When we set out to make this, our “Icon” issue, we weren’t interested in making a definitive hot-list of cultural touchstones or in assembling a collection of canonical Middle Eastern luminaries only to bog them down with superficial hype. We acknowledge the casual nature with which people throw around hyperbolic labels, (i.e., icon, fetish) and the multitude of associations the term “icon” elicits in the current lexicon. The challenge is approaching this theme in an original way, acknowledging that an icon represents something greater than itself while resisting heroic monumentalisms.
So, we collected our range of icons by asking writers and artists to propose their own ideas rather than commissioning specific articles and works. The resulting body of work is more a collective examination of the idea of the “icon” than it is a celebration of specific things. After all, one person’s notion of an icon is another’s hackneyed cultural blip — particularly when looking at geographies as disparate as we happen to be. So we asked ourselves, how are icons born? What is it that buoys them to iconic status? We look at fan cultures (Iranian diva Googoosh), the world through the lens of a children’s book (Hassan Khan’s epic collage painting), and history and its curious turns (former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, creating a new Iraqi flag, and the structure of revolution in Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square). Our image section, featuring work by Thomas Ruff, Nate Lowman, and Thomas Demand, is a testament to the effect that war and its associated iconography have had on the collective conscious — often care of the contemporary media. A project by the artists Yto Barrada and Simona Schneider looks at the iconography of local economies, here in the form of the exchange of cigarettes in one Moroccan town. We also inaugurate a new feature this issue, the “Bidoun Phrasebook,” a dispensable guide for contemporary travelers.
In an interview given for this issue on the subject of the late Edward Said, Christopher Hitchens, in his typical acerbic manner, brutalizes the usage of “icon” in current discourse: “It’s a fatuous word, it’s a concession by intellectuals to celebrity culture, and would be better off banned.”
Damning words, maybe. But with the help of a talented host of writers on four continents we’ve gained a glimpse into different histories and at times cultish pop phenomena. Hopefully we’ve managed to bend the notion of the icon, expose its multiple forms and leave us all thinking about what it is exactly that makes an icon an icon.
The London-based Arabic daily Al Hayat newspaper reported on May 30 that an Egyptian parliamentary member by the name of Hamdi Hassan had demanded an immediate investigation into the Spring visit of First Lady Laura Bush to a primary school in Alexandria, Egypt. The befuddled parlamentarian offered that the Education Department, in preparing for visit for the First Lady, replaced the entire administration and student body of the school in order to present a better face to the visiting librarian-turned-dignitary.
In his official investigation request, Hassan wrote that the department had “ordered the teachers and students to stay home, and prepared alternatives for them. The Department ordered the administrators and teachers of another distinguished school to be prepared and brought them to Um-Al-Qura school to perform the show.” He continued, “this trick was not noticed by Mrs. Laura and her intelligence bodies. But what would have been the case had she found out?” He added, “It seems that the appearance of the school’s original administrators and students would not have been appreciated by the US First Lady, as she would have seen poor faces obviously suffering malnutrition. Thus, Egyptian officials wanted her to see instead administrators and children who looked better to prove that they have benefited from the traces of the generous US aid aimed at developing schools and the education system.”
Egypt marked the tail end of the First Lady’s Middle East tour.
Visiting Iran’s holiest pilgrimage site just became easier, care of a new website that gets you there in virtual fashion. Log on to www.aqrazavi.org and you too can be a pilgrim without the crowds,
the worrisome cafeteria food and all of that needless weeping. With a simple click, devoted Shias from Najaf to North Carolina can recreate the high that comes from entering the tomb of Imam Reza in the northeastern city of Mashaad — and all from the comfort of their home, office or nearest internet cafe. Says the supervisor of the site: “It is for those impatient Shias who want to feel permanently connected to the eighth Imam.”
NON, JE NE REGRETTE RIEN
French intellectuals, historians and Arab communities came out in force in April to protest against a new law requiring school history teachers to focus on the “positive aspects” of French colonialism. As reported by the Guardian, the Law of February 23, 2005, as it is known, was intended to recognize the contribution of the “harkis:” Algerians who fought alongside France’s colonial troops in their country’s war of independence, before being abandoned to a grizzly
fate when the French withdrew. MPs with close ties to Algerians who settled in France slipped through an amendment to the bill one Friday afternoon, which went unnoticed for some weeks; it reads: “School courses should recognize in particular the positive role of the French presence overseas, notably in north Africa.” By this, we can assume they mean more than Algiers’s bonne patisseries.
More than a thousand intellectuals signed a petition, attempting to get the law repealed, but they are yet to have a motion tabled in Parliament. Claude Liauzu, a colonial history professor at the University of Paris VII, told Bidoun, “It’s impossible for the government to apply the law — the opposition is very strong, and a lot of teachers have decided that they will not respect this loi scélérate (nefarious law).” Of course, for many of the secularist filmmakers, academics and others that joined the campaign, it’s the precedent being set by the government wading into the muddy, subjective waters of history that’s particularly disturbing. While it’s too early to get an idea of the law’s impact on textbooks or the classroom, for any Le Pen groupies, the sanction remains gold dust.
Barcelona / Valencia
West by East
Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona
May 27–September 25, 2005
October 15, 2005–January 15, 2006**
While the prism of Orientalism has served as the dominant paradigm in critical examinations of relationships between East and West, a new exhibition at the CCCB offers to turn the tables, asking what East thinks of West. Curated by Paris-based poet Abdelwahab Meddeb, the show brings together nine visual artists from the East to present their views of the West. The artists’ point of departure is almost inevitably history and reflects a thoughtful consideration of context(s). Graphic artist Marjane Satrapi, for example, recreates the Arab geographer al-Idrîsî’s description of Europe in situ. Shadi Ghadirian examines the role of painting in representations of the West; Zoulikha Bouabdellah reflects upon the interesting figure of Ibn al-Munqîdh (who advocated closer relations to the West during the Crusades); Bushra Khalili takes on the taboo of “foreign love”; and Mohamed El Baz produces an installation inspired by Abraham’s sacrifice and its present-day repercussions. Hassan Musa, Khosrow Hassanzadeh, Samira Mahkmalbaf, and Touhami Ennadre each consider the loaded notion of the “war of images” — a concept that takes on meaning beyond contemporary media wars in considering Islam’s delicate relationship to iconography and visual representation at large.
Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain
June 24–October 30, 2005
On the occasion of its twentieth anniversary, Paris’s Fondation Cartier has conceived an exhibition devoted entirely to new talent under the age of thirty. After soliciting recommendations from one hundred established international artists (including Christian Boltanski, Raymond Depardon and Nan Goldin), curators considered more than 1200 portfolios, settling in the end on fifty visual artists and forty performers who hail from India to Argentina to Thailand and beyond. For some established artists who often work with young people, such as Takashi Murakami, the nomination process was fairly straightforward, while for some the opportunity to find new work became a creative endeavor in and of itself. Congolese artist Chéri Samba, for example, organized a city-wide competition in her home town of Kinshasa.
J’en Rêve’s ambition is to reflect the development of new artistic languages and negotiate a balance between continuity and wholesale revolution in artistic practice. Not surprisingly, the theme of identity pervades these young artists’ works. If it succeeds, J’en Rêve may serve to bring new talent into the art world’s purview, something that some of the increasingly blue chip “emerging talent” shows (such as PS1’s Greater New York exhibition) have occasionally failed to do.
Some works to look out for: Argentinean Flavia Da Rin moves seamlessly between multiple mediums, producing photographs, embroidered pieces, drawings and paintings. Canadian Sarah Anne Johnson works in an ambiguous space between photography and sculpture, while Berlin-based Setareh Shahbazi (see commissioned work in Bidoun, number 4) creates a novel installation for Cartier that combines sculpture with her trademark graphic art. In the meantime, the Nomadic Nights program will feature performance and musical acts, as well as animated, short and feature-length film and video works.
Is it possible to make art about “time, space and history,” on a scale that is less than epic? Laleh Khorramian aims for just such a balance in her first solo exhibition. Given her sweeping ambitions, the intimate scale of the New Yorkbased artist’s work can come as a surprise. Her videos are based in the monoprint process, manipulating paint on a smooth surface to generate textured backgrounds, which are then reworked by hand, and painstakingly transformed into short video animations. The tales are simple ones, like the one about Sophie, a woman walking a solitary path through theaters, crowds and wild painted forests. A detail in the surface becomes a figure, an arena or a landscape, and zooms back out again to project another scenario. The fragmented narratives build a personal universe: With the spectacle kept off just beyond the frame, emotions take center stage and the forms are suddenly very human.
Sophie and Goya, Khorramian’s first animated piece, debuted at her MFA show at Columbia in 2004. This September, the work will have a chance to be seen in a more intimate setting, against the domestic backdrop of New York’s Salon 94 gallery. The sequel to Sophie, the enigmatically titled Chopperlady sends the protagonist’s body/vessel on a journey through air. The story is further elaborated in a series of large-scale oil prints on paper, revealing how printmaking, drawing and collage inform the video pieces. By basing the work in the essentially unpredictable medium of monoprint, Khorramian constructs a brave challenge to impersonal accounts of history, spotlighting a hidden element of randomness in the smooth flow of events, and attempting to visualize time and space as it is lived and felt.
Autumn Film Festivals
Over the last couple of years, the autumn-bound Arab film festivals have battled it out for premieres and star guests, relying variously on chic Francophonie (Marrakech), Arabian reality (Damascus), past glories (Cairo) and glitz and hard cash (Dubai). This year, thanks in part to the smooth negotiating skills of Dubai Media City’s Abdul Hamid Juma, the big boys have fallen into line, allowing particularly dedicated cinephiles the opportunity to do a post-Ramadan festival-hop around the four corners of the Middle East: Dubai has set its dates for November 5-14, Marrakech runs November 11-19, Damascus goes from November 20-27 and Cairo, November 29 to December 9.
Newcomer Ramallah (September 21-30), is set to repeat the bold formula established in its inaugural 2004 outing: international and Middle Eastern arthouse and documentary hits plus local script and directing workshops, this year overseen by Motorcycle Diaries director Walter Salles. Unfortunately, yet again, Beirut’s Mideast Film Festival has stalled — understandably, given the political hiatus there; director Colette Naufal is instead organizing Independence 05 (September 30 to October 2), a weekend of new films that focus on what’s becoming known as “the situation” — the political turmoil that has engulfed Lebanon since Rafiq Hariri’s death on February 14.
Finally, stateside, ArteEast’s CinemaEast Film Festival (Quad Cinema, New York City, November 4-10) will show its usual diverse range of Middle Eastern features, shorts and documentaries, providing an outing for films rarely seen in the US.
Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia
September 8, 2005–January 8, 2006
After twenty-six years of living in London and feeling like the poster girl for successful integration, I recently shuddered to hear an old British friend declare that she had no idea that there was such a thing as pre-Islamic Iran. I know we are all citizens of the world now and questions of national identity are so last century, but I’ll admit I suddenly found myself possessed of that cliched Iranian national pride and held forth on the glories of ancient Persia and the empire that spanned North Africa to the Indus Valley. I railed that not to know about Persepolis and the empire that gave us a model of devolved administration, the first ever declaration of human rights, stone friezes that can be seen as a precursor to modern movies and the world’s first monotheistic religion, was as huge a cultural faux pas as not being aware of the rule of ancient Rome. Of course since we Iranians invented everything, then we must also hold our hands up for some of the empire’s less glorious achievements, but I neglected to mention that.
Luckily for me and all those other stereotypically proud Iranians frustrated by the West’s popular failure to acknowledge Iran’s contribution to civilization, this autumn the British Museum mounts the most comprehensive exhibition yet on the splendors of the ancient Persian empire. As well as drawing on the prolific collections of the Louvre and the British Museum itself, the exhibition features treasures that have never left Iran before, signifying a deepening of cultural ties despite this age of nuclear paranoia.
9th International Istanbul Biennial
September 16–October 30, 2005
Following a run of portentous themes in previous years, the 9th International Istanbul Biennial narrows its focus, turning in on the city itself. Simply titled ‘Istanbul,’ the exhibition will examine the city’s urban reality, as well as its rich history and the “imaginative charge” that it represents for the world today. Since October 2004, artists, academics, writers and curators have been involved in a series of public talks, a kind of exchange program with the public in Istanbul. Given the difficulties the biennial behemoth traditionally has in engaging with its host, this move to wed the exhibition to its milieu seems wise — and given the list of mostly upcoming artists, it should make an innovative addition to the biennial canon.
In a further effort to deepen the biennial experience, curators Vasif Kortun and Charles Esche are showing multiple works by only fifty-four artists, and commissioning some to undertake long-term (three week to three month) residencies in the city. Expect new work from Phil Collins, Solmaz Shahbazi, Yael Bartana and artist group Ruangrupa, among others. Durational video, which at recent art meets has required headache-inducing hours of viewing time, is being deliberately scaled down. A hospitality zone at key venue Antrepo 5 will host guest exhibitions, including a show by young Turkish artists. Meanwhile, an intriguing project provisionally titled ‘9B Positionings’ spotlights local cultural phenomena that further the biennial’s enquiry, from lectures, catalogue essays and metaphoric maps to tours and travel advice.
The venues — with the exception of Kortun’s gallery Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center —are all interstitial offices, warehouses and apartment blocks currently “between uses” in the Taksim-Galata area. In addition to engaging with its locale, the Biennial will also examine its relationship with the concept of “elsewhere” and the museum-as-institution via parallel projects at Esche’s base, the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven, Netherlands.
Anders Als Immer: Somewhat Different
September 19–October 12, 2005
September will mark the arrival of one of the most ambitious design exhibitions ever to take place in Egypt. Initiated by the Stuttgart-based IFA and organized by the Goethe Institute Cairo/Alexandria, the traveling exhibition of European design will feature over ninety-five design objects, primarily of the functional variety. Importantly, the IFA has privileged the local component of the exhibition, planning in conjunction with the host Townhouse Gallery of contemporary art a series of workshops (one of which is likely to be run by legendary German light designer Ingo Maurer) and dialogues revolving around current debates in design. In the meantime, the Townhouse has initiated a competition for local designers entitled “Out of the Box” to coincide with the event. Beyond an immediate reference to “thinking outside of the box,” the competition quite literally revolves around the possibility of designing a box — an object within the confines of 30 x 30 x 30 — a lateral thinking approach of sorts. Townhouse’s Aleya Hamza will also be running a film program throughout the monthlong event. By all accounts, the IFA exhibition in its entirety is poised to contribute more to the local arts scene than the average visiting exhibition, particularly as few resources are devoted to design in Egypt.
September 19–October 12, 2005
In his first exhibition in Cairo in three years, Youssef Nabil debuts a new series of works that represents a departure from his trademark portraiture. Known for his iconic representations of public figures, from Egyptian stars Youssra and Shaaban Abdel Rahim to Nan Goldin and Rossy de Palma, Nabil shifts, turning the camera increasingly on himself. Call him a modern day Gauguin. Cut to Nabil in Rio de Janeiro, Nabil in the Bois de Vincennes, Nabil in various dreamscapes — here reality is blurred and a distinct sense of romantic nostalgia is ever-present. What remains, however, is his distinctive color-tinting, a technique that harks back to the first days of portraiture and rarely fails to inject an interesting anachronistic element in the artist’s body of work.
In September Youssef Nabil will be having his first exhibition in the Gulf at Dubai’s new Third Line gallery. September 23 to October 15.
Silk Road Gallery
September 25–October 9, 2005
A continuation of his Undistributed Packages series, Mehran Mohajer once again explores the confrontation of disparate mediums. A bundle of half-exposed books and magazines lie in an abandoned store room, wrapped in a nonsensical shroud of papers that reference everything from Windows 2000 guidelines to antiquated etiquette texts for women. In an ambiguous state between being hidden away and coming out, the texts, wholly anonymous, lend themselves to a near-anxious state, raising questions about commodification and, finally, the power of packaging of different sorts to dictate how we consume the world around us. While Mohajer’s latest may appear at first glance a camera nostalgically poking into a dusty back closet, it has the potential to present a broader rumination on the indexical nature of images.
Zineb Sedira, the Algerian artist raised in France and based in the UK, has her first solo show in Algiers this autumn. Sedira certainly has her critics, particularly those phobic about work that references the veil or wary of practitioners that appear to be marketed in terms of their ethnicity. But after a high-profile recent solo exhibition that toured extensively in the UK, and her participation in group shows such as Africa Remix (Museum Kunst Palast, Düsseldorf; Hayward Gallery, London; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Mori Museum, Tokyo) and the British Art Show 06 (Baltic, Gateshead, and touring), this is a homecoming of sorts; the show should provide a moment to reassess the artist’s work amid the culture that so often inspires it.
The show includes one of her most compelling recent works, the reflective photographic study La Maison de Ma Mère (2002), plus a new, landscape-based video piece and photographs commissioned by the Centre Culturel Français d’Alger. Sedira is currently shooting footage in Algeria; the work promises to embody her line of enquiry: “After twelve years of absence from Algeria due to the civil war, I am now able to return. The new work will be about rediscovering the land and cityscapes of Algeria, about traveling, migration and displacement,” the artist told Bidoun. “The footage will be taken from journeys by car or train in land and boat or aircraft between Marseille/Algiers, and London/Algiers, often in movement.”
Silk Road Gallery
November 19-30, 2005
Performing dance troupes and grotesque cabarets which toured Iran after the end of the Qajar era, in the 1920s and 1930s, are the inspiration for Ramin Haerizadeh’s new work. Haerizadeh’s camera has always had a strong feel for theater and his new series weaves in many of his old themes. His earlier series Ta’ ziyeh, part of the 2004 Barcelona show ‘Under the Veil,’ featured men in chadors and took its cue from the all-male folk theater groups that perform in honor of Imam Hossein. In this series, cross-dressing and the blurred lines between uniform and costume are further twisted by visual antics and theatrical lighting. He warps his models into pantomime figures, whimsical and freakish.
Since he started photography eleven years ago, Haerizadeh has been weaving jokes into his images but has vamped up the bittersweet humor for this exhibition. Fascinated from childhood by reflections of architecture in Persian garden pools and the phenomenon of seeing in a single frame two versions of an image, Haerizadeh continues to play with mirroring, but with more subversive results than we’ve seen before.
A circle of some twenty old men are sitting around playing marbles. They’re split in two teams of four players. They look focused and immersed in the game, very much indifferent to the world around them. Old fogies with balls. A scene that could be anywhere. Boccia in Italy, pétanque in France. This particular congregation of wizened gentlemen is somewhere in downtown Al Sharq, Kuwait, and the game they are playing is called “teeyla.” The men are speaking in Farsi; teeyla was apparently imported from Iran sometime in the 1950s.
As it happens for the Kuwaiti press, caught as they are in a surge of regional identity development, this circle of friends is nothing short of a folkloric portent of national regeneration. London-based artist Yasmeen Al Awadi has decided to base her latest film project on the recent burst of teeyla hype in Kuwait: As part of an ongoing scramble to hold onto anything worthy of the term “Kuwaiti custom,” she explains, a campaign has subsumed teeyla under the quixotic cloak of collective legacy.
“The media attention over the past year or so has projected an enigmatic and romanticized image onto this small group of players,” Al Awadi notes, “but while there is an exclusivity in terms of language, and who is allowed to play, I did not encounter any of the secrecy or mystery that I had come to expect.” Rumor has it that teeyla is soon to be incorporated in the national Heritage Association’s curriculum. Teeyla thermos jugs, gilded marble kits, who knows.
In previous projects, Al Awadi has produced sculptural arrangements that investigate the formal legacy of modernism in architecture and urbanism. But the recent project is not so much a departure from her previous work as a continued reflection on methods of demarcating and territorializing urban environments, and perhaps also on modernism’s persistent, if latent, fascinations with tradition and ritual.
In her work-in-progress on the teeyla sensation, Al Awadi is aiming at something akin to “sports footage meets instructional documentary, an attempt to flout this current wave of heritagization.” The emphasis, she argues, will be placed precisely where the players themselves have placed it: rules, tactics and routine. Teeyla is due to be completed in late 2005.
If the coffee in the lobby was any indicator of what was to come, we knew we were headed for unsavory times. We had both played hooky from work that morning and shelled out ten dollars to be enlightened as to the secrets of the United Nations’ gracefully monolithic Le Corbusier/Oscar Niemeyer–designed headquarters in New York City. Beset by scandal, financially strapped and its relevance questioned by the US’s shameless hijacking of the world order, our visit was an expression of solidarity, not to mention an act of curiosity.
Chucking our coffee cups in the waste bin in unison, we moved on to the waiting area to listen for our tour number. Behind a raised glass promontory was an elaborate operation reminiscent of “central command” organizing the litany of assembled tourists. In spite of badges, navy blazers and walkie-talkies, they looked as mystified as we did when number 7 was spastically called out before number 6 (our group). Nearby, a sign ominously read “NO BATHROOMS ON TOUR” (after the aforementioned coffee, plainly reason for alarm).
To distract ourselves from the fear that number 6 would be eternally lost, we looked at two “lobby exhibitions” of interest. On one wall hung a series of hand-woven silk carpets, each bearing the face of a former Secretary General of the venerable institution, from dashing Dag Hammarskjöld to current boss Kofi Annan. Both authors were excited by this manifestation of vernacular craft (and admit to a considerable crush on the latter Secretary General; he does look hot on a carpet). Upon closer inspection, we learned that these carpets were in fact gifts from the Islamic Republic of Iran. Forget the adjoining bronze bust from Swaziland; getting one’s face woven into a carpet seems the ultimate gesture of goodwill and internationalism. Go Iran. Incidentally, we agreed that the international community should really lay off on all that unpleasant nuclear business.
Also in the lobby was a temporary exhibition of “atomic art,” the work of self-proclaimed “atomic artist” Tony Price, now deceased. The mustachioed southwestern sculptor fashioned totemic masks from defunct bomb parts. May Tony rest in peace confident that the photographic portrait of him in the lobby is one of the most awesome spectacles in the UN. The artist is pictured in a director’s chair before a ham-fisted mural of a mushroom cloud, facing gravely back over his shoulder at the viewer through aviator glasses. In a chilling twist, Tony’s gaze is obstructed; the lenses of his glasses are each painted opaquely to mirror the mushroom cloud image behind him! without a doubt the most fantastically bizarre plea for peace we have ever witnessed — but nonetheless the most effective of the morning.
We snapped out of our atomic trance with the call for our tour and met our perky guide. His name may or may not have been Steven, but we dubbed him Brandt all the same (he was a dead ringer for the obsequious-yet-informative assistant from the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski). As Brandt began lecturing his way through a gigantic graphic of “Mr Annan” on the wall and “sweeping views of the various halls” (that’s a quote), we marveled at a tiny woman following him about, holding a tiny microphone up to his mouth. Brandt explained that she was a documentary filmmaker from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation who would accompany us. That her documentary was tentatively entitled_ The Decay of the UN_ would prove a harbinger of things to come.
En route to the General Assembly, Brandt led us through the disarmament exhibition, where we learned that the entire UN budget is one quarter of that for the proposed Jets Stadium. Here we also spotted an enormous poster picture of actor Michael Douglas do-gooding in UN garb (doubtless somewhere in Africa). Why bother with him, we wondered, when we already have Angelina Jolie? (Neither of us had really blinked when Glenn Close tried to hack Douglas to pieces in Fatal Attraction.) Ruminating on the potential of celebrities to be goodwill ambassadors, we wondered aloud if we should just give up the charade and make Bono an honorary Nobel laureate. And beyond running about the UN building in the reverential The Interpreter, didn’t Sean Penn go to Iraq?
Before we could ask our knowledgeable guide, we passed through the uneventful Security and Economic Council, finally reaching the would-be pièce de résistance: the General Assembly.
The hall’s pale blue chairs had lost their gleam, scuffed up by years of fidgety diplomatia. The translating devices affixed to the armrests were missing a button or two — or missing entirely, as if to say, “Never mind, Arabic will work just as well as Chinese.” Apparently the planned renovation (dubbed “Capital Master Plan 2008”) has its work cut out. We did however ponder the graphic amoeba-esque wall murals in pinks and turquoises as well as scads of gold piping. Its unrestrained style (if this room were created today, we could count on tactics of bland intimidation) and tattered, mid-century grandiosity brought on a strong sense of UN nostalgia (albeit one
credited solely to the decor). Some trivia we bet you didn’t know: The seating arrangement in the Assembly rotates every year by lottery. This year, it’s St. Vincent and the Grenadines sitting right
Beyond the General Assembly, we were barred entrance to the Security Council chambers despite repeated brandishing of our press credentials. We were, however, invited to voyeuristically peer inside through the door crack — where nothing of import seemed to be happening anyway. A deforestation conference? Sierra Leone? We wanted Big Issues — throw us a little opium trafficking, damn it — but that is only for the deluxe axis of evil tour, it seems. Instead, Brandt moved us right along and explained that traffic safety had finally made the agenda of the UN. More people die in car accidents than in wars every year, apparently. The UN should really quit fumbling around with peacekeeping and get proper street signage!
The tour petered out through a few more halls displaying gifts from various nations (presents as bizarre as atomic art). We must admit that the children’s tour seemed far more fun than ours. More than once we longingly eavesdropped on the animated descriptions and promise of an end-of-tour ice cream and pin.
Hoping for some memento of our less than momentous morning, we paid fourteen bucks to get our pictures printed on an official UN stamp back in the lobby. Although the camera was digital, the technician refused our ardent requests for retakes. Categorically. On the resultant stamp, one of us came out looking decidedly feline, the other quite like what we imagine Mr. Spock’s daughter would look life if he had (blonde) offspring. And only later did we find out that the stamp is only valid if mailed from UN premises. Now they tell us. Nontheless, we know the UN has known finer
moments, and we won’t give up on it just yet.
I’ve often been told that the women’s rights that were curtailed after the 1979 revolution had once been imposed from above — that only a small urban class had had a say in their ratification, and that they didn’t reflect the needs of the majority of Iranian women. Local women, I’ve been told, did not fight the annulment of said rights, and when they did, their struggle was barely noticeable.
This is in some ways true; it is a reminder that social issues cannot be solved from above in any lasting manner. And yet it seems that with the growth of the “global village” and the rise of international NGOs, top-down emancipatory policies are still with us today, presenting us with a new set of questions, more complex and challenging than ever before.
Generally speaking, one tends to judge oneself from the viewpoint of a dominant gaze — of an individual, a social class, or a gender with privileged access to resources and power — so disposing over proficient means to build self-esteem and self-confidence. However, in the wake of recent international developments, you can judge yourself not only from the assumed perspective of a dominant eye, but, more precisely, from that of an unspecified gaze that is not so much politically superior as “exterior” to one’s own environment.
When considering all the conflicting and confusing movements that have developed in Iran over the last decade or so, one can make out a pattern of both the people and the ruling factions viewing each other through the prism of an “outside” eye. When student movements were repeatedly met with armed forces outnumbering demonstrators ten to one, this was arguably a case of the influence of reports from outside the country’s borders. On the one hand, sensational satellite TV programs delude students as to their own potential as a movement; on the other, these same media representations leave our astoundingly paranoid statesmen even more suspicious and insecure than they were before. This outside representation is tremendously influential both with respect to the popular movement and the government’s reaction towards it.
To take another example, when the regime shuts down dozens of newspapers, it inspires two contrasting reactions. At home, there tends to be little or no reaction beyond the lamentations of the journalists themselves, while abroad, we tend to hear heated objections — often without the historical and structural context of the newspapers in question. One may wonder, how can such papers be so easily shut down, without any citizen batting an eyelid? And why were such drastic measures taken in the first place? Were these papers really a threat to the powers that be? Hardly. So why all this frenzied hostility? Once again, both sides were subject to an outside gaze: The press, which had transcended the actual scope of social support for its causes, moved at an extremely high speed without bothering to take a realistic look at its actual surroundings. And for the authorities, overexcited and overly apprehensive after tuning in to foreign radio and TV stations, suddenly seeing their opponents in a format that was larger than life. Speaking from my own experience as an activist, I know you can struggle for many years without ever being applauded or even criticized by your peers. But as soon as you’re praised from somewhere “outside,” those at home produce an immediate reaction, be it positive or not. The government is a case in point here — and as it steps in to interfere, you realize that no one ever comes to see what you’re really doing. At the precise moment of the authorities’ intervention, when all eyes are on you, whatever you were doing is now sensationalized, restricted, or made to disappear.
Ultimately, what I am trying to convey is that, in some cases, there is a link between international support and the severing of close connections between activists and society. International backing can make it (even more) difficult to reach a genuine understanding of the society in which you’re active, to discern the potential of your own movement and to analyze and predict the government’s response to your actions. Needless to say, as there’s a chronic lack of social support systems in Iran, international institutions can be extremely useful. But if a society cannot correct the disproportionate weight of “external” support systems, no long-term social transformation can take place, particularly since transnational institutions must pay close attention to developments in government relations, and are thus liable to change priorities at any time.
It is not my intention to completely disavow the role of international organizations. I simply wish to draw attention to these issues in the hope of acting less naively with respect to the potentially negative repercussions of helping hands from “without.” The support of international NGOs is a mixed blessing, and the fledgling women’s movement is no exception here. The incentives handed out by NGOs, through invitations to speak in prestigious venues, or the investment of funds, have convinced a large number of women to get involved. But on the other hand, not only do the NGOs spark disagreements between the women they deem worthy of such inducements, and those they do not, they also introduce an “outside” perspective among active women, who are suddenly no longer restricted to any framework imposed by the needs of the local population alone.
Advanced capitalist societies, with their sophisticated methods of social management, have long realized that by drawing on popular forces, by getting them involved on various levels of decision-making, one can discourage any radical ambitions; the legitimacy of the ruling faction is in fact consolidated. The dominant ideology of post-industrialized nations was adapted in such a way as to include opposing movements, and offer them a specific outlet for objection and protest. In such cases, therefore, NGOs and other organizations were established in a manner that was ultimately to the advantage of the state.
But what goes on in countries like Iran? The sporadic injection of (at times, staggering amounts of) money for projects through various nongovernmental and non-profit organizations creates an enormous, confusing buzz. These flurries of activism do not spring from within Iranian society itself, nor are they long lasting, since they’re subject to the ups and downs of international relations, and the development of any given project is always liable to stop halfway.
Moreover, in countries such as Iran, due to the aggressive and pervasive approach of the authorities, NGOs, including women’s associations, are prevented from extending their existing networks, services, research capacities and strategies of protest. They must content themselves with superficial work methods, and cannot have the productive impact of similar organizations abroad. The international institutions often attempt to compensate for the situation by injecting generous amounts of money into select projects, and training a small class of outstandingly qualified, highly professional women. These specialists, however, rarely become acquainted with the culture of collective protest. Nor do their motivations stem from a local context per se. Generally speaking, when social protest becomes a livelihood, convictions become less stable, and more vulnerable to shifting geopolitical circumstances and funding policies. While this needn’t necessarily be negative or problematic, the possibility that political beliefs become subject to the pressures of making a living creates many potential pitfalls — with creativity and commitment potentially channeled toward the means rather than the end.
Today, the issue of “Iranian women” is highly fashionable on the international scene, while a gesture of support for the women’s movement is always beneficial for the NGOs themselves. Filmmakers, artists, writers and beyond now engage with women’s issues, albeit from trivial, superficial angles favored by the international audience. Nevertheless, one continues to worry about how long such interest will last, and what impact the fickle relations between governments will have. Women’s issues are now hip, and that’s fine, but if we don’t find ways to deepen and develop the feminist opposition and feminist thought — despite the aforementioned problems, the recent arrests, and the shutting down of both local and international organizations — someday, when the dust settles, when the gallows are put away and the bloodstains are washed out, we’ll come face to face with a society which does not have any foundation for women to build on. And women will lose once again. But if the needs of a social movement are met from within, we’ll be less likely to fall victim to government oppression or shifting international relations. For under such circumstances, the gap between various groups of women is lessened. As they gradually become dependent on one another, a realistic awareness of society’s needs becomes possible.
Let’s recap. Globalization — this obscure word remains consistently used and misused. Today, anything which includes non-western nationalities/cultures/ethnic or political groupings is defined as being the face of this globalization. On the art front this globalization is rampant; inIVA (London) produces the hit show The Veil; the Fridericianum (Kassel) opts for In the Gorges of the Balkans prepping the art market for the art of the new European states; in the aftermath of September 11, Witte de With (Rotterdam), the Bildmuseet (Umeå) and Fundació Antoni Tàpies (Barcelona) co-host Contemporary Arab Representations; and PS 1 (New York) introduces us to poverty and violence in Mexico City: An Exhibition about the Exchange Rates of Bodies and Values. In this so-called new age of multi-culti/fusion/hybrid everything, globalization rhetoric is not only modish but economically viable as well — a catchphrase for a product line.
In the coming paragraphs, I don’t want to redundantly propose yet another definition of globalization (in 1998 alone, 2822 academic papers on globalization were written and 589 books on the subject were published), but rather I will try to put forward a suggestion of the three most commonly utilized understandings of this term and how they manifest themselves in the culture trade.
Definition One: For the economically-minded, the World Bank explains, “Globalization is the growing integration of economies and societies around the world.” From this definition comes a plethora of theoretical texts and sociopolitical analysis ranging from the hyper-objective writings of Saskia Sassen to the highly reductive statistics of Naomi Klein. Massive amounts of social science and economic research are continuously produced, of which most responsible cultural practitioners are somewhat informed. Art critics, culture theorists and curators make use of this research and incorporate it in their analysis of exhibitions, art works and practices, biennales, and so on and so forth. (See Authentic/Ex-centric [Venice], Unpacking Europe [Rotterdam/Berlin], Unrealized Democracy: Documenta 11 [Kassel], When Latitudes Become Forms: Art in a Global Age [Minneapolis], and the like.)
Definition Two: Globalization is a process that is gnawing away at authenticity, destroying cultures which must be preserved. Here we have the goodwill factor, wherein promoters of cultural exchange discuss preservation in a spirit fueled by a contrived romanticism. In accordance with their position, an affirmative action culture is advocated. Workshops, networks, collaborations are the way to get to know each other, to learn and develop — more often than not the result is condescension in the guise of generosity; cultural-specificity and the local are stagnant prescriptions — difference is celebrated as long as it is maintained. Cultural parasites are the most active under this banner; certainly coming soon, we’ll have Baghdad Blues: Art in a Post-Saddam Iraq curated by whoever got there first.
Definition Three: Any interaction across cultures/borders/ethnic groups constitutes globalization, from elephants parked outside McDonalds in Bangkok and German businessmen drinking Corona to the mysterious all-powerful internet. This view is the outcome of the infectious “other” rhetoric systemically dominating today’s political arena. In this case, McDonald’s is perceived as the original global messenger — ignoring that, McD’s revenues aside, many historical transnational cultural sources like the Bible are still more popular than a Big Mac. Fortunately most exhibitions and projects produced in this language are easily forgotten, although the impact of their underlying assumptions is alarming.
Various combinations of these definitions are constantly at play, and when the word pops up, everyone gives a politically correct nod to indicate that “yes, we are all on board here” — we know that exploiting Malaysian workers is bad but the spread of wonderful Ethiopian restaurants is great, and of course finding a balance is so very complicated. And once again, complex issues are reduced to generic mis/understandings to minimize damage and keep latent conflicts at bay. We are not in the politics industry after all; this is just about art.
“Art cannot change the world” are words spoken nonchalantly day in and day out, and the agency of the arts and culture production industry is comfortably reduced to the mere fetishism of a few privileged practitioners. Discussions of the seminal role of funding agendas, curatorial policies both of private and public institutions, production values, etcetera, are simply engulfed by the standardization machinery. And for those not so easy to appease, well they can chat, complain and theorize about “representation,” and there is funding for that too. And of course, the machinery of standardization also provides the margins for this debate: post-colonialism, exoticism, Orientalism, regionalism and so on.
But how does this globalization hype impact professional practice on an individual level? I am a Muslim, Arab female. Whatever implies tragic inflictions in the real world puts me at great advantage on a politically correct cultural stage eager to flaunt its openness. Professional integrity can only be maintained somewhere in the equilibrium between exploitation and self-serving, reckless opportunism; and to find the balance, one must suffer the curse of acute self-consciousness, a condition which can incite bouts of paralysis — or conversely – might inspire the occasional original thought. How can one situate/frame one’s self either locally or internationally on one’s own terms? Isn’t participation in the representation debate a legitimization thereof? And under what conditions can new paradigms emerge?
On the local level, the dynamics are different. In Egypt and perhaps the Middle East at large, this luxurious separation of art and politics does not exist. Official instruments and propaganda are the original purveyors of the Bush-esque dictum: “If you are not with us, you are against us!” In this atmosphere, independent curatorship is involuntarily a form of cultural activism mixed with a zeal for art, some administrative skills and a hint of academic savoir-faire that allows for making small talk with the history of twentieth century western art. Contextualization remains the name of the game; but without locally-generated artistic references and sources, where is the backbone of a more inclusive and shared discourse? On what grounds do you build local art critical debates? No wonder the art works easily fall prey to superimposed categorization on the international scene — they keep traveling without any luggage!
The question on everybody’s mind remains: What curatorial strategies work amidst these conditions? What are the criteria for evaluating whether or not a curatorial strategy works anyway?
Project Misplaced is the story of Simon, a fictitious character who tries to recreate himself in the US (or any other foreign culture). He tries to use the media to his own advantage in much the same way the governments do, in order to justify erecting walls, waging wars, and otherwise doing evil. His only problem is that he is not skilled enough. Simon documents his existence on the planet through newspaper ads in southern California’s Iranian community publications. But he misjudges his situation, and believes he is an equal. To generate funding and backing, he takes part in California’s gubernatorial elections in 2003. And of course loses.
Simon (AKA Soleyman) Ordoubadi is just as lost and ill-equipped as any other first generation immigrant. He is like an Eskimo in Las Vegas. He likes shiny things but doesn’t know how to get them. All he has are whale-hunting skills…which do not really come in handy when one is supposed to play poker. Simon Ordoubadi walks the same tightrope we all do when detached from society and culture. He’s left at the doors of the prom in a rented tuxedo, not knowing one needs a date to attend.
Serkan Özkaya can remember copying important works of contemporary art from an early age. With no international art collection of note in Istanbul and no option to travel to see the originals, he relied on photocopies from books, from which he would make a copy of his own. Reproductions were for Özkaya and other artists of his generation more important than the original could ever be. The prospect of seeing an original became a form of back-up and often a let-down — potentially it was smaller, less colorful, and in worse repair than ever imagined.
So Özkaya, born in 1973, has long been consumed with questions of scale and authenticity. In an endeavor to create an original from a reproduction, he once proposed to wrap the Reichstag two years after the fabric used in Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Wrapped Reichstag (1971 to 1995) had been removed. Özkaya’s proposal to the German Parliament included copied images of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work. His motivation was simple — to make a work that he had never actually viewed, a work that he had only seen in pictures or heard about. He realized a similar work in Istanbul in 1997 at the BM Contemporary Art Center, where he wrote “Keith Arnatt is an Artist” on the gallery wall. Arnatt himself had performed the same gesture in a gallery in London in 1972, before Özkaya’s birth. Özkaya indicated his admiration by copying the text verbatim, making him, in his words, an art lover rather than an artist.
As these devoted acts of imitation became the focus of Özkaya’s practice, he began to consider whether the situation of living within a zone of reproduction is a representation of feeling to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Özkaya first attributed this feeling to “geographical dislocation,” growing up and living in a country and city that many consider to be peripheral. He concluded, you always presume there is something more important happening elsewhere; “you never believe that you are in the right place at the right time, and therefore there is in fact no center.”
Triggering this moment — of ecstasy followed by clarity — for himself and others is where Michelangelo’s statue of David comes in. Özkaya has never seen the original statue; he has not even seen one of the many one-to-one casts that exist in the world. He has only encountered small replicas of the sort tourists buy and various different two-dimensional reproductions. “Such iconic works no longer exist in reality as originals,” says Özkaya. “They have become verbal legends, all about the replicas, the copies, the reconstructions and the fakes.”
Özkaya wanted to experience David first-hand, and started production of the ultimate copy, a larger-than-life replica of Michelangelo’s masterpiece, commissioned for the 9th Istanbul Biennial and to be exhibited in the area of Beyoglu. He aims to replicate that precious moment when time stands still for those who see David, many of whom, like Özkaya, only know the statue through reproductions of the work. Özkaya explains, “even if you don’t know it is in the image of Michelangelo’s statue of David, your body and eye will know that it is something beautiful. For a moment time will stand still and only in the aftermath will the obvious questions arise — is this Michelangelo’s statue of David? Is it the original, an exact copy or a new work? How was it copied, was there permission?”
In order to realize a new David, Özkaya contacted Professor Marc Levoy, known for his pioneering work in three dimensional scanning. Levoy developed a 3D laser scanner that could digitally capture an object from every angle and, from this data, a precise computer model of the original could be made. Levoy was enthusiastic to advance the potential of this technology to achieve the ability to copy in 3D a wider variety of artifacts from museum collections and sites of cultural heritage.
In 1998 Levoy and his team relocated to Florence and scanned ten sculptures in the Galleria dell’Accademia, the largest work being the statue of David. Without moving or touching the sculpture, a laser rangefinder and mechanical gantry were used to map the surface structure of David to the nearest millimeter — enough detail to detect Michelangelo’s chisel marks.
The result of this process is a data set of two billion polygons and 7000 color images — a 250 gigabyte 3D computer model of David copyrighted to Marc Levoy, Stanford University, and Galleria dell’Accademia. As long as credit is given, anyone can use the 3D computer file found at http://graphics.stanford.edu/projects/mich/ to produce a David statue in any ratio and almost any material. Other scholars have used similar technology to scan other artifacts, including the objects found in the tomb of Seti I in the Valley of Kings, Egypt, and one entire burial chamber.
