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Pitch and twang.

Letter to the Editor

It’s been a long time. I dropped off the face of the earth for two months with a broken ankle, a mild addiction to painkillers, and a set of jobs that is slowly killing me. And then, the day before yesterday, as I was limping to work, some old lady tossing trash out of her sixth-story window drenched me in a liquid I first thought was dirty water. Moments later, I recognized the metallic taste in my mouth and the red stains on my shirt for what they were: the thin, watery blood of a freshly slaughtered sheep.

I decided to take the blood in the very best way possible, as a symbol of rebirth and rejuvenation and an opportunity to tell my boss that I was worried I had gotten AIDS from a sheep, an admission that probably didn’t even lower me in his estimation. And then I took the week off from work.

How are things?

Are you still interested in an article from Egypt, after all this time? I am working on something that might indeed fit in with the issue. It’s about Ahmed Adaweya, the premier Shaabi (meaning “for the popular classes”) singer of the 1970s and early ‘80s.

Before his castration by the Saudi government, Adaweya was by far the most popular singer in Egypt. He sang songs like “Zahma, ya Donia, Zahma” (“the traffic, world, the traffic”) about the traffic in Cairo and “Drive slowly, taxi driver, drive slowly / I’ve got a child in the back seat.” And then there is his classic song “Haba fo’, haba taht” (“a little bit down, a little bit up”), about bringing the classes together to meet in the middle.

I’ve managed to track down his address, and I’m going to interview him in a couple of weeks. To be completely honest, I’m preoccupied with figuring out two things.

  1. Whether he was indeed castrated by the Saudis. Rumor has it that, in what seems to be a dramatic reenactment of the death of the great Russian Shaabi saint Rasputin, the Saudi royal family poisoned and stabbed Ahmed Adawaya before surgically castrating him in a British operating room. There are several reasons given as to why the Saudi royal family didn’t like him, all stemming from his incredible popularity: one story has it that a Saudi princess had fallen in love with him and was living with him in England, another that a prince had moved to England to smoke drogas with him and his gang of monotonous and merry music-makers. I tend toward the former of the two.

  2. Where his ******* currently resides. Rasputin’s reportedly traveled around the Russian countryside, drawing forth crowds of peasants to pay homage. It’s possible that, if found and properly packaged, Ahmed Adaweya’s would have much the same effect in Cairo, as he remains, a decade after he dropped out from the music scene, the second most beloved singer of Egypt behind Umm Kulthum. He was the first musician to sell more than a million copies of an album, and still, if you (as a foreigner) mention Ahmed Adaweya to a mechanic, taxi driver, or street cleaner, you’ll make a friend for life.

Indeed, it will be a great disappointment if his ******* is still attached to his body, but there are a lot of other things that my article could touch upon, such as the trends in Shaabi music that have led to its current incarnation: the “notorious” Shabaan abd al'Raheem, whose songs about the World Trade Center (“C'mon, folks, it’s only a tower, and America is the one that tore it down”) and the Palestinians (“I’m not afraid to speak my mind, Sharon is a killer”) have been featured on CNN and in Congressional reports.

Other subjects addressed would be religion, sex, and drugs, and why, a decade and a half after Ahmed Adaweya’s popularity peaked, he has become the preferred musical choice of Cairo’s intellectual elite, who all but ignored him when he first recorded.

And the manner in which rumors of Adaweya’s castration, whether true or not, fit in with the general crisis of Egyptian masculinity. Shaaban recorded a song just a few years ago about Viagra, which was recently legalized in Egypt. If nothing else, I am hot on the trail of *******, working and not, in Egyptian cultural life.

If all goes well, I might be able to get an interview with Shaaban, but that’s kind of a long shot, as his schedule is all but booked for the next decade. Though, in lieu of talking to the man, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time translating a recent book written about Shaaban that explains why he continues to smoke even after recording a wildly popular anti-smoking song: Shaaban, the man himself explains, only smokes blue cigarettes.

Well, let me know if you’re interested. Or if you’d prefer an article about Egyptian freemasons, the pyramids, and conspiracy theories.


    Recent and Upcoming Happenings

    Bidoun Projects has had its hands full this fall and winter. In October we manned our usual booth at the Frieze Art Fair in London, while in New York we hosted a night of film screenings in collaboration with publishing culture-hero Semiotext(e), presenting outsider visions of Morocco — from Michel Auder’s ode to Warhol muse Viva’s foiled trip in 1971, to Mohamed Ulad-Mohand’s examination of Paul Bowles, the superlative expat.

    A few days later, we launched our fall issue and previewed our winter issue at The Kitchen with gallerist Tony Shafrazi narrating Moogambo, his operatic epic 1976 artist’s book/novella, even as Gini Alhadeff and Hampton Fancher recreated the magic of their first encounter (memorialized in our last issue). There were cowboy films from Iran and professional whistlers, too, along with tunes by Children, the duo of Fatima Al Qadiri and Shayne Oliver.

    In November, we teamed up with Cabinet magazine to present a rare screening of Shahr e Ghesse (City of Tales), the 1972 film version of the 1967 Iranian play, and hosted an idiosyncratic Performa event by artist Ahmet Ogüt remembering the late Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink. The performance involved a blind painter and a dark, dark room.

    Also in November, at Abu Dhabi Art, we launched an unprecedented resource room and library with collected bookish ephemera from the likes of Istanbul-based art publisher BAS or our comic partners in crime, Samandal, from Beirut. The resource room will also host rare recordings from around the world drawn from BubuWeb, Bidoun’s iteration of avant-garde cult media site UbuWeb. Our hope is that Abu Dhabi will be the first of many stops for this important work in progress.

    And finally in December, we opened a show entitled NOISE at Beirut’s Sfeir-Semler Gallery that aimed to explicate (or perhaps complicate) what it means to be exhibiting art in and around the Middle East. The show, which runs through February at the massive Beirut space, includes a text piece by Lawrence Weiner that runs along the gallery’s windows facing the Dora Highway. On the roof, a large neon sign by Vartan Avakian spelled out SFEIR-SEMLER in Devanagari script, advertising the previously unmarked building to the large immigrant Asian population in the old Armenian neighborhood below. Also included are photorealist works by Steven Baldi, a sculptural installation by Alessandro Balteo Yazbeck and Media Farzin, a piece of wall taken from the Tony Shafrazi Gallery by Babak Radboy, new photographic prints and sculptures by Walead Beshty, a ping-pong table by Rayyane Tabet, polaroids and a film by Haris Epaminonda, videos by Yoshua Okon, and paintings by Mounira Al Solh and Bassam Ramlawi. Also making her exhibition debut was gallerist Andrée Sfeir-Semler, as herself.


      Oulika Bouabdellah, Walk on the Sky. Pisces, 2009

      Abraaj Capital Art Prize
      Ongoing until March 2010

      This September saw the results of the second year of the art prize founded by investment firm Abraaj Capital: artists Hala Elkoussy, Marwan Sahmarani, and Kader Attia are now working on major new projects to be unveiled at the Middle East’s largest fair, Art Dubai (March 17–21, 2010). Upon completion, the works will become part of Abraaj’s corporate collection. The prize is designed to facilitate artists from the MENASA region (Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia) in working with international curators to realize new work that pushes their practice beyond its usual boundaries. Hala Elkoussy has teamed up with Amsterdam-based curator Jelle Bouwhuis to propose Room of Myths and Legends, described as “an unexpected, itinerant wing to the non-existent Museum of the City of Cairo.” Besides the artist’s usual practice of creating spaces crammed, salon-style, with landscape photos, portraiture, video, and so on (one example being On Red Nails, Palm Trees, and Other Icons–Al Archief (Take 2), at Sharjah Biennial 9), Elkoussy is working on a panoramic mural made up of panels that reference “propaganda murals” in their style and compositional hierarchy.

      At the announcement of the prize winners in Dubai on September 6, curator Mahita El Bacha Urieta, who has worked at the Sharjah Biennial and Abu Dhabi’s TDIC and is now based between Beirut and London, thanked the committee for acknowledging the unfashionable medium of painting, and for encouraging expressionist painter Marwan Sahmarani to develop a new direction in his work. Their joint proposal is for a domed room of fresco-esque scenes that reference key works by Michelangelo and Rubens. Finally, Kader Attia, with curator Laurie Ann Farrell, is working on a typically astute quip of a sculptural work that should have particular resonance with Gulf audiences. Following a six-month period of gestation, the finished works will be revealed with all the fanfare associated with the Dubai fair in March. Works by the 2009 winners — Nazgol Ansarinia, Kutlug Ataman, and Zoulikha Bouabdellah — were exhibited at the Dubai International Financial Center before touring to the Museum of Arts and Design in New York in September 2009. Meanwhile, given the general paucity of state funds for the arts in the MENASA, and despite the global downturn, it’s hoped that other Gulf-based companies will join Abraaj in collecting and commissioning new work.

      Cedric Delsaux, At Brouillard, 2008. Courtesy the Empty Quarter Gallery

      Cedric Delsaux: The Dark Lens
      The Empty Quarter
      December 1–31, 2009

      The Empty Quarter is the first specialist photography gallery in the Middle East. Backed by Saudi photographer Reem Al Faisal, with Elie Domit as director/curator, they opened at the nadir of Dubai’s downturn in March 2009 and have somehow weathered the economic storm with a series of diverse, quality exhibitions and book releases. The gallery occupies a slickly designed space in the DIFC Gate Village — alongside the Farjam Collection, Artspace, Cuadro, and, of course, Prada, Vivienne Westwood, Villa Moda — that nevertheless gestures toward the independent. It welcomes UAE graduates alongside Magnum veteran Eve Arnold and experimental photographer Mohammadreza Mirzaei, for example.

      December’s artist Cedric Delsaux won the Kodak prize for landscapes and architecture with his Star Wars on Earth series in 2005; here he continues the exploration into (real) landscapes and (mythic, nostalgic) sci-fi by turning to Dubai’s dust, detritus, and commercial sheen. Working with Attakus Star Wars statues and George Lucas’s special effects model makers, the images are perhaps a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Dubai’s former status as a futuristic, otherworldly, “master of the universe” city-state; as the emirate reconsiders itself post-crunch, this witty series appears apt and timely.

      Bidoun Workshops: Writing About Art
      The Shelter and other venues
      January 14–16 and each month to June 2010

      Aiming to kickstart an informal art school tradition in Dubai, Bidoun Projects, the magazine’s curatorial sister organization, presents a six-month course of workshops and lectures in 2010, looking specifically at writing about art. Both visiting and locally based artists, curators, and readers are known to bemoan the lack of considered critique in the Gulf’s general and, more specifically, arts-related media: They’re more likely to read the gallery’s press release reproduced umpteen times than read original criticism. And with a growing number of touring exhibitions and international events in the vicinity, demand for informed arts writers far outstrips supply. Covering both the practicalities and intellectualisms of critique, the series starts with a weekend get-together in January, and continues once a month until June, and pits a bevy of budding UAE-based writers against a clutch of visiting and local critics. Keynote presentations are combined with discussions and visits to exhibitions and events, while Bidoun and guest editors build on the course activities by discussing, one-on-one, the participants’ reviews each month. The course is taught in both Arabic and English, at Bidoun’s UAE base, the Shelter in Al Quoz 4, besides other venues; for further information and updates, check bidoun.com, or email Bidoun Projects’ Dubai coordinator Alia Al-Sabi ([email protected]).

      Rokni Haerizadeh, Chiniye Gole Sorkhi, 2009. Courtesy the artist and B21 Gallery

      Rokni Haerizadeh
      B21 Gallery
      November 16, 2009–January 7, 2010

      Painter Rokni Haerizadeh is a darling of the Gulf’s commercial art world and consistently included in international group shows of Iranian contemporary artists. And yet he has managed to ride this wave while keeping his practice resolutely individual. Over the years, his work has gradually become less concerned with mythic stories and poetry, and more documentary in style. Resident in Dubai (along with his brother, the photographer Ramin) since spring 2009, his new works contemplate Iran from afar, dwelling on both the events that led to his exile (Revolutionary Guards break into collector’s house and they call the party Devil Worshippers’ house, a monumental diptych) and the pre- and post-election fever that swept Iran. At the time of writing, he’d completed seventy small-scale works on paper for Fictionville, a series that documents the protests as experienced through the international media, specifically the window of a TV screen. “This has become the only way to look at my country, through a medium used for entertainment,” he told Bidoun. “You follow the disaster for a while, and then make your day.” Now a resident of the new tower blocks of the Jumeirah Beach Residences, Dubai’s gaudy beach life has also caught his attention, while other series take George Orwell’s Animal Farm and the death of John Lennon as departure points.

      New York
      Romanticide: Love, Loss and Co-dependency in Art and Cultural Politics
      Ongoing until April 2010
      New York University Abu Dhabi (Various Locations)

      Frequent Bidoun contributor Clare Davies has curated a series of panel discussions aimed at exploring the territory of making art in the Middle East, in the context of “an arts infrastructure dominated by the rhetoric of nation-building, the promise of private wealth, and the priorities of humanist agendas.” The series, which takes place at NYUAD’s USA campus, says Davies, explores the roles that artists play in interpreting nation-building and humanitarian initiatives, while endowing them with intellectual currency. This fall saw Tirdad Zolghadr, Ayreen Anastas, and Boris Groys examine the enduring affair between contemporary art and human rights, and Bilal Khbeiz and Sadik Jalal Al-Azm discuss the plight of the Arab intellectual. Winter-spring events will include a performative talk by Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum and Manifesta curator Bassam El Baroni (January 27); historian Omnia El Shakry on “Dense Objects and Sentient Viewings” (February 10); and artist and Bidoun editor Hassan Khan with “The Shape of the Argument,” an attempt by the artist “to come to terms with a vague realization of something that might equally be the product of a growing consciousness or the platitude of a self-serving delusion” (March 10). The series is rounded off with “Fortune-teller: Reflections on the Future of Arts, Education and Economy in the Middle East,” debated by Mishaal El Gergawi, of the Dubai Arts and Culture Authority Project, and the political economists Kiren Aziz Chaudhry and Saskia Sassen (April 7). Bidoun is a partner in the project, part of a series of events aimed at enriching discussion around themes in the region, around the opening of the NYU campus in Abu Dhabi, scheduled for December 2009.

      CAMP, Edgware Road, 2009. Courtesy the artists

      Edgware Road: The Centre for Possible Studies
      The Serpentine Gallery

      The Serpentine takes London’s iconic Edgware Road as its point of departure in an ongoing multidisciplinary project that will involve artist projects, symposia, and collaborative filmmaking endeavors. Operating out of a headquarters enigmatically called “The Center for Possible Studies,” this project will also aim to engage local residents, shop owners, and others who intersect and interact with this storied road, which has come to host multiple immigrant communities over the decades. Among the project’s participating artists are Mumbai-based collective CAMP (whose pirate radio project was at the last Sharjah Biennial), Susan Hefuna, Khalid Abdalla, Hiwa K, no.w.here, and Ultra-red. Highlights of the initiative include CAMP’s Block Study, a collaboratively edited and annotated archive of histories of one block of the Edgware Road. Bringing together contemporary zoning laws, future plans, and the past lives of buildings, the study plans to uncover both the residents’ relationships to cinema and the place of Edgware Road in a broader global cinematic imaginary.

      Hazmig Khaniguian, Courtesy of 98 weeks

      98weeks Project Space
      Mid-November, 2009

      Beirut-based collective 98weeks opens a new space this fall in the city’s Mar Mikhael neighborhood. Inaugurating the space with the results of a one-month-long research project and workshop, the collective will continue to take the city as one of its central concerns and inspirations. In the past, 98weeks, initiated by cousins Mirene and Marwa Arsanios, has invited artists Francis Alÿs and Lara Almarcegui and critic Cuauhtémoc Medina, among many others, to lead workshops and think about spatial practices — how contemporary art can both be born of and occupy any given locale, and the various lives it may have. Planned for the project space are talks, workshops, screenings, reading groups, and more.

      Kara Walker, Testimony: Narrative of a Negress Burdened by Good Intentions, 2004. Courtesy the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

      Beirut Art Center
      October 21, 2009–January 16, 2010

      America represents an attempt to come to terms with the United States as a possible model of civilization. What does “America” mean in the world’s collective unconscious? Neither accusatory nor celebratory, the purpose of the exhibition is to reflect on mythologies that have constituted and perpetuated the idea of America, while also considering the ways in which America has been both imagined and imaged by Americans and non-Americans alike. The show features sixteen works by artists of different nationalities and backgrounds, living inside and outside the United States, among them Naji Al-Ali, Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri, Ziad Antar, Joseph Beuys, Wafaa Bilal, William Eggleston, Mounir Fatmi, Jenny Holzer, An-My Lê, Matt McCormick, Julia Meltzer and David Thorne, Melik Ohanian, Catherine Opie, Greta Pratt, Martha Rosler, and Kara Walker.

      Assume the Position
      Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art
      December 6, 2009–January 16, 2010

      This group show takes as its starting point the loss of focus, distraction as diversion. The offstage moment becomes central, the minor player becomes the star, the prop the protagonist, the interior monologue the script. In some works, selected by curator Nikki Columbus, the artist inserts herself to create a disruption: Croatian artist Sanja Iveković attracts the attention of police by pretending to masturbate on her balcony; American artist Jill Magid’s romantic city tour is filmed entirely by surveillance cameras. Other artists reframe events through different means: Egyptian photographer Osama Dawod captures G8 protesters on a pee break, while American David Levine re-crops performance art documentation to show only the onlookers— staring off into space, sleeping, talking among themselves. Guy Debord’s iconic spectators, transfixed in their 3D glasses, have been replaced by actors and audiences who continually turn away.

      Revolution For Kids

      Dar El Fata El Arabi, Recollected

      Our Oil is Arab!! Original drawing and text for wall newspapers produced by Mohieddin Ellabad for distribution in Palestinian refugee camps.

      In 1974, the children’s publishing house Dar El Fata El Arabi was launched in Beirut. Over the next decade, Dar El Fata — staffed by artists, designers, and writers devoted to bringing attention to the Palestinian cause — produced some of the most visually striking and progressive children’s books in the region. Bidoun sat down with Mohieddin Ellabbad, one of the cofounders of the publishing house and its first and most influential art director, as well as Nawal Traboulsi, a leading expert on children’s literature and reading habits, who got her start as an amateur illustrator hand-picked by Ellabbad to work with him making books.

      Mohieddin Ellabbad: I remember the first time I walked into the Dar El Fata offices. Right away I noticed how plush the office was — wall-to-wall carpeting, a long row of telephones, fresh coffee and orange juice. I had come to Beirut under the assumption that conditions would be very difficult. In Egypt we had a fantasy that all things Palestinian automatically meant suffering. I imagined I would be sleeping in an iron bed with six other people in the room. But I was willing to suffer considerably for the cause. I had just scrapped a long-planned sabbatical in Paris, in which I had invested all of my savings, to come to Beirut and work with a novice publishing house linked to the Palestinians.

      My first meeting was with Nabil Shaath who was the director of the Palestinian Planning Center and also in charge of the publishing house. He was also a member of the Revolutionary Council of Fatah; later he would hold various positions in the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority. In Shaath’s office, I immediately noticed a stack of typewritten papers on the corner of his desk. In response to my inquisitive look, he told me that it was material he had approved for publication, and proceeded to dramatically ask one of his aides why it had not already been sent to the print shop. Another employee interjected that it was necessary to first design and prepare the manuscript. And of course, there was no designer. That was how I came in.

      Nawal Traboulsi: Dar El Fata was the PLO’s cultural program, though there was no direct political guidance. Dar El Fata was very creative and progressive, although of course there was a definite, and genuine, enthusiasm for the Palestinian revolution. But the money came from the PLO.

      ME: Actually, that’s not true. The money came from private businessmen. At the time, it was common for projects like this to be launched with private donations. But it was founded by Abu Ammar — Yasser Arafat’s nom de guerre — after Black September and the expulsion of the Palestinians to Lebanon. An Egyptian doctor who had been imprisoned by Nasser in the fifties, a Marxist, donated a sum of money to Fatah with the suggestion that it be used to fund something that would signify the revolution’s persistence — its ability to take the long road when necessary. A document for the education of children was being drafted at the same time, and thus the idea of launching a publishing house geared toward making books for children started to gain currency.

      NT: I was twenty years old, and I was studying philosophy at the French university in Beirut, drawing on the side as a hobby. I had some work in an exhibition at a cultural center in the city, and I was very lucky that Ellabbad saw it. Though they informed him that I was only a student, he insisted on meeting me anyway. He asked if I was interested in doing drawings for children’s books. To be totally honest, at the time I had never done any drawings for children. What’s more, he said that the publishing house was to be primarily about and for Palestinian children, and at the time I had no relationship to Palestine or the Palestinians. But Ellabbad told me not to worry, he would guide me in the process. And in fact, he was so authoritarian! We called him Monsieur Millimeter because of his sharpness and precision. I ended up illustrating around ten books. I got to meet artists like Nazir Nabaa, Kamal Boullata, and Helmi El-Touni. All these Arabs then living in Beirut, “foreigners.” For a Lebanese French-speaking student from the 1968 generation, Dar El Fata opened my horizon onto the Arab world. I was interested in where they came from, their conversations, their painting. But I preferred to stay in the shadows.

      ME: When I started, it wasn’t clear what we were going to do. There was no marketing or distribution plan. I decided that if the publishing house was to survive, I’d have to come up with one. What soon became clear was that we needed to establish several distinct series for various ages, in different formats. I made our official goal to publish sixty-seven books by the end of that first year. It was a large but necessary number. We needed to have an extensive and diverse back catalog for the publishing house to establish itself, and to find retail outlets in the Arab world willing to carry our books. I had arrived in May 1974, and I wanted sixty-seven books by December. It was crazy. Somehow we actually, miraculously, met our target.

      NT: Yes, and you managed to publish original works! At the time, the few existing children’s publishing houses were busy translating already published books and copying their images. Even more impressive was that you published modern texts about modern children, the children of the 1960s and 70s. Furthermore, Dar El Fata was an Arab publishing house with authors and illustrators from every Arab country, which was a totally new and progressive practice. It was not a publishing house that merely reflected the owners’ tastes, as is common now, and at the same time it was not the property of any one country. Because it was dedicated to the Palestinian cause, which especially at that time was the cause of many Arabs, it was truly a pan-Arab endeavor. And it paid attention to children. Writing and publishing quality books for children was not common or trendy in those days — to even think about children was revolutionary!

      Original preliminary drawing by Mohieddin Ellabad of the cover of The Cat’s Banquet by Zakareya Tamer.

      ME: After the first year we conducted an internal assessment that pointed out the utter failure of our administrative and distribution system. What I suggested as a remedy was to become a much smaller operation, a sort of atelier de création, focusing only on the production of content. Nabil Shaath was very unhappy with my proposal, he wanted us to be something big, like Akhbar El Yom, the Egyptian newspaper giant, with their huge nine-story building. He wanted to be a big corporation that produced video for broadcast. I thought, “We can’t produce a sixteen-page book for children and distribute it properly.” He tried to convince me to stay, but I decided to leave after the second year. I returned to Egypt after the civil war erupted. Two of the office boys had already been killed in the fighting. But I did keep working with Dar El Fata through a project that I initiated in Cairo, the Arab Workshop for Children’s Books. We coproduced several books together.

      NT: After Ellabbad left, nobody from Dar El Fata contacted me again. So it was a brief but influential two years for me. It was clear how crucial Mohieddin Ellabbad had been to the project. He was demanding about which artists he chose to work with, and he refused to have any artists forced upon him because they were Palestinian, or had certain political convictions. I remember that I was astonished to find that I was being paid exactly the same as other illustrators, although I didn’t consider myself a professional like they were. Ellabbad told me that he paid for the work, not the “name” of the person. It was a new and fair way of dealing, and I was proud to work in an institution that operated under such rules. Ellabbad gave Dar El Fata its Arab face — he made sure that it didn’t just become another tool for propaganda. He sought out writers and artists from Sudan, Morocco, Yemen, everywhere in the Arab world.

      ME: To ensure my independence, and in order to keep the administration from interfering too much, I consciously made a point of doing my work away from their offices. I would keep the entire process under my control until I presented them with the final results. At this time, Hegazy, Adly Rizkallah, and Mahmoud Fahmy all came from Cairo and stayed at my house — four beds in a row, we lived and worked together. We worked so hard that we didn’t really have a chance to experience the Beirut you hear about, the Beirut of nighttime pleasures and good food. When we Egyptians went to Beirut in the Seventies, we made a bigger impact than is usually acknowledged.

      One thing I remember unconsciously doing was to use the publishing house’s catalog as an opportunity to publish a visual manifesto of sorts. I collected different drawings and juxtaposed them to produce a cover for the catalog that represented the kind of visual world we were interested in. We got rid of Mickey Mouse and Tom & Jerry type drawings. The idea was to present a new “rough” aesthetic that was at the same time visually powerful and artistically complete — something that was local and that rejected the sentimental and bourgeois nature of the dominant form of illustration at the time. What we wanted were rats, dogs that looked like the ones you see walking down the street, cats smoking cigarettes. That was what I was looking for, not to be just driven by the demands of creating images for propaganda. Anyway, everything I suggested was accepted!

      NT: I remember during the civil war a meeting that Mohieddin and I participated in where some colleagues voiced the opinion that instead of drawing killings and corpses we should be drawing optimistic and hopeful things. I was quite critical of this position, as I believed we should be drawing what’s around us, the terrible reality we were living. I had also become involved in the Palestinian cause by that point, and I agreed with Mohieddin that art should exceed reality so that the audience could register reality itself. The whole period was marked by revolutionary ideas everywhere.

      ME: Dar El Fata being connected to a political organization still meant that there were pretty sticky situations sometimes. People I had never seen before would suddenly show up and stand there, watching us while we were working. In such situations, I tried to be both polite and firm. After the customary but curt greetings I would find out who they were, usually people from the Palestinian Planning Center, on some kind of investigation to find out what we were up to exactly.

      In 1975, the Emirates paid for the media campaign that accompanied Abu Ammar’s historical address to the UN, and suddenly there was funding for us to do something cultural to accompany his trip. The decision was taken to translate a few of our books into different languages to demonstrate the kind of books Palestinian children were being exposed to. The mere existence of a children’s publishing house was already an achievement, but fortunately the books chosen were of an aesthetically high standard, not mere propaganda. But the problem with the administration was that they couldn’t always differentiate between propaganda and art. Our efforts were always bound up in propaganda, so in a sense we never fulfilled our true potential.

      NT: Another artist and I made a postcard for the tenth anniversary of the Palestinian revolution. The image was also published in the An-Nawar newspaper, but it was attributed to a twelve-year-old Palestinian girl called Nawal Abboud, who didn’t exist. Although I felt like the Palestinian girl secretly existed inside me, like another secret me, and though I was happy that my work was selected and used for the Palestinian cause, as a poster and as a background for a Palestinian children’s play, it was ultimately an act of theft that didn’t respect the artist’s rights. But I didn’t say anything. I have a draft of the original illustration, and it seems, in retrospect, like a prescient illustration of the children of the Intifada in the late Eighties and early Nineties.

      Original maquette of the cover of the first publications catalogue of the publishing house, considered by the artistic director as a sort of ‘visual manifesto.’

      ME: It’s important to note that the experience of working in such close proximity to a political machine also influenced my practice positively, because it mixed up all the different channels. I used to work as a designer, a cartoonist, and illustrator — after Dar El Fata I started exploring the possibility of mixing all these different strands. There was a story by Zakaria Tamer called The Cat’s Banquet that I designed the cover for. At the time I was doing lots of caricatures about the infitah — Sadat’s economic open-door policy in the seventies — in which a vicious-looking cat is in the process of seducing a bird. I gave the cat a pack of Marlboros and a bottle of Coke.

      This was the image of the enemy: extremely well dressed but with claws, like the West. Our original publications, while actually quite cheap, looked lavish. I felt that this was not fitting — to walk into a refugee camp with open sewers and to present such an expensive-looking book, which indeed cost 25 pt — a lot at the time. I did an analysis that showed that it was possible to produce a book for a quarter of the price, if we got rid of the cover. But that never happened. I also initiated a wall journal, in public, with spaces left for locals to fill in. We produced six of them. Other formal innovative and rewarding experiences include the work I did on a book by Zakaria Tamer, which was a sort of comparison between a free, wild horse and a domesticated, servile one. At the time, I came across an exhibition of paintings of horses in Yemen by Laila Shawa. So I asked her if she would like to illustrate this book for me. When she hesitated, I told her that we could do the book together. I said, “You do the paintings in whichever form you like, and just leave me some space for the text.” We laid out the book together, and it was really beautiful. I was always interested in finding new unknown or unprofessional artists who had something strong about their work. Like Nawal, Laila had just graduated from university and had a wonderfully free and naive style. But you need time to discover people, and time to work with them. Unfortunately, things were run quite erratically, and we also worked with people who were not really able to go beyond the dominant aesthetics of the time. Also, the goal of producing sixty-seven books that I had set for the publishing house dictated some of these choices. Sometimes you are not as big as your dreams, and the people you’re dealing with are not up to it. And maybe I wasn’t able to achieve the aesthetic criteria I had set forth in the manifesto.

      NT: For me, my experience with Dar El Fata and the war afterward put me on the path I am on now. At the time it was part of a general ambience of revolutionary movements. I am from the generation that dreamed of creating a new world, a new Lebanon as a country of freedom and rights for all citizens, independent of religion, gender, or social class. The war went on to destroy everything in my life, but my work at Dar El Fata was the seed of everything I am doing now. For over ten years I have been engaged with children’s literature, libraries, and public reading. I’m one of the founders of the first NGOs in Lebanon to focus on the establishment and development of public libraries. Right after the war ended, Rafik Hariri was rebuilding the country in a bourgeois way, and a group of friends and activists began working on how to find alternatives through which to reconstruct this damaged country. So we focused on children, public schools, and libraries.

      ME: After I left Beirut in 1976, the publishing house continued until the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1982, when it left with the mass exodus of the Palestinians. It then came to Cairo, and a significant change took place. I guess politics finally became absolutely dominant. I am only guessing here, but I think that the house acted as a secret channel of communication between the PLO and the Egyptian government, who at the time were not officially communicating. I continued to design some books, and did some stamps for them, like the now iconic Falasteen Arabiyya (Palestine is Arab) stamp. When Israel participated for the first and last time in the Cairo Book Fair, with a pavilion next to the Dar El Fata pavilion, we volunteered to hold different events to support the publishing house and to celebrate Palestine. Later on we discovered that the PLO had allocated a budget for these activities. I wonder where the money went. By then, in the mid-Eighties, it was really over. Every couple of years a book might be published. The house was finally closed down sometime in the early Nineties. No one ever called to let us know.

      One Star is Enough to Make a Cosmos

      Alighiero e Boetti and the One Hotel

      Courtesy Annemarie Sauzeau Boetti

      In the spring of 1971, Alighiero Boetti arrived in Afghanistan. The Italian artist was seeking a “distant thing,” he said. Certainly he had plenty to get away from. Boetti’s career had begun in the early 60s, in Turin, and his spryly conceptual artworks had been identified with the Arte Povera movement. But he had drifted away from Arte Povera’s “guerilla war,” and was surely dismayed by the onset of the Italian “Years of Lead” — bombings, kidnappings, and shootings, perpetrated by neofascists and leftists alike. Afghanistan was a world away, a pacific, unspoiled place of great natural beauty. “I considered traveling from a purely personal, hedonistic point of view,” Boetti once said. “I was fascinated by the desert… the bareness, the civilization of the desert.”

      That civilization, it should be noted, had really great dope. Kabul was then a way station for India-bound hippies, seekers, and other Western expatriates who would hang out on Chicken Street in Shahr-i-Naw, downtown. Boetti first stayed at a fleapit hostel, where he embarked on a new work, 720 Letters from Afghanistan. Naturally, he required a lot of stamps. A waiter at the hostel displayed considerable enterprise in obtaining them, and one day Boetti asked his new friend about his dreams for the future. “I would love to have my own hotel,” said the young man, whose name was Gholam Dastaghir. “And if I did, I would run it in such a way that you would fall in love.”

      Boetti already had. His first trip lasted only a few months, but before the year was out he would return with his wife and small son. Back in Kabul that autumn, Boetti sought out the waiter and pressed a wad of bills into his disbelieving palm. Together they opened a hotel, which they named, after considerable discussion, the One.

      For all Dastaghir’s entrepreneurship, the One Hotel was inarguably Boetti’s place. The Italian returned twice annually to his new Afghan retreat, often with his family in tow. It was a small place, but comfortable — his wife and collaborator Annemarie Sauzeau insists that Boetti, who died in 1994, “was no masochist” — a pleasant bungalow with a garden and a clientele of hippies and Indian and Pakistani carpet traders. When Boetti was in Afghanistan, though, the One Hotel served primarily as his home and workplace, a base camp for his various explorations.

      It was at the One Hotel that the Italian conceived his most celebrated and emblematic artworks, the Mappa, a series of embroidered maps of the world. Each Mappa is a flattened globe in the form of an Afghan rug, depicting the familiar outline of the continents, with nations and territories blocked out in the colors and designs of their flags. While his maps clearly evoked the medieval tradition of the Mappa mundi, Boetti’s works also referred back to his 12 forme dal 10 giugno 1967, a set of twelve copper sheets incised with the outlines of conflict zones, including Territori occupati, a tracing taken from La Stampa of the Palestinian territories on the last day of the Six-Day War. The following year he followed up this burgeoning interest in maps, politics, and moments suspended in time with Verso sud l’ultimo dei paesi abitatié l’Arabia (“Toward the South, the Last of the Inhabited Countries Is Arabia,” a title taken from Herodotus’s History), a drypoint composition on a quick-setting metallic plate, such that the indentation made by the needle became fainter as the etching progressed, and the words increasingly illegible.

      The first Mappa was produced in the autumn of 1971. A second followed soon after, and then another. The Mappa became Boetti’s signature work. He outsourced the actual embroidering to Afghan weaving families, who worked from designs provided by the Italian and communicated by the family headman or Boetti’s Afghan assistant, Salman Alì. Some took a year to complete, others a decade. In most the sea is blue, but in some it is black or even pink. Such “flaws” were necessary risks; indeed, they served to create a mass variation on a theme, like jazz riffs, each work similar and yet different at the same time.

      Given the fluctuations within politics and nations, Boetti’s Mappa constitute an ironic, irreverent take on national self-definition. And they are themselves political: Sinai retained its Arab colors despite its post-1967 annexation by Israel, and the land area of Mozambique was colored with the Soviet-style flag of FRELIMO before that anti-colonial guerrilla movement took power. Time, too, dictated differences from one Mappa to the next: Near the end of the series, the singular Yugoslav bloc disintegrated into warring Balkan states, while the very last Mappa is the only one to depict the Russian flag.

      All in all, Boetti achieved a rare thing. The Mappa are rooted in a local context, but suggest the whole world. They derived directly from a then-unfashionable artisanal or craft tradition but are also purely conceptual. Boetti insisted that he “did nothing, chose nothing… the world is made as it is, not as I designed it, the flags are those that exist, and I did not design them.” His sole contribution, he professed, was the idea, which was then executed by others. (Boetti was drawing on Sol LeWitt’s 1967 Paragraphs on Conceptual Art: “The idea itself… is as much a work of art as any finished product.”) They vary, but according to a loose plan; they are reconciled to never-ending change and regeneration.

      Perhaps this was a lesson of the “civilization of the desert.” Other travelers had come to Afghanistan at about the same time, including a young Bruce Chatwin, not yet a writer, who traveled among the nomads in 1970 and later remarked on the “different perception of time” in the desert, celebrating the nomadic shaman as a “self-destructive evangelist… [a] wandering dervish.” Four years later the similarly anarchic German artist Sigmar Polke would capture snapshots of this ascetic and quasi-mystical way of life in a series of fourteen grainy black and white photos.

      But it is safe to say that this was a lesson Boetti had learned before his trip to the East. In 1968 he had titled an early solo exhibition Shaman/Showman. As Sauzeau noted, it played on the notion “that every artist wants to be a real shaman, but because of the art market you have to play the part of being a showman.” That double identity informed Boetti’s practice for the rest of his life. A sense of rigor and a sense of play; conceptualism and humanism; an attention to the performative and to ritual — these were qualities the Italian took with him to Kabul, not things he discovered there.

      Though he described his traveling as a hedonistic adventure, Boetti had arrived in South Asia with curious baggage. For one, his dual persona: in 1968 he changed his name to Alighiero e Boetti, making his artwork, officially, the product of a collaboration between his two selves, the public artist, Boetti, and the private person, Alighiero. But he also arrived in nomadic drag. He called himself Ali Ghiero, and in his travels and sympathies he self-consciously followed the example of an illustrious ancestor, also named Boetti, who possessed multiple dissimulating identities of his own.

      Giovanni Battista Boetti dei Predicatori left Piedmont in 1763 at the age of twenty and became a Dominican monk. Eight years later he was in Mosul, serving as superior of the Apostolic Mission of the Congregation of Propaganda Fide, responsible for spreading the good word to greater Mesopotamia. Something went awry, however, and Giovanni abandoned the missionary creed and traveled to Constantinople, where he introduced himself as Pafflis and scouted out schismatic circles. He was recalled to Italy, where he called himself Abdalla Bacase and defended himself against the charge of apostasy.

      Giovanni broke with the Church and returned to the Orient, where he converted to Islam, founded a Sufi sect, and began preaching across Anatolia and the lower Caucasus. Giovanni was inducted into the order of Khwajagan Sufi masters, and, adopting the nom de guerre Sheikh Mansur, he espoused ghazavat (holy war) against the encroaching Potemkin armies of Czarina Catherine the Great. He rallied fifteen thousand fighting men as he led Chechen insurrections in Georgia, Dagestan, and Circassia. (He also created a Chechen alter ego, Ushurma.) In 1791, he was defeated at Anapà, in Kuban on the Black Sea, and imprisoned in Solovetsk on the Barents (later the site of an infamous Stalin-era gulag). He died three years later, but not before being given an audience with the stately Catherine.

      Sauzeau suspects that Giovanni Boetti must have started out as a spy for Rome, at least before his conversion. “He belonged to this generation of Casanova,” she said. “He was an adventurer.” Whatever else he was, he seems to have been a hero. Ten years ago, a Libération reporter who covered the Chechen war of independence in the 1990s told Sazeau that the rebels idolized two figures above all: a nineteenth-century Chechen named Chamille, and an eighteenth-century Italian named Boetti.

      Perhaps it was this Byronesque vision of a romantic rebel that appealed to Alighiero, and the idea of reinventing himself at a distance. Perhaps it was the draw of Eastern religion. The collected artworks in André Malraux’s “imaginary museum” had inspired in him an early interest in Buddhism and the Tao, and he seemed to share his ancestor’s passion for Sufism — his contribution to the Centre Pompidou’s 1989 exhibition Magiciens de la terre was a series of fifty embroidered works, Poesie con il Sufi Berang, with epigrams from his poet-friend Berang Ramazan, a Sufi mystic.

      But perhaps it would be more appropriate to the spirit of Alighiero e Boetti to speculate more broadly. In 1952, in an essay titled “The Enigma of Edward FitzGerald,” Jorge Luis Borges proposed two models to account for the unique poetic majesty of the English-language edition of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, those eleventh-century Persian quatrains that had been “interpolated, refined, and invented” by the Victorian poet. One, to which Borges ultimately subscribes, insists that no more than a “beneficent chance” sparked FitzGerald’s fascination in “dear old Khayyam.” But he cannot discount the suspicion that there might be cases in which a soul, detached from its earthly vessel, might transmigrate from one body to the next, until some neglected duty had been fulfilled, and that sometime around 1857, the soul of Omar al-Khayyam alit in Edward FitzGerald, in order to consummate his literary destiny.

      Might there be something of Giovanni in his descendent besides mere plasma? And what work might he have pursued from beyond the grave? Alighiero did not, it is true, lend his sword to the latter-day Chechens in their fight against their Muscovite oppressors. But he did take a stand with the Afghans and, according to one critic, financially supported Ahmad Shah Massoud, the famed Afghan resistance fighter and leader of the mujahideen. Of course, Alighiero died young, of pancreatic cancer, at the age of fifty-four. It may be that the Boettis’ great work is yet to be done.

      On the back leaf of his well-thumbed copy of Norman O. Brown’s 1966 book Love’s Body, Alighiero put possible names for his hotel to the test. Below the most prominent suggestions— “Lira” or “One Hotel” — is a resonant possibility: the El Mansur Hotel.

