I want something in exchange for what you’ve done.” For example, a woman brought her daughter to see me. The young woman was suffering horribly because of lesions in her throat that could not be cured. I asked about her father and she responded by saying that he had abused her sexually, forced her to swallow his sperm, and that this had caused the lesions in her esophagus. The young woman accused her mother of leaving her alone with the father by not letting her live with her. So the daughter asked her for a sports car as compensation. The mother said, “Okay, I’ll get you one, but a used one,” and the girl said no, she wanted a new one. The mother finally agreed, and the young woman’s throat was cured. It’s a small example — you have to pay for what you’ve done. I can’t just forgive you — I have to put a price on it.

    With respect to asking forgiveness, it’s the same. I ask for your forgiveness, but I’ll say to you, “How would you assess what I’ve done to you? What would you ask for in exchange? Just ask.” There are people who ask for nothing in exchange! But you have to give them the opportunity to ask you. I was taking care of a child, a boy of six years, who was urinating behind an armchair. I told him I wasn’t mad at him, but that he simply could not do that again. I gave him three strong whacks with my belt. It left three red marks, and he cried and cried and never did it again. At that time, I wasn’t familiar with psychomagic — what I should have done was put a chamber pot behind the armchair and said to him, “Next time, use this when you want to go behind the chair.” Problem resolved! But I didn’t know how to do that. Years later, when he was fifteen or sixteen, he remembered the event, and the rage he had kept inside all these years. I got up and said to him, “Whack me three times, hard, so that it leaves three red marks,” and that was the price I paid so that he might forgive me.

    PR: Have you ever applied one of your methods of therapy outside of the basic family?

    AJ: There is a group of Chilean poets who go by the name of Casagrande. After President Allende was assassinated in La Moneda, the presidential palace, these four young people hired two helicopters to drop three hundred thousand copies of poems — a snowstorm falling on the Palacio de La Moneda. A poet sat on each of the palace’s balconies, reciting verses. They were covering a bloodied place with poetry. It was a major success for them. They did it again in Guernica, and were going to do it in Sarajevo. Now they are planning to bombard Hiroshima with poems. Half of the poets are Chilean and the other half are from the countries where poem-rains have fallen. I think this may be an example of psychomagic applied socially. Changing memory into something poetic.

    The first time I performed an act of social psychomagic, I didn’t know it was psychomagic. Nearly thirty years ago, when I was doing theater, I brought together a group of sixty people in a huge space in the Gare Saint-Lazare train station, the largest station in France. In this space called the Salle des Pas Perdus — the lost steps — a group of us started out in one corner and then began crossing the area, step by step, in slow-motion. We took two hours to do it! In a space where everyone is exhausted and running. Between these out-of-breath people running about, this group of sixty subjects were crossing the space slowly, at a different tempo. Back then I thought we were making a spectacle for the people that were rushing around watching us, but now I realize that it was a psychomagical act for the sixty people who were doing it, to make us aware of what we didn’t have — we weren’t pressured by life.

    PR: You mentioned memory, changing memory.

    AJ: You can add details to memory, you can color it. Memory is images or a film, impressions that you save and that you relive in the present. That idea came to me when I was watching old black and white films that were later colorized, changing them. You can do the same with memory. I was in a hotel in Montreal suffering terribly for six months. I was traveling with Marcel Marceau, and they wouldn’t give me a visa to the United States, and I had to remain there. Even after I left, my memory of the hotel was horrible. The walls were ugly, the bed was awful, the washstand made terrible sounds. There were pizza ads on the walls. I began to change the light-boxes into angels, into rainbows, fireworks. I changed the color of the walls and made the washstand sing in a beautiful operatic voice. I put silk sheets on my bed and filled the room with the smell of perfume. I did all of this in my mind, and I converted the disagreeable space into an agreeable one. The second thing I did is very important: I invented a solitary child, Tocopilla, who had no friends until he was nine years old. I put myself into these recollections, telling this boy that he wasn’t alone, that I had always been with him. I visited all the places in my memory, and I placed myself in them. He was a child that I always was with, for the voyage.

    PR: What are imagination exercises, are they meditations?

    AJ: I don’t meditate anymore. I did it for five years — five years without moving. [Imitates a lotus position] Now I practice contemplation. Contemplation is not keeping the body still like a corpse. When you contemplate, you continue to do what you’re doing, you are in the same state as when you are meditating, but with an empty mind and a concentration. You can do what you want to do or are able to, according to your talent. You can work in a timely manner and freely, without feeling burdened. You begin to feel the full structure. You look toward the sky and into the street and sense the entire planet, and that takes away the sensation of feeling like you are drowning.

    PR: A little like sensing the age of the universe?

    AJ: Which has no beginning or end, not having an age. You speak of something that they have said to you. They have told you that the universe began millions of years ago. Science guides the imagination to the future. I don’t believe in the Big Bang, what I believe in is a fairy tale and nothing more. I will say to you that the universe didn’t have a beginning, nor will it have an end, it is just infinite. That’s better.

    PR: This is a silly question, but coming back to the koan that says “life never begins and never ends,” where do we place death?

    AJ: It is ego that bespeaks death. But from the viewpoint of humanity, death is just a transformation, a change of matter. I’m not particularly looking forward to it, but what else can you do? There really aren’t any options. One thinks about death constantly because there are moments that you have to live with it, and you know that everything could be over in three seconds. And knowing that, your life changes. One exercise that I do is to think, and later look at myself while I’m thinking. I’m the one who thinks of the one who sees that one thinking. But who sees the one who thinks the one that sees that one who is thinking? Eventually the moment arrives where you are on the verge of… vacuity. You acknowledge that the one who is ultimately thinking is death. The vacuity is thinking. And afterward, you conform yourself. If someone close to you dies, in that moment you suffer. I suffered for my son — I lost a twenty-four-year old son. But he didn’t suffer, the dead don’t suffer. What you call death becomes another thing, another matter. In the moment when everything is over, you will suffer nothing.

    PR: About these transformations: in each encounter we have, there is a part of us that continues living in the other, and in the same way we are inhabited by an endless number of people. Those individuals come to life when we think of them, in most cases involuntarily.

    AJ: Yes. The other is a disguise of yours, and you are a disguise of theirs. There is no difference. The other is absolutely you. It is the same consciousness — everything is consciousness. The material world is a byproduct of a larger consciousness. You acquire consciousness or lose it. There are people that awaken your consciousness and people that close it, that steal it from you. There are people that submerge you in what is called a nest of wasps. But the other does not exist, right? It is the ego of the other.

    PR: Take dreams — it amazes me the precision with which one can reconstruct a person in their unconsciousness or, on the other hand, dream about someone who is a combination of various people, who does not exist in the waking hours, but is totally familiar.

    AJ: Often people say, “I dreamed of you.” Some sorcerers have said to me, “I’ll visit you in your dreams.” It is a trick, because when you awaken a knowledge, a degree of consciousness, that degree of consciousness takes your form — you appear as though you are within the other, but it isn’t you. You are going to sense that the other visits you in your dreams, but it’s not true, there is a transmission of consciousness. Consciousness is universal — it makes yours and it dissolves into a thousand forms.

    PR: Could you talk a bit about the notion of the Inner God?

    AJ: Among what is called the initiated and the great mystics, is the heart — that is, the metaphor for the core. The vital center where we are receiving at all times the universe’s consciousness. The work of the mystic or the initiated is equal to that of a miner, who digs away at a well until finding the treasure in the ground — he works and works until he becomes confident about that heart, that core of life, and says, “I surrender to my fountainhead.” Then when we speak of God or, if you prefer, the Inner God, we speak of the unthinkable. We don’t speak of a God that is associated with a religion. It is the unthinkable spring that is making us speak at this moment.

    PR: Like being inflamed?

    AJ: To inflame makes one think of fire. One cannot give such defined attributes to the center. It is immaterial. It is beneath energy. It is unthinkable and immaterial… In the study made by Castaneda about those who founded Nagualism, he remained caught up with energy, thinking how to build up energy, give energy. There he stayed. But the essence of the universe is not energy but consciousness, which is absolutely impalpable. Neither being nor not being, static nor dynamic.

    PR: And Reich?

    AJ: What happens is that in the development of consciousness, one falls into a series of traps. Wilhelm Reich remained in the trap of energy, the orgone, the sexual energy. With Reich, psychoanalysis became collective and political, it was interesting. His advance was in making a psychoanalysis that was applied to society. But he remained imprisoned by the idea of energy.

    PR: Now I’d like to ask you more prosaic questions.

    AJ: Ask me whatever you wish to. I am having fun.

    PR: I would like it if we could talk about money, how you came to consider money a divine energy.

    AJ: Actually, all spiritual people on the planet are thinking about money, because one of the essential things that is necessary to heal is the current concept we have of money. Money is a sickness of our society. How do you look at money? Before, it used to have a tangible value, related to salt or gold. But now there’s nothing. What lies behind money is the trust that the money you own has a certain value. If the rest of the world loses its trust in the United States, the economy will fall. We are working with an abstract entity — we are going to have to arrive at the conclusion that money is consciousness. Today, money is not for sharing — to the contrary. Industry, thinking egotistically and selfishly, is putting the planet in danger. The same is true with science. For lack of consciousness, the world could come to an end. The amassed enormous fortunes are a stupidity when entire countries are starving to death. There is no reason for it. It is stupid that the United States is the exploiter of the rest of the Americas, when it is part of them. If all the Mexicans disappeared overnight, it would be a catastrophe for the United States. To keep people in a depressed state and poor is a lack of consciousness and nothing more.

    PR: The objective of a business is to generate profit. All the factors involved in our current economy are subordinated to that objective, that one single idea.

    AJ: A group of businessmen invited me to visit their factory, a steel factory. They had read my books and wanted me to explain to them why women didn’t want to work at their plant, which employed eight hundred men and three women. The reasons were simple, but difficult for them to accept. Women didn’t want to work there because they were paid less than the men. What’s more, the working environment was not very welcoming to them. Women are different than men, they have their menstrual cycles that make certain times difficult for them. They have other preferences, they are more delicate. Why don’t they think about women when making factories?And so little by little, women become cashiers at the supermarket. This is a lack of consciousness.

    When the Pope died, there wasn’t a single woman in the ceremony to choose the new one. There were three hundred priests and not a single woman. How can that be possible? What is the role of women in our society? There is a God. Where is the Goddess? It is inconceivable, we have two thousand years of a God (father) without a Goddess (mother).

    PR: It would seem more natural if there were a papal family.

    AJ: For sure — the Pope, the Popess, and their children. The Holy Family. The Catholic world ought to be led by a Holy Family, or rather, by a man and a woman, even though he might be gay and she a lesbian. What would it matter? A man and a woman.

    Now, let’s look at architecture. The architects today are window thieves. Why have they stolen windows? Because those crappy architects think that pollution is normal, and so they take the windows out and put in air conditioning instead, separating us from the environment. That is not a solution. If the pollution were to end, no one would want to live in those awful buildings without windows. Air conditioning is negating air. We accept as normal to live in a poisonous world, and we make things poison resistant. A cathedral lasts because each stone was constructed with love, but architecture today is not constructed with love — it is an industrial thing and is condemned to collapse. The jets come down from above and it collapses. The thing with September 11 needs to be understood clearly. It was a terrorist attack on the United States, but it was also an attack on architecture, on badly made architecture. All architecture that is a product of tyranny is destined to collapse. The architecture of today is a product of tyranny because the architects are accomplices to the system. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t have been able to construct the towers. Where does the money come from? It is unconscious money. If the money has no consciousness, the architects don’t, either.

    PR: Is it for its abstract quality that money can have consciousness in the hands of one person and not in the hands of another?

    AJ: If you are not conscious, money becomes a prison. Each one of us can make money. Currently there are experiments where people can seek out communities in which they can make their own money by barter and exchange. It is a dignified process to learn. Money is in crisis. We cannot continue like this. For example, petroleum is a crime — it is the oil of the earth that we are sucking dry. I often think it is causing the earthquakes. It is changing the ecosystem, changing the weather. If the oil is down there for a reason, we should stop extracting out of the ground. By doing so, we turn it into venom. We need a positive energy, but the unconscious industries are going to screw and screw us until the ground is sucked dry of petroleum. They are drilling in permissible areas and then later they will do so in prohibited areas, the forests, the national parks. Then they will go to the moon. They will screw the entire solar system.

    PR: What is the connection between gold and shit, which I still don’t understand?

    AJ: Shit is considered to be the vilest product produced, but I don’t consider it as such. In alchemy, cadavers are the vilest products. Nigredo is decomposition. And it is by working with the vile product that one produces the philosophic cornerstone that converts all metals into gold. The human being, the ego, is the first subject, the excrement. Working one’s ego, you refine yourself and you arrive at a Christ-like state. But excrement is fertilizer, and you need to know how to use it. Because of our lack of consciousness, we shit everywhere. We are animals that crap all over, and we are contaminating the world. There still isn’t a channel for guiding the excrement to special places, where it could be processed and converted into the source of richness it is. I have always thought that excrement is a subject that has been erased from theology. Because if I accept religion and I accept that God incarnated in Buddha, in Christ, in the Virgin Mary, and in the apostles and in Mohammed — well, all these people shat and pissed. I have calculated that Christ defecated some thirty tons. So there are thirty tons of holy matter in the world. If Israel is a holy land, it is because there are thirty million heaps of it there, from the Virgin Mary, Christ, and the apostles. We ought to respect excrement. If God shits, he shits wonders.

    PR: Proctomancy! Are you serious?

    AJ: [Laughs] It is like an artistic creation. There are no two fingerprints alike, no anus the same as another. Our individuality is in our assholes — the wrinkles of your anus are not like mine or those of Mother Teresa. So yes, you could take it seriously.

    PR: Why is it that scatology has those two meanings, one linked to death and the other related to excrement?

    AJ: The key might be — when speaking of the end of the world — in the gospels, in Revelations. It speaks of the end of the world and the birth of a new one. The apocalypse is not the destruction of the world, it is instead the destruction of all the mistakes of the world to arrive in the celestial Jerusalem, where the new world will be. Excrement is the same. The conclusion of this idea is that all your beautiful things, your thoughts, end up as excrement, but when it ends up in the ground, it is a fertilizer, from which life arises. Each time you shit, you make an apocalypse.

    PR: A little like the scarab beetle in Egypt that pushes a ball of shit that is the sun being moved across the celestial dome, right?

    AJ: Right, because there are larva in the excrement. The Egyptians say the universe is the excrement of God, and we are the larva in that excrement. But it depends how you look at it. It is joyous to take a poo. If you sit in water, make a big effort, the crap is cut into little piles and you are happy. You can measure happiness this way — just by making a small effort, the excrement squirts out and you resist the temptation to close the hole and stop it, and by its own force it falls. You look in the water and you see a large pile and you’re happy. Thus, one can speak of the divine unity, the same pile! [Laughs] But I’m not a coprophile, it is you who brought up the subject…

    PR: It’s important to talk about! If we don’t, we’ll never resolve it. It would be easy to continue soiling the planet with our lack of consciousness.

    AJ: No one has posed this theme to me. Okay, one more question.

    PR: I have been intrigued by a phrase of John Cage: “Don’t attempt to change the world, you’ll only make it worse.”

    AJ: I do understand, but one has to bear in mind that existence is like an advancing river. When people want to change the world, they want to change one thing for another. It results in the fiasco of revolutions — failure of the Russian Revolution, the tyranny of the Czars passed onto Stalin. The failure of the Mexican, Cuban, and French revolutions. All the revolutions failed because they only changed power from one hand to another. There is the need to think about mutation. For me, the butterfly is the best example. One thing is not changed for another — instead it undergoes a metamorphosis. When you want to change the world, you attack it, but you cannot change it because you’re bound to damage it. What you can do is work to mutate it. For example — the Catholic Church has many errors, but instead of attacking it, which would be a waste of time, I wrote a book entitled Los evangelios para sanar (The Gospels for Healing), where I showed the marvels of the gospels. I had to change the interpretation of the holy texts. I didn’t change one religion for another, I mutated the interpretation. This is true of society, also. There’s no need to attack a society or try to exchange one society for another. Instead, study it, try to produce a new energy, a new consciousness, a new form of relationship.

    John Wilcock

    Interview 101

    There were four editors on the masthead of the first issue of the original Interview magazine: Gerard Malanga, Paul Morrissey, John Wilcock, and Andy Warhol. Bob Colacello, who would edit the magazine some years later, would refer to Wilcock in particular, a journalist of British extraction who had dropped out of school at sixteen to work in the newspaper business, as an “aging hippie publisher.”

    A lifelong reporter, Wilcock worked for papers in London, Los Angeles, and Tokyo. In 1955, he cofounded the alternative weekly the Village Voice, where he wrote a column called “The Village Square” and was known to spar with a young, overly self-confident Norman Mailer. He left the Voice after ten years to edit a rival publication, the East Village Other, and eventually went on to publish his own underground tabloid, Other Scenes.

    Somewhere along the way he was a travel editor at the New York Times, and also penned a plethora of travel guides — including Traveling in Venezuela (1979), upon the invitation of the Venezuelan government.

    Today, Wilcock is eighty-one years old and lives in sleepy Ojai, California (population 8,006), in the back of a small duplex squeezed between an orange grove and a horse stable. His slow movements and occasional wheeze belie the passionate recollections he offers, stories from a lifetime of producing the raw stuff of print “counterculture.” A 1973 profile in the New York Times had tagged him “an influential man nobody knows,” which still seems more or less accurate, as his name is nowhere to be seen in most accounts of the Voice and Interview’s founding. He remains a one-man publishing machine, his modest house filled with enough xerox machines and industrial paper cutters to make any DIY zine-ster flush with excitement. He’s also written three books on the occult, published the hard-to-find Autobiography & Sex Life of Andy Warhol, and has self-published a memoir in twenty-six installments, called Manhattan Memories. Finding myself in Irvine, California, for a weekend conference at which the keynote lecture happened to be about the US Department of State bringing a Warhol exhibition to Kazakhstan, I drove two hours up the Pacific Coast Highway to interview the veteran interviewer.

    Zach Hooker: First off, could you tell me about starting Interview with Andy Warhol?

    John Wilcock: Well, I was spending a lot of time around the Warhol place. Literally, at least three or four full days a week. And one day, I had got back home, and Andy called me up — Andy only called me maybe six times, ever — and on this occasion he called up and said… well, he was bitching about how they couldn’t get this million dollars from Hollywood to go out and make this movie, this professional movie. And I’ve always had a hand in the alternative press, so I said, “Oh, Andy, you know all my friends do underground papers. Why don’t you focus on doing a paper instead?” So he paused for a bit and then just hung up, but he called back about two minutes later and says, “What kind of a paper?” And of course, Andy, he wanted to do a film paper of some kind. So he decided he wanted to do a paper called Inter-VIEW, “view” in all caps, “inter” in upper/lower case. And I told him, “Well, I can get you a printer for real cheap, the cheapest printer in town, and I can do the typesetting for you. We’ll split it fifty-fifty, you can foot the printing bill, and I’ll take care of all the typesetting.” And we got it up and running.

    ZH: Was Andy doing a lot of interviewing around then?

    JW: Andy’s idea was to take his tape recorder everywhere and just tape everybody. So that’s what Interview was, to begin with. Even now it runs a whole lot of those kind of interviews, but originally that’s all it was. Completely informal.

    ZH: Just whatever made its way onto Andy’s tape recorder…

    JW: Yeah. In the same way, his movies were just whatever happened in front of the camera. Originally, he’d just set up the camera and wouldn’t move it. Whatever happened in front of the camera was what the movie was. I mean, I remember the first time the camera ever moved. He was doing a movie about Edie — out at her apartment near Park Avenue, I think — and at some point she got out of bed and went to the refrigerator, and the camera moved and everybody jumped and ran out of the way… They had never seen the camera move. It was great. I loved those years. It was fabulous.

    ZH: Did you ever interview Andy?

    JW: No, because one specifically did not interview Andy. Because if you asked Andy questions he’d just reply, “Really?” or, “Oh, what do you think?” Or something like that. Him and Bridget Berlin would get in some long conversations from time to time, but if you were hanging around the Factory around that time, you learned not to ask questions — not of Andy, anyway. You asked other people — and that is basically how my book The Autobiography & Sex Life of Andy Warhol came about. But you didn’t ask Andy questions. To be a steady figure in that scene, you had to produce something, be creatively productive. It’s like his movies — just keeping the camera steady on a few people — after a while there’s just this incredible pressure to do something. We were filming out in Brooklyn Heights this one time, for example, and Edie was on camera and just plain ran out of things to say and threw her drink at a light, and the light explodes and everything goes black, and that’s how the movie ended…

    The book I made is called The Autobiography & Sex Life of Andy Warhol, but there isn’t any sex, and there certainly isn’t any autobiography. I was talking to Charles Henri Ford, and tried subtly to bring up sex, and all he would say, enigmatically, is that Andy was a receiver. And far, far from any sexual connotation, he was exactly right. Andy just absorbed — you had to feed him things without expectation of any reaction. He loved input.

    ZH: The Autobiography is really difficult to get a hold of these days.

    JW: It came out as a five-dollar book in 1971, pretty much sold out, and now it is about $200 used on Amazon. A new edition is possible, and I hope it happens. It’s historically valuable for one reason alone — it’s twenty of the people really close to Andy at the end of the ’60s really trying to explain him… And while we are talking about interviews, those are sort of interviews, but they’re not really. They’re conversations.

    ZH: So all the interviews, or conversations, in that book, were they just something you had sitting around, or was it a preconceived project?

    JW: I never had any intention of really doing anything more than chronicling this stuff for kicks. But when the first Andy retrospective came up at the Whitney, about 1971, I realized all these talks would make a nice book, so I rushed it out. And the printer said it never paid for itself, so I never saw a penny from that. The thing has been in limbo since.

    ZH: What made you start carrying a tape recorder around the Warhol scene in the first place?

    JW: Well, I was spending so much time around the Warhol scene, and I couldn’t figure out why certain things were happening, so I started to talk to people and tape-record them. I remember, I was up at Andy’s all the time, and on the way home I’d always read the New York Post, and I’d read Leonard Lance’s column about some Warhol happening, and it would always be something I knew never actually happened. So I’d call Paul Morrissey and ask, “What’s this in the Post all about?” And he’d say, “Oh, Leonard Lance calls us up every Wednesday, and we always make up something exciting for him.” It was that kind of stuff… like Andy would bring a horse up into the Factory, or set up the camera right in front of the door so anyone going or leaving had no choice but to be in the movie. Stuff you could never get a straight answer about if you asked anyone, but stuff that everyone talked about. So I started to haul around this recorder, to record the banter. Like I said, I think of them more as conversations than interviews. All the people I have talked to, for the most part, I’ve always felt on equal terms with. Even someone like Leo Castelli, the art dealer, who had people like Lichtenstein, Rosenquist, Johns around him… I knew just as much about the scene as he did. I think it’s very important never to be in awe of who you are interviewing. I think that strategy has fallen by the wayside lately. It’s the attitude you need to have, though. Even when I talked to Marilyn Monroe or Marlene Dietrich, for example… it’s hard to shake the celebrity reverence, the awe, but I know that they are good at what they do, and I’m good at what I do, too. So there’s something mutual there.

