I don’t think Skype is a proper way to take a photo. I can’t even imagine how you’d do it.
We set out to do something different this issue. To boldly go where no Bidoun has gone before.
Careful readers of this space might object that we say this every issue. They’re right. Over the past year we’ve been trying to revisit a lot of our assumptions about what a Middle Eastern art and culture magazine should be. We’ve talked more openly about the art market and our semiprecious stock in it. Sensitive to the charge that our righteous obscurity has blindsided our coverage of contemporary events, we devoted an issue to original reporting. Just last issue we unleashed a vast slew of stereotypical images all over our pages, suspending deeply held taboos on sex, the veil, Israel, and so on.
But this is it — the final frontier. (One of them, at least.) This time we’re taking on the paper pushers and the do-gooders, the experts and the engineers, the advocates and the doctorates. The ones who squeeze from the bottom of the tube. Or, as we’ve delicately termed them, SQUARES.
You might object to the name — squares does have a slightly negative connotation. We thought about calling the issue visionaries, actually. But another magazine beat us to it, as you can see from the cover. And we wanted to avoid one obvious pitfall in talking to people doing awesome things to change the world — that is, fall for their pitch. We wanted to know their stories, sure, but we also wanted to understand the drudgery. To go backstage and see how and where the sausages of change are made — in Damascene college dormitories and South Korean Internet cafés; on homemade desktop computers and handheld devices and beat-up laptops exhausted by one million PowerPoint presentations and speckled with Post-it notes; on marathon Skype meetings, and in the conference rooms of 2.5-star hotels in Virginia, where tables are laden with little flags, name tags, and millions of gallons of Evian.
The twenty-odd people you are about to meet do not have highly developed senses of irony, though most of them have a good sense of humor. There is Salman Khan — Bill Gates’s favorite teacher — a polymathic goofball and education innovator whose secret dream is to create an apocalypse-proof bunker for human knowledge. There is Naif Al-Mutawa, a Kuwaiti businessman and father of five who fights for truth, justice, and the Islamic way via his superheroic comic creations, The 99. There is Alex Mamytov, an activist trying to make Kyrgyzstan safe® for transsexuals, and Nazanin Afshin-Jam, a beauty queen who uses her celebrity to fight the Iranian government over the (disturbingly topical) issue of child executions. And there is the late Nader Khalili, an architect inspired by Rumi to create the perfect habitat for impoverished humanity.
Speaking of Sufis, Sheikha Fariha al-Jerrahi — leader of a band of American dervishes, who in another life made possible some of the most ambitious artworks of the twentieth century — is the subject of our most in-depth profile. But don’t neglect the birdwatcher and the space bureaucrat, the Syrio-Vulcan video game designer and the talk show host, as well as the band of world-music megastars on a mission. Last but not least, a brief history of the lingua franca of squaredom — Esperanto.
You will note a few things about the look of this issue. For one thing, the color green, and the computers, pioneering what we like to think of as perfectly fine art photography: the Skype portrait. For another — the drawings! Scores of them, an outpouring of original art that responded to an open call for illustrations on our Facebook page.
These practices were less an attempt to be true to the zeitgeist (though this crowdsourcing thing is working out great) than it was to find a mode of production appropriate to the theme. How best to picture things that don’t lend themselves to being pictured, people who are not defined by their appearance? We didn’t want to beautify or stylize things that had been chosen precisely not for their beauty or style — even the former Miss Canada, for whom beauty pageantry is merely a means to an end.
This past September we launched our fall issue, LIBRARY, and inaugurated our storefront space with an ice cream social at 47 Orchard Street. LIBRARY, with its collectible cover (each one sporting a unique photograph — get one now, if you haven’t already), also made a big splash at the Frieze Art Fair in London, where editor Negar Azimi moderated a panel on art and politics, and where it was announced that longtime Bidoun collaborator Yto Barrada had been named Deutsche Bank Artist of the Year for 2011.
Meanwhile in Cairo, a version of the Bidoun Library opened at the Townhouse Gallery on October 12 to great fanfare. Contributing Editor Hassan Khan programmed two talks, one by historian Khaled Fahmy on the politics of the archive in Egypt and another by curator Bassem El-Baroni, on the zeitgeist of Egyptian visual culture. Coincidently, Azimi represented the Bidoun Library at a conference on archival practices, also at the Townhouse.
In November, Bidoun took the New York Art Book Fair at PS1 by storm. Tiffany Malakooti and Babak Radboy represented the Bidoun Library Project on a panel entitled “Experimental Libraries and Reading Rooms,” while the magazine hosted a party at the Jane Hotel to celebrate the fair’s opening night.
Bidoun’s ongoing transition to not-for-profit status proceeds apace. Look for us at bidoun.org from here on out. Also and furthermore — if you don’t already, please consider subscribing to the magazine. When you buy a copy on the newsstand, you help the newsstand. When you subscribe, you help us. And now more than ever, we can use your help. If you were thinking about giving that special someone a subscription for Ashura or Hanukkah or Christmas or just because, now would be a great time.
This spring Bidoun will once again descend on the Emirates for Art Dubai — the first under the leadership of former Bidoun editor Antonia Carver. As usual, we will be largely responsible for programming film, video, and music in the Art Park below the fair, and generally lending an irresponsible element to the proceedings.
Also this winter, the inaugural fellow of the Bidoun/Delfina New Writing Residency, Rayya Badran, will undertake her research into how popular culture, specifically Western music, is received, lived, and later theorized among different generations in Beirut.
Finally, we’re delighted to welcome two new contributing editors to our Iranian conspiracy team: Aram Moshayedi and Sohrab Mohebbi. Aram lives in Los Angeles where he is assistant curator of the Gallery at REDCAT and a doctoral candidate in the department of art history at the University of Southern California. Sohrab is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn, New York. He received his MA from the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College and was a founding member of 127 band, Tehran. He is currently a curatorial fellow at the Queens Museum of Art.
RSTW Manarat Al Saadiyat, Saadiyat Island September 22–January 24, 2011
Culled from Larry Gagosian’s private collection, and curated by Anne Baldassari, RSTW (distilled from the names of the artists displayed), brings together a selection of seventy-two post-war works by six canonical American artists: Ed Ruscha, Robert Rauschenberg, Richard Serra, Cy Twombly, Christopher Wool and Andy Warhol. Previously unseen until they landed on the $27 billion Saadiyat Island (or Island of Happiness), one wonders what wooed Larry to debut this awesome collection in the UAE in the first place.
Beirut Wael Shawky: Contemporary Myths II Mounira Al Solh: Exhibition No. 17 Sfeir-Semler Gallery November 25, 2010–March 19, 2011
Wael Shawky presents the film Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show File, which restages a crucial period of the Crusades between the years 1096 and 1099. Imagined as a kind of horror movie, the film stars 200-year-old marionettes from the Lupi collection in Italy, dressed in eleventh century clothing and choreographed in reconstructed landscapes of Asia Minor and the Mediterranean. In addition to the film, Shawky will present photo-portraits of these marionette actors alongside installations from the film’s set. At the same time, in her solo debut at the gallery, Mounira Al Solh presents three new bodies of work including paintings, a suite of nineteen video works and mixed media video installations.
Doha Mathaf (Arab Museum of Modern Art) Education City December 30–May 28, 2011
Set to open on New Year’s eve, the collection of Qatar’s Arab Museum of Modern Art includes 6,000 works representing major trends and sites of production of Arab art spanning 1840 to the present. Its inaugural exhibition, Sajjil, will feature 100 highlights from the collection, including the work of canonical modernists such as Dia Azzawi, Paul Guiragossian and Mahmoud Said. Mathaf’s opening programs include Intervention, a retrospective of five major Arab artists curated by Dr Nada Shabout, and Told/Untold/Retold, an exhibition of newly commissioned works by twenty-three contemporary artists with roots in the Arab world. Commissioned artists include Akraam Zaatari, Walid Raad, Lamia Joreige, Amal Kenawy and Ghada Amer.
Dubai From The Farook Collection: That’s What She Said Traffic Gallery February 2, 2011–TBA
This exhibition opens with works from the Farook Collection, featuring more than twenty-five installations by a cast of artists that includes Tracey Emin, Hala Ali, Shilpa Gupta, Arwa Abboun, Catherine Bernard, Rokni Haerizadeh, Herakut, Bita Fayyazi, Pouran Jinchi, Runa Islam, Manal al Dowayan, Ayman Yusri and Faisal Samra. Exhibition highlights include Gupta’s Untitled (2008–09) — a motion flap board reminiscent of airport announcement boards, which she uses to display whirling combinations of text that play with notions of arrival and departure. The ensemble, curated by Dubai-based Rami Farook — from whose family collection this is drawn — also includes video & sound installations, with word/text as an audio-visual component underscoring the recurring theme of the exhibition.
Dubai Farhad Moshiri The Third Line March 13–April 14, 2011
Farhad Moshiri’s new work marks an evolution in his practice, taking his textural mimicry and use of humor to new heights. Moshiri’s first in-depth monograph will be launched contemporaneously. The self-titled comprehensive book has been presented by The Third Line together with galleries Rodolphe Janssen, Emmanuel Perrotin, and Thaddaeus Ropac.
Dubai Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian The Third Line January 13–Feb 17, 2011
Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian presents a combination of circles, squares, and polygons skillfully cast within the rigorous mould of classical Islamic geometrical design. Uniting age-old techniques of reverse-glass painting, mirror mosaics, and Iranian design with a modern abstract expressionist and minimalist sensibility, Farmanfarmaian produces veritable geometric kaleidoscopes in this series of new works.
London Translated By Architectural Association January 13, 2011–February 2011
An audio exhibition of novelists and short story writers who translate place into fiction. Includes Douglas Coupland, Tom McCarthy, Hisham Matar, Sophia Al Maria, Rana Dasgupta, Guy Mannes Abbott, Adania Shibli and others on Tripoli, Ramallah, Brooklyn, Sofia, London, Doha and more. Curated by Charles Arsène-Henry and Bidoun contributing editor, Shumon Basar.
London Walid Raad: Miraculous Beginnings Whitechapel Gallery October 14, 2010–January 2, 2011
Miraculous Beginnings is Walid Raad’s largest survey to date, bringing together diverse works including Secrets in the Open Sea (1994/2004) and Let’s Be Honest the Weather Helped (1998/2006–2007), with the premiere of Sweet Talk: Commissions (1987–present), his exploration of the changing face of Beirut over the last twenty years. An astute, if not unconventional, analysis of the art boom in the Middle East and the implications this has for art and artists from the region lies at the heart of Raad’s latest project, Scratching on Things I Could Disavow: A History of Art in the Arab World (2008–present).
London Haroon Mirza Lisson Gallery February 16–March 19, 2011
Working with video, sculpture, light, and sound, Haroon Mirza creates large scale installations using found materials such as furniture, household electronics, and even, at times, other artists’ works, revealing the hidden connections of outwardly disparate objects and altering their functions. Mirza’s assemblages, at once sculptural and sonic, draw upon historical traditions, science, religious belief, club culture, and their relation to music. To explore the possibility of the visual and acoustic as a single aesthetic form, each piece generates its own noise, in turn combining to form a larger musical composition that spills across the gallery.
Los Angeles Decolonizing Architecture REDCAT December 7, 2010–January 30, 2011
In their first exhibition outing in the United States, the West Bank-based research collective Decolonizing Architecture (initiated by Alessandro Petti, Sandi Hilal, and Eyal Weizman in 2007) engages the occupation through the spatial landscape, using their practice in turn as a form of narration and, at best, intervention. A program of lectures and presentations will be organized during the closing week of the exhibition.
Malmö Walead Beshty Malmö Konsthall February 18–May 1, 2011
Los Angeles-based artist Walead Beshty fills the expansive exhibition space at Malmö Konsthall with his ongoing series of investigations as to the relationships between technological modes of image production and the indeterminate transitory spaces of modernity.
Marfa Immaterial Ballroom Marfa October 1, 2010–February 20, 2011
Set in arts pilgrimage destination Marfa, Immaterial emphasizes the formalist and process-oriented tendencies in its selection of recent work and new commissions from such artists as Barbara Kasten, Rachel Khedoori, Esther Kläs, Liz Larner, Erlea Maneros-Zabala, Linda Matalon, Julie Mehretu, and Charline von Heyl, Rosy Keyser, Laleh Khorramian, Heather Rowe, and Erin Shirreff.
New York The Last Newspaper New Museum October 6, 2010–January 9, 2011
Throughout January, The Last Newspaper will continue to transform galleries at the New Museum into temporary offices for a number of partnering news agencies that work on-site alongside a selection of important artworks reflecting on the current state of newspapers as transmitters of information.
New York Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement MoMA October 3, 2010–January 3, 2011
With an eye toward pragmatic design solutions for the world’s underserved populations, this exhibition presents the research of a range of architects, community organizers, and NGOs currently at work on issues of social responsibility in architecture. Look out for Bidoun friend Hashim Sarkis in this wide-ranging exhibition.
New York Kezban Arca Batibeki LTMH Gallery January 11–31, 2011
This represents Istanbul-based artist Kezban Arca Batibeki’s first solo outing at LTMH Gallery. Taking pop culture as her point of departure, Batibeki has created works in a wide range of media, from installation, to short film, to photography.
Philadelphia Live Cinema/In the Round: Contemporary Art from the East Mediterranean Philadelphia Museum of Art September 17, 2010–February 6, 2011
This exhibition features six artists from the East Mediterranean whose individual practices tend toward the translation of cinematic and theatrical strategies into new forms of video, installation, and performance-based works. Curated by Istanbul-based November Paynter, this exhibition includes the works of Ziad Antar, Inci Eviner, Gülsün Karamustafa, Hassan Khan, Maha Maamoun, and Christodoulos Panayiotou.
Sharjah Sharjah Biennial Sharjah Cultural Quarter March 16–May 16 2011
For its tenth edition, curators Suzanne Cotter and Rasha Salti will consider the production of art as a subversive act, drawing on the structure of a film narrative (or plot) to codify a series of new and commissioned works in sites across Sharjah. Organized around keywords such as treason, necessity, corruption, devotion, and disclosure, Plot for a Biennial intends to engage visitors to rethink conventional uses of space, modes of display, and the rhythms of the city. Look out for works by friends of Bidoun and international women of mystery Anna Boghiguian and Trisha Donnelly, in particular.
Donald Duck… I cannot say Donald Duck is my hero.
— Armen Eloyan
“Putting together a good painting is like putting together a good joke.” The artist Armen Eloyan’s voice is an exquisite musical instrument. It is operatic, loud, and ambiguously, if not compellingly, accented. I had to phone him up to write this piece because he does not use email. “I am dyslexic. Writing doesn’t work for me.”
Painting does work for him. The forty-three-year-old paints mostly large-scale, mostly absurdly dramatic canvases in lush primary tones. His images are drawn from a dense, cartoon-inflected universe. Yet something about them is always off. The noses are too big, the chins are missing, the fingers droop. Figures, drawn in broad painterly strokes, seem deranged, over or undersexed, melancholic, alcoholic. There is a nameless anxiety throughout.
Would you say your paintings are dark at all?
“I don’t think so.”
Talking to Armen Eloyan, in spite of his gorgeous voice, can be taxing. He is exceedingly terse, mostly answering questions in combinations of one, two, three, or four words. Five if you discount contractions. When you lead him down a narrow path, he’ll inevitably cut you off.
What of politics?
“I am an anarchist.”
Do you think people laugh when they see your paintings?
“I don’t care.”
Is it a good thing if they do?
“I don’t know.”
Very often, it is very difficult not to laugh. Take Untitled (Painter) from 2009, which depicts the artist as a piece of wood — or rather, Pinocchio. Here, the anthropomorphic stump wears great big red shoes while a cigarette dangles from his mouth. He appears to be dozing against the wall, slumped over in exhaustion. Everywhere around him is the stuff of painting, scattered like the contents of a fallen purse — brushes, palette, paint. One can’t help but summon up a scene from a bad French movie about stunted genius. Still, it is difficult not to empathize with the familiar pathos; like Pinocchio, who dreamt of becoming a real-flesh boy, this artist dreams big. Or take Untitled (Potato), a work starring a crazed young spud — his tongue hangs from his mouth and his eyes are googly — who seems to have, in some variation of van Gogh, chopped off his own right arm. The work isn’t exactly cheerful, but its weird humor is what saves it from the unsightly realm of self-indulgent navel-gazing.
Other figures recur in Eloyan’s work beyond the ill-fated piece of wood. An earlier series featured Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. In Disaster, the iconic mouse and a white bunny rabbit (not Bugs) lay strewn over a battlefield defined by an expressionistic avalanche of brushstrokes. There is an echo of Picasso’s Guernica in its sweep and densely allegorical content, and yet, referential or not, Disaster is more than anything funny, thanks to the mouse and the bunny, their outsize features poking out from the rubble. While one might wonder if these works represent a wincingly facile comment on Disney or American culture and its material and political excesses, they are in fact more subtle, hovering somewhere in a dark gray zone between empathy and sarcasm.
So why is a good painting like a joke?
“The pieces have to come together.”
“Timing matters, too.”
In Horny Season, a painting from 2008, a goofy dog (but not Goofy the dog-man) reclines in a garden in a scene that seems to, in sideways fashion, evoke the lush gardens of Monet. The gratuitous shrubbery is mildly sexual — the birds and the bees, the prospect of deflowering. “All of those painters were horny,” says the artist, matter-of-factly. “It’s so obvious.”
Like most of Eloyan’s works, Horny Season takes cultural references from the world around us — this time impressionist painting — as its point of departure. The paintings’ dramaturgy is in turn drawn from the world of cinema, evoking the strange alchemy of forces that make for the most powerful kind of cine-emotive effect. Hence, we witness a litany of emotionally fraught, if not familiar, scenes: the angst-ridden artist, the daydream, the stilted love affair, the professional failure.
Were you a happy child?
“I think my childhood was okay.”
Eloyan was born and raised in Yerevan, Armenia. His mother was a medical doctor, his father an engineer. Armenia under the Soviets was rich. “We had access to everything. We watched American movies, Russian movies, German movies. There was a lot of theater, too.” Cartoons from East and West. As a child, his parents would take him to the National Museum of Art in Yerevan, a massive twentieth century building whose collection was mostly made up of eighteenth-century Western European art, Armenian works, and some medieval works, too.
Was Arshile Gorky very important to you, as an Armenian artist?
“It is true, Gorky was a hero for Armenian artists.”
And for you?
“I preferred de Kooning.”
He also liked Philip Guston while growing up, the abstract expressionist cum neo-expressionist who, like Eloyan, fashioned cartoonlike figures in his work. Guston’s 1972 Painting Smoking Eating, in which a man lies in bed with his arms pinned down, a cigarette in his mouth, and a plate of food absurdly lying on his torso, is especially evocative of Eloyan’s works. If Guston mined the vaguely existential as he got older, Eloyan mines the absurd.
At the age of seventeen, steeped in punk culture, Eloyan went to work in the studio of the famed Armenian animator Robert Sahakian. He worked on coloring and graphic elements for two of the late animator’s films, learning about the peculiarities of animated cinema in the meantime.
Why did you leave Armenia?
“I just wanted to look around.”
In 1991, Armenia won its independence from the Soviet Union, and Eloyan departed. He settled in Holland, where he would have two children (twins). He ended up studying art at the Rijksacademie in Amsterdam, and about five years ago he moved to Zurich.
Why did you move to Switzerland?
“For a love story.”
He has another child, a five-year-old daughter. And he has, it must be said, an extensive array of tattoos all over his body.
At the moment, Eloyan is at work on a new series titled, Is ugly people having a good heart or they just say to take a snake out of the hole? Excitingly, it’s impossible to tell whether this is Eloyan’s Armenian-Russian-Dutch-Swiss-German-inflected English as transmitted through a bad Skype connection or a well-crafted pun. It doesn’t matter. It’s about clowns! And like the best clowns, these paintings stand to have the stuff of a well-crafted, if not terribly maudlin, joke.
Are Armenians funny?
“Armenians like humor, they like jokes. They love jokes. If I learned one thing growing up, it is how to tell a good joke.”
Deutsch mit Arabisch nicht gut.
“Germans with Arabs not good.”
Weis Nicht. Deutsch mit Arabisch nicht gleiche Mensch.
“Don’t know. Germans and Arabs are not the same people.”
The German-English dialogue above appears as doubled subtitles for a tense exchange between a German woman and a Moroccan man on a dance floor — a not entirely unlikely scenario, except for the fact that a Chinese man plays both characters.
The scene is just a snippet from Ming Wong’s Angst Essen/Eat Fear (2008), a mad re-imagining of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Angst Essen Seele auf (Fear Eats the Soul), itself a searing love story about a Moroccan guest worker and a much older German cleaning lady. In his 1974 film, Fassbinder lingers on the couple’s ethnic difference as the primary cause of their social persecution (they are heckled by just about everyone, and the Arab gets a stomach ulcer). Wong’s twenty-seven-minute re-rendering, shot and shown in the immigrant-dense quarter of Kreuzberg, ought to have had resonance in Germany, where national debates about the assimilation of foreigners are ongoing. Yet it offers up a great deal more than a simple commentary on multiculturalism and its discontents.
A Chinese expatriate raised in Singapore, educated in the United Kingdom, and now a resident of Berlin, Wong has tugged at his own itinerancy in crafting a distinct body of work over the last decade. The status of being a perpetual outsider has both animated and structured his mostly self-directed, mostly hilarious videos. In his staged re-interpretations of canonical films, Wong plays just about every role.
Slipping in and out of a host of characters, he indulges in the ambivalence of a polymorphous entity and also answers to the postmodern, metropolitan myth of that entity having being liberated from any sort of belonging. Whether it is Wong himself embodying sixteen characters in a work inspired by Malay showbiz icon P Ramlee, a Muslim who made over sixty movies from the 1950s to 1970s in Singapore and Malaysia, or a version of Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959) in which three male actors from the three different ethnic groups (Chinese, Malay, and Indian) in Singapore take turns playing the black mother and her “white” daughter, something in these reenactments is always a bit off. Accent, nationality, appearance, and gender are all scrambled up in one fine mess, and in the end, the shoes, as it were, don’t always fit. If Anthony Appiah envisaged (and celebrated) a new form of cosmopolitanism in his book by the same title, Wong lays bare a more subtle understanding of the mobile and adaptive realities of identity in a globalized world. Identity does exist, after all! And it matters, too.
In keeping with his previous work, Wong’s latest Life and Death in Venice (2009) and Devo Partire Domani/I Must Go Tomorrow (2010) further his mediation of place as an outsider through the prism of fictional film worlds. Yet for the first time, Wong filmed on location. By having formerly located all of his works indoors, he had somehow accorded himself the comfort of a knowing critical distance. The homemade costumes, wigs, staged studio sets, and DIY digital montages had served to fortify and emphasize his position as a remote-auteur.
All of that changed with Life and Death in Venice, a three-channel installation in which the aging composer character Aschenbach and the adolescent Tadzi wander through real-life Venice on opposite screens. Wong awkwardly plays both roles and, of course, looks too young for the former and too old for the latter. A moment of organized synchronicity has them exchange glances, and we, along with Wong, are caught between youth and old age. As they stroll, the pair pass through the fifty-third Venice Biennale and the Grand Hotel de Bains, in which the original film was shot (as it happens, shortly after Wong’s production, it was closed down to be converted into a luxury apartment complex). Filmed in these extremely coded locations, the piece exists as a layered archive of place, not to mention a stirring ode to mortality and transience.
In his newest Devo Partire Domani/I Must Go Tomorrow, which is based on Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (1968), Wong supplants the studio for real-life Naples. Each member of the bourgeois Italian family of the original film — Wong plays all of them — is seduced by the mysterious stranger, also played by Wong. In collective despair, they find themselves staggering through the Bagnoli industrial wasteland, the Scampia housing projects, and the eighteenth-century Villa San Genariello. The reenactment takes on added resonance when one begins to think about the fact that Pasolini, too, was an itinerant filmmaker.
Yet in Naples, Wong does not relegate landmarks to their potential fates as static backdrops and settings, empty vessels onto which a number of significations could be projected. Instead, he crafts a more ambiguous relationship to the architecture, responding to a specific history of Italian mise-en-scène that has been rehearsed before (Michelangelo Antonioni and his acclaimed tetralogy immediately come to mind). Here, urban space is treated dialectically, not simply as a trope to expose binary oppositions or highlight alienated social states. The landscape and all its various components are recognized as having histories of their own, which are also changing and adapting like the various Wongs staggering through them.
The stranger in Pasolini’s Teorema has sexual encounters with every member of the family, and after he vanishes, each character descends into madness, promiscuity, or some form of catatonia. It is around these various conditions of unraveling that Wong constructs his five-channel installation, occupying five rooms with each screen devoted to a different character. The sonic bleed between the different rooms continues to place the characters in communal correlation to one another, while on screen they are woven into the social fabric of contemporary Naples. Wong’s re-imaging and embodiment of the characters is suffused with empathy, guiding each to a conclusion that seeks to bear out their own agency in their own evolving realities. In the end, Wong has seduced himself, confessed to himself, slept with himself, prostituted himself, and finally, abandoned himself. In doing so, he unmasks an agency that anyone, not only the artist, has to re-imagine while transcending inherited ideas about self, and in the process, acknowledging one’s own curious “becoming.”
Hrair Sarkissian’s best-known work to date is a series of large color photographs depicting empty streets in early morning light. In one shot, we see three palm trees sprouting from a median dividing a wide cobblestone avenue. In another, we see a portrait of the late Syrian president Hafez al-Assad or a poster advertising the aging Lebanese pop star George Wassouf. In another, a hulking concrete overpass sinks half of the image in darkness. In another still, thick electrical cables loop over a dense tangle of buildings on a hill in the background. One’s gaze slips uneasily across these images. They are too deliberately composed to represent vernacular street photography, the landscapes too varied to capture the texture of a particular urban fabric. They are at the same time not consistent enough to fetishize the form of any specific architectural typology.
Something about these photographs remains studiously unfixed, to the extent that you eventually have to ask, what exactly am I supposed to be looking at? Then perhaps your eyes shift, you see the label on the wall, and you note the title of the series: Execution Squares, from 2009. All of Sarkissian’s images — shot in the Syrian cities of Aleppo, Damascus, and Latakia — portray public squares in which capital punishment has been carried out, usually by hanging and usually at dawn. You look again at the photographs and realize that what eludes your gaze is precisely the emptiness of those streets, which you now perceive as haunted, drained of inhabitants
but filled, perhaps, with ghosts, with the unsettling knowledge of what has passed. There is, too, a premonition of what occurs as these cities sleep.
A Syrian artist of Armenian origin, Sarkissian is adept at endowing such empty spaces with meaning, and exploring the impressions that certain political realities and historical events leave on the surfaces of different cities. He avoids photographing people; instead he prefers abandoned structures (such as the Soviet-era metro stations that were cleared out by the Armenian police force for the series Underground, also from 2009), derelict building sites (including the half-finished luxury real-estate projects in Yerevan’s city center that give evidence of a boom-to-bust housing cycle in the series City Fabric, from 2010), or architectural models he assembles in his studio (such as the tiny buildings made of toy blocks, which were reconstructed from memory and represent the houses in the village from which his grandfather fled during the Armenian genocide in 1915, for the series Construction, from 2010).
“It’s always been confusing for me to include people in my images,” Sarkissian says. “I try to avoid actors and create an empty stage. My main interest is in the spaces themselves, how the viewer and I relate to these places without having any other interruptions or references to distract our perception and our attachment to these particular spaces, to the experience of being within an empty city.”
Even on the rare occasions Sarkissian has taken portraits — for example, of pious Egyptian men for the series Zebiba, from 2007 — his interest is less in the men’s faces than in the scars on their foreheads, the marks of their religiosity as traces of something else.
All of this, then, makes the twinned series Sarkissian Photo Centre and My Father & I, both from 2010, something of a surprise. Of course the former fits within the artist’s overall oeuvre in that it depicts the empty rooms of a photo lab, though the spaces are more rich, more intimate, and heavier with implied human presence than anything in his other, more desolate landscapes. But My Father & I is straightforward stylized studio portraiture — the neutral backdrops, the three-quarter profile poses, the proud, serious looks that aim just wide of the lens.
It also proceeds chronologically through time, beginning with portraits of Sarkissian’s father as a very young man, following him as he matures into adulthood, and then jumping to Sarkissian himself, whereas the artist’s other series tend to capture a singular, ethereal moment that is more or less now. And while some element of the Armenian experience — the traumatic history, the scattered community — is almost always lurking somewhere in Sarkissian’s work, the story is far more personal in Sarkissian Photo Centre and My Father & I, delving into the space where his father worked, where he grew up, and where the two of them finally fell out, leading to the end of a family business and allowing Sarkissian to become an artist.
“Before becoming a photographer, my father was working as a car mechanic in a garage in Aleppo,” he says. “Every day during lunchtime, my grandmother asked him to sit and eat in the corner of their courtyard because he was always wearing dirty clothes, and she wouldn’t let him to join the family table. He had a complex about being excluded. He decided to become a photographer because it was a clean profession.”
Sarkissian’s father moved to Damascus, where he apprenticed with an Armenian photographer named Dikran. Then he opened a studio with other photographers, who did portraiture and wedding photography alongside developing, printing, and color processing. In 1979, Sarkissian senior opened the first color lab in Syria, initially called Dream Color and later changed to Sarkissian Photo Centre.
“I loved this space,” the artist says. “As a kid, I used to sneak into my father’s closet, take out his camera, and imagine myself becoming a photographer. I always say that I was born with a camera in my mouth. I spent more time in the lab than at home. Every summer I went to work there. In the beginning, I was just making coffee, cleaning, and sitting next to my father, helping him put negatives in envelopes. I hated doing that, because I wanted to be behind the printer. I wanted to take my dad’s place.”
Eventually, he did. After graduating from high school, Sarkissian joined the lab full time and stayed for twelve years. But in the late 1990s, he started working as an occasional fixer for foreign photographers. Without his parents’ knowledge, he applied to an art school in France. He got in, and he left.
“A year later, I came back, and I told myself I could take care of my father’s shop and become an artist at the same time. It didn’t work out. I clashed with my father. He didn’t want me to be an artist. He said I couldn’t live off of art. The tension was always there. One day it exploded and I quit.”
Sarkissian’s father is now seventy-five, and the lab has closed. Before it was packed up, however, Sarkissian asked his father for one last photo session. The son documented the space and riffled through the archive to find portraits of his father. The father, in turn, did what his son has always been so reluctant to do. He took a series of portraits, and in doing so, reconciled their relationship.
At the moment, Sarkissian is on a residency in Istanbul, and finding it a difficult place to be, like living in those eerie spaces of Execution Squares. The work he is producing concerns the city’s Armenian community and, to be expected, is digging up old ghosts. “It’s going slowly,” he says. “I have this weight on my shoulders whenever I am out in the streets. It’s too much. Getting to certain people, asking them certain questions… I have been thinking about being in Istanbul for the past two years, and I think I will continue thinking about this place as long as I feel this burden on me.”
“The painting is a piece of shit,” said Mohsen Shaalan, head of Egypt’s Fine Art Sector. “Its only value lies in the signature.”1 The painting in question is, of course, Vincent van Gogh’s Poppy Flowers (1887), or Zaharat al Kheshkhash, a name familiar to anyone following the story of the work’s dramatic theft last August from the Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum in Cairo. While hanging in plain view, it was largely invisible — yet another dusty painting in a museum nobody visits in the first place. The question of its supposed worth remained latent, too. But within the first few days of its theft, the painting’s price tag — widely reported at between $50 million and $55 million — had become a favored subject of discussion among the local media — a dollar-sign-shaped exclamation point appended to the crime. And still, in spite of his stated disdain for the iconic poppies, Shaalan may have been the first public figure of note to express any opinion concerning the painting’s value in nonmonetary terms.
Certainly, the issue of how to assess an artwork’s worth has been on Shaalan’s mind. The disappearance of Zaharat al Kheshkhash may cost him his job and has already landed him a sixty-day sojourn in jail and a three-year prison sentence (pending appeal) on accusations of negligence. In the face of his newly precarious fate, Shaalan has found it essential to embrace a strategy that is both original, given the context of the scandal, and as infinitely predictable as the extension of emergency law: redefine oneself, in the media-savvy manner perfected by Madonna, as an “artist first and a bureaucrat second.”2 Allow me to present that revered and reviled, inextricable and unavoidable figure: the artist-bureaucrat.
In the wake of its disappearance, the rather somber oil painting of red and yellow flowers in a vase has swiftly become the most famous work of modern art in Egypt. Its now pathetically empty frame became, for a time, a favored visual pun of newspaper cartoonists. But perhaps most compellingly, it has provided a lens onto what has up until now been breathtakingly opaque, focusing the public’s attention on the internal workings of the usually news-unfriendly Ministry of Culture and the machinations of those individuals vying for power within.
Ostensibly because they lack substantive leads regarding the perpetrators of the crime, police, prosecutors, and the media have focused instead on the issue of negligence. The museum’s lax security standards were exploited by the thief whose tactics (slicing the piece out of its frame) and timing (the middle of the day) suggest a complete and utter failure on the part of museum staff. It has been widely reported that only seven of forty-three security cameras were working that day, and that the museum guards were notably absent.3 (To add insult to injury, the painting had been stolen once before, in 1978, and although it surfaced two years later and was authenticated by unnamed “specialists,” the work hanging in the Mahmoud Khalil was long rumored to be a fake.4)
Shaalan, blamed for the situation, claimed that he was the fall guy for Farouk Hosni, Egypt’s Minister of Culture, and a very public exchange between the two career bureaucrats has ensued. Shaalan, an owlish-looking fifty-nine-year old, set the tone; his early, sharp jabs at the Minister quickly earned him media attention: Hosni’s true talent, Shaalan claimed, lies in selecting fine silk neckties and showboating for the press5; Hosni insults the sensibilities of the Egyptian people by sailing to work every day on a private yacht6; and the money Hosni squandered on his bid to be elected the next head of UNESCO (a position he campaigned for vigorously yet unsuccessfully in 2009) and on his expensive pet projects (including the renovation of the Egyptian Museum and development of a new Museum of Civilization) could have saved the stolen painting and many of Egypt’s museums in the bargain.7 In lashing out at Hosni, Shaalan has launched his own campaign of personal redemption, couched in a language and ethos informed by his long experience in the ministry.
Hosni, a shrewd politician, has remained more aloof than his rival while making himself more available to the media than usual. In a recent interview he mentions the personal suffering he endures as a consequence of his excitable artistic temperament on the one hand, and his total indifference toward retaining his position at the top of the cultural food chain on the other.8 In retrospect, this assertion of his own emotional/“artistic” nature flavors an earlier comment that concern for Egypt’s cultural patrimony had brought him to the brink of exhaustion: “I’m tired and I can’t sleep. I wake up in the middle of the night fearing for the artifacts of Egypt’s museums.”9
Hosni’s professed ambivalence regarding his career as the country’s cultural impresario chimes with the idea that adopting the role of the artist-bureaucrat is ultimately a sacrifice made by the artist on behalf of a larger good. In response to one journalist’s pointed question, Hosni claimed that he has held on to the position of Minister of Culture for twenty-seven years, despite his own dear wishes, at the insistence of the president himself. If this account feels unsatisfying, there are few alternative narratives, despite the perennial question of how to explain Hosni’s mysterious ministerial longevity. As a result fantastical-sounding rumors fill in the gap — like the story that Hosni moonlights as a fashion adviser to the president’s wife, Suzanne, and thus enjoys her protection.
For his part, Shaalan may rightly claim to have taken the special dilemma of the artist-bureaucrat as central to his own artistic project. His body of work prior to the scandal dealt prominently with the theme of the individual enchained by the constraints of bourgeois respectability and office culture. This was done using the most unoriginal metaphors: office suits inflate to giant proportions, threatening to drown their unhappy wearers; an emasculating striped tie binds and gags a man’s head; an enchained and defeated-looking male is forced to carry the prone body of a nude woman and associated props of domestic life on his head. The works demonstrate a certain point about the artist who is pressed into government service.
In his first interview since his release on bail, pending appeal, Shaalan decried the priorities of a state that would value a minor painting by a major artist above the freedom of one of Egypt’s leading artistic talents: himself.10 Apparently, this high-level cultural official emerged from prison a born-again aesthete, a little thinner and perhaps sounding a trifle unhinged, but in full possession of a voice proper to the artist-bureaucrat. While Hosni admits that the emotional rawness has made it difficult for him to complete any new works during these trying times, the scandal has proven to be a creative boon for Shaalan. He describes the period of incarceration as allowing for a return to his true vocation, and claims to have produced fifty new works — almost one work a day. These appear to be (true to his style) highly symbolic, autobiographical, and painfully easy to decipher. The interview prominently features a photograph of Shaalan holding up to the camera what is apparently an ink drawing of a figure lodged halfway inside a narrow manhole. A prison cell door stands ajar in the background. Predatory-looking black cats swarm around the figure, while a particularly large, fanged, and anthropomorphic feline beast seems about to bite at his face. (The latter is a new recurring symbol of Shaalan’s: “No, not [symbolizing] anyone in particular,” he claims in response to the journalist’s question.)