      It still stands, the One, though there’s a new facade, and its former identity lives on in the memories of a mere handful of neighboring shopkeepers. You would be forgiven for thinking that it was destroyed in one or another ruinous chapter of the city’s history. As such, it has taken on a mythic character, the Shangri-La for Boetti disciples, younger artists, and critics. One can visit Smithson’s Spiral Jetty or take a trip to De Maria’s Lightning Fields, but Kabul, the thinking goes, is an artistic pilgrimage too far. Still, if you come and make the right turn off Chicken Street, you can find the building and compare its visage with a photograph of the place that Murtaza Roshan took around 1973, and do whatever it is that art pilgrims do when treading on holy ground. (Me, I took a picture.)

      No one knows exactly when the One Hotel closed shop. Gholam Dastaghir knows, presumably, and Sauzeau believes he may still be alive, but I haven’t found him. Sauzeau herself was last there in 1975. The hotel may have met its end in 1978, when Marxists overthrew the government and thereby started a civil war, or late 1979, when Soviet troops arrived to prop up their embattled clients.

      What we know is that the artwork conceived in the One Hotel outlived it. Like so many Afghans, Boetti’s weavers went into exile, ultimately to Peshawar in northwestern Pakistan, the destination du choix for most Afghan refugees. And there production resumed on the Mappa in 1984, after a visit by Boetti. The Mappa reappeared in much their former guise, though the political reality they now described was tense. (Another work from this period, a weaving entitled Soviet Exodus with Poppies, features tanks and shoulder-fired rockets.) Production continued until Boetti’s death a decade later. His son Matteo traveled to Pakistan to collect the final Mappa and pay severance to families that had depended on the artist for twenty years. And with that, a project that knew no temporal bounds, an extended meditation on order and disorder, was complete.

      Enterprise Square USA

      A capitalist hallucination

      Image by William E. Jones

      The promotional literature for Enterprise Square USA, a now-defunct part of Oklahoma Christian University in Edmond, announced “an Epcot-style attraction that uses imaginative settings and dazzling special effects,” a place where “thousands of individuals experience a small taste of the vision for free enterprise.” This description, promising a taste of a vision, implied synesthesia and conjured an image of hallucinogen-fueled tributes to Milton Friedman. While Enterprise Square failed to deliver that sort of cockeyed sublimity it nonetheless deserves its own special place in the pantheon of Bible Belt kitsch oddities.

      A propaganda tool in the waning years of the Cold War, Enterprise Square had as its pedagogical goal the countering of “socialistic” ideas about economics circulating among America’s youth and their teachers. The attraction was the brainchild of Robert Rowland, director of the American Citizenship Center, a group of Christians who conveniently forgot Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and raised selfish ambition to the level of a theological principle — in other words, people who came to power with a vengeance with Reagan’s election to the presidency.

      Image by William E. Jones

      Despite the triumphalist euphoria surrounding its opening in 1982, Enterprise Square became dated almost instantly, as though its designers had never realized that the capitalist spectacle out in the world was already so powerful, adaptable, and polymorphous that it could not be easily tarted up for kids or adequately simulated in a building on a college campus. Entirely contrary to the agendas of its directors, the strength of Enterprise Square lay in its contradictions and failures, in the manner of the vernacular surrealism already plentiful in the Oklahoma City area. As a unique tourist attraction it succeeded brilliantly, but how it ever functioned as pedagogy remains a mystery.

      Visitors to Enterprise Square passed through various themed galleries, starting with America’s Heartbeat Rotunda, a multimedia bombardment reminding spectators that all parts of our lives have an economic aspect. A montage of disembodied voices, accompanied by dozens of flashing backlit transparencies, produced a portrait of that idealized economic unit, a “typical” nuclear family. At one point, a picture of a bride and groom appeared while a female voice cooed, “a perfect couple, and he just landed a great job.” In case the theme of marriage as a financial transaction akin to genteel prostitution escaped anyone, another female voice later shouted, “Spend! Spend! Spend!”

      Image by William E. Jones

      The Hall of Statistics that followed was intended to impress upon visitors the sheer magnitude of the capitalist system. Several signs featured running totals of objects produced and consumed, for example, estimates of 200,016,000 eggs and 33,984,000 bricks laid in the previous twenty-four hours. Above a stock photograph of a boy in a baseball cap about to bite into a weenie, a provocative sign read, “Since 6pm yesterday, there have been 60,264,000 hot dogs eaten.” This tally must have included the entire United States, but still, such consumption staggers the imagination.

      The following gallery, with the cumbersome title Free To Be What You Want Under Our System, presented comedic films about professions into which a visitor could insert himself via closed-circuit television cameras. A doctor whose patient wakes up from anesthesia on the operating table and a policeman giving a granny a speeding ticket were but two characters representing possible careers available for rehearsal.

      Image by William E. Jones

      The Hall of Giants, presenting worshipful versions of monopoly capitalists’ lives, was (appropriately enough) the largest gallery at Enterprise Square and a focal point of the exhibitions. A group of enormous busts with interior spaces large enough to walk through paid tribute to figures such as Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Alexander Graham Bell. Presumably aware that such an exclusive group might appear sexist or racist, the planners of Enterprise Square also included Booker T. Washington and Helena Rubinstein as Giants. In the corridor leading up to this capitalist Valhalla, an effort at inclusiveness led to some especially bizarre choices. That space featured the “also-rans” of a capitalist selection process, including John D. Rockefeller, who truly belonged with the Giants, but whose story and visage must have been judged to evince little redeeming human value. Other lesser Giants included AFL president Samuel Gompers (an okay guy even if he didn’t play for the right team) and, most inexplicably, Emily Dickinson. Perhaps Enterprise Square meant to suggest that the reclusive American poet would have been a great capitalist, had she only left her house more often.

      Beyond the Hall of Giants lay the Remarkable Supply Shop for Demanding Donut Dunkers, an interactive display staffed by a student worker. In a set like that of a game show, visitors voted for how much they would be willing to pay for doughnuts, which appeared to be circular hunks of plaster painted pastel colors such as periwinkle blue. A remarkably crude robot figure (more of a puppet, actually) presided over this speculation in doughnuts.

      Image by William E. Jones

      After passing through a pop-art–themed gallery with large Campbell’s Soup cans and pseudo-George Segal sculptures, visitors reached the Great American Marketplace, one of Enterprise Square’s most celebrated exhibits. Large one, two, ten, and one-hundred-dollar bills with animatronic portraits in the middle formed a barbershop quartet singing the praises of the capitalist system, occasionally to the tune of “America the Beautiful.” In this musical interlude, “freedom,” a word much in evidence in the previous galleries, was drilled into spectators’ minds with merciless repetition, leaving no doubt as to the importance of the term in the vocabulary of free market dogma.

      To clarify what kind of freedom was at stake, the next gallery featured a multichannel video montage synched up to a tirade against government regulation. The video monitors were arranged in the shape of a face curiously inhuman in its features. With what looked like a bowler hat and an animal’s ears, the display brought to mind a cartoon bear as imagined by René Magritte. The Magritte bear’s presentation was surreal in more ways than one for anyone with a grasp of economic history. His nostalgia for a time before the government interfered with big business did not acknowledge the most famous moment of unregulated American capitalism: the run-up to the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed. By the time of Enterprise Square’s debut, the notion of a free enterprise system as synonymous with laissez-faire capitalism was no less an imaginative work — a leap of faith, even — than seeing the face of Jesus in a grilled cheese sandwich.

      Image by William E. Jones

      Collective neoconservative hallucinations, while they animated American politics, were conspicuously lacking in drama at Enterprise Square USA, not least because its multimedia displays often malfunctioned, and, as in the department stores of the socialist East, its gift shop contained virtually nothing to buy. At a doorway to one of several galleries in a state of desuetude, a sign read, “Pardon our mess. Enterprise Square is moving into the 21st Century.” Alas, it didn’t move very far. The entire facility was closed for renovation in 2000, and two years later the administration of Oklahoma Christian University decided to close the attraction indefinitely.

      Constructed at a cost of $15 million, the Enterprise Square building is the largest and most expensive on the Oklahoma Christian University campus, and the school is currently in the process of raising another $10 million to turn the premises into something else. Apart from a few offices and art studios, it’s still used as storage for the old exhibits of Enterprise Square USA. The projected reuse of the building as the Academy of Leadership & Liberty may not possess anything like the same attraction for connoisseurs of outdated technology that Enterprise Square USA had, but it will almost certainly have the virtue of being easier to maintain.

      Image by William E. Jones

      The new Academy will house permanent exhibitions such as the Oklahoma Military Hall of Fame and the America’s Call to Freedom Collection. The latter consists of 214 pieces of art by Sam Ingram, a career naval officer who turned to art in his retirement. His work depicts stories from the Bible, scenes from the American Revolution, and the romance of the American West — in short, the whole reach of human history as envisioned by a Christian capitalist whose world view is consummately middle American. Most of the collection is predictable patriotic figurative painting of an inspirational variety, but occasionally Ingram vents his resentment of America’s cultural elite. There are a few bizarre ventures into Pollock-style abstraction (including one entitled “Mexican Diarrhea”) and a cartoonish fantasy of a hirsute, effeminate Abstract Expressionist painting with his foot. The best of Ingram’s works recall the style of Paul Cadmus’ tempera paintings, though in more garish colors and without the sense of homoerotic frisson. While not as redolent of pathos as the broken-down spectacle of Enterprise Square USA, these monstrously tasteless paintings may eventually attract their own devoted fans.

      Image by William E. Jones

      Serhat Köksal

      The spam artist

      In 1994, when the BBC’s legendary radio host John Peel traveled to Istanbul to explore the city’s modest underground music scene, he was immediately directed to Serhat Köksal, aka 2/5BZ. The Istanbul native performed live audiovisual collages — noisy collisions of kitschy Turkish melodramas and action movies, traditional songs and bleating Casiotones. “Of all the music I heard in Turkey,” Peel said on air after returning to London, where he began playing Köksal’s work regularly on his show, “I liked 2/5BZ best.”

      Regardless of how much music Peel did in fact hear in Turkey, he wouldn’t have come across anything like 2/5BZ. The Istanbul scene’s most adventurous players were experimenting with metal and goth; as far as Köksal knew, he was working in a vacuum. “There was nobody else making music that drew on folk, pop, commercials, and improvised and electronic music,” he says. His influences were Stockhausen and Turkish psychedelic music, film soundtracks, comic books, and video games. Köksal dates his birth as an artist to 1982, when, at the age of fourteen, he produced what he describes as his “first finished work”: a cartoon on a notepad, called “Men Playing Ping Pong and Ajda Pekkan vs. Supertrashmen.”

      Satellite television arrived in Turkey in the early 1990s, breaking the state’s stranglehold on information. Köksal remembers it as “a massive bombardment of popular culture.” He began to tape what he saw and integrate the clips into his performances; he skewered government-sponsored images of Turkey, juxtaposing them with clips from 16mm films that he recovered by haunting Istanbul’s flea markets. (Many of those films had seemingly become trash overnight, unwelcome reminders of an era that the military coup of 1980 had brought to an end.) The lo-fi collages he cobbled together from those disparate materials have since evolved into complex, even symphonic, audiovisual performances. There are breakbeats that fuse grime and dub with chintzy Oriental tunes and the occasional unadulterated Anatolian folk song; droning monologues are backed by the serpentine whine of ancient horns, which are interrupted by news reports, speeches, and opera snippets. The gritty palimpsests call to mind the archival resurrections of Boyd Rice / NON, the manic plunderphonics of Negativland, the enthused appropriations of the Sun City Girls, and the cut-ups of William S. Burroughs. For all this, they’re not aesthetic exercises so much as harrowing postcards from Turkey’s experience of globalization, real and imagined.

      So there was a certain irony to Köksal’s emergence onto the international art-music scene radar by way of the BBC. Peel, of course, was a genuine supporter, and a connoisseur of music he found to be compelling, challenging, and novel. That included music from home or abroad that flashed the bird at the Queen. And yet the titles of Köksal’s compositions and performances are relentless in their critique of commodified world-music culture: “No Cultural Pipeline No Energy Dialogue”; “No Turistik No Egzotik”; “No Gasionalism No Pipeline Bridge No Goethe No Hafez No Biennial”; “No Ethnic Market No Exotic.” (Of course, it was an insight of punk that negation could be good for business.)

      Köksal’s work has long been characterized by what it rejects: global biennials that turn artists and their work into emblems of the exotic; the promotion of tourism that does the same to a country’s citizens; the establishment of economic bonds between nations by and for their elites, under the guise of what he calls “dialogue fetishism.” Beğenal, a program of concerts, video screenings, performances, and political theatrics shadowing this year’s Istanbul Biennial, which ran through November 8, is the latest project to take up these criticisms. Pronounced almost like “biennial,” beğenal is Turkish for “if you like it, buy it”; the project’s logo is a man-as-red-star caricature vomiting up various corporate-style logos, responding to the biennial’s slogan — courtesy of Brecht: “What Keeps Mankind Alive?” — with “This Is How Mankind Pukes!” Köksal’s sardonic parroting of corporate artspeak stems from “the shared approaches of national ministries of economic affairs, global corporations, and major cultural programs, which all use the same standard, artificial language — everything is a ‘dialogue’ or a ‘bridge’ — whether to brand a city or a product or an artist, all in service of the integration of the international economic system.”

      But Köksal is no mere refusenik. For the last year, he has been spearheading the International Roaming Biennial of Tehran, a nomadic exhibition of work that has traveled to Berlin, Istanbul, and Belgrade and will soon alight in Beirut. The biennial’s inaugural theme is Urban Jealousy. During a trip to Tehran in 2001, while he was working on the soundtrack to a documentary called Tehran 1930, he met a number of artists whose work he liked. He entertained the idea of showing their work in Istanbul, but thought it would be too much “like all the other exhibitions of Istanbul artists held in Europe, which have some terrible theme, and some of the artists are flown in to attend.” On a later visit, though, he heard some artists joking about how lucky they were not to have a biennial in the country. At which point Köksal and his Iranian co-curator Amirali Ghasemi decided to give them one. In Köksal’s typically tongue-in-cheek style of presentation, the biennial is also described as an effort to bring Iranian artists to the market so that they can get “a chance to share the profits” made at art fairs and auctions held annually in Sharjah, Dubai, and Istanbul — traveling like nomads will only make them more appealing to buyers looking for a rare prize.

      Köksal attributes his satirical bent to the influence of Aziz Nesin. The infamous Turkish writer and activist, who once called his country “a capitalist scrap pile,” was a perennial thorn in the side of the state and turned lampooning the bureaucracy into a heroic act. Nesin’s pairing of humor and vitriol is evident in a series of new films Köksal called “gentrifisuals”: TV advertisements for cities where gentrification is occurring, sun-kissed scenes of the bourgeoisie at play among the remnants of history. So far, he has produced ads for Istanbul, Berlin, and Belgrade, all of which play on the branding of cities as hubs of the so-called creative class, empty vessels (or lofts) ready to be filled with new money and aesthetic pleasures. As with his mock-biennials, artists and other creative types are used to develop an appealing image of the city for potential visitors and investors. “I don’t take these expositions of culture seriously,” Köksal says, “because they’re mostly there to serve the stewards of the global economy. They exist only as decoration or window dressing.”

      As an antidote to that system, Köksal set up his own record label, Gozel, a one-man multimedia production house that puts out CDs and DVDs, zines, stickers, posters, tapes, and vinyl. But his aesthetic, and all it represents, is perhaps best embodied by the 2/5BZ website, a massive tangle of information that looks like a primitive MySpace page plastered over a Bulletin Board System laced with punk flyers. There is a word for it, a gelatinous byproduct of industrial production that has come to signify the lowest common denominator of the technologized global economy: spam. Köksal’s site hosts a nearly indecipherable mess of images, Technicolor columns of text, film clips, posters, articles, stray phrases (Orientalcore, DECONSTRUCTING TURKISH FILMS & REMAKE, Belly Dance Electro Punk), and links to his seemingly endless stream of projects — a thousand bits of information bleeding in colloidal suspension.

      Alessandro Yazbek & Media Farzin’s “Cultural Diplomacy: An Art We Neglect”

      Didactic Panel and Model of Alexander Calder’s Vertical Constellation with Bomb, 1943, 2009. Installation view at Christopher Grimes Gallery

      Sometime in 1939, on the eve of the opening of the new building of the Museum of Modern Art on New York’s 53rd Street, an intrepid museum employee played a practical joke on her bosses. Her name was Frances Collins, and as the museum’s Director of Publications, she and a friend had concocted an invitation, to be sent to seven thousand distinguished persons, to the opening of what was described as the “Museum of Standard Oil.” The invitation card, printed in extravagant script, came from the “the Empress of Blandings” (a character in the form of an overly fat pig drawn from the English satirist PG Wodehouse’s novels) and would, so it announced, admit “two persons or one person and two dogs.” Inside the invitation packet was a small card that read “Oil That Glitters Is Not Gold” alongside a letterpress engraving of a crown. The overt allusion to then-MoMA president Nelson Rockefeller’s deep entanglements in the world of oil — his father, American industrialist John D Rockefeller, founded the modern oil industry as we know it — did not roundly amuse everyone. Collins promptly lost her job. MoMA, of course, went ahead and opened as planned.

      Collins’s remarkable invitation card is part of the raw material of a sprawling, ongoing project by artist Alessandro Yazbek and art historian Media Farzin. Part research endeavor (the two spend a great deal of time with their heads in archives), part historiography, part exhibition-as-conceit, their project takes modernism’s vexed and storied entanglement with the political as its point of departure and inspiration.

      In a recent iteration of their project at Christopher Grimes Gallery in Los Angeles, under the enigmatic rubric “Cultural Diplomacy: An Art We Neglect” (the title was the headline of a 1954 article in The New York Times Magazine), an ambulatory museographic display spread across two rooms included everything from wall charts, documentary photographs, and sculpture to facts, figures, and quotations. The experience of standing in the gallery space evoked the feeling of walking into an exhibition of modern art (Calder-like mobiles abounded), the lobby of the United Nations, and a natural history museum, all at once. Still, the question of whether Yazbek and Farzin’s gesture is artistic, curatorial, or polemical in nature seems an unnecessary one. Open-ended and polyphonic as it is, it was all of that and none of that, and therein may lay its greatest strength.

      From the exhibition, we learn that the same Rockefeller who served as president of MoMA was once tapped to lead a special “government-private commission on Latin America” by then-President Franklin D Roosevelt. A decade or so before the CIA founded the Congress for Cultural Freedom, Rockefeller was asked to focus “on the cultural and propaganda side of wartime diplomacy.” Wartime diplomacy at the time largely translated to oil interests, as America realized it had to look outward to satisfy its appetite for petroleum. In 1939, this scion of one of the richest families in America opened a hotel in oil-rich Venezuela — which, incidentally, is where Yazbek, who is of Lebanese and Italian origin, grew up. The Hotel Avila, a classic open modernist structure designed by Wallace K. Harrison and distinguished by its generous verandas, sat in a lush mountainside location just outside central Caracas. One year later, Rockefeller commissioned the American sculptor Alexander Calder to prepare mobiles for the ballroom of the giddily grand hotel.

      The work, Didactic Panel and Model of Alexander Calder’s Vertical Constellation with Bomb, 1943, recreates a delicate Calder sculpture composed of irregular and abstract shapes linked by steel wire. A large accompanying wall text, cheekily deemed “didactic,” playfully relabels the elements of the original sculpture— connecting the Shah of Iran to Churchill to Truman to Roosevelt, and so on, as manifest in the sale of Iranian oil to America, the development of hydrocarbons in Venezuela, and even the Manhattan Project. Lo and behold, history is full of accidents. Calder, we also glean from the panel, once said about his open constellations that they “had a suggestion of some kind of cosmic nuclear gases.”

      Here, the lines drawn between art and politics are abundant and seamless, and it was this articulation from within the medium of the modern itself that may have saved Yazbek and Farzin’s work from being, well, too didactic. Their installation inhabits multiple modes, documentary and aesthetic, and from there, works its way out. And while at times it may seem like the works could benefit from less telling — the quotes sprinkled here and there do feel excessive at times, with their ah-ha! conspiratorial juxtapositions — the visual experience of the sculpted form makes up for any gratuitous pedantry.

      Yazbek and Farzin’s next project will involve navigating the world of cultural diplomacy as played out in Iran under the late Shah. Iran, which is where Farzin is from, has also been awash with oil and, like Venezuela, has a long record of projecting itself on the world stage through ambitious infrastructural — and even cultural — projects. After all, the Shah and his pretty wife Farah launched an avant-garde arts festival in the southern city of Shiraz in the 1960s and built up an impressive modern art collection, too. That congruity between the two geographies — Iran and Venezuela — emerged in explicit fashion in one of the photographs on display in the Los Angeles show.

      Anyone who has visited the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art may have noticed a Calder mobile (circa 1946) on permanent exhibition, dangling above the modern building’s spiral staircase (in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution, the grim-faced portraits of Ayatollah Khomeini and the Supreme Leader were installed just behind it). Adding the merest patina of irony, at the base of the museum’s winding staircase is a work by Japanese artist Noriyuki Haraguchi, in the form of an oversize, square-shaped steel container. Within the container’s shimmering depths, visible as museum-goers lean over and gaze downward, sits a pool of oil, perfectly reflective.


      From the journals of Alan Bishop

      As a kid in Saginaw, Michigan, I used to work in the family business, an Army-Navy store. Over time the store went from selling military surplus from the Vietnam war to just about everything you’d find in a department store — from foam rubber and spray mace (the canister was labeled “Chemical Weapon”) to Italian stilettos.

      My dad acquired a box of portable radios when I was eight, from a Lebanese dealer down in Detroit, a family friend on my mother’s side. I already had a transistor radio, and my parents had a large tabletop hi-fi, but these were different. These brightly colored radios were about the size of a shoebox, and they had multichannel settings for weather, police, and shortwave bands. The shortwave bands had strange titles — “world,” “maritime,” and “tropical” — and I obsessed over the idea of receiving stations from beyond Saginaw. What little I could pick up on the shortwave, though, was limited to the BBC, Radio China, and the Voice of America’s overseas network—mostly news.

      It was on a sultry evening in Marbella, Spain, on a hotel balcony, that I first tuned in to Radio Tangier International. I was twenty-four, and it was my first extended trip abroad. My baggage consisted of a change of clothes, a cheap alto saxophone, a notebook, and a shortwave with a built-in cassette recorder. The first three tracks I heard were by Farid al-Atrache, R. D. Burman, and Miles Davis. This was everything I’d daydreamed about as a kid, without knowing it: a radio station mixing bebop, Arab pop music, and Indian film soundtracks. I started making tapes.

      From the journals of Alan Bishop

      At first the idea was just to document what I was hearing, with the idea of perhaps incorporating some “found sounds” into my own music. But I became fascinated by the juxtaposition of languages and the diversity of audio possibilities. I started recording commercials, DJ bumpers, and other non-musical miscellany: frequency jamming, station IDs, and shards of pure white noise, along with peripheral rhythmic static. Three weeks after arriving in Spain, I was on a boat to Morocco, where I kept at it for two and a half months. I came home with twenty hours of tapes.

      In Morocco I also played with local musicians and recorded those sessions; wrote stories, songs, and poems; and collected local cassettes. I was traveling on a shoestring and had nothing but time on my hands as I drifted from town to town. It was in places like Tétuan, Fes, Essaouira, and Marrakesh that I discovered the template for what would eventually become one of my life’s works: locating, documenting, and collecting music from well beyond Saginaw, wherever the culture interested me — primarily North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.

      Back in the States, with access to multiple cassette decks, I began assembling sequences from my radio sessions into an audio collage. Elements from that tape began making their way into Sun City Girls songs. Many years later, when a friend and I started the Sublime Frequencies label, one of our earliest releases was Radio Morocco, that first radio collage I’d made back in 1984.

      From the journals of Alan Bishop

      Recording and collaging radio broadcasts became an inseparable part of traveling. A similar impulse led me to create books. Anytime I go anywhere I cram all my ideas onto blank pages. Sometimes the end result is primarily text; sometimes, combinations of found images. Some of them are elaborate and flamboyant; others, quite simple and modest. There are fifty-four of them now, going back twenty-five years, and each remains fully intact and in place, ready to confound any who may care to experience them in the future. Sometimes friends suggest that I publish them or do a gallery show or find some other way to get them out there. But I actually like the idea of digging a hole somewhere and burying my library of unique artifacts. Besides, I have no idea what I’m doing, and I’d prefer to keep it that way.

      The Future Takes Forever

      Becoming FM-2030

      Courtesy the F.M. Esfandiary Archive at the New York Public Library

      On September 4, 1972, the novelist and futurist Fereidoun M. Esfandiary published an editorial on the op-ed page of the New York Times concerning the Arab-Israeli conflict. Titled “A Plague on Both Your Tribes,” it announced that the situation had become a “monumental bore”: that the leadership had failed, and the antagonists, “acting like adolescents, refuse to resolve their wasteful 25-year-old brawl,” even as other nations of the world were “rapidly patching up their differences.” Esfandiary decried the violent stalemate over territory, especially since the world was, in any case, “irreversibly evolving beyond the concept of national homeland.” Citing a recent United Nations study on global youth, he extolled a “new kind of population, more resilient and adaptable than their elders,” with a “feeling of world solidarity and a sense of common responsibility to achieve peace.” In a future that was just around the corner, today’s youth would take care of the Arab-Israeli problem — in part by realizing that it was already obsolete. He concluded the piece with an exasperated injunction: “Let us get on with it.”

      The day after the article was printed, the Palestinian terrorist group known as Black September took eleven Israeli athletes hostage at the Olympic Village in Munich. After a tense standoff and firefight, all eleven Israelis, a German police officer, and five of the eight Palestinians were dead, a vivid and depressing reminder that the proverbial tribes were indifferent to the news of their obsolescence.

      But Esfandiary was undeterred. As he had written elsewhere, even if the Middle East remained mired in a squabble over territory, humanity in general was moving on. “We can never again be content with civil rights, human rights, the right to self-determination,” he said. “These rights by themselves are no longer enough. We now want cosmic rights. We want the freedom to roam the universe. We want nothing less than the freedom to determine our own evolution.”

      Fereidoun M. Esfandiary was born in Belgium in 1930. A diplomat’s son, he shuttled between Europe and Asia, spending time in India, Iran, and Afghanistan, and was educated in the UK and British Palestine, in Jerusalem. He was handsome and athletic, playing for the Iranian national basketball team at the 1948 Summer Olympics in London. He came to America for college, ending up at the University of California, Los Angeles. In the early ’50s, after graduating, he tried his father’s trade, working a two-year stint at the newly formed United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine, and moved to New York — to Barrow Street in the West Village — where he embarked on a career as a writer.

      In a 1957 piece in the New York Times Magazine about mental illness in Asia and Africa, he described himself as “an Iranian now living in the United States,” and “a freelance writer specializing in the study of the social problems of the world’s under-developed societies.” Though he published in magazines like the Nation, the Saturday Review, and the Village Voice, the primary vehicle for his reflections on this theme was a series of novels. His first book, The Day of Sacrifice (1959), was part coming-of-age novel, part culture-clash, part spy thriller, and set in 1950s Iran. Hailed as one of the best books of the year by the New York Herald, it was translated into eleven languages and put on a reading list for employees at the State Department. His second novel, The Beggar (1965), told a harrowing story of feudal life gone awry in an unnamed Arab village. And then there was Identity Card (1966), perhaps his most ambitious book. Semi-autobiographical, Identity Card told the story of an Iranian man raised in the West who felt drawn back to Iran, only to find himself thoroughly repulsed by its mixture of self-satisfied traditionalism and shah-era bureaucracy. It was a Kafkaesque fable of modern alienation, and it did not have a happy ending: Daryoush Aryana, the protagonist, was found lying dead in the gutter, anonymous, having lost and found and lost again the identity card that would have allowed him to leave. One reviewer noted that the author’s complex love-hate for Iran was the real, sometimes distracting, subject of the book; certainly there was a poignancy in Aryana’s efforts to come to terms with his longed-for motherland, constantly undone by the self-consciously progressive habits of his deracinated, Westernized mind.

      After Identity Card, Esfandiary rededicated his efforts to become a public intellectual. But he no longer described himself as an Iranian in America, and his new project represented an extreme intensification of his longstanding interests. “At no time in the past was the world in any way better off than it is today,” he declared in Optimism One: The Emerging Radicalism (1970). His message was especially intended for those in underdeveloped societies, perhaps even Iran. “In their hypersensitivity to privations of the present,” third-world romantics in Asia and Africa “squander fortunes inventing histories to show the world how illustrious they were at one time.”

      “No civilization of the past was great,” Esfandiary insisted. “They were all primitive and persecutory, founded on mass subjugation and mass murder.” Against a tide of books warning of global crisis, decline, and alienation, Esfandiary proclaimed the first Age of Optimism. Technology would universalize abundance; nations would disappear; identities would shift from cultural to personal. “The young modern is not losing his identity. He is gladly disencumbering himself of it,” he wrote. “In the 21st century, no one will say ‘I’m Egyptian, or Romanian, or American,’ but ‘I’m global,’ or ‘I’m moon-based,’ or ‘part Martian.’” He had, after all, been baptized in the model post-political utopias of the Olympics and the United Nations, our best efforts at what a global future might look like. Shrewd enough to notice the growing consciousness about technology in society, and with a knack for the American art of self-reinvention, Esfandiary became both prophet and showman: Through his books, newspaper and magazine essays, public speaking engagements, university teaching, and business consulting work, he slowly made himself into an expert on our sublimely utopian future.

      A taste for the outrageous was definitely part of the appeal of the trilogy of pop social science books he produced in the 1970s. After Optimism One there came Up-Wingers: A Futurist Manifesto (1973), its title a slightly odd but seemingly sincere play on words. (“Neither Right nor Left — I am Up.”) And then Telespheres (1977), “the first thoroughly mapped overview of the new post-industrial world.” The books were written in a fast-paced, oddly eclipted English — which he termed “Unilang,” the universal language — that eschewed adjectives and other old-fashioned excesses. “I have tried to approximate the rhythm of electronics,” he later said. “Most books are too long, too wordy, too slow. They are written in the spirit and rhythm of print.”

      Esfandiary expounded enthusiastically on what would soon be the diverse results of the technological revolution: decentralized authority and post-bureaucratic democracies, genetic engineering, microcomputers, pharmaceutically and genetically enhanced brain activity, teleducation, telemedicine, teleshopping. The nuclear family would dissolve, replaced by shifting communities where children would form no devastating emotional attachments (as, say, to parents) and people would be free to “link up” or “link out” as they chose. Robot-operated factories would increase our available leisure time; atomic and solar energy would be the twin engines of material abundance. Humans would spread out from Earth to colonize other planets, clad in specially designed suits that would protect our fragile forms from accidental death. Over time people would live longer and longer lives, until finally — soon! — we would live forever.

      This last idea was perhaps his greatest theme. Immortality was not the stuff of myth or religion, he said: it was technologically possible — indeed, inevitable. Esfandiary became a standard-bearer for the nascent life-extension movement, and his lectures, classes, and books helped popularize the social rationale for cryogenic science. People were living longer lives than at any time in history, he noted, and the trend lines were only going up; already doctors could revive a stopped heart, or transplant a beating one, or substitute an artificial organ. “Bionics” was blurring the line between nature and technology, modifying our idea of what counts as human, as well as what counts as death. Once it became possible to transplant a human brain into a new body — whether human or bionically enhanced or robotic, it mattered little — the practical result would be immortality.

      What’s more, Esfandiary insisted, this brave new bionic world was desirable, and we should live our lives now in anticipation of our future selves. Practically, that meant following a proper diet, exercising, and avoiding stress — somewhat radical advice for the time. But it also meant overcoming the acceptance of death, in ourselves and in society. While no one in her right mind likes the idea of dying, common sense and millennia of religious thinking have conditioned us to accept, even embrace, mortality as the crux of our humanity. What was Frankenstein, that preeminent modern morality tale, but a warning that scientific efforts to escape our mortal lot would produce abominations? Esfandiary insisted on the progressiveness of progress and the radicality of optimism; to the suggestion that “to die is human,” Esfandiary retorted that he was quite happy to move on to a “post-human” world. “If it is natural to die then the hell with nature. Why submit to its tyranny? We must rise above nature. We must refuse to die.”

      In a lecture called “The Longevity Revolution of the 1980s,” Esfandiary made the fantastic claim that “if you’re around fifty years from now, I’d say it’s an absolute guarantee that you’ll be around five hundred years from now, a thousand years from now, a million years from now, forever! To be sure… not in these gawky, clumsy, fragile, finite bodies, nor necessarily on this biosphere, on this planet. But we will be around. There are, in fact, many of us who are dying to attain immortality.” And his enthusiasm found an eager audience: when Up-Wingers spawned a fan club of admirers who gladly took up the name, foremost among their vague yet definite goals was to “accelerate humanity’s thrust to the next stage in evolution. Specifically we want to marshal humanity’s genius to overcome our supreme tragedies — aging and death.”

      There was something quixotic about this movement. The Up-Winger manifesto concluded: “We do not run for office, we do not seek power. We are a long-range movement with two principal functions: First. We are catalysts. We want to inform, stimulate, uplift. Second. We are activists. We want to launch projects to achieve our goals.”

      At a time of high anxiety — the Vietnam War, social revolutions, a galvanized political spectrum, the energy crisis, Cold War paranoia, crimes in the White House — Esfandiary and the Up-Wingers, ostensibly convinced that the future would render all this tumult moot, essentially became cheerleaders for the social byproducts of the military-industrial complex. A “movement” chiefly composed of sci-fi enthusiasts and LA suburbanites, the Up-Wingers vacationed together, held future festivals at Will Rogers State Park (“We’ve also invited several androids to be with us!”), celebrated “synergy,” and generally spent their disposable income preparing for the coming abundance by pretending that it was already here.

      The group was enough of a success that Esfandiary took back the name for his consulting and production company. Up-Wingers Inc. provided “multi-track planning for the Future” — seminars for CEOs; corporate gatherings; lectures and symposia; talk show appearances, including a lengthy session with Larry King; and consultation to Hollywood productions, fact-checking the look and feel of the future.

      It was a fine, if slightly surreal, arc for an Iranian national in the height of Cold War America: here was a voice on the Middle East with distinctly American interests, whose father was a career diplomat under two shahs, writing popular essays and books celebrating the fantastic successes of the robotic, pharmaceutical, aerospace, and engineering industries, and feeding those visions back into Hollywood productions and business seminars. He was a subject worthy of Kubrick or a CIA plot.

      In 1966, the year Esfandiary published his final novel, Time magazine ran an essay called “The Futurists: Looking Toward A.D. 2000.” That same year, the World Future Society was founded, an association of sociologists, corporate leaders, politicians, and science fiction writers. There was a wave of popular interest in the world we were building for ourselves, and Esfandiary was keen to ride it, creating a new career by capitalizing on the current scientific exotic: life-extension, colonies on Mars, global computer networks. But these same technologies, with all their bright promise, were also society’s great anxieties. Under the frightening rubric of Cold War politics, it was just as easy to see robotics, cybernetics, and atomic energy as assuring our annihilation instead of promising our salvation. Fear was the secret sharer of Esfandiary’s brand of optimism. He proclaimed that technology, the bête noire of his time, was a god who would save us rather than destroy us, perhaps even turn us into gods ourselves. Predicting the future has a long history, from Zoroaster and the Delphic oracle to Jules Verne and Edward Bellamy, but its professionalization is of recent vintage, largely tied to the rise of post-war science. Forecasters (“futurologists,” though also sometimes “futurists”) come from a broad suite of fields (probability, statistics, economics, robotics, networking, computer science, engineering) and attempt, of course, to divine where “things” (weapons, communications, society, technology, medicine) are going. Their agendas and predictions reflect this diversity.

      Like the weather, the future is hard to get right all the time, but recently there are prevailing trends, and they tend toward the bleak. Bill Joy, the co-founder of Sun Microsystems, has warned of GNR: “genetics, nanotechnology, robotics… so powerful they can spawn whole new classes of accidents and abuses.” The Australian robotics researcher Hugo de Garis thinks that there will be an epic war between partisans of artificial intelligence and their detractors, a kind of robot Ragnarok that will produce billions of deaths by the end of the century. The famed urbanist Jane Jacobs, in her book Dark Age Ahead, warned that the simpler failings of culture, education, and disintegrating communities would reinforce each other to undermine society over the coming decades. And there is, of course, the Unabomber, former UC Berkeley mathematics professor Theodore Kaczynski, whose vision of technology run amok frightened him enough to kill people in order to prevent it.

      The field is not unilaterally pessimistic, though. Prominent thinkers like Raymond Kurzweil and Alvin Toffler (whose book Future Shock appeared the same year as Optimism One) predict positive social developments stemming from the rise of artificial intelligence and biological technology. Toffler, a journalist turned social scientist whose predictions chiefly concern business mechanisms and social life, shares Esfandiary’s feel-good themes (increased lifestyle diversity, self-managed medicine, wealth production, and capitalism in outer space) and, like Kurzweil and others, supplements his writing and research with lectures, consultancies, and appearances.

      But even the humanist inventor Kurzweil — who has spent his life putting technology at the service of the blind, developing optical character recognition and speech-text interfaces, digital musical instruments, and the CCD scanner chip, and who believes that machines will achieve a spirituality similar to ours — concedes that people have a roughly fifty-fifty chance of a humane outcome alongside the super-intelligent robots and modified biological organisms of the future. It seems that, in this post-atomic and pre-AI era, there isn’t a purely optimistic futurologist in the bunch; even the hopeful ones admit to the long odds.

      Futurological speculation is a kind of static that surrounds us, like a thousand prophetic radio stations vying for clear reception on a crowded dial. And few people, futurologists included, generally live long enough to find out whether they were right. But with the passage of time, all those predictions must tend toward the more or less true: either resolving into clarity by bearing out, or fading into the fringe of lost ideas. Of course, looking backward, that scrim of conflict among prophecies might itself be the arc of cultural history. The future is arriving all the time; mostly it arrives without our knowing it.

      Perhaps Esfandiary’s particular brand of prediction was rooted in his sense of displacement, or misplacement, in time. “My roots are in the 21st century,” he wrote. “I have a deep nostalgia for the future.” As he rushed forward through life, he was just getting closer to home. Alas, in the year 2000, while finishing a manuscript called Countdown to Immortality, Esfandiary succumbed to pancreatic cancer. His obituarists did not fail to note the irony, though the Up-Winger himself would not have found it interesting. (Irony is for pessimists.) His body was promptly vitrified in liquid nitrogen for long-term storage at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona, whose seminars and colloquia often featured him as a speaker.

      One striking feature of the thousands of photographs in the F. M. Esfandiary archives is the meticulous labeling on every envelope of prints, detailing all the people and places recorded on that roll of film. Another is the parade of women, in various states of undress, who passed before his camera. His photographic archive documents an optimistic ego at work, amid a pitch-perfect landscape of luxury yachts, beach resorts, hotel ballrooms, and mountain lodges. Envelopes are marked by vacation: Morocco, Acapulco, the Hamptons, Vienna, Budapest, Kenya, Thailand, Hong Kong. Our protagonist, perpetually burly, hairy, barrel-chested, and lightly balding, appears in a yellow Speedo or blue swim trunks, always surrounded by women; or perhaps in a crisp button-down shirt with the top buttons proudly open, microphone in hand in some heavily curtained hotel conference room. His suave machismo seems never to have waned. No wonder he wanted to live forever!

      By the mid-1980s, business was good, and he was working on new books, chiefly Are You A Transhuman? Monitoring and Stimulating Your Personal Rate of Growth in a Rapidly Changing World, which finally came out in 1989. But a key problem of his identity remained amiss, and perhaps he felt that a name change was by then as much a business decision as a personal one; he needed a name worthy of his franchise. It was a good time, finally, for a such a move — he wanted to “embark on new trajectories, new projects,” as well as have his first series of books reprinted.

      Though Esfandiary filed the paperwork in 1988, his notebooks reveal that as early as 1983 he had begun clipping articles related to the legal hurdles and social navigations of changing one’s name. Noting that combinations of letters and numbers were increasing in notational currency, he clipped dozens of examples of what he imagined names would be like in the future. His restless scissors caught articles about U2, UB40, and the B-52s (musical groups); M-19 (Colombian leftist guerrillas); Cygnus X-1, Barnard 5, and Lynds 1642 (astronomical bodies); RS-232C (a computer serial connection); and the ER-200 (a high-speed Soviet railway car). He also took note when Cat Stevens officially became Yusuf Islam, as well as the strange case of Frederick Koch, wealthy eccentric and father of US Olympic skier Bill Koch, who legally changed his name to Coke-Is-It — apparently frustrated by the routine mispronunciation of his last name as “kotch,” rather than the more phonetically supple “coke.” Despite the initial protests of the Coca-Cola Company, the change stood.

