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Soft Power

I’m mayo, you’re glue.

Letter from your Thought Partners

As our readers may have noted, since its inception in 2004 Bidoun has evolved from a scrappy quarterly spurred by the sweat of its editors and a monthly check from a single benefactor into a slightly manic nonprofit that publishes books, curates exhibitions, organizes educational initiatives, and even has its own library. Now we run on paperwork, mountains of it, and the love of our six hundred (600) subscribers (whom we love right back: we lose money on each and every one of you!). Despite — or maybe because of — these changes, we’ve been doing some of our best work ever. But since becoming a nonprofit last year, with all its attendant stresses, we’ve been asking ourselves how we might improve Bidoun. Perhaps Bidoun will never be an all-powerful cultural megalith, but it could be (cue grant-speak) a fully sustainable organization, the kind of place that can afford to pay its monthly rent and salaries on time, and then some.

If we were a country, how would we exercise soft power in order to enhance Bidoun’s credibility in the global marketplace and desirability among international cultural elites? Our last issue, which was made in Cairo and evoked, through interviews and photographs and a wide range of ephemera, the ongoing Egyptian revolution, seemed to mark a turning point: we crafted an editorial voice that was inclusive, collective, and yet distinctively our own. How might we amplify this voice to appeal to a greater number of readers — not just those overeducated and undercapitalized youths in Cairo, London, Beirut, and so on, but the business people who sell to them, the gallerists who represent them, the diplomats who appreciate them? Could Bidoun be to Emirates what Monocle is to Lufthansa?

According to Branding for Dummies, “Commodity products become branded products, usually known as consumer brands, when a manufacturer wins awareness in the marketplace that its product has compelling characteristics that make it different and better than others in the product category.” We decided to speak with a number of prominent marketing and branding agencies around the globe for advice about how to narrate Bidoun’s compelling characteristics, to find out how they would change — no, position, leverage the equity of — Bidoun.

The agency credited in the below transcript is a composite character; the text is drawn from and inspired by — but not a record of — conversations and email exchanges that took place in February with firms whose clients include major magazines, megacorporations, and entire minor nations. Admittedly, we haven’t quite decided which strategy merits our investment. (Got some advice? Send it over to [email protected].) We hope you’ll stay with us as we continue to strategize and define our key success factors, because, as we’ve told the agencies, “Bidoun is uniquely situated to serve as a venue for some of the most pressing and exciting conversations of these times.”

—The Editors


Bidoun: We’re at a pivotal inflection point. Given the tremendous upheavals in the Middle East this past year, we want to capitalize on our existing brand but also expand, and engage in a much more international conversation. We’re thinking hard about what that brand is, what the Bidoun narrative is. We’d like an assessment of where we should be investing our energies, whether it’s in our visual culture, our editorial production, or… anything, really. We would welcome a robust critique of everything we do.

Agency: The concept of rebranding means different things to different people. A third of our clients are corporate brands, a third are trade associations, and a third are sovereign nations. We work a lot in the Middle East. Some of our clients have called us in and said, “We want to be legitimate.” We’re curious to know if you’ve done any initial thinking as to what a successful rebranding would mean to you.

Bidoun: Bidoun is highly respected, but also occupies a niche. We recognize the current moment as one in which we might speak to a much larger audience. A lot of us are Middle Eastern but grew up in the US or elsewhere; our relationship with the Middle East is a kind of sideways one. I think that’s quite powerful and unique and we’d like to channel that voice into something much larger.

Agency: How much do you see the magazine as coming from America and being an American magazine, regardless of the subject matter?

Bidoun: That’s a tough question. The fact that we’re so international might make it even more difficult to brand us. Bidoun is about the diaspora but also about people who live in Cairo, Beirut, and Jeddah. Our writers are from all around the world. It’s a very sui generis perspective. That’s the trick for us — how do we articulate that perspective? It’s almost postnational, or at least not limited to any one place. It’s forward-thinking cosmopolitanism as a way of life, but a cosmopolitanism that comes out of particular experiences.

But basically: we seek a dramatic shift, a reinvention that makes what Bidoun is and has been speak to a much wider array of readers and consumers. We’re very interested in thinking about emerging markets and societies, new stories, even a new visual culture for the magazine… We’re open to changing our logo, too. We think the name should stay, but who knows?

Agency: You’ve definitely picked the perfect time. We could step back and outline a strategy for reimagining Bidoun’s brand architecture — what to retain from the current brand, plans for growth, hierarchy, global advertising. Then we could move on to a complete redesign of the magazine.

Bidoun: We are so open to that. Especially our logo.

Agency: That’s great, that’s very helpful. It gives us great direction. So to what extent have you done qualitative or quantitative research to understand the appetite for your brand in various markets, and which of the brand’s current strengths do you want to maintain?

Bidoun: Very little. We have a pretty simple press kit with reader demographics. Our subscription base is quite small. And we’re totally open to raising the subscription rate because we actually lose money on subscriptions.

Agency: Monocle is a really good example of a magazine that has grown to be a brand that reaches far beyond the printed magazine itself, between the website and films and product collaborations and stores and new radio station, Monocle 24. There’s certainly a lot to learn there.

Bidoun: We want Bidoun to be a must-read in the same way that Monocle is a must-read for a certain crowd — or at least a fixture in certain bathrooms. We want Bidoun to be an integral part of the identity of a certain demographic, and required reading for multiple demographics. We want to be in all the bathrooms. We just need help in figuring out how to get there.

Agency: We recently did a quarterly publication for Abercrombie & Fitch, which is a real departure for us. They called us in and said, “We don’t just want to titillate these kids, we want to actually tell them that we understand the things that they care about and show that we’re connected to their needs.” So we prepared about fifty pages for them — a lot of beautiful stories, and even some illustration.

Bidoun: Not to compare ourselves to Abercrombie & Fitch, but when you think of them you think of images of these cheesy guys with their shirts off and other kinds of youth-culture clichés, and, in a different but not totally unrelated way, we deal with clichéd images, too, from terrorism to unchecked opulence to chintzy oil culture to veiled women. We’d like to address these clichés in our rebranding strategy.

Agency: With your Middle East focus, there is infinite possibility in that realm. There seems to be a trend with a lot of our Middle Eastern clients, for example, to really want to get the word out there that what’s being shown in the media is not really how life is. Nobody is out there saying, Hey you know what, there’s some of the most incredible art in the world in Bahrain. Or in Saudi Arabia. It’s a wonderful story to tell.

Bidoun: We are definitely all about telling stories that aren’t being told in the mainstream media.

Agency: How do you go about acquiring subscribers? Have you done direct mail or advertising?

Bidoun: Yeah, no. It’s basically word of mouth. We speak to a very small community of really interesting people.

Agency: That’s very helpful for us. Is advertising something you’re considering? Cartier or Louis Vuitton? There is so much capital in the Middle East and luxury brands have outposts there, too. You could do advertorials.

Bidoun: Absolutely. There’s so much capital in the Middle East!

Agency: So what’s your business model if neither ads nor subscriptions are paying for the editorial work?

Bidoun: Applying for grants and cultivating forward-thinking patrons. But we’d like to have a powerful subscription and sales model. We probably sent the magazines around for free too much in the past.

Agency: What are some other measures of success in terms of business outcomes?

Bidoun: We’d like everyone who has some sort of relationship to the Middle East — whether they have a grandfather who came from Lebanon or went on a trip once to Cairo, whether diplomat or DJ — to be reading, or at least aware of, the magazine. We want a significant increase in advertising revenues. We want amplified press coverage of what we’re doing, too. Everyone should be writing and blogging and tweeting about us.

Agency: I appreciate your candid answers. I know sometimes these things are tough to talk about. We have a team of experts that is consistently reaching out to specific target markets in the Middle East and of Middle Eastern descent through our sovereign-nations work. Whether we’re doing elite advertising, marketing and rebranding, or public affairs for a major corporation, we have the ability to blur that line, which is not only exciting for us but pretty rare. We fully anticipate taking advantage of that, not just to deliver tangible business outcomes in terms of increased subscription rates and revenues, but also just because it’s fun. As much as we like talking to blue jean and cereal companies, doing something new and different like this is what gets us out of bed in the morning.

Bidoun: Do you think there is great potential here, given our arts-and-culture brief and Middle East focus, for expansion and wider visibility? How do we stand?

Agency: Absolutely. I’m pretty plugged into the art scene in New York, and I see that art sales are in a significant upswing right now. That’s usually an important indication of future economic trends. I think people are reengaging and getting out of survival mode, starting to enjoy the world a little bit more. In terms of the Middle East, this is an extraordinary time to leverage a changing socioeconomic landscape and a community that is increasingly capitalizing on powers of communication through word of mouth — which is very important to your brand — and social media. There’s a new ability to express that in the marketplace, a new empowerment; it’s absolutely the right time to capitalize on that. So as far as timing, I’d say we’re both looking at the same dartboard and we’re both looking at a bull’s eye.

Bidoun: We know it will take some time.

Agency: Just from experience — you tell me if this is a good hypothesis or not as we move forward — but what I’ve typically found helpful in these sort of conversations is just a high-level synopsis of everything that we could do from you know, almost if you think of the story of Goldilocks and the three bears, you know — this one is too small, this one is too big, this one is just right… Sure, we can come up with things that are just right to help position Bidoun in the next twelve months, but also come up with some wild and crazy ideas that bolster to the back of that. I’ve found that that gives you a bit of leg, internally, as you stand up and sell a rebranding effort, to be like, here are all the different things we can do, and then scale this back to a realistic option. Rather than just providing some realistic options and leaving that as the conversation. Would that be a helpful approach for you?

Bidoun: Could you maybe rephrase that?

Agency: Well, let me ask the inevitable question. You know, in terms of, what scale we’re talking about, it’d be helpful to hear the ballpark range in which you’re comfortable in asking for an investment. We know that the media has such a narrow lens on so many places and our clients are realizing that they have to get their voice out there in order to fix that. And in a lot of ways then the people who are more extreme can’t really counter back because they don’t have that ability to kind of get out there and get on television or in magazines or whatever. And yours is just, you know… your magazine is beautiful. Gorgeous cover. We’re happy to be your thought partners.

Iman Issa

Radical Subtraction

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Material for a sculpture commemorating an economist whose name now marks the streets and squares he once frequented, Iman Issa, 2011. Photograph by Serkan Taycan. Courtesy the artist and Rodeo, Istanbul

A long glass display case holds a meticulous arrangement of an older man’s effects, including cufflinks, a pocket watch, a letter opener, and two albums of black-and-white photographs. Affixed to a wall close by is a line of text that serves as a title, a description, and a riddle of sorts: Material for a sculpture commemorating an economist whose name now marks the streets and squares he once frequented.

Further along the same wall is Material for a sculpture acting as a testament to both a nation’s pioneering development and continuing decline, next to a pair of bass-throbbing speakers emitting periodic bursts of distortion. Around the corner, Material for a sculpture recalling the destruction of a prominent public monument in the name of national resistance describes an angular wooden form that rests on a high white plinth and is embellished with what appears to be a graduation tassel or the ornament on an Ottoman-era fez.

Since 2010, the artist Iman Issa has been working on a series of proposals for alternatives to public monuments she has known since childhood. Each piece, which Issa describes as a display, pairs a collection of objects with a vinyl wall text. All of the installations forge a relationship between those forms and phrases, but none of them spell out exactly what their affiliation may be. The texts allude to monuments that have for one reason or another failed, but the objects remain something of a mystery, drawing on memory and experience to counter the populism and political expediency of the commemorative statues they seek to replace.

Issa, who is thirty-two, has been composing such precise and elusive works for a decade. Arranged in series, they create artful chains of association among objects, images, videos, texts, and sounds. There is a certain austerity to her style — a pared-down, old school elegance — which sets her apart from the exuberance of youth. Her installations are orderly, her materials relatively plain. Yet this tendency to streamline only adds to the fullness of Issa’s forms — the intense color of a photographic still life, the warm grain of a wooden sculpture, the soft glow of spherical lights. With an extreme economy of visual and spatial phrasing, Issa produces a wealth of possible meanings that always seem just out of reach, on the verge of articulation.

Perhaps this is what binds Issa’s work to that of several other artists who show, as she does, at the Rodeo Gallery in Istanbul. Her projects share the agility and mystery of Haris Epaminonda’s installations and Shahryar Nashat’s videos, as well as the fondness for artifacts, which all three artists explore and question in equal measure. The subtle and oblique manner in which Issa digs into the politics of a place — rarely more explicit than “a city” or “a nation” — also makes her work a smooth fit for The Ungovernables, the New Museum’s second triennial of young and emerging artists on view through April 22, 2012 in New York.

Issa showed six of the proposals for alternative monuments in her first solo show at Rodeo last fall. Four more are included in The Ungovernables. The series, titled Material (2010–12), is now complete at ten displays. The only piece included in both exhibitions is a spartan table adorned only with two globe-shaped lamps that variously dim and shine, next to the title Material for a sculpture proposed as an alternative to a monument that has become an embarrassment to its people. It says something about the fortitude of Issa’s language, with its rules of communication and self-styled syntax referring only to itself, that her work has such obvious and booming resonance but resists being instrumentalized (or even interpreted) as revolutionary art of the so-called Arab Spring.

In one sense, Issa’s work is about radical subtraction. Take the experience of a city, a structure, a monument, a memorial, a campaign poster, a political conflict, an open space, or an evocative story; then strip down the specificities and delete the defining details. But in another sense, Issa’s work is about accumulation. Her projects tend to identify an absence — something lacking or inadequate — and then set out to gather the materials that might possibly fill it in, make it whole, lend it heft, or at least tug it along in a more satisfying direction. Issa also plays a kind of temporal game, breaking down how we encounter images, people, or things. Her works consider, for example, how we might see a statue we recognize, how that recognition might trigger a memory, and how that memory might then give rise to an idea. Each piece in the Material series replicates that process, in both the production and the reception of the work.

Issa never divulges the identities of the original monuments on which the displays for Material are based, nor does she share the events they memorialize, nor the reasons why they prick her memory. Depending on how near or far you are to her milieu — already an assumption — you can probably guess the name of the economist, the singer, the soldier, or the blind man who became a great writer. You can try to place the resistance movement, the inferior army, or the bygone era of luxury and decadence. But that’s you and whatever baggage you bring to the work. The questions Issa seems to be asking are: What would any of those details really tell you? What more (or less) would you understand? What if the privileges of local knowledge were actually no more than preconceptions? What if the bombastic vocabulary of a public statue was replaced by the strange intimacy and sad delicacy of a dead man’s shoes?


Issa reveals very little of herself in her work, but in person she is open and affable and tells a good story about how she came to be doing the art she does now. “The medium I choose to work with is always only instrumental,” she said to me one day last summer, as we were sitting at her kitchen table with two cups of coffee and a bowl of fruit. “In that sense, going to a bad art school was really good for me. I really started to think about form.”

In the late 1990s, Issa was studying philosophy and political science at the American University in Cairo (AUC) when the school decided to create a proper art department where none had existed before. A handful of students signed up, including Issa, who was making paintings at the time. As soon as she switched, though, she realized the art department was not just new but terrible (“flimsy,” she says now). The BFA curriculum had been cobbled together, nearly at random, from so-called collateral courses in other departments, to the extent that Issa learned photography not as fine art but as a means of mass communication.

Egypt’s universities graduate thousands upon thousands of art students every year, and the general sentiment is that for decades the education system has been failing them all. An artist Issa’s age once told me the only thing he learned at art school in Cairo was how to stretch a canvas — and even that, he later discovered, was wrong. An alumna of AUC who studied there a few years after Issa said the art department back then was definitely chaotic, but in many ways more ambitious than it is now.

What may have been lacking in academia, however, was amply made up for in the life of the city at large. It was a heady time to be young in the Cairo contemporary art scene. Artists such as Hassan Khan, Sherif El-Azma, Maha Maamoun, and Hala Elkoussy were at AUC then and just starting to experiment and embark on their careers. (Khan’s marathon performance piece 17 and in AUC [2003] would later elegize and excoriate this era.) By 2001, new and independent art spaces — such as Townhouse, Espace Karim Francis, and Mashrabia — had reached critical mass and were collaborating on the influential but short-lived Nitaq Festival. The notion that contemporary artists in Cairo were obsessed with their megacity, were ambivalent about its faded cosmopolitan glamour — and actually had a viable alternative to the cronyism and corruption of the state-run fine art sector — was born of this era.

But if AUC students were, like college kids everywhere, famous for their ability to zone out of their formal education, Issa did them one better and left for a year abroad in Seattle. She studied photography in a class designed for architects and, among other things, met her partner, the writer and editor Brian Kuan Wood, who did the sound design for some of Issa’s early installations. In 2001, “I put something together,” she says, walked away from her last painting, and was done with AUC. Six years later, she completed an MFA at Columbia, but she is neither dismissive nor particularly reverent about the program’s reputation as a springboard for young artists in New York.

Looking back at the work Issa was producing in the years immediately after AUC, much of it was either slightly decorative — holographic wallpaper, a room filled with colored lights — or preoccupied with architecture. For Golden House (2003), she made a wooden lean-to, covered it with gold glitter, and set it down next to a highway running through the Sinai desert. Proposal for a Crystal Building (2003) looks like a glammed-up, disco-ready water tower, which Issa displayed alongside a crudely doctored image that took the same sparkling structure (Issa’s proposed crystal building) and grafted it onto the middle of Tahrir Square. Clicking through documentation of these works on a laptop in her studio nearly a decade later, Issa pauses, “This, well, this is Tahrir,” and keeps going. Postcards, posters for public buses, proposals for kiosks, platforms, towers, photographs of faked windows, and Technicolor urban skylines — there’s a fanciful and fundamentally utopian aspect to these projects.

“I was interested in the decorative elements of a city. You see them and expect them to tell you something about the place you are about to enter,” Issa says. “But there’s a gap between the physical encounter and them becoming familiar. It’s a space of doubt. I was stressing the experiential quality but also the ability to recall those elements.”

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Material for a sculpture commemorating a singer whose singing became a source of unity of disparate and often opposing forces, Iman Issa, 2011. Photograph by Serkan Taycan. Courtesy the artist and Rodeo, Istanbul

The architectural structures that Issa built toyed with viewers, who were drawn by the dazzling exteriors and approached them expectantly only to discover there was nothing inside. “I started to worry that it was just a celebration or a critique of spectacle,” she says. The proposals for architectural structures tried to reconcile a different gap, between the city as it was and how urban planners imagined it could be. The backdrop of all of this work was unmistakably Cairo. As she became more interested in the function of memory and how to convey familiarity in relation to places that are both known and unknown, she began to move away from images that were immediately recognizable as the places where they were produced.

“I moved to New York, and I felt I had exhausted what I was working on. I was repeating the same gestures with materials that were familiar. I felt I needed to find other materials. I walked around, took a lot of photographs, and found spaces that reminded me of others. There was a fleeting recognition in an arrangement of lights, or a certain time of day, or movements that were happening in time. The images I took look completely generic, like photographs from an image bank or an advertising agency. Perhaps what I was recognizing was not the presence of something familiar but the absence of a defining detail. I started treating the spaces I found as if they were lacking something.”

One of the works that followed was Making Places (2007), which exists as both a collection of videos and a series of ten photographs. For the first time in her work, a figure appears, holding a mirror sideways, blowing bubbles, throwing a ball in front of an imposing building. Issa tells me a writer once described these works as documentations of performances, “but for me they were never about that.”


Much of the work Issa produced before 2009 was very good, but the real turning point in her practice was the six-part series Triptych, which she made that year. Each numbered installation consists of three parts, which a viewer reads from left to right. First, a small, unframed photograph of a detail in an urban landscape, such as a boardwalk or a clock tower or a well-tended lily pond. Then, a larger, framed photograph — a carpenter’s tools; a table crowded with fruit, sweets, and juice — which apes a certain style of lush-colored advertising imagery from the 1970s. Last, a third, more sculptural element, such as a Discman with headphones or a video monitor showing footage of a flashlight rolling back and forth on the floor.

The Triptych series is dialogic in that each element is based on and responds to the one that came before. As with Material, Issa leaves the meaning deliberately enigmatic. Triptych #5 seems unmistakable in its suggestion that intimate relationships are a complex game of incremental negotiations. The centerpiece image shows a pair of breakfast plates (slices of toast, soft-boiled eggs) arranged on either side of a chessboard set up for a match. But how that relates to the park on the left or the metronome, timer, and flashing lightbulb on the right is anyone’s guess.

“They started out as diptychs,” Issa says. “I started to look at the images I was taking in a removed way, as if somebody else had made them. The third element I really thought of as an artwork. I tried to come up with a concept. It was a kind of labor or bureaucracy gone mad. It was a strange operation.” Perhaps the triptychs capture how an idea moves from a fragile bit of autobiography to a robust and formalist artwork that no longer exposes any of the vulnerabilities of its maker.

The triptychs include an Egyptian flag, numerous evocations of music, and several references to craft or working with one’s hands. One of them, Triptych #4, seems to be about science, medicine, the body, and crime all at once. On the left, there’s an image of streetlights set against an indigo sky at night. In the middle, a still life of a desk with a lamp, a potted plant, an old typewriter, a rack of blood samples, and a thick stack of blank white paper. Next to that is a ledger filled with seven thousand Cairo license plate numbers, which a text explains was compiled by “my sister, my cousin and myself” and inspired by reading too many detective novels in the summer of 1992.

As much as architecture and photography dominate Issa’s oeuvre, there is also a distinctly literary sensibility running through her work. Thirty-Three Stories About Reasonable Characters in Familiar Places(2011) is a slim book of short fiction that fits together with an epilogue and an index to form a three-part installation of the same title. In nearly three dozen stories, Issa uses just two names and virtually no adjectives to describe moments of connection, discord, humiliation, and hurt. The narratives are overwhelmingly nondescript, both archetypal and mundane. These are stories set in times of labor and leisure; at work and at home; in museums, libraries, schools, zoos, public gardens, city squares, and traffic-clogged streets. Again, the details have dropped out, leaving only a thin spine of experience and encounter.

Thirty-Three Stories is unlike anything else Issa has done before, but it reinforces the formalism of her triptychs, the process of deleting the details to explore the gaps left behind, and the notion of creating an artwork that is in dialogue with itself. “I’m trying to inhabit the position of looking at the work and not being the person who made it,” Issa says. “The forms of the stories — a museum lesson, a home school, a stranger’s house — the thing about these forms is that they rely on personal associations and memory. I’m trying to locate perceptions of difference and familiarity. There’s a danger in terms of what I want to do in that it’s not about personal healing. It’s about communication. I want these forms to speak and be responsible. I want to look in a removed way, attempt to solve a problem, and highlight a desire.”

To read back and forth across the enigmatic sequences that characterize Issa’s triptychs, monuments, and texts, you either fall into the hermetic system she has constructed to generate meaning, or you remain outside of it and whinge. One writer, responding to an artist’s talk Issa gave last year, complained: “These abstract forms… better reflect her own associations with the figures or events in question. Which is nice for her, of course, but for her audience the artwork remains a baffling network of elements whose actual meaning is unknowable.” That may say more about what the critic wants from the work than what he finds, but it also raises an important question about how (or when or why) art becomes useful and effective. Issa’s work doesn’t necessarily give you the tools you need to understand it, but it definitely leads you to a place where you can link things together on your own.


Not surprisingly, Issa maintains a detailed record of the history of her work on a neatly arranged website that features minimal black type and a lot of white space. One piece missing from the list, however, is The Revolutionary (2010), an audio work that was presented last year as part of the MENASA Studio Dispatches, a project organized for Art Dubai by the Island, an itinerant nonprofit that is nominally based in the UK. In Dubai, The Revolutionary was no more than an audio file with a set of headphones and an oversized beanbag plopped outside the entrance to the Art Park in Madinat Jumeirah.

To create the piece, Issa fed a long string of sentences through text-to-speech software to generate an unnervingly smooth account of a man who was everything and nothing. An eerily disembodied, vaguely aristocratic voice recites a jarring litany of observations about the character traits ascribed to a leader, rebel, believer, ideologue, and despot who was charismatic, distant, talkative, quiet, irrational, systematic, passionate, cold, judgmental, and influential. There isn’t a single proper noun in the entire text, just vague references to a cause, a sister, three books, and seventeen cities, among many other generic elements that repeatedly fail to make the story stick.

The Revolutionary is now parked on the Island’s website. One listens to the piece and fixates on the time bar sliding toward six minutes, as if the arrow were an anchor. Is Issa describing Che Guevara, Carlos the Jackal, Hassan Nasrallah? Some dictator recently deposed? Someone we know? She keeps you guessing; the language gains no traction, slipping between tabloid-style exposé and hard-core political history without revealing her sources or even a hint of whom she has in mind.

“He never cared if what he heard was true or false,” the tinny voice tells us, followed by the one and only quote attributed to Issa’s subject: “It is the rumors, the gossip, the lies, the made-up stories, the jokes and bitter expressions that truly interest me.” That line may be dressed up in the drama of pulp fiction, but the twist it orchestrates — from the historically or factually true to the personal or impressionable truly — could be an apt description for all of Issa’s work so far.

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Triptych #4, Iman Issa, 2009. Courtesy the artist and Rodeo, Istanbul

Lawrence Abu Hamdan

Uneasy Listening

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Video still from Mountain Language: an audio adaptation, 2010. Courtesy 98 Weeks, Beirut

In December of 1985, James Vance and Raymond Belknap, age twenty and eighteen, respectively, shot themselves in the face after many hours of beer drinking and dope smoking in a church parking lot in the town of Sparks, Nevada. In the trial that ensued, the boys’ parents alleged that subliminal messages embedded in the Judas Priest song “Better by You, Better Than Me” had inspired the unevenly successful suicide attempt. (While Belknap died, Vance survived for years, horribly disfigured and addicted to pain-killers.) The trial, which began in 1990, went on for five weeks and featured any number of legal innovations, including the appointment of a special “listening expert” and a court-ordered a capella rendition of the song in question by Judas Priest lead singer Rob Halford (special attention was paid to his pronunciation of the word “me,” or in Halford’s rendition, “meee-yaa”). Five weeks later, the case was thrown out, but not before going down as one of the odder cases in legal history and perhaps the most iconic in a field that has come to be known as “forensic listening.”

Lawrence Abu Hamdan was only five years old when James Vance Vs. Judas Priest took place. Yet the case is emblematic of a series of questions that are pivotal to his practice as an artist. Abu Hamdan, who lives in London, has spent the better part of the last decade thinking about what is at stake when one speaks aloud. Raised between Amman and North Yorkshire, he developed an interest early on in how sound is channeled, received, and finally rearticulated. He played in his first band at fourteen (it was punk), and became increasingly fascinated by the ways in which his voice could be manipulated through elaborate and not so elaborate sound systems. He went on to study sound art at university, and subsequent projects have continued his aural investigations, including Model Court, a collaborative work that modeled the spatial and sonic experience of a court room, and Marches, which involved the sonic articulation of choreographed marches through the city of London (marchers were equipped with customized footwear that would squeak), and was commissioned by the arts organization Artangel.

In 2010, Abu Hamdan met with a leading forensic speech analyst named Peter French. Unlike many sound theorists who focus on sound’s ephemeral and immaterial qualities, French’s approach was markedly material. While the dominant school, associated with the likes of scholar Don Ihde, puts forward the impossibility of fundamentally grasping sound, French’s formulation rendered sound dissectable, understandable, even replicable. Spending hours armed with “accent atlases,” listening for the most minute fluctuations in vowels and consonants (running late, layte, lite), you could say he is emblematic of a peculiar form of what various avant-gardes have referred to as “deep listening.” French, who runs a private lab called JP French and Associates, is often seconded in crime cases for a number of duties — from reenacting the sounds of a crime scene (what could have reasonably been heard?) to speech and speaker analysis. He has worked on over 5000 cases since 1984, the year the seminal legislation in the UK known as PACE required all police interview rooms to be equipped with audio recording facilities. Says French of the post-PACE period: “All of a sudden it was as though there had been a thunderstorm and it started raining cassette tapes.”

A series of conversations with French and others resulted in Abu Hamdan’s The Freedom of Speech Itself, an audio documentary listenable at the Showroom in London this past winter. Part Adam Curtis, part John Cage, the 34-minute documentary draws heavily from Abu Hamdan’s evolving archive of sound-related ephemera, but mostly centers around the deployment of forensic speech analysis in asylum and immigration cases. We learn that the practice became widely used in Scandinavian countries in particular starting in the early to mid-1990s in trying to understand an individual’s identity, or in the case of asylum claims, an individual’s credibility. Over time, the practice was privatized, and outsourced to specialist firms with names as creepy as “Sprakab.” Suddenly, science was adopted in the name of politics, and forensic speech analysis joined a cast of unseemly policing methods that also includes the use of iris scanning and thermal emotion sensors.