Özkaya, having contacted both Levoy and the Galleria dell’Accademia out of courtesy rather than for official permission, is now making his own David based on the data of the 3D computer model. Özkaya proposes that his David will emphasize the idea that icons are considered public property, and as such, can be reproduced by anyone at will. He points out that galleries and museums provide a community model of proposed sharing; patrons form personal relationships with works of art, often returning time and again to view a specific painting or sculpture.
Another of Özkaya’s ongoing works, Mona Lisa Upside Down, also reconsiders the audience’s perception of an icon. In 1996 Özkaya wrote to the director of the Louvre and proposed that Leonardo da Vinci’s best-known work be hung upside down for “one, two, no, best for three days” in order to reconsider the paintings historical record as a thing of great beauty. Citing Roland Barthes’ work Mythologies, Özkaya believes that our understanding of icons is beyond judgment: “We accept them as such because of their long histories, and to judge for ourselves we must reposition our perspective with respect to the work in question.”
This presumed judgment also applies to defined societal objects such as the newspaper. On September 21, 2003, to coincide with the opening of the last Istanbul Biennial, Özkaya produced a work in collaboration with the daily national newspaper Radikal. On the evening before this particular issue of Radikal was due to go to press, when all the copy and images had already been laid out and the newspaper was finished and ready to print, Özkaya and his team entered Radikal’s office. Using tracing paper, they drew over every word, image and headline that appeared on the front and back page of the paper in its original form. The newspaper then went to print that night in the usual way, except for its cover, which was replaced with a printed version of the hand-drawn copy made by Özkaya and his team. Although the work was not commissioned by the Biennial, Radikal’s media sponsorship of the event meant that Özkaya’s initiative was available and free to all the exhibitions visitors. The paper was also distributed nationally as normal and available for sale at the usual price. As an afterthought Özkaya titled the work Today Could Be a Day of Historical Importance, as the newspaper had shifted from its everyday standardization to an object to be kept rather than disposed of; a copy suddenly more of a genuine article than the original.
Completed to nipple-stage at the time of our meeting, Özkaya’s David when finished will be twice the size of the original. Özkaya will paint the finished sculpture gold, adding another layer of simulated worth and excess. “I am not interested in absolute beauty, but in the beautiful as an ugly memento,” says the artist. Considering all the steps taken for this project — from the brainpower and equipment of Levoy and his team to Özkaya’s research and construction to the doubling of height and gilding — the relative value of the copy creates the potential to momentarily capture the qualities of an original, or at least a unique copy.
Can repetition in any way spoil the beauty of such an iconic work of art? Does it merely suggest that the original has lost the very essence that set it apart? With the increasing ease of precise mechanical reproduction, it is in fact the copies, replicas and fakes that authenticate the status of icons. One last question: Does Özkaya have qualms about copying, personally adapting and re-contextualizing such an icon? He is quick to answer: “I feel closer to Michelangelo in person than to the values of the museum.” And with this salvo, another iconic David enters the world.
Constructed in 1892 by the Glavani Family, the Büyük Londra Oteli, or the Grand Hotel de Londres, was considered “the most prestigious establishment in the area of Pera, at that time,” according to one guide. Most other sources cite its more elegant and famous neighbor, Hotel Pera Palas, as the superior of the two. Having opened a year earlier to host Orient Express travelers en route from Paris to Istanbul, the Pera Palas subsequently enticed Agatha Christie to set a murder mystery there, accommodated Kemal Atatürk, and received extensive restoration work and remains a luxurious hotel to this day.
But this review is not about the Pera Palas; I mention it because one’s appreciation of the Londra stems from, or is at least enhanced by, an understanding of its charisma in relation to the stately other.
For starters, the Londra is a more dilapidated, far cheaper, though nevertheless friendlier version of the Pera Palas. The price for a single room can drop as low as twenty-five dollars if you have friends in the right places, or try your luck with a few words of Spanish to Azimet at the front desk. Several rooms have been renovated, while the rest retain a worn and rather blemished appearance; you can tell someone stayed there before you. And always remember to take an alarm clock, as a pre-booked wake-up call will come late, sometimes the day after you requested it.
The Londra’s most iconic feature is its lobby. Recently renovated, the decor remains close to the original Tudor style, and fortunately the proprietors recognized the room’s previous eclectic charms: The parrots, jukeboxes, trunks, record players, majestic furniture and looming chandeliers remain intact.
The record player is available for patrons to use freely: Put a needle to vinyl and listen to anything in the hotel’s record collection. Taking advantage of this hospitality, Joanna Stella-Sawicka and I organized We’ll Meet You in the Lobby in 2003. We inserted a selection of artist-made vinyls from the UK into the hotel’s Abba, Leonard Cohen and “Best Of ” album collection (the project will be repeated at the 9th Istanbul Biennial with a wider range of artists’ vinyls again slipped into the existing stack and available to play).
To the rear of the lobby stands a stained-wood bar, its stools unsteady enough to allow one to lean comfortably forward after way too many elegant martinis. Beverages are served by a limping bartender who, the story goes, once shot himself in the leg. Imported drinks are affordable, local beer cheap; you can host a party, invite as many guests as you wish and request to play your own music. Forget stuffy restrictions: At the Londra anything goes and it goes until dawn. Finally, the Londra boasts a guest list unlike any other in Istanbul. It was rumored that Hemingway stayed at the hotel in the 1920s, and artist Daniel Bozhkov, himself a dedicated Londra fan, recently found a letter in the writer’s archive to substantiate the claim. At the 9th Istanbul Biennial, Bozhkov will launch Eau d’Ernest in the hotel’s lobby — “a scent, which will capture the very essence of contemporary man, evoking bold masculinity with some sensual and vulnerable tones.”
Oddly enough, the Buyuk Londra is, post-Venice and Basel, the place to be seen. With recent guests spanning the spectrum (Martha Rosler, Jonathan Watkins, Jens Hoffmann, Anton Vidokle, Tino Seghal, Maria Lind, and Jack Persekian, to name but a few), it has become an institutional watering hole for art gliteratti. On any given night spent in this very special lobby you are bound to bump into at least one person you know, a visiting lecturer from Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center, an artist participating in the Istanbul Biennial, and quite possibly a Hemingway lookalike at the bar, with whisky in one hand and a bottle of Eau d’Ernest in the other.
Okwui Enwezor, an international scholar and historian is a pioneer of curatorial practice on the themes of cultural difference and globalization. At the Documenta 11, Enwezor became the first curator to bring post colonial critique to the mainstream. He and New York gallerist Michelle Maccarone sat down to discuss the relevance of biennials and the business of art.
Michelle Maccarone: I did this project called the ‘Guantanamo Initiative’ and I’d originally shown the installation in Miami at Miami Basel at a commercial art fair. And we did this great political installation.
It has a lot of ephemera, documentation, and we set up, sort of, a shipping container and inside are the documents with the checks — videos of Fidel Castro talking about the checks, an interview with Jacques Cousteau and a naval officer at Guantanamo Bay and he’s asking him questions about the naval base. So this is an entire installation which exists in this shipping container, and we showed it in Miami Basel. Rosa Martinez saw the piece and wanted to bring it to the Venice Biennale, so I went with Christoph Büchel and we reinstalled the piece and we set it up and for the five days of the installation period I kept on referring to the installation as my booth.
Okwui Enwezor: [Laughs]
MM: I’m sharing this kind of anecdote with you because in a way these biennials and large scale installations, and the Carnegie, and Documenta become these event driven episodes in the art world, and you have people — the curators, collectors, artists — running around these things, and they treat it like it is an art fair. It becomes indistinguishable because you go to Basel and it’s these big major installations — it’s supposedly curated, they do artists projects, there are commercial booths that galleries pay money for, collectors are paying money to go…it’s tinged by everyone’s economic whatever. It just seems like we’re all on kind of a party train, or the art world’s supposed to be on a party train, going from these fairs and biennials, these exhibitions and these events, which become all indistinguishable somehow. What’s your opinion or what do you think about that?
OE: I’ve heard this idea that biennials and art fairs and so on are event driven and they’re all the same thing that form part of the same family, and I cannot help but disagree substantially on a number of levels — first on an ideological level, and second on an intellectual level. That is not to say that there’s anything wrong with an art fair per se, but I think it’s very important to tease out what fundamentally distinguishes a biennial from an art fair, and to perhaps imagine that maybe the case is the fact that art fairs have now begun to cannibalize the biennials. And I do not so much see biennials as event driven. I think they are very specific spaces of reception that have very clear intellectual, problematic, and historical perspectives. And in order to understand the function of each exhibition we have to refer back to their histories, to the very foundations of these institutions. So for example the Venice Biennale and Documenta could not, in any way, shape or form, be exactly the same kinds of exhibition.
OE: Besides the fact that they are cyclical exhibitions that happen within very specific temporal structures. Venice is biennially and Documenta happens every five years, but they were not designed with that logic in mind. So having said, that I think it’s important to ask of ourselves, what are the proper spaces of reception for contemporary art today?
MM: That’s a great question.
OE: In a moment in which what we have is not necessarily the proliferation of biennials, but the proliferation of museums and the modifications of museums as such.
MM: That was precisely another major question that I had. What seems to stun me the most is we’re living in the most politically ridiculous moment in recent American history. Yet at the same time it seems like everyone has these blinders on — collectors are buying painting. They’re buying really aesthetically driven works.
OE: Well, let me just say, I think perhaps the time has come for us to take a step back and not demonize collectors or make collectors scapegoats for the kind of deficits that exist in the contemporary art world right now.
MM: The deficit is really something I want to talk about.
OE: And I think it’s important to ask the question, what are the curatorial prepositions that are going on today? If curators don’t make it — if the artists don’t make it — collectors don’t buy it.
OE: Necessarily. So I don’t want to demonize collectors. I think it’s a very complex cultural ecology in which we all operate. I think that in that ecology there are a number of different incentives, and there are a number of different positions, and there are, of course, multiple historical, intellectual and aesthetic positions, all of which converge at the nexus of the market and the institutions. And here the question is, what is it that collectors buy if not with an eye towards the institutions? So there’s a kind of complicity here, between the collector and the institution, and I’m not saying that institutions are driving this collecting mania. I think that we’ve reached a sort of threshold in our contemporary milieu to begin to reassess what is it that makes art valuable to be collected and what is it that makes it not so valuable? This is what I see as one of the important roles of biennials as such. I’m a great advocate of these types of informal or temporary exhibitions because they have the capacity to transgress a kind of limited terrain that the institutions are unable to get into simply because the institutions are beholden to the trustees.
OE: They are operating under the guise of what they call public trust, under some limitations of space, under some deficits of growth in a problematic direction, under the guise of certain aesthetic tastes, and so on. There are all kinds of reasons. And then there are different kinds of dogmas that shape institutions, and that is not to say that biennials do not have some dogmas, but they do change. Biennials, to my thinking, are spaces of experimentation. They are spaces that gather the logic of artistic production at the very moment in which it creates a viable ontology for itself. In that sense what I would like to say is that within this cultural ecology there are many different spaces of reception and many different spaces of production, and each of them is completely attuned to certain levels of production or look in certain conditions of production. So the biennial in Sharjah cannot necessarily be seen as the same as the biennial in Gwanju. There are two different kinds of publics there. There are two different kinds of historical determination that make it possible for that public to be able to engage with the works that will bring force over there. So these are kinds of questions that we really have to ask; are biennials exactly the same all over the place, or do we just simply replicate the same versions of biennials out of Venice and out of Documenta? — which I think was years ago the most internationally visible of such institutions — or Carnegie?
But when we look beyond those spaces we really have to consider biennials in light of the ongoing process of modernization that many different places are undergoing in different parts of the world, whether it’s in China, whether it’s in Korea, whether it’s in Japan, whether it’s in Cairo. So — Sharjah as well — this is one issue. The second is that if we’re going to look at these institutions or these exhibitions in terms of the historical trajectory that they are mapped onto we have to ask the question, why is there a biennial in certain places and not others?
OE: And I think there are gaps in knowledge as to what these biennials are. I feel, that they may not necessarily be sustainable as permanent institutions in themselves.
MM: But the biennial is not a permanent institution in some respect either. With the proliferation of all these biennials in all these different places it’s also these economic structures whether or not they can be sustained every two years or whether it becomes every seven years. But in terms of the site specificity or in terms of the place do you see it as coming and going or do you see them as institutionalized? For each place?**
OE: Well in a sense it waxes and wanes, and it depends. This is precisely why I’ve said there are two moments of reception we have to think about: One, the reception of what sometimes we consider to be the proceedings of different cultural production, and the other is the reception that comes into being after the possibility to form a new kind of public for the culture, and so on. And this to me seems to be at least if not the one reason, one of the million reasons why biennials are created.
When Singapore wants to do a biennial it is not simply an act of mimicry. It is an act of trying to create a place.
MM: Or control.
OE: Yes, but the question is, who owns the global conversation? Who determines whether it’s truly a biennial?
MM: Exactly, and then the subsequent question is who is the audience? For every specific place does it change or do you think there’s a model? I think you basically answered the question, more or less, about why these biennials are initiated and why they exist in these various locations around the world, and I think that that’s the most intelligent point I’ve heard, because everyone’s like, oh my god there’s so many biennials, they’re all the same, and everyone goes to all these places but I think in the context that you put it, it makes this interesting point. I literally came back yesterday — I was in Venice and Basel — and for me, from what I saw, it just seems like everyone’s at a party. They’re at the Biennale but it’s the same audience that I saw two days later in Basel. But there’s a forum greater than that.
OE: Yeah. Unfortunately I’ve never ever been to Basel and I’m not a great fan of art fairs.
OE: They are too busy, and it’s not possible to really…I mean it’s a shop, and I think we have to accept it as such; it’s nothing more and nothing less than what it is, and this is not to say that you don’t have great art being shown there.
OE: And this does not mean that you don’t have interesting ideas being proposed in the art fairs, but the question is simply this: Where are the spaces today for the kind of artistic process of production that is homeless in institutions and in the market? Where do they take place? In the United States with the complete evisceration and eradication of so-called “authentic” spaces, we have seen disappear a cultural ecology where such things could take place. So it seems to me that when biennials become too institutionalized, or when we begin to sort of collapse the borders between biennials and art fairs then there is no space for these kinds of homeless ideas. That is why I will always insist and fight for this space of the biennials — these temporary structures that are quite fragile but are quite capable of hosting fugitive ideas and making them viable for whatever public may pass through. I know people complain about biennials. They say there are too many and so on, and we always somehow, in different configurations, end up in one of them. I am about to embark on curating another biennial in Seville next year.
MM: That same seven-months blast?
OE: Yes, and the question is — people say, are you not tired of biennials? And I say, absolutely I’m not!
MM: No, I mean you’re making the most intelligent argument that I’ve heard.
OE: So for me it’s a broad canvas, and often, and I’m not saying all the time, I’m not saying there are no struggles. But what often has the possibility of inventing a different kind of curatorial language is not possible within the strictures of institutions that already have a very solid and sometimes ultra fixed identity? And this is why I think it is a possibility to go and take on these biennials. And I’m interested in Seville simply because of its proximity to Morocco. I mean there are many different questions that one can ask in such a varied, interesting civilizational zone that is…
MM: …historically — again moving back to the question of history and historicizing the location.
OE: So can I go and propose it in exhibition to MoMA? Hell no. They are not going to be interested in it, and I’m not demonizing — there is a place for museums of modern art in the world, there is a place for the museums contemporary art in the world, there are places for historical institutions like the Met. And I would hope that there are such places for biennials. Let me give you an example. If you look at a place like Brazil, the Sao Paulo Biennial has done more for modern art in Brazil than all the museums they have ever built in Brazil have ever done.
MM: Because it creates an international forum.
OE: Precisely. Istanbul’s biennial has done more for contemporary art in Turkey than any museum they could ever build.
MM: Absolutely. Because the dialogue, it becomes…
OE: Precisely, precisely. So these are kinds of zones of, not necessarily of contestation, but zones, if you say, of a certain type of hospitality — and very very difficult to raise — that might not otherwise be able to accommodate the kind of ideas that often happen in biennials. And biennials…this is where you can make mistakes…
OE: And biennials…this is where you can test that, and where you release certain kinds of answers or information, and allow this to enter into the world. I don’t want to mention any artists that are now completely integrated into the museum world, into the market and so on, that have come out of exhibitions that have been part of whether it’s Johannesburg or Documenta or any other of these exhibitions. I think that they are proper forums. And I think that we should just simply go…just like art fairs are proper forums for people who want to buy art, biennials are proper forums for people who are interested in exhibitions and the ideas of curators. Museums are proper forums for the continuity and preservation of certain ideas of historical — or similar ideas of history — within the context of art. So all these different things play a role. Curators have a role, collectors have a role, galleries have a role. It’s really unhelpful and uninteresting, if you will, condemn collectors. I think it’s rather too easy.
MM: Another thing I’ve been kind of thinking about is relevance. As a gallerist, as someone who is immersed in the art world, going around to either galleries in Chelsea or even the selections at the Museum of Modern Art, there seems to be an inordinate amount of irrelevant work.
OE: Perhaps you can…
MM: But again you’re going back to that question of there’s a time and a place for every sort of…
OE: Well, perhaps you can use such words, and I don’t want to say irrelevant because I don’t know the context, but I think you are quite correct in your assessment of the current state of things in institutions.
MM: Irrelevant in tandem with the political situation that we’re now in. I do feel like we’re burying our heads.
OE: But we know that the markets and the institutions, in times of crisis, exist in an utterly de-historicized context. Walter Benjamin raised that question in the 30s in his text “The Author as Producer.”
MM: But knowing all of this and being as sophisticated as we’re supposed to be, especially us as the harbingers of contemporary culture. I feel like galleries and curators have traditionally been responsible. Everyone is cognizant of history but how are we now in this moment? That’s my big question.
OE: I think we mustn’t confuse the fantasy we each hold of the art world as progressive and the reality of very basic serious business, or raise it out of the world; the art world itself, it’s capitalized, at least in this part of the world. What I say is that there’s a struggle right now in which it’s not only just simply the context of the political upheaval that we live in as our contemporary experience today, but a struggle of whether institutions can play a role in defining what justice means. I haven’t seen that institutions are capable of doing this. One basic reason: There’s an incredible failure of the imagination, and the start of the inherited tradition that art is depoliticized precisely because we want to imagine for it a different kind of career than its intended for, than the makers of art intended for it, and so on. And I think, because of a conservatism of beliefs in art from any kind of social and cultural possibility that makes it possible for institutions to really go on and act, in their mind, in the public interest by showing works of artists from “the political sphere.”
So I don’t know. I think that these are questions that curators will have to take up; I don’t want to suggest that we save institutions. The institutions are made of individuals, of all kinds of actors, of all kinds of everyday users, if I may use Michel de Certeau’s terms. It’s made up of all kinds of agents, if I may use Pierre Bourdieu’s terms. These are the people we must constantly interrogate. We must always come to the position where we have to constantly interrogate the limits of our own practice. And I think we don’t do this enough in our interaction with the public sphere, insofar as the exhibition space, insofar as the museum space, is our public sphere. I don’t think that the commercial dollar is a public sphere. It’s a marketplace; it’s not a place of conversation at all.
MM: I think that’s my big fantasy. I mean that sort of… I’m a commercial Daoist. I’m here. I’m trying to sell things so I can keep things going. I feel that I have a responsibility because I feel like if I’m selling art, it’s a cultural currency, and it’s something that’s reflecting this particular moment, and I feel responsible somehow to perpetuate whatever political or sociopolitical economic agendas, and represent artists and mount shows that in this moment in time need to be shown. And I really feel this sense of urgency, and I always get really depressed because I have this position, but yet my colleagues… or when I look around, nobody’s doing that. It’s driven by something else. And I’m not saying that I’m a better gallerist. I’m also making a hell of a lot less money than colleagues in Chelsea and I’m not profiting from this very impregnated economic moment that the art world is having at all. And it’s not to elevate my stature in the art world or anything because I’m more a curator than a gallerist — I’m not saying that at all. I’m just saying that how can there be so few gallerists that feel that sense of responsibility? I’m not saying a gallerist should be a curator, but I still feel there’s been a history in New York that I think certainly that the ’60s and ’70s were…
OE: Well, what I can say is that you have to propel your own intellectual interests.
MM: Exactly. And that’s the bottom line, and that’s what I feel like I’m doing, but it’s just… it’s obviously a really depressing thing to constantly be doing it and constantly challenging things.
OE: Well, these are passing cycles.
OE: And we are in a cycle now of incredible indeterminacy, and a cycle of transition, and I don’t know where we’re transitioning to…
MM: What year was your Documenta? Was it 2002?
MM: That’s not that long ago, we’re talking three years. Don’t you feel like where you were and what happened during that Documenta and where we are now, and what’s happening globally in the art world… you did this amazing work, you did this thing and it’s very specific. Isn’t it amazing that we’re at somewhere completely different? I mean major, important things. You changed some of the curatorial model with that Documenta, which is now kind of the ruling thumb, I think, in terms of the curatorial teams, which are now sort of assumed, and that’s the groundbreaking, or one of — the groundbreaking things that happened. But there’s that, which is now sort of the model, and the second thing is there seems to be a bastardization of globalization at this point in time. Do you think of yourself as an icon?
OE: Oh no, not at all. [Laughs]
MM: But why do you think people perceive you as such?
OE: I don’t know, I don’t know that they do. [Laughs]
MM: Yeah, I don’t know either. It’s just an idea because we’re doing this interview for the icon issue, and obviously someone thinks you’re an icon.
MM: I feel compelled to ask the question, and I actually don’t even understand the question.
OE: Maybe it’s a kind of an enigma that surrounds curators.
MM: Well I never met you, I knew nothing about you, spent three days at Documenta, have the catalog…
OE: Yeah. [Laughs]
MM: …I’ve seen a lot of what you’ve done. I was so intimidated to do this, I’m like, oh my god I’m a gallerist!
OE: But you see I’m not…
MM: But you’re awesome, you’re totally down to earth, I mean, aside from being wildly intelligent — you, I think, are really very democratic. I mean people get so wrapped up in wanting to fight this against this, and you see things on this other level.
OE: Okay. So. Any more questions?
MM: Do you watch television?
OE: Not really. No. Not for any reason just simply because any time I watch television it’s to watch the CNN news.
MM: But you do watch America’s Next Top Model? You don’t watch any reality TV? You don’t find yourself watching reruns of Will and Grace?
OE: It’s interesting. I missed a lot of the excitement of television until very recently. I’m so terribly behind the times, I have never watched the American Idol. This is really the god-honest truth.
The first recorded story of a Christian icon is related by the early church historian Eusebius of Caesarea, who tells of the incurable illness of King Abgarus of Edessa. Hearing of the miracles performed by Jesus, the ailing king wrote to him imploring for his help. Jesus, who was otherwise engaged at the time, took a linen cloth and pressed it against his face. Imprinted with his heavenly visage, Jesus sent the cloth to the king to heal him in his stead. Through this act of divine multi-tasking Christ not only created the visual archetype for the multitudes of religious icons that would pepper churches, theological debates and conspiracy theories for centuries to come, but also remarkably seemed to foretell the invention of the iron-on T-shirt transfer.
Two thousand years on and icons have multiplied exponentially, in number, size and theme. No longer strictly theological objects, icons now come in all shapes and sizes — representing political, cultural and economic deities — and the term “icon” has become so diluted that it now acts as little more than a synonym for “emblem” or “symbol.” But vestigial differences in meaning remain. Perhaps the most precise way of identifying a true icon is to consider the rage it inspires. Take, for example, the curiously parallel obliteration of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan in March 2001 and the twin towers of the World Trade Center six months later: One can clearly recognize both the time-honored religious icon and the new-fangled cultural icon. For icons, it seems, are most easily identifiable not when they perform miracles, but when they burst into flames.
An icon is, in its traditional sense, a painting, sculpture or mosaic of anything considered holy or divine. Quite unrelated to portrait painting, the icon does not seek verisimilitude with the real but rather a representation of the ideal. Its aim is to provide a focal point for belief, acting as a window that opens onto the heavens. While both Islam and Judaism stress the impossibility and forbidden nature of making graven images of their deities, Christianity has always been remarkably conflicted about the idea. Although the second commandment strictly prohibits the making of any “graven image,” the incarnation of Christ in human flesh on Earth would seem to wholly justify the use of physical matter as an aid to worship.
Yet standing as it does on the theological border between the sensory and spiritual worlds, the icon has often been accused of overstepping its theological remit. For such has been the popularity of the icon’s visual shorthand that it has often become not so much a guide to faith as an idol that is worshipped in and of itself. In the seventh and eighth centuries AD a string of Byzantine emperors banned icons in an attempt to prevent such idolatry (and, it is suggested, to try to halt the catcalls from the icon-free Islamic nations surrounding them). Against them stood the popes who, threatened by this attack on their religion and having long used icons to bring the illiterate into the fold, insisted that they should remain. Thus began the bloody Iconoclastic Wars, in which fleets were sunk and thousands were killed, and whose vehement and violent anti-iconic (and anti-aesthetic) sentiments would not be rivaled until the English Reformation and Mao’s Cultural Revolution. It was not until the Second Council of Nicea in 787 AD that laws were passed that stressed that icons could be venerated, but not worshipped: a fine distinction.
This decree has proved particularly difficult to uphold. Icons are famed not only for acting as earthly windows onto the heavens, but also for allowing the divine to flow back into reality. This supernatural leakage can be seen, for example, in the Black Madonna of Czestochowa in Poland, a fourteenth century painting that is surrounded by discarded crutches, bandages, and eyeglasses — a testament to its ability to heal the sick. Is the Black Madonna a particularly “open” window onto the divine world, or is it itself imbued with divine powers? Are people worshipping the deity behind it, or the painting itself?
Perhaps due to this doctrinal uncertainty, the icon soon shook itself free from its religious trappings and entered the secular world, where its appeal as a mode of signification has only grown. The icon is alluring because it satisfies our desire to give a recognizable face to the complex. Take, for example, the thoroughly lay usage of the term in computing. When we surf the internet or write emails we place our faith in icons — small images representing extremely complex strings of code. We use the “computer icon” to traverse this technological labyrinth, blithely avoiding the strings of 0s and 1s which prop up the system, just as traditional religious icons allow believers to bypass the centuries-old tangle of religious dogma and cut straight to the divine.
The same is true when we apply the term to people. Madonna — she of the pointy bras, not of the sacred heart — is consistently described as a “cultural icon” because she defined a way of living in the 1980s and 1990s. She is a window onto the complex thoughts of our own youth, our own fascination with sex and our often sublimated desire for fame and acknowledgment by the world. She is our gateway to a seductive, unholy ideal.
Yet our contemporary usage of the term “icon” seems to display its religious heritage mainly/mostly when applied to merchandise. It was Marx who first suggested the fetishistic nature of the commodity in Das Kapital, but he underestimated the depth of religious feeling we have for products today. They carry not only an aura of religion but the same transformative power in the real world ascribed to traditional icons. It is brand-name goods in particular that are most similar to the religious icons of old, standing on the cusp between the real world and the consumer’s Platonic ideal, the otherworld for which advertisers are the high priests. Like religious icons, branded products allow individuals to commune on an individual basis with their chosen deity — Success, Attraction, or Popularity.
This being the case, our era’s true iconoclasts reveal themselves not as the religious fundamentalists of the Taliban but as those for whom Naomi Klein’s anti-globalization manifesto No Logo (2000) is a sacred text. Klein’s demand that we break free from the influence of brand-name products, and in so doing bring down the multinationals and their sweatshops, is little more than a cry to free people from capitalist idolatry. Yet five years on from that book’s publication, such a political revolution does not seem to have any better chance of long-term survival than the bloody but brief iconoclastic revolts of the Byzantine emperors. For if one looks again at Eusebius of Caesarea’s story of the first Christian icon, Jesus’s demonstration that the divine can spread itself across many material forms, that the power of the religious archetype (the Jesus brand, if you prefer) can be mass-produced, and transported, at minimal cost, to affect people many miles away, is surely one of the earliest examples of globalization in action. And if today’s capitalist icons share such strong theoretical links with those icons of religion, might they not also share their longevity?
Once we begin to think of Orientalism as a kind of Western projection onto and will to govern over the Orient, we will encounter few surprises.
—Edward Said, Orientalism
Edward Said never was one for surprises. His style was unmistakable and his positions persevering, while in his writing, lecturing and research, Said would resolutely stick to the canon — to the distinct expanse of hallowed western learning, from the Greeks to the moderns, and above all the canon of English literature. Of course he criticized it fiercely, with the sweltering, anti-imperialist verve that quickly became his trademark. But much as he mocked the idea of a truly existing Orient beyond the fantasies of the West, Said rarely questioned the accepted conception of western civilization as a coherent cultural body, exposing it as a chimera in its own right. At a time when his postcolonial cohorts were lovingly deconstructing euro and phallocentricities, highs and lows, insides and outsides, and doting on all that was hitherto ignored or forcefully banned from academia, Said generally prioritized political rereadings of high literature, from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf, declaring it the most indispensable part of the curriculum. He often regarded deviations from the devoted study of Great Texts as concessions to fashion or worse. “Reputable, distinguished departments of literature,” he would bellow, “are now giving students more Habermas, Derrida and Hegel to read than Joyce, Flaubert and Schiller.” This was ultimately a symptom, he explained, of the ongoing sell-out of the humanities to neoliberal interests.
Some like to point out that, after all, the western literary tradition gave Said his career, and so, no matter how eloquently he exposed it as the colonialist cant that it could be, abandoning it would have been unthinkable. Said’s many critics were also quick to point out his discomfort with issues of class and his dogged insistence on the racial heritage of colonialism. This, they would say, was actually a self-victimizing strategy of privileged third world intellectuals.
It’s indeed obvious that Edward Said was a gentleman scholar with an old fashioned sort of agenda, preferring unashamed positions over self-reflexive pirouette, the dynamics of wrath over the dignity of nuance. But thinking back, try to picture what a French poststructuralist incarnation of Said might have been. Devenir orient, devenir animal, l’occident est-il l’essence formelle du signifié, de la présence? Not the same.
Despite his indebtedness to, among others, Foucault, what set Edward Said apart from the French pantheon and their Anglophone devotees, including me, was that Said is a great read. Said is the Agatha Christie of theory: The plot is complex, ingenious and fascinating to follow, the style simple and unpretentious — and, in the end, both victim and villain are clearly identified.
Writing aside, I once saw Said give a speech in the sumptuous Grand Ballroom of the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. It was December of 1997, and though a colossal chandelier blocked my view, I concentrated on the sea of transfixed scholars around me, all of us quivering delightedly in our seats. Said gave us a reason to be. This was his one greatest talent: He could actually make you believe, if just for a moment, that academia is not pointless.
If his clarity came at the cost of complexity of content, his brute intellectual muscle ultimately helped redefine Anglo-American academia as we know it. He demonstrated that Orientalism does in deed exist, as an overpowering discursive contraption, brilliant, surreptitious, and monumental at once, thoroughly conservative and yet incredibly mobilizing, a tenuous abstraction with very tangible effects. Not unlike Said himself.
Vanity Fair columnist and Middle Easternphile Christopher Hitchens first met Edward Said in 1976. Here he discusses their combative friendship with Emran Qureshi
Emran Qureshi: So this is a special issue dealing with icons, and…
Christopher Hitchens: Oh is it? Right. Well, I should first say that I think that the word “icon” is the stupidest word in our current discourse, and it would be no one poorer if we gave it up. It’s a fatuous word, it’s a concession by intellectuals to celebrity culture, and would be better off banned. But to the extent that it has any meaning at all, and to the extent that it could be applied to my late friend Edward, it would be that he was a great writer about western culture, and especially English literature. He had a sense of humor and a sense of irony that allowed him to participate in very high level literary discussions in the West while coming from a people whose place on the map was not secure.
CH: That’s the iconographic part of him if you, if you like. As a person, he was furthermore iconic by being very charming, very humane and very dynamic, and very difficult.
EQ: Difficult in what way?
CH: Well, there was an element in him, that all of his best friends have testified to, that presumably originated in part from being a privileged member of a dispossessed people. I remember him very well saying to me once when I was interviewing him that he himself did not suffer the pain of being a refugee or a forcibly expelled Palestinian. Though he had lost his home, and his family had lost their patrimony, he had not actually himself been kicked out at the point of a boot or a point of a gun, so he has a double ambiguity. He felt, as a privileged member of this oppressed, scattered, forgotten, and dispersed people, that he had an obligation to speak up. But of course that also exposed him to the criticism that he was overstating the case, or that actually he was understating it. So he was out of place, as he put it, at one end of the narrative, and out of place at the other end by living in the West, and by being very successful and admired here.
Anyway, the self-pity that he sometimes evinced, which all of his friends became used to, was one of the very extreme over-sensitivities of being criticized. He would never quite agree, or had difficulty in thinking anyway, that any criticism of him, however mild, wasn’t in some way personal, or based on that fateful prejudice, and I think that was his biggest disadvantage.
EQ: When was the first time you met Edward?
CH: I met him in 1976 in Cyprus, in Nicosia, at a conference on the rights of small nations, of small peoples. I was speaking on behalf of the Greek Cypriot cause, and he was speaking on behalf of the Palestinian one. We met, and instantly became friendly. I was on my way to Israel and the West Bank and he gave me some suggestions about people I might look up, some people at Birzeit University I might consult, and so forth. At that point he wasn’t willing to come himself because he didn’t want to see his old home with Israeli soldiers standing outside. And I met him again the following year in New York, when I went to see him at Columbia, and I think he then invited me to his home. I believe that around that time he had published Beginnings.
EQ: When did you start socializing, meeting him on a regular basis?
CH: Well, he was often a visitor to London — where I still lived, I didn’t remove myself to the United States until 1981 — at that point, and I remember introducing him to the editors of the New Left Review, who were most interested to meet him. I’m thinking of Perry Anderson and Robin Blackburn; I can remember a wonderful lunch we all had in London to discuss matters of common interest. Then I introduced him to Alexander Cockburn in New York in 1981, when I moved there. I kept trying to put him in touch with people who would publish him in England. In late 1977 and early 1978, I remember getting him to write for the newspaper where I then worked.
EQ: Do you think Edward was a symbol of a somewhat more hopeful world order, someone that crossed borders?
CH: Well yes! Edward to me was a prefiguration of what one hoped Palestine, the future Palestinian state would be like — educated, democratic, secular. And internationalist. He had all the qualities that one hoped would adhere, or inhere, in the state. And for this reason he was, for a while anyway, very much esteemed as a spokesman for the Palestinian cause on television and in the media, because he appeared to contradict the general impression given by Arafat as someone shady, demagogic, corrupt, Levantine, whatever slander you want to adhere to.
Let me mention another thing I feel I ought to say — that Edward was happiest when talking about music (which is not my special subject at all).
EQ: Regarding his musical sensibilities, he, toward the end of his life, set up — co-founded the East-West Divan Orchestra. Did you ever catch it play?
CH: I did not, but I felt I was there in spirit. I’m not musical, I don’t go to these things, and I’m not competent to judge. I did notice that it was based in its name on Goethe’s famous essay on Orientalism, and I liked that, as a joke, and I liked a lot of what Edward had written about Orientalism. He certainly opened up an extraordinary discussion in that great book of his. But as time went by, I was able to see that it suffered, as all great books do, of diminishing returns, and that, alas, led to a much greater disagreement with him.
EQ: What was that disagreement?
CH: Well, I noted several times during the eighties and nineties that Edward was a little bit alarmed by the effect he was having in the academy. The rise of what we commonly call political correctness, of explicit emphasis on gender, or ethnicity, or race, the use of these standards to evaluate literature, I knew distressed him. And I knew it also distressed him because he felt that sometimes these were his — if not his children — people who wished to adopt him as a father. And I know that he had this dismay, and he reported to me many bleak occasions of dogmatism in the academy that he’d encountered as a result. When it came time for him to re-publish Orientalism on its twenty-fifth anniversary, and to reevaluate it, and to write a new introduction, he somehow did not in public affirm, or even allow, what he had conceded to me in private. He made a relatively staunch defense of what people had been mistaking his position for, namely that everything is either imperialist or postcolonial, that there’s no autonomy to the different areas in which the impact of East and West can be evaluated. And I had to review that new version for the Atlantic Monthly, and I had to say what I felt its shortcoming were, and I knew that Edward would be touchy about it, and he was.
EQ: In the Atlantic piece you wrote that Said was a cosmopolitan child of privilege, who might have been the great explainer, but chose a one-sided approach and used a rather broad brush. What did you mean by that?
CH: I meant that for someone who was rather Christian and had an Anglican background in Jerusalem, who had no sympathy for Turkish imperialism, say, or for Islamic fundamentalism, and who’d often confessed to me that he wouldn’t be able personally to live in an Islamic state, let alone an Islamic fundamentalist one, that he nonetheless felt that living in the West, as he did, it was more his job to convey the criticisms from that world to westerners, who were in need of punctures to their complacency, than it was for him to use his authority to rebuke the Islamists, and the latent totalitarians in the other, so to speak, the eastern sphere. I began to think over time that he’d increasingly got this balance wrong, and that instead of being a great translator, mutual translator, interpreter, he had rather preferred to ventriloquize the views of often very intolerant, very menacing forces. My specific example here would be his worst book by far, which is a book called Covering Islam that he wrote after the Khomeini counterrevolution, as I would describe it, in Iraq, in which he felt that his main obligation was simply to show the western press that it had underestimated the fact that Khomeini had fundamentalism, and had done so for postcolonial and ethnically questionable, culturally biased reasons. To the extent that that was true, it was true, but there was undoubtedly in it a vicarious approval of the Khomeini counterrevolution. And I thought…
EQ: How can you say that…
CH:…I felt that from the first time we ever discussed this, which was at a Carnegie evening in about 1980–81 in New York, that one day this was going to lead to a larger quarrel between us, which indeed it did.
EQ: But that seems at odds with my reading of him. Everything that I’ve read of Edward’s was harshly critical of fundamentalism. In the afterward to the new introduction of Orientalism he lamented how it had been appropriated by Islamists and you’d see it at Islamist book fairs, and things of that sort. So how is it that you felt that he was…
CH: Ah, well here’s the difference, here’s exactly…
EQ: But, but you…
CH:…That’s why the shoe began to pinch, because, though in any formal statement Edward every made, whether it was about censorship in the Arab world, the backwardness of the Arab university, the repressiveness of the Arab or Muslim regime, the nastiness and stupidity of Islamic Shari’ah law rule, or Islamic terrorist subversion, he was invariably formally correct. He would always say what one would expect from a humanist, and a lover a literature and a lover of pluralism, but I began to notice — it became impossible not to notice — that while he thought this, he could never agree that any policy of resistance to it by the West, especially by the United States, was justifiable.
EQ: Perhaps he was looking at the world through the prism of Palestinian consciousness, and being skeptical of the role that he saw the United States and the imperial powers play there, and was skeptical of it generally elsewhere.
CH: Well, I have no doubt that that’s true, but the argument from double standards is not an argument that the intellectual can really involve himself in. Any fool could say, well if you are willing to contest Saddam Hussein, why are you not simultaneously willing to contest Robert Mugabe. It’s a way of changing the subject. Of course such people never are in favor of doing both. And it isn’t as if the question of Palestine was being ignored by anyone who disliked, say, Saddam Hussein, or Osama bin Laden, or the Taliban. I think it has a very regrettable effect of reinforcing in the mind of the audience the idea that all non-white people who live in the greater Middle Eastern region are all the same, and that their religion is a religion for dark-skinned or brown-skinned people, and that, therefore, no one question can be separated from another. I don’t have to prove to you why that’s not true.
EQ: I recall that you debated Bernard Lewis and Leon Wieseltier alongside Said in 1986, and it seems that you and Edward were on the same side. However, after 9/11 your politics veered sharply from Edward’s. How has it veered, what direction has it moved?
CH: Well, it doesn’t matter what my politics were.
EQ: I’m trying to get a sense of the disagreements between you and Edward.
CH: These disagreements were a much more intensified version of our disagreement about Bosnia, where the United States had intervened to save a Muslim, formally Ottoman, minority from physical erasure, which I thought was necessary and desirable. Indeed I would have criticized, and had been criticizing, the United States for not acting. Where it would appear to be deaf to the implications of this, and where he would have considered his region of greater confidence or greater authority, he appeared to have the same problem. He would reply that, yes, Saddam Hussein is an awful despot and murderer, but he would not agree to any course of action that would remove him if this course of action originated in the United States. In other words, he said the United States has no right to take a position on this. That view struck me then, and strikes me now, as entirely sterile, to say no more about it.
EQ: You once appeared on stage with Edward Said, but now I see you on stage with David Horowitz, who describes Edward as an authentic terrorist. What happened?
CH: I’ve had a series of quarrels with David Horowitz, and Daniel Pipes, and a number of other — what should one call them? Partially Neo-Con, partially Zionist, probably simply right-wing critics — in print and in person about their defamation of Edward, and their belief that there was no injustice against the Palestinians to begin with, no attempt to rewrite the history of 1947, 1948. Anyone who wants to defame Edward, or say that he invented his life story, or that he confected or exaggerated the sufferings of the Palestinian people will, they should know by now, always have a very stern enemy in me.
EQ: Would you consider yourself a Neo-Con?
CH: I’m no kind of conservative. Never have been, and never will be. That’s the simple answer, and the misnomer Neo-Con, which was coined, I believe, by my old friend Mike Harrington…
EQ: That’s right, Michael Harrington.
CH: Well, some say Peter Steinfeld popularized the word, and he may have done, but I’m certain that it was the coinage of Mike Harrington, who was, alas, a sad figure, a loser, a Dorothy Day supporter — a Catholic liberation theology pseudo-socialist whose organization ceases to exist.