    ZH: Has interviewing always been a central part of reporting for you?

    JW: Well, yes… I was thinking about it after you had contacted me. So, I started doing this little cable TV show around the early ’80s, and by that time I had worked and written for five of the world’s biggest dailies — the Daily Mirror and the Daily Mail in London, the Toronto Daily Star, the Mainichi Daily News in Tokyo, and the New York Times. And I realized that I had learned more about interviewing by trying to start a cable TV show than I had in thirty years of work as a reporter. And one of the things was that — and this was because I had to edit in camera, couldn’t afford post-production — the order I shot was the order they took it, so I didn’t bother with gathering background information and small talk, I would just jump in mid-sentence, interrupt a thought. Say I’d be with a tour guide. I wouldn’t even mention the fact I was there to film him, and then mid-sentence I’d start the camera and ask, “Well, what do you think of that?” Or something like that. A great deal of interviewing is catching people off guard, but not aggressively. Just giving them something they don’t expect.

    ZH: It seems like you find many affinities between being on camera and the act of interviewing, regardless of if there is actually a camera present. I’m just thinking of all those references to Warhol’s camerawork, and this experience producing for public access.

    JW: Yeah, it’s all mixed up, really. When you go and interview somebody… I started before there were tape recorders, there were no tape recorders until the ’50s or ’60s, really. So, it was in shorthand, all shorthand. And you can’t interview somebody and take shorthand. The mere fact of sitting there taking notes shuts them up. So basically you had to remember what they said, and not only remember what they said but the actual words they used. And I realized one way to do that — like when I went to interview Marilyn Monroe, for instance, one of my earlier jobs — what you have to do is ask the questions you are personally curious about, what you want the answers to. Because if you know what you want to know from them, when you get back home, of course you will remember how they answered the question, you know? So that was a big key to interviewing for me… asking the questions you want to know, not rote questions or something like that. And also catch them off guard a lot. I mean, I’m very amiable on camera, but some people get really nervous when you put the camera on them. You know what Quentin Crisp used to say? He used to say, “If you’re going to be on television, decide what you want to say and say it no matter what the question is.” Which is really great advice. So I’d put the camera on someone, and I’m very informal and friendly and I don’t challenge them. I’m not aggressive.

    And then there is this trick to writing novels — you raise an issue, a question, and don’t answer it until later in the book. Keeps people curious. Well, you can do that in interviewing, too. I was talking to this art dealer once, and I asked something like, “Remember when Larry Rivers abruptly left your gallery, was he kicked out?” And then follow it up really quick with another question, so they are festering, waiting to answer that provocative question. You delay that answer as long as possible.

    ZH: Regarding shorthand and notetaking, something important seems to hinge on the act of reproducing speech. The issue is how truthful to what the person “actually” said do you have to be, as an interviewer or a reporter.

    JW: Well, when I write, I like to keep three things in mind: Keep it interesting and provocative, never have a word more than is necessary, and the third rule, which is the best one, is that even one unusual word in any sentence will give it life, will make a reader remember it. So the most valuable book you can have is a thesaurus. I use one all the time. I’m always looking for a word that is not too far from what I want to say but keeps the original meaning. And that’s the secret to doing an interview without taking notes, and getting it in exactly the sense the other person was using. You remember a couple key words, and you wrap the sentence or paragraph around those. You are going to either replicate exactly what the interviewee was getting at, or come up with something that sounds a hundred times better. And they aren’t going to deny they said it. Especially if it sounds good, they will probably believe that that is exactly what they said.

    ZH: Talking about how video has influenced your take on interviewing and writing is making me think of Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party, a public access show from New York in the late ’70s that revolved around the Warhol scene to some degree. That show fascinated me a while back. Were you around for any of that?

    JW: No, no. I was long gone. But Glenn O’Brien’s a big shot over at Interview now. I might have met him back in his early days in New York, but I doubt it. People like him and Bob Colacello have made that magazine kind of pompous, elite…

    ZH: How long did you stay involved with Interview?

    JW: Well, Andy and I had that fifty-fifty arrangement for a year, and during that time I had nothing to do with Andy or the paper or anything, with respect to content. I was traveling to Japan a lot, Greece… I’ve written a lot of travel guides. Not long after I got back to the city I was planning to leave the country again, for good, and I wanted to keep some part of the paper, because I had already been through this type of thing with the Voice… I was one of the people who started the Voice, and I didn’t make a penny out of it, you know. And even today they still run fifty-year-old articles of mine, post them on their blog, and I don’t get any kind of credit. Anyway, I didn’t want to go through that again, so I tried to persuade Andy to give me a portion of the ownership, and all he said is that I could either keep paying my half or sell it to him. So I just charged him the typesetting fee for the previous year, $6000 — twelve $500 bills — and he paid me most of it, and then just before I left, I went up to him and said, “Give me some artwork, Andy, because I know you’re not going to give me that last thousand dollars.” So he gave me a couple flower paintings, I think they had just came back from the Tate, and that was the end of my time with Interview. Since then, they have refused to mention my name at all or plug my Warhol book or my autobiography.

    ZH: About that experience cofounding the Village Voice, can you tell me a bit about how that paper situated itself in the midst of 1950s American Levittown conservatism?

    JW: I think there was a growing awareness at the time that there was no real alternative to the straight daily press — in other words, any established newspaper. And not long after the Voice began — and I think this was one of the motivations for my cofounders Dan Wolf and Ed Fancher — the Village Independent Democrats began to challenge the Democratic Party in the same way the Voice challenged the established press. And there were all these other things happening that went along with what the Voice was doing. Jane Jacobs wrote this seminal book on American cities, while Robert Moses — who really was a czar, thought he was above the law — was trying to put a highway right through Washington Square Park, right through the Village. The Off-Broadway movement had gotten off the ground, which Jerry Tallmer had a lot to do with, founding the Obie Awards, et cetera. Anyway, these things were happening, these were the issues that the Voice covered, the issues they created awareness about. They justified the early existence of the paper.

    ZH: What made you leave the paper?

    JW: When I left the Voice I had recently met Walter Bowart, who started the East Village Other (EVO), which was the first real underground paper in New York. And Ed Fancher called me one day, absolutely furious that I was writing for both the EVO and the Voice, and demanded I choose one. He didn’t make this demand on anyone else — Nat Hentoff was writing for a slew of papers, for example. I think they were worried because EVO was a direct competitor to the paper — and it was certainly more hip than the Voice. So I think there was bad blood because of this, and after I left there was a sort of fatwa against me. No longer was I to be associated with, to be mentioned in any official history of the paper, not in Mailer’s memoirs, nothing. Even though they still rerun my pieces — my Warhol piece was even republished in the fiftieth anniversary issue — I never get credit. They don’t bother to mention my books or my website, and I certainly don’t get any money.

    ZH: Do you think your ideas regarding what journalism is, and the role of the underground press in general, made you difficult to work with?

    JW: Well, that is certainly a possibility. The underground press, after it got rolling, began to realize there was little support for it from the straight press, and mostly hostility. This might have been the case with the Voice. The people who were making a lot of the underground papers, these were mostly college kids.

    I don’t think it lent much credibility to the movement. And I was associated with all of that — I championed that. Maybe I shouldn’t have smoked so much dope around that time, or been such an advocate of the legalization of marijuana. I wonder if that strain of my career did more harm than good sometimes, in terms of journalistic reputation. I also coedited The Witches Almanac for thirty years, with a witch named Betty — Elizabeth Pepper. I know that couldn’t have sat well with a lot of circles in the straight press.

    ZH: Any regrets?

    JW: I have no regrets — I’ve always loved what I do. But somehow, I always end up written out of history all the time. It’s a real mystery to me. I can’t really understand why it is that nobody will mention me anymore. I’m not looking for ego satisfaction, I’m just looking for credit for what I did originally. But it’s just water under the bridge… What can I say — it’s gone. Time is gone now. I have no contact with most of those former colleagues, none at all.

    So in a way, stuff like this, I feel like my whole life has been… I wouldn’t say a failure, but a series of me doing whatever I wanted to do, but never really being recognized nor recompensed for it. And I think I’ve realized it’s got to be my fault. It’s just what I do — get really fascinated by something, really into something, then leave before any kind of payoff. So I can’t really blame anybody. And why would I? I’ve always enjoyed myself.

    You know, there was this one time… My mother is very shrewd. One time I was bitching about money to her, and she said, “I don’t know why you are complaining. You know you have never done one thing you didn’t want to do, ever?” And she was absolutely right, and that was the first time I ever realized it. She had told me the absolute truth — I never did anything I didn’t want to do. I still won’t, really.

    You can read John Wilcock’s “The Column of Lasting Insignificance,” his entire autobiography, and selections from The Autobiography & Sex Life of Andy Warhol on his personal website,

    Ghida Fakhry


    Courtesy Reuters

    In 2006, the Qatari-funded Arabic news station Al Jazeera spawned an English-speaking sister-channel, Al Jazeera English. I’d urge you to find a way to watch it. Unlike almost every other news channel I can think of, AJE doesn’t have a single, nationally biased outlook. It’s polycentric — mirroring the way in which the twenty-first century is increasingly a collection of separate and yet connected economic, political, and cultural centers.

    When you do switch on AJE, one of the faces you will find co-anchoring the Washington broadcasts is the Lebanese-born, British-Swiss–educated Ghida Fakhry. Like many of her colleagues on AJE, Fakhry knows her stuff — in particular, the intricacies and histories of Middle Eastern conflicts, her passion. This might grate on those chauvinistic media dinosaurs — brilliantly parodied in the Will Ferrell comedy Anchorman — who would try to use Fakhry’s looks to undermine her seriousness. A self-described news junkie, Fakhry’s got more important things to think about, and she discusses some of them here on her weekly day off, unable to avert her eyes from the TV news quietly streaming in the background as we speak.

    Shumon Basar: Ghida, I’ve recently been rereading a book called The Gulf War Did Not Take Place by Jean Baudrillard, which as you know is a kind of provocative thesis about the mediatization of the first Gulf War. He makes the infamous claim that war on television becomes almost indistinguishable from other types of TV entertainment. I remember watching CNN at the time. The green veil of night vision did make it seem like a war movie. Something was very new about the experience. You said once that it was the coverage of the Gulf War that inspired you to become a journalist. Could you tell us more about this personal realization and what it was about the first Gulf War coverage that affected you at that time?

    Ghida Fakhry: Seeing in real time what was going on in the region was so dramatic and had such far-reaching consequences. All that night vision, all the new technological tools, they were quite extraordinary. It was the first war to reach our living rooms on a nightly basis. I remember sitting there writing my master’s thesis and realizing how much time I was spending stuck to the TV watching what was going on. I was studying the history of politics in the Middle East, starting from the First World War onward. So, for me, it was an important realization about how powerful the media was becoming, and that immediate, real-time TV was going to be a force to be reckoned with. As an aspiring journalist, and someone who had always admired the field, I decided this would become what I would focus on. I wanted to combine my keen interest for this medium and my realization of how important it was going to be, with wanting to learn more about the region that I had come from. I had been born in Lebanon, and left when I was young. Suddenly I wanted to learn much more about what was going on in the Middle East.

    SB: What was your master’s thesis on?

    GF: It was on the period of the Independence of Lebanon, the role that the British had played. I was doing my master’s in London at the School of Oriental and African Studies, and I had easy access to some of the archives over at St. Antony’s College in Oxford. It was interesting to see all of the influences that affected modern Lebanon.

    SB: CNN was the news channel responsible for the new kind of news reporting during the first Gulf War, and the station has long been acknowledged as a revolutionary force in changing how we perceive and consume news on TV. I believe that Al Jazeera English is also a radically new model. Over the course of the broadcast day, as the earth turns, the station broadcasts from four different cities — Kuala Lumpur, Doha, London, and Washington — and moves seamlessly from East to West. Could you say something about this polycentric model and the kind of world image it produces?

    GF: As much as CNN was pioneering in bringing this kind of twenty-four-hour news model, I think Al Jazeera Arabic and Al Jazeera English play an equally important role, by providing an alternative perspective. It’s a network that fills an important vacuum in international news, bringing to the fore cultures that have often been neglected. It also brings new voices to the debates on key international events, and it doesn’t shy away from asking the tough questions when it covers each and every conflict. The whole point is that it doesn’t believe in sanitizing the news, so when a war is going on in the world, it’s the duty of broadcasters to not just show the images we saw in the first Gulf War — those sort of grainy, green images that seemed like fireworks, that seemed almost unreal, just lights in the sky. What we saw was completely abstract. We had no concept of what the effect of the bombs was on the other side, on where they were landing. We didn’t see the effect on people, we didn’t see the death and destruction.

    SB: I would like to talk about war more specifically in a moment, but can I push you further on this question of broadcasting the news from different “broadcast centers”? What are the effects of this, and what kind of world does it represent?

    GF: I think it actually represents the kind of world we live in. To date, the media, especially the English-speaking media, has always had a Western-centric look at the world. So much of the developing world, the south in particular, had been ignored. What you’ve got here is from its inception a very ambitious project: a network based in the Middle East, addressing an English-speaking audience, but also coming out of four different hubs, in high-definition quality. It’s a big effort from a technological perspective, but also from an editorial point of view.

    Each broadcast center is able to give a more authoritative treatment of what is going on in its own region, as well as looking at the news of the day from a regional perspective. So when we broadcast from Kuala Lumpur, we find that a lot of the news stories being treated in depth have to do with the Asian region. London is the European broadcast center, so even if Doha is leading the News Hour, our flagship show, London will be the one to deal with all the European stories, and here in Washington we put our own touch on what’s going on in our part of the world. I think this shows that Al Jazeera isn’t being driven by any single agenda. In fact, I think its whole agenda is not to have one.

    SB: For several years after 9/11, Al Jazeera was taboo in the US. It was assumed to be a pro-jihadist mouthpiece for anti-American sentiment. Do you think this taboo has subsided? Have you been accepted by the American political mainstream?

    GF: I think it’s starting to change. Obviously the network was stigmatized for many years by the Bush administration. The kind of coverage that was coming out of Al Jazeera didn’t fit, perhaps, the official rhetoric that was coming out of the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department, on how the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were going. Now we have some breakthroughs here in the US, with a new cable carriage agreement in the Washington, DC, area, which means American viewers are able to, for the first time, just switch on their TV sets and watch us. In July the channel will be seen in twenty states live, twenty-four hours a day. So that’s a big development, even though it’s a first initial step and it took quite a while for us to get there.

    I think the posture of the new US administration is very different from the previous one, and that will probably encourage more carriers to broadcast the network. When people see it for themselves, they are often surprised, because what they see is certainly not what they had been led to believe all these years. But I think after eight years of Bush administration rhetoric, people are more eager to listen and engage in debate and also more critical than they used to be, less gullible, and more willing to challenge centers of power and authority. And that’s exactly what Al Jazeera stands for. Even though there’s been no fundamental shift here yet, there are little telltale signs that things are beginning to change. One of our senior correspondents was part of the press corps that accompanied President Obama on his last trip to Europe and the Middle East. I don’t think that would have happened under President Bush.

    SB: Though I had known about Al Jazeera English, I hadn’t actually tuned in to it until relatively recently, during the Gaza War. The channel was clearly exceptional, because it was the only station that had correspondents inside Gaza. It was the only station giving airtime to everyone involved in the conflict, including Israeli press officers and Hamas leaders. What were the particular challenges of covering this conflict? Was there anything new about it, from a news-culture perspective?

    GF: It’s interesting that you say that Al Jazeera English was brought to your attention during the Gaza conflict. I think a lot of people would share that view. Many people started watching us because there was a scarcity in coverage on the other networks. The networks that are readily available tend to focus on what they think their audiences want to see. They tend to cater to a more local audience, I think. In this case, we thought it was our duty to show what no one else was showing to a global audience. We were also in a unique position.

    We didn’t have a team that was parachuted in the day before, we were stationed there — our team had been reporting from there for a while. We had been showing the world what was going on in Gaza before so many new viewers began to tune in. It’s at times of crisis that people tune in to twenty-four-hour news channels like Al Jazeera. We were able to fill that void quite well.

    SB: Many wars are fought, of course, simultaneously with those literally unfolding on the ground. Many commentators said that the Israeli press machinery mounted a concerted effort to win the news war this time around, and in my opinion the BBC discredited itself, not fulfilling its obligation for balanced, decisive reporting. It wasn’t vigilant enough in the war that’s fought at the level of press releases, claims, and counterclaims.

    GF: I think you are right, crises like the one that unfolded over twenty-three days in Gaza just show you to what extent the media has a crucial role to play. So what you saw was a well-oiled Israeli PR machine. Israeli officials were given ample time on Al Jazeera to make their case. The network gave them the airtime in order to explain all sides of the story. At the same time, we knew we needed to challenge the official narrative, whether that meant the Israeli spokespeople we had on or the spokespeople for Hamas, while still being fair to both sides and allowing the viewers to come to their own conclusions.

    I think what I was particularly proud of in our coverage of the war in Gaza was that we were the first major TV channel or news outlet to really focus on the use of white phosphorus. Part of the reason why Israeli officials were not able to deny it for very long was because of evidence we were presenting, which was later amply documented by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Our correspondents pointed out an odd-looking white powder that was falling from the sky, which later was determined to be white phosphorus by experts on the ground. I think we did our job in constantly keeping the pressure on, and constantly reporting what was happening. Our team of correspondents in Gaza were extremely courageous, and they were not emotional in their coverage. It was very fact oriented.

    SB: It’s an interesting development — how with constant coverage, reporting can potentially serve as evidence in future legal cases about, for example, human rights abuses.

    GF: It can be important evidence in the end — it helps us get to the bottom of what happened in any given war or conflict. Holding people in power accountable, while showing viewers exactly what is going on. Even the Israelis realized the significance of engaging with us. Ironically, an Israeli network dropped a major television channel and picked up Al Jazeera English. Given the amount of airtime we give to Israeli officials, I don’t think there is any bias there.

    SB: News stations seem to disclose their innermost moral, ethical, or ideological positions during the broadcasting of war, in what they show, and what they don’t show. What role does war play in the identity of a news station, in your opinion?

    GF: If you call yourself a news station, then you simply cannot ignore the facts that go along with war — how it begins, where it starts, how it unfolds, and who the players are. You look at the current situation in Sri Lanka. We constantly have people from the Tamil Tigers on, we’ve spokespeople for the Sri Lankan government that come on, and we try to get to the bottom with each side, whether they are using heavy artillery against the other side when they said they had stopped. It’s a very useful medium to understand what’s going on, and to put pressure sometimes, and help uncover a truth that wouldn’t otherwise be known. Any news outlet that doesn’t do that wouldn’t be fulfilling its responsibilities. You have to show the ugly effects of wars because wars are ugly. There are no options there.

    SB: Obviously Al Jazeera English, since its start in 2006, has covered events in Iraq, but there was something maybe unique in the Gaza conflict. It had a clear beginning, a clear buildup, and a supposedly clear end. In dramatic terms, you could say it had three acts.

    GF: Supposedly, yes, everything should be clear, but then you’ve got different players arguing their cases on different networks, and the picture becomes murky. During the war in Gaza, there was this whole debate about when the ceasefire had been breached and by whom. We had Israeli officials coming on regularly with their rehearsed lines, and quite often their words went unchallenged. The onus was on Hamas, whom the Israelis claimed had broken the cease-fire. When the facts revealed a different reality, this is where we come in. There was an event on the fifth of November in which there was an Israeli attack, but without even going into those details, I can safely say that we played an important role in making sure the truth did not get lost between facts and propaganda.

    SB: A slight change of theme, Ghida. I’m wondering, what do you like about the process of interviewing, and what do you think its limitations are in relation to print media?

    GF: Part of why I do this job is to interview some of the key international players who shape some of the most important events of our time. I find it is a rare privilege to sit face to face with a broad range of political figures and ask them questions that others, the viewers, would want answered. I think it puts a lot of pressure on the interviewer, certainly on me, because you’ve got a certain amount of time and a recorder in front of you, and you want to use it well, get the most out of them, be it an admission of something specific or information that is lacking for the understanding of a given issue. TV versus print, I mean — I have done interviews for both, and I think they both have their advantages and disadvantages. In my experience, I think there is an added value in seeing someone’s expression and being able to immediately capture what they see, and doing it live, even though in today’s Internet world, I think, whatever you put down in print has a way of making itself known to the entire world. But again, I think there’s something special about doing it on TV and for TV audiences.

    SB: Could you feel yourself getting better at doing interviews over time, or did you start in control as an interviewer?

    GF: I think that if I look back maybe ten years ago or more, it’s always been a passion of mine to do those kinds of long-format interviews with people who have something to contribute on a hot-button issue. I’ve always been attracted to that aspect of journalism. Of course, the more you do it, the more confident you grow, because it is not always easy to confront a head of state or government. Some will try to put you off, as a way of trying to control the interview, so you just have to come well-equipped with the facts.

    SB: You just mentioned control. Do you like or dislike being interviewed? Can a hardened interviewer, who has interviewed heads of state and political giants, ever relax enough to be an interviewee?

    GF: No, I think I would much rather be on the other side of this interview, be the one asking the questions. It’s easier because you are the one in control, there can be no surprises… or almost none. It is always a challenge to honestly answer other people’s questions. I like to put myself through that occasionally, but I must say, not too often.

    SB: We are very privileged, then! Speaking of being off air, the daily media and news, by definition, never stops. Can you escape from it? Is it important to you to switch it off, or is that a luxury you don’t have — or don’t want?

    GF: You can ask my husband! He will complain that I can never switch off, it’s either the Blackberry or the Internet… Some friends used to tell me that journalism is almost like a drug — now I understand. I still find it difficult to switch off, even when I am on holiday.

    I remember when the events started to unfold in Gaza, I had a trip planned, finally a long-awaited holiday, and I had a flight the next day, but one of the editors said, “We suspect there is a ground invasion that will happen in the course of the next twenty-four hours, would you mind coming to work on the weekend even though you are supposed to be off?” I immediately said yes, because it was such an important story for me to cover. I could not see myself lying down on a beach, relaxing while this was going on. On a general day-to-day basis, I think there is a temptation to always know what is going on in the world. So now, even though I am talking to you, relaxing on a day off, in the background I’ve got the TV on mute, and I can monitor the latest on the swine flu.

    SB: What are you reading at the moment? Escapist fiction, or another Robert Kagan thesis?

    GF: To prove to you that I can’t switch off, I am reading a book on US political history that I began during the US election and only managed to get through half of — Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It’s about Lincoln and the team that he put together when he became president.

    SB: So, is there ever time for a Dan Brown blockbuster?

    GF: Hopefully not.

    SB: Okay, Ghida, my last question…

    GF: Alright, make it a good one, then.

    SB: Let’s try! If Bidoun had the power to organize an exclusive interview with anyone who has ever lived in the history of mankind, who should that be, and why?

    GF: Ah, the power of the media. It could be a number of people, let’s see. It’s a tough one — you said you would make it easy. I did think about it before we began.

    SB: You must get asked that all the time.

    GF: All the time, of course. I’d have to go with the current time frame. If I could interview someone this very day or, say, in the last year — I would say Osama Bin Laden. Simply because it’s a mystery as to whether he is even alive. Having the opportunity of telling the world he’s here. So that’s one. It would make me very unpopular with some American viewers, though.