Of course, like any science, forensic listening is far from fail-proof, and in The Freedom, Abu Hamdan captures its human fallibility, its penchant to be hijacked, and the occasionally disastrous consequences of its use. Peppered throughout the documentary are anecdotes drawn from the artist’s motley researches. One hears of a persecuted Afghan man from the Hazara tribe whose asylum claim is denied because of his use of a hard “t,” which seemed to convince analysts that he was not an Afghan at all but a Pakistani. We hear an anecdote about how the word “tomato” was used by Phalangist militias at check points during the Lebanese civil war to detect who was an enemy Palestinian or not (the telltale Palestinian bendooora meant one had to get out of the car and face an uncertain fate). In another memorable case, a Sierra Leonean is mistaken for Nigerian and deported back to “his country.” He wonders aloud as to where he will go once he arrives at the airport in Lagos.

Later, Abu Hamdan interviews an unidentified young man.

So, where are you from?
What do you mean? I’m from Hackney.
Hackney but, you’re Danish right?
No, I’m Palestinian. Well, I grew up in Denmark.
From where in Palestine?
I’m not from Palestine.
So where are you from?
Well, we’re Palestinian from a refugee camp in Lebanon, Ain Al-Helweh.
Okay, so you were born in Lebanon?
No I was born in Dubai.
So how come you have an America accent?
What do you mean?
You have like this American twang to your English…
Well, you know, Eddie Murphy, Stallone and all those guys.
So you’re from Hollywood?
No, I’m from Hackney…

Abu Hamdan traces a warped universe which makes little room for any organic collision of cultures, whether born of travel, forced migration, or even television and radio. (How many people do you know who speak perfect BBC-informed English but have never been to England? I know three.) Suddenly, sound has moved from science to politics, with grave legal consequences. We may be free to choose the words we speak, but we do not get to choose the way we are heard.

In the meantime, his sound archive is growing. From a slapstick scene in Woody Allen’s Bananas in which stenographers obliterate a court statement attesting to Allen’s character, to the use of pitch distorters to disguise witnesses testifying in court during the trial of Saddam Hussein (they made their voices sound like those of children), Abu Hamdan is interested in the ways in which listening technologies work — and don’t work — as well as the ways in which sound is increasingly deployed (and contested; Slobodan Milosevic didn’t at all like the woman’s voice that was translating him in court at the Hague) as a legal tool. What might save Abu Hamdan from the trappings of trite anti-hegemonic political art (after all, the rise of profiling and other post 9/11 policing measures has inspired a windfall of bad identity-inflected art) is his insistence on and interest in the very medium of sound, regardless of what valence it carries. Abu Hamdan is as interested in the fact that MGM’s roaring lion was the first “non-musical” sound to be copyright-protected as he is in Colin Powell’s peculiar and evidently persuasive use of sound recordings in making his now infamous case for the invasion of Iraq.

In 2011, Abu Hamdan, who spends more and more time in Beirut, held a sound workshop at 98Weeks, a modest two-floor project space in the Mar Mikhael neighborhood of the city, run by the cousins Mirene and Marwa Arsanios. There, through an open call, he worked with participants to create an audio version of Italo Calvino’s “A King Listens.” The short story recounts the tale of a despotic king who compulsively eavesdrops on his subjects from tunnels underneath his kingdom. A victim of his own paranoia, he hears everything and nothing at once. According to a friend who took part in the Beirut workshop, participants worked upstairs in the project space, while Abu Hamdan — the artist–king — worked downstairs, producing the play, which was then broadcast upstairs. “We were trapped,” she said. “Which I hated. Claustrophobia. But I guess it totally worked, conceptually.”

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Aural Contract: The Freedom of Speech Itself, 2012. Courtesy the Showroom

Franziska Pierwoss

Car Talk

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Toyota to Benz, 2011. Courtesy the artist

The funny thing about Franziska Pierwoss is that despite spending much of the past six months immersed in the intricacies of Beiruti car culture — from body kits and butterfly doors to the ups and downs of drifting — she doesn’t actually know how to drive.

This inconvenient fact did not endear her to the elaborate cast of characters at the garages who helped her transform a beat-up silver 1981 Toyota Corona into a slick black 2006 Mercedes-Benz C240 sedan. Pierwoss’s Toyota to Benz was the centerpiece of the Beirut Art Center’s Exposure 2011. For two months, it was parked at a jaunty angle in the middle of the ground-floor exhibition space — its curves a bit rough, its back end oddly square, its front grill clearly improvised, and its brand identity utterly questionable.

In the same way Lebanon’s countless plastic surgeons can rearrange a woman’s face around a Swiss ski-slope nose, or make her look as overtly alien as the pop star Nancy Ajram, the country boasts an elaborate gray economy for embellishing, revamping, and overhauling cars. With unemployment hovering (unofficially) around twenty-five percent and salaries stagnant against staggering cost-of-living increases, luxury vehicles are out of reach for all but a shrinking elite. But while a young man may not be able to afford a Mercedes or a BMW or an Escalade, for a mere fifty bucks he can make the doors of a humble Kia open upward like the wings of a DeLorean. And so it goes, modest cars customized with ostentatious tails, spoilers, rims, neon lights, police sirens, and alarm systems that shriek in riddles, jokes, and pop songs. Pierwoss ended up grafting a custom-made, absurdly flammable fiberglass body onto the hood of the old Toyota, cutting out chunks of the trunk to insert Mercedes-style taillights at the back. The rest of the work involved smoothing and molding and a paint job that took seven days.

Toyota to Benz isn’t really a work in progress so much as a project at a pivot. In the past, Pierwoss has created atmospheric performances that left piles of remains behind, whether bridal linens or a roomful of fried onions. With Toyota to Benz, she has a less redolent but more cumbersome remnant to contend with. Either she keeps the project going, which will entail sorting through all of the stories, photographs, films, receipts, documentation, and drama that she’s gathered so far to produce a book, a more elaborate installation, or a series of YouTube-style videos. Or she sells the car, destroys it, or simply learns how to drive it — at which point it will stop being an artwork at all, just a freakish family car.

In fact, the Toyota is exactly as old as Pierwoss, who was born in Tübingen, a university town south of Stuttgart. Her parents are originally from Poland, and moved around Germany every few years because her father was heavily involved in theater. Pierwoss went to high school in Swaziland, university in Leipzig, and in 2007, ended up in Lebanon as an exchange student on a DAAD scholarship. Her first love was not Beirut but the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, where in 2008, she created an incredibly sly and delicate installation on the Rachid Karami International Fairground, threading Chinese ribbons around and between the Oscar Niemeyer–designed structures. The work embodied the fragility of a failed modernism — the place is a wreck— while evoking Lebanon’s lamentable surfeit of red tape. Because the fairground is managed by a government ministry, even turning the electricity on required approval from Beirut.

For several years, Pierwoss was back and forth between Beirut and Berlin, though of late she has been spending more time in Lebanon; the fact that she recently married and gave birth to a child no doubt contributed. The car itself originally belonged to the father of Pierwoss’s husband, Alexandre Habib, also known as the video artist and filmmaker Siska (who runs LABeirut, a collective devoted to Super 8 and 16mm film stock) and before that as the graffiti artist and rapper 6K, part of the brilliant but short-lived hip-hop outfits Kita Beirut and Kita’youn. Siska learned how to drive on that car, as did his older brother and two older sisters.

By her own admission, Pierwoss isn’t a video artist and doesn’t particularly care about process, but she filmed and took photographs at every stage of the production of Toyota to Benz, not least because it opened up so many subcultures she never would have known otherwise — illegal drifting competitions in Bourj Hammoud, legal drifting exhibitions supported by Lebanon’s Ministry of Youth and Sports, rows upon rows of body shops with crazy names and car parts strung from palm trees in Ouzai, the mechanics and paint specialists in the depths of Mar Mikhael (one of whom is referred to by all in the Armenian quarter as “The Muslim”), the guy who fixes up Alfa Romeos in a garage below her building, and the Spoiler Center, that vast, landmark-status emporium of classy-to-bling car accessories, which also happens to be owned by her landlord. The question now is what to do with all of that material, which tells at least three very different stories — about image, class, and capitalism — that have yet to be fully fleshed out. In both current and potentially future incarnations, Toyota to Benz is most obviously a critique of an image-conscious, surface-loving, status-obsessed society, and even in that not-seemingly-unique sense, intensely local.

 “I don’t think the rest of the world is aware how insane the car thing is here,” says Pierwoss. On one hand, the valet parking for clubs is routinely designed to show off expensive cars while relegating the lesser makes to back lots, out of sight. On the other, “people are faced with so much crap here — on all levels of society — that car culture becomes a kind of dream, the big beauty of capitalism. If you want it and can’t get it, we’ll copy it, we’ll improvise.”

In some ways, Lebanon’s car culture is open. Pierwoss met a mechanic who fixes cars for drifting and offered to teach her how to drive and drift and compete. The sport, which involves intentionally oversteering so the back wheels lose their traction, the vehicle slides sideways, and the driver maintains control at high speed, is at once incredibly popular and virtually unknown to mainstream society. (Drifting has a much more public profile in the Gulf, where it makes for mass entertainment.) Among the auto shops in Ouzai, however, the world of car-work is conservative and closed. None of the mechanics there would speak to Pierwoss directly (her husband had to serve as interlocutor), and even after the work was complete, not one of them attended the opening, though they were invited. It was a relief, in a way. “How do I explain to a guy in Ouzai that I can’t pay him another $500, and then invite him to join a roomful of people in their finery, many of whom actually drive the same car? The white cube here is a much bigger clash than in other places, where you can pretend these hierarchies don’t exist.”

Maybe the most fascinating and complicated subtext, though, is Lebanon’s place in the global auto parts trade. “If you want to get rid of your car in Germany,” Pierwoss says, “you have to pay 100 or 200 euros to dispose of it. But there’s an entire industry of people who will pay you 100 or 200 euros, strip the car, sell the spare parts in Africa, and then somehow it ends up whole in Ouzai.” Lebanese in Germany have a monopoly on the secondhand car-part market; they are the guys who cut cars in half, ship them abroad, and weld them back together again. Dismembering cars is a common strategy for evading taxes and customs duties. (It was also part of an alleged Hizbullah money-laundering scheme exposed last year when the US Treasury Department closed down a local bank.) Unfortunately, cars that have been broken down and reassembled have a propensity to split in half again at high speeds. Usually, this just adds to the high number of car accidents that happen all the time in Lebanon (where road rules are optional and speeding against traffic on a hairpin mountain highway is fine), but it made the news briefly, in 2005, when a Mercedes re-dismembered itself, killing a member of parliament and his wife.

For now, Toyota to Benz is something of an albatross. Or a beached whale, perhaps, occupying precious real estate in the parking garage below the building where Pierwoss lives. Whatever she does now with the work, the car itself is a sight, riddled with bumps and flaws. She calls it “a monster, a complete Frankenstein.” But not just that. “It’s not only a portrait. It’s also a sculpture. It transports a lot,” she says. “My audience is not stupid. I don’t need to underestimate them, neither at the Beirut Art Center nor on the street. They know something strange happened here.”

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The Angry, Angry Arab

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As’ad AbuKhalil is a serious-minded political scientist and an erudite commentator on Middle Eastern politics. He is a tenured professor at California State University and the author of three books, including Historical Dictionary of Lebanon. But AbuKhalil is not nearly as popular as the Angry Arab, his alter ego and the voice behind the prolifically trenchant Angry Arab News Service blog. On the internet, the Angry Arab assails nearly every political actor in the region and directs particular vitriol against the US, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the United Nations, and the Gulf Cooperation Council. His posts, which can number well above thirty per day, range from terse (verging on monosyllabic) assertions to frenzied rants that contain no paragraph breaks and little regard for punctuation. But his indifference to presentation seems not to have alienated his readers: the AANS garners tens of thousands of hits every month and has made him a preferred pundit both on Englishand Arabic-language television. The Angry Arab spurns journalistic and academic formalism and offers a furious reaction to the day’s news, calling bullshit where he sees it — which, by the look of his blog, is everywhere. His favorite food is fried eggplant.

We first saw As’ad AbuKhalil speak at what seemed very much to be an Iranian government–funded Islamic center off Edgware Road in London, a modest space stocked with an array of bubbly English-language Iranian propaganda magazines (and even a few real-life mullahs). The talk took place during the London mayor’s Shubbak festival, brought to us all by HSBC, which aimed to carve out “A Window on the Arab World” for Londoners. Although planned many seasons in advance of the Arab Spring, the festival rapidly adjusted to prevailing winds, flying in the fresh-faced revolutionaries made famous by Al Jazeera and Time magazine. We were there on behalf of our own English-language Iranian propaganda magazine, Bidoun, with our travel and lodgings comped by the same deep and interconnected set of pockets. That is to say: we first saw the Angry Arab, As’ad AbuKhalil, speaking in a free and open forum sometime in the early twenty-first century.

Babak Radboy: I have a friend who was in Russia when the Soviet Union collapsed. He would talk about how the time directly following was the freest press he had ever witnessed. This was not because people were telling the truth, but because there were so many different interested parties at play that telling the truth about something was always interesting to someone else — a kind of biodiversity of propaganda. I think we are weirdly in a parallel moment today with all of these different international news outlets. I would be interested in your thoughts about Al Jazeera in this context.

As’ad AbuKhalil: I think it is fair to say, as Pierre Bourdieu said in his book On Television, that in capitalism in the modern age we are presented with a multiplicity of channels, but it’s like going to the supermarket and seeing hundreds of different cereal boxes only to find that they are all made by General Mills. It is the same with the media. In the Arab world, basically the media is owned by the Saudi or Qatari royal families and their affiliates. But Al Jazeera’s role has gone through a few distinct phases. When it first started in 1996, it seemed truly to aim at providing a free media with free expression — something unprecedented — to gain as many viewers as quickly possible. They were very successful. The second aim was to go after the Saudi royal family, something that the Arab media has not allowed for decades and decades. Since 1957, no major Arab media outlet has spoken against the House of Saud. After September 11th, however, Al Jazeera had a rapprochement with the Saudi royal family and it affected the channel in a major way. It narrowed the parameters for debate. The channel became less interesting. They were too afraid to disturb the many sensitivities of the Saudis.

BR: What was the nature of this change? Why did it happen?

AA: The Saudis were interested in reconciling with them because they were afraid of what Al Jazeera would do to affect stability inside the kingdom. Both parties calculated — both being clients of the United States — to get along for their own mutual benefit.

BR: Do you think there’s a big difference between what the Saudis want and what the Qataris want?

AA: There were different things that they wanted, but since the uprising in Bahrain they have converged. When they saw that a fellow Gulf country was under the threat of a popular uprising, they decided to close ranks, and that’s when Al Jazeera primarily became a propaganda channel. It’s not at all neutral anymore. It’s so propagandistic it’s almost funny.

EP Licursi: You were talking on the blog recently about the uniformity of the Syria coverage on Al Jazeera and the Saudi-owned media outlets. Every Friday for the last couple of weeks, every broadcast was falsely reporting that protests had reached Damascus and Aleppo. Almost similar to the coverage of Libya earlier, that feeling of incitement or mobilization.

AA: These are not news channels. They are now used as vehicles for mobilization and education and for the spread of rumors and deception — with very little news left in between. The Palestine story is so weak. There is so little Palestine coverage on Al Jazeera now.

BR: How would you compare Al Jazeera English and Al Jazeera Arabic?

AA: I don’t watch Al Jazeera English that much, to be honest. Every time I see it, I find it less crazy, less frenzied, less propagandist than the Arabic channel. But many people who watch it closely send me emails saying it’s just as bad.

BR: I seem to remember you saying that you had a meeting with the emir of Qatar?

AA: On two occasions, yes. The second one, in 2010, was very long.

BR: Can you tell us about that?

AA: Well, I was in Qatar, as I sometimes am, for interviews on Al Jazeera Arabic. The second time he asked to meet with me, Wadah Khanfar, the director of Al Jazeera, drove me to this private resort where he was staying. We were there for three hours. I began by joking, “So you are friends with Saudi Arabia now?” He was like, “Oh no!” and started speaking about them in very negative terms. I said, “I would volunteer my services if you want to resume the conflict with Saudi Arabia.” Or something to that effect. [Laughs] I also complained that it was clear that Al Jazeera had less freedom since his reconciliation with Saudi, and he responded, “Not by orders from me.”

BR: Whose order, then?

AA: I told him that I was not able to speak about Arab politics on Al Jazeera, I could only speak about American foreign policy. He said, “That is not in any way my intention,” and so on. He said he would speak to the director of Al Jazeera, but I don’t think he was sincere.

BR: When the previous director of Al Jazeera left, right around the time of the Bahrain uprisings, was there more to that story?

AA: From what I have heard from a friend at Al Jazeera, he hasn’t really left.

BR: Really?

EPL: Really?

AA: Yeah.

BR: So it’s just symbolic?

AA: Yeah, they are working very closely with him.

BR: Sounds like a conspiracy.

AA: Whose?

BR: The Qataris?

AA: Well, it’s not only the Qataris. They are playing a role in coordination with the United States and Saudi Arabia. There is a very aggressive movement going on by America, the Saudis, the Qataris, and so on. That movement is not succeeding on all fronts, Syria being the obvious example. Egypt was very successful with the election, but things are still not getting done.

BR: But is this a geopolitical concern or a financial concern? It seems to me Egypt and Libya were geopolitically stable. If someone stood to gain from regime change, it would have been a business concern.

AA: On behalf of whom?

BR: International corporations.

AA: No, I don’t see it that way. If you look at Syria and so on, the imperial interests and the interests of Israel far exceed the corporate concerns. In that sense, I don’t view the political economy approach as the target. America in many ways and at many times has sacrificed its economic interests for Israel.

EPL: Well, but how do you see the Qatari regime’s interests manifesting in its coverage of Egypt?

AA: Well, it’s working, is it not? They banked on the Muslim Brotherhood — they gave them a lot of money — and they did very well in the election. And the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has changed its tune on foreign policy a lot. They have become far less militant. They have become far less strident, and all of that squares with American and Qatari foreign policy.

BR: Speaking directly on Syria, I would be interested to get your opinion. It seems like a strange position to be in, when you are simultaneously against intervention and against the regime.

AA: Well, my view is that there was a popular uprising very early on. Genuine. And it was hijacked by the Arab counterrevolution — by Qatar and Saudi Arabia and the Hariri family in Lebanon on behalf of the US military. It was hijacked, and they created this vehicle, the Syrian National Council, and it is now less about Syria and more about a regional conflict. An international conflict pitting Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah on the one side and Saudi Arabia, Israel, America, and Qatar on the other. That is what the conflict is, and they are using the rebels as pawns.

BR: I guess my question is a bit more terrible — it’s hard to find an example of a revolution that doesn’t get co-opted or utilized by some non-egalitarian power in order to succeed…

AA: Not always. You are talking as if there is a sense of finality to these uprisings. But all world revolutions took years to form. Certainly we are not at that point.

The Marble Lawn

I was seven when my father left for Saudi Arabia. He came into my bedroom one night, the day after a trip to the Petrified Forest and two days before my birthday, to kiss me goodbye and ask me what I wanted from there. I said I wanted red rain boots. Not that I imagined he would find any such boots, red or otherwise, in Saudi Arabia (where it rains less than 16mm a year) but because he told me that night he was going to Germany. He frequently went to Germany on business, and on his previous trip my brother and I had asked for a dog. He came back with two, Festus Von Haus Neufken and Funny Von Haus Neufken. Brother and sister, like us. They were big, black dogs, pedigree German shepherds, which the immigration officers at Cairo International Airport mistook for lions (“These foreigners, their animals look different,” they insisted, trying to deny them entry.) My mother suggested that this time we should ask for smaller gifts. I don’t recall what my brother wanted, but rubber boots seemed reasonable to me.

It’s hard to imagine that my father wanted to go to Saudi Arabia. He was one of those large-spirited men who loved food, women, and parties. He loved alcohol, too, in that joie de vivre, larger-than-life type of way. He would wake up early every other Friday and spend the whole day barefooted and in Bermuda shorts in our oversize Cairo kitchen, marinating meats and fish, preparing vegetables and salads, and trying out cocktail recipes in preparation for his bimonthly Saturday barbecue dinner parties for fifty people plus. It should be said that his greatness as a cook was largely contingent on having a subservient other to do the peeling, chopping, and (many hours later) washing up; invariably, my brother or me.

My father had said he’d be gone for two weeks. Two weeks passed. Then four. Finally, my mother broke the news. Our father had gone to Jeddah, not Hamburg. She didn’t say how long she had known, or when he would be coming back. I’m not sure if she knew herself when he was returning. I don’t remember much of how I felt, except confused. There was a photo from a few years earlier of my father in Germany in a tan wool coat, standing in the snow, smiling, and in my mind he had been there all along, that happy person in the cold. It was hard to imagine him in the sand. I do recall asking if I would still get the boots.

I knew almost nothing about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia save that it was a desert. But every time I overheard my mother on the phone, sharing the news with friends and relatives, I would hear something else, some unease, in the spaces of silence that punctuated the side of the conversation I was privy to. I would often be close enough to hear the quick shift in intonation and pitch as the person on the other end of the line responded, “Saudiyya? Mamdouh?”

“What will he do there? How on earth will the poor man survive?”


My father was hardly the first Egyptian to decamp to the Kingdom. The first exodus left in the wake of the 1952 revolution, when the Free Officers — led by Mohamed Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser — staged a military coup, ousting King Farouk and ending the British occupation. In 1954, a spectacularly failed assassination attempt by a Muslim Brother led to a political crackdown, and many Islamists took refuge in Saudi. (Over time they sent money back to Egypt, tempting others to join them.) Nasser became president in 1956, and his pan-Arab and socialist dream, while inspiring to millions at home and abroad, was not only unpopular with Islamists. My grandfather, a steel trader, once told me that Nasser “ruined the economy and business and wrecked our lives.” Certainly there was a steady drain of brainpower out of Egypt in the years that followed — most of it westward, but some of it east, across the Red Sea, into the Kingdom. Later, at the height of the Seventies oil boom, the development of Saudi Arabia’s infrastructure created an unyielding wave of opportunities, and Egyptians were flown in by the planeload.

But my father had done well for himself in Cairo. He worked for a foreign oil company before starting his own business importing spare parts for one particular part of one kind of machinery used to extract oil — and then started another, manufacturing prefab cabins for offshore oil rigs. Occasionally, in the context of his work, he would mention the oil in the Gulf, but for the most part El Khaleeg barely existed. At school, in fact, that vast expanse of desert that extends across one million square miles and includes Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Qatar was all just Saudi Arabia — and then, at some point, Kuwait, too. In our minds and imaginations, the Gulf was just those two states, and they were where you went only if you had neither the resources nor the degree to get a decent job. It was for the desperate. Not for us.

Although Saudi was also where our relatives would go for hajj, my only real notion of the place, all of it, were the beautiful Chinese-made embroidered pajamas that my great-aunt would bring back when she went to visit her son and his wife in the Gulf. I loved those pajamas. You couldn’t get Chinese-made things in Cairo back then. I am pretty sure that when my mother mentioned Saudi Arabia, I immediately thought of pajamas.


It wasn’t until years later that I learned that my father had been desperate. His businesses had unraveled, leaving him in debt, and he had found himself in some kind of trouble. But he had connections. By way of an old rich-royal Saudi schoolmate, one of many rich-royal or well-to-do Arabs who had attended his particular private boys’ boarding school, Victoria College, my father had gotten a job in Jeddah overseeing one subsidiary in a large family-owned Saudi conglomerate.

Memory somewhat fails me about those first months of my father’s absence, but I do recall that the atmosphere was tense back then — the conversations I overheard, the heaviness in the house, and the reactions of my friends and their parents when I mentioned Saudi and that my father had moved. Some days I would come home from school to find my mother crying to herself, alone, or with my great-aunt. But there were also phone calls from my father. At some point, after a morbid start, they became exuberant calls, filled with laughter and stories and promises of what he would do and buy for us when we met again. There was talk of houses — the big marble one with a pool and a floor for each of us; the one near the palace of the King; the one with seven bedrooms. There was talk of the Red Sea coast and friends’ beach houses and snorkeling and a boat. He promised dogs — you could get any kind of dog in Saudi Arabia, they imported them from all over the world. There was an American school that had huge grounds and tennis courts and things that our small school in Cairo didn’t have.

And there were shopping malls. There was this big, American-style shopping mall, he told my mother. He said it was the first shopping mall in the Arab world. You could buy anything in Saudi Arabia, he said. Things we didn’t even know about in Cairo.

He was selling us on the idea of the place, and he was a pretty good salesman. For my brother it was the imported chocolates. (My brother loved Cadbury Eggs.) My mother loved the thought of the malls. I was tempted by the house with a pool, but perhaps not completely sold. It was hot, though, my father warned. Forbiddingly so. So hot you could even fry an egg on the ground outside. I wanted to know if we could make melted-cheese sandwiches outside instead. My father promised that we could.

We finally visited him in his big marble house with five bedrooms and a marble lawn sometime late that first year after he left. We decided on cocker spaniels and a Ping-Pong table, and every day we would be dropped off at the mall. It had been agreed that my mother would prepare for the move, and my father would give my mother a few hundred Saudi riyals to shop for our new and future life there. There were dozens of shops in that mall, plus a food court and a supermarket. We would try to time our daily shopping trips so that we would complete the first round of eighteen shops and end up at the supermarket door exactly at noon, when it was time for midday prayer. All the other shops kicked you out during prayer time, but the supermarket was willing to just lock you in for those twenty minutes and you could browse. We did, every single day for the three weeks we were there. In the evenings, my father would take us to the gold and perfume souks (which happened to also sell clothes and where I once found a purple ski suit with pink snow boots for an upcoming school ski trip to Switzerland), and on the weekends we would drive around the city looking at the public art that filled the city’s roundabouts. There were works by Alexander Calder, Joan Miró, and the French sculptor César; a giant geometry set, a huge block of marble with several cars protruding from it, a mammoth bicycle, and a mounted defunct propeller plane; hanging lanterns, world maps, coffeepots, incense burners, palm trees. But often, we would stay at home in our marble house watching old sitcoms on Saudi Arabian TV. Channel 2 had foreign programs we couldn’t get in Cairo — Alf, Out of This World, The Cosby Show.

Some mornings, I melted cheese on the front lawn.


We were back and forth to Saudi several times over the following year, and my brother and I grew to love our visits to Jeddah. We did little in the way of meeting people or making friends in that big house, but our time there was filled with goodies, and we were happy to be with our beloved dad. I also marveled at the fact that I could go out in my bathing suit. “You just slip this black thing over it, and you can go anywhere,” I would tell people back home, of the compulsory abaya. Our friends back in Cairo learned to love our visits to Jeddah, too — we always came back with presents, like crystallized sugar in pocket-size packets, or fake Reebok pumps. Once I came back with a plastic gadget for your hair that could turn a ponytail into a twist. It bought me popularity. My father did everything he could to make Saudi life enticing, and my brother and I were psyched for the move. One day, during an Easter visit to Saudi, the four of us went to the mall together. As we made our way past a store that sold Indian fabrics and Chinese vases and cloisonné wares, my father was pulled aside.

“Your iqama,” the man demanded, referring to the tiny passport-like residency booklet that visitors to the Kingdom were issued.

The man had an unruly beard and wore a traditional robe that sat uncomfortably on his belly and fell short of a desirable length. He held a dirty bamboo stick.

“He’s the moral police!” my brother whispered, as we lurked, trying to catch bits of the conversation.

My father took out his dark olive-green iqama, and the man’s face softened. (Muslims were given green iqamas, Christians red.) They exchanged words for a few minutes and when my father came back, he whispered half-jokingly to my mother and me that maybe our hair should be covered.

Not long afterward my mother seemed to have decided that we would not be moving to Jeddah after all. In the middle of one of our weekly phone calls, she told him, and us.

“I’m sorry, Mamdouh, but it’s just not a life.”

They argued, but she insisted.

They fought, but she was adamant.

This went on for weeks. Then at some point, the conversation just seemed to end. It was decided that we would only spend holidays in the Kingdom. Two months in summer, two weeks each at Christmas and Easter.


It took a while for it to sink in that my mother would never be persuaded, but eventually, my father moved from the marble house to a compound, and slowly built a new life for himself. Behind the walls of the gated community, he and his neighbors — some eight hundred other expatriate contractors — lived like bachelors. There was a makeshift disco and a bar with real whiskey (the chief of police of Mecca was a regular); there was a clubhouse and a pool; there were tennis courts and parties and women who walked around in shorts and bathing suits and summer dresses. My father took up cooking again, and competed in “cook-offs” with other chefs — mostly women. He won prize after prize. His house was smaller, wooden, one floor with three bedrooms, a little bit like the prefab cabins he once used to make for oil-field workers. He seemed happier. There are faded Kodak pictures of costume parties and belly dancers, poolside lunches and sunbathing. In all of the pictures he is tanned, smiling, surrounded by frolicking people, and always in his Bermuda shorts.

