You asked me about football? I’ll tell you about football.
The last time I went to Azadi Stadium with my father, it was the famous Esteghlal-Persepolis derby in Tehran. He was red and I was blue. I must have been seventeen. My friend, who was also red, was with us. To this day I cannot understand why his architect, tennis-type dad thought that my father would be able to handle the two of us. The game was at 6pm; we got there at 10 in the morning. We could only find tickets for the upper level, and my dad took us to a more or less neutral zone, basically the tail end of the reds. Red is the color of Persepolis, okay? So we were there all day. The sun was right above our bleachers and our brains had a good boil in the saucepan of our skulls. But honestly, I didn’t mind. Three minutes into the game Edmond Akhtar’s header landed in the back of Persepolis’s net. I started screaming, but the people around us were in deep silence. My dad stood up and slapped me in the face.
I sat down.
A few minutes later, the referee blew the whistle. A penalty kick. Blue’s mid-fielder scored the second goal. I sat there in silence, trying to be respectful. But the game was not over, and when blue scored a third time, I submitted myself wholeheartedly to another slapping. The final score was three to one. My friend, who didn’t want to curse in front of my father, went down a few rows before offering his penis to the mothers, sisters, grandmothers, and aunts of every Esteghlal player in sight. He needn’t have moved; my father was offering his, as well.
I, on the other hand, held on tightly to my penis. We walked out of the main gate, through layers and layers of riot police, ambulances, burning buses, and shattered glass, on an impossible mission to find a ride back home.
But not all of my Azadi adventures had happy endings. In fact, that may have been the only one. For instance, there’s the Iran-Saudi Arabia game that we lost, 1-0. Imagine, losing to Arabestan in Iran! It was a national humiliation. My friends and I were at the gates before dawn and we still couldn’t get tickets for the lower level; people had camped out the night before. When Arabestan scored, the ball rolled out from under the net — there was a hole in the damn thing — and we all thought it was a goal kick. But then the referee gave the signal and the Arabs were hopping up and down.
The whole football federation was a lavatory. Ripped nets and sun-bleached benches, puddle-of-shit toilets, balled-up grass, and muddy penalty areas. On overseas trips, our teams were not allowed to bring backup players or doctors because the plane was full of spies and wives and children of various officials. Players weren’t allowed to leave their camps — they might go chasing prostitutes or get drunk in a bar or seek asylum or whatever. Instead they filled their bags with duty-free mobile phones and smuggled them into the country.
Did I ever tell you about 90? It’s one of the most popular shows on TV. It’s the Iranian Monday Night Football, but it’s not a game. It’s behind-the-scene stories, interviews, locker-room visits, and tart-on-face no-taarof-barred criticism. (Do people say “tart-on-face”?) Everybody watches it. They get up to 1.5 million text messages when they ask people to give their opinion on various league-related events. Officials are always trying to ban it — actually it’s been banned several times in the past. I hear it’s off the air even now, but I’m not sure why. One hears a lot of things.
90 isn’t just for the kind of people who slap their kids in public. A lot of 90 fans don’t even follow football. It’s probably the only TV show where you hear profanity. (The trash talk in Farsi is pretty impossible to regulate.) But people love the host, Adel Ferdosipour. He’s funny and completely no-nonsense and he doesn’t seem to care who he pisses off. Maybe that’s the appeal, really. There’s something liberating about the idea that talking about problems might lead to them actually getting fixed, even if the problem is how to keep cows and sheep from shitting all over the football fields (see page 140).
As we used to say at Azadi Stadium: “Up your ass with a samovar spout!”
Hassan Sharif: Experiments & Objects (1979–2011)
Qasr Al Hosn Cultural Quarter Hall
March 17–June 17, 2011
‘Experiments & Objects (1979–2011)’ is Hassan Sharif’s first major monographic exhibition showcasing a body of work produced over a thirty-year span. Sharif is often associated with the modern history and culture of the UAE, having been active in the Emirati art scene since the late 1970s as part of the “Flying House” generation of artists whose works spanned conceptual and land-art practices. The exhibition, organized by The Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH) and curated by Catherine David and Mohammed Kazem, is a retrospective of the artist’s early experiments as well as his more recent work.
Harun Farocki: Image Works
Beirut Art Center
February 10–April 15, 2011
In the spring of 2006, the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts, Ashkal Alwan, organized a mind-blowing film program pairing the Otolith Group’s incisive curatorial inquiry into the Black Audio Film Collective with a slew of screenings for Harun Farocki’s films, including veritable masterpieces such as Images of the World and the Inscription of War and Videograms of a Revolution. Five years later, the Beirut Art Center is offering a sequel of sorts, focusing on the installations for art spaces that Farocki has been producing over the last fifteen years. From Interface (1995) and Eye/Machine III (2000) to Workers Leaving the Factory in Eleven Decades (2006), and Serious Games (2009–2010), Image Works sheds lights on Farocki’s long-standing interest in the production of images and their relationship to power, authority, surveillance, and war.
Paola Yacoub: Drawing with the Things Themselves
Beirut Art Center
February 10–April 15, 2011
Continuing its commitment to producing in-depth exhibitions that reflect back on the work of Beirut-based artists who have been active since the 1990s, the Beirut Art Center presents the first solo show by Paola Yacoub in Lebanon. Known for her collaborations with Michel Lassere, Yacoub has also worked independently across a range of media over the last twenty years. ‘Drawing with the Things Themselves’ features early experiments in performance and video alongside collages, models, slideshows, films clips, and photographic essays. As an artist who studied architecture and led a research center’s documentation of postwar archeological excavations in Beirut (through drawings, no less), Yacoub’s practice is uniquely attuned to issues of urban experience and territorial knowledge, and how perceptions of place may be altered with or without radical changes to an environment’s physical form.
Anna Boghiguian: A Poet on the Edges of History
Galerie Giti Nourbaksch
January 29–March 12, 2011
Boghiguian’s ‘A Poet on the Edges of History’ comprises drawings and watercolors that portray the life and work of the Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy (1863–1933, Alexandria). In this series, Boghiguian both illustrates and transposes the poet’s work, using imagery created by reinterpreted leitmotifs from the Hellenist tradition. The narrative of the drawings seems to flow chronologically, but the mutely interwoven episodes (the house where the poet was born, his family, the myth of Dionysius, meeting with the poet Ahmed Shawqi, Alexandria, Mark Anthony) continuously merge fact and fiction, and shift between past, present, and mythical time.
Lawrie Shabibi Gallery
March 13, 2011–onwards
Founded by regional art veterans William Lawrie, former head of sale for Christie’s Middle East, and Asmaa Al-Shabibi, previously managing director at Art Dubai, newly opened Lawrie Shabibi will focus on the works of both established and emerging contemporary artists from the Arab world, Iran, North Africa, South Asia, and Turkey. Lawrie Shabibi’s inaugural exhibition will feature the works of Lebanese artist Nabil Nahas. The work exhibited will include a series of dramatic landscape paintings and expressive portraits.
Edge of Arabia: TERMINAL
Dubai International Finance Centre
March 14–April 15, 2011
‘Terminal’ addresses ideas about travel, bureaucracy, privacy, and identity in a highly experiential pop-up exhibition set up in an abandoned space at the Dubai International Finance Centre. Guiding the viewer through a real-life airport experience from check-in, through security, and on towards the departure gate, the exhibition explores the experience of travel in today’s fully globalized world. Participating artists include Manal Al-Dowayan, Sami Al Turki, Ayman Yossri, Abdulnasser Gharem, Hala Ali, and Ahmed Mater. Terminal is curated by Bashar Al Shroogi, director of Dubai-based Cuadro Fine Art Gallery, and is organized in partnership with Art Dubai under the global tour sponsorship of ALJ Community Initiatives.
Akram Zaatari: The Uneasy Subject
MUSAC (Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León)
January 29–June 5, 2011
With its reference to the status of the body in Lebanese and Arab societies, this site-specific project explores the various roles enacted by and expectations placed upon men and women in the Arab world. Representations of the body (and nudity), both individually and as collective actions, and shifts in interpersonal relationships care of new media and technologies such as the Internet, are some of the issues Zaatari explores in ‘The Uneasy Subject,’ an exhibition that combines photographs, videos, films, and documentary material.
Drawn from Life (a Green Cardamom Project)
January 15–March 26, 2011
‘Drawn from Life’ brings together the works of over forty artists from the Middle East, South Asia, and the UK. Juxtaposing Abbot Hall’s permanent collection of eighteenth- to twentieth-century British works with commissioned contemporary works, the exhibition focuses on four broad themes — the landscape, the everyday, the diary, and body politics. ‘Drawn from Life’ will also include talks by Hammad Nasar and Katharine Stout.
Cevdet Erek, Ion Grigorescu, Hrair Sarkissian, Ahlam Shibli: Out of Place
February 11–April 17, 2011
Born of a collaboration between the Tate Modern and Darat al Funun in Amman, ‘Out of Place’ features four artists from different backgrounds whose diverse political and social circumstances have prompted them to consider their environment in unique ways. From Hrair Sarkissian’s photographs of austere Soviet-style buildings abandoned in the dramatic hills and valleys of rural Armenia to Ahlam Shibli’s series on the Bedouin people of the Negev region who have been compelled to settle in townships or temporary shantytowns, the artists in “Out of Place” each explore the interplay between mega political forces and personal and collective histories. ‘Out of Place’ is curated by Kasia Redzisz and Ala’ Younis.
Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin: I Am Not a Studio Artist
April 8–August 7, 2011
A new institution for research and critical inquiry opens in Istanbul. Born of the consolidation of three previously separate entities — the Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center, Garanti Galeri, and the Ottoman Bank Archives — the new initiative covers more bases and carries greater potential than your average art center, in large part because it pools together libraries and archives related to contemporary art, visual and material culture, architecture and design, and socioeconomic history. To mark the inauguration in the first of two newly renovated buildings (the second opens in September), SALT is hosting the exhibition ‘I Am Not a Studio Artist,’ delving into the work of the late, great Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin. True to Alptekin’s practice, the show is both a retrospective survey and an occasion for reconfiguration, appropriation, and intervention, with five artists (Gülsün Karamustafa, Can Altay, Gabriel Lester, Nedko Solakov, and Camila Rocha) commissioned to produce new works responding to the artist’s archive of books, source materials, and personal affects. Opening alongside ‘I Am Not a Studio Artist’ and running through June 1, 2011, is ‘Laboratory,’ featuring works by the four winners of the prestigious Ars Viva Prize, awarded annually to promising young artists based in Germany.