The generative potential of the fall-out of the theft first came to light with the emergence of a humble sketch, a collaborative effort, in fact, between Shaalan and former museum guard Alaa’ Mansour, who shared his cell, both awaiting trial at the time. The drawing is said to portray a suspicious youth that Mansour reported seeing on the day the painting disappeared: a young man “of medium height… green eyes and light-colored hair.”11 The result is a bit stiff and idealized, more like an awkward teenage doodle than a composite sketch. While this new development in the case failed to impress the criminal investigators it must surely have reawakened in the public consciousness the issue of Shaalan’s true vocation as artist. That the young man may never have existed seems beside the point, really. What is more important is that somewhere, out there, is another man possessing the nebulous, yet potentially awesome creative powers of the artist wedded to the respect due a high-ranking government official.
The interview puts on full display Shaalan’s recently heightened persona as an “artist first, bureaucrat, second,” as well as the centrality of his underdog-role in relation to Hosni and his claims to represent a down-to-earth man of the people. Each contention informs the others, and the approach turns Hosni’s position of power to Shaalan’s advantage. If the beardless Hosni sails to work on a yacht maliciously stroking his new silk cravat, Shaalan’s experience of jail is deeply spiritual, allowing him to reconnect simultaneously with his work as an artist and with the commoners populating the country’s prisons — Cairo’s own imprisoned “awlad al balad.”
Herein is a two-pronged approach by which Shaalan alternately frames Hosni as the bureaucrat of popular imagination — shrewd, inauthentic, and corrupt even in his dealings as an artist12 — and defines himself in contrasting terms. Thus Shaalan welcomes material hardship and scorns authority, whether in the person of Farouk Hosni, embodying governmental power, or the Mona Lisa, embodying the western artistic canon. “The Mona Lisa is no Haifa Wehbe” he remarked dismissively, comparing the half-smiling lady unfavorably to a famously hypersexualized Lebanese pop star by way of asserting his own claim to make distinctions, at any register, regarding the relative worth of works of art and, potentially, issues of worth in general.13
Both Shaalan and, of course, Hosni have benefited tremendously from the Ministry of Culture’s de facto policy of recruiting artists to head arts institutions. The long-standing application of this approach has yielded a number of predictable results in the context of a cultural sphere largely reliant on support from the government and the network of employment opportunities it makes available to graduates of the country’s various fine arts and arts-education departments. In a perpetually self-renewing cycle, a fiercely guarded cliquishness informs which artists receive attractive positions in the government and which artists receive attention for their work. Often they are the same. The person, the bureaucrat, and the artist are encouraged, in this situation, to merge without ever becoming fully reconciled. And the source of the individual’s often very real authority within this context is nonetheless commonly acknowledged to have been unmoored from any merit-based system. Authority is instead continuously displaced from artistic prowess to administrative rank and back again; if it resides anywhere in this system it is in its performance by the individual. In this context, the often debatable question of artistic value is regularly “decided” by men in suits behind desks, a prerogative and demonstration of their authority to do so, and as such, must be continually restated, sometimes leading to surprisingly idiosyncratic pronouncements. The tensions and anxieties latent in the hyphenated figure of the artist-bureaucrat help determine the language of these utterances and lend their claims to authority a certain resonance.
It seems disingenuous, therefore, to claim that the prolonged bickering of these two figures is interesting primarily for the light it sheds on the question of who’s to blame, and even less for what it reveals about the country’s cultural infrastructure: A general state of decay has been in effect for as long as anyone can remember, part and parcel of a decades-long process of public sector atrophy. And while the sentencing of Shaalan and ten staff members of the Mahmoud Khalil Museum seems patently unfair, pushing the question of responsibility quickly threatens to spill over into an indictment of the entire system, an exercise that is certainly off the table as an issue of public debate.
Reading between the greasy lines of newspaper print one might, instead, understand Shaalan and Hosni’s public statements as different takes on the same argument. At first glance, this would seem to concern the claims of each to embody the ideal of the “artist-bureaucrat.” Shaalan and Hosni offer competing prototypes in this regard. At the same time, the critical role of the artist-bureaucrat is never questioned. Implicit in their competing claims is an anxiety concerning the continued relevance of the model of governmental cultural policy now in place — a model deeply invested in the practice of hiring artists as cultural administrators, yet obviously implicated in the most recent failure to protect a piece of national heritage. In this sense, traces of the “bigger picture” and the lingering implications of assigning responsibility for systemic failure remain in the press coverage of the scandal, though they are securely couched in terms of the personal feud between the two men.
1. This translation takes into account the associated expressive connotations of Shaalan’s assertion in Arabic: “zaharat al‘kheshkhash’ loha ziballa.” Thus, while understood in everyday language to denote “garbage,” the word “ziballa” is translated here as “piece of shit.” Mohsen Shaalan, interview by Fatima al-Dakhakhani, Al Masry Al Youn (October 17, 2010):17.
3. An article on the theft for Al Ahram Weekly attributes these accusations to Ashraf El-Ashmawi, the Minister of Culture’s legal consultant. Nevine El-Aref, “Out of Frame,” Al Ahram Weekly (August 26–September 1, 2010): 1. Criminal investigators confirmed the details in a report recounted in newspapers on August 30.
4. Ehab Al Zalaqi, “Ayna thahabet lohat ‘Zaharat al-Kheshkhash,’” Al Masry Al Youn (September 9, 2010):12.
6. A letter from Shaalan to the attorney general making these accusations against Hosni was quoted in various newspapers. See, for example, articles published on the front pages of Al Masry Al Youn and Al Dostour on August 27, 2010.
Kamal Mouzawak is the food czar of Beirut. He instigated the city’s first farmers’ market in 2004. He has built up a network of local farmers and food producers, and helped them make the switch to certifiably organic methods and means. He was an erstwhile supporter of the slow food movement, and he remains an enduring campaigner not only for eating locally, preserving Lebanon’s rich culinary heritage, restoring the country’s place as the breadbasket of the region and — no joke — unifying a famously fractious society through food, but also for free trade, recycling, non-smoking, and more.
All of which would make him incredibly irritating, if not for the fact that he’s so utterly genuine about it all. That and the fact that he’s a preternaturally gifted host and a terrific cook who, one year ago this November, opened a restaurant on the outer edge of Mar Mikhael, where different, equally terrific cooks from all over the country rotate in and out of the open kitchen every day, each with their own specialties and secret recipes. You never know quite what you are going to find at “Tawlet” Souk El Tayeb, but you know it’s going to be good and — well, yes — good for you, too. The catch is that, though he may be a czar, Mouzawak’s approach is moderate (nothing in the extreme, everything with its opposite), and anything but militant. He quotes Gandhi all the time, and he means it. When asked, mostly as a joke, if he ever intended to go into politics, he says he does politics every day, all day long.
“It’s always about the best solution possible,” he explains. “There’s no best solution in the absolute. To decide about the best solution possible means that you have to think, and you have to be responsible, so you need first of all awareness, which makes you a responsible individual, and a free individual, who will make his or her own decision every time. And this is what people don’t want. They just want a formula, like ‘Eat organic,’ and that’s it. People don’t want to think, they just want to close their eyes and their minds, mainly, and do what they are told. But I’m sorry — life is not like this. Life is about being an individual, an aware individual, who will make his or her own choices in every situation, because every situation is different.”
Mouzawak was born and raised in Lebanon, but never really knew the country until he was in his early twenties, when he was commissioned to write a guidebook. Lebanon is admittedly tiny but notably labyrinthine. Mouzawak discovered it all by driving to every corner and crevice in an outrageously oversize 1980s Oldsmobile. Before doing the guidebook, he had studied graphic design and worked in a cultural center. Afterward, he got into travel writing and food writing full-time. He hosted a television show on healthy eating with a divaesque macrobiotics enthusiast. Then, in 2004, when he was hired to do something for an annual garden show in Beirut, he opened the farmers’ market that has been going strong since.
During the war in Lebanon in the summer of 2006, many of the producers that Mouzawak still considers family were directly affected — their villages destroyed, their crops ruined, their land strewn with cluster bombs — but after a few weeks’ hiatus, Souk El Tayeb rather valiantly returned, first in the mountains, then back in Beirut.
“This is not about death, destruction and war,” Mouzawak wrote at the time, “but about families, children and individuals trying to live… about small farmers and producers from all over Lebanon who gathered to form a farmers’ market beyond their religious, regional, political, or confessional beliefs… about Nelly and Mona from Majdel Zoun, who have been reviving old crops and recipes like kechek el fouqara and jebnet el burgol, a vegan cheese from only fermented cracked wheat and water… about Gilbert Aoun, who runs a project supporting land-mine victims from the last war and raises free-range chickens for eggs, bees for honey… about Youmna and Tony, who came to ‘the mountain souk’ with the best vegetables of the season.”
Mouzawak says that he comes from a family of farmers and producers in which the men were always in the fields, the women always in the kitchen. But he also tells a story about being fifteen-years-old and inviting all of his teachers over to his house for crepes, which would suggest that he might once have been something of a brownnoser as well. But perhaps one of the most interesting things about the entire Souk El Tayeb enterprise — which now includes not only the market and the restaurant but also a newsletter, books, a dekaneh (the Beiruti equivalent of a bodega), surprisingly solid photography exhibitions in the dining room, cooking classes, and a scheme for preserving old houses — is that Mouzawak has weaned it off of international development aid. It runs itself independently and self-sustainably, without grants, without charity.
Mouzawak has no guilty pleasures when it comes to junk food, but he adores shawarma and never turns up his nose at street food, no matter where he is in the world. For a health nut, he is paradoxically indifferent to sports. “I can’t take aggression — in any form,” he says. This leads, naturally, to a digression on Lebanese driving, and then Lebanese politics. “It’s not about changing the world,” he says, “but they push you to be a wild beast. This is a shit hole where we are, but I think we’ve created something nice and clean. It’s an attitude, and it’s about figuring out what you need to perform. I’m bitching, I know, but you cannot just have one tag in life. You cannot be just organic, respectful to a tomato but impolite to your neighbor. You cannot be just about fair trade. You have to be to the producer. But you have to take care of yourself, too.”
If we advocate to eat local, then we should also feast local, and, in Lebanon at least, celebrate old-school Barbara over newcomer Halloween.
When we were kids, we used to wait weeks in advance for the Barbara night in December; on this date, we would dress up in old clothes from the tetkhiteh (attic), put masks on our faces, and wander to our neighbors’ houses, dancing and singing bessyieh Barbara.
Story, mythology, and religion were not among our main concerns. We were more interested in having fun, dressing up in costumes, and devouring the sweets that came along with the occasion, too, such as katayef, ouwaymet, and qamhyieh.
Barbara is one of the oldest Christian saints. Her story lies somewhere between myth and reality, dating back to roughly to the third century AD, when paganism was sanctioned as the state religion, and Christians were persecuted.
It is said that Barbara was the only daughter of Dioscorus, a wealthy and fervent pagan, who locked his daughter in a tower to keep her safe from the dangers of life. But Barbara knew a thing or two about Christianity already, and she got to be a strong believer in this new faith. This drove her father mad, to the point that he not only punished her, but also tried to kill her.
According to legend, many miracles conspired to save Barbara. The face of a cliff opened for her to hide inside; then, while running across a barren land, rows of wheat sprouted so quickly that she found herself camouflaged in a tall field.
The miracle of the wheat lives on to this day in the dish known as qamhyieh — made of boiled wheat (preferably whole wheat), and served with sugar, orange blossom water, rose water, almonds, walnuts, pine nuts, and raisins — which is traditionally served for the Barbara feast. Every year, in late autumn or early winter, people also prepare “wheat gardens,” by sewing seeds of wheat onto small plates covered with cotton; after a while, they yield a green carpet of small, tender wheat plants in time to serve as Christmas decorations.
These wheat gardens probably stem from the ancient tradition of the Adonis gardens, in reference to the young god of fertility. In times of antiquity, life, death, and rebirth were symbolized each season by wheat seeds that were made to sprout in small plates; they would grow and die in the same plate, a symbol of perpetuity, the cycle of life and death and seasons.
Barbara is said to have been from many places, but for the Lebanese, she is only from Baalbek. Theodosius, the Byzantine emperor who instated Christianity as a state religion, turned one of the Roman temples of Baalbek into a church dedicated to Saint Barbara. Even today, the Greek Catholic Cathedral of Baalbek is dedicated to Saint Barbara. It is believed that Saint Barbara died in Baalbek, and that her remains were taken to Constantinople, then to Venice, and, finally, to Rome.
Quedisse Barbara remains one of the most revered saints in Lebanon, and her feast day, on December 4, but mainly the night before, on December 3, is a highlight for kids everywhere in the country — costumes, songs, dances, katayef, ouwaymet, and qamhyieh are better than pumpkin seeds, no?
Qamhyieh is served for Barbara and also to celebrate a child’s first tooth. It is very easy to prepare: Simply soak the whole-wheat kernels overnight, change the water in the morning, and boil on low heat until the wheat is well cooked and the kernels are cracked and mushy. Serve tepid with sugar to taste, a drop of orange-blossom water, rose water, raisins, pistachios, pine nuts, almonds, and walnuts (all the nuts must be soaked overnight and peeled).
Kebbet batata (potato kibbeh)
Kibbeh comes in many styles and tastes. Ehden (and its winter quarter Zgharta) is the kibbeh capital of Lebanon, boasting more than twenty different versions of meat kibbeh. Kibbeh is mainly made with meat, but there are vegetarian versions, too, especially during the season of Lent, when you’ll find lentil, pumpkin, and potato kibbeh, among others. Kibbeh is a mixture of a finely ground ingredients held together by fine bulgur and aromatized with fresh herbs.
3 large potatoes, boiled
1 small onion
2 sprigs of marjoram
2 sprigs of basil
2 sprigs of mint
1 cup of fine bulgur
Olive oil for serving
Salt, to taste
Soak bulgur in cold water for 30 minutes, then drain excess water.
Mash the potatoes until you have a smooth puree.
In a food processor finely grind the onion and herbs. Add the bulgur so it mixes well with the other ingredients.
Process the bulgur and herbs with the mashed potato to obtain a smooth paste.
Add olive oil if the paste is too thick.
Form dough into ball shapes.
In a frying pan, fry kibbeh in oil for about 10 minutes, or until golden brown.
Drain on paper towels.
Serve with a sprinkle of salt and a drizzle of olive oil.
Tabouleh is as famous as the Cedars of Lebanon. It is the trademark dish of Lebanese cuisine, and one of the most well known in the world, though unfortunately it often comes in odd variations. Tabouleh is a salad made of flat-leaf parsley with a little mint, tomato, and green onion — all chopped very finely — along with fine bulgur, salt and pepper, lemon juice, and olive oil. It is eaten with fresh, crisp leaves of lettuce or cabbage or, in the first days of spring, with tender, freshly picked vine leaves. The secret of a good tabouleh is in the dexterity of the chopping; it’s important that the parsley is cut without being bruised, sliced more than chopped.
2 bunches of parsley
1 small bunch of mint
2 medium-sized spring onions
1 large red and firm tomato
½ cup of fine bulgur
Salt and pepper
Juice of 2 lemons
⅓ cup of olive oil
Romaine lettuce or white cabbage leaves
In a saucepan, pour 1 cup of boiling water over bulgur and stir well. Cover the pan and allow it to stand for 30 minutes, until water is completely absorbed and the bulgur is tender.
Dice the tomato, finely chop the onion, mint and parsley and add to the bulgur.
Dress the tabouleh with lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper, to taste.
Serve with fresh romaine lettuce leaves or tender, crisp white cabbage leaves.
Optional: a great extra for tabouleh is finely diced, green hot pepper, to taste.
The end result should be a fresh, slightly acidic salad — juicy without being drenched.
I stare into the empty black frame of the YouTube video — literally a blank digital slate. The voice is jaunty, conversational, ridiculously awake. I half expect it to offer me a menu of options: Press two for advanced suuub-traction. Press three for looong di-vision.
“I know what you’re thinking: ‘Sal, addition doesn’t seem so basic to me.’ Well, I apologize. Hopefully by the end of this presentation it will seem… basic.”
A low-resolution arrow stutters into the frame.
“Let’s say that I start with an old classic. ONE. PLUS. ONE.” The arrow descends, leaving in its wake a jagged, aliased line — the hasty chicken scratch of a Microsoft Paint scribble. “Now I think you already know how to do this but I’ll show you a way of doing this in case you don’t have this memorized or you haven’t already mastered this.”
Have I not mastered this? Why can’t I look away?
“Well, if I have one” — the arrow draws a rudimentary circle — “let’s call that an avocado. And then you were to give me another avocado.” Another circle, like a face drawn by a seven-year-old. “How many avocados do I now have? Let’s see: one… two avocados!”
The voice digresses. “Now in case you don’t know what an avocado is, it’s actually a very delicious fruit. It’s actually the fattiest of all the fruits. You probably didn’t even think it was a fruit even if you ate one. So let’s say I had three avocados…”
By the end of the nearly eight-minute presentation, the once-empty screen is chock full of scribbles, colors, and information. I am hungry for guacamole. And I have complete mastery of basic addition — as do 171,603 other people around the world.
The voice belongs to Salman Kahn, who wants to pulverize every last ossified notion you’ve ever had about education. And this whip-smart thirty-three-year-old, with three degrees from MIT and an MBA from Harvard, might just do it. Singled out by Bill Gates as the future of education and recently awarded a two-million-dollar grant from Google, Khan is the founder, voice, and sole faculty member of Khan Academy, the most popular educational site on the internet. At last count some twenty-four million people have profited from its online tutorials.
Six years ago, Khan started making videos to tutor his cousin back home in his native New Orleans. Posted to YouTube, the clips acquired a following. Last year, he quit his day job at a lucrative hedge fund to devote himself to churning out videos on subjects ranging from valence electrons to binomial distribution to the Haitian Revolution. His videos are the educational apotheosis of the Internet age: they’re lo-fi, they’re DIY, they’re short, and they’re free. And if Khan has anything to say about it, they might just be the tools for a revolution in schooling — a future of one-room schoolhouses, accelerated learning, and a whole generation of polymaths.
Par Parekh: So are you the product of the typical Indian-American family, with the parents pushing their kids in a math-science direction?**
Salman Khan: I didn’t come from a traditional Desi family of engineers pushing their kids or whatever. My dad was a doctor — that’s why my parents settled in New Orleans. But I didn’t really know him — they divorced when I was two years old, and he passed away when I was thirteen or fourteen. In high school, my mom and step-dad owned a liquor store in Bucktown.
PP: Your parents owned a liquor store?! Your high school friends must have loved you.
SK: Yeah. Our family was much more like, “We’re going to Bourbon Street tonight,” regardless of what you have to do the next morning. So that math-science thing mostly came from the community. When I was growing up, you’d go to the Desi parties and you’d see the kids four or five years older than you, taking the advanced math classes, graduating early from high school, going off to Harvard. So that just kind of entered your brain. I think that’s a much stronger influence than parents will ever be — your peer group.
PP: What was it like growing up in New Orleans?
SK: I think New Orleans is definitely a quirky city. A lot of cities try to be eccentric and cool, but in New Orleans, it’s not even by design, it’s just the way it is. There’s a culture, an eccentricity, that you’ll find in very few places in the world. Everyone’s a little bit crazy there. I don’t know if I can exclude myself…
PP: How did you negotiate the insanity, growing up there?
SK: I was in a heavy metal band.
PP: You… excuse me?
SK: For most of high school. A death metal band, actually. We called ourselves “Malignancy” until we found out there was another band in Florida with the same name. I was the lead singer.
PP: That’s amazing. But you were still quite a good student, I take it? Were there any especially good teachers that you remember?
SK: You know, it’s less the teachers I remember than the students. I was involved in academic teams — quiz bowl, the math team — starting in middle school. At first you get involved to get out of class for a day, but you quickly realize that these kind of extracurricular activities are far more stimulating than anything that goes on in the classroom. I’d say a lot of my love of math came from being in that world, around peers who are challenging you in a very collaborative way.
PP: Did you do any teaching or tutoring back then?
SK: As part of those teams, yeah. In high school I would sit down with a couple of freshmen and say, “Look, guys — I know you’re only in Algebra 2, but there’s going to be calculus at the competition next week, so I’m going to teach you some calculus right now.” I’d like to think Khan Academy is, to a certain degree, a scalable version of that. I’d like to think that everyone now gets Sal as an on-demand peer.
PP: So you see yourself not as a tutor but as a peer of Khan Academy students?
SK: I’m a tutor… but the most valuable tutor, I think, is someone who is just having a conversation with you, without any assumption of mental or experiential superiority. It’s just someone who says, “Hey look, I happen to have some information in my brain that you may not have been exposed to yet. But by the end of this video we’re pretty much going to be at the same point.”
PP: You’re really trying to instill a deeper knowledge in your students. I always feel that learning how to understand things intuitively is more gratifying than memorizing the superficial basics.
SK: I think physics is a good example of that. Especially mechanics. Literally everything can be intuited by, “force equals mass times acceleration” and “acceleration is change in velocity over time.” Now, what you see in physics classes or in physics textbooks is just one formula after another. Those are okay if you’re in some kind of competition, but they’re horrible if you’re really trying to get an intuition of what’s happening. I mean, Newtonian physics is the most intuitive of all subjects — it’s almost hard to make it unintuitive. Yet they do it!
Back in Louisiana I was the physics state champion. I won the whole thing, and honestly all I went with was my intuition. For me, that was confirmation that I was on the right path — I’d look at all these jokers doing all this crazy stuff, and I was just going with this very basic core intuition, and I was able to outperform them. I knew that what I was doing wasn’t genius — it was literally common sense. You almost had to be a genius to process things the other way.
PP: Do you feel like people have a good sense of mathematics?
SK: I feel like there’s so much mathematical illiteracy in this country. People associate math with arithmetic, which is fine — but in my mind they are very fundamentally different things. Arithmetic is one thing, and it’s useful. But all these people who are looking for spirituality and listening to philosophy lectures, trying to get to some core meaning — they’re ignoring mathematics. I mean, look at something like Euler’s Identity, e iπ = −1, and look where it comes from. E comes out of continuous compounding interest, from this one part of reality. And you have pi, which is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter — another part of reality. Then i, an imaginary number invented by engineers because they needed the square root of negative one. And then all of them, connected in this mythical and beautiful way. That type of thing transcends usefulness. I mean, that’s purity, right? There’s no human language obfuscating the truth. You’ll hear people discuss religion or whatever, and they’re like, “What is God?” and they’re really just debating words. People are looking for a higher meaning and it’s right there in front of them. Almost any other description of reality is a superficial one — it’s based on our own senses and notions of causality and time and space. Mathematics is independent of all of that.
PP: Did you have an interest in the humanities? Were you much of a reader?
SK: Actually that’s another pet peeve I have with the education system — science fiction is completely discounted in our education system. I think it’s really important. It makes you question what exists.
PP: Science fiction is the last place that philosophy is being disseminated in exciting ways.
SK: Some people say it should be called speculative fiction. It’s so true. You read something like Asimov’s Foundation, with its characters thinking about history in scales of tens of thousands of years, how societies rise and fall. What our history textbooks fail to do is, they fail to give us massive scope. I’d like to think something like the Khan Academy can help prevent the Dark Age by providing long-lasting access to knowledge. For now it exists on the Internet, which is already this distributed architecture. But eventually it could be put onto little self-powered devices so that even if there were an apocalypse, someone two hundred years from now could dig one up and say, “Oh, wow, what’s this?! Oh, now I can find out how to bring society back!”
PP: What else inspires you?
SK: I’m almost afraid to sound grandiose, but… have you watched the John Adams HBO thing? I don’t want to sound like George Bush saying Jesus is my favorite moral philosopher. But I’ve really come to appreciate how radical those people were. So I would definitely point in that direction — I don’t know if it’s inspiration, exactly, but it gives me hope for what we’re trying to accomplish.
PP: One of the things I love about your videos on the Khan Academy is the way that storytelling and education are so intertwined. Is that something you think about?
SK: I’m trying to introspect a bit more about what’s good and bad about Khan Academy. And I’ve actually been observing other storytellers. There’s an art to storytelling, but you have to be careful. People think being a good teacher means being engaging — everyone is always asking, “How do you keep people engaged?” — but the key thing is communicating knowledge holistically. I’ve been thinking about stand-up comedians — the intersection between people who know the subject matter and people who have really good senses of humor — I think that’s where we might find some of the best teachers.
PP: Are you a specific type of learner? Visual? Auditory?
SK: You know, I don’t really think there’s a lot to those categories, “visual learner” and “auditory learner.” I think good instruction in any one of those formats will appeal to both kinds of people. I used to think that I was a written learner because I would get so lost — or bored — in lectures. Then I would read the books, but the books still weren’t that good. But if someone explains something really well to me? Nothing can beat that. I would say that the way everyone truly learns is by experiencing it for themselves, by actually doing problems. So I think everyone is an action-based learner.
PP: What did your wife think about this when you said, you know, “I’m going to quit my job and do the Khan Academy full-time.”
SK: It didn’t come as a complete shock. It had been an obsession of mine for four or five years before it came to that point. And she was doing a medical residency at the time, so she was pretty busy herself. But you know, every now and then we’d go to a family reunion and I’d just ignore everyone and hide in a closet and everyone would wig out.
The fact is, we’d gotten to a point where we weren’t going to go hungry if I quit my job for a year or two. I don’t want to say I’m a risk-adverse person — I’m a risk-aware person. I went through every iteration of possible circumstances that could happen to us, career-wise, monetary-wise, economic-wise, and at the end of the day I thought making this collection of videos would make my life worthwhile, so I did it.
PP: So your wife knew you had a little crazy streak in you?
SK: Oh yeah, she knew. We met when she was a freshman at MIT and I was a senior. I liked her right away, but she thought I was little bit… you know, I had a certain look that didn’t appeal to her back then. Both my ears were pierced with these fairly large earrings. I mean, I wasn’t an extreme person, but she thought I was… Anyway I ran into her at orientation and I pretty much just put all my cards on the table. And she was kind of weirded out by my forwardness. So, there were a couple of iterations, but she finally gave in. She gets credit for putting up with a lot of things — not just Khan Academy.
PP: How did you choose your subjects? I was looking around on the site and noticed that the history section is all about the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Why those?
SK: I started with the French Revolution because that was something I was eager to learn more about. I kind of understand twentieth-century European history, so it was just a gap in my knowledge. So I started there and my goal was to get through Napoleon. Then I shifted gears into organic chemistry. But I’ll go back and do more. Every now and then, just for fun, I’ll go back into my comfort zones and cover something in finance or electrical engineering that I haven’t covered yet, but a lot of what I’m doing right now isn’t in my traditional comfort zone, and that’s what makes it fun and challenging for me. Right now I’m learning to become an expert in organic chemistry, and maybe figuring out some fundamental questions that the professionals might not have the intuition to know. And the payoff isn’t a grade or a degree, it’s the expression of my understanding in a form that can be consumed by people for the rest of time. It’s a pretty exciting payoff.
PP: What does it mean to be an expert in a field?
SK: I think the qualifications that are required are a good understanding of a topic before you teach it and a good ability to communicate. Being able to be casual. Being able to be freeform, to speak without a script. I mean those are the requirements. Do you need a PhD for that? Absolutely not. History is packed with self-learners who had no formal education but who were great teachers or did great things in their fields. By no stretch of the imagination do I think you need any type of formal credential to be a good teacher. A credential is more of an indicator. If I meet two random people on the street and one is a PhD in physics and one dropped out of high school, there’s a strong indicator that the guy with a PhD in physics is going to be a better physics instructor than the guy who dropped out… but you never know. A credential is just a strong indicator.
PP: Is that what the purpose of a traditional school is — to provide credentials?
SK: I think the education establishment has to clarify what a school is. It’s marketed as a place to learn, but the reality is that everything about school is about credentialing and filtering. In most universities today, especially in the introductory courses, you have these broadcast lectures where kids do two exercises in a vacuum and they take an exam to get a grade and they go to the next concept. Everyone gets one pass at it — it doesn’t matter if you were sick or if your parents were arguing that night or whatever, you have an exam and you get a C and: okay, you’ll never be a doctor. It’s just stupid. The educational system right now is broken. It’s just a huge filtering mechanism. You and I were lucky because we got through the filter okay.
With Khan Academy, kids can learn at their own pace. They can pause a lesson, they can repeat it, they can go back and fill in gaps in their knowledge. You can’t do that in a university. Part of the Khan Academy story is that we’re heavily analytics-focused — every time a kid watches a video or does an exercise, we’re getting data off of that so we can optimize the experience for other students. With the Google grant, we’re doing a whole new software piece, so that once a student gets ten answers in a row correct, it moves them up to the next concept.
Khan Academy isn’t just a video library — it’s practice, feedback, and assessment at the same time. It’s actually silly to do snapshot assessments. It’s so hard for me to talk to people in the education community because they can’t get their heads around this. Shouldn’t assessment be used to figure out what someone should learn next, rather than just labeling them and whisking them off to the next concept even if they don’t have a complete understanding?
So let’s say little Jimmy is twelve and he wants to show MIT, “Look, I know calculus, here’s my data from Khan Academy.” I think that’s far more powerful than saying, “I got an A in calculus.” And there’s a whole other level that we’re just starting to implement, which is peer-to-peer teaching. You learn the most when you are teaching others. You can get a superficial understanding just preparing for an exam, but you get a deeper understanding when you have to teach and re-teach the material, because other students are asking you questions. So if you’re having trouble with one of the videos, you can get help from someone who’s ahead of you in the sequence and who’s been shown to be a very good tutor.
So that’s the direction we’re going. And to my mind, it’s far better than what goes on right now.
PP: So you don’t see a place for examinations or tests like the SAT?
SK: No, no — I think examination is important, but it shouldn’t be tied to artificial milestones. Like, you’re eighteen, so you have to take the SAT. I’m not going to be able to replace the SAT, of course, but if you learn from the Khan Academy, at some point — you might be eight years old or you might be fifty — we’re going to say, “You know what, we think you can take the SAT now,” or “Why don’t you take the GED, you’re ready for it now, you’ll pass.” The approach ought to be, ”Keep learning until you’ve learned it, and once you’ve learned it, go and prove it to the world.”
PP: A lot of people say that technology is actually making kids dumber. They’re on the Twitter, they’re on Facebook too much, they play video games all the time. They’re not processing or learning information like they did back in the days of book learning. What do you think technology is doing for education?
SK: Technology isn’t making people dumber. It’s upped the stakes of what it takes to get someone’s attention. I really think that what technology is doing is this: it’s preventing people from doing boring things. My son is twenty months old and my biggest concern is he’ll become addicted to video games. That’s a legitimate concern. It’s not that technology is making people dumber, but it’s providing a more compelling experience. And there’s a certain risk to that.
But on balance I think it’s a huge opportunity. And, in fact, all of these interactive video games have shown that people can be captivated by technology in a very non-superficial way. So it’s like a wide-open field for something like the Khan Academy to leverage the same kind of tools to get stuff into people’s brains. A huge component of our future programming is going to be simulations and games. I ran a little summer camp here in the summer and I did a market simulation where six kids played Risk and the other twenty kids had an after market, trying to predict how many armies each of the players would have. That was way more captivating for them than any video game. They were all there in person and they learned a ton about markets and information and secondary markets. We were leveraging game mechanics.
Of course, Facebook is just a huge exercise in confirming one’s existence. If I’ve done something on FarmVille or broadcast something on Facebook, I get not only what you could call a false sense of accomplishment, I also get to show it off to my friends, and it confirms my existence. With the Khan Academy, although the content comes first, people should also be able to feel proud that they learned a certain concept, or that they were able to teach a certain concept. People should be able to get fame or notoriety within a certain social circle within a certain social framework.
You know, Apple sent me an iPad — I guess I’m like Kobe Bryant or something. And to watch firsthand as my son, a toddler, interacts with this stuff… he can count to twenty, and I never even taught him how to count to three! We downloaded a bunch of apps, and he plays with them, and he’s learning. The iPad is infinitely patient. Just the other day we heard him in the corner sounding out letters of the alphabet. And it’s all from technology! Some pretty crazy stuff is going to happen in the next ten to fifteen years.
PP: Put on your speculative fiction cap for a second. What do you think’s going to happen to education in the next ten to fifteen years?
SK: Well, I hope to play an active role in it. When my son goes to elementary school, it’ll probably be a one-room schoolhouse. And if it doesn’t exist we’ll probably start it. There’ll be kids of all ages in the same room and they’ll use Khan Academy for one or two hours a day, just to get their core knowledge and core intuition in a lot of subjects. And I’m one hundred percent certain that they are going to learn much faster in those two hours than they would in the traditional model, spending eight hours in class. Then the rest of the day is freed up for really creative stuff — painting pictures and composing music and building robots and writing stories. And I suspect that when these kids are twelve or thirteen they’ll be capable of making original contributions to society, whether it’s in the arts or the sciences. Not only that, but I think it’ll be more original than the contributions we see now, because they won’t have the restrictions of publishing and tenure and all that crap.
There’s always this thought that when kids get accelerated they’ll turn into freaks. But I’m not talking about doing this just to my son — I want to do it for a whole generation.
PP: And how will that accelerated generation differ from the current one?
SK: I look at my wife’s situation. I mean, she’s done it by the book. And we had to plan when our son was going to be born to, like, the month, because she was finishing her fellowship in rheumatology and there was a window of opportunity. But what kind of society is it where you have to say, “Okay, I can have a kid in 2009 because there’ll be six months when I’m not working eighty hours a week.” I think it’s a tragedy. There’s a whole class of people who have deferred gratification for so long that they’ve forgotten what gratification is. Eighty percent of Americans right now would be happier, not with an extra dollar, but with an extra hour. But no one realizes it!
Accelerating people is not about pushing them, it’s about liberating them. It’s amazing how many people think it’s bad if kids learn things faster. They think it’ll be like a pressure-cooker environment. I can’t predict what the total effect will be, but I don’t think it’s anything but positive when you allow people to learn at their own pace, in a no-risk environment, and have them actually learn as opposed to just jump through hoops.
PP: Your approach is getting a lot of attention. Tell me about your number-one fan — Bill Gates.
SK: You know, I was shocked. Bill Gates has watched more videos than anyone I know. He really appreciates Khan Academy, he understands it. He’s a big fan, which was kind of surreal for me. But, he’s a good guy to make happy. I was honestly fairly intimidated meeting him. He is as smart as you think he is. He’s really a product guy — he likes to play with things, so he had a lot of things to say about the software.
From the very beginning of Khan Academy people have been saying, “Why don’t you don’t get more teachers? There’s no way you’re going to be able to scale this thing.” I was expecting Mr. Gates to tell me the same thing, but he actually told me the opposite. He said, “Don’t lose the consistency. The reason this is so far out ahead is because the videos have this consistency. And,” these are his words, “after you watch the calculus videos you feel like watching the chemistry videos, because you want to see how Sal teaches that.” There’s a lot of magic in the story and the personality behind it, and his fear is that if we have a larger team I’ll get distracted and not make videos. Basically I had nothing but positive vibes from him.
PP: And you’ve just got a major Google grant. What are you going to do with that money?
SK: Half of it is for translating the core Khan Academy video library into ten languages. Bidoun is sort of an Arab magazine, right? We’re actively looking for people who can translate or even re-teach the content in other languages. Something like Arabic will have to be re-taught because the writing is just so different. And the people who do the teaching are going to be heroes in the Arabic-speaking world — they will really be able to elevate the level of teaching in the region.
PP: So you’re focusing all of your own energy on making videos?
SK: I’m definitely going to focus the majority of my time on making videos. But I’m not opposed to a future reality where there would be other lecturers at the Khan Academy. I’m one hundred percent certain there will be. I just think they’ll have to be discovered rather than hired. We’re hoping that we can leverage the peer-to-peer teaching program to discover future Sals. But you know, if you know someone who could see themselves doing something like this, they should start making videos. If they make fifty, sixty videos and it looks like this is what they’re meant to do, we’d love to have them join the faculty.
In August 2008, Bloomberg News accidentally published a seventeen-page obituary for Steve Jobs. The text included a list of people to call for quotes in the event of his death, including Al Gore, Bill Gates, an ex-girlfriend, and the California attorney general. A man who has been called “too busy to flush toilets,” Jobs was the young Silicon Valley wire-head who cofounded Apple in his parents’ garage in 1976. Worth $5 billion today, Jobs has helped mould mainstream culture, profited from it, and held stubbornly fast to his vision of the world. Understanding both electronics and desire, Jobs realized that high technology could be designed, packaged, and sold as a lifestyle choice as much as a consumer product.
In his black mock turtleneck, Levi’s 501 jeans, and size fourteen New Balance sneakers, Jobs is an unlikely celebrity, even as he delivers his “Stevenote” speeches at the Macworld Expo, year after year, to thousands of Apple groupies. It is often said that Jobs is surrounded by a “reality distortion field” — a haze of charisma, rhetoric, and indomitable will that can convince anyone of anything. In the Jobs distortion field, phones become iPhones, life becomes iLife, and for everything, there is an app.
Jobs named his company after the Beatles’ record label; the slogan for Apple became, “Byte into an Apple.” A Buddhist vegetarian, Jobs spent time in a hippie commune in Oregon where he only ate apples. At the first Apple Halloween costume party, Jobs dressed up as Jesus. He once went on a blind date with Diane Keaton, and famously went out with Joan Baez.