EQ: If Edward were alive today what would he be working on, what would he be doing?
CH: Well if Edward were alive today, which I wish for many reasons he was, because I used to always cheer up when I heard his by his company, and always enjoy our discussion even when they became…even if either one or the other of us became incensed. So I miss him; I wish he were still alive for all those reasons, but I would very much like to know, would like to have heard from him what his reaction would be, in particular to the removal of at least immediate Syrian power from Lebanon, which is something I knew he cared about a lot. He loved Beirut; he didn’t like seeing it under Syrian occupation. I’d like to have known what his reaction to that would have been. I would of course have liked to see his response to the Iraqi election, and to all the developments in the region that were in effect, especially in Egypt, when — now we have the judges saying they won’t go on certifying bogus elections. These were things that he had in fact been calling for, and calling attention to. I would love to know, from him, and I’d love to have the argument in public: Can you really say, Edward, that this is nothing to do with American policy in region? Is it really your view that these things would have happened anyway, or shouldn’t have happened if they involved the use of American military power? Because that was the position he was stuck in over Bosnia. And I wonder how long he could’ve kept up the argument with me, with Azmi Bashara, and with others.
EQ: Is there anyone else that you can think of that could be a person that could be crossing boundaries and borders today as brilliantly as he did?
CH: No, well I don’t know about the latent or potentials ones, but I know that there’s no one who has the, would ever have the ear of people in the West, in Europe I mean to say — where we can speak at least some of the languages — and in America, who would be the dragoman, the interpreter, the bringer of news and interpretation. There’s no one like him who can do that now in one direction, and unfortunately the job of doing it in the other direction, which is the job that he slightly refused — the task, the responsibility that he eventually declined — won’t come up, oh, unless it’s a person of similar experience and authority. So, really, what I feel about his life and his work, is that there’s an element of the tragic in it; that here was a huge opportunity he missed for an interpreter, a translator, someone of mutuality who wanted less imperialism in the West and more democracy in the East, shall we say, to put it very, very simply. To see if those two positions could not be synthesized. Whereas his view invariably was, when it came to a test that these positions were opposed, not reconcilable.
If I ask myself what my strongest memory of Edward is…the memories are all strong. They include speaking with him at a huge rally at Columbia in defense of the first Intifada, many discussions with him about his meeting with George Schultz and others, in an attempt to establish an independent Palestinian voice in the negotiations in the Middle East, evenings in London, and Paris, and elsewhere, and in New York. I still could easily tell what the best evening I had with him. I had to write an article about George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda— the one about the secret Jewishness within English society — and Edward gave me a sort of tutorial after dinner at his apartment on the Upper West Side, and a reading list. It really made me wish that I had been his student when I was young. It was everything you could possibly have wanted as a guide to what to read about the novel, how to think about it, how who’s who felt on it. And he had no advance notice of my question. None. He didn’t know when I came to dinner that I wanted to ask him about this; it was a completely informal, improvised discussion for the sheer love of literature and criticism, and any merit that my article on George Eliot has comes entirely from him. And he could do this, really, as far as I could see, on all subjects. He really loved literature and humor and had assimilated, in his second language, the beauty and the importance of English literature, whether it was Austen or Kipling. Some people attack him, saying, “Oh why can’t he stay off the subject of slavery when he’s doing Jane Austen?” Well, excuse me, if you’re reading Mansfield Park with any attention at all, slavery is a subject that runs right through the story. I mean you can’t be expected to leave it out, as many people have. He didn’t try to politicize it at all; he tried to universalize these things. And he should be given every sort of praise for his skill and wit in this, and for his care with students and with anyone who came to him.
“And that is the difference between a legend and a star” — he ended his lengthy soliloquy with emphasis. Then the smallish middle-aged man whose real name I would never know picked up his briefcase, excused himself with a curt bow, and headed out. “I must get back to the office,” he explained apologetically — like his name, the details of which I was not privy to. It seemed he could have gone on for hours that afternoon. And that he wanted to. His life, though its most broad outlines remained invisible to me, was distinctly shaped by the force of a woman he had never met — the aforementioned legend, born in 1950 as Faegheh Atashin and known to the world simply as Googoosh. Googoosh had captivated the attention of millions in her native Iran since her recording debut at the age of fifteen. And she had occupied a singular place in the life of this man, a soft-spoken, mild-mannered civil servant, since her voice had first floated into his parents’ living room via a scratchy gramophone more than three decades ago.
I came upon Pullniro through a young Iranian filmmaker in New York who had made a documentary film about Googoosh back in 2000. When I asked him if he would be willing to write some words about her, he declined, and referred me to a more “suitable” choice — a sort of authority who had recently created a website for Googoosh (www.googoosh.tv) and presented it to her on the occasion of her fifty-fifth birthday. His name, Pullniro, was pure invention, a gesture toward anonymity.
A resident of Tehran, Pullniro has cultivated a persona in service to his devotion for Googoosh, creating websites, writing articles and hunting down rare recordings in her honor. What perhaps distinguishes Pullniro from millions of other fans — of Googoosh, or Abdel Halim Hafez or Elvis Presley — is the subtle restraint that marks his every devotional act, his disinterest in the spectacle we have come to identify with fan culture. His is a seemingly dispassionate, wholly private obsession. Though he has the markings of a fanatic — lyrics memorized, devotional websites erected, an intimate knowledge of the demographics of every other fan of note around the world (from Mexico City to Baghdad to Tajikistan) — his love for her is one that doesn’t lend itself to the traditional archetype of the restraining order-inspiring, shrine-making adherent.
Born into a middle class family in pre-revolutionary Tehran of the 1970s, Pullniro’s vision of the world around him was colored by what he flatly refers to as an idyllic childhood. “Our childhood was in color and today’s life is in black and white. We had everything kids ever wanted,” he explains. One of seven children, he says he seldom saw his parents. “We went to school in the morning, and they went out at night. Tehran had so many night clubs back then.” He adds with a lapse into vernacular English and a cheesy wink, “They were night owls.”
As a child, Pullniro collected cinema, music and lifestyle magazines, mostly so he could rip off their front covers and tape them on his bedroom walls. Zan e Rooz, Setareh Cinema, Sefid o Siah, Javanan, Banowan — at least one popular magazine each week would sport the fresh face of Googoosh. The “story” within was rarely of import. One particular issue of Banowan that he showed me announced on its cover, “Googoosh near death after accident on French Riviera.” Almost without fail, these stories yielded tremendous anti-climaxes: “It turns out she is fine, says her husband.” Her divorce and remarriage made the front page of even the respectable Etelaat and Keyhan newspapers at a time when only the Shah’s comings and goings were deemed worthy of such distinguished venues. Her recording outings at the cafes and nightclubs of fashionable Lalezar Street were the see-and-be-seen happenings of an Iran that many simply refer to as “cosmopolitan.” “People lived for fun back then,” Pullniro tells me, exposing his ardent belief that the revolution marked the end of a golden era.
And so as they tend to, things changed after the revolution of 1979. Cabarets and discos named Tam Tam, Miami and Moulin Rouge that once hosted platform-shoed party-goers well into the morning hours were uniformly shut down. Society and cinema magazines either disappeared or were forced to adapt to the cultural mores of the nascent Islamic Republic; in most cases they were rendered irrelevant. And like the magazines that championed her, the sweet-faced diva who had graced thousands of covers and seduced the nation with her epic, at times nationalist, ballads about love and hardship, slid into obscurity, her career placed on the backburner indefinitely. She retreated to her northern Tehran home for the next twenty-one years while her recordings continued to sell on Tehran’s booming black market. According to Pullniro, Googoosh made three public appearances over the course of those two decades, one of which was at the funeral of Pooran, a great songstress in her own right from the previous generation. While rumors almost inevitably surrounded her comings and goings (Googoosh sings to Ayatollah Khomeini, Googoosh as cokehead, Googoosh as raging anti-Semite), she rarely gave her fans much material to chew on; in Garbo-esque fashion, she had withdrawn from public life entirely.
Pullniro’s vision of the country during those initial post-revolutionary years is a bleak one. While the idyll of his childhood died in 1979, Googoosh’s fate, oddly, has become the prism through which he has understood the history of his country since then. Her seclusion mirrored his own, a period in which he retreated from the world. He kept to his studies, completing two degrees in chemistry and joining the civil service. Like many others, he worked for a regime that he decided, from day one, he did not believe in.
When Googoosh broke her silence, leaving Iran and launching a public return to the stage in 2002, Pullniro was living and working for an Iranian governmental agency in Dubai — the city in which she would hold two of her biggest comeback concerts. He had (valid) concerns about what his attendance could do for his reputation within his conservative polyestered ranks; though passionate in his love for Googoosh, he remained restrained, respectable, ever-practical. He recounts the tale of how he slid into the VIP section by chance and simply wept in silence. Long after Googoosh left the stage, he remained behind — both in devotional silence to the miracle just per-formed before him and to an extent out of concern for being spotted by a passing acquaintance. Later, I read on one of numerous internet postings about Googoosh’s performance that night that she “took possession of the stage like a captain of his ship.” “I felt dizzy for weeks,” Pullniro tells me about the experience.
His is what one may term a puritanical obsession. He categorically rejects the possibility that he is Googoosh’s biggest fan, though in the same breath he explains that he can never possibly consider marriage because he would inevitably compare any woman in his life to Her. He does not dress up as Googoosh in her flowing white dresses and faux-diamond tiaras, he tells me — smirking at my fetishistic inquiry. He is not a freak in the way that we have come to expect freaks to be, nor does he fit the tidy outlines of the canonical stalker. He’s never met her, though he has spoken to her assistants on the phone. He has her personal email, phone number and address in Los Angeles (where she has since relocated) but does not dare use them — at the risk of bothering her or invading her privacy. He calls her stalkers around the world — and there are hundreds — “selfish.” On her birthday this year, he joined forces with a handful of other Googoosh admirers, holding a birthday party for her in a north Tehran restaurant. They prepared a birthday cake, left an empty place seating for her, and danced the night away. The images of the cake are on his internet site.
Also in honor of her birthday, Pullniro presented the diva (his affectionate nickname of choice) with a comprehensive fan website. News on the site ranges from play-by-play accounts of her recent concerts after her twenty-year hiatus, to increasingly personal news. Think, a report of Googoosh in Las Vegas, draped in an Iranian flag, with thousands of adoring fans screaming “I love you”; she, cooing in heartfelt manner, responds, “Thank God.” Weeping abounds. Or, how about news that Googoosh, on December 22, 2004, suffered a mild nosebleed and was taken to the hospital (“she is fully recovered and back on her feet”). The site gets 2,000 new hits per week and boasts of 3,000 regular visitors. Four years ago Pullniro created a newsgroup (googooshlove.com) devoted to her; it has 1,700 active members who regularly exchange messages and postings.
In June, Pullniro received an email from one of Googoosh’s assistants, offering him an appointment over the internet with the singer herself for a chat. On the day of the meeting (9 am Los Angeles time, 8:30 pm Tehran, he tells me), they typed back and forth for fifteen minutes; she thanked him for his unwavering support, while he restrained himself from asking any personal questions. He spent more time listening, engaging her in that oddly ecstatic, virtual moment. When I asked him if he would have preferred a face-to-face meeting, or even a telephone chat, he seemed puzzled by my inquiry. “That was enough,” he tells me, still basking in the glorious aftermath of the exchange.
And he fights to preserve her integrity. “There are people who want to bring her down,” he tells me one day. “They’re jealous.” He names the Oscar-nominated actress Shohreh Aghdashloo among others. “But she never says a bad word about them.” In his mind, Googoosh can do no harm. Pullniro is particularly excitable, even defensive, when the subject turns to the men in Googoosh’s life. In fact, it is only in discussion about her relationships that I have ever heard him raise his voice. From a ruthless father who kept her out of school and had her performing in Tehran’s Crystal Café from the age of three, to a first marriage to a domineering promoter, Mahmoud Ghorbani, or her broken marriage to an actor named Behrooz Vosoughi (in one of his insider moments, he confides that the late Shah’s sister Ashraf Pahlavi, sick with jealousy, broke up that marriage), Googoosh, he tells me, has never had it easy. Hers is a story of personal struggle, perseverance in the face of overwhelming hardship.
Pullniro’s personal archive of Googoosh memorabilia, rare recordings and autographs is without compare. Oddly enough, he has converted most of the material to electronic format or simply used it on his internet site and given away the originals. “I have no reason to keep these things.” It is not uncommon for him to meet other followers of the cult of Googoosh covertly in parks or squares around this city, carefully opening a fastidiously organized synthetic leather briefcase to hand off a record cover or rare photo (his commitment to anonymity remains remarkable, if not bizarre). His evaluation of how deserving the gift recipients are is rigorous, and he is utterly confident that spreading mementos in this way is the best way to preserve her memory, to spread the love. “What if I die, what will happen to all of these treasures? I want people to enjoy them,” he tells me one day. When I carefully inquire about his insistence on discretion, he says, “I don’t want people to know I exist.”
As I sit in one of those Tehran squares one muggy morning waiting for him, taking in the weight of his selflessness in, I wonder if there is in fact a bit of self-awareness running through Pullniro’s relationship to Googoosh. His is, after all, nearly a tale out of Hollywood. It’s David Lynch, art house Hollywood. His pseudonym, Pullniro, is a combination of the names of two actors whom he admires (and, he tells me, has met), Robert De Niro and Bill Pullman, and he is mildly religious about cinema in general: “I watch at least five American films per week.” Occasionally, as he describes his devotion to Googoosh, he lapses into a near-robotic repetition, as if repeating the lines of an as-yet unscreened film that he has rehearsed a hundred times before a mirror at home. The furtive meetings with other fans (he only takes appointments by email, and does not reveal his phone number), his “insider” information (how about that she once performed for Saddam Hussein, or that her stepmother poisoned the guests at her first wedding), his knowledge as to the abuse she suffered at the hands of the men in her life — all of it somehow lends itself to legend, and a cinematic, outsider legend at that.
As he arrives, he excitedly tells me of his dream that one day Googoosh will have the chance to perform a duet with either Celine Dion or Barbara Streisand. “You know Celine is a big fan,” he notes, pulling out clippings of her mid-sway at the last Toronto concert. I sit there looking at him, knowing that a duet of such scale would just make his life. He gives me a knowing smile in return and in that brief moment we both know that his love for her is the strongest.
People say that you need a guide in order to understand the workings of Lebanese politics. It’s absolutely true, but even a guide or a book of rules (behind all the apparent chaos, strict rules are in operation) will not be of much help nowadays: The Socialist Party (or Walid Jumblatt’s party) and the Lebanese Forces, a rightwing Christian formation, are both running for the elections in Mount Lebanon, on the same list, asking people who cast their ballots to forget that they were responsible for one of the worst chapters of the Lebanese wars. Michel Aoun, an ex-general and possibly a war criminal, came back after a long exile and was given a hero’s welcome by tens of thousands of people, while Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah’s leader, declares that the Party of God has 12,000 rockets and that whoever thinks of disarming the party will be fought in a Karbala-esque way. Nasrallah didn’t need to tell the cheering crowds how Hizbullah will use these rockets, or what its long term strategy is — he was shouting, the crowd was happy, and Walid Jumblatt was nodding his head. That should be enough to guarantee a few seats in the new parliament, so why be a party-pooper and spoil people’s joy?
What an outside observer needs to know now is that the 2005 elections will serve to renew the existing political class, with a few insignificant changes here and there (like replacing the Baathist Assem Qanso by the Phalangist Amin Gemayel). Politicians didn’t feel the need to change their image; Aoun even managed to transform this non-change into a quality: He is the man who did not change his mind in fifteen years (whether this is true or not is another story). He is constant, pure and reliable, with an unshakable perseverance. Upon his return he went to Martyrs’ Square, where his supporters gathered, he stood the exact same way he used to stand back in 1989, and began with the exact same words: “Oh great people of Lebanon!” The crowds cheered, of course, and although they did notice that Aoun was standing behind bulletproof glass this time around, no one thought much of it (Beirut is too fast for consciousness). But something was different: Maybe it was the caricature/déjà-vu effect, or maybe it was the fact that standing behind the glass transformed Aoun into an automaton-like figure. (His gestures helped: the upright military position, the quick jerking of the head to the sides as if he was looking at someone who didn’t exist, the sudden smiles that appeared and disappeared for no particular reason, etcetera). An automaton behind bulletproof glass, an automaton behind a shop window display, oddly resembling those old Atget pictures of mannequins that the surrealists loved so much. The crowd before me on the television was suddenly transformed into an autistic mass of bodily proximity and mental distance.
This did not really come as a surprise, however. One strong indication among many was inscribed in the structure of Martyrs’ Square itself, specifically in what became known as “Tent-City,” where hundreds (thousands?) of student demonstrators erected tents and decided to remain in the square until their demands were met. The Tent-People — who, by the way, have never heard of George Bush’s “Cedar Revolution” — remained in their city for eighty days. During that time, the square was transformed into a skyscraper, a horizontal one; each political group or student organization was allocated a tent, and the outside observer could not distinguish between the tent of this group or that one (almost all were blue). Tent-City achieved spatial lobotomy, where the outside spaces cease to “express” the complexities of the inside (a quasi-moral obligation in western architecture). Make no mistake: Tent-City is not merely an accumulation of protestors’ tents. Each tent represents a certain idea of Lebanon, sometimes in complete contradiction with all the others, but the “skyscraper” was held together by the uniformity of the tents and by the fact that all ideas referred to the same entity, Lebanon, a country in perpetual formation. Every evening, the Tent-People would gather in one of the tents and their conflicting ideas about their country would be debated. Hovering above peoples’ heads, ideas clashed, and each idea was contaminated by others, leaving the unconscious participants (as I said, Beirut is too fast) completely dazzled by their sudden willingness to be impure. Astonishingly, very little of this hectic activity spilled outside of the skyscraper. Maybe this was for the best; perhaps any spillage would threaten the hysterical hovering of ideas inside. The contaminated ideas were too fragile to face the puritanism of the outside world, where ideas of what Lebanon was, is, and will be could only coexist without getting soiled by each other (Lebanon is, after all, the country of coexistence). Finally, after eighty days, the skyscraper was quietly dismantled (after continuous pressure from the puritans), preparing the space for the autistic mass that was to greet General Aoun a few days later. A couple of weeks passed, and the results of the contest of ideas over the development of Martyrs’ Square were published. None of the plans (which were all struck by the architectural disease of incomprehensible graphics) acknowledged the ghost skyscraper that existed exactly where their interventions were planned. Tent-City was relegated to the realm of ghostly universes that inhabit Beirut, waiting for a chance to manifest itself among the living.
To conclude, a quote from Paul Éluard: “There is another world, and it is in this one.” Lebanon is the country were the two worlds meet, not the East and the West, but that of the living and that of the dead. Two hundred thousand of them.
Nestled along downtown Cairo’s busy Talat Haarb Street, the Yacoubian building is easy to miss. The apartment building exhibits the area’s standard mixture of residential and commercial, its doorway plastered with signs and its first floor nothing but a row of typical and unremarkable small shops. The entrance itself, flanked by brightly lit displays of men’s shirts, looks like any other store. The building’s austere Art Deco exterior is pockmarked with air conditioning units and billboards, and you must crane your neck sharply to catch a glimpse of the geometric patterns of its iron balcony railings or the dusty band of ceramic mosaics that decorate its top floor.
In short, don’t be surprised if descending upon the location that inspired Alaa Al Aswany’s bestselling novel The Yacoubian Building is an anti-climax. Once located, however, the building does yield one moment of clear aesthetic pleasure: Venture inside, turn around, and you will find its name elegantly written in elongated, wafer-thin letters, in Arabic and English, across the inside of the threshold. This was likely a finishing touch of which Nashin Yacoubian, the Egyptian-Armenian businessman who built the building in the 1930s, was particularly proud. And it’s easy to imagine how this evocative sign imprinted itself on Al Aswany’s mind in the many years he walked past it every day to his dental practice in the same building.
The novel — whose wide-eyed, energetic prose chronicles the loves, betrayals and tragedies of the inhabitants of a contemporary downtown building, has sold out several editions in Arabic (Merit, 2002) and English (AUC Press, 2004), while a film version — costing three million dollars and starring famous Egyptian actors Adel Imam, Nour Al Sherif and Youssra — has just been shot. Once the movie hits the screens, the Yacoubian is bound to become a household name.
In fact, it was reportedly the attention surrounding the upcoming film that drove the building’s apartment and business owners to pick up Al Aswany’s novel. What they read made them wish their residence had continued to dwell in obscurity. The novel’s blunt depiction of the sexual and financial exploitation to which its characters subject one other is damaging their reputations, they say. “People call it the building of homosexuality, of prostitution,” laments one of the building’s caretakers, “not the Yacoubian building anymore.”
Residents are particularly upset that Al Aswany has apparently named several of his characters after actual residents of the building. He also gave them some of the same physical attributes and professions, allege the sons of the late tailor Malak Khela, whose fictional namesake is depicted as a ruthless operator who rises to power in the building through currency and liquor smuggling, blackmail, and various other merciless strategies. The building’s caretaker, Fikry Abdel Malek, unhappily discovered a character who shares his first name, and is suing Al Aswany as well as Waheed Hamid, the screenwriter, and the film production company. In a further layer of legal entanglement, Hamid is threatening to countersue his accusers, charging them with defaming him.
While for readers such overlapping of reality and fiction may add an extra layer of fascination (did Al Aswany not just imagine but witness the brutal machinations and dramatic falls from grace taking place behind the building’s anonymous exterior?), for residents such confluences are unsettling, to say the least.
In fact, as is often the case with those who shoot to sudden stardom, the Yacoubian is having some trouble adjusting to its new spot in the limelight. While the owners of neighboring shops will direct you there with a knowing if somewhat mystified smile, the residents themselves are likely to be a bit defensive. The bawwab Mohamed will tell any visitor right off the bat that everything Al Aswany wrote is “lies” (a statement Al Aswany himself would agree with, if by “lies” one means “fiction”). Residents say they are tired of being pestered and asked impertinent questions, and they are mostly unwilling to talk to outsiders.
The residents’ sensitivities, while heartfelt, are also somewhat ironic. As Al Aswany himself says, he was driven to write The Yacoubian Building in great part out of nostalgia for the more tolerant, cosmopolitan downtown of the past, and as a statement against what he perceives to be growing conservativism and self-interestedness in Egyptian society. He claims that his work is fictional and that any similarities between characters and real persons are coincidental, and suggests that his accusers are only trying to cash in on the building’s fame and fortune.
Will the Yacoubian become a literary icon, as visited as the streets in Islamic Cairo where Naguib Mahfouz set many of his novels? Will it end up a symbol of downtown sin or downtown artistry, of creativity or of petty wrangling, of the imperviousness of artistic license or the pressure of social conservativism? Only time and the courts will tell.
Meanwhile, the building, like all well-known personalities, is making others famous by association. The bawwab of adjacent 32 Talaat Harb — where scenes for the movie were filmed, since the crew was banned from the Yacoubian — got to hobnob with starlets and was even recruited for a small role. He is the latest but certainly not the last downtown resident to have his life altered by the Yacoubian’s newfound fame.
The 1966 film Poppies Are Also Flowers is an international crime thriller that follows the trafficking of opium from the fields of Iran to the mafia distributors of Europe. Sponsored by the United Nations and shot on location for American audiences, it apparently was intended to raise awareness about the complexity of the global drug trade and the UN’s role in stopping it. Despite being written by Ian Fleming and featuring a surprising number of stars — including Angie Dickinson, Rita Hayworth, Trevor Howard, Omar Sharif, the Princess Grace, and of course, Yul Brynner — the film quickly faded from cultural memory.
In Poppies, Brynner plays Colonel Salem, an Iranian army colonel working alongside the UN. His role is to find the source of a poppy trail deep in the mountains of Iran. Disguised as a tribal leader on horseback with a black fur fez, and backed by a small number of men, Colonel Salem and his party encounter a real tribal gang looking for trouble. Salem faces off with the leader whose beard and white turban say “tough yet reasonable,” while his band of several dozen men with rifles show that he is serious. They exchange words.
“God is always good to the devoted and the deserving. May he look at you and your people with favor and may he grant you long life. If a long life,” Salem says while pulling back his robe to reveal a handgun tucked into his belt, “is what you desire.”
The turbaned leader considers the gesture and cautiously answers. “If it is the will of God.”
“The will of God. Yes.”
And the real bandits charge off without incident in a swirl of orchestral strings. Colonel Salem and his men charge off into the mountains. The landscape is reminiscent of the American west and indeed Brynner plays it like a true cowboy, flexing his signature presence of resolute confidence mixed with gruff justice while demonstrating his knack for assuming ethnicities and condensing genres.
Brynner had broken out with his 1956 role as the King of Siam in The King and I, singing and dancing his way to an Oscar. He followed that up with another character who eschewed shirts, Ramses I, in The Ten Commandments. These characters basically cemented his career as the go-to guy for any role that required non-western features and vaguely accented, broken English. Brynner managed to bring a certain depth to these clunky stock characters. His trademark bald head offered a clean slate suited specifically for many roles, one that did not infer any one ethnicity. Even though it was clear that English was not his native language, he delivered his lines with precise enunciation. His accent was ambiguous and always almost identifiable, which somehow made it a plausible trait for all of the characters he played. He lent an air of sophistication to his characters, which enabled him to instill some sense of dignity in the face of choice dialogue such as:
“Look mother! The prime minister is naked!” (exclaims the teacher’s son in The King and I).
“Don’t be ridiculous!” she replies. “He’s only half naked.”
Brynner, of course, is not the only actor to portray individuals from other cultures. Hollywood always gave actors a chance to try on new accents, especially in the original golden age of epics and espionage, but only Brynner made an entire career out of it. He became American cinema’s Cold War–era ambassador from everywhere, slipping in and out of nationalities and representing the Hollywood worldview. What is particularly intriguing about Brynner, in addition to the diversity of the “exotic” identities he portrayed, is that his own biography is extremely enigmatic. On screen, he covered a staggering range of geographies and social classes, becoming everything from an Indian Sultan to a Mexican revolutionary to a Japanese fighter pilot (for a more complete list see the Yul Log,) while off screen he obscured his own identity by dodging questions or telling outright lies. Simple background facts like his birth date and given name are still difficult to pin down definitively (although his son Rock wrote a “tell all” biography called The Man That Would be King and spoiled all the fun). He often claimed to have been born as Taidje Khan in Japan to Swiss and Japanese parents, when in fact he was born in Vladivostok, Russia and is technically Swiss-Mongolian/Russian. After a brief stop in China, Brynner spent his formative years in Paris, joined the circus as a trapeze artist, played guitar in gypsy bands, hung out with Jean Cocteau, learned English on stage with Michael Chekhov, landed in New York, debuted on Broadway and became a big Hollywood star.
American audiences loved Brynner’s complexities: his Mongolian good looks and European finishing, his steely tough-guy stare and his dapper sensitive-guy dance moves, his affable confidence and guarded identity. They ate it up. After almost two decades of hits, B-movies, foreign action flicks, and a redefining role in The Magnificent Seven, Brynner came back in the sci-fi hit Westworld (1973), an early Michael Crichton film. Westworld is a wild west amusement park where a host of robots interact with guests, acting out scenes from brothels and saloons. In one of his best roles, Brynner channels all of his intensity into the part of a robot gunslinger who duels with guests but is programmed to always take the bullet. The audience of Westworld savors the irony of the recasting of his Magnificent Seven gunslinger as a theme park attraction. Of course, the robot malfunctions, stops playing nice, and a shooting spree ensues. Brynner’s chilling performance takes a lackluster Frankenstein premise and turns it into a very satisfying experience. The insipid sequel attempts to mine the other side of Brynner’s career. In his final acting role, he appears in Futureworld during a dream sequence that takes place in the mind of the leading lady. His gunslinger floats into the smoky scene and twirls her around and around in an elegant ballroom dance.
Ultimately, it was his excessive coolness that killed Brynner; in 1985, at the age of fifty-five (or perhaps fifty), he died of lung cancer after a lifetime of a five-pack-a-day smoking habit. It’s too bad, too, because if he had continued for another ten or fifteen years Brynner might have had the chance to cash in on Hollywood’s latest obsession with big budget spectacles, or perhaps he would have staged a comeback in the indie film world by giving us a smart and funny recasting of his genre characters tinged with irony and cultish in-jokes. Anything would have been better than the string of King and I revival tours that turned out to be his final performances.
The Inhale and Exhale of Economics 1 Euro = 1.20 US Dollars = 10 Dirhams
Ten by two neatly packed tobacco,
five packs by two rows, or 200 loosies,
display one pack, two packs, three,
try your luck, display four.
Five by three by three wood boards —
an empty orange crate standing tall,
a man leaning against a wall
a monument to Marlboro
From the port duty-free
one carton of Marlboros or Camels is 180 dirhams;
from the store with tax
one pack of Marlboros or Camels is thirty-two dirhams
Bribing the police is fifty dirhams per week
Just outside the port on a street corner
A sells one pack at twenty-two dirhams
or looses, one by one, at one dirham per cigarette.
A sells ten packs a day (+ rolling paper + hashish)
Average profit per six day week = 190 dirhams
At a cafe ten minutes away B sells
one contraband cigarette at one dirham
two store-bought cigarettes at three dirhams
a three cigarette combination with Marquise at two dirhams
B sells an average of 200 cigarettes per day
Expenses at the cafe B works out of eight hours a day:
Bread at two dirhams a day
Bread with cheese at four dirhams a day
Tea at five dirhams, cafe au lait at seven dirhams
B’s average profit = thirty to sixty dirhams per week
A has been in prison twenty-one times
Fine to avoid prison is 10,000 dirhams
There is a demand for loosies because most people do not have enough money to buy a pack all at once. The vendors call it la vente au detail (individual sale); each cigarette is a detail in the grand scheme, and the marketplace is one of the individuals. Contraband sellers exist because it’s logical in a slow economy; anything that can be broken down and resold will be. This is the eddy in which the big market economies break off from the current and money circulates gently among the people.
Contraband represents twenty-five percent of cigarette sales. The reported estimated loss to the Moroccan government in tax revenue is 2-4.5 billion dirhams per year.
Who says no one knows where merchandise comes from anymore?
Do you want blue cigarettes or not blue? Camels brought through the Sahara on camelback? Or on a boat from Gibraltar, Spain, or maybe you prefer France?
“Blue cigarettes” comes from the labels that were once used to decorate foreign cigarettes. Now you can tell them by the health-risk labels. Morocco is currently negotiating its own warning labels for cigarettes and new regulations on where cigarettes can be advertised. It’s a good thing Tangerines are multilingual, for in the meantime, they can read the health warnings of the cigarettes they buy here in Tangier.
Marlboro sold here since 1948
A skinny man sits ten feet away, a man in a leisure suit sits proudly behind his box, a man hides around a doorway, and another man seems to loiter among the loiterers. A twelve-year-old watches the stand for his father. A forty-year-old woman watches a stand for her son. Of the most reliable is a thirty-year-old Berber woman with one brown eye and one blue eye who is in the same spot everyday. A large mound of a woman can be found unflinching on her chair even when the police are near.
In Tangier, a port city in the north of Morocco, there exists a ubiquitous underground economy of cigarette sellers. This unspoken economy is a slight of hand trick, both by way of its magic — disappearing into thin air if you look too closely — and its physical presentation and marketing. One minute the Marlboro box is there, seemingly unguarded, open and begging “take one.” If you make a move closer, a man you didn’t see before saunters out of the shadows. Another time you may see red out of the corner of your eye, and like a bull, you are aroused. You look back: The box is gone and in its place, a policeman. Only the crate remains, standing tall — a monument to ethereal merchandise.
One of the few mediums availed to dissident expression from the seventies that managed to survive the Turkish military coup of 1980 is the tradition of humor magazines. While the junta (1980–83) imposed occasional restrictions on their publication, today the pressure on such magazines comes from a neoliberal bent, as politicians attack them with accusations of defamation and beyond. Current Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, for example, recently won a court case against a cartoon artist who portrayed him as a cat. The perplexing judicial decision against this relatively innocent caricature provoked the magazine Penguen to publish a cover depicting a zoo filled with various animals possessing the facial features of the prime minister.
Memed Erdener (aka Extrastruggle) works in the contemporary art realm, but his formative years were marked by his contribution to a humor magazine called Deli, a short-lived publication that infused the humor tradition of Turkey with a taste of the grotesque. His works are assemblages of various pieces of Turkish visual culture taken from the nation’s history: maps and arrows about the myth of national exodus from Central Asia; anachronistic illustrations and expressions borrowed from the primary school books still devoted to the early years of the republic; the tension between the Arabic and Latin alphabets; iconographies of the Kemalist, Islamic and fascist ideologies; and everyday images (logos of public companies and political parties, warning signs). When brought together, these disparate and sometimes contradictory figures play against each other and produce a third, critical ground of irony that interrupts the integrity of various political orthodoxies. Some of Erdener’s recent compositions coupled the fictive persona of a devout female Muslim with the sacrosanct image of Atatürk — two figures that could be understood, in a simplistic manner, to represent two opposite ends of a pole in contemporary Turkey. With a bit of naughty and amusing transgression, these works somehow managed to provoke the “nationalist sensitivities” of a number of public figures. A Kemalist painter-cum-writer went so far as to compare the strategies of the artist to those of Adolph Hitler.
Newroz is the annual celebration of the coming of spring, a centuries-old Mesopotamian ritual. In the eastern part of Turkey the celebrations have long had a flavor of political resistance. During this year’s Newroz, two juvenile kids burned a Turkish flag in public, triggering national hysteria. Turkish public squares, stores, windows, balconies, newspaper covers and TV screens exploded quickly with red color and crescent-and-star in white. How dare these traitor scum to burn the holy Turkish flag on the Turkish soil emancipated with the blood of countless shehit (martyrs) ninety years ago?
The republican history of Turkey has been one of perpetual crisis. Despite several severe ruptures from the heritage of the Ottomans, the traumatic loss of the empire (most prominently the retreat from the Balkans, the geographic heart of the Ottoman modernism) has shaped the national psyche of the young republic. The fear of further partition has produced various enemies at home (ethnic and religious minorities, communists, fundamentalists, cosmopolitans) and abroad (old enemies, all neighboring countries, most of all the red Moscow). The paranoiac need to reinstate the shaky unity of the republic has led to the creation of strongly iconic references of national identity. The omnipresence of the image of Kemal Atatürk (a post-mortem phenomenon) in every public office and most private shops and public squares is perhaps the most visible reminder of the threat of being divided or brought back to the “Ottoman darkness.”
Nationalism has always been a trademark of the history of the Turkish left, which failed to distance itself from the state and, more interestingly, from the army apparatus (the historical agent of ultramodernism since the late Ottoman period). Only the suffering born of a series of coups d’état helped a strand within the Turkish left to articulate a fully autonomous ground for radical politics. The contemporary art scene in Turkey is strongly linked to this manifestly anti-nationalist leftist strand.
Some socialist painters attached to modernism were imprisoned after 1980. But the first real friction between state authorities and contemporary artists was occasioned by an installation by artist Hale Tenger titled I Know People Like These II. The piece, exhibited in the 3rd Istanbul Biennial in 1992, consisted of two models of touristic bric-a-brac. The first Tenger used was a figurine of the hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil monkeys, the second an ancient Anatolian god figure with a small body and a giant phallus. Brought together, these two pieces operated as an allegory of the domination and regulation of the local population by those who wielded power in the eighties and nineties. Configured in the shape of a Turkish flag, the effect was jarring. On the last day of the exhibition, Tenger was sued for offending the national flag. It seems that the mother of a shehit had made the complaint, though she remained unidentified.
Six years later another artist, Halil Altındere, was similarly accused of offending the decency of an official document. Several MPs of the Refah Partisi (Welfare Party), a religiously-based faction, made a fuss about Altındere’s oversized, simulated identity cards; one had a picture of a naked female torso on it. Clever defense strategies on the part of the two artists prevented a potentially scandalous punishment.
The nationalist paranoia has experienced a marked upswing in recent months. The negotiation process for membership into the EU has created obstacles for the official discourse on a number of hot-button issues, such as the fate of Cyprus and the tragedy that befell the Ottoman Armenians in 1915. Attempts for revisionism in state politics are being loudly opposed by a “patriotic” coalition between fascist and so-called leftist versions of nationalism. A witch hunt of sorts is being launched against intellectuals, academics, artists and activists who dare contest the nationalist rhetoric. Novelist Orhan Pamuk, for example, became the fascists’ scapegoat after publicly commenting on the nation’s guilt in the Armenian tragedy in 1915 and national complicity in the death of civilians during the recent civil war against the Kurdish separatists. A provincial governor ordered his books to be burned soon thereafter. The primary cultural field targeted by state conservatives remains literature.
While the visual arts have created a space for political engagement through narration-based practices, the powers that be still do not consider contemporary art practice a serious threat; the field is often perceived as a construct of the upper middle class, and until recently these transgressive works have scarcely found institutional support or space to exhibit beyond Istanbul. Such isolation has paradoxically allowed younger artists to claim an autonomous and radical zone for expression. Nevertheless, a series of emerging institutions, namely art galleries sponsored by banks and museums initiated by bourgeois families, have created a new and growing demand for contemporary art. The current dilemma of political production is how one may fit into these institutions without being subsumed by their agendas. Any collaboration that is not critical will damage the credibility of the politics at stake — the message, as it were. On the other hand, such novel engagements, if carried out in a critical, aware manner, have the potential to bring about unprecedented confrontations with both state power and popular conservatism. I would opt for this strategy.
In preparation for the US authorities’ transfer of power to the new interim Iraqi government, the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) launched an artistic competition to design a new flag for the nation. The winning design, adopted by the IGC in April 2004, was submitted by the Iraqi architect Rif ’at al-Chadirji. Rather than command respect, as national symbols are designed to, the new flag evoked violent reactions and heated debate. Faced with widespread dissatisfaction, the IGC, citing the flag’s “transitional” status, put off the flag’s official sanctioning to the national assembly, which wil be elected in 2005. The transfer of power and the rule of the new interim government was thus oddly carried out under the flag of Saddam Hussein’s fallen Baathist regime.
ON FLAGS IN GENERAL
Far from being mere emblems of national identity, perhaps the most striking aspect of these bits of colored cloth is the manner in which they act as substitutes and fetishes for the nation itself. People divert or transfer an infinite number of meanings, virtues, and feelings of respect, loyalty, devotion, pride and honor to them. Flags play a critical role both in constructing and propagating national identity. They constitute a formidable means of national mobilization. Seeing flags amid the backdrop of an electronic age, it is strange how much they evoke computer chips, strange how many codes and messages can be inscribed on their surface. Graphically, a flag can be said to perform at least three major functions: represent and laud national characteristics; symbolically affirm the nation’s unity; and record major changes in a nation’s history.
The decision to adopt a new flag for Iraq was not made without divisions within the IGC. The Kurdish representatives had suggested reverting to the flag of the 1958 republican revolution. When that option was flatly rejected, they submitted ten variations inspired by that same flag. All were equally rejected because they did not include any references to Islam.
The manner in which Rif ’at al-Chadirji’s design was adopted remains unclear. One version holds that he had initially submitted his design to the competition and simply won, while another claims he was commissioned via telephone by his brother Nasseer Chadirji, a member of the IGC, when that body failed to decide upon a new flag. According to this version, Rif ’at’s design was adopted by a majority vote at the very last minute.
Most immediate reactions to the proposed flag were negative, and many were outright hostile. The dominant impression was that the flag strikingly evoked the flag of Israel. In self-defense, the IGC declared that it had asked the designer to deepen the blue lines before deciding to drop the flag altogether (see flag 1: new Iraqi flag, version 1; see flag 2: new Iraqi flag, version 2). Another version of the story maintains that the blue was initially indigo, but that newspapers had mistakenly printed it in a lighter blue.
The designer himself claimed ignorance, arguing that he had no political preconceptions: “I did not think about Israel. Political opinions don’t concern me. I approached the design from a graphic point of view,” he told The Times. The Israeli connection and Mr Chadirji’s denial aside, it is quite obvious that Mr Chadirji’s “political unconscious” had been quite active for him to conceive of a flag that bears no resemblance whatsoever to any of his country’s previous flags, and that is quite pregnant with political messages.
A “NON-ARAB” FLAG
Perhaps the first striking aspect of the flag is how little relation its colors bear to the geographic colors of the country. Apart from the blue of the two rivers, which also easily evokes the sea, the two most immediate and arguably obvious colors linked to Iraq — a country marked by deserts (sand yellow) and northern fertile mountains in Kurdistan (green) — are abandoned in favor of white, which as many interpreters have maintained, apparently represents peace. Yellow, too, may serve as a symbolic color, as it is linked to the Kurdish people. (It is also the predominant color of Salah ed-Din’s flag.) The blue crescent is a double anomaly in shape and color. Whereas the traditional way of representing the crescent of Islam was as a segment of a full circle, the crescent of the proposed Iraqi flag does not form this shape. As for its color, we have known white crescents (Pakistan), red crescents (Tunisia and Algeria), and yellow crescents (Mauritania). Very few blue crescents exist on flags, save for the flag of the Turkoman ethnicity in Iraq.
The symbolism of the new flag is both ethnic and religious, and herein lies the manipulation of the new Iraqi flag as a national symbol. Ethnicity is recognized for the Kurds, but not the Arabs — the latter are only defined by their religious identities as Muslims. In a way, the logic of the new flag resembles that of the no-fly zones of 1991, through which Iraq was effectively divided into ethnic zones: the northern Kurdish region, the predominately Sunni zone of the middle, and the predominately Shia zone of the south. Thus, despite the fact that the Kurds are Muslims and could have been represented by the crescent, they are represented on the flag as an ethnic-national community by their national color, whereas the nonKurds, that is, the Arab majority, are deprived of the claim of constituting an ethnic-national group and are exclusively defined by their religious-sectarian identity. Paradoxically, most commentators, when referring to flag colors representing the Arabs, speak of Arab nationalism, whereas their reference to flag colors representing Kurds does not include this nationalist qualification. The amalgam is complete: Arab-Arab Nationalist-Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime.