      In his notebooks, he scripted mock interview questions and his charming, evasive answers, preparing himself for the media:

      Q: What does FM stand for?
      A: I haven’t decided yet. Open. Let’s say it stands for Optimism and Immortality.
      Q: How does it stand for optimism and immortality?
      A: I was never a good speller…
      Q: How old are you?
      A: Chronologically, in 50s. Biologically, in 30s. Psychologically, ageless.
      Q: Are you running away from something?
      A: Yes, I am running away from obsolescence.
      Q: Where are you from?
      A: I am from the future.

      But his notebooks also reveal a more authentic rationale, perhaps the final chapter in his lifelong efforts to grasp at who, precisely, he truly was: “Coin a name. A new name that best defines my ideals. My perceptions of who I am. Who I should like to be… I am infinitely ahead of where I was. I am gaining momentum. I am accelerating into the Future… I am a Futurist. Why not a name that is Futurist? I do not believe in the family. Why then a family name? I have no nationality. Why then a national name?” And so, taking stock of the clippings he had sourced for inspiration, he slowly worked out the combination. He considered FM_84, FM 500, FM X1, FM + 1, FM Positive, FM 2121, FM 2020, and FM 2050 along the way. Finally, in about 1985, Fereidoun M. Esfandiary settled on officially becoming FM-2030. It was a fine name. It contained both even and odd numbers, it represented a time well into the twenty-first century — indeed, the one-hundredth anniversary of his birth — and more than anything else, simply had a nice ring to it. In the margin of his yellow legal pad, he wrote, “2030 is a magical number because 2030 will be a magical time.” Let us hope he was right.

      Noise Education

      A conversation with Cevdet Erek

      Cevdet Erek is perhaps best known outside Turkey as an artist and as the author of an artist’s book, SSS: Shore Scene Soundtrack, which his publisher has described as “a very personal subjective manual for imitating the sound of the sea by rubbing a carpet.” But he also handles drums and electronics for one of Turkey’s most engaging contemporary rock bands, Nekropsi. Their most recent release, a self-titled 2007 compilation of demos, dubs, and unreleased material has the heft and angularity of a Chicago post-punk record, with intricate yet spasmodic rhythms, satisfyingly circular bass lines, Turkish instruments, and an array of found sounds and voices, in Turkish and German. (“Papa,” a disarmingly catchy song about Pope Benedict, might have been written by the B-52s.) Disbanded in 2001, Nekropsi reunited for a one-off installation at the opening of the 2007 Istanbul Biennial, and they have been performing more or less monthly ever since.

      Michael Vazquez: How’d you get into music? Were you in bands before Nekropsi?

      Cevdet Erek: No, we started in high school, actually, making speed, thrash.

      MV: Nekropsi does seem more like a metal name.

      CE: Yeah. If you look at the cover of the demo we made the year we graduated from high school, we had a different logo. And the old way of writing the name: Nekropsy. [Laughter]

      MV: Did you design the cover?

      CE: Yes. Actually the cover of the demo has a similar approach to the cover of SSS, come to think of it.

      MV: Did the demo get any attention?

      CE: Yeah, in fact. There were these lovely old record companies in the IMC building where you could go and reproduce, like, one hundred cassettes, and then there were four or five shops in Istanbul where it was for sale. But the best thing was, we put ads in a couple of magazines. People from anywhere in Turkey would put 1000 lira into an envelope, and we would send them a cassette. We sold, like nine hundred copies in three months. I just met a guy who came up to me after our last show and told me, “I have the original cassette.” Almost twenty years later!

      MV: Wait, so how did you get into thrash music in the first place?

      CE: For me it started like this. It would sound super-typical nowadays, but the first tape I owned was Thriller. My father took me to a big fair at the Sports and Exhibition Palace for New Year’s or something. So we were just going around, and there were all these advertisements for Thriller, and I had to have it. I was eight or nine. And then there were two friends of mine — we started making playback sessions of Thriller at home. We didn’t have any instruments or anything, so we used plastic guitars and an ironing board and stuff.

      MV: That’s beautiful.

      CE: I had these plastic bowling pins, and I would hit them on the ironing board. Actually that song “Erciyes ćokta” from our last CD is based on “Billie Jean,” you know?

      MV: I had no idea!

      CE: So, there was a magazine, Hey, for popular music. It was for youngsters, and it was the connection between global pop music and Turkish pop. But then they would have two pages of metal bands. So slowly I was getting interested in hard rock. And then, in a certain year, there was a radio program, and I recorded three songs onto a cassette. [Laughs] Two songs from Overkill. One is called “You Deny the Cross.” [MV laughs, CE sings] And another one, monumental, from a German thrash band called Destruction. The song was “Mad Butcher.”

      MV: That’s a very “college radio” moment.

      CE: Yeah, but we didn’t have college radio then. There was just the government-run TRT, Turkish Radio and Television. There was a news channel and then the FM, which mostly played Turkish music and jazz and blah-blah. But lots of clever guys had programs on TRT. They weren’t doing, you know, separatist communist Kurdish stuff or anything — it wasn’t dangerous, really — but there were a few guys who knew a lot about hard rock and roll music in English. So you would know that on Wednesday nights, this one guy has a show and you are guaranteed one hour of strange music. Not just metal. There were a lot of big moments like that, though.

      MV: Lots of epiphanies?

      CE: Yeah. Like, twenty or thirty of them, when you were a kid. Like that film Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii. Have you seen that?

      MV: [Laughs] No.

      CE: Write that down, it’s a good one. Pink Floyd playing live, without any audience, in the ruins of Pompeii. It’s from right after Syd Barrett left and before Dark Side of the Moon, so for me it’s the best time for Pink Floyd.

      MV: Thank you!

      CE: But the other thing was the cassette guys. In Istanbul there were four or five of them — one in front of the mosque just 100 meters from where we lived. You would go there and he would have some cassettes that he’d recorded, with the name written on the side, and you could order tapes that he didn’t have, too. So I just started buying stuff. Once I had the poison in the blood, I looked for anything different, anything “anti.” Mostly stuff from outside of Turkey — heavy metal, classics, speed, trash, grind, noise, punk. But also old Turkish stuff from the seventies.

      MV: Like, old psych records?

      CE: If I could find them, yeah. Stuff from before 1980, before the coup. We were interested in guys like Moćollar, Erkin Koray. And Erkin Koray was [laughs] hanging around, making solo concerts with guitar and keyboards. Everything always went together. You know, Turkey is a small country, so even if you really wanted to specialize in one kind of music, there are other things going on in the same scene, with the same people. Anyway, I would buy the tapes and go home and then design logos for them. If I could find the original logo in Metal Hammer or Kerrang! or Hey, I’d use that, but otherwise I’d make something up. The crazy thing was that somehow, I was not alone. There were hundreds of people just like me, into this thrash thing. So you would go to a concert and it would be, like, three thousand people or something. Mostly Turkish bands, because nobody would come to Turkey.

      MV: So, how did you start playing?

      CE: I mean, I really wanted to play guitar. But it just didn’t happen — my family didn’t support the idea. So I bought two sticks. And I started to play drums… in the air? Like air guitar. You know, you’d put in a cassette — I don’t know, anything… Napalm Death — and you start to imitate as good as possible.

      MV: Ha!

      CE: And it worked, I think. So that’s how I started playing. But you know, I always loved the idea of making songs, making logos, making T-shirts. The idea of publication, reproduction. And also, actually, propaganda.

      MV: There’s a pretty radical break between the music on that demo and the music on your first record, Mi Kubbesi. And between the look of the two — a new logo, a new spelling of the name. All the song titles are in Turkish. And there are, you know, no lyrics. What happened?

      CE: So, it all happened gradually. After high school and that demo, we played thrash for a while, and started at architecture school. And there was some turnover in the band. You know these comic magazines we have in Turkey? I think it was Hibir.

      MV: The sort of R. Crumb–style underground comics magazines, with the politics?

      CE: Yeah. There’s a guy you have to know — Aptullica — who had a small vertical comic strip where he would announce concerts. So I called him up and said, our guitarist is moving to America, we need to find a new one. And he put that in his strip.

      MV: And that’s how you found your new guitarist?

      CE: I met this guy, Tolga. One night we had a long talk, all night long, about instrumental music. About music that has never been heard before. Which could take you to somewhere else, which could be conceptual. You remember Voivod? That was the first time I’d ever talked about Voivod with anyone; we were both really into Dimension Hatröss. And Tolga was really into industrial stuff, like Godflesh, and progressive technothrash, like Mekong Delta. So we said, let’s experiment. After we started playing, I realized we were totally going somewhere else, very different from thrash metal. The first thing we did was cancel the distortion.

      MV: Which is huge.

      CE: That was a firm decision. And no guitar solos. One of the moments of real drastic change came after I heard Napalm Death’s From Enslavement to Obliteration. It was the next step after death metal — super-noisy and super-fast, super-dark.

      MV: One thing about instrumental music is that, in a kind of psychedelic way, it’s more open —

      CE: It’s for everybody.

      MV: But then the — Turkification? — of the name and the song titles and stuff — how did that fit in? Was that part of the same late-night conversation?

      CE: No, it was kind of a curiosity. Research. Even back in the Speed Lessons period — again, as kids — we were also playing Turkish instruments. Actually, I was playing the zarb, a Persian drum, so that was another channel. But of course the thrash-metal thing was the translation of an energy we needed at that time, you know like chgg-chgg-chgg-chgg. It seemed very natural to make it in English. German thrash bands had English lyrics, and Sepultura in Brazil, also. So we didn’t think of it as a question, we just did it. As we started to experiment, what we really ended up questioning was not language, but words. Meaning. The expression we ended up pursuing used the voice as just another sound you could produce. No narrative expression, just the title, which was a kind of code. We just started to imagine a music we could put anything into: Middle Eastern elements, noise, sound recordings, talking. But no jamming — we were totally against that. We were interested in experimentation in form.

      MV: Were there other bands doing similar things at the time?

      CE: Not really. We kind of exploded as a new sound. You know Taksim, right? This was the time that all these rock bars were opening in Taksim. Peyote was the first, I think. It was the big time for American indie stuff, and the rock bars would only allow you to play covers.

      MV: Like, grunge stuff?

      CE: Yeah, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, some glam rock. So, we made the decision not to play in bars. We were all still at university then, and we had an anti-authoritarian, anti-commercial consciousness — we would never make a video clip for Turkish television, and we would barely have a photo. But we still somehow got a very big response.

      MV: This is about the time of your first full-length, right? You were at architecture school?

      CE: Yeah, when we made Mi Kubbesi, in 1995, it was my third year. We made that record during summer break. I was actually there for seven years, and I was working in an architectural office for the last two. Nekropsi was never a full-time band. We all went on studying and working at the same time.

      MV: Were you guys very political? The mid-1990s was a pretty intense time in Turkey, right?

      CE: It was a strange time, a very dark time for all of us. It was depressing for young people, especially in universities — lots of confused people in a dark city. We didn’t have so many yellow and salmon-colored buildings like now. [Laughs] So we had lots of… dark people, confused, wearing dark stuff. Dark, hairy faces, long hair. Protest culture. The band had a really anti-authoritarian stance, so we were mostly sharing ideas with anarchists at university. And that came out in the performances for a while. We would play the concert and then comment on something that was going on. I was the one trying to push us to get more involved, actually. But the other guys — one of them was really anti-social, and the other guy was super-soft, a very patient guy, and together they were like, “Hey man, take it easy.” After that we really became a much more musical band. In 1998 we recorded a demo for a French music festival, and actually started recording a proper album in France; the first song from Nekropsi, our second album, is from that session. We had really great experimentation then, a great sound also. But most of that material did not come out at the time. We were in France when the earthquake happened in 1999, and we rushed back to Turkey. And that was the beginning of the end for us, too; it just became impossible to go on with the band. We broke up and everybody started doing their own thing. I got really into beats and electronics and field recordings, noise stuff. And then I went back to school again, at this new sound program they were starting at Istanbul Technical University, the Center for Advanced Studies in Music, which is how I became a sound engineer.

      MV: Wait, so how did you become an artist? I mean — you know what I mean.

      CE: It happened at about the same time. [Laughs] I was a sound engineer for Turkey’s Eurovision entries at the same time that I was doing my first installation as a contemporary artist.

      MV: Was it something you did self-consciously?

      CE: No. I mean, I’d always had this strange thing going on, where you have a gig one night, and then you’re back in the office the next day. There were two timelines going on at the same time. At one point, I was in the architectural office — I was the second responsible architect on this big urban site in Eskićehir — and I received a phone call, and they were like, “Hey man, you’re the drummer of Nekropsi, right? Can you guys open for Page and Plant?” And I said, “Who?” And he was like, “Page and Plant. From Led Zeppelin.” They had been given, like, forty cassettes to listen to, and they chose us. It was great, but it was super-confusing.

      MV: Didn’t you open for Ruins, too? The Japanese noise band?

      CE: Yeah. We were always able to get respect from all kinds of people — and also able to make all kinds of people say, “What?” Even now — just last month we opened for your countrymen, Faith No More.

      MV: Sorry, so how did your first installation come about?

      CE: Well, as I was saying, I got really into making recordings. I was always going around the university, which is a very old, very interesting building — it was an arsenal in the Ottoman days — making an archive of images and sounds. And then something big happened again. I met Fulya Erdemci, one of the critical personalities in art here in Turkey. She was working on a project called ‘Pedestrian Exhibitions.’ Someone at my school called me and said, “We’re going to bring you to this curator, we told her she needs to talk to you.” And I got a commission. I got together with a friend, a really good video-maker, younger than me, and we spent all summer in a very strange courtyard at the school, recording.

      MV: Was there music, or was it the ambient sound of the courtyard itself?

      CE: No music. No effects on the sounds, except collage. And video collages made by combining frames from different times. Then we made the installation in an old chemistry laboratory that had been locked up for fifteen years, just off the courtyard. And I was thrilled. It was far beyond what I had imagined possible.

      MV: You mean how happy you were with it, or how excited other people were?

      CE: I was shocked. I was even frightened because of the effect of it, the strength. It was not what I wanted exactly — it was more than that. And then I started getting phone calls from all kinds of curators, who were like, “Who are you? Did you study abroad and come back to Turkey? What else do you have?” And so suddenly I was in the art world.

      MV: And then Nekropsi came back, too?

      CE: Yeah. At first, just as a project to release a record. We never released anything official after 1995, and there was so much unreleased material. So we got together for a week in 2005 and did the overdubs, and then we went to work on editing it all together with really great equipment at the university. That came out in 2007, finally, which is the same year we did a performance for the Istanbul Biennial. It was at Platform Garanti — each of the four of us was playing on a different floor of the building, so if you were on the top floor, with me, all you heard was these very electronic-seeming drums. And on the next floor there was a very melodic guitar line. And so on. But if you were outside, on the patio, you heard all four channels, so it formed a song. It went really well, again, and after that… we just started doing gigs again.

      Noise Education

      A conversation with Hassan Khan

      Hassan Khan is an artist, writer, and musician based in Cairo, and a contributing editor at Bidoun. He just completed a European tour featuring a trio of performances, “I Am Not What I Am,” a lecture, and two concerts, Incidence and The Big One. Works include I Am A Hero/You Are A Hero, Dom Tak Tak Dom Tak, and To The Man Masturbating in the Toilet of the Charles de Gaulle Airport. His largest solo show to date is upcoming in May 2010 at the Kunsthalle St. Gallen in Switzerland.

      Hassan Khan’s album Tabla Dubb, a sometimes brutal yet compulsively listenable dialogue between Middle Eastern beats, drum and bass, and Jamaican dub, appeared in 2007 on the 100COPIES label in Cairo.

      Michael Vazquez: So, your whole childhood was in Egypt?

      Hassan Khan: Actually, I was born in England.

      MV: Was your father working on a film there?

      HK: Actually, he owned a jeans shop. I mean, he had studied film in London and been involved in the sixties, working as an assistant director in Beirut, making short films and writing about film. And he stayed in touch with that network — when we came back to Cairo, it was because he was going to shoot his first feature. But in London he was selling jeans. He met my mother there, as well.

      MV: Was she British?

      HK: No, she was Egyptian. She had gone to the UK in the early seventies. But I’m quite mixed, ethnically — my father’s father is Indian, and his mother is Italian. But my father was born in Egypt.

      MV: Were your parents very into music? Were you, as a child?

      HK: My father had a lot of LPs. He had a very sixties-seventies type of record collection, with the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin and stuff. Mostly I remember just the LPs themselves, like physically, as LPs. There was also this cartridge? Before cassettes — it was this weird cartridge that you plugged into a machine.

      MV: The 8-track?

      HK: Yeah, we had two or three of them. Probably we had a lot of them at one point, but when we moved back to Egypt we lost a lot of things. Most of my dad’s record collection, too. What I remember, a little later, is playing my father’s LPs and recording them onto a cassette recorder with a microphone when he wasn’t at home. There wasn’t a taboo or anything, but for whatever reason I would always do it secretly, when my parents weren’t there. I don’t remember exactly when this was… I was somewhere between eight and twelve, it’s all childhood time, you know? I guess the earliest music-related memory I have is from nursery school — just after we got to Egypt. I was, like, four years old. My mother likes to remind me. The teacher was always complaining that when it was music time and we were supposed to bang on things and sing and that kind of stuff, all I ever wanted to do was be the maestro and just stand and wave my hands and refuse to play with the other kids. So there was an authoritarian streak there already… [Laughter]

      MV: Do you remember the first record you ever bought?

      HK: I don’t, really. I just remember that among our 8-tracks, there was an ABBA tape.

      MV: You don’t have a particular memory of becoming a consumer or a fan or whatever?

      HK: Not really. Of course, I was exposed to a lot of different music including Arabic music. My mother took my sister Nadine and I around a lot to see things — not necessarily concerts on stage. For example, I remember going to some clandestine left-wing gatherings where Sheikh Imam was playing oud and singing. Which I really didn’t like, actually. But then also popular Egyptian music, whether in a popular moulid or in a street celebration. My mother had a very good sense of the city, so she would take us to many, many different places and show us many different things. That’s a strong memory I have in general, not just in terms of music. When you’re a child, nothing is really underlined, somehow — it’s like, it’s all there, it’s just there, and it doesn’t matter, you know? So there was no kind of revelation or anything. It was just there.

      MV: So, when did that happen for you? Was it in high school? That’s certainly when I discovered music that I am not embarrassed to talk about now… or, at least, differently embarrassed.

      HK: For me it was when I got to university…

      MV: Ah.

      HK: But I went to university when I was fifteen. I was very young. So everything happened at university. Everything happened all at once, in fact — in the span of one year, it’s as if I had lived ten years or something like that. That was when my relationship with music really started developing. It was really a mix of everything. I took a music class in university, a very standard music class where you do a bit of notation, and they give you music history — classical, romantic. And then we were listening to different samples of things and they played something from Pierre Boulez, and it was immediately that that I was interested in. I have no idea why my aesthetic affinity was immediately toward dissonance and intensity, most of the time. So I discovered lots of music, lots of different types of music, from punk to modern classical to free jazz. I also discovered Yassin El Tuhamy, who’s an Egyptian munshid — who’s very famous now among the intellectual bourgeoisie, though he wasn’t as famous then. And then, of course, like every teenager, I got an electric guitar, and I started smashing it and making feedback. And then recording it. I had two tape recorders, and I would make multi-tracks by playing something, recording it, then playing along and recording on the other one — like, six or seven times. [Laughs]

      MV: How were you finding out about things? Was there a store or fanzines or a radio station or something? Or a particular clique of people you fell in with? What was the apparatus of your education?

      HK: It was a mix, of course. There were friends who had things. There was a store close to my house, called Frequency, that used to have lots of LPs and would record LPs onto tapes and sell you the tapes. But most of the things that would reach the store would almost by definition have to be pretty mainstream. Actually, another source was just the adult people, friends of the family — I started to look at their music collections, which could be more conservative but still interesting — classical Iranian music or whatever it was. Actually I remember being at a friend’s house and discovering that her father had this tape called Bitches Brew, and I just stole it. [Laughs] The thing is, there were a lot of things — movies, books, music — that I had read about, things that you maybe never actually see or hear, and it’s as if you have. You know what I mean?

      MV: Yeah, oh yeah.

      HK: And they become hugely influential. Through their description, they’re influential. More with music than with film, as I had more exposure and it was easier to see film at university and around town. There was a film library and film classes and programs and stuff. And the Film Critics Association, which was always organizing screenings — not experimental films per se, but still. I didn’t make a lot of distinctions. There are people who are into particular things and who make severe distinctions, like “I’m really into structuralist cinema from the sixties” or whatever. I wasn’t really into distinctions. If it’s commercial, if it’s Hollywood, if it’s art cinema, if it’s super-experimental — basically if I liked it, I was caught by it, then I was really into it.

      MV: How much of this explosion of new stuff was part of the university curriculum? And what was your major?

      HK: Uh, comparative literature. I knew that I wanted to be a literature major when I got to university. I’d always been into reading, since I was five or so — I read a lot of literature without knowing it was literature — and then at school I had a teacher who became a good friend and who was my literature teacher and a short story writer, and I really developed that interest. So when I got to university I declared my major my first semester, which was not very common. You were supposed to take all these classes to prepare you, first, and I got exempted from them. It was a big deal — I was fifteen years old, and I got into university and got exempted from everything and declared my major, and everyone in the literature department was convinced I was going to be the Golden Child. [Laughs] So I was a severe disappointment for them.

      MV: You know, that’s a lot of what college is about, I think. Learning to disappoint others’ expectations. [Laughs] So was comp lit there full of literary theory? In the States, at least, there was this funny thing where English departments were kind of resistant to theory, while comparative literature departments were highly susceptible…

      HK: Well, there wasn’t a lot of it, but the little of it there was, I was completely into. It was again a very strong affinity. I was into it much more than my professors, even, so I was kind of pursuing it on my own, and not reading my Aeschylus and Shakespeare. [Laughs]

      MV: What was the equivalent, for theory, of your hearing Pierre Boulez? Do you remember the first theory thing you read that kind of blew your mind?

      HK: Yeah, I mean — this is not really theory, but Georges Bataille. Actually, in terms of chronology, the first thing I read in that direction was this not especially well-known theorist, Ihab Hassan, who was an Egyptian-American —

      MV: Yes!

      HK: You know him?

      MV: I was just reading something by him about F. M. Esfandiary.

      HK: So I read him in class, actually. Probably they assigned him because he was Egyptian, and I remember having that affinity toward it immediately. And then Georges Bataille and Frantz Fanon. Roland Barthes.

      MV: Was the Bataille something from the pink book? From Visions of Excess?

      HK: No, we were reading Erotism: Death and Sensuality. Actually, one of the very first things I recorded was my friend Firas Al-Atraqchi playing thrash metal and me reading Bataille on top of it, reading from Erotism. In my bedroom.

      MV: Yes.

      HK: So that epitomizes that, kind of, I guess, yeah.

      MV: You know, there’s a Stereolab song on their third record that is sort of a bullet-point summary of Erotism.

      HK: What song is that?

      MV: “Pack Yr Romantic Mind.” I remember listening to it when it came out and finding it quite hilarious as a secret message encoded in public.

      HK: Yeah. [Laughs] It’s a useful secret message.

      MV: So, were you in a band at university?

      HK: I played in many bands and there was a lot of bedroom music and recording and primitive multi-tracking… I played a lot with Sherif El Azma. A lot of it was just taking your guitar to someone’s house and jamming with them a bit. But we never had any concerts, you know, “gigs.” We were just playing in each other’s bedrooms or houses or sometimes parties, if we got a bit bigger. But I have to say it’s all very blurry; it was a very blurry time.

      MV: What was the first group you played out in public with?

      HK: Actually, we did have a gig. It was me and Sherif, both on guitar. It was a little gig at the Cairo Atelier in January 1993; we called it Modern Music for the Guitar.

      MV: Was it improvised?

      HK: No… it was semi-improvised, but we had laid down some basic structures. It was also semi-melodic, there were melodic parts… it was just me and Sherif, I mean we’d been playing together for a long time, so we kind of composed the structure and then performed it.

      MV: Can you give me an idea of what it sounded like? I hear what you’re saying about it evolving out of the stuff that you guys were doing together, but, you know — were there other people, musically, who were doing things that related to it, or that you were inspired by? It’s a little hard to imagine.

      HK: Yeah. I mean, it was made out of very different sections. So one section was a pentatonic scale, a harmonic minor scale, so it was kind of melodic, acoustic-y melodic. One section was a kind of Schoenberg-type thing, where we limited the notes we were using to one specific transharmonic — can you say that? — pattern, and we played variations of it to death and with great enthusiasm, very nervously, like, plucking at the strings. Another section was more power chords and crazy guitar solo type stuff; another one was a bit like Captain Beefheart a la Trout Mask Replica, without the vocals. There was probably another section that I can’t remember now — that was 1993! But they all hooked up together into one thing. So it sounds a bit odd. It probably wasn’t very good.

      MV: [Laughs] You never know.

      HK: No, it was probably not very good. But we were very happy. [Laughs] And even though not that many people came, it had some kind of an impact, somehow.

      MV: How so?

      HK: The key thing is that after this I was approached by Ahmed El Attar, a theater director. He hadn’t been there, but he’d heard about it, and he asked me to become the music director of his theater troupe. That was very influential on what I was doing. He was doing these theater exercises and improvisations with actors, and some of them would be done with live improvised music. And I was just playing the guitar, nothing too complicated, but just being in that situation, responding to what was happening, and seeing their response. Actors are very dramatic people, anyway, so they would break down and start crying or whatever, reaching their inner id, and it was like seeing the materialization of the power of this music. And maybe it’s all make-believe, maybe it’s a bunch of privileged kids who are just being narcissistic. But on the level of the image, this is what happens. You are chugging away at the guitar, and in front of you there is someone who is responding to it. And that’s what’s supposed to happen, you know? So the theater workshop made me very conscious, in a way that was not related to theater, it was just personal. That had a very big impact on me — this idea about performance, and about music, and about materialization or… maybe you can call it sublimation? That’s something that has remained important to me in some implicit way.

      MV: Part of what seems interesting to me about your story is the… extreme particularity of it. Or maybe the opposite? At the same time that you describe this incredible explosion of knowledge and experimentation and exposure, it also seems very bound up with the people and the place and the surroundings. I guess what I am wondering is whether you felt very plugged into the outside world at that moment, or whether you were conscious of a kind of insularity?

      HK: I think part of it is a function of being a certain age and at the university. In retrospect, when I look at it, we were terribly, terribly isolated. Of course we were. But I didn’t feel that way personally or anything. I think you build your own genealogy, and everything you see or hear or read about becomes internalized, as if it’s part of your history. I’m just describing, I’m not analyzing… I think this is what I was doing in a way. Without ever going to a concert of Schoenberg’s music, it just became as if this was part of my genealogy, and there was no big question about it. And it must have left a big impact on me to this very day. What’s interesting is that it influences you in a different way than it does those who maybe have been exposed to the content itself. But there’s still some weird connection. I don’t know if it makes sense, but I think it’s something like that.

      MV: Was there anything besides Schoenberg that you can think of?

      HK: I keep coming back to Schoenberg because in Modern Music for the Guitar there was this Schoenberg reference. And I had never listened to Schoenberg.

      MV: Right. [Laughter]

      HK: So that’s why I keep saying, Schoenberg. But yeah, John Cage’s Silence, I read that book at a very early age. I was also — I was not into mysticism or anything like this, but I was reading a lot of people in Arabic, like Ibn Arabi, and that was hugely interesting for me also, because his language was very philosophical, the language itself. So it was all a mix — John Cage’s Silence, then Ibn Arabi, then, I don’t know, Naked Lunch and William Blake and then… just like that. There was no hierarchy. Also, couple all that with drugs and alcohol, and you get a weird mix.

      MV: So did you get into actual “noise music” at this time? While you were getting into all this stuff, were you also listening to Throbbing Gristle or Einstürzende Neubauten or —

      HK: Much later. All that stuff I heard later, but I identified with the aesthetic much earlier. I had started doing soundtracks with the theater workshop pretty early on, after working with them for two or three years, and my first soundtrack with them — this was 1996 — had a lot of noise even without my ever really listening to noise music. About the same time, I did my first audiovisual piece, lungfan, with my friend Amr Hosny, a photographer, which we also showed in the Cairo Atelier. And got booed. [MV laughs] And that soundtrack had a lot of recordings of… blenders and stuff. I edited them on tape and multi-tracked them with outtakes from guitar-synthesizer jams with an insane friend of mine who I used to play a lot with. With stuff like that, it’s really, like, making up your own meaning. Which I think is why I never became specifically anything. I never became a “Noise Head,” but I was into it. Maybe the subculture of it was not available so you didn’t need to become a member?

      MV: So, when or how did you discover that there was a subculture called noise, and that it had a sound you were in alignment with, and that you could have been an honorary member of it or whatever?

      HK: Yeah, uh, [laughs] I mean, it’s impossible to say, really. I must have been aware of it even in a way, in terms of the Futurists and stuff. Because I was quite well informed about art history from early on. Just out of my reading, I was aware of this tendency as part of the early avant-garde, and I was aware that there was some kind of contemporary thing, but in my head “experimental” music was the word I would have used rather than “noise.” But I think The Wire magazine was important for me. It was a bit later when I picked up a copy and started reading it, and I got excited about a lot of the reviews because what they were describing sounded interesting to me. And they had a whole section for “noise.” So that may have been my first encounter with the term. In any case, I know I read about Merzbow a lot before I ever heard him.

      MV: That makes total sense, that’s great.

      HK: But the funny thing is that you hear something like his and then you suddenly feel not only that you have an affinity to it but that you totally understand it — it’s your own fantasy, of course, but it’s as if you totally understand what they’re doing, and it connects to your whole genealogy, your whole history, seamlessly. You know what I mean?

      MV: Yeah.

      HK: So it’s as if you’ve been hearing it since you were ten years old. I don’t know. But this is honestly my sensation, has been my sensation as I’ve grown older and more exposed. I really started traveling in 1999, so everything changed then. Because everything became available. And at that time, the internet was starting to show up. But when I encountered these things, I never felt it as a shock. It’s funny, but it never felt like a discovery. It just felt like recognition.

      Kuwaiti Kar Krash

      When a car crashes here in the gulf it’s left out to bake the wreck curls up at the edges, sun-dried steel cluttering the shoulders of every road. Paint broils off in patches, geographies form in the rust. Every desert road a highway of death.

      Don’t look away! I know it’s hard to keep regarding one so charred, so disfigured by unfriendly fire and think it once burned with desire.
      —Tony Harrison, A Cold Coming

      The doctors asked me after so many times, “Nada why are you still crying? Do you know this guy?” but I cannot explain to them.
      —Nada Zeidan, Operating Theater Nurse

      Nada Zeidan drove her Mitsubishi Lancer off a cliff at 140kph. It’s a miracle she’s alive. Nada treats trauma cases, boys with busted skulls and burned bodies. Boys who come in from the road north.

      Their front seats are shoved up, out and over a split dashboard. Upholstery foam flowers out from gashes in burned leather. Nada remembers the snout of her lancer sheared clean off. Just a stump of engine, that last hand-break-turn gone wrong.

      Noise Education

      A conversation with Jace Clayton and Kelefa Sanneh

      Jace Clayton and Kelefa Sanneh have lived faintly parallel lives. Both grew up in New England as children of mixed marriages. Both went to Harvard College, where they each found a welcoming niche in Boston’s various musical scenes. Both have made careers out of their love of music — Clayton as a world-renowned DJ, producer, and blogger, Sanneh as a music critic for The New York Times and now as staff for The New Yorker. And both of them owe it all to noise.

      Noise can refer to all kinds of sounds, of course. Often it describes something jarring or disagreeable, nonsensical or annoying. Improbably, a musical genre emerged in the 1980s that called itself “noise music.” Almost inevitably, that genre ended up in Japan, where it sprouted what was either a subgenre or the end of the genre, depending on whom you talk to: Japanese noise.

      In what follows, Sanneh, also known as K, and Clayton, aka DJ /rupture — two of the most distinctive and articulate voices in contemporary music criticism — discuss their own musical trajectories into and out of noise music, while giving us a glimpse of what a John Hughes film might have been like if it had featured nerdy black kids from the suburbs.

      Kelefa Sanneh: What was it that drew you to noise music? Was it a structural thing or more of a sensual thing? Like, “Oh, I love the way this sounds” or more “This sounds fucked and everything I know sounds not this fucked”?

      Jace Clayton: It was sort of sensual in the broadest sense, I guess. I remember being physically shocked by the very first track on my first noise cassette.

      Michael Vazquez: Which was?

      JC: It was by Hanatarash. The cassette was Eat Shit Noise Music, a compilation on RRRecords. It came in the mail; somehow I had gotten one of their catalogs.

      MV: RRRecords was like the flagship noise record store in America. But weren’t they pretty close to where you lived?

      JC: Close enough. I remember going there to interview RRRon, the guy who ran the store, for my fanzine in high school.

      MV: Your fanzine?

      JC: It was great! We did two or three issues, like Xerox, hit-and-run style. It was called Infusion.

      KS: Mine was Ttttttttttt, the unpronounceable fanzine. [Laughter] That’s exactly eleven t’s. There were maybe five issues.

      JC: Was it about music?

      KS: Yeah, though we were more interested in humor and some stupid highly conceptual comics. I did it with my best friend Matt. He had a recurring feature, a comic strip, called “Bob the Dead Cat.” It was mostly stuff like that, parodies of things. But then also, band interviews with whoever would talk to us.

      MV: Like who?

      KS: Like, Alice Donut? They were an East Village scum-rock punk band, freakish. And they were on Alternative Tentacles, which was the Dead Kennedys’ label, so to us they were huge. But they didn’t really play New Haven, so we had no idea if they had fans or if they were a band that everyone cared about or no one cared about.

      MV: Wasn’t there some primal scene for you, K, when you suddenly discovered punk rock? Maybe you were listening to Ice-T…

      KS: It was two things, actually. One was Ice-T, the Iceberg/Freedom of Speech record, because Jello Biafra from the Dead Kennedys did the intro. “‘Attention! America is now under martial law.’”

      JC: Oh yeah, that sample…

      KS: And then there was the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Mother’s Milk record. I had seen their cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” on MTV — not knowing, of course, it was a cover. And I was like, “This is awesome” — it was loud and energetic and weird and that dude’s got stuffed animals on his pants. So between those two things, Matt was like, “If you like this stuff, you might like punk.” And he gave me a mixtape, I think for my birthday. This was the end of my freshman year. It was a cross section of anything you could get your hands on — the Dead Kennedys and the Dead Milkmen, the Dickies, along with some alternative rock bands. A lot of it wasn’t really punk, it turns out, but for us punk just meant weird or funny or loud. I heard that tape and I was like, “Yeah, I will never listen to the Rolling Stones again.” [Laughter] Not the most prescient thought I’ve ever had, but still. The point was that it was literally an either/or thing. I don’t know if it was that sharp for you, Jace, but for me it was stark. “From now on, I’ll never listen to regular music anymore. I will only listen to weird music.”

      JC: Actually, I never listened to regular music. I started off weird.

      KS: [Incredulous] You never listened to Michael Jackson?

      JC: Never listened to Michael Jackson.

      MV: How did you not listen to Michael Jackson?

      JC: My mother had this Thriller aerobics record, and I remember hearing that over and over again. But beyond that…

      KS: Weren’t your friends all listening to it?

      JC: It never sunk in. The thing is, I wasn’t even interested in music. My parents weren’t really music people, so I never got interested in their records or rebelled against them or anything. There just wasn’t much music in our house.

      KS: It’s funny, this stuff is so social, you know? Some of the first music I ever liked was Run-DMC. Which, in concrete terms, was a lot more radical than most of the ostensibly weird stuff I was into. You hear that now and it’s like, “Wow, there’s no music there at all. They took out all the music from this music.” It was just a beat and two guys shouting at you. [Laughter] But Run-DMC was the music of all the regular kids at school. It did not seem weird at the time.

      MV: Did you keep listening to rap?

      KS: Sure. I watched MTV as much as I could back then — we’d just gotten cable— and this was 1990, when Yo! MTV Raps was on. NWA videos were on all the time; a few years later Snoop Dogg hit. So I saw all those videos. But that show 120 Minutes was a bigger deal for us, because it was the only way to see the videos for any of those alternative bands we were getting into. The thing is, that stuff was presented as alternative. It felt really different from Yo! MTV Raps, which was presented as, if not mainstream, as aspiring to join the mainstream. It never occurred to me that rap was more alternative than the alternative.

      MV: How did you find out about stuff, Jace?

      KS: Radio. North Andover is within striking range of the Boston radio stations, so we got tons of college stations. And once I started getting into weird music, it was like I’d hit the jackpot.

      KS: See, we didn’t have any radio in Connecticut. Matt and I had a rule where we couldn’t both buy the same album. One person bought it, the other taped it. In this way we could maximize our musical universe. And we were buying stuff mainly based on the label. Somehow we’d figured out that that Jello Biafra from the Dead Kennedys ran a label called Alternative Tentacles, so we bought everything on Alternative Tentacles. Fugazi was on Dischord, so we had everything on Dischord. And then somehow we got into that label Shimmy Disc. That was how we ended up buying the Soul Discharge LP by the Boredoms and John Zorn’s Naked City LP. And we were like, “Oh. Oh! What’s all this?” [Laughter] Because besides humor, the most important thing to us was weirdness. When we heard that band Half Japanese for the first time? Music where you couldn’t quite tell the mental state of the people making it? That childlike shouting over horrible noise? We were like, “Perfect.” [Laughter] Actually, that Boredoms album was just probably my favorite album. It’s where my high school yearbook quote came from, me trying to transcribe a little bit of Soul Discharge

      MV: What was the quote?

      KS: I have no idea! It’s like a bunch of gibberish. I don’t know Japanese…

      MV: So, do you have an idea about why you guys found yourselves questing after horrible noise made by very possibly insane people?

      KS: Sure! I mean, for me this stuff was always kind of structural. Its appeal was precisely that it defined itself in opposition to the mainstream. Which is to say, it presupposed that you had an opinion about music. That was such a novel idea for me! When I was listening to the Beatles blue tape or the Beatles red tape, it didn’t seem like they were asking my opinion about what they were doing. But when the Dead Kennedys did “MTV — Get Off the Air,” they’re presupposing that you have opinions about MTV and the kind of music MTV played. And even if those opinions are dumb, the fact of it was an exciting thing. The appeal was kind of unmusical, actually. It wasn’t like, “Oh, those guitars sound like I’ve always wanted guitars to sound.” It wasn’t songwriting. It wasn’t even like, “Oh, this music makes me sad or makes me weep or helps me channel my anger.” It wasn’t any of that at all. It was just — this stuff is far from what’s regular. And once we started to hear more abstract, noisy stuff, it was inevitable that we would try to find out how far you can get from what’s regular. What is the craziest shit ever?

      MV: The noise arms race.

      KS: So we got one of those Dry Lungs compilations and there was some truly weird Japanese stuff on there. And what we began to realize was that there were these people in Japan that were making, not only the craziest music we’d ever heard, but in some really pure mathematical sense — that they were getting close, in a kind of asymptotical kind of a way, to the weirdest music it was possible to make. Which would be noise! And which would be, totally formless noise. Now of course, once you get to that point, once you start listening to noise music, it’s like you’ve entered a slightly different galaxy. The rules of music start inverting themselves. For one thing, it turns out that the noisiest noise is the one that has all these violent events in it — which is to say, the one that’s actually the farthest away from white noise, which sounds kind of peaceful. [Laughter] So we were like, “The less noisy noise is, the noisier it is?” For example. Or, equally, if you’re in this zone, this world of noise music, and noise music exists in part to fuck with listeners, and fuck with what listeners think music can be, then the only way to fuck with noise music listeners is to rebel against that. So like, The Gerogerigegege puts out “White Christmas White Sperm,” which is just someone singing “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” and the sound of a guy jacking off. And the fact that it’s a song, and a pop song, and a very well known pop song, is like the most fucked thing you could do in that circumstance. And there’s that single — remember that Gerogerigegege single, I think it was a bootleg? We weren’t even sure if the band knew about it. It was just two pop songs, two Japanese pop songs, one on each side. But in the context of noise music, that was like, the noise music of noise music. Some sort of weird black-hole physics applies. [Laughs]

      MV: And you executed this maneuver in high school, still?