Jobs rarely laughs, but likes to play pranks. At the launch of the iPhone Maps app, he prank called a Starbucks and ordered 4,000 lattes to go. One year he got the Intel CEO, Paul Otellini, to walk onstage in a bunny suit. Jobs sees the world in binaries — products and people are either “insanely great” or “shit.” Employees are often afraid to ride in the elevator with him. In the Apple parking lot, Jobs routinely parks his Mercedes (which has no license plates) in the handicapped spaces. An anonymous employee once left a note on his car admonishing him to “Park Different.”
At one point during his childhood in Los Altos, California, a twelve-year-old Jobs needed a missing part for an engineering project. He looked up William Hewlett — founder and president of Hewlett-Packard — in the Palo Alto phonebook and gave him a call. After chatting for twenty minutes, Hewlett agreed to send Jobs the missing part, and also offered him a summer job at the company. This was where the young geek began to lose his innocence. “I remember my first day on the assembly line at HP,” Jobs recalls, “I was expressing my complete enthusiasm and bliss at being there for the summer to my supervisor, a guy named Chris, telling him that my favorite thing in the whole world was electronics. I asked him what his favorite thing to do was, and he looked at me and said, ‘to fuck!’ ”
In 1969, fourteen-year-old Jobs met computer whiz Steve Wozniak, or “Woz,” in a neighbor’s garage; at the time, Woz was at work wiring his “Cream Soda Computer,” named for his favorite soft drink. Though Woz was four years Jobs’ senior at Homestead High, they instantly connected over a shared love of microprocessors and pranks, and cemented their friendship by constructing a huge middle finger on the roof of their high school. The pair became phreaks — phone hackers who were able to call all over the world for free by playing certain tones into a telephone receiver. Jobs and Woz had been taken under the wing of John Draper, also known as “Captain Crunch,” who had discovered that the toy whistle included in select boxes of Cap’n Crunch cereal emitted the perfect frequency to hack into AT&T’s systems. Jobs and Woz capitalized on the trick, manufacturing and selling home-phreaking kits called “blue boxes” out of Woz’s University of California, Berkeley dorm room for $150 apiece.
After high school, Jobs went to Reed College but dropped out after a semester. He slept on friends’ floors and would walk miles for free meals at the Hare Krishna temple. He continued taking classes in calligraphy and typography. In 1972, Jobs and Woz worked jobs at the mall dressed as Alice in Wonderland characters for three dollars an hour. In 1974, sporting a shaved head, and wearing a lunghi and a backpack, Jobs took the requisite, hippie soul-searching trip to India with a friend. They visited the Kainchi ashram, slept outside in a flash flood, and hiked for miles to reach the guru Neem Karoli Baba, who turned out to be dead. Then Jobs returned to the States and to his job at Atari, the video game company, still wearing saffron robes. In 1976, in order to fund their nascent company, Jobs and Woz sold their most prized possessions — a Volkswagen Microbus and a Hewlett-Packard scientific calculator, respectively. As Jobs said of his life in 2005, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards.”
Steve Jobs was born on February 24, 1955 to Joanne Carole Schieble and Abdulfattah Jandali; both were twenty-three-year-old, unmarried graduate students at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Abdulfattah, who goes by John, was born in 1931 in Homs, Syria, into a prominent Syrian Muslim family. (The revelation of Jobs’ paternal origins has led many a Syrian on internet chat groups to play “Six Degrees of Steve Jobs.”) Jandali went to college at the American University of Beirut in 1949 and started a doctoral program in political science at Madison in 1953, where he met Joanne, a master’s student in children’s speech development. Joanne Schieble’s family owned a mink farm in the Green Bay area in Wisconsin; today, the site houses a Walmart.
When Schieble became pregnant in 1954, she and Jandali went to San Francisco to have the baby. A week later, they put up Jobs for adoption with the stipulation that his new parents be college graduates. In the end, though, the infant was taken in by Paul Jobs, a tattooed mechanic who had dropped out of high school, and Clara Hagopian, an Armenian American from New Jersey who’d dropped out of college. (Jobs’ mother refused to sign the adoption papers unless they promised that Jobs would go to college.) Incidentally, the future college dropout would also father an illegitimate child at the age of twenty-three. For years, Jobs denied that he was the father of Lisa, leaving his high-school girlfriend, Chris-Ann Brennan, to raise the baby on welfare while he made his first hundred millions.
According to friends of the Schiebles, Joanne’s father threatened to remove his daughter from his will if she married Jandali. Soon after this proclamation, however, Mr. Schieble passed away, and four months later, Schieble and Jandali wedded. They had a second child in 1957, the future novelist Mona Simpson, who did not learn of her brother’s existence until she was twenty-five-years-old. By then, Jobs was worth $150 million and had already been on the cover of Time.
Having completed his doctorate, Jandali became a professor of political science at Michigan State University. Yet after three semesters, he abruptly quit and vanished into the Middle East, abandoning wife, daughter, and career. Schieble and Jandali officially divorced in 1962 while Jandali was back in Syria. Over the next few years, he worked with Palestinian refugees at the UN in Beirut, and in 1967 moved back to the States to take a job as an assistant professor in political science at the University of Nevada. In 1969 Jandali delivered the paper “Some Contemporary Aspects of Arab Foreign Policy” at an academic conference in Hawaii.
In 1971, Jandali took a job at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, teaching a five-week travel course called “Egypt Since the 1952 Revolution,” in which he took eleven American students to Cairo for $1,450 each. In preparation, he made them take Arabic lessons and practice eating exotic foods such as lamb tartare. According to a student on the trip, when they arrived in Egypt, the college students were dismayed at their sleazy hotel with its pay-per-use toilet paper, and were disappointed by the dearth of cultural activities and guest lecturers. On New Year’s Eve, Jandali was spotted gambling away a conspicuously large pile of money at the casino at the Hilton on the Nile; by the morning, he had vanished. Police later determined that he had flown to Cyprus. In the ensuing controversy, Jandali resigned from his position, but left the missing student funds unaccounted for. A 1975 article in the Seattle Times concludes, “He was last known to be living in Las Vegas.”
Now nearly eighty-years-old, Jandali is still in Nevada, living in Reno — at least, he is according to Facebook. It is unknown whether he uses a Mac or PC. He works as the director of food and beverage for the Boomtown Reno Casino, which boasts an all-you-can-eat lobster buffet.
Alia Sabur holds the Guinness World Record for youngest professor, having attained the position of lecturer in the Department of Advanced Technology Fusion at Seoul’s Konkuk University at the age of eighteen. When her IQ was tested in the first grade, it was literally off the scale. She was the kind of student you might instinctively envy, were she not half your age (she started college at Stony Brook University when she was eleven — the same year she conquered Mozart’s “Clarinet Concerto”). You might, then, find her endearing; and yet there’s something more daunting than cute about a four-footer in OshKosh B’gosh doing differential equations (especially one whose last name means “patient one” and is among the ninety-nine monikers of Allah).
Alia, twenty-one, was raised in New York City and Long Island by her parents, Julie and Mark, and is currently pursuing a law degree at Georgetown University. Though she had until recently been dedicated to materials science, a falling out with her PhD adviser at Drexel University — she accused him of using her ideas to apply for grants and patents; he accused her of plagiarism — left her disillusioned. Now she wants to help other students by developing a legal framework for protecting their research — while continuing to play the clarinet and giving inspirational speeches on topics like “the power to make a difference,” “the right choice,” and the “rage to learn.”
Her mother, Julie, who left a job as a TV reporter so that she could manage Alia’s education and escort her to college classes, spoke with Bidoun about the challenges of being (and raising) a child genius.
Alexander Provan: Where are you and your husband from?
Julie Sabur: I’m not going to get into this ethnic stuff except to say that Alia is not Iranian. She’s from New York.
AP: So she has a New Yorker’s drive — not an Iranian’s. Did you and your husband meet in New York as well?
JS: We met and grew up there. We moved to Philadelphia in 2004.
AP: What do you and your husband do for work?
JS: My husband is an electrical engineer, and I was working as a journalist until I began managing Alia’s education full-time.
AP: When did you realize that Alia had special abilities intellectually?
JS: She started reading when she was eight months old. We were first-time parents, so we didn’t think too much of it.
AP: Really? That seems like it would be a shock, regardless. One day she just figured it all out?
JS: Yeah, suddenly she just burst out with words. You know — street signs, cars, food in the supermarket, books.
AP: And this wasn’t because you had been reading Moby Dick to her every night or anything.
JS: No. We didn’t even say, “That’s Barbie.” We didn’t talk to her or teach her or anything like that. It was a total surprise. She just started doing it.
AP: Did you have to send her to school early because of this?
JS: She went to a regular preschool in the neighborhood — we lived in Long Island. It was not a school for accelerated or gifted children. By the time she was three, she started asking for a “learning” school. We sort of — what’s the word? — cajoled her, because we felt that she needed to be in normal school. So she did, and she got what we were told was the right amount of socialization. She found it weird — not weird, but she would notice that when the students would sit in a group and the teacher would read the words on a blackboard, Alia could read the words and the others couldn’t. But mentally she didn’t make a big deal of this. She just thought, “Oh well, I can and they can’t. No big deal.” She was just a little kid. Then we visited this other preschool where they had computers in the library, and after that it was kind of hopeless. Alia wanted to go to the learning school with the computers. Period. The elementary school in our district told us that she should go there, because the kindergarten she was in was not academic at all — they would just be teaching kids the letters of the alphabet. That was not the place for her.
AP: How did you weigh the value of Alia being challenged academically against her socializing in a normal way?
JS: After preschool she would go with her dad to the library, where she read and played with computers and puzzles and had a little reading group with kids who were older then her. That seemed to be okay. And then we had books and magazines at home — whatever normal adult stuff was around. We didn’t really think about it that much initially. When she started to read novels when she was two, we thought it was cool but a little weird.
AP: But at a certain point you run out of age-appropriate books for two-year-olds. And then you have to decide whether or not you want to expose your daughter to certain facts of life in books made for older kids, which she may not understand. A two-year-old doesn’t have a lot in the way of context.
JS: Oh, she read with full comprehension. It wasn’t just words. She didn’t read historical novels or anything — she was reading Charlotte’s Web. I guess these books weren’t age-appropriate, because people don’t read at all when they’re two, but they were non-disturbing or non-historical books. She was really interested in science, so she would read her dad’s Popular Mechanics.
AP: Had she already decided that she wanted to go into the sciences?
JS: My husband likes to do handy stuff. When he was building our porch at the time, Alia would walk around with a little baby screwdriver and hammer and take measurements. She would say, “Daddy, inches?” And then she would tell him how many inches. That was adorable. Then he would ask her for nails or screws and she would give them to him. She knew the difference between the various sizes — I have no idea how. We didn’t make a big deal about it. And, later, when people did make a big deal about it, Alia became uncomfortable.
AP: She recently completed work on her materials science and engineering PhD at Drexel. Was she interested in that field when she was this young?
JS: She became really interested in nuts and bolts and how things worked. She would watch a lot of do-it-yourself TV shows about construction and home repair. She read the Time-Life books. And she just became fascinated with all aspects of science, from astronomy to mechanical engineering. She later became very interested in theoretical physics and, additionally, applied physics. Her fascination was in how things work. And it ended up manifesting itself in physics and math.
AP: She was in elementary school at this point?
JS: Yeah. The teachers at her school found it very difficult, because she had gone past the elementary school curriculum. She was so advanced in every subject that they just couldn’t manage. It was nice socially but useless academically. They would give her words for spelling that were baby words. Every teacher had to be retrained. They would try to slow her down and have her do a second year of fourth-grade math, which is like telling someone who passed an AP exam, “Oops, sorry, you have to do that again.” So they advised us to go to the elementary school with more resources.
AP: Obviously this is every parent’s dream to some degree: to have a kid who’s really smart and is achieving a lot at a young age. But at a certain point you must recognize that, as exciting as it may have been, it was going to be a challenge for you.
JS: Education was a challenge. In the elementary school she ended up going to, there was a very creative principal who was willing to take risks, and he sent her to the high school for a lot of classes, with an aide. This was when she was seven. But she didn’t want to miss her social times, like when they did art, gym, and lunch.
AP: And that didn’t make her socially anxious?
JS: No, it was the best of both worlds.
AP: This was around the time she started playing the clarinet seriously.
JS: She picked up the clarinet at the end of first grade. The only other instruments that were small enough for her to play were the violin or the flute. She chose clarinet because she had watched The Benny Goodman Story on TV and heard him play things like “Sing, Sing, Sing,” but also because of the Mozart “Clarinet Concerto.” She made it her mission to play the “Clarinet Concerto,” and she listened to it over and over and over again.
AP: This was one of the many activities she did after she had basically finished high school but was still stuck in fourth grade?
JS: Yeah, for the entire year of fourth grade she did nothing. She would bring books from home and go to the library to read them. She started doing calligraphy. That was the year that she really worked on her clarinet. And got her black belt.
AP: Her black belt?
JS: She started doing tae kwon do when she was six and got her black belt when she was nine. Well, this happened at her ninth birthday party, so some people say she got it when she was eight.
AP: Sounds like a rough year.
JS: At the end of every school year she’d look back and review it, evaluating what had happened.
She always really liked elementary school. She had a decent amount of friends, she knew everybody — it was a really nice experience. They celebrated her difference there — they didn’t make her feel weird at all. But at the end of the fourth grade, when she looked back, she had mixed feelings. She felt like she’d been deprived of an education.
AP: Had the blessing of her being gifted become something of a low-level curse?
JS: We realized that it was a blessing — and not a curse — that would involve some challenges. And I would say “accelerated” is a better word than “gifted” — or, prodigious, because that’s what it really was. We never really considered her gifted, because that had all kinds of connotations to it. I don’t like the word. We considered her a prodigy. That’s our personal approach, our philosophy.
AP: As she’s grown up, Alia’s become increasingly interested in using her considerable talents to help others. She was teaching in Korea recently, but before that, in 2008, she taught math and physics at Southern University at New Orleans, which had been devastated by Katrina, with all the classes being held in trailers. She also spent some time recently trying to devise a solution for plugging the BP’s oil well in the Gulf. And she’s also… working on a cure for cancer?
JS: Well, from the time she was little, she liked being nice to kids, especially kids who needed extra attention. And I think it was just because she was sensitive to those kinds of kids, and it offended her to see others treat them poorly. She found it a challenge to… some people hate math, and she found it very rewarding to work with students who despise math and wanted to run out of the room when they saw a formula and work with them until, at the end of they day, they told her that they liked it.
AP: I’ve read that her interest in working in the hard sciences has waned since a recent episode with her PhD advisor at Drexel — she accused him of plagiarizing her work and he, in turn, accused her of plagiarism.
JS: The advisor derailed her PhD, even after she was exonerated from all wrongdoing. You don’t charge a scientist of any age with misconduct unless you’re absolutely sure, because a scientist’s life is based on her credibility. She was falsely accused because — I can’t say much more because it’s in binding arbitration. So it’s over, but it’s not really over.
AP: This must have come as quite a shock.
JS: Yeah, this happened when she was eighteen, and she was devastated. She’d been studying science since she was two. This made her realize that some scientists are more focused on greed and selfishness. They’re not there to teach. They kill and murder each other to get more money for research. Right now PhD students aren’t protected by the law, and their advisers have absolutely no one to answer to — they’re totally autonomous. And since there’s no educational malpractice from kindergarten to the PhD level, they get away with it.
So Alia decided to get a law degree — she’s in her first year at Georgetown — to see if there was some way that she can change that, and give people some way of protecting their work.
Allah has spread the earth for us as a beautiful carpet on which to prostrate. In prostration we come nearer than near and we go nearer than that. When we rise up, ready to serve, we carry the experience of prostration within us. Then we see the face of the Beloved everywhere.
—Sheikha Fariha al-Jerrahi, “The Nur Ashki Jerrahi Dervishes”
By the time the auctioneer’s gavel fell, marking the bankrupt denouement of the Dia Art Foundation’s heroic first decade, the obituaries were already being written. All the elements were in place for what Phoebe Hoban in New York Magazine dubbed “Dallas in SoHo”: an elusive oil-money dynasty in turmoil; a wayward heiress; an archipelago of prime real estate sites, transformed into shrines. There were big egos and even bigger lawsuits, featuring angry titans of the American contemporary art scene, high-flying dreamers suddenly dispossessed by an arts foundation like no other.
Launched under several aliases and in near-secrecy in 1974, Dia was the well-funded lovechild of a German art visionary named Heiner Friedrich and Philippa de Menil, a strikingly beautiful spiritual seeker and youngest scion of the Schlumberger oil fortune. De Menil’s largesse had created a kind of refuge from the speculative market in art then taking shape in New York, and a new canon of monumental, spiritually charged epics: a SoHo gallery floor buried, permanently, with black earth; a hollowed-out volcano, transformed into a science-fictional archaeo-astronomical laboratory for perceptual flight; a Promethean bed of nails poking dangerously into the desert sky, awaiting some gargantuan penitent.
Asceticism on such a scale is expensive: in 1979 alone, Dia purchased Bob Whitman’s performance space on West 19th Street; an old church in Bridgehampton for the Dan Flavin Art Institute; a castle in Garrison, New York (also for Dan Flavin); and a decommissioned army base in Marfa, Texas, for Donald Judd. The foundation spent some four million dollars on a veritable drone-abbey for La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela, and their teacher Pandit Pran Nath at 6 Harrison Street in TriBeCa. With an annual operating budget of $500,000 and a staff in the dozens, the “Dream House” featured sound and light displays designed to induce altered states of consciousness, living quarters, recording facilities, and a performance space. In the space of a few years, Dia had built itself an instant empire of permanent installations, one-man museums, avant-garde cloisters, and desert redoubts.
But it took even less time to come apart. Amid falling share prices and rumors of an investigation of financial improprieties by New York’s attorney general, a group of concerned de Menils had launched a coup in 1984, replacing the original board with a respectable firewall of uptown lawyers and suits, putting much of Dia’s real estate and art holdings on the auction block and sequestering Philippa’s money in a trust. The stage was set for an epic confrontation between the suits and the dreamers… that never quite came to pass. The enigmatic Friedrich quit New York, disappeared into a wandering, art-mad exile; Philippa de Menil, the embattled heiress, had long since ceased to exist. In 1980, the woman she was had become a Sufi dervish named Fariha al-Jerrahi, and when the house of Dia fell, she moved on.
Sitting across from her now, amid photographs and Turkish rugs in a rambling old bohemian mansion on a hilltop in Yonkers, I’m almost reluctant to bring up those years. It had taken me many months to persuade her to give an interview, an extended negotiation with her assistant that settled into a rhythm of deferral: yes, Fariha al-Jerrahi was open to the idea of meeting with me, but it would take time. The Sheikha, he said, was in Istanbul this month. The Sheikha was on a retreat with her dervishes. The Sheikha was out of town. I assured him that I wasn’t interested in raking the muck of Dia’s internal politics; he assured me that the Sheikha would never talk about that, in any case. Yet here we were, talking about the evening in February 1985 when one era ended and a new one mysteriously began.
It wasn’t the impending sale of the Twomblys and Warhols that she recalled to me, though, nor Judd’s enraged legal wranglings, nor even the first meeting of Dia’s new board, presided over by her conservative sister-in-law. It wasn’t the death of the Dia dream, either; it was the death in Istanbul, half a world away, of Sheikh Muzaffer Ozak, the nineteenth spiritual leader of the Halveti-Jerrahi Sufi order. What transpired that night wasn’t “Dallas in SoHo”; it was the occult lifting of the bridal veil on Sheikh Muzaffer’s soul, its absorption into God’s divine love and mercy — a moment, she said, when even the angels wept. That month also witnessed the quiet shuttering of a most unusual mosque, the Masjid al-Farah. Perhaps the only mosque in the world kitted out with Dan Flavin light installations, the space, a vast converted firehouse on Mercer Street, pushed the metaphysical tendencies of the early Dia Foundation to their logical limit: the Masjid al-Farah was a permanent installation in the heart of lower Manhattan, an avant-garde Sufi lodge for the ages.
The story, as Sheikha Fariha tells it, begins with her mother, Dominique de Menil, and a vow she made to her husband, John. The couple had begun collecting art in the 1940s at the insistence of Father Marie-Alain Couturier, a Dominican priest and “radical Christian,” in the Sheikha’s words. Couturier was a vigorous advocate for the place of modern art in the Catholic Church, the force behind a midcentury chapel-building spree in France that included famous commissions for Henri Matisse and Le Corbusier, among others. He was also the force behind the best-known legacy of the de Menils’ arts patronage, a chapel in Houston housing fourteen canvases by Mark Rothko. Stripped of explicit references to any formal religion, the de Menils envisioned the Rothko Chapel — which opened in 1971, a year after its eponymous creator’s suicide — as an ecumenical temple of the spirit, an open space for believers and nonbelievers alike. “Truthfulness, that’s the main quality to seek in anything,” Fariha says of Couturier’s influence on her parents, “whether that’s in a spiritual path, whether that’s in art, in life: truthfulness.” As part of chapel’s inauguration, the de Menils conducted a far-ranging interfaith outreach program, visiting with representatives of the world’s major religions.
It was in that context that the de Menils attended a performance by a group of whirling dervishes from Turkey. John de Menil was impressed; shortly before his death in 1973, he made his wife promise she would bring them back. Four years later, Dominique was working out the details of an American tour with Tosun Bayrak, a Turkish translator and author. Philippa was there, and her brief conversation with Bayrak changed her life. “The Mevlevis are wonderful,” he told her, referring to the Rumi-inspired order of dervishes that had made such an impression on her father. “But you should meet my Sheikh.” Bayrak was a devoted follower of Sheikh Muzaffer Ozak, and when he said the name aloud she felt a mysterious recognition, like the fragrance of Joseph’s garment. She saw him for the first time soon after, at a traditional Turkish dhikr, a Sufi ceremony that involves chanting, singing, and movement; the name literally means “remembrance of God.” She says she felt then that she was seeing the living Christ surrounded by the apostles. When she saw the Sheikh again a few days later at the home of an American Sufi, he was singing. It was his grave and powerfully affective voice that overwhelmed her, she says, awakening in the ear of her soul the genetic remembrance of the most beautiful sound: the word of God, asking, Alastu birabbikum, “Am I not your Lord?” In an interview from 1978, Sheikh Muzaffer extolled “the beauty of that sound, the memory of which still lives in man and in all creation, and makes us tender to beautiful sounds.”
The meeting proved fortuitous not only for Dia’s cofounder, but for Muzzafer and his order as well: the Halveti-Jerrahi Sufis’ historically close association with the arts and the Ottoman elite had found a New World analogue in this extravagant patron of the most spiritually adventurous fringe of the downtown art scene. What’s more, Sheikh Muzaffer had had a prophetic dream that the United States was poised at a kind of threshold, and that it was his destiny to bring Islam there, to a city, New York, whose social and religious multiplicity represented the crucible of a new humanity in a “space beyond religions.” It was foreordained: a veritable princess of the underground, in a grand act of renunciation, became a faqir, a pilgrim, and a stranger.
And then she died, in a manner of speaking. Every dervish, the Sheikha tells me, must “die before she dies,” shedding the external forms of identity that constitute the “lower self” — a principal source of attachment in a world characterized by impermanence, longing, and loss — and gradually realizing a kind of supreme identity with Allah, the uncreated Creator, the primum mobile, behind and beyond all names and forms. Indeed, the personal journey of each dervish is a kind of extended sacrifice of the lower self, involving ever finer shades of depersonalization, beginning with the “handtaking” ceremony that attaches her to her sheikh and proceeding through adherence to the sunnah of the prophet Mohammed — fasting during Ramadan, for example, and performing the salat or Muslim prayer five times a day — to ever more gnostic forms of selflessness, culminating in the blissful annihilation of the rational, calculating lower self and the complete harmonization of the individual heart with God’s inscrutable will. Perhaps this oft-repeated injunction — “you must die before you die” — helps explain why convincing the Sheikha to grant me an interview was so difficult; she is long past the point of being profiled.
By the time she’d shed her born identity, Fariha and her coconspirator Heiner Friedrich had presided over a far-reaching intervention in the American contemporary art scene, funding and making possible projects of a scale and ambition that the market could never support — and which, in their grappling with outsize questions of spirit, struck some outside observers as pretentious and grandiose. When you consider the way in which these two gestures were intertwined — the removal of the art-market’s constraints and the pursuit of metaphysical truth — it’s no surprise that so much of Dia’s history played out in chapels. Friedrich himself remembers conceiving the idea of Dia in 1957, a nineteen-year-old alone in the sepulchral interior of Padua’s fourteenth-century Scrovegni Chapel. Frescoed by the artist Giotto into a Dantean dream theater of the Christian cosmos, the chapel seems to inhabit its own idiosyncratic temporal order, an apocalyptic present where disparate strands of forever intersect, the circles of hell and the unblinking celestials staring down from among the stars in the ceiling’s azure midnight. Standing there overwhelmed, the pilgrim Friedrich fell into an amour fou for eternities not easily realized, for visions and schemes exalted by their very impossibility, situated outside the ordinary economy of things.
The economy of things was an especial concern for Friedrich’s Renaissance forebear Enrico Scrovegni. Scrovegni was heir to the fortune of a man whom his contemporary, the poet Dante, portrayed in The Inferno as the arch-usurer of the age, hung in a noose tied from his money-bag, tortured eternally (right next to the sodomites). According to Dante, usury is a perversion of God’s will because it runs counter to both Nature and Art: God spends, Nature spends, the artist spends, the patron spends. But the usurer hoards. A man, insofar as he calculates, buys, sells, and takes a profit, becomes a slave to things. The chapel in Padua was Scrovegni’s expiation for this sin, a sacrificial gift born of his father’s accursed interest. It was a confession, and an emulation of the divine: a gift so far beyond bounds that a kind of escape velocity was achieved. It was a gesture at once ascetic and grandiose, penitent and self-aggrandizing, austere and opulent. When Heiner Friedrich visited, he saw in the chapel a cosmic marriage of patron, artist, theme, and real estate: he saw Dia.
In 1972 Friedrich arrived in Houston, Texas, where he talked one of Dominique de Menil’s assistants, a young curator named Helen Winkler, into letting him spend the night inside the newly completed Rothko Chapel. He emerged the next day, talking excitedly in his heavily accented English, astounding Winkler with his synesthetic understanding of the paintings. Friedrich’s night alone in the chapel not only gave him a glimpse of what John Ruskin’s “fiery cross of truth” might look like on American soil, it also procured his introduction, via Winkler, to the de Menils’ youngest daughter. And with that meeting, Friedrich’s impossible Paduan daydream became, suddenly, inevitable. The Dia Art Foundation was incorporated soon after, led by Friedrich, Philippa de Menil, and Winkler.
Dia’s projects — the effable ones, that you might see in a gallery — were few in number, and the ones that de Menil preferred consisted of the sort of work that the speculators and gallery-scene critics tended to regard with a cynicism bordering on contempt. “The Emperor’s New Cat Box” was the headline of Thomas Hess’s venomous New York magazine review of Walter De Maria’s Earth Room, a 1977 installation that exemplified the uncompromising impracticality and austere, almost ascetic, formalism that typified the many of Dia’s artists. Earth Room buried a Dia-funded white-cube gallery at 141 Wooster Street beneath 280,000 pounds of moist Long Island dirt, creating a breathing and humid hothouse, fecund and material, sheeted into epochal layers like a cross-section drawing in a geology textbook. Art historian Julie Sylvester, interviewed in 1996, recalled going to the opening, “thinking there would be a crowd. There was no one but this German guy in a well-cut raincoat whispering to himself, ‘I zink we must make dis permanent.’ Dia purchased a new, bigger gallery for Friedrich, designed by the architect Richard Gluckman, and Earth Room became an exhibition in perpetuity.
1977 was also the year that De Maria completed Lightning Field, perhaps the most iconic Dia project, a precisely gridded array of four hundred stainless steel rods, poking at the New Mexico sky from a rectangle of land measuring a mile on one side, a kilometer on the other. Lightning Field takes the faqir’s spiny bed into the flat plains of the western high desert and scales it exponentially upward, reimagining the artwork not as an object of detached contemplation but as a site of pilgrimage. (Complete with an elaborate and sometimes cryptic set of rules — a code of conduct limits the number of visitors to six at a time, all of whom are required to spend the night in a simple cabin on the property, eating only vegetarian meals and maintaining an atmosphere of decorum.) The air above its colossal bed of nails calls forth concentrated pulses of cosmic energy, thunderbolts, the laughter of the gods. In its layout, the clean modernity of the kilometer collides with the storied, irrational mile, the grounded Cartesian subject with the blinding natural disaster of an infinite, immanent object, channeled and summoned like a monster from the other side of time. De Maria turns the desert wastes into a theater where such collisions are conjured, where the I, stripped down to the sensory bone, dies a kind of death.
The Sheikha is the first to admit that her time at Dia prepared the way for Sheikh Muzaffer’s American mission and her subsequent retreat from the world of contemporary art. But a broader cultural shift was under way, as well, exemplified by the rising New Age movement, the emergence of so-called World Music pioneered by Brian Eno and Jon Hassel, and the growing acceptance of non-western religious traditions in academia and popular culture. Primed by earnest comparative religion programs in the universities, by anthologies of Hindu and Buddhist “scripture,” and by Book of the Dead–inspired acid trips — even, finally, by the spread of yoga — many of the baby boomers in New York’s downtown loft scene fetishized “the East,” a fuzzy geographical abstraction inherited from earlier generations, as the antithesis of the materialist, technological West. But by 1978, the year Edward Said called attention to the peculiarly self-serving history behind this way of describing the world in his book Orientalism, the East was a geographical abstraction thickly, impressively peopled with self-appointed spokesmen, wanderers, and expats — men like Muzaffer, or like Pandit Pran Nath, whose Dia-funded concerts merged trance-inducing drone electronics with virtuosic, albeit idiosyncratic, Hindustani vocal performance. It was all part of a plan, the Sheikha says, the mystical preparation for the advent of a dervish America.
No one embodied all of these currents better than Lex Hixon, an American-born one-time radio-show host and comparative religion scholar who became the spiritual head of New York’s dervish community after Sheikh Muzaffer’s death in 1985. As Sheikh Nur al-Jerrahi, Hixon forged a uniquely and explicitly American adaptation of Muzaffer’s traditional Ottoman-style Sufism, informed by his studies and his previous spiritual adventures in Tantric Hinduism (especially his devotion to the goddess Kali). By the end of his life, Hixon had also been initiated in some form or other into Tibetan Buddhism, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and Soto Zen, and he continued to publish translations, scholastic commentaries, and mystical and devotional texts for all of the above after becoming a dervish. Fariha felt that Hixon’s succession as leader of the downtown Sufis was the realization of a grand cosmic plan — Sheikh Muzaffer’s dream — for a new Islam, freed from the interpretations of the black-robed “doctors of the faith” and the repressive accretions that had come to obscure its radiant essence in so many parts of the traditional Muslim world. This Islam, promulgated by what they now called the Nur Ashki Jerrahi order, was a mystical phoenix on the rise in Lower Manhattan.
It is difficult to say with any certainty which of his many religious affiliations Hixon identified with most closely; to the Nur Ashki Jerrahis he will always remain Sheikh Nur al-Anwar al-Jerrahi, the light of lights, and the Pir of the New Humanity. Of all the charismatic religious teachers Hixon had interviewed during his thirteen-year run as the host of a New Age radio show called In the Spirit — a an illustrious group that included the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa, among many others — it was Sheikh Muzaffer Ozak who turned him from interviewer into lifelong devotee. In 1979, Hixon went to Istanbul and spent the month of Ramadan with Muzaffer and his dervishes in the Bayazit mosque, listening to the recitation of the Qur’an. Sitting there by his sheikh’s side, Hixon received the first of his own prophetic dervish-dreams, a vision of a cosmic Qur’an written in radiant, golden light, chanting itself in an emerald mosque beyond the highest paradise. The vision was the sign of what was to come: his initiation as a Sufi, and his transformation, in 1980, into Sheikh Nur. “It was like a Shams and Mevlana meeting,” Sheikha Fariha told me, referencing the Sufi poet better known as Rumi and his beloved companion Shams. “And just as a man and woman coming together can produce a child, two mystics coming together can produce a whole new civilization, a spiritual civilization,” she said. In Nur and his visions, the Sheikha had discovered an avenue for transcendence more powerful than Lightning Field, and her investment in the arts, and in Dia, began to wane.
If Fariha’s stories — and those that attend the early years of Dia, in general — all seem to have the air of myth, it’s no accident: on the pilgrim’s road, every encounter is portentous, every mishap a blessing in disguise. The vicissitudes that beset and transform us, seemingly at random, organize themselves into webs fraught with meaning. Indeed the figure of the sacred wanderer is an important one for the Nur Ashki Jerrahis, for whom life on Earth comprises a nested, interrelated set of pilgrimages: an inner journey that leads from head to heart; more conventional travels to Istanbul and Konye, as well as the Hajj; and finally, peregrinations around an America remapped according to an idiosyncratic sacred geography, with New York City at its center — the esoteric setting for the advent of what the Sheikha calls “the New Humanity.” In this sense, Nur Ashki Jerrahi theology is continuous with the westering impulse that runs through so many American mythologies. But seen from another angle, the order’s adaptation of Turkish-style Sufi practice to its American context — the translations of the tariqat’s sacred texts, the relaxation of the formal etiquette that typifies interactions between sheikh and dervish, the explicit feminization of the order, both in terms of its hierarchy and its conception of the Creator — is typical of the way that Sufi Islam has spread for centuries. Whether in the jungle wilds of Mughal India’s Bengal frontier, the marabouts’ desert fortresses in Western Sahara, or indeed in the Ottoman dervish lodges once common throughout the Balkans, successful Sufi teachers have always shown a genius for adapting to local linguistic, religious, and cultural contexts. Sufism — or Sufisms — tend to unsettle naive notions of religious identity, creating compelling hybrid forms of spiritual practice at once deeply Islamic and profoundly subversive of censorious desert traditions.
Not that the Nur Ashki Jerrahis feel they have anything to hide: for Sheikha Fariha and her followers, their practice is not simply a form of Islam, it is Islam itself. Stripped of its Sufi heart, she tells me, Islam ceases to be beauty, becomes something more like a prison, ossified and empty. But Islam is, in a narrow sense, ultimately a means to an end: Sheikh Nur called it “Universal Islam,” by which he meant an Islam beyond religion, a utopian “open space” in which all of the world’s sacred traditions — and all of their initiates — fall in love, dance, and dissolve into each other: the friars and the yogis and the dervishes. As he sang, “Sun that rises from the East awakens now within the West… Eagle soaring in the West, True Kaaba whirling in the West.”
In the brief annals of the Nur Ashki Jerrahi order, few stories are as exemplary as the tale of Sheikh Nur’s pilgrimage to another pivotal node in the sacred map of the Americas — to Tepeyac in Central Mexico, seeking permission from none other than the Virgin of Guadalupe to bring his Sufi order to that country.
According to Sheikha Amina al-Jerrahi — leader of the now-thriving Nur Ashki Jerrahi community in Mexico City — Sheikh Nur “felt guided to go to Mexico” in 1987. An ordinary religious leader may well have started his mission abroad with a visit to the municipal authorities, or perhaps sought out communities of Muslim immigrants who might be thought to be most receptive to his teachings. Sheikh Nur, as it happens, sought out a group of the indigenous circle-dancing concheros — a troupe of ritual dancers who trace their ancestry to pre-Columbian mystics — to serve as his companions, along with Sheikha Amina and Sheikha Fariha. Nur also brought along a holy relic — a hair from the beard of the prophet Mohammed. “The first thing that he did was to go to the Virgin and ask the Virgin for permission to found the tariqat, to open the order there,” Sheikha Amina said.
This wasn’t as odd as you might think. The Virgin Mary — Hazreti Maryam, as Sheikha Fariha refers to her, using a Turkish-derived Islamic honorific — and her prophetic son are objects of reverence throughout the Muslim world. Indeed, Sheikh Muzaffer himself wrote a book of meditations on the Virgin under his penname, Ashki. Sheikha Fariha refers to a saying of the prophet that promises the Virgin Mary to the prophet Mohammed as his bride, in paradise. Bringing the prophet’s relic to the shrine at Guadalupe “was like bringing the beloveds together,” she says. “And so he set her on fire with love. And she opened the way for Nureddin Jerrahi.”
But Sheikh Nur was not simply interested in the marriage of Christian and Muslim conceptions of Mary: he was drawn, too, to the mestizo character of the Virgin’s shrine at Tepeyac, where pre-Christian iconography and ritual practice survive to this day, adorned with the icon’s Catholic trappings. For Sheikh Nur, the ardent student of Hindu divinity, the Virgin of Guadalupe must have seemed like an American Devi, a super-goddess accommodating the holy continent’s diverse sources of sacred power in the folds of her raiment: the indigenous shaman’s dances, the Sufi prophet’s dreams, and the Catholic hymns of the true believer. She grants wishes to grandmothers and children, blazes with the mystical fire of love. She reveals esoteric truths. In Mexico, she is the matrix for a sense of belonging that supersedes the affective bonds of caste, color, and creed. Little wonder, then, that Sheikh Nur named the home of the order in Mexico City Mezquita Maria de la Luz — Mosque of the Luminous Mary. In Mexico, Nur attracted new followers by holding dhikr ceremonies, by interpreting his disciples’ dreams — among the Sheikh’s titles is “dream-key to the dream-lock” — and by composing an extraordinary set of Sufi hymns in Spanish (a language he did not know) by sitting down with a set of vocabulary words and engaging in a kind of divinely inspired automatic writing.
