The issue of Bidoun you hold in your hands has a photograph affixed to its cover. The photo is unique to this copy of the magazine. It was procured for one Egyptian pound (eighteen cents U.S.) and shipped, along with thousands of other photos, directly to our printer in Las Vegas.
The decision to do this was the source of considerable excitement on our end — about the possible originality of the gesture, about the fact that we had not seen any of the images and likely never would. But this excitement was accompanied by an indistinct anxiety.
Gathering these photos from the market stalls and dusty storage spaces of Cairo and placing them on our cover does a number of things that we like. Considered photographically, these images, by the way they are used and the manner in which they have been collected, pose a series of questions — about representation, about objecthood, about the question of the question of the archive. Their very randomness disallows traditional indices of aesthetic value, authorial intent, and craft, posing an old question about the nonrepresentational content of photography in concrete terms: what, if anything, is a photograph besides the specific image that selectively obscures its serene white surface? What remains is the idea of the photograph as a diffuse and contingent effect of forces of production and distribution.
From the perspective of the archivist, the photograph affixed to the cover does not exist. By gathering these discards and binding them to a (purportedly) legitimate publication, replete with ISBN number, that resides in the collections of a number of public and private libraries, we are, in a sense, rescuing them from their status as detritus. But then, by distributing these issues to bookstores, art fairs, and thousands of unknown individuals — not to mention the accursed share of unsold copies bound for store basements, secondhand book stores, and landfills — these photos are destined to return to the obscurity from whence they came.
This is the source of the anxiety that attended our excitement. While making each copy of this issue a unique object encapsulates the ethos of an issue devoted to our library — itself a collection of detritus of ignoble origin — it also serves as a reminder that Bidoun, too, is detritus, with an equally ignoble end.
The hopeful monster that is the Bidoun Library was born in the fall of 2009 in Abu Dhabi. It began as a resource, earnest in design and intent, bringing together artist books, monographs, catalogs, and other sources pertaining to art and culture in the Middle East and presenting them in places where such materials were hard to find. What you are now perusing is not that library.
What the Bidoun Library has evolved into is less a collection of books arranged according to an organizing principle than an organizing principle that collects and arranges books. The Bidoun Library one visits in Cairo may be wholly different than one in Dubai, Detroit, or Beirut.
This issue presents a specific iteration of the Bidoun Library, generated especially for an exhibition at the New Museum for Contemporary Art in New York: a presentation of printed matter, carefully selected with no regard for taste or quality, in an attempt to document every possible way that people have depicted and defined — slandered, celebrated, obfuscated, hyperbolized, ventriloquized, photographed, surveyed, and/or exhumed — that vast, vexed, nefarious construct known as “the Middle East.” The result is banal and offensive, a parade of stereotypes, caricatures, and misunderstandings of a sort that rarely makes it into the magazine, all the trappings of the Middle East as fetish: veils, oil, fashion victims; sexy sheikhs, sex with sheikhs, Sufis, stonings; calligraphy, the caliphate, terrorism; Palestinians.
Take, for example, a bodice-ripping romance, The Sheikh’s Secret Son. It’s a novelty, a cheap thrill. But if you see it alongside The Sheikh’s Secret Bride… and The Sheikh’s Convenient Bride… and The Sheikh’s Virgin Bride… and The Sheikh’s Mistress… and then seemingly countless permutations of the same, novelty gives way to conspiracy. What you notice is that these books begin to appear in their legions only after September 11, 2001 — a revelation that, like many others in the Bidoun Library, is more stupefying than clarifying.
This particular collection of books was the outcome of a series of escalating searches on the World Wide Web. Deploying a search term like “oil,” “Arab,” or “Middle East” would return an unmanageable array of books — but adding an additional search term would narrow the field in telling ways. Books about oil before 1973 that cost less than five dollars are few and almost entirely in hardcover, usually technical guides written for a specialized audience. After 1973, the same search yields a completely different array: in hardcover, hundreds of books about the coming oil crisis, rampant Arab wealth and influence, global bankruptcy, impending world war, and biblical Armageddon. At the same time, in paperback, the terrorist novel is born, and its brood is legion — cover after cover depicting vintage special agents, Israeli commandos, vigilante lone wolves, soldiers of fortune, and even a black samurai, karate-kicking djellaba’d sheikhs beside burning oil rigs, often after sampling the delicacies of the inevitable harem. A similar set of searches substituting “Iran” for “Arab” produced its own assortment of types and stereotypes. We wanted to see what would happen if we put together a library without regard to aptness or excellence; to choose books not for their subjects, but their contexts; not for their authors, but their publishers; not for their qualities, but in their quantities.
And quantities they did! Just shy of one thousand books came to occupy the Bidoun office, and as they arrived we read them — all of them, book by book. As we read, we marked passages and images for transcription and scanning, which were then indexed according to topics — descriptions of artworks, photographs, flags; jokes and sexual innuendos; captions, acknowledgments, asides. Things that, considered out of context, revealed a surplus or a deficit of meaning. Those texts and images were then organized into four books that were suspended by chains from the ceiling of the New Museum at strategic points in the exhibition space. Three of the books corresponded to general categories: Home Theater/pulp, Natural Order/corporate publishing, and Margin of Error/“other.” A fourth book, Further Reading, purported to be a glossary for the other three. We called the books catalogs, though as such they were incomplete, inaccurate, and perplexing. What the catalogs did do was provide an example of one way of reading the library — to look over our shoulders as we read the library, in its entirety, and to see some of the associations and parallels within. This issue of Bidoun is in a sense a third reading of the library and a rereading of those catalogs — they are reproduced here, in sequential order, nested within the pages of the magazine.