    SB: Let’s open it up. They don’t have to be alive anymore. Who else would you want to interview?

    GF: Well, nothing too far back in history. I would have to say Saddam Hussein. It would have been great to have been able to sit down with him and really press him on all those so-called weapons of mass destruction.

    SB: I would love to ask him about his bizarre taste in art and paintings.

    GF: What do you think it might have been?

    SB: Have you not seen the pictures? They came out when the palaces were stormed.

    GF: Really?

    SB: Saddam had a real penchant for buxom Dungeons ’n’ Dragons warrior women, bare-breasted, fighting mythical dragons. It was very, very strange. Like the kinds of things that you would see in a spotty teenager’s bedroom, perhaps. They were all over one of his palaces.

    GF: This is where you and I might have teamed up! I would have done the hard-hitting, no-nonsense questions about the weapons, and you may have done the more interesting, exotic ones.

    SB: I’d have asked him, “Why in one of your personal bathrooms did you have seven sinks?”

    GF: Did he?

    SB: Yes!

    GF: I’ll tell you, I did go to Iraq in the summer of 2003, after the invasion, as part of a group of journalists traveling with the former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and we stayed in one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces, renamed Camp Victory by the Americans. We slept on military cots in one of the guesthouses surrounding the palace. I didn’t see the seven sinks though. I didn’t get close enough.

    SB: I’ve got a picture — I’ll send it to you. No evidence of WMDs. But we’ve found the seven sinks.

    GF: And that’s how you nail an interview.

    Daniyal Mueenuddin

    Stranded gentry

    Daniyal Mueenuddin lives and works on a farm in Punjab, and it’s done wonders for his writing. While headlines warn of Pakistan’s imminent implosion, Mueenuddin, the son of a Pakistani father and American mother, has carved out an idyllic life for himself, writing in the mornings and overseeing the planting and harvesting of mangoes, sugarcane, wheat, and cotton in the afternoons. I met Mueenuddin at the Pink Pony Café in Manhattan. He was in America for a book tour, having just published In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, a collection of interconnected stories about the waning fortunes of the landed gentry in Pakistan and the dreams, fortunes, sex lives, and crimes of their maids, servants, and farmers. Mueenuddin told me that he quite consciously created a kind of Pakistani parallel to Yoknapatawpha County, William Faulkner’s fictional Mississippi landscape. But listening to him talk about the farm and the workers and the soap opera shenanigans that go on, and how they’re connected to the political ruling class, I kept thinking of Levin, the philosopher farmer of Anna Karenina, who was something of a self-portrait of Tolstoy. As it turns out, Mueenuddin has thought even more about Levin. As he told me, “I’m living his life.”

    Elizabeth Rubin: So, did you grow up on the farm?

    Daniyal Mueenuddin: No, we grew up in Lahore. We used to go there a lot, and it’s a long way from Lahore. That was one of our big things, my brother and I. It was so lovely. We’d get on the train in the night, and in the morning you’re there. And we’d ride and hunt — it’s a rustler’s paradise. And then I went to prep school. [Laughs] My parents split up. I went to the States for school, went to college here, and then I went back to Pakistan. And that was when my dad said, “You remember Mueenabad?” Of course, I remembered! It’s named after his father, who settled it. Basically, the managers had taken over the farm, and my father was very old — he was about thirty years older than my mother — so he couldn’t pay attention to it, anyway. He was old-school, you know, English-trained, and he trusted everybody. He really believed everybody was decent and good.

    ER: And they took advantage of him?

    DM: Just screwed him from top to bottom. Especially after he went out of government, they were less afraid of him. But in any case, I had to go back there and take these guys on. It was very stressful. To give you an idea how much land they stole, the son of the head manager actually has more land now than I do. My brother once said to him, “Where is this land of yours I hear so much about?” This was after I fired him. And he said, “You know, sahib, think of it this way: wherever you have land, I have land.” So brazen! Well, it took me five years to fire these guys — they were much too powerful to be crossed right away. I had no power at all, I was just an owner… they used to make me dance like a monkey, you know? They thought it was hilarious. “Hey, let’s see if we can make the white boy believe this!” I’m sure they got a lot of amusement out of me. I’d be wearing the little pink hat and — what else do you make the monkey wear? That little drum? I like to think that I got my revenge ultimately, but it took a while.

    ER: How’d you get revenge?

    DM: By firing them all.

    ER: Wait, let’s go back. Your father calls you and says…

    DM: Well, I came back from college and my father said, “What are your plans?” and I said, “I want to be a poet.” And he said, “Well, that’s very nice.” But he didn’t think much of that as a career option, and he suggested that if I wanted to have this land, I had to live there and take it over and run it myself. And it was reaching crisis proportions. These guys were basically not sending any money. The sicker he got, the more independent they became. And they were perfectly convinced that my brother and I would never come back — I mean, we were both half-American, living in America, my mother had a farm here in Wisconsin, we were living in New York. “Those guys are never coming back, forget about it.” So they declared independence.

    ER: And so you walked in, this half-American, and started firing the locals?

    DM: Yeah, but as I say, it took a long time. The head manager had actually become a member of the provincial assembly. This guy was horrible. I couldn’t just walk in and say, “You’re fired, you’re fired.” I didn’t know anything about farming, and this was an ongoing operation, I had to keep it running. So, in the beginning, I just played the silly bugger: “Hi guys! I know how much you love me, yeah, I’m glad to be back too, terrific. Say, how does this thing work?” And they’d say, “Auugh, little boy, don’t worry about it, we’ll take care of it, just stay at home and smoke dope and do whatever it is you want to do. Can we offer you some alcohol?”

    ER: Did you have a mentor that you could trust?

    DM: No. In the beginning, there was no one. But you start figuring out the personalities. The first significant move I made was when the mawlawi from the village told me I’d better start learning to say my prayers. So he’d come in the morning to teach me, and at some point I realized that this guy — very stupid — had a sort of crude loyalty. So I said to the managers, “Hey, why don’t you take the mawlawi, he doesn’t have enough to do anyway, why don’t you teach him to do the accounts?” And these guys went, “Him? The accounts?” I think they thought he was so stupid, it’d be no problem.

    ER: That they could cheat you —

    DM: Through him, yeah. There were two other accountants. After about six months, I called the mawlawi and said, “What’s going on, are you learning?” He said, “Those guys won’t even let me pick up a pencil, they won’t let me near the books.” The funny thing is that he’s now running the farm for me. He’s the head manager. He’s really good — as stupid as ever, but completely loyal.

    ER: There is a character in your stories, Harouni the landowner, who sort of ties everything together. Does he exist? Is he based on you or your father?

    DM: People have said that he’s based on my father, and there’s some truth to that, but I think that my father was quite different. I mean, Harouni is a fairly supine character, whereas my father was quite active. Harouni is hidebound; my father was much quirkier. He was a very liberal-minded person. He had gone to Oxford in 1928, in the old days. So my father was like a friend. I could laugh with him about girlfriends, and every evening we had a drink together. I got to know him very well then.

    ER: Where’d you go to boarding school?

    DM: Groton. I’m a Grotty. Isn’t that horrible?

    ER: Did you like it?

    DM: Hated it. I came from Pakistan and didn’t know anything about anything in that world, wore all the wrong clothes. And these guys were from Brookline, Massachusetts, from this feeder school. So they’d all been together and knew each other, knew all the slang, all the music. My Uncle Lionel, who was a darling person, was Chinese — he wasn’t really a relative — and he didn’t have a lot of understanding about what the latest trends in fashion were for thirteen-year-olds. He took my brother and I shopping for our trousseau for boarding school — my brother went to St. Paul’s and I went to Groton. I think this was the summer when they made that Great Gatsby with Robert Redford, and there was this white polyester ice-cream suit with the vest, and I looked at it like, “I really want that.” And Uncle Lionel was like, “Are you sure?” Uncle Lionel thought thirteen-year-olds should have their way. So I got it. It was polyester, white, three-piece, with flairs.

    ER: Oh, my God.

    DM: Exactly. And the first parents’ weekend, my mother came up, and I put on my three-piece ice-cream suit, and we go to chapel. And I hear [sharp intake of breath] and titter, titter. And we’re about halfway up the aisle, and I realize, “This isn’t good.” So I had a very — it was difficult. I was confused. I didn’t love it, did very badly, didn’t study at all.

    ER: But you got into Dartmouth anyway.

    DM: I know. When I said I wanted to go to Dartmouth, the counselor said, “I think you should be realistic.” But my mother was very smart, she said, “You want to go to Dartmouth, you’re not going to get in on your grades ’cause you’ve got Cs, so you’re going to have to write one hell of an essay.” So she basically locked me up for all of Christmas vacation, and I literally spent three weeks writing my application essay. And she didn’t help me with it, but she kept saying, “Look, it’s not good enough.” I seriously think she’s the only reason I got into Dartmouth. That and my ethnic thing. That always helps, being from Pakistan. In those days, there were fewer of us. Now they’re beating them off at the doors before they can scramble in through the windows.

    ER: In your stories there’s often a dispute between the workers on the farm. Sometimes it’s the heart of the story, sometimes it’s just part of the ambience of daily life. Do your workers try to pull you in to solve their disputes on your farm in Mueenabad?

    DM: Yeah, they definitely do. What happens is that forty or fifty guys will troop into my living room and start moaning and groaning and shouting at each other and throwing their shoes, and you’ll tell them to be quiet. The first few times this happened, I sort of had this view of myself as a judge. I sat there, you know, rubbing my chin. At the end of it, I said, “I’ve heard both sides, now I will give you my decision.” And they all looked at me like, “Decision? Who the fuck asked you for a decision?”

    ER: Then what were they doing there?

    DM: The point is that it’s a forum, a place where these guys can thrash it out, and then finally in the middle of the pushing and shoving they come to some sort of agreement. Your role is to induce, cajole, threaten, laugh, and so on. But then at the end of it, they’ve reached the agreement under your auspices. So if one or the other side refuses to act according to what’s been agreed, you have to be the one who steps in with the big stick to enforce it. And, of course, I don’t have the big stick. But I have buddies, or people who for one reason or another I’ve spent time with, who do this sort of thing. They are politicians, and they take this very seriously — if the decision was “made” by them, they enforce it. For the politicians, these kinds of things are useful, because by settling cases they increase their power. That’s one of the things you do, you settle a case and people say, “So-and-so is so powerful that he can settle cases. Did you hear, he settled that case, let’s go to him.” And that’s how you get votes. So this is all part of the business of getting votes.

    ER: So, are many of your stories drawn from life, as it were? I was reading “About a Burning Girl” and wondered about the inspiration for the story.

    DM: My mother’s old cook had a favorite son who worked for a judge. One day the old man came to me and told me that the son had been thrown in jail for murdering his wife, setting her on fire. I asked the two other sons who had been present the night of the murder to come see me and interviewed them about it. Their stories made no sense. I immediately sensed a story lurking there, with its tail coiled around itself.

    ER: It’s the only story told in the first person in the book. And you lay bare right at the beginning that the narrator, the judge, is extremely pragmatic — rather than, say, moral or political — in his approach to the law.

    DM: In my teens I had met a judge, a distant relation, who came a number of times to see my father for help with a posting or whatever. Thinking over the story of the burnt girl, I thought he would be the perfect character to tell it. And I had been toying with the idea of writing a story in the first person, in order to develop a new set of muscles. I wrote the story in Oslo on a Fulbright, and that fall I was full of manic energy, very isolated — it’s impossible to get to know Norwegians — very focused, feeling that my career as a writer lay in the balance. I’d finished my MFA, I’d spent a year at the farm, writing, and I was feeling that that make-or-break time had come. I think a lot of that urgency comes out in the story, and a sort of amused view of the world that reflected my distance from my surroundings. As for the judge’s attitude to the law — the judge in my story is rather flatteringly portrayed, compared to the ones that haunt Pakistan’s courts. Laying his pragmatism bare at the start got rid of the question, What will this gentleman do? It would be ludicrous to suggest that a judge of the Lahore High Court would feel any twangs of conscience or would refer to any internalized moral code.

    ER: Do people around the farm see you as one of them? Or do they view you as an outsider?

    DM: Well, I think initially, there was a barrier for me. Now they just think, “He looks a little funny,” but initially it was, “Who is this guy and where does he come from?” I think still they’re quite puzzled by us. My brother lived in Mueenabad for several years with his blond American wife. And he’s much less — I try to be quite conventional, but he’s driving around in an open-top Land Rover with his two Labradors, his blond wife, two blond kids, and a bottle of wine in one hand. Although, my brother is darker-skinned and has sort of smoldering Indian film-star looks, and can pass for Pakistani, whereas I am always the American son. In any case, they’ve seen a lot of us, and they think we’re weird and we don’t behave the way we’re supposed to. And my wife has a habit of hopping on her horse and galloping up and down the countryside…

    ER: But no problems?

    DM: Not so far. Not that we know of. Maybe they’re just planning it.

    ER: Do you feel like you’ve developed any solid friendships there on the farm?

    DM: Very much. We’re really tied in closely. A lot of the people that work on the farm, I’ve known since they were kids. And we’ve made a decision that’s partly altruistic and partly good business, which is we pay roughly three times the going wage. And as a result we get much better people. Our farm runs very well, and we give them health care. When people get sick, we pay for them. Depending on where they stand, the worse off they are, the larger the percentage we pay. We give them loans so they don’t have to go to the moneylenders. So they think we’re weird and don’t understand, because most landlords are sucking the blood of the peasants, they really are, and they think we’re soft in the head. But it means there’s a very warm feeling around the farm, which is very nice. And, you know, they take advantage of me. But I’m very strict about the business side of it. If I catch anyone being corrupt, I fire them, no exceptions, no matter who you are.

    ER: That happens?

    DM: Yeah. You know, you’re just going through the books and it’s just obvious that something’s been cooked. You fire them, and they come to you, and you’ve known them a long time, and they bring their wife and the kids and they’re pulling at your feet, and it’s like, “I told you before: you know the rules, no exceptions.” It’s horrible. It’s really grim, but I’m absolutely inflexible on it. I pay very well, you know, I give them what they need. If I let them screw me, what message do I send to the next person?

    ER: And what do they think of your writing? Do they know of it?

    DM: For them, I think, making doilies and writing are about on the same level. “It’s a harmless little thing he does, probably harmless.” People in the household who see me sitting at my typewriter going, “My God, I’ve got it, I’ve got it!” as they’re walking in to give me tea are probably thinking, “This guy’s really losing it.” They think it’s a hobby gone bad.

    ER: Do they know what the stories are about?

    DM: Vaguely. If you tell them you’ve written about them, they look at you sort of like, “Oh.”

    ER: They don’t feel any shyness, or whatever, that you might be using them as material?

    DM: I’ve certainly never got that impression. I think they’d be delighted.

    ER: What has the response been in Pakistan?

    DM: I have no idea, you know, because the book just came out a couple days before I came here. I gave a bunch of interviews and stuff like that, which I’m now regretting. I don’t move in literary circles. I mean, we live on the farm. When we go to Lahore, we always hang out with the same five people. And quite frankly, I’d rather it not be known. Given the costs of being known in Pakistan, I’d rather avoid it. My ideal would be to not be read there. I’ve decided not to do any more publicity there, no more readings. It’s just not worth it.

    ER: Really?

    DM: Whenever anyone asks, I say, “To be prominent without being powerful in Pakistan is a very bad position to be in.” And that’s what would happen. A book isn’t going to make you powerful, it’s just going to make you prominent.

    ER: But did the book get reviewed in the Pakistani press?

    DM: All the newspapers have done something or other. What’s strange is that the reviews in Pakistan are much less positive than they’ve been in the West. There’s a snarkiness to them.

    ER: What did they say?

    DM: “How can a man who’s never been hungry a day in his life know anything about hunger?” Sort of implying that I was cheating by writing about these characters. I sort of got the feeling these guys think I’m poaching on their territory in some weird way. Which is odd. I think I look more like an outsider, and I look like I’m privileged. American mother, foreign wife. So they turned on me. And I was like, “Fuck you. I don’t need this from you, man, back off. What, am I going to sell four thousand copies of my book in Pakistan? Wow.” So, yeah, intelligent people whose opinion I care about have been very positive. Couple of friends, a couple of editors who’ve written me letters or who I met at parties have taken the time to come over and say, “Hey I really like this,” and talk about it, and that’s very gratifying. Because these guys know the ground, know the terrain, and they say I’ve described it accurately. That’s a validation I care for.

    ER: You remind me so much more of Chekhov than of most South Asian writers. And, of course, there is Tolstoy — you must know Levin very well.

    DM: Oh, yeah, yeah, I love him. I’m living his life, it’s very conscious. I reread Anna Karenina constantly — I’ve probably read it, like, ten times. And Chekhov is someone I’m reading all the time, as well. The books I read again, and again, are Anna Karenina, War and Peace, Ulysses, and the Chekhov stories. These are always in the rotation.

    ER: Anyone else?

    DM: Turgenev, I like. But if I had to limit it to just those four, I’d be fine. And I have such a bad memory, I can rediscover these writers every two years.

    ER: It makes sense, the Russians and Pakistan. It’s a total feudal society.

    DM: Yeah, yeah, exactly.

    ER: They’re involved in the wars in the Caucasus.

    DM: Also, let’s face it, Chekhov is the greatest of the short story writers, Tolstoy is the greatest of the novelists.

    ER: I was so intrigued by your story “Sparrows of Lahore,” which spirals backward, ending on the image of this poor little street urchin who is such a familiar, almost anonymous, image on the streets of Karachi, for example. It’s an amazing story.

    DM: The ending is a little — people have said, “You’re stringing us on a little too hard. Back it off a little bit.”

    ER: It’s a bit heartwrenching. But I wondered — the boy’s mother, these women, they must be part of the landscape of the farm, right?

    DM: That woman, Saleema, is based on a woman who worked at my father’s house who, unlike Saleema, was a sort of roly-poly smiling woman with a lot of the Wife of Bath in her. While screwing everyone in the household. I think she even made a pass at my father. So that character is a little bit drawn from her.

    ER: Did you know about the details of her life?

    DM: No. I made it up.

    ER: How did you know she was screwing everybody?

    DM: Are you kidding? In a household like that, you hear everything. Once when I was in my room, I overheard the most hilarious thing. Saleema and the cook were fighting and — this is quite crude, I hope you don’t mind — he said, “Get out of here, you slut, I fucked you every way I could. I didn’t do it in your ears because it wasn’t as fun!”

    ER: How old were you?

    DM: In my twenties or something. I was there for the summer, probably. It sort of stuck in my mind. And then this big roly-poly Saleema.

    ER: So what’s next? Will you work on a novel?

    DM: That’s what I’m doing right now. It’s a novel set in Pakistan, obviously. A sort of love triangle, totally unpolitical. A foreign woman, her husband, and her lover, who are both Pakistani. I don’t know where it’s going, but I do know how it ends. Once you know how it ends, you start to close in on it. I sort of have this last scene in my mind, but I’m hiding it from myself because I don’t want to overthink it. I’ve got several long stories that I’ve abandoned at one time or another, and I’d like to fold them all into this novel and have it have all these subplots, but I’ve never written a novel before, so I don’t know how that will work out.

    ER: Is there a question you’re pursuing in the novel, or are you just pursuing the characters’ lives?

    DM: No questions. I have no agenda at all. I don’t believe in having an agenda in stories.

    ER: Do you find any of the politics of Pakistan encroaching on your life on the farm?

    DM: So far, I haven’t seen it, but I think when it happens, it will happen suddenly. Where we are, the same old politicians retain control, so they don’t allow much change. On the other hand, I’m told Mueenabad is a main Taliban recruiting ground, and there are a number of Lashkar-e-Taiba in south Punjab — big suppliers of cannon fodder — so those guys presumably are going to come back home at some point. But I haven’t seen much evidence. What I’ve seen is more a breakdown of law and order. Around our farm now, traffic basically stops at night because there’re so many holdups.

    ER: Why is that happening?

    DM: More desperate people, more corrupt police. Police and criminals are more and more the same. Seventeen-year-olds who don’t have any money can buy a pistol, steal a motorcycle, and sell it for ten-thousand apiece. The roads are empty. And a lot more kidnapping — for money again. We’re near the Indus, so it’s easy for them to kidnap somebody and take them there, that big area alongside it is uncontrolled and completely uncontrollable. So how much has politics intruded? Not that much, but that state of things cannot persist. And I think the Taliban tactics inside Pakistan are going to change.

    ER: They’re going to start going after more nontraditional areas.

    DM: I think this whole Mumbai style is going to get started. If you want to spread terror, why not spread terror everywhere, it’s so easy to do. Certainly, it’ll start in the cities, so we’ll have plenty of warning.

    ER: Do you have a home anywhere else?

    DM: In the world? Well, my mother has this farm in Wisconsin, which I run for her, actually. I just rent the land out to Amish people, which is a lot of fun. So that’s a retreat if we need one. But I would teach or something, I suppose. All these other lives I can imagine. I’m starting to think I’d better start imagining hard, since imagination might need to become reality pretty quick. I think, you know, Pakistan is not just on the brink of the precipice, it’s probably fallen off the precipice, and is accelerating on its way down.

      Michael Stevenson

      Berlin-based artist Michael Stevenson is perhaps best known for elaborate installation works that take historical events as their point of departure. He has constructed a replica of the MONIAC, an odd six-foot-tall hydraulic computer designed in the 1940s to demonstrate the flow of money within a national economy (in this case, Guatemala’s); a locally produced Land Rover in New Zealand called the Trekka, which was to be a model of national industriousness (and, as it happens, was actually cobbled together with Czech spare parts); and the homemade craft of a reclusive Scottish-born Australian artist who tried to find passage across the Timor Sea, but was stranded somewhere in between, picked up by the authorities, and deported to London, where he was reduced to digging ditches in Devon in order to pay for his passage back. Very often, these works comprise a selection of objects and artifacts that are embedded to the extent that they embody the concerns of the broader political economy — the flow of money, people, and ideas. Sometimes, Stevenson recreates objects in a real enough manner that they effectively mirror, if not replace, their originals; the experience of walking among his works is not unlike walking through a natural history exhibit. To date, Stevenson has developed major projects for institutions including CCA Wattis, San Francisco; Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach; Arnolfini, Bristol; and the Kröller-Müller Museum, Netherlands. He presented his most recent work, Introducción a la Teoría de la Probabilidad, which chronicles the life of the last Shah of Iran during his exile in Panama, at the Panama Art Biennial in 2008.

      Nav Haq: You once described your exhibition presentations as being like archaeological displays without labels, a bit like Foucault’s concept of archaeology — the idea of deconstructing history in order to look at the ways it is constructed, and to find the mythologies and discriminations within.

      Michael Stevenson: Yes, I would agree with that, though I’d have to say, in terms of Foucault, well, it’s been a long time. But yes, sure, it’s relevant. It does, however, make me think that when I’m saying the word “archaeological,” it’s also very tactile, very much something that has presence. It relates to these things you’re pointing out, but it’s also related to the line of practice.

      NH: About this idea of the “display without labels,” I’m curious to know what you think about your presentations in relation to the viewer. For them, it becomes like an investigation as well, in terms of sorting out the significance of the different objects and artifacts that you present. Do you have a particular idea about the role of the audience?