Importantly, there are no symbolic references on the flag to the Christians of Iraq, who constitute 3 percent of the population; they cannot find a home amid the Muslim symbolism, nor are they represented as Arabs or as Assyrians, as some claim to be ethnically. Also omitted as an ethnic-national community are the Turkmen of Iraq.
The logic of purging the flag of any reference to Arab identity strongly resembles the tendencies of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime. In order to reject Kurdish rights, Kurds were symbolically banned from the main symbol of the country’s identity, its flag. That semiological omission is the symbolic equivalent of the Halabja massacre or the Anfal campaign. All of this was done in the name of an organic, exclusivist and totalitarian form of Arab nationalism. To rectify this, in the post-Baathist regime, the logic was reversed: An amalgam of Arab identity and Arab nationalism was created, and the flag purged of any reference to Iraq’s Arab identity or even to the fact that the country harbors at least an Arab ethnicity-cum-nationality among its population, not to mention the fact that that ethnicity-nationality constitutes the majority of the population. In that sense, the new flag becomes the artistic embodiment of a “non-Arab Iraq,” raised by some members of the ex-Iraqi opposition in exile — notably the Iraqi intellectual Kanan Makiya, and Ahmad al-Chalaby, previously an IGC member. Makiya had a vision of a non-Arab Iraq to be constructed after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime. The same could be said of the relationship of post-Baathist Iraq to its pre-Arab past. Now that that pre-Arab civilization is accorded its proper historical and cultural status in Iraq, one wonders why that legitimate rectification necessitated the negation of its Arab civilization.
Finally, the different transformations of the Iraqi flag from its creation in 1920 to the present can be read not only as ways to grapple with the problematic question of the country’s identity, but also as a record of the country and its political system moving slowly away from a relatively secular-based political system. Saddam Hussein’s regime played the role of an intermediary phase in the transformation from the secular to the religious, with the post-Saddam regime moving in the direction of a religiously-inspired political system. Is that transition irreversible, and with what consequences —especially as the Kurdish representatives are opposed to the official and integral application of the Shari’ah? The answers to those questions will emerge in the coming months as the newly elected parliament drafts a new constitution and, once again, faces the task of designing a new flag for a new Iraq.
Markus Miessen: Eyal, your work allows for an alternative architectural and spatial reading of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In your publication A Civilian Occupation as well as the Territories exhibition at Berlin’s Kunst-Werke, you have explored the spatial dimension of the occupation in the West Bank. In a series of articles and studies for openDemocracy.com, you have argued that a coherent mental map of the conflict must include a three dimensional perspective and the introduction of the vertical dimension into geopolitics. Could you explain how verticality has become an important factor?
Eyal Weizman: The politics of verticality is the process that fragmented the territory of the West Bank not only in surface but also in volume. Since the 1993 Oslo Accord, the territorial arrangement of the West Bank limited Palestinians to enclosed territorial islands with Israel controlling the sub-terrain (the aquifers) under them as well as the electromagnetic fields and the airspace above them. In this strange logic of partition, the horizon formed a national boundary by separating air from ground and the terrain from sub-terrain. Furthermore, and following this logic, the complete fragmentation of the territory necessitated efforts to physically connect both types of enclaves created: the colonies and Palestinian cities and villages. Since this could not have been achieved on a single surface, it was performed three dimensionally within a volume. Some Israeli roads and infrastructures connect colonies while spanning Palestinian lands as bridges or tunnels. Under these conditions, known since the time of the 1947 partition plan as “the kissing points,” Israeli controlled areas could be above Palestinian ones and vice versa. Currently, the American promise for Palestinian contiguity as a part of a final status agreement is based on the assumption that a similar series of tunnels and bridges could achieve this contiguity for the fragmented Palestinian territory. This state of affairs is what the writer Meron Benvenisti calls the crashing of “three dimensional space into six — three Israeli and three Palestinian.” The current plan for partition includes dozens of kissing points, especially in and around Jerusalem, where the geographies overlap in such intensity. Even the Clinton plan from 2000 implied about forty bridges and tunnels in and around Jerusalem. In this respect, the intensity of the conflict seems to have created a new type of political space, and perhaps even a new way of imagining and practicing territoriality. The politics of verticality is as much a product of a constructed political imagination as it is a physical practice that involves architecture and planning. It fuses Israeli ideological and religious belief in the sacredness of the historical sub-surface (archaeology) and the transcendental value of topographical latitude and the heavens together with a strategic logic of absolute territorial control. By fusing messianic beliefs with military strategy, it is the inevitable territorial product of Zionism itself.
On the other hand, the creation of this conceptual and physical space means that the politics of separation is always going to face a “spatial contradiction.” The term is Henri Lefebvre’s description of political paradoxes embodied in spatial terms. Each one of the territorial layers — the sub-terrain, the surface and the airspace — embodies a different logic of partition. The hydrological cycle moves across and transcends historical borders and ceasefire lines. So does the logic of electromagnetic frequencies and airspace. All attempts to partition this land along simple lines have thus faced spatial contradictions. The layers simply do not overlap.
With the technologies and infrastructure required for the physical segregation of Israelis from Palestinians (the tunnels and the bridges), it appears as if this most complex geopolitical problem of the Middle East has gone through a scale-shift and taken on architectural dimensions. The West Bank appears to have been reassembled through regional politics as if it were a complex building such as a shopping mall or an international airport. If a viable way of managing this conflict does not lie within the realm of design, the logic of partition is doomed to fail. Instead of a further play of identity politics in complex geometry, a non-territorial approach based on cooperation, mutuality and equality must lead to a politics of space-sharing.
MM: Since 1967, the landscape itself was turned into the stage of debate. In what way did the new territorial relationships and their representation affect the way the conflict was waged?
EW: Traditional geopolitics is conducted as a flat discourse. It largely ignores the vertical dimension and tends to look across rather than cut through the landscape. This cartographic approach was inherited from the military and political spatialities of the modern state. Since both politics and law perceive the terrain and other spaces only through the tools available to them (two dimensional maps and plans), borders are imagined as simple lines.
The politics of verticality entails the re-visioning of existing cartographic techniques. Verticality has by now become the common means of exercising territorial control as well as the dimension within which territorial solutions are sought by those trying to find lines of partitions. Consider the way in which Bill Clinton sincerely believed in a vertical solution to the problem of partitioning the Temple Mount. According to his proposal, Palestinians would get the Harram a Sharif and the mosques, and Israelis would control the “depth of the earth” — archaeology underneath them (with oneand-a-half meters of United Nations possession in between).
The Israeli government’s decision to redeploy from the Gaza strip and dismantle the matrix of Jewish colonies and military bases there presents as well a new form of “territorial compromise”: The ground will be handed back to the control of the Palestinian Authority, and the occupation will be transferred to military platforms cruising the skies. Indeed, Sharon’s plans for pullout from Gaza do not include plans for the IDF redeployment from territorial air and water spaces.
MM: The Israeli Knesset refused to obey the verdict of the International Court of Justice. How do you think the United Nations or the international community should intervene in the conflict?
EW: I think that the international opposition to the wall has had — perhaps for the first time in the history of the conflict — some positive consequences. The wall has given international and local opposition a clear target. If the images of mundane, almost benign, red-roofed suburban settlements were not shocking enough to mobilize a global opposition, the images of barbed-wire fences and especially of high concrete walls resonated strongly with a western historical imagination still dealing with unresolved memories of its colonial and World War legacies. You know that the current plan for the wall is very different from the one that was initially proposed. Small victories in rerouting various parts are far from being enough, and in some cases even created damage, but the international community has demonstrated that with concentrated action some facts on the ground can be changed.
In fact, what was effective and must continue is a truly global campaign waged via the UN, the Israeli High Court of Justice, local and international NGOs, the International Court of Justice, the media, and scores of foreign governments. It deflected the gestural sweep of the lines drawn in Sharon’s plan, and it is currently likely to cancel the implementation of the eastern part of the barrier altogether. When I examined changes in the path of the wall, what was made very clear was that micro-political action is sometimes as effective as traditional state political action. All along the path of the wall, the folds, deformations, stretches, wrinkles and bends in the barrier graph the local legal political conflicts in its vicinity and teach us that more pressure on Israel is necessary and effective. One must not only act against the path of the wall and try to deflect it — but against its very concept: These struggles must be joined together and continuous pressure on all levels maintained.
However, we must also remember that the wall is not a single object. It was never able to translate the contradictory forces acting on it into linear geometry. From being a singular, contiguous object it shredded into separate fragments. Like splintered worms that take on renewed life, the fragments of the wall and its barriers started to curl around isolated blocks of colonies and Palestinian towns and along the roads connecting them. Each of the separate shards — termed “depth barriers” by the Ministry of Defense — contained a sequence of fortifications similar to the main part of the wall. In some paradoxical instances the closer the international community placed the linear component of the wall to the international border of the Green Line, the more depth barriers were planned and built on its eastern side, the more fragmented the terrain became, and the more Palestinian life was disrupted. These depth barriers are as destructive to life on the ground as the main barrier, but are unfortunately politically invisible.
MM: Do you think that — in the context of settlements and walls as well as in terms of your research on urban warfare — architects have committed crimes? Should some of them in fact be held accountable?
EW: Indeed. Land Grab, the human rights report I work on with B’tselem, describes work of architects and planners conducted in violation of human rights and international humanitarian law. When planners and architects employ large-scale policies of aggression, control and segregation, and when they make particular design decisions that are explicitly meant to disturb, suppress, or foster racism, a crime is being committed. International humanitarian law is designed to address military personnel or politicians in executive positions. But in the frictions of a rapidly developing and urbanizing world, human rights are increasingly violated by the organization of space. Just like a gun or a tank, mundane building matter is used as a weapon with which to commit crimes.
The nature of the planning action concerned is twofold, including both acts of strategic form-making: construction and destruction. “Design by destruction” increasingly involves planners as military personnel who reshape the battleground to meet strategic objectives, and urban warfare increasingly comes to resemble urban planning. By manipulating key infrastructure — like planners in reverse — the military seeks to control an urban area by disrupting its various flows. Those in charge of bombing campaigns rely on architects and planners to recommend buildings and infrastructure as potential targets. The grid of roads that are as wide as an army bulldozer and were carved through refugee camps reveals another specialty of the planners: replacing an existing circulation system by another, one more accessible to the occupying army and easier in which to control popular unrest.
Although no architect has ever faced international justice, the application of international law as the most severe method of architectural critique has never been more urgent. The legal basis for indicting architects or planners already exists, but architecture and planning intersect with the contemporary conflicts in ways that the semantics of international law are still ill equipped to describe.
MM: Your exhibition and publication A Civilian Occupation was banned by the Israel Association of United Architects [IAUA] in 2002. This caused a major uproar in Israel and a lesser one in the international architectural community. Now, three years later, has IAUA’s thinking changed?
EW: In January 2005 the IAUA decided to react to the continuing debate around Civilian Occupation by dedicating its annual conference to the relation between architecture and politics. They invited all of the participants in the banned exhibition to debate with the association’s members, along with Yossi Beilin, the initiator of the Oslo negotiations, Shimon Peres and the Minister of Education (who each inaugurated one of the days of the conference). I refused to take part, but other participants attended and there was a somewhat heated debate. At the end of the conference, the director of the association publicly retracted the banning, apologized, and accepted the validity of the project’s findings. I find his retraction candid and honest, but unfortunately there were some members who said, “Now that we have finished talking about politics, can we finally go back to talking about architecture?” Some in the association, and indeed in the Israeli architectural community, wanted to use the conference in order to get the issue out of the way and return to the insular and autonomous architectural discourse that was prevalent in Israel before.
MM: Where is your research going now?
EW: I am currently involved in discussions with the Palestinian Authority regarding the evacuation of colonies of the Gaza Strip. The problem concerns the reuse of colonial architecture in postcolonial time, assuming Israel will leave after it retreat some of the structures. The danger, as far as some Palestinian colleagues see it, is that the re-inhabitation of the colonies may reproduce, or at least mimic, some of the power relations in space. If the homes in the colonies are left standing, they may be transformed into “luxury” suburbs just a few minutes drive from congested urban centers. In this scenario, the systems of fences and the abundance of surveillance technology would facilitate their transformation into Palestinian gated communities, reproducing the feelings of hostility and alienation the majority of Palestinians already have for these structures.
Our work concentrates on the idea of recycling architecture — using the structures for a variety of very different ends than what they were originally designed to perform. This recycling could perhaps be understood as similar to the situationist method of détournement. By completely breaking the prescribed relation between space and its use, existing spatial power could be subverted. Moreover, by studying the colonies’ geography, one could abuse their otherwise destructive potential by benefiting from its intrinsic qualities. That colonies in the West Bank as well as in Gaza are independent secluded “islands” connected to one other by a network of sightlines, roads, and infrastructure — what Jeff Halper called “the matrix of control” — may allow for new functions to abuse and subvert their potential connectivity in order to achieve other ends.
We are asking ourselves whether the matrix of control could turn into a matrix of interconnected public institutions of hospitals, schools and universities. Could the small-scale single-family homes be converted, extended, or extruded? Would the grass lawns turn into small agricultural lots? One can surely understand those Pal-estinians who wish to remove the colonies that represented and executed/controlled their oppression, but what could be more of a victory for resistance and perseverance than turning places of oppression into sites of renewed life?
In discussion, two small and rather isolated colonies (Morag and Netzarim) were already designated as public institutions; Morag as a university between the southern twin cities of Khan Yunis and Rafah, and Netzarim as an institute for contemporary culture. Converting a colony of twenty-five single-family homes organized in a circular layout around a core of few public buildings into a university with libraries, offices, laboratories and classrooms is a great architectural challenge. In this respect, recycling the relics of the occupation may prove more environmentally and economically sane, as well as more architecturally challenging, than their direct re-inhabitation or destruction.
Given that colonies could be read as the end condition of suburban sprawl, on more general terms the recycling of the structure of the colonies may raise some subversive thoughts about our own suburbia and its potential appropriation.
Eyal Weizman is an Israeli architect based in London. He is a professor of architecture at the Academy of Arts in Vienna. His exhibition (with Rafi Segal), A Civilian Occupation, the Politics of Israeli Architecture, was banned by the Israeli Architectural Association from the 2002 World Congress of Architecture in Berlin, but was later shown at the Storefront Gallery in NYC as well as Territories in a variety of European art institutions. “The Politics of Verticality” was first published on www.opendemocracy.net.
Javad Yasari is Iran’s Willie Nelson, and like the country legend, he is the voice of the road. The rhythms of Javad’s music have kept truckers awake across Iran’s deserts for thirty years. Groups of young men in alleyways, fueled by a bottle of homemade vodka and cheap cigarettes, still serenade the night with his songs.
An ex-National Team wrestler, Javad is a superstar in his own eyes and the eyes of Tehran’s bazaar. But nobody knows what he looks like. At sixty-one, he’s keen to point out which wrinkles he wants a photographer to Photoshop, but apart from the odd newspaper article, his face has had minimal airtime. His star rose in the late 70s at Lalezar, the downtown club strip where Googoosh thrilled a champagne-sipping clientele, while the storm of revolution was gathering. 1979 turned the lights out on Lalezar and the cabarets of south Tehran, and Javad’s music went under the counter.
Iranian melodies layered over Arabic rhythms, his songs are emotional rollercoasters of love and loss, loneliness, and the grace of Imam Ali. His one and only VCD of music videos, produced illegally, is a fruit salad concoction of his family snaps, psychedelic fade-ins, and hip-swinging, finger-clicking Javad clad in polyester. All of the clips feature images of him singing superimposed over a range of background footage, from images of Tehran to eager dolphins behind the glass of an aquarium. In one, he swims in and out of focus against images of Belgium, the home of his oldest son, who made the eccentric suggestion that Javad slap himself over shots of a local church. Bought from a street seller, it quickly became our late night party anthem. Even as I describe the scene to him, he’s having trouble visualizing it: a bunch of drunken kids in north Tehran, jumping on expensive sofas to his music.
His surprise is understandable. Javad’s songs are downtown anthems. His tales of family, folks back home, Mama and the love of the Shia Imams are sung in the same accent as boasts about knife fights in tea houses all over Iran. There’s a class divide between those who glow with fondness at his name and those who look at you sidelong when you mention it.
Although his music is beloved by the traveling man, Javad himself hasn’t moved very far. He owns a secondhand fridge and television shop in Shahpour, where he was born. Tehran is a two-tiered monster of north and south that has exploded from three million people in 1979 to about sixteen million today. Much of what is now highway and high-rise was fields and orchards two decades ago, but Shahpour was always at the city’s downtown heart, just south of the bazaar. In the mornings, Javad sits outside his shop in a dark silk shirt, a stone’s throw from the house where his widowed mother single-handedly brought up a large family. Javad is the youngest child of seven and beams when I tell him seven is a fairy tale number. His life has been marked more by frustration than luck, but he recounts it with the panache of an old-school storyteller.
Thursdays evenings in his youth, singers like Hassan Shahrestani (oddly nicknamed “Hassan the Crotch”) and Seyed Karim, a joke teller who is now getting laughs in LA, would gather in coffee houses to smoke and sing. One evening, during his days as a professional wrestler, Javad went to a coffee house with his teammates. They had been listening to him in the showers for years and egged him on to perform. “That was how it began—the next week everyone turned up with tape recorders.” From there it was a short walk to Lalezar and the Zangouleh recording studio run by two famous cabaret dancers, Afat and Mahvash. “Afat cried when she heard my voice. She told me I had something really special,” he recalls. At Zangouleh he recorded the first of his five cassettes with Hassan Shahrestani, tunes laid over backing music of nightingales and birdsong.
Javad was in heaven, but his family was less than supportive. “At home, singing was haram. My brothers sang at the heyat (religious halls built in honor of Imams) but they thought singing was the work of the devil, and one by one they abandoned me.” It’s therefore ironic that the love of God features in nearly every one of his songs. These influences stayed with him, and after his first cassette caught on in the bazaar like wildfire—“not a tape was left on the shelf; workshops were lining up to copy it”—he got his first gig in Lalezar’s Theatre Dehghan. He remembers bending down to kiss the boards before he walked on stage. “It’s what I’d always done when I wrestled. The stage was sacred.”
Javad soon moved to the larger Theatre Pars, the haunt of singers such as Nematollah Aghasi, Ali Nazeri and Majid Farhang. His first night there, he sat down on the stage to sing, like traditional folk singers. “I started a fashion wave. After that, all the singers sat down on stage, and the audience went wild.” Javad is devoted to his audience, who he calls “his people.” “That was the secret of my success,” he explains. Javad and other kuche bazaari (streets of the bazaar) singers were the first group to sing in the language of the street. His songs resonated, and old women still track him down to thank him for a son saved from opium addiction by his song “Mother,” or a strong child conceived to the strains of “Yasari’s stories.”
“I’ve seen lines from my songs written on people’s graves,” he beams with pride. “I have always had a message for people. I want to guide people with my songs,” he says. “I could show you more than a hundred families that have stayed together because of my song ‘Child.’” His music certainly brought his family back together. “When I became famous, one by one my family all came knocking, asking to make up and wondering how much I was earning.”
Javad doesn’t feel modern pop is up to much, though he’s happy to take what he likes from it. “I sing with love, I love my work. Now people just make music for dancing, for pleasure, not for true emotion. Great music should be like a pair of black shoes. Good for a wedding or a funeral.”
Javad’s big hit before the Islamic Republic killed the party of Lalezar and the kuche bazaari singers was “Sepideh Dam” (Sunrise). “It caught on down here, and up there,” he says. Its story is pure romance. A man kills for love and is sentenced to death. In prison, he learns that his beloved has betrayed him for another man. As a last request, he asks that she be brought to the execution. He spends his last night writing a wistful love poem, and at the final moment stands before her without bitterness and sings: “You threw our life to the winds…”
“Men and women about to divorce would get back together,” he says. “It was a song for mothers, lovers, anyone who’s lived.” Like the song’s hero, Javad isn’t bitter about life’s ups and downs— not about his career cut short on the cusp of success, nor about his second son who died young in a gas accident, nor about the fact that he can’t read or write (“I went out to work as a child. There was no time for school”). There is only the slightest hint of bitterness when he explains how the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which has never allowed him to record in Iran, recently gave permission for another younger singer to record and perform “Sepideh Dam” live.
Javad comes from a group of artists who got lost between two extremes: The Pahlavi regime was more interested in progressive French jazz than kuche bazaari music, and they were kept out of the mainstream media under the Shah. And in 1979, although the kuche bazaari singers came from the hotbeds of the revolution, their concerts and recording went out the window along with Googoosh and American rock.
After the revolution, Javad’s cassettes were sold illegally and his music lived on as part of a culture that perhaps changed least with the events of ’79 but has never really had its time—the hard working van-driving family man who loves Imam Ali like a father, but who also loves music, tall stories, and the camaraderie of arak sessions. Who spins yarns of nights in Cafe Sousan and Cafe Moulin Rouge and who has never brought his wife to a concert.
Javad skips lightly over the intervening twenty-six years spent singing in nightclubs and halls from Dubai to Australia. For a singer so in love with “his people,” the gigs were little more than stopgaps. He’s back in Tehran indefinitely. “I have no bookings for the moment.” And he’s planning a new video. “I never give up hope,” he says. “There could be one day left till the end of the world, and I would still hope.” He smiles and raises another glass of arak, and we tip back the shots with a toast. A couple of shots later and we’ve all signed up for bit parts in a video that we promise will take him to the stars. He’s excited by the prospect, though international stardom has never been a priority. The singing legend who has no face recognition and no producer, and who still isn’t allowed to give concerts here, won’t give up on Iran. “You have to find success at home, if it’s to be real. I sing for my people. Nothing else matters.”
Shaaban and I have been playing hide-and-seek over the telephone for some time now, he grumbling and me rambling. This is how it goes: Every time I call, I must reintroduce myself, as though we’ve never spoken before. I remind him how I got his number (through a musician contact) and that he has asked me to call back to finalize the specifics of our interview on his iconness. At this point, he usually tells me to call back at a later time, and when I do, his mobile is invariably turned off. After nearly three weeks of playing this game, and just when I’m ready to call it quits, he betrays the faintest glimmer of repentance and uses my name for the first time. Never mind, Uncle Yahia (long pause). Listen, let’s meet on Thursday, at the Rehani Theatre on Emaddeldin Street downtown, 10 pm. That’s it, Professor Shaaban, it’s a date? No more calls? I ask, relieved. He grunts in assent.
To his credit, Shaaban has no delusions about his assets. In a typically candid interview with the Christian Science Monitor in 2002, he offered: “You know, I can’t sing. And look at my face — it’s ugly, really ugly. But for some reason, people keep throwing their money at me… Who am I to say no?” Shooting to fame some five years ago, with his bluntly titled “I Hate Israel,” Shaaban seems to have tapped into the often frustrated and disenfranchised mood of the Egyptian (and Arab) street, singing what the people are saying — or rather, what they are afraid to say. The local governmental and cultural elites, however, have condemned him as boorish and lowbrow. One participant in a 2001 parliamentary debate on his influence on Egyptian society declared, “Shaaban does not represent any artistic or cultural value.” A year later, in an attempt to discourage him from appearing on live television, politicians hinted that singers appearing on state-run channels should at least possess university degrees.
But mean-spirited talk of bans and accusations of vulgarity have only contributed to Shaaban’s burgeoning street credibility, and his refusal to feel shame about his humble origins has gained the respect of many. “Presenters like to make fun of me… but that’s OK… I never expected to eat meat every day,” he confessed to the Monitor. And while his work may lack artistic value, his relevance evidently lies elsewhere. Neither accomplished musician nor teen-age heartthrob, Shaaban is a cultural phenomenon, an improbable popular and populist hero who has considerable sway with the masses.
Disaffected youth hang on his every word and commit his lyrics to memory. One song of a few years back, “I’ll Stop Smoking” (although he hasn’t), is rumored to have been more effective than nationwide anti-smoking campaigns. Shaaban’s is a classic rags-to-riches tale: A lower class, illiterate ironing man (ironing by foot, no less) did unbelievably well for himself, including “appearing on CNN” (as he repeats triumphantly in his one film, Citizen, Detective and Thief — in which he plays a wedding singer). But by just playing himself, Shaaban has secured his position as the voice of a nation of underdogs. For the insulted and the injured, unemployed and underemployed, he is someone they can trust to tell it like it is. In this sense, his rap music is a news flash for the man on the street.
In addition to bestselling albums throughout the Arab world, Shaaban has appeared in TV serials and is currently co-starring in a commercially successful play (in its fourth year). For better or worse, his persona begs for appropriation as a cartoonish icon: The kitsch he’s inspired includes a variety of potato chips bearing his nickname, Shaabolla. Chinese Ramadan lanterns feature his likeness in shiny colored plastic, and his mug greets you on T-shirts worn throughout the Middle East.
Shaaban’s political forays, however, are less amusing. Ill-digested (and often ill-informed) political commentary continued following his infamous Israel ditty, in which he sings that he wants to die a martyr. In the lead-up to the Iraqi invasion, he released a reactionary pro-Saddam song titled “Saddam, I Love You,”and more recently sung an inflammatory pro bin Laden tune (reportedly banned from the market) with the catchy chorus “bin bin bin bin bin Laden.”
Now that Egyptian President Mubarak is up for his fifth term in office, and the people have finally decided that enough is too much (with a protest movement called “Enough,” frequent demonstrations and violence in the streets), Shaaban has made the unpopular decision to endorse him. He shamelessly sings the praises of Mubarak’s achievements over the last twenty-four years in the dubiously titled “The One We Know Is Better Than the One We Don’t”: “And after all this… who should be nominated to run against you?… I’ll say it once more, word of truth, the nation chooses Mubarak.” Consequently, the man once referred to as “the pulse of the street” now faces accusations of hypocrisy from the same fan base that accorded him this title.
The play in which Shaaban appears is titled Do-Re-Me-Green Beans and stars one of Egypt’s best-loved comedians, Samir Ghanem. Since his heyday in the seventies, Ghanem has had a fondness for spastic farce and freakish co-stars: cross-dressers, midgets and mad old men. From the look of the posters outside the dilapidated theater — Ghanem in toupee, oversized shorts, and glittery gold shoes, Shaaban appearing effortlessly like a circus clown — vaudeville is still the order of the day.
I make my way into the smoke-filled cafeteria at 10 pm sharp and am told I must wait a while. The man in the ticket booth tells me that Mr. Shaaban does not show up before 10:30 or 11, since he only comes on during the second act. Yes, but I have an appointment, I interject. Then have a seat, he says with a wily smile. Uneasily, I settle down and prepare myself for a wait, cautiously sipping the complimentary lemonade.
10:30 The audience is tumbling in now, one expectant family after another squeezing through the narrow entrance. At the door they are confidentially propositioned: “Photo with the stars?”
10:45 A very young Gulf Arab couple seated behind me are being casually had. The cafeteria waiter hoarsely whispers into the unassuming man’s ear that he has won a prize. To secure it, he must act now and buy a special ticket. He gets up and buys one.
11:00 Still no sign of “the man of the people.” A bell has gone off signaling the beginning of the play, and the cafeteria is clearing out. An unlikely seduction scene between a coy boy and a gregarious girl is elaborately unraveling. A much younger child screams blue murder. I get up to call The Man.
11:15 Not surprisingly, his mobile is turned off, and I return to my seat; the theater staff regard me now with a mixture of pity and schadenfreude.
11:30 Only a few people remain in the cafeteria: a dejected looking kid (fan?), a restless man with a notebook, eyeing me from time to time with fellow-feeling (journalist?), and a Shaaban look-alike (if such a thing is possible) in a comparatively demure canary yellow shirt and blindingly white shoes. He appears somewhat dim-witted, saying “excuse me” repeatedly to no one in particular. Because of the uncanny resemblance and deferential treatment he receives, I assume he must be family.
11:45 The room is alive with facial tics and the language of anxious fidgeting — my own included.
12:00 One of the ushers winks at me. Shaaban’s driver is here, he confides. Perhaps I should check the changing room at the side of the building. He returns to his post, whistling nonchalantly, and winks again on my way out.
12:15 Illumined by garish green lighting, a man with a scar from his mouth to his ear interrogates me at the changing room entrance. Nah, that was Shaaban’s kid, he eventually volunteers. Shaaban always comes in through the cafeteria. I call Shaaban once more and get through this time. Yes, he’s on his way, a driver answers. Minutes, now. Click.
12:30 Back at the cafeteria, two silver cars pull up and I slowly make my way out, the anticipation having mostly evaporated. Turns out it’s not him, but two more of his drivers. You’re the one who spoke to us on the phone? one of them asks accusingly, narrowing his good eye. Yeah, I sigh. I’ve been waiting for two and half hours now, we had an appointment… Never mind, listen, he’ll be coming any minute now, up this side street, wait here with me… On the lapel of the chauffeur’s checkered shirt, I notice an image of Shaaban stitched in gold thread. The man wears shiny red shoes not unlike his employer’s.
1:00 In the midst of intermission mayhem, the Big Man arrives in a glitzy SUV with a sizeable poster of Mubarak in the windshield, trailing people and commotion. My first impression as I catch sight of Shaaban stepping out of the vehicle, puffed out like a blowfish, is one of unexpected toughness. It’s difficult to square the prankish persona in the posters with this unsympathetic creature and his small unsmiling eyes. Sure, he looks like himself — preposterously greasy hair and wide waistband — but he feels different. The animating spirit peering out from these eyes is armored, hard.
At the entrance of the theater he stops for a long handshake with a monakkabba (woman veiled to the eyebrows in black, with gloves on). Soberly dressed in a dark suit and pants, Shaaban moves very slowly and somehow gives the impression of reptilian dry and amphibious slick at the same time. Kids and cops clamor around him as he is ushered into a side room off the cafeteria. He’ll see you afterwards when the people have cleared out, his chauffeur assures me. You couldn’t possibly have a conversation in the middle of this madness.
1:15 When the audience have returned to their seats The Godfather emerges from the inner chamber and sits down for a glass of tea, thronged by a tight ring of his henchmen, including scar-face. I catch Shaaban’s eyes from across the room, suspiciously scanning me as his driver motions discreetly in my direction. He lingers for one long joyless moment, and then sends one-eye back to me, apologizing profusely. We’ll have to do it another time; The Man is expected on stage in minutes. Before I can process this information, Shaaban has left the building.
In May 2004, India experienced a dramatic political transformation. The Hindu chauvinist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led coalition National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government was defeated and replaced by a Congress-led coalition, the United Progressive Alliance. Prior to the election, the BJP had been forecasting 300-plus seats. In the event, the BJP tally fell from 182 to 136, and the NDA fell dramatically from 320 to 189. Congress took 27 percent of the vote and the BJP 22 percent. The left gained their highest-ever representation — sixty-two seats in the Lok Sabha.
The most compelling way of accounting for that BJP defeat lies in a consideration of the conflict between image regimes. These image regimes are not concerned primarily with content and do not depend on the connection between iconography and the world. They are configured, rather, by a relationship between form and the world — a material dimension that operates in a longer durée.
I do not intend to argue that the 2004 elections are simply to be understood in terms of a mass sloughing-off of the aesthetic illusion of Adornoite schein in a vulgar Baudrillardian revelation of the disjunction between image and the real. The lifeless bright sameness of India under the NDA involved a quality of luminescence under the sign of “shininess” and “radiance.” Glossiness and shininess emerged as key concepts and terms in India in 2004. The ruling BJP coalition went to the polls in April/May 2004 with the slogan Bharat Uday, translated nationally into English as “India Shining.” They lost to a Congress coalition, one of whose prominent candidates, the recently deceased Sunil Dutt, claimed, “We are polishing the exterior, but the interior is starving.”
The campaign kicked off early (mid 2003) but surreptitiously, with the use of public funds to finance ostensibly non-political images: A middle-class woman plays cricket while her happy son skips on verdant grass; schoolchildren eagerly wait with their hands in the air, desperate to unburden themselves of all the useful information they have acquired; an elderly Muslim man holds a bunch of lotus buds in an ecumenical image of communal harmony alongside the caption:
Tourism is booming
Business is thriving
Flowers are blooming
You’ve never had
A better time to shine brighter
These pictures, the commentator Shiv Viswanathan observed in the journal Hinal, were part of a “semiotic warto redefine nation, state, history, economics, and geography”: They sidestepped the electoral liabilities of caste, religion and tradition in favor of a “supermarket of dreams and values…in virtual reality” and were accompanied with advertisers’ jingles:
Roads are lengthening
Distances are shortening
Bazaars are buzzing
Schools are bustling
Children are sparkling
Future is inspiring.
The government claimed that it was justifiably using public funds to promote the state’s achievements, a view with which the Electoral Commission disagreed. Before the campaign was terminated at least sixty-five crore rupees (approximately fifteen million dollars, although according to some other estimates the campaign cost almost twice this) had been spent in one of the biggest media campaigns in India. Even mobile phone users found themselves bombarded with sixty-second messages from the prime minister reminding them that under the ruling coalition they had never had it so good.
The dual linguistic registers of “India Shining” and “Bharat Uday,” on the face of it, seemed a recognition that different constituencies required different codings and different metaphors. They attempted to invoke two quite different modalities of identification. This issue was explored by Sorab Mistry, the Southeast Asia area director of the transnational marketing group McCann Erickson, in a discussion of semantics and strategic marketing. Both “Bharat” and “India,” and “Uday” and “Shining,” signified different entities, he suggested.
“Bharat,” he argued, quoted on the website estrategicmarketing.com is “the mythical notion of India, once great and now believed to be in decline. ‘Uday’ points to its grand revival, its awakening, its rising to recapture its lost glory.” ‘India,’ by contrast, is the nation state, “modern and progressive,” and “Shining” is “the confirmation that what’s looking good in other peoples’ mirrors… Shining is here a sign for success, especially for material success. Nothing shines like new money. It in fact builds in the anticipated consumer reaction and plays it back to the consumer.”
Mistry suggests that the dual appeal of the linguistic registers should have been efficacious, for under the guise of a unified branding it in fact subtly addressed two different audiences with different codes. The failure of this strategy, he concludes, is due to the fact that both “Uday” and “Shining” lacked what he termed the “stickiness” of call signs such as “Free,” “Extra,” “Off ” and “Offer.”
Another critic neatly identified the dual constituencies of “India” and “Bharat” in the following way: “Maybe about four to five percent of people who live in ‘India’ may have something to feel good about. However, for the majority of population who lives in ‘Bharat,’ the good feeling seems to be virtual.” (Neeraj, India, on the BBC website)
“India” here signifies the nation state in a global economy, but “Bharat” fails to evoke the mythic homeland in a state of immanent rising and shining. “Bharat” rather signifies the territorialized economic predicament of a deterritorialized “India.”
The India Shining campaign, however, seemed to have no ability to flatter the masses on their own territory. The vulnerability of the campaign was dramatized in mid-April when twenty-one women died in a stampede at a BJP rally in Lucknow, Prime Minister Atul Behari Vaypayee’s Lok Sabha constituency. Initially this seemed like a small tragedy of the kind that appears every few weeks in the India press (“Sari dole in Vaypayee seat turns messy,” the Hindustan Times reported on April 13). But the symbolic potency of the event quickly became apparent.
The deaths occurred when organizers of a birthday celebration for Vajpayee’s election agent Lalji Tandon started to throw saris into the crowd and pandemonium broke out. It then became apparent that the women at this function, who had been bussed in from nearby slums in Khadra, Daliganj and Sitapur Road, had been forced to pay twenty rupees (about fifty cents) each for registration and transportation. In return for this, they were promised saris worth 500 rupees and a lavish lunch.
On April 15, three days after the tragedy, the Times of India ran a photograph of the mass cremations of the twenty-one under the Blakean headline “Shining, shining…burning bright.” The report by Atul Chandra observed, “When the rest of India is shining, here in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s constituency, 20,000 women were expected to gather in forty-one degrees Celsius heat for a free sari. These women, and lakhs [hundreds of thousands] of others, are hardly able to keep body and soul together. For them a free sari — so what if it was worth only forty or fifty rupees — would have helped cover their bodies. That twenty-one of them had to be wrapped in shrouds instead is another story.”
Just before the elections, I was struck time and time again at the depth of anger toward the ruling BJP state government (at that time led by the female ascetic Uma Bharati) and toward the national coalition. The incompetence of the state administration was a continual talking point, and the sign of this — which dominated everyone’s life — was the almost complete absence of electricity. District towns were allocated only six hours electricity, and villages two or three if they were lucky. Uma Bharati’s regime had complemented the national India Shining campaign with its own advertising jingle: kali raat biti, mehnat jiti (dark nights are over, hard work has paid off). But this was somewhat undercut by the fact that outside of the state capital of Bhopal, most cities and nearly all villages were in near-permanent states of darkness.
Increasing rural impoverishment has entailed an increasing dislocation of large parts of the population from the state utopia of a citizenry interlinked through technology. Two year ago in this central Indian village there was a satellite dish, leased by one of the village’s liquor dealers, who gave his sixteen subscribers thirty or forty television channels. But his subscribers were unable to pay, the dish was repossessed, and the dealer left the village. Villagers can, in the two or three hours when there is electricity, receive terrestrial television, but it is only one channel, and makes only ghostly appearances through blizzards of interference. Their India is not shining.
At a national level, the Indian National Congress response to the India Shining campaign that eventually emerged was a form of politique noire, a poster and advertising campaign that invoked an aesthetics of gritty black and white realism. However, in the early part of the campaign multicolored images predominated. Many depicted Sonia Gandhi (the Italian-born widow of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and leader of the Congress) — as an embodiment of female solidarity (“After all, why are they afraid of a woman,” read one slogan) and as humble supplicant in the cause of national development (“Come let’s develop a great country, to build a new nation,” read another). Other colorful posters targeted specific constituencies (“Congress’s resolve. Prosperity for farmers. Rights for women. Education and employment for youth”). Some reworked the Nehruvian image of strength in diversity (“They only want their own progress / We want the progress of everyone,” which depicts Hindus, a Muslim, a Jain, a Buddhist hill person, and a Sikh).
But a black and white campaign whose aesthetics were directly opposed to the colorful glossiness of the BJP campaign soon came to dominate. It targeted the rural and urban poor and unemployed youth. “Special development for farmers was promised,” ran one poster slogan above an image of a suffering peasant family sitting on a string charpai (cot). Beneath this ran the slogan repeated throughout all Congress images, Aam aadmi ko kya mila? (What has the common man gained?) Another black and white poster showed disconsolate youth queuing outside an Employment Exchange beneath the slogan, “Five Crore Jobs Were Promised” (5 karor rozgar dene ka dava).
Congress’s English-language press campaign was pitched at the middle class: Double-page spreads — in the same politique noire aesthetic — dramatized the predicaments of more affluent citizens. A young female university student was shown in a secondhand bookstore, pondering, “They claim to have made a difference, but I can see only the divide that they have created.” A middle class father walks his uniformed child to school alongside the slogan, “They promised an education revolution, but my child is being taught distorted history at school” (a reference to the BJP’s rewriting of school history textbooks). This series of advertisements ran the central slogan in English and the campaign slogan Congress Ka Haath/Aam Aadmi ke Saath (The Congress Hand with the Common Man) in Hindi.
The Congress campaign, run by the advertising agency Leo Burnett, cleverly targeted two different groups: the poor who felt increasingly destitute, and the middle class who may have benefited from the NDA’s trickle-up policies but were uneasy about BJP ideology. This uneasiness was targeted in a poster with the slogan, “Before you vote for just one face, remember what comes along with it.” Vajpayee’s was shown as the central visage of the Hindu demon Ravan, on either side of which extended faces of various extreme members of the “Sangh Parivar,” the network of Hindu groups with which the BJP is in dialogue. Vajpayee was very much the presidential and respectable face of the BJP, in contrast to otherfigures such as Narendra Modi, the butcher of Gujarat, and Bal Thackeray, leader of Bombay’s extremist Shiv Sena. Congress thus broadened its constituency from the poor that had been targeted in previous campaigns to a more encompassing aam aadmi (common man).
Congress spent a paltry twenty crore rupees on their campaign, and between March 2 and May 10, 3,000 insertions appeared in the press, eighty percent of them significantly in the regional press. According to advertising industry analysis, “the entire campaign was conceived in Hindi and regional languages,” and different images were shot for different regions with regionally specific models, (see www.magindia.com).
It seems clear that “India Shining” was not simply a slogan that backfired. Rather, it dramatized point of rupture within neoliberalism. Clearly this does not take place solely at the level of the image: At heart the 2004 election was a contest between rich and poor. But the image world is more than simply a superstructural irreality that ideologically mirrors infrastructural truths. Image worlds are intrinsically joined to the lifeworlds of different classes. The gloss of “India Shining” was an intrinsic constituent, a summation of what Adorno and Horkheimer called “the triumph of invested capital.” The visual starkness of Congress’ advertising engaged an aesthetic fundamental, the experience of poverty. The aesthetic contest was simultaneously a contest of lifeworlds and classes.