The photos from the Nineties include uniformed US Soldiers. My father had moved to the Eastern Province just as the first Gulf War began, in 1991, and his social circle expanded again. Besides soldiers, the Eastern Province was also where the American employees of Saudi Aramco, the national oil company, lived. The American compound was a sprawling village by the sea, with its own town center, a theater complex, a supermarket, and shops. On my few visits there, I saw many bikinis. For my father, the move had been a multifaceted step up. His company would service the Americans — and the hotels that were changing the skyline to host them — and it would also cater to Bahrain, just forty-five minutes away over “the causeway,” where Saudis would flock on Thursday nights. In Bahrain, there were nightclubs and alcohol, and men and women could go out freely in public. In Saudi Arabia even Starbucks was segregated into sections to separate women and families from men.

My father had a corner villa on the east coast, a real brick villa with a real garden and real grass. Water was more expensive than oil in Saudi Arabia, and his grass was expensive to maintain. But he insisted, and he convinced the company to pay.

He must have found his way over the causeway, too, but most of the photo albums he has from that time are of his compound life. The last picture in a series from 1991 features female soldiers in running shorts and gray T-shirts with the words US ARMY splayed across surprisingly full bosoms. A group has formed a semicircle around them, clapping. One of the soldiers has a scarf around her waist and her head is back, frozen in laughter. I recognize our family pictures in the background. I also recognize General Norman Schwarzkopf in full uniform.

My father called more often those days. He was full of stories. It seemed like he had met everyone you ever saw on CNN. A picture of him with Christianne Amanpour excited me the most. I wanted to go visit him right away.

But I don’t think I ever met any foreign correspondents in Saudi Arabia. Nor any soldiers, although my father had saved us some of the packaged food that had been dropped out of planes and into the desert for the ones who were deployed in combat. I do recall meeting the four women, expat oil wives who had dressed up in combat gear and driven their husbands’ Jeeps through the streets of Dhahran. (Outside of the compound, of course, women were not allowed to drive.) I can’t remember what my father thought of them, but my mother thought they were crazy. My father had taken us to Chop Chop Square a few years earlier, the place in downtown Jeddah where public executions are held, and in my mother’s mind it was foolish to antagonize the authorities — chop chop might have been the end result. (The women hadn’t been caught, in any case, though as western expats they would have probably have been deported.) All I really remember of those last few visits in the years after the Gulf War is barbecues, tennis, a badly sprained ankle, shrimp with garlic and white wine, and aura-cleansing sessions that my father’s best friend, Robbie, hosted at our house and hers. The spiritual component was new to my father’s Saudi life.

He began to call home less.


My father came home to Egypt on a summer night in 1996, twelve years after he left. He had called from the airport and asked my mother to open the main gate to the garden. For a summer night in Cairo I remember it being particularly cool, though perhaps it was just excitement that he was coming home again. He had only been back once in all those years — a two-week trip in 1995. This time, he said, he would stay for two months. He had promised we would play tennis every day, and that he would cook; we would have a barbecue and invite all our friends.

It was around midnight when he finally arrived. I had been waiting for him at the window for two hours when the black-and-white taxi finally pulled up. Behind it, a truck, loaded like a city skyline with large boxes and crates. He said that he had brought us things that he thought might fit nicely into our Cairo home. I could see my mother tense up at the sight of that truck, and I thought it must be a question of space. My mother didn’t like clutter.

My parents argued for days.

Once again I didn’t realize what was happening until it was over. My mother had known from that first night — my father was never going back. His surprise return took its toll. He opened bedroom doors without knocking, monopolized the sofa and TV. His hearing had deteriorated and no one else was interested in the football matches that began to blast through the house. He stayed home much of the time, and did little in the way of making conversation. He seemed like a shadow of his former self, and the house felt heavy with him.

Cairo was a different city than the one my father had left in the Eighties. His uniform Bermuda shorts and flip-flops seemed inappropriate. I had worn shorts myself when I first started college, catching the 48 bus from outside my house and jumping out on a corner by the Main Campus a few minutes from Tahrir Square. Occasionally someone would stare or harass me, but for the most part, no one batted a lid. That was 1993. By the time I graduated in 1997, I wore jeans or long, loose skirts. There was a rising trend of Islamism, and several deadly attacks on tourists that had shaken us all. One bomb went off at the Egyptian Museum, minutes from my university, the American one, which had also received threats. I acquired a collection of long shirts and cotton cardigans that I wore over everything now.

There were no such cosmetic options available for my father. The kind of life he had enjoyed in Cairo before he left — let alone the kind of communal lifestyle he had found in Saudi — was nowhere to be found. People weren’t so willing to party all the time. Business, too, was bad. Over time I watched him develop a facial twitch that I imagined grew from sadness, and he fell into what must have been depression. Eventually, my parents got divorced. After he moved out of the house, I would go and meet him at the local sporting club. We would sit around the swimming pool and he would tell stories of his Saudi days to friends and business associates and listless retirees.

“Unbelievable,” the mostly old men would say.

“One never would have thought.”

“Maybe we should all move there and get lives!” they would say, throwing back their heads in husky laughs.


I went back to the Gulf more recently, as a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. My map of the Arabian Peninsula had filled out: as oil prices soared and business boomed, Dubai, Qatar, and Abu Dhabi came into their own. For a new generation of Arabs, the excesses and calculated modernity of the Emirates had developed an appeal, and prestige, of their own. El Khaleeg was no longer a last resort. Dubai was being marketed as the Manhattan of the Middle East, and when I was posted there, I was delighted. From my sleek and modern apartment in a gleaming skyscraper overlooking the coast, I traveled all over the region. Including back to Saudi.

Jeddah was nothing like I remembered it. I was forced to cover my hair, and in the downtime between interviews and meetings I was cooped up in dank hotel rooms that were said to be five-star. (One time I found a giant-size scarab beetle in my bed and sat up all night at the desk, petrified that there might be more.) At an economic conference, a wooden wall divided the conference hall, segregating the women from the men, though we all sat before the same panels of mixed-sex speakers. In the streets I noticed garbage and poverty — young children begging, scores of East Asian and Afghan and maybe even Egyptian laborers, standing on street corners in the sweltering heat, waiting for the bus. There seemed to be less marble.

But I received my greatest shock at the mall where we had spent enough hours to fill months of our lives. It was like entering a time warp. Everything seemed exactly the same, like it was still 1986. Except for the paint on the walls, which was peeling, and the marble floors, which were veiny and gray. And the shopkeepers, who seemed dejected. In one shop window was a cloisonné vase that I was certain had been there all those years back. I used to walk past it every day.

Now, I couldn’t wait to get out.


My father now lives in a two-bedroom penthouse with a sweeping terrace in central Cairo. He has a large marble dining table and the many pictures of us in Saudi Arabia are framed and scattered around various ledges throughout the house. The Weber Smoker and Grill that he had shipped home from Saudi and that had stood untouched in my mother’s basement for years is back in action. On a recent evening, he smoked salmon steaks and grilled vegetables for a gathering of thirty-six.

Like the rest of us, my father has rediscovered a passion for politics this past year. Every time I see him, it’s the only thing we discuss — the state of the nation, our interim government, the military, and who our next president might be. More and more, Egyptians are concerned about what will become of the country. When the revolution first happened, we had visions of utopia. Men and women were sleeping side by side in Tahrir Square. People seemed to wear what they wanted, they were generous, food was shared, everyone was courteous — no harassment, no discrimination, no didactic sermons on marriage or religion or the veil. But one year later, we have a parliament that looks like it might be a Saudi one, and the general sentiment is that the country is going to hell. (Or Iran or Saudi, for that matter.) An Islamist Speaker of Parliament has been voted in, with an ultra-orthodox Salafi MP heading the education committee. People say his funding comes from the Kingdom — from religious radicals seeking to subvert the revolution and turn Egypt into a colony. There is talk of compulsory headscarves and alcohol bans and the specter of morality police. At every gathering I go to, the tone is alarmist. I did not think it possible for people to smoke more cigarettes than they already did, but they do.

People talk about emigrating. But to where?

My father, on the other hand, is cheerful. He still brims with nostalgia for his Saudi experience, and he enjoys his role as contrarian. At dinner the other evening, he was in his element: on his terrace and in his Bermuda shorts with a Campari in his hand, making wildcat interjections as the conversation turned dour.

Never.
It will never happen.
Come on.
I don’t believe it.
Don’t you remember? We had a great life in Saudi.
I’ll never change my lifestyle, no matter who says what.
Ha! Nev-ar!

My cousin and his wife, who had once lived in Saudi on the same compound as my father in the Eastern Province, were at the dinner. They had moved back more recently, in 2009.

“Do you remember when I first arrived in Saudi, Mamdouh?” My cousin could barely contain her smile. “On Fridays at the supermarkets there would be lines of blond-headed people, their shopping carts stuffed with crates of grape juice and large boxes of sugar. I couldn’t understand — weren’t foreigners meant to be healthy? Was there a sugar shortage expected?”

“Ah, Saudiyya,” my cousin’s husband said, shaking his head. “Those were such days.”

“I can have my assembly line going again in a second, when the time comes,” my cousin said, slyly.

“We’ll make a killing,” her husband laughed.

Their teenage daughter did not get the joke. “What are you guys even talking about, ya Mamy?”

“Wine, ya Jouji, wine.”

“Come on,” Jouji said. “I don’t even believe you. It’s against the law there!”

“Wine, ya Jouji, wine. It’s true, ya Jouji, it’s true.”

Cigarette puffs.

“And I can charge admission to the parties,” my father said.

“Like at the compound on cook-off night!”

“I used to make this one shrimp dish with white wine…”

“You had women knocking on your door. For recipes!”

Awkward laughter.

My young cousin was unconvinced. The rest of the guests laughed uneasily, their own drinks in hand.

The three Saudi returnees sighed as one. “Ah, Saudiyya.”

Occupy Godhead

selassie.jpg

As the motorcade crept up Broadway, the shower of tickertape and confetti was so thick that one might have failed to notice Emperor Haile Selassie I, serene as a saint, buried in the pomp and protocol of his own welcoming. In 1954, the small yet dignified despot arrived in New York to partake in a liturgy of champagne toasts. Accompanied by the exotic Princess Semble and the thunder of a twenty-one-gun salute, the Ethiopian monarch impressed himself upon the Eisenhower White House, the deans of Harvard, the Boy Scouts of America, and the Redwoods of California. On this, his first state visit to America, Haile Selassie swapped Coptic crosses for autographed baseball bats, elephant tusks for honorary degrees, and confessed a taste for milkshakes. Wearing his field marshal uniform, as always, crested with ten rows of medallions, the Emperor flew to Hollywood, where he met Marlon Brando on set as Napoleon. Somewhat perplexingly, Brando exclaimed, “You’ve won more battles than I have.” (By most lights, Selassie’s signal military distinction was surrendering his country to Mussolini in 1936.)

At Stillwater Regional Airport in Oklahoma, the Emperor was met on the tarmac by a Native American in full Pawnee regalia, who gave the Conquering Lion of Judah a war bonnet and renamed him “Great Buffalo High Chief.” Governor Johnston E Murray was more tongue-tied. “Welcome to Oklamopia,” he said. Before him stood that most inapproachable figure, the self-styled King of Kings who traced his lineage back to the Biblical Solomon and came laden with enough treasure for all three Magis combined — as a State Department memorandum would later put it, “Ethiopian court etiquette makes the Hapsburgs look breezy.” In the airport, Oklahoma had clumsily hung Ethiopia’s flag upside down, but what was up and what was down, anymore? Suddenly, as Lion became Buffalo, everything was sliding toward Oneness.

In 1927, the Jamaican-born Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey had prophesied, “Look to Africa, for there a black king shall be crowned.” Three years later, on November 2nd 1930, Ras Tafari Makonnen took on the title Haile Selassie, “Implement of the Trinity,” in a lavish coronation ceremony designed to convince the world of Ethiopia’s civility, high style, and large portions. As the New York Times headline ran, “5,000 Cattle Slaughtered for Feast of 25,000 on Raw Meat and Wine — Americans at Ceremony.” Not just Americans — the BBC, National Geographic, and radio and film crews from across the globe had converged on Addis Ababa. During the gilded pageant, Tafari Makonnen became not only His Imperial Majesty but also Elect of God and head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, an unspoken declaration of his inviolability, the divine right of kings.

A few years later, Haile Selassie had been recognized as “the Messiah returned to earth” by Leonard Percival Howell and other apostles who founded a religion in Jamaica literally in his name. Garvey was declared His John the Baptist. In 1966, when Haile Selassie made his first state visit to the island, an estimated 100,000 Rastafarians awaited him at Palisadoes Airport in a cloud of sanctified smoke. His landing would ever after be known as Grounation Day, the second holiest day after the Coronation.

For his part, Haile Selassie rejected his deification. He claimed to be greatly distressed at being worshipped as Jah, and sent a missionary to Kingston in 1970 to establish the Ethiopian Church in Jamaica, confiding to him, “My heart is broken because of the situation of these people. Help them find the True God. Teach them.” And yet one might argue that Haile Selassie’s involuntary deification represents a perfectly appropriate response to the spectacles that he himself created. All the state banquets, motorcades, and photo ops — the pageantry of power celebrating itself — aims to instill reverence for authority and submission among its subjects. As the 3rd century theologian Origen wrote, in his commentary on the Song of Songs, “It should be known that it is impossible for human nature not always to love something.” It should also be known that it is impossible for human nature not to love too much.


On the tarmac, that temple of the accidental deity, America itself has been apotheosized. The first record of the worship of “John From America,” or John Frum, dates back to 1940, when reports from British colonial administrators on the island of Tanna in New Hebrides, today’s Vanuatu, warned that the natives had all stopped going to church and spoke of an American who existed in two places at once — beneath the seething red lava of the Mount Yasur volcano and in the United States, from whence he would arrive one day in an airplane, bringing with him great wealth. The prophecies came true two years later, when the US Army descended in a flurry of strange gear, military drills, and marching bands. The Americans occupied Tanna until 1945, only to vanish as suddenly as they had come, leaving behind lonely offshore islands of discarded supplies. Frumists dreaming of John’s return began to build airstrips and control towers, constructed an iconography of red wooden crosses and model aircraft, and enshrined as holy relics old Army jackets with sergeant’s stripes. (Later, photos of US astronauts on the moon.) In rituals that are still performed to this day, the faithful worship GI God in faded blue jeans, their bare chests painted with the letters U-S-A and wooden rifles slung over their shoulders. As one of John’s priests has put it, “The Promised Land is still coming, America will bring it,” along with “freedom and all things.” Like Haile Selassie, America itself has found this interpretation of the American Dream uncomfortable. US officials have variously blamed its deification on Japanese spies, “Axis influence,” the mental turmoil of wartime, “fifth column activities,” communist plots, misguided missionary policy, and even the work of Satan himself, with one Presbyterian minister, Charles McLeod, calling John Frum “the embodiment of evil” — a deeply peculiar form of self-loathing. And yet the deification of an all-American John as the God of Freedom is merely an especially literal reading of the message American soft power sends. For their part, the Frumists are quick to remind foreign journalists that to wait sixty years for a John is no more strange than to wait two thousand for a Jesus.


Perhaps islands are the perfect place to watch soft power pitches go awry, peripheral isolates where auratic hierarchies ramify out of control. At the other end of Tanna, members of the Yaohnanen community have come to worship an even unlikelier deity: Prince Philip, consort to Queen Elizabeth and brother of John Frum. According to Philipian apologetics, a villager gardening on the crater’s edge was impregnated by the volcano and gave birth to a son, who traveled overseas to marry a Queen and would in due time return to his home. The Philip cult was bolstered in 1974 when Queen Elizabeth’s notoriously boorish husband sailed into Tanna on the Royal Yacht Britannia. As Chief Jack Naiva, one of the paddlers in the war canoe that greeted the royals, remembered, “I saw him standing on the deck in his white uniform and I knew then that he was the true Messiah.” Prince Philip came and went, but his worshippers still hope the Duke of Edinburgh will return to Tanna to spend the last years of his life there. As Chief Naiva put it, “He won’t have to hunt for pigs or anything. He can just sit in the sun and have a nice time.”

Marx, writing of the distended cult of personality and near-divine self-regard of Napoleon III, famously observed, “Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as a tragedy, the second time as farce.” When he heard about the cult a few years after his visit, Prince Philip established a long-distance relationship with his estimated four hundred worshippers, routinely exchanging portraits and trinkets. Islanders sent him a pig-killing stick — Philip sent back a photograph of himself, wielding it on the lawn of Buckingham Palace. (In fact, no pigs would die.)

On nearby New Hanover, a rival congregation that favored the American president Lyndon B. Johnson devised a kind of homeopathic ritual to bring their chosen one to his people. In the territory’s first democratic elections in 1964, islanders voted for LBJ and offered him $1,000 to come to New Hanover to rule over them. As thousands awaited his arrival at an election-night vigil on a mountaintop, LBJ was in the State Dining Room of the White House, towering over none other than Haile Selassie, in Washington on yet another state trip. As LBJ said in his toast to the Emperor: “With God’s help, we have always stood proud and free upon our native mountains.”


Another John-from-elsewhere, Brigadier-General John Nicholson, ascended to godhead in India in 1849. A hero from the First Anglo-Sikh War, the fierce and charismatic, “strong yet upright, even-handed” English sahib was appointed as district commissioner in the Northern Punjab, where he had once “striven manfully” against Sikh rebellion. According to an 1897 biography, “The name of this particular sahib was in every mouth.” A certain swami had declared Nicholson to be an incarnation of Brahma and began to preach at Hasan Abdal the worship of his new god, Nikalsain. Five or six others embraced the new creed, and a sect was born, gathering at daybreak to chant hymns to their adopted deity. And yet Nikalsain was a jealous god — as history has recorded, “Nicholson treated his apotheosis with unexpected vigour of speech and arm.” He beat his followers with a riding-whip, occasionally releasing them on the condition that they transfer their adoration to a fellow commander by the name of John Becher. As the biography records, “In one respect at least the Nikalsainis differed from the votaries of any other creed: their only persecutor was the divinity whom they adored.” Their god was admonished to control his temper by his superiors in the East India Company; when that failed, he was transferred to a different district.

Nikalsain exemplifies the greatest pitfall of godhood: it can go to your head. Though the Brigadier-General exemplifies gods behaving badly, even the most placid deity’s powers can be abused. In February of 1921, on an early speaking tour of what was then United Province (now Uttar Pradesh), Mahatma Gandhi, a self-styled ascetic, became a god unto the peasants of the villages of Gorakhpur. At a rally attended by over 200,000 people, the secularist leader of the Indian National Congress was seen as an avatar of Vishnu and greeted with shouts of “Gandhi-ki-jai” and floods of offerings. People told stories of the Mahatmaji’s miracles — smoke rising from wells with the fragrance of perfume, a stark raving Brahmin soothed by the invocation of the divine name, a girl who took a kernel of corn in her hands and blew on it, saying his name, and one kernel became four.

Yet the miracles attributed to Mahatma often fixated on lost wealth — stolen wallets returned, missing cows restored to their herd. Or he was seen as a wrathful god, punishing those who violated the Cow Courts or the Gandhian creed. The man himself was treated like a temple statue, moved from place to place to see and be seen. As the nationalist magazine Swadesh reported, “Outside the Gorakhpur station the Mahatma was stood on a high carriage and people had a good darshan of him for a couple of minutes.”

The state of Swaraj, or self-governance, that Gandhi preached, began to take on the trappings of moksha, salvation. One night an entire village stayed awake, banging on kettledrums and cymbals and shouting that it was the drum of Swaraj. They proclaimed that Gandhi had bet the English that he could walk through fire without being burned, with Indian self-rule in the balance; the Mahatma had taken hold of a calf’s tail and emerged unhurt. The story, which peasants were compelled to pass along (on pain of incurring the sin of killing five cows), underwent further elaborations involving a cow, an Englishman, and a Brahmin, plus the news that everyone’s rent would be reduced. This last detail excited still greater crowds to loot fairs and bazaars across the region, in one incident overturning stalls of sweetmeat and halwa. The editor of Swadesh, who had encouraged the devotional tendency in the district, promptly denounced the story. The real Gandhi, in turn, responded with printed statements that he was neither avatar nor god.

But his disciples did not believe him. When local activism entered a more militant phase in late 1921, the coming of a utopian Swaraj was interpreted as the direct supplanting of the authority of the police. In February 1922, an angry mob of Gandhians set the Chaura police station on fire, killing twenty-three policemen. “Maharaj Swaraj has come,” they chanted amid the flames. The veneration of the god of nonviolence had led to violence.


One may deify in order to defy. In 1921, the same year Gandhi went to Gorakhpur, General Jules Brevie described France’s civilizing mission: “However pressing may be the need for economic change and development of natural resources, our mission in Africa is to bring about a cultural renaissance, a piece of creative work in human material.” The following year, with the pacification of the desert Tuareg tribes, Niger finally became a French colony, administered, along with the other French West African territories, by the Governor-General in Dakar.

In 1925, at a social dance in a Songay village, the first gods of colonialism began to possess their human mediums. It was said they came on the wings of the Harmattan, the wind that blows south from the Sahara, in response to the new sense of powerlessness the French regime had wrought on the cosmos. The first Hauka spirit took the body of a woman and announced himself as Zeneral Gomno Malia, the Governor of the Red Sea. Then other gods began to appear: Istanbula, from Istanbul; King Zuzi, the colonial chief justice; Sekter, the secretary; and Kapral Gardi, the corporal of the guard. Soon, there was a whole pantheon of sergeants, foot soldiers, and petty bureaucrats. Every youth in the village had been possessed. Appalled at this bizarre turn of events, the district commander sent word to Niamey, the capital, where the commanding officer, one Major Croccichia, ordered the spirit mediums, sixty in all, to be arrested and imprisoned. Upon release, and having been expelled from their villages, the sixty-odd gods of the Hauka traveled from place to place and established new congregations. The movement spread rapidly. For his brutal suppressive tactics, Croccichia himself was soon deified as Krosisya or, Korsasi.

“Hauk’ize,” Istambula shouts, “Present yourselves for our Roundtable.” In order to oppose the state power, Hauka rituals partook in its officialdom. As infamously captured in Jean Rouch’s 1955 documentary Les maitres fous, possessed mediums would draw upon all the trappings of military regalia and protocol — in khaki and pith helmets, the deities goose-step and stamp across the sand, performing right-handed salutes and pouring out gin libations under a Union Jack. At the same time, foaming at the mouth and eyes blazing, the gods would do backflips and vomit black ink, burn themselves with torches, and plunge their hands into boiling cauldrons. In sacrifice, dogs were killed and eaten raw. When Les maitres fous was released, it was banned in the French and British colonies and received among some European audiences with disgust and horror, as they confronted a gruesome mimesis of themselves, a copy conjured up in a language that even subtitles could not translate. (The film has been received by African audiences in much the same way, but for different reasons.)

Some say the human body consists of flesh, the life force, and the double or bia, the self one catches sight of in shadows in the sand. To enter the medium’s body, it is said, the colonial spirit, invisible to all save the medium, places the bloody skin of a freshly slaughtered animal over the recipient’s head, capturing the double and securing it under the skin. When the spirit has firmly entrenched itself, the medium’s body has become the god. In this way, in occupied Niger, military deities occupied Songhay bodies and their worshippers in turn occupied the French colonial administration. (Occupy Colonialism!) By 1927, the Hauka cult had emerged as a political force. The religion founded villages in uninhabited areas of the countryside and set up its own, anti-French, society. Yet it continued to expand its pantheon and practices, as the colonial administration became more complex. Hauka began to possess government officials and army officers, eventually making their way into the Presidential Palace. In the 1970s, it was even said that the military dictator of Niger himself, General Seyni Kountche, was possessed by these same gods.


Under the animal skin sack, where the double lurks, is the inner space of influence, where ideas move over the waters like smoke. What the colonial gods and the gods of diplomacy and wartime occupation can teach us, in the accidents of their theogonies, is that if one truly wishes to coerce without violence — the manifest destiny of soft power — one must act in the dreamworld of the popular. And yet to achieve its ends, soft power so often overshoots the mark, producing uncanny doubles, parodies of power — not all of them laughable. Years after his ascension in the Punjab, Nicholson/Nikalsain led the British siege of Delhi and died the next day. Hearing the news of his god’s death, the last of the Nikalsaini swamis dug his own grave and slit his throat.

It is time for a new accidental god — a happy accident — who could cut across regimes and diplomacies and transcend contexts. In the 1920s, Deguchi Onisaburo, the charismatic, fez-wearing prophet of the Oomoto religion in Japan, had a bold notion — to worship L. L. Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto, as a truly supreme being. Though Zamenhof was a Russian Jew who died too soon to witness his own apotheosis, he might have been amused by his 170,000 worshippers today, and by the quixotic Nativist movement — one that embraces humanity’s Oneness while upholding Japan’s essential superiority within it — for whom he is God.

And why not? It is impossible for human nature not always to love something, and impossible for human nature not to love too much. Zamenhof created his universal language, “Hopeful,” not just as a means of communication, but as a way to promote the peaceful coexistence of nations and enact his philosophy of Homaranismo, the universal love for humanity. A world in which Zamenhof is God is a soft world with hard consonants, which doesn’t sound so bad at all.

The Bequest of Quest

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Arab Educational Information Network (Shamaa), Ford Foundation, 2011

In his brief introduction to The Best of Quest, a 660-page brick of a book collecting scores of essays, poems, and stories from what was once India’s leading English-language literary journal, Achal Prabhala relates the chance encounter that led to the anthology’s conception. Like many such encounters, it happened in bed. Sleepless and bored, he turned to a pile of magazines his parents had given him and plucked out an issue at random. It was the April–June 1970 Quest, and there was an essay inside like a message in a bottle… a bottle stuffed with an oily rag, set on fire, and sent spinning nearly four decades into the future. At his head.

He got out of bed.

“The Coffee-Brown Boy Looks at the Black Boy” was a meditation on race and color, democracy and jazz, the shame of being alive, the shame of being Indian, the dead-end choice between the Soviets and the Americans. It was sharp, scurrilous, incantatory, sexualized, self-loathing, other-loathing; pathetic, bathetic, balletic. Its universe of references — Iris Murdoch, the Mahabharata, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Jawaharlal Nehru, WEB Du Bois, William Faulkner, Ornette Coleman, Herbert Marcuse, and (especially) James Baldwin — and the bravado with which that universe was breathed into existence, thrilled and dislocated him. “After the first sentence, I wanted to hug him,” Prabhala wrote. “By the end of the essay, I wanted to be him.” Except that the author of this magisterial vortex of an essay, one JS Saxena, seemed never to have written another word, before or after.

It’s hard to imagine a coincidence of prose and circumstance more likely to excite Prabhala, a Jesuit-trained writer and intellectual property activist from Bangalore who has lived and worked in Guyana, South Africa, and the United States. As it happened, he was deep in the planning stages of “Everybody Has Their Indian,” a special issue of the Capetown-based journal Chimurenga on South Asians and Africa. He promptly slated “The Coffee-Brown Boy” for reprinting. But he also set off on his own journey, to find out what this Quest was to have published such a thing. And what was it doing in his parents’ library?

It turned out that Quest was not unlike that Saxena essay — strange, delightful, controversial, and mostly forgotten. Founded in 1955 by Nissim Ezekiel, a young modernist poet from an old Bombay Jewish family, Quest had, over the course of its hundred and one issues, launched several generations of Indian writers working in English, published travel writing and memoirs, lampooned American seekers on the hippie trail, and published poems by Allen Ginsberg. Prabhala reached out to Arshia Satter, a translator, scholar, and filmmaker with a personal connection to the journal, and the two of them vowed to assemble a reader. Early on, both were struck by the number of Muslims, Christians, and southerners among Quest’s list of contributors. They were equally surprised to discover that the contributions of Quest’s Muslim writers were often just this side of Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

The story of Quest had all that — and a terrible secret at its heart. In 1967, the New York Times reported that the Congress of Cultural Freedom (CCF), a Paris-based “unofficial, voluntary organization of free men bound together by their devotion to the cause of freedom” that served as a kind of international endowment for the arts, had been founded, and oft-funded, by the American Central Intelligence Organization (CIA). The CCF had sponsored magazines, theater groups, writers’ clubs, orchestras, art exhibitions, conferences, and cultural exchanges across the globe; Quest was one of these. Transition, an African magazine in the CCF’s orbit, was another. That journal was already quite well known to Prabhala — one of his first essays, on coffee-brown boys looking at black boys, more or less, had appeared in Transition’s American revival in 2006. (Disclosure: I was the editor of Transition at the time.) The original Transition had been shut down by the Ugandan government in the wake of the CIA scandal; in London, the poet Stephen Spender had resigned as editor of Encounter, the CCF’s flagship journal. But Quest had survived that storm. It was another storm — Hurricane Indira — that had shuttered Quest for good, in 1976, amid the declaration of martial law and the state of emergency.