      MS: All this kind of stuff is complicated, and is endlessly disputed. Really, my ambition is to put something in the space that I would call an “object of intrigue.” The viewer, hopefully, is intrigued to the degree that they would perhaps like to find out more. There is no particular path or one reading to it, in terms of the work. I see them in a particular way, but this is for my own convenience. I think for the viewer it is much more open-ended. There are these significant objects, but they are presented alongside things that are much more arbitrary. So I think for the viewer it is perhaps more confusing than directed.

      NH: Could you tell me about how the formal qualities of your work have shifted over time?

      MS: I started in the 1980s, and I was, of course, making paintings. It was the ’80s, after all. One of the changes, I guess, was that you could say painting is always somehow more invested in the gesture. But by now what I do is at least in part the reverse of this. My hope is that there are still unexpected possibilities that can be realized that are more aligned to the gesture when these premeditated objects/artifacts are brought together. This notion is, of course, also very subjective. But then again, I guess anything to do with gesture is going to be. I think of all this in relation to the Warhol piece we exhibited at Arnolfini as part of the Persepolis 2530 installation, in a small, darkened room by itself. Although it may have looked like a highly premeditated act, far away from these other notions I’m discussing, when you actually walked into the room and experienced it, for me at least, it did have an extraordinary aura. This couldn’t have been premeditated. It was kind of spontaneous and new each time a viewer entered the room

      NH: I’m interested in the status of the different components in your installations. They often include existing historical objects alongside your own reconstructions of other objects. They all seem to have an equal status, whether they’re “original” or not. The Persepolis 2530 installation included an original film and commemorative book, alongside a reconstruction of one of the Shah’s tent structures. Could you say something about this?

      MS: I think that it’s a very complicated game. A minefield, really. It stands in the way of what we understand would be presented in traditional museum situations — but, that said, we do all know of situations where the original is not the original in any case. There are a lot of original reconstructions! The Paul Klee painting exhibited at documenta 12 was a copy, for example, so this notion is not so unfamiliar. I’m interested in practice, and so my way of bringing these things together is not only concerned with these academic fields. The other thing I think is important, which I think is recurring within the work and the historical material I’m dealing with, is that these are by no means regular historical stories. They are very particular, almost tautological in their interlacing. The histories themselves, which I’m somehow drawn to, reflect this exact predicament — what is potentially factual? And what is otherwise? That is very much the case in terms of events at Persepolis in 1971, and in its wake. The stories clung to, surrounding these figures and their legacies, are molded — a blend of fact and fiction. This was one of the amazing results of presenting the piece at Art Unlimited in Basel in 2007 — remnants of the court reassembled there, and I got to hear at least some of the conflicting stories. It was fascinating, and I learned a lot about patronage. So in a way, this methodology of mine is somehow in line with the original material, if you like. It’s some kind of molded “doubling.”

      NH: You once told me about a drawing you’d done — a photorealist copy of an image from a newspaper of some people repairing Picasso’s Guernica after it had been graffitied by Tony Shafrazi. Your drawing was published in a newspaper, and somehow that seems to have circulated. Whenever the image appears, you’re unable to tell whether it is the original picture or your copy of it — and this seems appropriate, given your work’s questions about the nature of representation.

      MS: I made this image in the ’90s, and it wasn’t a one-off. It was part of my practice at the time. I was making a large number of these highly realistic drawings. A number of them depicted the outer orbits of contemporary art history, such as this attack on Guernica, amongst others. I was drawn to material that problematized the distinction you point out so, naturally, I eventually ended up with the Guernica story and that image.

      NH: A number of your works, such as the replica of the MONIAC, look at the market economy, but also at how the economy creates the conditions for the patronage of art. The Persepolis 2530 installation is one example of this. How did this become an interest?

      MS: I think it’s in terms of my education in being an artist. I don’t just mean academic education, in terms of studying. When you study, you don’t really get taught anything about how, say, the market works, or how patronage works. You might study historical examples, such as the Medicis, in terms of art history… but you don’t really experience it. You don’t really learn how to be part of this system. When students leave art school — these days even before leaving — some are very savvy… . Others aren’t — this is often to their detriment. I guess for me it has been part of the fascination to learn and try to understand the system in this firsthand way. I mean, it’s actually been a matter of survival. I had my first experience of it all… as a producer with my first gallery show more than twenty years ago. As I’ve said already, it was the ’80s — the gallery system was supreme. So, from this point of view, it seemed to me natural to work with these specific stories from Iran in the 1970s — the country was awash in petrodollars, and a piece of this pie was devoted to art patronage of an extraordinary kind. This formal system, of course, no longer exists, but its remnants are a reminder of the tenaciousness of patronage.

      NH: You’ve produced a number of works relating to the plight of the last Shah and his family. Do you know how you first became interested in him — was it initially after finding out about and investigating Tony Shafrazi [a sometime art advisor to the Shahbanou] and his gallery in Tehran?

      MS: I was originally planning to end this long-term project about the cultural climate in Iran in the 1970s after the Persepolis presentation. Then I had this opportunity to do this work for Panama — a much more open-ended work, but one that has the Shah as one of the central characters. In terms of earlier interest in this as a theme, I was interested early on in terms of the opening of the first Shafrazi space in Tehran. I saw in this story the potential for a model — which is another form of doubling, if you like — perhaps as an earlier example for market globalization. But this market is not pure, it is contorted by all sorts of irrationalities, including greed and fear. So it is a fascinating story with some universal application, especially in its relation to realpolitik. Recently I wrote an elaboration of another story, one that was apparently circulated in Tehran in late 1978, the time of the inaugural Shafrazi opening. It perhaps demonstrates best of all why these times are fascinating.

      On the high road leading away from the City fled a Fox.
      Seeing his distress, a Salesman, traveling in the opposite direction, stopped him, saying, “Why are you leaving this prosperous City, and in such haste? There are still fortunes to be had for the likes of you and I.”
      The Fox replied, “In this City, they are killing all foxes with three balls.”
      “Is that so!” said the incredulous Salesman. “I know the City well and can vouch that you are in no real danger, and in any case I am willing to wager you are endowed with no more than two balls.”
      “That is true,” said the Fox, “but they shoot first and then they count.”

      NH: Publications also seem to be an important part of your practice. Often they appropriate the look and form of existing books, such as the Art of the Eighties and Seventies book you did for the Museum Abteiberg in Mönchengladbach, and the Celebration at Persepolis book you did to accompany your exhibition at Arnolfini. Could you say a little about how they function in relation to your practice?

      MS: The book from Mönchengladbach is the only place right now where a representation of the work still exists. So the publications themselves are in a way a kind of “doubling” of the project and of the original material. Once more, over again, if you like. This process is very specific, in terms of publication, because it includes the use of particular designs or images, et cetera, which have in some cases been lifted from original publications. In that way, they act as a double.

      NH: Your most recent work related to the Shah, Introducción a la Teoría de la Probabilidad, produced for the Panama Biennial, reflects on his last few years. But there are other things going on there. It’s also about narrative and the potential of probability. Could you say something about this work?

      MS: It is a big, broad, very complicated story, with a lot of very arbitrary details that don’t drive a clear through-line. It’s mostly based on anecdote. Because of the nature of this form, often things of less relevance join the story. My problem all along with using any of this kind of material is that you’re in someone else’s backyard, literally — as was the case with this piece in Panama. The biennial was based on the theme of the former Canal Zone, and I was expected to make investigations that would result in a work that would relate to [it]. Certain artists were chosen for their ability to do this — step into the breach, as it were — but it’s complicated to go into someone else’s backyard and make some kind of meaningful sense. The work that I made, whilst going into a lot of detail about events in Panama, is also a reflection on this problematic. The problem in these cases is how much “in the story” can an artist ever really be. We’re not historians. So what exactly is our role in terms of representing this material? My hope with this work is that through the telling of this particular story related to Panama, but also through much more universal stories that are more philosophical and mathematical, that somehow the problem of “involvement” becomes present. The work was based on accounts of the time from a wide range of sources and one — the novel Getting to Know the General by Graham Greene — is actually subtitled “The story of an involvement.”

      Bidoun: This work also seems somehow related to the notion of conspiracy. Do you believe in conspiracies?

      MS: Conspiracies. In a way, I think we all believe in them. This was one of the findings I came to realize in making this film last year the system in this firsthand way. I mean, it’s actually been a matter of survival. I had my first experience of it all … the mathematics that it was based on is probability theory. The title of the film — Introducción a la Teoría de la Probabilidad — is taken from a book written by one of the key protagonists, Omar Torrijos’s bodyguard, a man known in Panama as Chuchu. He was really one of the general’s most trusted friends, an advisor, but officially he was the bodyguard. Chuchu was also a professor of mathematics, amongst other things, hence the book — bodyguarding and probability is a compelling combination, one would have to admit. The film deals with card-playing — visually, at least. Card-playing, as Chuchu himself suggests, demonstrates that in a very natural way we all believe that there is no such thing as a fair shuffle — i.e., the deck is always stacked. This kind of convergence is the basis for conspiracy theory. The film itself utilizes probability as a way to view the particulars of this particular history. In this case, fate may seem a more natural choice. So I don’t believe in conspiracy theories any more than anyone else. However, I did spend many formative years — childhood and adolescence — living in a particular Christian religious community where conspiracy abounded. So, yes, I have done my time with these beliefs and with conspiracy. This was now a long time ago.

      NH: You only produce about one work a year, as your practice is so research intensive. How do you go about that?

      MS: Finding the subject is certainly complicated enough. It’s something I unfortunately know too little about — how exactly I come across these things. It takes a lot of time. Once some area of interest is established, I guess I do a lot of reading. If I can travel, I do. Usually the things I’m researching are far away, so I take the opportunities when I can. Then there are of course the problems of involvement…

      Bidoun: We’re especially curious about the project surrounding Ian Fairweather, which you showed at the Herbert Read Gallery in 2005. He attempted a passage across the Timor Sea back in 1952 and was finally found, near starvation, on the island of Roti. He was taken in by local villagers and given food and shelter and eventually picked up by the Indonesian authorities and sent to England. Your research on such a historical blip — or rather, your approach to historical events at large — is odd, and certainly anything but standard.

      MS: Ian Fairweather’s voyage. Fairweather is a good name for an artist who wants to put to sea, one would have to concede. He is a major figure in the Australian art canon — his voyage is at least reasonably well known there. It was not the kind of material anyone delved into, however, since this was seen as taking away from the centrality of his paintings — which are, undoubtedly, great. So it was an unpopular move within some circles to concentrate on his “extracurricular” activities. What was certainly unexplored was the potential for how this story could be of wider interest and wider importance. This gets to another series of queries you have requested light on. My exploration of these themes may be, as you say, “without standard research,” but the stories are by and large interesting to me for their potential to become allegory — this would be the case for the Persepolis piece. Of course, this way of storytelling is ancient. Recently I completed a small book of fables, co-written with Jan Verwoert, themed on the subject of art and the business cycle. They are similar, if you like, to the one I penned that is used in the discussion above. Of course, since they have this kind of universality, they apply to many situations, which is their beauty. Some of this interest in these structures may indeed extend from my earlier life — one that saw a lot of current affairs as allegorical. Of course, the Bible is interpreted very much in this manner.

      Zaki Nusseibeh

      Before and after

      For as long as there has been a United Arab Emirates, Zaki Nusseibeh has been by the side of its leader. He became the translator and interpreter for Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the first president of the UAE, three years before the federation was established in 1971. The scion of an ancient Jerusalem family, he quickly became a trusted advisor to the rulers of Abu Dhabi, and he has been at the center of political and cultural life in the country’s largest emirate ever since. Nusseibeh is a compact man, quick to smile. Even in a casual setting, he exudes intellectual agility and modesty alike. As the ambitions of Abu Dhabi have turned increasingly toward culture and the arts, he has become an influential figure in the shaping of a new vision for Abu Dhabi; he founded the emirate’s two classical music festivals, serves as the vice-chairman of its cultural authority, and sits on the board of the Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi. I met him at his home in Abu Dhabi, a spacious but modest Arab house that was a gift, he told me, from Sheikh Zayed himself. We sat in his study, lined from floor to ceiling with books and photographs of him with just about every head of state imaginable. Aside from Zayed and the members of the royal family, few people have had such an intimate view of the extraordinary transformation of Abu Dhabi, and as we discussed the early days of the UAE, its thrills and challenges, it became clear that the story of this country and the story of his life are so closely intertwined as to be almost indistinguishable.

      Jonathan Shainin: I wanted to ask you about your childhood in Jerusalem.

      Zaki Nusseibeh: What do I remember? I was very young. I remember St. George’s, where I first went to school. I remember, for instance, that my love for classical music started at school — St. George’s had a nice choir and a nice church, and you went and listened to music.

      I remember that we took our outlook on life then from the very tolerant environment in which we all lived. I mean, my friends at school — they were called Salam or Essam or Ali, but you did not know whether they were Muslim or Christian. Jerusalem then was a very cosmopolitan city. And as a young boy I remember growing up in a very open and liberal place.

      JS: What was it like for Palestinians in Jerusalem after 1948?

      ZN: Well, part of my family had been displaced in 1948. My mother was from Ramla. Her family lost their land and orchards and were dispersed in different parts of the Arab world. My father lost his leg in 1948, during the war. He had been active in politics and later became governor of Jerusalem and then a minister under King Hussein, when the West Bank was still part of Jordan.

      So I grew up in a political environment, but it was also, as I said, a very tolerant, very open environment. When I went to England, I was involved in Palestinian politics as a student. We were all very young then, and all very enthusiastic. I became involved in the debating society at Rugby School, and then at Cambridge we set up an Arab society, and brought people to give speeches, and held debates. It was then very alive, the issue of Palestine — of Israel and the Arab world. It was a heady time in Arab politics, and as a young person I was obviously part of what was happening, but from England.

      JS: What year did you leave Jerusalem?

      ZN: Around 1960. I did my A-levels, and then I went to Cambridge, where I studied economics. And I finished my studies in 1967, which was, of course, the year that the war broke out and Jerusalem was occupied. So it became difficult for me to go back to Jerusalem, or to Jordan.

      JS: Did you go back?

      ZN: Once, immediately after the war, in 1967. At that point it was still relatively easy to smuggle yourself into the West Bank — you could cross the Jordan River at night and enter the West Bank, and I took a taxi from there into Jerusalem to see my parents. Nobody knew then what was going to happen. I had just finished my studies, but there was obviously no future in Jerusalem. And it was at this point that my father said, “Why don’t you go to Abu Dhabi and seek your chances there?” He was a politician, as I said, and he knew Sheikh Zayed, who had assumed power in 1966, in August. Suddenly, Abu Dhabi was the El Dorado of the Arab world. So I followed his advice. That was in 1967.

      JS: What was it like?

      ZN: There was barely any infrastructure. The airport was a small building, a temporary building, with a single runway. There were no roads, of course, no electricity and no water.

      Many young people then were coming from around the Arab world, looking for things to do. Most of my friends from that time went into some kind of business — they wanted to sell iron or timber or build houses. Anybody could do anything then, it was wide open. And I loved it. Abu Dhabi then was truly an island. You were surrounded by the sea.

      JS: Had a bridge to the mainland been built yet?

      ZN: When I came, a bridge had been built. But I had friends who were here before the bridge. Edward Henderson told me he would sit and read Shakespeare, waiting for the tides to subside. He said he read the whole of Shakespeare that way.

      And there were no roads! You drove over dunes in Land Rovers. The fortress was there, the Hosn, where Sheikh Zayed lived and ruled. And there were some contracting companies with camps around an area where the El Dorado cinema is now. There was an old souk by the corniche — but there was no corniche. It was a small village then, so you met everybody very quickly.

      At that time, Abu Dhabi was becoming known — a little — to the outside world as an oil producer. At the same time, you had the Arab-Israeli war, a revolution in Oman, war in Yemen. The area was a hotbed of instability, even then. So international journalists and editors were becoming interested in the region, and they would come and visit Abu Dhabi. Then there was only one hotel, the Beach Hotel, where the Sheraton is now. And so we would all go in the evening and sit there — this was in the first few months I was here. I met a number of these editors who had come to visit, and they started asking me, “Why don’t you write us stories?” So I became a reporter — a stringer, as they called it.

      JS: You had never done anything like that before?

      ZN: No, I hadn’t. At Cambridge I had written a few articles — I wrote one or two things about the Arab-Israeli issue — but I had never done journalism as such before. But they asked me, so I started doing it. I reported for Reuters and the Financial Times, the Economist, and the BBC Arabic Service, things like this.

      JS: What sort of articles were you writing? What would the headlines have been back then?

      ZN: These were mostly economic stories — the awarding of contracts, the construction of the airport and the roads. Gradually there were political stories as well — in 1968, of course, Britain announced that it was withdrawing from east of Suez. Suddenly the seven emirates — who had no police force, no army, no infrastructure, no civil services — were left to work out their future.

      JS: Is that when you first met Sheikh Zayed?

      ZN: I met Sheikh Zayed almost immediately after I arrived. There was a British television crew who wanted to interview him, and they asked me to conduct the interview, to ask him the questions in Arabic and translate the answers. I did that, and it was our first contact. This was the beginning of 1968. He was sitting outside in the Hosn, and I went there, to the Majlis, and I asked him the questions. He was a very impressive personality, a magnetic presence. After the interview, he began to ask me questions — “What are you doing in Abu Dhabi?” and so on. He knew the name of my family, and my father, so he knew that I was here working in the press. And from that day on, I became basically his personal interpreter. I also became part of the Abu Dhabi government, if you will — I worked a bit in translating the first laws that were being promulgated, and I was in charge of PR and communications. I started looking after the journalists who came to cover the emirate. At the same time, I continued working as a stringer for a while, until it became untenable for me to do so.

      JS: What was it like for you to have come from a place where your family had roots going back a thousand years, to this new place, being built as you arrived?

      ZN: But you must remember, it is an Arab society. And I must say that Sheikh Zayed and those around him — immediately — made me feel part of this place. He offered me nationality almost immediately, and so I became a citizen. So I did not feel like a stranger here. I did not feel like an expatriate. I loved the place. There is also the fact that I was working, from that moment, with this man who was truly a historic figure. Very soon after we first met, I traveled with him to Europe and translated for him with heads of state. We went to England, and I translated for him with the queen of England. It was truly, for me, a very exciting career, and I also discovered, in the desert and in the oasis, a deep civilization. You know, people who come here from outside sometimes think of the Emirates as simply a community generated by oil, one that did not exist before. But I started to learn about its history and its poetry and its archeology — Sheikh Zayed started the museum in Al Ain in 1969, before the federation was set up, to look for architectural finds that existed here and put them into a museum.

      JS: I’m trying to imagine the feeling in the air between the British withdrawal and the founding of the federation in 1971.

      ZN: There was a lot of skepticism about whether this place would survive. All the journalists I took around then, the editors, the visiting dignitaries — they all looked at the Emirates and said it would not survive.

      JS: What did they think would happen?

      ZN: They thought that the individual emirates would be absorbed by their bigger neighbors. You must remember, we had revolutions all around us — there was Communism and Marxism, and simply bigger neighbors like Iran and Saudi Arabia.

      JS: Did people think the Emirates would become a province of Saudi Arabia?

      ZN: Of somewhere else, at least. People thought that different emirates would be absorbed by these neighboring entities. And yet, working close with Sheikh Zayed and listening to his vision — because I had, in a way, become his voice, in translating what he believed to the rest of the world — I became excited by the notion that it was going to work, that in spite of everything that was being said, that this place was going to work. He had that ability to enthuse people, to make you part of his vision, to let you come on board. In 1968, when the British first announced they were withdrawing, the rulers here basically went to the British and said, “Why are you leaving? How much does it cost you to maintain troops in the area? We will pay your costs.” But in 1969, I brought a British politician to see Sheikh Zayed. This man had come as messenger from Conservative Party leader Edward Heath to ask Sheikh Zayed if he would like the British to reevaluate the withdrawal policy if the Conservatives came to power. And Sheikh Zayed said, “No, thank you very much, we have our own plans. We will establish a federation and play a responsible role in the region. We will always appreciate your friendship, but we can stand on our own two feet.”

      JS: What had changed in the intervening year?

      ZN: First of all, Sheikh Zayed had established an immediate contact with Sheikh Rashid, the ruler of Dubai. They set up an initial federation with Abu Dhabi and Dubai and invited the others to join. And I think Sheikh Zayed became convinced that he could forge a federation, although it then took four years of very difficult negotiations that sometimes went around and around in circles. But he never lost his conviction that it would work. He was convinced that he could bring the federation into being, and that he would therefore be able to establish the army, the police force, the civil service, the physical infrastructure that was required. And he did an amazing job. Sometimes people say, it was just the oil money that did it. But to begin with, that oil money was not big money then. We talk now of oil wealth, but at that time oil was selling for less than half a dollar a barrel. And many other countries around us had great oil resources, and they did not succeed in the same way. It was the vision, the good governance, that made it work.

      JS: I get the sense that, around this time, there was a realization that for the Emirates to cohere as a nation, it would require the formation of a national identity that had not existed before. Until 1968, or 1971, the people of each emirate identified with that place alone.

      ZN: Or said “I’m from this tribe” and not that one, absolutely. But Sheikh Zayed felt that here we are one people. He was, incidentally, a unionist from the outset, and he was a pan-Arabist as well — he wanted the entire Arab world to come together and work together in closer cooperation. But in the Emirates, yes, he felt that all the people belonged to the same community, shared the same history, the same traditions, the same heritage — the ruling families, you know, were often related to each other. He felt that this was a country that already had a past, and that it could coalesce around an idea. The idea was that we could have our own future, we will build our own community.

      JS: Was there internal resistance to the idea? Were there people then, inside the Emirates, who insisted on their separateness?

      ZN: Yes, I mean, there was a lot of politics involved. Most of it, incidentally, among the ruling families. You had seven ruling families, and one of the first things that Sheikh Zayed succeeded at was convincing his fellow rulers that he was not out to supplant them. He wanted to establish a federation because he thought it was necessary for the security and stability of the country — but he assured every ruling family that it would retain independence in its own emirate.

      JS: Do you find yourself missing the old days, when you and Abu Dhabi were both so young, the way things were then?

      ZN: No, no. I mean, I am happy with the way that things have worked out. Now we are coming into the second era, if you like, of development in the Emirates. The first forty years were the foundation years. Now we are going to have these exciting international cultural institutions around us, and in the next forty years, I can see the UAE becoming a global hub for culture, education, health.

      JS: What were the most difficult moments of that first era, these years of foundation?

      ZN: The wars, I think. Abu Dhabi — the whole country, really — developed in an area that was always troubled, and in a time that was very troubled. You had the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, the 1970 civil war in Jordan… Everything that happened in the Arab world was felt in the Emirates — the Iranian Revolution, and then the Lebanese Civil War, and then the Iran-Iraq War. The invasion of Kuwait, I think, was the most trying time. It was the first time an Arab country occupied another Arab country, became a menace to its neighbors in a direct military way. This split the Arab world, because, unfortunately, the Arab street always runs after an illusion, the illusion of a great political and military hero who is going to come and restore past glories. So there were many difficult periods, but the fact that this is a part of the world that has succeeded, that works, is in itself incredibly satisfying now.