A good deal of the books and periodicals in the library were produced in conjunction with one or another corporate entity, including Horus, the official publication of EgyptAir, and the catalog of the 1974 International Art Exhibition ITT. But the strangest flower of corporate publishing is undoubtedly Aramco World, the curiously spectacular official publication of the Arabian American Oil Company. “Mondo Aramco,” an oral history of the Middle East’s oldest magazine for art and culture, begins on page 89.
One category that intrigued us was books printed by regimes of production that no longer exist. Like the myriad publications of the Novosti Press Agency in Moscow, such as Afghanistan Chooses a New Road, Treasures of Human Genius: The Muslim Cultural Heritage in the USSR, and Tonight and Every Night: The Soviet Circus Is Seventy Years Old. Or Aurora Art Publishers, another state-run publisher, and the coffee-table books they produced about art and architecture on the outer reaches of the Soviet empire. In “Invitation to a Sunset” (page 135), Achal Prabhala remembers yet another communist publisher, Progress Press, and the warm Red tinge of his Indian boyhood.
The Cold War produced publishing ventures across the globe. Dozens of magazines were founded or supported by the Congress for Cultural Freedom, an association of left-leaning but anticommunist artists, writers, and musicians that was also a secret project of the CIA. Postrevolutionary Cuba became for a time a hotbed of avant-garde publishing, sponsoring the Afro-Asian-American journal Tricontinental, which included foldout posters promoting a solidarity-of-the-month club with oppressed guerrilla movements the world over. Copies were door-dropped on college campuses across the Third World, including Beirut, where Bidoun acquired some thirty-odd copies for fifty cents each. In “Revolution by Design” (page 161), Babak Radboy considers the aesthetic legacy of Tricontinental and its visionary art director, Alfredo Rostgaard.
Your Emirati employer has invited you to a lavish feast at a Five-star hotel. You arrive to dancing and lots to drink, discreet waiters and only two other women. One is a Westerner enjoying herself immensely, the other is a scantily clad Russian dancer putting on a show for leering men. What do you do?
A) Relax and enjoy yourself. Your employer is simply letting his hair down, showing you he can accept and enjoy your ways too.
B) Politely greet everyone and ask to speak to your employer in private. Let your employer know that you did now realize the nature of his invitation and that you do not feel comfortable participating.
C) Join the festivities but come up with an excuse to leave, such as becoming suddenly ill.
Culture Shock! United Arab Emirates. Gina L. Crocetti. Portland: Graphic Arts Center Publishing, 2001
You are a Western man sitting by yourself at a corner table of Hardees. You are minding your own business when a black-cloaked woman leaves her group of female friends and approached your table. She is lightly veiled and her face is uncovered. You can see she is exceptionally beautiful. She says hello, hands you a piece of paper with her name and telephone number written on it and says, “You will call me?” You:
A) Apologize, tell her you can’t do that, pack up your food and escape.
B) Thank her, accept the piece of paper, extricate yourself from the situation as soon as politeness will allow and later throw the number away.
C) Thank her, accept the number, chat with her for a bit and call her later, maybe even set up a time and place to meet.
Culture Shock! United Arab Emirates. Gina L. Crocetti. Portland: Graphic Arts Center Publishing, 2001
… the Customs and Ports Report, the Police magazine, the Army magazine, publications issued by most other Ministries, account books, rolls of registered letter stickers, schoolchildren’s lateness-passes and every other conceivable form of official printing.
The Voice of Kuwait, Kuwait’s national broadcasting service, is a loud and far-carrying voice which will soon have world-wide strength. And strength of voice is important in Arab broadcasting, for millions of listeners twiddle the knobs of their radios until they pick up the clearest signal; Kuwait is making certain, with the purchase of the most up-to-date equipment, that her voice is not neglected by Arab listeners.
It could make Kuwait the loudest Arab voice over an area covering Alexandria, Beirut, Northern Iraq, Afghanistan, Karachi, the Gulf towns and round to Aden, Riyadh and Mecca.
All text and images from Kuwait Today: A Welfare State. Nairobi: Quality Publications, 1963
The station has its own orchestra, with twelve violins, two celli, two double basses, one quanoon (like a zither), one nai (a bamboo flute) and an oud (a sort of fat, crooked guitar); percussion comes from a riq, a tambourine and a tympany drum, while often the orchestra is joined by a clarinet, and accordion and piano.
More road safety films are planned, and tourist films showing the entertainment possibilities of a stay in Kuwait will be made. Already the Ministry has its own small private-viewing cinema, and makes films of trade missions and the visit of important guests; afterwards copies are made and given away to the guests.
Kuwait’s four hours of daily television — with an extra hour on Thursdays — is planned on a something-for-everyone basis. The first programme to go out nightly is always a recitation from the Koran. After that comes a programme for children; it shows a “children’s corner” of songs, dancing and plays recorded in advance by Kuwaiti schoolchildren, together with regular comic cartoon features. Following this is a general feature, sometimes for women, sometimes on health or world affairs, art or science.
For a special Wednesday programme viewers can send in stories of their problems; actors then dramatize the problem for broadcasting.
Short programmes of songs and music always precedes the news.
The news and the longer film programmes are left until late to give shoppers and shopkeepers time to get home, for many Kuwait shops are open until 8.30 or 9 in the evening.
All text and images from Kuwait Today: A Welfare State. Nairobi: Quality Publications, 1963
Daddy’s Fiddle, Sweden, 1992
The life of an immigrant family of three. Having been a violinist, the man is used to play violin when he is alone. The woman is working in an office and the eight-year-old child attends school. The man has problems with his wife. Being in a bad situation the couple can not help each other. But the child is aware of the problems.