      KS: Oh, this was all high school. I mean, I still loved it in college, but my love of, like, those Japanese bands really peaked in high school.

      MV: Was it high school for you too, Jace?

      JC: Yeah, definitely.

      KS: Did you know anyone who liked it?

      JC: No! I really didn’t. It was like you were an individual dot in a constellation of listeners out there somewhere. For me it was all RRRecords mail order. Send them a check one day, get back a few cassettes two days late. Those compilation cassettes were the cheapest way to get ahold of things. I wasn’t a completist or anything — even then, at the height of my love for that stuff, I realized I wasn’t going to need, like, six records by Incapacitants. Just, you know, two of them. Laughter]

      MV: Was your interest in noise as Japanocentric as K’s?

      JC: Completely! I didn’t hear anything like the same level of noise anywhere else. And I was not really interested in punk weirdness or hardcore weirdness. But I did love the absurdist spirit of the Japanese stuff, as well as the sound of it. There was that Hanatarash record, William Bennett Has No Dick. And the whole ridiculous, “We don’t know English but we’re putting a collection of preschool potty words together.” The packaging, too, was often pretty tongue-in-cheek. But at the same time, there was someone like Merzbow, who was even then pretty… single-minded.

      MV: Were either of you into Boyd Rice and NON or any of the British stuff? It’s interesting to me that for both of you the entrée to this world of noise music is specifically Japanese. Or did Boyd Rice have no sense of humor or something?

      KS: Having no sense of humor was not the problem. Masonna was really, really funny… The Gerogerigegege was hilarious… Merzbow — not funny at all. Same with that John Zorn/Naked City stuff. It was… sort of funny? But there’s something about that stuff that is deeply unfunny. Not only deeply unfunny, but it kind of touched on that stuff that I was just like not interested in, all the like, bondage, Asian porn, violence against women.

      MV: Which was a lot of the aesthetic.

      KS: I understood it in an abstract sense as being fucked up. But it always seemed sort of goofy to me. And insofar as it was an actual fetish for a lot of those dudes, it never seemed hot to me. But Boyd Rice… I don’t think I ever heard that stuff back then. I missed all the British stuff. Maybe those records were too hard to come by? Or [laughs] it might not have been noisy enough…

      MV: Sure. A lot of say, Throbbing Gristle, is not so extreme, despite its name…

      KS: Exactly. I mean, if you heard a compilation track from, like, Masonna, and you managed to listen to one of their records in the store… you’d be like, “This sounds like the fucking world is ending. I’m buying this.” But with a group like Throbbing Gristle, the records you could get your hands on — we were like, “This is synthpop or new wave or something.” At a time when you couldn’t sample stuff on the Internet and there was no other way to find out, that would be enough to turn you off right there. Learning about a band was expensive. You were like, “Do I want to waste twenty bucks finding out whether I like Throbbing Gristle? Hell no! ’Cause I heard they might be synthpop.”

      JC: Yep. I had that exact experience.

      KS: And like, that feeling? Of literally being in the record store and seeing the CD in its wrapper or the cassette or whatever — and having to part with money in order to find out what it sounds like?

      JC: Yep.

      KS: It definitely helped inspire a certain kind of tribalism. It made you want to be like, “Oh, I’ll stick to this record label. Or I’ll stick to this scene. It’s Japanese noise music — you’re guaranteed it’s going to be screwed up.” Even a band like Ruins that was a little more musical, you were still guaranteed it was going to be crazy. And that the mythology behind it was going to be crazy. Like, you heard a rumor that the Hanatarash dude drove a bulldozer through a club. [Laughter] And you know, it’s not like there’s a book on Hanatarash. Or there wasn’t then. There’s no way to check this stuff. So then when I listen to their records, that’s what I’m going to be thinking about.

      MV: Did Matt get into all the Japanese stuff, too?

      KS: Yeah. It was three of us, actually — me, my best friend, and my girlfriend.

      JC: Wow.

      MV: I take it your girlfriend was not into noise music, Jace? [Laughter]

      KS: But yeah, a lot of the stuff that’s connected to noise music, or a lot of the ways in which other people were approaching it, I didn’t figure out about until later. You’re right, though, that a lot of that stuff is really not funny. Maybe it’s that when you listen to noise music you can kind of supply your own funny. You know, you’re in your room in Connecticut listening to Merzbow for an hour. That is such a deeply weird thing to do. Maybe funny is almost unnecessary at that point.

      MV: Or maybe Boyd Rice is secretly really funny. Not long ago I saw these vintage films of Viennese Actionists in their heyday — sixties and seventies — engaged in legendarily “controversial events,” with the blood or animal parts or the sex or what-have-you. But the thrilling part for me, watching them now, was less the outrageousness or transgressiveness of their actions than the sense that they were having a ball.

      KS: Sure. I guess… in retrospect there are all these contradictions. Not least the fact that when I was most into noise I was still listening to all this idealistic left-wing punk music. I had Dead Kennedys lyrics on my wall, I had all these political buttons on my jacket. I remember going to a big gay rights march in DC. I sort of took it for granted that noise music was political in that same kind of warmed-over New Left kind of way. Whereas, in fact, a lot of that noise stuff was either pseudo anti-left or nihilistic, same as that Boyd Rice stuff. Even some of the people in the noise scene seemed to be sort of right-wing. But I guess the important thing at the time was that it seemed so opposed to the mainstream, whether it was idealistic or not.

      MV: In a way, the industrial scene seemed more right-wing, while the noise scene seemed more… amorphously anarchic. The noise thing didn’t have the same fascination with order and emblems of authority. There was definitely a romance of authority with the industrial scene. Even if it was supposed to be a deconstruction of it.

      KS: Sure. I mean the industrial scene lived partly at that point where like, military culture and gay culture collided. [Laughter] You know, shaved heads and combat boots, this sexualized, quasi-military thing… which is kind of a right-wing, fascist phenomenon, but in a gay context means something totally different. And similarly the music had one foot in something really harsh and German sounding and another in something really clubby. But maybe it was just the times. This was when Nine Inch Nails and Ministry were emerging as commercial forces, and it just seemed obvious to me that this was glorified MTV music. So yeah, I didn’t interact with that stuff at all.

      MV: But you did get into industrial stuff, right, Jace?

      JC: At about the same time as the noise stuff, actually. And in the same way, through the radio.

      MV: You had a sort of “great books” of weird music at your fingertips.

      JC: Yeah! What was great, too, was that college DJs would sometimes play a song and then tell you a little bit about it. So I was like, “Okay, Belgian techno.” Then I would go to Harvard Square and the record stores and buy CDs.

      MV: Had you always been a big radio listener?

      JC: No, but my sister was, and when I started getting into music, in middle school, it was through her. She was a big fan of the main commercial alternative station, WFNX. That’s how I’d heard the Sugarcubes, which was the first band I ever got into. And then one day they played a song by this British band called Stump. And on this song, they had sampled frogs! There were all these timbre-ly, texturally weird elements in it. So then I went out and got myself a Stump tape.

      MV: A Fierce Pancake, or the earlier one? Was it that song that goes “Charlton Heston Put His Vest On”?

      JC: It was deeply weird. Stump wasn’t the kind of band they would normally play on FNX, but the band had broken up that day, so they made an exception.

      KS: But then when you first heard actual noise music, did you feel like that was the end? That was the logical conclusion? Or was that just one more weird sound in a universe of sound?

      JC: It definitely felt like an end. But also, really, a beginning. I had gotten that first noise cassette because it had Ruins on it — and Ruins, as you were saying, are still quite musical, if ridiculous and operatic and overwrought. But with Hanatarash, I was like, “What is this?” It felt like some sort of document of physical violence. That was the ripping open of possibilities right there. For me the idea of noise music is about violence against structure. It was literally audible in Hanatarash and more suggested in other stuff.

      KS: Part of what is so confounding here is that the violence against structure, the violence itself, becomes a kind of structure. Hanatarash is violent, for sure, but it’s also recognizable as a genre. You can tell that it’s not some composer at Mills College who might approach noise from a totally different place but still be headed toward the same thing. The kind of violence that’s in music like Hanatarash implies all these other things. It implies loudness, for one. Which is obviously a totally nebulous concept, especially nebulous in the case of noise music. Like, what does it mean to make loud noise music? [Laughter] That’s crazy, right? But Hanatarash sounded really loud. Really aggressive.

      MV: One of the nice things about noise music is the way that, from time immemorial, people have said, about a thing they don’t like, “Turn down that noise.” And then here was a scene that said, “We are that noise.”

      KS: Yeah, but that’s old, too. I remember when I finally got Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, that Lester Bangs essay collection, there was a piece called “The White Noise Supremacists.” I was like, “Yeah, he’s really going to get into that shit.” And then it was all about — punk bands? About goings-on at some Richard Hell and the Voidoids concert. I was like, “That’s not noise, that’s rock music!” It’s like, if anything, the noise-music people were slightly more right than their forebears about what they were doing. [Laughter]

      JC: See, for me listening to noise music was more about expanding the possibilities of what could be music. Texture, sounds, amusicality… could be stuck into songs. After noise, I was just kind of more open or appreciative. Part of what I liked about noise in the first place was this sense that, “Wow, all these many, many things are possible.”

      KS: But that is the difference between you and me. You’re an artist. You’re like, “These sounds are wonderful.”

      MV: But you were in all kinds of bands, K.

      KS: Oh, I was in bands all the way along. Not before punk, but before noise, sure. I had always played violin. But then that summer after freshman year, I got a guitar. And I had a… Beatles fake book? And a little Pixies fake book. I learned those chords enough to be able to play stuff. And then we had series of punk or experimental or goofy bands. Our high school had a music studio with, like, two-inch tape reels, too, so we’d do, like, weird tape loops — we’d go down the hall with it, and the tape is looping around the microphone stand and coming back. And we were like, “Wow, we get credit for this?”

      MV: Do you remember the names?

      KS: [Long pause] At one point, the one with the most loops was called Vladimir McCarthy. But the one we spent the most time on was Tender Vealcalf. That was more of a joke-rock thing.

      JC: Very nice.

      KS: But — how can I put this? Our music never got good enough to seriously disturb our music listening. It was never like, “Aww man, we’re making music and it sounds great and we’ve figured something out and we’ve got our sound.” It was very not good.

      MV: I don’t not believe you, actually.

      KS: Not having that temperament that Jace has, we were never like, “Oh, let me create something beautiful with this.” We were like, “Music is ridiculous and hilarious.”

      MV: Were you making music in high school, Jace?

      JC: Yeah. I was using a four-track. My parents had a video camera, so I would record and sample with the video camera, then dub that to the four-track. It was very rudimentary. Though, actually, I made one of the best sounds I ever created then. I was doing super-primitive stuff on my computer, a Commodore 64, which had this amazing sound card. Sometimes the computer would crash and somehow corrupt the audio file I was working with, and it would, like, glitch. And I was like, “Whoa! This is great.”

      MV: And in college?

      JC: Not really. In college I did a little sound design. And I started DJing…

      MV: How did that happen?

      JC: Well, first I had a radio show. Pretty free-form. On the graveyard shift at the MIT station. And then it was, hearing jungle music — dancing to the hour of jungle and drum and bass that they would play at house parties at The Loft. That focused my ambition.

      KS: How did you get there? I mean, coming out of noise music, how or why was it that you gravitated toward the beat-oriented stuff, electronic stuff?

      JC: I mean, coming out of noise, my interest was just… sounds, strange sounds, nonstandard sounds. And at that time there was all sorts of really weird techno and electronic and even industrial stuff happening.

      KS: But I guess I just mean, there’s a certain… It’s what you were talking about, Mike. There’s this supreme entropy and anarchic spirit, and then to have that harnessed to this very neat, meticulously arranged rhythmic music, which in some sense is totally related — but also kind of opposite. So why did you get into that instead of getting into, say, improvisational music, or free jazz?

      JC: Ugh! I guess I didn’t see it that way. I’ve never really been interested in improvisation. To me those musics have always been about… materials exhaustion? You know, like, “I’ve got this horn. People have been using this horn for decades and decades. How can I make this sound new?” As a social activity it’s very introverted — almost elitist by default. Whereas, you know, I loved to go out dancing. I loved the anarchic spirit of noise, and the sonic surprise of it, and then for me to hear edgy or unusual sounds in the context of dance music — was fantastic. You know, there are people out there whose ears turn off when they hear a 4/4 beat. They’re, “Oh, it’s techno, it’s machine music, it’s just computers.” But for those who like it, they understand the beat as almost like the minimal structure you need in order to anchor other explorations — of sound and melody, emotional states, all kinds of stuff. So, yeah, to me, that passage made a whole lot of sense.

      MV: What about you, K? When you came down from the mountain, because you needed to breathe or whatever, what did you do and why? Or how did you think about it?

      KS: I think for me it was easy because my listening had progressed along this path on account of structure and form. And even as that was happening, even as I was gravitating toward whatever weird noise music, I thought of it all as punk in the loosest, broadest, most ahistorical sense. That was the aesthetic. So having explored the formal part, I wound up at Harvard, in the radio station, and they were like, “We’re gonna teach you the history of music.” So then I got into all this stuff a second time, but historically rather than formally. Having discovered noise music as a rebellion against musical orthodoxy, I did my own version of the orthodoxy, listening to these punk albums from the ’70s that I would have rejected as so much rock music in high school. And getting into modern-day punk, and also hardcore. Getting into stuff that was approaching noise from a whole other direction, bands that were thinking they were making very by-the-book hardcore — very, like, flag-waving, orthodox, just bang the songs out, add some political lyrics, a few chords, and record it however you can… and were, almost by accident, approaching abstract form. [Laughter] But doing it from completely within the orthodoxy of punk and hardcore. I mean, I wasn’t necessarily thinking of it like this at the time. But you know, those noise dudes liked to think of themselves as outside the rules of musical genres. And now I was at this radio station at Harvard that was all about rules.

      JC: The worst radio station ever… [Laughter]

      KS: And I was like, “This is great!”

      JC: That’s when I first met or saw you, actually, K, at the radio station.

      KS: Yes, there was a test. To be allowed to spend a semester trying out for the radio station…

      JC: By the end of the test, I was just writing satirical, increasingly bitter answers to these ridiculous questions, knowing that I would never, ever get in, thinking, “I hate these people, I hate this music, I hate this station!” About a week later, I found out there was a real college station down the river, where you could play what you wanted, which was where I ended up getting a show.

      KS: See, by the end of that test, I was like, “I’m home.” [Laughter] They played a song by Pussy Galore, and I was like, “Really? This is what we’re doing? Fine indeed.” Anyway, at that radio station they kind of treat you like a baby. “This is what happened in the Sixties that is relative to our purposes. Now this is what happened in the Seventies. This is what’s interesting about New Zealand. This is art rock.” Basically I spent years learning the rules. Without thinking about it, I was stumbling toward the idea that if what you’re interested in, in a structural sense, was some sort of transgression or outrage or wrongness… obviously that only exists because there are genres and because there are rules. In retrospect it was important for me to be on the inside of the dogma after having so reflexively thought of myself as an outsider. I’m sure if you had asked me in high school, I would have said, “Oh yeah, I’m totally open-minded, there are no rules in music.” It was helpful to realize that I was not as open-minded as I thought I was.

      JC: I think my thing for noise was that, until I heard far-from-center music, I wasn’t really interested in music. I was a nerd reading a lot of books. So once I started hearing things like noise, I was like, “Maybe I should start paying more attention. Maybe I need to dig a little bit more.” And I discovered all these new things, mostly by staying up late at night and listening to the college stations. So that was how I got into techno and ambient and dub reggae. Actually, that’s how I got into Arab music. I just realized there was all this stuff that was outside the mainstream media, beaming at me.

      MV: Sorry, did somebody say Arab music?

      JC: The gateway drug was Bill Laswell. They played the song “Mantra” on the radio and it was great — you couldn’t tell where it was from, but they announced the name…

      KS: Bill Laswell. Especially in that era, you could actually find his records! His distribution was amazing. His stuff was in every store.

      JC: It’s funny when I think about it now — I was only listening to bands I could get at Newbury Comics. And stuff I could get secondhand at those record stores in Harvard Square. Like all this weird industrial stuff — they’d have all the CDs! Those people must have sold a lot of records.

      KS: I think Bill Laswell put a lot of people onto that tip.

      MV: You mean the “ethnic tip”?

      KS: My dad always listened to African music when I was growing up. So there was no way for that stuff to seem weird to me.

      MV: It was your parents’ music…

      KS: Yeah, like…

      MV: Like, were you guys listening to a lot of thumb piano? [Laughter]

      KS: No, we were not listening to a lot of thumb piano. It was Kora music. Jesus. And Graceland. I mean, part of what’s exciting is just striking out past your parents’ world, listening to music they probably hate. We had lived in Scotland in the late seventies, so they remembered the Sex Pistols. Not in any specific way, they just remembered that they were rather nasty young men. [Laughs] So part of liking music my parents hated was liking American music. It’s funny, the punk stuff was complicated, because it was both a reaction to American decadence and an example of it. [Laughter] Both of those things were important; it was music that you could relate to in some boring sense, but also music that was sort of scary. They sounded like dudes who would beat me up. I didn’t have friends that were punk in the social sense. I didn’t have friends who got high, or sniffed glue, or really even got wasted or squatted or anything. I knew about that world — I’d go down to New York and read The Shadow [Laughter] to figure out what the anarchists were doing in Tompkins Square Park. But I didn’t know any of those dudes. So part of it was the idea that it was kind of exotic. And all the music I’ve liked since has been exotic in one way or another. Of course, beyond a certain point you realize music is inherently exotic. But at the time, for me, the Dead Kennedys were way more exotic than Youssou N’Dour.

      JC: Actually, that’s the connection between rave culture and noise culture. Even my first noise cassette, Eat Shit — it was a bootleg! They were all songs that had been swiped without permission by this weird guy in Lowell, who had just dubbed his favorite tracks from his favorite noise stuff and was selling it. Which had a lot to do with house mixtapes floating around. Some DJ is just putting this thing on. It could totally be just one guy with a cassette deck spreading this out.

      MV: My idea about you as a producer of cryptopost-dubstep music was that it was actually the Japanese that prepared you for black music. [Laughter]

      JC: Wow.

      MV: Yep. [Long pause] Okay, so tell me how I’m wrong.

      JC: I’ll tell you how you’re wrong. First of all, when I was listening to all this noise music, I was getting really into reggae. Like, starting with the Seventies and the dub stuff and then getting up to speed, I guess? By the time I was in college, it was current dancehall seven-inches. I mean, sure — a lot of people associate me with noisy, post–drum and bass breakcore or whatever. And fair enough. But the mix that brought me to international attention was called Gold Teeth Thief, which started with Missy Elliot. A lot of the scenes where I would be invited to play later on were, like, breakcore underground European squats, where playing Missy Elliot was the noisiest, most unintelligible thing you could possibly do. I would be in Switzerland and people would be like, “What is he doing playing this Top 40 music?” But people sort of latched onto the breakcore aspects.

      MV: So jungle and drum and bass was not some kind of racio-epistemological breakthrough.

      JC: No. I mean, it was a breakthrough, in that it made me want to become a DJ. What I loved most about jungle was the rhythmic ridiculousness of it. It had all these structures that were hard to interpret at the time… Plus, all these reggae samples, which I knew — music I loved — and hip-hop samples, which I knew less of. It was this amazing idiosyncratic thing, very fast, the bass lines playing at different time-speeds within one song. All that was mind blowing. But then it became really regular, formulaic. And I was like, “This sucks, the music I loved really tanked.”

      KS: Was that when the Darkstep thing happened?

      JC: I mean, whatever you want to call it. That’s really what prompted me to find my style. I had started out as a DJ playing jungle, but then I suddenly found myself not even wanting to buy those records when they came out. And I had all these other records — for years I had been buying reggae seven-inches and hip-hop twelve-inches and stuff that would be categorized as “world music” and all this experimental stuff. So I started trying to incorporate those records into my jungle sets. Actually the first person I saw mixing jungle and reggae was Mutamassik, an Italian-Egyptian producer and DJ.

      MV: With whom you did “The Bidoun Sessions” back when Bidoun was a party crew in Dubai, right?

      JC: Yep. I mean, this sort of thing was bubbling around; a bunch of people were playing around with these ideas. But what sort of developed into my style was taking a drum and bass record but then maybe I’d put on an R&B track of a woman singing, or a rapper like Dead Prez. And then mix that with the instrumental flip-side to a new dancehall single. And as I got more technically comfortable with that, playing with various tempos, I just started pulling in more. So if I had a record with Turkish darbuka and clarinet — I couldn’t just play that in a club, but if I mixed it with a hip-hop backbeat, gave it that 808 kick, then I could play it, and people would react to it. And I just got further and further… into doing what I do, I guess. At some point, I brought on a third turntable to try and accommodate these longer blends.

      MV: And breakcore?

      JC: I mean, it was about that time that I started hearing rumors that there were people doing something called breakcore who were bringing in noise… It was like they were reintroducing the ragga wildness of jungle via a filter of nostalgia for classic noise and distortion. I was like, “Great!” That tapped into my love of industrial music, as well. So I saw DJ Scud play a party in New York and I thought, “This is fantastic! All these pleasure centers being pushed at once.”

      KS: It’s funny. For me, in retrospect, breakcore was the end of my interest in noise. Not forever — I could listen to noise all day long these days. But at that point, when the “digital hardcore” stuff happened, I was excited, ’cause it was jungle, but like, punker and more fucked up. But then somehow when the next wave of breakcore happened…

      JC: When the genre rules set in?

      KS: It wasn’t even about genre rules. By that point, the break was so much more interesting to me than the core? [Laughter] Or something. Anyway the idea that some producers were taking jungle and putting noise on it… actually pissed me off almost to the point of offending me. At this point I was starting to get deeper into dancehall. I remember going to my first dancehall show in Boston. It was Bounty Killa, and it was nineteen minutes long. He might have done four songs? [Laughter] So, it felt like… you know, the meaning of “fucked-up” keeps changing, but at that moment, that was it. Those full-tilt dancehall reggae mixtapes just seemed so insane to me, so harsh and so energetic, that any noise you could add would just slow it down. Drag it back. I think I felt… condescended to? Even with DJ Scud and some of the British stuff, I was like, “You guys don’t have to put noise on this to make me listen to it. It’s already insane.” In a way, my own musical history was implicated. “Oh, you’re one of those dudes that hears reggae and thinks, ‘This is pretty good! It would be better if it sounded like the Boredoms!’” All that stuff kind of helped me boomerang, helped me be able to hear music that was ostentatiously unnoisy. In some cases ostentatiously un-fucked-up. Deeply, almost pathologically normal. [Laughter] Which maybe I wouldn’t have been able to hear. Among lots of people I know now, I’m the one who likes normal music. But that stuff would have been a lot harder for me to hear without noise and without that structural approach…

      MV: I do feel, though, K, that there is a red thread of perversion that runs through your entire… career as a listener, if you will.

      KS: Sure, but that’s one of those words that’s like… I mean, how long can you spend inside your own head before that word stops meaning anything at all? How long can those oppositions keep going, really? [Laughter] You know? Like, perverse to whom?

      JC: I’ve been perverse for a pretty long time.

      KS: But there’s got to be something there to be perverted. By the time you’re perverting the socially acceptable love of Hanatarash you’ve gone pretty far through the rabbit hole. I mean… I wouldn’t even know where to start. Would it be more perverse to love Radiohead or hate them? What would that even mean?

      MV: It might be more perverse to love, say, Toby Keith.

      KS: I guess so.

      MV: I’m just saying that from Colon on the Cob, a terrible noise band and the first show I ever saw you at, to Toby Keith, who you love to write about, there is a line…

      KS: Sure. Although when you say Toby Keith, what you actually mean is George Strait. Because George Strait makes actual conventional music and actually believes strongly in the value of convention.

      JC: Sorry, these are country music people?

      KS: Yeah. Whereas Toby Keith is himself perverse… which might mean it’s hard to be perverse by liking him. [Laughter] That’s what I mean. When I talk to some people, it seems still liking music at all is a fairly perverse position to take.

      MV: Point taken. Though perhaps part of what I am again falsely suggesting is an element of perversity at the level of race.

      KS: Among other levels. Though that reminds me — I wanted to ask you about breakcore again, Jace. Because even for those of us who never cared that much about Boyd Rice, it seems to me there has always been a racial component to noise. Like, the whiteness of noise seems pretty fundamental to how it exists as a scene. Fundamental to its appeal, even.

      JC: Huh. That’s entirely possible. But I guess the noise that struck me the most was the weird stuff from Japan. It struck me as slightly… “other.” When I think about punk and hardcore, which I did not get into in high school, probably one of the main reasons was… Slapshot. You know, Boston racist skinhead dudes. But then with noise, there was this other music that had all that aggression, but totally filtered and exploded…

      KS: And multicultural, sure. But breakcore…?

      JC: Was it whiter than jungle? Yes…

      KS: What I mean is… Often with a subgenre that’s like a noisier version of x — often x is a black music, and the noisier version involves white people. Very recently that could be, adding noise to jungle. But we can go back and talk about distortion and amps… We can talk about rock abstracting itself from blues.

      MV: Post-punk abstracting itself from funk.

      KS: Right. And often the impulse to make something noisier is to make it less black, or to make that connection more complicated, or to acknowledge the self-consciousness of that indebtedness. There’s something that makes me suspicious about that process…

      JC: I agree completely. Partly my mixtapes come from… reversing that process? Certainly by the time my interest in breakcore faded, it was this formulaic, “Okay, here’s the sample, here’s the distorted Amen break.” With the sample being so obviously a black male Jamaican voice serving as sonic signifier of hyper-masculinity, of violence and danger.

      KS: But even there, when you’re talking about a distorted Amen break — what does the distortion add to the break, sonically or culturally? Is it a way of insisting that you’re not overly reverent?

      JC: Yeah, definitely.

      KS: But in the hands of white producers and DJs, what does it even mean for them to be insisting strenuously that they are not overly reverent of the Amen break? Or to have a punk-rock attitude toward it? I mean, I’m fully prepared to admit that this is part of the appeal of noise music; the racial coding of it is kind of interesting. I think for a generation of white music fans, there is an association of noise with a certain kind of authenticity or pugnacity, related to the perception that that authenticity is what’s missing from commercial black pop music. Until Timbaland or whatever… [Laughter]

      JC: In all honesty, that’s not the way that any of these kids who were making breakcore were thinking about it. That’s not how sample culture works! [Laughs] People had no idea who played the Amen break; they didn’t know that the origin was this black Motown funk band or whatever. Especially in the UK, it was a conversation that records were having with records. And especially in the context of London, jungle was a really multiracial thing. So to be like, “Oh, they’re putting on distortion” — it wasn’t so simple. That racial dynamic you describe is real, it’s true in all kinds of cases, but the bizarre world of UK dance music in the ’90s was a weird singularity and needs to be treated as such, I think.

      KS: Maybe. I just think that despite its seeming abstraction, or because of it, noise in the way that we are talking about it has a particular cultural legacy. Obviously it’s not culturally neutral. It might seem culturally neutral — people might be encouraged to think of it that way. But there is something about the way those noise guys think of themselves or are perceived as being part of a tradition of underground Western popular music.

      MV: I believe John Cale once attempted to describe a genealogy of avant-garde rock music that ran from the “purely rhythmic section” of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring to the Velvet Underground…

      KS: …and then Metal Machine Music. That’s sort of the piece I thought I was going to read when I read “The White Noise Supremacists.” [Laughter] I was like, “Oh man, he is going to get into the aesthetics and the politics of what it means to distort a guitar. What is being distorted there, brother?” But no, it turns out that people used the “n” word at CBGB’s. [Laughter] The other part of it is, I think it’s important to say — I can’t speak for Jace, actually, the more educated and cultured person — but when it came to Japanese noise, I had no idea what was going on. Obviously there was some context, but most of it, I was just making up and supplying myself. I didn’t know that history, really — I certainly didn’t then.

      JC: Yeah, I certainly didn’t then, either. It’s interesting, though, because I’ve been to Osaka maybe twice now.

      KS: Is that where that stuff was from? I had no idea where those guys lived.

      JC: Yeah, that’s where a lot of that stuff is from… Hanatarash, Yamatsuka from the Boredoms. And people still talk about them in, like, reverent terms.

      KS: Oh, really?

      JC: There will be, like, a noise bar, just a little bar where all they play is noise music. [Laughter] You know, quietly. There is a real sense of Yamatsuka as a figurehead in that town. There are still a lot of people there who are engaged in differently freakish activities, but they see him as someone who broke all these rules at the very beginning, so everyone has a huge reverence for him.

      KS: Hmm. I remember when Pop Tatari came out, following Soul Discharge. It was on Reprise. Which was complicated to think about, because my friends and I generally did not buy major label albums.

      JC: Oh, funny.

      KS: And the idea that the Boredoms were in some sense mainstream, or had a position in the Japanese mainstream… was weird. I mean, we knew in some vague sense that there were probably a lot of contemporary classical composers, working out of the classical tradition, who were creating a lot of really strange music. But in high school we weren’t interested in that, precisely because they were composers. It seemed…

      JC: Funded and coddled?

      KS: Yeah. It didn’t seem rooted. And that’s probably related to why I got into punk and hardcore proper. Compared even to a lot of things I liked in high school, those seemed like really unpretentious expressions of the human urge to make noise. So it’s interesting to hear you say that Yamatsuka is the David Byrne of Osaka. [Laughter] Because when we first heard about him and Hanatarash and the bulldozer, we were like, “Oh, that guy sounds really scary. That guy should probably be in jail. Somehow he’s free. And he makes insane music.”

      MV: Do you still listen to noise music, either of you? For pleasure?

      JC: Not really. Well… I mean, every time I DJ anywhere, there’s always at least one noise record in my bag. And on my radio show I will play pieces of noise, definitely. I guess I have become snobbier about it? I play a lot of “electro-acoustic” music. And a very little bit of improv, even. So, the noise is still there. But not really the Japanese stuff so much. I meet people who are still big Merzbow fans, and I’m always thinking, Oh no! I’m not sure anyone really needs to buy the Merzbow boxed set. For people who go deep into noise, it seems to me, six months to two years is about the lifespan of that.

      KS: I don’t know. It took me a while to realize the importance of context. If I had a context for Merzbow that made sense — if for some reason I had a lot of friends who were into that and also into contemporary classical music and also maybe into free jazz, so that, if we went out, that would be on someone’s iPod, in a mix — maybe I would. Although the fact that it’s hard to create a context for noise music now seems to me like one of its weaknesses. [Laughs] It’s not something some other audiences might stumble across. It’s never going to show up in the background of something…

      JC: It’s inherently anti-social.

      KS: Although having said all that, I kind of do have the context for it now, which is when I’m at work. I need music that I can listen to and be able to write or read somewhat complicated things at the same time.

      JC: Music with words?

      KS: Mainly I’m listening to metal, actually, and often I’m listening to metal that is, once again, converging upon noise.

      JC: Really?!

      KS: I can tell you that if you put my iPod on shuffle, everyone will have a bad day.

      JC: This is new music? Like what?

      KS: Oh, obscure Eastern European, super lo-fi, often like, one-man bands. They’ll have a ten-minute outro where there’s, like, two chords. In a sense, that’s also noise, but it sounds totally different because they’re coming at it from a different angle. It has a totally different musical history. Part of what I like about it that is different from so-called noise music is that it’s multi-use music. You don’t have to be a noise head to be into it. You could be a… neo-Nazi skinhead. [Laughter] Or you could have been into death metal, but that wasn’t weird enough, so you got into black metal, but then a lot of those bands weren’t true. And then you arrive at this stuff… Of course, a musicologist doing a real musicological study would say, “Noise means nothing in this context.” These days, when you say something is “noisy,” that’s another way of saying it’s old-fashioned. In this decade, there’s no reason anything ever has to be lo-fi.

      JC: In this decade, noise would be the sine wave. If anything, it’s the clean, digital sound that is the noisy sound…

      KS: Is this the point at which noise converges with its opposite?

      JC: Yeah! The sine wave is at once the cleanest and most piercing of sounds…

      KS: Because if a sine wave is noise, what’s the opposite of noise? I guess, silence… if it’s quiet. [Laughter] I mean a lot of those old noise records really sounded like loud silence.

      JC: Silence can be very violent. I remember once I was DJing at this big druggy club in Barcelona years ago, and I had this noise moment, where I played — I think it was a Masonna record. And they started to cheer. But the context there — it was such a beat-based club, and this was totally interrupting the beat. So they were like, “Maybe it will come back if we start cheering.”

      KS: But that’s because in their heads they’re still hearing the beat that you dropped out. That’s like one of those phantom beats…

      JC: They know it’s going to come back. Or they hope it will. I think if it went on for more than two minutes, people would get upset.

      KS: Sure. A noisy event, if it’s short enough, is just a pure rhythmic event. Noise can’t really be short. [Laughter] Have you ever cleared the floor by accident, with Masonna or something?

      JC: No. In the DJ context, it’s always, like, noise as tool. The fun thing is to use the blast to bring it back to some other beat. It’s easier to clear the floor with a bad dance record than with a weird noise record.

      KS: There’s something, also, about having it done to you rather than doing it to yourself. It’s as though the purest noise would have to be self-inflicted. [Laughter] When you’re talking about noise as this perverse, end-of-the-line listening experience, you kind of have to press play yourself. Otherwise you’re just talking about a sound check gone horribly wrong. And there’s nothing particularly radical or insane about someone who doesn’t know how to work the PA system. Embedded in the idea of noise music, the part that makes it weird or perverse, is the fact that you’re seeking it out. Often, in those days, at great expense and effort. Kim’s on Bleecker would charge, like, twenty-three bucks for a CD!

      JC: Import prices, it’s true.

      KS: And the fact that you’ve paid for it, and the fact that you’ve taken it home, and pressed play, is what separates it from a garbage truck on the street. Or in a playful way, it’s the distinction you tried to refuse to make. But I mean, if you think about it, it wasn’t — talking about Merzbow, for example — it wasn’t that we’d never heard anything that sounded like that. It was that we’d never heard someone who bothered to put those sounds on a CD.

      JC: That’s so true! It’s, like, a coffee grinder sounds like that. Static sounds like that.

      KS: It wasn’t foreign like someone else’s language might be foreign. It was entirely a creature of context. And I think, too, that noise was a thing that worked neatly in those two or so decades between the rise of independent record labels and the fall of record labels. [Laughter] People putting out records, not looking for or expecting hits. Maybe you saw it with Metal Machine Music a little earlier… though even that was heard slightly differently because of who Lou Reed was, and the argument tended to be more over what the record meant than what it sounded like. But that whole cottage industry of independent music, the fact that those records were worth something, was actually part of what gave them meaning. And part of what was radical about them, or felt radical, was not that people were saying, “Here’s this noise” or “I’m making noise,” but that people were saying, “This is valuable.” The most radical thing about that record was that it was worth twenty bucks. That’s insane. [Laughter]

      JC: But the fact that us fourteen-year-olds, on the East Coast, mostly, were listening to bizarre music coming from Osaka, presupposes, if not a global network, then a dispersed and strange community of listeners out there.

      KS: Sure. But in an odd way, if you looked at the music of Japan, it’s funny that that stuff would probably be the least confounding to us. If you’d played us some Japanese rock band, we would have thought, “This sounds like bad x or bad Y.” The fact is that noise was intelligible to us. If you were optimistic or idealistic about that music, you would say that that was because it was a really raw, vital burst of something that was universally understandable. Or you could say, no, this was a group of musicians playing by rules we understood, whereas most musicians in that country were playing by rules we didn’t understand at all. So in a very literal sense, noise music was the most accessible Japanese music in America. [Laughter]

      JC: Oh, boy.

      KS: It wasn’t a coincidence. I mean, we now know that those Japanese dudes had listened to a lot of the same records. They had actually listened to Metal Machine Music. I mean, it seemed so exotic for you and I to be hooked into this network. But the interesting and maybe depressing thing was that you could go to a noise store anywhere in the world, and they would have had a lot of the same stuff.

      MV: Though you had to find that noise store…

      KS: But that’s what I mean. Those networks being a weird thing, internationalized.

      JC: But the thing you have to remember is that it was utterly marginal. The vast majority of this stuff got almost no exposure. Even compared to other kinds of experimental music — the distribution was terrible. You could go into any “alternative store” in America and get Throbbing Gristle’s greatest hits. But you would be very hard pressed to find a The Gerogerigegege record. So… I’m still thinking about what you were saying before about the “noisier version” representing the whitening-up of black music. Because it’s also the case that the “smoother version” represents the same thing, in reverse. Look at kuduro. European bass people are taking this noisy, relentless, really hard-to-listen-to music from Angola, and being like, “Maybe if we pull the levels out of the red and give it more of a dynamic song structure — make it less of this kind of insane banging techno — and, you know, sharpen up the stage presence, then we will have something that can play music festivals.” They’ve tried to do the same thing to funk carioca from Brazil — you know, take away the noise and then market it.

      KS: What do you mean by noise?

      JC: Well, they take away the actual bad recordings — the overloaded microphones, the sonic annoyances. The distortion would be removed.

      KS: But would those things you describe — would those be heard, within Angola or Brazil, as an important part of that music?

      JC: Hmmn — true, no. They wouldn’t.

      KS: Or would those people be psyched? “This shit sounds great now!”

      JC: But re-importing that stuff doesn’t work. Funk carioca in Rio is just ridiculously loud. There are, like, two hundred speaker stacks. It’s all about overwhelming phenomenal sonics. There’s a lot of shouting, a lot of very overtly noisy elements, both culturally and sonically. But of course, that’s not going to sell in Europe. So the acts that have made it out of Brazil — the first funk carioca band to make it abroad was Bonde Do Role, a bunch of middle-class kids who grew up pretty far from any urban center where funk carioca was popular.

      KS: Like Hamden, Connecticut. I guess it’s always the same conundrum with world music anyway: why is this the stuff you like? Of all the genres in Africa… why is kuduro hotter than hiplife? And noise raises a lot of those same questions. Obviously, things change, and it’s not impossible to imagine a world where noise signifies its opposite. Which would be totally interesting — a world in which, in America, treble signifies black and bass signifies white. [Laughter] But for now, anyway, white people’s attachment to noise seems pretty primal. I’d almost call it primitive. It seems to touch something in them…

      True Dub

      John Wayne, Iranian idol

      In the Tehran of my childhood, John Wayne was a household name. His swagger was adopted by tough guys in the street, his gun-slinging mimicked up and down the schoolyard. When we played Cowboy Bazi, which was all the time, Wayne was the original cowboy, the archetypal icon from abroad.

      He was hardly the only one, of course. The 1970s were the golden age of Western idolatry in Iran. There were little stores where you could buy posters of Elvis and Sophia Loren, the Beatles and the Eagles, Farrah Fawcett and the Bionic Man. This was also when the Royal Kingdom of Iran acquired its third television channel. The new channel was called the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service, but mostly we called it the American channel. Instead of local sports, wrinkle-free news reports read in Farsi, and bedtime stories intoned by a doe-eyed woman with a sleeping pill of a voice, we had Starsky & Hutch, Donny & Marie, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and much, much more — all delivered with the telltale twang of American English.

      It’s hard to say what it was, but something about the sound of American resonated with us. The American accent combined a rubbery tongue with nasal exhalations, and we all imitated it. Only rarely did we say anything meaningful; mostly we just made up the words, intoning in a language that was neither English nor Farsi. We twanged as a posture, and that was meaning enough.

      John Wayne’s Hollywood star began to rise over Iran in the late 1950s, but it was in the ’70s — when every weekend we could count on a cowboy show, from classics like Bonanza and Rawhide to the spaghetti westerns — that “John Vayne” became part of our everyday lives. Although he had shot to stardom with Sophia Loren when Legend of the Lost came out in downtown theaters, Wayne’s renown didn’t derive from his sexy co-stars or the excellence of his films or even our fascination with the accent. John Wayne came to us dubbed into Farsi, and it was the dub that made the man. He was not so much translated as alchemized by the wizards of Persian dub into a new alloy, a man who walked like a cowboy but talked like a dude from south Tehran — the kind of character you might meet in a kebab house, wolfing down a mountain of rice and a couple of lamb skewers, wiping his enormous mustache clean with the back of his hand.