The Bay Area Situationalist Collective opened a recent treatise — which makes a compelling case for the usefulness of Debord in understanding the contemporary American state — by describing the moment in February 2003 when the tapestry copy of Picasso’s Guernica hanging in the anteroom of the UN Security Council Chamber was curtained off at the insistence of the US. It was deemed inappropriate as a visual backdrop for pronouncements on the virtue of the aerial bombardment of civilian populations in Iraq. The reason for all this anxious Velcro, the Situationist Collective concluded, was the state’s fear “that every last detail of the derealized decor it had built for its citizens had the potential, at a time of crisis, to turn utterly against it.” It was perhaps the iconographic nature of Guernica that allowed the US to recognize in advance the threat that it posed and hence to order its concealment. States have a well-developed sensitivity to the destabilizing potential of iconography. But as the 2004 Indian elections demonstrate, their ability to immunize themselves against catastrophic implosions at the level of aesthetics remains extremely limited.
My father did this before me, though I started using this technique with the posters six years ago. At first I made my own posters, bought different images at the market and mixed them up with scissors. I used Islamic symbols, Iranian poetry, postcard pictures.
How do you take the picture?
I take one picture of the poster with a filter lens over it and a dot on the lens blocking out the middle. Then, on the same film, I hold the button to prevent rolling and take an image of the subject on another lens that blocks everything except that room for the dot.
So you take two images on one piece of film?
Do you know anyone else who uses this technique?
Only Mehdi, who works near Baharestan Square.
Who are your customers?
Our customers are mostly young Afghan men, though we’ve had so few in the last months. Iranians don’t come as much. Most of them have their own cameras.
Why aren’t you getting as many Afghan customers?
Because they’re being forced to go back to Afghanistan by the United Nations.
Do you ever get female customers?
How many customers do you get a day?
There was a time that I would get two hundred a day. Now it’s closer to thirty.
Do you make enough money to go on?
How much is each photo?
Two for 500 tomans (about sixty cents).
I’ve seen street photographers at Azadi monument, too, on the grass. Any idea how much they charge?
Two for 250 tomans, but they don’t have special backgrounds to chose from like I do. They just have their subjects lay on the grass in front of the monument.
What do you think people do with the photographs once you print them?
The Afghans send them back to Afghanistan to prove to their families that they are alive. Or they just hand them to someone going back to give to their families or friends. Sometimes they keep one for themselves; that’s why I print two.
Are there certain icons that certain groups of customers tend to select?
Iranians like landscapes, like waterfalls and mountains. They also like poems. The Afghans select pictures of people from their own history, like Ahmed Shah Massoud. Many of them can’t read. They also like Indian actors—Amir Khan, Sharokh Khan, Salmon Khan —and city scenes, like cars and buildings. Sometimes they chose girls and some others chose pictures of Mecca or Imam Hossein. Pakistanis come here sometimes too, but not as much.
I see you have some with planes.
After 9/11 we had more people selecting towers or planes. But actually I think that has more to do with a symbol of city life than with what happened in America.
How often do you change your poster stock?
Every two to three months, because they get creases and look old.
How many posters do you have to choose from now?
Where do you get them?
The poster market on Nasser Khosrow Street, near the bazaar, on Kooche Bandaloo.
Would you ever use a computer and Photoshop to do this work?
I haven’t thought about that. I probably couldn’t afford it.
Do you think you could ever become rich through this work?
A young man with wide eyes and skinny, aristocratically mod style stages his elaborate suicide again and again. He wants to be missed? Mourned? Reborn? He isn’t convinced he wants to be dead, one supposes, since his flagrant death-performances are never more than just those.
This is the beginning of Hal Ashby’s 1971 film Harold and Maude, the entire soundtrack of which was written and performed by a musician then known as Cat Stevens. Stevens was twenty-three when Harold and Maude hit theaters, making him only a little older than the male title character. But despite Stevens’s youth, he was already a chart-topping force; instead of completing fine art studies, the half-Greek, half-Swedish boy in Britain helped launch the Derum Label at Decca Records alongside David Bowie and the Moody Blues. His simple, relatable lyrics won quick popularity, often addressing themes of searching, as in one track from the film: “Sometimes you have to moan when nothing seems to suit ya / But nevertheless you know you’re locked toward the future / So on and on you go, the seconds tick the time out / There’s so much left to know and I’m on the road to find out.” By the end of 1971 he had released five albums, the last two of which (Tea for the Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecat) would arguably become his most celebrated and inarguably secure him iconic status in the schema of 1960s–1970s pop music.
Like Harold, however, Stevens grappled with the big question that’s usually squat in the center of the road to adult life: What’s the point? The film’s adolescent cynic (played by fantastic Bud Cort) is beset by alienation and neglect. Stevens’s difficulty arose from that other cliché: fame. The dilemma of the young, hit artist writhing in the callous grips of the pop culture machine is stock. Instead of the tragically common escape routes of suicide or crippling drug addiction, Stevens describes a near-drowning off the shores of Malibu as quite literally delivering him from the debauchery of celebrity to the would-be salvation of Islam: “There was no one on this earth who
could help me,” he recounted to BBC’s Bob Harris in January 2001. “I did the most instinctive thing — I just called out and said, ‘God, if you save me I’ll work for you,’ and in that moment a wave came from behind me and pushed me forward.”
A year later Stevens’s older brother gave him a copy of the Qur’an, and by the end of 1977 his star ascendancy was entirely forsaken in favor of a new life as Yusuf Islam, devout Muslim. 1978’s Back to Earth LP would be the artist’s last as “Cat Stevens,” and he would in no way promote that release or return to music at large for the next sixteen years.
Despite the abruptness and totality of this renunciation, Yusuf Islam retained the pop idol’s urge to engage an audience. By the mid-eighties he had become something of a poster boy for Islam in Britain, developing Muslim children’s schools and lecturing at universities across the country. One such lecture at Kingston Polytechnic in 1989 kicked off what would prove to be an uphill battle with the mainstream press. His response to a question from a member of the audience (Islam would later surmise that it was a member of the press entrapping him) precipitated a media frenzy alleging that Islam had backed the Ayatollah Khomeini’s condemnation to death of Salman Rushdie in the wake of the Satanic Verses controversy. Islam immediately issued a press release rife with we/they language, stating, “The present attitude of the government and the press is obviously as a result of their opposition to the Islamic legal ruling that Rushdie should be executed and the fact that it has come from a Muslim country.”
If folk/pop’s former golden boy ever truly sought to climb out from under the lens of the microscope, he seems not to have followed through. As testament to Islam’s assumed role as spokesperson for the British Muslim community, he also released a statement the day after the September 11 attacks, expressing his “hope to reflect the feelings of all Muslims and people around the world whose sympathies go out to the victims,” as well as stating, “no right-thinking follower of Islam would condone such an action.” Additionally, VH1 reported that Yusuf Islam would donate all proceeds from his 2001 box set (he maintains creative interest in all Cat Stevens reissues) to 9/11 charities.
Clearly Islam has been willing and able to deploy his renown for the sake of championing the messages of his religion. His official website, yusufislam.org.uk, offers a day-by-day news brief of his travels to receive various humanitarian awards and deliver speeches from Istanbul to Darfur to Abu Dhabi and back to London. This extensive log of philanthropic and religious activity, however thorough, is hard-pressed to outshine the sensationalist coverage of Islam by the western press.
His contentious relationship with the media came to a head in September 2004, when Islam made major headlines as his transAtlantic flight bound for Washington diverted its route to land in Bangor, Maine because his name was flagged on a Homeland Security watchlist. He was separated from his twenty-one-year-old daughter, detained for thirty-three hours, and sent home to England. This was not the first such detention; in 2000 Israeli authorities questioned and deported Islam from Jerusalem — alleging that he had given money to Hamas — but the American incident incited a particularly egregious slew of media coverage.
Again, Islam countered the press by publishing his own accounts of the experience in the mainstream media. In a piece for USA Today in October, 2004, he explained, “The consternation of Muslims living in the West is clearly justified: Islamophobia is not a theory, it’s a fact, and many ordinary Muslims in the UK and elsewhere are suffering, unseen and unheard. Was I just another victim of religious profiling?” The problem here is that he will never know; did the US mistake Yusuf Islam’s identity? Or, as Jon Stewart aptly put it, is the US really suspicious of the man who brought us “Peace Train?” One thing is sure: Despite his early opposition to the amoral trappings of the celebrity bubble, Yusuf Islam now finds himself at the center of a far more precarious world focal point than as a heartthrob doing interviews for Melody Maker magazine.
If the Dixie Chicks were lambasted (CD bonfires in the USA!) for expressing embarrassment that their home state delivered George W. Bush into politics, imagine what would unfold if they were stopped at the British border for suspected terrorist activity? Of course their careers are still deeply entrenched in the industry, while Yusuf Islam instead records exclusively Muslim-themed music on his own label, Mountain of Light. But the fact remains that political hullabaloo is no boon to any famous people, whether or not they openly perpetuate their own fame.
In Yusuf Islam’s case, the media minefield threatens to fence him into the sort of terrifying confusion that he and Harold yearned to escape as young men. Now fifty-seven, Islam still expresses his fraught need to “clear my name of this appalling and baseless slur against my character…In the meantime I am confident that, in the end, common sense and justice will prevail. I’m an optimist, brought up on the belief that if you wait to the end of the story, you get to see the good people live happily ever after.” It is a shame that he must engage in this brand of consternation, even if it is followed by a healthy hokey dose of sanguinity. Instead of being solely a spokesperson for the power of his religion or the importance of humanitarianism, he seems quite often to be a spokesperson for the troubles facing spokespeople. Of course this predicament stems in large part from his status as a well-known Muslim convert living and working in the West, but perhaps it also stems from the nature of his groovy, idealist roots and soulful determination. One has to wonder whether it would have been simpler to just go the way of David Bowie.
Malcolm X did it, Cat Stevens did it, and even simpleminded Mike Tyson did it. And if you blinked you might have missed it, but Michael Jackson, too, fell in love with Islam. Of course, Jackson’s “conversion” bears very little resemblance to the soul-searching and sustained spiritual commitments of Malcolm X or Cat Stevens. Perhaps more akin to Mike Tyson, who embraced the faith following incarceration for rape, Jackson’s quickie Islamic makeover came at a time when he desperately needed the support of a group like the Nation of Islam — in the aftermath of his 2003 arrest on pedophilia charges.
Of course, Michael Jackson is no stranger to makeovers; he’s been restlessly shape-shifting for the past few decades. There is a wickedly funny email that made the internet rounds not too long ago: “Only in America,” it reads, “can a poor black boy grow up to be a rich white woman.” The caption charts Jackson’s astonishing metamorphoses in a series of mesmerizing images, from handsome African American young man to kinky geisha girl, decadent Saudi princess to Planet of the Apes extra, and as the current creepy curator of his own wax museum. With each new face, a new persona. But, arguably, no incarnation is more curious than his recent association with the distinctly American Nation of Islam and his ephemeral Muslim impersonation.
There’s always been something incongruous about the innocuous Peter Pan persona — an unthreatening slip of a man — and Jackson’s macho drag of crotchgrabbing in the early “Beat It” video through “Bad” to the more recent “You Rock My World.” The only constant throughout has been that of a man violently uncomfortable in his own skin. Following accusations of child molestation in 2003, a full decade after the first accusation of sexual misconduct with a
￼￼minor (and an out of court, multimillion dollar settlement) Michael Jackson struck another improbable pose.
After denying that the Nation of Islam was handling his legal affairs, he released (on the internet) an odd new song: “Give thanks to Allah.” In immaculate Arabic (who would have guessed?) and a delicately pretty, clear-as-a-bell singing voice, Michael enjoins his listeners to “hold onto their iman (faith)” and “not give into Shaitan (Satan).” True, Jackson had hinted at messianic leanings before, striking the occasional martyred-Christ poses, on stage and in his songs, but this was something else.
Muslim fans from Nigeria to Singapore, quick and adamant enough to learn of this overnight “conversion,” logged onto blogs net-wide to register their ecstasy: “I cried from happiness…I was about to fly.” Welcoming their beloved “brother” Michael to the fold, and wishing him forgiveness for his sins, one overzealous acolyte went so far as to invite him to “come to infinity… I like to see you in heaven dancing and singing with me.”
What would this mean? Could we look forward to the surreal sight of a twirling Jackson, executing those peculiarly abrupt signature movements, in a gallabiya (like the one Muslim-convert brother Jermaine Jackson has taken to wearing)? Would the falsetto animal yelps or shrill hiccups that punctuated Michael’s songs be displaced by Arabic sprinklings, giving more thanks to Allah?
As it turns out, it did not mean very much at all. In much the same way a hasty marriage to Lisa Marie Presley followed his 1993 sex charges, so the Muslim chant followed those of 2003. No Yusuf Islam (aka Cat Stevens), Jackson’s newfound faith did not entail any staggering life changes. He merely panicked and, in his confusion, tried Islam on for size, found it didn’t fit, and dropped it like a sequined glove or false eyelash. No harm done.
Kontagious is a Turkish hip hop crew from south London whose incendiary live shows culminated in a slot supporting two stars of Turkish pop, Rafet El Roman and Hande Yener, at their central London concert a few weeks ago. Their first single, the dance floor friendly, belly dancing style hip hop track “Shake It Up,” is about to get a national release in the UK through independent label bhi. After building up a fan base in their own community through a series of appearances around London, they have been signed and are creating a buzz that’s spreading as far afield as Cairo. While Kontagious seems to have mainstream appeal, their story is not one of record label machinations but of four likely lads who decided to try to crack the music business for themselves. I met up with Koray, the group’s singer and fast talking public relations man, so he could explain how they did it.
Koray’s broad south London accent and crisp sportswear belie his attachment to the culture into which his Turkish Cypriot parents were born. Like two of the other three members of the group (one, gK Rhyme, is Anglo-Brit), he is the second generation of his family to be brought up in the UK. He and his cousin Lev-G, also in the group, went to Turkish Saturday school, their parents keen to maintain some connection to their roots. He seems to have enjoyed it: “I’m glad my mum took us — all we used to go there for was to check out girls and play football. It was wicked.”
After getting into music in his late teens, Kontagious gradually came together, as these things often do, through a series of chance meetings and discoveries of shared interests. Most members seem to have had their first experience of performing and producing through their involvement in London’s garage scene. As Koray comments about his cousin’s experiences, “The mid-’90s, the end of the ’90s, was all about UK garage, MCing at loads of raves, on pirates…it was big.” The group’s producer, Arkz, started making music around this time as well: “He was really stepping up his game with regard to the producing; he was doing a bit of garage and a lot of hip hop.”
The old skool garage vibe was all about good times, and this comes across in Kontagious’s party oriented sound, which takes in commercial hip hop and R&B as well as more traditional Turkish styles. But with big US artists incorporating belly dancing influences into their productions, it seems that the sound of family weddings may be providing Kontagious with up-to-the-minute inspiration. “I love wedding music. When you go to a wedding you hear the flutes and the döpleks and the saz going and just the beats and the rhythms. I love all of that — it’s hype, it’s all hype,” Koray comments, also citing the impact of more commercial Turkish artists such as Tarkan and Mustafa Sandal on the crew.
Turkish hip hop has had some notable successes in places such as Germany. But as far as the UK is concerned, Kontagious is looking to the crossover success of Asian urban sounds as a blueprint for what they could achieve: “I’ve seen how the Asian guys like Jay Sean have done it over here. In my neighborhood, there are a lot of Asian people and I mix with a lot of them; I got a lot of them as friends. Every time I see them out raving and one of their Juggy D or Panjabi MC tunes comes on, they go mad for it. I see how they’re interpreting their kind of culture, and you’ve even got people like Timbaland taking them as influences.”
With teenage girls across the UK swooning over the likes of Jay Sean, the Asian crossover has lead the way for Kontagious. “I saw how they were bubbling on the underground for years before they actually blew mainstream, and I’ve seen the big following we’ve got, and the big Turkish community, and we’ve tried to tap into that. And it’s working,” Koray observes. “We’re British Turks and English,” pointing out that their music is as much a UK thing as anything else.
After extricating themselves from an unsatisfactory management arrangement, the crew took matters into their own hands: “If you want to do something, you’ve got to do it yourself. It’s not anyone else’s dream, it’s not anyone else’s product, it’s your product and, like anything, you’ve got to know how to sell it, and you’ve got to create awareness. So once we had a couple of tracks I thought we needed to start getting some gigs together. I knew a couple of promoters, and it’s led to quite a lot of big gigs.”
As well as organizing shows, the crew produce their own press and online public relations: they contact newspapers and magazines, manage their remarkably slick website and edit their own video for music TV. Their efforts seem to be paying off. Koray was recently contacted online by an Egyptian B Boy who wanted to get hold of one of their tracks: “I said to him, if you buy Undercover magazine you’ll get the track and the full video on CD-Rom. He said ‘Ok, but there’s a problem — I live in Cairo.’ I was like, how the hell did you hear about the track? He and his breakdancing clique— there’s about twenty of them — wanted the full track for a show and they heard the track in the background of a female breakdancer’s show in Paris. Now that’s all through the internet. I couldn’t believe it.”
With this kind of international interest coming before they’ve even released so much as a single or a mix-tape, the future looks bright for Kontagious. And “Shake It Up” has the potential to achieve recognition in the club and on the radio, raising their profile way beyond the Turkish community that has supported them so far.
Something is hidden here. Behind this pose and its accoutrements lies an enigmatic moment, an eternal wait, an anxiety. The man in the brown corduroy get-up calmly stares back at us from a hot sticky late-’70s Cairene summer night. In the return of his gaze we become implicated — as voyeurs, witnesses, and actors in some grand existential melodrama. This man, a certain Ahmed Addawiyya — mawwal legend, shaabi phenomenon, runaway superstar — is the same man who once single-handedly, and quite unintentionally, threatened the very foundations of official Egyptian popular culture.
Part of what made Addawiyya seem like such a threat to the intellectual establishment lies in his ability to wed the seemingly innocuous lyric with the poignantly ambiguous. For he not only speaks a street lingo, he embodies it. It is a language that by necessity has to accommodate as much as endure, a place where form becomes function and risk becomes reward. And, as opposed to the staid folkloric primitivist and ultimately racist image of “the local” and “the popular,” this is no eternal or essential static moment. What we have here is an image of a social structure laid bar — not as a rational analysis but as the compulsive enactment of a code.
Ala’ (anxiety), boldly emblazoned on the bottom half of the cassette tape, is both a banner under which this icon operates (an anxiety about positions in a stratified yet fluid world) and a description of an image printed on the cover of the album. It is both surface and depth. Metaphors are here transformed into imagery. Addawiyya’s portrait on the cover is not just the image of a singer; it is a state of being. A secret infused with the pathos of nights that offer redemption and days that mark time. Are we to aspire to his condition? Or are we to sympathize with what he offers us, through a lifestyle that never claimed the simplistic naive “liberation” of western popular culture but rather saw itself as part of a struggle? One which (no utopianism here) is purely based on self-interest?
Machismo and narcissism lie wounded here, deeply melancholic about their fates. However, melancholy and vulnerability are only enhancements of that machismo; “the wounded” is here a specific understanding of manhood. The setting is of course clearly nocturnal — a harsh neon-lit room, one in a series of similar rooms that extend through the loaded homes of this city. In this room we witness the romanticism of acquired cash, the new elite that arose from the amoral streets of negotiations, deals, corruption and petrodollars. The irony, of course, is that the economic reform policies of the Sadat era which further polarized Egyptian society — pushing large segments of the lower middle class into the swelling ranks of the urban proletariat — also formed the backdrop for the birth of class conscious shaabi musical culture and its epitome, the Addawiyya phenomena. The survivors of Sadat’s open door policy were by necessity street savvy, cynical and driven.
Anxiety in the case of someone like Addawiyya (the sign floating around popular consciousness, not the man of flesh and blood) is not only the mark of a specific position, a way of looking or being understood, but rather an essential part of this phenomenon and how it articulates itself. Where cultural productions function as layers of shared consciousness — where the city is translated into its culture—an image of what is essentially fleeting — a myth lost and twisted, abused and abusing. When Gramsci in his own elitist terms spoke of an “organic intellectual,” he might not have been aware that maybe the closest it is possible to come to such a concept is through a popular that is not pop, an unconscious radicalism. It thus comes as no surprise that such a self-confident, indulgent expression of a popular consciousness (one in which lyrics swing from rigorous moral imperatives to the pleasure of ambiguity) got blasted — both by bourgeois critics and the so-called defenders of political integrity. There is a great fear of a class-consciousness that functions within its own signifying system, a class-consciousness that has not been tamed and moralized by utopianism, but one that wears its vulgar and selfish impulses with pride. This fear of what lies around the corner, of the collective repressed, is actually the fear of what allows us the ability to speak about collectives in the first place. This is a fear of a weapon that knows not itself.
That moment is where the alienation of class anxiety is played out, is the enchantment of an aggression made sweet through wit and play. And if this is not revolutionary music (in the narrowest, most self-conscious rhetorical terms) it is something much more, something that bears its wounds as portentous signs. What we have here is an image on an album cover that functions as an enigma circulating through the normalized, and thus potent, channels of commodity and commerce. It is an object that is decoded whenever it encounters its consumer, the surplus of a specific economy of meaning—its discomfort, its counter, and its ally.
Visionary musician Brian Eno long ago predicted that pop will eat itself — that the relentless appetite for new expressions of the old emotional themes demand that pop will regurgitate every sound, signature and hook in its fifty-year-old repertoire. Yet Eno failed to spot that pop would spend the new millennium dining out on a broadening international cuisine with a distinctly eastern flavor (and we don’t mean the Spice Girls).
Consider the cultural and semiotic blur at work in the following vignette: In 2004, Virginian hip hop producer Tim “Timbaland” Mosely — widely regarded as the world’s most influential hit-maker alongside Los Angeles’s Dr Dre and Pharrell Williams of NER*D — visited London on a promo tour. At his request he was escorted round Southall, the principally Anglo-Indian borough at London’s western edge, by Jay Sean, Rishi Rich and Juggy D, local heroes whose fusion of transatlantic R&B and subcontinental Indian sounds have made them MTV stars in both the UK and India. Tim flexed £3,000 worth of plastic on CDs of Indian desi and bhangra recommended by the trio of crisply-attired rude-bhoys, with a view to widening his palette of sample material.
Resembling absolutely nothing from pop’s back catalogue, Timbaland’s 2001 production “Get UR Freek On” for Missy Elliot blew pop apart. Its ruthlessly spare combination of sitar, dhol and rap sounded unnervingly futuristic and alien, yet simultaneously ancient. “Get UR Freek On” duly left critics open-mouthed, searching ineffectually for comparatives. Meanwhile, precisely no one in the vicinity of a dance floor experienced any uncertainty: It rocked.
The Virginian producer wasn’t working in isolation. In 2002, Dr Dre delivered a global smash with Truth Hurts’ “Addictive,” featuring a sample of the deified Bollywood singer Lata Mangeshkar. In the depths of New York’s hip hop underground, Erick Sermon’s club banger “React” lifted liberally from an unnamed Bollywood sample, both tracks resulted not just in dance floor meltdown but costly legal settlements.
But après Tim, le déluge, because where hip hop producers now lead, pop inevitably follows. Continuing the music business’s standard practice of blanding-out and repackaging the innovations of marginal, generally black musicians, we channel-hop MTV to see pop attempting the dance of the seven veils in a variety of jiggy modes.
This is often a clear case of stylistic tourism conceptualized in the laboratory of pop demographics — in particular Britney Spears’s sexless belly dance to “I’m A Slave 4 U,” or Holly Valance’s borrowing of the Turkish snake-charm melody of “Simarik” with her “Kiss Kiss.” More marketing maneuvers than genuine fusions, it’s a safe bet Britney’s next outing will have precisely nothing to do with Middle Eastern culture, and it also speaks volumes that the Valance’s career has petered out into obsolescence.
Other instances, like Shakira’s “Eyes Like Yours,” reveal greater depth and substance to the Orientalist flirtation. The singer’s own background — she was born half-Lebanese and grew up in Colombia — describes Latin culture’s ancient proximity to the Moorish Maghreb.
But it’s ultimately far more rewarding to look at the more marginal “weathervane” artists to see where pop’s New Orientalism comes from and what it signifies. The Chemical Brothers, for example, returned to critical favor with a sample from Casablanca Berber singer Najat Aatabou’s “Just Tell Me The Truth” on their “Galvanise” single. What’s clear is that following the flirtation with Indian sounds, the New Orientalism is leading producers further afield, to North Africa and the Middle East, unlocking new thrills from “world music,” the formerly vogue category rendered meaninglessly obsolete in the age of global connectivity.
We know how West African spirituals and swamp blues eventually morphed into Led Zeppelin, Chic and The Strokes once Elvis, Eddie Cochrane and The Beatles had translated it for the benef it of a white western market. Britney’s belly dance is the latest chapter in rock and roll’s primordial but ongoing fusion of western lyrical melody and the African narrative rhythm. It is a signifier of the times. As Led Zep’s Jimmy Page (on “Kashmir”) and George Harrison (“Within You, Without You”) proved long ago, whenever rock and pop run out of ideas the instinct is to turn east towards rhythmic mystique and deeply veiled exoticism.
In 2005, there are other reasons for pop’s widening scope of acquisitive vision. Principally, sample sources for contemporary hip hop and R&B — James Brown, Funkadelic and Rick James — have long since run dry. Popular music is an industry that manufactures novelty, and the clever producer is less concerned with tapping into new markets than forging sounds that distinguish his from his competitors.
Secondly, the dominant music biz powerbases of New York, London and Los Angeles — vanguards of new music precisely because they’re home to sharply contrasting cultural and ethnic mixes — are being challenged by other centers, in particular the dancehall infrastructure of Kingston, Jamaica, where ferocious inter-studio competition to create the hypest “riddim” (instrumental track) ensures that at any moment up to a hundred versions of what’s effectively the same song by different singers are doing the rounds.
Kingston’s recent breakout success was producer Steven “Lenky” Marsden’s “Diwali” riddim: a loop from an obscure desi record that formed the basis of Lumidee’s “Never Leave,” Sean Paul’s “Get Busy” and Wayne Wonder’s “No Letting Go” — all major international hits. Kingston’s affection for Middle Eastern sounds is abundantly apparent in current “hero riddims” like
“Egyptian,” “Kasablanca,” “Middle East,” “Bollywood” and “Coolie Dance”; the latter is the basis for Nina Sky’s UK hit “Move Ya Body.” And while there’s no doubting veteran R&B dude R Kelly’s understanding of the appeal of the “Baghdad” riddim he used on “Snake,” there’s also the suspicion his affinity with the Middle East is roughly as well developed as his sense of sexual etiquette.
Nevertheless, the East-West trade in sounds signatures also works both ways, opening up new markets, fusions and scenes. Would “Mundian Te Bach Ke” — the Euro-wide desi/hip hop hit sampling the theme from “Knight Rider” — have been such a smash if its author, Punjabi MC, had named himself Coventry MC in honor of his UK home rather than his cultural rooting? “We try to make our music more appealing to non-Asians,” says British-born Juggy “Jagwinder Dhaliwal” D. “Punjabi music has been around for years, but it took Dre and Timbaland to use influences before it became cool. That gave us the opportunity to say, ‘we’ve been doing this for years.’ Hence a number twelve last year, a crossover Punjabi/R&B track. And people loved it.”
“People from Iran spread through to north India and there’s a degree of spread in the music,” adds DJ Nihal, the host of BBC Radio 1’s groundbreaking evening show with a wide-open brief to cover the best in Anglo-Asian and Middle Eastern fusions. “We will play Arabic beats on our show, and we were approached recently to do Anglo-Asian mixes of Rachid Taha. There are very close ties between Rai and Bhangra — they’re both folk music which deal with very similar themes.”
Other outposts beneath the global pop radar continue to innovate, and the “Diwali” experience reveals how fusions of Rai and hip hop in France, such as Cheb Mami’s “Parisien Du Nord,” or traditional Turkish music and house in Germany like MC Sultan’s “Der Bauch,” have the potential to hit big.
Being cyclical, faddish and disposable is a necessary element of pop’s appeal, and it’s arguably a matter of time before not just big, but also credible hits with a Middle Eastern root enter the MTV pop stratosphere. In London today, the smart money is on Rouge — an all-girl trio with Arabic, Iranian and Anglo-Indian membership — and on MIA, twenty-three-year-old Sri Lankan Mia Arulpragasm, whose fusion of Breakbeats, Dancehall, Desi, Hip hop and Brazilian “Baile funk” could only have happened in London, but equally could not exist without a cross-cultural mishmash between New York, Rio and Colombo.
It may ultimately be pointless attaching any kind of Orientalist dialectic to pop music. Unlike literature or conceptual art, pop music is meant to be danced to rather than deconstructed. It really is that simple. All it asks you to do is leave your mind on the bookshelf for three minutes and believe. For now, as music’s tectonic plates shift and grind into new shapes and sounds, it is succeeding spectacularly.
The annual Istanbul Film Festival, now in its twenty-fourth year, gives cinema-goers the chance to see a selection of noteworthy international films as well as classic movies. In the absence of any alternative cinema, the festival functions as something of a cinematheque for the city. Most screenings take place in the lively Beyoglu/Istiklal Street area, which gives the festival the feeling of a local event — despite the sheer volume of films (about 200 this year) and presence of international stars such as Harvey Keitel, Jane Campion and Neil Jordan. This year, Istanbul’s increasing popularity was reflected in the number of foreign reporters attending the festival, who were ostensibly there to take in a dose of Turkish cinema.
Their favorite, and the winner of the National Competition, was Istanbul Tales (Anlat Istanbul). A collection of five stories by five different directors, the film was a little romantic for local critics, although it did ably portray the chaotic nature of the city. Actorturned-director Ugur Yucel’s Dogme-influenced Toss Up (Yazi Tura) proved more of a local hit: A portrait of two disillusioned men returning from military service in southeast Turkey, where they’d battled with the PKK, the film took the Best Director prize. Meanwhile, Semih Kaplanoglu’s second feature Angel’s Fall (Melegin Dususu), the story of a young, withdrawn, working-class girl who lives with her father, deservedly won the FIPRESCI award. Built around characters rather than twists and turns of the narrative, the film was influenced by the minimal style of Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang, Kaplanoglu told Bidoun. And while it went unrewarded, Erden Kıral’s Yolda was a noteworthy exploration of the making of a legendary film, the late Yılmaz Güney’s Yol, which won the Palme d’Or in 1982 and was banned in Turkey for sixteen years. Güney, in jail during the making of the film, originally asked Kiral to direct on his behalf, but later changed his mind, opting for Gören instead. In a tribute to the Kurdish filmmaker, and to come to terms with his own past, Kiral created a fictional memoir of the production.
Overall, this was a mediocre year for Turkish cinema. As Istanbul strives to become a European cultural center as well as an increasingly popular tourist destination, a lot rests on the city’s artists and filmmakers: This critic, for one, hopes that the many upcoming artistic events prompt more innovative explorations of local culture.
CANNES FILM FESTIVAL
It takes a while for the film world to go through the motions. Besides puffed-up Hollywood cash cows (Shrek II, Troy), Cannes 2004 was dominated by the scatter-gun, left-lite fury of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. By 2005, the festival had turned to a coterie of old-school European auteurs and American indies and their more subtle analyses of the struggling individual in today’s unpredictable world. Critics who fancy themselves as mass psychoanalysts naturally put this down to the post-Iraq War effect; the Guardian’s Mark Lawson, for instance, drew a Venn diagram of the competition films’ alienation and guilt-ridden angst, of “characters with bombs hidden in their biography.”
Okay, critical favorites David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence and Michael Haneke’s Hidden both feature middle-class professionals suddenly threatened by strangers; Jim Jarmusch’s cute Broken Flowers and Wim Wenders’s Don’t Come Knocking deal with the discovery of children fathered in the past; and the Dardenne brothers’ Palme d’Or-winning The Child with fatherhood itself — but it’s easy to stretch the analogy. After all, the only film directly concerned with today’s fear-driven political environment was British documentary The Power of Nightmares, a provocative, sharp analysis of politicians’ distortion of the “terror” threat.
And was all this angst simply a tidy analysis for US-focused critics and an easy a hook for directors, if they really were inspired by such fears? Hiner Saleem, whose previous offering Vodka Lemon was a deft piece of surreal cinema, is one of few Middle Eastern directors to have tackled the Iraq war head-on. Kilometre Zero, hyped as the first Iraqi film to play in competition at Cannes, opens with an exiled Kurdish couple listening to a news report of the invasion which quotes an Iraqi — ostensibly the voice of the director — saying that they would have “welcomed liberation by France, Switzerland, Slovakia, but no one else came,” and ends with the couple shouting “We are free!” as the regime topples. In between these Paris-based bookends, the film flashes back to their life in Iraq in 1988 and Ako’s conscription to the Iran-Iraq war. As he is chosen to escort a fellow soldier’s corpse from Basra to Kurdistan, the film becomes something of a road movie, pitting a racist Arab driver against the Kurdish dreamer.
There were signs of the director’s quirky visual brilliance: Ako, ordered to keep out of sight in daylight, stumbles across car parks full of identical taxis with coffins on the roof, and a giant statue of Saddam on the back of a truck regularly criss-crosses the desert. But Saleem seems to stumble over his own emotions, resulting in a meandering storyline and stilted script. (He said that having rushed to Kurdistan after the war, the screenplay ended up being developed alongside the shoot.) Despite his somewhat disingenuous line that the film was not really political, prickly European journalists predictably took issue with his pro-war stance. It was a shame that proceedings were dominated by the usual predicament of the Middle Eastern filmmaker — never actually getting to discuss their films amid the politics — as Saleem had some winning stories about reconstructing the Saddam era in post-war Kurdistan, including having to bail his sculptor, mistaken for a Saddam enthusiast, out of jail.
Sadly, Masahiro Kobayashi’s Bashing, an exploration of how Japanese hostages in Iraq were shunned upon their return home, felt like another slightly wasted opportunity. Despite a fascinating premise, the film, based on true events, was relentless in its approach and took place entirely on the surface. The lack of background — even Iraq is assumed, as the location is never mentioned — impeded understanding of why the former hostages suffered such abuse.
Two competing films from established Israeli directors attempted a new perspective, with varying results. Avi Mograbi’s Avenge But One of My Two Eyes is a low-tech documentary structured around phone calls between the director and a despairing Palestinian friend. Their conversation is interspersed with footage of young American tourists learning about the myth of Masada, Palestinians suffering humiliation in their fields and at checkpoints, and an Israeli concert by right-wing veteran Kahana at which fundamentalists call for “revenge” on Palestine. Mograbi’s film, while hardly groundbreaking, includes some shocking footage and adds to the body of work by Palestinian documentary directors.
The selection of Amos Gitai’s Free Zone, however, seemed to defy all critical judgment. The first Israel-Jordan co-production on record, the film begins with a draining ten-minute close-up of Natalie Portman’s American character grieving over a break-up with her Israeli fiancee, but then descends into an unrealistic road trip across the border to Jordan’s industrial free zone. Ostensibly a tale of three women — Portman, Hanna Laslo as an Israeli taxi driver, and Hiam Abbass as a Jordanian-Palestinian businesswoman — the film boasted the festival’s most nauseatingly obvious yet implausible dialogue.
Still, there were bright spots both in the competition and the sidebars, even in a poor year for Middle Eastern films. While Mohammad Rasoulof’s Iron Island failed to win any prizes, it was a worthy closing night film in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar. Set memorably on an abandoned tanker in the Gulf, it features veteran Ali Nasirian as Captain Nemat, a landlord who presides over the community of homeless, poor families on board. In an obvious yet compelling allegory of the disappointments of post-revolutionary Iran, Rasoulof gradually reveals that not all is as it seems: The more dictatorial than paternal Nemat is selling the sinking ship off for scrap piece by piece, and attempts by his young assistant Ahmad (Hossein Farzi-Zadeh) to assert his independence meet with a violent response. But this is no ham-fisted political tale: Rasoulof weaves an imaginative and well-paced narrative, ably assisted by Reza Jalali’s cinematography.
The other high-profile Iranian offering was matinee idol Niki Karimi’s feature directorial debut, One Night, a Kiarostami-inspired tale of Negar, a young woman (Hanieh Tavasoli) who spends the night on Tehran’s streets, hitching rides with three different men. While it tends to lose its way in the middle section, and includes some cheesy dialogue, Karimi has a bold style — outstanding scenes include the opener, in which she holds the camera still as Negar negotiates with her mother, waiting for her date, who remains unseen in the next room, and the end, when she again confidently freezes the camera as dawn rises over Tehran.
As another woman filmmaker from the Middle East, young Moroccan director Laila Marrakchi found Marock crassly lumped with One Night by some journalists but her teen tale couldn’t have been more different. Derivative and gauche at times, herfilm nonetheless presents a picture of mid-1990s Casablanca far removed from the “poornography” that represented Morocco in Cannes’ new Cinemas du Monde sidebar. The opening certainly sets the scene: Affluent, minimally dressed teenage clubbers make out in their flashy roadsters while a taxi driver prays, as the early 90s Snap number “I’ve Got the Power” plays in the background. Marrakchi’s cousin Morjana al-Alaoui plays Rita, supposedly studying for her end-of-school exams but more intent on partying with her Jewish neighbor/boyfriend Youri.
Marock was very obviously a debut, and it didn’t belong in Un Certain Regard, but the film will no doubt do well in France. It’s unfortunate that the sex and party scenes and overplayed Muslim/Jewish romance will preclude the film from screening in the Gulf, where a class of expat teens still live the affluent life that Marrakchi nostalgically pictures. She only touches on the upstairs/downstairs world of privileged Middle Eastern youth — Rita’s friends speak French to each other, Arabic to their servants—and the film leaves one crying out for someone to get going on an Arab Gosford Park.
The Iranian state Farabi Film Foundation always flies a bevy of representatives to Cannes, but the Arab world usually seems to miss a trick. With Hiner Saleem a loner, and Morocco with multiple films but no obvious country support, it was left to Lebanon to live up its stereotype and supply the PR panache. Although she had no films to screen, Lebanon was the only country to take a booth in the International Village, ostensibly to seek funding and promote projects in production. These include films by Danielle Arbid and Khalil Joreige and Joana Hadjithomas, which gives longsuffering Middle Eastern critics some hope for coming festivals.
In the time of John Ford, everyone who went to the desert said it was down to John Ford; now if anyone gets in a car in Tehran, everyone says it’s because of Kiarostami.
—Niki Karimi, May 2005
There were films before Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten that made use of Tehran’s roads as a backdrop, but the legendary director’s 2002 picture honed the idea of the vehicle as public space. Ten’s monumental influence, especially its focus on the possibility (or impossibility) of frank discussion and contemporary relationships, has been second to none. In addition to Niki Karimi’s One Night, which played at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and is now due for release in Iran, Mania Akbari’s 20 Fingers and Mani Haghighi’s Abadan both have their warts-and-all characters continually navigating their way around Tehran. In the wake of Ten, these three young directors have broken with Iranian cinematic tradition in their portrayal of onscreen relationships.
Since the end of the Iran-Iraq war there have been numerous attempts to ornament Tehran’s concrete sprawl. One former mayor even took it upon himself to landscape more than eight hundred parks in the city. But rather than present the urban experience as functional or beautiful, a number of young directors have preferred to delve “under the skin of the city” (to quote the title of Rakshan Bani Etemad’s 2001 feature about working-class struggle). In these films, Tehran is a living organism; the directors have used its interstitial, emblematic vehicles — cars, taxis and motorcycles to create a sense of private in the public.
Perhaps the moving vehicle muddles the supposed dialectical relationship between “true” feelings and the social masks that people wear, questioning the unbending belief — shared by mullahs and journalists alike — that the biggest rift in Iranian codes of conduct is between the authentic inside and the formal exterior. In Abadan, for instance, the interiors of cars allow men to reflect, laugh, swear and take off their public masks. Playful inside the car, they become serious once outside, under the gaze of the city. Haghighi thereby marks as truly universal the experience shared by anyone who has ever bonded to the mysterious, intimate allure of a car stereo. In One Night, men drive while discussing their relationships and secrets with a female stranger. And in 20 Fingers, a couple argue over intimate details while traversing the city. In both Abadan and 20 Fingers, it’s motorcycles that allow for uninhibited ease of movement. Abadan’s aging central characters appear to float around the city, through blocks and stops, bypassing its billboards, imposing buildings, and other monumental urban icons.
Recent more popular films, such as Arash Moayerian’s Coma and Hamid Ne’matollah’s Beautiful City, use the backdrop of Tehran to play out themes of hope or despair — in the long shots of Tehran’s Milad hospital in the former, and the street-level perspective of the old, working class areas of the city in the latter. Art-house titles, many of which fail to make it to the Tehran cinema circuit, or do so in a truncated form, are more directly influenced by Ten: for directors such as Akbari, Karimi and Haghighi, Tehran provides a means of escape, and the city becomes the vehicle of flight — conversational flight, that is.
Akbari has her warring couple discussing their problems in taxis, cars, motorcycles — even, in one crucial scene, from one mode of transport to another. Their relationship — and as Akbari has said, key issues between men and women generally — is mapped through a series of journeys around Tehran.
For Karimi, the car is not only a metaphorical means of escape but a practical solution to showing private interior moments in a realistic manner: “Inside the home of course we never have to wear a scarf, but in films you have to show people wearing scarves inside. So I made a decision not to show interior scenes…I had to go out [to have these conversations],” the actor-turned-director told Bidoun. Karimi’s heroine, a young woman who hitches rides around Tehran one night, becomes a witness to three different men’s experiences. The film, its discussions and revelations, mainly takes place in their cars, the passing streetlights forming a rhythmic backdrop to their conversations. Negar (Hanieh Tavassoli), the subject of the film, experiences the fabric of the city but also remains an observer — as is made clear especially in the poignant last scene, as she looks down from the foothills to watch dawn rise over the city.
Mani Haghighi, meanwhile, is really intent on exploring the city itself: Abadan examines the layer of subliminal memories hidden beneath Tehran’s prevailing architectural iconography. The director plays on the idea of this southern city destroyed in the Iran-Iraq war, as the other of Tehran. The character played by Dariush Asadzadeh, a senile grandfather named Amir imagines the city to be what it once was — his version is abstract, passionate, full of memories, like the bandari music in the film by Christophe Rezaii.