“Mexico was Nur’s Medina,” Sheikha Fariha tells me over tea in her home, high above Yonkers, “just as this house was Sheikh Muzaffer’s.” She laughs. “New York was Mecca, for both of them.” Nowhere was the city’s centrality to the order more spectacularly evident than in the original home of the Masjid al-Farah at 155 Mercer Street in SoHo, a cathedral-size space that split the difference between what was already becoming known as “The Dia Look” — spare and modern — and the traditional interiors of Istanbul’s magnificent mosques. The purchase itself was controversial: the building’s new owners were contractually obligated to use the space as a home for modern dance performance, a restriction inserted by the local community board to encourage famed choreographers Alwin Nikolais and Murray Louis to take possession of the property. But the Dia foundation outbid them. Neighbors complained that the building, despite its Dan Flavin light installations and its auditorium, seemed to play host to a single style of dance, characterized by circling, planetary orbits — one whose modernity was by no means a settled matter. The Masjid al-Farah was a building whose use finally, and perhaps fatally, blurred the already fuzzy line between the sacred and the secular in Dia’s reenchanted alt-modernity. When the new Dia board assembled in 1985, the mosque was closed, and the fledgling Nur Ashki Jerrahi dervish order, led by Sheikh Nur, found its present home on West Broadway. Sometime around then, they started calling the space the Dergah al-Farah.
Nowadays the little storefront, wedged between restaurants on a busy street in TriBeCa, is practically invisible every day but Friday. On Fridays the Dergah’s spry, bushy-browed prayer-leader, Imam Faisal Rauf, would draw overflow crowds for the communal afternoon salat. They had to schedule three separate sessions in order to accommodate all of the worshippers; the small bathroom upstairs was trashed by all the ablutions. Perhaps it was his many years delivering the khutbah, or sermon, in such cramped quarters that inspired Rauf and his friend Sharif el-Gamal, a real-estate developer and Friday regular, to dream of a vastly larger space, a thirteen-floor community center, dervish lodge, and prayer space — a project they have called at various times Cordoba House and Park 51, though it is better known, inaccurately, as the “Ground Zero Mosque.”
But the relationship between the Nur Ashki Jerrahis and the masses of faithful who attend the mosque’s Friday salat is complicated. Reflecting the city’s shifting demographics, they are mostly men, and mostly migrants from Muslim countries for whom the order’s beliefs and practices — along with its leader’s gender — are heterodox in the extreme. There is little, if any, overlap between the community that gathers at sunset Tuesdays and Thursdays and the Friday visitors, a distance that clearly troubles Sheikha Fariha. Although Imam Rauf is a Sufi sheikh, too, he is not of the Nur Ashki Jerrahis: after Sheikh Muzaffer’s passing, Rauf and a handful of more conservative dervishes (including Sheikh Tosun Bayrak, the translator who introduced Philippa de Menil to his beloved sheikh so many years ago) opted not to follow Sheikh Nur. Of Rauf, the Sheikha observes, “He did not go through Nur, and that makes a big difference.”
Rauf left the Dergah al-Farah a year ago. Perhaps navigating the tiny space was too unwieldy for the busy imam, but for Sheikh Nur it was a “jewel box.” It sits like a heart, hidden away amid a city that Fariha sees as the very model for peaceful coexistence, a Noah’s ark for a world poised at the brink of catastrophe. “Look at all the religious teachers that have come here,” she says. When Sheikh Muzaffer first visited, he led a group of dervishes in Muslim prayer at the World Trade Center. Sheikh Nur liked to say that the Twin Towers were Muzaffer’s minarets, while the Empire State Building— where the former Lex Hixon had broadcast his radio interview with the Turkish mystic — was his minbar, or pulpit. For a Nur Ashki Jerrahi dervish, the whole world is a prayer carpet; but New York is particularly sacred. When I raise the question of 9/11 and “ground zero,” Fariha becomes passionate. She finds it especially appalling that commercial spaces — rental properties and real estate — are being built at the site. “It is absolutely holy ground! But it isn’t being treated as holy ground.” There are competing sacred geographies at work, to be sure, but even more, there are radically different notions of what we owe to the dead. Dia’s beautiful dervish-founder says the answer is simple: we owe them our love, and a sacrifice.
I joined the dervishes and their Sheikha recently for the Tuesday evening meshq ceremony. It’s a low-key affair, unlike events held there on Thursdays. Everyone arrived late — “dervish standard time,” someone quipped — and there was a lot of chitchat and hugging going around. The members of the order are a heterogeneous group, a happy mix of ages and backgrounds, and they all seemed perfectly content at the notion of an evening together, singing Sheikh Nur’s translations of the Turkish hymns that the dervishes and their Sheikha revere as an extension of the Qur’an itself. One of them leads the salat, chanting the call to prayer from the front of the room, first in Arabic, then in Sheikh Nur’s English:
Supreme Reality is always greater than any conception I witness that there is no reality apart from Supreme Reality I witness that Mohammed is an authentic Messenger of Supreme Reality Come to salat Come to the highest spiritual realization Allah is always greater Nothing exists apart from Allah.
Later, during a break in the singing, the dervishes — who number around ten this evening — ask Fariha a few questions. One of them, a young Turkish man, asks her about the time Sheikh Muzaffer made her a Sheikha, alongside Sheikh Nur. If that all happened in 1980, he says, then this year represents the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of the order. “That’s true!” I think, “maybe even a fine hook for the essay,” and look over to see her, laughing at the thought.
In February 1961, the Newsletter for Birdwatchers was two years old and its founder-editor, Zafar Futehally, was on a roll. India was another country then; gentle words and gentle men still had effect. When Futehally wrote a column in the Times of India about the senseless killing of a paradise flycatcher in Bombay, Nissim Ezekiel sent him a poem called “Paradise Flycatcher” in return:
White streamers moving briskly on the green
Casurina, rouse the sleepy watcher
From his dream of rarest birds
To this reality. A grating sound
Is all his language, spelling death
To flies and moths among the leaves
Who go this way to Paradise.
But he, in mask of black, with tints of green,
Is legend come alive to the dreamer
Whose eyes are fixed on him in glad surprise.
So many years ago, his predecessor
Came — it was an afternoon like this —
And clung with shaking streamers
To the same casurina, catching flies:
But Fate that day, and not the dreamer,
Fixed his eyes on him and shot him down.
He lay with red and red upon his white,
Uncommon bird no longer, in the mud.
The live one flashes at the watcher
Chestnut wings: the dead is buried in his mind.
Futehally (born 1920) almost single-handedly created the now thriving tradition of birdwatching in India. Aside from a thwarted foray into business, he has spent most of his long life documenting birds and/or encouraging others to join in. By extension, he is a naturalist. Over the years, he has been involved in just about every important Indian and international effort in forestry and conservation. From providing crucial support to preserving Bangalore’s fast disappearing lakes (his current preoccupation) to protecting green spaces outside of Bombay (his central achievement in the 1970s), it is not an exaggeration to say that the trees of India and all their inhabitants owe some part of their continued existence to Zafar Futehally.
Achal Prabhala: How did your interest in birds begin?
Zafar Futehally: Anyone growing up around Salim Ali [1898–1987, the legendary “bird man of India” and a relative of Futehally and his wife Laeeq] would have had to be interested in nature. During my college days, I starting going on walks with Salim. Walking with him was more of an education than any book could provide. And since he was fond of my wife, he was also fond of me and took some interest in teaching me.
Soon after Laeeq and I got married, Salim was asked to do a survey in Gujarat. The Nawab of Palanpur invited him and he offered to take us along. That was a great experience, an extraordinary experience. One morning, I remember, we suddenly heard guns going off — loud, booming salutes to various visiting rajahs. If you came from a small state, a few bangs, if you came from a larger state, ten bangs — every rajah had a number. The Nawab of Palanpur had just married an American who had a rather colorful past.
That week in Palanpur, we did a lot of mist netting. This was a technique that had emerged just about that time — this was the 1940s — a new technique for bird catching, invented by the Japanese. Mist nets were made out of thin, black, nylon thread, and they’re almost invisible. If you placed them against bushes, the birds couldn’t see the nets and could be caught. Salim said that whenever he used mist nets, he invariably found a species or two that he had never seen before.
This was my first experience of scientific birdwatching. We removed the birds from the net without damaging them, put a ring around them, weighed them, and looked out for the ticks. Ticks are very important for identification. Different birds attract different species of ticks — in fact, sometimes the only way to identify a bird is by the ticks on it. Once you’re in a camp like that, you really start to understand the finer points of bird watching. Salim went on to invite me to many such camps — I remember several in Kutch and in Bharatpur.
At about that time, I started doing a program on All India Radio about birds. This was in the 1950s. Those talks became very popular.
One day, a rather peculiar article on the magpie appeared in the Times of India, written by one of the assistants at the newspaper. This man was obviously not a birdwatcher and was probably just interested in side money. He looked up something about the magpie in England and then the magpie robin in India — the two are altogether different birds, two different families, in fact — and he put together a hodgepodge. Salim was furious. He rang up the editor and said please stop writing such rubbish — you’re making fools of yourselves. There was no such bird, you see. The editor apologized and asked Salim if he could recommend someone who knew enough to write a regular column on birds. Salim suggested my name, and that is how I came to write “The Birdwatcher’s Diary.” I did that for ten years or so. It was a fantastic experience.
AP: And what was your working life like?
ZF: In the early 1950s, the Bombay Natural Historical Society was in a thorough mess. Salim was on the board and he wanted to resign. During one of our walks, Laeeq persuaded him not to. The committee that ran the BNHS asked me to help, and I became their honorary secretary from 1952 to 1962. I was not by any means scientifically qualified to run the BNHS, but my job was mainly to coordinate.
I had two big successes. The first was the formation of the Karnala Bird Sanctuary. This happened in the month of May, sometime in the early 1960s, and quite by accident. Once, when I was driving back to Bombay from a weekend in Kihim, I passed the Karnala hills and saw a notice in Marathi. This could be something dangerous, I thought. The Karnala hills were lovely, heavily wooded, and had lots of birds. I couldn’t read the sign, and asked a passerby to help. He read it out for me: “Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation.”
When I reached home, I wrote a letter to the Times saying, look here, on the one hand, India has become a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and we recognize the importance of tropical rain forests; on the other hand, we seem to be converting this big, important forest into an industrial park. The letter was published the next day. The secretary of the Industrial Development Corporation, PC Nayak, telephoned me and said I’ve seen your letter and I agree; we’ll relocate and change our plans.
My other success was in campaigning for the Borivali National Park. I was walking there one evening and I saw what must have been a hundred teak trees cut down and laid out on the ground. I sent a note to the evening edition of the Times — we had an evening edition then — titling it “Sanctuary or slaughterhouse?” Next week, at a meeting of the forest board, I produced this note to the minister, and again — extraordinarily — he ordered the tree cutting to be stopped immediately. Now, of course, the park is quite famous.
AP:The Newsletter for Birdwatchers has quite a history, and it’s remarkable that you ran it for a full fifty-five years. How did it begin?
ZF: We published the first issue in December 1959. When it started, I circulated it to fifteen people or so. They were from all over, not only Bombay. One very enthusiastic group of subscribers was in Saurashtra. Then we started leading guided walks in Borivali National Park — that spread the interest.
We encouraged people to write about their experiences. One thing I realized early on is that people like seeing their name in print. I used to get lots of badly written notes from forest officers, from keen people who didn’t write very well. I edited them and published the letters. Of course, we also had fixtures, people like Lav Kumar Khachar, though the best writers were invariably foreign businesspeople. A chap called Stairmand wrote from Bombay. A businessman, he used to go birding every weekend. Then there was Peter Jackson, the Reuters representative. As for me, I liked to encourage young children to write… Ram Guha wrote for the newsletter when he was eleven-years-old; it’s his first published piece. I think there’s no doubt that the newsletter created a very good group of birdwatchers.
AP: Did you produce it alone?
ZF: I used to do most of it on my own. JS Serrao, a typist from the BNHS, helped me in the evening by making up the stencils. He was already a legend — a curious man with an excellent memory, he would point out all sorts of connections and make a lot of useful suggestions. Salim had a problem with him, however. Poor fellow used to wear nylon clothes. And in Bombay, with the heat, naturally he sweated a lot. Salim couldn’t take it and he said, look Serrao, you smell like anything. But Serrao remained ever devoted to Salim.
AP: These days, do you continue to write?
ZF: I used to write a column for the Deccan Herald, but I haven’t in a long time. I have nothing to say and unless there is something original to report, I don’t think I should write. And now there are many more people who are sympathetic to what I am interested in. The number of people who talk about birds on the Internet, for instance, they’re growing by the score.
AP: I was wondering, when you hold a bird in your hands, do you feel something like love?
ZF: I am extraordinarily insensitive. You know, I’m very fond of horses — I’ve had them all my life. One of my horses had to be put down because he had colic — there was simply no chance of survival. The doctor told me to go away, but I refused. I saw him fall down, and I felt nothing. I do feel some excitement when I’m holding birds, I’ll admit that. But I’m not a sentimental man.
I was born in Kyrgyzstan. In our Asian culture, there are very strict gender boundaries. Someone born male has to stay a man. Someone born female must stay a woman. This is the idea about gender, and crossing the boundary is considered a sin that must be punished. No one has the right to change what God made.
As far back as I can remember, I felt I was a boy. I’m the second of six children. The head of the household was my grandmother. That turned out to be very important.
My parents are wheat farmers with a few cattle, and we lived in a rural area not far from Bishkek. My father isn’t really religious, but he has his own ideas about how things should be. He’s like most people in Kyrgyzstan — not very Muslim, but still using religion to explain things they don’t understand.
A lot of my relatives assumed my boyish behavior and male dress style would lead to problems in my adult life. And by “problems in my adult life,” I mean homosexuality. They thought I needed to learn to behave as a girl, and they pressured me to wear skirts and dresses. Several times, my aunts and cousins burned my shirts and trousers so I had nothing left to wear but feminine clothes. All I could do was stand in the yard, watching the fire while my older relatives looked on.
Afterward, I always cried and begged my grandma to get me new clothes. I would promise to be good, to get only excellent marks at school, to stay out of trouble. A couple weeks later, my grandma would buy them for me. The rest of my family perceived me as a troublemaker — they called me a hooligan. At least in that sense, I guess it was your typical boyhood.
The older I got, the more pressure my family put on me because of my male expression and style. Finally, my grandma put a stop to it. She told them that I would behave female as an adult, but until then, they had to leave me to my preferences.
I was seven or eight years old when my grandma’s neighbor came to visit. She said that somewhere — maybe in India — there were two girls who loved each other and that one of them had surgery and became a man so they could get married. I was standing near my grandma, and they both turned to me and agreed that since I looked like a boy, they would let me have the surgery. It was a joke for them, of course, and I still have no idea where our neighbor heard this story, but the words stuck in my mind.
When I was fifteen or sixteen years old, I tried hard to change my identity in accordance with my family’s wishes. I put on female clothes and played “normal girl.”
It didn’t work.
I enrolled at Bishkek Humanities University. I was a top student in the sociology program and won the Republic Students’ Olympiad in philosophy. Ancient philosophy — Aristotle and Socrates — was always my favorite, along with Eastern philosophies like Taoism and Confucianism.
I had a girlfriend who lived in my dormitory. Neither of us had heard of the terms transgender or transsexual. My girlfriend looked really feminine, and I looked… different. It wasn’t hard for people to believe we were together.
And that’s why I got kicked out. My roommate wrote a letter to the dean that said I was a faggot and that she was afraid to live with me because I had inversion. The dean summoned me and two of my friends to her office and said, “There is no place for freaks in our university.” We all had to leave. My friends were neither gay nor trans; they were punished just for being supportive of me.
After we were expelled, two professors stood up for us. They told my old classmates at the university that homosexuals are not deviants, which is what the sociology books still called them. So this was an important clarification. At the time, no one knew about transsexuality — neither me, nor them.
When my family found out why I had been expelled, they tried to beat the abnormality out of me. My father would hit me until I agreed to behave as a girl. I was isolated from my friends and I could not get away. This wasn’t unusual. There are many cases in Kyrgyzstan where a trans person who comes out risks being beaten, humiliated, or killed.
It took me three years to escape my parents’ home. In the meantime, I underwent all sorts of “treatment.” There are so many silly practices; it would take a year to describe them. It was funny sometimes, and sometimes it definitely wasn’t.
My mom took me to see a moldo, which is kind of like a priest. Kyrgyz culture has pagan roots, so I underwent voodoo treatment as well. I had to wash my face and cook with spiritual water, drink special tea, and eat special cakes. Priests and voodoos prayed over this food before I ate it, claiming that it would heal me from homosexuality. The cakes are really just Kyrgyz bread, but you have to pray the whole time while you’re baking them. They’re meant to make sin or illness leave a person, and we’re supposed to share the cakes with neighbors. There are usually seven of them, as this is a magic number in Kyrgyz Islam.
Speaking of seven, I was also taken to shamans; one told me that Satan was inside me, making me who I was, and that it would take seven visits to expel that Satan — visits that included beatings with a lash as well as prayers. Many other trans and gay people underwent these lashings, too.
I knew all of these crazy treatments weren’t going to work, but I went along with a lot of it. I just wanted my parents to exhaust every method they could think of to fight my identity. It wasn’t easy. People would tell me over and over that my behavior was killing my mother, and that my mother would die if I didn’t straighten up. Relatives ignored me. People would threaten to rape my friends or kill me.
Like most Kyrgyz families, my family had strict limits on discussing sexual stuff, but they started setting me up on dates with men. (This is totally unusual in Kyrgyz-Muslim culture; it shows how desperate they were.) They wanted me to get married. My mom thought giving birth would help me get used to life as a woman. It’s pretty common for LGBT people to be forced to marry here, actually, especially in smaller towns and villages. My family had someone in mind, a guy I worked with. I never even went on a single date with him, though I told my mom I did. (I went on a date with a girl instead.)
My family really thought these methods would cure my homosexuality. And I suppose they succeeded, since I’m not homosexual but transsexual.
In the end, that transphobic university dean who kicked me out did us a favor. Her actions led to the birth of the trans-movement in Kyrgyzstan.
When I was in my early twenties, a friend introduced me to two Annas — Anna Kirey and Anna Dovgopal. It was the summer of 2004, and they had just returned from their studies and established a group called Labrys. I visited Labrys a couple times, but stopped going because they were only working with lesbians. I’ve never identified myself as a lesbian, because lesbians are women, and I’ve always felt I was a man. I’m a female-to-male (FTM) trans person. I still didn’t use that term when I met the Annas, though. At the time, I was the only “incorrect person” I knew.
At the end of 2005, when I was twenty-four-years-old, I finally left home. For a while I lived out on the street, sleeping in elevators or even outside.
Anna K called one day and asked me to watch a video. She had met this German trans man, Richard Köhler, who asked her if she knew any trans people in Kyrgyzstan. She told him she knew a few, but that trans people did not come to Labrys and that they had nowhere to turn for help. So Richard decided to make a film of him talking to local trans people, which is what Anna had me watch.
Richard, who works with the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association of the European Region (ILGA-Europe), made this video specifically for trans people in Kyrgyzstan. I will always remember him saying, “No one has the right to humiliate you just because you are the way you are.” That’s the first time I got the message that no one can shame me based on my gender identity, even though I had previously learned ideas about civics and respecting human dignity from the Peace Corps volunteer who taught me English.
After that, Labrys began working with trans people as well as lesbian and bisexual women. I lived in their shelter from November to mid-December 2005, and then I worked for them for a while. We showed Richard’s video to other people — not only trans people, but our partners and friends, and lesbian and bisexual women. Then we started doing workshops for the lesbian and bisexual community on trans-issues, and we started holding transgender support-group meetings.
It took a few years, but my family finally accepted me. They’ve totally come around, actually. When a friend of mine was kicked out of his house, my mother offered to let him stay at their house as long as he needed, until his parents came to realize how much they miss him. Which is what happened with her, of course. My trans friends really appreciate that my parents use the right names and pronouns. They always refer to us as “he.”
These days, I’m a project coordinator at the Youth Human Rights Group, which works with orphan children and young activists, as well as human-rights initiatives in Kyrgyz legislation. My project at YHRG is to prepare an alternative report to the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural rights. We’re looking at Kyrgyzstan’s situation in regard to the right to the highest attainable standard of health. Of course, we included LGBT issues in connection with access to the health-care system.
Back in the USSR days, psychiatrists treated transgender people with lobotomies, hospitalization, and strong tranquilizers. Older transgender people say the rate of violence against trans people was even higher than it is now. Most of the older trans men I know were raped, and all of them have been beaten many times. Very few have transitioned and most continue to live a double life.
All of my friends are Western-oriented in their understandings of LGBT rights. But I wouldn’t actually call it “Western oriented” as much as “human-rights-oriented.” In any case, we are definitely not Russia-oriented in our work or beliefs. Russia has strong homophobic and transphobic — any phobic, really — ideas about the world. We try to find European models that fit our reality and may be effective in Kyrgyzstan.
I’m still in touch with Labrys as we work toward these changes. Three years ago, Anna K. and I decided we needed to get the Ministry of Health and other state agencies to fill the legal gap regarding trans people’s rights. To highlight the difficulties of life for trans people living in Kyrgyzstan, Labrys made a short photo-comic called T-World. It features a man whose appearance doesn’t match the feminine name and gender on his ID. When the man tries to change his name and gender marker, the passport agency tells him he needs a psychiatric evaluation, but even then he is denied a proper ID. He can’t get a job or travel out of the country, and when he appeals in court, the judge says, “No penis, no passport!” That really happened!
Fortunately, even though our population is Muslim and very transphobic, Kyrgyzstan is a civil state, and on paper our human rights are recognized. Officially, representatives of our agencies are there to ensure these rights. That’s how we began to change the law so that transgender people can change the gender markers on their passports without taking hormones, without surgeries, and without sterilization.
There’s a sense in which, hard as it is to be transgender here, it’s even harder to be gay. When I speak on this issue, I often use the example of Iran, which is a Muslim country where a transgender person can get surgeries because people agree that there are “mistakes of nature,“ but where they do not accept gay people. In Kyrgyzstan, it’s much less acceptable to be lesbian or gay than it is to be a passing trans person.
Unfortunately, even the trans community is homophobic. Older trans people who have not gotten much support often have weird ideas about who is “genuinely trans” or a “genuine man.” This is what I want to work on next year. There are trans people who are hiding their sexual orientation from their psychiatrists because they don’t want to be turned down for treatment.
I have to say, though I never forgot the story my grandmother’s friend told, I never ever thought I would one day have that very surgery. Today there are two clinics here that offer trans-surgeries, and we all know the doctors who do them.
I was among the first six people to undergo the surgery. Our doctors had never worked with trans people before, so the results were not as good as we had hoped. But still, it’s way better than having boobs.
Dr Mazlan Othman is the head of the United Nation’s Office for Outer Space Affairs (the unbelievably fun to pronounce UNOOSA). The fifty-nine-year-old, who has the distinction of being Malaysia’s first astrophysicist, looks a bit like the result of an encounter between E.T. and a more subdued Yoko Ono. She has the former’s kindly mien, the latter’s enigmatic smile and cropped bob. And yet, Dr. Mazlan is remarkably down-to-earth for someone who sounds the stratosphere for a living. Petite and professional, she combines a scientist’s contagious enthusiasm with a bureaucrat’s penchant for acronyms and dark, business-casual suits. When the rumor spread that this soft-spoken mother of two was to be our planet’s first ambassador to outer space, UFO-spotting zealots rapidly adopted her as their spearhead and muse. But Mazlan’s quietly luminous demeanor is a far cry from the eldritch stereotypes bandied about by sci-fi flicks or Simpsons episodes; somewhat disappointingly, she has none of the hubris of test tube–toting Bond villains, not a whiff of the bumbling idiot savant. To borrow an image from her field, she’s more of a comet, doughtily blazing her faint trail through the night sky, than an earth-shattering asteroid.
Mazlan grew up in the hilly, tin-mining town of Seremban, in a province known for practicing the ancient Malay tradition of adat perpatih, whereby women are granted a higher social status than men. In 1957, the same year Malaya heroically wrested political sovereignty from the British, the Soviets launched Sputnik. Mazlan was six years old. When Neil Armstrong made his great leap for mankind, she was eighteen, a promising math enthusiast on her way out of boarding school. Still, the repercussions of the space race were only dimly felt in the fledgling state, let alone at the elite Tunku Kurshiah College. Not that Malaysia wasn’t intimately caught up in the throes of the Cold War — it was partly at the hands of the Communist-led Malayan People’s Liberation Army that the country achieved independence — but the country’s new leaders were struggling to rebuild an industry and an infrastructure that years of war, emergency measures, and Chinese economic domination had diminished. The antics of far-flung astronauts and their cosmonaut rivals must have seemed all but irrelevant to Malaysians. Still, Mazlan took a keen interest in physics and pursued the subject at the University of Otago in New Zealand, against her family’s wishes. She went on to become the first woman to receive a PhD in physics from that institution.
By the time Mazlan returned home in the early 1980s, Malaysia was ruled by the autocratic and intellectually minded Mahathir bin Mohamad, under whose iron fist the country morphed into a major industrial power. A firm believer in the capacity of science and education to spur economic growth, he took notice of our heroine, who had by now created a curriculum in astrophysics at the national university. Seconding her efforts to build public awareness about cosmic matters, the prime minister (who once famously declared that “when one is short, one should stand on a box to get a better view”) appointed her to oversee the construction of Planetarium Negara, a brilliant blue-domed structure — half spaceship, half mosque — perched atop a hill in Kuala Lumpur’s Lake Gardens. The public, hitherto unacquainted with the universe and initially a little daunted by Mazlan’s forward-looking initiatives, soon embraced the planetarium, which now serves as both a tourist attraction and showcase of Malaysia’s scientific and technological prowess. Parents and schoolteachers marveled as rowdy tots fell miraculously silent before the multimedia likes of “Dawn of the Space Age,” “Passport to the Universe,” and “Fly Me to the Moon!” Outside, the lush, palm-lined Observatory Park features various ancient Chinese and Indian astronomical instruments, a fourteen-inch telescope and, somewhat incongruously, a replica of Stonehenge.
Mazlan’s techno-Moorish brainchild was only one project among many in her campaign to rouse her country-folk from their science apathy. But her own great leap came in 1999, when Kofi Annan, then secretary-general of the UN, appointed her to head the organization’s Office for Outer Space Affairs. Created in the late 1950s, the mostly unknown UN body is housed in a faceless tower — not in Seoul, Singapore, or Seattle, as one might expect, but in old-world Vienna, more commonly associated with Baroque cathedrals and portly baritones than with cutting-edge research into the paranormal. The UN being what it is, one surmises that the agency’s activities must involve red tape rather than little green men, yet over the years it has retained an unassailable core of weirdness. Sure, Mazlan prefers the adjective “supra-earth” to “extraterrestrial” and likes to stress UNOOSA’s focus on space law, asteroid impact prevention, and other such reassuringly plodding topics. Yet her participation in a recent conference advocating a “coordinated response” to extraterrestrial life (one panel debate was entitled “Calling E.T., or not even answering the phone?”) gave one the impression that the UN had merged with Monty Python for the occasion.
In 2002, Mazlan returned home once more to found the Malaysian National Space Agency, which she headed for five years. The most salient success of her tenure there was the launch of Malaysia’s first astronaut, a young surgeon and part-time model named Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor. At thirty-five-years-old, he boarded the Russian Soyuz rocket with a mission to study the growth of liver cancer cells at the International Space Station.
Although Sheikh Muszaphar was the ninth Muslim to venture into space (the first was a Saudi prince aboard an American shuttle), he was the first to attempt it during Ramadan, a situation that gave rise to all manner of questions that Islamic law simply could not answer, no matter how hard one looked: how to pray toward Mecca while orbiting the Earth sixteen times a day; how to kneel in zero gravity; how to fast in space. Coming to his aid, the National Fatwa Council collected the views of muftis and scientists on the subject and produced an eighteen-page guidebook for Muslims in space, the general thrust of which was to do what one could, making up for any lapses once back on solid ground. For most issues, the guidelines observe a sort of lax common sense: If you can’t stand up, sit down. If you can’t sit, lie on the floor. If you can’t manage any of those, indicate the change of postures with your eyelid, or just imagine the sequence of positions. As to ablutions: if scarcity of water precludes one from washing properly, symbolic purity can be obtained by striking both hands on the surface of a mirror. Our dashing cosmonaut proved pithier than the scholars, asserting, “Islam is lenient.” But rituals do not seem to have posed too great a challenge to Sheikh Muszaphar, who confessed, “I did morning prayer on the launch tower — it was one of the most beautiful days of my life.” Indeed, he even threw an Eid party on the space station, with beef satay and cookies for the kafirs.
When Sheikh Muszaphar landed in Kazakhstan eleven days later, he was already a national hero. Malaysia had contracted space fever. Lionized by the younger generation (a cursory YouTube search reveals dozens of video tributes), he became a role model for tech-savvy students, showing them that science could be a career. Mazlan was enthusiastic: “Even those who do not care about space still care about the country,” she noted, and by putting a Malay in space, “we have achieved international recognition.”
When word got out earlier this year that the UN had appointed her to be Earth’s first plenipotentiary to aliens, that recognition soared. If an alien should utter those fateful words, “Take me to your leader,” we’d know just who to call! Alas, the report was quickly exposed as a hoax. Or was it? “It sounds really cool,” Mazlan said, “but I have to deny it.” Are they twisting your arm, Mazlan? Sounds like a non-denial denial to us.
Amr Khaled has great big expressive eyebrows. When he speaks, they take on a life of their own, moving up and down and sideways like a caterpillar on acid. Whether pondering the state of women in the Islamic world or the fate of the Palestinians, he is relentlessly, even frustratingly, optimistic. As the Egyptian equivalent of Dr. Phil, Oprah, and Rick Warren all rolled together, he is an army of one dreaming of the Islamic Renaissance to come, a pious poster boy, hero, and self-help coach to millions.
I first met Khaled at a blandly posh hotel in London’s Knightsbridge district last winter. The gentle giant — he is well over six feet tall and shaped like an athlete — jumped up to greet me and heartily shook my hand with the energy of a large affectionate dog. That day, he was even more animated than usual, pleased that a new reality show of his, Mujaddidun, was set to air on Dubai TV. Though I was there to interview him about something and someone else entirely — his longtime collaborator Ahmed Abou Heiba — he kept bringing the subject straight back to… himself. Had I heard of his new show? Did I know that his website, amrkhaled.net, receives more hits than Oprah Winfrey’s? Had I heard that he had convinced three million girls in the Arab world to give up drug addiction? I nodded, smiling, always trying to bring the subject back to his friend. Always failing.
“There are no jobs! No place to play ball! No hope! Too much depression!” Khaled was yelling about the state of the Arab world and why he had launched this newest initiative, inspiring the well-heeled clientele in the lobby to glare at the overexcited Egyptian. “We must take control of our lives and realize that Islam is the path forward, not the path backward, as people would have us believe.”
It’s almost physically impossible not to listen intently to his monologues. Khaled is frighteningly smooth. On television, he expounds from behind a desk as the camera zooms in and out and in again. He pumps his fist or stands, arms akimbo. He makes love to his audiences with his big brown eyes. Whatever one’s afflictions, whether joblessness, lost love, or simply feeling worn down by the clash of civilizations, Khaled makes it all seem okay with his trademark seizures of optimism. He is the king of eye contact, enveloping viewers with his heavenly regard as if to say, “It’s okay, you’re having a bad hair day, but Allah still loves you.” More than once in the hour we sat together, I was reduced to putty in his hands.
Khaled, as it happens, is not your prototypical religious speaker. With no theological credentials to speak of — he originally studied accounting — he puts forward a moderate version of Islam in which women are heroines, the prophet is your friend, and the treacherous stuff of modern life, from listening to music to using technology, is just part and parcel of being alive. Under Khaled’s gaze, one can be pious and modern at once. In fact, it is Islam, he says, that provides the best equipment for modern life’s travails. Islam is the tool kit par excellence, and Khaled is there to show us how to hold the hammer. (To screw in the light bulb?) At a time when the world wonders whether the values of Islam and the West are compatible in the first place, Khaled is a living, breathing advertisement for fusion.
Khaled’s fortunes have been on the rise since the late 1990s, when he connected with an old friend, Abou Heiba. Khaled had been delivering lay sermons — on the importance of hard work or patience or other good things — at a neighborhood mosque for years. Abou Heiba, on the other hand, was thinking of launching an Islamic television program that would mark a radical departure from the standard moralizing one routinely saw on TV courtesy of the iconic Egyptian Sheikh Mohamed Sharkawi. Sharkawi terrified his audience with apocalyptic warnings about hellfire and the afterlife. Soon, Kalam min el Qalb (Words from the Heart), was born — a program produced by Abou Heiba, with Khaled as its charismatic host. They hawked their initial episodes on the street when no major television channel would pick them up. Those street copies sold out immediately, and soon Iqraa, a Saudi-owned religious channel, bought the rights to the program.
Words from the Heart, which opened with a heroically low-tech montage of Khaled preaching, young people praying, and a woman in the act of veiling, would come to change the face of Islamic television. Suddenly, someone was offering up an alternative to long-bearded preachers who spoke of sin and redemption; here was someone talking about real life! On each episode Khaled, who has a tiny brush mustache, looked out from behind a desk and broached issues at once banal and thorny. Even when speaking about more grim subjects, like death or Palestine or the wages of war, he rarely lost his exuberant joie de vivre, or his mile-wide smile. He wore colorful suits and boxy Mister Rogers sweaters. Perhaps most important, he delivered his sermons in colloquial Egyptian Arabic rather than the turgid classical Arabic of his peers.
And yet, despite the myriad accolades (he was named one of Time’s most influential people in the world in 2007, and joined Newsweek’s Global Elite in 2008), it is not easy being Amr Khaled. His particular brand of lay sermonizing seems woefully deficient — or even blasphemous — to more conservative theologians. When it comes to the Qur’an, he is, you could say, a first-class paraphraser. The fact that he commands such a following eventually raised the ire of the Egyptian authorities, who ran him out of the country around 2002 and have banned him from appearing on either public or private television. He has been accused of being associated with the semi-banned Muslim Brotherhood, as well; his very public advocacy on behalf of the veil (“women are like pearls, they need a shell to protect their delicate beauty”) renders him predictably suspect to Islamophobes the world over.
Women — who no doubt account for his biggest fan base — are often the subject of his rhapsodizing. “We must concentrate on women and youth to make our future,” he says. “You must remember, the first one to help and support our prophet was a woman!” (He is speaking of the prophet’s wife, Khadija.)
On the issue of the media, he is rapturous, deeming it a critical platform from which Muslims may regain their lost dignity and speak to the world. “We need movies to talk about the overlap of values between America and the Muslim world. This will help a lot.”
Since 2002, Khaled has been living in Europe and, as a consequence, has increasingly turned his gaze to the fate of Muslims there. In 2004, he launched a new program, Life Makers, which urged Muslims to seize control of their lives through projects in their respective communities. In 2006, he courted controversy in the Islamic community for taking part in the so-called “Copenhagen Conference,” in which he called for reconciliation between the West and the Islamic world after the Danish cartoon scandal. By 2009, he was en route to launching Mujadiddun, a reality show in which young people in Arab cities go about solving problems and doing good deeds. (“Mujaddidun” is the plural of “Mujadid,” which refers to someone who appears at the end of a century to revive or reform Islam.) This year, somewhat incongruously, he completed a PhD in Islamic Studies from the University of Wales. (His Wikipedia entry, which one can’t help but think he updates himself, announces that he finished with a grade of A.) Now he goes by the honorific Dr. Khaled — or in Arabic, “El doktoor.”
When I spoke to him this past fall, he told me that he couldn’t possibly tell me about his latest initiative. But he could not stop not talking about it. “I wish I could tell you, ya Negar! It is so exciting!” I half-expected he would spill the beans, but despite everything, he did not. In any case, I believe him. Upward and onward, to the Islamic Renaissance.
Most every aspiring beauty queen hopes for world peace. Nazanin Afshin-Jam is more specific. Winner of the 2003 Miss World Canada competition and runner-up for Miss World 2003, the singer-model-actress has used her fame and fortune to underwrite a program of humanitarian activism that has seen her traveling the globe — helping tsunami victims in India and Sri Lanka, aiding fistula patients in Ethiopia, raising awareness about bear-bile farming in China.
But Afshin-Jam is best known, outside of Canada at least, as the founder and president of Stop Child Executions, an NGO that opposes the death penalty for children and has fought to publicize the cases of more than 140 minors on death row in Iran. (In Iran, boys are eligible for the death penalty at fifteen; girls, at nine.) Stop Child Executions grew out of the campaign to save the life of Nazanin Mahabad Fatehi, an Iranian girl sentenced to hang in 2005 for stabbing a man who had tried to rape her and her fifteen-year-old niece in a park west of Tehran. An international media blitz led by Afshin-Jam culminated in January 2007, when the court reversed Fatehi’s conviction.