      Wayne’s tough-but-tender talk was delivered in the slang of downtown knife-fighters and hero-thugs, an urban subculture known as jahel: men with switchblades and a strict code of honor, not unlike the lonesome heroes of the Wild West. In keeping with jahel tradition, the Iranian Wayne and his gang insulted the honor of parents and family members alike, swore by Ali and Allah, and addressed each other with the most diverse, absurd, and expressive epithets they could find.

      Every time an actor turned his back, the dubbers, freed from any obligation to sync with the image, would throw in some slangy insults — corpse-washer, stinking vulture — and during gunfights there was always time for jahel philosophizing. Ducking bullets, John Wayne espies a drunk on a porch and mumbles, “Lucky bastard, so totally oblivious to the world.” In Rio Bravo, Wayne addresses his partner Stumpy, an old lame prison guard, as Seedless Fig; and when he and Dean Martin start at a creaking sound, only to discover a stabled mule, there ensues between the sheriff and his sidekick a barrage of donkey-related swear words (in which Farsi is particularly rich). All this, with cheery disregard for the script and the authority of its creators.

      Like many westerns, Wayne’s films unfolded in a space where the modern state — the omniscient, abstract rule of law — was still struggling to establish order over preexisting power and authority. John Wayne understood well the in-between space, being neither entirely a part of that order nor apart from it. Dressed in his red shirt and brown vest, his bandana around his neck, Wayne gazed boldly into the camera with a half-smile. That uneasy sincerity sealed a compact between him and his audience, showing his awareness of the camera, of the pose as pose. Rather than trying to cover up that crack in the fiction, as his contemporaries did, or ironizing it entirely, as our contemporaries might, John Wayne sat on the fence, managing to be not only two people, but also two types of people, himself and the cowboy, present and past in one body. His was a pose that had become itself without entirely erasing what it was before — an appealing prospect for Iranians stuck halfway between authenticity and modernity, wondering how to transmute one into the other.

      The man who dubbed Wayne was a pharmacist by profession but also, like many of the other dubbers, an aspiring actor. His name was Iraj Doostdar, and he and his team comprised the genius club of dub. Theirs was not the only good dub in town, but it was the best. A different crew employed a similar style of dubbing to create Peter Falk’s brilliantly stuttering, goofy Columbo — a detective whose inner being expressed itself to the outer world only with great difficulty. (My friends and I could relate.) Years later, when I finally saw an episode of Columbo in English, I was stunned at how boring and flat it was. The Persian version felt so perfect; it was the original that came across as the bad dub.

      The art of the Persian dub has an unexpected lineage. When the talkies first came to Iran in the 1930s, distributors continued to treat them like silent movies, interrupting the films with occasional “he said, she said” text panels in Farsi. But literacy was rare, so professional reciters would pace up and down the theater aisles, belting out reductive translations over the hawking of the sunflower seed vendors. Another strategy for domesticating foreign cinema was splicing. When a cowboy entered a saloon, for example, the doors swinging in his wake might fade to a popular and sultry singer belly dancing through a handkerchief-waving song-and-wriggle routine — not to fool viewers into thinking she was an Oriental stage act inside the local Texas juke joint, but to mash up that difference. Then the film would wipe seamlessly back to the western drama of the cheats at the poker table. No one complained about incongruence or bastardization — the downtown audience was quite happy with the pastiche.

      Alex Aghababian, an Armenian Iranian, made the first of the Persian dubs while a student in Italy. The works of Italian neorealist directors were treated by Aghababian and a handful of other artistically minded Iranian students and sent back to Iran for distribution. Faced with difficult translatory choices, their innovative strategy was to sacrifice the words in favor of making the voices seem to belong to the bodies. The characters spoke nonsensical, rhythmical syllables, similar to the American twang we had affected as children. The sounds carried no literal meaning, but they matched Marcello Mastroianni’s lips perfectly, and in a way they resembled the kind of mumbled inward conversation people often have with themselves. By careful repetition of select sounds over the course of the film, distinct character traits emerged. The films were a hit back home, and by the time studios in Iran began to make their own dubs, there was an entrenched obligation to ignore the integrity of the original.

      In fact, when they tried to stick to the original, Persian dubs of foreign films failed. Jerry Lewis’s extreme slapstick was amplified into unbearable silliness, and Hamlet’s existential crises poured out like complaints on a daytime soap opera, while the WASPy dryness of Katharine Hepburn dripped into Farsi like droplets of rose water — floral, wet, and sweet.

      We were, it seems, much better at stealing than imitating. When the three soldiers in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory are being led out to their execution—a tragic scene of prolonged silence and tension, in the original — the Persian dub has them pleading for their lives, pitifully, comically, in the vernacular of downtown Tehran. They beg to kiss the hands and feet of the colonel, to be his slave, his sacrificial kid. They implore him to “get down from his donkey” and spare their worthless lives. The disjuncture is breathtaking — as if Akira Kurosawa had given Robin Williams a free hand at dubbing Ran into English.

      What made the best dubs so good was that they added another register, a meta-commentary that created and revealed subtexts in the films. One classic sequence takes place in The War Wagon, an average film with two big stars, John Wayne and Kirk Douglas, as reluctant partners. Douglas is a slick womanizer who’d shoot his mother in the back; he has just left the company of a pair of prostitutes to make a deal with Wayne. As with so many womanizers, there’s a touch of the dandy in Douglas’ obsession with his looks. Here he is wearing a shiny silk robe with an elaborate Asian dragon stitched on the back while Wayne, who is shaving, appears in a plain full-body undergarment with a holster buckled around his waist. Wayne explains that the gun is always with him because these days, you can’t trust anyone. It’s a throwaway line, the most obvious and predictable thing one gunslinger ever said to another. But then, as Kirk Douglas turns to exit, revealing the dragon on his robe, Wayne’s Persian voice offscreen whispers something like, “Well, well, check out the dragon.” Obviously not in the original, it’s a catty under-the-breath comment, a perfect subversion of the manly Hollywood cliché that preceded it.

      Then, it’s Douglas’s turn. In his own room, he stops for a moment and ponders Wayne’s comment about trust. He is pensive and amused, as signaled by the raised eyebrow, the wrinkled forehead, the upturned lip. In the original, he is silent. But in the Persian dub, when Douglas turns and takes off his robe, his voice calls out in self-admiration: “Now that’s what I call a great body.” From these scenes will develop a very strong homoerotic relationship between the two stars and half-outlaws, who in the Persian version address one another as “my love.”

      There was something uncanny about the dubbing, at times. Often the off-camera voices would seem to issue from a disembodied spectator rather than one of the characters; they said the sorts of things a viewer might say. Some secondary character was always commenting on John Wayne’s height, while a heroine’s sexiness was an occasion for a playful remark. As Dean Martin gets a shave from the delicate, razor-wielding hands of Angie Dickinson, a John Wayne–sounding voice moans, “Oh, I’d die to be hurting like your beard, dude.” It was as though a friend were providing a running commentary on the action while you sat watching at home — in the dubbed voices of the characters but not in their mouths.

      Persian dub died a slow death in the late 1970s with the spread of corporate notions of ownership, stricter enforcement of copyright, a growing sense of loyalty to the original, and a swelling class of globally minded consumers who demanded nothing but “VO” (version originale). The revolution of 1979 hammered in the final unironic nail. When foreign films were banned and unavailable and the original dubs were locked deep in the archives, a few enterprising souls began smuggling in westerns and other films from Italy, Spain, or France. New technology made it easier to overlay a new dialogue track on VHS cassettes, and the result, still available on the streets of Tehran today, was bootlegged copies of Rio Bravo with credits and subtitles in Italian and flat, literal dialogue dubbed into Farsi.

      The glory of Persian dub, while it lasted, was that it didn’t hide the artifice of film or its theatrical, scripted element. On the contrary, by showing that the original lines were just as made up as the dubbed ones, it seemed to acknowledge something even more postmodern: that social roles, like acting roles, depend on artifice, and that perhaps all cultural forms develop through acts of mistranslation. There were a thousand invented lines in every dubbed film, but they weren’t meant to fool anyone. Seeing the Persian dubbers get away with one more aside, one more joke, one more invented aphorism, brought us closer to the films in a conspiratorial kind of way. They made them ours.

      This Charmless Man

      World Music and the church of latter-day orientalists

      In the late August heat, the man onstage in the white djellaba and red headdress sang verses into the microphone in a thick, monotone Jazira accent. The lyrics — a simple mishmash of praise and repeated rhythmic phrases — were whispered into his ear by his personal poet, who looked for all the world like a Syrian Mukhabarat, or secret police agent, in his beige button-down shirt and brown polyester pants. Behind them, an electric bouzouki player and percussionist hurled the rhythm up into a crescendo while trying to make eye contact with all the girls, each song more frantic and frenzied than the next. We whooped and stamped in response, each convinced we were doing the dabke the right way, even though no one’s steps quite coordinated with anyone else’s.

      It was the last party at Ajram Beach — by day, the sole women’s-only beach in Beirut. The property had been sold the week before to a luxury developer for ten million dollars, and by next year our footfalls would be so many echoes inside the engine-heart of a new complex made, as everything in Beirut now seems to be, for the very rich and the very exclusive.

      The man who had brought us here for this final, crowing farewell? Former wedding band leader and current international sensation Omar Souleyman, from Hassake, Syria, performing in Beirut for the first time.

      I’d first heard of Souleyman a few months earlier, when I had the chance to meet another pop sensation, a British singer and composer — let’s call him Ethan — who’d fronted two famous bands and who happened to be in Beirut one night in May when a friend of ours casually mentioned that he would be part of the group she was going to meet that night. Did the rest of us want to come?

      Did we ever. Three of us trooped along to a tiny bar on Gemmayze Street, a traditional Beirut neighborhood whose arched and curlicued balconies overlook a street level that has become a maze of clubs and watering holes in the last ten years.

      The guy from the band looked disappointingly like an older, tired version of a particular kind of track-suited British person I’d seen in pubs all over London. Even when you know not to expect too much from celebrity, you can’t help but look for some of the burnish of the limelight when you see them in person. Although with him it was less celebrity than artfulness that I was taken with — his lyrics seemed to reveal a sensitivity to the world and to people, and I was looking for evidence of it on his face, in his manner.

      While the group around him chatted and flirted, Ethan sat by himself in a corner. No one was talking to Ethan, and he was talking to no one. I’d had enough beers by then to think nothing of strolling over and starting a conversation with him — just to be polite.

      I opened with, “You seem bored.” Because he did.

      “Yeah,” he answered, taking a sip of his beer. “But I’m just always bored. You could say I’m existentially bored.”

      I tried not to let any reaction register on my face. Maybe he was playing with a persona. He was, after all, a stranger in a strange land, and he’d traveled to so many different places. Maybe this is how he dealt with all the surplus stimulus.

      “So, is this your first time in Beirut?”

      He nodded that it was. “It’s really not what I expected.”

      I raised my eyebrow into a question mark.

      “I don’t know. It’s a lot like England, really. Drinking and bars and pop music.”

      I asked him how long he’d been in Beirut.

      “One day,” he answered. He said they were in town for only a couple of days — they were passing through on their way to Syria to meet one of his musical idols.

      That was the first time I heard of Omar Souleyman.

      Every time there was a break in the lyrics, Omar Souleyman would tuck his wireless mic under his arm and clap along to the rhythm, surveying the dancers with an inscrutable expression behind his dark sunglasses. In his traditional dress and distinctive Secret-Service eyewear, he stood in stark contrast, yet was occasionally a perfect complement to, the crowd below, mostly hipsters from the Beirut art scene. After all, there were those among them who wore their Ray-Bans to shield themselves against the glare of the night, and others who accessorized with checkered kaffiyehs — although not around their heads, Bedouin-style, like Souleyman.

      Where had Ethan heard of Omar Souleyman? Probably through the same source that brought Souleyman out of his wedding-singer obscurity and into the world-music spotlight: the Seattle-based collective Sublime Frequencies. The group has gone all over the world, recording, compiling, and promoting local musicians from places like Lhasa or Pyongyang, and releasing their music under their own label to an international audience of hipsters and pop-culture connoisseurs in search of ever newer and stranger sounds.

      “And so what do you think of Beirut, then?” I asked, still looking for a specific answer.

      “Weird,” he said. “I sat on my balcony this morning in front of my typewriter, and I could only write five words. I’m still trying to capture the essence of the city, you know?”

      Well, this was something I could have a conversation about. Writing about Beirut — could anything be as difficult as negotiating this city of contrasts without playing into tired clichés?

      “I’ve been working here my entire life,” I said, “and it’s still something I don’t think I’m even close to.”

      His features twisted into a half-smile of incredulity. “Yeah,” he said. “But it’s what I do.”

      I smiled back and turned to talk to other friends who were standing near us. Soon the conversation turned to the upcoming Earth Hour initiative, which asked of people all over the world to turn off their lights for one hour in order to raise awareness of climate change. Ethan poked his head into the conversation, to weigh in on how necessary and important the whole campaign was.

      “Yeah,” I said, grinning. “But you know, we do our part here in Lebanon. At least three hours a day in the capital, and at least eight outside it, we don’t have any power.”

      Everyone laughed, nodding, except Ethan, who became suddenly animated.

      “Oh man,” he said, “that’s so great. You guys are doing an awesome job.”

      Apparently the joke had gone right over his head. “Um, no, we’re not,” I said. “It’s against our will, and we all resent the hell out of it. We all have to plan our days around the power cuts, and most people have dirty, smoke-spewing generators to make up for it.”

      “Yeah, yeah,” he said. “But someday, we’re going to come and learn from you. Someday, we’ll be coming to you and saying, ‘Show us how it’s done. Show us how you live with this.’”

      I refrained from suggesting that maybe the British should try having a civil war or two, or perhaps a bombing by the Israelis, if they really wanted to go green.

      At one point, making my way through the dancers for a refresher at the bar, I looked up and saw another crowd on a balustrade above us. Being a women’s-only beach, Ajram is shielded from the streets above by high concrete walls. Beneath them is a balustrade that can be accessed through the fish restaurants on the street level. And there, on that crumbling concrete platform, a whole crowd of Syrian workers — some of them construction workers who’d heard about the coming of the fabled Souleyman, some of them waiters from the fish restaurants in their striped uniforms — were leaping about madly to the sounds of home, separated from us by a perilous drop, by a world of different circumstances; by their endless, thankless jobs-for-a-pittance; and by the $20 cover charge that kept them from officially attending the concert. They hadn’t needed any guys from Seattle to tell them about this phenomenon arriving on the scene. They’d simply followed the rhythm and found their way there and were dancing. Together with us. Separate from us.

      One of the organizers climbed up onto the balustrade to dance with them, then came down to talk to one of the Ajram employees. Could they waive the entrance fee for these men and allow them to come down and officially join the party? The Ajram people mulled it over.

      “Fine,” they finally agreed.

      But not before adding one condition — that the men were not allowed to touch any of the women.

      When things wound down at the Gemmayze bar, it was decided we would all head over to a house nearby and continue the party. We walked the two blocks there, chattering all together, forgetting that Gemmayze residents detest the surrounding pubs that have turned their picturesque little neighborhood into a playground of drunks. One woman dropped a glass bottle down on us from the second floor — far enough away so that no one was brained by it, but close enough to make it a terrifying possibility. After that we were much quieter and ascended the three flights of stairs to the apartment in silence.

      The space was beautiful — one of those high-ceilinged old houses typical of the neighborhood, with a rabbit warren of rooms all leading into one another. The huge living room had been painted a number of contrasting colors, with large, bold stencils on the wall. At one end, a pool table dominated, and a little stand-alone bar in the middle of the room formed a natural point around which to congregate.

      My friend Fadi turned to Ethan, who was standing next to him, and said, “It’s an awesome place, isn’t it?”

      “I guess. It’s not really Arabic, though, is it.”

      We tried to give him a pass on that one. But then it came up again, a little later, as four of us leaned against the bar, mixing drinks and chatting.

      “So,” said Fadi, warming to the futile process of trying to converse meaningfully with Ethan. “I don’t know if you know this, but there’s a really thriving hip-hop culture here. I mean, it’s a small scene, but it’s growing, and there’s lots of bands in Palestine and Lebanon who are using the medium to talk about political issues and issues of marginalization.”

      Ethan shrugged. “Yeah,” he said, “I’m not really interested in that. You guys have a lot more interesting sounds you could be playing with instead of copying the Americans and trying to do what they’re doing.”

      I had to interject. “What, you’re saying the music isn’t authentic enough and you want the indigenous people to be playing authentic music?”

      He visibly recoiled at this, knocking his baseball cap off kilter. I’d finally gotten a reaction. “Nah, nah, nah! I was just saying, you know, there’s a lot more interesting sounds you people could be playing with. A whole culture of great sounds, you know? Why’d you need to be copying America?”

      He adjusted his baseball cap so it sat sideways on his head again as we stared at him across the bar.

      I guess he meant sounds like those made by Omar Souleyman and his band. I wonder if Ethan got the authentic vision of the Middle East he was looking for when he arrived in Syria a few days later to meet his “musical idol.”

      This being Lebanon, we got the story a couple of weeks later via a friend who had been at that historic meeting. A long table was set with plates of mezze, and Ethan took the honored seat right next to Souleyman. An interpreter sat next to them, making conversation possible.

      I can picture Ethan sitting there, his head bowed close to receive the words.

      “Who are your musical influences?” he asked. Souleyman listened to the question being passed along, and answered the interpreter.

      “He says he’s number one. He doesn’t listen to anyone. He’s number one.”

      Meanwhile, a tide of laughter swept across the table as people passed something from hand to hand. Did Ethan raise his head in curiosity, waiting for this item to be passed along to him so he could be included in the joke, in the scene of togetherness of all these musicians and producers sitting around a table full of food somewhere in Syria, hoping to collaborate together and bridge the East–West divide through their art?

      I wonder what he thought when it finally reached his hand: a cellphone, playing a video of a man fucking a sheep.

      Earlier on the afternoon of the Ajram party a friend of mine had lunch with Souleyman and asked him the same question Ethan had asked, wondering if he would get the same answer.

      “Who are your musical influences?”

      “No one,” answered Souleyman. “I don’t listen to anyone. I just sing the way I was always taught.”

      “It’s strange,” said my friend later. “He was talking about how he suddenly became famous, and he seemed to be genuinely surprised that he’d been plucked out of a crowd of others who do the same thing he does — entertain people at weddings. A ‘simple wedding singer,’ he called himself.”

      From village weddings where they slaughter sheep and shoot their guns into the air in celebration, where Souleyman’s poet whispered attributes about the bride and groom and their families to include in his recitation; to audiences across the world, playing to far different crowds, like the one at Ajram in Beirut, where Souleyman’s poet whispered to him to remember to praise the beauty of the Lebanese girls and the generosity of the Ajram hosts.

      Björk, another celebrity fan of Souleyman’s, has made much of this mysterious collaboration between poet and singer. But it has a history, hearkening to the tradition of madeeh, or praise, an old form of Arabic poetry composed on the spot and performed by court poets for the caliph, sheikh, or other person of nobility kind enough to host the poet. Poets would incorporate their surroundings into their poetry, glorifying the generosity and wisdom of their hosts, extolling the beauty of their women and lands.

      Souleyman’s music is a Bedouin version of the dabke, the rhythmic, repetitive music whose traditional stomping dance has a local variation in every region from South Lebanon to Northern Syria and back. Naim el Sheikh and Ali el Deek, also singers from the border regions of Lebanon and Syria, make music very similar to Souleyman’s, and any trip in a minivan across the Western Bekaa guarantees you’ll probably be bouncing across the bumpy roads to the very same rhythms that were reverberating across Ajram that night.

      True, Souleyman uses electrical instruments — but so do many other Arab musicians. It is the twenty-first century, after all. Björk has also cited Souleyman’s use of YouTube as a medium to single him out as a particularly modern phenomenon. But is it so surprising that Arab musicians should be using these instruments, these mediums? Perhaps someone should show her the cellphone with the sheep video — would that add to Souleyman’s modern cred, or would it detract from it?

      Ethan and his ilk traipse around the Arab world from Morocco to Iraq and back again, searching for a vision, a sound, a party, an apartment, that will fulfill their fantasies of visiting another, exotic realm, of stepping into a painting of Sir Richard Burton’s. While they search for signs of “modernity” to praise — so long as that modernity doesn’t erode the authentic culture they’re so desperately searching for — we sit raptly awaiting their judgment. When their seal of approval — depending, as it does, on previously held expectations and desires — is granted, we can breathe a sigh of relief and think nothing of paying an entrance fee to hear music we’ve heard countless times before on car or minivan radios without it ever breaching our consciousness in the same way.

      It’s not that Souleyman’s music isn’t catchy and danceable, because it is. And it’s not that he doesn’t have the charisma and stage presence required of a performer, because he does. It was more troubling that we’d waited for him to be bought, and packaged, and resold to us by someone from outside before we bothered to notice him, to celebrate him.

      We danced in a space soon to be excavated to make way for experiences we will barely be able to afford, thrilled with the pop-culture madness of it all, while the Syrian workers stomped their distinctive dabke around us, careful not to come too close to our dancing bodies for fear of being ousted.

      Thinking back on it all now, I’m kind of wistful. I sort of wish that Ethan could have been there that night at Ajram. I’m sure he would have been leaping around front and center, pumping his fists into the air and reveling in the fact that he’d finally stumbled upon the authentic Beirut, finally captured the essence of the city.

      Boy Talk

      Dating while Kuwaiti

      I remember my first phone-dating experience. All I could think, the first time I saw him, was, “Oh my God, he’s driving a Dodge Viper.” I was thirteen; I have no idea how old he was. He would call me up and say, “What are you wearing?” and “What does your underwear look like?” It was sleazy, but I would play along with it, and by the third phone call he was like, “When are we getting married?” I saw him twice the whole time I was dating him, and I think I was dating him for at least a couple of months. The first time was when I saw him drive by. Me and my girlfriend were at this beach resort in Kuwait, and that’s how I met him. The second time I drove to my school. But I can’t even recall what he looks like. You know?

      It was really rare at the time to be able to date more than one person on the phone, because you had to use your home phone. You’d have to be really rich to have a personal phone number. If you had a cellphone, it was shaped like a brick and you were a multimillionaire. And you wouldn’t want to give out your home number to three guys in a row, anyway, because you also had to give the illusion that there was only one Khaled — or whatever his name was.

      But yeah, what else were we going to do? My older sister was a teenager in the Eighties, and she and her friends would just, like, hang out at record stores. Cruising wasn’t as hardcore as it was in the Nineties. I was born in the Eighties, so I was pretty young. When cruising started, every time you left the house, it felt like you were trespassing on male territory. If you were two girls in one car, you’d have a train of men following you in cars to your house.

      Your phone number was something really sacred. If you gave a guy your phone number, you were taking a huge risk, because if your family found out, you know… . My father was terrifying, we nicknamed him “KGB.” My parents did their graduate degrees in Moscow, and he had this special way of interrogating people when he met them. He would size them up immediately. So there was always this element of fear to phone dating — for me, anyway.

      So this guy was my first phone-dating boyfriend. He would usually call once or twice a day, when I came back from school in the siesta hour. My parents would be out, or they would be sleeping or something, and as soon as the phone rang, I would run and pick it up. He would usually ask, “What are you doing? Where are you?” and I’d say, “Hello, you’re calling me at home, where do you think I am?” Then, again, “What are you doing? What did you do today?” Blah blah blah. It was just, really, a lot of giggling, and then a lot of “You’re the moon! You’re the stars! When am I gonna see you?” And a lot of “What are you wearing?”

      Actually, I think I did date another guy before my junior-high boyfriend. The only time I met him was at Pizza Hut. I mean, where else could you meet in Kuwait? At that time, nobody really had apartments. Now guys have apartments, but they still have to be relatively wealthy to have their own place. Everybody lives with their parents unless they’re married or they’re having an affair — that’s a different story; then you’re not dating a high-school girl. Although then again, maybe you are.

      “Where are you now?” — always that question. “Where are you now? What are you doing now?” There was a lot of lying involved on both sides. The idea among Kuwaitis with phone-dating was to keep the other party guessing. Even if you were staying at home and, um, doing nothing, you’d be like, “Oh yeah, I’m going to dinner with my girlfriend.” You always tried to make your life seem much more glamorous than it was.

      My persona wasn’t that different. I mean, I would have to be more Kuwaiti for the first two guys because they didn’t speak English that well. My bad Arabic was revealed, you know, they were like, “Oh, you don’t know what that word means,” or “You can’t say that,” and when I would say something in English, they’d say, “Don’t talk to me in English. Who do you think you are?” When I was seeing my junior-high boyfriend, it was different, because we were in a private school and his English was just as good as mine, so I was in a more comfortable linguistic situation. When I was with those guys, they’d always talk about their… you know. Like, “Oh, I’m really hard right now” or something, which was kind of crazy for me to hear while [laughs] I was, like, in my pajamas and really worried that my parents were going to pick up the phone. But they had, like, all these different words and names for it. One of them was, “Oh, I have a Jongar.” Jongar was like a Grendizer cartoon that was on TV in the Eighties.

      I remember asking my girlfriend, “What is he talking about?” She was like, “Oh my god, you’re so naive, Fatima, you don’t know what that is?!” She was much more skilled, and her voice was so funny when she spoke to men. I remember being in the room with her when she would talk to guys, just to get some tips and pointers about what to say because I was really new to the game. She had started maybe a year before me and was much more savvy, much more sophisticated, more womanly than I was. I was kind of a nerd. Glasses and greasy hair and whatever. But her voice was so crazy [moans] and she would turn on her Lebanese accent. Lebanese women were considered more seductive, you know, they were easier to get. And to this day she talks like that when she’s on the phone with a man. It’s unbelievable! You’re almost thirty, like, when are you going to stop talking to guys that way? It’s this, like, infantilized, Marilyn Monroe voice. To me at the time it was really glamorous, and I wished I could talk like that without cracking up violently, but I just couldn’t. She was really good at keeping a straight face, and her mom was Lebanese, so, you know, she could speak Lebanese fluently without a problem. Anyway, eventually I got a real boyfriend from school, and I ended it with the phone-guy. I could see my real boyfriend at school every day, which was much better.

      In a way, phone-dating was a strange stepping stone or testing ground for arranged marriage. Because the majority of marriages in Kuwait are arranged, it was always important for guys to figure out the possibility of a phone-date becoming a suitable bride. He might tail you to your house, or have a friend tail you. From your street address, he could find out through any number of sources — usually from dudes at some ministry that stores people’s addresses — who your parents were, your tribal status, your ethnic background and ancestry, your wealth, and, most importantly, your sect. Either you’d be a potential bride, if you ticked all the right boxes, or be relegated to being just another booty phone-girl. Someone to chat to until he got bored.

      When I came back to Kuwait after being abroad, I guess it was in 2004, things had really changed. There were all these guys walking around with two phones and multiple phone numbers, and girls were doing it as well. You know, it wasn’t even like girls were saying, “Don’t call that guy, he’s calling, like, ten girls.” The illusion of courtship became so exaggerated and reached this strange dimension of virtual reality. It was more like an Internet thing, you know, but with voices. For example, a friend of mine was seeing three guys at the same time, and she had two phones. “Whoa, you’re such a player, you have two phones?! That’s crazy!” I didn’t know. Her parents didn’t know about her second phone, either, because that would really have given her away. Anybody with two phones was suspect — “Why do you need two phones, what are you doing?” You know what I mean, like where are you hiding the second phone? Especially for a girl. With guys it was more common for them to have two phones because they’re players, whatever, men could be players, but for women to be players, that was, like, you know, you were asking for trouble. Your reputation was much more at stake as a woman. If you were a player as a man, you know, men respected you more or whatever, whereas for girls, they’d respect you a lot less if they found out that you had two phones — unless they were easygoing.

      In the Nineties, almost every kid that was gutsy enough to steal their parents’ cars during siesta would go to this one street in Kuwait called Sharia Al Hob, or Love Street. It wasn’t really called Love Street; it was, like, Third Ring Road, but everyone called it Sharia Al Hob. That was the place to cruise, and I would fantasize about going there when I was, like, fourteen. During siesta hours and during the nighttime and also on weekend nights, it was the place to be. There were a lot of words for, you know, guys, or cruisers. “Geezy” was the most common one. “Geezy” came from the English word “geezer,” a geezer was an idle man, you know, so we turned it into “geezy,” and from that word we made a verb, “to giz.” Like, “Oh, I’m going gizzing tonight” or “Let’s go gizing.” [Laughs] It was such a funny thing to do, like, literally roam the streets, and for teenagers, doing it was totally crazy.

      It was such an exciting environment, just because everything was so forbidden, you know, kids were just freaking out and found their own way to deal with it. I remember when I was phone-dating, I couldn’t wait for the next phone call. I mean, malls were more immediate because you could see a person fully — unless they were wearing a niqab or something, and you couldn’t see who they were or whether they were really male or really female. What I mean is, they could have been anybody. I remember my girlfriend told me that in Kuwait University she would go to the bathroom and girls would take off their niqab, and they’d have, like, blue eyes and light skin, and they would take out their little black purse. They had painted their eyes white, and they were wearing blue contact lenses. Which is so crazy to me, that they would go to such extreme lengths to create a physical persona.

      And by now email addresses were on bumper stickers. You know, “If you want this guy,” or “If you’re interested in this guy’s car” — it was all about status symbols. Why was I interested in that guy driving the Dodge Viper? You know what I mean? It was a really easy thing to do. A man could literally live in a hole, like in the worst, worst household in Kuwait, but if he was capable of renting a really fancy sports car, he could get a lot of girls. So it would make sense for him to put his email address on the car so he wouldn’t have to make much of an effort.

      And then when Bluetooth started, you could just sit in the mall, turn your Bluetooth on, and stonesgirl69 would come up. Or Hotazhell, or geezy5000 or something, and you could have all these crazy conversations with people that were within ten feet of you. And you didn’t know who it was, so the options for cruising multiplied in so many ways. And then there were the new TV stations. In 2004, these Arabic satellites starting having all these music-video channels. Before, music videos were only seen on national TV stations and, like, one or two private stations, MBC and other stations, but now there were loads of these really low-budget, weird music video channels.

      They were all hosted by these very ethnically ambiguous women, usually Egyptian or Lebanese, you know, wearing skimpy clothes and a lot of makeup and just standing there like, “Oh, we’re going to play this one, we’re going to play that,” and they would stream the music videos and underneath them, you texted in your request, and the screen would have the scrolling text messages like, “Hi I’m Ahmed I’m from Cairo I’m bored What’s your name?” And you’d start texting and cruising, and literally within three years there were a hundred channels like this.

      You’re watching and texting the channel on your phone at the same time, and at some point you’ll give out your email address, if you’re interested, or desperate enough, and it will go like this: “Oh, no way, I’m in Libya, too! What’s your name?”


      Anonymous emails on refusal, revolution, and representation

      On 1 sep 2009, at 6:25:04pm, B wrote:

      Dear X,

      N put me in touch with you. Your blog has been part of the strange mediation I myself, we at Bidoun and maybe others abroad have had of the events following the Iranian election this summer. As we have been commissioning our next issue (the theme of which is NOISE), we’ve been struggling with a kind of double bind in regard to representing these events, or whatever they are — between the intolerable dissonance of excluding them and the false harmony of joining the chorus of opposition and advocacy which we fear only ever co-opt the real-political dynamics of “organic” uprisings into a instrumental antagonism which can be seen to serve as a supplement to power…

      This has been an ongoing issue for us — dealing with the strange and ubiquitous rift between experience and what can constitute a historical event… especially in Iran, when it is specifically the authenticity of experience, of the “people,” and their revolution, which is contested between the revolution and the revolutionary state…

      And finally, for us — in our role in problematizing identity, region, and journalism — even as we produce a regional journal which invariably perpetrates a mode of identification…

      We found in the subjectivity and incompleteness of your account something approaching a strategy for parsing all of this. In fact your metaphor of ice-cream and melon juice as a form of camouflage has become a kind of motto for us in clarifying why we publish an arts magazine at all.

      We would very much like to work with you in preparing a version of your blog for print in our next issue — but would like to present a number of obstructions in its design.

      There are a few episodes we are drawn to — one in which you leave to join a protest only to go to the doctor with stomach irritation, his prescription of mood stabilizers and your listing of their effects… your bus ride and the metaphor of indifference, ice-cream, melon juice, and camouflage… We don’t want to overdetermine the narrative — it is really up to you in the end — but what we are interested in is an account of your experience which strategically omits everything which is not direct experience. Not to give direct experience some authentic primacy, but a gesture towards preserving the real-poltical potential of the event — which was, after all, as little a product of the reform movement as it was the BBC, M16 or CIA. Without mentioning Ahmadinejad, Mousavi, the election, the state, hearsay and news, political analysis, past events, or even Iran, what will remain of the event?

      Please be in touch with me if you are interested, if you are sympathetic to this treatment, or if you have a better idea. Whatever the case we would like to do something together. Perhaps a phone call is in order? Send me your number and we can speak — All the best from New York.


      On Sep 4, 2009, at 11:16 AM, x wrote:

      dear b,

      thanks for your message.

      I certainly don’t want to add to the NOISE of your next issue.

      I have been thinking about your mail and what to reply but I don’t really know what to write. there would be a lot to say about your general approach and interpretations of the events. but I don’t really feel qualified to comment as I don’t even know you. just be assured that you got the thing with the ice-cream and melon juice completely wrong.

      best wishes, x

      On 4 Sep 2009, at 3:30:47 PM , B wrote:


      I’m a bit confused why you would thank me for my message, or even grant me your best wishes given the nature of your reply. To withhold any information as to the nature of my error while assuring me I have made one is a form of discursive subjection that I find viscerally chilling. You’ve conceded that you don’t know me, but do so having impoverished the field of my possible being to a point that precludes reply. I would be only insulted if I didn’t sense that the three or four sentences you have returned to me were circumventing an anger that is understandably hard to articulate. Please forgive me if I’m being presumptuous in even this claim to understanding, but presumption is probably the only medium in which we can read and write to one another — in that I too, do not know you. An engaged response would help me clear up my presumption as to your intention — and here, maybe, I can disrupt yours about mine.

      My father was a secular marxist guerrilla living underground for 15 years prior to the revolution. Early in this span his party disavowed vanguard armed struggle and committed to a program of revolution through education. Like most other urban guerrillas in Iran, the lion’s share of their activity was devoted to just staying alive, an end from which a great deal of them were denied. On the first day of the iranian revolution, my father and his friends were holding a meeting to discuss a chapter of assigned reading on guerrilla warfare. Outside, the people stormed the barracks of Tehran. Needless to say they cut their meeting short, but the irony of this is difficult to appreciate for the few hundred in exile, who wether they survived or not, for the most part, had already given their lives.

      Arriving in America, from Iran at three years of age, I’ve had the benefit of being raised largely in the story book poverty befitting the son of an exiled non-violent marxist guerrilla — and now, having entered the privileged grounds of the culture industry, have the double privilege of having reached it without passing through a formal educational apparatus. I spend my new, bourgeois leisure time trying in one way or another to formulate a revolutionary theory that can truly weaken power. In my work with Bidoun I have been struggling with an institution (albeit a small one), that propagates Saidian problematics purely in the negative. It does not want to deal with war, poverty, gender, cultural difference, etc in the same way as everyone else — but ends up not dealing with them at all. Perhaps there was a time when this silence was in itself articulate, gesturally, in the material discourse of media — for me, this time has now passed. What happened in Iran is the last toll of that bell.

      I have to add — that this kind of biographizing is something I like to avoid at all costs. I have done it as a sacrificial ante — in the wager that I am asking a lot of you in a reply. It is possible that I am wrong, and am greatly overestimating your silence. I hope not.

      Can you please tell me what in my general approach and interpretation you take issue with. It might mean something.

      Yours, B

      On Sep 6, 2009, at 10:58:00 PM, x wrote:

      Dear B,

      you are right. I really had difficulties to articulate myself in response to your email. my three or four sentences which were a somewhat helpless attempt to tell you briefly that I was not interested in contributing to your next issue ended up being passive-agressively puzzling. I’m sorry.

      So let me try to explain (unfiltered and uncut this time).

      I was indeed confused and angry. confused because I wasn’t sure how much I had already been part of something that I find alienating and angry because your request -repeating vividly why i often (not always) have such problems with bidoun collided with the events in iran. an issue where i seem to have zero tolerance for any approach that involves clever cynicism, cool indifference or content surfing, let alone exploiting everything including one’s own search for possible meanings of identity and agency and turning it into a aesthetically yummy appetizer for the bored vampires of the lower eastside and other leisurelands on the planet. all of which can be features of bidoun sometimes.

      I totally believe in humor and even sarkasm is fine but bidouns strategies of trying to be ahead of the game that sometimes leads to surprising complexity and depth, often suddenly turn shallow by turning every topic into fun in a pretentiously ‘hedonistic’ way.

      ok so step by step: (you will see that I am indeed very upset and most likely wrong and unjust in some points. so watch out.)

      our next issue (the theme of which is Noise)

      what on earth makes you wanna put the incredible precision of this movement, of these amazingly courageous and beautiful people into the context of NOISE? Noise is a multiple signal that usually covers any articulation. human articulation for example usually just happens on a small segment of the frequency spectrum.

      If you add noise, the voice will not be understable any longer. from the moment I witnessed the way people in iran started to express their criticism and hopes and wishes I was amazed by their sharp and witty humour (before the election) and their focused and disciplined choice of expressions. every one of these expressions was minimalistic and precise. and they were in fact apprehended.

      i can only guess that in bidoun’s constant search for the extra clever drift into ambiguity the link would be: what is noise for the neighbours is music in our ears.

      we’ve been struggling with a kind of double bind in regard to representing these events,

      let me assume ignorance: what you are really struggling with here is your fear of connecting your emotional and somewhat insecure (fair enough, we all are) political attachment to these events, to your professional profile as a cutting edge fanzine made by really cool dudes. where your inner demon says: let’s just pretend we missed the deadline before we make a fool of ourselves. and your sad inner panda says: but then I will be really really sad. in my opinion the situation doesn’t allow for such sensibilities and vanity. if worst comes to worst you have to do this in your pyjamas if you mean it guys!

      or whatever they are—

      ‘or whatever they are’ (how can you dare to use a whishywashy ‘whatever-they-are’ here if you decided –in your struggle– to actually ‘represent’ the events in your magazine )

      between the intolerable dissonance of excluding them

      sad panda speaking..

      and the false harmony of joining the chorus of opposition and advocacy

      ok, maybe the choirs of opposition and advocacy abroad were indeed partially alienating. if what you mean is that on ralleys you had to walk in between monarchists waving the flag of the shah and militaristic mujaheddin, i can understand the hesitation. naturally we did not experience such things in iran.

      which we fear only ever co-opt the real-political dynamics of ‘organic’ uprisings into a instrumental antagonism which can be seen to serve as a supplement to power…

      what instrumental antagonism are you referring to? what and why will serve as a supplement to power? in my opinion we are talking about a civil rights movement that forms a power in itself. people demand their rights: 1. reforms (that’s why everybody went out to vote even though they struggled with that move. nobody goes to vote when they are actually planning for an uprising), 2. their right to have their vote counted (and that’s when it took the shape what you call uprising), 3. the protection from police violence, torture and rape, 4. a juridical system that deserves its name (no show trials and the immediate release of the political prisoners) 5. the clearing up and prosecution of crimes committed by basij, police and prison guards, 6. the clearing up of how many people were killed and were they are buried . 6. getting rid of the coup d’etat team that hijacked the country.

      every movement is under the threat of being turned into something else or being crushed. but I really don’t understand your hesitation in supporting people’s (very comprehensible) demands.