Dear Mr. President, Sweden, 1990
Responsible president, a weird vicepresident, and a mysterious orator for all the world… The story is about a crime which gets committed during a direct-sending of a program on TV.
112 The Lost, Austria, 1992
It starts with the childhood and death and a lost love. Then Hesitation begins: Has everything come to an end? He himself comes to this conclusion that everything has just started.
Dreams of an Iranian Poet in Exile, France, 1991
“Nemat Azarm” who has been living in exile in France since 1982, is one of the Iranian poets who used poetry in his struggle against repression under the Shah’s regime. His imprisonment by the Shah, his struggle against the unfinished revolution in 1979 in Iran which was usurped by the “Mullahs,” his compulsory exile and the expression of his suffering in a foreign land, All are shown in this film.
Fata Morgana, Sweden, 1984
An artist flees from the Shah’s Iran and settles down in Sweden. Though he finds a job and becomes adjusted to the Swedish way of living, he remains a stranger. Callous, burocratic Sweden, typical Swedish calmness and motional distance together with his won rootlessness influences Muhammed. When he learns of the Iranian revolution, he feels that he must return, participate and support the new system. However his expectations of Khomeini’s Iran turns out to be Fata Morgana.
Gorbatjov, Sweden, 1992
A mother at work some candy-money, a forgotten birthday, a cat, a taxi-trip, a hamburger for dinner — and Benny and Tobias, that’s what this film is all about.
Goran, The Ex-Guerilla, Sweden, 1993
Goran is a Kurd. He was wonded after seven years of armed struggle against the Iraqi Regime. His Comrades helped him to flee to Sweden through Syria and Iran. Although he has been in Sweden for many years, he is still dreaming to go back to Kurdistan and live with his family and friends.
He and She, Norway, 1991
A satirical story about a man and a woman. The man is busy painting. He completely ignores his surroundings. The woman plays all possible tricks to draw his attention. At last, buy using magic, she manages to do so.
Silence, Denmark, 1991
A lonely street-cleaner who loves classical films, falls in love with a girl. But he is unable to make contact with the girl until…
The Earthly Fish, Denmark, 1989
Amid the pressure of two different times and two different places a man relizes that all his surrounding is falling apart. There is no remedy.
Connection, Germany 1991
A man in an empty room. A telephone is his only Connection with the world.. A telephone that is actually disconnected. A woman from his past, tries to get in touch with him… The film pictures the loneliness and solitude of a man.
The Winner, Sweden, 1992
A young girl, a previous winner of the school’s dance contest, is on her way to school to participate in yet another contest. On the way to school she comes across an elderly woman who needs help and the young girl must choose between the contest and helping her.
Founded in 1949 by the New York–based public relations department of the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco), Aramco World is the oldest English-language arts and culture publication in the Middle East. Rechristened Saudi Aramco World some years after the oil company was nationalized, the magazine today boasts several hundred thousand readers. Based over the years in New York, Beirut, The Hague, and Houston, Texas, it has been a curiously indispensable “intercultural resource” for six decades and counting.
In preparing the latest version of the Bidoun Library, we acquired a heap of copies of Aramco World from the 1960s and 1970s, and we were really just blown away. By the design, the imagery, the stories: I am haunted (in the best way) by that 1979 cover story about the Arab version of Sesame Street. How is it that a promotional vehicle produced and freely distributed by an oil company should have been such a great magazine? Didn’t it start out as a company newsletter?
William Tracy, writer and photographer, assistant editor 1967–1977:
It started off as an in-house magazine, talking about bowling and, you know, Wanda in accounting is getting married to Joe in engineering. And they figured that their employees would do a better job working with Arabs if they knew, say, that Arabian horses came from Arabia. So there’d be an article about Arabian horses. Obvious stuff like that. And then popular stuff, like: Wow, did you know Arabs eat ice cream? And that they make it in Damascus? And when they started putting articles like that in the magazine, the employees began to give copies to their kids to take to school, and the schoolteachers would write Aramco and say, “Could I get this regularly? That article about ice cream was really fun for the kids.” So they started tilting toward those more popular articles and sending it to public schools around the country. And gradually it just worked up the scale until it was adults talking about adult things — the idea being that Arabs are real people with art and sports and culture, and that maybe knowing about all that would make it easier to do business.
But it’s always been free for anyone with a real desire to know about the country. Occasionally that would get out of hand — at one point we started receiving letters from Ghana saying, “My teacher said to write and ask for your magazine,” and then suddenly we had requests from ten thousand Ghanaian schoolchildren. It was clearly one of those assignments where the teacher says, “Write a business letter to a company and see what happens.” We ended up sending around three thousand copies. But generally, the magazine goes all around the world. If there’s a special issue on Islam in China, they’ll translate it into Chinese and distribute extra copies over there.
Did you know Arabic?
I would say… I spoke colloquially. I had taken classes as a kid in Saudi Arabia and then I took classes from a Palestinian German lady in Beirut, but a lot of what I knew I picked up from teaching English to high school kids. So I had to be careful. If you ask a fifteen-yearold boy, How do you say “peanut butter sandwich,” he’s likely to teach you some kind of cuss word. You had to watch their eyes when you asked them direct questions like that, and if there was even a hint of a giggle you’d ask someone else later.
How did you get involved?
I was in Beirut already, teaching English at the prep school for the American University, when Aramco World opened up shop there in 1964. That was when it really took off, when they hired Paul Hoye to be the editor. Hoye had a background in journalism, and that greatly influenced the magazine in those days — he had a very pop sensibility. He was into fashion, music. Things that were newsworthy, topical. I was a big hiker and I knew that the Lebanese government didn’t like goats in the forest — goats rip things out by their roots, whereas sheep just crop things. So I pitched a story about reforestation efforts in the mountains and that appeared in the second issue they published in Beirut.