The Best of Quest can be slightly maddening, with its mostly but not entirely chronological organization, its lack of contributors’ notes, the glaring absence of an index. But this is quibbling. (And, supposedly, slated for improvement: the book sold out of its first print run even before its official launch, and the second printing will have more apparatus, Prabhala assures me.) But it is a pleasure to read, literally packed with obscure yet fascinating debates, impeccably edited prose, and not a few surprises. Like Satyajit Ray’s illustrations of the erotic sculptures at Konark, or the mysterious Mister Saxena and his message in a Molotov cocktail.

Over several weeks, Prabhala and I sat down for a series of Skype conversations to talk about Quest and the CCF and cold war cultural diplomacy.

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Arab Image Foundation, Ford Foundation, 2011

Michael Vazquez: So as I understand it, the story of Quest begins with the General Secretary of the Congress for Cultural Freedom wandering the cities and towns of India, looking for an editor. What, precisely, was he there for? What was the point of Quest?

Achal Prabhala: I think it depends. For the CCF, it seems fairly obvious. By the 1950s Nehru was clearly socialist. And the communists had been strong in India from long before independence. And this was not long after Mao’s triumph in China. So from the CCF point of view, there was a sense that if the right people could be found, India was a place where something needed to be done. But I think from the Indian point of view, there would have been a real desire on the part of people like Nissim Ezekiel, the founding editor, to have a modern Western-style publication that would be a home for literary writing. I imagine that he saw it, frankly, as a chance to start something that looked like Encounter. The people involved with Quest were the sort of people whose main experience with literature would have been outside the country. So I imagine that it would have been an attractive proposition to get money to start up something that brought that side of the world here.

MV: In Peter Coleman’s book The Liberal Conspiracy, he narrates how Nissim got the nod as editor in part because he had a clear idea about what the magazine should be — and maybe the idea for the title, too? It would be a “mouthpiece” for Indian writers not published abroad, and it would be “a bulwark against further deterioration of the English tongue,” which was already “appalling.” I love that detail. What a fine argument for a magazine. There are other quotes in Coleman’s book that describe the sheer willfulness of Quest’s project, as an English-language literary magazine in this epicly large country where almost no one speaks English, and where the people who do speak it have almost nothing but condescension for Indian literature in English. And of course, this is what the CIA does with its money in India. And why not? This pairing of often vague ideology and incredibly specific purpose could be seen in a lot of CCF projects. You can say a lot of high-minded things about Encounter that are true, but at some baseline level the point of Encounter was to try to get English people to think that Americans were slightly less dumb. And you can say a lot of things about Quest and free men devoted to the cause of freedom and so forth, but at some level the point of Quest was to try and make sure that someone would keep on writing in English now that the English had left.

AP: The amazing thing is that that same kind of Anglophone elite — I mean sometimes literally the same people, but definitely the same kind of people — would say exactly the same things about the need for standards and the appalling deterioration and all that, today, in 2012. My grandparents, my great-grandparents — every one of them was educated in the UK, and all of them were somehow able to yearn for a better kind of Anglophilia without being colonial sellouts. Which is important, I think. It sounds like a “good old days” project, but it’s not. It’s weirdly more like, “This is how the new days will be.”

MV: It took perhaps longer than anyone anticipated, but I can’t help but think of the unexpected success of The Best of Quest as a kind of validation of that project now, in an era when English writing in India is no longer a punchline. Like if there is some twinkle in the godhead that corresponds to those dudes who founded the CCF, they would be incredibly pleased at this turn of events. This is exactly what was supposed to happen, even if they didn’t even necessarily believe it ever would. You know what I mean?

AP: Yes, I do. And it’s true, I think. I mean we know some of those people, on the Indian side at least — Laeeq Futehally, who is an old family friend and was the literary editor of Quest the whole time, who joined Arshia and me in editing the book — she said exactly that. Laeeq was of the same class as Nissim, and of that same opinion — that people needed to be able to write better, that the standards of English had to go up. Quest was a very heavily edited magazine, and Laeeq was the person doing the editing. So she was the gatekeeper for language and punctuation and she exercised that very dutifully. I mean there are a couple of errors in The Best of Quest but those were all made during the transcription. None of those errors existed in the original publication. The quality of editing and proofreading was just really excellent.

MV: There’s also that great line in Dilip Chitre’s reminiscence, where he says that his job was to “copy edit or rewrite the kind of atrocious prose only the most learned can write — and many of our contributors were, to say the least, most learned.”

AP: [Smiles] Superb. Yes, absolutely. I mean, I suppose that this project, of creating a writership, probably doesn’t come across clearly. Certainly, nobody reading The Best of Quest is going to automatically get that. But it was a huge part of the project. And, you know, the people who wrote for Quest went on to become very big figures in our literary and intellectual life, our artistic life. I think that one can safely say that a lot of the sense of style was influenced by the way they were edited at Quest.

MV: Getting back to the question of what the CIA was doing, or thought it was doing… One sometimes gets the sense that it did not really know what it was doing, necessarily, that there were various people inside and out of the Congress who were just turning spigots on and off all over the world.

AP: A lot of it was networking. A lot of what the CCF did was hold meetings. So many meetings! And part of the point of the meetings was just to integrate these people from all over the world. Sheila Massani was the ad sales person for Quest, and the wife of Minoo Massani, the head of the Indian Committee for Cultural Freedom. She basically remembers those as the best years of her life, when she and her husband would go on two or three holidays a year, to Europe and America, where she would meet all these amazing writers and amazing people. So it was a soft power seduction financed by hard cash.

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Arab Reform Initiative, Ford Foundation, 2011

MV: I think there was a kind of… conference arms race, too. By the late Fifties you have the Afro-Asian Writers Movement, which is mostly Soviet-sponsored, and which is holding meetings and giving prizes. So then you start having… CCF junkets, and Afro-Asian junkets… and sometimes the twain did meet. We know that Rajat Neogy, the editor of Transition, attended an Afro-Asian writers meeting in Beirut in 1967, which was the meeting where they decided to start the journal Lotus: Afro-Asian Writing.

AP: That’s awesome, that’s really awesome. I suppose in some sense it was just everyone in these starved countries trying to get anything and everything that they could, no?

MV: That was definitely a big part of it. Although one thing I have realized lately is that many of the people who were involved in these left-wing anti-communist projects in the third world were… real, bona fide left-wing anti-communists. They had the same biographical arcs as the Europeans and Americans who had started out as communists and then apostasied for one reason or another and ended up on the left but opposed to Russia. The Indian CCF, which was much bigger than Quest, had a number of major figures like that. Anyway what I find interesting are the differing degrees of opprobrium that different kinds of… we would now say foreign funding, provoke. If you received KGB money, the worst you would be called was… a communist. But if you took CIA money, the best you can hope for is to be called a chump.

AP: That’s true. In India, at least, that was Nehru’s success. When I was on my way to the States for the first time, to go to college, I remember this tea party my family attended and the overwhelming sentiment was: “Oh, I have never been to the United States, not even once, and I’m so happy about it.” And my father said, “Yes, yes, actually I haven’t been, either.” America was just the worst. That said, it doesn’t help America’s cause that USAID is by far the suckiest aid agency in the world. People who work for it or take money from it should be suspect for stupidity, really, more than complicity. Because you have to be exceptionally dim to want to do the kinds of things that they’ll pay you for.

MV: There’s a bit I quite like in the Quest editorial that addresses the CIA revelations. Abu Sayeed Ayyub observed that one wants to be able to vouchsafe the integrity of the editor. But then isn’t integrity, he says, “an inward thing; how is the reader to judge? The only way the reader can honestly judge a magazine is by reading it. A journal is as good as what it publishes.” The thing about the Congress for Cultural Freedom is that, at least in the African context that I know the most about, they funded a ridiculous number of excellent projects, from the first major conference of African writers in Africa, to magazines like Transition and Black Orpheus (both absolutely pivotal to the development of African literature in English). The Mbari Club in Nigeria. Various scholarships that helped get young black writers out of South Africa. The Transcription Centre in London — which was this great faintly Hans Ulrich Obrist-esque project, in the sense that every time an African writer came through London, he or she would go and sit for an interview. So there were many interviews with the same person, over time; which eventually came to comprise a composite oral history of that era. Many, many careers were launched or bolstered by CCF affiliates or with CCF money. And yet it also destroyed a certain number of people…

AP: Did it really, though? Obviously there was collateral damage after the CIA story became public in 1966/67. Yes, it was a big scandal; yes, it was written up a lot; and yes, the communists obviously jumped all over it — it was like a wet dream come true for them. But none of the people who edited or wrote for Quest, at least, were destroyed. Nobody died. If anything the people associated with Quest flourished afterward. Quest itself flourished afterward — it was around for another ten years. CIA didn’t kill Quest. Indira Gandhi did.

MV: I guess I am so used to thinking of this only in a tragic key, because of what happened to Rajat Neogy at Transition. Because Rajat was kind of destroyed. I mean he was not killed, he did not die because of it, but he was never the same again. And the CIA revelations helped set in motion the chain of events that led to the magazine being shut down, and to Rajat’s imprisonment.

AP: But wasn’t that really just him? And from what I’ve read — I mean it wasn’t the CIA thing directly, right? It was the specific manner in which the government that the country he lived in capitalized on these things?

MV: Sure. I mean one can say a lot of things. And it was probably less the idea that his work had been compromised than the fact that the government, his own government, could up and revoke his citizenship. He was profoundly invested in Africa, and in his Africanness. And — of course, it’s complex. Certainly when they went after him and shut down the magazine and ransacked his house, they were convinced they would find proof that he was a CIA agent. But that was, literally, a pretext. He and one of his writers in Uganda were arrested because the government had imposed a state of emergency and introduced preventive detention laws and was sacking judges whom the increasingly authoritarian state considered unreliable, and because Transition was publishing articles that were critical of same. But I will just add that Rajat wasn’t the only one. There was Tawfiq Sayigh, the editor of Hiwar. Sayigh was another one of these hopeful monsters, like Rajat the Indian African or Nissim the Bombay Jew or Ulli Beier, the German who founded pivotal magazines in Nigeria (Black Orpheus) and Papua New Guinea (Kovave). Anyway Sayigh was a Palestinian Christian and a modernist poet who translated T.S. Eliot into Arabic. He’d founded Hiwar in Beirut in 1964, and the journal was wildly successful, if only for publishing the first short stories of Tayeb Salih, which in turn convinced Salih to return to the abandoned manuscript that would become Season of Migration to the North. Hiwar was also wildly controversial; even without the CIA connection, the CCF and its Anglo-American milieu rankled both the Nasserites and the Francophiles. When the story broke, Sayigh made a full-throated defense of CCF, and when it was confirmed, he was left holding the bag. The magazine folded and he went into exile — another exile — in California, where he died a few years later, much too young. Which is why Quest seems so fascinating to me. From the selection of pieces in The Best of Quest, it’s clear that it didn’t just survive the scandal — it did much of its best work afterward. “The Coffee-Brown Boy Looks at the Black Boy” is from 1970. Of course that piece is like the ultimate outlier, but there’s just an incredible wealth of material from the later issues in the book, culminating in an interestingly oblique essay on “Power and Personality” that without mentioning Indira Gandhi by name closes with the warning that contemporary leaders with their “doggedness, narcissism, and the sense of being special” can “drag whole nations in their wake.”

AP: [Laughs] I think one thing to remember about Quest is that it was founded only a few years after independence. And even in terms of the context that Quest operated in — even just the backdrop of Third Worldism and liberation struggles — you know, there were hardly any third world countries in the late Fifties. So for a lot of these new countries these projects didn’t really come to fruition until the end of the Sixties.

MV: If the sales of your anthology are any indicator, perhaps it took closer to sixty years for Quest’s project to find its audience. Shall we end where it started, with Saxena? I love that line, “Imprisoned in other people’s metaphors, he cannot even experience his prison.” But then there is this, where he appears to be talking about you:

Freedom does not lie in searching for meanings in the debris of your own life which someone else has hidden for you to find. It consists in making meanings for yourself, in improvising out of the flimsy materials of thoughts, feelings, and sensations which are the concrete YOU, a set of resonances you can really call your own. In the beginning, I had to be dug out by archaeologists…

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Increase Water Supply to Jordanian Households, Millennium Challenge Corporation, 2010

Sticky Fingers

Foreign Funding in Flux

In late December of last year, Egyptian security forces wielding automatic weapons raided the offices of ten NGOs, among them American pro-democracy groups like the National Democratic Institute, International Republican Institute, and Freedom House, along with a number of Egyptian human rights groups. Among the effects they plundered were computers, paper files, and, in at least one case, an office coffee maker. The raid set off a frenzy of stories in the state-run press about the foreign provocateurs who had illegally received millions of dollars in order to sow unrest in the country. One Arabic language TV program, called al-Haqiqah, or “The Truth,” featured the confession of a former Egyptian employee, who claimed the organization was full of intelligence agents seeking to provoke sectarian strife… and who drank alcohol on the weekends. By the time formal charges were filed against forty-three defendants — including some nineteen Americans, sixteen Egyptians, three Serbs, two each Lebanese and Germans, a Palestinian, a Jordanian, and a Norwegian — a prosecutor revealed that the groups had been working “in cooperation with the CIA” and “serving US and Israeli interests.” At least one of the raids had yielded a Wikipedia map of Egypt divided into four parts. The foreigners wanted to carve up Egypt!

In February, a coalition of twenty-nine leading Egyptian NGOs issued a press release declaring their opposition to the crackdown and called for the immediate reform of a restrictive Mubarak-era NGO law that required organizations to register with the Ministry of Social Solidarity. The press release went on to decry the “slandering and intimidation” of civil society groups. Back in the US, the charges inspired growls in the Congress and talk of cutting the US’s annual $1.3 billion outlay to the Egyptian military. Presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich went so far as to liken the crackdown to the Iranian hostage crisis (seven of the charged Americans sought shelter at the US Embassy after being denied the right to leave the country).

Of course, denouncing foreign conspiracies is a time-honored tradition in Egypt; the House of Mubarak routinely discredited its adversaries as Israeli, American, or Iranian spies. And during the eighteen days of protest that led to the downfall of President-for-Life Hosni Mubarak, foreigners were routinely accused of sowing the unrest that had gripped Tahrir Square and the country at large.

Several theories have circulated as to what had inspired the crackdown. Some offered that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces had hoped to distract the country from a recent spate of violence. Others said it was born of a high-level feud between the Egyptian government and its American patrons. Yet others, seeing the hallmarks of Interior Ministry campaigns of past years, intimated that remnants of the former regime were trying to stir up trouble. Every single theory lingered on a woman named Fayza Abou El Naga, a steely-eyed but petite force of nature who, as Minister of Planning and International Cooperation, was a rare Mubarak-era holdover who had survived the revolution and was widely seen as the architect of the current crackdown. Abou El Naga, who is sixty-one years old, is frequently described as the most powerful woman in the Egyptian government.

Bidoun spoke to a number of individuals who have stakes in the ongoing drama — people who run human rights organizations or art spaces, funders, activists, and one official from the Muslim Brotherhood. Fresh from parliamentary victories that have left it dominating the country’s first postrevolution legislature, the Brotherhood will surely play the most significant role in defining Egypt’s future. What follows is only the beginning of a conversation that is likely to be vast and vexed. This is not the first time we have looked into the contentious question of foreign funding in the Middle East, nor is it likely to be the last.


Issandr El Amrani is a freelance journalist and commentator. He blogs at Arabist.net.

Moukhtar Kocache is a former program officer for arts and culture at the Ford Foundation.

William Wells is director of the Townhouse Gallery.

Alaa Abd El Fattah is a blogger, software developer, and political activist.

Khaled El Qazzaz is a spokesperson for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party.

Basma El Husseiny is director of Mawred, a cultural resource center. She is a former program officer for arts and culture at the Ford Foundation.

Oussama Rifahi is director of the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture.

Amr Gharbeia works at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

Sarah Rifky is a writer and curator. She is the founding director of CIRCA (Cairo International Resource Center for Art).

Hossam El Hamalawy is a journalist, blogger, photographer, and socialist activist. He blogs at Arabawy.org.

Angela Harutyunyan teaches art history at the American University of Beirut.

Marwa Sharafeldin is a women’s rights activist. She is co-founder of the Network of Women’s Rights Organizations in Egypt, and NGOs including Fat’het Kheir and Nahdet el Mahrousa.

Participants were interviewed independently, and the text below reflects a quilt of their responses. With the exception of Oussama Rifahi and Angela Harutyunyan, who are based in Beirut, all interviewees live in Cairo.


What do you make of the current campaign against foreign funding and NGOs at large?

Amr Gharbeia: It feels more and more like the beginning of a campaign to target local NGOs, period. As much as I may not like NDI or Freedom House, I do worry that this is just the entry point to a crackdown on the NGOs we like. A lot might change, including the marginal freedom we’ve enjoyed these recent years.

William Wells: There’s no question this is the beginning of something. There’s been nonstop discussion about the whole business of Egypt’s reliance on America’s $1.3 billion in aid each year. We were in the coffee shop last week and there were some guys asking me about the Chinese — you know a few weeks back twenty-three Chinese workers had been abducted in the Sinai at a cement factory — and these guys at the coffee shop were like, “You really think there were twenty-three Chinese?” They thought it sounded fishy. But then a couple of security guys sitting nearby turned and said “Yes, Chinese! You know, the Egyptians are buying weapons from them, too.” It sounds like the military has reached a point where they’re saying, frankly, we don’t need this money and we don’t want the restrictions that go with it. This is why they can snub the Americans, as if to say take your weapons and take your democracy money — they’re getting their weapons from elsewhere now. But you know, I have no idea. That’s just coffee shop talk.

Is there a sense that this is part of a pattern in Egypt, occasional scaremongering about foreign conspiracies?

Gharbeia: They’ve used it the whole of my political life, which is all of seven years. It was used to discredit the Kifaya movement in 2004 and 2005, and the 6th of April Movement more recently. Today, the same groups and individuals who were targeted back then remain targeted now—which tells you really how much of a “transition” this has been. Wells We’ve been harassed since the moment we opened up. At some point Al Qahira newspaper, which is a cultural weekly published by the government, accused us of taking money from Israel to carry out our projects. It’s the same narrative of people having taken Kentucky Fried Chicken during the revolution to burn tires in Tahrir Square. And you know, other people who have tried to open arts spaces, especially foreigners, in Cairo or Luxor, have been shut down because of these accusations. If you opened up a space that wasn’t in line with the powers that be, they would delegitimize you with calls of foreign agendas. It’s never been easy.

Angela Harutyunyan: Or take the occasion of the Egyptian Pavilion at the last Venice Biennale. The pavilion included the work of Ahmed Bassiouny, who lost his life in the revolution. It was organized by his friend and colleague Shady El Noshokaty, who teaches at the American University in Cairo. At a press conference for the pavilion, Shady was accused of receiving “American funds” by a government official who on the one hand created bureaucratic obstacles for the realization of the project, and on the other hand made sure to distribute Tahrir stickers at the opening of the pavilion in Venice. You see a lot of this playing out in local cultural politics. In this case, Shady had received a travel bursary from the American University as well as equipment to display the work. The government didn’t provide enough funding for the execution of the pavilion, but also accused Noshokaty of accepting “foreign” funds.

Moukhtar Kocache: The government creates this atmosphere over and over again to allow them more control over civil society. They take advantage of a mostly old-school leftist fear of foreign funding, which had its moment in the eighties and nineties, mingled with standard Arab fears of intervention and imperialism.

How many times have you been called a foreign agent?

Hossam El Hamalawy: I’m a member of the Revolutionary Socialists, and they’ve gone so far as to accuse me of being a CIA agent, if you can believe it. Here is the biggest client of America using the US card as a weapon against its enemies. The biggest recipient of foreign funding in Egypt is the Egyptian government, and the most corrupt entity within it is the military. These are the guys that receive $1.3 billion in US aid per year and control a business empire that covers twenty-five to forty percent of our economy, producing everything from pasta to mineral water to missiles. They should be investigated before anyone else.

Alaa Abd El Fattah: I’ve been accused of being a foreign agent millions of times. But that doesn’t work so well with me. People don’t buy it. So they call me gay. Or since that doesn’t work, a gay rights supporter. I’ve been called an atheist, too. As funders have you encountered resistance? Kocache In the eight years I spent in the region it would come up in public forums and conversations, and in the press now and then, but by the end of my tenure it had mostly disappeared. People have become more sophisticated, more knowledgeable about the diversity of the funding matrix and what it’s there to do. Money doesn’t always come from foreign governments; it comes from foundations, agencies, ministries of foreign affairs… People may feel there are foreign agendas or that some institutions have a poor understanding of the region, but in large part they no longer believe the conspiracy theories.

Basma El Husseiny: It’s true, there’s been huge improvement. Today there are only a few organizations that hold out against foreign funding and the criticism is much less than say three or four years ago. You find people today explicitly saying that without foreign funding we wouldn’t have such a vibrant arts and culture scene. The criticism is limited to a few people from a much older generation who tend to stick to a limited nationalistic discourse. Still, if you ask the average person on the street about all this, they will be critical because they’ve been taught through the media that foreign funding means foreign meddling.

Civil society groups, whether human rights groups or even arts spaces, tend to exist in legal limbo in Egypt… How has that played out?

Gharbeia: This is the crux of it: the fact is that most activities in Egypt are illegal but tolerated. Like the fact that five people standing together on a corner violates a law that goes back to 1914 and British attempts to halt the nationalist movement. In this day and age, we have articles in our draconian penal code criminalizing labor organizing, and these articles were taken from no less than Mussolini. It’s the same with the existing NGO law. Most independent human rights groups wouldn’t register under the existing law because it’s very restrictive, so they tend to exist as nonprofit companies. The organization I now work for, EIPR, was denied registration once, we fought it in court, and then we were denied again.

Marwa Sharafeldin: Under Mubarak, to set up an NGO you had to get permission from State Security. We would go to the Ministry of Social Affairs, and it in turn would then send our files to State Security for approval. Whenever we would apply for something, or were waiting for approval of funds, we’d go to the Ministry, and the answer would almost inevitably be, “it’s still with security.” They create a system that’s impossible to deal with because it’s so twisted. Wells It’s true, even those organizations that manage to get NGO registration have found that this brings on even more restrictions. Every grant has to be held at the Ministry and reviewed, and the process could go on forever.

Do you think there’s a real fear of civil society groups from those directing this crackdown?

Abd El Fattah: Fayza [Abou El Naga] has publicly talked about how the human rights sector played a role in bringing about the revolution. This is a pretty correct assessment, though she probably can’t tell the difference between the radical rights activists and the charlatans. The regime is consistently trying to dismantle and cripple anything that played a role in the events, be it individual activists, independent media, internet kids, football ultras, human rights groups, the 6th of April Movement, etcetera. Also remember that the current controversy isn’t as much about funding as much as it is about applying for funding without getting permission from security. Or establishing an NGO without complying with the draconian NGO law. It’s about the freedom to organize, not about funding. Funding is just the excuse they use in the media.

El Hamalawy: NGOs like the Nadim Center and the Hisham Mubarak Center — both of which incidentally refuse US funding and were founded by former communists — played a central role in helping the street movement after 2000 and getting us where we are today. They were key in mobilizing the Palestinian solidarity movement, too. And later, both NGOs were central to getting legal support for striking workers and victims of police torture. If that means there’s reason to be afraid of them, then yes.

Sharafeldin: The attacks at the moment seem to be on the very NGOs that stand to monitor the Egyptian government. From this crackdown you can see that funding for these types of NGOs will never come from the government. This is an attempt to paralyze them completely by playing on nationalist sentiment and xenophobic fears.

There are allegations that a lot of money was dumped into the country after the revolution, most of it unregulated.

Sarah Rifky: That’s inevitable, I guess. There were a lot of grants with the usual, predictable key words: democracy, crisis, new social order, new social politics, youth, youth, youth, youth. There were two types of responses to this: those who really milk it, and those that push back. There are concrete examples of the push back,as when the Berlin Biennale curatorial team wanted to do research in Egypt. I think their open call came just after the Tunisian Revolution. Talk about bad timing.

Oussama Rifahi: Since the Arab uprisings, AFAC has had additional funding to make available to the public. We came up with two programs. One involved a quick reaction to the uprising, an “express program.” It ended up ruffling feathers.

How so?

Rifahi: There were questions raised: how could you react so quickly? In fact, we ended up giving a lot fewer grants than originally expected; quality was an issue. But I think the conversation was dogmatic and even out of touch with some of the realities of what artists needed. I think of Doa Aly’s essay, “There’s No Time for No Art” as a reference.

Khaled El Qazzaz: You know it was announced that over $100 million was sent to Egypt after the revolution. The question for me is, where did this money go? It’s an alarming number. We have a broken NGO law and urgently need legislation that regulates NGOs and allows them to be active, as long as their activities are transparent.

Doesn’t a lot of that money go back to where it came from?

Sharafeldin: Yes, absolutely. You have to remember that a lot of these funds are self-serving. Some donors give money to NGOs on the condition that they work on very specific issues that fit into their agendas, or on condition that they buy equipment — like computers, for example — from the donor state. Someone told me that for every dollar that comes to us as foreign aid from the US, ninety-five percent of it goes back because of the conditions attached. Canadian aid isn’t that different. Apparently on their website they have a sort of transparency that says something like, “Hey taxpayers, the money we give in aid comes back to you again…”

Abd El Fattah: It’s been much easier to fundraise since the revolution, especially since nobody bothers with the law. But since the judiciary is slowly siding with the bloody state, that will change soon. They’ve already arrested people for providing sandwiches to protesters, calling it material aid to rioters.

Unregulated foreign sandwiches!

Abd El Fattah: These are veiled middle-class moms who go to local sporting clubs distributing sandwiches…

Where do you draw lines when it comes to funding, or do you?

Wells: Me, personally, not at all, but for the sake of the gallery I have red lines that come and go. Take, for example, any money affiliated to Israel — for all sorts of reasons. At the moment I wouldn’t touch the American Embassy. In a different situation, I would so long as they didn’t impose any restrictions. It has to do with the mood of the landscape at the moment. They are offering so much money to so many people, but I wouldn’t touch it.

El Husseiny: At Mawred, we don’t receive State Department funding or governmental American funding, but we welcome private American funding. The agendas of many American private foundations are close to our agenda, while the State Department has an agenda we can’t support.

Is it tenable to say “no” completely to any and all external funds?

El Husseiny: How could we? The portion of civil society concerned with human rights, civil liberties, environment, and arts and culture is like ninety-five percent dependent on foreign funding, so if we were to prosecute everyone who is implicated, the number to be prosecuted would be in the thousands, or hundreds at least.

Rifky: It would be naive to say no. There’s no money in our economy generally that is “pure” politically speaking, and in the case of the arts, much less. Receiving foreign money doesn’t mean you’re complicit. The Egyptian state borrows money from the army and the army from the US. It would be bizarre to then say someone is guilty for taking Belgian money. Where the money comes from and moves to is so opaque. The debate also reminds me of [the lawyer] Amr Shalakany’s argument regarding the political naiveté of the Israeli boycott. Refusing to enter Israel means that you’ll never be able to visit Palestine or develop a real rather than imagined relationship with the Palestinian people.

El Hamalawy: I’m against all foreign funding. Absolutely. But I do respect the intentions and actions of many NGOs that receive these funds. I’ve personally worked with many NGOs who take foreign funding, so I can’t take a sectarian position, but for those in bed with the Americans in particular, I have many reservations.

Issandr El Amrani: It’s only possible to cut foreign funding if Egyptians start funding organizations themselves…

El Qazzaz: A vast amount of money left our country with the revolution, mostly with people from the previous regime. We have a huge cash flow problem because people are hesitant to invest or spend money in general. I think western countries in general, especially the ones that supported the previous regime, have a responsibility to the people of Egypt. We need immediate help, but this help shouldn’t come with intervention in our internal politics.

Does true “independence” exist?

Harutyunyan: There’s no such thing as independence. We’re all complicit in one way or another. The notion of being independent is often used to present oneself as a heroic victim of circumstance.

What of the gesture? Is there any value to the gesture of saying “no”?

Rifky: The gesture is not productive. It would be more productive to try and radically rethink the infrastructural questions related to arts funding and try to generate new ways of supporting the arts.

But there must be some forms of fundraising that are sanctioned?

El Husseiny: It depends on what you want to do. If you want to do charity work, like working with street children or other straightforward charity causes, you could find local funding. But if you want to touch human rights activism, civic education, or any kind or arts and culture and media advocacy or reform, there’s no chance you’ll find local funding. You might find small donors, but for the most part they will want to be invisible. The people who have money don’t want to be associated with big change at any level. Even now, after the revolution.