      In fact your metaphor of ice-cream and melon juice as a form of camouflage has become a kind of motto for us in clarifying why we publish an arts magazine at all.

      the ice-cream and melon juice was NOT a metaphor. it was a clever but desperate means employed to be able to subvert the ban on demonstrations, to still go out in the streets and to try and not get KILLED for it. the reason why it might have sounded funny in my reports is the fact that people have shown me again and again that it is more empowering and powerful to laugh then to cry in the face of unspeakable violence.

      i don’t know if you can imagine how cynical it sounds when you announce this brave and really desperate camouflage as successfully deployed in your magazine therapy sessions. again assuming ignorantly, i suggest that you use camouflage as a life style because you’re ashamed of being caught doing something for real like taking sides for example.

      but what we are interested in is an account of your experience which strategically omits everything which is not direct experience. Not to give direct experience some authentic primacy, but a gesture towards preserving the real-political potential of the event

      you’re right, I tried as much as I could to stick to what i personally saw and experienced, and i struggled to not get caught up in the spiral of violence but instead to stay close to the precise expressions of peoples demands and the force that they created. but that doesn’t mean that the real-political dimension and potential solely lies in direct action on the streets. it was the contribution that i felt i could make also for my own sake because it helped me stay sane. other people, other blogs, news agencies are much more capable of understanding and interpreting the history and the more abstract political dimensions. the struggles behind closed doors and publicly on basically all governmental and clerical levels, the gestures of public figures, public letters, speeches or simply silence of certain prominent individuals as much as the history and infra structure of the reform movement all of which played and play such an important role as well. not as leading the movement but as part of its forces and its roots within the political history in iran after the revolution.

      — which was, after all, as little a product of the reform movement as it was the BBC, M16 or CIA.

      i totally disagree. in my opinion especially on the level of real-political cause and effect the events are strongly linked to the reform movement. as much as they are a continuation of the things that started in the khatami period they are also in search for reforms in the future. nobody wanted or wants a revolution. that is my impression. people want things to change discursively and collectively and reform their system, politically, economically and socially.

      Without mentioning Ahmadinejad, Mousavi, the election, the state, hearsay and news, political analysis, past events, or even Iran, what will remain of the event?

      I am with you in the attempt to not focus, to not even mention ahmadinejad or mousavi. you can even talk about the civil rights movement universally as it is not unique in its demands and its struggle, not even in the violent suppression in response to it. for me it is not about ahmadinejad or mousavi. it is about the power of the people about their stories, their hopes, their demands, their needs, their courage and how we can relate to them globally based on empathy and solidarity, on collectivity, on love. and more specifically it is about the way that the people of iran have managed to erase and replace the image of iran equals ahmadinejad. now the whole world knows that the government of a country and the people are two separate things. they are making use of everything they have at hand and turn it into a powerful tool in the cause. from slogans from the revolution that they subvert and poetically appropriate and set free of a fixed meaning to consumer technology that they use to communicate directly and unhierarchically to the world about their situation, as citizen journalists, changing the landscape of journalism forever.

      to make a long story very short. if i wouldn’t have been upset about the appearance of your request, i would have simply told you, that for me the events are not over yet and i am still on the internet several hours a day. it is not the time where i feel the neccessity to go back to what i have written a month ago. it feels odd to publish something from the past while it is still going on. just not so much event-based, more waiting for opportunities, eroding the system with boycott, microdissidence and defacement, making love, writing poetry, while fearfully watching the trials, searching for the bodies, waiting in front of evin prison all with the same spirit of ‘we’re in this together’ until victory. my reports were so directly related to each day. what would they do now? i don’t see the point. maybe only as a supplement to something. a footnote.

      ok, enough for now. i guess i was pretty offensive. maybe it helps to know that i only just get that angrily engaged with people of institutions that mean something to me. so it was partially a smouldering unhappyness with the only viable mouthpiece that tries to connect with and among discourses across the region called the middle east that made me rave like that. i hope my torrent can turn into something productive in the end.


      On Sep 30, 2009, at 3:31:37 AM, B wrote:

      Dear X,

      First of all I want to thank you for your reply. I’ve purchased a keyboard which burns my fingertips when I lie. If only I could — but in all honesty I didn’t find your letter unjust or offensive. I disagree on a thousand points mostly in minute ways — despite the expensive binding of our issues you mustn’t imagine we constitute an us in the way necessitated by some of your critique — but differences aside, I have appreciated your letter more than I can say and in the last analysis I am forced to concede to you your refusal.

      You’ve won this point in your second to last paragraph, but before I can throw in the towel I have to address the paragraphs preceding it, and then — if I can possibly convince you — hold you to your very last sentence.

      It is excruciatingly difficult to proceed in saying what I want to say about your analysis of Bidoun — there is an endless string of precursors, endless qualifying paragraphs, the first among them that despite it’s static manifestation four times a year Bidoun is not one thing from one mind and that there is struggle and debate and doubt — of course we all know recourse to rigorous self-critique is the first refuge of the illegitimate… To really begin I think I have to start at the ending: Bidoun can not be justified in terms of it’s final form as a printed book; a cultural product, a commodity object… It is indefensible, and in the same way as everything else; under the auspices of culture, under capital, under the state. There is of course an enormously unsettling paradox at play here, and one I sense you felt reaching into your own “search for possible meanings of identity and agency.”

      I am with you there.

      Having recently had a month off, I decided to spend it pursuing a long standing dilemma regarding my own participation in all of this, and what if any alternative may be possible. I encountered this archaic text on the first day of my “vacation” — after a google-search of the word refusal:

      “Culture in fact… is always bourgeois. In other words, it is always a relation between intellectuals and society, between intellectuals and the people, between intellectuals and class; in this way it is always a mediation of conflicts and their resolution in something else. If culture is the reconstruction of the totality of man, the search for his humanity in the world, a vocation to keep united that which is divided — then it is something which is by nature reactionary and should be treated as such… “Opposition” culture does not escape this fate either; it merely presents the body of labour movement ideologies dressed in the common clothing of bourgeois culture.”
      —Mario Tronti, The Strategy of Refusal

      This is of course, not the conclusion, but the backdrop of our drama. The problem of living remains. Let’s entertain that our every cultural endeavor is preceded by a necessary failure — if our intention is to reveal something, if there is one thing which can possibly be revealed, and which could be in turn revealing, is it not the crushing totality and inevitability of this very failure? Isn’t the worst humiliation to pretend to be free? Is there nothing more reactionary than taking as our individual responsibility to decorate our internment, through lifestyle, through exercise of choice, personal philosophy, activism, volunteerism, spirituality — to synthesize some small holistic harmony from the violent and indifferent arbitration of power? This is, of course, not some grandiose defense of Bidoun, it’s the conditions of it’s failure and a small part of explaining the seemingly obtuse and self indulgent strategy I approached you with — only part of my reasoning, because to imagine the events in Iran represent primarily a creative editorial dilemma is preposterous beyond measure.

      However — by the same measure, for us to assume a direct, facile relation to real events and real ethics in a real world without acknowledging our real form as an alienating and alienated commodity object is hypocritical. There is a flaw in the otherwise astute dichotomy you proposed between the cool dude and the sad panda — the truth is there could be nothing cooler, easier and less reprehensible for us to do than join in full force the profoundly just and apprehensible chorus of solidarity and indignation. There is nothing more cooly cynical than the fact that if we published an entire GREEN ISSUE, our sales figures would most likely double, we would sell out among the cool vampires of the lower east side and be reprinted widely. We would win an award. It is a sad panda that sabotages this for us. A sad panda and an honest desire to render the actual, devastating, incompensable brutality of being a political subject, actually and at all times. A sad panda, an honest desire and a creeping suspicion that all of this good reporting, well researched contextualization, solidarity and commiseration covers up a scandal which is far more grave and intractable. The scandal of normality, a scandal from which all news and politics serve to distract, and the apprehension of which is the spring of every revolution.

      But this is all an afterward. The truth is you are right — my proposal is useless. It would be stupid to isolate some existential anecdote from the streets of Iran, like a false bookend on something which has in reality not yet happened, much less finished. It is only from outside I could think that because news coverage has stopped something must be over. It’s obscene; we would be producing something for consumption, exactly as you said — an aesthetic appetizer. I want to propose we do something in less than our pajamas, I want to hold you to the sentiment of the last sentence of your last letter and allow us to publish this correspondence. Whatever it is… The terms and specifics being completely at your discretion… My deepest gratitude for your time.


      On 6 Oct 2009, at 16:31, B wrote:

      X, I am not sure if I’m hoping you didn’t get my last letter or did and didn’t want to respond… Please do let me know.


      On Oct 6, 2009, at 3:08:34 PM, x wrote:

      dear b, i got your letter, thanks. sorry for not responding immediately. it’s been really busy.

      i will try to write tomorrow. i hope that’s ok.


      On 13 Oct 2009, at 23:10, B wrote:

      x… we are sending the issue to the printer on Saturday… Nervously awaiting your response…


      On Oct 14, 2009, at 4:20 AM, x wrote:

      hi babak, i’m sorry. it was so hectic until yesterday. now I’m in beirut with more time.

      i wasn’t aware that you were awaiting my response so urgently. i assume it’s because you need an answer to your idea to print our discussion?

      i have to say, i’m not very fond of the idea.

      what’s the point? why not just take it for what it is, a discussion between two people about their different viewpoints and experiences that will hopefully have been enriching for both sides. i don’t see why we would want to turn this into a product.

      when i said we might need to do this in our pyjamas, by ‘this’ i meant standing up for the movement, not a critical self-reflection and discussion about bidoun. also i would not want to mix a discussion about the movement in iran and a reflection on bidoun in a public framework. it was part of the process of our discussion and within that framework hopefully productive but it would become something else once the framework is extended. there is nothing wrong about openly discussing bidoun’s possible roles, potentials and problems. just not as part of trying to engage with what is going on in iran. do you see what i mean?

      best, x

      On Oct 14, 2009, at 11:11:03 AM, B wrote:


      I’m not sure. I really am not sure about that last sentence — I mean, first of all I don’t think the correspondence has been about Bidoun so much as the problems between cultural production, engagement and being a being, alive — and I would argue discussing our possible roles is the only way we can talk about what is going on in Iran in complete honesty. We are in a situation now where we either print this — which honestly has been, yes — enriching and challenging and difficult for me… I really don’t know exactly how I feel if everything is considered in a vacuum, but I am dealing with the real possibility of publishing an issue in which we say NOTHING on the subject so I’m not an objective observer. Isn’t there something impossible about cordoning off the real experience in iran from the bullshit of everything else? The bullshit continues and the real recedes infinitely as it’s perpetuity is retraced each day to fit the present. What happened in Iran happened everywhere else in the world, through words, images and commentary — all of which invariably alienates and transforms the actuality of the experience as it is transcribed into history. I honestly believe our correspondence is special in that it does not distill, translate, inscribe, interpret or historicize the events but is an ACTUAL EFFECT of the events themselves — bullshit and all.

      I’m sorry for all the capitols, it’s just that I would be disgusted to print an issue where we say nothing — I believe these letters are USEFUL — maybe more useful to the void that we publish into than to either of us. I think it would be a shame not to do this — I feel like I’m selling a car or begging for bread but I can’t be coy about this. We could publish it anonymously but we must must publish this… Please.


      On Oct 15, 2009, at 12:43:55 AM, x wrote:

      b, hey,

      listen, I really don’t want to be the grinch here. I just personally don’t see the point. but maybe you are seeing this from a different perspective and you have an idea how it could be useful for others. i just hope that it is not the fear of “be(ing) disgusted to print an issue where we say nothing” that drives your plea for publishing.

      it’s in your hands now. you do what you think is right. just one really important condition: no names to anyone (not even privately). you have to promise because I’m going back soon.

      best wishes,

      Destiny for Dinner

      Images from the series Shelter, 1997, by J. H. Engstrom

      There was a time when, in order to attract customers, restaurants in Manhattan kept a teller of fortunes on hand, as though to provide a service that would go far beyond the feeding of humans. Only a small fee was charged for the service, perhaps five dollars.

      One such place was an Indian restaurant on Park Avenue, in the East Sixties. It was a distinguished space with high vaulted ceilings — once the grand entrance of a residential building — kept gloomily dark at all times. So dark one had to feel one’s way to the table, navigating gently with one’s hands on the edges of tabletops that were tufted with a thick covering beneath long, perfectly ironed tablecloths, so that they and the muted light together conveyed the impression that not only dinner but an enveloping bed awaited. The tables were moreover on castors so they could be rolled out and then in again after one had been seated, which intensified the feeling of having been tucked in for the night.

      Madame S, a distinguished Norwegian, wafted three nights a week around this magical dormitory. It seemed to me she whispered just loudly enough to be heard over the sinuous sounds of veena. Her hair was straight, flaxen, and wound up in an elegant chignon. She had a long nose, bright green eyes, and fingers ringed in thick gold bands, including a signet on a little finger. If I try to further recall her features now, she becomes indistinguishable from Greta Garbo, though more austere. She might have been an impoverished aristocrat who had somehow stumbled into this vocation of telling people their characters and fortunes by analyzing their handwriting. As with the fortune teller in Miracle in Milan — who repeats to every new customer entering his tent, “What eyes! And what a forehead you’ve got! What a great man your father must have been!” — nothing unpleasant transpired in these sessions.

      Madame S had handwriting like a sharp stone fallen from heaven onto a sheet of paper by way of a thick luscious stream of black ink. It was oracular in appearance. Having inspected a sample of my handwriting, she wrote for me on a white sheet folded in half a series of notations such as “forward thinking, backward looking,” as memorable and baffling as an I Ching pronouncement. If you’d wanted to see your fortune inscribed on a reed, or on the sand, hers would have been the handwriting you would have chosen. A ghost might have favored it, too, for its vaguely gothic quality. In a gesture similar to that of a calligrapher, who has so many times retraced the form of an ideogram, words flowed from her pen in their simplest and most assured form. The line of her “d” curved backward, as though nostalgically toward the preceding letter — backward looking — and the nib of her gridded silver Parker was thick and did not brook hesitation.

      Here is how the “science” describes itself: “Graphologists say ‘brainwriting’ is a more descriptive term than handwriting. When you pick up a pen and begin to write, everything that you have ever experienced comes together and travels down the nerves from your brain, through your arm, into your hand, and out onto the paper… Studies have proved that amputees who have learned to write with their mouths or feet, have the same handwriting characteristics.”

      A friend in his nineties recalls a clique of psychics regularly sitting in the window of a Horn & Hardart cafeteria — a three-story art deco building in midtown Manhattan, graced by crenellated columns — but he had never tried any of them.

      “You are a werry wosswul woman,” said the palmist at another restaurant, on Lexington Avenue, that I used to go to in the late seventies. I think it was called Gaylord’s. “I beg your pardon,” I said, not wanting to miss a pronouncement he clearly seemed to feel strongly about. “A wosswul woman,” he repeated. “I’m sorry — what was that again?” I asked. Perspiring beneath his white shirt and tie, a rivulet running from the slicked-back hair of a receding hairline, he made his hand into a fist this time and plunged it exasperatedly into the air above the table, almost shouting, “Foss-wul! Foss-wul!” And at last I understood — forceful.

      He asked for my date of birth, and when I told him it was September 7, he began to recite a litany around the number seven: “Seven continents, seven seas, Seven Wonders of the World, seven colors in the rainbow, seven days in the week, seven chakras, seven worlds in the universe… seven stars,” it began. Then there were “seven divine women who were left behind on earth and became the ancestresses of all humankind,” and “seven sages in Hindu mythology whose wives were the seven mothers.” In music, vii was the leading tone, and seven was the number of notes in the traditional Western major scale.

      The lady who read palms at Ali Baba, primly attired in a beige cashmere twin set and a thin strand of pearls, told me I would die in my sleep at a ripe old age, and that I’d be surrounded by young people. (“Goody,” as Auntie Mame might say.) She advised me to keep a notebook by my bed at all times, as I’d get ideas during the night and should jot them down right away. I hoped I’d be better off than the lady who was a member of the House of Lords, who awoke one night and scribbled something on a piece of paper that she felt was utterly inspired, only to find, the next morning, that she’d written: I think I’ll wear a shawl, / or nothing at all.

      Doris — such was the name of Ali Baba’s resident oracle — was rather aged herself: well over eighty, stooped, and slight. It was surprising to find her at a restaurant that was cavernous and nearly always deserted, as no one ever went there for the food, they went for her. Her presence was vastly reassuring, unlike that of the next fortune-teller I encountered, who, after having stated her price — one hand, five dollars; two hands, seven-fifty — stated matter-of-factly: “You will be paralyzed from the waist down.” There were certain measures I could take to stop this from happening, she added briskly, but I’d have to come back to visit her several times, and she would perform a series of rituals. I’d have to give her two hundred dollars right away and fifty dollars for every one of a minimum of ten visits. Since she was not in a restaurant, she had an expensive overhead, hence the outlandishness of her pronouncements. Her “office” was like all such places that for a time proliferated in the basements of brownstones in Manhattan, advertising their services in creepy neon signs: “Psychic” or “Tarot.” I heard a small child wailing in the background. I fled, and the experience cured me of fortune-tellers.

      I go along with Umberto Eco’s argument, finely stated at a recent conference in Milan, that only the truths of literature can be trusted as true, since those of reality, including historical “facts,” can after all be altered or disproved whenever new evidence comes to light. For instance, he said, Hitler might be found to have been shot to death on Lake Como, as opposed to the generally held belief that he committed suicide in his bunker in Berlin, whereas Anna Karenina could only ever be said to have died by jumping beneath a moving train, as Tolstoy wrote; nothing and no one could ever alter that. Given that what has happened, or will happen, to me is not in any novel, I can breathe easy.

      A Tibetan reincarnate lama I met in the nineties said Tibetan Buddhists believe a “person” consists of over three hundred entities, incorporate beings and souls who attach themselves to a physical presence: a rock, a piece of furniture, a tree — or a person, by far the best option. “They are sitting here on the sofa with us — your three hundred and sixty, and mine,” he stated, as though this were as incontrovertible as Anna Karenina having died by jumping in front of a moving train. (I often try to imagine the invisible babble of all those creatures squeezed into my frame.) The most interesting fortune-teller I ever met was a lapsed Jesuit who converted to Islam and who didn’t, strictly speaking, tell fortunes but rather enumerated one’s “masks.” He saw every human being as an agglomeration of identities, one for every planetary aspect. He accounted for eight disgraces in the astrological charts he drew. Mine included Shakespeare’s Portia — “The quality of mercy is not strain’d,” he quoted — and Sheherazade, cloistered and manufacturing stories to save herself. Who could ask for anything more? Not me — I forget the other six.

      Tone Poem


      There’s a tone, a low-level nasal pitch, that can carry your voice across the desert quicker than a walkie-talkie, clearer than a satphone, and more urgent than a scream. There’s a whole system of sounds, of cries and songs and shouts, depending on the time of day and the type of weather and the sort of dune you’re standing on.

      There’s Ru-ah, for dusk time at the top of a rounded dune.

      And Mankoos, for midnight in the middle of a rippling erg.

      And A’aobal, to keep pace across the sand or pull water from a well.

      But Da’a is the ultimate Bedouin sound signal. Da’a means “Start a bonfire and send out the search party,” it means “SOS,” it means “Help.” And every family has its own version. Ours is Ya Delhamaai!, and Ya Delhamaai! is what my Aunt Ligaa keened out across the desert one afternoon around 1960 in a small tuft of oasis near Unguria in East Saudi. Her father had had to shake her awake at dawn — it was her turn to take out the goats. She was drowsy and dirty. This was in winter, when the sand is so cold it feels wet. In wintertime oases can spring up overnight around a puddle of mud.

      It happened that one such oasis had appeared some kilometers northwest of the family’s season-camp. And so Ligaa headed out, smacking the goats and their kids and the billies on their asses with her precious bendy stick, a perfect whipping branch cut from the big tree in the village Endar. There were twenty-five or thirty goats, an entire family flock, save for one baby billy who stayed home so that his runt brother could have some milk-time.

      Ligaa and her flock reached the grassy, swampy area in the late morning. She ate a dried cheese flatbread dipped in bright green semna and promptly passed out amid the rushes while the goats nibbled at grass and twigs and suckled at teats.

      When she woke, it was to the smell of death.

      A yellow-eyed mutt had stalked Ligaa and the goats all morning. When she fell asleep he set to work, first at the outskirts of the huddled, stupid flock, gashing and cracking and breaking the necks and backs and skulls of the littlest ones. Through all this racket, Ligaa slept peacefully, facedown in the sand, all manner of bugs crawling over her, into her hair and deep in her ears, where they must have deafened her with buzzing loud enough to mute a massacre. “I must have had a fever,” Aunt Ligaa told me one afternoon at teatime, nearly fifty years later. “I was sick for days and my mother had to burn it out with a hot rock.” She lifted up her leg to reveal a faint, vaguely rock-shaped scar along the sole of her foot. “Maybe that’s why the beast didn’t touch me? My meat was cooked and he had a preference for raw. Ha! Haha!”

      She would have slept all the way into the night if a soft wet muzzle hadn’t nuzzled her urgently into waking. It was the mama goat whose kid had been left behind. The sun was on its way past noon, and the air stank of blood and shit and soured milk. There was no soft shuffling or pitter-patter of little hooves; even the mama goat had stopped sniffling and stood staring with her horizontal pill-shaped pupils. There was only the hissing of long grass in the wind and a long, labored dragging noise every few seconds.

      Ligaa jumped up from her hidden bed in the rushes, the mama goat sidestepping nervously, almost topping over.

      “It was disgusting,” Ligaa said. “Guts everywhere. The glutton had had his pick and ate only the full milk teats off the women and drank all the milk — and the kids and the men goats, he tore their throats out and left the rest.”

      Ligaa could have cried, she could have fainted, she could have taken her stick and gone after the now sluggish wolf, but she did the smart thing, the right thing. My fourteen-year-old aunt let loose a mighty Ya Delhamaai! It bellowed out from the tiny blood-soaked oasis, like a foghorn in a sea of sand. The sound could be heard by every member of every clan in a ten-kilometer radius.

      She waited, listening. Moments later, it was there on the wind: the clean sharp shout of her dad coming to get her, to get the wolf. No echo, just a pure message, a tone that said, whatever the time of day, “Stay there!” And then the shotgun shot so sharp it did echo, on the ground and the small hillocks of sand and on and off the dead goats and their blue and purple viscera.

      Hair: Fran Freeman
      Styling and production: Telfar Clemens

      Featuring, in order of appearance:
      Khalid Al Gharaballi, earwear by Gerlan Jeans
      Shaun Ross, neck dress by Avena Gallagher
      Marc Brown, earwear by Gerlan Jeans
      Monique McWilliams, earwear by Gerlan Jeans
      Sanu, model’s own earwear
      Telfar Clemens, earwear by Telfar

      Satellite of Hob

      An HDTV guide

      It all began with the Gulf War.

      Once upon a time, there were two main topographical features on most any Arab rooftop: a water tank and an antenna. The antenna was generally the size of a five-year-old, shaped like a minaret and filigreed for maximum signal. But when the Saudis neglected to broadcast news of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait for three days, they inadvertently launched a media mutiny. Viewers turned away en masse from government broadcasting and looked instead to the pulsing red star of Arabsat.

      Thus began the free-for-all of cheap, lightly censored programming blocks that featured real-human-Arab-girl hosts and current events coverage, a social phenomena popularly known as the “pan-Arab satellite revolution.”

      Tonight, on HDTV in a borrowed bungalow, I will flip through 352 satellite channels, from Iqra’ to Iraqi Edu, a smorgasbord catering to the tastes of the overheated but underemployed underthirty set, with its vast and variegated appetite for TV shopping channels, quiz shows, and 24-7 surveillance of the Kaaba.

      Want to take the pulse of the Arab street? Don’t talk to the cab driver, watch TV.


      An English lesson. “Would you mind not sitting here?” I imagine this is a very useful phrase in Baghdad.


      A horse called Gorylla leaps into the lead on a red dirt track. Asiatic Boy is close behind. The camera speeds along a rail beside them. They appear to be running on a giant treadmill for horses.


      A chicken in a sandstorm.

      SAUDI TV

      A four-way split screen. Clockwise from top left: Mecca, Medina, a building on fire, a neon light show on the basketball court inside a school gym.


      A man in a leather jacket is listening to a classy Lebanese broad. She is holding a silver tray with Iranian sweets arrayed in pristine rows. She is describing the taste preferences of brides. “Some like saffron, some like rose. Some are more cosmopolitan.”


      A lively Japanese woman chats in dubbed Arabic. She wants to sell me a giant teardrop-cut diamond in a white-gold pendant shaped like a musical clef. The woman glows and sparkles, just like the diamond. I am a fan of Asian Business’s special effects.


      Dueling poets.


      Television Numerique Terrestre Hotbird
      Frequence 10872Mhz
      Symbole Rate 27500
      Fec 3⁄4 Pol: V


      Derek Poundstone is pulling an American Air Force plane. Meet Met-Rx World’s Strongest Man! An excited Arab sports commentator cheers Arild Haugen on from Charleston, West Virginia.


      Omani channel. The drinking of coffee… the making of eyes…


      Gawking cartoon man lolls his dripping tongue over telephone, while the text announces in Arabic: “Prank your husband! Call now! 590066”

      AL AFASY

      A man in a veil of iridescent silk sits on a balcony and receives a prayer from heaven as Qur’an is sternly recited over his cell. His tiny daughter spies on him.


      I catch the end of Reptilicant. The shape-shifting alien looks just like the creature from Creature from the Black Lagoon, down to the visible zipper.


      A faux-hawked black man with a four-tone shirt squats rhythmically behind a bush in a garden, singing: “Oh Daddy Daddy Oh Daddio Shadit ya Shadiao!” A child on a Big Wheel inches into the frame; the camera pans up to avoid the blooper. Cut away to women on church steps, flexing their buns. The station is from Chad; I’m sure the butt dance called Degheni came to the Gulf along just such a channel.


      Bollywood zoom-out of a girl’s crooked white laugh as she roughly jostles other girls around a picnic blanket. Next, two lovers drink tea from a tea seller. The picnic-blanket girls change into brightly colored saris and start thrashing about wildly. The lovers stare long and hard together at a blade of grass. The tea has been drugged?!


      Fulla, the Islamic Barbie, at play in a bristling wheat field! Oh wait — it’s a painting Fulla is painting of herself! Here she is, back in her indoor clothing: a pair of pajamas. She autographs the TV.


      Old Egyptian play with Adel Imam in an acidwashed jacket.


      The backlit neon blades of a slowly whisking fan whir atmospherically, set against an empty nightclub. Mesmerizing. Suddenly a blonde with amazing fake tits and horrible Russian style takes a turn on the disco floor. A man with a giant camera shoots up into her rack.


      A Star Wars screensaver as a James Earl Jones soundalike reads Qu’ran.

      ERTU TV

      Pretty girl in magenta leopard-print chiffon recites a poem in front of a shrub. From the words scrolling over her face, I gather the segment is called, “Celebration of the River.”

      NILE TV

      Is off the air. The Sphinx glows out of a Photoshop fog.

      AL WASTA

      These are the infomercial channels, selling villas in Iraq and elsewhere. “Call 0096393322023” with a Gregorian chant playing in the background.


      SMS ticker tape rolls all over the screen in different directions, spewing sense and nonsense, shout-outs and status updates. “Addictedto Gum” meets “Hamoooooooooooooud.”


      A computer-generated desertscape and road. We could be in Arizona, but the rearview has the Saudi Flag rippling in its reflection. The thunder rolls and the clouds flow forth in time-lapse. No other explanation.


      Creepy blue-eyed chubby in a little Princess Jasmine outfit sings through a rain of animated letters and names. Sana, Rasha, Nur, Huda. She wears a matching shower cap over her hijab with a jewel glued to the center of it. The dot on a falling question mark turns into a globe.


      In a mosque, an Egyptian sheik with two Zebibas on his forehead speaks to a crowd from inside a glowing green Oz-inspired Qibla. He sits in a swiveling, leather-backed business chair. He is delivering his sermon from behind an executive desk. He sips from a mug with a pharmaceutical company’s name on it. “Let us recite together.”


      A nature special on wolves, and they’re doing it! Missionary style — who knew? This rough, snarly mating is by far the raciest thing I will see on these 352 channels.


      Kathem el Saher’s tragic bride bows beneath the frothy waves in his oversize white tuxedo shirt. She patters around in the surf holding a soggy piece of sheet music. Kathem rises up from under the camera to reach for an invisible falsetto note. Cue farty saxophone.


      A segment on “Pilgrims vs. H1N1,” Abdulla Imar al Kuwaiti is a Mecca tour operator with a thoroughly fluffy Amish beard. He says, “Once swine flu is over, more people will come forward to live their dreams.”

      PS: twenty percent of the UAE’s population is diabetic.


      “Nothing can take me from the game, and you can’t take it away from me.” An elderly Japanese woman named Teruko Yoshida plays first base for the Osaka Silver Sisters. “I’ve asked my children to bury me in my baseball uniform.”


      A man with a grey pompadour and large plastic bifocals is gibbering about the glory of nature. He speaks of sunsets and swans. We fade to a fantasy world of rippling trees and streams and countryside that looks nothing like anywhere in Iraq. Little girls in karate outfits fight a man in black.


      Graphics showing types of accidents. Frontal collisions, rear-ending, rollovers, jack-knifes, T-bones. A wet-faced baby fusses in the back seat, the reenactment actress gives it a Kleenex. The baby seems satisfied.

      A1 (SHOP)

      Couple in bed, watching TV, drinking tea in their matching Velform sauna belts. The wife is also wearing a bikini. She gets up to make a cocktail and removes her sauna belt to reveal a set of well-toned and dewy lady-abs. Then, before-and-after shots of a guy. He looks exactly the same, though he appears to have had his stomach waxed. “Call 02221…”


      A bald broadcaster on location someplace is repeatedly interrupted by a fresh-faced interloper.


      This channel and many more feature quizzes for 100,000 USD. “What fruit is three letters long and the first letter is the same as the last?” I know the answer! Actually, there are two: Toot (raspberry) and Khookh (peach). The hostess, framed by SMS and phone numbers, takes a call. “Khookh!” he says. “Sorry,” she says, “the answer is ‘Toot.’”


      Another quiz show, another hostess. There is music. She claps along silently, sometimes lipsynching. Is she bored, too? “Come on,” she says, “play with me, you guys!” Most of the phone calls come from just one guy in Saudi, Khaled, asking her out. This is live TV. It’s 5:14 AM.


      If there was a warning about disturbing material, I came in late. Cellphone video of a Land Cruiser half devoured by a mighty flood of brown water. There is a whole family in the car. The driver’s side is almost totally submerged in the water and the car is in danger of being swept away. The driver honks frantically, one long helpless horn blowing over the roar of water. Men in thobes scuttle around anxiously on dry land, helpless. Finally one of the onlookers lunges at the passenger side door, and a woman in full niqab and abaya leaps out onto him. She falls on the man and they both lose their footing, disappearing under the car. Without the woman’s weight in the vehicle, the whole SUV flips over; everyone on the bank screams. Then, suddenly, the Land Cruiser is gone, swallowed up in the middle of the opaque water. Is the driver dead? Have I just watched a snuff film? With upbeat MIDI adventure music playing the whole time?

      As befits a religious channel, the footage is followed by a stern message: “Remember to pray, because your place on this earth is temporary.”

      I get the message and turn off the television.

      On Albert Lamorisse’s The Lovers’ Wind

      Still from Baddeh Sabeh

      In December 1971, Iannis Xenakis penned an open letter to Le Monde, defending his participation in the Shiraz Arts Festival earlier that year. The Greek composer had created a massive sound and light show for the festival, part of the Persepolis celebrations, a thirteen-day extravaganza celebrating 2,500 years of Persian monarchy. It was his third time at the Shiraz Festival, but that year’s instantly notorious event provoked a hailstorm of criticism, not least from Iranian exiles in Paris.

      In his letter, Xenakis cited his “deep interest in this magnificent country” and the “warm reception my musical and visual propositions have encountered there by the young members of the general audience” as primary motivations. But he also insisted that “it is impossible to name one single country that is truly free and without multifaceted compromise, without any surrender of principles.” Whatever “multifaceted compromise” Xenakis was willing to make to work for the shah, he was by no means alone. John Cage was a Shiraz Festival regular, and the 1972 festival was dominated by concerts by Karlheinz Stockhausen. (See “Ornament and Argument” in Bidoun 13 for more on Persepolis and the avant-garde.)

      Still from Baddeh Sabeh

      Nor was music the only focus of the ambitious arts program launched by Empress Farah in 1967. At that time, Iran coproduced a number of European and American films. In most cases the Ministry of Art and Culture provided funding — and sometimes backdrops or extras — but most of the films went nowhere, at great expense. (Orson Welles’s F for Fake is one exception; another Welles film, The Other Side of the Wind, was abandoned after the revolution). Most of the directors who made the trek to Iran to produce new work were given big checks and vague commissions; the particular concept of the work was less important than that it reinforce the shah’s projected image of a glorious and progressive Iran, at once ancient and modern. Participating filmmakers included Agnès Varda, Claude Lelouch, and Albert Lamorisse, the inventor of the board game Risk and the director of the beloved 1956 children’s classic The Red Balloon.

      Lamorisse was commissioned by the Ministry of Art and Culture in 1968 to create a documentary interpretation of Iran. Like Xenakis, Lamorisse was enamored with the country. But whereas Xenakis took inspiration from ancient mythologies and artifacts of civilization, Lamorisse’s interests were of the spiritual variety. Contemporaries describe a gentle man, petrified of Tehrani driving and enchanted by mystical Persian poetry. He lived among a group of French expats with spiritual inclinations. He is said to have had premonitions of dying over water in the Caspian Sea.

      Still from Baddeh Sabeh

      The film he made, Le vent des amoureux (The Lovers’ Wind, often referred to by its Farsi title, Baadeh Sabah) is an aerial epic. Traversing vast, mainly rural, Iranian landscapes, the film is lyrically narrated by the voice of the Lovers’ Wind of its title. Lamorisse shot the film using Helivision, a steadicam rig he developed himself, especially for use with helicopters. Other contemporary aerial films used a camera mount that had the angle of surveillance pointing straight down. But in Lamorisse’s setup, the camera pointed forward, recording what approached. This forward view lends a slow, rhythmic pace to each long shot, allowing every subject to enter the frame at a distance before being filmed up close through a skilled combination of zooms and actual swoops-in near to the ground.

      The effect, as Lamorisse and his crew graze over mountaintops, vast fields of grass, and ancient villages, can be dizzying — at times it’s difficult to tell if the wind being pictured is meteorological or an effect of proximity of the helicopter’s own propeller. In one scene, a magisterial view of hundreds of Persian rugs left to dry on a serene mountainside grows turbulent as the wind begins to disturb the rugs, eventually flapping them wildly into a sandy tumult, then gliding onward over a grassy field beyond, never looking back. The voiceover explains the scene as the working of Baadeh Div, the Evil Wind, who comes from between Baadeh Sabah’s legs, causing harm. (Other winds from Iranian folklore make appearance in the film, including Baadeh Sorkh, the Crimson Wind, whose force shapes mountains, rock forms, and islands too severe for humans to survive.)

      Lamorisse’s decision to include a first-person narrative from the perspective of the wind itself neatly sidesteps the ethnographic dilemma many of his contemporaries faced when charged with documenting Iran, not only to the rest of the world, but to itself. The “we” of the voiceover refers to the Lovers’ Wind and its siblings; it also positions the narrator as a universal character, a myth that blurs the genres of travelogue and documentary.

      Still from Baddeh Sabeh

      Upon its completion, Baadeh Sabah was rejected by the Ministry of Art and Culture. The majority of the footage depicts pastoral landscapes, with the odd wolf or bird crossing through them. The first half of the film is almost entirely uninhabited by people, and the few who appear later are mainly farmers and nomads, a far cry from the students, intellectuals, and modern professionals the shah was looking to see. Lamorisse’s film was too soft-spoken, too folkloric; crucially, it showed none of Iran’s industrial triumphs. The shah called him back to shoot additional footage, which might then be stitched into the existing piece to create a fuller, more nuanced, picture of contemporary Iran.

      Lamorisse was reluctant. The ministry’s demands contravened the spirit of his creation, and while it offered to pay for his return to Iran, it refused to cover the costs for his crew; he would have to go alone. Further, this time the locations would be determined by the ministry: an automobile manufacturing plant, handsome and spectacled university students, laboratories with Bunsen burners and flashing doodads, the spectacular seventy-six million dollar Karaj Dam constructed by the Morrison-Knudsen firm of Boise, Idaho. He would have to use equipment provided by the Iranians, including the helicopter. Lamorisse made his “multifaceted compromise,” and he returned.

      Still from Baddeh Sabeh

      He was worried, however, about the locations — the dam, in particular. Flying a helicopter amid the high-tension wires above the water there seemed prohibitively dangerous, and he sent one of his assistants to register his concern. The ministry was insistent. But if it would make him feel better, they would provide him with the shah’s own personal pilot.

      As it happened, Lamorisse’s apprehensions were well founded. Although it was not the Caspian of his premonition, on June 2, 1970, his helicopter got caught in the wires and crashed into the bright blue water of the Karaj River, killing Lamorisse, his crew, and the pilot.

      Lamorisse’s family received a sizable compensation package, and the project was officially abandoned. Shortly thereafter, his wife Claude, and their son Pascal, finished the film following notes Albert had left behind. In 1978 it was finally released. It was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature just months before the Islamic Revolution.

      Still from Baddeh Sabeh

      But there is a postscript to the story, in the form of a six-minute film. After the accident at Karaj, Lamorisse’s camera was retrieved from the wreckage and its film developed in the lab of the Ministry of Art and Culture. The footage was then edited together by Iranian members of his original crew to create a tribute to the director and a memorial of his death. The short, tacked onto the end of Baadeh Sabah in some of the bootlegs that are currently circulating, is prefaced with a message from the ministry (here translated from Farsi):

      The renowned French director Albert Lamorisse was fascinated by the diversity of the vast land of Persia and the Iranian civilization. With his camera, Lamorisse captured the colorfulness of this country, and thus Baadeh Sabah was born by combining Iranian myths. But the allure of this land and the diversity of the historical cities portrayed in this story do not capture the progress of the contemporary society and the gap between the Iran of today and yesterday. Lamorisse came back to Iran once again to picture the lost thread of the relation between the contemporary Iran and the historic one in the film Baadeh Sabah, but destiny did not grant him the opportunity to finish it. For his commemoration, the production group decided to include in the film the last scenes directed by this great filmmaker. Thus the viewers could keep close to their hearts Baadeh Sabah as a precious keepsake from a man who loved Iran and Iranians.

      With its preface, the ministry declined to take any responsibility for the tragedy of Lamorisse’s death. But its eagerness to brush the incident aside may also have kept it from noticing the piece’s subtler implications — for the short actually painted a gravely sinister picture of the “Iran of today.” Although comprised of footage shot by Lamorisse, the tribute comes off in blunt contrast to Baadeh Sabah. The steady aerial glides are replaced by cold, hard, grounded images of factories, pipes, production plants — stock signifiers of progress. The editing is nervous and pronounced; at times the footage speeds up, while the music is tense and emotive. In the tribute, laboratories seem full of menace; the machines, soulless; the ambling students, zombie-like. The result is a hauntingly ominous and unsettling portrait of the shah’s coveted modernizations.

      Midway through the tribute, the brooding electronic soundtrack gives way to a melancholy, minimal piano, and the anxious editing slows to repeated shots over the Karaj Dam — the final footage taken by Lamorisse before his death at forty-eight. Removed from its context, the short, like the feature, is beautiful and affecting. Inserted into Lamorisse’s personal story and the political narrative that had already begun to play itself out in the era of the Shiraz festivals, this “precious keepsake” is actually a jarring artifact of what may be the single most lucid allegory for the failure of the shah’s regime.

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      The only person I know who uses the word “discotheque” is my mom. So using that word was definitely a tribute to her and my imagination of what her experiences were like in Iran in the 1970s. —Rostam Batmanglij

      “Iranian discotheque, 1970s” is probably not the first party scene that popped into the heads bobbing up and down this summer to LP, the debut album from Discovery, a synth- and drum-machine-laden side project from Vampire Weekend’s keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij and Ra Ra Riot’s lead Wes Miles. Still, until Batmanglij mère (see Bidoun 13) weighs in, we can only reserve judgment on the fidelity of her son’s channeling of her experience, and in any case, Discovery’s chirping machine sound is ecumenical enough to support several decades’ and continents’ worth of electronic and pop reference. Chief among the pleasures of Miles and Batmanglij’s effortlessly playful collab (make that effortlessly playful-sounding: LP was five years in the making) is its sense of breezy breadth. Unpretentiously brief and expertly crafted, this album manages to cram in scenes and eras as disparate as Art of Noise’s London, Prince’s purple Minneapolis, the Gary–Detroit / Jackson–Motown axis, T-Pain’s North Florida, and back to London — only this time via the Nima Nourizadeh–directed music video for Hot Chip’s “Over and Over.” If there’s a singular “there” to be teased out of that profusion, it’s not a specific place or time so much as a technology — what ethnomusicologist Wayne Marshall calls “treble culture,” that particular, very-now timbre of music made mostly by machine and destined, despite clubland roots, for private and mobile consumption via headphones and laptop speakers.