Robert Azzi, reporter and photographer: I’d gone to Beirut in 1968. My parents came from Lebanon, so I decided to move to Lebanon that fall and see if I could create a life for myself as a photographer. At that time all the Western media had their bureaus in Beirut — Time and Newsweek and ABC News and the Christian Science Monitor. They were probably all within a ten-minute walk of each other, near the Saint-George Hotel. Aramco World was there, too. And for a young freelancer, Aramco World was the magazine that you wanted to be seen in. In Lebanon the magazines were either very stodgy Arab magazines or very French, celebrity driven kind of stuff. I had no interest in that at all. I’d done a little work with the UN, taking photos of Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan. And then I was introduced to Bill Tracy, who worked for Aramco World. And Aramco World just led to things — it was a way of getting around the Middle East and meeting people. It was a great thing to have in your portfolio.
Did Aramco move the magazine to Beirut because it was perceived as the heart of the Arab world at that time, or some such? I suppose Nasser’s Cairo would not have welcomed an American oil company magazine…
William Tracy: Exactly. Beirut then was an incredible city, a publishing center with a good color printing press and access to an incredible pool of freelance writers and photographers and artists. They say — of course, you never know how much of this stuff is just conventional wisdom or anecdotal — they say that Beirut really boomed because of all the exiles. Alexandria and Cairo had been very creative places. And Haifa had been a big center for the arts, that then that became out-of-bounds when Israel was created. Another place was Marrakesh, I think. As all these colonial eras were ending, Beirut was where everyone moved to. It was full of Lebanese Egyptians, for example.
Did the magazine pay pretty well?
Robert Azzi: They paid well. They were fair. Depending on the story, they’d cover your airfare and expenses — and the fee, of course. I did a whole issue for them once, “The Arabs in America,” and they sent me all around the U.S. to take photographs for what was one of the earliest features on the subject. That was in 1979. That subject became hot stuff after 9/11, of course, but back in those days the stereotypical Arab in America was Danny Thomas, a Lebanese Christian. There wasn’t as much visibility for the Muslim communities in this country then.
How did the editorial process work? Did they mostly assign stories, or did you pitch them ideas?
Robert Azzi: Both. They were very easy to work with. The deal with them was that if you proposed a story and they felt you could do it, it was yours. So those of us who were freelancers would just generate story ideas — there was no Web to surf at the time, so you would sort of surf your circle of acquaintances and guidebooks and the International Herald Tribune and such. So for example, the issue that got banned in Saudi was the result of one of my pitches.
Robert Azzi: The Georgina issue. In 1971 the Miss Universe title went to a Lebanese girl, Georgina Rizk. I wrote and photographed that story.
William Tracy:It wasn’t banned, actually. It was agreed in advance that the issue would not be distributed in Saudi Arabia. Which was not without precedent — in the early Beirut years, the magazine was only sent to American employees working in the kingdom, not to Saudis. When that changed, it was because of pressure from Saudi students who had gone to the States to get their PhDs and returned home. Once I was down in Arabia to interview the assistant minister of commerce or something for an article, and he said to me, “I’m really offended that I can’t get Aramco World. I’ve tried and they won’t send it to me. I used to get it when I was a student and now that I’m home it’s not allowed?” After that the policy changed.
We went ahead and did Georgina anyway, which is a testament to Paul Hoye the journalist. He said, I know we’re not supposed to have girls in bathing suits in this magazine because it doesn’t follow the custom of our host country. But on the other hand, how long will we have to wait before there’s another Miss Universe from Lebanon? It’s never happened before — what if it never happens again? We can’t take that chance. So he talked to his contact and he made the argument and they said, All right, go ahead, but that particular issue will not be circulated within the kingdom, even to the American employees. That was the agreement.
You’ll notice that Georgina is actually quite discreetly dressed on the cover. Inside there’s a centerfold with her in a bathing suit. That was back when Playboy was a big deal. [Laughs]
Robert Azzi: Have you looked at the Saudi Aramco World Web site? They’ve put everything online.
Actually, everything except the Georgina issue. [Laughs]
Robert Azzi:[Laughs heartily] Georgina is not online?!
You can download PDFs of every issue except that one. [Laughs] Were there other controversies of note? I was interested in Robert’s cover story on Lake Van in Anatolia and the Cathedral of the Holy Cross on Akdamar Island. The photos are really incredible.
Robert Azzi: Thanks. Oh, that was great. I have to say, I had never been exposed to Armenian points of view until I got to Beirut, which was and is intensely Armenian in its cultural life. And my first girlfriend in Lebanon was Armenian. We managed to convince Aramco to send us to Lake Van. My girlfriend Touna was fluent in Armenian and Turkish, which turned out to be important because there were no Armenians left there, just a combination of Eastern Turks and Kurds. When we asked someone about the writing above the door on the church, he said it was an old form of Arabic. They couldn’t bring themselves to admit that the script on the church was Armenian.
But, you know, to Aramco that was a cultural story, part of the history of the region. Nothing seemed off-limits at that time, except maybe Georgina’s legs. I loved that Van story.
Even just the typography — the headlines were very stylized. Maybe in the style of the Armenian alphabet? Or… all those Turkish psychedelic records that were coming out at about that time?
Robert Azzi: Right. [Laughs] Well, Bill knows where the designer lives, so maybe he could put you in touch with him. It would be really interesting.
William Tracy: I could, but Don Thompson lives in a remote village in Southeast Asia, and only goes to town to get mail very irregularly. It might take a while.
So Don Thompson was the art director?