Gharbeia: The field and the practice of fundraising don’t really exist in Egypt. Our closest experts on fundraising are the people who fundraise for Islamic charities. The alternative for civil society organizations is appealing to the government and, guess what, they’re usually the main target of work that a lot of NGOs do.

Abd El Fattah: The reason we’re so dependent on donor funding is limitations set on collecting donations. There’s also pressure on rich businessmen who’ve opted to fund such activities in the past. Since the homegrown charity replaces the nonexistent social security net, we won’t be able to cultivate a full replacement for donor funding at the moment. We’ll have to either depend on the state or big business, and both are not good for independence, so a mix of sources is best. The serious radical centers have multiple sources of funding, severely underpay their employees, have strict policies of wage discrepancies and spend most of their money on travel or legal fees.

How did the association between NGOs and foreign agendas come about in the first place?

El Hamalawy: If you go back in time and look at when the NGO movement began mushrooming — it was back in the 1990s — most of the founders of the sector were communists. They were disillusioned by the collapse of the Soviet Union. At the time there was no social movement left, and all you had was right-wing Islamic insurgency in a fight with the government. As a result, a lot of the secular intelligentsia sided with the state. Initially they had a bad reputation and were regarded by radicals as sellouts even if they didn’t take money from the US government… Then other leftists started NGOs, most of which got their funding from western countries. Some took and continue to take a stand against American money in particular — and though I consider this decision trivial, personally, it’s definitely the most corrupt NGOs that went for the American money. In the 1990s we described those NGOs as the “human rights boutiques.” They would issue occasional reports in English to feed their donors so they could get more money…

So who are the institutional holdouts against foreign funding?

Kocache Surprisingly or not surprisingly, the groups that have maintained the most entrenched anti-foreign funding views tend to be the groups that hover around the government. These are people who work in semiofficial NGOs or the government-created NGOs or the cluster of individuals who benefit from government services and perks. And they’re mostly marginal.

Wells It’s also a generational issue. I remember the first Nitaq Festival, which was an arts event held in spaces downtown. That first year, Basma, who was at Ford, offered us $85,000 for the festival, but no one from the older generation would take part. We ended up approaching younger artists who had no problem with it and everything went fine. Those refusing to participate were major players who reject any foreign affiliation whatsoever — many of them are involved in theater and music — and they will never back away from this.

Abd El Fattah There’s always been a spectrum of positions not only per group but also per situation, from the Revolutionary Socialists who abhor all forms of funding to others who subsist on it. Don’t forget that many activities are done without donor funding at all.

Like what?

Abd El Fattah Like material support for prisoners or for workers on strike. Food, clothing, medical support. There’s also pure campaign work, like the work of the anti-torture umbrella group or the Front to Defend Egyptian Protesters.

What effect is the current crackdown having?

El Husseiny: It’s intimidating a lot of people. It’s threatening small NGOs that might have been contemplating applying for funding from outside the country and might not do so now. It’s also intimidating the well-established NGOs who haven’t been touched by the campaign yet, but who might want to stay below the radar. I think the real purpose of all this is intimidating the donors themselves, to say: “We could prosecute these people. You’re endangering them…”

Wells: I am about to find out. I recently had a meeting with partner organizations — basically Townhouse, CIC, ACAF, MASS Alexandria — and we’re trying to map out alternative ways to raise money from the region. This is obviously something that we’re looking into quite closely because of what is happening…

Have donors reacted?

Wells: For the most part, they’re more careful. A lot of organizations, for example, won’t insist that we put their logos on fliers anymore.

Have you ever gotten in trouble for a logo?

Wells: Only the US Embassy, but it was actually my other funders who called me and said, “Remove that!” But yes, they are very insistent on their logos being placed on any project they fund. Logos are paramount to them.

Do you worry about the abundance of money and how it’s being used or abused?

Wells: I worry about some of the younger initiatives and emerging artists, because they lack experience and skill and might sign on to grants and projects and not realize the consequences down the line. On the part of the grant makers, this reflects a lack of sensitivity to people on the ground.

Harutyunyan: It’s also affecting the kind of art that’s being produced. In postrevolutionary Egypt — or I should say, in revolutionary Egypt — there’s great demand for fossilized monumental representations. You can see certain genres of revolutionary art — like paintings of the revolution in the form of graffiti. I find this problematic, the monumentalization and representation of something that is ongoing… How is it possible to paint a revolution?

Is there a way for artists to productively push back?

Harutyunyan: There is “resistance.” But when I talk about resistance I don’t mean active resistance and false claims to being independent, but rather carrying out an autonomous practice. These are artists who are engaged with their own practices, who aren’t willing to succumb to the hype surrounding the revolution, and who don’t give in to producing iconic or representational work.

What have you done historically to try to deflect easy attacks of foreign conspiracy?

Wells: Years ago we were really dismissed as foreign by the Ministry of Culture and official state organs. We couldn’t even hang Townhouse posters at the state schools to invite students to come to our exhibitions. So we started a student council, and by actively offering a space to people who didn’t like the gallery, offering to produce a show or a book, we won a lot of people over and diffused the perception that were outsiders. I think [the artist] Malak Helmy — she was part of the council — once said to me that there was no way in the social world of Cairo that such a mix of students would meet and share studios. We won them over.

What about as a funder, what do you do to give smartly?

Rifahi: We’re an Arab fund. Our pot is made up of international and regional funds. This is the intelligent thing to do — an inbetween. The pot is independent, and when we give a grant to an artist in Egypt, for example, it’s a mix drawn from international, regional, and local sources.

Rifky: I’m not entirely convinced of that approach. It feels a little like a money laundering operation. The foundation is acting as a middleman or dealer for other funds. A portion of AFAC’s money comes from the Open Society Institute, for example…

Let’s talk about donor agendas.

El Amrani: There is clearly an overt agenda by governments and foundations that spend this money: they want to spread a culture of human rights, they have concerns about minorities, etc. The rise of human rights culture is not entirely innocent. It has its roots in the late Cold War, the Helsinki Accords, and so forth. But the Egyptian government itself has signed on to plenty of agreements and accords. Funnily, the US Embassy recently hit back with a primer on how NGOs work in the US, noting that they can accept foreign funding, too…

El Hamalawy At the moment, they’re obsessed with elections as a marker for democracy. It’s no secret that the National Endowment for Democracy was charged with very nasty interventions in both Palestine and Latin America. These funders are not innocent.

Do the grant themes influence the form projects take?

El Husseiny: Of course. This happens both consciously and subconsciously. It’s a global thing, not specific to Egypt. If you know there’s money available for women’s issues and your project involves women at some level, you might try to emphasize that aspect. Fund seekers must stay focused on what they really want to do.

Wells: I would apply to a cultural department with a grant, and I would find myself in a meeting with civil society and human rights organizations. As soon as you use the phrase “freedom of expression,” you get the grant. In the past, the key words may have been drawn from the development or, say, gender world… there are cycles.

What about subversion, taking money and running with it?

Rifky: For me it’s not about subverting. It’s a question of being given autonomy and time. These projects need time to gestate.

How has the uprising influenced the perception of artists, if at all, vis-à-vis the nation?

El Husseiny: The arts have gained a lot of credibility given what has come to pass in Tahrir. We’re in a strong position, and now it’s up to the artists to build on that.

What next?

Gharbeia: Society is opening up. There will necessarily be a lot of public money floating around — for the election campaigns, people trying to organize charities, cooperatives, etc. We need to invent a number of legal forms of organizations and fix others so that all the activity that is buzzing around could find ways to organize.

Sharafeldin: We need to be a bit more complex in how we look at this issue, how we address it, how we react. We are active citizens and we have rights, like the right to associate. And yes, they have the right to audit. Corruption does happen, of course, and some funds are being used the wrong way — no one can deny that. So yes, there needs to be monitoring, but the system of monitoring needs to change, and the questions the government is asking need to change.

El Husseiny: Frankly, I don’t think people believe this bullshit at all. I think people will speak against it soon…

Rifahi: We’re hoping to raise more local funds. If we manage to move from fifteen local donors to thirty in one year, that would be fantastic. These are the first steps for philanthropy in the region.

Wells: We’re unbelievably busy. Everyone is offering money. We’ve received three proposals in the past four days to partner with institutions on a major EU grant — just this week alone. It has, you know, the language of “building bridges across the Mediterranean.”

Will you go for it?

Wells: Probably. As long as there are no strings attached.

Call Me Soft

On a warm August night in Brussels, a curator, Orient, of feminist inclination, dressed up in an Egyptian belly dance costume, swaying her hips and breasts to Umm Kulthum’s epic song of a thousand and one nights. This act of seduction was intended for an audience of One. One was a man, a curator. This highly staged act, of Orient sexualizing herself for One’s gaze, transcended all codes of proper politically correct behavior. As both overcame mediocre intercourse, Orient gently asked One how, despite her intentionally seductive act, he had achieved at best an indefinite arousal. One told her repeatedly that sex didn’t matter so much to him. He enjoyed it, but he was not ruled by it; that in fact, he preferred to have what he curiously dubbed a soft erection than succumb to her desire. It was purposeful; One would not allow his desire to fully blossom around Orient. In fact, he said: in private, call me Soft. To her this felt of dysfunction. But was it something else? Perhaps he did not really like her? Perhaps he secretly liked men? As the summer receded, Orient lingered in Europe, embracing the cold, and set out to make a full investigation. She began talking to friends in the field of art, both men and women: intellectuals, writers, artists, philosophers. It wasn’t just him. More and more, she realized, the greater the intellectual and imaginative capacity of the man, the more susceptible they were to what One suffered from. They all wanted, privately, to be called Soft.

It was both daunting and upsetting to Orient that she could not rule over One — or other men she encountered in love — through her projected desire to be desired. In fact, the more desire and urgency she brought to love, the more she found herself swathed in his cold softness. It was only in Europe that this ambivalence toward sex seemed to be accompanied by an imaginary freedom. Perhaps Gala was right, half a lifetime ago, when she sang, “Freed from Desire.” Was it that? Or was the world of art becoming rather transcendental? Returning, perplexed, to a place that was no longer Cairo, she shared her concerns with her mother. “Oh, Orient, Orient. This doesn’t sound new at all. It sounds quite Christian, in fact!” Orient lost sleep over this peculiar condition. Might this withholding of a full expression of sexuality, this subversion of orgasm, somehow be a side effect of consumer culture? Less Christian than capitalist? Did softness correlate to new economic realities? Was it a response to market trends? Was the rarifying of the sex act meant to convey a specific kind of culturedness?

Orient thought again about what her mother had said. Sexual pleasure, in Christianity, was planted by the Devil to drive a wedge between man and God. In the art world, it seemed, sexual pleasure had wedged itself between man and his intellectual power. Maybe the curse went all the way back to Adam’s expulsion from the garden for frolicking with Eve. Back to the apple. Apples grew in Eden, but now they were imported from America… Her thoughts drifted to the greengrocer. Orient liked hard red apples. Was it that One and his ilk imagined that an undelayed gratification, some coming insurrection of hormonal fluids, would leave them marooned among the masses of men?

Orient felt perplexed. She was content with Soft’s affectionate caresses, his half-formed form. What did bother her, though, in the afterfeeling of it all, was that One seemed to imagine himself a more evolved species, beyond the sphere of mass consumption. Something similar seemed to be at play in their different responses to the market. Orient gravitated to all manner of products, whereas One patronized only a few exquisitely specific boutiques, invisible to the naked eye. Orient was not used to that. Visibility and desire were very much connected. No matter how much she disliked that murky gilded print on brown leather, Louis Vuitton still ruled the imagination of the fashion-minded where she came from.

Diligently investigating the etiology of softness over dinner with an Austrian pseudoscientist in Beirut, Orient was told that perhaps what she was trying to understand was something quite simple. Biological. “I know a man in Los Angeles,” he said, “whose manhood reaches his knees. When he gets hard, all the blood in his brain rushes downward, and the man faints.” Orient saw another parallel: the more intellectually conscious and plugged in One was, the more guarded they were in intimate settings. They were simply afraid not to think around her. Perhaps for ones such as One, hardness was a luxury they could afford. There is only so much blood in one’s body. She made a mental note to raise this question in the medical sphere.

It was an Armenian friend, a former queer activist and art historian, who inspired a new theory on the topic. Men like One had grown up with post-modern critical theory, she suggested, including the second-wave feminist theory of the Sixties and Seventies. It was women like Luce Irigaray and Hélène Cixous who had set the phallus on fire, a devilish effigy, as part of the struggle for a symbolism less antagonistic to female pleasure; indeed, to orgasm, so long ignored, derided, or even pathologized, as in the psychoanalytic diagnosis of hysteria. Had One completely imbibed such theory? Was his softness a form of excessive politeness, a desire not to offend?

She was dissatisfied with this idea. Could it be true that raising a boy on a healthy diet of feminist theory could only produce a kind of intellectually self-conscious man? That the unintended consequence of that fine pedagogy should be to make it impossible for One to enter Orient without seeing it as privately if not politically invasive, a violent intrusion?

Orient worried that she was on the wrong side of the world perhaps, or the wrong side of history. Her own quest for power was not easy to master in this new world, populated by sexually ambivalent men who insisted on being called Soft. Orient vowed that if Soft was, intentionally or not, slipping the rug out from under her, she would not take it lying down.

Soft asks Orient to accompany him to Barcelona. She agrees. And it is there where she finally starts to see the ways of men. “What would you do if you were a woman?” she asks. “I would use my sex appeal to manipulate others, secure power,” he says. Perhaps it is not yet time to stow away her costume after all. There may yet be a place for the trappings of theatrical femininity, rummaged out of the historical wardrobe. Perhaps this is why she retains her stage name. Though these days, upon making one’s intimate acquaintance, she asks him, too, to call her Soft.

Soft Readers Prefer Hard Covers

Last year, for the first time, e-books outsold hardback editions on Amazon.com. We are past the Rubicon. It’s a new frontier for digitized distribution, a post-publishing paroxysm. A new world that threatens to put us Beyond the Gutenberg Galaxy, which has been our galaxy, more or less, since 1436.

Fifty-six years after Gutenberg’s printing press was invented, Columbus sailed the ocean blue and found “America” in 1492. A trawl through Amazon might give you the impression that this enduring geopolitical idea has also come to an end. There is no shortage of journalistic, pundit-astic slogans and acronyms — Post-America, the End of the West, BRICS, PIGS — to describe one or another tectonic shift from West to East, from North to South, from democratic capitalist to state capitalist, from governmental to individual. It’s foreign policy for a post-political age.

One of the best — and most telling — recent titles is Parag Khanna’s How to Run the World (2011), a motivational text for… you? There is something for everyone, whoever you are. The difference between personal self-help (“How to Love Yourself Every Day”), corporate self-help (“How to Be Steve Jobs Your Way”), and nation-state self-help is not a question of ontology, just scale.

Khanna, who describes himself as a “geo-strategist, author, and world traveler,” may be the preeminent post-political pundit of the age. He is young, media adept, TED-favored, and slogan-ready — he even had his own MTV show, Innervisions.

Since Amazon is to books what Wikipedia is to education, I wanted to see what kind of “Soft Power World” is algorithmically generated by this hardback genre within the confines of the most globalized bookstore ever. What is the last bastion of control and superiority the “West” tries to hold on to over the “Rest”? I’d softly argue it is the right to morally and intellectually narrate the fallout from its entitled — and male — point of view. It may well be the last export industry the West has left.

Using the Amazon recommendation feature “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought,” we’ll explore rhizomatic links of affiliation, contouring sideways through the field. In each example, I’ll pull out the essential Amazon description, comment on the packaging (front-cover symbology, back-cover blurbs), and run excerpts from a conversation with Parag Khanna on the topic at hand. “There is a combination of an algorithm and horoscope at play in the suggestion of recommended titles! It’s psychoanalysis, cosmology, and amateur pedagogy rolled into one,” he says. “Since so many people write the same thing at the same time, it’s strange why Amazon would recommend you essentially buy another version of the same book you just bought!” It is with his book that we rev up the search engine.


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HOW TO RUN THE WORLD
PARAG KHANNA

Book Description
Here is a stunning and provocative guide to the future of international relations —a system for managing global problems beyond the stalemates of business versus government, East versus West, rich versus poor, democracy versus authoritarianism, free markets versus state capitalism. Written by the most esteemed and innovative adventurer-scholar of his generation, Parag Khanna’s How to Run the World posits a chaotic modern era that resembles the Middle Ages, with Asian empires, Western militaries, Middle Eastern sheikhdoms, magnetic city-states, wealthy multinational corporations, elite clans, religious zealots, tribal hordes, and potent media seething in an ever more unpredictable and dangerous storm. But just as that initial “dark age” ended with the Renaissance, Khanna believes that our time can become a great and enlightened age as well — only, though, if we harness our technology and connectedness to forge new networks among governments, businesses, and civic interest groups to tackle the crises of today and avert those of tomorrow.

Shumon Basar
The first of many globes we are about to encounter. A see-through one. Because, the world is not flat, it’s transparent? And yet it still casts a shadow. The title is also transparent. Like Hannes Meyer’s design for the League of Nations headquarters in 1926/27. And Norman Foster’s glass dome set on top of the reconstructed Reichstag building in Berlin. Power should be democratic and democracy should be transparent. Modernism also favored sans serif fonts for its ideological, ahistorical transparency. However, the Renaissance did not. Then again, they didn’t really have the choice.

Parag Khanna
“Governance studies” has grown astonishingly fast given how banal it is for the most part. Much of it does actually attempt to bridge the market jargon of corporate citizenship with the social messaging of bottom-up change, etc. Perhaps I’ve also fallen into the same trap to some extent.


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Customers who bought this item also bought
THE POST-AMERICAN WORLD
FAREED ZAKARIA

Book Description Fareed Zakaria’s international bestseller The Post-American World pointed to the “rise of the rest” — the growth of countries like China, India, Brazil, and others — as the great story of our time, the story that will undoubtedly shape the future of global power. Since its publication, the trends he identified have proceeded faster than anyone could have anticipated. The 2008 financial crisis turned the world upside down, stalling the United States and other advanced economies. Meanwhile emerging markets have surged ahead, coupling their economic growth with pride, nationalism, and a determination to shape their own future.

Shumon Basar
Zakaria’s title is no mere title: it’s a self-contained manifesto, seen here floating above innocent blue skies. Skyscrapers are a typical shorthand for economic prowess. That’s the Empire State Building at the bottom, red-faced with shame, dwarfed by iconic towers from Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur, and Taipei. But they’re tipsy. Teetering. Drunk on power? Because that’s what power does to you. Makes you feel big. Then history happens and whomp, it’s game over.

Parag Khanna
Media is just part of the reason that globalization has rendered the traditional category of “international affairs” increasingly meaningless. Amazon still uses that category, but there are of course subdivisions like “diplomacy,” “military studies,” “regional studies,” etc.


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THE FUTURE OF POWER
JOSEPH S NYE, JR

Book Description
Power evolves. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, unsurpassed in military strength and ownership of world resources, the United States was indisputably the most powerful nation in the world. But the global information age is rendering these traditional markers of power obsolete. To remain at the pinnacle of world power, the United States must adopt a strategy that considers the impact of the internet on global power resources. The Future of Power examines what it means to be powerful in the twenty-first century and illuminates the road ahead.

Shumon Basar
“POWER” is on Code Red. In some kind of Armageddon-esque nocturne, the globe is shrouded in black. Is something hurtling toward it, blocking the sun? (Where’s the world’s best deep-core driller when you need him?) Has an Iranian-authored virus knocked out the world’s electricity grids? It’s a new… Dark Ages. All this against an evacuated tabula rasa white. In the digital age, a blank screen is black, as opposed to the blanched white page of pure potentiality. Either the book’s designer read too much Mallarmé or she didn’t have time to finish. Or she got scared by the book’s message and is hiding in Plato’s cave.

Parag Khanna
Globalization could and should easily encompass “international affairs” with few exceptions, but then it would be too broad and authors would be lumped together, losing their niche and their all-important “turf.”


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Book Description
Hopes for a new peaceful international order after the end of the Cold War have been dashed by sobering realities: Great powers are once again competing for honor and influence. The world remains “unipolar,” but international competition among the United States, Russia, China, Europe, Japan, India, and Iran raise new threats of regional conflict, and a new contest between western liberalism and the great eastern autocracies of Russia and China has re-injected ideology into geopolitics… Now, in The Return of History and the End of Dreams, Robert Kagan masterfully poses the most important questions facing the liberal democratic countries, challenging them to choose whether they want to shape history or let others shape it for them.

Shumon Basar
For those of us who forgot, history ended back in 1992 when Francis Fukuyama said it did. But now it’s back? I can’t keep track either. Has it come back from the dead to tell us what being dead is like? Has it returned to remind the world to cherish life as if it were the last day on earth? Or to eat our brains? Anyway, why is the American flag blurred out? Is a Japanese person having sex with it? Or is it like an afterimage, the last thing America will see when the lights switch off and there’s just that blank blackness (again)?

Parag Khanna
To become popular, one has to have a grand reinterpretation. The problem is that those who have tried to do this have been historians like Niall Ferguson and Ian Morris who aren’t necessarily the most imaginative about the future and don’t know much about technology.


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WHY THE WEST RULES — FOR NOW
IAN MORRIS

Book Description
Sometime around 1750, English entrepreneurs unleashed the astounding energies of steam and coal, and the world was forever changed. The emergence of factories, railroads, and gunboats propelled the West’s rise to power in the nineteenth century, and the development of computers and nuclear weapons in the twentieth century secured its global supremacy. Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, many worry that the emerging economic power of China and India spells the end of the West as a superpower. In order to understand this possibility, we need to look back in time. Why has the West dominated the globe for the past two hundred years, and will its power last?

Shumon Basar
Sometimes it’s useful to step back, take a deep breath, and go back in time a few hundred years. Things were a lot clearer then. The West ruled! Like, the Enlightenment? Check. The Industrial Revolution? Oh man, that was awesome. Nostalgia was once described as “hypochondria of the heart.” But maybe, just maybe, that heartache is angina.

Parag Khanna
Here’s one thing everyone should ask themselves given the writing on the (Facebook) wall: Why do a PhD anymore?!

Pieties

A snowy polar bear skin splayed across a floor of Sheikh Hassan bin Mohamed bin Ali al-Thani’s guest house in Doha diverted a small crowd of visiting artists and art professionals on their way to a sumptuous dinner. Channeling a spirit of decadence equal to the decor, two prominent Egyptian artists struck poses on the white pelt, the glassy-eyed, open-mouthed head of the unfortunate animal in the foreground, as a Lebanese arts doyenne merrily snapped a photo. The incident may have stood out for its eccentricity, but it was one of several notable encounters with outward displays of the vast financial resources behind the Qatari state (and its royal family) during the inaugural festivities of Doha’s Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in December 2010. The artists gathered at Sheikh Hassan’s table were high-profile beneficiaries of Qatar’s cultural policy, which includes lavish subsidies for film, the arts, and media.

Yet in Egypt today, Qatar and its oil-fueled munificence are most often linked to an entirely different constituency. In the country’s first elections following the events of January 25, 2011, Islamist political parties — Freedom and Justice, associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Salafi al-Nour party — have won, more or less fairly, a clear majority of seats, amid accusations of financial support from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. Qatar’s investment in the region’s largely secular intellectual class and its alleged facilitation of an Islamist majority in parliament would seem to work toward contradictory ends, underwriting both the minority represented by the local arts scene, long bracketed inside an intellectual tradition with claims to modernity, and those who claim to speak on behalf of those large swathes of the population who have suffered the most from economic policies pursued in the name of “modernization.”

A similar disconnect might be observed in the foreign policy of the US, which has sponsored the Egyptian regime and its military for decades, up to and including the present era of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Meanwhile, the US State Department’s smARTpower initiative supports art with a focus “on direct community engagement that encourages dialogue, experimentation and creativity.” Arturo Linsday is an American artist who has come to Cairo under the aegis of smARTpower to partner with the young Egyptian art collective Medrar. According to the website of the Bronx Museum, which administers the initiative, Lindsay “will collect stories of ordinary people bearing witness to extraordinary times and transform those stories by way of new technology into contemporary works of art.” Perhaps Lindsay will find someone to bear witness to the use of American-manufactured tear gas in the clashes at Mohamed Mahmoud Street?

His project is likely to cut a modest profile, at least in its Egyptian context. While many European nations have established a long-term presence in Egypt through cultural centers that support a diverse range of arts projects, publications, and exhibitions, American funding of contemporary art is mostly funneled to Americans — supporting, say, American participation in the Cairo Biennale or an American artist’s residency in Egypt. Tellingly, Lindsay’s project supports arts activities in Egypt within the framework of a conversation with Americans. “It is my hope,” he writes, “that this project will open lines of communication between the artists of Cairo and Atlanta, resulting in long-lasting relationships of friendship and collaborative art projects.” It’s hard not to be skeptical of the quality of the communications that will traverse those lines, given the general irrelevance of Egyptians’ input in shaping American foreign policy. Egyptian “democracy activists” have channeled a great deal of effort into communicating urgent demands to the US government, which mostly seems not to be listening.

It is easy enough to observe America’s infamous hypocrisies when it comes to doling out democracy in the Middle East. But the cultural policies pursued by the US — and by Qatar, for that matter — seem not merely inconsistent with their larger investments in the Egyptian political arena, but actively counter to their political agendas. Of course, it is possible to argue that neither nation is invested in art per se, but rather in deploying culture to offset less palatable interventions in Egyptian domestic affairs. Yet the modes of art practice implied by the projects of Qatari collectors and American curators aren’t entirely reducible to coincident political machinations. For they are subtended by distinct definitions of art — an object, a heritage, and a set of institutions, on the one hand; an engagement with underserved or otherwise marginalized communities, on the other — that have definite aesthetic consequences.

At first glance, the creation of a museum in Doha based on the collection of some six thousand works belonging to Sheikh Hassan seems beholden to the idea of the artist as a producer of art objects. This approach might be widened to describe the effect of collecting practices by wealthy patrons from the Gulf States who have consistently focused on Egypt as central to the imagining of a modern Arab arts heritage. By contrast, American support for the arts in Egypt frames the artist as an intercultural mediator, with cooperation and even that ever-elusive “understanding” — both signatures of Egypt’s traditional role as regional power broker — itself functioning as the work of the artist. It seems important to ask what the implications might be, on the one hand, of an object-oriented approach to art in this context and, on the other, an approach to art that fundamentally challenges the role of the art institution — how each makes art visible and knowable as such. And it is important to ask, too, how distant these two models really are.

The object-oriented model implied by collection-building doesn’t necessarily entail an interest in the exchange of thoughts or ideas. Yet neither is it wholly devoted to the object at the expense of other considerations. The purchase of Egyptian painting, sculpture, video, or installation by a collector in Qatar might best be understood as transforming individual art works into the work of bolstering an art market and building collections, institutions, and historical narratives. This intervention often unfolds under the sign of a pan-Arab heritage, with both “pan-Arab” and “heritage” standing in as objects of a nostalgia for a local modernity and/or as signs of nostalgia itself. The advantages of this model for self-representation seem clear for states with minority indigenous populations and overwhelmingly large constituencies of foreign workers.

There are other models as well. Those who participated in the events of January 25 through February 11, 2011, in Egypt demonstrated an acute, almost intuitive sense of how to translate the diverse, milling crowds of Tahrir Square into a moving target. They focused on building an alternative model of community and society from inside the barricaded entrances to the square and proved themselves capable of countering the regime’s constant and insidious attempts at codifying the gathering in one-dimensional terms and adept at shifting readings of events even as they transpired. Tahrir Square, and subsequently Great Ape-Snake War, have since become key references in art world discussions, and especially those regarding the relationship of civic and political life to art, seeming to resolve an old avant-garde dream: that art — the object of art, indeed the frame that allows it to be perceived as such — had dematerialized. Perhaps this was the ecstasy of revolution in which art and its frame might dissolve like grains of sugar, sweetening the occasional banality of showing up to be counted, the anxiety of publicly demanding the fall of a regime?

Immediately following the falsely happy ending signaled by Mubarak’s resignation, the same people who were protesting in Tahrir or cheering at a distance returned to their places of work and focused a great deal of energy on the work of challenging and rebuilding the institutions that shaped their daily lives. Perhaps inevitably, this strategy of engaging the institution on its own terms has proved to be relatively ineffective, even as Tahrir’s potential to embody the transformative potential of the social waxes and wanes. What we seem to have learned is that the revolution is possible; it might be experienced in one’s lifetime. And in that moment art — what is and what might be — is transfigured. Perhaps one of the primary virtues of this rare and seemingly ephemeral occurrence is that it allows us to reevaluate what we thought we already knew about a lot of things, including art, even if it is never fully possible to escape the frame.