      JS: You came here from Jerusalem, as a Palestinian. It seems that this has always been a place with a very vibrant Arab diaspora, where the work of Palestinians and other Arabs has played a major role in building the country.

      ZN: This is a place that has always welcomed people from every part of the Arab world. And the Palestinians have done well here, yes. They were welcome, they settled, and they did well — many became well-established businessmen.

      JS: There is this aspect here — with people like yourself, even — of harnessing the skills of those from what were, at least back then, more cosmopolitan societies.

      ZN: Sheikh Zayed had to start somewhere. When he started building the state, he had nobody around him. He brought in anyone he thought could help. This is why he welcomed people from all countries, Arab or non-Arab. But at the same time, he said from the outset that our real resource is our people, and therefore we must focus on education. From the beginning he said that the first priority for the government should be to build schools and to bring the boys and girls into schools. He made education compulsory for every boy and every girl. We must take the schools, he said, to out where the Bedu live, so that they can accustom themselves to living in an urban environment, even in these traditional areas, so that their children will go to school. He started a system where he paid salaries to every student to encourage the parents to send their children to the schools.

      JS: It seems that there has been an increased focus on culture and education in the years since Sheikh Zayed died.

      ZM: Yes, yes. Culture and education. They are linked, museums and education. The leadership has decided that education is the next big thing that has to achieve a global standard. Not just good schools, but the best schools — not just the best schools in the Middle East, but the best schools in the world. And the best universities, as well. Not only our local universities, but now other universities like the Sorbonne and New York University. You create a community of knowledge, if you like. But education does not go on its own, culture and cultural development is a central part of your education policy. Because it’s not enough to take a child into a school that is first rate, if he doesn’t also have a museum that he can go to or music that he can listen to or a book fair that he can attend or a translated work that he can read. So this has become now the focus, that in order to create a society that is adapted to the challenges of the twenty-first century, you need to have really the best education that you can provide for your own people.

      JS: This seems like a bit of an uphill struggle at the moment.

      ZM: Well, yes, but it is happening. With the schools that are being improved across the country, with new model schools being developed, with new partnerships. And these new cultural institutions. Of course, in the back of your mind — of the leadership’s mind — is the thought that this is necessary for our own survival, but also it is necessary for the stability of the region and for our relationships with the rest of the world. The communities have become so interrelated now — Europe and the Arab world and the Gulf. This is a strategic part of the world, an axis between Asia and Africa and the Middle East and Europe. And so we have a role to play. What is this role? It is to provide this kind of liberal, open education, but at the same time, to strengthen our roots even as we open to the rest of the world. This is the central vision. It is a huge project, as exciting to me as the project that drew me here in the first place, which was to create a state out of the chaos that existed around it.

      James Thornett

      Sake bombs over Baghdad

      James Thornett established the Baghdad Country Club in the Green Zone in 2004. It quickly blossomed into one of the most popular watering holes in this corner of the former axis of evil, providing Western amenities of the liquid variety to thirsty members of the coalition of the willing to drink.

      Thornett, a Brit who had taken part in the invasion, promised his patrons fine dining, an extensive wine list, Cuban cigars, and an exclusive ambiance. “If James Bond were to walk off the pages of a book,” the bar’s website suggested, “if Hemingway was again reporting on the world’s troubles, they could probably both be found relaxing over a drink at the Baghdad Country Club.” Instead, the tavern’s plastic lawn furniture and gravel yard became a redoubt for those unseen casualties of war: bored contractors doing twelve-hour shifts, six days a week.

      Not everyone was delighted. Some disgruntled customers denounced the club as nothing but a “sleazy place for mercenaries and rednecks.” Others complained that the kitchen was usually out of the Euro-Arab fusion dishes advertised on the online menu; that the service was poor; and that the tables were set with paper towels instead of napkins. But the BCC earned high marks from some for employing a comely barmaid named Heidi, recently graduated from college in Florida.

      In 2007, as violence in Baghdad spiraled out of control and threatened to penetrate the gates of the emerald city, US authorities moved to shut down the club. Now, with calm returning, Thornett is considering reopening. I spoke with him about the history and future of the Baghdad Country Club and the business of doing business in wartime Iraq.

      Alexander Provan: How did you end up doing this?

      James Thornett: I was a paratrooper in the British Army during the invasion. Soon after, a friend of mine called to tell me that his company had picked up the contract to run security for the Green Zone and the US Embassy, and he was looking for a project manager. I did that for a while, then worked for another company as director of intelligence. I’d been in Baghdad for a couple of years and knew a lot of people, and one thing just led to another. It wasn’t really a grand plan to go in there and open a bar and restaurant, but it fell into place through a chain of coincidences. A friend of mine had the rights to duty-free alcohol in Iraq, and we started buying decent wine and Western-standard spirits.

      AP: So you decided to hunker down in the Green Zone.

      JT: Yeah, I guess you could say I was hunkered down. The Mahdi Army and Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq were becoming very prominent in life in Baghdad at that time.

      AP: Were you ever singled out because you were involved in importing alcohol?

      JT: No. Before I opened the bar I spoke with a number of prominent Iraqis. And before the bar, I sold wine and spirits out of a shop. I was working there for five years. I’m not naive. I have many Iraqi friends, including the chief of police—not some gentlemen I bumped into on the street, but high-level individuals who were well placed to give me advice on things like this. To a man, not one of them had a problem with it. SCIRI even had a place next door to the restaurant, and even those guys never had a problem with it. They just said, “Look, as long as you keep the music down at certain times of the night and don’t create a nuisance, we don’t have a problem with you.” Even during Ramadan, some people from Sadr’s group came around and said, “Look, it’s Ramadan coming up, James. We know what you do here. Do us a favor and close down at night. You can sell the alcohol during the day, we’ve got no problems with that, but just make sure it’s in a bag.” So that’s what we did.

      AP: Did you have many Iraqi customers?

      JT: Yeah. I wouldn’t say it was predominantly Iraqi, but I’d say 30 percent were Iraqi, including ministers and high-ranking generals in the army. Again, we weren’t thrusting something down their throats. It wasn’t a disco or a nightclub, it was somewhere that people could come and have a nice glass of wine, or a whiskey, or a coke, whatever it may be. I was told by a Norwegian friend of mine who’s lived in Baghdad since 1980 that, up until the sanctions, Baghdad was like Dubai is these days. It was a very liberal and secular society, with many bars, restaurants, and clubs. The sanctions kind of put a damper on the club scene. And then the war kind of put a damper on everything, because Baghdad had descended into what some would argue was chaos. Places still existed, but it wasn’t anything you and I as Westerners would understand. What I wanted to do was try and bring a kind of Western standard. Iraqis were not excluded, of course, as long as they had the correct ID badge.

      AP: How did the US army respond?

      JT: Most of them were absolutely fine with the whole thing. The military prohibits anyone from drinking while on duty, so I had a sign saying that we will not serve US soldiers in uniform. But to be fair, I can’t be held responsible if a US soldier comes in. There was only one particular US officer who had more of a problem — he was responsible for security in the Green Zone and had too much time on his hands, and I was an easy target. He and his officers had precious little else to do. They became really… overly exuberant in their jobs.

      AP: Is this still a major problem in Iraq — the difficulty for businesses and corporations to operate independently of the US government?

      JT: After a conflict like this, there are going to be problems with private individuals operating in that environment. But it’s an environment that has many, many opportunities, and for now it’s difficult to really grasp some of those opportunities without help from the US. But it’s becoming much better. As the situation improves, you’ll get a number of larger corporations starting to head in there.

      AP: Did you shut down during those periods in which security in the Green Zone was deteriorating? Was there ever any fear among the clientele that it was no longer safe to go there?

      JT: No. Mind you, there had been suicide attacks in the Green Zone in 2004. People died. That closed most of the cafes down. Most of them were run by Iraqis, and many of them weren’t the legal owners of the land. After the invasion, a lot of people had left and other people just squatted on-site. And then you had that spate of suicide attacks in some of the military compounds. It was a problem. But we took the view of, you know, we’re all big boys and girls here. We’re in the Green Zone. So, in theory, it’s reasonably secure anyway. We did our best to provide some security at the gates. You can’t live in that environment without taking some chances, I’m afraid. Was it a target? Yes, it probably was. Did anything happen? No, it didn’t.

      AP: Even though the bar is closed, your merchandise is selling well online.

      JT: People like souvenirs from places like that. That’s just the way human nature is.

      AP: How have you supported yourself otherwise?

      JT: It would be fair to say that it’s just one of the businesses I own. I trade in other commodities.

      AP: When did you leave Baghdad?

      JT: Shortly after the club closed down. I pop back in for business trips, but I don’t live there.

      AP: Do you have a sense of if or when the club will be fully operational again?

      JT: Well, it’s difficult in Baghdad. We’re trying to move the club to the Baghdad International Airport. That’s where most of the Westerners tend to be located now. That’s the growth area. It’s been steadily heading that way for about two years now. The idea was that the Green Zone was going to be given back to the Iraqis after the new US Embassy opened. A lot of companies are relocating to BIAP, where there’s more land. It makes transportation easy for them as well.

      AP: Have you found that increased stability has produced greater business opportunities for both internationals as well as Iraqis?

      JT: Clearly. The other day I did some work with a New York–based hedge fund that’s specializing in Iraq, Northern Gulf Partners. I was putting them in contact with a friend of mine who has the rights to True Value Hardware in Iraq and is opening a number of stores in secure compounds across the country. The country needs a complete overhaul of infrastructure, so anything that has to do with infrastructure is going to go well. They’re going to need expertise from the US to set up a communications network. Transportation networks are going to have to be improved, water systems, electricity systems. And Iraq sits on a tremendous oil reserve. Whenever a country has a tremendous oil reserve, even given the oil prices at the moment, they are naturally going to be a wealthy country.

      AP: Which means that the prospects for the country club reopening are pretty good?

      JT: I think so. But it’s hard living over there. I did it for five years. The whole issue about the club is that it was an escape for people, so that they could live. When you serve in environments like that, you have to live. There are only so many DVDs you can watch, only so many books you can read, only so many people you can talk to. You need to have an escape. People say, “How could you open a club while our soldiers were fighting over there?” Well, nobody understands the plight of a soldier more than me. I would never do anything to offend them. And while soldiers may be over there for a year, a contractor can be over there three, four, five years. It’s healthy for them to have somewhere to go to blow off some steam now and again. Anyway, there’s no reason why things like that shouldn’t be part of life in Iraq. People want to go out and have fun. You need to provide places for them to do that.

      Alexander Siddig

      The Accidental Arab

      The setting for our encounter could not have been more English. Alexander Siddig lives in a farmhouse in a small village in Sussex, just over an hour from London. In the summertime the locals, including a sprinkling of rock musicians and film stars, play cricket on the village green. In his spare time he has constructed a greenhouse in which he nurtures a staggering array of plants; fish swim in a stone-lined pond outside. We talked in Siddig’s studio, formerly the barn, as the sound of a small tractor puttered softly away in the distance.

      Born Siddig El Tahir El Fadil El Siddig Abderrahman Mohammed Ahmed Abdel Karim El Mahdi, Alexander Siddig is an actor. He is perhaps still best known for his leading role as Dr. Julian Bashir, chief medical officer of the frontier space station on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which ran from 1993 to 1999. Unlike many alumni of that venerable franchise, Siddig has had considerable success after Star Trek — not least, he says, because of what happened on September 11, 2001. A few directors began to query the stereotype of the Arab fanatic, and new roles and opportunities opened up for actors of Arab descent. He has been working ever since, including star turns as an ex-terrorist on the TV series 24 and as a progressive Emirati prince in Syriana. Next year Siddig stars in Julian Schnabel’s Miral, the story of a Palestinian woman’s struggle to found an orphanage in Jerusalem in the wake of the events of 1948.

      I first heard of him in Egypt in the 1990s. The 1989 military coup that brought Omar al-Bashir to power drove many Sudanese into exile. Cairo in those days was packed with Sudanese refugees, including the painter Hussein Shariffe, an old family friend whose flat was always crowded with artists and poets of one sort or another. I used to see him whenever I was in Cairo, and one evening he told us the strange story of Alexander Siddig, a Sudanese who had made it in Hollywood.

      As his elaborate name suggests, Siddig is the great-great-grandson of Muhammad Ahmad, the boatbuilder’s son who proclaimed himself Mahdi in the late nineteenth century and led the revolt against the Turkish-Egyptian rulers of Sudan. The Mahdiyya era was the founding moment of modern Sudan, and the Mahdi’s descendants are the closest thing to an aristocracy the country has. As it happens, I wrote a novel about Muhammad Ahmad, In the Hour of the Signs, published in 1996. On the cover of the book was a painting by Hussein Shariffe, who turns out to be Siddig’s uncle. Another of Shariffe’s paintings hangs on the wall of that studio in Sussex where we conversed. As Siddig and I discovered that afternoon, these are not the only coincidences that link the two of us, both born in the 1960s, the children of Sudanese fathers and English mothers.

      Jamal Mahjoub: Let’s begin at the beginning. Tell me how your parents met.

      Alexander Siddig: My mother had gone to Sudan with a friend, an archaeologist of sorts. He took her to Nubia — it must have been a romantic thing. To impress her, he introduced her to the ruling family at the time. And one of his friends was a young man, Tahir, who became my father. Tahir’s father, I am told, had prophesied that he would marry a white woman. My mother fell in love with him as he walked in, wearing his white djellaba and headscarf. She spent the next three years in Sudan. She was an adventurous spirit. She had lived in Paris. She had a brother, Malcolm McDowell, who was a blossoming film star, so she was quite worldly, quite pragmatic. It was only a few years later, when she brought Tahir back to London, that people would spit on her as she walked along the street. How did your parents meet?

      JM: My father was posted to London to take care of the students coming from the Sudan, my mother was a trained accountant working in Sudan House. They got married here and moved to Khartoum. And they stayed there for decades, until the coup, when Omar al-Bashir closed down the Sudan Times, the newspaper where my father was working. But I think our parents must have overlapped in Khartoum for a time. A friend of mine who remembers you as a child described your parents as having a touch of glamour about them. Your father, in particular, had that “mysterious Mahdi thing.”

      AS: That would make sense, because they were probably quite cosmopolitan. He had studied at Cambridge in the ’50s, he was a socialist, very secular. He spoke the most beautiful, prosaic English and was a meticulous conversationalist.

      JM: So your connection to the Sudan was broken off when you came here as a child?

      AS: Yes, I only spoke Arabic when I arrived. According to my mother, within six months I had learned English and within two years I had forgotten Arabic.

      JM: Did it ever come back?

      AS: No, and I never learned it again. I find it very hard to learn it for films. Some of the sounds I find easy, but my accent is very vague and slides around. I miss all the nuances, even if I am listening to someone else speaking. I just hear a noise and repeat it like a song.

      JM: So you were completely assimilated?

      AS: Totally British. I even picked up a slightly East End accent. I was at an Anglican school. Singing Sunday worship with all the other Christians, playing cricket — I was, you know, perfectly happy. I was only exposed to English people — in school, in my mother’s milieu. At that time she was a publicist in the theater world.

      JM: At some stage in this, you decided you wanted to become an actor.

      AS: Not until very, very late. I am, by nature, not someone who decides things for myself ahead of time. It never occurred to me until much later, when I was about twenty and I had finished schooling and gone to university and left after a year. Then I went to drama school. I remember thinking that being a director would be something I would really enjoy — I love working with actors.

      JM: It didn’t occur to you that you had what it took to be an actor yourself?

      AS: I was a skinny boy. I wasn’t what I thought of as Hollywood material. And I’ve never liked being in the limelight. Then someone called. They wanted me to do a TV show. Then another film came up where they were looking for an Arab actor. That was A Dangerous Man, starring Ralph Fiennes and produced by David Puttnam. This was big league. It was somehow much easier to act on film than it was onstage.

      JM: And already you were playing Arabs.

      AS: Playing Arabs. But I was totally English. I certainly wouldn’t have described myself as Arab.

      JM: So you find yourself in this strange situation where you don’t see yourself as Arab, but you are playing one on all fronts.

      AS: Yes—more absurd than ever because I don’t even consider myself an actor! So I am really just busking this, trying to get away with it. I’m getting paid. I wasn’t getting paid as a director.

      JM: In A Dangerous Man you played Prince Faisal — following in the footsteps of Alec Guinness in Lawrence of Arabia.

      AS: Yes, I even got a letter from Alec Guinness afterwards, saying, “What a lovely job.” But there was no competition. There was no one else, apart from Omar Sharif, who had long since become a different animal. No one had been introduced, so it was quite glamorous. A lot of people in England and America had never seen an Arab man. I was of course half-English, half-Arab, and I had nothing to do with the part of the world I was portraying.

      JM: But you wouldn’t even explain…

      AS: No, I would say my father is Sudanese. It gave me the credentials to play an Arab. I think it still does, because the Arab roles I play are not designed for Arab people, they are designed for the West. So, being half-Arab and half-English, I think you make a good messenger, in the same way as in your novels. You can express what you need to for an ear that is not accustomed to an Arab speaking. As a half-and-half person, you are bicultural in some weird way. It’s like a language, and to be able to speak in a culturally understandable, coherent way is very valuable. It was very glamorous. I suddenly had money to burn. And as a result of Dangerous Man, I got the job on Star Trek.

      JM: Which is like a world unto itself.

      AS: I was on a course to being where I am now before Star Trek, which was a complete interruption. Don’t forget that at that point in my life, I didn’t have a philosophical compass for how I should be as an actor.

      JM: Going to LA meant you were in the Hollywood system.

      AS: I never looked for another job while I was doing Star Trek. The Arab world wasn’t on the radar. There weren’t even Arab taxi drivers in New York. It was all just starting.

      JM: Thinking about your connection to the Mahdi, I notice that Deep Space Nine has a strong spiritual angle to it, all about prophecies and oracles.

      AS: It’s a soap opera, for mass consumption. For two million dollars an episode, they’ve got to deliver mass-market product. The religious aspect was really a thinly-veiled nod toward Palestine. It was all about terrorism, which was quite prophetic. I was about as apolitical as you could be at that point. I barely read a book in a year. I watched loads of movies. I played loads of computer games. I wasn’t hedonistic. I didn’t get massively drunk. I didn’t take many drugs. By the end, I began to become more frustrated with politics in America. Also I had had a child and got married. I’d changed my name for ordinary reasons of people not being able to say my name.

      JM: So what happened after Star Trek? You left LA not long after, right?

      AS: Los Angeles felt like the wrong place to be, so I took my family and we went up to New York. The town seemed dark and dismal and boring. Lonely. But it wasn’t, that was just my life. And I couldn’t find any work. I did a couple of films right away. Vertical Limit and Reign of Fire. In Vertical Limit I had six lines. I spent six months in New Zealand to deliver those lines. I was playing a kind of Afghani or Pakistani Sherpa dude, a mountain guide. It was fun. It kept me going financially. No one was sending me scripts. No one wanted to know, really. I was flailing. My marriage was falling to pieces. In my imagination, we were in New York for a ridiculously large amount of time. It was a year. And then they blew up the World Trade Center.

      JM: You were there?

      AS: My wife and son were. I had gone back to England on September 10. I was going to direct a film. The very next day, they blew the building up. And that was the beginning of a new chapter of my life, the beginning of becoming Arab, becoming politicized. I think that happened to the whole swath of people who have Arabic or Islam in their culture. Everybody had to change their tune on that day.

      JM: Certainly, you had to have a position.

      AS: You and I particularly. It’s as much an internal problem as it is external. Your father is Sudanese and your mother English. These are the two sides, which are at war.

      JM: It did seem to have repercussions everywhere. My children in Denmark began to feel confused about where they belonged. It sent a seismic shock through what was already a very uneasy social fabric.

      AS: My ex-wife changed my son’s last name so that it didn’t sound Arabic. All sorts of things happened. And I started to work. After about six months, people began to approach me with projects.

      JM: That fast? Was that The Hamburg Cell?

      AS: Yes. The director, Antonia Bird, was a fan and just wanted me in the film. She gave me a cameo as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. It was the first of those movies discussing that subject and probably the last that I did. But actually the first thing to come out was an episode of Spooks, which I did after The Hamburg Cell.

      JM: Your character in Spooks, Ibhn Khaldun, was quite complex — a reformed terrorist, a freedom fighter now committed to trying to stop the violence. You come across the channel clinging to the back of a train in a very elegant white suit.

      AS: That was the beginning of a particular crusade of mine. The first of a series of characters in which I have tried to explore that element of academic Arabs who are disenfranchised by the modern militant wave, whose ideas of Islam have been completely usurped by a much more vocal youth and the various clerics. To me, he represents old Islam, where you can shake someone’s hand or have a whiskey and talk about whatever.

      JM: So, a familiarity with the West while remaining rooted in Arab culture?

      AS: That character was a godsend, because it enabled me right away to portray various aspects of an Arab man who was readily credible. He came out of a new identity I was looking for, trying to take a snapshot of this guy before he disappears. He was my father. He was your father. He was the father of all the generations that had a liberal upbringing and didn’t make a lot of money.

      JM: That episode of Spooks was written by Howard Brenton, the playwright, wasn’t it? Your character comes across with tremendous confidence. You know who you are. The British agents have to trust in someone they don’t understand. The story hinges on that doubt, that blind spot in the West’s understanding of what is going on.

      AS: The point is — and why this can be a trap for young Arab actors right now — is not to be too sentimental, too giving. We are tough. It’s a tough ethnicity. It’s not a sentimental culture. This is dark stuff. No bunnies. No dogs on the sofa. And it would have been a betrayal of this man that I had in my head had I let him be anything but a very tough man who was empathetic. All of the characters are defiant, from that time to the present day. They change a little bit in their detail, but they firmly stamp that this guy exists and he’s no fool. He is extremely sophisticated and learned. He’s someone you can talk to, make a deal with, make peace with.

      JM: He’s also the archetype of old Arab nationalism, the intelligentsia who became marginalized, the technocrats of Nasser’s early ambitions. But they were deemed a threat, and the West feared them. So did Nasser, who imprisoned them. They left a void that was eventually filled by political Islam.

      AS: At one end of the scale you have Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabism — very proud, extremely strong, capable of creating enormous trouble, vis-à-vis Suez, and on the other hand you have the Saddam Husseins, who are extremely weak but very useful to the British and Americans. My guy is more in the territory of Nasser, though I know Nasser is no hero. In his original vision he was quite an extraordinary Saladin figure.

      JM: You went on to use a variation on that character in 24.

      AS: 24 was very much in the same mold as Spooks, though I didn’t have the same freedom. I was still able to do stuff, still able to be quite attractive and charismatic — so much so that there was a plan to keep me and Kiefer Sutherland together. We were going to be a double act. So this character just came along and, yes, he’s sexy and dangerous. He’s capable of destroying the World Trade Center, and yet we are drawn to him.

      JM: We need him.

      AS: At this point we need him. So this was a very definite linear continuation. But then go back to the Kingdom of Heaven, for example, which I think is one of the bravest films to be made in the early part of this century, because it was the first film after 9/11 that said Arabs were cool. It was a tipping point that started a slew of films discussing Arab culture and Islam, reversing the process of vilification.