William Tracy: Don Thompson was the designer. He was actually an employee of Middle East Export Press, our printer. This will boggle your mind if you think Aramco World was a good magazine, but our office consisted of the editor, his assistant (me), and our secretary. Full stop. Although we were in the same building as the Aramco Overseas Company, so if we needed help with a passport or to get the electric bill paid, there were people upstairs who would take care of that. But they weren’t really on the magazine staff — we were more of a thorn in their side. But Don Thompson was very important. We never had a relationship with any other designer like we did with Don. In addition to sketching out the layouts and submitting them for our approval, he personally supervised the printing. He’d be on the floor at the press, making sure the color looked the way it was supposed to. He was just incredible. He designed the magazine the whole time it was in Beirut. He was quite a good artist, too — a few issues of Aramco World featured his paintings or drawings on the cover. He’d done his training at the Rhode Island School of Design.
When did he stop designing the magazine?
William Tracy: Well, when we left Beirut, there were several issues in the works already, so Don came to Holland with us, sort of on a loan from Middle East Export Press. At some point he actually joined Aramco proper, and the first thing the people in Dhahran did was steal him away from the magazine. So he moved to Saudi and started designing the annual reports. I was there myself in 1979 and 1980, writing the reports, and he designed them. A few years later he made an extremely early retirement and married a Thai beauty queen and moved very far away from it all. He’s an artist; he had things to do.
Did you ever get interference or pushback from Saudi, Bill? I read in your history of the magazine that there was some kind of review process.
There were very subtle things. If you needed an image for an item about a banquet honoring the president of Syria and you had three photographs to choose from, you wouldn’t use the one where everyone is standing with their wine glasses at their mouths. The wine glasses might be at their sides or on the table. Just that kind of very little subtle thing. Or you would talk about issues — “There are those who would like to see more emphasis on girls education” — but only in a general way. You would avoid opportunities to say something negative about a personality or a minister. Other than that we had tremendous leeway. But there was a review process, it’s true, and at first it annoyed the hell out of Paul Hoye. This was in the days before e-mail — before computers, actually, and before faxes. We felt very up to date because we had telexes. But in the early days of his tenure, you’d have to send things by company courier. Aramco had its own airplanes, so once a week he’d put a stamp on any story he was going to send over with little check boxes, “approve” or “disapprove,” and a whole distribution list: senior vice president, general manager, manager, supervisor of publications. So it would first go to the senior vice president and if he checked “disapprove,” then duh, everyone underneath would disapprove, too. This was not something particular to Saudi Arabia — I don’t know if you’ve ever worked at a large company in America, but the number-one rule in any company is “Cover your ass.” So Hoye had the brilliant idea to send each person on the list their own individual review copy.
Looking back on the old issues, it seems like there are certain things that didn’t really get talked about. There’s not so much, for example, about Palestine.
Robert Azzi: There were things that did not get talked about. I think that it wasn’t so much about the Palestinians so much as that if you dealt with Palestine, you would have to deal with Israel. You would have to get political.
William Tracy: Certainly when I did the issue on “Arabs in America,” there were Palestinians in that issue. More than half a dozen… But not everybody was identified by their ethnicity. More recently I think there may have been a feature on Palestinian embroidery.
Back then we all knew that Aramco was going to be nationalized at some point. It was just a question of time. And the Americans were not going to do anything contrary to Saudi political interests. So the magazine steered away from political stuff. But in any case, Aramco World saw themselves as a cultural project.
One might say the same thing about Bidoun.
Aramco World really saw itself as a cultural interface between the Middle East and the United States. I think there was prescience in that, the idea that greater understanding of the people and the issues of the Middle East would be important in the future. Although I’m not sure that worked out quite the way any of us expected… [Laughs]
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Advertisement for Metito. Ahlan Wasahlan. Jeddah: Saudia Airlines, 1978
The movement is one of the glaring historical proofs which falsifies the concept of materialistic interpretation of history and that of the dialectics of materialism according to which economics is recognized as the cornerstone of social structure and a social movement is considered a reflection of class struggle. The materialists’ belief that all roads end with the fundamental requirement, i.e. food, does not hold water in the present context.
Tell the American People: Perspectives on the Iranian Revolution. David H. Albert. Philadelphia: Movement for a New Society, 1980
The three wore beards and donned Arab dress to avoid appearing conspicuous to the townspeople, few of whom had ever seen a Westerner.
Ahlan Wasahlan. Jeddah: Saudia Airlines, 1978
Arabic personal names and place names are spelled according to a system used by Aramco, which closely follows a generally accepted system of transliteration from Arabic to English. The system does not always represent the spelling or pronunciation of the Arabic original with complete accuracy, as Arabic contains letters and sounds for which no equivalents exist in English. Furthermore, pronunciation of Arabic varies from region to region.
A Pocket Guide to the Middle East. Washington D.C: Armed Forces Information Service, Department of Defense, 1969
The relationship between states and companies was, in general, one of uneasily starched blackmail. The Arabs, for the time being, wanted Western technical help anyway; the companies, it need hardly be said, wanted the oil.
Islam Inflamed. James Morris. New York: Pantheon, 1957
Bidoun magazine is a quarterly publication founded in 2004 with the intention of filling a gaping hole in the arts and culture coverage of the Middle East and its Diaspora.
Bidoun Media Kit. New York: Bidoun, 2009
The Aramco Handbook was originated to fill the void in comprehensive texts written in English about the Middle East. Employees of the Arabian American Oil Company coming to Saudi Arabia from abroad, principally Americans, needed reliable and fairly detailed knowledge of the kingdom. Nontechnical employees needed to be grounded in the fundamentals of the oil industry. Although recently a number of books on the area have been published, the handbook continues to be useful as a single source of information and background for Aramco employees.
Aramco Handbook: Oil and the Middle East. Dhahran: Aramco, 1968
In the present edition some material which is readily available elsewhere has been omitted.