Last night, on the verge of the revolution’s first-year anniversary, the second Cairo Documenta exhibition opened downtown in the derelict Viennoise Hotel. Many artists chose to avoid explicit references to the revolution. What seemed striking, however, was the new clarity of a number of trends, which existed before but only tenuously, more suggestion than phenomenon, as well as a new confidence that may — or may not — reflect the swell in debate around arts, politics, human rights, and the artist’s relationship to all these. Artists in Egypt have never been naive regarding the political and/or ideological charge of competing models of artistic practice. But the fall of the old order (even if mostly symbolic) and the promise — or threat — of change may begin to yield more critically engaged approaches to the institutions and discourses that frame art-making, as well as a more inclusive definition of what qualifies as such.

The Serendipity of Sand

If my former boss were reduced to a collection of ideal geometric forms, he would be a circle and a line segment. If described by a child, in deepest winter: two-thirds of a snowman on a stick. If a still life: a moldy brioche, an overripe squash, and two wispy stalks of grain. In the real world, where I knew him, he was a physics puzzle. My boss had a roughly spherical head covered with a white mane of hair and a large, sagging, oblong torso with long, thin legs that looked too weak and too insubstantial for their burden. His was a marvelous structure, impressive in size, ingenious in form, asymmetrical in proportion, seemingly ignorant of gravity, and the source of a perplexing mystery: How did he remain upright? What forces conspired to keep this human edifice — so absurdly defiant to natural laws — from toppling over or crashing to the ground?

My working hypothesis was that my boss simply never stood up. My clearest memory of him is in his office, seated, his bulk framed by the city behind him. Our office was on the eighth floor, and the panoramic window behind him looked west, over the traffic that threaded between the Mugamma and the Egyptian Museum. In the distance you could see the Nile and the latticework Cairo tower, and then, swimming like a mirage in the heat, the endless boxy expanse of Bulaq al-Dakrur. Continue far enough and you would reach the Western Desert: hot wind, shifting sands, desert roads, and military installations, operational and abandoned.

My own office, by contrast, had a single window that faced north across a two-foot-wide alley into the window of another office, occupied by two men. One played solitaire while the other rhythmically hammered at a thick green ledger book with a very large stamp. Throughout the course of the workday, I would watch the two of them as they tossed a steady stream of refuse out the window and into the alley below: loose tea, wet coffee grounds, wax paper with smears and specks of taameya and tahina, cold ful, stale bread, the horoscope section of the newspaper, a leather briefcase with a broken clasp, a cracked SIM card. A veritable pyre of cigarette ash and butts. As the weeks passed and the refuse heap grew, I came to envy these men. The mound below their window was proof of their existence. In the early evening, after they turned off the lights, descended, and disappeared into the city, the pile of trash remained. When they returned the next morning, it grew again.

I had no trash pile to call my own. A janitor, Ayman, swept my office twice a day, and in any case I could not figure out how to open my office window. This was unfortunate for several reasons, not least because I had no other outlet for my existential ambitions. I was given no work assignments, had no discernible responsibilities; I was generally superfluous to the functioning of the office. I could disappear at any moment and no one would miss me.

And yet I persisted. I arrived punctually every morning to sit at my desk. And I would spend a full workday at my desk, developing a healthy paranoia that someone would discover my uselessness. In order to protect myself, I perfected an elaborate mimicry of work. I kept an Excel spreadsheet open at all times, filled with meaningless numbers. If someone came in, I would type furiously for a moment, squint, and then lean back in my chair with an air of puzzlement, stroking my chin for good measure. When alone, which was most of the time, I would gaze through the window at the men across the alley. I grew particularly enamored of the man who showed up in the morning, turned on his computer, and played solitaire the whole day long, with periodic breaks for tea, prayer, and littering. We were not so different, he and I. This man, playing solitaire with neither pleasure nor purpose, and I, watching him play solitaire with neither pleasure nor purpose. Some days I felt a deep empathy bubbling within me. He and I, utter strangers, were engaged in a common project: humanity.

But empathy was not enough, I decided. I needed a sense of purpose. Perhaps I could find mine by talking to my boss. He seemed sensible. He was from the American Midwest. He wore short-sleeved button-down shirts paired with large rectangular glasses. Admittedly, his beard did not inspire confidence. It was unwieldy and, more often than not, speckled with crumbs. But it was said that he had once been an engineer, the sort of person who made practical, mechanical things. In contrast with the other people I “worked” with — Omar, who spent his time buying real estate; Sara, who spent her time collecting emoticons; Hoda, who spent her time buying socks from a lady who visited our office every day to sell her socks; and Ayman, who may or may not have lived in the hallway closet — my boss was a model of stable productivity.

And so I knocked on his door. He was seated, as always, in his large swivel chair. I sank into the couch.

My boss asked me how I was liking work. I lied out of habit, enthusiastically: “Greatly!” He smiled, or at least I imagined he did — he was so heavily bearded it was hard to tell what his lips were doing.

“I do hope you’re not working too hard,” he said.

I assured him that I was not.

“I hope you have enough time to do some sightseeing.”

I assured him that I had.

“Have you been to the pyramids?”

I had lived in Egypt for six months. Of course I had gone to the pyramids.

“You should go to the pyramids,” he urged.

I blinked. Had he not heard me? Just in case, I assured him that I would go. His beard made it impossible to understand his intentions. It seemed safest to agree with whatever he said until I found a way to discuss my predicament.

“The pyramids are marvelous,” he said. He held up an arm to draw my attention to the window, as if the pyramids loomed behind him, which they did not.

I looked through the window at the pyramids that were not there and nodded.

“I don’t think you understand,” he said. “They are magnificent structures.”

I paused to reflect on the full magnificence of the pyramids. “So many stones” was all I could think of to say.

“So many stones,” he repeated. “That is correct.”

I agreed. It did seem correct.

“And do you know how they moved those many stones?” he asked.

I smiled good-naturedly. “Slaves?”

“Absolutely not!”

I had offended him.

“Volunteers! Thousands of volunteers, donating their labor during the dry season. It was an honor to work on the pyramids — to create monuments that would outlast them and their civilization.” He paused and looked at me expectantly.

“How did they manage to move all of those stones?” I asked.

“No one knows,” my boss said with great satisfaction. “No one knows how the pyramids were built.”

I was sincerely confused. I had thought we must have figured it out by now. “Really?” I said.

“Oh, there are theories,” he said. “Theories. But we do not really know.” He seemed genuinely pleased by our ignorance of how the pyramids were constructed. “All of our technology,” he said, “scientific advances, computer-aided design, robotics. And still — we do not know. Ancient civilizations had knowledge that we moderns are yet to discover.”

It dawned on me at this point that my boss was not going to be particularly helpful in solving my issues with work. “Do you know how lucky we are to even know that they exist?” asked my boss. “It is the serendipity of sand. The sand buried the pyramids and preserved them. Even today, there are so many more mysteries — not just other pyramids, but other remains of the ancient Egyptians, buried beneath the sands of the desert, waiting to be discovered.”

“Wow,” I said. I said it again: “Wow.”

“And if you go to Africa,” he said, “do you know what you will not see?”

I did not.

“Pyramids,” he answered. “In fact, you will see no large ancient structures in Africa like you see in Egypt. Many people think that is because the Africans were not advanced.” I think he smiled again. “Do you know why that is?” I now worried that my boss was going to say something racist.

I held my breath. “Climate.” He let it sink in. “Climate.”

I was still holding my breath. “It is warm in Africa. Warm and humid. Nothing built by man can survive that climate. If there were structures the size of the pyramids many thousand years old, they would have rotted over time. And we would never know.”

I exhaled. My boss wasn’t racist. Just crazy.

“Consider the zebra,” my boss commanded. “Such a strange-looking animal.”

I smiled despite myself. “It’s like a horse, but with stripes,” I said.

“Correct. And, now, consider the giraffe — such a tall, absurd neck. What do these animals have in common?” “They are funny-looking?” “Correct. And these are not the only ones: the zebra, the giraffe — the elephant with its preposterous nose. The leopard with its spots.”

I pondered this small menagerie, which consisted only of the most ridiculous animals.

“But do you know what else these animals have in common?” I did not.

“Africa! Africa is home to the strangest-looking animals in the word. Did you ever think why that is?”

Not as such. “Natural selection?” I guessed.

“Natural selection,” he agreed. “The gift of Africa’s ancient civilizations: the large-scale hunting of species to weed out undesirable strains, the selective cross-breeding of different genera, all in the service of creating the most extraordinary land mammals. It would have taken scores of generations of coordinated effort across all strata of society. Every ancient would have to know which animal to hunt and which animal to let live, and every man, woman, and child would have to have felt motivated to do so.”

I had thought natural selection meant something else. I also thought that we already knew how the zebra got its stripes. “Theories,” my boss said.

“Theories. We still don’t really know. Does Darwin explain why only the strange-looking animals survive? Does Darwin explain why the exotic-looking animals are only in Africa?”

I admitted that he probably didn’t.

“Every civilization wants to create something greater than itself. In Egypt, the pyramids. In India, the Taj Mahal. In ancient Greece, the Parthenon. In South America, pyramids — of a different kind! But in Africa it is the animals. A living monument that could thrive where a building would rot and crumble. A testament to the power of people, driven by the desire to leave something for the future.”

I am almost sure he smiled then. There was a momentary quiver in my boss’s head, a bobble almost, that seemed to betoken an impending vertical movement. The moment passed. My meeting with my boss was over. “Well, there’s work to be done,” he said, shooing me out. “Monuments of our own to build!” I returned to my office and took my place at my desk, no more purposeful than before, contemplating spreadsheets and solitaire and the refuse heap outside my window.

The Chibsi Challenge

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Crisps or chips? It’s a question of taste. Or is it? If you blindfolded your average shopper and fed them a Walkers Crisp from the UK and a Lay’s Potato Chip from the USA, would the difference be more legible than the miniscule difference in brand logos?

We don’t have a dog in that fight. In the Gulf we say snacks.

In the Arabian Fishbowl (sorry, Persian Gulf) (sorry! Arabian Gulf), the cultivation of potatoes is a comparatively recent development. (Slightly more recent than the nation-state, but not by much.) In 1976, the SPDP (Saudi Potato Development Programme, of course) established a co-operative with the Netherlands to grow trial crops of Spunta, Ajax, and Diamante from Ha’il to Hufuf. Until then, the only tuber known to the Arabs had been Fugaa’, or desert truffle, an elusive but tasty treat. (Especially, it turns out, when roasted and salted.)

The graft took, and the taste for potato crunchies in the Gulf was stoked. Decades on, there are dozens of brands arrayed around the region, each with its partisans and apologists stoking national pride or exciting international longing, packing their spuds with flavor-crystal combos and sealing them into the shiniest foil laminates from Qingdao. Soft power with a crunch, you might say. (And a sprinkling of flavor-dust.) As a tween in Doha the only thing I knew about Oman was that they made the best potato snacks. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine cracking a carton of Laban Up without a bag of Chips Oman.

Bidoun asks a not-so-random control group to taste-test a selection of potato snacks (and an arresting panoply of corn products) hand-picked from a variety of Arabian Gulf states.

We wonder:

Are Kuwaitis as naturally nice as their NICE brand natural potato chips?

Why do Saudi’s XL-brand salty snacks sport a distressed blue-jean theme?

Do discerning Qataris prefer “Mexican Cheese” or “French Cheese”?

And what do Hot & Sour BOY chips really tell us about Oman?

Let’s find out.

—Sophia Al-Maria

#1 — NICE: NATURAL POTATO CHIPS in CHICKEN and PAPRIKA FLAVORS, from KUWAIT

Michael C. Vazquez
The Chicken does not inspire confidence.

Anna Della Subin
It smells like barnyard.

Yasmeen Alsudairy
It tastes like a bouillon cube.

Vazquez
I think it smells like a potato chip.

Sarah Fan
It smells like a barnyard further away from your nose, and then when you get it in the nose it smells like a potato chip.

Sukhdev Sandhu
This presents a challenge for the researcher, because who, when they are eating crisps, puts their nose into a package of crisps? It would take a really committed, politicized, olfactory anthropologist to do that.

Vazquez
I think it may turn out that capturing the essence of a bird and putting it in a chip is not going to smell fresh, under any circumstance.

Andy Pressman
I think there is no chicken flavor at all in this.

Sandhu
It’s chicken yet it has a bunny on the logo.

Vazquez
I don’t taste the bunny.

Sandhu
The bunny is a kind of illegal immigrant.

Alsudairy
[reading the bag] “It’s NICE to be a part of the family. It’s NICE to be NICE and to be proud of it.”

Sandhu
You would think, with the gold package, that it would be more succulent or lush. Instead it’s kind of arid and desultory.

Alsudairy
[opening the Paprika flavor] This one smells like palm trees. It smells like home.

Sandhu
[reaching for the bag] Can I have a bit more? The colors are sort of electro-clash.

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#2 — CHIPS OMAN in CHILI FLAVOR from OMAN

Fan
These are kind of delightful.

Vazquez
This whole endeavor began when Sophia al-Maria confessed that when she was a child, she knew nothing about Oman except that it is the place where delicious chips come from.

E.P. Licursi
To me it smells exactly like raw potatoes. It’s nice but unseemly for a chip.

Sandhu
Look, “This product is sold by weight. A certain amount of air is packed in each bag to act as a cushion against breakage.” That is like a “get out of jail free” for any crisp manufacturer. It’s not that we are skimpy or mean — it’s to prevent breakage.

Vazquez
But there is something quite violent about the scene on the package. [A raised knife slices through a potato.]

Sandhu
The package looks like capital punishment. With a kitchen knife.

Fan
Capital punishment begins at home!

Sandhu
The logo looks like Santa Claus on top of a sheep.

Alsudairy
No, it’s the Sphinx and Big Bird.

Vazquez
The magic combination is supposed to be Chips Oman and some yoghurt drink? Laban Up?

Alsudairy
Oh, that’s so good.

Vazquez
Wait, these are chili flavor! It just hit me.

Pressman
I taste it.

Sandhu
The initial descent, because I think that is the technical word when you bite into a crisp, is a bit like opening up a battered old suitcase belonging to your grandparents. Old smells emerging, even though the clothes are sort of skanky and stinky — it’s a loving descent.

Vazquez
I think that’s another way of saying it smells like a potato.

Licursi
Exactly.

Vazquez
It’s a bit early, but I’m nearly ready to say, “Sorry Kuwait.”

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#3 — XL: FRESH POTATO CHIPS, SALTED and HOT varieties from DUBAI

Alsudairy
Wow. They’re made in Ha’il, a Bedouin city close to Iraq.

Sandhu
It conveys the sense that it’s the early days and there’ll be oil forever. But you know, it’s just going to get depleted really quick and there will be a sense of real sadness very soon.

Vazquez
Is your point that we should go buy some American potato chips right now to cushion the blow?

Pressman
I love how this package is designed to look like the back pocket of a pair of blue jeans.

Vazquez
One flavor for when you’re wearing green jeans and one for when you’re in your blue jeans.

Pressman
What I like is that it’s not the bag that is in the pocket, but the chips themselves. I am actually meant to stuff these in my back pocket and just pull them out throughout the day.

Vazquez
You could never sit down.

Pressman
The flavor profile is flattened in all these chips, actually.

Vazquez
When you say flattened do you mean nuanced or lame?

Pressman
Just flattened.

Sandhu
Are you saying these are MP3 chips, with a kind of taste compression?

Fan
And you only want lossless chips?

Pressman
I do. But what is Antioxidant TBHQ? [Reading the list of ingredients] The cognitive gap between what this wants to tell me and what it tastes like is as far from what it offers as possible. That really could be a bag of potatoes.

Sandhu
If this is natural, it makes you pine for artificiality.

Alsudairy
There is nostalgia for greenery, which the country lacks. This is something you would never find this scene. This is deception. Trying to be hip — no one would ever wear this in Ha’il. No one would wear denim and just walk around. This is like utopia for them… or dystopia, I don’t know. But I know this is not Ha’il, this acid-washed denim.

Sandhu
What areas of the world would you say this reminds you of?

Vazquez
Let me smell it again.

Sandhu
It’s a bit like airport breath, isn’t it? You’ve been traveling many hours, you have a stopover, you come back and you stink in a boring way, and you have to go to a bathroom and brush up. These are crisps that have not had toothpaste.

Licursi
One thing I noticed in all of these is that each chip has a different distribution of powder: the second one tasted completely different from the first.

Vazquez
That happens with Doritos, sometimes you get a really orange delicious Dorito and sometimes you get a shitty nothing Dorito.

Sandhu
Is it like the veil? It seems conformist on the outside but underneath there is far more tang and vitality going on.

Vazquez
Are we talking about Doritos?

Sandhu
No, about the Phenomenon of the Second Crisp.

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#4 — SALAD SNACK from the UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

Vazquez
[reading packaging] It’s for an Emirati audience, the flavor is salad, and they asked the Koreans to manufacture it? I’m a little afraid.

Sandhu
Can tape recorders record radical skepticism? Because he looks…

Licursi
Have you ever had those dreadful healthy puffs… not the Pirate’s Booty but the Veggie Sticks? It reminds me of that in terms of blandness. Vague saltiness and texture.

Sandhu
The vegetables on the bag look like a child’s safety poster.

Pressman
What I want is for it to absorb more of the moisture in my mouth.

Sandhu
It’s not Pirate’s Booty, it’s Accountant’s Booty.

Alsudairy
The packaging looks honest.

Sandhu
The instructions speak with a forked tongue…

Licursi
Is it secretly Beef Fondue flavor?

Vazquez
Wait, they are good at that in Korea!

CHPS2.jpg

#5 — RAJA POTATO CRUNCHIES in VEGETABLE and SALT & VINEGAR flavors from the KINGDOM OF SAUDI ARABIA

Subin
They look like decomposing penne.

Vazquez
This looks like you turned over a rock.

Subin
It’s larval.

Vazquez
They say they are the number-one potato crunchie, but it turns out words have no meaning.

Sandhu
The expression on your face says “mass grave.”

Vazquez
These snacks are extruded.

Sandhu
Failed infrastructure.

Alsudairy
Peter, your face!

Sandhu
It’s like a really expensive shopping mall.

Vazquez
Please: everyone try one. So we can all be on the same page.

Pressman
It is not unlike an uncooked ramen noodle with the packet stuff spread on it.

Fan
I’m tasting salad.

Licursi
I’m tasting cheap salad dressing.

Vazquez
I’m sorry, what’s the difference between salad and cheap salad dressing?

Licursi
You’re right, you’re right.

Sandhu
It’s like a massage.


#6 + 7 — EMIRATES POFAKI versus QATAR PAFKI

Subin
Emirates Pofaki: “Cheese Coated Crispy Corn Curls. Winner of the 17th International Food Award in Barcelona.”

Sandhu
It’s almost like a cheesy ball.

Vazquez
It’s a Cheeto.

Fan
It’s a Cheez Doodle, my friend.

Vazquez
This is unfortunately as close to packing material as it is to a treat.

Sandhu
It’s like the taste of indifference.

Vazquez
Qatar Pofaki — these are the worst.

Sandhu
These are the taste of the new economy.

Licursi
Weird corn flavor.

Sandhu
I think it tastes like golf.

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#8 + 9 — FUNKEES Wild BBQ Curry and FONZIES Original Cheese Corn Snacks, both from Malaysia

Subin
Now we have two Malaysian imports, Funkees and Fonzies.

Sandhu
So far I feel like we have not encountered any fundamental otherness of crisp. There has basically been no topography.

Pressman
You haven’t been startled, is what you are saying.

Vazquez
I was startled by how good the Chips Oman were.

Pressman
But was that the startle of familiarity?

Vazquez
It didn’t taste like anything else I knew…

Alsudairy
Oman has always been ambiguous. Look at its First Lady…

Vazquez
The wild in Wild BBQ Curry is cumin, I think.

Licursi
I don’t taste cheese at all.

Vazquez
Maybe it’s mislabeled?

Pressman
Oh it’s terrible! The aftertaste of this thing is actually wet sock. (I’m going to have one more.)

Alsudairy
It’s like the evil sister of blue cheese.

Fan
The word gout is here on the bag.

Licursi
Funkees — A+ for shape.

Alsudairy
It’s so eighties.

Sandhu
I wonder — if MIA had her own fashion label, would she design something like this?

Vazquez
This is the first snack we’ve tried that I think could make me sick. It has too much going on, in a way. It could be toxic.

Sandhu
Like globalization. Oh, they also have Funkee Chicken.

Alsudairy
This is the naughty chip.


#10 — SAFARI GRILLS from DUBAI

Subin
These claim to be one of the oldest but most beloved flavors. Since 1985.

Alsudairy
The literal translation from Arabic is meshes of potato.

Pressman
Safari grills? All this time I was waiting for safari girls.

Sandhu
Sephardic girls? [laughter]

Vazquez
Are they meant to look like the front of your Jeep when you’re on Safari?

Sandhu
No, no. I think they’re a bit like burqas.

Vazquez
I cannot even imagine what you are seeing right now.

Sandhu
By eating this we are helping to conserve nature. There is an abandoned elephant telling YOU to keep YOUR city clean.

Pressman
It tastes less like potato than anything else we have eaten today.

Sandhu
Post-potato?

Pressman
This image looks like something I would have drawn when I was thirteen.

Sandhu
It’s like a UFO in the shape of a saltshaker. No! It’s like a thought bubble.

Fan
Is this an existential question, like, which came first, the saltshaker or the chip?

Vazquez
It is! I would like to think it’s the chips dreaming of being salted, since they’ve clearly not been salted enough. If I can say one thing about the entirety of all these chips: the stuff is not seasoned well.

Sandhu
There is a sort of genetic fundamentalism…

Fan
Dubai has so many British ex-pats, you would think they’d have livelier crisps market.

Vazquez
You know, as PR for a region, this is terrible.


#11 — ALADDIN PIZZA CRUNCHIES from DUBAI

Subin
The pizza on this package comes complete with nightmarishly dripping cheese.

Pressman
On that green background to make it look… Oh wait, that’s lettuce!

Licursi
I thought it was some kind of weird, cosmic, planetary swamp.

Fan
It’s shaped like a lotus root.

Vazquez
It tastes like frozen pizza.

Pressman
This is a very Lovecraftian pizza. Look at its dripping. WOW. What they did is incredible! They traced the outline of the pizza and then in Photoshop — they extended it for the drip. They would have been better off using yellow crayon.

Sandhu
It’s awful!

Pressman
Its most potent moment is when there is nothing left, and all you have is a presence that is not a presence.

Sandhu
It’s melancholia…

Pressman
It haunts the edges.

Vazquez
It tastes dead but dreaming.

Sandhu
The mourning lasts longer than the relationship.

The 3rd Athens Biennale

Monodrome

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Untitled (Young is better than old), Matias Faldbakken, 2008. Photograph by Margarita Myrogianni. Courtesy of private collection

Athens
The 3rd Athens Biennale: Monodrome
October 23–December 11, 2011

A red paintball explodes bloodily against a Greek riot cop’s shield. A woman in sunglasses and a tailored business suit projectile vomits outside a posh boutique. Unappetizing slop (overcooked lentils? human shit?) is spooned into a plastic bowl in some kind of emergency kitchen. A TV set is flung from an apartment window. A masked anarchist lets fly with a Molotov cocktail in the manner of Kobe Bryant delivering a slam dunk in a Nike commercial. A male mouth expectorates a wet puff of tear gas as though it were smoke from a spliff.

Although director Giorgos Zois’s TV trailer for the 3rd Athens Biennale was withdrawn by Greece’s National Television Network (ERT) soon after it was first broadcast, it survives on a YouTube page that also contains links (mysteriously generated by the same complex algorithms that group together videos about pets or Rebecca Black parodies) to amateur and professional footage of violent clashes between Athenian police and the city’s youth. Unlike these reports from the front lines of the Greek financial crisis, Zois’s trailer is composed of six clips of very obviously staged actions, filmed in slow motion and set to a menacing electronic soundtrack.

So tonally different is this film from the thoughtful, melancholy, and elegantly installed Biennale it supposedly promoted that it was hard not to read it as satire or a deliberate exercise in misdirection. If the trailer promised to sate an appetite (not uncommon in the art world) for the empty calories of disaster tourism and highly aestheticized soixante-huit faux-stalgia, the exhibition itself provided sustenance of a very different sort.

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Photographic Archive of Prisoners, David Adler. Photograph by Margarita Myrogianni

Featuring work by over one hundred artists, the 3rd Athens Biennale assembled, as its curators Nicolas Bourriaud, Xenia Kalpaktsoglou, and Poka-Yio stated, “diverse pieces of an exploratory puzzle, addressing the ‘here and now.’” The exhibition’s title, Monodrome (roughly “single track” or “single field”), worked hard, evoking the belief, repeated ad nauseum by the European Union, the IMF, and the Greek government, that the “one way out” of Greece’s present economic predicament is the piling of pain on intolerable pain, while simultaneously positioning the “Greek example,” so often referred to by other nervous capitalist states as a purely local phenomenon, as part of a wider global malaise. Monodrome might also be understood as a translation of the title of Walter Benjamin’s One Way Street (1928), a book that begins with the observation that “the construction of life is at present in the power of facts far more than of convictions” (plus ça change…) and whose author was, along with the protagonist of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s novella The Little Prince (1943), one of an odd-couple pair of ghosts who haunted the show, appearing in several graffiti portraits daubed on the walls of the Biennale’s exhibition spaces by artist and co-curator Poka-Yio as figures of the intellectual in retreat and of the innocent, questioning child. Methodologically, Monodrome also owed much to Benjamin. This was nothing if not a show of footnotes and fragments, of ruins and dust.

Athens is a private biennale, founded at the tail end of the last economic boom by Kalpaktsoglou, Poka-Yio, and Augustine Zenakos. Given Greece’s near-bankrupt economy, it’s unsurprising that its third iteration (the concluding part of a planned trilogy that also included 2007’s Destroy Athens and 2009’s Heaven) was put together on a hope and a prayer. Accordingly, the show had no catalog and few works that required much in the way of shipping; it made necessarily inventive use of found objects and archival material, programmed its lively events strand on a mostly ad-hoc basis, and was staffed largely by unpaid volunteers. The main venue, a vast abandoned former arts and crafts school in the depressed Psyrri neighborhood, was left much as the curators found it, complete witah peeling paint, graffitied walls, and chalk-scrawled blackboards. Even the desiccated corpses of unlucky pigeons were preserved by the biennale team under gleaming bell jars, “Greek examples” that had reached a dead end, contained for analysis and as proof against contagion. Into the building’s pedagogical husk the curators introduced a number of works that pointed, obliquely or not, to lessons learned and forgotten, stories told and retold, and to energy expended and never recouped.

To pass through the former school was to adopt the persona of a new pupil, wandering from class to class, half-wary, half-hopeful. Economics of course made up much of the curriculum here, whether in the form of Michalis Katzourakis’s series of paintings of boarded-up shops, Windows (2007); Andreas Lolis’s empty cardboard boxes carved from marble, Untitled (2011); or Liam Gillick’s Inside Now, We Walked into a Room with Coca-Cola Coloured Walls (1998), a series of reddish-brown brushstrokes applied to the building’s plasterwork in a failed attempt to replicate the precise shade of the world’s favorite fizzy drink. Natural history, and a sick kind of ethics, was taught by means of Jean Painlevé’s extraordinary black-and-white film Le Vampire (1945), in which a bloodsucking bat boogies to a Duke Ellington soundtrack, and also by an undated, untitled, and anonymous bronze sculpture of a crab accompanied by a politically pointed retelling of one of Aesop’s bleakest fables (briefly: crab forsakes the seashore for the new horizons of the meadow, is eaten by a fox, and in its death throes thinks to itself “Serves me right for stepping outside my allotted spot”).

Geography, or at least the mapping of dead end dreams, was suggested by David Adler’s archival presentation of photographs of American prisoners posing against the images of glittering skylines, verdant valleys, and Hockney-esque swimming pools they had painted on their cell walls, while the curdling of language into sloganeering was examined in Mathias Faldbakken’s series of corrupt and almost illegibly corrupted printed slogans from 2008 (“Young Is Better Than Old,” “Rich Is Better Than Poor,” “And Almost Anything Is Better Than Politics”).

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Walter Benjamin Meets the Little Prince, sketches by Poka-Yio. Photograph by Antonia Chouvarda

History, inescapably, was everywhere, and seemed always to point to the present, whether in the form of nineteenth-century cartoons of an allegorical figure of Greece gluttonously vomiting loans or cowed before Britain, Germany, and France; displays of the cheap casts of classical statues once used in the school’s drawing lessons; junta-era tourist posters; or the flight uniforms designed by Pierre Cardin for national carrier Olympic Airways, sold off by the Greek state in 2009. The show concluded with a monitor showing a YouTube clip of Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center installed next to a window through which one could glimpse the glowing Parthenon. If this is the end, where next? What new future ruins might we build?