      The two notable absences from Discovery’s mix are Vampire Weekend’s so-called “Upper West Side Soweto” and Ra Ra Riot’s studious and studiously arranged rock, their only traces the sounds of Batmanglij’s and Miles’s voices — falsettos and the occasional sparkling harmony burnished with Auto-Tune. LP’s songwriting could best be described as economical; if Batmanglij’s “discotheque” reference is a stealthy, ethnically resonant wolf, it arrives in a boy band’s unabashed yet sheepish clothing in “So Insane”: “When I saw you at the discotheque / Sent my vibe out to ya!” But the vocals bring an air of keening, buzzing regret to the proceedings, as in a gloss of the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” that is faithful and current and knowing all at once. LP’s retro flourishes and late-adolescent lyrical framing (“All the other girls have been driven home / so where’s the freedom in a disco if you’re all alone?”) suggest an adult retooling of songs that were beloved once upon a distant time. Listening to it is like catching your breath while shuffling through a trove of your parents’ snapshots — how young and beautiful they are! How little they know of what’s to come.

      Made in Iran

      Vahid Sharifian, Untitled, from the series My father is a democrat and through his chimney
      there are always hearts flying to the sky
      , 2008. Courtesy the artist

      Made in Iran
      Asia House
      June 24–July 10, 2009

      This past year has seen a veritable industry arise around art made in the Middle East. During the contested Iranian presidential election of June, our attention turned not only to the political demonstrations on the streets of Tehran and other cities, but also to the contemporary art created within the country’s borders. Manhattan alone hosted three separate exhibitions of works by Iranian artists, the largest of which was the Chelsea Art Museum’s ‘Iran Inside Out.’ Yet while that show, like the Saatchi Gallery’s 'Unveiled: New Art from the Middle East,’ exhibited works made not only within Iran but also by the diaspora, a more concise, modest, and poignant offering was underway in London.

      Held in the basement of the Asia House cultural center, just a few yards from the BBC World Service headquarters, 'Made in Iran’ exhibited works by seven artists who live in Iran today. If creativity flourishes within constraints and if, as Hamid Dabashi eloquently put it in The Brooklyn Rail, “demonstrations are the variegated vineyard of the wine we are drinking in these exhibitions,” then much is to be gleaned from this generation of artists working within Iran’s thin red lines. Given the timing of 'Made in Iran,’ it was nearly impossible for audiences not to read political meanings into the art produced under a government that has politicized so many aspects of day-to-day life.

      Peyman Hooshmanzadeh, Untitled, 2005. Courtesy the artist

      A most unsettling reinterpretation of daily life was found in Simin Keramati’s painting Make Up. The closeup self-portrait of the artist against a blood-red background, her scarlet lipstick smeared across her cheek, would always have evoked self-censorship or domestic violence, but now also conjured up images of Neda Agha Soltan gunned down on a Tehran side street. With or without the context of recent events as backdrop, the work was jarring in its willingness to turn the traditional portrait on its head.

      Equally forthright in its treatment of female iconography was artist Shirin Aliabadi’s Hybrid Girl 6, a portrait of a popsicle-licking peroxide blonde, one of what the show’s organizers called “the Paris Hiltons that line Vali Asr Boulevard.” Though lacking the lapdogs that such women are usually spotted with — perhaps the ultimate political statement in such a dog-fearing nation — Aliabadi’s demonstration of an identity cultivated in opposition to the regime’s ideal was as striking an example of work created at the juncture of the personal and the political as you’ll find anywhere.

      Shirin Aliabadi, Hybrid Girl 1. Courtesy the artist

      Nazgol Ansarinia contributed two small, multicolored illustrations in the style of Persian carpets, in which the traditional floral motifs were replaced by truncheon-wielding Basijis and the rifles of the Revolutionary Guards. Also by Ansarinia, who won the Abraaj prize last year, was one of her large, mesmerizing Persian carpets with swirling patterns featuring families riding pillion on motorcycles, and other whimsical observations of the chaos of modern city life, recreated in black line against white beside two, smaller, multicolored sketches. Along similar reductive lines were Arash Hanaei’s crisp monotone line drawings of the Tehran skyline. Trained as a photographer under the late Kaveh Golestan, Hanaei depicted a Tehran bereft of color; he muted the murals of martyrs and billboards advertising microwaves and rice cookers (and the message of a woman’s place being the kitchen), the city becoming a palimpsest in which political, economic, and social texts are forever being rebuilt and superimposed.

      Though some of these artists, including Ansarinia, have lived and worked abroad, life abroad isn’t necessarily an option for all those involved in the show. Will Iran experience a final, crippling brain drain after the ultimate nail in the coffin of the disputed election, and with it, more families disrupted by emigration? The effects of 1979’s revolution on countless Iranians were heart-wrenchingly explored in Behrouz Rae’s Gulliver series. Dedicated to his mother, whom he nicknamed Jami, Gulliver juxtaposed found photographs and postcards — of the life Rae envisages his mother to be living in the West without him, superimposing himself so as to appear within them — with heartfelt scribbles of longing, on plain paper, in broken English, alongside that all-important date, 1979. It was a subtle and moving work, one that examined the dynamic between a desire for escape and the urge to belong.

      A more lighthearted, camp reaction to life in Iran could be found in Vahid Sharifian’s reappropriated photographs of Sophia Loren. Using illustrations taken from a 1972 cookbook, the series, titled My father is a democrat and through his chimney there are always hearts flying to the sky, presented Loren in the kitchen and at the dinner table, making and serving pizzas and other symbols of Italian cuisine. Printed on holographic paper to emphasize not only Loren’s otherworldly beauty but also the West that has been largely beyond the grasp of ordinary Iranians, Sharifian explained that these works depicted “moments I shared with my father and his generation… their greatest desire lay in the hearts for democracy, their other greatest desire was Sophia Loren.”

      Hito Steyerl

      Hito Steyerl, After the Crash, 2009. Courtesy Neuer Berliner Kunstverein/Jens Ziehe

      Hito Steyerl
      Neuer Berliner Kunstverein
      August 29–October 18, 2009

      Hito Steyerl’s untitled first solo show in Germany took place in the center of Berlin at nbk’s screening room-cum-gallery. In the tradition of Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil and Situationist détournement, the German-born artist drew upon elements as various as academic discourse, politics, personal history, and popular culture, to explore the ways in which global image and media networks interact, subtly complicating notions of copyright, truth, and authenticity. Steyerl’s work mirrored, and at the same time commented on, this pastiche overdrive.

      Perhaps the central piece within the exhibition, After the Crash (2009) took an airplane scrap yard in the California desert as its starting point. Shells of planes stood about, dejectedly but expectantly. Some we saw demolished by a rusty tractor claw. It wasn’t clear where the planes were from or what brought them to this empty land. The proprietor of the scrap yard was interviewed in front of the planes, but the interview wasn’t presented in linear fashion; his scenes were edited in a way that had him jumping frenetically from one topic to the next, from the Chinese who buy scrap metal to renting planes out for movie shoots. Brian Eno–esque music accompanied these segments, adding to the eerie ambience of the ghostly desertscape. The film’s unpredictable (and extensive) soundtrack, which also included the 5th Dimension, was muddled, given the gallery’s poor acoustics, resulting in moments of incomprehensibility and sensory overload. At one point, Jeff Bridges and Rosie Perez were glimpsed (from the airplane disaster film Fearless), as was Bruce Willis (from a movie I couldn’t identify) along with airplane safety videos and planes plummeting to fiery deaths. As a result, After the Crash felt like a bold movie trailer, a hysterical mash-up of vaguely familiar sounds and images, performing a circle of consumption and use, supply and demand, entertainment and real-life drama.

      Hito Steyerl, After the Crash, 2009 (left), and Do You Speak Spamsoc?, 2008 (right). Courtesy Neuer Berliner Kunstverein/Jens Ziehe

      In the work Do You Speak Spamsoc, Steyerl photographed bootlegged Chinese DVD cases. Misspellings and general glaring errors (Contra-era Arnold Schwarzenegger was the main character on the Star Wars cover) were fodder for easy, satisfying laughs, but may sometimes have hinged upon viewers knowing enough about pop culture and the English language to get the joke. Still, the mistakes pointed to a global mass-media primordial soup — such images, movie reviews, stars, and plots have become ubiquitous and interchangeable in the black market, generating a new language of sorts. Adding to the feeling of rough pastiche around the work, Do You Speak Spamsoc appears to have been edited with the simplest digital editing software.

      In an adjoining space, Red Alert 2 was a slide show of digital images Steyerl found on the internet of Red Alert, one of her three pieces featured in Documenta 12. In that work, three red flat-screens were lined up next to each other, referencing Aleksandr Rodchenko’s constructivist work about the end of painting, and also, ostensibly, the Office of Homeland Security’s highest terror warning. The piece became one of the emblems of Documenta 12, capturing a contemporary fixation on terrorism and the associated politics of fear. Red Alert 2 wondered aloud what that original artwork came to mean as it took on a life of its own. A picture of the three red vertical rectangles was static and minimal. Other photos showed visitors trying to peer behind the screens or tilting their heads in unexpected ways. In some photos the red blocks looked orange, and the images were rapidly animated together like a flipbook on the verge of becoming a film.

      Two of Steyerl’s other works, the essayistic documentaries November and Lovely Andrea, were shown one after the other on the same large screen. Both films were investigations, detective stories that unraveled transnational tangled knots of fact and fiction. In the former, Steyerl narrated the story of her childhood friend, the star of her first feminist martial arts film, who was killed in the Nineties as a member of the PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party) in Turkey and whose image then became a revolutionary icon for Kurdish independence groups. In the film, Steyerl journeyed through various levels of iconography, meaning, and production of truth.

      Hito Steyerl, In/Dependence, 2009. Courtesy Neuer Berliner Kunstverein/Jens Ziehe

      The second film was about another Andrea icon (Steyerl assumed the name when she posed for a bondage photo shoot in Tokyo in 1987). In the film, Steyerl went on a search for this lost photo, helped by the self-suspension performer Asagi Ageha, her translator and Virgil in the underground world of sex archives and bondage photo studios, as well as the star of In/Dependence, another projection on display, a representation of self-suspension as a conflicted, superhuman act. Lovely Andrea’s technique was rough, but corresponded somehow to Steyerl’s enigmatic performance of self in her quests. Her voice in the first film was deliberate yet stilted; in the second, she was rarely seen, and when she was, it was with a controlled look of self-irony, half amused, half irritated.

      The longer films were messy and overwhelming, made even more confusing by After the Crash’s excessively loud soundtrack on the other side of the wall (thankfully, a large number of the films were subtitled). But they captivated nonetheless. Just when she might have gone too far with theoretical postulating, jarring musical selections, or rapid editing, Steyerl emerged with a line like, “I didn’t understand anything,” or a rough Adobe After Effects moment, where she’d edited her bondage photo into a 1970s Spider Woman cartoon, a moment that was playful about feminism, pornography, and popular media all at once.

      The Building, the most explicitly political and historical work within the exhibition, was also the most conventionally institutional, and maybe for this reason was located in its own well-lit space. Steyerl organized this project of chipping out a map of the deportation routes of people related to the Nazi-era building — which was built by Czech forced laborers — on its facade. But rather than just ironing this complicated history into a flat image of deportation and loss, four other videos followed different aspects of the building’s construction, from portraits of the laborers, to the Jews who were expelled or exiled, to the companies and material that made up the building’s construction. Plainly, Austria is still in the process of acknowledging its role in WWII, and this project may very well have been part of its historical processing. These were new, rare images, and in turn were more carefully treated than those in the main gallery. How they were shown complicated the archive — and it was there that we perhaps more fully understood the peculiar ways in which media circulate.

      Iran Inside Out

      Newsha Tavakolian, Maria, 2007. Courtesy Aaran Gallery

      New York
      Iran Inside Out
      Chelsea Art Museum
      June 26–September 5, 2009

      The story began, as good art narratives so often do, with a toilet in a museum. A well-placed reference to Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 fountain has served as an anchor of credibility for many a flighty art show. But ‘Iran Inside Out,’ which brought together recent work by fifty-six Iranian artists at a particularly opportune moment in Iran’s political history, pulled out the stops in terms of cross-cultural references. And when it came to sexual puns and biting humor, these Iranians gave the old Frenchman a run for his money.

      The urinal in question was Behdad Lahooti’s A Cliché for Mass Media, an Iranian-style toilet printed with Farsi words from classified ads: “housing,” “resources,” and several iterations of “youth.” The cliché of the oppressed young Iranian artist may be just about as well worn as that of the urinal in the museum. But Lahooti, like many of the artists in this show, knowingly manipulated stereotypical expectations of contemporary Middle Eastern art. The toilet included the artist’s cellphone number, and noted that he was accepting “advertisements” and “sculpture commissions.”

      Abbas Kowsari, Masculinity, 2006. Courtesy Aaran Gallery

      The strategic ploy that critic Tirdad Zolghadr once gleefully advocated as “ethnic marketing” was in full force here. One gallery space was declared a “Culture Shop,” with a “Special Sale on Stereotypes.” Shirin Aliabadi and Farhad Moshiri’s Operation Supermarket series, showcasing such goodies as Intifada laundry detergent (“rough action needs tough action!”), set the standard. Pooneh Maghazehe wore her handcrafted outfits — equal parts Persian folk whimsy, Amish pilgrim, and Star Trek send-up — during her documented performances in American supermarkets and Laundromats.

      Art that claims to speak of lands far, far away is inevitably viewed as culturally representative, and the artists in this show rose to the challenge with varying degrees of cooperation, cooptation, and resistance. Conceptual tactics were interspersed with paintings and patterns. Farideh Lashai, long known for her vivid modernist abstractions, presented an ambitious painting-video triptych that married Édouard Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe to Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red. Established painters such as Lashai and Nicky Nodjoumi lent weight to the proceedings, and videographer Shirin Neshat was an obvious choice, but Kamran Diba — better known as the architect of Tehran’s Museum of Contemporary Art and its first director in the late 1970s — made what was an unusual public appearance for the éminence grise. Diba’s 2007 photographs of camouflage-painted dolls could have been a response to the aesthetic trajectories of a younger generation, paired as they were with Arash Hanaei’s 2004 series Abu Ghraib or How to Engage in Dialogue, tiny backlit photographs of hooded and handcuffed plastic action figures.

      Abbas Kowsari, Women Police Academy, 2007. Courtesy Aaran Gallery

      Galleries were packed, salon style, with work — their presentation constrained, most likely, by temporal, spatial, and budgetary limitations. But the catalog made amends, giving ample room to reproductions, texts by the artists, and statements from their galleries. Interviews with gallerists and collectors provided a pragmatic introduction to the ways and means of the Middle Eastern art scene. Veteran New York gallerist Leila Taghinia-Milani Heller wrote of how she talked curator Sam Bardaouil out of his initial idea of showing just fifteen artists, throwing herself wholeheartedly behind a project devoted to “Iran the country, the nostalgia, the statement… Didn’t I tell you Iran is a statement?”

      But the artists’ statements were the key to the work. Vahid Sharifian’s entry was a day-in-the-life story, wherein he woke and fielded emotional IMs, sensationalist journalists, and a Dubai collector who was convinced he had Andy Warhol’s number (“I gave him my aunt’s number who is looking for a rich husband”), all before his morning cigarette. Sharifian’s series of digitally manipulated photographs, Queen of the Jungle (If I had a Gun), were oedipal and political metaphors that were as courageous as they were hilarious. Wearing nothing but an afro and sheer underwear, the artist humped lions, breathed fire at eagles, and indiscriminately toyed with sacred symbols both local and global.

      Abbas Kowsari, Masculinity, 2006. Courtesy Aaran Gallery

      The exhibition was strong on work that treated sexuality with unprecedented frankness, from the cheeky vulgarity of painted female bodies to the homoeroticism of reinvented heroes. Siamak Filizadeh’s cover designs for No!, a fictional Middle-Eastern celebrity magazine following characters from Iran’s revered epic poetry, was a perfect case in point: they turned mythic hero Sohrab into beefcake coverboy “Sohrab Joon,” speaking for youth with campy pop-cultural bravado.

      Like many a regional exhibition, 'Iran Inside Out’ was premised on commonalities, playing down artistic differences in favor of shared visual styles, cultural references, and political concerns. Beneath their surface irreverence, works like Shirin Fakhim’s superbly outré mannequins in Tehran Prostitutes probed darker national histories, such as the plight of the roughly one hundred thousand prostitutes who ply their trade on the streets of the Islamic Republic’s capital. Parastou Forouhar’s 2005 Spielmannszüge (Brass Bands), an animated loop of schematic figures playing out various torture techniques, took on a newly poignant relevance in view of post-election reports of rape and torture in Tehran’s prisons. Jinoos Taghizadeh offered timely historical evidence with Rock, Paper, Scissors (2008); the layered reproductions of back issues of Iranian newspapers reminded viewers that on the eve of the 1978 Islamic Revolution, the now ultra-conservative daily Kayhan was reporting the latest details on the “Torture and Murder of Political Prisoners.”

      Newsha Tavakolian, Maria, 2007. Courtesy Aaran Gallery

      History repeats itself, and so does art; Taghizadeh’s newspapers were illustrated with holograms that flipped between photojournalism and details from Hieronymus Bosch. 'Iran Inside Out’ was determined to challenge neo-Orientalism and media clichés through a counter-narrative voiced by Iran’s artists, and drew on a talented lineup that ranged from modernist painters to Photoshop aesthetes. If the effect was disjunctive and contradictory, so much the better — the more chaotic and complex the impression left upon the viewer, the closer the artwork came to representing the reality of Iran’s past and present.

      11th Istanbul Biennial

      What Keeps Mankind Alive?

      Hamlet Hovsepian, Itch, 1975. Courtesy the artist

      11th Istanbul Biennial: What Keeps Mankind Alive?
      September 12–November 8, 2009

      This month, what, how, and for whom? The Zagreb-based curatorial collective behind the 11th Istanbul Biennial, conducted a sort of séance, summoning up a historical ghost with whom, it turns out, an exhibition of this size could only vaguely engage. The Biennial took its name from a line in Bertolt Brecht’s 1928 musical The Threepenny Opera (“What Keeps Mankind Alive?”). But Brecht’s specific inquiry was less important to the exhibition than the broader principle evoked by the famous Marxist figure. As the curators put it, “Is it not possible to think of art the way Brecht understood theater — a mode of ‘collective historical elucidation,’ an apparatus for constructing truth rather than what amounts to a viewing feast for the bourgeoisie?”

      Luckily, WHW rooted that abstract inquiry in some solid typography and an unambiguous stance on the role of identity politics in international biennials. This year the Istanbul Biennial brand was all (Communist) red and (anarchic) black, blocky lettering with Cyrillic leanings, and the occasional star. The schema played on the curators’ own regional affiliation (“just East of the West”) to emphasize the seemliness of their involvement in this equally “peripheral” endeavor. It’s easy to knock the marketing device, but the simple question of regional affiliation was actually one of the primary ways WHW made good on their promise to “construct new truths.”

      Even today, after the hybridity fest of the 1990s and more recent bombast about “globalization” (see Hou Hanru’s 2007 Istanbul Biennial), non-Western artists who trained outside the West, or who continue to live elsewhere, are rarely afforded the same status as EuroAmericans at international biennials. According to Chin-Tao Wu, in an article called “Biennials Without Borders” in the New Left Review, well over 90 percent of artists exhibited at Documenta before Okwui Enwezor’s 2002 edition were born in North America and Europe, reaching a record 96 percent in 1972. Even Enwezor’s exhibition, which featured forty percent non-Western artists, included a total of 76 percent living in Europe or North America.

      Zeina Maasri, Signs of Conflict: Political Posters of Lebanon’s Civil War 1975–90, 2008. Courtesy the artist

      What Keeps Mankind Alive? offered a compact statistical retort to these circumstances, presented in the exhibition guide, catalog, and a set of display panels: artists by country of origin: From the West: 28%. From the “Rest”: 72%. artists live and work: In the West: 45%. Elsewhere: 55%. These statistics were accompanied by an “upside-down” map where the former East became the West, reversing the starting point in a left-to-right reading of the world. (The map was colored red to indicate the artists’ origins.) WHW was hardly suggesting that we hunt down a trove of undiscovered, non-Western artists as new fuel for the grandes expositions of the twenty-first century. The four-member, all-female collective — themselves a bit of a statistical anomaly — simply asked: What if someone actually did it, for once?

      Hou Hanru’s 2007 Istanbul Biennial, ‘Not Only Possible But Also Necessary: Optimism in the Time of Global War,’ was both notoriously overblown and underwhelming. WHW’s biennial was diametrically opposed: evidence that simple premises, realized well, can be revelatory. Artworks were shown in the massive waterfront customs depot Antrepo no. 3, a former tobacco warehouse in the historically European quarter of Galata, and an old Greek school that shut down in the 1980s for lack of students. A series of superlative “historical” works — spanning the late Sixties through the early Eighties — risked stealing the show. Made by artists like K. P. Brehmer, Cengiz Çekil, Nam June Paik, Michel Journiac, and Hans-Peter Feldmann, the older artworks, many on paper, were as concise, clear-eyed, and open to humor as the biennial’s proliferation of recent videos were lengthy and prone to taking themselves too seriously. But by distributing multiple artworks by single artists across the exhibition sites, WHW avoided locking individual works into strict relational categories — “historical,” “contemporary,” or otherwise.

      Five very short black and white films made by the Armenian artist Hamlet Hovsepian in the 1970s were spare, unexpectedly affective studies of quotidian gestures — yawning, scratching one’s back, washing one’s hair. Head (1975) framed the top of Hovsepian’s head closely, anonymizing him as his hands worked the lather around and around in a dark, viscerally evocative mass of hair. In its unceasing repetition, body and action near abstraction, this quotidian act began to feel decidedly bleak. Yawning (1975) was more lighthearted. Hovsepian — long-haired, in a suit cut for that era alone — sat in a chair facing the camera, docilely waiting for a yawn to come on. It did: contagion involved the viewer in the loop.

      The contemporary works coalesced — or, equally tellingly, dissolved — around recurring figures like German artist K. P. Brehmer (1938–1997), who appeared in all three venues. You’d assume Brehmer’s graph-and map-based illustrations on the movement of armed forces in the Vietnam War, the price of zinc and potatoes in Germany, or the year-long changes in the “soul and feelings of the worker,” would be flatly boring in the face of flashier contemporary offerings. But Brehmer’s hand-drawn works, made between 1968 and 1980, acted as a critical yardstick for later ones of a similar conceptual persuasion but more contemporary style of execution. In three pieces from 2009, Marko Peljhan reconstructed armed forces movements on the day of a Bosnian massacre (Territory 1995); the artist pair Bureau d’Études provided a global overview of the Administration of Terror, wherein a web of arrows tracked international intelligence operations from the 1950s onwards; and the duo Société Réaliste created an impenetrable alphabet of international borders turned into ideograms (Ministry of Architecture: Culture States). Like Brehmer, these contemporary artists aimed to convey visually the trajectory of vast amounts of goods, money, people, and power. Yet this contemporary, computer-generated “mappings” lacked the simple legibility of Brehmer’s hand-drawn work. The Internet era has provided us so many ways to “plug” concepts in to imagemakers and datacrunchers; one can’t help but mourn the thinking and design-time abandoned in the process.

      Standout works were often video, in a program heavy on video overall. At Antrepo, Rabih Mroué’s I, the Undersigned took on the genre of the public apology. On one screen, Mroué, stoically facing the camera, enumerated a long list of things for which he was sorry, while a second screen featured his statements in scrolling text. Mroué’s apologies were couched in a sort of legalese and addressed to those whom he may have harmed (knowingly or unknowingly, in circumstances of any sort). Beneath his remorse lay the implied confessions to deeds whose dimensions we could only imagine. The precision of Mroué’s statements slowly dissolved, eventually collapsing into one ongoing sentence that rang with futility: “words, words, words, words, words… ” At the tobacco warehouse site, the Russian collective Chto Delat? also looked askance on the empty symbolism of political rhetoric, in a short, satirical operetta titled Perestroika Songspiel — The Victory Over the Coup (2008). Scenes of typical citizens gearing up to change the world by protesting in the local square alternated with musical interludes featuring a six-person choir. The choir’s ironic lyrics were at odds with the music to which they were set: “Pinochet! Pinochet!” was sung as a blissful soprano; “Chechnya! Chechnya! Chechnya!” appeared as a resounding finale; and “Hatred for authority, that’s the ticket!” set the driving rhythm of a militaristic tune. At the Greek school venue, Ruti Sela and Maayan Amir’s Beyond Guilt #2 (2004) encapsulated a disturbing conflation of masculinity and militarism in a documentary filmed in a Tel Aviv hotel room. Having invited a series of young Israelis to the hotel through an online sex chatroom, the two women proceeded to interview them about their obligatory military service. The male posturing, displays of “weaponry,” and tangled attitudes towards sex and violence that emerged made for riveting, uneasy viewing.

      As historian Omnia El Shakry pointed out in her catalog essay, contemporary non-Western artists are almost always presented as “localized,” “particular,” or driven by region-based problems that are specifically “Uzbek,” “Lebanese,” “Russian,” or “Turkish.” By integrating a significant body of artists from, say, Armenia, Egypt, Uzbekistan, or Croatia, into the 11th Istanbul Biennial, WHW shook this standard. So, to answer the question WHW asked, “What would happen if one were to draw upon an unprecedentedly non-Western demographic to produce one of today’s major international biennials?” Actually, nothing wildly different. Nothing happened that wouldn’t also have happened at any well-installed, discerningly selected, and historically grounded exhibition of contemporary artists from anywhere else in the world. Yet WHW’s gesture nonetheless carried significance for biennial practice in general.

      Nasreen Mohamedi

      Nasreen Mohamedi, Untitled VII, circa early 1970s, private collection. Courtesy Talwar Gallery

      Nasreen Mohamedi
      Milton Keynes Gallery
      September 5–November 15, 2009

      Since her “discovery” at Documenta 12 in 2007, Nasreen Mohamedi, who passed away prematurely from Parkinson’s Disease in 1990, has swiftly become a favorite “unknown” among certain art elites. In 2003 Holland Cotter suggested in the New York Times that “if people — especially young artists — knew about Mohamedi, they would love her the way they do Eva Hesse.” Yet as Grant Watson — who together with Suman Gopinath has championed her work for a decade and curated this latest show at Milton Keynes Gallery — has pointed out, her work has long borne multiple echoes and lives. Mohamedi, he has notes, “was always destined for a wider audience that she, ever the internationalist, was already addressing.”

      Nasreen Mohamedi, Untitled VI, circa early 1980s, private collection. Courtesy Talwar Gallery

      Nasreen Mohamedi was born in Karachi in 1937. Her mother’s early death moved the family to Mumbai, while her father built up a business empire in Bahrain and Kuwait. Mohamedi studied at St. Martin’s School of Art in London and later in Paris, during a life of wide and habitual travel. She worked in Mumbai throughout the 1960s, followed by a formative year spent in Bahrain, where she had the chance to interrogate her art and self. Back in India and teaching in Baroda, she broke with her previous practice of oils and naturalistic collages to begin the distinctive minimalist works of the 1970s that would eventually make her reputation. The 1980s saw significant development in that work. Within a year of her death, a first retrospective celebrated her singular place in India’s post-Independence modernity.

      Nasreen Mohamedi, Untitled VIII, circa early 1970s, private collection. Courtesy Talwar Gallery

      This most recent retrospective assembled a gallery of rarely seen larger works in pencil, pen, and ink, from the 1970s and ’80s, along with a room featuring twenty of her photographic “sketches.” There was a tiny selection of her gorgeous diaries, in which aphoristic observations were framed with geometrical forms and lines filled with washes of ink. Another room contained vitrines of fascinating studio relics and memorabilia, including photographs with crop marks isolating abstract compositions within classroom furniture and street scenes. It was the most comprehensive exhibition of Mohamedi’s work to date, culling pieces from New York and Japan as well as her family’s collection in Mumbai. As such, it was the first opportunity for the work to be seen as part of a larger picture.

      Nasreen Mohamedi, Untitled III, circa early 1970s, private collection. Courtesy Talwar Gallery

      Mohamedi’s work is peculiarly difficult to describe. It is an art that reproduces notoriously badly, too. It was never titled or dated, nor did its maker leave directions for its hanging. Even the exact status of her penciled lines, sometimes mere scorings, remains unresolved. Mohamedi’s photographs were not shown in her lifetime, lest they became a coda to the drawings, yet they’re artistically significant in themselves — notations of stark tropical light, cropped road markings, architectural abstractions, shifting lines in sand and water. Here they were presented alongside working materials that offered clues or explicatory pathways toward the main body of her work: painstakingly exact, hypnotically alluring, and idiosyncratically engineered drawings.

      Still, these pathways only led to abrupt edges, beyond which was pure space, detailed with dramas of light, air, and mindfulness. This was the domain of Mohamedi’s art. Her work achieves a unique abstraction, in which simple pencil lines and marks form and deform grids that pulse rhythmically. It develops into glinting forms that float, mirage, or magnify exquisitely. A final phase in her practice introduced machine-manufactured circles; from precision-made ellipses to potential spacecraft.

      Nasreen Mohamedi, Untitled II, circa early 1960s, private collection. Courtesy Talwar Gallery

      Nasreen Mohamedi: Notes presented two sets of her drawings. The first wrestled with the grid, introducing arrhythmic elements into largely horizontal lines and bands, while the second reinvented the grid as a zone of the diagonal. These distinct series were punctuated by a pair of markedly architectonic drawings with hints of the stepped water gardens and terraces of her beloved Fatehpur Sikri, Emperor Akbar’s Mughal-style complex near Agra, India. The diagonal series, a range of tightly drawn forms in varying widths and washes of ink, displayed her art most compellingly. They glimmered like the expensive cameras and drawing accessories she treasured, rendering prisms of light in her unique glassy air.

      Mohamedi’s work is often approached using the work of Kasimir Malevich and Agnes Martin as lenses, various constructions of the modern and minimalist. Even the cinematic framing of Michelangelo Antonioni has been raised as referent. One vitrine in the exhibition revealed an unused sheet of Arabic Letraset, as if to signpost the influence of calligraphy specifically and Islamic arts in general. Most intriguing was her absorption of the traditional schooling in Persian miniatures, in which iterative pencil lines were perfected before students graduated to equally honed ink washes. Her diaries exercised, or exorcised, these methods, which were more fully articulated in two remarkably elegant drawings here.

      Nasreen Mohamedi, Untitled IX, circa early 1980s, private collection. Courtesy Talwar Gallery

      Mohamedi’s writings describe volcanoes of restlessness and despair, which she converted with supreme concentration into lines and spaces. A diary entry from March 1971 contained her credo: “To grasp one’s entire heritage with intuition, vision, and wisdom — with a total understanding of the present.” Her heritage included innovators in Mumbai like Tyeb Mehta and V. S. Gaitonde, and in Lahore, Zahoor ul Akhlaq, whose influence extends to contemporary artists like Shahzia Sikander and Aisha Khalid. Buddhism and Indian Sufism, notions of self-removal and flaming dissolution, were part of Mohamedi’s vision. Her drawings represented acts of de-creation, while at the same time, they materialized the bodily touch. Hers was a universal present, not timeless but unendingly, through industriousness, renewed.

        Rosalind Nashashibi

        Rosalind Nashashibi, Bachelor Machines Part 2, 2007. Courtesy doggerfisher

        Rosalind Nashashibi
        Institute of Contemporary Arts
        September 10–November 1, 2009

        When photographer Jeff Wall said that experience and evaluation are richer responses than the gestures of understanding and interpretation, he was probably talking at least in part about intuition. Such wisdom comes in handy when thinking about Rosalind Nashahibi’s art. The London-based artist’s 16mm films frequently reference the visual and material codes of cinema, while operating from within the medium in a manner that manages to mimic human experience: In the same way that the mind leaps from one thought to another, from one association to another, so, too, do this artist’s works.

        Such leaping was evident in Footnote (2008), one of the shorter works featured in Nashashibi’s solo show at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts. In laying bare the mechanics of film and of imagination more generally — the jumps, cuts, leaps, and translations — Nashashibi literally staged a simile. She filmed Helke Bayrle (whom she had also used in an earlier work, Bachelor Machines Part 2 (2007) with her husband artist Thomas Bayrle, as part of a reenactment of an Alexander Kluge film) sitting up in bed reading a book. Each time Helke’s gaze dropped down to the page to read a footnote, we cut to the static image of a green ceramic garden frog on the edge of a stone pond. These two images looped continuously, with the only difference between sequences being the blue, red, and green filters that colored the screen. It was a simple manifestation of the random jumps and associations of any thought process, and formally toyed with the staccato visual possibilities of the film reel.

        Rosalind Nashashibi, Abbey 1, 2006. Courtesy doggerfisher

        The meeting of the ordinary and the quasi-mythical ran throughout Nashashibi’s five films and two sets of photographic works on show. The meeting was most apparent in Jack Straw’s Castle (2009), arguably the least accomplished and engaging of the works. The seventeen-minute, 16mm film, set in a London forest-park, felt more like one hundred seventy minutes of staged footage lacking, at least for this viewer, any interesting references or associations — except perhaps for the shots of charcoal drawings and oil paintings of half-animal, half-human mythological creatures. In the literal, demonstrative way in which Nashashibi employed them, they seemed — perhaps a bit strenuously — to allude to the “dream space” of cinema. This is also in turn how they lost their peculiarity.

        Where Nashashibi’s use of the old and the contemporary, the ordinary and the mysterious, was most effective was in a series of black and white photographs called Abbeys (2006). Despite being easy to miss in the corridor en route from the lower to the upper galleries, these four relatively large prints of abbeys — close-ups of arches, pillars, and cloisters — appeared either to be hung upside down or to picture inverted reflections, as on a lake. Though at times they may have appeared gratuitously anthropomorphic, resembling gaping mouths, it was their cold mystery, uncanny positioning, and the feeling that hanging that way, they were bound to fall and crumble down to earth, that was most intriguing. The photographs pushed viewers to engage with the medium and the object anew.

        Rosalind Nashashibi, Jack’s Straw Castle, 2009. Courtesy doggerfisher

        Despite a general tepidity and unevenness throughout the exhibition, Nashashibi had her moments. In the muffled, 16mm projection Eyeballing (2005), for example, we witnessed how the banal and the everyday can take on hidden meanings, how the simple can be complex, and how the accidental can be made purposeful. In the urban landscape of New York, Nashashibi stood at some distance and filmed policemen chatting and coming in and out of NYPD headquarters. These shots were interspersed with seemingly innocent, steady shots of pairs of windows, public water fountains, playground structures, pearl earrings and a necklace in a shop window, and large waterfront binoculars, all presumably chosen for their (again) anthropomorphic facial elements — all had eyes and mouths. Like the policemen, these city fixtures watch and survey us, even when we are least aware of it.

        Finally, the cinematic borrowing that Nashashibi accomplished in The Prisoner (2008) was striking, making for a remarkable piece. Inspired by Chantal Akerman’s obsessive and haunting film La Captive (2000) — a tale of suspicious love that ends tragically — and named after the fifth volume of Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time, the twin-screen projection of the same reel being shared between two projectors enacted an entrapment. We followed a blonde woman dressed in black as she hurried through the concrete mazes and structures of London’s Southbank Centre. On the adjacent “screen” we saw the very same scene with a few seconds’ delay, the time it took for the film to feed into the second projector. The sonic accompaniment was a dramatic Rachmaninoff composition and the sound of clicking heels. Caught in the reels — as though following herself from one projection to the next — the actress was a prisoner of cinema and of neurotic love. We found ourselves equally caught up in this cyclical, seductive loop. Still, this work may very well mark the extent of the show’s seduction of visitors, mostly safe as it was. Nashashibi’s solo show begs the question of whether being merely referential and safely metaphorical within a cocoon of quirky, tried and true (and impressive) tropes is sufficient to produce engaging and engaged artwork.

        The Pick 4

        Shereen Lofty, A letter to a lover, 2007, courtesy of the artist

        The Pick 4
        Townhouse Gallery
        June 28–July 22, 2009

        Two pieces stood out among the twenty works on view at ‘The Pick 4’ this past summer: 3m Hassan (Uncle Hassan) by Aya Tarek and A Letter to a Lover by Shereen Lotfy. Both artists belong to the “young and upcoming” demographic that has been the traditional target of ‘Pick’ exhibitions in the past. Were it not, however, for the seductive extroversion of each, these two works would have seemed to have little in common.

        Although it was difficult to glean a common theme or distinct curatorial approach at work in the exhibition as a whole, the diversity and range of media (e.g., video, painting, sculpture, photography, and especially two pieces in sound) may be read as constituting, by default, something of a curatorial statement. Although no longer uncommon or exclusive to the so-called independent scene, the appearance of “new media” is still awarded a rather anachronistic distinction. As a result, when nontraditional media are included in a show, viewers can sometimes feel as though they’re cringing through an enthusiastic parental discussion of “youth culture.”

        Shereen Lofty, A letter to a lover, 2007. Courtesy the artist

        Ultimately, the prevalence of new-media works in 'The Pick’ — curated by Medrar for Contemporary Art, a group organized by and for emerging artists and designers in Egypt — figured as a kind of shorthand for “emerging artist,” without necessarily delivering on the associated virtues of innovation and talent. (Another hieroglyph for youth art is the widespread and disappointingly lazy reliance on design aesthetics by artists and curators alike.)

        Medrar was not to blame for all of this. It is just that little else stood out that would qualify the strands of an argument or thread, not to mention anything so grand as a “moment.” The tricky enterprise of putting together a non-reductive yet coherent group exhibition is hard enough; that it’s expected also to represent faithfully the best of a cultural moment makes it no easier. The result, not surprisingly, is that exhibitions end up being about the strength of individual works rather than abstractions on the practices of young artists or their relationship to a scene. This is not a phenomenon particular to the Cairene scene or the Middle East more generally; anyone who walked through Younger Than Jesus or any one of the iterations of Greater New York probably remembers the merits of a handful of works distinguished by their deviance from, rather than any confirmation of, ostensible generation markers.

        Shereen Lofty, A letter to a lover, 2007. Courtesy the artist

        3m Hassan, a black and white painted work in the style of a graphic novel, took up significant wall space. Four rectangular comic strip panels depicting a young man speaking, a beer label from a Stella bottle, and the words “Al-Nehaya” (“The End”) made little sense on their own. The paintings’ clean lines and sharp contrasts complemented their confident disregard for contextualization. The wall text, too, was unapologetic; the artist added only an enigmatic, if evocative, clue: “In 3m Hassan I am exploring how the experience of living in somebody else’s art studio, using his materials, and living his lifestyle could really change that person’s way of thinking and his production of art.” One might imagine that the work was an outtake from a longer narrative, a monumental painting project spanning hundreds of meters of wall space. It was instead a one-off translation of the final page from a graphic novel, an ongoing project of Tarek, to the gallery space.

        Tarek works in a studio on Alexandria’s Sharia Mahatet El Raml, named after the famous waterfront square in the center of the city. The studio belonged originally to her grandfather, a professional painter of film posters. Although only recently extinct, the painted-poster genre has already been snapped up by cultural nostalgists, as well as contemporary professionals. Artists as diverse as Lara Baladi, Hani Rashed, and Shirana Shahbazi have each reused or adapted some element of the long-standing handmade pop culture practice in their own work. Her grandfather’s métier is not, however, Tarek’s first interest. (She comes by her own idiom via Frank Miller animations and second-hand Marvel comics.) It is rather the occupation of a studio (his studio) that links their practices.

        Aya Tarek, 3m Hassan, 2008. Black and white painting. Courtesy the artist

        What was the difference between the comic book page original and its “fine art” equivalent as it appeared on the wall of the Townhouse Factory space? Besides the switch in medium, from ink to painting, and scale, from page to wall-size, little had changed. Nonetheless, though perhaps unintentionally, Tarek’s work had come full circle to intersect with that of her studio’s original protagonist: the poster painter. The combined text and image were emphatic and open-ended.

        Near 3m Hassan, a TV set on top of a podium played and replayed Lotfy’s A Letter to a Lover. A chubby prepubescent boy, a sort of archetypal naughty kid, ran around with a can of spray paint in a largely concrete, lower-middle-class Cairene neighborhood. Despite the demographic density of such areas, the boy was apparently unwatched. If you looked hard, the strangled sunlight suggested early-morning filming. The boy was both cowardly and delighted with the minor crimes he was getting away with.