Haghighi uses cars, taxis and motorcycles not only as social spaces for frank talk and battles between men and women, but also as a means to explore cross-generational and class differences. As the grandfather wanders around Tehran, looking for an old friend (who has actually long since died) and attempting to travel to Abadan, his daughter, her estranged husband, his mistress and friend search the city for him, and in the process their own complex web of relationships unravels.
Haghighi doesn’t set up his public and private spaces in the traditional way. The husband’s home, barricaded like a cage, and with its noisy builders and the comings and goings of the wife and mistress, has a stalled feel to it. Meanwhile, Amir and his new pal Najmy, aged and marginalized, find one another in a park, the social space that allows for playful activity, spontaneity and time alone.
Bruno Latour’s concept of iconoclash is apt here. Iran’s urban billboards with their images of religious authority, war and martyrdom could be seen as disciplinary forces, rendering social spaces monolithic, but Haghighi’s characters work out their lives within the fabric of the city, and their diverse individual experiences define it. Ultimately, this iconoclash results in a critique of those ideologies that tends to strip these iconic representations of their temporal and human nature.
The film’s exploration of different spaces in the city culminates in a scene in Nobonyad Square, the home of the Sepah Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards). As Amir and Najmy get closer to the Square, the standard larger-than-life posters appear and the tall buildings become more imposing. Displaced, the two old men keep moving through these spaces. They long for something more sublime — the city of Abadan.
Ridley Scott’s medieval blockbuster Kingdom of Heaven has plenty of twenty-first century touches, but the retrospective public confessional is not one of them. If Scott’s Knights Templar Reynald de Chatillon (Brendan Gleeson), Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas), and their fundamentalist legions had been wholly of this age, they would no doubt have described their thuggery in bestselling books, accompanied by appearances on a Crusader version of Oprah.
Take this contemporary version of Crusader narrative: “Capture bin Laden, kill him and bring his head back in a box on dry ice,” says former agent Gary Schroen, quoting his orders from the CIAs counter-terrorism chief as he prepared to enter Afghanistan. “And the rest of the lieutenants, you can put their heads on pikes.” Schroen deadpanned back to his boss, Cofer, “I think I can come up with pikes to put the heads of the lieutenants on, [but] dry ice, well have to improvise.” Apparently the spymaster boss wanted bin Laden’s head in a cardboard box “to show the president.” So far, so Hollywood.
Of course, it was President George W. Bush’s use of the word crusade five days after September 11 to describe the war on terror that outraged the Muslim and secular worlds, played into one of bin Laden’s longstanding themes, and fueled criticism of Bush’s marriage of church and state. The president was following a grand tradition of seizing upon the Crusades and their central characters for political purposes: Historians place the use of the term “new Crusade” to the end of the Ottoman Empire, and a French military governor is said to have proclaimed “Behold Salah al-Din, we have returned!” after World War I, referring to the Levant. On the other side, Saddam Hussein and Syrias Hafez Assad championed the Kurdish hero.
No doubt, this backdrop gave some grounding to the media campaign for Scott’s $130 million epic, as did reports that death threats were issued during the shoot in Morocco. Journalists hyped the sensitivity and timeliness of the project; by the time the film came out, audiences stepped into the cinema alerted to its historical potency.
And as is traditional with the outraged, many had honed their opinions before the film even finished shooting. Jonathan Riley-Smith, the renowned “Crusades expert” at Cambridge University, ensured himself instant quotability: “It’s Osama bin Ladens version of history,” he told London’s Daily Telegraph newspaper in January 2004, citing the films supposed depiction of Muslims as civilized and the crusader army as brutes, and basing his analysis on early versions of the script. “It will fuel the Islamic fundamentalists,” he added.
“It’s President Bush’s version of the Crusades,“ countered Khaled Abou el-Fadl, a professor of Islamic law at UCLA, a few months later. “It supports the movement in this country by conservative Evangelical Christians who believe Muslims should be grateful for the Crusades, just as they should also be grateful for Iraq and Afghanistan.” Others, presumably internalizing the fear factor, simply expressed their general unease about the airing of any project about the Crusades.
As the lunatic fringe of film website chat rooms quickly descended into rants about Islam and the Middle East, Twentieth Century Fox, the studio behind the film, was forced to act. The studio brought on board Grace Hills Media, a Los Angeles public relations firm with a history of marketing controversial films to Christian opinion-formers, to sell the film to religious groups ahead of its release.
Once the film actually premiered in May, most strident critics were forced to backtrack. Scott’s epic promoted an ideal of a tolerant multi-faith Jerusalem with almost evangelical zeal. The noble, urbane Salah al-Din (Ghassan Massoud) is goaded into war by Christian extremists; Balian and Imad (Salah al-Dins future chronicler) swap the greetings “Assalam alaykum” and “Peace be with you” with affable, knowing ease. Scott wasn’t prepared to dwell too much on politics, but at a London preview of the film reflected, “The clothes change and the weapons change…But people stay the same. And that’s the really disappointing thing.”
Abou el-Fadl was reportedly gratified that an angry Muslim mob scene had been dropped; Parvez Ahmed, on the board of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) was sympathetic to the film and curiously hoped that Kingdom of Heaven will do for Muslims what Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves did for Native Americans — humanize a perceived other. While some attempted to have a go at Scott’s obvious middle-of-the-road politics — ”Kingdom of Diplomats more like,” sniffed one Middle Eastern distributor — the film’s efforts to do the right thing politically meant that critics were forced instead to round on its inauthenticity.
True, the film does require a healthy suspension of belief, visibly in terms of the landscape — obviously non-Levantine to anyone who’s paid attention during the news. With Orlando Bloom’s character Balian of Ibelins leap from blacksmith to knight comes a sudden, exhaustive knowledge of war that almost matches that of brilliant tactician Salah al-Din; he struggles with his religion and flirts with agnosticism in a contemporary fashion. Scott freely admits that, when it came to Balian, he embroidered the historical figure for cinematic purposes — or, rather, sewed it almost from scratch.
Other historians go further, asserting that the whole concept of religious tolerance is redundant in a film about the Crusades — a charge strongly refuted by Scott. Scholar Hamid Dabashi, an Islamic history advisor on the film, believes that Scott was “after locating a common humanity beyond religious affiliation.” But he does so not despite peoples faith, but through it.
Dabashi is wary of loading a film like Kingdom of Heaven with heavy baggage. (After all, as Scott himself has said, “I try to make movies — I’m not a documentarian.”) “No one goes to see a film by Ridley Scott to learn about the historical nuances of the Crusades,” the academic and author told Bidoun, “as indeed no one goes to a historian of the Crusades to learn the craft of turning the existential anxieties of the age into a work of art.”
Indeed, the parts that cynical western hacks have decried as unrealistic, or simply too sentimental — such as at the end of the film, when Salah al-Din, taking control of a ransacked Jerusalem, bends to pick up a crucifix lying on the floor of a church — have been applauded in the Arab world.
In an interview with Bidoun, Syrian star Ghassan Massoud explained how the gesture came about: “The original plan was that I walked past. However, I spoke to Ridley and told him, Salah al-Din would never have left it there. He respected Christianity and Christians — many of those in his army were Christians, and so were several of his advisors. Ridley listened to me and agreed with my suggestion.” His reading of Salah al-Din as a statesman rather than a religious warrior — a political leader of an Islamic empire — fits snugly with Scott’s vision; the actor, not quite as on-message as Scott, compared the film directly to today’s politics. “Is there a victorious leader in this world today who starts a dialogue?” asked Massoud. “No, unfortunately there isn’t, and we all know who has the victory and the power, how he uses this power and how he abandons diplomacy and politics and uses grenades as means of dialogue. So, no, there isn’t a modern equivalent of Salah al-Din. And yes, we need more than one.”
For Massoud, the film is a “major step in the process of improving the image of Muslims and Arabs in the West…to this day [many people] see all Arabs as the nineteen people who carried out 9/11.” Dabashi sees Scott’s film as “one of the rare recent works in which a positive, and even affectionate, image of Arabs and their culture and history is quite evident. In one conversation between Salah al-Din and King Baldwin IV, or between Salah al-Din and Balian, or between Salah al-Din and Imad, you see far more dignity and complexity to their respective characters than is evident in the entire spectrum of the US media coverage of the daily news around the world.”
Indeed, perhaps it says something about the dearth of positive or meaningful Middle Eastern content in Hollywood films that this blockbuster flick has been seized upon as some kind of educational tool or historical document. Likewise the excitement caused by Ghassan Massoud’s role — a speaking one, no less!
Jack Shaheen, author of Reel Bad Arabs, a seminal study on the role of Arabs and Muslims in Hollywood films, believes that in spite of the prevailing ideology about Muslims and Islam, Scott made a noble effort to defuse hatred. “This,” he told Bidoun, “is especially pleasing as Scott has demeaned Arabs in his movies in the past — see Gladiator and GI Jane, for instance. They worked extremely hard to make sure that the Muslim world couldn’t point at Kingdom of Heaven and say, ‘Here you go again.’”
Critics have tended to agree that five years ago, whoever had been at the helm, the Saracens would have been portrayed differently. “Of course, if the film had made the Muslim characters onedimensionally bad, it probably would’ve been more successful in the US, as it would’ve played to people’s expectations and fears,” says Shaheen. (Fox International’s Tomas Jegeus has admitted that the film garnered more publicity, and better coverage of the themes and message of the film, internationally than in the US.)
Is the film indicative of some kind of positive trend in Hollywood? Shaheen believes that, post-9/11, there have been some subtle positive changes, but that the image of Arabs in Hollywood films is much the same. “I was a consultant on Three Kings, and I thought it was a major breakthrough, but one year later Hollywood gave us Rules of Engagement and it was a huge hit. What can I say?”
Seventy-five percent of Iran’s approximately 70 million people are under the age of 30. This is most visually evident on the streets of Tehran, where young men and women can be seen peacocking about town. The new social revolution is different from the one which took place in 1979. The weapons of revolt are not posters or proposed coups d’état, but makeup, manteau lengths, and hair gel. Clad in vibrant colors, sheer scarves, cuffed capris, and metal tee shirts, these Iranians hardly fulfill preconceptions of what people in a theocratic country look like. This shoot is dedicated to these youth. Fabrics were purchased in Iran, and then fashioned into pieces in the US by Michael and Hushi. In Tehran, clothing, scarves, and accessories were purchased in motley locations, from the glitzy antique Friday bazaar to the downtown thieves untouchables market to the trendy malls of Tajrish and Shahrakeh Gharb. They were altered, cut, and pinned to create a new look that juxtaposes past, present, the future.
All clothing and accessories from Iran and Michael and Hushi. Photography by Peyman Hooshm and Zedeh. Art Direction & Styling by Hushidar Mortezaie. Special thanks to Solmaz Shahbazi, Coco Ferguson, Nikki Koohpaima, Farhad Moshiri, Shirin Aliabadi, and Mansour Mortezaie
But aren’t those oak trees?” queried the young Emirati collector, in a cut-glass English accent, as he perused Christie’s recent exhibition of Orientalist paintings in a richly chandeliered hotel in Dubai. An elegant Christie’s specialist assured him that the camping scene was indeed set in Morocco, but that the artist was French — hence, perhaps, the Europeanized flora.
Christie’s opened its first office in the Arab world earlier this year. Based in the Dubai Metals and Commodities Center freezone, its forthcoming calendar of pre-sale exhibitions includes everything from Islamic art to film memorabilia. The arrival of the distinctly old-school auction house in upstart Dubai indicates the growing importance of the UAE market; the city is an easy hop from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and a second home for many of Christie’s longterm Lebanese and Iranian clients.
Asked “Why Dubai?,” Isabelle de la Bruyère, a Christie’s Associate Director and Senior Advisor for the Middle East, described the city as “the turntable of the Middle East.” She added “We hope, however, to expand over the years and have a representative office in various countries within the GCC and the broader Middle East. The interest for culture and art is very present within the region, and we simply want to be closer to our clients.” One of her colleagues added, “Well, it’s the obvious place — Jimmy Choo is here after all.”
Of course, Dubai’s reputation as the shopping capital of the East shouldn’t preclude art. “They [local, mainly Emirati collectors] like expensive, beautiful things. They don’t question the value of the [Orientalist] paintings,” one of the sales team said at the pre-sale exhibition in Dubai. “Few of the collectors are art history trained, but they love the exotic nature of the works — they talk about being able to feel the heat of the desert.”
For curators and academics guilt-tripping on postcolonial theories, Orientalist paintings are usually seen as painterly reproductions of colonial patterns of thought, executed in a reductionist manner. Their galloping horses, elegant pashas, draped harems, luscious fruit and agreeable slaves bring out the snob in much of the contemporary art world. But the increasing importance of the Middle East market today leaves these ironies a little out in the cold: To judge the Arab consumption of the Orientalist tradition with this knee-jerk knowingness arguably restricts the analysis to western postcolonial prerogatives.
Up until the 1970s, within the rarefied world of art, auctions and conspicuous consumption, these imperial fantasies were seen as something for politically incorrect eccentrics. Sotheby’s 1985 Coral Petroleum sale was the first real indication that the market had changed, and de la Bruyère remembers Christie’s 1993 Forbes magazine sale — over 400 lots, including spectacular works by John Frederick Lewis and Jean-Léon Gérôme — as one of the greatest auctions of Orientalist paintings. At first, American buyers dominated, but over the past ten years, the Middle East, particularly now the Gulf, has come into its own.
Dina Nasser-Khadivi, a nineteenth century specialist from Christie’s New York, cites the influence of dealers in London, plus the rising numbers of Khalijis studying and traveling abroad. She adds, “They appreciate the aesthetics, particularly the detail — artists like Lewis, Gérôme and Ludwig Deutsch are very popular. Of course, it’s part of their heritage.” (Naturally, Julius Victor Berger’s harem fantasy, Entertaining the Pasha, part of the June 15 sale, was left out of the Gulf tour.)
The heritage debate beings us back to the latent irrelevance of authenticity — after all, most of these paintings depict scenes in Egypt and Morocco, the sites of the European “grand tour,” rather than the Gulf. And if, for Gulf collectors, these paintings offer an artistic reality, where does that leave the naysayers of the postcolonial contemporary art world? Perhaps Gulf collectors are reacting to these works in the most contemporary, post-postcolonial way — in terms of aesthetic appeal and nostalgia for a place and time that never was, but that reverberates pleasantly in transnational memorial.
Gulf collectors’ commitment to the genre can’t be underestimated. At the actual sale — a private collection of thirty Ottoman and Orientalist paintings in London on June 15 — Christie’s sales
totaled 6.9 million dollars. Lewis’s The Midday Meal, Cairo, the top lot, sold for over $4.4 million and shattered the artist’s previous record. Speaking to Bidoun after the sale, de la Bruyère noted the “enormous bidding activity” from the Middle East, particularly the Gulf. Five of the top ten lots were sold to private Middle Eastern buyers. Lydia Limerick, who heads up the Dubai office, noted, “We’re the first auction house to have a permanent presence in the region, and delighted that the results confirm the growing importance of the market.”
Although attendance and results have been poor at recent Islamic art sales, it’s the high-profile doyens of this market — Londonbased Nasser David Khalili, Sheikh Nasser Al Sabah of Kuwait, and until late last year, Qatar’s now-disgraced Sheikh Saud Al Thani — who dominate the auction room headlines. It’s mainly in this context that commentators track the gradual movement of works from western art collections “back” to the Middle East.
When it comes to the Orientalist art market, Christie’s says that collectors in the Gulf tend to buy the works for display in their homes, rather than as an investment. (If this trend continues, it could presumably result in a hike in prices, as it becomes increasingly difficult for auction houses to source important collections for sale.) The big stumbling block in the region is the lack of major public museums; Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, ruler of Sharjah, remains one of the few collectors whose collection of Orientalist paintings is on public display (in a new museum within the city’s arts and heritage complex).
Orientalist artists’ experiences and agendas were diverse: For every Giulio Rosati (1858–1917), who never left Italy and conjured up his harems and desert raids in the sanctuary of his studio, there was the likes of Lewis, who embraced the Middle Eastern experience, living out his fantasy life as an Ottoman nobleman in Cairo’s Ezbekieh district.
Not that the essentialisms of the nineteenth century European project have been totally laid to rest. Conversations between uninformed western gastarbeiter in the bars of the Gulf, as well as between many art world experts, peddle the worn line that the Gulf is an irony-free, uneducated market, where collectors embrace stereotypical visions of their heritage — from Orientalist paintings to contemporary watercolors.
It’s easy to chuckle knowingly at the fact that, should you not be able to afford Lewis’s A Midday Meal, you could pop along to hotel Mina A’Salam in Dubai’s Madinat Jumeirah, a vast, new mock-Arabian palace, and see a reproduction hanging in the Bahri Bar, all dark timber and exotic cushions, with an ersatz traditional water taxi, floating by the man-made creek below.
For the cities of the Gulf, playing catch-up with older capitals, the public relations game is key. Both internally and externally, these fast-growing cities compete to project polished images of themselves as successful and sumptuous. The idealized postcards of Lewis, Gérôme et al appear to perfectly complement the Middle East’s new urban fantasy.
The (recent) past, on the surface at least, has become highly stylized, from architecture that appears to borrow selected local historical elements — such as Madinat Jumeirah’s adobe-colored windtowers — to the lingua franca of Gulf-based advertising agencies — the noble, bearded old Bedouin, the rolling sand dunes. The past is a mysterious, exoticized pastiche — but of what? After all, the trading nations of the Middle East have been engaged in East-West banter for hundreds of years, dealing back and forth in the icons of exotica, producing a mishmash of references that muddies the notion of “authenticity.”
What follows is a discussion between Seçil Yersel, an exhibiting photography-based artist and member of the Istanbul based Oda Projesi collective, and Vasif Kortun, director of Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center and co-curator of the upcoming 9th Istanbul Biennial. Kortun conducted a series of interviews in the spring of 2004 as a response to the cultural marketing and promotion of Istanbul and how it normalizes and streamlines both artistic production as well as audience cognition. Originally published in Istanbul magazine in Turkish, this discussion is one of these interviews.
Vasif Kortun: Seçil, I want to discuss how institutions are defined in the context of the “Istiklal Street syndrome.”1 Nearly all of Istanbul’s artistic and cultural institutions are located here, on a single stretch of two miles. Can we talk about opening new possibilities, and the need to establish different sets of relationships with the city that are sorely lacking?
Seçil Yersel: If an art scene or an institution functions only by securing itself, by primarily guaranteeing its position, what’s the point? Such a perspective seems to be more appropriate for a city like Ankara. But now even Istiklal Street is about to be domesticated. The fact that Istiklal Street has become a sort of obligation is distressing. It means that it loses its quality as an alternative. It’s now a glass dome enclosing elements that are considered different, but are in fact becoming increasingly similar. This situation restricts our movement in the city. We have everything, so why should we get out? Instead of isolating itself, perhaps the main concern for an institution should be developing relationships with its surroundings, and, above all, to grasp where it stands within the location where it exists, to know its neighbors. What is the range of art institutions in the city? How much of Istanbul can an art map cover? It seems the scope is too narrow.
I’m interested in making art accessible, comprehensible. Gültepe2 makes itself heard, and opens itself to discussion. How can you isolate yourself when there is an elementary school right next to you, and a place like Gültepe in the background? Who is the artwork’s neighbor — not its viewer, consumer or collector, but its neighbor? In other words, who is coincidentally nearby, and perhaps different, but has to coexist? Where can we build a common language, what if we need to build a third, common language and spread out? Those who come to Istiklal Caddesi must either surrender to those who already speak the predominant language, or just be content with the excitement of “different and interesting” personalities and situations that come up once in a while. Even if Istiklal Street has provided many possibilities, it began to consider itself the center and is now complacent with the situation. When are we going to be able to go to Pendik3 and see an exhibition? On Istiklal, the art becomes a mere display next to many other colorful displays. But when I see an art institution, I try to see its relationship with its surroundings, and when there’s a contradiction or a juxtaposition, the attraction the curiosity rises; it becomes more attractive. The neighbors are become curious, and even when they aren’t, the art gains an everyday quality, and perhaps it becomes harder to consume. It can no longer relax in its own space. Otherwise, art loses its capacity to diffuse, it doesn’t disagree with the system, but becomes an extension of it. It determines a point of view and says, “this is the way to look at it, from here, and only from here.”
VK: You’re looking at Istiklal from without, but let’s also try to look at it from within. It’s not simply a homogenous or static area.
SY: I did not say it was homogeneous or stable; I am wondering how a homogenous structure is produced. There are no open spaces, no gaps there. There are no transitions between venues, no individual territories. After a while, all the supposedly distinct voices become one bulk, because there is no breathing space to distinguish different people and venues from each other.
VK: It is true that the boundaries of the glass dome you mentioned are well-defined and tight. All you have to do is walk two blocks, towards Tarlabasi,4 or toward your right, walking from Galatasaray to Taksim. There’s an imposed proximity, an uncomfortable immediacy between radically different places such as Istiklal and Tarlabasi.
SY: Obviously this juxtaposition generates many hybrid structures, but it is becoming a painful situation, and I cannot figure out exactly what the position of the galleries is.
VK: Actually, proximity and coexistence doesn’t mean you’re in contact. As you may know, Istiklal Street was created in the 1860s, during a kind of semi-colonial period that lasted until 1909. During this time, there were more than sixty exhibitions on the street, some taking place in the smaller storefronts. Now, over the past six years, we’ve been witnessing how shops and restaurants are changing ownership with increasing speed. The shoemakers, tailors, barbershops and corner stores are being pushed out by bars, chains, cafées and flagship stores of international companies. Part of this process indicates that smaller, modest art centers will be pushed out and replaced by more glamorous commercial galleries and cultural centers. But today, it is still a place where Turkey’s experience economy is practiced in a more colorful way than in a shopping mall, and it is crucial that art centers are a part of it.
SY: I agree that it’s important to have art centers in such a district. However, if the main art institutions are coming here instead of diffusing into the city, I cannot support your point of view.
VK: Don’t you get sick of seeing nothing but shops in traffic-free zones? At least this street has not been completely cleaned up. Platform provides an experience for more than 100,000 people annually. This holds symbolic value for the city. You could say that, in reality, this freedom and anonymity caters to a consumer culture and an experience economy, and you’d be right, it does. But the abundance of cultural centers on Istiklal doesn’t necessarily wipe out the possibility of other institutions elsewhere. The two proposals are not even commensurate.
SY: It may sound strange, but in a place where galleries, shops and restaurants are so close to each other, I walk into Platform like I would into a shoe store or a bookstore. In such a suffocating area, there’s no time or mood for contemplation, interpretation or even criticism.
VK: When visitors come to Platform, despite it’s affiliation to a bank, they do not pass through metal doors, nor are they watched through surveillance cameras, or confronted with the suspicious gaze of an armed security guard, nor is there any trace of an environment that implies, “there is art here, lower your voices, behave, and you probably won’t understand anyway.” We’ve resigned ourselves to the space where we are, and are trying to use it with ease, and also to clarify the barriers between the inside and outside of the art space. Yet this is only one institution in one certain location. It can only set an example for itself.
There are many difficulties for an art institution in terms of choosing a location. There are no public funds, and the generations of artists who have not been exposed to a public funding policy can no longer even imagine alternatives. But the self-organizing model you mention is very different. The question is: How can a third language be created by an institution that has its foundations both in the international art discourse and in the city where it is situated? Especially if there is no art scene in that city that would support this kind of configuration? How are these models going to be funded? What are the possibilities of making them interact without a centralized focal point? These are the questions I’m interested in. We have to go beyond pouring content into an existing model — local “contenting”— in the same way we’ve already gone beyond reassembling existing models, or montage.
SY: I don’t think the restraints in choosing locations are merely due to the absence of public funding. You’re right about “local contenting,” but this condition has never been reflected on; it’s “montage” that has always been favored. First of all, to create a new infrastructure, we need to organize a series of long-term discussions embracing different contributors. A space for thinking out loud, a site where universities, galleries, curators, critics, artists, sociologists have a place; a meticulously formulated discussion platform that includes new actors. It seems to me that otherwise we’ll keep moving in a circle.
We can start from the idea that there is no art scene to support the institutions. The existence of groups like Oda Projesi, who delineate new possibilities, is crucial. The institution doesn’t have to build the third language itself, since groups who have already worked in this manner can channel their energy more effectively. Istanbul’s dynamic structure, which can organically self-organize, can itself become a model for institutions. Borrowed art venue models cannot survive in this city.
1. Istiklal Street, originally the Grande Rue de Pera was built in the mid-nineteenth century. As a zone of commerce and finance it was connected to the port area with the world’s second subway system. It was Istanbul’s first wide and straight street. Marked by consular buildings, churches, shopping centers, cafés and cultural spaces, it became by default the primary zone of an anonymous citizen experience in a city that was previously organized along community neighborhoods. The Istiklal area, a mercantile central node between the Balkans and the Middle East, remained a primarily European, Levantine and minority inhabited neighborhood. The violent riots
of September 6-7, 1950 effectively “Turkified” the area. The street was detrafficked
at the end of the 1980s. The original tramline was reinstalled. The area once again
became palatable to business, tourism and entertainment as part of the zoning and
globalization patterns of the city.
2. Gültepe is the working class neighborhood where Oda Projesi took residence for over a year with the establishment of Proje4L. The collective did not work in the museum but held a residence in the neighborhood. Their presence in the museum was a directional sign to their apartment. They only visited the museum when working with the primary school next door, and turned the institution to a playground.
3. Pendik is a neighborhood on the Asian shores away from the city centers.
4. Tarlabasi is a district that runs parallel to Istiklal. The two areas were separated from each other by an avenue, a main artery built during the pedestrianization of Istiklal. A barrier runs through the artery like a border. This barrier has contributed to the economic impoverishment of Tarlabasi. It is largely an immigrant neighborhood composed of illegal minorities from African communities to East Europeans. In addition it has a core Kurdish and Roma population. The living conditions are difficult and compromised, and many low paid service workers for Istiklal seek refuge there.
For first generation Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon, the photographs that survived the displacement in 1948 and were carried with them into exile not only evoke memories of Palestine as it used to be; for many refugees they are often crucial to a present sense of self. These images and narratives form part of an ongoing project, Photo48, which brings together personal photographs and memories that bear witness to the ongoing legacy of 1948 in the lives of refugees in the diaspora today. Photo48 was initiated by the Nakba Archive, an independent research collective document local histories of 1948, in association with Bidoun. By Diana Allan and Mahmoud Zeidan
**Hussein Mohammad Zaghmout was born in Sufsaf in 1929; he now lives in Ayn al-Hileh camp in south Lebanon.
The photo was taken in Haifa in 1947 in Souk al-Abyad. I’m on the right; in the middle is Mirie Hassan and to the left is Mohammed Qassim. We were on leave from the British army, where we were working as patrol guards for the Palestine police force. At that time we were training in Lydd and Ramleh. I remember once while we were training, we had an accident in Mlabas and Khodiara, and I lost consciousness. I woke up in the hospital while they were stitching my wounds. Mirie fed me cookies and they gave me ten days of sick leave…they sent us to different areas. I went to Gaza, where I served for ten months. When the skirmishes between the Jews and the Arabs began we returned to our village. They promised to give us retirement funds, but when I went back to Gaza they only gave me only one month’s pay. When we left Sufsaf in 1948 we went first to the village of Ras al-Ahmar and then on to Yaroun, where we rented a house for almost a month. Then one day the mukhtar (mayor) came and told us that the village was occupied and that people had been massacred…I keep this photo in my wallet; I like to have it with me always so that I can look at it.
Said Al-Otruk was born in Acre in 1922; he now lives in the old Souk in Sidon where he owns a small electrical shop.
Someone called Mahmoud Mamish took this picture of me on my boat in the old port of Acre. He was also from Acre, though he owned three or four cinemas in Beirut. I remember the old days— days of freedom! Work at sea is freedom…whenever you need money you can go out and catch some fish for yourself.The life of a fisherman at this time was golden, which is why I wrote “The golden days” on this photograph. One never needed to go far from home—perhaps around 500 meters—the fish would be waiting for us,sardine and sfarneh, a snake-like fish.After an hour or so we’d come back…God provided for us well. Some people say being a fisherman is hard, but for those who have the right equipment it isn’t. To fish sfarneh and sardine one needs special nets. My boat was number 9…In this shop I feel as if I’m confined; It’s a prison where I spend my days from seven in the morning until five in the evening, or later. Selling electrical appliances is not my job; I’m a fisherman! Because my brother learned electricity in Acre and started a shop there, I learned the trade while I helped him with his accounts in th e evenings, after I’d finished my work.Then when we came to Lebanon he started another shop, so I also helped him here, and then I ended up having my own store…When people started to flee from Acre in 1948, boats like mine were used to take people to the larger steamers that were waiting off shore. You see my boat here in this picture—you see the number 9? I am standing next to it. I’ve put a cross above my head so you can find me. There were three different steamers that you could choose from, with different flags. One went to the port of Hama in Syria, another to Alexandria in Egypt, and the third to Lebanon…People left in such a hurry, leaving everything. Taraku jamal bi ma hamal! [They left the camel with its load]. When I see these pictures I feel bitter.
Fifi Abdul-Nour was born in Jaffa in 1923; she now lives in Beirut.
We used to spend the summers in Ramallah, where many families from Jaffa owned homes. This picture was taken there in 1933, I think. My younger sister is on my lap and we are sitting with my father on the porch of the Audi Hotel. The house we rented was across from the hotel, so we’d walk through the garden and sit there in the evenings. My father liked to play cards there and smoke nargileh. A young man called Ito Beiruti, an amateur photographer from Jaffa, took this picture. I remember thinking, as a child, thinking how strange he seemed. One day, which I’ll never forget, we followed him through the streets in Jaffa near our house, singing some rhyme like “Ito afa ita…” and he chased us through the streets and gave us a big spanking when he caught us…This is the other picture I treasure: It’s of my younger brother and me at my grandfather’s house in Jaffa where we lived for some time. It was luxurious: The living room was thirteen meters long, and there was an inner courtyard with an enormous jasmine. I used to collect the buds and make garlands from them, like the ones you see people selling by the side of the road here. The layout and interior was designed by an Italian architect, and I particularly loved the walls. They were pale blue, painted to look like marble, and the patterns you see behind us were a darker blue…We visited the house a few years ago and the walls were as you see them here, though the building has been divided into a number of apartments. Next to us is a phonograph, which was unusual in those days; when my father went on business trips to Paris he’d bring us back records to listen to. In the last months before we left I remember that from time to time shots were fired at the houses in Jaffa from neighboring Tel Aviv. One evening my brother woke up and saw what he thought was a huge spider on the mirror. Then we saw a hole in the shutters where a bullet had gone through, and later we found it on the floor in the corner of the room…
O Egypt is there a wise man in your midst — for my mind today is made of steel.”
—Mahmoud Abd El Raziq Affifi (Adeeb el Shabbab), street graffiti
POSSESSION AND DISPOSSESSION
According to popular legend, Mahmoud Abd El Raziq Affifi, the self-styled Adeeb el Shabbab (writer of youth) exploded into the consciousness of this city sometime in the 1970s, when he paid street kids to lift banners advertising his books at football matches that were broadcast live on national television. Over the years he honed his skill of self-promotion and by the late ’80s and throughout the ’90s Affifi had blitzed the walls of the megalopolis with bold provocative statements: quotations from his many books, direct challenges to images of literary icons, and even petitions to the president. This was how I first encountered him and his language of taunts, self-deprecation and preposterous claims — the productions of a logic so severely skewered by desire, fear, insecurity, misogyny, envy, megalomania, and an obsessive blind lust for recognition.
And how I wish to ascend to the divine presence to meditate upon the earth and the heavens and bygone eras that I did not have the chance to live in, and how I wished that I not meet my maker before the whole world is in the clasp of my hands.
—Affifi, street graffiti
SUPERIORITY, INFERIORITY AND FEAR
Abd El Raziq Affifi functions within a dark place. Moments from his biography: Letters to belly dancers, writers, journalists, and academics; notes on different public figures; theological theses; philosophical and political analyses; sexual fantasies; fictions portrayed as real events; memories included in fictions; and late night phone conversations with his readers are all mixed together in one huge tapestry of pathology. His is a meta-discourse that transcends genre. With such titles as “This is my Qu’ran,” “Divinity and Sex,” “Stories of the Whores,” “Words on Rolling Paper,” “Who will Swim against the Current with Me?,” and my personal favorite, (the almost unbelievable) “Folly in the Vagina” he has managed to produce objects rather than descriptions, and to unwittingly map out the culture’s collective psyche. We go from electrocuting an old blind woman as a kid (connecting live wires to her brass bed), to a memory of his mother milking a cat in the cupboard to feed him, to an older Affifi who leaves buckets of his cum for the neighborhood women to dip their fingers in as a blessing. This intensely misogynist street philosopher has offended everyone, consistently contradicted himself, and wittily deconstructed the intellectual establishment, all while proclaiming himself a religious conservative, secular rationalist, authoritarian dictator and democratic liberal.
Claims abound: An incessant, often-contradictory catalogue of sexual conquest is suddenly offset by an obscene, blatantly neurotic assumption of a gay voice. His fear and envy of police officers, judges, famous journalists, governors and municipal bureaucrats leaves us with a secret history of signs, twitches and gestures, the marks of control and possession. On one level he wants to be everything he is not, while on another he considers himself to be above it all — much like a thanawiyya amma (Egyptian High School General Certificate) student who hopelessly fails his exams and claims that all he wanted to ever be anyway was an actor. Affifi — the text — is himself an argument for failure, one endemic to the current social structure. Therein lies his value.
M. President, how could this happen while we live in the era of greatest freedom — I will be forced to sell my kidney because of GMC and Olympic Electric, who refused to pay for the advertisements that I placed in my books.
—Affifi, street graffiti
PSYCHOPATHOLOGY AS A LAYER OF THE CITY
Maybe Adeeb el Shabbab’s significance lies in his extreme pretentiousness. This is a man who dared challenge all the literary, religious and political figures of modern Egyptian intellectual history, thick on the streets of the city, no less. The gesture radically refused, imposed and promoted hierarchies, in an intellectual climate where figures are sanctified and critical texts are disguised hagiographies. But it is important here to draw a distinction between a conscious artistic strategy and the obsessive impulses of a person who is essentially on the margins of society. Affifi’s texts are marked by a hysterical love — and hatred — of the mainstream. Even if there has been a seeming shift lately in the power structure, from a specific type of veiled provincialism and state-sponsored bureaucratic fetish to the suave Gucci clad clones of the early twenty-first century, ruptures are never as real as they seem, changes are easily cosmetic, and Abd El Raziq Affifi’s rants remain relevant indices of the pressures of living in hierarchical societies. But it is necessary to seriously engage with productions of the margins, with the uncontrolled and the defective, in order to trace dysfunction itself and discover forms that are wedded to their context. These forms might well be situated in the alleyways of Al Imam el Shafei, rather than in the hip galleries of contemporary art or the self-important circles of literary debates. And maybe it was necessary to go to hell and back to approach the complexity of a society that continues to speak in two tongues.
O people of Egypt do you not want to witness the birth of a new dawn? Yes — for these are my words eternal monuments on the banks of the Nile so that our descendants would know how ancient this land is.
—Affifi, street graffiti
PLEASURE SQUEEZED OUT OF WORDS
In his chapter “On the phone with the readers,” Affifi transcribes his often lewd late night conversations. Speaking to lonely men in the middle of the night is a chance for Affifi to air his fantasies — a mixture of the cheap hedonism of ‘80s Egyptian movies and the bitterness of someone who has been shafted all his life. Veiled beneath these fantasies are not only darkness and loss but also form, a way of transforming the action of language into a modern ritual, a method of supplication. Whether it is being married to four Egyptian sex symbols at the same time (taking their onscreen flirtations one step further, humiliating the image itself) or prostituting his wife (turning social norms upside down, insulting manhood itself), Affifi is both the victim and king of these images — teasing out pleasure in the very telling, the drive to expose and the vertigo of our obsessions. In that sense he differs radically from the pornographer who attempts to entice the reader. For Affifi, pleasure is essentially the pleasure of the self, a masturbatory act. The hysterical overflow of words (on every page — front cover, back cover, and inside leaves) is a sign of his pleasure taking. This is the pleasure of someone who knows that his texts are his only chance at redeeming the self and by extension the world (he collapses the two). It is thus one easy step to move from the literally erotic to the religious. Through this transcendent impulse, his ego can mount the mantle of world domination — and in classic “I will rule the world” madscientist style Affifi informs us that if George H. W. Bush visited him in his house in the Imam El Shafei cemeteries, he would give him a piece of his mind.
Yes that is the state of the majority of the Egyptians and if it wasn’t for what’s left of civilization, tradition and history we would have been a group of barbarians; for these are a people who should be whacked on their genitals so that they may return to their rational faculties.
—Affifi, street graffiti
PAIN TRANSFORMED (OR WHO’S BOURGEOIS OUT HERE?)
If the bourgeoisie are historically marked by their constant aspiration to seem something more than what they are — to move from the position of watching the great orgy of consumption to being empowered as direct participants in those pleasures — then outsiders like Affifi (who is firmly placed in an educated lower middle class) suffer both from being shunned by those higher and the inability to truly practice the unfettered crimes of those who operate on a lower level. Twisted by guilt, Affifi is the unmasked bourgeoisie in its most raw manifestation. Or as one Cairene succinctly sums up, “Here you either ride or are ridden.” It might be that for Affifi his practice promises a certain redemption, a coming to terms with that context of specific hegemonic discourses — religion, customs, traditions, socially appropriate behavior and, quite significant for him, the law. His experience of pain, whether inflicted on others or experienced by himself, is one which comes quite close to a certain form of pleasure. It is as if through pain, Affifi comes to terms with an order that he will never be able to rule, an order that has not only assigned him a position but shaped his very tools of perception. His whimpers, at once defective and aspiring to perfection, become destabilizing impulses within that order. But more important, they promise us the hidden pleasure of consuming our own collapse, the entertainment of watching our moral structure being messed with. Affifi’s readers — the socialized citizens, family members, students, workers, criminals, intellectuals, political activists, housewives, or policemen — who might one day accidentally pick up a copy of his books from any street vendor might be secretly fascinated by a text whose voice seems to come from a secret location inside them, rather than speak about who they are.
Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism
By Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson
University of Chicago Press, 2005
Michel Foucault, one of the most celebrated philosophers of the twentieth century, was also one of the most controversial because of his refusal to divorce his passions from his principles. The whole of his career was devoted to questioning the myth of the all-knowing, disembodied and dispassionate observer — Plato’s philosopher-king, Descartes’s cogito — and his writings were in many ways a product of just this outlook. Though a rigorous historian, Foucault was skeptical of the positivist fantasies upon which historian’s claims to truth were based. Though a respected scholar who occupied France’s most prestigious chair in philosophy at College de France, he was still given to doubt and auto-criticism. “In a sense,” he once said in a fit of self-mockery, “all…my life I’ve been trying to do intellectual things that would attract beautiful boys.”
To say that Foucault’s thoughts and actions were intertwined is not to suggest that the manner in which they relate is necessarily obvious. Unfortunately, this is precisely the impression that Janet Afary and Kevin B Anderson give in their Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism. The book investigates an under-explored chapter in Foucault’s fifty-seven years of life: his support for Iran’s 1979 revolution, which deposed the Shah and led to the founding of the Islamic Republic, ruled by the Ayatollah Khomeini until his death in 1989. It details how Foucault’s support of Tehran’s student uprisings and mass protests were the product of his identification with radical Shiism and his critique of modernity more generally.
The authors make their argument by pursuing two lines of approach: First, they recount Foucault’s own statements about the political situation in Iran; second, they consider the ideas that informed his teachings as well as those of his Islamic counterparts. They argue that martyrdom and self-sacrifice, existentialism and poststructuralism, and a tacit identification with European fascism were central preoccupations in both contexts. “Foucault was…intrigued by the relationship between the discourse of martyrdom and the new form of political spirituality to which the Islamists aspired,” they write. “He held that the Western [sic] world had abandoned this form of spirituality ever since the French Revolution. Furthermore,” the authors point out that the principles of “authentic Islam” that informed postwar Islamic radicals were strongly influenced by the writings of Martin Heidegger, whose early work on death was also important for Foucault during the 1950s.
The distortions and oversimplifications in this book are too great to name. Though Foucault’s enthusiasm for the Iranian Revolution was undeniable, and while his response to Persian feminists was reprehensible at best, to suggest that his writings on Iran give us a key to understanding his critique of modernity is completely unfounded. As the authors point out, Foucault visited Iran on only two occasions, once for nine days and once for seven. He was ignorant of the region, and exoticized and stereotyped its traditions by fetishizing what he observed to be its “erotic” and primordial character. Yet to suggest (as Afary and Anderson do) that such remarks somehow reflect the mind of a fundamentally “antimodern” or “anti-Enlightenment” thinker is to ignore the fact that throughout the twentieth century, French intellectuals were often summoned to comment on situations of which they knew very little.
Conversely, the authors similarly fail to paint a picture of Iran that captures the role that nationalism, widespread corruption and the will to self-determination played in shaping domestic affairs prior to the revolution. Rather than factoring the British and American involvement in manipulating the country’s political life over the course of the twentieth century, or even looking closely at the economic and social problems that were the hallmark of the Shah’s tenure, they suggest that the revolution was largely born of cultural and intellectual forces — an oversimplification at best.