The word “urgent” is used too often and too lightly in the contemporary art world, but it feels appropriate to apply it to Monodrome. This self-searching, grief-filled, and at times fiercely defiant exhibition did much more than illustrate a crisis, or subject it to glib theorization. Rather, it articulated a dull ache of exhaustion and loss, the throb of bones burdened by too much experience. At a time in which we often ask art to function as a form of journalism or politics, to report the facts or to change them, we should not forget — as the 3rd Athens Biennale demonstrated — how skillfully it might also speak of those deep, precious and fugitive things, our feelings.

The 12th Istanbul Biennial

Untitled

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Seven Rotations (5), Dóra Maurer, 1979, silver print. Courtesy of Vintage Gallery

Istanbul
The 12th Istanbul Biennial: Untitled
September 17–November 13, 2011

There was so much to love in the last Istanbul Biennial that it’s strange now to remember how irritating it was to experience the exhibition six months ago. In the time that has passed, the biennial has closed, the catalogue has been published as an afterthought, the curator of the next edition (Fulya Erdemci) has been announced, and some of the better works installed by the curators Jens Hoffmann and Adriano Pedrosa have been picked up for public engagement in more generous and capacious shows.

When Untitled (12th Istanbul Biennial) opened in September, it seemed as though Hoffmann and Pedrosa were making an interesting tactical move that would give some direction to the unsettled fate of the global biennial format, even if the exhibition was likely to end up as an example of what not to do (conservative cynicism is a terrible response to radical naïveté). At this point, though, the legacy of last year’s biennial looks more like that of a rudimentary exercise in how to play it safe than a meaningful experiment.

Still, the premise was promising — hinge the entire thing on the work of a single artist, and not just any artist, but the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Over the course of a short and tortured decade, from the late 1980s until his death in 1996, Gonzalez-Torres perfected a language and a process that turned ephemeral everyday materials into piercing poetic gestures. A diminishing pile of candy equaled the weight of a lover’s disease-stricken body. Two synchronized office clocks conveyed the intimacy of sharing a life. A photograph of an unmade empty bed on a public billboard broadcast heartbreaking loss.

Hoffmann and Pedrosa effectively borrowed Gonzalez-Torres whole, and, after breaking down various pieces from the history of his work, they built their curatorial armature, deduced their themes, chose their title, and selected their exhibition’s color palette. Although they decided to show not a single Gonzalez-Torres piece, they argued that the biennial was suffused with his disembodied presence and breathed his spirit. The problem was that one (or two) cannot force an exhibition of some 130 artists into a relentless and unforgiving grid of temporary cubicles and make any claim on behalf of a supple and searching practice.

Moreover, what the curators extracted from Gonzalez-Torres — a balance between politics and aesthetics, a concern for history, memory, identity, violence, and desire — they could have found anywhere. The biennial lacked not only his tenderness but also his intelligence. It had the strange effect of taking a number of great artists — some of whom had lived and died before Gonzalez-Torres was born — and plunging them into to his shadow for the sake of a structural conceit. It was absurd to pin this much on a dead artist who was so universally and uncritically adored. The biennial would have honored him more if it had opened his work up for debate.

“It could be said, in both praise and disdain, that his works are ‘perfect,’ that they are so formally and conceptually airtight as to be unassailable, even that they anticipate their amnesiac embrace today,” wrote Joe Scanlon in a blazing reassessment of Gonzalez-Torres that ran two years ago in Artforum. “And yet despite this hermetic environment, I can’t help but wonder what he would think of the ease with which his artworks are administered today, or how he would feel about the assumptions that have ossified around them. If his work is going to remain vital and relevant, then it is time for those assumptions to be vigorously challenged.”

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Tropical Hangover, Jonathas de Andrade, 2009, photographic installation. Courtesy Galeria Vermelho, São Paulo, Brazil

Many better critics have already expressed the ways in which Hoffmann and Pedrosa exerted too much curatorial control over their exhibition. In laying down a strict framework that must have looked faultless on paper — five thematic exhibitions surrounded by related clusters of solo presentations — they left little to no room for useful accidents, or for the dangers and delights of leaky meaning. Maybe it’s too much to say that this edition of the biennial was disdainful of its city (by holing itself up in two quayside boxes and turning its back on Istanbul) and hostile to its artists (by so forcefully containing their work, neither allowing nor pushing them to say more) – but then again maybe not.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about the biennial was its success in making so much good work complicit in the total aestheticization of politics. Gonzalez-Torres developed a way of speaking the unspeakable in a very particular era of political crisis and culture war in the United States, not least marked by the Reagan administration’s criminal neglect of the AIDS epidemic. Using Gonzalez-Torres as a point of departure, restaging Group Material’s AIDS Timeline (1989), showcasing the Ardmore Ceramic Art Studio’s ingenious public service announcements on vessels, plates, and figurines — none of this answered the question of how or why this historical period was being revisited and revived in 2011. This aimlessness made the biennial — occurring in such close temporal and geographic proximity to political and socioeconomic upheaval around the world — feel like it was on the wrong side of history, a gesture in support of the market, the institution, the status quo, the large-scale perennial exhibition as a handy tool in the vast neoliberal kit.

In taking only forms and broad themes into consideration, Hoffmann and Pedrosa lost the potential for committed political engagement and were left with so many bits of paper, shredded documents, and ponderous books (Marx, Borges, Debord) treated as props. In some cases, they seemed to get the emphasis of a work all wrong. In others, they chose bad work over better. What makes Wael Shawky’s Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show File (2010) so wonderful and weird is not the fact that it is about “history,” but how the crude fusion of 200-year-old Italian marionettes and Amin Maalouf’s The Crusades Through Arab Eyes emits such an erotic change. Had the curators read Gonzalez-Torres’ chart of his partner’s failing immune system as being about loss and the degradation of a body rather than a line and the history of abstraction, then they might have selected Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s mesmerizing film from the installation Lasting Images (2003) instead of the lesser 180 Seconds of Lasting Images (2006).

For the past few years, the young photographer George Awde has been working on a gorgeous series of large-scale, color-saturated photographs, all labor-intensive images that capture the fragile community that a group of young men — Syrian Kurds, Iraqi refugees — have formed in precarious circumstances in Lebanon. The two images from the series that appeared in the biennial were not only the weakest of his works (but they fit the theme), they were also completely dwarfed by a bombastic installation by Elmgreen & Dragset. Rula Halawani’s powerful photographs of black-and-white Palestinian landscapes, capturing the scars of occupation and giving archival practice a new twist, could have used their own room, rather than low placement on an already over-cluttered wall. Marwa Arsanios and Jonathas de Andrade both had vast, prominent spaces for their installations delving into urban myths and failed modernisms, but neither really did justice to the individual fullness of their projects (grouping together works that looked alike was a particularly irksome tick of this biennial). An altogether different problem: Akram Zaatari’s video Tomorrow Everything Will Be Alright (2011) worked beautifully on its own. An artist of his stature didn’t need a random sampling of past projects — illegible and incomprehensible in this context — to bolster his participation.

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Woman with Flag, Tina Modotti, circa 1928, platinum print. Courtesy Throckmorton Fine Art New York

This is not to say the exhibition wasn’t full of wonders — Martha Rosler’s Bringing the War Home (1966-72), Tina Modotti’s revolutionary photographs, Dora Maurer’s Seven Rotations 1-6 (1979), Mathew Brady’s images of the American Civil War, Hank Willis Thomas’ terrific series I Am Amen (2009), and Lygia Clark’s tiny hinged metal sculptures. I loved seeing Geta Brătescu’s fabric abstractions, but I learned much more when I saw her work in the New Museum’s Ostalgia, where the presentation was far more satisfying. And that’s the thing. The curators of this biennial made such a fuss about refusing to divulge the list of participating artists before the opening, and yet the exhibition was essentially itself a list, a roundup, an arrangement of names with mostly small-scale works standing in to represent them. At least, at this point, it’s pretty clear that opportunities to better see their work will happen, they’ll just happen elsewhere.

Haris Epaminonda

Projects 96

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Untitled T35 from Vol. VII, Haris Epaminonda, 2011. Courtesy the artist and Rodeo, Istanbul. © 2011 Haris Epaminonda

New York
Haris Epaminonda: Projects 96
Museum of Modern Art
November 17, 2011–February 20, 2012

A long-gone museological universe framed in a postcard: amid intarsioed marbles, a lady in a red cashmere sweater, pearl necklace, and earrings, looks up at a massive sculpture of two figures, a lunging male and a defenseless female. It might be a perilous lift in an ice-skating competition, if not for the lion at their feet. The man, bearded and old, clasps the naked young woman to his hip, suspending her in midair as she throws her arms up, alarmed or thrilled. It is Bernini’s Abduction of Persephone at the Galleria Borghese in Rome, and on either side of the sculpture there are medallions set into the wall of the museum with white figures posed in a classical fashion. In a glass cube, another tinted postcard: whoever he is, he is too young to be married to the lady in the red sweater, though he may well be from the same Roman drawing room. He stares up at a headless Venus gathering her robes with one hand held just at the height of her crotch, such that her knees and thighs are revealed and the cloth forms a wide shell around her lower form. He is taking notes, like me. Behind him a sheet of white paper, larger, framed in fine lustrous wood.

The present is a wonderful place if you are patient, and if someone like Haris Epaminonda has collected a few dozen things for you to consider in a space of whiteness, with color and silence. Perhaps you will remember a visit to a museum when you were seven in Greece. Or in Rome, or Detroit, or Berlin, when your mother, or Epaminonda’s mother, was seven. The show fills one with longing for a time when a museum, its walls, floors, and speaking chambers, weren’t jammed with explanations. Epaminonda has re-created the chance encounter between a person looking and the object or place being seen, through the lace or grid of a particular moment in history — one in which the mystery and chasm between different ages, between you and things, tends to be left intact. You see everything as though in a movie, or in the film of memory. Built into the experience is a pre-nostalgia achieved by seemingly minor technical peculiarities — captions without images and images without captions — unthinkable in any museum context now, except possibly in rare treasure houses such as the Archeological Museum of Corfu, which Epaminonda’s show reminded me of, where the unobtrusive low-tech modesty of a setting can be the most effective backdrop for, say, a dazzling Gorgon relief. One might dedicate the Frank Sinatra song “My Funny Valentine,” to the idiosyncratic museum: “Your looks are laughable / Unphotographable / Yet you’re my favorite work of art… Is your figure less than Greek? / Is your mouth a little weak / When you open it to speak? / Are you smart? / But don’t change a hair for me / Not if you care for me.”

The show unfolds quietly, unobtrusively. There is a black wall. An interruption. A white wall. A passage. On the right, entering the gallery, I’d encountered an image of someone who might have been a friend of my mother’s, in a red dress, gazing at a large marble head. Next to it is the monumental hand of the colossus of Emperor Constantine. Two right hands were found, oddly, each with an upraised index finger as high as the technicolor woman. That is what happens in the subtle regime of viewing Epaminonda imposes: everything is within her museum, an arrangement of artifacts and representations of same, with the atmosphere of a Cabinet of Wonder. Another postcard: more well-to-do figures gazing at art, now amid powder-blue walls. A little girl in a pinafore and white blouse, a lady in a Mercedes-seat-blue suit sitting on a couch. They are looking at a painting diagonally split into two uneven triangles — rather, two paintings joined, an old stove and a draped cloth that hangs down in folds.

Now the space opens out onto a proper gallery whose walls are white with a tall white niche built in. The museum floors are mottled gray, as though waiting for some liquid to be spilled on them that they might then render invisible. On a tallish white plinth is a thunderous turquoise urn. Wavering over a part of its wide belly is a looping brush mark of darker blue, like an acrobatic plane’s signature in the sky. In the white niche, nothing happens.

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Untitled T3 from Vol. VII, Haris Epaminonda, 2011. Courtesy the artist and Rodeo, Istanbul. © 2011 Haris Epaminonda

After an empty corner, a four-sided slim bronze pipe rises from the floor and travels into the wall. On a short octagonal column stands a small celadon green urn. I can see into its shadowy mouth. Above, a smiling warrior. He has perfect Greek features and his hair, long tidy dreadlocks, is draped over his shoulders. Now a short white flight of unclimbable stairs resting against the wall ends beneath a tiny open arch with a small white ceramic vase standing in it, through which I catch a blurred glimpse of the red polo and black hair of a man, a live man, walking by on the other side.

The words “Central Asian Beluchistan Prayer-Carpet” appear beneath an absent image. A tenderly chipped stand, like a screen in a fireplace. An image of columns, the ruins of a temple. Blue sky. On the other side of the arched opening, a huddle of clay pots. An image of broken columns in an overgrown field and a framed absence next to it. A framed black-and-white picture of the interior of a church is on the floor, along with other framed pictures. A large dark urn, mottled by time. The guard in the gallery is from the Dominican Republic; he speaks a little Greek, Portuguese, Japanese, or Italian to visitors, according to their nationality. He loves the work, he tells me. “I live in a Greek community. I want to learn the language.”

I enter the big dark room where there are three screens: one shows palm trees, the air quivering around them; another frames the Acropolis, with rocks in the foreground; the third shows sculptural objects against a red or a green background — images from antiquity, a Chinese vase, a perfume bottle, a statuette of a boy with startled eyes — in reproductions from a more recent antiquity, the 1950s perhaps, against magenta or purple or sea-green backgrounds, everything touchingly drab and real like a place you have already visited and wouldn’t mind going back to. Never the same combination of images — a solution to the dilemmas of editing. One can sit back and absorb every possible alternative without having to choose one, cut out all others, or decide which might be best. And yet the same image differs according to what came before it — the vase after the boy or the boy after the bottle. On the soundtrack, gongs, bells, the subdued snorting of an animal, flutes. The images are grainy. On one screen a book reveals first a flying elephant, then a girl with a high, high forehead and cheeks like little balloons, the pages turned by an unseen hand. From the carpeted floor of the darkened room, I watch the changing images of stills and the unmoving Acropolis in the dancing multicolored specks of air on film, as riveting as the temple itself.

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Untitled T5 from Vol. VII, Haris Epaminonda, 2011. Courtesy the artist and Rodeo, Istanbul. © 2011 Haris Epaminonda

Scramble for the Past: A Story of Archaeology in the Ottoman Empire, 1753–1914

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Osman Hamdi taking a cast of a relief for the Imperial Museum during the Mount Nemrud expedition in 1883, Istanbul Archaeological Museums, photo archive. Courtesy of SALT

Istanbul
Scramble for the Past: A Story of Archaeology in the Ottoman Empire, 1753–1914
SALT Galata
November 22, 2011–March 11, 2012

A jumble of pots and bowls lay on the ground along a back wall of the basement at Istanbul’s new SALT Galata, part of Scramble for the Past: A Story of Archaeology in the Ottoman Empire, 1753–1914, one of the institution’s three inaugural exhibitions. The faux authenticity of the display reminded me of those tableaux you find at folksy, child-friendly historical sites like Colonial Williamsburg or Istanbul’s own military museum — “How the Slaves lived,” or “How the Turks Conquered Constantinople.” At first, the scene seemed out of place at SALT, a sleekly designed and modern space, all gorgeous marble, abundant light, and unassuming style.

And yet somehow those dusty bowls fit right into SALT’s ambitious enterprise. Among its countless mandates is to fill in the blanks of Turkish art history — and of history, period. The artifacts along the wall were part of the installation Dig Culture, for which the American artist Mark Dion used photographs to re-create a German archaeologist’s 1871 excavation of Troy. As a photograph, the illegal excavation looks like… well, ancient history. But staged here, the looting feels very much like an ongoing process. In fact, the building that houses SALT, the former headquarters of the Ottoman Bank, inspires a similar haunted mood as you enter: replicas of the Elgin Marbles line the stairs above your head like angels, and an enormous picture window frames the dingy, lovely rooftops of the old Ottoman city. They mournfully return SALT’s gaze, as though they, too, fear being left behind. Scramble for the Past isn’t just a story of the Ottoman era; it’s a tale of modern Turkey as well.

The relationship between the Turkish republic and the Ottoman empire remains vexed some ninety years after empire’s end. In his memoir Istanbul, Orhan Pamuk evokes the empire as some sort of phantom limb, an achy reminder of former greatness. But for most Turks born in the decades since World War II, any pride of empire was brainwashed away by the exultation of the nation — of Ataturk, of the army, of the great and singular Turkish state. Whatever connoted Ottoman — Islam, pluralism, one or another antiquity — was denigrated.

The past decade, though, has witnessed an erosion of the great Kemalist firewalls. The ruling Islamic conservative Justice and Development Party continues to revere Ataturk even as it casts off the isolationism and xenophobia that long kept Turks out of the Ottoman sandbox; these days Turks are doing business in Tripoli and Tokyo and sticking their noses in every conflict in the Middle East. The new Turkey, many have begun to say, is a star ascendant, a neo-Ottoman Turkey, with Erdogan as its swaggery sultan-in-chief.

Yet Scramble for the Past doesn’t portray an omnipotent Ottoman empire; if anything, it will remind Turks that, long before they were snubbed by Europeans, they were being robbed by them. In the show’s catalog, one finds Raymond-Jean-Baptiste Verninac de Saint-Maur, commanding officer of a ship specially built to transport the Luxor Obelisk to France, reflecting on the nobility of looting. “By stealing an obelisk from the ever-rising soil deposited by the Nile, or from the savage ignorance of the Turks,” he wrote, “France has earned the deserved thanks of the learned of Europe, to whom all the monuments of antiquity belong, for they alone know how to appreciate them. Antiquity is a land that belongs by natural right to those who cultivate it in order to harvest its fruits.”

Still, the exhibition doesn’t treat the Ottomans as mere victims, either. The European plunderers were most often authorized by the empire; it was Mehmed Ali Pasha, Ottoman governor of Egypt, who let that obelisk go.

Scramble for the Past occupies a large rectangular room on the windowless lower level of SALT. In various cases, curators Zainab Bahrani, Zeynep Çelik, and Edhem Eldem showcase old travel books by Englishmen and Germans, as well as drawings and paintings and records of the explorers’ rediscovery of ancient sites. In one case, a 1789 painting by Jean Baptiste Hilaire portrays ships departing old Istanbul with fragments of the Acropolis, a gift from Sultan Abdulhamid; another case displays part of Napoleon’s Description of Egypt; and another contains a portrait of the queen of Armenia and some drawings of Damascus. Two videos play on a continuous loop: one treating the 1881 discovery of Mount Nemrut in Anatolia, the other about Baalbek in Greater Syria. Running along the walls is a timeline that relates the history of archaeology in the Ottoman Empire.

Like Dion, artist Celine Condorelli was commissioned to intervene upon the proceedings; she designed the support structures for the books and paintings and artifacts to resemble rooms she’d seen before. Some look like the sort of old glass-and-wood cases you might find in an old Englishman’s library, while others have huge swinging doors. One mimics the cutout shape of a church window. These structures cast shadows across the timeline, often marking the onset of a new period in European archaeological excavation. The real beauty of Condorelli’s installation is the experience of following the timeline around the room: the shadows slant ahead of the cases and the artifacts, seeming to move forward in time — as if not only years but darkness, too, is racing ahead of you. This subtle feeling of urgency is braided into the exhibit, which might otherwise seem tame, bordering on staid.

The exhibit begins with the opening of the British Museum in 1753, which inaugurated the age of scientific archaeology in Ottoman lands, and the establishment of the Museum of Administration of Pious Foundations in Istanbul in 1914. But the timeline on the walls doesn’t end with the museum’s opening, as the title of the exhibition might imply — the Turks don’t even get that small triumph. It ends with the outbreak of World War I, when all that newfound potential for preservation was abruptly lost.

The timeline comes as a judgment and a warning. That the Turks more or less allowed the Europeans to dismantle their ancient sites recalls Turkey today: the disregard for Byzantine and Ottoman antiquities, the destruction of Armenian and Greek churches and schools, the belittling of history and facts. The twentieth century arguably saw more violent interruptions than the previous one: coups, wars, the disintegration and obliteration of vital intellectual and artistic communities. And, above all, the specter of Kemalism, which demanded the death of the old for the creation of the new. Preservation did not rank high among the Kemalist priorities; the present-day dearth of museums in Istanbul, a city of fifteen million, confirms as much. If Scramble for the Past is a recovery of one part of Turkish history, then SALT itself pledges to recover another.

Another contemporary piece included in the exhibition seemed to do a little of both at the same time. In For What It’s Worth, the artist Michael Rakowitz asked Istanbulites to contribute objects that meant something to them — things they believed were archaeological artifacts — and assembled them on small intersecting tables. Melisa Sevis, fourteen, contributed a marble that belonged to her grandfather; Esra Bicim, a pendant portrait of Mary, mother of Jesus; Onur Ceritoglu, some crumpled 1970s state-produced cigarette packages he’d found under the floorboards while renovating his house. The objects will make up a “growing permanent collection at SALT documenting archeological history and the ways Istanbulites think about memory and the past.” In exchange for these temporary donations, Rakowitz gave his participants two one-lira Ottoman bills: one to keep for themselves and one to distribute. As he explains in another box on the wall, the short-lived one-lira note was the only currency to include on its face all three languages of the empire’s main ethnic groups: Armenian, Greek, and Turkish. The bill expresses a different Turkish ideology, the one that did not survive.

But by circulating these notes once more, sending them out into the world, Rakowitz seems to suggest that Turkey’s history might yet inform its future. His exhibition is an invitation to the citizens of Istanbul; to those whose memories have been robbed, it’s an invitation to participate in reconstructing their own history. In this way, too, Scramble for the Past is an urgent welcome for this contemporary institution devoted to a nation and its vexed relationship to the past. Better late than never.

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Iran via Video Current

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Bahar Behbahani, Saffron Tea, 2008. Courtesy the artist

New York
Iran via Video Current
Thomas Erben Gallery
December 13–17, 2011

I met Amirali Ghasemi over a decade ago. Wandering through a forgettable group show at a Tehran gallery, I found myself weirdly transfixed by a video of a fan. Just a fan, turning left and right. The artist, it turned out, was standing right there. “It was shown in Venice,” he mumbled distractedly. I looked at the monitor again, perplexed. (We were still in art school. This involved painting lots of trees.) We crossed paths many times afterward, while Ghasemi converted his parents’ garage into a studio, then a workshop space, then a gallery, with turns as a catwalk, lecture hall, and screening space — promoting each event with his distinctively designed posters and website. His calls for participation began arriving in a steady stream. Most of them involved video, which was now surpassing tree paintings in ubiquity at an alarming rate. Foreign curators started trickling in, and Ghasemi’s promotional instincts were unparalleled. In the somnolent haze of Tehran’s art scene, his “Parkingallery” was an inexplicably energetic hub. For many of us, he was the first encounter with that fascinating and despised practice, independent curating.

So it’s fitting, then, that Ghasemi’s oblique sensibility finally made its way to New York, in the form of Iran via Video Current, curated with New York–based independent curator Sandra Skurvida. Their show drew strongly on Ghasemi’s immersion in the Tehran scene, yet was remarkably free of either historicizing tendencies or obtrusive curatorial mise-en-scène. The relatively empty gallery space and sparse seating made way for a large projection wall, where the five-hour program ran daily during the show’s one-week run. At a desk with a computer, visitors could play any of the thirty-four videos on the monitor. The setup was hardly conducive to an extended viewing experience, yet on each of my visits — including the packed opening people were camped on the floor and leaning against the walls, silent, absorbed, and lingering as long as the space remained open.

Ghasemi and Skurvida had each organized a program to be played in sequence. This division of labor could have easily led to the oft-seen (and oft-lamented) schism between artists working inside and outside Iran, but the results had more of the intuitive arc of a mixtape, as referenced in the title of Ghasemi’s program, If We Ever Meet Again… (With Hidden Tracks). Skurvida had initiated the project under the larger umbrella of her OtherIS curatorial initiative, which aims to facilitate exchange with countries sanctioned by the US. Her program, titled 1979/1357–, set the date of Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1979 next to its equivalent Iranian calendar year. While her pamphlet essay described her interest in the ramifications of the “spiritual revolution” that so fascinated Michel Foucault back in the day, her selection felt much more open-ended.

Still, shared qualities and themes are inevitable. Duration is a defining aspect of video, used to great advantage in the slow pacing of Nosrat Nosratian’s Fall (2009), where gently drifting microscopic organisms are suddenly squashed by a massive thudding ball that drops on them from above. With the threat of bombs over Tehran never far from the headlines, the metaphors aren’t too hard to imagine, but the work’s strength lay in its quiet abstraction. Contemporary politics may have provided the show’s curatorial premise, but the strongest works were those that avoided literality in favor of emotional resonance. In Jinoos Taghizadeh’s Good Night (2009), an unseen mother rocks a cradle for the twenty-two minutes of the work’s duration, while an offscreen voice sings haunting lullabies that are in fact rousing military anthems. Kaya Behkalam and Azin Feizabadi’s Negotiation (2010) uses actors and narrative voiceover to rehearse an abstract postrevolutionary situation, removing historic specificity to bring out the structure of an irresolvable political scenario. Playing against their solemnity is the exuberant humor of Ramin Rahimi’s animated Red Thing, which involves a large red monster invading Tehran and attempting to capture the attention of its inhabitants in vain — a gentle social satire that owes much to the visual style of early 1990s MTV and Japanese anime.

The political is naturally intertwined with the historical, and many works seem to have originated in their authors’ discovery of compelling archival footage. Shirin Sabahi’s elderly Swedish landlord turned out to be an engineer who had spent the better part of the 1960s and 70s in Iran. His 8mm films, a diary of Iran’s determined importation of industrial modernity, are accompanied by the engineer’s own occasional commentary, under the title Swede Home (pointedly dated 1966/1973/1979/2009). Shadi Noyani’s The Iron Heel (2011) shows her smiling family ceremoniously digging in their garden soon after the 1979 revolution to unearth their contraband copies of Jack London’s Iron Heel. The artists’ fascination with these time capsules is undeniably infectious, not least because of the care and simplicity of their presentation.

If there is a thread that runs through all of these works, it is their self-conscious fragility as carriers of meaning. They invoke collectivity only to underscore its absence, and they hint at a historic narrative only to shrug off any shared ideals of progress. Mehraneh Atashi’s Gulistan (The Rose Garden, 2011) perhaps speaks to this best. The artist is filmed in six different settings (from Iran to the US), reciting an excerpt from the famed thirteenth-century text of the work’s title, from memory, at each site. It is the passage where the poet Saadi explains why he has set out to produce a work of such scope and ambition: “I shall compose a rose garden whose pages the autumnal wind cannot rend and whose vernal bliss the passage of time cannot turn to the woes of winter.” As Atashi tonelessly recites this passage over and over again, awkwardly distracted by her surroundings and the failings of her memory, her camera starts to break down. Eventually, her efforts are captured with no sound at all, as if deliberately proving Saadi wrong: even the artist’s voice cannot lend permanence to time and place. If Ghasemi’s title If We Ever Meet Again flippantly invokes the saccharine sentimentality of a pop song, it also hints at the threats of global war against Iran and the insidious effects of international sanctions. The brief run of the show gains a new poignancy, for there are no assurances that we will encounter these works again under quite the same circumstances.

In the Presence of Absence

Present without leave

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Photo by Eamonn Mccabe

In the Presence of Absence
By Mahmoud Darwish
Translated by Sinan Antoon
Archipelago Books, 2011

Mahmoud Darwish’s later poetry is a gathering of ghosts. “My friends pass by me, / My friends die suddenly,” is the refrain of a poem from “Psalms,” in the collection To Love You or Not To Love You. That was in 1972, when Darwish was still young, before the years of Beirut, two intifadas, and a civil war between Hamas and Fatah. There is a bass line of elegy that runs throughout his poetry. It begins with the angry laments of “Flowers of Blood,” written in memory of those massacred at Kafr Qasim in 1956, and continues through poems that commemorate the deaths of fellow poets, activists, and intellectuals — Rashid Hussein, Izz al-Din Qalaq, Edward Said. These losses lend Darwish’s mature work its characteristically autumnal tone, a kind of counterpoint to the fiery poems of his youth. It was Said who described his friend’s later verse as a literature of belatedness, addressed to the question of “what happens after the ending, what it is like to live past one’s time and place.” Or, as Darwish puts it in his new book, “An elegy is an encomium that arrives a lifetime too late.”

In the Presence of Absence was the last volume Darwish published before his death in the summer of 2008, following open-heart surgery. It is a summary work, revisiting and revising the central dramas of his fifty-year career. It is also the fruit of his investment in the elegy. Darwish takes two lines of the seventh century poet Malik bin al-Rayb as his epigraph: “Do not go! they say as they bury me / But where, if not faraway, is my place?” The lines come from al-Rayb’s most canonical poem, a self-elegy he is said to have composed after being bitten by a poisonous snake. The ritha’ al-nafs or self-elegy is a distinct genre of Arabic verse, with roots in the pre-Islamic period. This is not a poetry of posthumous address. The speaker does not claim to speak from beyond the grave (there is little evidence the pagan poets believed in an afterlife). The self-elegy is instead an occasion for last words, a poem composed in the shadow of death.