Aramco Handbook: Oil and the Middle East. Dhahran: Aramco, 1968
Air-conditioned trailers and helicopters have replaced the tents and camel caravans of Aramco’s early oil explorers. A few of the men who range the desert still cultivate beards, but most face the day clean shaven.
As Saudi workers grew more skilled through the company’s training programs, the number of Italians gradually declined.
The Energy Within: A Photo History of the People of Saudi Aramco. Kyle L. Pakka. Dhahran: Saudi Aramco, 2006
By the end of 1933 there were eight oilmen living in Saudi Arabia, counting Bill Lenahan, the liaison man in Jiddah. The small contingent stationed on Saudi Arabia’s eastern shore could merely nibble at the 320,000 mile concession area — and wait for word of the airplane that was promised them.
Aramco Handbook: Oil and the Middle East. Dhahran: Aramco, 1968
The Dhahran Theater Group originated in 1949 and attracted would-be thespians from across the company: engineers, drillers, pipe layers, refinery workers, secretaries and housewives participated in a wide variety of performances. The group, still active today, builds its own sets, installs lighting, paints scenery and plays its own music.
The Energy Within: A Photo History of the People of Saudi Aramco. Kyle L. Pakka. Dhahran: Saudi Aramco, 2006
If the phony Arab was having trouble, so was the camel.
Lassie and the Shabby Sheik. George Elrick. Racine: Whitman, 1968
When I was fifteen, I went to a concert at Chinnaswamy Cricket Stadium on Mahatma Gandhi Road. This might have been just another incident in the annals of my blameless youth if not for a few details. It was my first rock concert ever — the culmination of years of covert pop music fandom — and the artist rocking the cricket stadium that night was a gap-toothed Soviet songstress named Alla Pugacheva. If I close my eyes, I can still feel that cool Bangalore evening. The year is 1988: my sweater is several sizes too big, my blue jeans neatly ironed, my best black shoes gleam fresh with polish. As usual, I am ridiculously dressed. Surrounding me are thousands and thousands of fans, including my companions, the baddest bad boys at my Jesuit high school, all of them smoking More menthols — a long, thin, brown cigarette favored by middle-aged American housewives half a world away. I abhor them, but none of us actually know any better. Alla sings, and who knows what she’s saying, but she has fluorescent purple hair, giant cascading waves of it, and my heart is in my mouth. We are delirious. I am delirious. I am losing my mind at the Festival of the USSR in India — the last one, though we don’t know it yet. In the twilight years of import substitution, this is my sunniest memory.
Nostalgia is everywhere these days. It’s something of an epidemic. In fact, nostalgia got its start as a disease. As Svetlana Boym recounts in The Future of Nostalgia, Johannes Hofer, the Swiss doctor who coined the term in 1688, considered it a physical ailment, its telltale symptom a pronounced disinterest in the present. Over time, of course, the word has come to mean a longing for an idealized past. Personally, I prefer to think of it as a chronic illness: there was nothing ideal about my past. My nostalgia is for an era when there was no past at all and no irony — a time when the future was always bright, and usually somewhere else.
In the India of my growing up, Red Russians were our white people. They booked up our five-star hotels (both of them), they sold us their boxy little imitation Leica cameras and stale Zodiak cigarettes, and they gave us the Premier 118NE, a knockoff of that triumph of Soviet design, the Lada — impossibly recast as a luxury good in India, and my parents’ automobile for the better part of the 1990s. They lent us their circus, their books, and their Bolshoi Ballet; we sent them our classical dancers, our traditional handicrafts, and one Sharon Prabhakar, a disoriented Bombay chanteuse who opened the matching Festival of India in the USSR in black lingerie, chained to a rotating bed, belting out Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.” Or so we heard.
But my Russophilia was more personal than all that. It started the day I discovered my father’s Russian lessons, impelled by his love of Dostoevsky, carefully preserved in his notebooks: exotic characters that spelled coffee and economy in an alphabet at once inscrutable and yet somehow rigorous. I remember P.D. Ouspensky’s Strange Life of Ivan Osokin, the first of several Great Russian Books my parents pressed on me — a kind of pre-Bolshevik oriental-existential version of Groundhog Day, in which poor Osokin tries to escape the eternal recurrence of his completely misspent life, and fails. (Incredibly depressing, naturally, but heady stuff for a ten year old.) I devoured every page of the official tourist guide to Vilnius that my father brought back, and I watched with unmitigated joy as Rakesh Sharma launched into space aboard the Soyuz T-11. Now I’m embarrassed that I didn’t stop to wonder why.
Mind you, we were following the plot in this regard — in never asking why. It didn’t occur to me until much later, after it had all fallen apart. In 1993, in a remote mountain town in New England, I befriended a fellow international student, fresh from newly minted Georgia. It’s hard to describe the kind of communion I felt then with ex-Soviet émigrés, Eastern European escapees and the like with their ill-fitting clothes and their aching hunger for supermarkets, malls, and dining halls. I knew the feeling; it took me a year or more before I could walk into a well-stocked shop and not look around in wonder. I told my new friend about my big night with Alla Pugacheva. That hair! Those moves! That voice — so yearning! — her words all the more powerful for meaning nothing to me.
The Georgian blushed and mumbled evasively. I’m not sure if he was ashamed or embarrassed. Probably he had no desire to revisit what he had only just escaped. It’s easy for me to miss the Soviet Union, having never endured it at all. And my fondness for the years of my childhood doesn’t make the realities of Soviet socialism any less wretched or ridiculous or wrong. I wish I’d thought to question it when I was kid. And I wish my Georgian friend had tried to give me an answer.