Afshin-Jam’s interest in Iran is personal. Born in Tehran at the height of the Islamic revolution to politically active parents, she and her family fled to Canada. She has been a harsh critic of the Islamic Republic; in 2008 she organized the “Ahmadinejad’s Wall of Shame” rally to protest the Iranian president’s address to the United Nations General Assembly. “Someday,” the title track from her 2007 debut album, is a disarmingly catchy four-minute pop-orchestral assault on the “regressive revolution,” complete with a truly epic music video.
No stuffed bra, Afshin-Jam has studied international relations and politics at the University of British Columbia and at the Paris Institute of Political Studies; she’s currently working on a master’s. She flies airplanes as a hobby, and achieved the highest rank in the Royal Canadian Air Cadets: warrant officer first class.
Lisa Farjam: I was wondering if I could ask you first about your leaving Iran during the revolution. How much do you remember about that time?
Nazanin Afshin-Jam: I’m sure my family having to escape Iran shaped me in some way, but I can’t say that I remember the chaos or anything surrounding it. Because I was only a year old, but probably on a subconscious level, it affected me. I mean, of course, moving to Canada and asking my family questions about why our family had to be separated from my extended family: my grandmother, my aunts and uncles. You know, you don’t understand as a kid, why. So, little by little, as my family told me stories about Iran, maybe in some sense it made me start to understand that things are not always fair in life and that there are injustices. But I’ve always been sensitive to other people’s pain — if any of my friends or family were hurting in some way, whether it was physical from falling or just being sad or upset. To this day, when my girlfriends break up with a boyfriend or just… I internalize it, I can feel it my own stomach, in my own heart. That’s part of why I want to help people so desperately, to take that pain away in some way.
LF: Do you feel connected to being an Iranian? I was born in New York, and I didn’t feel connected to the Iranian part of me until I went there when I was thirteen. But you’ve never been back, I take it? Do you feel very connected, or do you feel kind of estranged from that part of your heritage?
NAJ: I feel half and half. I feel very much Iranian, and I also feel very much Canadian. Iranian in the sense that growing up in an Iranian family, you kind of inherit the culture just through osmosis — the way Iranians think and translate and feel, the poetry. It’s almost in our blood. I guess what separates me from my Canadian friends is the real connection with family, and that’s something that I’m really grateful to our culture for. That deep sense of unity… it being really important to stick together, to work things out, as a family. In some sense it can be really annoying, of course, but I really cherish it. And, you know, the strong push toward education and higher learning. That’s definitely, I think, an Iranian trait. So in that sense, yes, I’m very Persian. As a child, I guess I was more Canadianized, just because you adopt whatever’s around you, but as I grew up and as I thirsted to learn about our culture, I became more Iranian.
LF: Yes, of course.
NAJ: And, you know, there weren’t many “ethnic people” in my classes at school, especially when I was younger, so I had to prove myself. When I started acting, too, there were agents who tried to get me to change my name — “It’s too hard, no one will ever remember it.” But I stuck it out. My parents were very supportive of me, very loving. And very open. They didn’t push me… I know a lot of Persian families where the children are forced to become a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer, whereas my family said, “Follow your heart, do what you like.”
Later, when I started working on human rights cases, I became more in contact with, you know, lawyers and human rights activists, the general public. I started receiving thousands of emails a year from Iranians, sharing stories with me, the hardships of daily life, asking for help in some cases. My Persian was never really great, but it’s gotten a little bit better because the work I’ve been doing.
LF: How has your life changed since the success of the Help Nazanin Fatehi campaign?
NAJ: After Nazanin was freed, I thought, “Okay, she’s good, I can go work on some other issue now.” But literally the next day I was contacted by other people struggling in Iran, family members of jailed children, asking me for help. And I had this sense, almost, of responsibility now, that people were looking to me to help them with this cause. I looked online for organizations that focused on child executions, and I couldn’t find anything. Of course, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch will do urgent action responses and the like, but there wasn’t anything that concentrated on this particular issue. So Stop Child Execution was born, and I basically recruited volunteers, people that had been involved in the Help Nazanin Fatehi campaign, and asked them to join me. That’s kind of how it started, four or five years ago.
There are more than 160 children on death row in Iran now, with a handful of other cases in four other countries. So the day-to-day work is raising awareness by writing articles or visiting different government officials. I’m going to be participating in a TED [Technology, Entertainment, Design] event in Vancouver. We create mini-documentaries, organize rallies and speeches — you know, just regular NGO things. So that’s taken up quite a bit of time, but my heart isn’t just set on the case of child execution. It goes beyond. That’s why I concentrate a lot on general human rights abuses taking place in Iran, especially when it comes to women’s rights. That’s a particular interest of mine. And, again, not just Iran. I’ve also campaigned on behalf of people in China and Burma. Darfur. Wherever I’m needed, basically — if somebody asks me, I try to make time to help. And if I’m really passionate about something, I’ll go for it. A few years ago, I campaigned with my sister to try to help the bears in China who are being caged and having their bile extracted for China’s traditional medicine. They’re under horrid conditions, with catheters placed into their gall bladders to get this unnecessary bile.
So just anywhere, really, I try to help. Most recently, I guess you could say my heart was even more set on seeing a free and democratic Iran in the near future, because that’s really the root of the problem in terms of these other human rights abuses.
LF:Inshallah one day, soon…
LF: And I think it’s just brilliant how you use the Miss Canada title and Miss World runner-up to your advantage in this way. Can you feel the impact of those titles? Did you gain legitimacy? Do you feel that it affected how you were able to approach people? Did you feel that it changed things in any way?
NAJ: Certainly for me it helped. It was kind of a strategy. I had been working with the Red Cross for a while, and I was reaching people, but I just knew that I had to reach more people. And as soon as I won those titles, doors just opened. The media would listen to what I had to say much more. It’s a sad reflection on society today, but it’s just the reality. It made people just listen extra-hard. And you know, it was a blessing and a curse at the same time. You know, stereotypically people think of beauty-pageant contestants as ditzes, just interested in glitz and glamour, waving and smiling. People don’t realize that pageants have evolved with the times and that there are certainly people entering these competitions that really want to make a difference in their communities and societies. So I think once people learned what my aims and ambitions were, they changed their minds, but I almost had to prove myself double-time.
LF: Was there any backlash to all that?
NAJ: At the beginning I did get some negative emails, mostly from western countries like Canada and the US, that said, “By entering these competitions, you’re promoting the exploitation of women.” But you know, it really does matter what pageant you enter. Miss World’s motto was “Beauty with a purpose,” and their whole aim was to raise money for children’s charities, so I chose that pageant to pursue, and it worked to my benefit and to the benefit of a lot of people who were needy. So, yeah, I don’t regret it.
LF: I imagine you must have had to lean quite a bit on your family for financial support when you made the move to become a human rights activist — fundraising is such an enormous task. I’m sure it’s an ongoing daily battle.
NAJ: It is. It’s a major concern. I mean, to put on a rally, it takes thousands of dollars. To fly somewhere to speak to people costs money. And at the beginning, I was borrowing a lot from friends and family, and they were very generous. I had savings, too, from my days as a model. But those reserves are gone now, and I have to think about the next step. I’ve never really had a real fundraiser before. There was this one lady in Chicago who put on our first fundraiser just out of the kindness of her heart — we raised a few thousand dollars there. But Stop Child Executions and the Nazanin Fatehi campaign have been almost entirely staffed by volunteers. Now it’s come to a point where if I want to do more interesting things with the organization, we’ll have to raise money. I’ve gone back to school, too! Which costs money. I mean, we’ve managed to get by, and I’m sure a lot of NGOs are in this position. But knock on wood, we’re okay.
LF: Are you going to school full time?
NAJ: Yes, I’m doing my master’s in diplomacy with a concentration in international conflict management. I mean, it’s an online program, so I’m able to do it from wherever I am — I do a lot of reading on airplanes, writing essays when I can find the time. But it’s taking up most of my time.
LF: Did you begin your modeling career with the idea of saving money for some higher purpose?
NAJ: I started modeling at the end of my high school years, when I started university. I was basically raising money for my education.
The Jahliyya, or “Age of Ignorance,” that predated the rise of Islam has all the necessary ingredients for a sweeping historical fantasy or epic role-playing game: desert sands, warring tribes, warrior-poets, and messianic stirrings. But while tales of the prophet and his companions or Saladin and his armies are often revived for modern audiences, the stories of the Sa’leeks — the poetry-reciting bandits of the Empty Quarter — have never received their due. The narrative resources of this period are as plentiful, as dark, and as potent as oil, but they have been neglected, not least because they sing the songs of the unenlightened.
While Kasmiya’s most recent video game does not set out to re-create this lost world, as such, Quraish (2006) is a welcome — and not uncontroversial — attempt to set the story of the rise of Islam in its context. Quraish is a real-time strategy (RTS) game in the mold of Rome: Total War or Age of Empires. The player commands troops in a series of battles that re-create the early history of Islam, at times taking the perspective of those holdouts from the Jahliyya who fought against the prophet’s armies. The game is by no means perfect; players accustomed to North American production values will find fault with the graphics and the controls, and the game’s artificial intelligence can be a little too historically accurate. But Quraish is an innovative and distinctive take on the RTS genre, deploying the peculiar strengths of video games — the combination of fluid subjectivity and player agency — to tell a familiar story from unusual points of view.
Quraish is Kasmiya’s third commercial video game release. His first two games, Under Ash (2001) and Under Siege (2005), were set during the Intifadas. You might say these games are a cross between Call of Duty and Gone with the Wind: first-person shooters that reveal the human costs of conflict. Conceptually, the combination is jarring. Doom, the quintessential first-person shooter (FPS), introduced the world to the BFG, or Big Fucking Gun, a weapon that in name and purpose defies subtlety and defines the form. First-person shooters are about arsenals, health packs, and frag counts; adding sociopolitical commentary seems like an invitation to disaster, and commentary on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict generally leaves as much room for neutrality as the BFG.
Yet neutrality is precisely what Kasmiya aspires to. He styles himself as an independent in the world of video games, charting a path between the sort of overtly political games the Middle East is known for (like Hezbollah’s FPS, Special Force 2) and western blockbusters like Halo or Prince of Persia. And he is eloquent about his desire to make video games a vehicle for complex, immersive, ambiguous storytelling from, and for, the Arab world.
He is currently working with Pluto Games in Dubai, developing a narrative-driven massively multiplayer online game that he can barely stop himself from violating his non-disclosure agreement to tell me about.
Anand Balakrishnan: How did you first become interested in video games?
Radwan Kismaya: When I was a kid we had a Sinclair ZX Spectrum+ computer. Do you know that one? I created my first piece of software on it. The operating system was in English so I tried to make it write Arabic. And I started creating some graphics on them, inspired by the games of that time, starting with Pac-Man. I mean, I’m thirty-seven years old now, and I’ve been playing video games for most of my life. But that’s how it started.
AB: This was in Damascus, right? Did a lot of your friends have computers?
RK: Yeah, it was pretty common in middle-class families. Most people had this Japanese console system called MSX — in Arabic they called it Sacer. My friends were mostly playing arcade games on the Sacer or Nintendo consoles. I preferred to write stuff on the Sinclair — the programming language was BASIC back then. It started out as a hobby.
AB: What was the first game that you made?
RK: It was a pretty simple arcade-style game — you know River Raid? Two-dimensional, you move your plane to the left or to the right and you shoot rockets and machine guns. That was my first game, War ’73.
RK: Yes. Actually I still have the code for it, but it won’t work on any PC these days. [Laughs] It was written for very old processors.
AB: Was there a story behind the game? I imagine there wasn’t so much of a narrative, if it was just a shooting game.
RK: Actually, it was about the Arab-Israeli conflict! ’73 was the Yom Kippur War — that was the plot of the game, you fly your jet plane to attack some military installations in the occupied lands. But it’s true, it was a very shallow story. I mean, it was based on River Raid, you know?
AB: And then you made Under Ash?
RK: That was much later. I’d started working for various companies, as a subcontractor mostly, just to make money while I was at university. This was in the nineties, when everyone was excited about multimedia CDs. That was the hip thing, you know? Everyone was trying to take their books and turn them into interactive, multimedia CDs.
AB: I remember. Lots of very slow video clips.
RK: So I would do small projects with different publishers. I was trying to find a publisher who’d be crazy enough to give me enough money to create this totally unknown thing. And I was doing a lot of work with a group called Dar al-Fikr, and I was always talking about this game I wanted to make, and finally they said, Okay, let’s do it. They may not have understood the difference between a multimedia CD and a video game, actually, but I got the go-ahead. That’s how Under Ash was born. I started working on it in 1999, and it hit the market in 2001.
AB: So it was actually published by a book publisher, then.
RK: That’s right. You have to understand, this was a completely new market. There weren’t any stores where you could buy computer software — games were all pirated and sold under the table, and none of those games were made in the region, anyway. But we had bookstores, and book publishers, who were making good money producing their own multimedia titles.
AB: What sorts of titles?
RK: For Fikr I had created a multimedia encyclopedia based on their print books. Mostly they were traditional books — those are the best-selling products in Middle East, unfortunately. So a book publisher was my only hope. And actually, I think that turned out for the best.
AB: How was the game distributed?
RK: There were these book fairs all over the region — like every month there would be two or three of them — and they sold the game at the fairs. There would be these piles of books, and then there in the middle they’d be previewing the game. People got really interested, because suddenly there was this new thing. And then businessmen started buying them in quantities to sell in their bookstores, in the chains. This is how the market was created.
AB: And how did people respond when you spoke to them about what you were doing?
RK: Man, I can still remember the glow of the eyes. I think that’s one of the things that keeps me going in this business. Of course money is important, but appreciation is much more important. And the most important thing is when you create things that ordinary people can understand. You’re creating pop culture, and people feel that your game is making a difference in their lives, and they’re asking for more. That’s so important.
AB: Were these… teenage boys? Coming up to talk to you?
RK: Families. Teenagers are the majority of the audience, of course, but the Middle East is a very family-oriented society, you know. Kids don’t have the same degree of freedom to just do whatever they want as they do in the West. I mean, that’s changing, in fact, but this was almost ten years ago. In any case, the game was appreciated by the whole family. It was sort of a big deal, actually — it was the sort of game a teenager could share with his parents. It’s not about killing monsters or killing Arabs, it’s about our history.
AB: It sounds like most of the audience was people who were already playing video games, then?
RK: You know, I’m sure that most household PCs are used for gaming. But I think that these book-fair attendees were the core of people who bought the game and spread it —you’d turn on your TV and you’d hear a question about the game on the quiz channel!
RK: Yeah, it was a phenomenon.
AB: Did you find that the game did better in one part of the Middle East than another?
RK: It was all the same. The difference was between the rich countries and the poor countries. We used to offer a demo level for the game on our website. And the download was huge — like, 25 MB or something, people were downloading it through dial-up modems. This was before download accelerators. And, you know, if the download was interrupted you had to start all over again. It was not easy to do. But so, poor people were downloading it and the rich people were buying it. In either case, it got around.
AB: Do you have any idea how many people downloaded it?
RK: Yes, more than a million.
RK: It was more than a million when we stopped offering the download. It turned out that people were selling the demo as if it was the full game — in Egypt in particular.
AB: Let’s talk a little about the game itself. The focus of Under Ash is the Palestinian conflict?
RK: Yes, the first Intifada. Under Ash was about an ordinary teenager who finds himself under fire. I always start like this, with an ordinary person in un-ordinary circumstances. And it was not an ordinary first-person shooter. There’s no way to regenerate your health — and if you shoot a civilian, on either side, you lose some of your health. There’s very limited ammunition. And all of the levels were based on real characters, real events. Every level begins and ends with a synopsis of the event, including documents and some press, some footage, from that time.
AB: Sort of a… multimedia video game.
RK: Yes — some people called it a docugame. It’s based on real historical events. The key thing is that the player can’t just do anything he wants. His choices are limited. This is actually always the case with video games, of course, but most of them try to pretend otherwise. In my game it’s part of the point. You do not have the freedom to do whatever you want, and that affects the outcome of the game. I didn’t want to create a game that just copycatted commercial games but, you know, reversed the enemies. I wanted to create a deeper, more personal experience.
AB: Sure. Same with the sequel?
RK: Yes, Under Ash 2, also called Under Siege. That was about the second Intifada. Hopefully that game was even more measured. In Under Siege you play five characters from the same family. There’s a thirteen-year-old, there’s a thirty-four-year old civilian who’s a coward, actually. And there’s a female character. A Muslim heroine! That was something new. And they were very moving stories, much more emotionally powerful than the stories in the first game. By the end of the game, four of the five characters are dead. It’s heavy stuff. I’m not trying to create a fantasy game about the conflict, you know. I can’t say, if you fight this battle really well, you’ll win, because the outcome is already decided: it’s in the history books. But I can try to get players to learn the details. I didn’t want to create political propaganda, either — I wanted to demonstrate the humanity behind these historical events. I was mainly concentrating on Palestinian society, the majority of people, who have no voice. The voices you hear on the news are always about politics, always Hamas or Fatah or this bullshit — sorry. The point is that nobody is listening to the society, which is suffering from both the occupation and the political parties.
AB: Have you heard from any Palestinian players?
RK: Yes, of course.
AB: What has the reaction been like?
RK: Very positive. On one occasion I got a phone call in the middle of the night. It was a woman, she was crying — I was sleeping and my phone rang, and there was the sound of this crying lady on the other side. I was afraid it was someone calling to tell me about a death in the family or something. But it turns out she was a lady from Palestine, and her son was playing the game in the living room and she was in the kitchen, listening to the narrative in the game. Her son had almost finished the game — he was on the final level, the old man’s story, and she was so moved because it reminded her of her father. I have no idea how she got my number. And you know, you can’t call directly to Syria from the Occupied Territories, so she had called Cyprus until she could get a line to call me in Damascus. I have to say, that really shook me — to have reached someone so far away, so intimately.
AB: It’s interesting — when I hear you describe your motivations and your process, as well as the kind of reactions you get… you sound more like a writer or novelist than you do a game designer, in a way.
AB: You can add a question mark to that.
RK: Okay. I mean, when I create a game I like to be involved in every step of the process. And video games really are a new kind of media, a new tool with which to tell a story. And, you know, I’ll use whatever tool is available. Right now, for example, I’m working on an online game. Very different. But the tool doesn’t matter, it’s all about the art and the concept.
AB: What’s the online game?
RK: Actually, it’s still in process. I’m… I’m not allowed to say anything about it right now. But hopefully, hopefully, hopefully, it’s gonna be something. It’s really gonna be something, hopefully. I can’t wait to tell you about it.
AB: Not to talk specifics, but do you as an author or director have less control over an online game? In a single-player game you have total control over what happens, when. Again, speaking only in generalities, do you find that to be different?
RK: I think that this is from your perspective from knowing about today’s online games. But things are going to be different with our game, and I… can’t wait to tell you more, but I can’t. I mean, it’s an online game, and people are going to compete against each other. But we have, I’d say, muted but effective control. There is a narrative part of the game that every player has to go through. We’re working on this right now.
AB: I also wanted to ask you about Quraish, your Age of Empires game.
RK: [Laughs] Yes, actually, I was motivated by the Age of Empires sequels: Age of Kings, Age of Mythology. I started working on it about the same time as Under Siege, just with a different developer. You know, the original Age of Empires was the game that really made me want to create games. When it came out the market was all arcade games and adventure games and shooting games. I’ve never just wanted to make shooting games, you know? I’ve always wanted to create games that tell a story — and to tell stories or address topics that are thought to be untouchable.
And Quraish does this, in a way. The game is about the history of Islam, which is one of those red lines you can’t touch. I had to beg the producers to allow me to make the game the way I wanted to it. Religion is a very sensitive subject in the Middle East, and it’s very easy to alienate your audience. Among other things I had to feature some characters that are forbidden to be characterized in any media, you know? But it was a success, thankfully.
AB: So how did you navigate that — representing what you were not allowed to show?
RK: Actually, I had to do many versions. I had to make a lot of changes for some countries, especially in the Gulf. In Syria, Lebanon, it’s a more secular community. In the Gulf they are very sensitive, very selective. They want to be sure nothing is wrong with your game. It took a lot of time. I had to remove some levels and some campaigns to get approval.
AB: Can you give me an example?
RK: Yes. Well, I had this level in the game where the player has to choose whether to be Muslim or not. They gave me such a headache for this. They did not want you to have that choice. I mean, this is why I created Quraish — I wanted the player to play alongside the history, to understand it. He can’t change the outcome, but he will understand the kind of resources people had then, the market, the religion, the tribal mentality. And at that time not everyone was Muslim already — that’s the whole point. But some countries didn’t like that, unfortunately. They are living in stone ages. So I did what I had to do to make them happy.
AB: It seems that lately there are more and more games being produced in the region that have overt political messages. There’s the Hezbollah shooter, there seem to be a lot of games coming out of Iran — I just read about a game based on the Israeli Defense Force storming the Mavi Marmara. I think there’s a ministry in Iran devoted to producing video games?
AB: So have you played any of those games?
RK: Of course. I’m an avid video-game player, I pretty much play everything. That’s my job, actually. It’s fun — you play games and earn money. But the games you’re talking about are all propaganda. Hezbollah pays these developers to produce this game about their operations, their heroes. And of course on the other side you have that game America’s Army, which is produced by the US armed forces and financed by the Pentagon. Whereas, you know, I’m not trying to recruit anyone. At the end of my games, you will not win, you will not free the Occupied Territories. The other thing is that my games are commercial. My games have to sell if I’m going to be able to make the next one. Whereas with the US Army or Hezbollah, they’re not expecting anything in return, cash-wise.
AB: What is the community of video-game developers like in the Middle East? For example — do you know the guys who worked on the Hezbollah game? Do you share tips or code or ideas or whatever, or is it two completely different worlds?
RK: No, they are completely different worlds. I don’t want to know those guys, even, because I don’t want to be counted by anybody or any party. I’m trying to be independent. I’m proud to be independent — I think it’s a positive thing. I’m trying to stay neutral, at least as far as my audience is concerned. I mean, I’m sure that I don’t appear to be neutral to the western audience. I accept that. They’ve been getting one side of the story for the last thirty years, so I’m not going to change anyone’s mind. But I try to be balanced. I’m making games from an artistic point of view, from a social point of view. Definitely not from a political point of view.
At St Joseph’s Boys’ High School in Bangalore, where I was a student in the late 1990s, the Tamil Brahmins ate curd rice in small groups, eschewed sports, dressed neatly, and raised their hands milliseconds faster than anyone else. They were also, it should be said, easy to bully. They would often sit in the second bench, respectfully close to the teacher, who loved them more than his own children. At least, that’s how we rowdier castes felt.
In his essay, “The Best Second-Rate Men in the World,” an investigation of the “ideal type” of the Tamil Brahmin, the journalist N. S. Jagannathan asserts that the “central characteristic” of a Tamil Brahmin is an “instinctive preference for anonymous functionality behind the scene,” an aversion to risk, and a fear of being singled out. Under the British, the Brahmins of southern India acquired a near monopoly on jobs in education and the civil service, engendering resentment among their British overlords and the lower castes. In the twentieth century, a succession of political parties organized against Brahmin control, changing the balance of power by setting aside positions for other castes in schools and the public sector. When the tables turned, the Tamil Brahmins left for greener pastures rather than put up a fight. Today the majority of Tamil Brahmins live outside Tamil Nadu, their home province. Some relocated to different parts of India, while countless others decamped to Europe and North America. Today most Tamil Brahmins in India have family members abroad; many live in the United States and work in the information technology field. If you are reading this in the US, you’ve probably met one, and you probably don’t know it.
Suchindvath Aiyer is a bit of an anomaly. Although his career bespeaks an exemplary Tam-Brahm pedigree — he has worked as a civil servant, an IT manager, a management consultant, and the president of the East African Internet Association — the fifty-two-year-old is outspoken, pugnacious even, and a loud and tireless opponent of injustice, especially against Tamil Brahmins. “He will say things most others are too scared to say,” I was warned. “No one will publish your article.” He has a reputation for verbally assaulting the denizens of Koshy’s, the café that epitomizes old Bangalore, and has taken the Bangalore Club Committee to court for defamation of character. He often pens caustic letters to local newspapers, deploring the many travesties of contemporary Indian politics. And yet he is warm, quick with a smile or a self-deprecating comment, even as he shares his apocalyptic hope that the Naxalites will destroy India, ushering in a new beginning.
Aiyer lives in a third-floor Bangalore apartment with a fortified door that’s emblazoned with a rooster and the words “From Darkness to Life.” (The family crest, he later reveals.) Upon arriving, I remove my shoes and walk down a corridor lined with Stetson hats and photographs of lions looming over dead zebras. The living room has a wooden shelf stretching from one end to the other, lined with college trophies for debate, elocution, and quizzing, along with a Japanese sword, a savage-looking spear, and a crutch. Aiyer limps badly, the aftereffects of two disastrous automobile accidents, but his back is erect.
Ryan Lobo: What is the story behind the spear, if you don’t mind my asking?
Suchindranath Aiyer: I was in Africa for five years. I had been working as a management consultant in Bangalore when I was invited to interview for a job in Nairobi. I went to enjoy the wildlife and I fell in love with the place.
I had my first accident in Kenya, actually, on the Mombasa-Nairobi highway. We had a cliff on one side and an abyss on the other, so I had to drive head-on into a huge sixteen-wheel truck or my three passengers and I would have been killed. That took something, but I did it. Later the doctors told me that I had braced myself too hard and had absorbed the whole shock of the impact with my hip, which then shattered. If I only had relaxed, I would not have been injured.
Like this. [Picks up spear and sets the base on the floor, with his foot on top, his body bent.] This is how a Masai warrior would hold the spear against a charging lion. Once upon a time, an uninitiated Masai would have to kill a lion with such a spear to become a man. The old Masai men are, in their philosophy, very similar to Brahmins and the covenant of Brahma, you know.
RL: This notion of being Brahmin seems very important to you.
SA: I have been brought up very deeply with this. The life of the Brahmin is the quest for the immortal in oneself. It’s not just a caste. It’s a value system and we are losing it in this banana republic.
All Brahmins are descendants of seven sages who lived thousands of years ago. These sages received a covenant from Brahma, the creator, and he gave them the purpose of man, which is to build a paradise on earth based on the pillars of truth, virtue, and beauty, set within the ambit of divine law, charity, mercy, and moderation. Whosoever takes a step toward this goal will derive indescribable joy, and anyone who steps away will suffer enormously. This is the covenant of Brahma. It governs my life and is what makes me a Brahmin.
RL: You speak of this with pride and even tenderness. Where does your faith come from? The idea of the Brahmin isn’t very respected today in India.
SA: The community is persecuted now. It wasn’t always this way. The Brahmins had a love-hate relationship with the British. Don’t forget, it was the Brahmins who the started the revolt against the British in 1857.
We made good clerks for the empire as we had discipline and learning and language skills. At the same time, the British had a suspicion about us, which became a veiled anger. Strange as it may seem, we served them well. My paternal grandfather was an engineer whose work saved much of the Cauvery riparian areas from flooding, and the British gave him a title. The British were far more fair than the rascals who rule us today.
RL: So when did the discrimination against Brahmins truly begin? And why have they left in such large numbers from Tamil Nadu?
SA: In 1938 the British brought out a discrimination law called the Communal Gazetted Order to exclude Brahmins from promotion and employment whenever possible. The British were wooing the anti-Brahmin Justice Party. They also supported the expropriation of Brahmin land. The pogrom began in the south of India and it’s still going on today.
You are an orphan if you are a Brahmin, especially in Tamil Nadu, one of our original homelands, because of the political parties that make scapegoats out of us for their political ends. We form the diaspora now, all over the world and in Bangalore as well. We are like the Jews in this way, fleeing our homeland, but we shall survive.
RL: What’s your understanding of the caste system? Who are you within this tapestry of caste?
SA: The caste system has four main castes, Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (merchants), and Sudras (workers). The word Arya means several things. By connotation in India, it means noble. My surname comes from Arya. In the south, the suffix rr was added out of respect, and Arya became Aiyer, or Iyer, over time.
My first name comes from a place called Suchindran, near the southern tip of India. You can call it legend, but the chronicles say that we came to what is now India from what is now Afghanistan, just before the Mahabharata War. The hero Janamejaya had destroyed all the snakes in the world to avenge his father’s death by snakebite, but he was cursed for this action. To escape the curse, he came south to Suchindran.
This is who I am. And this story has been passed down for close to five thousand years from Rig Vedic times, from mouth to ear, father to son, priest to child. This story has passed down through families, in good times and bad, through war and famine, genocide and peace. This knowledge about ourselves in the universe has sustained so many during dark ages, so many times. Even now.
RL: Would you say the old ways were better than what we have now?
SA: Absolutely. Look at what we live in now. Corruption. Bandicoots. We could abolish the income tax for the next century if we got back what these politicians have stolen from us. Billions. Have your seen the newspaper today? The state-run Life Insurance Corporation of India is spending money on buffets to entice their employees to come to work.
In ancient times, the temple was the place of last resort. When invaders came, or disaster struck, people would flee to the temples. The temple was like a bank; its money was to be spent only in the case of catastrophe. There are no last resorts now. The government has been stealing the offerings at the Tirupati temple for ages. Did you read the papers yesterday? They have stolen millions.
Today the Brahmin has neither power nor wealth, so why would anyone want to emulate him? Why uphold order, law, or integrity? All anyone needs to do is see a Brahmin and know that that those values lead to poverty and worse. There is no last resort.
RL: What is your last resort?
SA: My foundation from childhood, the rituals I was taught. The meditations I do. I meditate for two hours every day and commune with my spiritual teacher. This act of watching oneself, this comfort that is within, is the last resort.
RL: Shouldn’t this idea of Hinduism that you have — the inward observance and the covenant of Brahma — help unite Hindus across India, rather than separate them?
SA: There’s no such thing as Hinduism. It’s an agglomeration of religions. The Aryans came in and their law was imposed on a host of religions. That’s why it’s called a polytheistic religion.
We Aryans have the sun as the living idol and we believe in Brahma. After independence the pyramid has been turned upside down. We have made sure the thugs and bandits are at the top and the intellectuals and the thinkers are at the bottom. We have ensured that people without philosophy and without culture are at the top, at the cost of people with integrity.
RL: Why don’t Brahmins fight back, then?
SA: We are separate from this idea of India that you have. We never felt it necessary to waste our lives fighting. We can do whatever is required on the material plane, of course, but our main calling is divine law and justice. In any case, historically speaking, we prefer to leave and start again.
Most of my family is in the United States. Unfortunately my parents brought me up to be patriotic. By the time I was enlightened, it was too late. One of my nephews is a neurosurgeon and the other is a radiologist. In India they would not have been admitted to medical college, as they are Brahmins. My daughter is in Germany doing a PhD in robotics. She scored ninety-nine percent on her entrance exam and still didn’t get admitted to medical college in India because of reservations for lower castes. I have told her never to come back.
RL: There seems to be a lot of hurt in what you say.
SA: It’s not just hurt, it’s hatred. Suppressed Brahmins here keep their mouths shut — you have the Indian state, cops, goons, and others against you. I don’t keep shut, but most Brahmins are family people. I don’t keep shut because the laws in India have screwed me so much that I don’t care. I don’t care! But at the first opportunity, I will jump ship. This country has no allegiance from any Brahmin. The Indian government rubs the patriotism out of you. America is the new promised land. They reward hard work, integrity, and diligence — all Brahminical characteristics.
RL: A stereotypical view about Brahmins is that they look for stability over money and ambition. Is that true?
SA: Some of us are introverted. But we are used to adapting and finding the best of Brahmin philosophy elsewhere. I have had fabulous communion in the most unlikely of places.
RL: You spent time in Japan, correct?
SA: I belong to a Japanese spiritual organization called Toho no Hikari. Light from the East. They’re into three activities — spiritual healing, nature farming, and the promotion of the arts. Their founder, Mokichi Okada [1882–1955], was and is my guru to this day. That painting on the wall is by him.
RL: What was it that attracted you to Toho no Hikari?
SA: These people do exactly what the covenant of Brahma expects. They are the only organization I have found that pursues the covenant of Brahma. They had an office at Richmond Circle in Bangalore in 1995, however they fled India with great suspicion — they were cheated here. I followed them to Japan in 2002 to persuade them to return.
RL: What happened?
SA: I failed. In Japan I had a second accident — a bus I was in went off the road. My left shoulder and right leg were crushed. I took the bus company to court — as a foreigner, I was to receive less compensation than a Japanese person. During the two and half years of the proceedings, Toho no Hikari looked after me as a mother would look after a child. So did the Tamil Brahmin community in Japan. They would bring me idlis and sambhar to eat in the hospital.
RL: Did you win the case?
SA: No. The Japanese Supreme Court ruled that a Japanese life is more valuable. I was deeply disappointed. In court cases, no matter how right you might be, laws take their own course. You cannot go to courts expecting justice. I should have learned that in India. But I was given a chance to fight and seek justice, and for that, I am very happy.
RL: Where else have you found this sense of community?
SA: I went to London in 1987. It was the first time I have ever felt at home. I never felt at home in India except for my early childhood, with my grandparents. They ran a very Brahminical household — cleanliness, orderliness, and rule of law were the norm. When I got back to India, I realized that I didn’t lose my temper the whole time that I was in the UK.
RL: So culture shock happened when you returned to India rather than when you were abroad?
SA: There was a Bombay cop at the immigration line going around and tapping everyone on the shoulder with his cane. I barked at him and the cop called his superior who left when he saw me standing there, dressed in a suit. He personified what India was to me — all that stinks, all that is unholy. This is what the political leadership of India represents to me. After experiencing hygiene, order, and rule of law abroad, I returned to find that most Indians lack hygiene, manners, and etiquette.
RL: You seem very self-aware. Have you ever considered unlearning some of these qualities that might cause you to lose your temper?
SA: A huge superstructure is built on these critical incidents. I would lose a lot of things about myself if I tried to change. I love my hatred of injustice — I don’t want to lose it. So it’s more a question of accepting myself now.
Ryan, you must emigrate. I am too old; you are still young enough. New Zealand is a good choice. Japan if you have the language — they are hyper-tolerant of eccentricity, but your freedom ends where their nose begins. Switzerland is like Singapore — intolerant — so don’t go there. In New Zealand you get elbow space and they speak English, of a sort.
The video for “Citizens of the World” begins with a helicopter-mounted camera breaking through the clouds and descending toward the dreary grid of Los Angeles. The spire of the Capitol Records Building comes into view, and a coruscating accordion line beckons. Suddenly, Khaled, Algeria’s King of Raï, appears perched atop the tower; his accordion is mirrored by a metallic guitar, and the camera cuts to Flying Machines’ John Wlaysewski. Then a crashing cymbal cuts off the surging melody, and the trilling, Bollywood-meets-old-India vocalizations of Kailash Kher take over; King Sunny Ade’s Juju guitar begins hammering away at a riff; the wail of Cheng Lin’s ehru slices into the mix. Wlaysewski’s bandmate, William Ryan George — the white one — begins: “In the beginning / When we were children / We saw no colors / Saw only brothers.” The chorus approaches, and the camera zooms out to reveal a perfectly synthesized rainbow of ethnicities, the miasma of globalization repackaged as a rare parfum, the promise of multiculturalism renewed — live from Hollywood. This is Pangea.
Cheng: “We all are human, and love our families / I hope you realize, we’re from the same tree.”
Ade: “So if you see me walking down your street / I hope you’ll greet me…”
Everybody: “…and join in my dream!”
Kher: “The truest religion is love / We can make the world beautiful.”
Cut to the B-roll: Enjoined by Cheng Lin to “Raise your hands up,” a gang of peacoat-clad women hoist champagne glasses in front of some generically iconic domed basilica, then a mother and her children jump for joy in front of the Los Angeles Zoo, then a collection of well-dressed, gleeful African men and women in an anonymous concrete plaza throw their hands in the air as if they do not care. Back to the white guy and the chorus: “I’ve got to let you know” — all together now! — “We are citizens of the world.” White guy: “No matter where we go” — together! — “No borders on our soul.”
Cut to stop-motion footage of pedestrians and cars flowing in and out of claustrophobic urban spaces, portraits of smiling Mongolian yak herders, septuagenarian beachgoers, head-wrapped men surveying Dubai’s towers, two friends of indeterminate (but divergent) ethnicities embracing, and so on.
According to the website of Equus World, a subsidiary of the dry-goods conglomerate Limex Global Industries (maker of Bimbo, Nigeria’s favorite detergent), whose head is Paris-based businessman and “Citizens of the World” financier Bassam Abdallah, Pangea is a supergroup created to “prove through the power and beauty of music, that despite being now separated by oceans, we are still one people.” (“Citizens of the World” is not just a song, but a component of the grander Equus project, which aims to connect the globe through “sensational events” and message-driven products including limited-edition, custom-made American muscle cars, utilizing “the new triangular link existing between Hollywood, Bollywood, and Nollywood.”) Unlike “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” or “We Are the World” or other musical endeavors meant to succor the world’s benighted, suffering populations, “Citizens of the World” aims to purvey a vibe, not save lives. And unlike, say, the United Nations, it is completely apolitical.