      JM: Well, Kingdom of Heaven was certainly radical by Hollywood terms, though very much in line with Amin Maalouf’s book, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, published twenty years earlier. People stood up and cheered in the cinemas in Beirut when Saladin paused in the church in Jerusalem to lift a fallen cross and put it back in its place.

      AS: I think it’s an amazing piece. I’m not sure that the whole is as great as the sum of its parts. The film is better dissected. Nevertheless, I’d found my theme as an actor. This seems to be a kind of obsession of mine. The more I see pictures on Al Jazeera or the BBC of mad Arabs with blood running down their faces, wailing because their children have just been blown up in front of them, the more I want to show a solid, still figure.

      JM: I was in the West Bank last year for the Palestine Festival of Literature. And the humiliation that you feel just going through a checkpoint made me realize how difficult it is to imagine people still enduring, still working for peace and not succumbing to the same madness.

      AS: The trouble is more and more people have no idea about it. I read Haaretz on the internet as a matter of interest, and they are fierce. I am looking forward to going out there in a couple of weeks to see for myself.

      JM: It seems to me that your allegiance to this man, this Arab intellectual, is driven by political awareness, but also by personal questions about your own identity and your relationship to your father.

      AS: That’s absolutely true. It is self-motivated in that sense and also self-serving. This is the world I would like. These aren’t choices for everyone. This will be the man, the only Arab man that most people are going to remember. Albeit they’ve met him onscreen, they actually form a relationship with him.

      JM: I had a similar thing when I began writing my first novel. I was living in London and was aware of the nonexistence of the world I came from. In order to tell my story, I first had to tell the story of Sudan. Being between cultures involves a relationship with both sides, where nothing can be taken for granted. It demands constant interrogation.

      AS: In terms of my identity, the childhood need to be English no longer exists. And the forcibly adult Arabism, I’m very aware that it’s happening. This character I’m picking more on the ambassadorial level with much less “them and us” in mind.

      JM: You come back to him again in Syriana.

      AS: Syriana was kind of going back to the Prince Faisal character, but again he was a tough negotiator. He was a potential Nasser. That was a definite shot at the Emirates, at Dubai, at Qatar, all those states that live behind the smokescreen of American protection.

      JM: Have you been back to Sudan since you acquired this new role, this new persona?

      AS: No. I went back in 1985. It was uncomfortable. My cousins and aunts and uncles seemed like aliens to me, and I missed the creature comforts of the West. I felt like we spoke a completely different language. It was a bit of a barren visit. I am very ambivalent about my feelings toward the Sudan. The Sudan I remember, the Sudan in my head, is full of generous people who help, just a rich vein of generosity. My family was very much Sudanese, very much part of the blood of Northern Sudan. There was never any sense of “us” and “them.” My grandmother used to take food down to the mosque to feed the children every day. Obviously, they were wealthy, but it wasn’t an ostentatious wealth. It was still sandstone walls. The sense that you could put yourself in a glass-and-steel tower and not interact with “those people” down there did not exist. People were extremely caring and loving and great, and I know that not to be true anymore.

      JM: Well, it’s still true of a good number of people.

      AS: Still true of a good number of them — but they’re being beaten, too, right now, and they are finding it harder and harder to be sweet and generous. The youngsters are growing up militants.

      JM: I went back a couple of years ago for the first time in a long time. It has changed, of course — the old middle class has disappeared, and there is the new oil wealth. Still, a lot of people are dissatisfied with what has become of the place.

      AS: I am frightened of what I would think of the Sudan now. I think I would probably despise it.

      JM: So where do you go from here? You now have more freedom to choose your projects.

      AS: In terms of where I want to go, like Pirandello, I am always in search of an author. I have done two films for Arab women directors, and I look forward to doing more. I have a lot of faith in women in the Arab world.

      JM: Those were Un homme perdu and Cairo Time?

      AS: Un homme perdu was the first. Cairo Time hasn’t come out yet — a love story by Ruba Nadda, a Canadian/Syrian filmmaker, a very big up-and-coming director. Un homme perdu was more in an artistic vein. That character was the personification of the sadness of the Arab world and more a performance art piece than a narrative film.

      JM: Does this mean you’re moving away from Hollywood toward more Middle Eastern and European ventures, more art films, more experimental?

      AS: If the characters are there, yes. In Hollywood, I would play a small part. So, I’m just in with all the other actors. But if it is an auteur piece, I will usually play the lead, or one of those leads.

      JM: Do you think film is moving on from more immediate reactions to current events, to exploring more complex aspects of the Arab world?

      AS: I am looking for solid characters, more in the old-fashioned way that books and films are very similar, rather than segmented films with uneven time. The great narratives, the great stories, have been appealing to all cultures, whether they are written by Tolstoy, or Garcia Marquez, or Mahfouz, and they are usually very simple stories. The film I am about to shoot in Israel with Julian Schnabel is about a very simple man who doesn’t want to fight. He’s a husband and a father.

      JM: Beyond that, you have no idea what he is?

      AS: No. Most women actors over history have never known what they do — just the housewife or the girlfriend. I’m just the man in this scenario. Which means that I’ll probably make him something like a gardener — something I understand.

      Exposure 2009

      Karine Wehbé, Tabarja Beach 1. Courtesy the artist

      Exposure 2009
      Beirut Art Center
      April 22—June 9, 2009

      One of the photos in Karine Wehbe’s Tabarja Beach 1 (2008–'09) captured a vista of Lebanese nostalgia. Two young women sat poolside: One looked into the camera, like anyone who’s just noticed she’d being observed; the other, oblivious beneath her headphones, stared blankly into the distance. As with so much Lebanese visual culture, the photo’s strength resided in its incongruities. The poolside umbrellas were skeletons. Long-drained, the pool had begun to collect the empty bottles and wind-blown sand of dereliction.

      Wehbe’s work was her contribution to ‘Exposure 2009,’ one of two exhibitions up at the Beirut Art Center this past spring. Though her photos weren’t all equally affecting, all were unified by a sense of opulence gone to seed. In her notes, she tied her locations to an adolescence in Lebanon at the time of the civil war — when the destruction of the downtown and the dangers of traveling between east and west transformed Beirut into archipelagoes of nightlife surrounding a ruined core. With the return of peace, affluence abandoned these islands. The success of this photograph lay not in its evocation of the quotidian but in its speaking to a wider narrative of the obsolescence that slumps in the shadow of development.

      ‘Exposure’ wasn’t a typical curated show. It was the first installment of a yearly event dedicated to emerging local artists who are invited to present new works, or works that are new to Lebanon. Selected on the strength of project proposals rather than thematic consistency, ‘Exposure’ was less informative about the state of art in Lebanon than it was about individual artists. That said, some of the more interesting work in the show shared, with Wehbe’s, a sublimation of the past.

      Raed Yassin, The Best of Sammy Clark, 2008. Courtesy the artist

      Perhaps the best-realized piece in ‘Exposure’ was Raed Yassin’s 2008 installation The Best of Sammy Clark, which contrived a fictive genealogy linking the artist to a singer of the war era. If the success of Wehbe’s work resided in the melancholy irony framing an ephemeral gilded age, Yassin’s piece resonated with pop culture’s extravagant amplification of the ordinary.

      Enclosed within a bright green and pink room, Yassin’s installation comprised several components. Confronting spectators entering the room was a wall-size text (the English-language exhibit tag writ large), a distinctly Maoist invocation of the erstwhile pop star’s memory. At the center of the room were four turntables, each playing a different Clark LP. Peripheral walls were lined with clusters of photos, packaged in 70s-era florescent frames, of Sammy Clark entertaining the artist’s family during a birthday party. Clark’s mentoring role was evoked in a series of autographed LP covers. Their dedications — “For Raed / The miracle child / And the artists’ hope / For you the most beautiful songs / Sammy”; “For Raed / The major in the Lebanese army / The villain’s fighter / For you this national album / Long live Lebanon / Sammy” — were replete with ironic gestures toward nationalism and celebrity.

      Thirty-year-old Yassin is arguably outside the debates over historical erasure that have preoccupied an older generation of Lebanese artists. Less interested in Beirut’s cult of the reanimated corpse than the trash culture that litters its grave, The Best of Sammy Clark was redolent of the fetid air of Lebanese civil war nostalgia, whose cloying odors evoke contemporary popular culture as well as pop culture past.

      Before Dark (2009), a 150-second animated video by the thirty-two-year-old, Beirut- based Kuwaiti artist Tamara al-Samerraei, echoed another narrative of genealogy and disenfranchisement, though its cadences lacked the Lebanese dialect’s ironies. The scenario showed a little girl — echoing the prepubescent waifs who populate Samerraei’s canvases — running up the Malwiya, the ninth-century spiral minaret that the Abbasids built in the Iraqi city of Samarra. There, according to the artist’s notes, Caliph Al-Mutawakkil had personally escorted his muezzin to the top of the minaret on his donkey.

      The shadow of a donkey followed the girl to the top of the tower. A local metaphor for human stupidity, the donkey lent her ascent a Sisyphean quality, reiterated when she reached the top of the tower and seemed to knock her head repeatedly against the wall. Atop the minaret, the girl’s oversize silhouette turned on an axis, a silent muezzin calling to (or an unlit lighthouse lamp warning off) the absent object of her quest. Samarra — the ancestral home of the artist’s family — is a city heavy with metaphor. The effect of placing the girl’s playful labors there was not to make Before Dark geopolitically topical but to render it archaeological.

      To cross the floor from the left side of the BAC gallery to the right was to pass from the silence of ‘Exposure’ into the cacophony of ‘4,’ an exhibition of video and sound art funded by the European Cultural Foundation’s ALMOSTREAL program.

      Kinda Hassan’s three-channel video installation Ashoura–Untitled (2007) took the observance of the Shia Muslim commemoration of the death of Imam Husayn in the Lebanese village of Nabatiya as its point of departure, exploring how it is used as an opportunity for young men to perform manhood rituals for an appreciative female audience.

      The Sea Is A Stereo was the latest incarnation of Mounira Al Solh’s ongoing video/ photo installation, a playful subversion of the representational-factual premises of documentary practice that examines a group of Lebanese men who regularly swim in one of Beirut’s still-undeveloped stretches of Mediterranean seafront.

      Charbel Haber’s When No Body’s Around (The Cables between us) (2007–'08) was a sound installation for eight electric guitars. The composition rumbled through speakers in one room, while, in another, the guitars were bowed silently by primitive machines. The piece’s stated purpose was to maintain the hoax “that this city is inhabited,” making it allusive of both the conceptual concerns of an older generation of artists and the more mundane apocalypse of contemporary youth emigration.

      While all the works were intriguing on their own terms, Cynthia Zaven’s twenty-six-minute, eight-channel sound installation Octophonic Diary (2007–'08), housed in an isolated blue-lit room, was the most accomplished. Though it contained long passages of conventional composition, in the arrangement of individual notes Octophonic Diary was a meta-composition. Excerpts from Zaven’s pieces for piano and cello were mixed in among other discrete components of sound, providing a kind of counterpoint in multiple voices. The piece carried the listener through gauzy aural topographies. Schoolchildren sang; a vocalist practiced scales. A record player’s needle rode an LP’s dead space. A bomb detonated, keys were inserted into a lock, a ticking clock resolved into a clacking manual typewriter — the samples were organic rather than manipulative or contrived. Strewn among archived fragments of performance, they echoed through the darkness that inspired, or conspired, against the creative act.

      Emirati Expressions

      Lateefa Bint Maktoum, Reflection, 2008. Courtesy the artist

      Abu Dhabi
      Emirati Expressions
      Emirates Palace Hotel
      January 20—April 16, 2009

      The cultural scene of the UAE is more often than not described by visiting critics in patronizing terms, reminiscent of how one might speak of an adolescent. A little like a precocious teenager, the story goes, this nascent art scene is immature, prone to bouts of risk-taking, and occasionally rather brilliant.

      In this context, it’s interesting to consider Abu Dhabi, an emirate that has been especially active on the arts front, announcing ambitious plans to build branches of the Guggenheim and Louvre on an island called Saadiyat (“happiness,” in Arabic), along with a handful of other museums, universities, and cultural institutions at large. Hoping in part to foster local audiences in the period before these mega-projects materialize, the two lead institutions in the cultural realm, the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) and the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH), have staged a number of exhibitions over the past year, including collaborations with the Musée National Picasso, Paris, as well as with noted Islamic art collector Nasser David Khalili.

      The exhibition ‘Emirati Expressions,’ which opened this past winter, set out to privilege the best in local arts production and began as an open UAE-wide call for works to be curated by Anne Baldassari, director of the Musée Picasso. Along with the London-based museum designer Colin Morris, Baldassari conceived of a reverent “black box” to contain the (mostly two-dimensional) works within the bounds of the opulent Emirates Palace Hotel.

      The work exhibited was as diverse as any national survey might be, especially one that ran the gamut from student commercial digital photography — including accomplished work by Wafa Sultan Al Olama and Salah Al Marzouqi — to established abstract painters Abdul Qader Al Rais and Abdul Rahim Salem, sculptor Mohammed Youssef, and calligrapher Mohammed Mandi.

      Presented in a long, narrow gallery, with works hung close together and dramatically spotlit against black walls, floor, and ceiling, many of the works were dwarfed by the theatricality of their surroundings. Group survey shows nearly always suffer under the weight of great expectations; inevitably they expose gaping holes and reduce artists to footnotes in a larger national story. Most of the artists — one can assume that they agreed to take part and supplied the work — were depicted at the show’s entrance by black and white poster portraits; inside the exhibition, the nuances in their works were flattened by the broad umbrella of shared ethnicity.

      That said, some of the curatorial choices — this being a curated survey show, rather than an informal, artist-led open call — seemed especially bizarre. The exhibition included one figurative painting by veteran conceptual artist Hassan Sharif, whose work in performance and installation, much of it examining trade routes and networks, has been seminal for a group of younger artists, among them photographer Lamya Gargash, whose last two series of work showed to acclaim at the Bastakiya Art Fair 2008 and Sharjah Biennial 9, yet here was represented by student work from 2005. Other conceptualists from the groundbreaking Group of Five, founded in the mid-1980s by Sharif, including Abdullah

      Al Saadi, Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim, and Mohammed Kazem, were not included at all. Ebtisam Abdul Aziz’s Autobiography 03-06-2007, a seminal video and stills project that stringently critiqued consumerism in the UAE, was stuck in a corner near the emergency exit. Physicist Jamila Al Suwaidi’s documentary photos of the moon were accompanied by shoddy sticky labels that listed her email address.

      Some artists did overcome the limitations of the venue and presentation, albeit with older works: in Held Back, a series of large-scale manipulated photos from 2006, Reem Al Ghaith placed herself directly in Dubai’s fringe landscape of cranes, fences, and pale, reworked sand; she also showed a multimedia wall installation from Dubai: What’s Left of My Land. (A far more ambitious and effective version was on view concurrently at Sharjah Biennial 9.) Lomographer Hind Mezaina, artist Lateefa bint Maktoum, and Sheikh Salem Al Qassimi all showed intriguing, narrative photographs — the latter’s Ineffable Reality (2004) was a storyboard series of images in and around a building site, starring a block-jawed, papier-mâché anti-hero. Kholoud Sharafi, another artist associated with the dynamic Dubai studios of Tashkeel, was represented by collaged etchings drawn from iconic images of Umm Kulthum.

      Crucially, the exhibition was accompanied by a website, book (in English), and well-made film (of woven-together statements by the artists) that all contribute to the UAE’s scarce resources regarding local artists. There was also a comprehensive lecture program that featured art-world luminaries such as Jeff Koons, Anish Kapoor, and Mona Hatoum alongside local practitioners Jalal Luqman and Abdul Aziz, organized with local institutions as well as the Royal Academy of Arts, London.

      Inside the exhibition catalog, Baldassari linked the Emirati exhibition to the Picasso showcase at the Emirates Palace, claiming that the “twin projects” aimed to “change the way we look at modern and contemporary art history,” and that this “place at the frontier between Orient and Occident,” Picasso’s adoption and analysis of the “sign,” and the eighth-century “controversy between iconoclasts and iconodules,” all found an “echo” in the Emirati exhibition.

      Situating the last few decades of the Emirati art scene within the sweep of European art history was an odd premise for a local survey. Leaving aside questions of whether the works chosen could even be contained as a “scene,” given that they hailed from all over the Emirates, encompassing several generations and many styles, the presentation of the work as defined by its place at “the frontier” — of development, of change, of that Orient/Occident axis — risked rendering it one-dimensional.

      The desert, wrote Baldassari, is now a place of “catastrophe” for many of these artists. “[The] feeling of desert perdition lies at the heart of the poignant nostalgia that ripples through the works in the exhibition, like the tremors that herald an earthquake.”

      Earthquake or not, for many UAE-based artists the rapid changes of the past few decades in this young country have been highly influential; perhaps there’s even a show in it — but this wasn’t it. Dubai-based artist Khalil Abdul Wahid, for example, is best known for videos that document journeys through the desert and suburban landscape; here, he was represented by some still life paintings lent by the Ministry.

      Perhaps ‘Emirati Expressions’ should be viewed as just another Arab state-sponsored survey show that fell at the fence of national representation. Or, as some local commentators have pointed out, it could be seen as a necessary if confused first step, which at least offered a rare public forum for Emirati artists.

      Still, such a perspective runs the risk of belittling TDIC’s endeavor: ‘Emirati Expressions’ can only be dismissed as a sprawling, adolescent outpouring if the development of Gulf arts scenes is understood in the same linear terms as those applied to the West. Contemporary art activity in the Emirates is a jumbled-up affair (with the market and museum-building preceding the existence of an art school, for example) that presents a wholly different, even unprecedented, kind of development — one born of both the UAE’s long-term trading history and its new, footloose global ambition. ‘Emirati Expressions’ was in many ways a missed opportunity to curate, present, and interrogate various local art practices; given the diversity and dynamism within the UAE, and the ambition and resources of the TDIC, it’s not enough simply to say, “We exist.”

      Transmission Interrupted

      Adel Abdessemed, Practice Zero Tolerance, 2006. Courtesy the artist

      Transmission Interrupted
      Modern Art Oxford
      April 18—June 21, 2009

      The tremendous power of self-surveillance was clearly demonstrated at the G-20 protests in London this past April. Filmed and photographed by thousands of cellphones, the marches generated a significant archive of police misconduct on a day that ended with an allegation of manslaughter. This impressive record was compiled soon after a law had been passed that made it effectively illegal to photograph a police officer.

      The contested nature of these sorts of archives — both in war zones and in daily life — has been the subject of a number of recent exhibitions in the UK, perhaps most bluntly articulated by the subtitle of the 2008 Brighton Photo Biennial: ‘The War of Images and Images of War.’ Sean Snyder’s recent exhibition at the ICA in London included Soviet propaganda footage sourced online and the digitizing (and subsequent destruction) of the artist’s physical archive, while the Barbican’s ‘On the Subject of War’ presented recent pieces — reenactments and investigative work by, among others, Omer Fast and Paul Chan — made in the context of ongoing events in Iraq and Afghanistan. These politically oriented shows aimed to engage with how images and their associated narratives register with us and, finally, shape our experience of the world.

      Opening just over two weeks after the G-20 summit came to an end, ‘Transmission Interrupted’ at Modern Art Oxford was poised and timely, perhaps even the smartest of these topical exhibitions. Comprised of fourteen international artists, the group show investigated post-Soviet issues of hopelessly unmanageable archives and the veracity of official claims, taking in a range of approaches that tended toward the diaristic, documentary, and investigative. Each work attempted to stall these narratives, deflating them with varying degrees of subtlety.

      Curated by Gilane Tawadros and Suzanne Cotter (whose 2006 show ‘Out of Beirut’ shared some approaches with ‘Transmission’), the exhibition component also included a lively public program and a number of “interruptions” in the city, from a pub quiz hosted by Yara El-Sherbini to Sislej Xhafa’s elegant sick bus performance.

      Unfortunately, the exhibition began rather unpromisingly with a limp opening salvo: Adel Abdessemed’s Practice Zero Tolerance (2006), a full-size ceramic sculpture of a burnt-out car from the 2005 riots in Paris, and El-Sherbini’s A Demonstration (2005), a children’s TV–style video showing how to make a cartoonish bomb from household materials. Both tried too hard to shock.

      Hung on either side of Practice Zero Tolerance, Xhafa’s two monochrome paintings, If you see something, say something (2006), featured the title printed almost indiscernibly in the center of each. They depended on the title’s double application — as a political slogan but also as a message to viewers baffled by the abstract paintings — and yet the work had little to say about either protest or abstraction.

      But early missteps aside, ‘Transmission Interrupted’ was an excellent show. Lia Perjovschi’s Timeline: Romanian Culture from 500 BC until today (1997–ongoing), a continuous line of dozens of A4 acetate sheets, were scrawled with a secret history — unavailable before 1989 — of the artist’s native country.

      In the same room was Monument for the End of the World (2006), a wooden architectural model of a crane standing in wooded parkland above a tiny city, by another Romanian, Mircea Cantor. From the crane hung a wind chime set off by a fan. While the work had the scale of a model, it was identified as a monument, a pathetically downsized memorial for a presumed near future.

      In May 2006 (2006), Simryn Gill presented more than eight hundred black and white photographs she took using a discontinued Kodak camera around her neighborhood in Sydney. Similar in ethos to Zoe Leonard’s photographic documentation of faded New York shopfronts, Gill’s work used obsolete technology to document a dilapidated area.

      Filmed on a hand-wound 16mm camera, Jem Cohen’s NYC Weights and Measures (2006) was a lush short film of dreamy moments in city life, yet these whimsical meanderings — in the gauzy mode of American indie movies — were a calculated provocation: as the closing credits noted, the project was cut short when Cohen was apprehended while filming from a train window, his film confiscated. Post-9/11 security measures have placed a number of restrictions on filming in public spaces in the US, though — after heavy petitioning from filmmakers, including Cohen — at least one ruling was recently overturned.

      “It’s untidy, and freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.” Quoted in Michael Rakowitz’s The invisible enemy should not exist (recovered, missing, stolen series) (2007), this line from — who else? — Donald Rumsfeld was central to a quasi-museological display concerned with assertions (and impositions) of universal freedom. The work was comprised of three dozen taped and papier-mâché artifacts fashioned of packaging and newspapers sourced from the Middle East. This abject collection of figurines, weapons, and fragments was presented as a surrogate for the National Museum of Iraq’s missing collection. The fragile reminders were categorized by dimension and excavation number and appended by accounts of the looting from museum curators: “They knew what they wanted and rushed to get what was most salable”; “Some 10,000 years of human history were destroyed”; “Status: unknown.” Quoted in the middle of these eulogies, Rumsfeld performs the classic maneuver of the Bush administration: using opposition to the US as an argument for, rather than against, hawkish neoliberalism, and in the process making himself an apologist for the desecration of Mesopotamian relics.

      Shown next to Rakowitz was Julia Meltzer and David Thorne’s It’s not my memory of it: three recollected documents (2003), sharp-eyed documentaries about governmental obfuscation and how categories of permissible speech have altered in the past forty years. Meltzer and Thorne used to make work under the shared moniker of Speculative Archive — an apt name for a tendency shared by several of the artists in ‘Transmission Interrupted.’