An accord is first and foremost only a proposition
February 9–May 1, 2011
“Museum as Hub: The Accords” is a multipart project exploring new forms of curatorial practice and international collaboration. The project begins with the exhibition ‘An accord is first and foremost only a proposition,’ curated by Sarah Rifky of the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo. Taking the notion of the accord as its point of departure and premise, Rifky presents works by Yael Bartana, Dora Garcia, Wael Shawky, and Carey Young which, each in its own way, addresses the particular form and logic of agreement. Carey Young, for her part, presents works that explore the contractual relationships that arise between artist, audience, and institution. Dora Garcia’s New Forever (2011) is a work that begins as an agreement with the New Museum allowing her to install a camera in the gallery and stream activity in the space twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, for the period of one year. Wael Shawky creates new work that builds upon his Telematch Sadat (2007), a video in which the artist worked with children to reenact Anwar El Sadat’s 1981 assassination and burial. Yael Bartana presents two posters, a coloring book, and other works inspired by avid trilogy, in which the artist imagines a Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland.
February 9–June 19, 2011
In this special exhibition, Zurich-based Shirana Shahbazi produces a site-specific wallpaper piece for the New Museum lobby. Shahbazi, whose work often involves highly-coded subjects — from portraits to still lifes to landscapes — presents a photographic selection that pushes back on expectations we collectively have when we encounter certain genres of images. The scale and dramatic composition of Shahbazi’s installation in the museum elegantly monumentalizes these fragments, enveloping the viewer in a situation that inspires a critical engagement with visual culture at large.
Hassan Khan: Lust
January 29–March 5, 2011
In this exhibition, Bidoun’s Hassan Khan presents seven previously displayed works: the enlarged print of a damaged oil painting found in a jumble sale marked “take for free,” Evidence of evidence II (2010); the single channel-video, Muslimgauze R.I.P. (2010) made in Ljubljana, Slovenia, for the 8th Manifesta; the video installation G.R.A.H.A.M. — a continuous, ten-minute real-time shot of the artist’s friend Graham sitting, slowed down to last fourteen minutes to subtly enhance every detail; ‘Lust,’ (2008), a series of fifty photographic miniatures taken on Khan’s cell phone, tracing in their uneven resolution and subterranean color the traces of an idiosyncratic photographic subconscious; and Bank Bannister (2010), a replica brass sculpture of the grand bannister at the Central Bank of Egypt in Cairo.
Only the bird of dawn knoweth the value of the flower bud
Galleries: Aun, Azad, Golestan, Silkroad, and Siin
Curated by Mehraneh Atashi
May 9, 2011–onwards
This exhibition of a whopping sixty-five artists across five galleries includes Nazgol Ansarinia, Shahab Fotouhi, Barbad Golshiri, and Mehran Mohajer. Organizers of the exhibition reveal only this:
“…for the pleasure of observers and delight of the present, I will write my book of the flower garden so that the autumnal wind shall not affect its pages and the passage of time may not turn the bliss of its spring to the woe of winter time.”
It’s hard to know who was the first to say: “Art is anything you can get away with,” but chances are good it was Marshall McLuhan, not Andy Warhol. We live in curious times when both eloquent and abrasive arguments can be made to say whether mopping a palazzo floor with the diluted blood of a drug war (Teresa Margolles), cooking dinner for a crowd of strangers (Amal Kenawy), or flipping a light switch on and off 2,000 times to communicate with neighbors (CAMP) qualify as art or not. As the field of contemporary art grows ever more diffuse, the works that are the most fun and effective tend to be those that push hardest at the boundaries of what constitutes art at all. Once radical gestures, meanwhile, get a little dull when they gather consensus and are given a name. Research-based practice, for example, has become so establishment it even sounds boring.
For the artist Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc, however, research is far from solemn or dry. It is more like a torrent of associations and obsessions, a method of working that tumbles after captivating leads, loose threads, dead ends, and tunneling digressions. Abonnenc was born in French Guiana and raised in the capital Cayenne. He moved to France when he was fifteen, went to high school, and lived in Marseille for a while. These days, he is nominally based in Paris, though he spent the first few weeks of this year setting up a new studio in London, as an artist-in-residence at Gasworks.
Abonnenc’s research sketches out a complex map running from France and Portugal to West Africa and the West Indies. As those trajectories pass through revolutionary movements, civil wars, and other intractable conflicts, they splinter off toward partisans in Cuba and Algeria, patrons in China and the former Soviet Union, and financial backers in the Gulf. Most of the works he has produced over the last eight years delve into the histories of colonization and decolonization. Each of them picks at the tangled relationship between a struggle for independence and the formation of identity, tests out the delicate balance between a desire for liberation and the longing for some sort of home (which invariably becomes a kind of trap), and digs into tender notions of desire and time.
Underlying these investigations is an inquisitive, childlike wonder, as Abonnenc falls headlong into fascinations with radical figures, revolutionary movements, and those moments in time, in a messed-up place, where something totally unbelievable suddenly seems possible. But he also pushes past the wild details and colorful characters to ask critical questions: Why do some of the most tortured episodes in history provoke some of the most mind-blowing works of art, film, literature, music, and graphic design? Do those works fictionalize history as it happens? When those works are revived, decades later, are they mistaken for real events? Which is more revealing, the glint of nostalgia that revolutionary relics produce or the experience of the search, measuring a distance that can never really be bridged?
At Gasworks, Abonnenc has filled his studio with stacks of Tricontinental, the Havana-based magazine of third-world liberation movements, known for its avant-garde art direction (see “Revolution By Design” in Bidoun #22); copies of the Algerian journal Révolution Africaine from 1963; issues of Angola Bulletin, published by the Netherlands Institute for Southern Africa; the first set of postcards printed in newly independent Guinea-Bissau; and piles of black-and-white photographs taken on the location of an ill-fated film. All of this material feeds into a work titled Foreword to Guns for Banta, which is Abonnenc’s most ambitious project to date. As of late January, he was lost in the transcripts of Portuguese soldiers who fought colonial wars in Africa. “I spend days and days reading these testimonies,” he said.
Over the course of a Skype conversation and a fitful exchange of emails, Abonnenc touched on Frantz Fanon, the poet Édouard Glissant, the literary movement Négritude (vexed, capacious, and much criticized), the left-wing publisher François Maspero, the filmmakers Chris Marker and Flora Gomes, and the brief history of a collectively produced genre of militant cinema. Talk to Abonnenc long enough and you start to see connections everywhere, like mesh over your eyes. It all sounds incredible — research as a real and active pleasure — and yet you wonder how he finds the time or focus to get anything done.
Between 2004 and 2007, Abonnenc retraced the expeditions of a doomed nineteenth-century explorer to produce a suite of dazzling, deceptively decorative wall-size drawings, Paysages de Traite (Slave-Trade Landscapes), and a series of haunting photographs called Terra Nullius, meaning land belonging to no one according to Roman law. His starting point was a bound collection of Le Tour du Monde, a weekly travel journal launched in 1860 by Hachette in France. Famous explorers such as Richard Burton and Henry Morton Stanley were dispatched to the far corners of the globe and returned with tales of adventure in exotic, untouched lands.
A team of in-house engravers illustrated their stories for a public newly attuned to the aspirations of travel. The journal was wildly popular. None of the engravers had ever left France. Their illustrations were born of the imagination, and they were basically all the same, like Victorian wallpaper in varying patterns for Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Abonnenc found the issue on French Guiana, informed by the adventures of Jules Crevaux, a doctor who explored large swathes of the country’s interior. Crevaux made four expeditions to French Guiana. On his third, he studied botanical specimens, which were illustrated in Le Tour du Monde. On his fourth, he was clubbed to death by a group of fishermen suspicious of his intentions. For the exhibition Watchmen, Liars, Dreamers, installed in the Paris art space Le Plateau last fall, Abonnenc delved deep into the work of Julius Eastman, a largely forgotten American composer. Eastman gave minimalism a pop twist and wrote three notable pieces for multiple pianos in the late 1970s — Evil Nigger, Crazy Nigger, and Gay Guerrilla — before dropping out of the avant-garde music scene with a crack problem. He died in 1990 at the age of 49. In an obituary for the Village Voice, the critic Kyle Gann noted, with regret, that Eastman was brilliant, and that most of his scores were lost.
Abonnenc contacted the composer Mary Jane Leach, who spent seven years tracking down and compiling those scores, and invited her to give a lecture. The two then orchestrated a performance of the aforementioned pieces, along with If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich? Eastman’s music had never been performed in France. Abonnenc left two baby grand pianos in the venue for the duration of the show, and looped the recording of the concert.
For another, more low-key performance piece, Abonnenc periodically recasts a reproduction of a ring he inherited from his great-grandfather and lost. The silver piece is embellished with an ornate skull and engraved with the line “I will maintain through reason or strength,” the motto of Counani, the Republic of Independent Guiana, which established itself for five short years, from 1886 to 1891, before it was re-appropriated by France and Brazil. Abonnenc has been researching this ring for ages, but he’s gotten nowhere. He has no idea what it means, how his great-grandfather was involved in Counani, or whether the family lore that says he was a freemason is credible or not. True to his interest in copies and fakes, Abonnenc reproduces the ring over and over again, and gives it to other people to wear. Every time he recasts it, the legibility of the engraving fades.
Two years ago, Abonnenc decided to look for the six reels of an unfinished film that went missing in 1971. At the time, he had no idea whether the reels still existed. To this day, he still doesn’t know. The story he has pieced together so far is curiously inconsistent and maddeningly inconclusive, but somehow, the soft spots are also the most compelling.
The film was called Guns for Banta, directed by Sarah Maldoror. Born Sarah Ducados in France to a family from Guadeloupe, Maldoror moved in a circle of revolutionaries and was actively engaged in the armed struggle against colonial rule in Africa; her nom de guerre paid tribute to one of Surrealism’s forebears, the darkly comic anti-hero of Lautréamont’s poetic novel Les Chants de Maldoror. In 1970, Maldoror began shooting Guns for Banta on an island in the Bijagós archipelago, off the coast of Guinea-Bissau.
This was three years before Guinea-Bissau’s independence from Portugal, in a time of conflagration and war. This was also three years before the assassination of Amílcar Cabral, who was amassing arms and consolidating power for the PAIGC, a revolutionary movement that sought to join Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde in a federal, socialist state. Maldoror knew and greatly admired Cabral, who, in addition to establishing the PAIGC, had founded the MPLA, a like-minded revolutionary movement in Angola, with the poets Agostinho Neto and Mário de Andrade. Andrade, incidentally, was Maldoror’s lover and husband.
Maldoror had made her first film, the 17-minute short Monangambé, the year before. Based on a short story by the dissident writer José Luandino Vieira, it captures the early days of the resistance movement in Angola in an allegorical tale about a woman visiting her husband in prison just before he is brutally beaten by the Portuguese police. With a loose, languid style and a soundtrack by the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Monangambé was shot in Algeria, and supported by the National Liberation Front (FLN) and the National Popular Army (ANP).
For Maldoror, Algeria was the mother of the world. She lived there with Andrade, and the cinémathèque in Algiers was their school. The director, Jean-Michel Arnold, initiated the first pan-African film festival in 1969, and invited filmmakers from all over the world to present and defend their work. “We trained and were trained through criticism,” Maldoror told Ecrans d’Afrique in 1995.