Darwish’s work honors these conventions and then moves swiftly beyond them. He called In the Presence of Absence a nass, a text, rather than a diwan, a collection of poems. There are episodes of verse, but most of the work is composed in densely figurative prose. It opens on a scene of eulogy. The speaker addresses the poet amid a crowd of mourners. “Let us then go together, you and I,” he says, echoing Eliot’s “Prufrock.” “You, to a second life promised to you by language… I, to a rendezvous I have postponed more than once with a death to whom I had promised a glass of red wine in a poem.”

The rest of the work extends this fiction of the funereal oration. It is written entirely in the second person, which lends it an appropriately strange feel in English. The addressee is Darwish the poet, who will die and then live on in his works; the speaker is Darwish the man, who will die with no assurance of resurrection. The glass of wine alludes to an earlier long poem “Mural,” which includes a dialogue between the poet and death. (Darwish wrote it in the wake of a difficult surgery; there were many surgeries.) The poet postpones the inevitable by inviting death to a drink and worrying him with questions about the afterlife — how is the weather? What language do they use? Should he bring something to read? — all while preparing an escape. This allusion to his own work is the first of many, setting in motion a dialectic of poetry and experience, literature and life, in which each claims priority over the other. All these echoes give In the Presence of Absence its peculiarly intimate feel. As readers, we are listening in on the poet in colloquy with himself. “I prolong my address,” Darwish writes near the end, “like a poet reserving the last stanza to contemplate his past diversions.”

The first chapters are a kind of biography, or the opening scenes of a bildungsroman. They begin with the poet’s childhood in Birweh, evoked in what Darwish calls “the idiom of an innocent earth.” The sensual simplicity of these passages recalls Jabra Ibrahim Jabra’s The First Well, another memoir of Mandate-era Palestine. The poet masters the alphabet — “Rub one letter against another and a star is born. Bring a letter close to another and you can hear the sound of rain” — and listens to the folk epics of Antara and al-Muhalhil. He learns to play with some animals and fear others. But this idyll is quickly shattered. A harrowing section recounts Darwish’s flight into Lebanon during the Nakba and the villagers’ subsequent attempts to return. “Everything here is a painful reminder of what had once been there,” Darwish writes. “What wounds you most is that ‘there’ is so close to ‘here.’” The family eventually reestablished residence in Galilee, but after years of living under martial law and house arrest Darwish flees Israel for good in 1970. The landscape of his work opens up to include the cities of exile: Beirut, Tunis, Paris. But with the exception of the Lebanese capital, where Darwish lived for close to a decade, these places are almost indistinguishable. The decor of exile is one pattern in minute variations: “How many paintings have you hung? How many beds have you abandoned for others to sleep in afterward? How many drafts and beginnings have you forgotten in other drawers? How many photographs of women were lost in the folds of books you never read?”

The last chapters of his book recall the post-Oslo period. Darwish returned to Ramallah after some twenty-five years with a feeling that mixed “the tourist’s curiosity, the visitor’s sadness, and the returnee’s joy.” An especially memorable passage evokes Darwish’s self-consciousness during his first visit to Gaza, “city of misery and might”: “You walk down the alleys ashamed of everything: your ironed shirts, the aesthetics of poetry, the abstractness of music, and a passport that allows you to travel the world.” And yet the stations of this life — exile, prison, migration, return — trace a recognizably Palestinian itinerary.

The conceit of the eulogy, in which an ordinary man takes stock of a famous poet’s career, also allows Darwish to regard his own legend from a distance. He was a star before he turned twenty-five: a fixture at Galilean poetry festivals and author of “Identity Card,” an iconic work of Palestinian nationalism. His poems were soon sung by the Arab world’s greatest musicians, and his readings attracted thousands. But fame brings its own estrangements. In a moving episode from In the Presence of Absence, Darwish describes a return trip to Galilee to visit his aging mother, the same trip in which he was allowed to attend the funereal of his former comrade, novelist Emile Habibi. “She ululates and sings you songs, calling you by your full name. She sees you as a knight returning from the myth’s journey. You ask her to stop spinning glory from the rhythms of deprivation and distance. For you are only her son and she is only your mother. You embrace each other in front of handheld cameras.”

One benefit of the self-elegy, with its division of the speaker from himself, is its ability to capture this peculiarly modern sense of a life lived in front of cameras, a life in which all private acts are invested with public significance. Darwish often complained that even his most intimate works — his love poems, or domestic lyrics — were interpreted as political gestures. But this is what it means to be a national poet. During the visit with his mother he asks if she liked “I Long for the Bread of My Mother,” a short poem he wrote in prison during the sixties and which has become one of his most-quoted works. Darwish’s mother smiles shyly and says only, “May God be pleased with you.”

Darwish was haunted by his own most successful performances. He feared they might harden into a canonical style, that he would be reduced to his legend. Robert Lowell, who also knew about early stardom and the pressures of reinvention, called this “the impoverished life of myth.” But how does one escape the expectations of critics and admirers? Midway through In the Presence of Absence, Darwish tells of meeting a sculptor in Paris who offers to make a small statue of him for a keepsake. Darwish demurs. A tombstone is all the memorial he wants. The other man presses him, “Why are you against the statue?” “Because I want to keep moving,” Darwish finally explains, “And I don’t want anyone to break me. I am the one who does that. A statue is incapable of self-criticism.”

A desire to keep moving, a commitment to rewriting and revision: these are the tools Darwish used to break free from the prisons of habit. Indeed, for all his mastery of the medium, Darwish’s career was a series of experiments. Some are more successful than others, but none are dashed off. The mixed prosody of In the Presence of Absence shows that his experiment was ongoing. Here, prose is pushed to extremes. It is relentlessly figurative in a way that English readers may find bewildering. In the book’s final chapter, Darwish offers a list of personal keywords: “My memory is a pomegranate. Shall I open it over you and let it scatter, seed by seed: red pearls befitting a farewell that asks nothing of me except forgetfulness?” Some of the playfulness here is unavoidably lost in translation: nathara means both “to scatter” and “to compose in prose” — a pun Darwish uses throughout the work — and the distinction between loose and linked pearls is an old Arabic trope for the difference between prose and verse. What seems like a baroque metaphor is in fact a commentary on the relationship between history (or memory) and prosody. “Poetry is the archive of the Arabs,” runs the old saw. The rhythms of Darwish’s prose are also heavily marked. His sentences are almost liturgical in their balanced yet onrushing momentum. One of the models for this highly metaphorical, richly cadenced style is the Qur’an. And it is a measure of Darwish’s ambition as a poet that his imitation is equal parts homage and rivalry (although, theologically speaking, the holy book is strictly inimitable). All of which makes Sinan Antoon’s translation especially heroic. I cannot think of another text by Darwish so difficult to render into English as this one, yet Antoon’s rendering is both elegant and faithful — an homage in its turn.

“The poet is the one perplexed between prose and poetry.” This is another mock definition from Darwish’s list of keywords. But perplexity is not the same as paralysis. It is easy to forget, given the elegiac tone of this work, that it was not Darwish’s last. He wrote another volume of poems — including “The Dice Player,” one of his best — though he did not live to finish the edits or send it to the publishers. Right up to the end, he was weighing alternatives, planning tomorrow’s experiment. “I have had more than enough of the past,” Darwish wrote in one late poem, “but not enough of tomorrow.”

Utopia

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Still from The Spy Who Loved Me

Utopia
By Ahmed Khaled Towfik
Translated by Chip Rosetti
Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation, 2011

My first introduction to Egypt’s Beverly Hills came sometime in 2006. Its billboard loomed over a dust-coated building, visible from a crossroads of thoroughfares and the looping tentacles of the mammoth bridge that links downtown to every other part of the city. The titanic sign featured a crisp green lawn, pristine white houses, flowers in bloom, and a healthy, happy, white-toothed family with an equally perky dog.

The billboard was strategically placed to stir dreams of pseudo-American suburban life in flustered Egyptians as they inched forward in the gridlock of Cairo traffic. It had its effect. A few months later, one local newspaper profiled the new Beverly Hills:

As traffic, pollution, and insecurity become increasingly unbearable… many are leaving the city for their own little piece of heaven in faraway compounds. Maha Ibrahim, who moved into her home just a few months ago, cannot stop telling people how wonderful life out there is. “You wake up in the morning and open the windows and in front of you there’s a garden and you smell the clean air and hear birds instead of honks. What more could you want?“ Marianne Fage is also “much happier” outside the city. The straw that broke the camel’s back had to do with her crowded Heliopolis neighbourhood: “One day I came home and I couldn’t park and that was it for me.” Now she parks wherever and whenever she pleases.

Ahmed Khaled Towfik’s novel Utopia takes its name from one of these idyllic bourgeois gated communities, which include Dream, Dreamland, Palm Hills, Green Park, and Royal Valley. (The real-life Utopia was advertised as a place to “live your dreams.”) Indeed, in the years leading up to the 2011 revolution, it seemed as if gated communities were out-sprawling the already overgrown megalopolis. Affluent urbanites spoke insistently and obsessively of moving out — away from the disordered assault and dirt of Cairo proper, and into gloriously gated suburbs. BMWs and Prada were in vogue and flashed with pride, and people talked about accumulating homes in gated real estate complexes as if they were collecting stamps.

But for the vast majority of the country’s population of eighty-two million, it was not a good time. Inflation was high; wages were low. Families of six and eight and ten were packed into single-room homes, and forty percent of the population was living on two dollars a day. The ruling elite had robbed the country of billions — often through real estate ventures — and then proceeded to absent themselves from the grimy downtowns with their poor and begging people. The one percent limited their time to their gated utopias on the outskirts of Cairo or their equally sheltered paradise resorts on the coasts of the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. When they did go downtown, it was in chauffeured cars with tinted glass that you couldn’t see into — or more important, out of. They spoke an Arabic shot through with English and inflected with French.

It is this painful reality — or an only slightly more skewed projection of it — that Towfik writes about in Utopia, a futuristic passion play between “us and them,” set in 2023. There is Utopia — a gated community on the North Coast that houses Egypt’s richest families, business tycoons, and jet-setters — and there is the Territory of the Others, “the sea of angry poverty outside” the gates. Utopia’s “artificial paradise” is guarded by former US Marines and where, “softened by a life of luxury and boredom, you end up unable to tell an American from an Egyptian from an Israeli.” Because there is nothing to do, your time is passed with sleep, drugs, “eating until food makes you sick, you vomit until you can recover the enjoyment of eating, you have sex (it’s weird that you notice how boredom makes your sexual behavior aggressive and sadistic).” Days are both stimulated and numbed with the cocaine-like drug pholgistine, and impregnations and subsequent abortions are commonplace among youthful Utopians. Viagra is obsolete; in its stead, there is Libidafro. For decadent Utopians, fashion is paramount, and in 2023 “cosmetic wounds” are de rigueur: “Wounds are a turn-on, no doubt about it. It’s a trend that appeared two years ago and now there are people who specialize in it. The important thing is for the wound to look as grotesque as possible, and artificial, too, so people who see it won’t be disgusted. There’s a real art to it.”

The protagonist and narrator is the unnamed son of a business tycoon. He is spoiled, immoral, and bored out of his wits. Intelligent and curious, he vacillates between surrendering to his Utopian life and rejecting it outright. What happens on this cusp, or precipice, is Towfik’s theme. In Utopia, the young man ventures beyond Utopia’s gates with a lover (both are disguised as servants) in search of two poor people they can bring back to Utopia to toy with. He and his accomplice are all too soon discovered (many giveaways: the soft hands, clean fingernails, the mobile phone), and a bond of circumstance is forged with a young Other who saves them from an angry, drug-mad crowd and hides them in his tiny slum dwelling. The Other is named Gaber, and he promises he will lead them back home when the opportunity arises.

The remainder of the twist-heavy story derives its tension from this setup: whether Gaber is actually the Good Samaritan that he appears to be and will succeed in leading the Utopians back to safety. Other questions hinge on the answers to those questions: can a real friendship be formed between two characters from such discordant backgrounds, and might such a friendship have a transformative effect on the spoiled children of the idle rich? Although the book gets off to a very slow start, Towfik is reasonably successful at crafting a narrative. Where he fails is in his use of language. Towfik, a professor of medicine at Tanta University, is said to have published more than two hundred books, most of them young adult titles, and Utopia reads like a book written quite swiftly for teens. The facile language undermines both his presentation of the emotional lives of his characters and his efforts to make the book a high-minded inquiry into the state of humanity.

Yet it’s important to remember that Utopia was published in Arabic in 2008 — and that the Others do eventually revolt. Towfik zaps us into the future, what a future might look like if every single wealthy Egyptian moved to the gated communities, which then eventually merged into one. He then takes us back, to the past as it stands in the known present, in which we live, as Egyptians, today. Having anticipated the Egyptian revolution, his book carries a contextual resonance today that gives it new meaning in this English-language reincarnation.

Towfik’s real strength is in his imaginative observations of the predicaments of the tattered social fabric of the future. By 2023:

The dam broke: tourism was no longer capable of feeding these mouths. Israel opened its own canal, which became a ready substitute for the Suez Canal. As for the Gulf countries, their oil petered out or was not needed after the appearance of biroil, and they kicked out their imported labour force. So the economy became burdened by a crushing weight and services for the poor disappeared because the state wiped its hands completely of its responsibility for them, and privatized everything. There was no longer a government, or no longer a government that care about us. Eventually salaries were halted, and services were halted, and the police melted away.… A society without a middle class is a society primed for explosion. That is exactly what happened, but the explosion didn’t do away with the wealthy class. It decimated what remained of the middle class, and turned society into two poles and two peoples.

Amid all this, people turned to religion, because “religion is the only hope they can have for a better life after death.”

Through Utopia, we get a glimpse of what the future may have been had the revolution of last year not happened and the Mubarak regime had proceeded apace, with Gamal at its helm. We also get a sense of what might still lie ahead, as Egypt’s economy continues to plummet. As Towfik claims at the outset: “The Utopia mentioned here is an imaginary place, as are the characters who live in and around it, even though the author knows for certain that this place will exist.” He might very well be right.

Fifteen Ways to Leave Badiou

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Photo by Sipa Sipa Press

Fifteen Ways to Leave Badiou
Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum, 2011

In the period between April and October 2011, fifteen artists, mostly based in Egypt and the greater Middle East, were invited to respond to Alain Badiou’s “Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art.” Among the many curiosities of this project is its timing, nearly a decade after the talk was first delivered at the Drawing Center in New York, and just months after the onset of the insurgence that now animates much of the Arab world. The result was a book, in Arabic and English, with the mysteriously insouciant title Fifteen Ways to Leave Badiou, organized by Bassam al-Baroni, co-founder and artistic director of the Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum. Badiou’s philosophical framework, oscillating between questions of truth and universality in relation to art, is subjected to critique by Suhail Malek, a lecturer in critical theory at Goldsmiths in London, and the artists’ responses follow. (Or, perhaps: depart.)

Badiou’s theses were and are discomfiting, both for their vast assumptions and condensations, and in their prescriptiveness. The philosopher addresses the field of art at large in mostly pompous, and soaring, Fifteen Ways to Leave Badiou, mapping out his notion of an idealized art form that carries within it “the process of truth.” This art, which develops from what Badiou calls an “impure form,” ought to be “non-imperial art” — or in al-Baroni’s words, “art which is not in the service of empire.” But precisely what that might mean, what work these theses might enable or abort, where to go next, this is what al-Baroni set out to stage, in the form of a book. That Badiou has been an enthusiast of Arab uprisings of the past year is unsurprising, perhaps, but it lends a degree of poignancy, even, to the project.

It seems appropriate to situate the book within the primary challenge of what John Searle addresses in his text “What is an Institution?” Searle, the philosopher, offers that there is something fundamental to the composition of the institution that makes it impossible for us to think beyond it, whether that institution assumes the form of language, the economy, or, one might even add, art. If we assume that this unprecedented time brings about lateral possibility and freedom of expression, then Fifteen Ways to Leave Badiou sits within a rhetorical rumination: does this project presume Badiou and his centrality to the practices of the participating artists? Are the artists invited already in a natural conversation with Badiou’s thought and theory? Are the premises that inspired this project and its underlying assumptions clear in the first place?

The book is a dense philosophical provocation, the bulk of which is dealt with through the central component of contributions, which make up half the book. The artistic responses are also (literally) preceded by Malek’s critique of Badiou’s didacticism, which in turn follows the publication of Badiou’s original lecture. The order of appearance — the artistic contributions straddled between the English (and Arabic translation) of Baroni’s intro, Badiou’s lecture and theses, and Malek’s criticism — leaves the text (also the variation in design and paper choices) to literally contain the artistic contributions. Questions seep out of this format: Does an artistic contribution in this context rely on the textual criticism? What is the relationship of each thesis to each response? Does the artistic response to a thesis have something to say about the work’s agency? Each thesis is followed by an artistic contribution, as well as a biographical note and a short statement by the artist. If we imagine this project differently, as an exhibition rather than a book, the artwork might assume a more central presence, with the theses serving as endnotes to the project. But if it were an exhibition, would these works, given the essence they present, work? Would their reading be so directed by the itinerary of how they have been solicited?

A closer reading of the fifteen contributions reveals at least a few patterns worth lingering over. Most contributions, save for two — Doa Aly’s and that of the recently founded artist collective STANCE — are visual. Aly’s and STANCE’s contributions consist of text treated as image. Most of the contributions employ some degree of textual explication, in relation to, or embedded within the image. Iman Issa’s response to the tenth thesis “non-imperial art is necessarily abstract art…” which is comprised of graphics, lines, symbols, and a text, is a somewhat methodological analysis of a visual image of a flag that she had used in an earlier work, and a meditation on its abstraction and reading as form. Issa’s contribution is dialogical; the outlines of her position are visually as well as textually manifest in her response. Similarly, if more implicitly, are the graphic contributions of Mohamed Abdelkarim, with “an allied straight line,” exclaiming “contemporary art cannot be democratic,” and Hassan Khan’s Knot (executed by the book designer following the artist’s instructions), followed with a note by the artist in which he contends with Badiou’s sixth thesis: “The subject of an artistic truth is a set of the works that compose it.” Other contributions are more associative and can be read tangentially. Adel El Siwi presents a reproduction of a recent painting, Esam Mahrous and the Fortune Teller, with a cursive inscription in the center of the mirrored figures stating “art is not / art is,” presumably commenting on the deterministic essence of the theses. Akram Zaatari’s contribution, drawn from an investigation of an archive, seems to resonate with the premise of “raw material” that appears in the eighth thesis, which requires an imaginative associative reading to fully return to Badiou, if only to depart from him again. Some works appear to be “readings” of their thesis, visual translations in which the images are diagrammatic; other contributions are statements, positions, or elaborations to the text, or encrypted criticisms of the theses.

Reading between the thesis and the work, the reader is left to construct a relationship between these elements. Mohamed Allam and Oraib Toukan both encounter Badiou in conversation (Allam on Facebook, Toukan in person at Lucky Strike, a bar in New York). Here a tiny detail must be underlined. While I believe that the artists truly did meet Badiou and have in fact had these conversations, the editors describe these encounters as alleged and imaginary, respectively — perhaps in an effort to remain within the literal, the real, to hold onto a sense of truthfulness, which I think we should be allowed to suspend.

Let us go back to before the beginning. Why do we start by leaving Badiou to in the first place? There is unmistakable bad faith at play here. One reason may be a general desire to instigate a critical engagement between artists and the philosophical text. It is a simple, direct method that means to say: Badiou (whatever he stands for) cannot be ignored. Another is an undisclosed intentionality that is ambiguous about its relationship to Badiou, but uses him, quite likely, as a decoy, a stand-in for fixed notions of art’s universality and truth, that resonates with an old guard cultural milieu particularly in Egypt. Perhaps it is a roundabout (or not so roundabout) means of allowing a critique to surface — a critique, again, of remnants of the order that has just been radically uprooted.

Still, it is perhaps one of the ironies of the project that the means of deploying the project resonate with the very retrograde system it seeks to interrogate. To not presume Badiou at this moment seems necessary. If the momentous and heroic events of the past year mean anything at all, let us set him aside for a moment, to allow for a thought process free of the burdens of radical critique, free of the constraints of the well-intended yet somewhat forced response.

Hamlet’s Arab Journey

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Nasser with the cast of The Merchant of Venice in Damascus, 1961

Hamlet’s Arab Journey: Shakespeare’s Prince and Nasser’s Ghost
By Margaret Litvin
Princeton University Press, 2011

Nasser was not Hamlet, and he was no Macbeth. But once, at the age of sixteen, he was Caesar. At the al-Nahda school in Cairo, the future president of Egypt played the Roman dictator. Nasser’s hagiographers agree that his postal clerk father “all but leaped forward to rescue him” as he was pinned down under Brutus’ dagger.

It turns out that Nasser wasn’t alone in having a Caesarian complex. The play at once excited (and appalled) a number of midcentury African dictators. Haile Selassie loved the film Caesar, the Marlon Brando version, but couldn’t bear to watch the assassination scene. When the play was first performed in Addis Ababa in 1952, the Emperor’s censors insisted that the scene be acted out behind a semidiaphanous curtain. And Julius Nyerere, Tanzania’s first president-poet, rendered — for reasons entirely to do with his name, some say — the script into Swahili, making Juliasi Kaizari the first Shakespeare play to be translated into that language. Midway through the opening night at the St Francis Pugu School in Dar es Salaam, Nyerere’s mother was so affected by the tragedy that she had to leave.

But if Nasser and his counterparts liked Caesar, Egyptians loved Hamlet. Today, the proud and vengeful prince is quoted by mild Islamists (Mustafa Mahmud) and radical exiled ones (Yusuf al-Qaradawi), erudite intellectuals (Jabra Ibrahim Jabra) and hysterical ones (Sadiq Jalal al-Azm). Journalists reveled in denouncing a “rotten Denmark” when the cartoon controversy broke out in 2005. And “Shall we be or not be?” (the infinitive “to be” does not exist in Arabic) has become a slogan for “the Arab condition.” In televised debates he is invoked by Gulfie preachers and Syrian secularists in exactly the same way to make contradictory claims. He has become an empty and capacious symbol, his words used to argue anything and its exact opposite. In Arabic, Hamlet is Shakespeare’s most translated and most frequently performed play.

How Hamlet became so popular (or rather ubiquitous) in Egypt is one of the questions Margaret Litvin sets out to answer in Hamlet’s Arab Journey. For one thing, most Arabs did not encounter him in the classrooms of elite colonial schools, as Edward Said (and his classmate Omar Sharif) famously did. At the turn of the twentieth century Cairo’s theatergoing public came to know him on the musical stage, where he sang wildly popular songs and did not die in the end. This first translation — “an icon of infidelity,” according to Litvin — was based on an unfaithful nineteenth-century French version. Its entrepreneurial translator, Tanyus ‘Abdu, obsequiously appealed to the taste of Egypt’s rising middle classes for a cheerful ending.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was as a Soviet film, not an Elizabethan text, that Egypt’s intellectuals and artists first encountered the tragic hero. Although a Royal Shakespeare Company Hamlet toured Cairo in 1927 and Laurence Olivier’s film premiered there in 1948, many Egyptians first caught glimpses of Hamlet in the crowded hallways of Russian cultural centers, where Kozintsev’s film Gamlet was on a constant loop. Following the building of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s, the Soviets launched an aggressive program of cultural diplomacy that, in addition to scholarships, conferences, exhibitions, and translations of pivotal texts, included the screening of the 1964 film. Soviet culture flooded Cairo. (Litvin’s next book, Arab Writers, Moscow Dreams: Forgotten Flows of Twentieth-Century Culture, will tell this somewhat forgotten story.) Gamlet’s police-state images— prison guards and spies, effigies of the dictator Claudius — struck a raw nerve with Egyptians under Nasser just as they did with Russians after Stalin. One director claimed to have seen the film more than ten times. Muhammad Subhi, who traveled from cultural center to center as it circulated — seventeen in all — would later go on to direct Cairo’s most iconic (and commercially successful) production of Hamlet in the 1970s.

On any given night in 1960s Cairo, you could watch a John Gielgud version of the film, the Russian one, or a National Theatre Arabic production. Precisely because he came to Egyptian audiences in multiple roundabout ways (Litvin calls it the “global kaleidoscope”), Shakespeare was never seen as a colonial imposition to be resisted. In the eyes of Egypt’s theatergoing public, Hamlet was a global child, not a British one (his colonial parentage was merely incidental). Indeed, there was something about Hamlet that resonated deeply with Egyptians.

In 1960s Cairo (“a heady time”), Hamlet appealed to the always-political theater-makers, as both were asking the same questions: of historical agency, authenticity and self-determination. He spoke to audiences that felt caught in a “time out of joint” (the malaise that set in after the crippling defeat of the Six Day War) and orphaned (father Nasser died in 1970). Far from being paralyzed (here Litvin is at her best) intellectuals and artists across the Arab world were liberated by ’67. They began making theater in ever-more creative and experimental ways, addressing not their governments in hidden code, but their publics, in calling them to action.

Nasser was not Hamlet, but when he died in 1970, one might say he became Hamlet’s ghostly father. His promises — neither forgotten nor fulfilled — haunted theater-makers for many years to come. Underneath Litvin’s scholarly chill, there is a lyrical elegy: at once she laments the passing of Egypt’s theatrical golden age and the political dream that inspired it. Under Sadat’s program of economic liberalization, politics were pushed out of the theater, making theater appear cynical, useless, and irrelevant.

And yet, in spite of her agile negotiation of the uses and abuses of the Hamlet tale, there is something all too familiar about Litvin’s narrative. The historical course that she charts is common to national liberation movements the world over. The unfulfilled promises of anticolonial demagogues and the disappointments they brought are unique neither to Nasser or to his Egypt. The various stages in the transformation of societies, as they shrug off their colonial burdens, in Egypt mirror those in South Asia, West Africa or Latin America. The transformation of territorial nationalism into a muscular but romantic socialism (rudely interrupted by a neoliberal order) is the story of India as much as it is that of Egypt or Syria. Hamlet, in turn, is the story of all these places, and the prince’s concerns are theirs. And yet Egypt is not India, nor is it Kenya; and Egypt certainly is not Chile. As absorbing as it is to follow Hamlet’s Arab Journey, one cannot help but wonder what happens to him when he leaves the Arab world to go abroad.

Monocle #49

SOFT POWER IN ITS OWN 555 WORDS

The world’s only superpower is public opinion. If the fate of a nation depends on its food then the future is bright for Peru. The capital needs to abandon all traces of English self-deprecation and reticence and get promoting its unique identity to the global willing audience. If China is the muscle of twenty-first century power, then Oz is its brain and bone. India is associated with IT. India is associated with Bollywood. Then you have iconic figures such as Gandhi. It’s not a case of blue jeans versus the Red Army any longer but the power of American culture is still second to none. China has great artists but locks them up. With their pretty Bond-girls, Millennium novels, skinny jeans, indie rock bands and innovative technological solutions, Swedes have long stood for beauty, mystery, health and modernity. If Freud were alive today, he might help his nation find itself. The Australian way of life — boundless pristine nature, sun-kissed bodies lunging sportily on its beaches and a world-class foodie culture — seems to sell itself. Some of Norway’s soft power is so soft it’s actually covert. There is an overwhelming sense of enthusiasm outpacing competence. We believe the debate of ideas is the oldest activity that promotes peace and dialogue between people. Turkey on TV is a glamorous, modern, progressive, naughty country. Soft power can come from the creation of iconic cars or the export of populist soap operas that gain tens of millions of viewers across Eastern Europe and the Middle East or the value of the perfect pizza or an exquisite espresso. Once tinged with terror and fascism, Spain is sunny and cool again. It’s all about the past and very little about the future. Like Roger Federer’s backhand of late, Switzerland has been misfiring on the soft power front. The country’s art galleries feel a little tired, too. The great intellectuals were French. You might like the twinkle but the twinkle is not what you would be seeing were it not for the fact it originated hundreds of millions of light years away. Huntsville is known as Rocket City and rocket engines are a cornerstone of the city’s economy and a crucial part of its future. France is let down by its airlines and airports. If in doubt, watch one of Haifa Wehbe’s steamy performances: the explosive diva might be offering an erotic dream, but it is also a dream for more freedom. There is a disconnect between the talent in the UK and those who commission it. Decent airports, famous food and the world’s best — and classiest — football team. Time to dispatch more peacekeepers to hot zones. What Canada loses on global leadership it makes up for with business brands and female singer-songwriters. Digestifs are taken to the helipad halfway to the jetty, where you lie under rugs and spot shooting stars. Come sunset it’s back to the water for prosecco and prawns on toast before shedding clothes and taking a final dunk at dusk in the Baltic. When it’s time to return, within minutes of setting foot on the mainland, the island experience seems like a dream, distant and intangible; you’re left with only a rejuvenated mind and a pinecone in your pocket to remind you that it really does exist. There is something to be said for being, well, boring.