One day, back in Bangalore, a friend led me to a bookstore called Navakarnataka. It was like entering a time warp. Everywhere around me were the books of my youth, and then some. Progress Publishers, Moscow’s finest party press, used to flood our shores with books for all ages, Folk Tales of the Ukraine for the tots and Das Kapital for the tottering. There were the classic books by Y.I. Perelman, Arithmetic for Entertainment and Physics for Entertainment and Figures for Fun. (My own childhood trysts with Perelman rarely involved entertainment or fun.) As a state-run institution, Navakarnataka never had to clean out its backstock. That day, elated at finding the bookstore that time forgot, I bought every Progress publication they had, along with titles by other Soviet publishers, including Mir and Novosti.
Ever since, I’ve had Soviet flashbacks. There is Aeroflot, the erstwhile USSR’s airline — now a major Russian corporation — still an incredible bargain, if you are willing to abide the abominable food and the militaristic stewardesses. And there is South Africa, where communists and their satellites pepper their casual conversation with Marxisms, denouncing ultra-leftism and opportunism and entryism, nervously considering autonomism, while still smarting from the assault launched by the Marxist Worker’s Tendency in 1979 on their “two-stage theory” (democracy first, then socialism). There is even Alla Pugacheva, alive and well and extensively documented on the Internet. In the years since her Indian touchdown, she seems to have diversified — starting a radio station, a magazine (called Alla), a perfume (also Alla) and her own line of sensible shoes, called (naturally) Alla Pugacheva. She has accumulated a distinguished roster of ex-husbands, including a Lithuanian circus performer, a film director, and a Russian pop star of Bulgarian-Armenian descent. Last year she quit touring after releasing her first solo record in many years, Priglasheniye na zakat. Invitation to a Sunset.
But I can’t bring myself to watch her videos on YouTube. Seeing her sing just makes me unreasonably sad. It makes me miss her, or me, I guess. I miss us, the people we were then, reservists in a funny kind of war to which we didn’t matter anyway.
It’s a funny place, Cuba. It’s very, very Soviet. You can’t ask the wrong questions, you can’t talk to people about politics. That’s a big faux pas in Cuba. If you say to anyone, “What do you think of the revolution,” they’ll all say, “Oh, it’s great, it’s been fantastic, it’s been really interesting, who wouldn’t want a revolution,” that sort of thing. And then you hear from other people there’s this thing called the CDR, the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution. It’s basically a spy on every block, a woman or a man who lives in a small apartment who has been awarded the title of CDR representative for that block. And it’s his or her job to snitch if you’re up to no good. So I was at Alfredo Rostgaard’s house and I said, “Are you a supporter of the revolution?” and he smiled and said, “Yeah, I love the revolution,” and that was that.
I met him a few years before he died, and I have to say he was a bit of a crazy old man. I’d asked the taxi driver — I had a taxi driver who seemed to know things, he was like my fixer — “Can you take me somewhere where I can buy Cuban posters?” Because there are no shops in Cuba; you just have to ask around. “Yeah, yeah,” he said, “I can take you somewhere.” So we bang on this door and it opens and there’s Alfredo Rostgaard. I was like, “Oh my God, I recognize this guy from photos, it’s Alfredo Rostgaard.” And he’s one of these sort of smiley, mischievous, cheeky old men who you just knew had been a bit of trouble in the past, good-looking, sort of a bit of a flirt. He told me a joke. He said in Spanish, “You know, I don’t speak English. But I do know a joke in English.” And he told me a joke — I don’t remember it, unfortunately, something about a small boy at school asking his teacher something about sex. He was a very amusing old geezer.
After I bought some posters and we chatted for a while in our broken Spanish and English, I said, “Shall we go for a drink?” So we went to the local bar and got really drunk. And the next day the guy who had taken me over there phoned me and said, “You didn’t take Alfredo out for a drink, did you? Oh God, he’s not supposed to be drinking.” So he was someone who I would describe as anti-establishment. Very anti-establishment. And antie-stablishment in a funny way. I would say that if he was the art director of Tricontinental for all those years, he would be constantly trying to get away with stuff that he thought was a little bit wacky and slightly not quite what his bosses wanted from him. You know what I mean?
— Charles Moseley, proprietor, cubanposterart.blogspot.com
One of the oddest chapters in the annals of the Cold War was its proxy war by magazine, and the oddest Cold War magazine was undoubtedly Tricontinental. Based in Havana and art-directed by legendary poster designer Alfredo Rostgaard, Tricontinental was the official publication of OSPAAAL, one of the many revolutionary acronyms liberated by Fidel’s triumph in 1959. OSPAAAL stood for Organization in Solidarity with the Peoples of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and its magazine was available in each of the New World’s great colonial languages: English, French, and Spanish. Some issues were even available in Arabic and Italian.
The magazine did its share of party-line thumping: inspiring tales of 100 percent literacy rates and vaulting social and technological progress, with occasional missives from communist luminaries like North Korea’s Kim Il-sung. But the bulk of Tricontinental’s editorial content was aimed at Third World militants, practicing or potential, for whom it served as bulletin board, guidebook, and lifestyle magazine.
Reems of paper were devoted to the rambling self-criticisms of counterrevolutionary coup plotters in Guinea, describing the exact make and model of the Mercedes they accepted from the imperialists in exchange for betraying the intractable destiny of the people. There were unreadably long lists of tiny victories by innumerable guerrilla organizations: trucks full of ammunition or wheat or concentrated fruit juice liberated from the imperialists; city squares and government buildings gloriously defaced by revolutionary slogans; hopelessly obscure silos, checkpoints, bridges, pipelines, roads, radio towers, and police stations, exploding forgettably in the subtropical night. There were first-person accounts of police corruption and genuinely tender evocations of fallen comrades. In March 1970, a special issue presented the full text of Brazilian Marxist Carlos Marighella’s Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla, a pragmatic and hair-raisingly detailed program for revolution in the cities of the industrialized world. (The chapter on “The Bank Assault as Popular Mission” detailed “important innovations in the tactics of assaulting banks,” including “the shooting of tires of cars to prevent pursuit, locking people in the bank bathroom, forcing someone to open the safe or the strong box, and using disguises.”)