As with Monangambé, the Algerian government financed Guns for Banta. This was relatively new. Algerian cinema had been synonymous with the revolutionary movement from the start. It developed through the mechanisms of the FLN, and almost all of the films produced in Algeria at the time dealt exclusively with the war of liberation. Maldoror had been the assistant director on Gillo Pontecorvo’s landmark film The Battle of Algiers, so she had something going for her. But for the FLN to support films made in and about liberation movements in Portuguese-speaking colonies was something of a stretch. An Algerian technical crew joined Maldoror on location in Guinea-Bissau.
Maldoror assembled a cast of non-actors and guerrilla fighters, and worked from a spare script about a young woman named Awa, who joins the resistance after a party member arrives in her village and frames the struggle in terms of land and bread. She trains and fights and takes part in the ambush of four hundred Portuguese soldiers. When the colonial forces enact a bloody reprisal, she is killed. Or maybe there was a different ending. In two years, Abonnenc has located three different scripts for Guns for Banta, each with a different outcome, so he’s not so sure.
When it came time to edit the film, Maldoror clashed with the Algerian authorities (whether directly or through her handlers is unclear). She was doing Guns for Banta because she wanted to make the story of the liberation struggle known. But she also wanted to push a feminist point of view. “Wars only work when women take part,” she said in the interview with Ecrans d’Afrique.
“The role of women in the struggle is evident in Guns for Banta,” said Abonnenc. “Their political engagement was more obscure in Maldoror’s other films, but here, they really come into the fight.” Feminism was a tricky thing for the revolutionary movements of the 1960s and ’70s, not only in the context of decolonization in Africa, but everywhere. Class split one way. Gender split another.
Maldoror wanted creative control over her film. The Algerian government wanted the propaganda tool it had paid for. For Maldoror, she had lived the revolution, she had seen women carrying bombs on their backs, and she had the right to tell their story. The Algerian police disagreed and seized the film. For a politically engaged filmmaker who considered Algeria the heart of the revolutionary struggle (a war for independence that had actually been won), and the creative hothouse for the region’s cinema, this was a bruising betrayal. Maldoror left Algeria and stayed away for twenty years.
Ironically, that same year, Monangambé was selected for the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes. Soon after, Maldoror completed her second feature, Sambizanga, this time with funding from France. Sambizanga turned out to be Maldoror’s masterpiece. It won the Carthage film festival’s Grand Prize in 1972, and went into wide release in 1973. The New York Times hailed it as “a very fine film” and “a revolutionary picture.” The Village Voice praised Maldoror’s visual eloquence and capacity for capturing nuance. The critics anticipated great things to come.
Maldoror continued working — she has made nearly twenty films to this day, most of them documentaries about figures such as Aimé Césaire, Léon Damas, and Louis Aragon — but Sambizanga was her peak. Her career has been beset by irksome squabbles over who has the right to speak for authentic African cinema (the argument being that a French-Guadeloupian filmmaker does not) and the perception that audiences have tired of films positioning radical poets, painters, and playwrights in the middle of revolutionary politics, rather than to the side. Maldoror made three more films about Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, but none had the impact of Monangambé or Sambizanga, and who knows, really, what Guns for Banta might have been. A plan to make a documentary about Angela Davis fizzled. Maldoror hasn’t done much since the 1990s. Her legacy as a militant filmmaker — mining the same terrain as Flora Gomes or, for a time, Chris Marker — has vanished.
The backbone of Abonnenc’s practice is an abiding obsession with the Martinican revolutionary Frantz Fanon. When he was seventeen, Abonnenc found a copy of Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth in his mother’s library. He read the first chapter, “Concerning Violence,” and the last chapter, “Colonial War and Mental Disorders,” over and over again for a year. “I keep trying to understand Fanon’s radicality,” he said. “Glissant wrote that Fanon’s was a difficult path to follow.” When Abonnenc met Sarah Maldoror by chance in 2006, she reminded him of Fanon; he decided to follow her path instead.
Maldoror was giving a lecture in Paris on the poet Léon Damas. Abonnenc didn’t know Maldoror but he was curious about Damas, because he was one of the three founders of Négritude and because he was, like Abonnenc, from French Guiana. After the talk Abonnenc introduced himself to Maldoror and asked if he could see her documentary on Damas. They met and discussed this and other works. Now they are, in a way, friends. They talk often and visit museums together. Abonnenc’s Foreword to Guns for Banta is not only a complex study of Maldoror’s work; it is also a sincere effort to bring her back into circulation and give her the recognition she deserves. This sets Abonnenc’s current project apart.
Abonnenc has made a deal with Maldoror that if he finds the missing reels they will complete the film together. But Abonnenc knows he is chasing a movie that may turn out to be a myth. Though he has interviewed Maldoror for hours on end, the fact is that forty years have passed. She remembers some sequences from the film but not others. The most obvious thing for Abonnenc to do would be to go to Algeria at once and find out if the film exists. It says something about Abonnenc’s project that he is wending his way around Maldoror’s story slowly. Maybe he is gauging the distance; maybe he is building the fiction.
“For me as an artist, this is a very precise point,” he says. “All the people [Maldoror] met in Guinea-Bissau were liberation fighters, but the story of Guns for Banta is fictionalized. I really wanted her to tell me the story. Among filmmakers following the decolonization process in Africa, she’s unique. She was also the wife of Mário de Andrade, so in a way, she did this because she was in love. So the story is also about desire. But it took time. She’s reluctant to speak of certain moments that were tough. She’s been tricked many times. I am not working on dead pictures or past facts. I am working with someone who is alive, and my relationship with her is the core of the work.”
Foreword to Guns for Banta is an installation of accumulated archival materials arranged around a slide show of still photographs with a voiceover narration. The photographs, taken by war correspondents who were there when Maldoror was shooting her film, fill in for the missing reels, though gaps and holes remain. Some of the images come from other sources. “This is a way we work now, in 2011. We have so many pictures; we just have to find the places to search, and to ask, what can we say about all these movements now?” Abonnenc wrote the voiceover narration in three parts — the heroine of Guns for Banta, a filmmaker, and an artist. Read by three women, their lines intersect and overlap such that you repeatedly lose track of who’s speaking.
“It’s mixed up. You don’t really know who is talking. I wanted everything to blur. It’s not a testimony. Foreword to Guns for Banta is a way to produce a discourse,” said Abonnenc. Given the dire inheritance of so many liberation movements in Africa, as elsewhere, “What went wrong?” he asked. “This is a major question. There are so many things to connect, so many places and points of view. It’s incredible when you’re on this path.” But it must be tinged with a terrible sense of melancholy, too. All of the men who were in Maldoror’s orbit at the time of Guns for Banta are gone — Amílcar Cabral, Agostinho Neto, Mário de Andrade, all of them gone. The cause they fought for — hers as much as it was theirs — never really crystallized in the just or equitable society they were so committed to creating. Instead, revolutionary struggles gave rise to civil wars, appalling exploitation, and a politics of cynicism.
To meet Maldoror and sift through her memories is a rare occasion to revive the potential of that utopian moment as someone lived it. But there is also the risk that the moment itself will crumble as soon as it is exposed. “Foreword to Guns for Banta is a way of telling a story,” Abonnenc said. “It’s a way of saying: this exists, can we deal with it now?” If the aesthetic of Maldoror’s time privileged the image of the young heroic martyr dying for a revolution, the ethic of Abonnenc’s practice touches on the afterlife of that image — the militant who has lived long enough to look back and wonder why the first line of Fanon’s last chapter is still so apt: “But the war goes on.”
In 2009, Los Angeles–based artist Álvaro Perdices traveled to Oran, Algeria, with a friend working on the restoration and preservation of cultural artifacts at the Musée National Zabana. The museum was founded by the French colonial government back in 1879 and named after French soldier and archeologist Louis Demaeght. For nearly a century it served as a showcase for that regime’s knowledge of prehistoric archaeology, ethnology, antiquities, minerals, paleontology, and Maghrebi history and culture. Little changed when Algeria declared its independence from France in 1962. The museum may have symbolically excised Demaeght from its name and from the architectural frieze on the building’s facade, rechristening itself after the revolutionary martyr Ahmed Zabana, however the contents of the museum remained unchanged. When a man by the name of El-Hadj Meshoub took over the museum’s directorship, he undertook a plan to fundamentally change the organizational logic of the museum, exhibiting its holdings in a manner unlike Western conventions. Perdices was commissioned to document the process, along with the institution’s transformation.
Perdices spent a number of months in Oran, working alongside museum staff and the NGO Restauradores Sin Fronteras (RSF). The result, Zabana Inshallah, currently in progress, is not so much a documentary as a videographic intervention in the process of remaking the museum, an exploration of the legacy of colonial power as evidenced by its stylistic impositions. Perdices paid special attention to the archeological wing of the museum, which was being redesigned by the Brazilian architect Gustavo Santos, who had devised a radical, non-hierarchical exhibition scheme. The artist filmed conservationists at work while, in the same room, laborers hired to clear out the space deinstalled and dismantled antiquities. Perdices was struck by the crude, rough handling of objects that one would normally see locked in vitrines and climate-controlled environments; it appeared as if symbolic acts of destruction had permeated the museum. Preservation was made all the more difficult by the lack of reverence for these artifacts, which symbolized both the cultures from which they came and Algeria’s colonial history, but not, it seemed, the country’s present or future.
One chapter of Zabana Inshallah dwells on a single, fleeting moment: Perdices, breaking from the role of documentarian, records the workers pummeling the museum’s built-in plaster and concrete pedestals with sledgehammers. These violent movements are slowed down to the point at which each movement is exaggerated, the men’s brute force is amplified, and their grunts reach new sonic registers. Perdices heightens the destructive energy and dramatizes what was otherwise a casual act, elevating it to the level of performance art, or even a kind of vernacular institutional critique. Zabana Inshallah provides a real glimpse of what has mostly been imagined in art: the museum in ruins.
Another chapter of Perdices’s cultural profile of Oran takes place in and around the city’s École des Beaux Arts. Perdices’s camera slowly pans around the educational facilities, which were built in the now outdated classical style of the colonial era. While the museum is finally rethinking the conditions under which its collections came into existence, the school’s architecture and décor are unchanged. The walls are cluttered with facsimiles of Western masterworks. There are no original works here, only models evincing the classical rules of form, composition, and proportion, to be emulated by young Algerian students. One photograph pinned to a wall shows a student in three-quarter view, suggesting that Algerian subjects willfully inhabit these roles. The history of art, and its consumption in Algeria, seem to follow directly from these depictions.
By pairing these two venues, Perdices reveals how Algeria’s cultural institutions have stayed true to their original modernizing missions and continued to serve nationalistic ends. Even in the process of reinterpretation and reevaluation, the legacy of imperialism weighs heavily. The colonial project and its multiple legacies are reflected in the preservation of each artifact, the reordering of each relic, and the shattering of each pedestal.