The most bothersome aspect of this book is that it divides all thinkers and ideas into starkly opposed and monolithic camps. Afary and Anderson tacitly conflate Heidegger’s affinity for National Socialism with Foucault’s identification for radical Shiism, which is ahistorical and Eurocentric in the extreme. Though learned scholars in their own right — Afary is an Iranianist and historian, Anderson is a political theorist and sociologist — it is striking how much their rhetoric resembles the “us versus them” machinations of the current Republican administration. The author’s brandish words like “secularism” and “religion” without acknowledging how intertwined the two terms have been throughout history. Was it not Max Weber who showed that Enlightenment liberalism would have been unthinkable if not for the rise of the “Protestant ethic?” They also seem to have an axe to grind with poststructuralism. Their suggestion that reading Sartre, Kierkegaard and Heidegger may have given rise to radical strains of Islam is kind of like saying that masturbation will make you blind: It is primarily a scare tactic, one rooted in a deep-seated antipathy for any project that seeks to question the legacy and history of Enlightenment modernity.
Foucault and the Iranian Revolution’s only redeeming quality is that it contains translations of Foucault’s writings on Iran in its appendix. The rest of the book is truly a testament to how the rhetoric of fear that has defined US foreign policy since September 11 has even reshaped the discourse of the intellectual left: Afary and Anderson’s unwillingness to confront the inner tensions and nuances implicit in Foucault’s thinking and writing is to be seen in the context of our continuing desire for black and white, easily digestible readings of recent history, and the increasing rift between France and the United States on the question of the Middle East. Just as we now have “freedom fries,” we also have a deeply partisan analysis of a leading French intellectual that lends further legitimacy to the logic of preemption that has guided US foreign policy for the last four years. Indeed, Afary and Anderson’s book fails sufficiently to account for colonialism’s complicity in shaping Iran’s ideological and social context. Foucault may have been wrong to side with the revolutionaries (which, by the way, included secular intellectuals as well as the clerical class and bazaaris), but the lessons to be drawn from this episode require a level of historical and conceptual sophistication that this book simply fails to provide.
Reading Paul E. Erdman’s thriller The Crash of ’79 I couldn’t help but sit back and reminisce about the 1970s in Bulgaria. It was a cozy time of relative stability and prosperity. We were getting lots of crude oil and electricity from the USSR in exchange for tomatoes, wine and cigarettes. We knew who our friends were (the Soviet Block) and who our enemies were (NATO and capitalism). Things were comfortable and simple. In our case, the “crash” came not in ’79 but in ’85, with perestroika, when Mr. Gorbachev suddenly reminded us that, even between friends, “cheese costs money.” In other words, if you want crude oil and electricity, you have to pay world market prices. This historical turn is pretty obvious in hindsight, but very few predicted it.
Admittedly, by that time, we’d already gained a different perspective on a number of things. For example, we began to understand the mysterious state visits from improbable friends like the Shah of Iran or the Emperor of Ethiopia when as junior high school kids we were made to line up on the main boulevards of Sofia, waving flags as the motorcades swished by. Our own dictator, Todor Zhivkov, would call Reza Pahlavi and Haile Salasie his “friends” — unlimited powers attract each other, and perhaps rentier states even form a class of their own. These were friends talking business, indulging in common dreams of worldwide influence and political status, their situation spiced up with a few thousand Renault 5 cars produced in Iran and sold in Bulgaria as a deluxe alternative to the Ladas, Skodas, Wartburgs, and Trabants. Such are the bizarre deals, foggy aspirations and murky alliances that Erdman’s novel describes.
The Crash of ’79, published way back in 1976, is wonderful reading material, the perfect paperback for a four-hour flight, pleasant and easy to breeze through. It features an engaging plot full of suspense, replete with useful information on the world of oil and international finance. The action takes us all around the world and involves the top decision makers of the time (including Pahlavi), and even dishes up a peppery love affair between the macho, selfrighteous narrator and the luscious daughter of a Swiss nuclear scientist. (Their relationship, incidentally, has made me wonder repeatedly what exactly the “Persian position” in chapter forty is all about.)
In short, the book easily holds its ground when compared to more recent examples of the flourishing genre of international intrigue. Its most important asset, however, is its prophetic dimension. The book actually predicted a string of events in the Middle East between late 1978 and early 1979. Though it did not foretell the Iranian Revolution, it predicted nearly everything else in terms of major politico-economic developments, the aspirations of the key players, and some of the ways in which the geopolitical situation evolved. That said, not everything has fallen into place (yet), for the narrative begins — and ends — in an apocalyptic world reverted to pre-industrial, no-tech simplicity.
The Crash of ’79 was written by an insider following the oil crisis of 1975. To re-read it now is simply a must. Although the world reserves of crude oil are diminishing and cheap alternatives are not available, oil consumption is exploding. According to a more recent exercise in geopolitical divination, James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century, one billion Chinese are about to buy their first car by 2006. I wonder what Erdman — or Gorbachev — would have to say about that. Cars need gasoline. Pretty obvious indeed.
Kutlug Ataman: Küba
The Sorting Office
March 22–May 8, 2005
Kutlug Ataman is an artist specializing in video who seems to leap in stature with every new project. Commissioned by London-based organization Artangel, Ataman spent two years developing Küba, an intriguing sociological portrait that won the Carnegie Prize on its debut in Pittsburgh last year; the multiple DVD installation began its exhibition tour proper in London, at a former postal sorting office in the center of the city. Ataman has already exhibited widely in London, including a solo exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery, but this was his largest project to date, and its opening attracted much media fanfare.
Küba is the name adopted by a particular area of Istanbul that was originally established as a community of safe houses in the 1960s. Over the years it has become an illegal and sprawling mass of dwellings, inhabited by a predominantly Kurdish population. Ataman developed relationships with a large number of residents, recording them speaking about their lives, and forty of their accounts appear in the installation. The work attempts to scrutinize the character of the neighborhood, to enter its psyche in order to understand the nature of a place that is perceived as an aberration. The installation consists of the accounts of these individuals played on old television sets that are positioned directly in front of secondhand sofas, as if a domestic setting. Utilizing the now familiar talkingheads technique, the dialogue is subtitled in English, with the sound of the voices deliberately allowed to coalesce into an indecipherable whole.
Many candidly express their often alarming hardship with occasional and sporadic moments of poetry. Fevzi, a despondent young man who somehow ended up in Küba, tells of his life in the armed forces, before casually breaking into elegy — “The children gathered roses for you / We planted orchards in our hearts for you / Let the rose gardens surround you…” We discern Ataman’s captivated sensitivity as the individuals reveal themselves and their histories. Most visitors spent an uncommonly lengthy period in the exhibition, engrossed by the words and getting to know the participants as individuals.
Though the ambition and monumental form of Ataman’s installation is impressive, something about its excessive nature bothered me. And then I realized that Küba’s setting — a stripped-out former sorting office with a vast Palais de Tokyo-style “building-site chic” — rather than the installation itself, appeared extravagant. The mediated experience, specific to the installation’s London showing, has been truly dramatized by Artangel: Visitors enter the building through a makeshift wooden tunnel, go up flights of stairs to a derelict floor, through the Küba café, and up additional flights of stairs until they reach the installation itself. Along the way, mumblings from the installation can be heard echoing around the building, furthering any apprehension visitors have about the work they are soon to see.
Ultimately, the experience may leave one feeling ambivalent about the content of the work — which in fact is the prime intention of some socially-engaged practices (in certain works by Santiago Sierra, for example). Increasingly, gallery-goers are encountering contemporary art that deals with the ethics/imminence/politics paradigm — particular art that is designed to form challenging confrontations through phenomenological and visual confrontation with antagonistic subject matter. In the immediacy of the experience provided by a work like Küba, questions arise: Is this conceived to impinge on my conscience? Is it an inauthentic representation? Is it exploitative even? The most pertinent feature of Küba is that it engages its audience in a thoroughly thought-provoking encounter. But the issue remains: In the midst of this problematizing-impulse, does this remove an artist’s accountability for the subject, in spite of its criticality?
Centre for Contemporary Arts
March 26–May 14, 2005
As part of the first Glasgow International Festival, a multi-venue showcase for domestic and international art, the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA) hosted Risk. An ambitious attempt to “bring together artists who endeavor to make creative political change through their practice,” Risk featured artists, activists, and cultural workers, including the Rebel Clown Army, Variant magazine, Doug Aubrey, Gregory Green and the Atlas Group.
On entering the gallery’s foyer the viewer was greeted by an onslaught of textual messages. Mel Jordan and Andy Hewitt’s stark black and white text — “The economic function of public art is to increase the value of private property” — confronted the Self Regulating Poster Wall, a sprawling mass of posters pinned up and “managed” by members of the public. Hewitt and Jordan’s work was a succinct reminder of the use of culture as a dubious tool in social and cultural redevelopment, while the poster wall was, as you’d expect, a jumble of contradictory messages — a space where the political was accosted by the humorous, irreverent and bizarre.
In relation to the Scottish culture industry, Jordan and Hewitt’s work was highly apt, but would have benefited greatly from being publicly situated; gallery presentation rather neutered their message. The Poster Wall may have been motivated by a genuine desire to produce an “interactive” democratic work, but like so many wellintentioned projects, it felt rather tokenistic. It might have been more original, for instance, to have invited activists such as the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign who frequently petition on the same street as the CCA to contribute to the exhibition. But though inviting activists to work within and on the structures of the gallery might have produced a more engaged and “riskier” show, my suspicion is that this would have politicized Risk in a manner that the gallery and curators would have been uncomfortable with, crossing as it would have the line between detached documentation and partisan practice.
The preponderance of video, text, and pared-down photographic work was immediately noticeable in the main gallery. Formally, Risk was a pretty dull exhibition. The visual imagery included was mainly utilitarian and largely supplemented by text — the Critical Art Ensemble’s large mock ads for genetically modified produce, for example, or Martin Krenn’s plain photographic city views. The volume of text, video, interactive computer programs, magazines and books indicated that most participants in the show consider text, rather than image, to be the best means of communicating a message. From Josh On’s They Rule maps detailing the interconnected web of the board member elite in corporate America, to Kate Rich’s Feral Trade Coffee Shipment, documenting an experiment in using social and cultural networks to establish alternative trade routes, Risk emphasized largely purging the work of visual detail — the legacy of conceptualism hung heavily.
Few would question the commitment or critical accuracy of artists such as Jacqueline Salloum, whose video Planet of the Arabs, a collage of Hollywood’s vilification of Arabs in cinema, was a sharp exposure of the western media’s racism. I wondered about the artistic and political efficacy of this kind of work both within the context of the gallery and, more importantly, in the outside world. Writing in the 1930s, Bertolt Brecht noted that one of the chief tasks of the politically engaged artist was to acknowledge that “new problems appear and demand new methods. Reality changes; in order to represent it, modes of representation must also change.” For many of the Risk artists, it was precisely a lack of innovation or self-reflexivity regarding form that made their work seem aesthetically and conceptually narrow. The intentions were undoubtedly honorable, but the execution was academic and safe.
April 6–June 6, 2005
Looking out from the balcony of my hotel room I see the city of Sharjah for the first time. The buildings are almost wholly made of glass. One looks upon them knowing well enough that they are constructed with materials that resist the workings of time. Although breakable, this glass is wrought and polished with extreme precision, made resistant to the persistent wear and tear of sandstorms. To miss the crucial fact that these buildings do little except seduce and lure us into caring for them is to misapprehend them; what they do is solicit our constant vigilance. Such is the situation from the hotel balcony. To know more one has to walk the spacious streets that cut through the city. Only then can one recognize the differences that distinguish each building: Each one is a unique object, and much can be said about the formal variations and range of glass ornamentation.
It is quite difficult when visiting Sharjah to avoid the mindset of a tourist; the city leaves one with little choice. One is often led to draw a general and generic image of the city, as the space seems to assume that a visitor is first and foremost a spectator. He eats and rests to prepare for another bout of Watching. Accordingly, the city is opaque, incessantly denigrating the other senses. We look at the glass and the reflections that glide on it but never at what’s behind it. A city that celebrates the frame: the frame of the dwelling and the shelter, but never that which is inside. In a sense, I am in a city spacious enough for all manner of exhibitionism. But never will you cross the limit of the glass. When in Sharjah, one is either a museum visitor or, alternatively, an image framed.
Museums are a solid reason for safeguarding cities. In this sense, Sharjah is a fragile and precious work that requires our consideration. It is a city that cannot withstand belligerence, a work of art made of streets, buildings and white air-conditioned cars. Everything in Sharjah partakes of the nature of museum except the museums themselves: a few measly documents, photographs and artifacts. Little of substance. And herein lies the truth that the history of Sharjah is stored in the memory and cameras of its visitors: It is the museum and we are in effect the photographers.
And yet it is a city that can surprise. In this case, it is the 7th International Biennial. Many recounted that during preparations, the janitors mistook a work of art for a pile of trash, took it to the dump and lost it. Such an incident raises a number of issues. Let us remind ourselves first that this biennial showcases works distinguished by transience, works that wipe away their traces with the end of the event. Before these works we must renew ourselves in order to see them with the eye of a shopper or a hotel guest. These works are without a memory. Yet they draw spectators closer to the evolving world. Whether one installation that seems to merely distribute ice cream to viewers or another that deals with issues of the public sphere, all works prompt the critical viewer into serious debates about so-called global issues. No longer a leisurely stroller looking for beauty in an expensive painting, the viewer must engage with the works in order to understand.
Accordingly, what is important is not the works themselves but rather the discussions they inspire; these discussions make the Biennial a “public time.” Perhaps it is necessary here to remind ourselves how, amid this globalization of ours, it is becoming increasingly difficult for us to enter public time. Globalization thrives in part on excluding a majority of people, on ignoring the needs of many while exacting of all places constant evidence of their camera worthiness. The Biennial is thus relevant inasmuch as it is capable of sustaining heated discussions, for it is in such discussions that the globalized calendar momentarily stops to include us in its contemporaneity, allowing us to be momentarily audible and visible.
And yet, some defenders of the classical arts persisted in considering the mishap of the janitors an indelible proof that these newer works are flippant, even unnecessary. That may be true — not only of newer works but also for all the safeguarded art treasures of the world. What is important is for us to remember that a biennial is an event limited in time. And so are the works. That is precisely their strength. When the next biennial arrives, other works will appear and with them other places and issues will arrive.
This Biennial, like any other, included some works which remained hidden well within the personalities of their makers. But these works did not attract any interest. The one element of the entire Biennial that remained curiously anachronistic was the insistence of Arab intellectuals and journalists, some of whom reside in the city, on criticizing these newer works. A curious situation indeed: On the one hand, the sheikhs and the local authorities showed a willingness to carry their city into the public time. On the other hand, intellectuals refused such an entry and doubted its relevance. What we witness is truly a reversal, for when the Sovereign calls for openness and intellectuals cower, one is tempted to view the entire picture anew, starting from the back — from the side that lies hidden behind the glass window.
Sharjah Biennial 7: Belonging
April 6–June 6, 2005
It would be outrageous to deny that setting, locale, atmosphere, and even one’s personal relationship to the artists all have a tremendous influence on the observer of contemporary art. In the case of a biennial, the impact of the environment is even more pronounced, since one isn’t dealing with a single work of art but a whole range of artworks in a variety of different spatial constellations, which can require hours, even days to take in.
Right from the very first day, my wife’s sister was constantly complaining about the triangular swimming pool in our Sharjah hotel. For me, this was not an issue; I actually find Sharjah an agreeable place, much more so than Venice, for example — where the hotels have no swimming pools at all (triangular or not), and the beaches are so polluted one wouldn’t even dream of going swimming. That aside, the climate in Sharjah is far more pleasant, people are friendlier, and the food is also better. (Allow me to recommend the Karachi Palace — you’ll recognize it by the bold slogan in red, “You’ve tried the rest, now try the best.” Even at 2 am, the Karachi will serve an excellent mango lassi — the kind of refreshment the Venice Harry’s Bar clientele can only dream of. A Karachi Palace mango lassi is delightful even after the third glass, very much unlike those gummy Bellini concoctions.)
Now, about the art. San Keller installed a very subtle and sensitive sound piece, Annunciations, which, as jury member Okwui Enwezor confessed to me later on in the Karachi, was actually so unobtrusive the festival jury failed to notice it altogether. Keller had asked all the artists and curators involved in the Biennial to provide him with what they thought were relevant passages from the canon of art history. He had these passages read from loudspeakers on the main square in front of the Sharjah Art Museum, four times per day. It was an elegant and highly memorable way to reveal the ideological leanings of the individual participants, and present visitors with the intellectual identity of the Biennial as a whole. Maybe the installation’s rather obvious reference to the muezzin tradition was lacking in subtlety, due to a typically superficial western attitude towards certain Middle Eastern icons. But “Annunciations” was successful in gently rubbing everyone’s nose in the Biennial’s ideological makeup.
Far less attractive was Pio Diaz’s Setting Up in Sharjah, which also took place on the main square in front of the museum. (My negative reaction has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that the artist insulted and ridiculed me on several occasions in front of his peers. Although to a certain extent, his ill-mannered attitude does become manifest in his work.) Diaz’s project consisted of some sort of an ice cream parlor which served as advertising (or “bait,” as he put it), for a webpage minoritypolicy.com that disseminates useful information for Sharjah immigrants who would like to set up a business. It was certainly an interesting approach, but far too befuddled to be taken seriously. The intervention on the square soon proved to be nothing more than a swanky, pointless boast, for after the first day, not much was left of the parlor besides a cluttered little ruin of an ice cream shack. Such projects may make sense in Argentina, but in a place like Sharjah, it is patronizing toward the immigrant working classes, who are degraded to the status of guinea pigs.
The work of Christoph Büchel and Giovanni Carmine, on the other hand, was rather interesting. With their complex, beautifully designed installation PSYOP, the two young artists exposed the propaganda machinery of US imperialism, even representing it, as some have pointed out, as an allegory of the international art system. In the Sharjah Art Museum, they built a seminar room of the US Army’s Psychological Operations Unit, a simple space filled with desks and metal chairs. In the corner was a TV set playing a film once used in the late 60s to train occupying US troops in matters of psychological infiltration. “Win their minds,” it claimed, “and their hearts and souls will follow.” Stacks of cardboard boxes containing all the flyers dropped during the recent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were arranged along the walls of the classroom. A beautifully designed and meaningful work.
Mario Rizzi contributed a pompous and overblown work, Out of Place, that I must mention because I cannot believe the festival jury (which included Rina Caravajal and Walid Sadek as well as Enwezor) actually fell for this upsetting example of Proletkult. At the award ceremony, during which the artists Maja Bajevic and Moataz Nasr were also honored, I almost felt ashamed in front of the tasteful and soft-spoken patron of the event, His Highness Dr. Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi. By awarding Rizzi, the jury set a very bad precedent, since his work has little to offer other than bourgeois idealization of gypsy romanticism. I suspect that it received the award only because of its seductive style of presentation: a row of immense projections in a dark room, some moving film matter, some music, some politics. Usually does the trick.
In addition to her video piece, Emily Jacir produced a highly poetic work Embrace consisting of a circular luggage conveyor belt. The sculpture obviously points to the artist’s uprootedness (she is based in Ramallah and New York). One should concentrate on the work’s composition and entirely disregard its content and postcolonial emotionalism; it comes dangerously close to Rizzi’s video work in that respect. At the Karachi, I made a point of staying in the smaller room reserved exclusively for men whenever possible, in order to avoid any conversations with the artist, for that would have gravely threatened my personal enjoyment of her work in terms of its outstanding formal qualities.
I will end with a brief remark on the curators. In principle, we all appreciate the open-minded atmosphere of a place like Sharjah. But we do wonder how far these people want to go. Fortunately, there was at least one Muslim — Tirdad Zolghadr — among the team of curators (he is of course a Shia, but that is better than no Muslim at all). My wife’s sister maintained that Zolghadr was also the best-dressed among the curators, which is entirely untrue from my perspective; she has simply been living in Ankara for far too long. But Zolghadr was unfortunately the most arrogant of the three curators, boasting to the local press that he would “make Venice look like an afternoon bake-a-cake contest.” Nice try.
Martyrs’ Square and the Grand Axis of Beirut: International Urban Design Ideas Competition
Dome City Center, Martyrs’ Square
May 19–June 4, 2005
“The Underwater Venice of Beirut,” “The Urban Chameleon,” and “Berytus: Rose of the Mediterranean” are just some of the submitted titles that reflect the substance — or lack of it — in Martyrs’ Square and the Grand Axis of Beirut: International Urban Design Ideas Competition. Sponsored and organized by Solidere, a private multibillion-dollar mega-corporation charged with the reconstruction of Beirut following fifteen years of war in Lebanon, the competition is meant to collect ideas and decide the future of what is arguably the most important space in Beirut, and possibly in all of Lebanon: Martyrs’ Square. The 122 entries, from forty countries, are presented as posters and displayed like science fair projects on the multiple levels of Joseph Philippe Karam’s Beirut City Center Complex, known in Lebanese vernacular as the Bubble, the Dome, or the Egg.
Of the organizers’ thirteen goals and objectives — printed on walls near the entrance of the Dome — among the most peculiar is “to create a landmark, high rise zone in the northeastern part of the sector, marking the termination of the coastal highway and the gateway entrance to the city center.” This aspiration connects smoothly to another objective, “to help reposition Beirut to compete with other cities in the region.” Dubai would be a good guess if you were wondering what they were referring to by “other cities in the region.” Oddly enough, some proposals actually suggested the construction of “Burj Square,” a provincial skyscraper monstrosity superimposed on Martyrs’ Square — obviously referencing Dubai’s Burj Tower.
Even more disturbing is Solidere’s “high rise zone” plan. Why, when Beirut offers such a unique tabula rasa and the opportunity to reinvent the space with post-post-postmodern landmarks designed by the world’s finest architectural and engineering firms, are design proposals supposed
to be limited to that modernist symbol of power and finance, the high rise? The stipulation has resulted in several projects that mark the area’s northeastern corner with a cluster of skyscrapers straight out of Houston or Dallas. Maybe Solidere envisions a heavily commercial coastline for Beirut, but surely alternatives to the high rise exist in creating a viable, public waterfront. This short-sightedness is just one example of the strange and significant conceptual flaws plaguing the competition, which itself demonstrates a monumental lack of imagination.
Also disappointing is that few of the entrants submitted proposals that critically question the organizers’ objectives, creatively circumvent the guidelines, or trenchantly reevaluate the political, social, historical, aesthetic and psychological values of Martyrs’ Square. Most of the offerings — complete with knock-your-socks-off titles — favor developing the space into a capital-driven consumerist center for big business folk and tourists, with a bit of cafe culture and even casinos. Few proposals envision the participation of weirdos from other sectors of society and the margins of Lebanon’s citizenry in the public arena, or the political activity that constitutes the square’s identity. Whatever happened to harnessing the political significance of the square in order to facilitate civic responsibility and encourage greater public consciousness among the Lebanese? The failure of entrants and organizers to acknowledge such a basic necessity reflects the most serious and conspicuous dearth of substance and vision in the exhibition. To their credit, some — very, very few — proposals responded to this pressing need.
The problems with the entries — which are always unpredictable — are the result of the competition’s deeper structural and conceptual problems. One is led to understand that the results of this competition are entirely inconsequential. What seems more central to the organizers’ concerns are marketing strategies for their own projects — and validating those strategies by holding an international competition about ideas for the future of central Beirut. Solidere’s attempt to appear democratic, or inclusive, or politically correct, by sponsoring this competition is obscured by the subtext that has made the corporation so controversial in the first place: Solidere owns the entire plot of land in question, making it private property. Only they can decide what to do with it — or who will inhabit it.
This competition is supposed to help Solidere shed its image as a closed, hegemonic, monopolistic fortress, giving it a credibility that its lacked for at least the past ten years. To unilaterally construct a public space as politicized and important as Martyrs’ Square according to a privately chosen design would seem politically untenable. Although the idea of a transparent process to determine the future of Beirut’s city center is admirable, in reality this exhibit is unfortunately nothing more than affected patronage.
Made in Palestine
SomArts Cultural Center
April 7-April 22, 2005
The baton-equipped guard patrolling the gallery was only one of many hints that Made in Palestine would not be your average gallery exhibition. Even before the traveling show made its first scheduled stop in San Francisco, the reviews were in: Two county officials in Westchester, New York, denounced it as “art that glorifies terrorism,” and the San Jose Museum of Art declined to host the show on the grounds that it was “too polemical and might offend our audience.” Made in Palestine was cited in the pages of Mother Jones as evidence of how difficult it is “to speak openly in America about the Palestinian plight” (May 11, 2005), and alternatively in the San Francisco Chronicle as an event that “actually brought Jews and Palestinians together in a positive way, in a face-to-face manner that may have humanized both parties” (April 3, 2005).
This background leaves one rather important question unanswered: How was the art? To read accounts of the show, you’d think the gallerists had forgotten to switch the lights on. The newsworthy story of the curators’ efforts to find a gallery willing to exhibit Made in Palestine after its 2003 premiere at the Station Museum in Houston, Texas (where it was extended, receiving some 20,000 visitors in all), has overshadowed the actual art. This is a shame, because the ability of the work to make itself heard over the furor surrounding it is an important artistic achievement. Given the advance publicity, you might expect Made in Palestine to cause a commotion along the lines of the 1998 Saatchi Sensation show, which launched a generation of young British artists who are largely admired or reviled on principle rather than on the merits of their artwork. But there’s nothing particularly shocking or polarizing about Made in Palestine; to the artists’ credit, the strongest works are also the most subtle, interactive and reflective.
Any account of Made in Palestine — and it could be argued, contemporary Palestinian art — should rightly begin with the work of Suleiman Mansour. In the 1980s, Mansour’s social realist painting of a hunched Palestinian carrying the weight of Jerusalem on his shoulders drew comparisons to Mexican muralists Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros — and like these dissident muralists, Mansour was subject to censorship and arrest for the political content of his work. Back in the days before the first Intifada, Mansour’s posters were dealt clandestinely out of the back of newsstands in the Old City of Jerusalem. So the monumental Mansour installation greeting the viewer upon entry to Made in Palestine is a shock to the system in more ways than one. I, Ismael is a wall of towering cracked-earth sentinels, a tribute to the Biblical ancestor of the Palestinian people. What’s new here isn’t the content; for decades, Mansour has depicted silent witnesses to a land, a history and a people in an obvious state of distress. Instead, it’s the surprising scale and nuanced, abstracted style of the figures that makes Mansour’s mud seem fresh. The disarming grandeur of this earth work makes preemptory critiques of Made in Palestine seem embarrassingly petty; in fact, any mud-slinging only serves to make this silent monument to persistence all the more relevant.
Of course, the strongest visual association most American viewers have with Palestine is probably documentary photographs of Palestinian uprising. Rather than dissociating themselves from these mass-mediated images, several artists in Made in Palestine have incorporated documentary material in unexpected, elucidating ways. Rula Halawani’s Negative Incursion shows familiar scenes of occupation — tanks, roadblocks, demolition, funerals — in the negative, as though the photographs and the conflict we’re seeing are developing before our very eyes. Here Halawani offers us not perspective, but X-ray vision: It’s as though we’re looking right through to the core of the conflict, to its very bones. Like a doctor breaking bad news, Halawani suggests that unless the chronic condition depicted in these images can be alleviated, the prognosis does not look promising. Rana Bishara’s Blindfolded History is a maze of documentary images printed in dark chocolate on fifty-seven glass panels — one for each year of occupation — hanging in precarious balance from gossamer monofilament. The dark, clotted chocolate images on the transparent panes bring to mind blood and domesticity, clarity and nostalgia; seen together, these flat surfaces become a multifaceted work that speaks volumes.
Yet despite Halawani and Bishara’s admirable efforts to provide coherence to documentary footage, their work can provide only an episodic, disjointed account of history in comparison to epic installations by Mustafa Al Hallaj, Mary Tuma, and Emily Jacir. Like Bishara’s work, Al Hallaj’s massive installation of mythical drawings, Self-Portrait as God, the Devil, and Man, commemorates major events in Palestinian history — only this time, it’s personal. As the title indicates, Al Hallaj casts himself in both heroic and antiheroic roles, so that sometimes he seems to be at odds with destiny, history and even himself. Yet he reappears in panel after panel, swept along through tumultuous events like a tragicomic Shakespearean jester whose main role, it turns out, is to live to tell the tale. For all the women whose tales have yet to be told, Tuma created Homes for the Disembodied, a row of four long black thobes that dangle in the air like so many unspoken words. These dramatic dresses are cut from a single piece of cloth 48 meters long in order to give a sense of the continuum of women’s history, even as they mark the 1948 expulsion known by Palestinians as the Nakba, or Catastrophe. Emily Jacir has also chosen 1948 as her literal and metaphorical point of departure in Memorial to 418 Palestinian Villages which were Destroyed, Depopulated, and Occupied by Israel in 1948. Jacir stenciled the names of the villages onto an UNRWA-issue refugee tent, then invited Palestinian and Israeli residents from these locations to help her embroider the place names onto the tent. Where architects have failed in marble and bronze, Jacir and her volunteers succeeded with only a needle and thread in making a memorial that makes new memories seem possible.
But perhaps the most indelible work in Made in Palestine was Tayseer Barakat’s Father, which at first appeared to be nothing more than an unassuming wooden file cabinet. Only when the visitor takes the initiative to open the cabinet does a deeply personal story begin to unfold: Inside each drawer, a day in the life of artist’s father has been scorched into the wood. Barakat shows how a human life can seem eminently dispensable, just a part of the furniture in the halls of power; and yet if we choose to look at it closely, that life becomes etched in our minds. This is a work with the evocative power not just to record history, but to make it — and more than generating headlines or momentary sensations, this is the tantalizing promise of this show in particular, and art in general.
April 9–June 18, 2005
“The Mediterranean is an absurdly small sea,” wrote novelist Lawrence Durrell in The Alexandria Quartet. “The length and greatness of its history makes us dream it larger than it is.” Durrell banked much of his literary career on exploiting the Mediterranean’s slippage in mental size, dreaming it not only larger but sensuous and full of faded grandeur.
Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletto takes a different approach. Where Durrell was fuzzy, Pistoletto is clear. For the installation Love Difference, part of Flight 405, the debut exhibition at Galerie Sfeir-Semler’s new outpost in Beirut, he reproduced the Mediterranean in miniature, building a mirror-topped, low-leveled conference table that reflects the exact shape of its craggy contours. A motley collection of some twenty chairs, pillows and carpets surrounds this table, each representing a country with a Mediterranean coast. In its cartographic accuracy, Pistoletto’s installation counters one myth about the Mediterranean being limited to a posh European preserve.
But that is only one myth. Another paints the Mediterranean as an always latent utopia, and the art world in particular tends to embrace the idea (witness such projects as Mediterranean Encounters,Mediterranean Metaphors, and The Other Mediterranean). The idea behind Love Difference — that a progressive political and artistic movement can be forged by linking Mediterranean countries and cultures together — is debatable. But in calling attention to the spiky political and ideological motivations stuck to the backside of regional categorizations, the work nonetheless proved a strong anchor for Flight 405.
Sfeir-Semler pulled nine international artists into a sustained and coherent meditation on identity and locality. The title of the show added some speed to the otherwise academic theme by injecting the idea of temporal and spatial distance.
Japanese photographer Hiroyuki Masuyama captured the journey from Paris to Beirut literally by snapping pictures out a plane window every twenty seconds, then blending the shots into a single and seamless panoramic image.
On a more theoretical level, Walid Raad and the Atlas Group presented a new suite of photographs called Sweet Talk. The series builds on artist-writer Jalal Toufic’s idea of resurrection, whereby a culture’s referents are withdrawn in the event of an overwhelming disaster (such as civil war in Lebanon) and must be resurrected to restore a sense of continuity. Raad’s images have two components: an original black and white photograph tucked into the corner of the frame, and a revamped, revised and revisited version in bold color at the center. Between them is a space of twelve years. What has been tweaked or subtracted from the images to make the past conform to the present? What continuity persists between the two?
Though Galerie Sfeir-Semler has been up and running in Hamburg for twenty years, the Beirut branch seems to be less a business venture than a labor of love. The force behind the gallery, Andree Sfeir-Semler, is keen on cultural exchange, but her approach bears no trace of tokenism or regional essentialism. She seems intent on insisting that the quality of work determine the exhibition program above all else. She has a distinct aesthetic — strictly minimal, strictly conceptual — which means the old masters of Lebanese painting, for example, might not find her gallery a hospitable venue. And so what? Better to have a point of view that’s clear and harsh than fuzzy and forgiving. A gallery is a commercial business, after all, not a charity.
Indeed, Flight 405 looks good. It fills the sparsely furnished, austerely white, 1,000 square meter space well. Expectations of curatorial brilliance might typically be low for a show like this — bound as they are by market concerns, with late-season clearance sales masquerading as collective exhibitions — but the show was thoughtfully and seriously done. Alfredo Jaar’s six piece light box installation was spread stealthily throughout the space, echoing the phrase “Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness” like a sad and subtle refrain. Flight 405 also established a surprising number of aesthetic and conceptual threads linking Akram Zaatari’s video Desert Panorama, for example, to Elger Esser’s moody and evocative photographs of salt mines in North Lebanon.
Sfeir-Semler commissioned several artists, including Esser, to create work specifically for this show. Not all are as strong as his. Till Krause, who otherwise creates artwork out of intelligent adventures in mapping invisible urban experiences, churned out a little walking project about food in Beirut that was lame to look at and dull to consider: interesting theory, terrible execution, and the effort came across as half-baked at best. Also disappointing was Emily Jacir’s Ramallah/New York, which is for reasons unknown being exhibited in three shows simultaneously. The two channel video has none of the punch evident in previous works such as Sexy Semite and Where We Come From, both of which are as clever and fun as they gracefully slice a knife into your gut and twist. By contrast, Ramallah/New York seems to actually get stuck in the banality it tries to ponder.
Only Amal Kenawy’s work suffers unfairly from a crammed installation. (Elements from two different projects, The Room and The Journey are jammed together with a suite of drawings, and the results are far more incoherent than other exhibitions of the artist’s work elsewhere.) Kenawy’s vision is big, and her performances and installations could benefit from the sheer space Sfeir-Semler provides. Let’s hope next time she gets a bit more room to work with.
The Art of Aggression
The Moore Space
April 14–July 1, 2005
Countless historical examples exist of artists responding to acts of aggression. From Edouard Manet’s late nineteenth century drawings and paintings of the Franco-Prussian War to Picasso’s powerful, huge Guernica to Warhol’s pop reproductions of race riots, artists have been drawn to violence in everyday culture as well as to the political environment and public policies that instigate and encourage such aggression.
A recent exhibition in Miami at the Moore Space showed work that references such art historical precedents. The curators of the show appear to be evoking the German philosopher Herbert Marcuse’s concept of formalism’s connection to beauty as political critique; Marcuse offered that because art is an idealization, it is often at odds with the subject matter it represents and therefore has the ability to break down “established reality,” finally making the fictive world of art form a new reality. Upon viewing The Art of Aggression, however, with few exceptions, one questions the ability of most of the work presented to hold such ambitious transformative powers, or to create the room for nuanced realities, for that matter.
Mark Lombardi exhibits exhaustive drawings of flow charts connecting the corrupt and questionable dots between terrorists, arms dealers, the US government and even the Bush family’s private companies. While Lombardi’s conceptual narratives read like a Vanity Fair investigative report on the infuriating injustices of who is getting rich off the spoils of war, the strongest illustration to such a story is told in the massive human cost of war. The curators claim “that form or beauty is an important tool in political art” and that Lombardi’s work has the ability to “overturn our expectations about reality and illusion.” A pressing question comes to mind here regarding this work specifically and the exhibition in general: Is it really likely that anyone who voluntarily goes to an alternative art space to see a show called The Art of Aggression is going to have their perceptions changed as to the role the US plays as an aggressor in the world? And is that the point at all?
The primary focus of the exhibition is an entire room dedicated to sketches and watercolors from the Iraq war by New York–based artist Steve Mumford. Given press credentials by the online art magazine Artnet.com, Mumford made four trips to Iraq in 2003 and 2004 to chronicle military and civilian life in the US occupied region. Baghdad Journal, an account of his time spent in Iraq, first made an appearance on Artnet.com via images depicting American soldiers on the frontline and Iraqi citizens trying to maintain some semblance of normality in the middle of a war zone. The resulting work oddly recreates the feeling one has when looking at courtroom sketches. The weight of the reality for both soldiers and Iraqis is removed by virtue of the renderings, given that our already (over) trained eyes are exposed to more real, graphic images in the daily mass media. Inspired by Winslow Homer’s Civil War paintings, the fact that the artist went into a war zone with such anachronistic tools as pencil, watercolors and paper is nevertheless of particular interest in an age of digital reproduction.
The only other painting in the exhibition is a single canvas by New York–based Wayne Gonzales, depicting a stylized representation of the Pentagon. With its army green background and silver Lichtenstein-style dots (in this case photographic pixels) organized in a geometric abstract manner to form the likeness of the icon of American military power, the painting seems more an object of pure beauty than a demonstration of outright aggression. It is of interest here that Gonzales takes photographs found in newspapers and the mass media renders the images in paint, while the rest of the artists in the exhibition choose to employ the more immediate mediums of film and video. While the images are at times powerful, as in the case of Mary Ellen Mark’s intimate black and white photograph of an amputee laying down with his fiancée, missing leg exposed, or even compositionally stunning as in the case of Martha Rosler’s photographic collages juxtaposing the American comforts of a luxurious kitchen with an image of torture from Abu Ghraib, the aggression in these images seems to fall short of the effect of the daily images we receive via the media. Nevertheless, Rosler does manage to create a jarring, if not slightly hackneyed, juxtaposition.
The work in this show that comes closest to grandiose transformative ambitions is one that is not so overtly political, but rather, shows a simply human side of conflict. Palestinian-born artist Emily Jacir’s video Crossing Surd features the artist carrying a video camera at foot level in her bag as she crosses a border zone. The weather is cold and damp, the people looking as depressing as the gray sky. We can hear her boots struggling through the mud that is supposed to be a road. This is the realism of form and beauty that the early modernists such as Manet strove to representing in their work — as a means of transforming the current reality. The video is simple, the landscape is neither staged nor dressed, the people, unscripted and not cast for the part, rendering it absolutely “real.”
In the end, the issues of American involvement and policies in this region are not a matter of black and white — as they tend to be outlined in drawings or documented in photographs in this exhibition — but rather entail many shades of gray. While an important initiative, a more successful exhibition of works could have left a bit more room for nuance, less reductionism and, finally, a privileging of the aforementioned shades of gray.
Leaps of Faith
May 13-29, 2005
Location was everything in the international exhibition Leaps of Faith, which took place in and around the United Nations buffer zone separating Cyprus’s Greek south from its Turkish north. Walking through checkpoints to view various works — and receiving a visa stamp with each visit — the show proved a compelling example of art directly taking on a geopolitical quandary.
As the last divided capital city in Europe, Old Nicosia straddles the so-called “green line” where UN soldiers stand guard twenty-four hours a day. The first crossing point was opened in April 2003, allowing the two sides to interact with each other for the first time since 1974. At issue is resolving a three-decade hangover on the issue of occupation, borders, sovereignty and what constitutes Cypriot nationality. The Cyprus dilemma is of growing political importance to the US and the rest of western Europe, given its proximity to Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and Syria.
Illuminating such complexities, Leaps of Faith was an unprecedented exhibition, conceived by the political scientist Rana Zancir and curated by Katerina Gregos (Athens) and Erden Kosova (Istanbul). Twenty artists were commissioned to produce site-specific works, public interventions and storefront satellite projects; overall, the work expressed the very thing that has eluded bureaucrats from both sides of the fence — that coexistence is possible and doable.
One of the exhibition’s strengths lay in its use of documentary to convey what life is like in a region that arguably feels more Middle Eastern than European. Cypriot Katerina Attalides simply installed rows of unframed photos with captions articulating the opinions of a cross section of local denizens, from immigrant laborers to soldiers. Phil Collins took an alternative approach: Rather than photographing Cypriots or photogenic, bombed out architecture, he shot details of post-it notes and napkin doodles pinned to the message board of a Turkish café. Bringing to life a green line tradition, Collins included the dates and cities of birth, nicknames, profession and seasons fulfilled by decommissioned soldiers, giving form to faceless individuals who collectively fought off ennui and the droll repetition of guard duty.
A split-screen video projection by the Finnish artists Minna Rainio and Mark Roberts featured the picturesque landscape at the border of Finland and Russia moving through the four seasons. Narrated by older locals from both countries, the work brought to light the propaganda and paranoia that existed on both sides. Strong cinematography added a poetic melancholy to the anecdotal voice-overs.
Particularly striking was how materially and culturally rich the Finnish appeared next to the Russians, despite their close proximity. Parallels can be drawn with the current Cypriot economic situation — the contrast between the poorer north and the more affluent south, each with its own currency. Ironically, Greek Cypriots have been known to cross the border to shop for cheap goods, adding a perverse twist to their contentious debate.
Tel Aviv-based multimedia artist Sigilit Landau is no stranger to contested territories. Her visceral video, a documentation of a performance in which she uses barbed wire in place of a hula-hoop, pulls no punches. Close-ups reveal the pockmarks and welts left on her naked flesh as she moved her hips round and round on the shores of the Mediterranean.
Using the dialectics of contemporary art discourse to hit the sensitive spots in the Cyprus conundrum, Leaps of Faith high-lighted a novel means of reconciliation, even reunification. Mexican artist Minerva Cuervas’s hypothetical map of a reunified Cyprus circa 2017 was unequivocal. Fusing the logos of both municipalities (a definite no-no for the authorities), she created a fictitious wholeness missing from the present day. Mark Bijl’s stickers, affixed to lamp posts, doors and just about everywhere, proclaimed “Cyprus: One Island Under Self-Control,” as if to mock the obstinate stance of politicians apparently working against the will of the people.