What follows is an account of the genesis of “Citizens of the World,” and a lesson in how to engineer a message-driven global pop product, told through interviews with Flying Machines’ John Wlaysewski and the project’s American masterminds, Spencer Proffer, a veteran music producer who is now the CEO of Meteor 17, and Harry Winer, a producer and director and president of Smash Media. Bassam Abdallah was unavailable for comment.
Harry Winer: Some years ago I was working on a film set in the world of motor sports, and I got to know someone named Dan Panoz, whose passion is creating high-end, hand-built cars. He told me about a project he was working on with a guy named Bassam Abdallah, who had commissioned him to manufacture replicas of classic American muscle cars. Dan introduced me to Bassam one day in early 2009, and it turns out that he’s the Procter & Gamble of Africa: He owns a company called Limex, which essentially takes natural resources and transforms them into usable products like soap and detergent. He lives in Paris now, but he’s from Lebanon, and was raised in the bush in central Africa, where his father had a business. This is very classically Lebanese — it’s a very industrious culture and citizenry, and there’s not enough business within the country, so they go elsewhere to seek their fortune. It’s very much an extension of their historic, nomadic cultures.
When Bassam was a teenager he saw his first American movie, Bullitt, with Steve McQueen. And he saw this car, a 1968 Mustang GT — he’s in a country with all dirt roads, so to even see a paved street, let alone a car that could go that fast, obviously made a big impression on him. Years later Bassam took over his father’s business, which was not very successful, and turned it into Limex. He started collecting 1960s muscle cars, and now he has a handsome collection, primarily Mustangs and Chevys. He feels there is something unique about these cars, something that connects with people no matter their culture.
Bassam eventually asked me to create a song that would capture the universal spirit of the car he was building. “Help me find a song that captures the philosophy of how I want to do business,” he said. “And let’s use American rock ’n’ roll, because that’s also highly exportable and is an iconic cultural element that people respond to.”
Spencer Proffer: Harry contacted me to architect the music that was to help propel the launch of his car. I immediately thought of “Desert Rose,” by Sting and Cheb Mami — the video has Sting and Mami driving through the desert in a Jaguar S-Type, and the song was used as a soundtrack for Jaguar commercials.
KW: “Desert Rose” was the prototype, but we wanted to do it in our own way.
SP: Bassam flew over to meet with Harry and me — we liked each other a lot, and I got a sense of his worldview. He agreed to let me have Flying Machines, an emerging band that had just come off a number-one hit on Yahoo consumer response, create the song. John Wlaysewski Spencer threw us a bone. Bassam was like, “Are you getting us Coldplay?” And Spencer said, “Let me get my band to take a crack at the song. If you don’t like it, I’ll go and find you a real band, a band you can drop $500,000 on.” Bassam agreed, but said, “I want it to be hybrid music. I don’t want it to be American music. I want it to have an eastern flavor to it — but an American band, so we can have East and West.”
KW: If we had gotten Peter Gabriel, we wouldn’t have been able to control the song. Spencer told me, “With my group we can do whatever we want with the song.” The challenge was that they were used to singing about lost loves and other very America-centric teenage themes that weren’t very worldly in their perspective.
SP: Flying Machines is American, but their music transcends. That’s a good word: transcends. The band has its own lane. Outside of the US, films and records are made with a global audience in mind. We’re hip to that, we’re tapping into that already. Their music travels so well: when you hear it you don’t think it sounds American; you think it sounds global. Queen, Paul McCartney, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins — their music travelled worldwide. My personal blueprint is the international stage, how music bridges cultures, and how cultures and spirits can come together using music as the vehicle. It’s who I am and where I play.
KW: I’ve done a number of international productions. I was first drawn to film because I saw it as a universal language. Little did I realize what was necessary to speak a universal language, or to get everybody to speak the same language. Bassam is trying to find the commonalities in people so that he can build bridges between divergent cultures. If we can find things that remind us of the interests that we share and the beauty that we all appreciate, then instead of being pulled apart by our differences we will be united. So while America is being demonized in many parts of the world, Bassam decides to take his fleet of muscle cars — these vintage Mustangs that are worth a fortune — on a trip through India, on these awful roads. Thousands of people flocked to see Bassam’s automobiles, and that’s what got this notion going in his head.
JW: Bassam has a vision. He feels like these are beautiful things, especially since they’re made by hand, they’re someone’s passion. If it were just a car rolling off a factory, I don’t think he would feel the same. Maybe it’s not so much the car that brings people together, but the idea that someone has a passion for something. Driving across India in this classic American car somehow means something about how every culture — it comes back to the feeling of the song.
We had trouble getting it right at first. We were sending Spencer songs that had full bridges, stuff going on everywhere, and he was like, “This is great! But we can’t use it. Picture an Indian guy: Is he going to listen to this? He would never be able to follow it. Less!” We got to the point where it was just two chords. “The simpler we make this,” I thought, “the more people from different places will be able to comprehend it without feeling like it’s an American song.”
Another stumbling block was that we had been told the whole time that the song was for a car. We wrote a song called “Driver, Please.” I turned it in, and Spencer’s like, “You’re not getting it.” I’m like, “What is this song for? Does it exist outside of selling a product?” And he was like, “It does.” And I’m like, “Well, I wish that we hadn’t been talking about the car this whole time.” That was the eureka moment.
Finally, we wrote the song in my basement at two in the morning, after failing to get it right for a week. I emailed a really crappy demo of “Citizens of the World,” with English lyrics, to Spencer, and he was like, “I think this is the one.” When he hears it, he knows. Then he asked, “Does it have a title?” I told him I wanted to show that, in the end, we’re all citizens of the world. “That’s the title!” he said.
SP: John is really a citizen of the world. He’s a Vietnamese orphan raised by a Polish father and an Irish mother.
JW: I almost feel like the title is too strong, from an artist’s point of view. But the point is that it’s a simple, even innocent, totally un-cynical title — there’s no irony, nothing idiomatic, nothing to mark it as American. People in America might think it’s simple-minded, but for people who don’t speak English as their first language — particularly Bassam — it’s a concept that’s easy to understand.
KW: As soon as I heard the song I said, “Yeah, that’s spot on. That captures the spirit of what Bassam wants.” You could see people dancing to it in clubs around the world. So I flew to Paris with the song. Bassam flipped. Spencer had mixed the whole thing, so it wasn’t just an idea — it was a song, and it really rocked. We drove all over Paris in Bassam’s car, playing the song over and over again, picking up his colleagues so they could drive around with us and listen to it. It was the first time in ages that it had snowed in Paris, and we were driving by the Eiffel Tower in the snow, singing along. Bassam was envisioning people all around the world singing the song.
JW: I got an email from Bassam that said, “You know, I’ve been listening to this song for eight hours. I’ve heard it thirty-two times. And I can’t find anything wrong with it.”
SP: Bassam and his staff believed that the statement was much bigger than the car and that the song could have a reach beyond being a propeller for a commercial. And Bassam, to his credit, wanted to make that statement. So I said, “Why not take the Sting model, which was fantastic, which had Sting’s voice married to the voice of a foreign language?” I asked Bassam where his business interests were most significant, and he said Africa, China, the Arab states, and India.
JW: Once that happened it started becoming something that wasn’t just about a car.
KW: Though at the level of the project’s DNA, it was always what it became.
JW: Spencer thought to bring people together on this and actually do what the song says rather than it just being, once again, another American act writing a song about people who they’re never going to meet. You know, so that it’s not like, “This goes out to my gardener,” or “This is about the guy I buy mangos from — this is his story.”
SP: I took about a month to do some homework. I’d worked with Stevie Wonder in the eighties, and I remembered how he’d raved about collaborating with King Sunny Ade. I thought it would be quite interesting for this rainbow of artists to include a classic/legacy/timeless artist like Sunny. He was a wonderful, wonderful talent and human being to interface with, just a pure delight. And when I called my friends at EMI India — I have a global relationship with the company — I spoke to the managing director, who turned me on to what he said was one of the hottest voices in all of India, Kailash Kher. I listened to his music and really got pumped. I thought, “Boy, that’s the other side of the coin of Sunny: one guy is legacy, one guy is emerging but major.” And then we got Cheng Lin, who’s been a star in China since she was thirteen and has sold over twenty-five million albums. She plays that instrument, the erhu — it’s like five hundred years old. I thought, “What a great adjunct to this team.” Last was Khaled, “the king of raï,” who’s sold forty-three million units — he’s based in Luxembourg but is selling throughout the Arab states. He’s a classic voice. I thought that would be a really interesting potpourri.
KW: It’s no small feat to get people from these different countries together to sing a song: first of all, they have to like the song and be willing to stop their lives; secondly, we were looking for huge stars, because if they already had fan bases we would reach millions of people just by virtue of having their names on the song.
SP: I found superstars who have sold seventy-three million units around the world, and who nobody in America knows, and I surrounded them with this band that is a voice for the next gen of world music. To their credit, Bassam and Harry approved the artists, and then it was my drill to get them all to embrace it. I sent out the song and, to a person, each one got it. They embraced it because they embraced the music, the feel, and because it’s pretty hip — it’s not corny, it’s very contemporary, it’s music that can travel worldwide.
KW: We did the whole thing the second week of February, in Los Angeles. The artists arrived on a Monday afternoon. Our game plan was to record the song in three days and film the video on Thursday and Friday. We were going to film it on the roof of the Capitol Records building — there’s never been a video filmed there before. I thought, “Okay, that sounds easy enough.” Except that these people had never met one another, they all spoke different languages, and one of the five didn’t speak a word of English. And as in every creative endeavor, when you bring in more than one person you have to establish trust between them. Every artist feels that their career is riding on each action they take, and they want to make sure that the quality others have come to associate with them will permeate this new venture. If it doesn’t, there will be hell to pay.
JW: At first it was really scary. We got there and they threw us a great party, with all this champagne and food, and everyone’s walking around, shaking hands. I’m meeting all these people and their entourages, and I don’t know who’s who, and nobody could tell me because nobody speaks English. We had all these people from different cultures, speaking however many languages.
KW: They all wanted to sing the song in their own language. But the concept of “citizen” isn’t universal; it came out of the American and French Revolutions. So the concepts have to be translated, too.
JW: There was a lady there who was wrangling the stars, Dawn Elder, and she and Bassam both speak Arabic. Khalid would be talking about his parts in Arabic and she would translate. Then Bassam, who speaks English and French, too, would be upset that her translation was off. Khalid might have said something like, “You know I really don’t like this part, could we change it?” And her translation would be, “He’s really unhappy.” Then Khalid started speaking French, and someone else was translating into English. You had all these languages flying around, with broken English in the middle. We would get stuck on a melody line, try to talk about it, and all we’re getting is, “He’s not happy.”
KW: It was like a United Nations negotiation, except we had to produce results in three days. Poor Spencer is trying to deal with all these personalities and listen to what they’re saying, but knowing that the clock is ticking.
JW: The first day or two, when I was putting tracks down myself, I was thinking, “This sounds like an American song with a bunch of people kinda going ‘la, la, la’ over it.” At some point Spencer, Bassam, and Harry decided that everyone should translate the lyrics or write their own words for the different parts. So all of the artists sat down and had the lyrics translated, then they all stood together and sang the entire song, one at a time, until they got it right.
SP: I recorded the song in Hindi — I did it in, you know, one of the African dialects, in Chinese, and in Arabic. And then I sat with the artists, and with Bassam and Harry, and we cut-and-pasted everything together.
JW: The last couple of days was all mixing, making sure the artists weren’t like, “Why does that guy have a line that’s two seconds longer than mine?” Because there’s a political thing going on there, too. You end up with this difficult balancing act, trying to make sure that everyone is equally represented. It was always on the line of becoming contentious. But everyone kept the big picture in mind: “Wait a minute — this is a song. It’s supposed to inspire people to feel like we are all one, like the human race has to put aside its differences.”
KW: At the end of Wednesday, Spencer plays the mix for us. It’s almost all Flying Machines. Everything is in English. I said, “Wait a second, where are the other artists? This is supposed to be a universal song. We’re doing something new here.” He says, “You’re never going to sell a song in the United States if it’s not in English.” He’s working in the mold that’s familiar to him and that he’s mastered. But I know Bassam is not thinking about the United States — he’s thinking about the world market. Spencer was, understandably, quite upset. But since he had recorded the other artists singing the song in their own languages, that night he was able to redo it. On Thursday morning, literally an hour before the cameras were scheduled to start rolling, he finished the final mix. Then the artists had to approve of the song and learn their parts for the video. They really responded when they heard it; they realized it was something new and unique.
JW: After I heard the final mix of the music, I thought back to seventh grade earth science, when I learned that the seven continents were once a single connected supercontinent called Pangea. I thought this was poetic and was happy everyone liked the name.
KW: Since it was released, the song has gotten unbelievable traction. There was a Wall Street Journal article, Yahoo got behind it, and the documentary has been airing on PBS stations around the country. For a single song to make that kind of inroad in the media space could only have happened because the idea is so interesting.
JW: Some people have a cynical reaction to the song. They think that all these people got together and they auto-tuned the whole thing, and now it’s this American product that has other languages, or that it’s just a cash cow, when in fact there’s actually no way to make money off it. Or they think it sounds commercial. I mean, you don’t listen to it and think, “Wow, this African music is amazing.” It’s not authentic per se. But I think everyone involved did stuff that was authentic to them. I think it’s authentic to global culture.
KW: This touched a chord in a lot of people, and Bassam sees that it’s a viable concept. But I don’t know what his plans are for rolling out the song worldwide.
JW: You know, there were five artists, twenty lawyers, five management teams, and dozens of agents involved. Even just getting us all in the room together was an achievement. Right now all you can do is purchase the ninety-nine-cent song. It’s still kind of abstract; it’s like we’re selling an idea. Apparently they can’t actually sell the car yet — there was an issue with the engine or something like that, and it stopped production. I think Bassam is holding back a little bit because he still sees the song as connected to his other venture with Equus. He doesn’t want to have it all come out now, and then not have it be connected with the car he’s trying to sell. Because he’s not going to make his money back selling a ninety-nine-cent song. And he dropped a lot of cash on this.
SP: There is hope that sometime in the future we can, with Bassam’s blessing, get one, two, or more of these artists to work on new tracks written by Flying Machines, because they are the propeller of the vision, musically — they have that global vision. As a result of “Citizens,” people are now aware that Flying Machines should be architecting world music, and that I should be producing it. My goal as Flying Machines’ partner and mentor is to break them on the world stage, not just to have a hit in America. Our favorite artists are Peter Gabriel, Sting, and Elton John — artists who have a world sensibility. There are very few emerging bands that have that reach with their music, their lyrics, and their style. I want to pitch John as the next gen’s new Peter Gabriel-guitar-player-Clapton-type guy. He’s that good. But clearly my goal is to get me to — I don’t want to say that I want to be the next gen, but my hero’s Quincy Jones, who produced “We Are the World.” I think I can occupy a very interesting lane, because I’m rooted in rock ’n’ roll — I’ve produced a lot of big records, like Quiet Riot’s “Bang Your Head” — but I have a real global, charitable sensibility.
JW: “We Are the World” was always in the back of our minds. I actually have the whole five-disc set at home. I watched it before we wrote the song. And I thought about the Simpsons episode where they’re going to save the boy who fell down the well, and they bring everyone together — including Sting — to sing a song about it: “Though we can’t get him out, we’ll do the next best thing, we’ll go on TV and sing, sing, sing!”
KW: One thing I learned from “Citizens of the World” is that when you try to bring people together you realize how differently we all see things, and why there’s so much conflict in the world that comes from misunderstandings and cultural differences. We often don’t realize how profoundly different the points of view of people who were raised in different ways, with different belief systems, are. We have the expectation that we can change things overnight, but it’s more like the Ice Age: things move at a glacial speed, but they move. You create little threads of hope that inspire new ways of looking at the world — not in everybody, but maybe in a couple minds out there, who will then reach four other minds, and then eight minds. We know that bringing people together to create something of beauty is a concept that resonates universally; if we continually play that note, eventually it will become the norm, eventually it will become the mainstream.
In 1887, a young Russian eye doctor named Ludwig Zamenhof published the first grammar of his Universal Language under the pseudonym Docktoro Esperanto (Doctor Hopeful). A kind of simplified Romance language, with a basic Indo-European grammatical structure but Slavic-language sounds, the Universal Language — or Esperanto, as it came to be known — is technically unrelated to any other language, even though it is comprised of a great number of them. It always follows its stated rules, which makes it quite easy to learn. (It is never irregular.) Oddly enough, Zamenhof originally conceived of Esperanto as a Jewish language — a replacement for both Yiddish and Hebrew. Zamenhof had grown up in 1870s Bialystock, a city divided along linguistic lines (German, Russian, Polish, Yiddish), where the Jews lived uneasily among their neighbors; his father was the czar’s censor for Jewish literature. The pogroms of the 1880s only intensified Zamenhof’s dream of a unified transnational culture for the Jews of Eastern Europe. The Universal Language would be the means by which the Jews would fully assimilate with their neighbors. Zamenhof even developed a humanistic Judaic philosophy to go along with it, which he called Hillelism.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Zamenhof’s ideas were not warmly received by their intended audience. In his book The Jewish Century, Berkeley historian Yuri Slezkine suggests that it was precisely their polyglot tendencies that allowed the Jews in Europe to move flexibly through, adapt to, and do business with a variety of host cultures and languages across the continent. What’s more, Yiddish already served as an internal code language, a bulwark against the vicissitudes of politics. The notion of sacrificing Yiddish for Esperanto must have seemed like unilateral disarmament.
And yet Esperanto quickly became an international phenomenon for an unintended audience. Groups of language enthusiasts would come together in each country where Zamenhof’s grammar was translated. The first World Congress of Esperanto was held in 1905 in Boulogne-sur-Mer, France. By that time, Zamenhof’s quasi-messianic vision of a Hebraic utopia was considered a potential embarrassment to the growing movement of Esperantists — an opinion he came grudgingly to share, eschewing any public leadership role as the language spread throughout the secular intellectual establishments of France, Switzerland, and Germany, among others. (Brazil, Hungary, and Iran had vociferous Esperanto associations as well; it’s often noted that the language has done especially well in countries with large but linguistically isolated populations.) World Esperanto Congresses became an annual fixture for speakers, writers, activists, and linguists, under the leadership of the Universal Esperanto Association, formed in Geneva in 1908.
The earliest known Esperantist in Iran was one M. Abesgus, a Russian banker posted in Baku, and then Tehran, around 1901. He seems to have sparked a wider circle of interest. There was an article on Esperanto in the magazine Bahar in 1910, followed by language courses in Tabriz. The first Esperanto textbook in Farsi was published in 1915 in Tehran, and there were a number of Iranian representatives at the World Esperanto Congress at The Hague in 1920.
Later that year in Geneva, the Persian prince Arfeh-ed-Douleh led one of the delegations that petitioned the inaugural general assembly of the League of Nations to make Esperanto its official language of international diplomacy. The petition had eleven co-signatories, and failed to pass by a single vote. (That vote belonged to France, who presumably felt the proverbial lingua franca was a sufficiently universal language.) That an invented auxiliary language not even thirty-five years old should have come so far onto the world stage is remarkable. Its failure at that crucial moment, however, left the movement in disarray. It would never fully recover.
Ludwig Zamenhof had three children, but it was his daughter Lidia who became the most ardent advocate for her father’s creation. She learned Esperanto at the age of nine, later espousing Homaranismo, the universalist humanist philosophy that Hillelism had evolved into in the early 1900s. In 1925, at a congress in Geneva, Lidia encountered Martha Root, a fluent speaker of the Universal Language and a passionate proponent of yet another universalism: the Baha’i faith, an offshoot of Shi’a Islam founded in Persia in the late 1850s and led by Mírzá Husayn Alí Núrí, who took the title Bahá’u’lláh and whose followers became known as Baha’is. The Bahá’u’lláh preached the unity of humankind and the identity of all the world’s religions — apostasy enough for him to spend the remainder of his life in Ottoman exile, in what is now Turkey, Iraq, and Israel.
The Bahá’u’lláh looked forward to a one-world government, and taught that all human beings should speak a universal language. For many Baha’is, Esperanto was clearly the solution. The Geneva congress featured a number of Baha’i presentations, and Lidia Zamenhof went on to become a devotee, teaching both the faith and Esperanto in lecture tours, workshops, and writings. In 1937 she was invited by the Baha’i international leader, Shoghi Effendi, to go on a teaching tour of the United States. The following year her application for a visa renewal was denied on a technicality, and at the end of 1938 she was forced to sail back to Poland.
In the 1930s and ’40s, Esperanto’s fortunes took a dark turn, in keeping with the times. The stock market crash and the ensuing depression decimated the finances of the Universal Esperanto Association, while World War II claimed the lives of many an Esperantist. Its associative baggage — Judaism, universalism, foreigners — continued to dog the movement throughout the twentieth century. In 1925 Hitler denounced the “Jewish language” of Esperanto in the pages of Mein Kampf. Soviet Esperantists were initially encouraged by the government, though they were silenced after the rise of Stalin: several dozen (estimates vary) people were executed one night in the spring of 1937 for their membership in the “espionage organization” Esperanto, and thousands more were sent to the gulag. The language was banned in the USSR until 1956, and an official organization of Soviet Esperantists would not be formed again until 1979.
During the last decades of the Cold War, Eastern Bloc Esperantists used their language to communicate with the West, either to acquire goods on the black market or simply to relieve their official isolation; their clubs, far from the watchful eye of Moscow, were more openly tolerated. That remains one of Esperanto’s weirder ironies: people were murdered for speaking it while it was still mostly an enthusiasts’ abstraction; later on, when it actually was subversive, it was defended as a harmless linguistic hobby.
Popping up in the background of so many political and cultural events of the twentieth century, Esperanto is the linguistic version of Woody Allen’s Zelig: an accidental chameleon. Over time, diluted with use and ideological competition, its initial utopian universalism became a kind of anyone-and-everyone-ism. Eventually, the idea of the language came to overshadow the language itself: Esperanto became a generic symbol for foreignness, otherness. In his 1940 masterpiece The Great Dictator, Chaplin used Esperanto for the background signage in the scenes taking place in the ghetto, because it would look recognizably — but unidentifiably — European and foreign without screaming “Jewish” to the film board. In the wake of the war, the US Army published a new war-games manual, number FM 301, in which the language of the mock enemy is Esperanto (which, of course, sounded like a weird combination of all the army’s most recent enemies).
Tragically, while Chaplin was fictionalizing the Warsaw Ghetto on film in 1940, Lidia Zamenhoff was living in the actual Warsaw Ghetto, feverishly translating Baha’i texts into Esperanto and helping out with the underground medicine trade. She was killed at Treblinka, some two hours northeast of Warsaw, in the latter half of 1942.
In 1975, M. H. Saheb-Zamani, a Tehrani professor of clinical psychiatry, returned to Iran after a stint at the World Health Organization in Geneva. An article he wrote for the Tehran University magazine ignited interest in Esperanto, which had been largely dormant for decades. Over the next three years an explosion of interest swept Iranian high schools and universities; teachers were encouraged by the Ministry of Education to learn the language in order to cope with the student demand, and by 1980 an all-Esperanto page was published in the national weekly magazine Javanan. In 1991, long after the movement had calmed down (as suddenly as it began), Saheb-Zamani proffered an explanation in the pages of Esperanto magazine:
Iranians have a wider worldview for several reasons, among them Sufi. They have no wish to stay chauvinistically in their own isolated country. At first, for five hundred years after the adoption of Islam in Iran, they made first-rate contributions to medieval world literature in a learned second language, Arabic… . Today they have been occupied for the past hundred years with French, German, Russian, and English, but the result is not worth mentioning. In high schools we learn foreign languages, mainly English, for around six years, with results a little bit better than zero. So the Iranians instinctively recognize that through their own language they cannot take part in the arena of world literature, they have an enthusiasm for learning other languages, but the majority of them have no hope of doing so. Esperanto gives them the key, solves the so-called inferiority complex.
What is especially strange about this moment is that the high wave of Esperanto popularity was almost entirely coincident with a surge in Baha’i persecution. Though they had long been a marginalized minority in Iran, the specter of Baha’i — an emblem of Westernization, Zionism, and foreign influence in the Shah’s government — was a key tool of the incendiary politics of the revolutionary movement. The Baha’i communities in Iran were the victims of fear-inducing propaganda, mob violence, street riots, and the desecration and seizure of their assets; many were executed after the establishment of the Islamic Republic. Interestingly, the historical link between Baha’i and Esperanto seems not to have a specific relevance in the Iranian context, since the new government hardly needed further excuses to persecute either one of them. The Esperanto enthusiasts were chiefly students and not necessarily Baha’i, and in 1980, when the universities was shut down for three years, Esperanto was one of the casualties.
Esperanto is essentially a solution without a problem, a sort of inverted Babel: In an age when modes of communication have proliferated wildly, most people don’t recognize language as grounds for discrimination. While Esperanto has thrived on the internet through a host of forums, chat rooms, and teaching sites, its original mission has been obviated by that very success. English has bulldozed its way into languages that once had wide geographic anchorage (French, German, Russian) largely because speaking it has offered the best chance at economic growth. To learn Esperanto, an invented language with at best a million and a half speakers, is fundamentally a gesture of protest.
And yet, after decades of struggling to convince people to take it seriously, Esperanto is reaching a kind of acceptability among academic linguists. Some of this might just be literary critical mass: sufficient reams (or terabytes?) of original literature, translated literature, and commentary have made it an attractive subject for study. So, too, has the postmodern conception of language: old ideas about cultural grounding that ordered the hierarchies of language study have given way to more nuanced understandings about what constitutes a valid language. (How could they not, in the age of C++, Perl, and HTML?)
While there is still an Esperantist presence in Iran today, maintaining its slender branch of the UEA, it is a shadow of its former self. The Baha’i, for their part, have moved on, both in and out of Iran: The universal language the Bahá’u’lláh dreamed of, they have decided, is actually American English.
Is Kuwaiti social entrepreneur Naif Al-Mutawa the best dad in the world? Let’s consider the evidence. He’s totally busy with his day job, it’s true — but his day job is dreaming up superheroes and adventures for them to have. His heroes, a team called The 99, are the stars of their own comic book — and they just teamed up with Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman in new spinoff title. Meanwhile, in real life, the leader of the free world is a fan. (President Obama praised Mutawa in April during a summit on entrepreneurship.) The 99 also have their own theme park, right there in Kuwait — how cool is that? We can’t say whether Mutawa dotes on his five sons, exactly, but they look pretty happy when they wriggle their way into his publicity photographs, which happens fairly often.
Doctor Mutawa, an affably serious thirty-nine-year-old with dark, floppy curls and a salt-and-pepper five o’clock shadow, has been called one of “The Most Influential Muslims in the World.” A trained psychologist and business-school grad, Mutawa set out eight years ago to create a pop-cultural phenomenon on the order of Pokémon. He’s not quite there yet — video games, feature films, and action figures are still in the offing — but come January 2011, a cartoon version of The 99 will beam its way into sixty million American homes via The Hub, the rebranded Discovery Kids channel. And Wham! Bam! Islam!, a documentary film about Mutawa and his efforts to bring The 99 to life, is set to air on a public television station in the spring.
Mutawa is what’s known as a social entrepreneur, meaning he’s wants to build a better world through capitalism. With The 99, he wants to change perceptions of Islam — among Muslims, in particular, though if a huge team of non-denominationally awesome superheroes with Muslim names can help defuse the clash of civilizations in the West, so much the better. But the point, he says, is to “confuse the discourse” about Islam. His caped don’t-call-them-crusaders may or may not say their prayers, do their ablutions, or fast during Ramadan; in fact, they might actually be Christian or Buddhist or (gasp) Jewish. You can imagine them however you like. (Mutawa often says that he wants kids of every faith to identify with his heroes.) He isn’t fighting stereotype with stereotype; he’s creating a myth. And, inshallah, an intellectual property that will continue to grow by, how you say, leaps and bounds.
Michael C. Vazquez: Did you read comics as a kid?
Naif Al-Mutawa: I did, but I didn’t follow them, if you see what I mean. If a comic was available, I’d pick it up, but I didn’t go looking for them. As a kid in Kuwait I was more into reading the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, the Bobbsey Twins, stuff like that.
MV: Were you reading those things in Arabic?
NM: Well, I went to bilingual schools, and starting at eight or nine I spent my summers in New Hampshire. So I read in English. Later that become more of a necessity, since the stuff I would have liked to read in Arabic wasn’t allowed into the country. When I was twenty-six, my mom saw me with an English copy of Abdelrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt and she was like, “What are you doing? You’re Arab; he’s Arab. How dare you read this in English!” But of course the book was banned in the Gulf, so it was so much easier to read it in English. The censors didn’t know their elbows from their knees when it came to stuff in English, but books by Munif or Mahfouz or whoever would get stopped because the censors could understand it. And in the name of protecting the culture, protecting the language, they’re killing it. When I read Cities of Salt in the original it was the first time in my life that I read something in Arabic for pleasure, not because I had to. I might have ended up writing in Arabic if I’d been reading interesting things in Arabic my whole life.
MV: Were you in Kuwait when Saddam invaded?
NM: No, I was in New Hampshire, at summer camp… for a couple of years. [Laughs] Actually I was already at Tufts by that time, during the school year. But there was a year of my life that I didn’t have a country. My kids have all been born here in the States, and that’s because I want them never to be in that position.
MV: And at some point you got four professional degrees and also started writing?
NM: I have five boys, four degrees, and a partridge in a pear tree. [Laughs] Actually I have three masters’ — clinical psychology, organizational psychology, and business administration — and a doctorate in clinical psychology. I wrapped up my doctorate in 2004, a year after getting my business degree. But I had been writing children’s books since my mid-twenties. The first book I wrote won an honorable mention from UNESCO, and I got a real, three-book publishing deal from a publisher. They still pay me — I got three hundred bucks a few months ago. It’s a Saudi publisher.
MV: So what is the origin story behind The 99? I’ve heard that you had the idea while making a pilgrimage?
NM: [Laughs] I mean, I say it that way sometimes — I was literally in a cab in London, heading from Edgeware Road to Harrods, which is, you know, going from the Arab part of town to the ultimate Arab shop. At the time I had just finished my degrees and my sister was nagging me to go back to writing kids’ books, so she could illustrate them. And I said, “For me to go back and do that again… it just doesn’t make sense.” I had just finished business school, I wanted to focus on getting job offers. If I were going to do something it’d have to be big, more like Pokémon than like the books I had written before.
And then I started to free-associate. Pokémon — there was an imam who’d issued a fatwa against Pokémon. My next thought was, My God, what’s happened to Islam, who on earth is making these random decisions for my children? And then I thought about the glorious Islamic libraries of the past — you know, the Bait al-Hikma, the House of Wisdom, in Baghdad. I thought of Allah, of how disappointed He must be. And I thought about the ninety-nine attributes of Allah. And then we pulled up to Harrods and I realized the Pokémon characters all have attributes. And I got out of the cab and the basic idea of The 99 just came to me. I shared it with my sister and she loved it and I just ran with it. Within a couple months I had the business part with a friend because I’m not very good with numbers. Except I can add to ninety-nine. [Laughs]
MV: And Teshkeel is the company you started to produce The 99 comic book?
NM: Initially the idea was more expansive — Teshkeel was going to be the source for Arabic-language comics, so we bought the rights for Marvel and DC and Archie comics. But those didn’t do so well, actually, so now Teshkeel and The 99 are pretty much synonymous. I mean, it’s not that The 99 does so well; the point is that, when I lose money publishing Spider-Man in Arabic, it’s like free advertising for the guy selling the Spider-Man action figure. But if I lose money selling The 99 comic book —
MV: You’re building a franchise.
NM: That’s the thinking. You know, I’m nice, but I’m not that nice.
MV: The 99 do have a definite sort of X-Men vibe to them, actually — the castle, the mutations induced by the Noor stones, the relationship between the professor figure and his —
NM: Jesus and his disciples.
MV: Sure, if that’s how you want to take it. [Laughs] I didn’t mean it in a negative way, it just feels particularly resonant. And, you know, it looks —
NM: It looks like a US comic.
MV: Like a team-oriented US comic featuring a bunch of younger heroes led by a professor… . But yeah, it looks like it could be a Marvel comic. And, for that matter, many of the people involved in producing it are American comic book veterans, right?
NM: All of the people involved have worked for Marvel and DC. Fabian Nicieza and Stuart Moore both worked on X-Men, in fact. Basically, I knew from the beginning that I wanted The 99 to look like an American comic book. I didn’t want the language or the art to be anything different or unusual. I didn’t want to use a Middle Eastern style, or try to invent one. I wanted to use something that existed. The only thing that would be different would be the Islamic archetypes.
MV: Not stereotypes?
NM: Archetypes. I read all of Joseph Campbell’s books on mythology and heroes. And I’m always having to correct people who say that The 99 is an Islamic comic book. It’s not Islamic. It’s inspired by Islam. It is inspired by Islam in the way that so many American comics are inspired by Judeo-Christian archetypes.
MV: For example?
NM: For example: Superman! Whose parents save him from certain doom by putting him in a pod and sending him out into space… as the baby Moses is put into a basket and sent down the Nile. Superman’s father Jor-El sends his only son to Earth. These archetypes really are everywhere. Sometimes they’re deep, as in Waterworld, which was the story of Genesis in secular robes. Often they’re incredibly shallow. Did you see that movie The Net, with Sandra Bullock? The main character’s name was Angela — Angel-a. And the bad guy was Devlin… . What I wanted to do with The 99 is, in a sense, to repackage my culture in a way that makes it global and humanistic.
MV: So what’s an Islamic archetype that you’re dealing with?
NM: Well, most obviously, there are the Noor stones, which lend the members of The 99 their powers. The stones contain the wisdom of the ages — all the knowledge contained in the Library of Baghdad, which was destroyed by the Mongols in 1258. It’s a famous story, one of the great tragedies; the Tigris ran blue with the ink from all the destroyed books. So in my story, the librarians of Baghdad managed to save that wisdom by infusing it into these gems, the Noor stones. And there are things about the stones that the heroes have to figure out. For one, they work best in groups of three. Second, the knowledge in the stones isn’t frozen in the past — there’s a self-updating mechanism. In fact, The 99’s nemesis, Rughal, doesn’t want the stones to update. He wants to use the power of the stones to control The 99. And finally, the stones can be misused. When the characters first get them, they use them self-interestedly. So, for example, Mujiba from Malaysia can answer any question that was in those books. She starts going on game shows to make money. And then she gets taken advantage of by the bad guys. So each hero learns to use his or her stone for the betterment of humanity. Actually, another thing is the stones work better the younger the stone-bearer. So you need to be able to let go of the stone when you get older to make way for new members of The 99.
MV: [Laughs] That’s very cunning. Building in a way for the brand to evolve and also making a statement.
NM: These are issues that don’t fall on deaf ears, politically. The notion that if you use the stone for the wrong reason, people will exploit you — that’s the whole idea that if you use religion for the wrong reasons, someone could take advantage of you, get you to blow yourself up. That’s where I’m coming from.
MV: How is that an Islamic archetype, though? It seems more like an allegory…
NM: Well, for one thing, all of the characters’ powers are based on the attributes of God. But also the main bad guy’s name is Rughal. And as any Muslim child can tell you, Abu Rughal is the name of the one who gave directions to King Abraha’s army, which was marching on the Kaaba to destroy it the year the Prophet was born. It’s known as the Year of the Elephant, because there were elephants in Abraha’s army. Now in the Qur’an, God sent birds with stones to pelt the elephants and stop them in their tracks. So in our story, who’s the bad guy? Rughal. Who saves the world from him? Superheroes — “Look, up in the sky!” And how do they do it? With stones.
MV: [Laughs] That’s great. Was that actually something you set out to do in advance? Is there a list of Islamic archetypes or narratives that you sent out?
NM: No, no. There’s a character guide, and a list of the attributes, but not a lot more.
MV: I wanted to ask you about that. In looking back at the early media about the project, it seems like at the beginning you were only planning on using sixty of the ninety-nine attributes because a lot of them were ineffable or unique to God or whatever.
NM: Yeah, that’s what I thought at the time. What I didn’t know is that there are actually six or seven different lists of the ninety-nine attributes of God. And then, after the second round of financing, one of the backers was an Islamic bank, so I had other Muslims I could talk to about it, and I realized there were ways of dealing.
MV: Like how?
NM: For example, one of the ninety-nine attributes of God is Al-Jami, the Assembler, who arranges cells into humans, et cetera, et cetera. I thought that was off-limits. But then our character Jami is a Hungarian kid, and he can only assemble technology.
MV: Right, he’s the IT guy.
NM: Exactly. [Laughs] He’s the CTO.
MV: I do wonder if there isn’t something curious about your project — about deploying archetypes against stereotypes or however we should think about it. A lot of your early publicity came in the wake of the Danish cartoon controversy. Amid all the talk about Islam and the prohibition on making images — boom! Here come the Muslim superheroes! Except they’re not Muslim. Or they may or may not be (the one from Yemen in the Burqa probably is), but it’s never a plot point. No one ever stops to pray. But then again, they all have these Muslim names.