One day in the winter of 2002, Dorothee Paulmann received a telephone call at her home office in Trier, Germany. Paulmann had recently abandoned a career as a triathlete to become a sports agent, specializing in East African runners; the previous year one of her clients, a thirty-three-year old Kenyan runner named Edith Masai, had won the bronze medal at the World Cross Country Championship. The caller was Leonard Mucheru, a 24-year-old long-distance runner from Kenya, seeking her services. She agreed, and Mucheru began to travel between his home in the Kenyan highlands and Trier, Germany’s oldest city. “He was impressed by the nice training facilities,” Paulmann recalls, “especially the forest and the stadium.” Mucheru improved steadily, and soon he was being recruited by friends of Paulmann, Moroccan trainers on the international circuit who were putting together a track team for Bahrain. There was one condition: Mucheru would have to renounce his Kenyan citizenship and become Bahraini. As Paulmann tells it, Mucheru agreed without hesitation and flew to Bahrain with the Moroccans. He filled out the necessary paperwork, changed his name to Mushir Salem Jawher, and settled into his new arrangement. Henceforth he would receive a salary of $1,000 a month, payable until death — his checks signed, oddly, by the Bahrain Defense Force — with substantial bonuses for winning races. Mucheru returned to Trier to train with Paulmann for the 2004 Asian Indoor Athletics Championship in Tehran, where he won the 3000-meter race.
Bahrain’s recruitment efforts imitated those of Qatar, which had been importing athletes for years — mostly that special breed of Kenyans from the Rift Valley highlands. Qatar had cultivated a network of scouts and agents to bring promising Kenyans to the emirate for negotiations, and contacts among Kenyan sports officials able to waive a rule requiring a three-year “cooling off” period before an ex-Kenyan athlete could represent an adopted country in competitions. The delicacy of these dealings was such that, in exchange for Kenyan assistance, Qatar agreed to construct a professional stadium with a running track in the Rift Valley, where most athletes practice on improvised dirt trails. But as time passed and the stadium remained merely notional, Kenya accused Qatar of chicanery. Qatar blamed Kenyan corruption and bureaucratic infighting for the delay. In 2003, relations nose-dived when Kenyan Olympic Committee president and former track star Kipchoge Keino barred a newly Qatari runner, 20-year-old Saif Saaeed Shaheen, from competing in the Athens games the next year.
Until that August, Shaheen had been Stephen Cherono. He was not well-known in Kenya, where there is such a surfeit of world-class runners that few qualify for the national team. Hardly anyone took notice when Cherono switched his citizenship and name in exchange for a lifetime monthly salary of $1,000 and the standard complement of elite trainers and cutting-edge facilities. But then he started winning races. In a surprise victory at the World Championships in Athletics, held in Paris that spring, Shaheen broke the world record for the 3,000-meter steeplechase. After crossing the finish line he fell to his knees and began to cross himself, but an official rushed to stop him; he then took a Qatari flag, wrapped it around his shoulders, and ran a victory lap; when he stepped up to the podium he forgot his new name and had to check the scoreboard. His brother, a runner on the Kenyan team, finished fifth in the same race, and refused to congratulate him.
This jarring scene was replayed on television in Kenya and elsewhere, and Shaheen, who had received a multimillion-dollar bonus for his victory, was condemned in his homeland’s newspapers. “That some Kenyan sportsmen are willing to be regarded in the same light as champion horse breeds and agree to sell their birth rights to the power of the dinar speaks ill of us Kenyans,” opined the Daily Nation. Kenya’s minister of sports attempted to pass a law prohibiting the country’s athletes from changing citizenship at all.
The president of Kenya’s athletics federation equated the practice to “trading slaves,” while others compared the exploitation of African athletes to colonialism. For his part, Shaheen returned to Doha, where the sheikhs bestowed upon him a mansion and a squad of servants, as well as a title: “The Falcon of Qatar.” And despite the general opprobrium back home, dozens of athletes, mostly runners and mostly Kenyan, have been Qatarized since Shaheen’s public shaming.
Most athletes who become Qatari citizens do not actually reside in the country and, despite their Arabized names, are not acculturated. This includes Saif Saeed Assaad, formerly Angel Popov, a Bulgarian weightlifter (one of eight ex-Bulgarians on team Qatar) who won the emirate a bronze medal in the 2000 Olympics. (Zhu Chen, a Chinese chess grandmaster who represents Qatar in the World Chess Federation, is a rare exception — she married a local chess grandmaster. “The only thing I could not understand when I first came here,” she has said, “is their slow rhythm of life.”) Runners generally live and train in their home country, flying to Doha every few months to renew their visas, and many expect to find a way to regain their citizenship once their careers end. Renato Canova, an Italian coach who heads Qatar’s recruitment program, has said, “I’ve told my athletes that if they marry a Kenyan girl, they will become Kenyan again.”
Of course, Qatar is not unique in recruiting players from beyond its borders. Tunisia has acquired a Brazilian soccer player; Georgia has two Brazilian volleyball players; Azerbaijan’s women’s hockey team features a clutch of South Koreans; and African asylum-seekers are suffusing Nordic track rosters. Second-tier American basketball players serve on teams across the globe. (The greatest acquisitive coup in sports history occurred in 1938, when Nazi Germany annexed Austria — and its athletes — leading to the creation of what was, until war intervened, the world’s greatest soccer team.)
The situation of the Kenyan runners is more acute in part because Kenya does not allow for dual citizenship. In any case, it may be that Qatar’s “foreign legion,” as it is often called, rankles because of the easy allegories: the majority of the emirate’s population is foreign guest workers, few of whom will ever be offered citizenship.
In most countries, sports are still perceived by fans and government officials (if not by athletes) as something like the auto industry in America: an ideal realm that should be kept 63 apart from the economic shifts wrought by globalization. The Olympics are the last redoubt of the nation-state — or, at least, they profit immensely from being marketed as such. The opening ceremony, which is the highest-rated television broadcast of the games, hinges on a vow by amateur athletes to compete “for the glory of sport and the honor of [their] teams.” That promise is packaged by the International Olympic Committee and sold for around $4 billion; a negligible amount makes its way to the athletes.
Much like modern war, modern sport is undertaken by a marginalized group for the benefit of a powerful elite. But even war, which was the initial model and impetus for the Olympics, is no longer fought exclusively among nations, or for a cause assigned to, rather than chosen by, the combatants. Perhaps we should blame this situation on the diminishing purity of sport: for most of human history, the hallmark of international athletic competition has not been patriotism but the sublimation of violence. The Olympics was originally accompanied by a cessation of all hostilities between nations, and the hope that it might temper those hostilities. According to Nigel Spivey, author of The Ancient Olympics: A History, the Greek games revolved around a differentiation between Good Strife and Bad Strife: “Good Strife, born of a coupling between Zeus and the Night, encouraged mortals to make the most of their brief time on earth; Bad Strife set up lusts for battle and bloodshed. Good Strife nurtured desires for wealth and fame; Bad Strife was a destroyer of lives and property. Good Strife urged creative industry, stirring the energies of emulation.” In other words, all games were war games.
And yet the battlefield is never far from the track. In January 2007, Mushir Salem Jawher entered the Tiberias Marathon, which traces the Sea of Galilee. He finished in two hours and thirteen minutes, winning the race and becoming the first Arab athlete to compete in Israel. He was “very proud,” he told the press afterward, calling Israel “a free country,” and stating that “people should live together in harmony.” Bahrain responded by announcing its intention to strip Jawher of his citizenship. He became a man without a country, spending two months in Nairobi trying to convince the government to take him back. “He called me after the race and explained what kind of trouble he was in,” Dorothee Paulmann remembers. “It was a shock. He should have known. But maybe he just didn’t think about it.” Bahrain eventually bowed to international pressure and agreed not to revoke Jawher’s citizenship, but his name had been ruined. Later that year Kenya agreed to take him back. And in 2008 he successfully defended his title, winning the Tiberias Marathon, this time as Leonard Mucheru.
these women has no talent, just pretty shape, but khordadian is,,, amazing, what can i say
“In our culture they say men can’t dance,” says Mohammad Khordadian, a fifty-something fitness celebrity who makes his home between Los Angeles and Dubai. Since the 1980s, Khordadian has built up a dance and exercise and dance-as-exercise career that has made him the most famous Iranian mail-order entertainer on earth, beloved for his camp renditions of everything from Iranian folk dance to Arabian belly dance to American jazzercise. He has been called the King of Iranian dance. His costumes are sparkly, and come in many colors. His hips appear to be made of Jell-O.
For the past twenty-five years, Khordadian’s lispy enthusiasm has graced the Persian Satellite television stations of Los Angeles, where the Iranians of the left coast make their home. Night after night on Jaam-e-Jam, Tanin, and Iran TV, Khordadian — sometimes alone, sometimes accompanied by attractive, largely mute backup dancers — has taught Iranians and curious others to move their hips, roll their shoulders, and shimmy their hair the Khordadian Way.
Khordadian’s career took off in the early 1980s with the release of Workout and Dance Lesson #1 (viewable on YouTube as Persian Dance). It was the age of the videotape, and celebrity was in the offing for a number of exercise gurus, including Richard Simmons. Persian Dance was released by Pars Video, a San Fernando Valley–based clearinghouse for Iranian music and film — to this day, a prime source for misty royalist remembrances, avant-garde classics, and… exercise videos. In Persian Dance (today easily accessible on YouTube) Khordadian looks a bit like a muscly referee in his pin-striped workout shirt and figure-hugging Lycra. A team of three women and two men, also in extra-tight workout gear, joins him. Together, they reflect a healthy mix of people — including one woman with an almost distracting pair of buttocks. “My message is that dance is not just for perfect people,” he says. Notable, too, is “Mario,” a feathery-haired hunk whose face, shape, and demeanor cannot help but remind one of supermarket-romance model Fabio. After collectively swaying from right to left, right to left, to infectious Iranian pop for a half minute or so, Khordadian, who seems to always have one eye on Mario, announces, “With a part-i-nair, with a part-i-nair.” (He chooses Mario.) All shoulders start to shimmy, and Khordadian snaps his fingers exuberantly, Iranian-style. “It’s time to have a good time!” (He is known to mix English into his mostly Farsi monologues.)
“But don’t worry, after ten years I haven’t become American yet,” he assures us.
Persian Dance #2, Khordadian’s second workout tape, was released in 1987. He wasn’t happy with the first one, he now says. (“My hair was thinning, I had a mustache.”) For PD2, he was clean-shaven, and boasted a full head of hair, courtesy of implants. The tape made it back to Iran, where it circulated on that country’s vast black market. By 1988, most every middle-class family in Iran had a copy. Khordadian emerged as an unlikely Minister of Happiness. “It was the end of the Iran-Iraq War and all the war’s miseries. People wanted to let loose after all that sadness,” he says. The familiar yet alien choreography of Khordadian’s tapes collectively hypnotized the nation.