What made all of this truly strange, however, was Tricontinental’s design. Compared to dismally drab Soviet attempts at cultural propaganda — or the comically guileless efforts of the Chinese — the Cubans had something uncontrivable going for them: it looked like they were having fun. Tricontinental resembled an underground zine from San Francisco more than an information vehicle for Third World liberation, and that juxtaposition had an effect comparable to that moment in Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil when a gang of black nationalists in a municipal junkyard read from a stilted manifesto while necking with white women in abandoned cars. Tricontinental’s covers were deliriously poppy, with bright, eyecatching graphics, making it just the sort of thing Marighella’s urban guerrillas should never be seen carrying in public.
At the height of its fame, the magazine boasted more than 30,000 subscribers in some eighty-seven countries. Most issues featured a poster insert demonstrating Cuban solidarity with one or another righteous global political struggle. Those posters found their way to college dorm rooms and kiosks across the globe, with young people from Berkeley to Beirut lining up to join OSPAAAL’s solidarity-of-the-month club.
The spare, colorful style of the OSPAAAL poster — like those of the ICAIC (Cuban Film Institute) and a number of other revolutionary cultural ministries — became the unofficial design language of graphic agitation the world over. That language was largely dictated by necessity; the posters, like the earliest covers of the magazine, were printed by hand on a silkscreen press. The inside of the magazine displayed a similar economy. In a technique Rostgaard called “Origami,” a single photo could be used to accompany any number of pages of text. Over the course of a six-page article, an image of Haitian dictator Papa Doc Duvalier appeared, only to be torn into four neat pieces and tossed into a garbage can.
But it was the introduction of four-color printing for the front and inside covers that occasioned Tricontinental’s signature graphic development, the “Cartel Maqueta,” or model poster. Cartel Maqueta is an allegorical and highly composed style of photography in which objects and people are graphically arranged to tell a story or illustrate an idea. (A similar style was popular in record album art of the late 1960s and is currently enjoying something of a revival.) What made Tricontinental’s photography unique was that it operated under the same constraints that had led to Origami. The third dimension was attacked with characteristic gusto, using an idiom Rostgaard called “the anti-ad” — similar to the Situationist strategy of détournement, in which the modes and methods of the spectacle are used against it. In Tricontinental’s case, this meant ironically adopting the language of capitalist publicity to further revolutionary ideals. But photography carried its own problems, particularly in regard to costs.
The solution developed by the Cubans that proved so elusive to the propagandists of the rest of the Red world was a sense of humor. The photographic medium occasioned a sort of self-conscious humor to lighten the hand of ideological imperative and steer the ridiculous toward the satirical. Hence an image meant to evoke solidarity with Palestine features a Palestinian youth (an unshaved and fatigued Cuban with a sheet wrapped around his head) with his foot planted on the head of an Israeli soldier (a mannequin head wearing an army helmet bearing a freshly painted Star of David), buried up to his neck in the sand of the desert he had stolen (a white sand beach — the whole scene was shot from a ladder to keep the sparkling blue Caribbean out of the frame).
In another singularly hilarious image, this one meant to expose the contradictions of American domestic priorities, an astronaut (a man in a white cotton one-piece, with a futuristic-looking pilot’s helmet) reaches for the moon (a cardboard crescent wrapped in tinfoil) while standing on the backs of three rather confused-looking black children (three confused-looking black children).
Although their quality varies considerably, all the images in Tricontinental succeed in giving concrete expression to a means of production that was itself political, analogous to guerrilla warfare — making the most of limited technology and/or arms by dint of manpower, charisma, and ingenuity. This ethos of finding opportunity in necessity also defined the American counterculture and the peace movement, which also shared the Cuban affection for the silkscreen, and for radical politics (up to a point).
While the young Cuban artists at OSPAAAL were ambivalent about the aesthetic influence of their enormous neighbor to the north — Rostgaard was purportedly bemused to learn from an American magazine that he was practicing “pop art.” But the remarkable thing is that their publication never looked as if it were co-opting trippy Yanqui graphics and far-out motifs to repurpose them for the party line. On the contrary, in the pages of Tricontinental, communist revolution through armed struggle emerged as the farthest-out trip of all.
It’s worth remembering that the magazine took its name from the Tricontinental Congress of January 1966, a convocation of revolutionary states and organizations at the Chaplin Theatre in Havana, chaired by Castro. If you spend enough time reading neoconservative Web sites, you will eventually find the contention that the congress was the primal scene of late-twentieth-century terrorism, as Soviet agents and their Cuban henchlings began cultivating a network of operatives who would go on to sow decades of terror across the globe, culminating in 9/11. That’s quite a stretch, even if the attendees at the conference did, in fact, include a seventeen-year-old named Illich Ramirez Sanchez, later known for his “work” with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine as Carlos the Jackal.
In 1975 Alfredo Rostgaard left the magazine to work for UNIAC, the Union of Cuban Artists. But the magazine continued to be published, even as the prospects for the inevitable triumph of the revolution came to seem more and more remote. Tricontinental only stopped printing around the turn of the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Cuba literally ran out of ink. Whatever one thinks of the Cuban revolution and its contradictions and failures, Tricontinental’s demise seems like the noblest conclusion that any magazine could aspire to. This one included.