      Also taking on an archive of sorts, Jimmie Durham provided handwritten labels for a careworn collection of objects included in his large-scale, wall-mounted assemblage, Various elements from the actual world (2009): “Glass from Murano”; “This stone is alabaster from Iran”; “These are parts of a single-engine airplane that I had in Berlin.” While Durham hoped to open up his own decision-making processes, he also worried that such gestures toward transparency would prove untenable: “Warning: words are used to conceal as often as they are used to reveal.”

      Shown close by, Yto Barrada’s twenty-minute video The Botanist (2007) was projected on the slatted interior of a wooden gazebo. Filmed on the coast close to Tangier, the work followed Mr. Pasti, a keen botanist, as he introduced his guests and described his garden of endangered indigenous vegetation. This metaphorical approach staged a friendly encounter in an embattled sanctuary, an artificial environment with carefully enforced herbaceous borders.

      Neither Barrada’s nor Durham’s approach was explicitly politically engaged, though they both lingered on possibly imminent disappearances, memorializing personal encounters while fretting about the future. ‘Transmission Interrupted’ was an exhibition of melancholic records rather than angry interruptions. Eulogizing episodes that have been overlooked or else ignored, it suggested quiet manifestations of defiance rather than the less coherent mass protests that have come to be seen as signs of resistance in these curious political times.

      Tuning Baghdad

      All images 2007-2008. Courtesy Regine Basha

      The website archives the lives and works of Iraq’s celebrated Jewish musicians and singers — men and women who were acknowledged in their day as stewards of Iraq’s finest musical tradition, testaments to the antediluvian moment before the beginnings of interfaith strife in the Middle East.

      As ethnomusicologist Yeheskel Kojaman recalls, in The Maqam Music Tradition of Iraq, “They were the musicians of the Iraqi people. In 1932… all the instrumentalists who attended the first Arabic music congress in Cairo were Jews… When Iraq Radio was first established in Iraq in 1936, the entire instrumental ensemble, apart from the percussion player, was Jewish.” The calamities of ensuing decades — the impact of ethnic and national jingoism, including Israeli Zionism and Iraq’s persecution of its Jewish population, not to mention the all too familiar events defining contemporary life in Iraq — are woven on the site into the history of this group and the music they produced. So is the familiar, and ultimately reductive, insistence on a logic of “before” and “after,” a fall from grace.

      Despite the somber historical backdrop, is very much about a present moment of listening and contributing. It would be a mistake to expect a meditation on the complex history of Iraqi-Jewish communities. Original video footage, audio clips, and links flesh out points of departure. These can’t really be described as “themes”; they serve rather to help define the musical form. They include the jam session, the transmission of technical expertise, the recollection and telling of histories, and the communal, musical gathering. Each link, clip, and bit of footage corresponds respectively to a chapter, including “Audiotopia,” “On the Maqam,” “Musicians in Iraq,” and “Life of the Party.” A short video clip introduces each chapter, framing its problematic. The relationships between the footage, the issues and the questions raised, and the constitutive “situation” are, however, less straightforward than one might imagine.

      The site also provides links to a number of scholarly resources; Kojaman figures prominently. The overall tone, however, isn’t academic, but instead recalls the celebratory nature of the events and gatherings at which much of this music was performed. Visitors will find some chillingly beautiful tracks — for example, a maqam segah by Rashid Al-Qundarchi, recorded in early 1930s Baghdad. Prominent among the video clips is a compilation of home footage from the ’70s through today, introducing “Life of the Party.” The montage flashes images of crowded dance floors. Men of ample belly grin endearingly. Sexy big-haired ladies young and old make the scene. The joie de vivre is infectious.

      Both the site’s content and its form reflect the logic of the chalghi, a music-fueled get-together and long-standing tradition that continues to serve an important role in Iraqi-Jewish diasporic life. The name originally referred to the ensemble of Jewish musicians hired to play at important gatherings, in coffeehouses, and on the radio. Regine Basha — curator and primary author of — is the daughter of Iraqi émigré and violin player Sol Basha and cites her childhood experiences of chalghis as an important catalyst for the project. Indeed, the site’s sensibility is that of a researched look back at cherished childhood memories of late-night and all-night communal social events. It seems to allow the viewer to curl quietly in the corner, dozing and waking to an endless stream of conversation, laughter, music, serious discussion, and tinkling glasses. The site might also embody the persona of the aficionado, hoarding bootleg tapes in shoe boxes and reveling in the ability to revisit these otherwise ephemeral performances.

      Ultimately, aims to reflect the structure of a community and life reassembled in diaspora: a collective archival project, whose authors are many and physically dispersed, composed of traditions reassembled “out of context” and fueled by the need to research and articulate what before were personal experiences in the framework of “history.” To this end, Basha has designed the site as a permanent work in progress, attracting new material through independent submissions. Some of these are actively solicited from musicians, while word of mouth and the occasional magic-wand-wave of the internet search engine introduce newcomers with their own contributions to make. In this respect, the site must effectively engage an Iraqi-Jewish community to succeed. Other important interlocutors include contemporary musicians, artists, and musical historians, who may position themselves in relation to these traditions, whether or not they claim them as their own.

      The art world not only provides the website with potential viewers, but also espouses concerns and structures that resonate with the model of a “living” or “diasporic” archive. The site seems to testify to the possibility of understanding the so-called international art world in diasporic terms: both are defined in relation to geographically disparate groups who identify with shared histories and cultural practices, who gather occasionally to celebrate and reaffirm values and traditions, and who are engaged in a project of self-representation; individuals whose lives and work are often presented as somehow displaced from their immediate context, communicating simultaneously with a community and discourse that can only ever be partially present; individuals who understand discussion and personal relationships as materials of transmission through which history, the structures of inheritance and influence, and standards of relevance are determined.

      This attempted mapping represents, of course, my own glib gloss on both terms — “diaspora” and “international art world.” Some of these characterizations are familiar truisms; others strike me, as more or less verifiable truths; and still others come into view through the framework of It is even possible to see this mapping as embedded within the project. Finally, it might be that the “diaspora” that would seem to be at the center of the project is colored by art world concerns that relate back most immediately to the art world itself. To some extent, the collaborative nature of’s incipient stages in art-world contexts acknowledges an overlap. Contemporary art constitutes an important framework for this meditation on the archive, and on the Iraqi-Jewish diaspora and its music. How, why, and if this should be the case now are important questions.

      The website is the result of a long process of discussion and research, only a fraction of which is currently on view. Basha began her research while participating in the unitednationsplaza “exhibition as school” project in Berlin. Repeat trips to Israel and London produced around twenty-five hours of film and audio recordings, which Basha eventually used to create a radio program and series of audiovisual presentations in both Berlin and Mexico City. While offers something of that distance-granting perspective, perhaps the most valuable aspect of the archive is its proximity, or its resistance to abstraction. Rather than providing information, video and audio clips reveal relationships and nuances often not available in more self-consciously pedagogical forms. At one level, this has simply to do with the simultaneity of a performance and its reception, available only via video and audio footage. At another level, the organizing concepts of the site — “audiotopia,” “life of the party” — call for a poetic logic to substitute for the familiar chronological or geographical division of histories and art practices. Though it feels somewhat abstruse, this approach ultimately reveals more about a complex musical tradition — its history and contemporary context — than would otherwise be possible. It also allows the beauty of individual performances, as well as the immense charm of many of the musicians and their audiences, to shine through.

      Sharjah Biennial 9

      Haig Aivazian, Fugere (A Series Of Olympiadic Moments), 2009. Courtesy the artist

      Sharjah Biennial 9
      Various venues
      March 19—May 16, 2009

      In the spring of 2009, the Sharjah Biennial and Art Dubai coincided for the first time, and if the simultaneous scheduling was provoked more by competition than by cooperation, it proved to be productive in turning the attention of the world to artistic ambitions in the Gulf. Too often, conversations about cultural projects in the UAE are cast in the future tense; the concurrency of Sharjah and Art Dubai effectively pulled the debate back into the present and even shed some light on the past. The Biennial in particular tackled notions of temporality head on, with an exhibition curated by Isabel Carlos titled ‘Provisions for the Future’ and a performance program curated by Tarek Abou titled 'Past of the Coming Days,’ both grappling with the idea that any given moment in time holds within it an experience of what has been and a foretaste of what will be.

      Established in 1993 and revamped in 2003, the Sharjah Biennial has its own history to build on. Artistic director Jack Persekian has already experimented with the format twice before. In 2005, he enlisted curator Tirdad Zolghadr and artist Ken Lum to organize a remarkably tight exhibition, in which the theme of “belonging” resonated powerfully and poetically in a series of well-paced works. In 2007, Persekian brought in Mohammad Kazem, Eva Scharrer, and Jonathan Watkins to test out a more complicated curatorial concept. The title of that edition was ‘Still Life: Art, Ecology and the Politics of Change,’ and, despite mind-bending works by Group Tuesday and a gorgeous, site-specific performance by Amal Kenawy, the exhibition was a mess.

      For this, the ninth edition, Persekian decided to try something new. Instead of the event being curated in the conventional sense, the biennial put out an open call for proposals from artists and non-artists alike. From a pool of about five hundred submissions, some thirty proposals were selected for the biennial’s production program, and the bifurcated structure developed from there, with a final list of sixty artists in the exhibition and thirty in the performance program.

      In addition to the high percentage of works that had never before been seen, the biennial distinguished itself by finally, tenderly, embracing its context. This was expressed literally, in the installation of works in spaces throughout the arts and heritage areas of the city, and metaphorically, in the ways in which artists engaged with Sharjah’s street life as a subject in and of itself.

      Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen, for example, exhibited a twenty-five-minute split-screen video installation titled Rendezvous, which grew out of a series of Super 8 and 16mm films he made as one of Sharjah’s first artists in residence in 2005. Hung opposite each other in a darkened room, the screens showed, on one side, video portraits of men — construction workers, mechanics, technology consultants, company managers — living and working in the UAE, and, on the other, video portraits of their families — wives, mothers, sisters, children — in front of their homes in the Indian state of Kerala. The positioning of the screens served to reunite these men with their families while underscoring the distance between them. Integrated with an ambient sound design, the piece emanated dignity, humor, and sorrow all at once. It didn’t marshal the migrant workforce for the sake of a cheap or sensational critique; rather, it articulated an economic condition, and it took its time, allowing each subject to express the emotional complexities of, say, a marriage, a separation, a duty, or a bond.

      Another piece beautifully stitched into Sharjah’s urban fabric was Wharfage (Leaving Sharjah) by the Mumbai-based group of artists, filmmakers, and thinkers known as CAMP. Part of a longer-term research project examining the trajectories of the dhow trade between Salaya (in Gujarat, where the wooden ships are built), Sharjah Creek, and the semi-state entities within Somalia, Wharfage consisted of two parts: a book that was distributed during the biennial and a radio broadcast that was conducted over the course of four evenings from the old Sharjah port. Together the two elements explored the movement of goods, bodies, information, and ideas; cracked open the concepts of free trade and cheap ports; and considered all of them plotted along a route that is, due to the most modest economies of scale, proving itself quite resilient to financial meltdown, civil war, and piracy.

      The Wharfage book consisted of the manifests of ships, long lists of goods, photographs, texts — a litany of possible narratives. One such narrative was an anecdote about a Yemeni trader who apparently used his connections with Somali traders to single-handedly reroute much of the trade moving through Dubai’s creek to Sharjah’s in the past year. Also explored were the stories lingering between the lines — asbestos, ceramic tiles, school stationery, matches, briefcases, macaroni, mango juice, and Mitsubishi Canters — on a vessel’s record of transported goods.

      For the radio broadcast, CAMP set up a station for two nights on the MSV Nazre Karam, a dhow docked at the port, and for two nights on the pavement just in front of the ship. Taking over the airwaves of a local station, CAMP broadcast radio chats between ships in the Salaya and Mandvi channels; phone calls to Boosaaso, in Somalia; and interviews with local Iranian shopkeepers, the crew of the MSV Nazre Karam, and dock loaders from Pakistan. The radio show also featured music — Bollywood anthems, Qawwali songs, South Asian pop — that was collected or sent by Bluetooth from friends, fellow artists, sailors, traders, merchants, and more. In a rather genius dialogical move, CAMP also took the field recordings collected for the last Sharjah Biennial by the group e-xplo (for the sound installation I LOVE to YOU: Workers’ Voices in the UAE) and played them back to the audience, who had donated them to begin with. CAMP’s project, which deservedly won the biennial’s grand prize, not only embedded itself in the city, but also opened up an entire ecosystem for aesthetic consideration. It pushed the boundaries of performance and exemplified Tarek Abou El Fetouh’s success in generating the rhythms and patterns of a dynamic, historically striated cultural life.

      For his portion of the biennial, Fetouh proposed a number of ideas — contemporary art is no longer served by distinctions among disciplines; time-based performance is equal to object-based art; we’re living in a post-medium situation now — that were expertly picked up, expounded upon, and problematized in the very works he selected. Rabih Mroué’s performance piece masquerading as an artist’s talk, for example, was punctuated by the following questions: “Can I consider myself a visual artist, or am I merely an intruder in this field? Is it possible to sell a performance to a museum? Is it possible to sell ideas rather than objects? What differentiates a visual artwork from a performance piece? How can we protect our work from being appropriated, or is it the fate of any artwork to be claimed and used, no matter how revolutionary or vulgar or violent?” The work, titled Theater with Dirty Feet, unpacked a series of tough intellectual concepts and suggested several different strategies for the incorporation of time into contemporary art.

      The case against specification of mediums is, of course, nothing new, but the prospect of emboldening the criticality and contemporaneity of performance — particularly in the Arab world, where theatrical tradition, verbal culture, and the art of storytelling are so strong — gave Fetouh’s program a radical edge, as did his decision to stage many of the works for ‘Past of the Coming Days’ in theater spaces that have been functional in Sharjah for years, even decades.

      In past years, the biennial’s exhibition was confined to the Sharjah Art Museum and the Sharjah Expo Center, a space the size of an airplane hangar, with no character at all. This time, organizers thankfully ditched the latter venue. True, the Sharjah Art Museum and its sister venue, the Sharjah Museum for Arabic Contemporary Art, were a bit too confining, squeezing works into the spatial equivalent of market stalls that run up and down a rigid series of ramps. But the old rooms of the Serkal House, all wooded beams and stained glass, were wonderful additions to the biennial experience. Nida Sinnokrot’s installation West Bank Butterfly, Hayv Kahraman’s series of paintings Domesticated Marionettes, and Sharif Waked’s beguiling video To Be Continued all benefitted from their placement there.

      Biennials are always a mixed bag, and the ninth edition of Sharjah included a lot of filler — works that seemed bland and inconsequential, taking up space. But the exhibition fielded a respectable number of hits, including Haris Epaminonda’s enigmatic series 'Polaroids’; Hamra Abbas’s miniature paintings collectively called God Grows on Trees, which used portraits of ninety-nine school children in Pakistan to illustrate the ninety-nine names of God in Islam; Simryn Gill’s touchable balls that made the texts of Mahatma Gandhi; Sheela Gowda’s site-specific reflecting pool, which filled an alleyway between the two museum buildings; Maider López’s football pitch and potable water fountain; José Luis Martinat’s terrific installation of drawings, for which he asked street artists in Lima to draw his portrait and imagine the scene of his death; and Lamia Joreige’s triumph of technology and visual poetry in the installation 3 Triptychs, a work marred only by the didactic inclusion of Jalal Toufic’s book Forthcoming, replete with passages marked for visitors to read.

      During a press conference for the opening, Persekian stressed the fact that this biennial was about process rather than product, about making rather than showcasing works of art. Arguably this should always be the case. But Persekian and his team deserve credit for actually pulling it off. It will be interesting to see whether the biennial can shift from being an event to being an entity, whether the performance and production programs can be spun off into their own autonomous organizations, and whether Sharjah can one day summon the courage to drop the biennial format altogether to concentrate on keeping the local art scene active, open to the public, and engaged with the city all year round.

      The Otolith Group

      Otolith Group, film still from Otolith 2003. Courtesy the artist

      The Otolith Group
      February 15—April 5, 2009

      A Steadicam mutely enters the Jenin refugee camp. It films dead-end alleyways, closed iron doors, colorful football graffiti, card players gambling. It scans decrepit 1970s refrigerators for sale or repair in front of homes, follows three young boys playing with plastic machine guns — Abu Ammar flickering on a silent screen — and rests for some seconds on a woman in a shanty, looking out a window into bright sunlight coming out from somewhere she can scarcely hope to inhabit.

      This was Nervus Rerum (2008), a sixty-minute video work by London-based collective the Otolith Group. Against a grim backdrop, the camera floated into Jenin, never really settling on any one thing for too long; more than once, viewers were moved to wonder if there was anyone behind it, guiding it. Screened as part of an Otolith retrospective that opened this past February, split between Gasworks and The Showroom, Rerum engaged with the difficulties of representing a place as saturated by media coverage as Palestine. Creating a work that was both video art and experimental cinema, the artists made questioning the ethnographic documentary as form (headshots, testimonial interviews, linear narratives, and even traditional ways of shaming the powers that be) a central concern. Eschewing standard scenes of destroyed homes and black-hooded resistance fighters clutching AK-47s, Otolith opted to turn away from traditional modes of addressing power.

      To paraphrase Godard, Israel always gets the epic and Palestine the documentaries. In this way, the Otolith Group — named after a part of the inner ear sensitive to gravity and linear acceleration — succeeded in breaking with conventional approaches to poverty, subjugation, and terminality, manifest in the space of the refugee camp. Accompanied by fragments from Jean Genet’s Prisoner of Love and Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, Otolith members Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar took us on a ghostly, tired ride through a space that remained purposefully out of reach. In returning the labor of looking to the spectator — by using a camera that somehow excluded subjects and objects, seeming, as mentioned, simply to float — Nervus Rerum’s political and poetic vigilance allowed Palestine to become visible and audible, subtly foregrounding the unspeakable experience of Israel’s oppressive occupation.

      How do we locate a space of images that is neither one of victimhood nor one of knee-jerk defiance to power? How do we challenge global regimes of representation that turn ruins and wars into a normative, familiar sight? What is sayable or showable about indifference, disaster, and the political? For the Otolith Group, as for others before them, these philosophical concerns are the driving force of their artistic practice. Inspired by the anti-documentary tendencies of Chris Marker, the Black Audio Film Collective, Jean-Luc Godard, and even science fiction, Otolith’s work has traditionally been concerned with the status of difference today — whether that takes the form of black, wretched, poor, postcolonial, refugee, female, or old revolutionary left. Through montages of archival images, fictive elements, and voiceover (always in Sagar’s melancholic but directive voice), the duo creates a new place from which to speak. Though it’s unclear if the work succeeds in turning its back on power, at its best it does succeed in evoking new ways of seeing and being.

      Otolith Group, Film still from Otolith II 2003. Courtesy the Artist

      In addition to Rerum, ‘A Long Time Between Suns’ encompassed three video works (Otolith I-III), an audio-video-photo screening, a series of talks, and a book in progress. In Communists Like Us, the Otolith Group sketched a dense trialogue of conversational fragments from Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise, British composer Cornelius Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra, and a series of photos and captions documenting an Indian women’s feminist delegation to Mao’s China (drawn from Sagar’s grandmother’s archive). The event consisted of Eshun and Sagar sitting underneath three screens, one of which presented Sagar leafing through a massive book on Mao. Of course, none of these past moments, as manifest in trialogues, had actually been lived by the artists. Enacting these “non-experiences” after the fact left them open to reconstruction, rereading, and even reversal. In the end, this ode to a lost left and transnational socialism was also evocative of the construction of a new temporality.

      Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, the global 2003 anti-Iraq protests, Sagar training in a spaceship: Otolith I’s footage highlighted the group’s work as a constellation of ethically and formally engaged resonances. Set in the twenty-second century, the film created a new gravitational position of fictitious and actual figures: we no longer live on this earth as we used to; there is no singular core toward which we are pulled, but a multitude of pasts and futures from which we continually travel — a Benjaminian-Tarkovskian twist of present history writ backwards and forwards. It was no accident that “a long time between suns” was taken from William S. Burroughs’s 1962 novel The Ticket That Exploded. In fragmenting and reshuffling the linear construction of old, contemporary, and fictive images, the Otolith Group jettisoned any hope of a conventional narrative and underscored multiple accounts that were continually cut, interrupted, and repeated — finally paving a channel for fiction beyond yet through the image, and for truth beyond yet through fiction. Science-fiction imaginings and archival still and moving images became ways to imagine and comment on subjugated and sometimes unknowable (hi)stories.

      Beginning on a film set, the camera in Otolith II eavesdropped on workers setting up models of classic red British telephone booths along an Indian seafront. It transported London back to where it’s meant to be forgotten, or India to where it’s meant to be remembered, through allusion to a colonial moment. We watched craftsmen at work as the searching camera awaited contact, in what appeared to be a call for intimacy and detail. Still meandering, the camera transported us to the city of Chandigarh, where Le Corbusier once planned his massive architectural project in the 1950s. The camera lingered on a bereft esplanade in front of the Secretariat Building: the carcasses of the lost project of modernism recalled the shortcomings of visionaries who sought to concretize the utopia of their era. These images slowly faded, and we were left with faint pixels and colors. The last scene took us through shantytowns at dusk. Sagar’s insistent, haunting voiceovers throughout spoke of lost childhoods and political destitution, weaving the autobiographical into the global and allowing new historical possibilities to emerge. Under a hypnotic drone we listened to her, as if we were the ones being driven toward the end of a journey.

      Landscapes. Cityscapes. 1

      Saliba Douaihy, Composition 1975. Courtesy the artist

      Landscapes. Cityscapes. 1
      Maqam Art Gallery
      February 3—March 30, 2009

      Debates about what constitutes modern or contemporary art might seem like the purview of academics or auction house specialists. Yet the question has suddenly become a preoccupation for many involved in the Beirut art scene — symptomatic, no doubt, of a system under strain. The need to delineate and define may in general be no more than the articulation of market pressure. In Lebanon, it may also be the latest in a long line of somewhat tiresome expressions of the country’s pervasive sense of existential dread. Whatever the case may be, a recent show at the newly opened Maqam Art Gallery seemed to capture the spirit of the current, curiously discursive moment in this city’s art world.

      In early 2009, Saleh Barakat, the owner and director of Agial Art Gallery in Hamra, teamed up with the veteran art critic Joseph Tarrab to open Maqam, a gallery in downtown Beirut’s Saifi Village, dedicated to restoring and reviving the history of Lebanese modern art. The loose brackets around what the gallery intends to show (and sell) open with the mid-nineteenth century and close with the mid-twentieth. But the first exhibition nudged things a bit closer to the present. ‘Landscapes. Cityscapes. 1’ presented thirty works from 1930 to 2008.

      The show was revelatory in several ways. Opportunities to see in person canvases by the likes of Chafic Abboud, Cesar Gemayel, Omar Onsi, Georges Corm, Saliba Douaihy, and Mustafa Farroukh are rare, particularly in a city that doesn’t have a museum or public institution working to preserve and present to the public any cultural heritage after antiquity. Unless you can bully your way into the salons of collectors or the back rooms of dealers, the only chance to see this stuff is by browsing books, volumes often out of print or haphazardly produced. And no paper reproduction could accurately represent Onsi’s ability to capture late-afternoon Levantine light, or the material texture of Paul Guiragossian’s thick, swirling brushstrokes.