“I owe a lot to Jane Fonda,” he reflects. Mohammad Khordadian was born in Nezam Abad, a roughish part of South Tehran known for its fierce neighborhood rivalries and frequent knife fights. The youngest of four children, his conception was inspired by his father’s desperate desire for a second son. His mother, less inspired, did everything she could to abort him. She walked around carrying heavy blankets, ate terribly, and grew more and more depressed. She even threw herself off the roof a number of times. Nothing worked. “The baby was more persistent than her,” says Khordadian, speaking of himself in the third person. He was born February 21, 1957.
As a child, Khordadian would vie to be the center of attention, propping himself atop tables at family events and dancing until his little feet couldn’t take it anymore. His heroine was Jamileh, Iran’s first celebrity dancer. At thirteen, he joined the Boy Scouts, and it was as a Boy Scout that he made his stage debut, dressing up as a Hawaiian dancer for a visit by the Minister of Education, wriggling his straw skirt this way and that. “I liked the attention and applause I got,” he remembers. The minister, his teachers, and his fellow scouts were stunned. A star was born.
From there, Khordadian pursued dance by various means — bluffing his way into the Ramsar Youth Camp, joining a folklore troupe, dancing at the prestigious Roodaki Opera House. At the opera house he met an English woman, a ballerina named Jane, and they married. It was just about then that the Iranian Revolution began gathering force, and the couple packed up and headed for London. They danced for a while at a nightclub in Kensington called Club Iran. After a while they packed again and joined the great migration to Tehrangeles, where they split, seemingly amicably.
In May 2002, a strange headline emerged from the wire services. “Iranian Dancer Jailed for Corrupting Youth.” Another read “Iranian State Hates Fun.” Khordadian had traveled to Iran for the first time in over two decades to see his ailing father and to pay his respects after a childhood friend had passed away. Upon arriving at Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport, he was asked to report to the Ministry of Security and Intelligence, where he was instructed to keep a low profile or leave. “This country is not ready for you,” he was told. Still, he was recognized nearly everywhere he went, and people constantly asked him to dance. Who was he to refuse a crowd? When Khordadian was leaving the country weeks later, he was arrested. He spent twenty-one days in solitary confinement — the cell was so small he couldn’t fully extend his legs, he remembers — and another forty days in the notorious Evin Prison. There, Khordadian was charged with “promoting depravity and corruption among the youth” with his videos and their unabashed mixed-sex dancing — prohibited in public in the Islamic Republic. Curiously, his barely abashed homosexuality did not come up. Even at Evin, he says, the guards would trail behind him, chanting, “Mammad, we’re your fans!”
On July 7, 2002, Khordadian was convicted on all charges. His ten-year prison sentence was suspended, pending “good behavior,” but he was barred from giving dance lessons for life, even outside Iran, and banned from attending weddings and other public celebrations for three years. During the trial, one of the four judges conceded familiarity with Khordadian’s videos. “You are more talented than Michael Jackson,” the judge is said to have said. “You can dance many different styles. But can you dance salsa?”
Khordadian returned to Los Angeles to find his home in the midst of foreclosure; he hadn’t been able to pay his mortgage in months. There was great interest in his case, he says: an offer to appear on 20/20 with Barbara Walters, a book deal, and more. He refused each offer for fear the authorities would punish his family back in Iran, and his quietude provoked a variety of responses, some of them quite mean-hearted. Famed Iranian caricaturist Ebrahim Nabavi presented a sketch imagining Khordadian’s interrogation: The effeminate dancer barely understands his interrogator’s deeply masculine, Arabic-inflected Persian. At one point, he is asked about the exiled Mujaheddine e-Khalq Organization, a militant opposition group with the rare distinction of being designated “terrorists” by both Tehran and Washington. Confused, a teary-eyed Khordadian asks, “Is that a dance troupe?”
Homeless and depressed, he wandered the City of Angels. Suddenly his old haunts — the 24 Hour Fitness in West Hollywood, the kebab shops on Westwood Avenue, Cabaret Tehran — no longer felt like home.
“When I got back to LA, I felt empty. I felt I had no true friends in America. You see, after twenty-three years, I had gotten my love, which was Iran. And then I suddenly lost it.” In fact, he now admits, he had fallen in love with a person, too. “I thought he was the love of my life,” he says now. And so he did the unthinkable — or at least, incredibly inadvisable — and went back to Iran, despite everyone’s warnings.
It didn’t work out. The interrogations started all over again. So he left Iran for a third time, now to Dubai, a nearby city with its own sizable Iranian community. In Dubai, Khordadian settled into a routine, performing at nightclubs and weddings. He also opened an Iranian-themed nightclub with a cowboy motif called Cochino. (An Indian hotelier had green-lit a series of nightclubs catering to Dubai’s biggest expat communities; the other three catered to Indians, Africans, and Filipinos.) But running a nightclub was not, he decided, the life for him, and Cochino shut down in 2007.
Today Khordadian divides his time between Dubai and Los Angeles. Though he is no longer quite so limber — knee problems and a pair of slipped discs have slowed down his frenetic routine — he is if anything more famous than ever. Most of his greatest hits are watchable on YouTube, and the internet being what it is, the comments sometime descend into semi-syntactical gay- and/or Iran-bashing:
i heat this man mohammad khordadian sissy man
hahahaha fagget persians!! i bet da fag king xerxes danced like dis for the spartans, in da battle of leuctra! hahahhaha no wonder leonidas didnt kill him!!
this guy is why Irans prez is crazy and wants to kill everyone
Still, most are adoring:
i dont understand the language but im all into it.. this Persian nigga gots alot of vibe
Like Paula Abdul before him, Khordadian has parlayed his dancing into a well-paid job as a judge on a TV talent show — in his case, a German show fashioned after So You Think You Can Dance? The contestants are young Iranians raised abroad who want to pursue a career in dance. He admits, “They’re not that good.”
But Khordadian still dreams big about the future. Even now, he is preparing a theatrical play, scheduled to debut in Dubai during the Iranian New Year. The production, Ezdevaj Mashkouk (Suspicious Marriage), involves a young man who pretends he is married, with children and even a babysitter to support, in hopes of getting money from his wealthy uncle. As part of the farce, the young man, played by Khordadian, dresses up as the babysitter. One thing leads to another, of course, and the uncle unwittingly falls in love with his nephew in the form of the babysitter. You can imagine the rest. “I love Shakespeare,” Khordadian gushes.
He assures me he leads a normal life. “I’m not an artist like Googoosh or Michael Jackson. I don’t cage myself in. I live my life. I go to the gym. Sometimes I come out unshaved.”
And though his dancing career is all but over, he goes to great lengths to maintain his trim physique. “I keep my shape and my looks, and I try to update myself. I paint my hair and make it funky style, and everyone says, ‘You look like you are in your thirties!’”
Mostly, he is ready to tell the world his story. Now fifty-four, the King of Iranian Dance wants to put it all out there — his childhood in Iran, his thoughts about the revolution, the cabarets and health clubs and nightclubs in London and Los Angeles and Dubai; his videos, his stardom, his implants, and more. It’ll make for a great book — or even, he offers, a great Hollywood film. He might just be right about that.
“When Barbara Walters spoke to Ricky Martin, he wasn’t ready to come out with his story,” he says, remembering an infamous 20/20 interview in 2000, when the pop star and former member of Menudo refused to answer a series of invasive questions about his sexuality.
My Tokyo girlhood transpired in not-so-splendid isolation. A mildly deformed foot — my father’s — kept my brothers and I in armchairs when we might have been outside, jumping or skipping or chasing a ball. Exercise was our father demanding that we fetch a Sidney Bechet album from a pile of records, or yet another book from his bedroom at the other end of our vast, lugubrious house, which had once been the German embassy. Exercise was the accretion of small filial resentments at our thoroughly tedious enslavement. Perhaps this is why every year at The International School of the Sacred Heart’s Field Day events, I veered toward sports that required no practice, no daily dedication of sweat or labor — above all, no athletic bent or outfit or skill, really, save a pronounced ability to bear ridicule.
There were two such sports, and I loved them both: the three-legged race and the stilts. In the first, there were red or white cloths that secured my ankle to that of a friend. The two of us would have to take the first step together on our Siamese leg and every subsequent one on opposite feet. Soon we’d hit our stride and go hurtling down the track at a frightening rate. My partner was Olivia, a British girl with curly chestnut hair, enflamed cheeks on a milky complexion, crimson lips, and thick glasses; she was almost as awkward as I. But with our ankles bound we were a formidable composite running machine. We won the Three-Legged Race that day, cheered on mostly by nuns. (Our classmates considered this particular race beneath contempt.) One gangly Belgian nun ran alongside to measure our progress, her skirts hoisted up, her veil flying behind her.
Both games were, it seems to me now, embodiments of the Buddhist doctrine of interdependence. A table, say, in order to be a table, requires all the molecules of which it is composed; space to fill with its presence; a floor on which to rest; and, finally, the name, table. Racing on stilts, my interdependent collaboration was with a pair of inanimate objects. I placed my right foot on the ledge attached to the side of a tall wooden pole while holding it at shoulder height with my right hand; then, having found my balance, I swung my left leg up and placed my left foot on the opposite pole, which I held steady before setting off, making my strides as long as possible. This race, too, I won every time. A Buddhist might say that was a gross definition of interdependence. It is, no doubt, a mildly handicapped one.
Drive along the corniche in Doha tonight and you’ll see the laser lights and heart-shaped fireworks of victory. The ministries and towers of Dafna are festively lit lemon yellow and maroon, while a giant disco ball hangs suspended over Palm Tree Island. “2022” is tagged in gold on the barrels of cement trucks and the safety hats of construction workers. One thousand feet above the street a high-def billboard reflects seamlessly onto the glass surface of the Commercial Bank building: a live feed from an Asian Cup football match, in progress not five kilometers away.
Qatar is building a sports utopia in anticipation of the 2022 World Cup. The denizens of this brave new world aren’t only the finest athletes money can buy (see page 58). There are also the graduates of the ASPIRE Academy for Sports Excellence, which provides locals and foreigners with training in sailing, soccer, squash, table tennis, tennis, fencing, rowing, rock-climbing, and golf.
ASPIRE also boasts a state-of-the-art hospital, where, if you are particularly unlucky, you might encounter Nada Zeidan, one of Qatar’s greatest celebrities — archer, spokesmodel, and road racer by day, mild-mannered emergency-room nurse by night.
Sophia Al-Maria: Your website advertises you as a “unique Arab sporting icon,” which is fair enough. I certainly don’t know of any other archer–racers in the Gulf, let alone female ones. But the site doesn’t go out of its way to talk about your secret identity, as it were, as a nurse. But nursing is a huge part of your life, isn’t it?