It was refreshing to see such installation works — plus additional film/video screenings — spark discussion about a wide range of topics, from immigration to alternative lifestyles. The event as a whole edified its audience without getting bogged down in the dogma or vitriol that politically tends to pervade the country.
In/Visible: Contemporary Art by Arab American Artists
Arab American National Museum
May 19–October 30, 2005
In/Visible: Contemporary Art by Arab American Artists opened in late May at the new Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Though the small gallery space is cramped, guest curator Salwa Mikdadi successfully broaches a huge subject — Arab-American art since the 1960s — with a sophisticated and selective eye. Discussions of “tradition,” an all-too-pervasive theme in exhibitions of this sort, thankfully take a backseat to a more interesting focus on the work’s shared political, cultural and aesthetic strands. And though such a project could easily devolve into packaged nostalgia or excessive political commentary, the picture that emerges is instead one that revels in its own ambiguities.
The multilayered approach of In/Visible counterbalances the museum’s devotion to multiculturalist rhetoric in its permanent galleries, which convey a mostly patriotic and celebratory image of Arab America. Though some might argue that such a safe road is a necessary starting point for public displays of “marginalized” group identity, the museum is too extreme in its caution, forgoing complex messages and discussions for the sake of streamlined displays and easy-to-consume sound bites. In/Visible (and the two day symposium that accompanied its opening) seems nothing less than avant-garde in such a setting, and the effect leaves the visitor questioning whether visual art is the only medium through which boundaries can be pushed and new grounds can be broken.
In/Visible features fourteen prominent Arab-American artists whose work spans a broad range of media and formats, from the large canvas panels of John Halaka’s A Path of Least Resistance (1999–2000), to the mixed-media (website, video, postcard) installation of Mariam Ghani’s Points of Proof (2005), to the digitally manipulated photographs of Rheim Alkadhi’s Pictography in Nine Volumes (2005). Some works, especially Helen Zughaib’s Prayer Rug for America (2001), a giclee depicting a prayer rug comprising different geometric American flag motifs, are overtly cheerful fusions of America and the Arab/Muslim world; others, like Athir Shayota’s Apartment 63 (2004), an oil on wood image of a man peering uncomfortably out an ajar door, treat more effectively the misfit of living in a diasporic space.
Indeed this familiar theme of cultural, political, and aesthetic “in-betweenness” is one of the show’s explicit focuses. As Mikdadi writes in the exhibition catalogue: “Examples in this exhibition indicate that in a postmodern world, rigid boundaries and definitions of art dissolve and give way to hybridizations that occupy interstitial spaces.” The artistic atmosphere that results from these post-modern breakdowns is one that spawns cross-cultural borrowing or, to use a phrase from the catalogue, the “cross-fertilization” of ideas and images.
While many of the works in In/Visible do consider the new identities that emerge from an increasingly boundless international space, others address the dispiriting political realities of a undeniably bordered world. Abdelali Dahrouch’s Crossing (2005), for example, superimposes almost invisible newspaper type from reports of illegal border crossings depicting lushly colored backgrounds; desert (the Mexico/U.S. border) and sea (the Morocco/Spain border). The work is part commemoration of the traumas and even deaths that result from border crossings, and part critique of the power imbalances that necessitate such movements. Sumayyah Samaha similarly probes the force of borders in Israel/Palestine Fence, In Memory of Edward Said (2003–4), which protests the ongoing construction of the Israeli wall. The torn sheets of paper, covered with blotchy watercolor and blurred ink passages of Arabic poetry, are tenuously held together to represent both the fragile poverty and hopeful strength of Palestinians living under occupation. Dahrouch, Samaha, and others remind us that rather than the world becoming one, big, free-flowing whole, border surveillance grows more hyper-vigilant by the day.
For cultural and national borders, as Mikadi emphasizes in the catalogue, persist for many Arab-American artists, fostering visibility in some contexts and precluding it in others. It is not surprising, for example, that the original version of Zughaib’s Prayer Rug for America can be found hanging in the Library of Congress, while other works, notably Emily Jacir’s Sexy Semite (2000–2002) are deemed “terrorist” by some critics (see Bidoun 3, news). One is forced to wonder if In/Visible’s perch is in some ways determined by the politics of difference that fuel exhibitions which focus on “Arab-American art” rather than art that happens to have been created by Arab Americans. Though perhaps the cultural, political and/or national identity of the artist can never be divorced from the art itself, it remains to be seen how long it will take for these works to be displayed without their Arab-American qualifiers.
ID Troubles — US Visit
May 20–June 25, 2005
Disappeared in America
Queens Museum of Art
February 27–June 5, 2005
Contemporary art is frequently invoked with the passport metaphor — art as a document of identity, representative and authentic, enabling passage between spaces and discourses. The metaphor was literalized in ID Troubles—US Visit, a recent group exhibition at Brooklyn’s NURTUREart gallery that examined systems of social and individual classification and how they relate to civil liberties. The show’s title was a reference to recent US immigration laws, draconian in nature, that require visitors to be fingerprinted and photographed at the border. The controversy was taken as a point of departure to consider politics of identity and systems of control.
In time-honored tradition, the artists’ multicultural backgrounds provided the means for testing the limits of modern subjectivity. Paris-based artist Ghazel offered herself as a quick route to EU residency in a shelf of postcards that announced “Legal Alien & Female Artist Offers marriage (EU residency papers) to male illegal alien (in the US only).” The offer was apparently real: In a previous project she produced the same advertisement, seeking a husband to legalize her own status in France. State-defined identity was more elaborately tested in Piero Golia’s Vanished: The documentary traces how he “vanished” from his opening at New York’s Perry Rubenstein gallery in January 2005 and made it across the Mexican border undetected, and, more astoundingly, without getting his US papers stamped. He turned up weeks later in Copenhagen, accomplishing a near-impossible feat by the standards of modern surveillance. At a time when a US visa has become a modern day holy grail for some, Golia’s road trip is an experiment worthy of Jack Kerouac’s prose, and just as rambling and funny.
Other artists challenged the authenticity of the document and its assurance of legal status: Oliver Musovik displayed fake ID cards, accompanied by instructions on how to make your own, while Clay Ward’s installation of personal checks carried signatures that were not penned but embroidered — and every check had been successfully processed at the bank. By inserting an element of self-definition (and self-doubt) into public spaces, these interventions push the limits of legal self-representation. Croatian artist Andreja Kuluncic’s Passport compiles statistics on another border-crossing matter: Her interactive questionnaire asks the viewer to choose a nationality for their future child. After navigating a set of questions (with countries loosely divided along economic lines) we are given the results: “657 of 1,056 visitors expressed desire to change their passport’s color.” The slight leap in logic brings several issues to the foreground, from the arbitrary nature of national allegiance as defined in a legal document to the numerous dilemmas of modern citizenship.
The exhibition, on the whole, set up engaging situations, asked incisive yet open-ended questions, and effectively exposed some of the absurdities and the serious dangers of restrictive identification policies. But not all works rose to the challenges claimed by the curatorial proposal, and the show was not helped by poor presentation — the lack of breathing room between the works had audio tracks competing for attention, while confusing placement and no wall labels often left it unclear where one piece ended and the other began — which may have been due to the ambitious strategy of long-distance curating.
Across town, at the Queens Museum of Art, Disappeared in America made another case for reconsidering identity and the modern state. Produced by the artist-activist VISIBLE Collective, the installation presented a wealth of information — text, large-scale photographs, a film trilogy, and several sound stations — aiming to give visibility to the US Muslims who have “disappeared” from their homes since 9/11.
The facts are dramatic and the testimonies shocking: hundreds of individuals detained at random, denied basic rights and caught in a tragic situation that deteriorates daily. But while visibility is important, blurring the facts through the lens of art is a delicate task. The components of Disappeared in America, painted in bold moral and political terms, fall short of recognizing any gray areas. Prudent Juris is a light box printed with excerpts of the US Patriot Act, the Immigration Act, and similar legal texts, with individual words picked out in red: “…because we live in a society in which ‘[m]ere public intolerance or [animosity cannot constitutionally justify the deprivation] of a person’s physical liberty.’” Statements are inverted and commentary is presented between the lines, creating alternate interpretations with a certain amount of subtlety and restraint. This is not the case in Nahnu Waahad, also a lightbox, which presents a list of the names of some 400 disappeared Muslim clerics. Here, what is picked out in red reads from a distance as the Arabic phrase “nahnu waahad”: “We are one.” Over-confident and over-simplifying, such intimations of group solidarity deprive the viewer of an active role and drain the situation of any complexity. These are texts that are meant to be watched, not read; and as Susan Sontag famously noted in Regarding The Pain of Others, no “we” should ever be taken for granted when representing human suffering.
This is a danger inherent in any exhibition dealing with the politics of identity, though it is even more worrisome in Disappeared in America, given the specificity of the facts and the straightforward documentary nature of the work. Parts of the installation, such as the films, deliver political realities in dynamic visual terms; the overall effect, however, was strangely close to that of a memorial — lists of names offered up to the viewer, monumental photographs towering over the entire space — and “humanizing” came dangerously close to “victimizing.” Facts can be much more effective when presented as questions in an open debate, and what art can offer is a complex space for those questions to emerge. If there is to be any hope for art as a passport, it lies in granting access to more inclusive spaces and more nuanced understandings.
The Venice Biennale
June 12, 2005
There seems to be a peculiar economy at work at the executive office of the Venice Biennale. One male chief curator (Francesco Bonami — although he did subcontract out some pavilions to different curators) apparently equals two female chief curators (Maria de Corral and Rosa Martinez). And certain male chief curators are even more valuable and are worth two Biennales in a row (Harald Szeemann, director in 1999 and 2001, and Robert Storr). Unfortunately the two women allegedly only had six months to prepare this year’s edition, whereas the next will have two-and-a-half years.
This year’s edition made me leave Venice wishing that the curators had been given more time but fearing that it would not have made much difference. The Italian Pavilion (Maria de Corral) and the Arsenale (Rosa Martinez) are downright disappointing. The former represents a classic museological approach to contemporary art and curating, but had very little to offer at a time when traditionalism in the art world is firmly grounded anyway. The latter section strives to be topical, but ends up either exoticizing or diluting. Neither stirs your imagination, provokes you, or challenges any preconceptions. Even works which have such potential had their teeth pulled by being shown under conditions alien to their intrinsic formal logic, as with Emily Jacir’s casually filmed video of a man dusting a colossal stone with antique inscriptions in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The piece is meant to be shown on a monitor on a podium. In the Arsenale, it has been turned into a large-scale projection, against the wish of the artist, presumably to “fit” the space and enhance the overall spatial experience of the show. Several similar instances of poor placement, along with the presence of many weak works, make you glide through the Arsenale in a quarter of the time you had scheduled for it. Nothing sticks; it is the most Teflon-like exhibition I have ever seen.
Nevertheless, there are a few highlights, such as Daniel Knorr’s empty and unrenovated Romanian pavilion with a back door left open (albeit well-guarded) — to the outdoors: a timely work that comes with a very compact and interesting free reader on contemporary critical thinking in and about eastern and central Europe, edited by the pavilion’s curator, Marius Babias. In the relatively small Danish pavilion, five artists managed to coexist and present a well-installed exhibition. New works by Joakim Koester, Ann Lislegaard, and Gitte Villesen though very different from one another, are all modest and dense, and somehow surprisingly complementary. This marks a contrast to the Nordic pavilion next door, where Laura Horelli, representing Finland, feeling pushed out, eventually stepped out on her own accord. Jonas Mekas in the Lithuanian pavilion is a good example of a successful historical revisiting. In Estonia’s pavilion, on the second floor of a unassuming building in central Venice, Mark Raidpere’s low-key videos examining his relationship to his parents are an unspectacular yet emotional treat that was rare at the Biennale.
The most worrying situation of many in this year’s Biennale is not the censorship of Gregor Schneider’s proposal to put a copy of Ka’ba on St. Marks’ square — censorship of artworks happens all the time, in biennials and other exhibitions. Rather, what troubled me was the overwhelming consumer-friendliness, epitomized at the Arsenale. I first discerned this phenomenon on a larger scale in Manifesta 5 in San Sebastian, Spain in 2004. There, as in Venice, interesting and relevant works could be found in the unusually well-installed exhibition, which could be experienced without being annoyed, disturbed or challenged. It was a thoroughly pleasant experience, not unlike a stroll through the resort Basque town and its scenic coastline. At first glance, this might be thought of as curatorial concern for the modus operandi of the work, but in fact it is a strategy akin to the organization of shopping malls. Each factor that can potentially affect the consumer is carefully designed to maximize certain patterns of behavior, especially good-humored consumption. Temperature, sound and light, as well as the selection and organization of shops and products, are meticulously calibrated to keep your concentration (in this case on accepting and embracing what is on offer, as well as on the art world in and of itself).
It should come as no surprise that the Venice Biennale offers plenty of spectacle, excessive socializing, and good fun, especially if you visit this physically isolated and highly artificial town for the opening weekend. Then there appears to be no outside, no other reality than the art world and its frequently petty concerns (tendencies discussed in some blogs, such as www.kunstkritikk.no). It is as if the war in Iraq was a Jeremy Deller reenactment show, the conflict in Palestine taking place on the moon, and the crisis in Argentina only occurring on the pages of a Borges novel (rather unfortunately, Christoph Büchel & Gianni Motti’s Guantánamo Initiative was placed in a cargo container flanking the Arsenale passageway, leaving it overlooked by many visitors).
In order to ultimately pursue a more politically engaged discourse, we need some of these rituals, and we depend on certain common references. If an artist, critic or curator can only afford one trip abroad this year, s/he is most likely to go to Venice. But wouldn’t it be possible for a content-driven event to fulfill some of those social functions? Would it have to be based on a different sort of economy, on a smaller scale, and be more carefully formulated and orchestrated? Or are we stuck with shopping-mall biennales? I feel taken hostage: Either I subsume and consume accordingly, or I am left out in the cold. Perhaps this is the time to move toward cooler areas.
Givenchy / 68.50 USD / Sumptuous, heavy, silky, profound. Slips easily, needs a brooch or pin to stabilize (Bidoun recommends Givenchy’s matching brooch with the insignia of the Spanish Order of the Golden Fleece).
L’éudiant de gauche / 12 USD / Light, coarse to the touch, goes well with light blue 501s.
Ralph Lauren / 125 USD / Sporty, sassy, feisty. Terrific with jodhpurs and/or moccasins.
Le Hizbollah du quartier / 2 USD / Made in Saudi Arabia, worn by Islamic militia in Iran. Boyish and outrageous. Tears easily.
Pop journalist Tom Wolfe coined the term “radical chic” in his celebrated description of a 1966 Black Panther fundraising party in Leonard Bernstein’s apartment. Radical Chic was black power rhetoric through a mouthful of Roquefort cheese and crushed nuts — the frisson of urban guerilla warfare without messing up your manicure. Ever since that legendary Manhattan soirée, the genealogy of politicized commodities has become ever more opulent and absorbing, and indeed commonplace. From the afro to the Mohican to the now proverbial Che Guevara T-shirt, radicalesque posturing has become part and parcel of the day to day fashion. In today’s context of institutionalized détournement and unapologetic pastiche, it takes a lot more than a dinner party to be suspected of sincere affiliations of any kind.
Which brings us to the kaffiyeh. Though left-leaning students across western Europe have been wearing the traditional, black-and-white patterned scarf since the mid 1980s, the accessory has now caught the attention of Givenchy, Ralph Lauren, and the like. Some will scream appropriation — warning us not to empty the icon of its political brunt, of its pro-Palestinian credence — while others will applaud its entry into the influential spheres of the bourgeoisie and the sneaking acknowledgement of the Palestinian cause along with it. At the very least, one might say, its desacralization might raise an interesting questions or two.
Does, for example, the recontextualization of the kaffiyeh create a new object entirely, or does it reveal an aspect of the scarf that was inherent in its appearance anywhere outside Palestine all along? In other words, was donning the kaffiyeh in Cairo, Tehran, or a Berlin University — as opposed to say, Park Avenue, Dubai, or Milan — so removed from radical chic in the first place?
The hottest spots in hell are of course reserved for those who maintain neutrality in times of moral crisis, but Bidoun adamantly insists on its readers’ right to choose for themselves, and will content itself with the critical presentation of the goods now available.
Rumors of a latest kaffiyeh variation in Burberry colors — the “Shropshire Intifada” — were not confirmed at press time.
The PenMan digital Qur’an is designed for easy access to the holy book, a suave example of easy, quick-fix didactics. It’s like the Basic Language Skills CDs you pop in your car stereo (by the time you reach the gas station you can order an oil change in Urdu), but this device goes one step further. Equipped with headphones and a small monitor, the Sonic Quar’an™ spells out the text you wish to consult in English or Arabic. Thanks to the headphones, you can listen to the passage read aloud, and soon impress your friends with improved recital skills and smooth Qur’anic pronunciation.
The device is user-friendly and fits conveniently into your back pocket. Gone, once and for all, are the endless after-dinner quibbles over which Surah says what, and which Ayah refers to whom. Gone are the roadside discussions with Tehran militia claiming that the Qur’an prohibits mascara, or dictates a certain type of stocking. Never has the Truth been packaged more conveniently. Made in Korea. Batteries not included.
Historians of perfume have pointed out that brands were never as aggressively gendered as they are today, a trend that took hold in the 1980s when designer products for the mass market departed from age-old traditions and launched perfume lines that were marketed strictly and exclusively to one sex. Only in the late 1990s did the rise of unisex fragrances begin to question the primitive dualities that still dominate the current market. “Bin Laden” is a perfect example of this refreshing, if halting, return to sensuous ambiguity. Much like “Yeslam” (see Bidoun number 3), this fragrance can easily be worn by men and women alike. Not only does the product mark a return to the sumptuous subtleties of the 1970s in terms of gender politics, but with respect to aromatic delicacy it moves decidedly away from the recent string of “powder perfumes.” (This trend culminated in “Giorgio Beverly Hills,” which as some readers will remember, was banned from US restaurants due to its overriding, lingering stench.)
When queried by the press on this most recent in a long line of products cashing in on his name—T-shirts, thermoses, lighters, desktop air conditioners and YBA art installations—Osama Bin Laden was surprisingly evasive. “Everyone has his or her own unique tastes and body chemistry,” he mumbled sheepishly. “What works for me and my friends may not work for you.” This is true enough, but if readers need Bidoun’s word on it, this perfume is definitely a winner. It bears the irresistible, boyish touch of Revlon’s “Charlie” and the dexterity of Cacharel’s 1978 “Anaïs Anaïs.” Though it clearly lacks the latter’s floral fragrance, its main notes are orange, tomato leaf, white birch and daffodil. Upon closer olfactory scrutiny, a touch of vanilla and apricot add an air of smooth sophistication, creating an unmistakable and luxurious fragrance.
“Bin Laden” is now available in bazaars across Afghanistan, Pakistan, Central Asia and parts of India. Negotiations with The Body Shop Inc have fallen through, following rumors of systematic testing on French and Italian hostages.
Bored in Baghdad? Need an adrenaline rush? Tired of the nightly news recounting the gains of the insurgents? Care to know where American dollars are being invested in occupied Iraq? Tune into Terrorism in the Hands of Justice, an Iraqi television program featuring captured insurgents being interrogated and, most compellingly, humiliated—prime-time style. Since its inception last February, the program has been a resounding hit, running twice daily and six times a week on the new US-funded Al-Iraqiya television station.
In a typical episode, Terrorism opens with a view of Jihadists about to execute an American hostage, a bloodied corpse and, finally, two smiling boys holding a placard that reads, “No to terrorism.” How’s that for subtlety? Captured insurgents are questioned on camera by an interrogator off screen while an enormous Iraqi flag sits as backdrop. Tales of bombings, rape and beheadings are de rigeur. Profiles of insurgents on the show fit the official line; these are the acts of isolated thugs and foreigners. Nevermind that confessions seem neatly pre-packaged to suit the mandates of the Iraqi and US forces, or the fact that close-ups of the suspects reveal clear signs of abuse (at least one participant on the show has died after his appearance), this is just TV! And it’s fun! Whether justice, lynch-mob-style, is compatible with the New Iraq or core American values is for you to decide. The program does manage to bring the US-backed program in line with Iran and Saudi Arabia, two nations with great traditions of televising public confessions. Geneva conventions are for wimps anyway, says the Florida-based Harris Corporation that runs Al-Iraqiya.
Ever wonder what Saddam Hussein was doing those long hot months in hiding as the Americans poked about his palaces following the fall of Baghdad? Who would have known that the former Butcher of Baghdad was in fact cultivating his literary prowess? Think Jackie Collins meets The Odyssey.
Get Out, You Damned One, Hussein’s fourth novel, centers around none other than a massive Zionist-Christian conspiracy and the work of one (fictional!) Arab leader in bringing about its downfall. While the novel first went into print without the author’s name, the pan-Arab paper Al Sharq Al Aswat printed it in its entirety as a wildly popular serial in 2004. Reports the paper, the first page of the manuscript was signed and dated by Hussein himself—March 18, 2003—the very day of the American invasion.
But Saddam is no newcomer to the literary realm. His first book, Zabiba and the King (2001), recounts the story of a brave ruler, a woman named Zabiba (the Iraqi people) and a tyrant (America) who rapes Zabiba. It’s the kind of subtle symbolism that you really have to mull over. His second and third books, Walled Fortress (2001) and Men in the City (2002), also revolve around heroic, manly protagonists who defend against creeping infidels hailing from the outside. While the latter is explicitly an autobiographical work, it doesn’t take much to realize that the “hero” featured in all of those texts is loosely (or somewhat not loosely) based upon the fallen mustachioed despot himself.
What’s next? Saddam takes on the romance novella? Saddam signs a six figure book deal from his prison confines (and secures a foreword from Martha Stewart)? Indeed, with or without his impending literary fame, one thing is for certain: The statesman-cum-writer has certainly known better times.
My first encounter with kalepache seems like a clip from a bad horror movie. I was nine years old and had stumbled down the kitchen to get a glass of milk in the middle of the night. I opened the refrigerator door and there, staring directly at me, was a head of a sheep. Thinking I was having some kind of strange nightmare, I slammed the door and ran back upstairs. Not wanting to offend my mother the next morning when she woke me for “breakfast,” I feigned illness until danger was well out of sight. Nowadays I know better.
In the story of Ibrahim, the beginning of Eid is heralded by sacrificing (ghorbooni) a sheep in Mecca. Every part of the sheep is then used for something, and the head, known for its wide range of nutrients, is used for kalepache, literally translating to “head and feet.” Traditionally, kalepache was served early in the morning as breakfast to wrestlers in Iran. Now kalepache restaurants dot the city, but it is still the most traditional breakfast treat, often enjoyed after a heavy night of drinking.
In this issue, Tehran based artist Khosrow Hassanzadeh whips up three major staples of Persian cooking to keep you and your relationship strong and healthy.
We’d just finished Saturday lunch, and Nawaf Salam, an author and professor of political science at the American University in Beirut, wanted to try out a theory about the assassination of Rafiq Hariri he’d been marinating for a few weeks. Already Hariri in death had vaulted not just to martyrdom — a “living martyr,” as Lebanon’s Future TV labeled him — but to national icon. Lebanese who once avoided the downtown space around Martyrs’ Square, who hated the opulent faux French mandate-era style that Hariri had come to represent, and found depressing the empty gravel lot around the Martyrs’ statue, walked day after day in pilgrimage with sacredly selected votive candles and flowers and messages of defiance and prayers. Like a religious icon, Hariri’s tomb and his ubiquitous photograph embraced every Lebanese longing and fear, no matter how contradictory. For what is an icon if it cannot encompass paradox and promise us the possibility of the impossible?
Nawaf wanted Hariri’s assassination to attain just that — to forge out of his life, death and afterlife a founding legend for Lebanon’s independence upon which all Lebanese could finally agree. “When you want to tell the story of American independence to your kids, you tell them about the Boston Tea Party,” he said. “Lebanon never had one.” Until now. Five days after Hariri’s death and tens of thousands of protesters later, the wall of fear was broken down, and the Independence Intifada was born. That would be the story.
We settled down among his books in the study. As Nawaf conjured his tale, weaving through a cursory roll call of Lebanese national figures who, though executed or martyred, had all failed to achieve iconic stature, I fixated on a small Dutch oil painting of Galileo — the quintessential symbol of scientific genius persecuted by religious tyrants. “We never had a Lebanese Joan of Arc,” he was saying, “Not one.” And I wondered about these icons we so crave. Pharaonic in stature, they allow us to imagine ourselves in history’s epic. Yet to bestow that dubious honor, we seem to need a story of suffering that softens our own. Or perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps this need to identify with our heroes, to find the flaws that make them more like us, is a western trope. Listening to Nawaf I began to suspect not.
Nawaf’s first victim was Fakhreddine, the sixteenth century emir of the mountain who united the Maronites and Druze against the Ottomans, created the first autonomous region resembling today’s Lebanon, and was executed by the Ottomans. A nearly perfect recipe, but he was Druze. Bashir Shihab, the nineteenth century emir who built Beiteddine palace, not only let the Egyptians into Lebanon, but was a Sunni who had converted to Maronite. “Heretic. Won’t work.” The martyrs of 1916 are close. Hung for plotting against the Turks, they’re memorialized by the Square and Martyrs’ Day, and ingrained in the collective conscious. (Nawaf’s grandfather, after whom a Beirut tunnel is named, was one of them but not executed.) However, they belonged to the aristocratic families, and they’d collaborated with T. E. Lawrence and the illegitimate Faisal crowd — too elite to grab the popular imagination as icons of independence. Nawaf’s wife, Sahar, a columnist for An Nahar, disagreed, but Nawaf was on a roll. We’d arrived at Lebanese independence and Bechara Al Khoury and Riyadh Al Solh, the first president and prime minister, whose brief expulsion ignited popular demonstrations and ended French rule. Though they qualified as founding fathers, they have been obscured by association with the National Pact — Lebanon’s savior and curse, which tried to evade the historic dispute about Lebanese identity by en shrining confessionalism in the state’s DNA. The prime minister, it’s said, will always be Sunni, the president Christian, and the speaker of parliament Shia. It took fifteen years of civil war, in which Beirut became a symbol for the car bomb and the hostage, before the warlords finally agreed that Lebanon could be a homeland for all its children (except the Palestinian refugees), that Muslims are committed to Lebanon as a nation state, and that Christians must accept a shared Arab destiny. Hariri pushed through these accords in Taif. But his first act of national reconciliation was fogged over by the next chapter of government-induced amnesia. How could you talk about the war or crimes or the disappeared when the perpetrators were now politicians? “So all this time the Lebanese national construction has been missing a hero,” said Nawaf as the afternoon spilled out.
Enter Rafiq Hariri Act I
The third child of tenant farmers from Saida, Rafiq Hariri (like millions of Lebanese) leaves home to find his way in the world, works harder and faster and more efficiently than his competitors, and one day winds up the owner of the largest construction company in Saudi Arabia. The House of Saud embrace the émigré and bestow citizenship upon him. He erects palaces for kings, buys mansions, yachts and planes for family and friends, sits aside presidents and emirs in the West and the East, and shares his riches with Lebanon’s poor. The Hariri Foundation sends close to 40,000 Lebanese students to university. He returns at war’s end to rebuild his country as construction tycoon and Prime Minister. That’s when the critics awake from their slumber. The intellectuals and Beirutis have a nemesis. They disdain his Gulf style and checkbook politics. He can buy anything — journalists, politicians, even problems. He is arrogant, doesn’t listen, swaggers, and runs his ministers much like a CEO. He enjoys the orchestration of image-making. He’s obsessed with Rafiq’s image, spends millions on it, archiving every clip and soundbite. The intellectuals don’t approve. They don’t like his taste either. His company, Solidere, they say, will destroy Beirut’s soul — gone will be the souks of gold, fish, cloth, the taxis, the cinema, the bustling downtown for rich and poor. It will be a glitzy, tourist attraction. It’s shameful, they say, a country just out of war witnessing so much pomp alongside so much poverty. To them, Solidere becomes a euphemism for anti-memory. They suspect Hariri wants to erase history.
But Hariri has a vision. While militia leaders make deals to enrich their fiefdoms, Hariri makes deals to show Beirut off to the world. The country has never seen such a doer. “As intellectuals we are happy with our modest city. But when I travel to Singapore and Dubai, I understand how Hariri thinks and the role he imagined Beirut would play in te region, whether I share his vision or not,” artist and archivist Akram Zaatari tells me one day over coffee. “He is proud to say, Solidere is the largest construction site in the urban environment. He invites all the star architects to Beirut. He is excited to bring everything to Beirut — Formula I, International Sports, Media City. There is no national precedent for this.”
The film, by Syrian auteur Omar Amiralay, begins here. A bulldozer’s maw overloaded with the mud, offal and rubble of Beirut’s Normandy dump moves toward the camera. Then we see a conveyor belt and workers’ gloved-hands weeding out the household debris for compost. The rest — the war-damaged homes whose owners can’t afford to repair them — will be landfill. The camera closes in on one worker’s eye behind his Planet of the Apes goggles and gas mask. He gazes directly at us as a voiceover says, “Too soon to forget, maybe too late to regret. The memory-cleansing machine is at work again in a Lebanon wounded by a recent civil war.” The title appears, The Man With The Golden Soles. The voiceover continues: “From behind the scenes of this war, a savior emerged: Rafiq Hariri. Entrepreneur, billionaire, now a controversial figure that a drama about the stock market and life cannot ignore.” As the steel rooftop of architect Bernard Khoury’s nightclub slowly opens up to the sky, we see the looming figure of Hariri. Amiralay asked Hariri if he would mind posing there for the shot. He didn’t mind. Even if the shot is meant to be ironic, Hariri understands its power. The film is another prop in the staging of Hariri, not by filmmaker Amiralay, but by master-director Hariri, who often refers to himself as Rafiq, or “he.” Vain and strategic, he has legacy on his mind.
Fearing he really has succumbed to Hariri’s charm, and the illusion of intimacy with power — filming takes time, time at home, at work, at rest — Amiralay lingers on the sleeping giant in his private 777 jet and calls on his Lebanese intellectual friends to save him. Samir Kassir, writer and historian, chides Amiralay. “What’s the point of filming him if it doesn’t lead to self-criticism?”
In fact, Hariri has changed. He’s out of office. He’s lost for the first time in his life. He wants to understand why. “Money cannot buy souls,” he says, as if he’s absorbed the lesson of Lebanon’s complexity. At home, in his woolen abaya by a candle — miles from the Hariri who, when asked if he’s nervous about the camera, replies, “Me? How? I make the whole town nervous” — we get humble Hariri. “I went through a period of vanity,” he says. “A period I hark back to with my children and relatives. You lose all sense of reason. You lose control and begin to think — egged on by your entourage — that you’re a genius, a witty man, a great scholar, somebody exceptional and erudite.” All the things he fears he’s not. “Political action and the struggle for money makes you lose your soul. What happened to Rafiq Hariri? My conscience turned me back into the person I really am.” Here, in a stroke of genius, Amiralay cuts to show us Hariri in an armchair watching Rafiq’s confessional performance on screen. Has the filmmaker undermined Rafiq’s conscience? Which image-maker is winning? Amiralay says he’s disturbed by Hariri’s skill, by how this man of power has played on Amiralay’s ego by recognizing him as an intellectual. Hariri trying to control his image loses control. “You assume you are intellectual and I am not…I’ve been known to read a book a week. You don’t have a monopoly on culture. My recognizing you as intellectual doesn’t give you the right to cast me as the rich ignoramus.” We close in on the cartoonist’s vision of Hariri — the eyebrows. And then Hariri, stepping out of his car on the tarmac, says: “Do I look like a film star?”
Later, Kassir will tell me about an interview he has with Hariri. They sit for over an hour with MPs waiting. Kassir knows this is Hariri’s method of bribing him without money. Kassir is ashamed. But what does Hariri talk about for nearly an hour? The movie, and this word mouthaqafa. Hariri’s obsessed. He too is mouth-aqafa. Kassir explains the Gramscian concept of intellectuals. It’s absurd, and Kassir steers back to the interview. Hariri says he might not accept to be Prime Minister. “Don’t,” says Kassir. “Emile Lahoud” — president, Syrian stooge — “won’t let you work.” “No. No. I can manage him.” Later, Kassir will tell me, “He was always overconfident. He saw himself as Superman.”
Lahoud plays dirty to defeat Hariri and Hariri is swept into office. It’s the hero’s comeback. The people adore him. The mogul will revive the country. But Hariri knows he must be circumspect. His aides show him a state of the union address that reads, “This is the government that will ask for the implementation of the Taif — the withdrawal of Syrian troops.” Hariri puts it in the shredder and says, “You want to kill me?” He meets with experts and professionals and listens. He builds technical and artisanal schools. He wants to save Lebanon’s loping economy, alleviate the bulging debt (which is partly blamed on him). He convenes Paris II talks — the World Bank, the IMF, his friend Chirac pledges four billion dollars. He comes home resuscitated, triumphant. But the Syrians are threatened by his global size and influence. (He is, after all, the founder of a media and financial dynasty worth over six billion dollars). And they sick the sadist Lahoud on him. (So the story goes.) Lahoud and his cronies reject Hariri’s every move to privatize and restructure the economy. The Paris billions go to paying civil servants and the military. In the council of ministers, Hariri is sabotaged, sits with hands tied. The people’s sympathy swells. Even the intellectuals become nostalgic for the doer who irritated them in Act I.
Kassir now is under attack for his anti-Syrian columns in An Nahar. He is trailed by intelligence agents. His passport is confiscated. He’s taunted by Jamal Al Sayyad, the head of intelligence. Hariri in the background tries to protect him. And one day he invites Kassir to his press conference, for the first time in twelve years. Something’s up. When he sees Hariri, the Prime Minister, walk across the halls to salute him, the endangered writer, he realizes he’s being used, but he’s pleased. Hariri’s sending a message to Syria — “I am not your man. I am able to talk to someone considered public enemy number five by the Mukhabarat.” Cameras off, the king of images makes a joke to Kassir about his new book, Damascus Spring. “What spring?” he laughs. “It’s autumn.” Later, Kassir tells me, “Hariri had no belief in the possibility of changing the Syrian regime.”
The final showdown with Syria and Lahoud is now part of every Lebanese’s historical memory. Syria wants the constitution of Lebanon amended to extend Lahoud’s term. And Hariri, they decide, will vote in favor. Politicians and intellectuals are enraged. They urge Hariri to resist. Kassir tells him, “People say you don’t have solid knees.” Hariri, who has clung to the dream of the panArab movement since childhood, tells Kassir that as an Arab Nationalist he cannot go against Syria. Tragically he still sees her as his ally, until August, when Damascus summons Hariri. Bashar Al Assad orders him in a meeting of humiliating swiftness — an unheard-of fifteen minutes — to amend the constitution. Hariri returns home, broken. “It was a Don Corleone scenario over there — an offer he couldn’t refuse,” recalls one minister. Hariri repeats Bashar’s threats to his friends. “Lahoud is me,” said Bashar. “If you and Chirac want me out of Lebanon. I will break Lebanon.” A month later the UN ratifies resolution 1559. Syria must pull out of Lebanon. Hariri inches towards the Maronites and Druze opposition, giving them a Muslim umbrella for the first time. A few months later, February 14, Valentine’s Day, Hariri and his entourage are blown up by 250 kilograms of explosives.
In death, Hariri is transformed into legend, beloved even by those who hated him. The controversies slide away and the hagiography takes over. The morning of his death, newspapers ran stories of government accusations that Hariri was buying votes by buying up all the olives from Lebanese farmers and donating the resulting olive oil to Ramadan feasts. Hariri believed he was helping the poor farmers who must wait to sell their produce until all Syrian
produce is bought up. He’s redeemed. Now it’s charity. On Future TV a new person who Hariri helped is discovered every day. A wrestler he supported. The dying Chess Club. The anonymous checks to twelve Christian organizations. The kidney for a cameraman’s brother. Someone suggests the Vatican should declare Hariri the first Muslim saint.
The mourners perceive significance everywhere. “Hariri was killed on the day of love, which is so him. He was killed five minutes from his TV station, so all the cameras could come in five minutes. Two minutes from his headquarters. Two minutes from his Group Mediteranne. Five minutes from his construction site. Now Future TV airs his personal life twenty-four hours a day,” says Akram. Symbolism takes over as if Hariri’s putting the last touches on his image. Men who sat in a cafe with him shortly before his assassination recall his prophecy: “I’m afraid I’m going to be part of 1566” — the UN resolution related to terrorism.
What sets an iconic figure — Galileo, Joan of Arc, Einstein, even Madonna — apart from the heroic or tragic is that they spark a paradigm shift in the culture. Their persecution in whatever form produces an alchemy that changes the way people think. That’s why Hariri may succeed as icon where Nawaf ’s catalogue failed.
First the wall of mental fear is broken. From all confessional sides and classes, people mourn Hariri, mourn Lebanon, mourn themselves. Then mourning shifts to anger, and Beirut sees the largest demonstrations in its history to oust Syria. Hundreds of thousands of nervous Shias from Hizbullah, though they mourn Hariri’s killing, stage an opposing demonstration in favor of their vital protector, Syria.
Taboos are smashed, the very taboos Hariri nurtured to keep the peace. History as recounted in schoolbooks stopped at 1950. Now students debate and swap civil war stories at Martyrs’ Square and university. The disappeared are another taboo of the past sixteen years, because the war criminals are in government. Finally the Committee for the Families of The Kidnapped are being heard, saying that it’s our right to know what happened to the 17,000 missing. (Most are assumed dead or in Syrian prisons.)
Those connected to Hariri, and privileged by the Syrians (and there were many) are perhaps the most jostled. They enjoyed free passage across the military border, did their shopping on weekends in Damascus, and clung to denial, seeing in the violence and economic mischief, the Plot. But now, from Tripoli to Saida, the blinders are blowing off with recognition. Our allies, our brothers, are actually our foes, and killed our hero? Akram is one of many sporting such blinders. He clung to a pan-Arab dream, believing in the possibility of a borderless democratic Arab world. When he was 16years-old and the Syrians assassinated Bashir Gemayal, he was relieved because Israel lost a Lebanese ally. And he and his friends believed Syria was their savior for aborting Israel’s plan in Lebanon. Though the Syrians kidnapped, detained and assassinated more than anyone else, they considered Syria was stabilizing the country and supporting resistance. “We never imagined Syria would attack the country’s stability. Hariri’s killing was a slap in the face. It made all of us revise our understanding of Syria’s intervention.” One afternoon in a cafe on Place d’Etoile, Samir Kassir tells me, “Hariri’s death corrected and completed what he did in his life.” We are talking about Hariri’s power in death to amend the urban landscape. He’d made of downtown an island for the rich and Martyrs’ Square an empty meaningless lot. “Now it’s the melting place where Lebanese of all sides meet. The crowd conquered the place.” He laughs and says he used to find the Martyrs statue so kitsch, just like the gargantuan Al Amin mosque across the street that businessman Hariri, not devout Hariri, opposed. He didn’t want a religious emblem on Beirut’s postcards. To destabilize him in the Sunni community, Lahoud, the Maronite, promised to build the mosque through Saudi Walid bin Talal. “That’s why Hariri intervened to do it,” says Samir. “Sectarianism is so dirty.” He’s pleased that Hariri’s tomb-cum-shrine is turning the mosque postmodern, he says, just like the statue with her civil war shrapnel gashes. They are getting de-sanitized by living history. It is a gloomy afternoon. The Beirut car bomb has reared its head again and kept people away. Kassir is still optimistic, even exhilarated, to fight the Syrian detritus that will linger. Weeks later, when I hear the news that Samir, the voice of passionate reason, was like Hariri assassinated by a car bomb, I will think how prophetic was his summation of Hariri was: “He was the hero of lost opportunities.”
It is the habit of intellectuals to redeem loss in epic narratives and founding myths. It is not how most people experience events. Our capacity to digest life is slower than our capacity to package and disseminate history. And that’s uncomfortable for someone like Osama, a young lawyer educated abroad through Hariri’s foundation, who I met the night before I left Beirut. He didn’t sport the blinders of the privileged. Reality, he knows, is tribal and confessional. “At university, the Christians were always wondering ‘Are we Arabs? Do we belong to the Arab world?’” he recalled. “I am a Shia and so to them I am a Syrian and a traitor.” When he says that he saw how each party went with their confessional flags to Hariri’s funeral, people tell him, “You are pessimistic and destroying the national hero.” But no, he says, he’s just recognizing that fear unified all those people. “Maybe this is good, because now we understand that we need each other, and if we want security we have to compromise.”
Today as talk of a Syrian hit list consumes Beirut, I remember the compromises of Jean, a lawyer from a Christian village in the Chouf who I met on Easter Sunday. During the war, Druze militia massacred fifty-five of 120 residents in his village. One was his grandfather. He was sharing the holiday meal with a neighboring Druze family and the atmosphere was festive, loud. It wasn’t until we were alone on the balcony that he told me what had happened. His grandfather had protected the Druze from the French back in the mandate days. I asked him if he ever wondered, as he walked the streets, if he was greeting his grandfather’s killer. He said no. He doesn’t wonder. “I know who did it. My aunt saw everything and survived.” Then he motioned with his head to his Easter guests inside and said, “their nephew.” What’s more, the nephew was from the same Druze family his grandfather had protected. So how do you come back here, I asked. “In the beginning I had nightmares, but it is for the future that I force myself to come back and back.”
Without people like Jean and Osama national reconciliation would just be gibberish. With all its mystical transformative power, the icon is also a deception. As it encompasses, it also dilutes complexity. Where, after all, is the deity behind it? Where reside all the intangibles it contains? In our imagination. And perhaps that’s enough.