NM: Actually, each character has a name appropriate to the country they’re from. Mumita the Destroyer is actually Catarina Barbossa, from Portugal. But you know, Batman and Superman were Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent, names based on the country they’re from. And Pokémon’s names are all made up — Pikachu, Squirtle.
NM: There you go.
MV: Bulbasaur’s my favorite. [Laughs] Anyway, it just seemed interesting to fight stereotypes with things that are sort of blank.
NM: For me, the important thing about the Muslim stuff was: I am Muslim, and this is what I think. I’m not interested in other people’s interpretation of religion — I don’t even want my mother’s, you know? The 99 is not based on other people’s prejudices about Islam… it’s based on my prejudices about Islam. The other night a very earnest young man said, “Maybe if you have more Muslims working for you, it will become a more Muslim project.” And I said, “I respect your opinion. And if you really think that, you should go out and start your own Muslim project.”
See, for me, Islam has come to mean a lot of things. But if you ask anybody their Islamic top-ten list, fun or tolerance or humanism are not going to make the list. So I was like, how do I bring that into the conversation? Every time something terrible happens, the leadership says, “This isn’t Islam.” But nobody says, “This is Islam.” I think more people need to step up to contribute culturally. Because it’s going to be defined by the average, and right now the average is just way out there.
I chose to make my contribution through comics. My dad thought I was nuts. When I told him about The 99, it was clear that this was not the job he was imagining for me after getting all those degrees. Certainly not after the million dollars that went into my education, albeit from the government — I always had scholarships. But I just felt I had a shot at doing it this way. There’s something very human about it, this way of communicating — drawing — that even the cavemen used.
There’s an Oscar Wilde quote I love, that when you put out a piece of art, unless there’s controversy surrounding it, you haven’t created anything.
MV: I read somewhere that you were not interested in creating Islamic heroes, you were interested in confusing the discourse about Islam.
NM: Exactly. I’m interested in confusing the system.
MV: Has that always been an interest of yours? [Laughs]
NM: Have I been a troublemaker since birth, you mean? [Laughs] Probably. It’s hard to answer that question, actually — I’m pretty convinced of the rightness of what I’m doing, and I’ve been doing it for eight years. I’m not Mister One Hundred Issues, you know. Although… actually, I confused the system in Kuwait a year and a half ago. I launched what has become the largest private mental-health practice in the Gulf. We’ve gone from two to twenty-two therapists in less than a year. One of my greatest mentors was Dr. Jaafar Behbehani, a guy who had been seeing patients for twenty-five years and never took a penny, because he didn’t need to. And he really cared about what he was doing. The whole time I knew him — fifteen years — he was trying to change the system in Kuwait. And so I told him I could help him. But it wasn’t going to be through government. In Kuwait, psychiatrists are licensed through the Ministry of Commerce, not the Ministry of Health. So my pitch was, let’s get a space in a nice building, overlooking the water, beautiful furniture, marble floors — really nice — and then let’s charge people the same prices the quacks are charging in their bodegas. That was the plan. And it’s been quite successful. So I launched it, and then Dr. Jaafar passed away during the process. Anyway, so that’s troublemaking, yes? I broke the market for psychologists in Kuwait. But troublemaking for good. [Laughs]
The thing is, with psychology, as much as I love doing it, you reach one person an hour. But with writing, with animation especially, you can reach a million in a minute if you’ve got the access. So I’ve been putting my thinking into Islam. And both my initiatives are for-profit. The clinic is for-profit, and Teshkeel is for-profit. But they’re both social-entrepreneurial adventures.
MV: Are you familiar with any of the other Middle Eastern comics? There was one called Thirteen Devils that had a faintly similar approach to yours, actually: It was a team, with one member from each Arab country. And they kind of played with stereotypes — you know, the Lebanese character was all sexy. There’s also AK Comics, in Cairo; I can’t tell if they’re still going, but they had outsourced a lot of the production, too. Which ended up causing them grief, because the Brazilian illustrators they were using wanted to make all the females Brazilian, so they had like, huge busts and scanty costumes. And AK had to go back and say, “Could you change the costumes? And, you know, make the breasts smaller? So we can sell this in Saudi?”
NM: I’ve met the founder of AK Comics, actually. I think their mistake was in the conception, because they made four Arab superheroes. And the brutal fact of the matter is that there is no Arab market. There just isn’t. Especially with this stuff, you make money maybe, inshallah, when you start doing licensing deals and for games and toys. But up until that point, you’re not profitable. I’ve been doing this for eight years and we’re not profitable yet. But what you need to do is get as many people to get behind your concept as possible. I mean, there’s a reason The 99 are from ninety-nine different countries…
MV: It seems like it’s on the verge of paying off? The cartoon is a huge deal. The Justice League crossover is a huge deal. And I’ve heard that you’re working on a film franchise and video games. You’ve already got the amusement park in Kuwait. But you mentioned somewhere that the cartoon has been on your mind from the beginning. Presumably from the example of Pokémon?
NM: I always envisioned The 99 on television. But it didn’t work, financially, to start out that way. To get the kind of money I would have needed, I would have had to give up control, and I was not willing to do that. So I found a way to do it that required less money up front, where I could build a lot of value in the meantime. And that’s what ended up happening. The comic book sort of turned out to be R&D.
MV: Proof of concept.
NM: Exactly. Though it was also just good luck. Had I not produced the comics to begin with, Teshkeel definitely wouldn’t own 100 percent of the IP today. But I didn’t know that when I started. It just worked out.
MV: Speaking of troublemaking again, have you ever thought about going into politics? About, you know, confusing the system from within the system?
NM: You know… my dad is much more interested in me being in politics than I am. I write politically. Op-eds, that sort of thing. A lot of them are up on my personal website. But I don’t think I’d ever run for anything.
You know, I wrote a piece called “‘Barack’ Al-Mutawa” that got published in the Chicago Tribune on Inauguration Day. My son was born on New Year’s Day 2009, and my dad called, asking me to name him Barack. Which was completely out of character for him. And then a couple hours after that one of my sisters called and said, “You had another child?” And I said yes. And she said, “What’d you have?” I already had four boys at that point. I said, “Another boy,” and she said, “Yes, now you have enough boys to liberate Palestine.” And I thought, Or field a whole basketball team!
MV: Did you have a very extensive Qur’anic education?
NM: As extensive as any Kuwait schoolkid did. The curriculum came from the ministry. But, you know, it’s not about how much information you have, it’s how you process it. When I was nineteen I wasn’t sure where I was. Islam in Kuwait was very Wahhabi, very black and white. And I don’t do black and white, I’m just not capable of it.
MV: Millions of colors?
NM: [Laughs] Exactly. But then there was an imam who came and spoke at Tufts, and what he said changed my life. It was very simple. He said, “If you ask me if paying interest on a loan is haram, I would tell you yes and I would quote you chapter and verse. But if I didn’t pay the interest on my car loan, I wouldn’t be here today to talk to you about Islam.” And I was like, Wait a minute! That’s a gray area. I can live there. It’s not for other people to tell me what Islam is or isn’t. Because at the end of the day you don’t need an A+ to go to graduate school. And you don’t need an A+ to get into hell.
This book is dedicated in the spirit of support for the goal of the United Nations’ International Year of Shelter for the Homeless, 1987 — that all of the poor and disadvantaged of the world will be able to obtain a home by the year 2000.—Nader Khalili, Ceramic Houses and Earth Architecture
In late 1981, I realized that the space transportation technology of the year 2000 would be capable of routinely carrying payloads to the Moon… a permanent lunar base has far-reaching implications for national policy, international relations, and American technology. —Dr. Wendell Mendell, Lunar Bases and Space Activities of the 21st Century
Seek not water, seek thirst. —Rumi, in Nader Khalili’s Sidewalks on the Moon
In 2004, the Aga Khan Award for Architecture — a prize recognizing projects that “enhance the understanding and appreciation of Islamic culture” — went to a cluster of fourteen modest buildings in Baninajar, Iran. Constructed nearly ten years earlier to house Iraqi refugees from the first Gulf War, the project was carried out under the auspices of the United Nations Development Program and the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees. The award recognized not just these particular buildings but their potential as a prototype for a new-old kind of temporary housing, and the otherwise obscure architect responsible who created them.
Nader Khalili’s thirty-year quest for an architecture that could house the world’s poor — a self-styled mystical journey that would take him from the dusty roads of Iran to the seminar rooms of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to the Mojave Desert — culminated in an idea he called Superadobe. Superadobe housing like the units in Baninajar is made by taking woven polyester bags and filling them with sand, soil, or clay — whatever earth material might be at hand. These sandbags are then laid in coils to create load-bearing walls that rise as high as fifteen feet, then spiral inward to form a domed roof. Strands of barbed wire are threaded through the bags to secure the layers and stabilize the walls — a cheap and no-skills-required replacement for wet mortar. Windows and an entryway are formed by way of simple pointed arches, shaped from the bags.
It was, and is, an idea of considerable power. It costs next to nothing — dirt cheap, if you will — and requires only a few unskilled laborers; four people can assemble a Superadobe shelter in a day, and the know-how is easily passed on, even by those who have just learned it. Once the seed of knowledge is planted, a community can continue to build its own Superadobe structures long after the NGOs have pulled out.
As a tool for emergency shelters or housing refugees, the idea seems to have only advantages. More typical emergency shelters — tents, tarps, sometimes even corrugated metal over wood frames — require materials to be purchased and delivered to disaster areas that are rarely easily accessed. These stop-gap solutions often degrade quickly. Superadobe, on the other hand, requires just one small roll of bags and another of barbed wire. The system stays cool in the summer and warm in the winter, thanks to the heat-retention qualities of earth. And by applying a layer of stucco, the structure can be sealed, making the shelter permanent. Even upgrades like plumbing and electrical conduits are easily retrofitted by passing them through the layers of sandbags.
Architecturally, Superadobe holds an undeniable appeal. Strangely beautiful and holistic, it dismisses conventional building practices and channels a pre-modern vernacular architecture, but does so without fetishizing ancient technique or imitating a recognizable style. Khalili’s brainchild would fit happily between the covers of Architecture Without Architects, Bernard Rudolphsky’s seminal 1964 catalog, based on his MoMA exhibition that collected images of vernacular building from around the world. (Rudolphsky documented brick huts, rock houses, and other habitations remarkable for their formal adaptation to the environment.) Khalili eschews conventional materials like steel and concrete, even wood or brick, while reviving a classical structural language of arches, domes, and vaults. And yet Khalili was not nostalgic; his designs employ industrial materials — polyester bags and steel barbed wire — because they are practical. Superadobe is earth housing built by the simplest means.
And yet the promise of Superadobe seems largely untapped. The idea has not taken off in humanitarian circles. A UNDP plan to build 60,000 units in Iran at the start of the 2001 Afghanistan war was shelved after the fall of the Taliban. Khalili blamed “bureaucracy” and “constantly shifting positions” for impeding this and other aid attempts. Khalili died in 2008, at the age of seventy-one, but continued to teach through his last years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) and at his own California Institute of Earth Art and Architecture (Cal-Earth). Today his children, Sheefteh and Dastan, continue to run the institute. They have, they say, “trained thousands of students over the years at Cal-Earth, and have heard of many people who have built around the world after having watched our DVDs and read our books.” Yet Nader Khalili and his excellent idea are still outside the margins of architectural discourse, known only to the handful of earth architecture enthusiasts or readers of the overloaded Architecture for Humanity publication Design Like You Give a Damn. Despite its undeniable advantages, Superadobe’s fundamental promise — mass housing for the poor — is a vision shared by few in a position to do something
In 1984, Nader Khalili stood before an audience of NASA rocket scientists and engineers. “All heavenly bodies are like human bodies,” he said, “marvels of creation in the highest forms of technology, yet filled with poetry and spirituality. Everything we need to build is in us, and in the place. We must sail into the cosmos not only with zero-defect spaceships, but in ones filled with inspiration, not merely carrying a databank, but also carrying a sense of unity integrating us with our past and future aspirations.” He concluded with a flourish: “It is good to remember that what we may ultimately reach in space may be the space within.” It was a polarizing message — hearing this kind of naked enthusiasm will either make a person knit their brow and squirm in their seat or jump up and cheer. Fortunately, for Khalili, this was a cheering kind of crowd.
Architects who heard Khalili speak about his life and work were more likely to squirm, truth be told. He tended to narrate his biography, in dead earnest, as a kind of quest for architectural enlightenment, and articles that have been written about him tend to follow his mythographic lead. Born in Iran in 1936 and educated in Turkey, Khalili had by his mid-thirties established a very successful architectural practice, split between Tehran and Los Angeles. He built skyscrapers in Iran importing western technology and style. But in 1975, he shuttered his firm and set off on a motorcycle pilgrimage across Iran, visiting small villages in search of architectural truth — a five-year journey that is also the subject of Racing Alone (1983), his first memoir, which opens with the revelation of Khalili’s dream: “a simple house, built with human hands out of the simple materials of this world: the elements — Earth, Water, Air, and Fire.” He called his fusion of architecture and alchemy Archemy. His writings include a second memoir, Sidewalks on the Moon (1994), as well as a pair of technical manuals on ceramic housing and sandbag shelters. Khalili also published two volumes of his own translations of poetry by the man he described almost as a fifth element — the thirteenth-century Sufi mystic Rumi.
The notion of essential elements came directly from Rumi. Khalili interpreted the Earth and Water as clay, which is dried by the Air, and associated these materials with the houses he had seen in the villages of Iran. But these structures were incomplete — susceptible to damage from flooding and earthquake, liable to collapse in heavy rain or snow. Khalili’s first major epiphany — a fantastic vision for a ceramic architecture — was to complete the set of elements by firing the clay house in its entirety as if was both a giant piece of pottery and the kiln itself. By sealing off every opening save one in the roof while feeding a raging burner with a steady supply of kerosene for twenty-four hours, crumbling mud walls could be transformed into a solid brick shell.
It was this notion that had gotten Khalili invited to NASA in the first place, courtesy of another visionary obsessive, Dr Wendell Mendell. By 1984, the Apollo project that had put twenty-odd American men on the moon had been defunct for over a decade; the space program and its multibillion-dollar budgets were instead focused on the space shuttle and the creation of an orbital space station. With zero institutional support, Mendell set out to resurrect the notion of establishing a permanent base on the moon. That year, he and two colleagues organized a symposium called “Lunar Bases and Space Activities of the 21st Century.” By the year 2000, they thought, space shuttles would be able to make routine the trips between the space station and the moon; shouldn’t they, then? And wouldn’t that entail a permanent lunar colony? Their symposium would explore what a moon base would require; the call went out to universities across the country.
By the time he came across that call for papers, it had become clear to Khalili that his idea of a ceramic house, however symbolically resonant, would be difficult to realize on a large scale; while the notion was simple enough, its construction was slow, expensive, and dangerous to undertake. But the idea of lunar architecture inspired him — already an outsider in his chosen discipline of architecture, he became a contributing outsider to astro-science as well. “Timeless materials (Earth, Water, Air, and Fire) and timeless forms in architecture (Arches, Vaults, Domes, and Apses) gave it the dimension to be used both on earth and other planets,” he wrote of his ceramic housing. The moon, unfortunately, lacked three out of four elements (possibly all four: “earth,” technically, can only be found on Earth). Yet his proposal was insistent that moon dust could be the basis for permanent ceramic structures. He even suggested a “centrifugally gyrating platform — a giant potter’s wheel” that the full-size sections could be thrown on, given the moon’s
Mendell, whose quest to return to the moon continues to this day — he is assistant director for exploration at NASA’s Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science division — recalled the presentation. “Nader’s paper made a great impression on me. I even have a copy of his book Ceramic Houses.” He confirmed that if moon dust were heated with microwave energy, its microscopic iron would fuse. It doesn’t sound like exactly what Khalili had in mind, but Mendell was optimistic. “If the resulting sintered mass has enough tensile or compressive strength,” he said, “the process could form the basis of a Khalili structure.”
Khalili’s impact on the field of space architecture is negligible — a marginalized idea in a marginalized field within an American space agency that seems to be winding down. But the exercise of translating his ceramic notions to the moon was transformative for Khalili. Realizing that the energy source for melting moon dust — the Sun — would be difficult and costly to harness, he extemporized a different method for building on the moon. The idea was to fill bags with moon dust as the proverbial building block, using that venerable space-age material, Velcro, to link them together to form a shelter. Back on earth, Khalili exchanged the Velcro for barbed wire, and Superadobe was born. It turned out that walking a mile in moon boots was just what Khalili needed.
One of the problems that often attends humanitarian architecture is that the concern for suffering humanity in general leads to design solutions that ill-serve the needs of actually suffering humans — relying on materials and expertise that can be hard to come by amid poverty, conflict, and natural disaster. Superadobe — a breathtakingly simple design concept arrived at in the most elaborate possible manner — remains the hut not built. This is unfortunate, but not unpredictable, for Khalili’s project was always long on explication but short on application — and shorter, even, on persuasive rhetoric. Superadobe is there for the taking — as the Cal-Earth website tells us, “This patented and trademarked (US patent #5,934,027, #3,195,445) technology is offered free to the needy of the world, and licensed for commercial use.” But the work of convincing people and organizations with the power to fulfill its promise is yet to be done.
For Khalili, though, the struggle to create housing for the masses of the world’s poor may have been an end in itself. As his beloved Rumi wrote, in a poem the architect favored:
like parched lips filled with thirst searching for water never let go of your quest
the quest itself is the key to all your desires the quest itself is your victorious army
Parastou Forouhar: Art, Life, and Death in Iran
Rose Issa Projects at Leighton House Museum
October 1–November 6, 2010
Parastou Forouhar’s first exhibition in the UK and a mini-retrospective of work ranging from 2003 to the present. Born in Tehran in 1962, Forouhar has lived and worked in Germany since 1991. Her exhibition catalog, made especially for this show, sets the tone for what is to come with a pithy, revealing epigram about the circumstances of her arrival in Germany: “I was Parastou Forouhar. Somehow, over the years, I have become ‘Iranian.’” This “enforced ethnic identification” (her words) is indeed a double bind, and swiftly becomes the point of departure for the works at hand.
In approaching the exhibition, one walks through Leighton House Museum’s Orientalist showcase, which centers on its nineteenth-century Arab Hall: a high-domed, indoor water garden, enclosed with intricately carved wooden screens, decorative tiling, and Qur’anic verse. Elsewhere are blue tiles, gold burnished ceilings, even a startlingly lifelike stuffed peacock in the stairwell. All the stuff of A Thousand and One Nights. Moving up the stairs to the galleries, one first encounters the series Signs (2004-2010), modeled on universal road signage. These pieces riff on repressive sexual hierarchies: pointing men to open doorways while directing women into holes in the ground. In reproduction they appear as mere kindergarten feminism. But however simplistic, these visual tricks managed to make me laugh out loud more than once.
Signs is not Forouhar’s strongest work, but it does signal a practice that will subvert orderly appearances. At the stronger and more enigmatic end of its spectrum is an installation called The Funeral (2003). The centerpiece of this well-constructed show, it fills an adjacent gallery with twenty-two everyday office chairs. Each has been dressed in a tightly fitted shroud, cut from colorful cloths made for annual Ashura processions in Tehran’s markets. Most are patterned with screeds of Farsi rendered in a range of calligraphic styles.
The Funeral is a startling piece of work. Taken individually, these monuments to unknown sitters strongly resemble stone-carved tombstones. Taken together, this strangely compelling funeral becomes a cemetery in which a group of people have been martyred, massacred, or bombed from above. What is unavoidable and overwhelming is the realization that they’ve all died at once. The piece is ominous, mesmerizing, and whispers of something having gone profoundly wrong. As it happens, the work was inspired by the murder of Forouhar’s parents, political activists, in 1998 at the hands of the Iranian state. The number of chairs, we swiftly learn, matches the date of their passing.
The remainder of the show is made up of elements of her work from the last decade. The earliest example, from her Eslimi (Ornaments) series (2003–2010), comprises fabrics, with patterns that reveal themselves too quickly to be made up of knives, knuckle-dusters, or male and female genitals. This single-dimensional trick recurs in Friday (2003) in which a fleshy hand shaped like a pudenda emerges from a chador — ta-da!
Elsewhere in the exhibition, two more series of eight digital drawings exemplify the later work’s layered complexity and steely clarity. Red is my Name, Green is my Name (2008) presents an apparently harmonious world of patterned surface. Look closer, and the pattern is again made up of tools of violence, as well as sexual organs. Look again, and bodies — blindfolded, restrained, hung up, or being pulled apart — emerge from already profane backgrounds. Bodies that have been tortured, slashed with knives, prostrate, and bound, in pain or in heaps. Meanwhile, there’s a hint of calligraphic abstraction in the black bindings, ropes, and restraints streaming across the picture plane. Momentarily, these figures emerge from the background before reverting to the realm of the unseen.
A second series entitled Thousand and One Day (2005) takes Forouhar’s obsessive re-workings of these elements to a new level. From a distance, they resemble Rorschach images or the skeletal remains of shark jaws, or a whale carcass. Closer still, and an exquisite pattern of similar figures — torturers and the tortured — emerge against monochrome backgrounds. That bony jaw is a figure being stretched or hung on a wooden rack; the whale carcass is a figure being pulled from both ends. Elsewhere, figures are bound, tied, leashed — expectant. Their throats are being sliced or they’ve fallen to the ground under prettily rendered lashes.
What is so striking in these last images is that instead of being lost to digital manipulation and abstraction, each figure seems ever more delicately individuated. This subtlety also rescues the work that appealed to me least on first encounter because of its simplistic iconography. Flag Collection — Knives, Revolvers, Grenades (2010) is the newest work on show: three large digital prints representing tools with stylistic hints at the Iranian flag. The best of these is Grenades, in which bodies that are crammed, bent into shape, and dressed in grenade-patterned cloths reach out to touch and hold each other. Even while crushed by potential violence, they seem braced for it together. Here pattern signifies a coming narrative, explosions of more than one kind.
Forouhar is evidently hyper-conscious of how the murder of her parents violently altered her life, and in turn, her artwork. The work is strongest when she invests her anger in subtle gestures, even beauty (itself partly Persianate) — when her ambivalence in life generates contrapuntalism in her art. Forouhar’s art of sinister beauty triumphs when it yields moments in which multiple dimensions, experiences, and, finally, emotions are at work at once.
Francis Alÿs: A Story of Deception
June 15–September 5, 2010
What happens when everyday acts go undocumented or are simply forgotten? How can we bring into view multiple economies, when what is primarily visible in the world is dominated by a single economy? What could an art practice that is based on walking, collaboration, play, rehearsal, and re-enactment look like? Why would one ever leap into a tornado in order to film it? The latest solo show of Belgian, Mexico-based artist Francis Alÿs, which impressively brings together over a decade of work, might begin to provide some answers. Covering a large space on the first floor of the Tate Modern and spanning a labyrinth of sixteen exhibition rooms, Alÿs’s show was a marathon in itself.
Comprised of small, enigmatic paintings, rough sketches, simple but evocative videos, an animation, installations, personal post-it notes, newspaper clippings, and the stuff of a considerable amount of research, one gets the sense that there isn’t a medium Alÿs has not made use of. The composition, production, and documentation of the artist’s actions — both in their banality and the potent, self-reflexive effect that watching them can produce — was a prominent feature of this retrospective, not to mention of his work at large.
The artist’s recurring concerns, however, cannot be gleaned from the experience of one or two pieces, but rather, subtly emerge as one wanders from room to room, only to leave the viewer, hours later, with a lingering sense of his preoccupations — most of which are massively satirical in nature. This is the sort of feeling that often comes only after experiencing the best exhibitions; it creeps up on you.
Take, for example, the videos Re-enactments (2000), When Faith Moves Mountains (2002), Caracoles (1999), Sandcastles (2010), Rehearsal I (1999-2001), and Rehearsal Maquette (1997). Aside from the word rehearsal, what these works have in common is Alÿs’s keen interest in repetition, process, documentation, and, finally, dissolution. In some of these pieces, a sense of the ephemeral and the absurd is present throughout: a boy repeatedly kicks an empty plastic bottle up a hill in a city suburb only to watch it roll down again; like Sisyphus, a group of boys build sand castles close to the shore, only to see them devoured by the waves. Rehearsal I and Rehearsal Maquette document almost impossible actions: a red Volkswagen Beetle drives up a dusty hill in what appears to be the slums of Tijuana, Mexico, and rolls back down, drives up and rolls back down, repeatedly for twenty-nine minutes. In the Maquette version, Alÿs re-enacts or restages this already enacted scene, this time with a tiny, toy car.
Poetic gestures and playful humor are also present in the film Re-enactments (2000), in which Alÿs rents a loaded 9mm Beretta and walks the streets of Mexico in broad daylight as Rafael Ortega follows closely behind, filming. Watching these videos a few times, one cannot help but feel the cycle of despair, poverty, boredom, and even danger that has ravaged much of Latin America and Mexico. And yet, Alÿs manages this without resorting to gratuitous sentimentality.
In When Faith Moves Mountains, Alÿs orchestrates a band of school youths in Lima, directing them to shovel sand up a dusty mountain while he films from an overhead helicopter. Aside from the fact that the teenagers — many of whom, as it happens, hail from a down and out area of Lima — are literally moving a mountain, there is, too, the reality of actually succeeding in reaching the top of the mountain without rolling back down this time (unlike the works mentioned above), along with the simple, sweaty pleasures borne of manual labor. In this way, Alÿs generates a communal memory that is both heroic in tenor (moving mountains) and absurd (it moves only four inches from its original location).
In Politics of Rehearsal (with Rafael Ortega, Cuauhtemoc Medina, and Performa, 2004–2005), prevailing Western-generated discourses of development and modernity, particularly when it comes to Latin America and Mexico, preoccupy Alÿs most. Still, the artist avoids appearing preachy or uncritically militant, not only through wit, but also through occasionally unexpected juxtapositions. The film features a female soprano practicing her part as the artist stages and films a striptease rehearsal in the very same bar. These shots are interspersed with archival footage of former US President Harry Truman delivering his 1949 inaugural address, while Alÿs’s friend and collaborator Cuauhtemoc Medina lends a voice-over that addresses the spectator with astute and poignant political analysis regarding the legacy of the Cold War and its ready-made ideas about “progress” and “underdevelopment.”
As it happens, the striptease serves as an apt metaphor for Latin America’s complicated relationship to a modernity that is sought after, yet whose consequences are in many ways deeply unjust. The film hints at a modernity that is seductive, even arousing, as a striptease would be, yet fundamentally engineered. In the end, Politics of Rehearsal mirrors a rehearsal for an event — a dream — that seems hopelessly futile and may never materialize.
The video The Green Line: Jerusalem (2004) aptly bears the subtitle, “Sometimes doing something poetic can become political and doing something political can become poetic.” Though grounded in a distinct political reality — that of Palestine — it seems a testament to the fact that poetic, allegorical gestures are often the most urgent and, finally, powerful. Alÿs — acting as himself — carries a dripping can of green paint as he walks for hours across the Palestinian land and cityscape, tracing the mythic 1967 Jerusalem border — sketched arbitrarily but strategically by Moshe Dayan in 1948. Conceived as an interactive video, visitors click on a screen to choose a distinct voice-over commentary while the recreation of the border being drawn takes place — as if to demonstrate two things: the construction of Israeli national identity by demarcating what this category actually excludes, and the annexation of peoples, nations, and capitals based on arbitrary military lines.
Through the simple act of walking a line, whether accompanied by voiceovers by Amira Haas, Eyal Sivan, Eyal Weizman, Michel Warchawski, Jean Fisher, and others, or, in the case of Paradox of Praxis 1 (1997), while watching the artist strenuously push a massive block of ice through the urban fabric of Mexico City, we come to see that lines and walls are what consistently create and sustain the unjust divisions around us.
Beirut Art Center
September 23–November 13, 2010
One of the more irritating behavioral ticks of art critics may be their tendency to give a work no more than a passing glance before dismissing it as derivative and done before. One can’t help but sympathize with the impulse, however, after spending some time with Exposure 2010, the Beirut Art Center’s second annual exhibition focusing on what the organizers termed “emerging” artists. The show presented eleven works by eleven artists, many of them virtually unknown. At a time when demand for Beiruti art projects — by virtue of cultural politics and the art world’s ever-extending reach — has completely overshot the city’s actual supply of interesting work, the promise of the new and undiscovered lends Exposure 2010 a little thrill — possibly cheap, definitely misplaced.
The problem is not so much that Rana Hamadeh’s bullet-pierced issue of Graphis magazine, in the crisp but over-labored installation GRAPHIS No 127, is a lesser version of Emily Jacir’s bullet-pierced edition of A Thousand and One Nights in Material for a Film; nor that Paul Hage Boutros’s video of a young man peeling a pomegranate, It’s Confusing These Days, is a lesser version of Joumana Emil Abboud’s video of a young woman putting a pomegranate back together again in The Pomegranate; nor that Etienne Damien’s fifteen minutes of amateur porn, My Name Is Monica Sweetheart, is a lesser version of, well, much to be found on YouTube. Rather, the problem lies in the fact that the forms and strategies of the works on view are painfully safe; earlier artists’ projects have made these practices legible and legitimate as modes of artistic production. The content, in turn, is very often shallow, even empty. These are art student exercises, conceptual calisthenics. Who cares?
The Beirut Art Center is not yet two years old, but as a site that is open, active, and fiercely committed to contemporary art practices of a decidedly noncommercial nature, it is a welcome addition to the local scene. It’s very much a work in progress, an institution that is still in the process of becoming, filling in, and filling out. There’s no curator on staff, and, so far, the center has not followed the most conventional models of what such a space could do or be.
As an initiative, the Exposure series is commendable: it results from a jury review of proposals submitted in response to an open call. There’s no age limit, and the definition of “emerging” is left deliberately loose. Ultimately, it’s up to the artists to decide if they are emerging or not. Last year, the process was only open to Lebanese nationals. This year, it opened up to foreigners living in Lebanon. In the future, it might be worth deleting the passport and residency requirements altogether. After all, what’s the point of an art center, in a city that claims to be cosmopolitan to the core, reproducing the exclusionary policies of the state’s security forces? And the jury is tasked not with assembling a solid show but with judging each proposal on its own individual merits.
But then again, maybe a show, or the act of exhibition-making, isn’t the best or most productive format to follow here. Clearly, the selection process privileges artists’ statements above much else. Exposure 2010 is thus a litany of good intentions, a record of what eleven artists wanted to do, or think they are doing, with little connection to what they actually manage to produce.
And consider the catchphrases of the artists’ individual statements: “war documents,” “the ways we collectively generate and construct history,” “exploring possible means of narration and testimony,” “addressing the subject of remembrance,” “underlining the infinite possibilities for rewriting history,” “represents the complex and difficult lived history (past/present) of an exilic and nomadic life,” “home and belonging,” “one’s ability to forget and remember,” “the weight of accumulated memories and the lightness that comes out of each new step forward,” “the space between memory and language,” “living through war,” “the residual effects of war.” A fiesta of clichés!
In the end, the real problem with Exposure may be that it has too many built-in defenses. One can’t really judge the exhibition, because it wasn’t assembled as such. You can’t criticize the works, because the artists who made them are too young, too fragile, too early on in their careers. And you can’t quibble with quality, because the initiative is just taking the art scene’s pulse, gathering what’s out there, introducing generation next, or reaching — again — for some kind of zeitgeist. Perhaps acts of emergence would be better served not by exposure but rather by a workshop, a practicum, an apprenticeship, or simply a brutal crit.
Shadi Habib Allah: The King and the Jester
Reena Spaulings Fine Art
September 12–October 17, 2010
For his first solo exhibition in New York, Shadi Habib Allah presented a single video titled The King and the Jester, a loose portrait of an ordinary workday at the Perfect Auto Paint & Body Shop in Miami, Florida, where old-school, new-school, antique, and exotic cars are restored, rebuilt, recycled, candy-painted, and customized. Shot over a two-week period, the twenty-five minute video is by no means a traditional documentary of the shop’s personnel and productions, expert and dazzling though they appear to be. Rather, Jerusalem-born, New York-based Habib Allah angled his camera — and his pen — to produce an absorbing meditation-vérité on some of the shop’s more slippery subjects.
Deftly woven from both documentary and scripted footage (so revealed the press release), The King and the Jester possesses no clear narrative thread but still is thick with stories. We spy and eavesdrop on the shop workers, men with names like Red Dog, Overtown, Rico, and Booze, for whom foreignness, strangely enough, is a recurring topic of conversation. In one colorful exchange (heard as voiceover), two men wonder aloud about the sexual predilections of an unnamed culture. “Wonder how they fuck in their country,” one says. “Same way like we fuck,” is the matter-of-fact reply, which is followed by similar speculations about blow-jobs. In another sequence, two men discuss notions of heroism after seeing Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man. “He lives his passion,” a man says, defending the fatal heroics of the film’s protagonist. “Why somebody gonna go to the war in Afghanistan or something?… . It’s people living a dangerous life, following their passion.” Later, another man complains bitterly about being called a “punk-ass little cracker” by some of his co-workers — an undeserved harassment, he explains, because he’s good at his job.
Habib Allah never reveals which sequences were observed and which were staged, and although viewers will very likely guess the origins of all the scenes correctly, the absence of visible seams — the lack of self-reference, of a wry eye — distinguishes Habib Allah’s video from the usual “art-world quarterbacking,” which finds too many artists profiling so-called subcultures only to assert the sovereignty of high art. (Mike Kelley and Michael Smith’s blue-chip spectacular A Voyage of Growth and Discovery, which incorporates performance videos shot at Burning Man, immediately comes to mind.) To clarify the point: one could just as easily imagine Habib Allah choosing to focus his attention on the shop’s custom paint jobs, or some other vocational element shared by both the auto and art worlds. Ham-fisted analogies could be conveniently forged and formal differences maintained until the video collapsed into a safe-and-dusty conversation between “high” and “low.”
But rather than arch, Habib Allah’s video feels immersive, integrating random, resonant details from around the shop — the rise and fall of a pair of glasses perched on a sleeping man’s chest, an American flag that hangs in tatters — with quieter frames in which one seems to see clearer portraits. And although the imposition of the author’s scripts onto the population of Perfect Auto is certainly a form of mediation, the strategy produces useful frictions between subject and character, and discreetly reminds us (when we remember to pay attention) that what we are watching will always be — even within the bounds of “purer” documentary strategies — a concoction, an interpretation, a director’s particular vision.
In one of the video’s more memorable scenes, Babba, the owner of Perfect Auto Paint, reclines on a couch and talks on his cell phone while an employee massages his bare feet. “Squeeze hard, man!” he commands, then bellows for a replacement when he feels his current “masseur” has failed to carry out orders. Scripted or otherwise, this scene is perhaps the most obvious hat tip to the video’s title as we watch Babba transform from king to jester — a boss who demands his feet be rubbed properly (“Like I teach you!”), and then acts the fool as he demonstrates for his employees how he will physically explode if they are not. Of course, the relationship between king and jester was traditionally one in which humor and, in some cases, madness allowed the jester to speak freely to the king, and in turn permitted the king to listen to fools. During their exchanges, their particular powers were inverted, truth and lies became interchangeable, and each functioned as a kind of mirror for the other. When Babba is accused by someone off-camera of not procuring a grill as promised, he swears that he can and will. “If I lie, I fly,” says Babba over and over again, a phrase cleverly echoed in the final shot of the video when Habib Allah’s camera pans up to a bird flying across the sky.
So could this be read as a clue to the identities of the video’s other kings and jesters? Documentary and fiction are, of course, inseparable sparring partners. Are, too, perhaps an artist and his subjects? The art world and its products? If I have one quibble with The King and the Jester, it is that many of its most potent themes are ultimately touched upon too lightly. Race, class, labor, power, foreignness — all of these undercurrents into which Habib Allah dips but never dives deeply — could have been addressed with greater force without losing the work’s essential lyricism. Bolder choices about how and why the artist decided on Perfect Auto Body — what he expected to reveal, and where his observations and intentions were upended — could have given rise to more pointed and powerful questions. Which is all to say that if The King and the Jester feels in moments to be a bit unfinished — less thoroughly engaged with its subjects and strategies than one would wish it to be — it’s more than likely because as an artist, Habib Allah is just getting started.
May 23–June 20, 2010
On the day this past August that Van Gogh’s Poppy Flowers (1887) was sliced out of its frame at the Mahmoud Khalil Museum in Cairo, setting off a cascade of political maneuverings and media recriminations (see The Artist-Bureaucrat Speaks), the museum had a grand total of eleven visitors. It was a detail that spoke to the concerns of an exhibition that had closed two months earlier at the Townhouse Gallery, Invisible Publics. Curated by Sarah Rifky, the exhibition took on the thorny issue of art audiences, placing the practices of viewing art and visiting art spaces at the forefront of the city’s multifaceted cultural sphere. It was notable for taking an informed stab at the issue of public engagement with the arts in Cairo and for its proposition of the art exhibition as a site where new publics might come into being. Indeed, the exhibition’s net effect was to demonstrate the circumstances in which Cairene publics do, in fact, coalesce around art events. However, it did not provide the basis for new registers of public engagement or a site for the appearance of new, even ephemeral, publics, as intended.