Nada Zeidan: I always wanted to be a nurse, ever since I was a child. I was born in Lebanon, you know; we left when I was four years old, during the war. I remember the day we left, actually — I remember getting an injection, and the nurse helping me prepare for it. A few years later — I was seven — I saw a nurse on television and I turned to my father and said, “I want to be a nurse.” He said, “You’re too young to be thinking about this.” But it was always in the back of my mind, and when I started secondary school I insisted on a school with a program in nursing. My mother didn’t accept this at first — my cousins were all doctors, and her idea of a nurse was someone who brought dinner and changed the Pampers on elderly patients. But my father pushed me and helped me get what I wanted. Hamdullah.
SAM: Was it hard for you to adjust to your new life in Qatar at such a young age?
NZ: The main difficulty for me was the language. I still remember being reprimanded by the teacher the very first day of first grade. She asked me to close the door but I couldn’t understand what she was saying, and she called me stupid. She thought I was refusing her. That was when I realized that there was more than one Arabic. That was really hard. But I loved being here right away; we left Lebanon during the war and Qatar was a peaceful place where the people were friendly. I think I’m always looking for security, really.
SAM: And yet you love to drive race cars! I guess I’m wondering how you square your career in sports — as an Olympic archer, a rally driver — with this longing for security?
NZ: Well, at the same time, I’ve always enjoyed a challenge — I tend to take to the most difficult route. When I go hiking in Jordan or Lebanon, I like the mountains. I like suffering in the mountains.
SAM: Do you have a sense of why that is?
NZ: You know, I think about this all the time. Why do I want this? Where does it come from?
So many things go back to childhood. I think it might come from Lebanon again, from having to leave suddenly. I know that when I finished secondary school, what I wanted more than anything was to join the army. To be ready for anything! I was just a student, but I knew I would need to be able to handle a gun, to protect myself. This same sense fueled my interest in nursing, of course. When I was doing my studies at Qatar University I tried to argue that we nurses should get the same training as soldiers. So we can be ready.
That didn’t happen, of course. But since they wouldn’t allow me to train with the army, I had to go find what I wanted for myself. I went to a shooting club to learn how to use firearms. And at the club I discovered archery. Archery is the sport our religion encourages most, you know, for both girls and boys. And it requires more physical strength and more concentration than shooting guns.
SAM: So are you into extreme nursing too, then? [Laughs]
NZ: I am! In nursing school, as soon as I could, I started working in the operating theater. I’m always looking for the major cases to help with — trauma, neurosurgery, cardio forensic surgery. I’m always trying to do my best. In the operating room you have to have an instinct about what the surgeon is going to need next, because one small mistake can change everything. You try to be prepared for what might happen. And when there is bleeding and it’s my job to be ready with the plate and the suction — I feel useful, like I’ve really done something.
SAM: Do you see a lot of patients who’ve had automobile accidents?
NZ: Oh yes. I often find myself crying as I do my work, thinking “Oh God, what an end. Whether he’s a good man or a bad man, what an end.” So many times the doctors have asked me, “Nada, why are you crying? Do you know this guy?” But it’s not personal, even. I can’t really explain it. So many of the accidents involve young kids — just boys, really — and they don’t know what they’re dealing with, how dangerous it can be to drive. They don’t think it can happen to them.
When I’m driving in the city, you’d never believe I’m Nada the rally racer. From the first time I ever drove a car, my father told me, “The street is not for you.” I always remember that — I leave the street to the young boys. My sister gets angry at the way they drive — she shouts at them — but for me, I say, Go ahead. I have to be careful, logical. These boys don’t know what they’re risking.
SAM: Do they ever give you trouble? I mean, do you ever get recognized when you’re driving in public?
NZ: I do. But actually the women are the worst. When they see me they always try to race me. I remember this one woman — I think she had a blue Peugeot — she was really crazy. She followed me all through Defna, driving around me in circles, just to show me she’s a good driver. I mean, there are others, lots of them, but I’ll never forget her.
SAM: You do seem to drive people a little bit crazy.
NZ: There are so many negative discussions about me in the Arabic media! “Who is this woman, who allows her to do these sports?” There are so many people just waiting to see me fail and say, “I told you so.”
But maybe that’s why I feel like I have to do these things. I do these things to challenge myself as a woman, and to challenge their ideas of what women are, too. People are always sure the son is doing right and the daughter is doing wrong. I don’t know what makes people think this way. My parents are good, thank God, but they have to listen to people talk about it all the time.
Thank God for Sheikha Mozah. She’s done so much for young women and sports. I think I helped open the door for the next generation, too. We women who go first are the ones who have to suffer.
SAM: You’re definitely an inspiration — and you’re certainly not a stereotypical Qatari woman. I wonder what you think about girls who act and dress like boys — you know, the boyahs?
NZ: I’ve known many girls like this — it’s been an issue in sports for a long time. Of course, first of all, in our religion this is unacceptable. And I’m sure there are a lot of psychological things involved. There’s so much pressure on daughters.
From the outside, I see they are two different persons. I mean, all of us are different people, with and without abayya. But this is extreme. I mean, I challenge this idea all the time by doing sports, but I never ever think of myself as a boy. There were two girls I was teaching and I could tell they were boyahs. They tried to deny it — I said, “Why are you wearing men’s perfume?” And they said, “Oh, cologne works better at hiding smells after you sweat.” I’m not stupid. I know what they’re up to.
I knew some girls like that in university — with a man’s style, the Rolex, the sideburns, the cologne, and the men’s shirts. How they walk. But I don’t blame them. It’s the mistake of the teachers and managers in the sports field. These girls need to be guided, from childhood: What is halal? What is haram? But then, enough. Leave them alone and God will protect them.
SAM: Have you thought about doing the Dakar Rally?
NZ: That’s my ultimate goal, really. But I’m afraid I’ve wasted too much time. My last big race was five years ago. Then I had to stop to prepare for the Asian Games and then I suffered an injury, and it takes so long to get psychologically prepared to get behind the wheel again. But I want to do everything!
SAM: How do you get psychologically prepared to drive a race car?
NZ: I do Tae Kwon Do, which is good for the muscles as well as the concentration.
SAM: Do you ever have problems with the heat here? Do you have to do heat prep or anything?
NZ: No, I’m ready. I spent nearly six years training for the Asian Games, shooting arrows in the summer. In Lebanon people are always saying, “It’s too hot, you’ll get dizzy.” But I’m fine with it.
SAM: So how would you describe yourself in one word?
NZ: Nada? What is Nada? Bah, I don’t like to talk about myself. But I guess, in a word, Nada… tries.
It was a tasty news morsel ten years ago: “Tezpur Chili hottest in the world.” Four Indian scientists had found a chili pepper in northeast India with a rating of 855,000 Scoville units — a forest fire of piquancy compared to the feeble flame of the nearest contender, the Mexican Red Savina habanero (a mere 577,000 Scoville units). The Scoville rating measures the presence of capsaicin, a compound that binds with pain receptors ordinarily triggered by heat and abrasion.
The news was delicious, and not just as a pick-me-up for a nation still hungry for global recognition. It seemed, oddly enough, like redress for a still-smarting historical wrong. For it was the colonial invasion of chili peppers — capsicum chilis from South America — that upstaged Indian black pepper (Piper nigrum), once the hottest commodity on the planet and the crown jewel of the spice trade.
We Indians had welcomed chilis graciously, of course. In time we became the world’s largest producers — and indeed, consumers — of what is technically a fruit. And now, at last, Indian nature and five hundred years of nurture had won out, in the form of a local cultivar, Capsicum frutescens var. Nagahari, aka Tezpur chili. The samples in question came from Tezpur, in the state of Assam (felicitously, Tezpur can be translated as “Spicyhot Town”), but the variety was better known locally by a variety of terms denoting fear and respect: Naga Jolokia (serpent chili),_ Bhut Jolokia (ghost chili) and _Bih Jolokia (poison chili) in Assamese, Raja Mirch (king pepper) in Hindi, Pasa Kala (chief chili) in Mishmi. At any rate, the research was published — a chili paper, as it were — in the Indian journal Current Science, along with diagrams showing the Tezpur chili’s capsaicin readings going off the charts.
These findings were met by consternation and disbelief, especially among the small but vociferous tribe of chiliheads, aficionados driven as much by masochistic machismo as by culinary concerns, most of whom reside in the United States and England. This strange new world of chili fanatics has fueled a multimillion-dollar hot sauce industry hawking products with names like Dave’s Ultimate Insanity Sauce, Blair’s Possible Side Effects, Rectal Rocket, and hundred-dollar bottles of pure capsaicin crystals capable of delivering sixteen million Scoville units. These were not the sort of people to just accept the idea that millions of people in a third-world country had been quietly besting them for generations, consuming the world’s hottest chilis more or less for free.
Skeptical chiliologists insinuated that the Indian research was flawed. They deplored the “constant nationalistic tone” of the scientists, who were, as it happens, working for India’s Defense Research Laboratories. Worst of all, they intimated that the Tezpur chili wasn’t Indian at all, just another variant of Capsicum chinense. (What don’t they make in China these days?)
Actually, Capsicum chinense is not Chinese. All chili pepper species derive from South or Central America; the term chili comes from the Nahuatl Chi-li. (Apparently the Aztecs had a glyph for it, too.) But the nomenclature of chiliology is littered with geographical confusions and nonsequiturs that go directly back to the origins of the New World — Columbus sailing west to find the Indies (and pepper) and stumbling upon the Americas (and chilis) instead. His first taste came in 1492, among the Taino. He enjoyed “ají, which is their pepper which is more valuable than black pepper, and all the people eat nothing else, it being very wholesome.” A hundred years later, the English herbalist John Gerard was still confused about the name: recommending the cultivation of chili plants in hot horse manure in his Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes, he calls it “Piper Indianum or Indicum or sometimes Piper Calicuthium or Piper Hispanicum… in low French Poivre d’Inde, very well known in the shops at Billingsgate by Ginnie Pepper, where it is usually bought.” Capsicum chinense, meanwhile, got its name from an eighteenth-century Dutch botanist, who thought the Caribbean chili seeds he was working with had come from China.
Peculiarly, although the European colonization of the world was driven in large part by the craze for Indian Indian pepper, until very recently the taste for chilis was largely reserved for the colonized, not the colonizer. And it should be said that not every use to which the colonized put the chili was excellent. The fruits of the capsicum family have certain innate punitive possibilities, as the Aztecs themselves recognized. A famous illustration in the sixteenth century Codex Mendoza depicts a father disciplining his son by holding him over a fire of smoking chili peppers. Here in India we took it a little further, as evinced in this enthusiastic passage from Science Reporter, an Indian popular science magazine, discussing the dangers of “capsaicin poisoning”:
Chili powder is often used by police in our country — and in fact in several third-world countries — to extract confession from criminals. It may be introduced in the mouth, nose, anus, urethra, or vagina to torture a suspect and extract confession from him. It is said that during emergency in India in 1976, chilies were used as a means of torture by introducing them in rectum! This process was known as Hyderabadi Goli… Finally, in our country, chili powder is often introduced in the vagina as a punishment for infidelity.