        The simple comedy was complicated by a female voiceover repeating in Arabic a line taken from Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe: “Then I grabbed my sword & stuck it to the belt around my waist. I took an axe & gave it to Furady [sic]. Finally I took my telescope & climbed to the top of the hill with Furady [sic] to see how many savages had come this time.” The mysterious alignment suggested some deeper meaning, although what this was remained unclear. The repetition of the voiceover was soothing, like a mantra intended to accompany some personal ritual. Were we watching one boy’s game of men and savages? Was this boy a Crusoe or a Friday or a Carib? Were the delinquencies of amateur graffiti so different from those dreamt by other overgrown schoolboys of an earlier age, who were more likely to have actually read Robinson Crusoe? The caption-writer has misspelled “Friday” but this boy got the idea, and so did we.

        Babak Afrassiabi and Nasrin Tabatabai

        The Isle

        Pages, Sunset Square at Kish Island, 2009. Courtesy MAK Center for Art and Architecture

        Los Angeles
        Babak Afrassiabi and Nasrin Tabatabai: The Isle
        Mak Center for Art and Architecture
        May 28–August 23, 2009

        Back in 1978, the Shah of Iran launched an ambitious program to develop a small island into a modern getaway for the use of the royal family and various elites. Just off the southern coast of Iran in the Persian Gulf, the island was called Kish, and there were elaborate plans for casinos, luxury hotels, an international airport, and golf courses, along with the requisite palaces. But the Shah’s planned utopia was never fully realized; it’s rumored that when the Islamic revolution hit a scant year later, locals occupied the vacation palaces. Since then, the island and the various plans drawn up for its future (some realized, many more not) have indirectly charted Iran’s own aspirations on the world stage.

        Efforts to define Kish as a free-trade zone, which began immediately after the revolution, were finally realized in the early 1990s, following the Iran-Iraq war — cementing the island’s status as an isolated test site, a working model for new patterns of consumption, international commerce, and image projection. ‘The Isle,’ exhibited at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture, was the last in a three-part exploration of Kish by Nasrin Tabatabai and Babak Afrassiabi, the collaborative duo behind the Farsi/English publication Pages, wherein the artists and a cadre of deadpan German architects they interviewed all proposed development plans for the island, plainly representative of contrasting attitudes toward the failed utopia. Intentionally or not, Pages’s approach at times mirrored the simple problem-solution structure that characterizes a lot of architectural practice. Both active artists in their own right, Tabatabai and Afrassiabi came together as a critical, analytical team to define and respond to the particular problem Kish represents. Whether they succeeded in moving beyond a simple redefinition of the site is unclear. Within the Kish trilogy, which also included Sunset Cinema (2005) and Undecided Utopias (2007), Pages used design and architectural strategies to map the island’s evolution from a sleepy outpost through its development as a pet project of the shah, coming in from a different angle each time. While Sunset Cinema paired a series of Iranian films with an architectural proposal for a Kish documentary film festival, Undecided Utopias brought together topographical models and the series of documentary interviews that were also central to 'The Isle.’ The real focus of 'The Isle’ ended up being the Kish of today, an imagined paradise grabbed at by the competing European architects who appeared in the films. Contemporary plans for the development of the island involve the same painfully essentialist terms of debate that, one imagines, must have plagued Kish from the beginning. The question of whether to make the island into a replica of the Côte d’Azur, or how to distill and inject an “Islamic” essence into a Europeanized framework for luxury living, dominated the architects’ conversation and their models.

        Pages, Stranded Ship, 2009. Courtesy MAK Center for Art and Architecture

        I don’t think I was the only one at the Schindler House, where MAK is housed in West Hollywood, who thought a video of a bunch of humorless German architects caressing their many-petaled architectural models of a “Flower of the East” hotel — designed as part of a cancelled 2004 competition to develop a large-scale resort on the island — was an unexpectedly telling (and sexualized) metaphor for Euro-American involvement in Kish’s development. The men’s somewhat regretful presentations of their dissolved projects revealed a Kish frozen in a state of potential, forever a site of projected fantasies. One interviewee dreamed up a secured “enclosure for freedom,” which would suit the needs of an Iran of the twenty-first century (itself largely imaginary to him): a free-trade zone where it would only be possible to “define freedom” under the condition of both being a consumer and living behind a fence. The unsettling implications of this proposition seemed to crystallize in the air between that architect and his partner as they paused partway through to translate the word “checkpoint” — unwittingly describing some kind of post-9/11 resort that would reconcile Bush-era security hysteria and luxury vacationing. Pages proposed alternatives to the architects’ terms of debate in their own texts and models.

        Yet for the most part, the more perturbing implications of Pages’s Kish-centered project remained buried — to the point where it wasn’t always clear why certain objects were included. Re-appropriation of Vogue Paris, February 1978 was precisely that, with vintage magazine pages — some of whose figures had been exacted and isolated to stand out — propped up on a series of tabletop stands. There was a Kish fashion spread, a Kish society page, a Kish vision of travel and leisure. Re-appropriated it may have been, but the sliced photo spread contributed little to a rewriting of Kish’s history. The pages were thin archival traces that had difficulty sustaining the weight of the story they were meant to help tell; cutting into them even managed to obscure the sheer poignancy of the copy trumpeting the island’s “rich past and fabulous future.” Like the German architects it presented with such ironic documentary candor, Pages approached the island of Kish as an abstract landscape. It compiled historical lessons, elevation models, research photographs, documentary interviews, and archival sources to reach a definition of place. There were a lot of inquiries: if the Kish documentary film festival “introduce[d] certain narratives of social consciousness into the escapist fabric of the island,” what kind of architecture would be appropriate to house the event? Sunset Cinema responded to this question with a pristine architectural proposal for mobile projection units; ‘The Isle’ offered a more ambiguous response. In the pseudo-architectural Model for an Island (2009), stiff, shiny silver paper was cut and folded into origami shapes, propped up by the most typical infrastructural basics: satellite towers, construction signs, an oil derrick. It veered between the preciousness of the tabletop object itself, small and sparkling, and the impressiveness of the monument it projected into Kish’s future and our imagination. Model was a parody of impracticality, the stuff of fantasy; it mocked the idea of a clean architectural “solution” as embodied in the Sunset Cinema. But in conjuring up a shimmering, capricious, structurally ludicrous “model for an island,” poised atop sturdy supports, Model also suggested that something else in this whole equation might be a little overblown: the show’s own working definition of Kish as a glitzy utopian Other to the staid, steadying, restricted culture of the mainland. ‘The Isle’ seemed typical of a growing body of contemporary art that aims to turn the unique geographical conditions of a place into an analytical framework with broader implications.

        Pages, Model For An Island, 2009. Courtesy MAK Center for Art and Architecture

        In the case of Iran, and the Middle East in general, this often entails treating histories that may be new to a general audience. Yet sometimes such efforts to establish a record, and simultaneously set it straight, begin to buckle under their own weight. Certainly, those German architects’ eerie conflation of the architectural conceit of a gated community with the notion of political freedom resonated with larger patterns in the contemporary tourism boom in the Gulf region and far beyond. But why push it, and cave to the temptation to make sweeping statements about the state of the world today? After all, there’s a lot to say about the island experiment of Kish alone.

        Guy Tillim

        Avenue Patrice Lumumba

        Guy Tillim, National Museum Grounds, Avenue 24 de Juhlho, Maputo, Mozambique, 2007

        Guy Tillim: Avenue Patrice Lumumba
        Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology
        April 29–September 8, 2009

        Guy Tillim’s ‘Avenue Patrice Lumumba,’ recently on display at Harvard University’s Peabody Museum, was a photographic reckoning with the entwined legacies of colonialism and modernism in a number of African countries, chiefly Mozambique, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The exhibition was simple and spare: about twenty large, unframed images in a small gallery space, with Tillim’s artist’s statement reproduced on the wall.

        Tillim’s photographs depicted cities — seemingly derelict government buildings, gigantic apartment complexes, empty courtyards, collapsed monuments, and crumbling swimming pools. The color palette was unnaturally unsaturated; everything looked bleached or jaundiced and sick. Sunlight was never yellow, leaves were never truly green, nor was the sky blue. At a high school pool in Lubumbashi, Congo, trees sprouted through the concrete flooring. The palatial main hall of the Grande Hotel in Beira, Mozambique, was a stripped-out cavern with a slab staircase; its large semicircular roof deck was decorated with drying laundry and buckets collecting rainwater. The painted pastel concrete used in nearly every building had darkened with mold, and it seemed the architecture itself was being eaten alive.

        Guy Tillim, City Hall, Lubumbashi, DR Congo, 2007

        Though there were signs of habitation — cars, graffiti, advertisements, piles of trash — there were few people in these images; the occasional human presence seemed almost surreal. Tillim found administrative offices for government bureaucracies, often staffed with one lonely agent and a typewriter, flanked by shelving packed with yellowed, crumbling paperwork. Sometimes a few agents sat at adjacent desks, watched over forlornly by a faded presidential portrait. An image of the court records room in Lubumbashi was a précis of hopeless bureaucratic futility: thousands of faded legal documents, bundled with twine, sat piled up on an endless shelf, an archive without any apparent logic or system.

        All the buildings partook in a generic, late-modernist style of poured concrete and block geometries, whether apartment complex, office tower, or hotel. Though the image titles included the locations, the persistent color scheme and level of decay gave them all an odd, sad cohesion: everything, everywhere, looked the same. But Tillim, in his statement, insisted that the work was not simply a survey of anonymous architecture: “These photographs are not collapsed histories of post-colonial African states or a meditation on aspects of late-modernist-era colonial structures, but a walk through avenues of dreams. Patrice Lumumba’s dream, his nationalism, is discernible in the structures, if one reads certain clues, as is the death of his dream, in these de facto monuments. How strange that modernism, which eschewed monument and past for nature and future, should carry such memory so well.”

        This might have seemed disingenuous at first, since even a quick read of the images (many additional images appear in a book of the same title, published by the museum) suggested that it was indeed both a survey of architectural tropes and a photo essay on life in certain parts of postcolonial Africa. But his foregrounding of a national dream, of a specific narrative arc still taking place offstage, made the images more broadly resonant, even as they concentrated on the localized specifics by which this narrative manifests itself: various strata of collapsing ruin, the collision of disparate technologies, adaptive reuse of space. In his equation of modernist buildings with “de facto monuments,” Tillim revealed the core of his project: that these cities seem to have moved from dream to monument without any stage in between — not unlike Lumumba himself, Congo’s fiery first prime minister, murdered barely six months into his term. Colonialism and modernism appeared as sibling catastrophes. In many images, they were quite literally stacked on top of each other, as when a giant statue of the colonial governor of Quelimane, Mozambique, lay toppled in a concrete courtyard, cradling a used tire for support.

        Perhaps Tillim’s recent inclusion in prominent art exhibitions (Documenta 12, the São Paulo Biennial) signals a curatorial effort to reassess the value and artistic status of documentary work when practiced without the detachment or skepticism that have lately defined its inclusion in the art world. Tillim himself, Harvard’s first Robert Gardner Fellow, seems largely unconcerned with that discussion. His claim to avoid fetishizing postcolonial societies and their collapsing architectures was borne out by his focus on daily human particulars. These buildings were still in use, and the people found working in them were not staged or placed, nor unwittingly participating. But if Tillim found the traces of colonialism buried just beneath a collapsed modernity, perhaps the visual logic of his camera frame represented some kind of coming third layer: the disembodied, digitized era of a new technological modernity that flattens cultural difference more effectively than either violence or architecture. For these states, it would be yet another arrival at a future without a past to support it.

        Video Works

        Ashkal Alwan

        Rania Stephan, DAMAGE — For Gaza, “The Land of Sad Oranges” (Ghassan Kanafani), 2009. Courtesy the artist

        Video Works 2009
        Ashkal Alwan

        In 2002, artists Mahmoud Hojeij, Mohamed Soueid, and Akram Zaatari recorded a conversation on video production in Beirut for the Montreal-based art magazine Parachute. Titled “Disciplined Spontaneity” and tagged “A Chapter” in an ongoing dialogue, the transcript of that conversation has since come to be seen as something of a foundational document. It was one of the first texts (made available in English, at least) in which people involved in Beirut’s early video scene took a moment to reflect on the preceding decade and think through how they’d started, what they’d done, and why.

        To look at that conversation now is to understand that in the early 1990s, artists such as them were motivated by a strong desire to create a space where video could be understood as an independent medium, used to develop an innovative language that could be unburdened of the discourse of past artistic traditions. They didn’t want to make work that looked or felt like film; they didn’t want to conform to the conventions of the television industry (where many Beirut-based video artists got their start); and, oddly enough, they had little concern for whether or not video would ever be considered art.

        At the time, video was still a relatively new commodity in Beirut. When the Ayloul Festival debuted in 1997, for example, only one video was to be found in the lineup. Today, on the other hand, video is so pervasive in Beirut that its production has nearly become cliché. Half a dozen film festivals present video art, commercial art galleries have embraced it, and nonprofit cultural organizations have virtually defined themselves by it. In the absence of more meaningful attempts to define what exactly constitutes contemporary art in Beirut these days, video has become the all-encompassing shorthand for it. (For better or worse, this reduces the complex dynamics of an entire art scene — to say nothing of the diverse subjects and strategies of innumerable individual artists and their respective practices — to identification by medium alone.)

        Lama Saway, An Unfortunate Tale, 2009. Courtesy the artist

        If video is in crisis in Beirut — and many would argue convincingly that it is — then the problem is not that there’s too little of it, but rather that there’s too much. So why, then, does the city need a new and dedicated platform for it? Maybe for the same reasons previously articulated by Hojeij, Soueid, and Zaatari, only this time around, the intent would be to pry video away from the advertising industry and the music business, instead of from film and television. And maybe for the purpose of acknowledging that video in Beirut has become far too reactive to local political events, as spectacular and dramatic as they may reliably be. No arts initiative has done more for video in Beirut than Ashkal Alwan, the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts, which has spent the last fifteen years building an alternative infrastructure for contemporary art practices, with public-space projects, performances, concentrated screening sessions, and four ever-stronger editions of the inimitable Home Works Forum. Two years ago, in the aftermath of the 2006 war with Israel, Ashkal Alwan orchestrated ‘Video Avril,’ for which a collection of emerging and established artists were given production grants to realize new projects explicitly responding to the conflict. The results were in some cases cathartic and in others excruciatingly self-indulgent. The participants who already had developed artistic practices of their own — such as Hojeij, Ziad Antar, Ali Cherri, Ghassan Salhab, and Maher Abi Samra — created evocative elegies for particular moments in time. Others, many of them with less or no experience at all, made works that were, to put it kindly, unmemorable.

        This year Ashkal Alwan completed a second round of production grants and renamed the project 'Video Works.’ Eight videos screened publicly at Cinema Sofil over the course of two nights in late May, and the results, if not quite uniformly excellent, were in bursts highly promising and remarkably accomplished.

        Kinda Hassan, Come As I Rise, 2009. Courtesy the artist

        Rania Stephan, who has an impressive body of work to her credit, contributed a powerful, blissfully brief video entitled Damage. Matching hundreds of still photographs of fallen oranges, in varying stages of rot and decay on the grounds of a Gemmayzeh garden, to the stomping steps of flamenco, her piece lasted precisely 120 seconds, during which time the artist introduced a beautifully coded and abstracted language. Sure, the subtitle of the work, For Gaza, the Land of Sad Oranges, after a quote from the writer Ghassan Kanafani, made the connection between image and idea, as well as the attendant political context, impossible to miss. And sure, flamenco plus Palestine puts Stephan in a distinct activist-artistic lineage that is not necessarily to everyone’s taste. But the extreme economy of phrasing, the evocation of a dance without a dancer, the radical compression of euphoria and tragedy, the rapid-fire reverberation of life and death, the subtler intimations of distance and decay, all of these things made for a punchy, robust, visceral, yet paradoxically pensive piece of work.

        Marwa Arsanios offered the latest installment in her ongoing series of works exploring physical and discursive material gathered from derelict or destroyed sites in Beirut. I’ve Heard 3 Stories delved into the story of a cabaret dancer who, as rumor would have it, disappeared from a seaside chalet amid murky and potentially murderous circumstances. The chalet itself was an architectural marvel, a modernist playboy pad, subsumed and nearly swallowed by the encroachment of the seaside town of Ouzai, inhabited and substantially altered by a family of squatters for decades. With her characteristic mix of hand-drawn animation, atmospheric camerawork, ethereal soundscaping, and languid interviewing style, Arsanios cracked open the story of the chalet in seemingly disconnected layers and fragments. While clearly still a work in progress, the piece enigmatically combined urban legend with architectural and sociopolitical history. Alongside strong contributions by Nadim Asfar, Carine Doumit, and Gheith al-Amine, it illustrated Ashkal Alwan’s newfound commitment to pushing experimentation with the formal structures and visual textures that the language of video affords.

        This is not to say that all of the pieces in 'Video Works’ were successful. Kinda Hassan’s Come As I Rise didn’t quite find a theme, structure, or formal device with which to express itself, and no one familiar with Jalal Toufic’s work need endure another forty-three minutes of Ashura, certainly not another forty-three minutes that are less sure of exactly why they are monopolizing anyone’s time. And Mark Khalife’s The Other One, inspired by Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “The Other,” turned the Argentine writer’s meditation on time and blindness into a superficial slip of quasi-nationalist propaganda, slick of style, empty of content.

        What distinguished 'Video Works’ from 'Video Avril’ was a heavier emphasis on process — each participant was paired with an established artist to guide her or him through the ups and downs of their productions — which in turn seemed to unburden the pieces from certain expectations of what Beirut-based video should be: there was, thankfully, no pontificating on the civil war. If Ashkal Alwan’s project continues in this direction, it will ensure that whenever Hojeij, Soueid, and Zaatari sit down for the next chapter in their conversation, they’ll have an impressive selection of strong new voices to add to the mix.

        The East, the West, and Sex

        The East, the West, and Sex: A History of Erotic Encounters
        By Richard Bernstein
        Knopf, 2009

        Sooner or later, tourists in Istanbul — having choked on cheap hookahs, priced the amenities of belly-dance clubs with skeptical asperity, and stared dully at the striped dome of the Hagia Sophia — all gravitate toward one place in particular: the sultan’s palace and its harem quarters. There, in the dowdy rooms and on the terraces where the ruler and his women dallied, the imagination, almost satiated by other sights, can still run a little wild. Male visitors in those quarters look fattened on dreams, fantasizing about that old extravagance as a reproach to their wives and locked-in lives.

        Who lives like that anymore? The great lechers have aged, gone leather-faced — think Warren Beatty. Bill Clinton has settled into luxurious domesticity with a cabinet officer. Barack Obama exudes monogamy like catnip. The fine old faculty of lust is now the property of Republican politicians: as if Bach’s variegated oeuvre had been entrusted to an orchestra of kazoos.

        The harem is at the center of Richard Bernstein’s odd new book, The East, the West, and Sex: A History of Erotic Encounters; and that tired sense of the West as drained of Eros, needing to borrow sexual energy from elsewhere, hangs over it. Johann Hari, reviewing the book in Slate, stoked controversy by accusing it of a “fetid attitude toward women.” This led to a correction by Slate’s editors that ought to add a zero or two to the volume’s sales:

        This review originally included two phrases that could have given the incorrect impression that Richard Bernstein has attended, or approves of, brothels where women are coerced… We have amended these sentences to clarify that Bernstein does not approve of forced prostitution.

        I would almost be relieved if Bernstein had written in defense of forced prostitution, as devil’s advocate if for no other reason. At least one could guess where he stood. The book seems paralyzed by caution, as if Bernstein had contracted lockjaw at the thought of all the people he would offend. Clear assertions emerge only toward the end, and no term is ever really defined. The result — peculiar in a work that flaunts geography in its very title — is to leave one wondering constantly, in a world of foggy concepts, where one is.

        East is East, West is West, and where the hell are we? It’s all relative, and Bernstein’s failure to see that is the first, if least, of his problems. Historically, for Westerners, “the East” has meant whatever lies just beyond one’s longitude. Metternich said, “The Orient starts at the Landstrasse,” and a French visitor wrote of Bucharest in 1934 that the “European city disappears, and Asia begins… Without warning, the horizon opens towards Iran, the Gobi desert, Tibet.”

        Bernstein needs no Tibet, though. He knows what makes his version of the East: “harem culture.” One value of the book, certainly, is to remind us how the seraglio haunted the European imagination for three hundred years. History, travel writing, and pornography were fixated on the cultural, political, and priapic peculiarity of a monarch provided with unlimited (hetero)sexual opportunity. “The Ottoman harem enchanted Europeans for centuries,” Bernstein writes, “tickled their imagination, inspired works of literature and art, all in appreciation of the existence of an alternative sexual world.”

        But Bernstein is not content to tread the rose gardens of Topkapi, lamenting the wet dreams of yesteryear; his book ranges far beyond Turkey. It stitches together Africa and Asia as well as the Middle East, as places dominated by harem culture.

        This is genuinely bizarre. The Ottoman harem was a singular institution, serving dynastic as well as hedonistic purposes; none of the sultan’s subjects enjoyed quite its like. There is no justification for using it to embrace such far-flung phenomena as polygamy in sub-Saharan Africa, Second World War “comfort women,” or what Bernstein calls the Chinese “practice of keeping concubines, whereby men of wealth and power expect as a perquisite of their status to enjoy the favors of at least one mistress.” (The latter is apparently a distinctive quirk of Chinese civilization, not at all comparable to the morals of the Bourbon court, the British cabinet, or the governor of South Carolina.)

        Only toward the book’s end does Bernstein’s intended meaning of “harem culture” start to become clear. He doesn’t, in fact, suppose that every “Easterner” keeps a bevy of sex slaves locked in the basement, like one infamous Austrian father exponentially multiplied. By “culture” he means, rather, “an entire connoisseurship of refined pleasure,” a pursuit of sexuality as an end in itself rather than subordinate to respectability or reproduction.

        Those Chinese mistresses, Japanese masseuses, and African wives embody this cultivation of the senses unique to the non-European world. The “Eastern” male needs a virtuous and closely controlled spouse at home and a large class of other women solely devoted to intensifying his pleasure. Bernstein is honest enough to admit that this is not a good thing for women. But at least, he suggests, it’s an Option B to the A of Christian civilization, with its disdain for the body and its rigid rules.

        Of the innumerable problems with this formula, one is overriding: Bernstein shows no real interest in tracing how this supposed sexual connoisseurship was defined and voiced by the cultures he names. He doesn’t really care how the Chinese or Indians wrote about sex; he doesn’t have access to their literature. He identifies sensual refinement only through the accounts of other Westerners who saw it. Bernstein can’t and won’t deal with the Thousand and One Nights as an Arabic document, for example — he treats it only through the prism of Richard Burton’s life and translation.

        So there is very little substance at all in Bernstein’s writing about the “East.” He can see his own three-continent construct only through a haze of Western fantasy and desire, and this also blinds Bernstein to the obvious conclusion that can be drawn from his examples. All these Westerners idealizing the intricate, precocious sensuality of the Orient were not really describing an Other over there. They were writing Western texts (in Bernstein’s geography) for the pleasure of Western readers; it was Western sexuality they defined and affected, by promoting orgasms and package tours. The very existence of these books and their legions of readers reveals a connoisseurship of the senses ingrained in Europe, not Asia — and hardly limited to French kings or Southern governors.

        Where Bernstein takes three hundred pages, Lord Byron summed up the European mystique of the “East” in two lines: “What men call gallantry, and gods adultery / Is much more common where the climate’s sultry.” Byron’s rhyme, naturally, leaves out the other realities of that mystique — the racism and the narcissism, the armies and the exploitation. But Byron, humorist not journalist, knew what he was using the East for: to describe, and prick, Europe’s own desires and imagination. In Don Juan, his hero visits the celebrated seraglio, and finds it dull — bourgeois domesticity recapitulated thousandfold. Bernstein might have learned this lesson from him: what we find is what we bring. For the West, the harem began at home.

        Photography and Egypt

        Photo by F.C. Gundlach

        Photography and Egypt
        By Maria Golia
        Reaktion Books, 2009

        Talk to just about anyone involved in the cultural practices of the Middle East, and the conversation inevitably turns to the dearth of documentation in and around the region. There are too few serious art historical studies. The catalogs of former galleries are not to be found; no one held onto the back issues of avant-garde magazines or experimental journals. Old-school critics never anthologized their work, and monographs for modern masters are too few and far between. The photographs are gone! The reasons are myriad and vary from place to place. Documents and archives have been destroyed by indifference as well as disasters natural and manmade, but the end result is the same: a whole lot of material is missing.

        Maria Golia acknowledges this condition with bracing honesty at the outset of her new book, Photography and Egypt. “A comprehensive history of photography in Egypt would be a much heavier book than the one in the reader’s hands,” she writes in her introduction. That may sound like a preemptive apology, but it’s not. If anything, Photography and Egypt is an admonishment to those who threw away so many prints, plates, negatives, and more — and a challenge to those who might be inspired to go digging around in the trash.

        In her epilogue, Golia offers several choice anecdotes. When she discovered that the Sociéte des amis de l’art in Cairo had organized a number of photography salons back in the 1930s, she sought out the organization’s current director — who was pleasantly surprised to learn of it. When she asked if he had any archives, he proudly shared with her the contents of a single desk drawer: a few catalogs from the 1960s, magazines put out by the Ministry of Culture in the 1980s, and a copy of an in-flight magazine produced by Saudi Arabian Airlines. When Golia visited Cairo University’s Faculty of Applied Arts, she learned that the department had just sold off all of its photographic equipment to a junk dealer. When she went to see the grandson of one of Egypt’s pioneering photographers, she heard that during a round of home renovations he had simply thrown several boxes of glass negatives, dating back to the 1900s, off his balcony.

        So dire is the situation that it is amazing Golia pulled off this book at all. But despite its melancholy tone, Photography and Egypt is a treasure. Clocking in at just under two hundred pages and arranged into five sprightly chapters, the book begins with Ibn al-Haytham’s eleventh-century design of the camera obscura and courses through Maxime Du Camp’s Egyptian expeditions of the 1850s, the portrait studios of Alban and Armand, and the heyday of Van Leo, ending with the fourth iteration of the arts festival Photo Cairo. Golia is a terrific writer, and she brings to Photography and Egypt the same easygoing prose that made her earlier book, Cairo: City of Sand, such a pleasure to read. Like that book, Photography and Egypt thrives on Golia’s intense and unyielding affection for the place — an ardor that is balanced with wry humor and an occasionally brutal critique of the censorious nature of the current regime, the paranoia of life under emergency law, and the lethargy perpetuated by a swollen and ineffectual state bureaucracy.

        Photography and Egypt is definitely not a history, comprehensive or otherwise. Neither does Golia emulate Susan Sontag by theorizing her subject. What she does is offer a brisk, cogent account of the political dimensions photography has taken on, from the times of Muhammad Ali through the reign of King Farouk, the rise and fall of the supremely photogenic Gamal Abdel Nasser, and the painfully awkward manner in which Anwar Sadat used photography to create a stilted image of himself. Golia carefully examines the interests that photography in Egypt has served, and she shifts with great dexterity from discussions of photography as Orientalist fantasy and hard-news reportage to discussions of photography as commercial product and fine art.

        Clearly, Golia loves a good story and relishes the vintage. Perhaps the most fascinating excursion here is her consideration of photography’s place in Egyptian surrealism during the late 1930s. Who knew there was an André Breton–inspired group of artists, poets, and essayists called Art and Freedom, which penned a manifesto titled “Long Live Bad Art”; declared solidarity with the likes of Max Ernst and Paul Klee; translated Rimbaud’s “Season in Hell” into Arabic by way of pamphlets distributed freely in the streets; mounted exhibitions; and published art journals in three languages? According to Golia, the influence of Art and Freedom extended into painting and literature, but it no longer found expression in photography after the revolution in 1952. Photography and Egypt is full of tantalizing fragments like this, and Golia has thrown down a fine challenge for future researchers, giving them a pleasing tangle of threads to follow.

        Abnaa Al Gebelawi

        Naguib Mahfouz

        Abnaa Al Gebelawi
        By Ibrahim Farghali
        Al Ain, 2009

        In Ibrahim Farghali’s Abnaa al Gebelawi (Children of Gebelawi), all of the texts of the great Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz suddenly vanish from the face of the earth. This happens without reason or ostensible cause: wherever they might be found — not only in libraries and bookshops but also on shelves and bedside tables — novels by Mahfouz in their original Arabic are simply nowhere to be found. The authorities’ attempts to remedy the situation in the face of worldwide popular uproar are juxtaposed with sightings of Mahfouz’s characters in a variety of locales that seldom have anything to do with the settings in which they actually appear in Mahfouz’s books.

        With seven books now to his name, Farghali (b. 1967) is among the most prolific novelists of his generation. In his devotion to the genre and his formal conservatism, he is perhaps the worthiest heir to Mahfouz (1911–2006), the Nobel Prize winner best known for his midcentury tales of Cairo. Unlike Mahfouz, however, Farghali is firmly steeped in a magical realist tradition. Running through much of his prose are echoes of José Saramago’s nightmarish humor and shades of Italo Calvino’s fascination with the fantastical possibilities of fiction. He’s taken with twins, telepathy, and teleporting, and his firmly middle-class characters — otherwise utterly ordinary — have been known to reappear after they’ve died.

        In Farghali’s latest and greatest work, we face the prospect of a world without literature. The myriad voices in the book (our young narrator assumes many guises throughout these pages) express concern over the fraught future of Arabic literature, the erosion of the liberal and humane values that Mahfouz and his work represented, and (reflecting perhaps the essential fear of all writers) oblivion more generally.

        The events of the book are staged around a relatively simple love affair between the narrator and the eccentric daughter of a well-to-do family — occasion for Farghali to probe the psychology of class and sex in contemporary Egyptian society. Further in, however, the story breaks up and morphs into countless alternative and subordinate plotlines, until it becomes clear (although it’s never stated) that the whole of Abnaa al Gebelawi is but the barely coherent product of a single pluralistic mind — the mind of a young writer concerned with the literary wasteland around him. The allegorical dimension remains predominant, and in this way recalls Mahfouz’s Awlad Haretnah (Children of the Alley, 1959), whose title in its English translation Farghali translated back literally for his own.

        As it happens, Awlad Haretnah was the only book by Mahfouz to suffer censure from the religious establishment. In it, the history of a popular residential quarter in Cairo stands in for the sum total of humanity’s spiritual experience. That quarter’s oldest, strongest, and most benevolent resident — for many generations hidden away in his mansion — is called Gebelawi. Gebelawi has envoys or representatives, descendants or grandchildren, whose struggles to spread peace and justice make up episodes of the saga. Each episode is a retelling of the life of one of the prophets of Islam, starting with Adam and ending with the False Messiah. Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed all feature. At the end, a rumor spreads that Gebelawi himself has died. In Arab literary circles, it’s frequently claimed that if not for Awlad Haretnah, Mahfouz would not have received the Nobel Prize. But it proved too much for orthodox, let alone radical, Muslims, for whom Mahfouz would become the enemy soon enough.

        Radical Islam had claimed many lives since the 1980s when in 1994 Mahfouz barely survived being knifed outside his house in Cairo. The irony was that, of all the helpless octogenarians his bearded young assailants could have targeted for apostasy, he was probably the least secular. A typical Cairene of the pre–Bin Laden era, the man had led an all but exemplary (read, profoundly unadventurous) life. He did not seek revolution, he did not take great risks. He had no utopian or transcendental illusions. And perhaps it was thanks to this and this alone that he was able to invent and reinvent the novel, the youngest genre in the language, defining it for generations of Egyptian writers.

        Applying every novelistic model at his disposal, Mahfouz produced a phenomenal number of readable books: social chronicles, political critiques, philosophical manuals. None was so difficult or experimental as to render it inaccessible to even the most common reader. Not one sought to undermine whatever pillar of the status quo it came in contact with. Notwithstanding the elaborately veiled, painstakingly respectful ages-of-man narrative in Awlad Haretnah — a Muslim treatise on the meaning of life, if ever there was one — in Mahfouz’s books, the family, the creed, the government, are never attacked for what they are or what they stand for, but only for their most striking deviations, omissions, or excesses.

        For a magical realist like Farghali, Mahfouz may not be the most obvious point of departure; the Nobel laureate was, after all, devoted to the real even in his least realistic works, and one would have trouble imagining him so much as hinting at the paranormal or the fantastical. Yet in Abnaa al Gebelawi, the grand opera to Farghali’s various arias, Mahfouz’s books stand in for almost everything Farghali values: literature, thought, freedom, knowledge, love. The premise could not have been more powerful.

          Short Takes

          Damascus: Tourists, Artists, Secret Agents
          Reloading Images
          The Green Box/Prince Claus Fund Library

          In 2008, representatives of Reloading Images, a loose network of research-oriented artists from Syria and elsewhere, gathered to delve into the psychic depths and urban spaces of Damascus. The product of that ten-month journey is a self-proclaimed “collective narrative” that positions the artists as secret agents, limning an imagined Damascus by way of cryptic collages, coded language, and palimpsestic texts. The results add up to more of a sketch than a map, a conversation without a conclusion. “We were fascinated by the secret society of Bataille and his Surrealist friends,” they write. “We wanted to imitate the rituals of the Acéphale, reading de Sade in the forest, romanticizing orgies and sacrifice. We almost slaughtered a lamb, but winced in the decisive moment; the animal ran away, leaving us behind, ashamed, silent, and sheepless.”

          New Geographies 1
          After Zero
          Harvard University Press, 2009

          According to the inaugural issue of the journal New Geographies, “zero” represents the flattened landscapes to be paved over by so-called “new cities” (Norman Foster’s Masdar in Abu Dhabi, Rem Koolhaas’s Gateway City in Ras Al Khaimah); the emissions goals of progressive design; the amount of context often afforded cosmopolitan mega-developments; and the quantity of resources now available to realize forward-thinking architectural plans. After Zero, then, considers what might follow our current state of crisis, and what might replace the modes of thinking and building that got us there. The discussion lacks programmatic constraints and is pleasantly digressive, running from Keller Easterling’s analysis of the proposed Africa Optical Network, which would encircle the entire continent with a submarine fiber optic ring; to Thomas Campanella’s exploration of China’s “suburban revolution”; to Yasser Elsheshtawy’s exploration of the history and context of Abu Dhabi’s recent development surge, the “Arabian tabula rasa.” The result is a web of theories, proposals, arguments, and critiques, none of which tell us where after-zero may lead us, but all of which, cumulatively, offer an array of paths forward. It will be intriguing to see where this Harvard-based journal takes its readers when it tackles the “landscapes of energy,” the subject of its next issue, to be published this winter.

          Perspecta 41
          Grand Tour
          Edited by Gabrielle Brainard, Rustam Mehta, and Thomas Moran
          MIT Press, 2009

          In the eighteenth century, elite young Englishmen set out on a standard itinerary across Western Europe to learn about art, architecture, and music and to hobnob with the ruling classes of foreign locales. The trip, known as the “grand tour,” came to play an integral role in the education of aristocrats and lay a foundation for the cultural tourism of the future. Perspecta 41, the latest issue of the cult student-edited journal of the Yale School of Architecture, uses the idea of the grand tour as its overarching theme and its point of departure for a meditation on why architects travel. The issue aims to counter the current barrage of globalization hype in urban discourse by taking a step back and (re)inserting personal nuance into the very idea of architectural travel.

          In these pages, Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi share their experiences with foreignness and marginality; Peter Eisenman and Edward Burtynsky reflect on their personal travels; and Rem Koolhaas, perhaps the ultimate architect-traveler, is challenged critically, though conventionally, by Esra Akcan. Photographer Ramak Fazel takes us through the mechanics of his road trip to every capitol building in the continental United States, Ljiljana Blagojevic writes on the tumultuous history of Milorad Pantovi’s Belgrade Fairgrounds, and Sam Jacob reflects on tourism architecture via the Villagio Mall in Doha. Jeffrey Inaba of C-Lab shares his plan to save Venice. Essays are broken up with photo-stories—the Venturi, Scott Brown home with all its tchotchkes — images, and short texts, including excerpts from Yuichi Yokoyama’s wordless graphic novel Travel and a series of his laconic observations on it: “A mass of rocks is visible on the mountaintop. The landscape seems to symbolize something. A new house can be seen at the foot of the mountain.” Excellent.

          China Safari: On the Trail of Beijing’s Expansion in Africa
          Serge Michel and Michel Beuret with photographs by Paolo Woods
          Nation Books

          While the West has been divorcing itself from much of Africa over the last twenty years — America’s blundering intervention in Somalia’s civil war has remained fresh in the minds of politicians, and myriad intractable social and economic problems have made investors queasy — China has been, in the words of Michel and Beuret, “making waves across much of what was long considered a stagnating continent.” Their survey of China’s booming business throughout Africa shows an ascendant superpower anxious to turn a profit wherever it can.

          It’s not just oil China is after; its minions are developing land, building real estate, setting up manufacturing firms, mining ore, and building highways. In Cameroon, “there’s hardly a single aspect of the country’s life that hasn’t been upgraded, replaced, or otherwise improved by Chinese intervention.” The draw of the nearly $100 billion traded between the two regions is apparent in the authors’ numerous portraits of Africa-bound émigrés, who are willing to trade the increasingly unattainable goal of making it in China’s cities for the promise of a few hundred extra dollars per month in a land that is strange, but becoming less so.

          Cairo Portfolio
          A Public Space #9
          Edited by Brian T Edwards

          In “Bordering the Marvelous,” Mohamed Al-Fakhrany’s contribution to this special supplement to the New York literary quarterly, three nervy kids from the slums — Farawla, Naeema, and Awad — eke out a living selling drugs on the Nile Corniche, until one is arrested for the crime. Rather than abandoning the characters or narrating their fates, the author invites the reader to investigate: “Why don’t you picture it, or find out, for yourself? Go to the Corniche… Beside the hotel… Try it… Shout: ‘Farawla… Naeema… Awad…’”

          Edwards, the author of Morocco Bound: Disorienting America’s Maghreb, from Casablanca to the Marrakech Express, has compiled a highly specific, if limited, sampling of Cairene literary and artistic currents. Omar Taher’s introduction, translated by Edwards, situates a generation of Cairenes in the maw of global pop culture and Egyptian TV, soccer stars and the last half-century’s innumerable historical traumas. Those who came of age in this era contend with a globalized world fraught with the restrictions of the Egyptian state and society; they are not only products of the age, but children of images. The numerous footnotes provided by Edwards and Amina Mohamed turn the brief essay into a kind of primer on the twentieth-century history of Egypt, and an apt preface to what follows: Al-Fakhrany’s story; an interview with the veteran documentarian-turned-filmmaker Ibrahim El Batout (Eye of the Sun) about censorship and the future of independent film in Egypt; a story by Muhammad Aladdin; and a comic by Ahmed El-Aidy.

          The Novel of Nonel and Vovel
          By Oreety Ashery and Larissa Sansour
          Charta, Milan, 2009

          Oreet Ashery is Israeli, Larissa Sansour, Palestinian, and for outside observers, they acknowledge in the foreword, there’s nothing more appealing than such a dialogue: “A mutually extended olive branch is about as sexy as it gets.” Their graphic novel aims to address “the problematic nature of the very kind of dialogue we — as collaborating artists from opposite sides of the divide — are in some shape or form engaging in.” The artists, both now based in London, worked on the book under alter egos, Nonel and Vovel, names taken from rapid-fire, typo-laden Skype conversations between the pair. The subjects in their comic strips and photo-stories are caricatures of hardworking artists with noble intentions, presided over by the Lab Man, who gives them the option to swap their fruitless efforts as artists for the chance to become Palestine-saving superheroes. Each chapter is designed by a different artist persona, taking in quizzes, questionnaires, cut-out dolls, and knowing Facebook exchanges, as well as more traditional drawings and illustrations. Ashery and Sansour then handed over the second part of the story to the writer Søren Lind and the more usual traditional comics illustrator Hiro Enoki, as a final self-destruct on the part of the artist-as-hero. (The book also includes essays by curators Reem Fadda, on the ‘Palestine Question’, and Nat Muller, who contributes a proposal to the Venice Biennale for the “2212 Intergalactic Pavilion”.) There could be fewer photos of Nonel and Vovel (or is it Ashery and Sansour?) at play in London, and at times the commentary slips into beyond-character earnestness, but this is a playful, beguiling book; keep an eye open for what Ashery and Sansour do next.