One work eclipsed the larger exhibition, becoming something of a media sensation and the target of state security censure. A performance by a group of enthusiastic, youngish, generally wholesome, and well-to-do men and women referred to as the “Cairo Complaints Choir” debuted at the exhibition to an audience of a few hundred people and no less than twelve TV cameras. An iteration of the ongoing Complaints Choir project initiated by Finnish artist duo Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta Kalleinen, the choir comprised some twenty members who had gathered regularly over a series of weeks to compose and rehearse lyrics and music. Derived from the Finnish term “Valituskuoro… used to describe situations where a lot of people are complaining simultaneously,” according to their website, the piece is sincere and light-hearted, inviting groups of volunteers to transform their grumbles and gripes into lively vocal recitals. Meanwhile, the populist orientation, the activist undertones, and the emphasis on collective authorship and performance resonate with contemporary art world concerns.
The project’s manifestation in Cairo differed from earlier Complaints Choir performances in locations such as Helsinki, Hamburg, and St Petersburg. The music reflected local genres, and the complaints, strung into songs, seemed distinctly more aggrieved, with references to Egypt’s decades-long emergency law alongside comparatively niggling pleas for an end to the popular practice of pissing under bridges.
While rehearsing, the choir-group had promised to restrict their complaints to issues covered by local newspapers as a way of keeping the gallery out of trouble, a compromise that left open a respectably wide, if not unlimited, range of subjects. According to Townhouse director William Wells, a recent spate of lawyers’ protests set against the looming question of the aging President Mubarak’s successor had already led to heightened state security scrutiny of the gallery’s activities. While Rifky insisted that the intention behind the work was not political, it’s hard not to hear the ring of protest in lyrics such as: “The workers aren’t heard / Even the factory has been sold / The wheat is American / Our gas is being exported.” Nevertheless, it’s unclear whether the security forces to whom the gallery is obliged to report would have taken such offense if the media response had been different.
From the beginning, the Complaints Choir was the object of keen journalistic interest. The biggest source of official grief and embarrassment was a montage aired by Dream TV’s Mona Shazly on her daily hot-topic talk-show Al-Ashera Misaan (or 10PM), and combining footage of political demonstrations and domestic political scandals with footage of the Cairo Complaints Choir performance. The program’s immediate effect was to sensationalize the performance as raw political protest, leaving aside any consideration of the larger exhibition context. Under pressure, the Townhouse cancelled planned choir performances and dissuaded further media coverage.
This series of events seems to have been choreographed to demonstrate the principle that organized cultural activities in Egypt are tolerated to the extent that they remain irrelevant, that is, that they avoid acting as powerful catalysts for discussion through which new publics might actually emerge. Works that threaten to act precisely in the terms held up for examination by Invisible Publics are often abstracted from their art-world contexts, transformed into spectacular vehicles for broader debates, and censured.
It is not surprising then that a work of art gathering dust, unnoticed for days or decades even, might be described as perversely ideal. Should a public materialize around these works it would be at an infinitely smaller scale, conceivable first in terms of individuals rather than groups or interests. Both alternatives present their own distinct disadvantages. However, the dynamics of the latter are more difficult to articulate or even to conceive of clearly.
Some weeks after the fuss around the Cairo Complaints Choir had died down, the Townhouse hosted Instant Narrative, by Brussels-based artist Doris Garcia. The show spoke lucidly — in its own terms — to the curatorial project underlining the exhibition. Projected onto a back wall of the Townhouse was a live narrative of events taking place in the gallery, authored by a gallery staff-member sitting in another room but within eyeshot. At turns telegraphic and poetic, the narrative lasted for the duration of the show, continuing with or without the presence of visitors. It took a second to realize that I was in fact being written into the work, which acted effectively as a textual shadow of visitors’ movements and conversations. But once I had noticed, it was difficult not to experiment with intervening in this intimate record or attempting to drive forward the story (told only to me and a handful of other visitors) as a reflection, in a sense, of my own presence. This struck me as a fair approximation of the logic of the invisible public with which Cairo’s cultural institutions have been “communicating” for decades.
Jill Magid: A Reasonable Man in a Box
Whitney Museum of American Art
July 1–September 12, 2010
Natascha Sadr Haghighian: Fruits of One’s Labour
July 7–August 15, 2010
Jill Magid’s A Reasonable Man in a Box, her first solo showing at an American museum, broached questions related to legal conceptions of torture. Her setup was simple: a narrow doorway led to a dark gallery, where one wall was filled with the shadow of a huge scorpion crawling in and out of the frame. There were amplified sounds of scratching, scurrying, and tail snapping. Two spotlit wall-texts captioned the experience. The first comprised snippets of a legal document, which began: “You would like to place a man in a cramped confinement box with an insect.”
The line is drawn from a 2002 memorandum from the US Justice Department to the CIA, one of the now infamous “torture memos” that outlined legal loopholes for using torture on interrogation subjects. Magid’s work isolated one example: if the subject is not explicitly informed that the insect placed in the box with him is dangerous, then he’s not technically being tortured. “A reasonable person in his position,” the document declares, “would not reasonably feel threatened.” Magid’s response, phrased as a rhetorical question, was scrawled on the opposite wall: “But what is a reasonable man in a box?”
Very often, Magid exists as the central protagonist of her works, infiltrating systems of authority — the Dutch secret service, the New York Police Department — to coax out their inner contradictions. The recent work, however, seemed more bent on creating an intimate encounter between viewer and artwork, in order to give substance to the text’s absurd claims to reason. This is not to say she recreated the experience of torture, or even introduced a new topic into public debate. Rather, Magid used enlargement and amplification to produce a visceral encounter with an abstraction: the state’s wanton manipulation of language. The video elicits in the viewer the same disgust and perverse fascination that the dry, yet creepy legal language of the memo provokes in the reader.
A comparable body-mind encounter was proposed at a more modest venue. At Ludlow 38, Berlin-based artist Natascha Sadr Haghighian presented Fruits of One’s Labor, also an exhibition made up of a single installation, in this case accompanied by several satellite events. The tiny storefront was taken up by a square cube made up of bricks of shredded paper. Steps led up to an old-fashioned stove with aluminum piping that twisted, curled, and passed through a glass wall. The glass prevented viewers from going any further, but the stovepipe was visible as it ended in a cloud of plastic green apples suspended from the ceiling. The dim soundtrack of trashy Euro techno matched the vaguely garish lighting scheme.
The bricks, the press release informed us, were made of shredded banknotes, formerly equivalent to ninety million Euros in all; the stovepipe “runs like a flow chart,” indicating the erratic turns of the economy. At first glance (or first press release reading), Fruits of One’s Labor was almost classical in its heavy-handed use of symbolic equivalences: shredded banknotes equaled devalued money; apples equaled fruits of labor; and so on. When it was first shown in Frankfurt, home of the European Central Bank, its invocation of labor gone up in a smoke of forbidden fruits was a response to the city’s history as a financial center, and was described as a reference to the aftereffects of the unified European currency.
In New York, an economic center of different scale, the installation was the placeholder for events relating to the recent financial crisis. There was a guided tour of the Museum of American Finance by the museum’s curator, Leena Akhtar (highlights included the history of financial scandals); a talk on “Financial Reform and Proprietary Trading” by financial scholar Robert Wosnitzer (with forays into “the aesthetics of the Bloomberg screen”); and two presentations on the theme of “Cultural Economies” — one by curator Axel-John Wieder on Sadr-Haghighian’s work with the Botschaft group in the 1990s, and another by artist and writer Jackie McAllister, on Art Club 2000 (a New York–based artist collective active in the 1990s). If the artist herself was not present, the pedagogic bent of the program was definitely in line with the rigorous research and reflexive, layered structure that informs much of her work.
Fruits of One’s Labor was described as a “diagram,” perhaps in the sense of Marcel Duchamp’s The Large Glass, which its glass-partitioned composition certainly resembled — the end game of modern art set against the end games of the economy. As a transparent diagram, the work sketched out a representation of events while directing attention outward, beyond the claustrophobic double storefront of Ludlow 38. In this way, its austere symbolism was thematically appropriate; money is, after all, about the circulation of symbolic value. If the installation was sealed behind glass, the work as a whole was an open structure that accommodated its changeable meanings.
That said, both exhibitions brought up the question often asked of discursive art: What exactly does the art space bring to the political or socio-economic questions at hand? Is the first-hand experience of the work’s coordinates — whether perceptual effects, symbolic equivalences, or the distribution of knowledge — really necessary? Is the art world really the best position from which to ponder such unwieldy political questions? In Magid’s case, the museum space offered her the chance to translate shock into a perceptual experience. In Sadr-Haghighian’s case, the interrelationships of art and the economy were a central theme of the work. But in final view, the effectiveness of both works was tethered to the attention span and intellectual commitment of their audiences — which, considering the casual, breezy, even shallow ambitions of most summer shows, was certainly a risky, perhaps even unreasonable, proposition.
Ammar Al Beik: Colored Earth… Black Chainsaw
June 26–August 5, 2010
Can one possibly compare a gallerist to Saddam Hussein? In the overheated atmosphere of the Damascus art scene these days, it’s been known to happen. As debates about new private galleries, their profits, and the legitimacy of their legatees rage, choice analogies have begun to fly. In an article published this summer by artist Yusuf Abdelke in al-Safir newspaper, it was Khaled Samawi, the founding director of Ayyam Gallery, who inspired the comparison to Saddam. (It seems that in one interview Samawi expressed pleasure in annihilating his competition.) Crafting a rebuttal for the same newspaper, Safwan Dahoul, the gallery’s top-selling artist, dismissed the victims of market brinksmanship that Abdelke had evoked as mere ideological delusions, designating them people who were merely “waiting for Guevara,” as if Syrian artists still anticipated a swashbuckling socialism that would never come.
Such characterizations cut especially deeply in the Syrian art world, where fitful market liberalization has rendered these debates all the more exigent, even if familiar. Yet as op-ed journalistic works, they hardly represent novel forms of artistic critique. For novelty, one might instead turn to artist Ammar Al Beik’s latest show, Colored Earth… Black Chainsaw. In this piece, conceived specifically for display at Ayyam, the artist presented an altogether different type of counterfactual personification. He put an actual object — a big, black, brushed metal chainsaw with the gallery logo custom embossed on its guide bar — forward as a surrogate self. This self-portrait served as the opening element in the installation layout. As such, it literally embodied the potential energy, luxury fetishism, and pervasive sense of impotence that Syrian artists and their audiences have been negotiating on an increasingly expansive commercial plane.
As it happens, Al Beik is one of about fifteen artists in Ayyam Gallery’s Shabab series — a group of thirty-something contract artists whom the gallery represents (think Charles Saatchi’s YBAs in London circa 1990s, only without the shock value and with an emphasis on large painted canvases). The Samawis, who run Ayyam, have invested a great deal of capital into their business. The gallery maintains locations in Dubai, Beirut, and Cairo in addition to Damascus; it buys booth space at some medium to high profile art fairs; its permanent showrooms are vast and abundantly air-conditioned. Moreover, it runs its own auctions for “emerging collectors,” who might seek the occasional quick and thrilling, if not entirely shallow, purchase. What so obviously drops out of the picture sometimes is much critical engagement or self-reflection. Indeed, Ayyam’s practices flout the art establishment wisdom that first crystallized in New York and London, i.e., that the auction house is an enemy of an emerging artist because its sales format ultimately pushes prices (and careers) up too quickly — and without substance.
It feels fitting, therefore, that in the Damascus showroom, Al Beik kept his artistic persona switched off and under plexiglass. A large tag hanging from the chainsaw handle provided textual notes that, among other things, related a brief parable about a lumberjack and his futile effort to cut down a single tree. If, as the tag concluded, “for a new olive tree to grow, many barren ones must be cut down,” then the chainsaw on offer — branded gallery property — certainly will never meet any such high-minded directives regarding land, labor, or rising again. Instead, the anthropomorphized instrument served to register a set of unresolved problems: consumerism, poverty of thought, the overreach of a gallery’s branding campaign, and the uselessness of revolutionary gestures in recent history.
The rest of the installation worked a bit like a theater set, presenting visitors with a circuit of encounters with additional quandaries. A large-format color photograph of a lollipop invited viewers to linger over its luscious twists and turns (pleasure in consumption); in another corner, twelve readymade devices meant for use in manually spreading stucco and cement hung as sculpture, each stained with the residue of the artist’s own bright, artificially colored paint (appropriation of labor). These were flanked by a series of black-and-white studio photographs documenting the bodies and dress of twelve Syrian construction workers. Each holds the same device in his hands.
The one “painting” in the show may have been the weakest piece. Al Beik gridded out twenty-four miniature paintings in the style of Jackson Pollock, cropped them by means of digital images of gilt picture frames, then rendered them whole again for hanging on the gallery wall. Beside the piece, video footage from its production played on a flat screen monitor. There, Al Beik could be seen bending over a canvas — its surface already pre-printed with frame imagery — using the concrete sprayer to drop skeins of paint into the masked out areas. Reminiscent of an art school parody, both performance and product paid more obeisance to the heroism of the modern period than they could manage to deconstruct.
Andy Warhol proved a more effective point of reference (and anxiety) for Al Beik than such riffs on action painting and the readymade. Into his series of photographs of construction laborers, the artist inserted a photographic self-portrait in which he too holds a cement spreading device. In it, he sports a T-shirt bearing a picture of Warhol. It reads, “To be a successful artist, you have to have your work shown in a good gallery for the same reason that, say, Dior never sold his originals from a counter in Woolworth’s.”
Fair enough. Al Beik effectively conveys his misgivings, as well as a sense of hard-won savvy. But in the end, beyond disavowing the myth of creative sovereignty, the Ayyam installation raises the ever pertinent question: Is critique of the art world and its peculiar workings possible when waged from within the gallery system? These pieces do expertly restate the problem in terms drawn from Syrian discourse, in all its rapid shape-shifting. Nonetheless, they still sidestep the question of whether reflexivity (or annihilation, or revolution) is a necessary or even sufficient activity to counterbalance the less palatable aspects of the art business.
Murcia / Cartagena
October 9, 2010–January 9, 2011
In its fifteen years of existence, Manifesta has become known for a number of different things. The most obvious is the nomadic nature of the so-called European Biennial of Contemporary Art. Also, Manifesta’s mandate — to question what Europe means and where its borders lie, in geographical, political, social, economic, psychological, cultural, and artistic terms — has been fairly well established by now, although there is an equally evident disjuncture between Manifesta’s interest in situating itself in close proximity to conflict, and its seemingly unfailing ability to take up residence in rather affluent, prosperous, and relatively strife-free locales. Moreover, Manifesta has consistently proven itself a laboratory for curatorial thought and a platform for young and emerging talent.
With each subsequent iteration of the event, however, Manifesta runs the risk of fetishizing practices that are often not so very new, and wherever there is a fetish, there is usually a falsehood lurking close behind. Unfortunately, falsehood was a factor multiplied many times over by Manifesta 8, which took place in the southeastern Spanish cities of Murcia and Cartagena from October 2010 through January 2011.
The first problem was the idea that Manifesta 8 was curated by three curatorial collectives. Never mind that collectivity has been celebrated — for the mere fact of existing rather than for what it may actually produce — far too much and for far too long in contemporary art as a kind of antidotal plasma for the ruthless individualism of the market. At least one of three groups brought onboard to fill up the event, the Alexandria Contemporary Art Forum (ACAF), cannot accurately be called a curatorial collective at all. ACAF is first and foremost a space, an elegant old, eight-room apartment in the Azarita district of Alexandria, run by Bassam El Baroni, Mona Marzouk, and Mahmoud Khaled, among others. To consider it anything else is to overlook, ignore, and undermine its reasons for being and much that it has accomplished in the five years since it opened its doors in Egypt’s second largest city.
Secondly and more substantially, the notion that this edition of Manifesta was staged in dialogue with North Africa was a stretch, to be generous. Murcia may have been founded as a Moorish city more than a thousand years ago, but today, it isn’t exactly the focal point for North African immigration to Spain, nor is it the place where the politics of such immigration — or religious freedoms vis-à-vis Islam, or discriminatory policies against European citizens of North African or Arab ancestry — are most palpably felt. Murcia’s Minister of Culture had very little to say about the North African component of the event in his text for the catalogue. To the contrary, he wrote of the positive effects that the Manifesta “brand” would have in making his region a destination for cultural tourism.
This is not to say that Manifesta 8 should have been obvious or literal in seeking to “engage” North Africa. But if you are going to propose a framework as absurd as a nomadic European biennial having a one-sided conversation with the top half of a continent, you had better back it up somehow, lest it come across as a token gesture — which, of course, it was. To their credit, all of the curatorial teams involved seemed to ignore it, reroute it, or make of it something far more complex, riddled with suspicions and presumptions, layered with subtlety and nuance.
ACAF, tranzit.org, and the Chamber of Public Secrets (CPS) also rained on the collectivity parade by organizing three wholly independent and distinct projects. If anything, the entire Manifesta edifice looped awkwardly and elliptically around two distinctly phallic points — one being Banu Cennetoglu and Shiri Zinn’s delicate glass cremation urn filled with dust from the exhibition site and shaped like a life-size penis, the other being Simon Fujiwara’s enormous sculpture of an even more enormous penis, an alleged recreation based on eyewitness testimonies of an undocumented Nabatean rock formation said to have been discovered by British construction workers beneath the site of a new museum being built somewhere in the Arabian desert. (“Size is not the question here. It’s the shape that counts. Cock or not?”) Clever that, but the twinning of these two pieces was probably just an accident.
To experience these three separate exhibitions as exhibitions was a bit unfair to CPS, which invested much of its energy in mass-media interventions, and thus fell outside the time and space of the biennial proper. Tranzit.org approached the rickety construction of Manifesta 8 by creating a game of compare and contrast between post-communism and post-colonialism, which provided broad cover for a fairly standard, by-the-book biennial show of leveling hits and misses, gleaming gems, and utter dreck.
Among the knockouts were Tris Vonna-Michell’s Balustrade (2010), an appropriation of two rooms in a former artillery barracks (one for a derelict office as installation, the other for a mesmerizing slide-show projection with seemingly random voiceover narration) and the Otolith Group’s new film Drexciya Mythos, Part 1 (2010), a slippery and elusive piece that sets out to investigate the mental and material contours of Drexciya, a pair of Detroit techno pioneers, active in the 1990s, who took their name, and devoted countless albums and EPs, to the sci-fi inflected myth of an Atlantis-like underwater country called Drexciya, inhabited by the unborn children of pregnant women who were thrown to their deaths from the ships servicing the African slave trade. Gorgeous footage of rock formations and the sea folds around strangely archaic song and a dense, mysterious, ultimately fascinating (if entirely inconclusive) story about an author losing the proverbial plot.
Elsewhere in tranzit.org’s exhibition was Matthieu Kleyebe Abbonenc’s presentation of Sarah Maldoror’s riveting 1969 film Monangambée. Maldoror, who was born in France and continues to live and work in Paris, spent much of the 1960s and 1970s making films about — and immersed in the aesthetic of — African liberation movements. Abbonenc’s installation includes visual material from the journal Tricontinental and a stack of gigantic posters for Monangambée. The wall text tells you that Abbonenc is searching for a copy of Maldoror’s Guns for Banta, seized by the Algerian government in 1971.
In a somewhat similar vein, Catarina Simão’s installation Off Screen: On Mozambique Film Archive (2010) jammed a building’s worth of material related to Mozambique’s state-owned film collection — interviews, video footage, film fragments, press clips, folios, and files — into a single room, and basically left it at that. The problem is that both of these projects, as they were presented in such a crammed context, felt like fleeting introductions. Maybe you shook hands. Maybe you got the name. Maybe you’ll even remember the face next time you meet. But this hardly counts as a meaningful encounter, and it’s a long, long way from serious engagement. If there’s been a shift in the experience of contemporary art over the years from seeing an object as art in an art space to seeing the documentation of an action as art, then we now seem to be moving through another transition, from seeing the documentation of an artwork completed, to confronting the research material for an art project that has yet to begin. A call to find a missing film, a roomful of records with virtually no conceptual thread — this seemed lazy rather than challenging or edifying.
Certainly, research-based practices are here to stay. But consider these two examples set against ACAF’s installation of a single research project, The MoCHA Sessions, in a single space. Here were the archives of the Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art, which rose to prominence and fierce political relevance in New York in the 1980s and then crashed and burned just five years after it opened. Those archives were the source material for a series of six different exhibitions by six local artists, opening for about two weeks apiece over the course of three months. Not only was the space conducive to study and reflection, the material felt alive, the various connections drawn across time, history, and the politics of art meaningful and provocative. The MoCHA Sessions also nestled into ACAF’s overall project an interest in revisiting the legacies of identity politics and institutional critique as it ricocheted around the culture wars of the decade that preceded the fall of the Berlin Wall, the foundational moment that gave Manifesta its raison d’être, to probe the substance of post-Wall Europe.
This concern for pre-Wall financial badlands also echoed through Hassan Khan’s single-channel video Muslimgauze R.I.P., one of three related works, which digs into the dustbin of recent history to consider the fascinating case of a radical musical genius born and raised in Manchester, in the hard, depressing years of Margaret Thatcher’s rule. If you draw a line from The MoCHA Sessions through Khan’s work to another exhibition entirely, Tania Bruguera’s Huelga General, one in a series of single-artist shows collectively titled Dominó Caníbal and curated by Cuauhtemoc Medina for PAC Murcia, overlapping with but totally separate from Manifesta itself, you find a set of powerfully relevant and politically charged ideas about art, life, capital, and the capacity for action amid harsh economic conditions and unkind financial policies that affect us all, before the Wall, after it, and a good long distance from it.
Of course, Manifesta isn’t a competition, but with three projects stacked up side by side, there is an irresistible temptation to keep score. ACAF pulled off a remarkably strong and uncompromisingly complicated project, replete with a full-blown “theory of applied enigmatics” to support it, in the midst of a logistical and organizational nightmare. For that is the other thing for which Manifesta has become known — reeling artists and curators into a bureaucratic clusterfuck. During the preview days I heard at least five variations on the following theme from frustrated artists and curators: “I live in a third-world shithole, but at last I can get things done there.” So much for cultural dialogue.
Five years ago, the organizers of Manifesta published a hefty volume of curatorial thought entitled The Manifesta Decade. It’s an invaluable resource in a field that has generated a lot of talk about the so-called biennial phenomenon without much serious analysis circulating in print or bound between hard covers. One of the more critical essays in the book, by Camiel van Winkel, states: “Manifesta is an institution built on the critique of institutions.” From the beginning, it was meant to challenge existing large-scale international exhibitions that were “inadequate to respond to the political, social, and cultural changes that had taken place in Europe after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact in 1989. Manifesta was thus founded as an alternative to institutions like the Venice Biennale and Documenta, which were seen as slow, bulky, bureaucratic, inefficient, and implicitly nationalist… Manifesta was launched with the ambition that the institutionalization of this new biennial would remain limited; it would never suffer from the inertia and massive scale of its counterparts.” Never say never. In spite of itself, and to the detriment of some of this edition’s less fuzzy-headed artists and curators, Manifesta has become the very thing it never wanted to be: too big, too bloated, and too reticent to really wrestle, much less precisely name, the political crises that motivate its existence.
Dreams that Matter: Egyptian Landscapes of the Imagination
By Amira Mittermaier
University of California Press, 2010
“For years I wondered why dreams are often so dull when related,” William Burroughs once wrote, “and this morning I find the answer, which is very simple — like most answers, you have always known it: No context… like a stuffed animal set on the floor of a bank.”
Every Wednesday night from the years 2001 to 2003, millions of Egyptians would tune into Channel 3 on national television to watch Ru’a, a popular talk show in which audiences would intently listen in as callers would, in great detail, retell their dreams. With a guest psychologist by his side, the respected scholar Sheikh Hanafi, a theologian affiliated with the formidable Al Azhar institution, would interpret the stuff of the dreams. The program, which ran for fifty-seven episodes in total, had its ardent fans — one girl went as far as to take detailed notes every week and then re-dreamt dreams drawn from the show. Though lauded as a “fusion” of Islam and modern science, callers inevitably directed their requests to the sheikh and ignored the psychologist entirely (doubtless his Freudian interpretation would bring embarrassment).
And yet, a little over a year into its life, the show met a bitter end when a Saudi caller recounted a dream in which she saw the moon breastfeeding a boy. Though he later denied it, Sheikh Hanafi interpreted this strange vision to mean that the mahdi had been born, the savior in Sunni eschatology whose appearance indicates that the end of the world is nigh. Presumably fearing messianic rumblings, Al Azhar, the seat and voice of Sunni Islam, went into a frenzy, quickly issuing a decree prohibiting the broadcast of dreams to the masses. The Muslim Brotherhood, too, posted a fatwa online urging Muslims to distrust their dreams as sources of knowledge or guidance. In January 2003, Ru’a was wiped from the airwaves, and that was that.
Still, the light of the breastfeeding moon illuminated the way for the German-Egyptian anthropologist Amira Mittermaier, who recounts the story of the doomed television program in Dreams That Matter, a study of the place of dreams in contemporary Egyptian life. In her ethnography of dreaming in Cairo, we enter a culture of dream-telling and dream-interpretation enacted in homes and saint shrines, on Sufi broadcasts on satellite TV, and in cyber-dream websites run by sheikhs. Mittermaier surveys a city’s worth of narratives: dreams that offer romantic advice or identify partners for marriage, dreams that lead to the formation of new Egyptian political parties and construction projects, dreams of pets, of dead relatives, and of bodily functions, dreams featuring the Prophet Muhammad, and dreams incubated by sleeping in special positions. Her aim, ostensibly, is to construct an “anthropology of the imagination,” in which imagination is defined not as a faculty isolated in the brain but as a transcendent network of intermediary realms, an ontologically real space of the in-between where minds connect: between divine and human, living and dead, sleeping and waking, presence and absence, and illusion and reality. In her endeavor to look beyond the visible in Cairo, Mittermaier takes this in-between as her ethnographic object. Yet, it is, at times, a space the ethnographer herself gets tangled up in.
Not too far into the book, we learn the anthropologist’s research subjects begin to dream of her. And she, in turn, has dreams about them. One of her primary interlocutors, Sheikh Qusi has an active life in his followers’ dreams, which they record in a collective notebook with a photograph of the sheikh on the cover. This handwritten “Book of Visions” contains accounts of hundreds of dreams that he appeared in, from 1973 onwards. Mittermaier herself dreams that she gets into a fight with Sheikh Qusi — and then wakes up with two big scratches across her cheek. Awakening with dream-scars, she has herself slipped into the “Book of Visions” she came to Egypt to study in the first place, and into the intermediary realm between illusion and reality that she had objectively defined. Though she tells us she felt disturbed when she woke up that morning, Mittermaier doesn’t delve much deeper into her own implication in the ethnography of dreaming she constructs, missing out on certainly one of the most captivating dimensions of her own work.
Perhaps it was just too boring for Mittermaier to simply retell her interlocutors’ dreams in her book. Once she appeared in a sheikh’s dream wearing a school uniform. In another dream, she visited a research subject she had not yet met the night before their interview, enabling the woman to recognize her the next day. And yet, her participation raises age-old questions about the entanglement of ethnographers with their subjects, a question pushed to its extreme in the 1969 cult classic Keep the River on Your Right, a memoir and film about the anthropologist Tobias Schneebaum’s experience living in a remote jungle in Peru among the cannibalistic Arakmbut tribe. The ethnographer has sex with his subjects and, at one point, famously eats human flesh. It is true that entering subjects’ dreams isn’t as taboo as eating them for lunch, but still, her crossing into this intimate space raises questions about the ethnographer as director of the research and, indeed, its subject.
In the end, it is this unexpected narrative strand of Mittermaier’s own dream exploits in sleeping Cairo that makes the book worth reading. It is, too, in its approach and texture, a departure from most discussions about Cairo — or even cities for that matter — we encounter in the public sphere. Dreams that Matter is not straitjacketed as an exploration of underdevelopment, terrorism, gender, or politics, but rather, it is somehow all and none of these things at once. And for that reason alone, this somnambulist anthropologist’s exploration of Egyptian dream life is a unique, if not compelling, one.
The Clash of Images
By Abdelfattah Kilito
Translated from French by Robyn Creswell
New Directions Publishing, 2010
Editions Eddif, 1996
“Today everybody has a face, which is to say an image that doubles him. Everybody exists outside himself. More than that, everybody must have an image. An individual doesn’t exist, officially, except by way of a photo ID.”
— Author’s note, from The Clash of Images
There was, once, we are told, a time when the image did not exist. Or at least, didn’t exist as we know it. There was no figurative representation. Prophets and caliphs and poets were memorialized through the recitation of their stories, their portraits built on narratives — oral and of metrical prose — depicting their noble character and divine wisdom.
The prophet Mohammed, Al-Mutanabb, Haroun al-Rashid — what did they look like?
It is in this time and space before the image that Moroccan author Abdelfattah Kilito’s The Clash of Images begins. And it is in the fraught transition toward modernity — when illustrations replace oral traditions and the once-forbidden photograph becomes a necessity in gaining permission for the sacred rite of pilgrimage — that his stories end. In narratives that privilege anecdote over argument or arch, Kilito weaves tales that recount the diverse lives of images in the Islamic world, and by extension, what Arabs gained, and lost, with the ascendance of the image. In this Borgesian set of very short, short stories that are part memoir, part fable, part criticism, a young Abdallah, who serves as the central character through most of the stories, comes of age in a small unnamed town on the coast of Morocco.
“SO MUCH HAS BEEN SAID,” Kilito begins in “Revolt in the Msid,” “about the msid, that place where knowledge is acquired… . The msid is a stage on which a ritual murder is acted out. It is childhood — a naughty, defective, and impulsive phase — that must be put to death to prepare the way for an ontological mutation, the hazardous leap into adulthood. You don’t leave the msid until you have buried your childhood.”
In the msid, the Qur’anic school, we encounter the professor, a God-like being who has the Qur’an committed to memory: the most pious man in the village, no doubt. Under his tutelage, Abdallah and his classmates repeat passages from the Qur’an, daily, all day. For errors of speech, or for the child numbed, drowsy, dozing, there is a caning — a spectacle of beating that interrupts the monotony of recitation. Each boy, in his particular show of terror, offers a new performance, a new way to experience pain, a new impetus to remember the sacred and forget the sinful. No boy dares to disobey the professor, until one day Fa, faced with the prospect of beating, refuses to comply with instructions, and then, when beaten, refuses to cry. Invoking the revolt of Satan and his seduction of Adam and Eve, the professor expels Fa, who is then sent, without other option, to school with the French, the Infidels.
As the story unfolds, and the image of revolt seared in their memories offers possibility, more boys act up and follow Fa to another school, Abdallah himself urging his grandfather to send him there too. His grandfather — ostensibly against the West and its modern face, against the impurities that lie beyond the bounds of the Qur’an — yields. And, “a week or two later, while I was engaged in deciphering a book, I heard him say to my grandmother softly: ‘The boy has learned French.’ His tone was serene, indulgent, even pleased.”
Had the patriarch abandoned his principles and the winds of history swept him up, too? Had he understood that success in the modern world requires knowledge of the language of sin? Or had, indeed, the patriarch come to realize that the conflicts dividing the world are caused by man and history and not by languages; that French, like Arabic, is a system of sounds and letters, a puzzle of grammar and syntax, and that in this sense all languages are equal — each a gift from God?
It is in this same story, amid the same currents of change, that the professor himself — faced with the prospect of modernity — is forced to concede. Growing old, aware of his fragility, he decides to take his obligatory Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, “to drink the water of Zamzam, to throw stones at Satan, to circle the Ka’aba, and see the tomb of the prophet.” But to do so in this modernizing Arab world would require, oh “horrors of horrors,” a passport, a photo, an image of himself.
The professor was full of contempt for images and in particular for the diabolical invention of photography, which he believed mimicked creation to compete with the work of God. The earth, the sea, the beasts, and all matter of mankind emerge from this black box just as they emerged at the beginning of time. “The Seducer, Master of Illusion, fabricates a second genesis in black and white, all surface, cold and flat as a mirror — a mirror all the more dangerous for being perfectly accurate. Photography was a hoax, a vain copy, an insidious reflection and satanic artifice. Anyone who gives himself up to photography allies himself with the enemy of mankind and sins against God.”
On the quay in Casablanca where the boat departs for Jeddah, on the arm of a young man, his son, the professor bumps into three of his old students. He is frail, unable to balance himself without help. It is on their shoulders that he performs his pilgrimage, his papers in a pouch around his neck.
The fragments of this story, through which the narrator drifts in and out, weave themselves through Kilito’s loosely linked collection. In “The Image of the Prophet” Abdallah faces his own first encounters with the image. In a market by the Old Mosque, sellers bargained away images of Ali, the fourth caliph, seated cross-legged flanked by his sons. Noah in his ark with full menagerie. Solomon among his servants. Abraham with a beard that reaches his knees. And under a tree, entwined by the serpent, in dialogue with the conspirator, Adam and Eve.
And yet, in spite of these violations, there was one red line that was always respected: the prophet Mohammed was never depicted. The prophet was a story, a word, a series of tales, but never a face. And then, there, in the textbook of the infidels, in a French text on the Hegira: a man, trimmed beard, adorned in a turban, a flowing galabiya, a leather satchel slung across his chest. He was, no doubt, the prophet.
In the classroom, Abdallah found himself bearing the weight of this heavy secret. His grandfather had passed away by then, and Abdallah, seeking respite from this burden, sought out his grandmother, handing her the book. Joining index finger and thumb, she peered through her monocle, squinting, bringing the page closer to her eye. She lingered, but didn’t say a word.
In the end, The Clash of Images is a collection that sets Kilito apart from the work of his Arab contemporaries, not least because of its unique and compelling premise. Navigating fluidly between history and the fantastically fictive, the volume evokes a time, a place, and a style that seems long extinguished; herein is a manner of storytelling that probably existed long before the image was ascendant, at a time when oral history was still our lingua franca.
Cyprien Gaillard: Geographical Analogies
Edited by Florence Derieux, Susanne Gaensheimer, Adam Szymczyk, Rein Wolfs
“A world atlas against disappearance,” is how French artist Cyprien Gaillard describes his latest project, an appropriation of the (vanishing) medium of Polaroid photography in documenting diverse manifestations of disappearance and decay in the world around us. A compendium of nine-hundred rigorously classified Polaroids, Geographical Analogies recounts stories about devastated concrete landscapes and monuments, architectonic utopias, unfinished holiday resorts, and modernist high-rises, golf courses, and cemeteries. In his own way, Gaillard may temporarily halt the disintegration by freezing these moments in time. Still, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that the forever nature of the photograph is, in fact, an impossible dream.
Lapdogs of the Bourgeoisie: Class Hegemony in Contemporary Art
Edited by Nav Haq and Tirdad Zolghadr
Contributions by Charlotte Bydler, Neil Cummings, Annika Eriksson, Chris Evans, Liam Gillick, Nav Haq, San Keller, Hassan Khan, Erden Kosova, Dr. Suhail Malik, Marion von Osten, Natascha Sadr Haghighian, Dr. Malcolm Quinn, Tirdad Zolghadr
The ongoing collaborative project “Lapdogs of the Bourgeoisie” investigates the hopelessly complicated question of the role of class structure in the production and presentation of contemporary art. Why, the organizers wonder, has class hegemony been so terribly overlooked in the art world? Does socioeconomic status still define an artist’s career — and to what extent does the artist reflect or consolidate these hierarchies? Artists — Hassan Khan and Natascha Sadr Haghigian among them — offer up their own tastes, biases, privileges of access, and attendant anxieties for scrutiny, while San Keller photographs the homes of the artists’ parents — in which, invariably, their children’s artwork is proudly displayed.
Alighiero E Boetti: Mappa
Edited by Anna Fisher
Text by Jean-Christophe Ammann
Published with Gladstone Gallery, New York
Mappa compiles the embroidered maps of the world made by the late Italian artist Alighiero e Boetti (1940–1994), a leading light of Arte Povera who would later drift from the movement. Whether experienced as irreverent commentary on tropes of national self-definition or simply as sumptuous objects, Boetti’s graphic, color-blocked tapestries evoke the medieval tradition of the Mappa mundi. Compellingly, their very outlines were drawn by the changing geopolitical realities of his time — the Cold War and its diverse legacies. The maps themselves, elaborately woven, were made by artisans in Afghanistan and Pakistan, who were in turn free to dictate the scale, texture, and color of the work — in short, to dictate the experience of the work. “I did nothing for this work, chose nothing myself, in the sense that the world is shaped as it is, I did not draw it.”
Solution 186–195: Dubai Democracy
By Ingo Niermann
Translated from the German by Gerrit Jackson
A campy riff on the culture of political and cultural critique, Berlin-based writer Ingo Niermann’s Solution series offers queer elixirs to social problems that are as pressing as they are unbelievable. He has, in the past, called for a radical re-vamping of the German language — or a “Rededeutsch.” He has, too, proposed that the world’s largest pyramid be built in Eastern Germany as a mass-burial site and tourist attraction. In this fifth book of the Solution series, Niermann takes Dubai as a modernist blank slate for urban renewal, reimagining it as the improbably named “Sugar World.” Sugar World, beyond being a global center for treating diabetes, has a population marked by saccharine kindness and is controlled by all manner of totalitarian advertising campaigns. Of course.