      Paul Guiragossian, Mountain view 1984. Courtesy the artist

      What made ‘Landscapes. Cityscapes. 1’ more than a recent-history lesson, however, was the story the show told. From a precious, circa-1930 painting of a winsome pine tree by Youssef Howayek (who was far better known as a sculptor) to a melancholy, rain-drenched black and white photograph from 1999 by Fouad Elkoury, of Beirut’s seaside Corniche, the exhibition explored how artists in Lebanon have depicted the world around them through eight tumultuous decades, from easel painting to impressionism and abstract expressionism, from landscape painting as a realist exercise to depictions that are imaginative metaphors for an artist’s mind. There were pictures of pristine forests and lush agricultural lands. There was a powerful painting by Rafic Charaf, of Baalbeck under storm-heavy skies, from 1962, full of foreboding for what was to come. And then there was a raucous, graffiti-style painting on cardboard by the famously reclusive Samir Khaddage, and a three-piece series by Marwan Rechmaoui, made from concrete, wire mesh, and Plexiglas. Were these works modern or contemporary or hovering somewhere in between? If chronologies, definitions, or linear histories were to be believed, then what was one to make of the 2008 paintings by Rima Amyuni and Theo Mansour, the styles and aesthetics of which seemed to belong to an era that ended fifty years or more ago? (Amyuni’s canvas, notably, was titled Homage to Van Gogh.)

      Samir Khaddaje, The Mountain Book 1996. Courtesy the artist

      Adherents to the kinds of conceptual practices that have been produced, presented, and promoted by organizations such as Ashkal Alwan and the Arab Image Foundation might have found the show either quaint or dangerous — in the latter case, an attempt to harness, reign in, or reinforce links and lineages that have been rather deliberately smashed. But the exhibition and the work of Maqam generally have contributed a great deal to the debates — about the inherent instability of history and memory — that have so dominated the works of contemporary artists Walid Raad, Akram Zaatari, Jalal Toufic, Walid Sadek, Rabih Mroué, and others. Though not every work was a knockout, the exhibition was of commendably high quality. If Maqam continues to mount such shows, it will encourage artists, critics, and curators to sharpen their language and hone their terms. Given the fact that every show at the gallery — Barakat and Tarrab say they plan to mount three or four exhibitions a year — is meant to be accompanied by a catalog, Maqam will also be contributing to the dire need for documentation, in Lebanon as in the region at large. It isn’t a museum, but it’s a step in that direction. And considering how the trajectories of modern and contemporary were, in fact, so tangled up in the show, ‘Landscapes. Cityscapes. 1’ at least demolished the idea that one era followed the other.

      Iran on Paper

      The Last 10 Years

      Mohsen Ahmadvad, Iranian Shopping 2008. Courtesy the Artist

      Iran on Paper: The Last 10 Years
      Aaran Gallery
      February 26—March 5, 2009

      As recently as a decade ago, curating as we know it didn’t exist in Iran, and collecting was limited to a few rare individuals and singular endowments, which didn’t much concern themselves with contemporary art. But contemporary art in Iran is finding its place — in international markets, in the catalogs of collectors and museums, and, increasingly, at home. Finally, a base exists from which we may host exhibits of contemporary art that defy hodgepodge curatorial mandates, that are conceptually, thematically, and aesthetically focused.

      ‘Iran on Paper: The Last 10 Years’ was a manifestation of this new maturity. Artist, gallerist, and longtime collector Fereydoun Ave invited two younger artists, Neda Razavipour and Vahid Sharifian, to occupy his space according to their own respective tastes. The two have both been preoccupied with drawing for some time; Razavipour, who commonly works in video and installation, recently produced a collection of drawings on the pages of a datebook, while Sharifian, whose practice centers around photography, has put together a handful of contemporary drawing exhibits in Tehran galleries in the recent past. Together, the two scoured Ave’s vast collection (named Laal, after his late mother) for works on paper — a medium that has been increasingly marginalized over time, perhaps in part because of its guilelessness.

      Arash Sedaghatkish, Untitled 2008. Courtesy the Artist

      In hosting such an exhibit, Ave achieved several things at once: he brought attention to his collection; he introduced lesser-known artists to a broader community; and he made a statement about the continuing relevance of drawing. Most importantly, ‘Iran on Paper’ invited gallery owners to relinquish their singular fixation on the international market and pay more attention to the cultural value of less high-profile artistic practices manifest in Iran today. All this at a time when official cultural establishments in Iran are paying less attention to the arts, especially those of a contemporary nature.

      ‘Iran on Paper: The Last 10 Years’ was the first in a planned series of exhibitions to take place in various galleries, with different curators and visions, encouraging gallery owners to become cultural stakeholders rather than mere profiteers. Exhibiting previously collected works doesn’t bring a return on investment, but this series of exhibits demands that galleries nonetheless shoulder the responsibility to show works usually organized by public or semi-public establishments such as museums. We can see this as one positive byproduct of a cultural scene under duress.

      Azadeh Madani, Document No.1 2008, Courtesy the Artist

      The diversity of approaches possible within this simplest of mediums was visible in the Aaran exhibition. It could be seen in the attention to detail by Azadeh Madani and Mohsen Ahmadvand; the perspicacity of Arash Sedaghat Kish, Mehdi Farhadian, and Shantia Zaker Ameli; the subtle humor of Farhad Fozouni; the freedom of Azadeh Razaghdoust, Morteza Zahedi, and Ala Dehghan; the lyricism of Shahriar Ahmadi and Behrouz Rae; the simplicity of Ghazal Khatibi; and the maturity of Ahmad Aminnazar, Ali Nasir, and Fereydoun Ave himself. Pieces in the show were treated as independent works, not simply prototypes for works in other media. Works by younger artists were hung next to those of their seasoned counterparts, providing a space where artists, collectors, gallery owners, and a younger generation could establish a visual dialogue.

      Ave has announced that he is planning more exhibits to be drawn from his collection, including an exhibit of prints. These developments on the edge of the official cultural scene — artists curating shows, collectors presenting their works to the public, shows traveling as educational resources of sorts, younger artists emerging and finding incentive to pursue their practice — can only be a good thing.


      Photo by Doris Poblekowski

      By Youssef Ziedan
      Dar El Shorouk, 2009

      Last month, at a symposium in Kuwait, I bumped into the Iraqi writer Samuel Shimon, head of the jury of the first round of the Abu Dhabi–based International Prize for Arabic Fiction, better known as the Arabic Booker and administered by the Booker Foundation. While bitterly complaining about the lack of alcohol, which is illegal in Kuwait, Shimon told me the story of a recent visit to Wadi El Natroun, the site of some of the world’s oldest monasteries in Egypt, and how he asked the resident monks there why in the world they maintained a grudge against a man who had died over 1500 years ago. I wondered aloud to whom he was referring. It turned out he was speaking of Nestorius (circa AD 386–451), the archbishop of Constantinople, about whom Archbishop of Alexandria Cyril I wrote the Twelve Anathemas. I knew that like the late poet Sargon Boulus, Shimon was born Syrian Christian; what I didn’t know was that while the Coptic Christians of Egypt reject the teachings of Nestorius as heretical, Syrians belonging to the Oriental Orthodox rite of Syria, Iraq, and Turkey are in fact Nestorians.

      What struck me was not the nature of the ecumenical dispute, but how Shimon brought a seemingly arcane drama to life. As it happened, just around the time we spoke, an Egyptian novel by the name of Azazeel (translated to Beelzebub in English) took the second Arabic Booker. A historical work, it addressed the very same fifth-century controversy and, what’s more, took the side of the heretic.

      Did the Virgin Mary give birth to God, a human being, both, or something in between? All Nestorius had done to earn his condemnation at the Council of Ephesus in AD 431 — his would-be supporters, most notably John I, the archbishop of Antioch, were tricked into arriving too late — was reject the term Theotokos (Mother of God) in favor of Christotokos (Mother of Christ). The question sounds absurdly disproportionate to the amount of bloodshed that followed in its wake. But in Azazeel writer and scholar Youssef Ziedan manages to communicate a sense of how widely relevant and incendiary such an abstruse internecine debate can still be, and how horrific its consequences.

      While reading Azazeel some weeks back, I spoke to a devoutly Coptic colleague about Nestorius. “But of course he’s a heretic,” my colleague said, as if he’d just had coffee with the archbishop. “He denies that Maryam is the mother of God!” In a slightly lower voice, he continued, “You know it was a follower of Nestorius who taught Mohammed.” Mohammed? “Yes, your Mohammed,” he hissed. “And that’s why Muslims share in the heresy that Jesus was not divine.” The fact that the author of Azazeel is himself a Muslim has only stoked the fires. After all, what right does he have to participate in a Christian debate?

      Set in fifth-century Alexandria, Upper Egypt, and Syria, Azazeel purports to be the Arabic translation, completed in April 2004, of seven fictional rolls of parchment discovered ten years earlier in the vicinity of Aleppo, near the Turkish border — “on the ancient road linking Aleppo with Antioch,” as Ziedan’s translator tells us. Written originally in late Aramaic (Syriac), the seven rolls constituting the book’s seven chapters recount, in the first person, the life of a Coptic-speaking monk/doctor from Upper Egypt, named after the female pagan philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria (died AD 415). Hipa adopted his name in honor of the woman he met upon his arrival in Alexandria and whose lynching by the Christian mob — initiated by Cyril I — he later witnessed on the streets of the Greatest City. As a frustrated student of medicine at the Monastery of the Church of St. Mark, Hipa was repelled by the dogmatism and violence of Cyril I. He chose not to return to his homeland near present-day Akhmim, where as a child he witnessed the equally barbaric lynching of his father, a pagan fisherman — a crime his mother incited in order to marry a Christian. Instead, Hipa traveled, eventually reaching Jerusalem, where he met Nestorius and on his advice moved again, not to Antioch, where Nestorius was a bishop at the time, but to the monastery north of Aleppo. There — encouraged by Beelzebub, as the devil is called throughout — he recorded his life story.

      Through Hipa’s travails, we encounter Nestorius’s claim that, unlike that of God the Father, the divinity of Christ was not an intrinsic, everlasting attribute but something that happened to him after he was born and grew up like anyone else. In subtle ways, Ziedan uses the experiences of Hipa and his conversations with Nestorius to suggest, for example, that in Egypt the mother-and-child motif was but an extension of the ancient tradition of Isis and Horus — a less definite break with paganism than Nestorius’s (or, indeed, Islam’s).

      For questioning the traditional narrative (on which point Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches agree) that Cyril I was a saint and “a pillar of the faith,” Ziedan has been taken to task by the Coptic Orthodox Church, notably in a statement written by Anba Bishoi, secretary of the Holy Synod in Egypt. He’s accused of “destroying the faith,” misrepresenting facts, and “inciting sedition.” The case was also taken to court by a team of Coptic lawyers headed by Ramsis Al Naggar, member of the Church’s consultative committee, in an as-yet futile attempt to ban the book. It is worth noting that some Copts, like the novelist Robert Al Faris, have argued that Ziedan has neither misrepresented the facts nor undermined Christianity, arguing that, in dealing with history, nothing and no one — not even a saint — is sacred. “No one can claim the saints did not make mistakes,” he said. The work, many have pointed out, was well researched and executed.

      For his part, Ziedan — who is head of the Islamic manuscripts department at the Alexandria Library — carries out the task of mimicking manuscript editing brilliantly, and his message — that Beelzebub’s truest evil, far from heresy or even sin, is his capacity for getting people to excommunicate, massacre, and otherwise do wicked things to each other in the conviction that they’re actually doing good — comes through beautifully. And though extremely classical in language and style, the novel makes for an engaging and intelligent read from beginning to end. One is inclined to overlook the more obviously modern interpolations (as when Octavia, the woman with whom Hipa sins on his arrival in Alexandria, calls Aristotle “backward” for his classification of women and slaves as below men; or when Hipa, whose rationality chimes with Nestorius, begins to sound like an agent of the Enlightenment). The book may be appreciated as a comment on contemporary political Islam and sectarian strife both within the Umma and between Muslims and Christians. In a roundabout way, Ziedan seems to be reminding readers — perhaps Western readers in particular — that “dogmatism and violence existed, you know, long before Islam came into being.”

      Osama Van Halen

      Osama Van Halen
      By Michael Muhammad Knight
      Soft Skull Press, 2009

      A curious thing happened to Michael Muhammad Knight in 2004: he published a novel that engendered an American Muslim punk scene. The Taqwacores (the coinage is a combination of taqwa, meaning “consciousness of God,” and hardcore) portrayed a group of devout misfits struggling to come to terms with their deviance and faith. There was a skinhead Sunni named Umar, whose hands bore straight-edge x tattoos and whose forearm was marked with the star and crescent; a perpetually stoned Sufi named Jehangir, who wore a mohawk and performed the call to prayer on an electric guitar from his rooftop; and Rabeya, a riot grrrl in a burqa who “jumped in front of the microphone at last night’s party decked out in full purdah to cover the Stooges’ “Nazi Girlfriend” through her niqab.”

      For 250 pages, they parsed their identities at full volume, glibly mixing booze, drugs, and sex with the Qur’an, mosques, and the Twelve Imams, playing in punk bands and wearing their Doc Martens boots with green laces — a dated detail in line with Knight’s many mentions of the band Rancid (which is now playing acoustic sets, and whose members are pushing forty).

      Knight’s apostasy of a novel found a sympathetic audience among some of America’s Muslim teens, and what started out as fiction became an odd reality, as a handful of self-described taqwacore bands formed across North America. Many of them joined Knight on a cross-country American tour in 2006 (see Deena Chalabi’s “The Taqwa Bus,” Bidoun 15). Last year one such band, the Kominas, released a critically acclaimed full-length album, Wild Nights in Guantanamo Bay. Now a film version of The Taqwacores is in post-production.

      In Osama Van Halen, his new novel, Knight cleverly turns the real-life spawn of his novel back into fiction, and inserts himself, as both author and character, into the world they occupy, the narrative sliding between fiction and memoir. All the while, he indulges himself in meditations on the persona he’s forged for himself: a freewheeling punk-rock provocateur who could have been John Walker Lindh but ended up being invited to conferences on progressive Islam and having his work taught at liberal-arts schools.

      Osama Van Halen begins in a van, with the novel’s protagonist, a “skinny skid-row Shiite” named Amazing Ayyub, accompanied by Rabeya. The pair has kidnapped Matt Damon, pledging to kill him unless Hollywood agrees to begin portraying Muslims in a more positive light. (Damon understands their grievance but disagrees with their methods and needles them accordingly, telling them, “You must be aware that the Fifth and Sixth Holy Imams both opposed armed rebellion.”) In short order, Ayyub is abandoned at a gas station, and that story line is never really picked up again; the episodic plot expands centrifugally along the lines of Ayyub’s fictional misadventures and Knight’s real ones, occasionally joining the two.

      Early in the novel, Ayyub decides to assassinate a breakthrough Muslim pop-punk group called Shah 79, a quest that prompts a journey to his (and Knight’s) hometown of Buffalo. Along the way, he encounters zombified Muslims at an abandoned mosque in the middle of the desert (he later finds out that a zombie epidemic has been unleashed by Bush’s favorite Islamic scholar, Hamza Yusuf, in order to quash dissent among Muslims). Knight interrupts the story here to recount the surprising popularity of The Taqwacores, and the bands that worship it join up with Ayyub to hunt zombies, play shows, drink tall boys, and make fun of the Muslim Student Association. Ayyub and Knight live in cars, smash shop windows, set off fireworks, have sex with underage girls, compare mosh pits to the Battle of Karbala, and, in a typically obscene coda, drive to Canada in search of a decent hand job.

      However the narrative zigs and zags, the image of Knight’s lifestyle is what stands out most: punk-rock Islam, presented in comic-book form at times and in the style of a punk-zine-memoir at others. The cultivation of this style seems to be Knight’s preoccupation, one sounded by the epigraph to The Taqwacores: a poem by the author titled “Muhammad Was a Punk Rocker,” which depicts the prophet as a Galaga-playing, idol-smashing, chain-wallet-wearing, Rancid-listening rebel.

      Knight’s thinking hasn’t evolved too much since then. Ayyub has little depth as a character but plenty of tattoos and scene cred; he is pure, dumb negation, despite his ostensible religious faith. Even the Mahdi is imagined as a punk icon with “spiked hair and a spiked jacket and green-laced Doc Martens.”

      Knight wants his punks to be “Muslims of their own design,” but it’s unclear how faith functions for most of them, whether they want religious heterodoxy or just to rage against the restrictions of the culture they’ve inherited. Ultimately, his conception of faith is that of a refusenik, and his primary concern is how the rejection of authority shapes a subculture and sustains its members. Knight can’t articulate their desires nearly as well as he can articulate what they can’t stand; then again, the same goes for most teenagers, and Knight is more of a fellow traveler in a scene than an omniscient narrator plumbing the depths of its adherents’ psyches.

      You might say Knight’s interest in heresy is akin to the Sex Pistols’ interest in profaning the image of the Queen; the sensational symbolism far outweighs any real threat posed to the social order. What is called heresy is in fact just profanity combined with delusions of grandeur. “Maybe,” Knight admits, “I’ve been into this whole heresy thing to avoid actually having an idea about Islam that I want to stand up for.” Which is itself very punk. One strips things down to three chords; one does not reproduce the symphony. The text of Osama Van Halen is a restless series of dissenting narratives and fragmentary thoughts, an energetic refusal to conform — without a great idea of what to put in place of the standard model.

      In the end, it is Knight’s ironic understanding of his own position that redeems the novel. He tries to allay his guilt about the casual misogyny that mars the book by writing that he has received emails from Muslim girls who felt liberated by The Taqwacores — but then admits that he “panicked that if they grew into graduate-level feminists, they’d see through it all.” Osama Van Halen ends with the ultimate authorial act of self-abnegation, the sacrifice of Knight the character to the sword of Rabeya, the burqa-clad punk feminist, who derides his “post-9/11 fantasy camp,” calling him a “sand-wigger,” “Indiana Jones,” and “just another phallocentric orientalist.” Then, with Knight’s forbearance, she swings her avenging blade down on his neck, and we are relieved of the author — though we may still track down the Kominas on MySpace.

        Short Takes

        Becoming Bucky Fuller
        By Loretta Lorance
        MIT Press, 2009

        With his distinctive coke-bottle glasses, funny bow ties, tidy three-piece suits, and curiously progressive worldview, Buckminster Fuller appeared before appreciative countercultural audiences, offering, in the 1960s and ’70s, an alternative vision of peace, ecology, and leisure. Loretta Lorance’s admirably readable and generously illustrated Becoming Bucky Fuller looks back past this familiar chapter in Fuller’s long career to his earliest ventures as a young man on the make in the 1920s.

        Fuller himself had an appealing, if enhanced, version of this chapter in his own self-myth. Thwarted in every visionary venture, near suicide, he rose from a dark pit of despair to dedicate his lifework to the betterment of humanity. Lorance, in a close reading of Fuller’s copious archives, reconstructs a more complicated story.

        Fuller’s earliest years more closely resembled William Gaddis’s JR than Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. After being ousted from a successful business venture for the development, manufacture, and marketing of an innovatively better brick, Fuller designed and launched a series of business ventures dedicated to the development of an eccentric, patent-pending prefabricated house, promising, among other virtues, liberation from drudgery for the housewife, extinction of the mortgage system, and the end of alcohol consumption. Only after this venture stalled without witnessing the construction of a single house did Fuller advertise himself as a visionary — rather than admit a business failure, he simply declared that his project was at least twenty-five years ahead of its time.

        Becoming Bucky Fuller will be of interest to Fuller fans, novices, and any general reader interested in the process of creative self-reinvention. For the newcomer, in particular, this appreciative but critical approach to Fuller’s early career will serve as an attractive starting point, far removed from the more familiar myth Fuller himself helped author.

        My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness
        By Adina Hoffman
        Yale University Press, 2009

        In the opening of My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness, Adina Hoffman presents a 1973 poem by Taha Muhammad Ali:

        In his life / he neither wrote
        nor read. /In his life he / didn’t
        cut down a single tree, / didn’t
        slit the throat / of a single calf. /
        In his life he did not speak /
        Of the New York Times /
        behind its back…

        In these pages, Hoffman provides an English-language biography of the quixotic Palestinian writer Taha Muhammad Ali, a figure who didn’t start writing until he was fifty-five. Some years ago, Hoffman, her husband, and a friend — a ragtag coalition of two Jews and a Muslim — started a small imprint, Ibis Editions, to publish English translations of Taha’s stories. Unlike other Palestinian poets we may know well, such as Mahmoud Darwish, Taha has never engaged in the “poetry of resistance.” He is by no means an exemplary national poet for the Palestinian people; his art is far more unsuspecting.

        An underground autodidact, virtually unknown to Western and Eastern readers alike, Taha runs a souvenir shop in Nazareth that has, on occasion, been a gathering place for local intellectuals and artists. In these pages, Hoffman tells one man’s curious story, but at the same time, in her own way, manages to convey the remarkable power of poetry in the last century.

        49 Cities
        Work AC
        Storefront Books, 2009

        Published on the occasion of the Manhattan architecture firm’s eponymous exhibition at New York’s Storefront for Art and Architecture, 49 Cities compiles an encyclopedic range of visionary city plans from the past two thousand years into a slim, efficient workbook for today’s eco-minded urban planner. Arranged chronologically, the plans for fantastic, often radical, configurations of cities past — only a handful of which were actually built — are reexamined through a contemporary set of environmentally concerned, terrorism-obsessed criterion: form, density, greenspace, sprawl, foreign invasion, urban chaos, and air pollution. Plans range from Spanish conquistadores’ colonization of Santo Domingo (1650) to Baron Haussmann’s renovation of Paris (1850) to Rem Koolhaas’s conceptual Exodus project (1972), which proposed dividing London into “good” and “bad” halves, with a wall built around the good half as a contained zone for “architectural and social perfections.”

        Work AC contends that the current crisis-state of natural resources and urban zones throughout the world finds planners and architects in a familiar position — constrained by fear and necessity to suspend disbelief and radically re-envision how to move ahead. Beyond updating each model with a strategy to consider current ecological concerns, the book contributes an indexical, accessible approach to a vast selection of plans, ideas, and ambitions, each notable for its grounding in its own time and connected here by its contemporary relevance to the challenges facing planners, builders, farmers, and city-dwellers everywhere.

        A scale comparison at the front of the book is especially useful in gaining an understanding of ideas between forms. Through thumbnail simplifications, we see Arata Isozaki’s Cluster in the Air (1962), a plan for vertical public transportation “trees” and horizontal pedestrian path “branches,” which eventually multiply into a “forest” city, alongside Claude-Nicolas Ledoux’s Salt Works (1775), a labor-supervision design for rationalizing industrial production informed by Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. For all of the radial, clustered, and polyhedral plans included in 49 Cities, it’s the banality of Edgar Chambless’s Roadtown (1910), a linear city scheme of continuous development connecting Baltimore and Washington, DC, represented here as a single, barely bulging line, which in its similitude to the post-suburban status quo, seems to have been the book’s most prescient, if not most visionary, design.