It’s true, by the way, about the Hyderabadi Goli. Back then our security forces believed the hottest chilis in the country came from Andhra Pradesh, the capital of which is Hyderabad. During Indira Gandhi’s twenty-one-month period of extraparliamentary rule, the Hyderabadi Goli was notoriously administered using a policeman’s cane slathered with mustard oil and chilis.
But Indian law enforcement has come a long way since then. In fact, the boffins at the Defense Research Laboratories had been researching ways to create a less lethal tear gas. (No less piquant, but literally less lethal — less likely to accidentally kill those exposed to it.) “Oleoresin capsicum (OC) is… environment-friendly and much safer,” they wrote. “Use of OC powders is growing and it is predicted to dominate the market in the coming years as the mainstay of riot control agents.”
Like latter-day Columbuses, they did not quite know what they had done. “Thus we have identified the hottest chili variety in India,” they concluded. When in fact, they had conquered the world.
It wasn’t until 2007 that the rest of the world finally admitted defeat. That February Guinness World Records certified that the hottest chili in the world was, in fact, the Naga Jolokia pepper, which the Indian scientists had called the Tezpur chili. Predictably, the Indian chili was only accepted in the West after it had been domesticated. An English gardener began selling seeds for what he called the “Dorset Naga,” and in 2006 one Paul Bosland, a scientist at the Chili Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University, took credit for discovering the Naga Jolokia’s potency. (Guinness World Records cites his research.) Nowadays, chiliheads are swilling bottles of American-made Naga hot sauce, including Dave’s Ghost Pepper Sauce, Blair’s Pure Death Sauce (with Jolokia), and Mad Dog 357 Ghost Pepper Sauce.
As you can probably tell, this burns me up a bit. I discovered the Naga Jolokia some twenty-five years ago on my first trip to the northeast, when I ordered a dish of egg curry and asked for extra chili. It was delicious, but within minutes my mouth and scalp were on fire. I experienced a dramatic bout of gustatory sweating and a temporary loss of hearing. I still remember it — and the jar of nougat candies that saved me. I have since acquired a taste for the chili, though I administer it with caution. I’ve learned the hard way not to touch my eyes and other tender parts after handling even uncut Naga Jolokias.
But there’s no point crying over spilled capsaicin. We’ve all moved on. India is still the world’s largest producer, consumer, and exporter of chili peppers, though in exports we’re beginning to feel the heat from — who else? — the Chinese. In 2009 the Indian Defense Research Development Organization announced the development of Naga Jolokia–based chili grenades for counter-insurgency operations. Meanwhile the Chili Pepper Institute’s latest genetic research has concluded that the Naga Jolokia is a “putative naturally occurring interspecific hybrid” of the chinense and frutescens. In England, another hothouse Frankenstein named Gerald Fowler has raised a bastard chili he calls the “Naga Viper,” which apparently has some 300,000 Scovilles on its Indian progenitor, and is slated for inclusion in the next Guinness World Records.
Back in Assam, a sweet-faced thirty-year-old housewife and mother named Anadita Dutta Tamuly took on celebrity British chef Gordon Ramsay in a special televised competition, consuming fifty-one Naga Jolokia chilis in just under two minutes. A weeping Ramsay left the field after a single bite, while Tamuly proceeded to rub the seeds of another twenty-five chilis in her eyes without shedding a tear. Ramsay volunteered to authenticate her achievement to the Guinness people, leading to anticipatory headlines cheering on the “world’s hottest woman.” I’m sure she’ll make India proud.
What, exactly, is a sport? An organized competition? War by any other name? Is it a form of play, perhaps? And if it is fun, why is it taken so damn seriously?
Frederick II of Hohenstaufen was serious about falcons. He went by many titles — King of Germany, King of Burgundy, King of Sicily, King of Jerusalem, Holy Roman Emperor. For the emperor, the ancient practice of training birds of prey — falcons, eagles, hawks — to hunt in tandem with humans was never mere sport. His treatise De arte venandi cum avibus (On the Art of Hunting with Birds) was written in 1240. It is still in print more than 700 years later.
Repeatedly excommunicated, Frederick II’s allegiances were often questioned. The hawking emperor was fluent in Arabic, partial to the Arab poets, and did not seem overly exercised by the Mongol threat that was then sweeping over Europe’s eastern flank. But he was fastidious when it came to his birds. He imported sakers from Arabia and gyrfalcons from Greenland, and had as many as fifty falconers in his court. Legend has it that when Mongol leader Batu Khan demanded that he submit to the might of the Golden Horde, then besieging Hungary, Frederick jokingly suggested that he would be delighted to become the Khan’s falconer.
In fact, the Khan had plenty of falconers. Marco Polo described an incredible field hunt with ten thousand falconers, led by Kublai Khan, who lay on a couch in an elephant-mounted pavilion accompanied by twelve of his favorite gyrfalcons, which would amuse him and his entourage by laying waste to swans, cranes, and other birds along the coast of the Gulf of Pechihli.
But the sport of kings and khans has also been the province of the commoners, at least among the nomads of the Arabian Peninsula. For the Bedouin, hunting was necessary to round out a meager diet of dates, locusts, and camel milk, and a falcon, properly employed, was a finely calibrated weapon. Raptors were killing machines, capable of roaming thousands of miles, with high-def vision perfectly suited to scanning the scrubby landscape for the slightest sign of prey.
Bedouins would trap the migrating raptors in the fall as they passed between Central Asia and Africa, snaring them with live birds rigged with camelhair nooses. They would tame them, barely, hunt with them for a season, and release them in the spring. The falcons were kept at an optimum threshold of near-starvation — not so hungry as to fly away nor so full as to refuse the hunt. Bedouins hunted mostly hares and small birds like the stone curlew, sharing small portions with their raptors and keeping the rest for themselves.
But the most coveted game was the Houbara bustard, Chlamydotis undulata, a large ground-dwelling, capon-sized bird whose common name comes from the Arabic word houbry. It is unremarkable in appearance — a camouflaged wash of tan and brown that helps it vanish into the desert — until it is time to mate. Then, a stole of pure white-and-black feathers worthy of Mae West erupts around the neck. It must be attractive not only to the lady bustards, but the shaheens and saker falcons that strike like lightning from the sky.
But Houbara bustards have been virtually extinct in Arabia since the 1960s, and they are endangered across their full range, from China to the Canary Islands. They suffer from the same condition as nearly every other wild species on earth: population decline due to habitat destruction and other human-related maladies. But the greatest threat to the Houbara remains man’s desire to eat them.
In 1999 Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, founder and first president of the United Arab Emirates and a devoted falconer, banned all forms of hunting in his country. Exterminators need special permits to kill even rats. In spite of Emirati falconers’ massive campaign to add falconry to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, it is almost completely illegal to use falcons to hunt in the UAE.
The ban was imperative. The object of falconry was extra intangible. The only hope that hunting might ever again be practiced in the Gulf would be to ease up for a time, perhaps decades, and let the hammered hare and houbara populations recover. Abu Dhabi, meanwhile, is trying to jumpstart the project with an international Houbara breeding program. Much to-do attends even small events marking forward progress, as when Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Ruler’s Representative in the Western Region and Chairman of the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi, released seventy bustards into the desert last year.
One might ask, then, how an Arab might partake in his cultural heritage? For decades now, the answer has been: he migrates. Some head for North Africa, where a handful of countries still allow falcon hunting. But mostly, those who can afford it — primarily sheikhs and their entourages — go to Yak Much, in western Pakistan.
Technically, hunting is illegal in Pakistan as well. But each year a select number of “Arab dignitaries” receive special dispensation in the form of hunting permits, eligible only to foreigners. Every autumn the Arabs arrive, in synch with the bustards on their southerly migration. They come in private planes that land on private airstrips, unloading hundreds of men and a small army of tricked-out Range Rovers. One hunting party can spend $10–20 million in a single month of living in concert with the land; little of that reaches the local Pakistani population. According to conservation officials, the hunts bag about 6,000 Houbaras each year, a quarter of the bird’s local population.
However commonplace falconry may once have been in the region, falconry today is big business. Falcons are bred in captivity, smuggled across borders, and sold for anywhere between $5,000 and $80,000 on the open market. Most falcons are fitted with high-tech tracking devices in the event they should manage to escape from their keepers, which they do, frequently.
“There are a number of massive falcon breeding facilities in the UAE,” said South African Jannes Kruger, a falconer with Shaheen Xtreme, a small company offering the “Arabian Falconry Experience” to tourists and pest control to the local government. While there are still public markets where birds of prey are available for sale (the Falcon Souk in Doha is located just next to the Al Wadi Gents Saloon), “a lot of these birds get sold privately,” Kruger says. “Guys sit in the majlis, the sheikh’s spot where they drink coffee and eat dates, and they look at birds from Germany and Austria that never ever reach the public eye.” He has heard of tales of the rarest, most beautiful birds — the blondes and the blacks — going for upward of a million dollars.
Kruger is adamant that the “Arabian Falconry Experience” is distinct from the Euro-American experience. “If you ask the average UK falconer, ‘Where did you learn falconry?’ you know, they bought a bird and they fooled around with it and they killed a few songbirds and then they got it right. Or they went to a center and did a one-day falconry course and so on. If you ask an Arab falconer where he learned falconry, invariably they say, ‘From my father or my grandfather.’ It is a much more serious pursuit. There’s no, you should excuse the term, ‘bunny hugger’ approach to falconry here.”
“We American or European falconers hunt with our falcons to see the flight,” Kruger told me. “It is about the aesthetics of the flight. If there is a beautiful vertical stoop from two thousand feet up and if it doesn’t end in a kill, it was still a great flight and your friends will still pat you on the back and think ‘Wow,’ right?”
(The stoop is, in fact, the acme of flight: a swoop on steroids. When a peregrine falcon tucks in its wings and dives, it can reach speeds of 200 miles per hour as it shoots toward its unsuspecting prey.)
“But the Arabs fly their falcons to hunt,” says Kruger. “In Arab falconry, if a bird hops off his fist and kills something at his feet, it was a fantastic flight, because it ended with something to eat, something to feed his family. He’s going home with food.”
The bustard, however, is not merely something to eat. And the dignitaries who have been known to consume as many as five hundred birds in a year are by no means protein deficient. Like certain other rare and endangered treats — tiger penis, rhino horn, shark fin, or bear gall-bladder serum (see Bidoun 23, “Save the Babes”) — the flesh of the Houbara bustard is considered to be an aphrodisiac. Houbara meat is, by all accounts, tough and stringy and tends to stick in the teeth. It is also rumored to be a diuretic.
In the half-century or so since the oil boom created the modern Middle East, many a petro-dollar has been spent educating the world about the rich cultural heritage of the region. (See “Mondo Aramco” in Bidoun 22.) One remarkable flower of this Arab spring blooms atop a hill in a treeless desert landscape in a remote corner of North America. The World Center for Birds of Prey can be found on the outskirts of Boise, Idaho. The complex contains the Falconry Archives, which are housed in the Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan Falconry Heritage Wing, complete with a model goat-hair tent with life-like Bedouin mannequins.
When I visited a few years ago, Kent Carnie was still running the center. An elfin man with dancing eyebrows and a fast convertible, Carnie is a grand elder of American falconry. Among the center’s prize possessions was the largest English-based library of falconry books in the world. “We have the ultimate falconry book,” he told me. They have Frederick II’s book, of course, multiple copies, but Carnie was referring to The Tribal Chieftains Book of Hunting, a handwritten Persian treatise composed in 1701. “It says that everything you need to know about hunting is in the book. Anything that’s not in the book is known only to God.”
At one point I noticed a video playing in a loop on a monitor: wide-pan shots of spotless surgical units, and men in white flowing robes milling about a waiting room where hooded falcons rested on low perches swathed in AstroTurf. It was a state-of-the-art hospital in the UAE, Carnie told me, exclusively for birds.
“I went to a meeting there once,” Carnie said, “and there were guys from Turkmenistan who looked around and said, ‘We don’t have hospitals like this for people where we come from.’”
Pace the Turkmen, birds do require medical attention, and it seems somehow natural that the fantastically valuable birds of modern day Arabia should receive the finest treatment money can buy.
The cutting-edge Abu Dhabi Falconry Hospital (ADFH) has treated 43,000 winged patients since opening in 1999. Some of them have been injured on the job, as it were, whilst hunting. Some of them have been brutalized by other falcons — raptors will sometimes attack one another, and they tend to go for the jugular. But most avian ailments are more prosaic. Falcons crash into cars and windows and glass-fronted buildings. Some get shot by locals who prefer to hunt with guns. But mostly, falcons get sick. Tapeworms, parasites, and E. coli afflict their blood and bowels. A fungal infection known as aspergillus causes heavy breathing, flightlessness, and anorexia. And then, there is bumblefoot.
Margit Gabriele Muller did her dissertation on bumblefoot, a bacterial infection especially common among birds raised in captivity, and described in detail by Frederick II. Dr Muller (MBA, MRCVS, D Vet Hom) is the well-credentialed director of the ADFH. All of the above ailments, as well as reconstructive surgery and endoscopies and “pre-purchase check-ups,” are handled onsite at the ADFH, attracting falconers from across the Gulf region, as well as locals and decidedly nonlocal tourists, who like to watch. “The hospital has won nine international awards from six different countries for the quality of our work and our tourism program,” Dr. Muller told me. She is far from Germany, her native land, but she has found a place in the male-dominated field of falconry. Her own bird, Alia, is a gyrfalcon–peregrine mix.
“I could never do the same work in Bavaria that I am doing here simply because such dedicated facilities for falcons do not exist in Europe or USA,” she said. “I highly appreciate it, especially as a woman. I doubt that I would have had the same chance in my home country.” In 2008, Muller received the Abu Dhabi Award for her pioneering work on falcon husbandry. “It is a different life here,” she admits, “but I love to live in Abu Dhabi. It has become my home.”
She has written her own well-regarded book about raptors, Practical Handbook of Falcon Husbandry and Medicine. And she is nothing if not practical in her approach to her life’s work. Falconry, for Muller, is neither art nor sport nor amusement. “Falconry here is part of the cultural identity. In Europe and the USA, falconry was always practiced as a sport and entertainment. But falconry was conducted by the former Bedouins to hunt meat to help their families to survive in the harsh desert life. Here falcons were integrated in the Bedouin’s family, like a child.” A beloved yet terrifying child — half wild, half tame — with razor-sharp claws and flashing eyes and a tendency to murder its siblings, as well as bring home the bustard.
Magic: the Gathering is the best game. Unfortunately, it’s practically impossible to explain how to play, but I can sum it up like this: you and an opponent deploy cards from decks of your own construction, and the cards interact in various arcane ways with each other until a winner is determined. The cards can represent creatures, like dragons or elves, or symbolize spells, like lightning shooting from your hands into the face of an obnoxious person. Eventually one player’s spells or creatures overwhelm the other’s, and he wins. In the game, you and your opponent are wizards. In real life, you are nerds.
The marketing for the game is directed at teenagers, but I’ve never been sure why this is. The rule book is a 120-page-long PDF formatted like the criminal code. For example:
413.2a If a spell or ability specifies targets, it checks whether the targets are still legal. A target that’s removed from play, or from the zone designated by the spell or ability, is illegal. A target may also become illegal if its characteristics changed since the spell or ability was played or if an effect changed the text of the spell. The spell or ability is countered if all its targets, for every instance of the word “target,” are now illegal. If the spell or ability is not countered, it will resolve normally, affecting only the targets that are still legal. If a target is illegal, the spell or ability can’t perform any actions on it or make the target perform any actions. If the spell or ability needs to know information about one or more targets that are now illegal, it will use the illegal targets’ current or last known information.
Most of the people I know who play the game are adults, and the complexity of the rules is the reason we play. Exploiting some weird loophole so that your gang of trolls beats your friend’s gang of trolls is incredibly satisfying, especially if his gang of trolls was totally about to win.
Magic players, like other men engaged in time-wasting pursuits (fishermen, golfers, grad students), love to recount to each other the intricacies of the deed. Below is a tournament report I filed to the thirty or so people in the “nycmagic” Google group after I came close to winning a large tournament. The grand prize was a trip to Paris, to play more Magic.
Subject: Philly PTQ Report
Hi guys. Like Patrick, Hunter, and Tony before me, I am pleased to report a great run in a Scars Sealed event. I won 6 of my first 7 matches in yesterday’s PTQ, and going into the 8th and final round I found myself in 9th place. A win and I make Top 8, just 3 Plague Stingers from Paris. My last match went to three games, but my opponent, piloting sicknuts.dec, had too much gas. I finished 15th out of 230-something.
I’ll spare you a full run-down of my matches, both because I can’t remember the details and because most of my matches weren’t all that interesting. But my deck build was worth discussing, and I’ll also give a sketch of the final round.
I’ll warn you right now: even without the match blow-by-blow, this report is long. As you guys probably know, the only thing I like better than playing games of Magic is rehashing games of Magic.
My Pool & Build
I had a Cerebral Eruption with other Red good stuff. I had a Sylvok Replica and a Spider in an otherwise weak Green pool. I had six good White creatures. I had a Necrotic Ooze and a Skinrender with little support. And I had a Sword of Body and Mind.
But my build was dictated less by what I had than what I didn’t: no Arrest, no Blast, no Turn to Slag, no Dispense Justice, no Revoke Existence, no Grasp, no Flesh Allergy. I knew there would be many 6-drops out there that I had literally no available answers for, even out of the sideboard.
Knowing I needed to either beat my opponent or put him irretrievably on the back foot as soon as possible, I decided to go extreme RW aggro:
The Gavaleers barely made it. At the last minute, I put them and two Mountains in and took out Iron Myr, Sylvok Replica, and two Forests. The Myr and the Replica are objectively more powerful, but I needed beaters and consistency. That was my hardest deckbuilding decision.
If my pool was, say, a 7 or 7.5 out of 10, my matchups were a perfect 10. The list of cards that my deck just straight-up folds to is long: Contagion Engine and Sunblast Angel, in particular, but also Geth, Hoardsmelter, etcetera. Yes, I’d built specifically to minimize the chances my opponents would find their bombs, but I count myself lucky that few did.
Also, I never played against poison. An Ichorclaw Myr or a Plague Stinger, backed up with Untamed Might, would’ve caused me significant problems, and sadness.
I did beat a guy who resolved a Steel Hellkite in all three games. I beat Mimic Vat twice. Koth once. Spikeshot Elder a bunch of times. I even beat a turn 7 Wurmcoil, which normally would be game-over. But I’d hit him with the Sword twice already and had a bunch of nerds on the board, so I played rope-a-dope on the Wurm, chump blocking turn after turn, until he ran out of cards sitting on a stacked board, 50-something life, and 10 I-hate-Magic counters.
Sword Of Body And Mind — Yeah, it’s obviously a bomb, but it was very interesting to see how my opponents always misevaluated its three threats. Everyone put them, most threatening to least, as: token, damage, mill. In Sealed, the board is all-important and your life total is never far from your mind, but no one counts their library until it’s too late. Three hits with the Sword and the game is over. Two is enough to apply serious decking pressure, because the Wolf tokens just help extend the game, and your opponent has to leave back blockers to avoid another hit. I stole several games against better decks by milling them out. The Sword was my poison.
The Goblin Gaveleers — Their trample ability forced damage with the Sword. And they were a surprisingly decent topdeck. I won games by having more men than my opponent, and when I’d peel a Gaveleer, say, turn 5, I usually had an equipment on board, meaning he was effectively a 3 power trampler. I only lived the T1: Gaveleer, T2: Equipment dream twice. It was a dream I could have every night. I’ve rolled my eyes at people playing this card before. It’s much better than I thought with the right support.
Oxxida Scrapmelter/Glimmerpoint Stag — I was going to compare them to Batman & Robin, but Bush/Cheney is more accurate. The former does the damage; the latter pulls the strings. Many times, the Stag would sit in an undisclosed location, my hand, waiting for just the right moment to work his wicked will. He removed blockers; he triggered extra COIP effects; he reset lands; he even blinked an opponent’s Tumble Magnet, pre-combat, for a win (I had the Sword and two guys. He could only respond to the Stag by tapping one of them. I equipped the other and swung.)
Cerebral Eruption — Brian was saying this card was very good. He was totally right. One-sided sweepers, even ones that whiff half the time, are a beatdown deck’s best friend.
It’s silly to complain about a 6–2 deck, but if my Kuldotha Forgemaster had been a Revoke Existence, not only would I have rested easier the whole day, I probably would have won my last match and made top 8.
The one card that my deck could neither race nor answer was Tempered Steel. It was a 3-drop bomb that I had no maindeck removal for and, even worse, I couldn’t even attack around it, because when it’s in play, my board is outmatched man-for-man. Of course, I see this card twice in my final match.
I have the Gaveleer attacking with the Lifestaff on T2. By the end of T3 my opponent is at 12 life, with a Gold Myr and Myr token on board. I have a Myrsmith out. I am feeling good. T4, I connect for more damage. On his turn, he drops Tempered Steel and a Glink Hawk. A Myrsmith and a Wurmcoil Engine follow soon after. Next game.
I had prepared a Green package, planning to swap in my Sylvok Replica and some other green guys for my White if I saw Tempered Steel. But… here it was — the end of the day, and my maindeck had taken me one match from the Top 8. I’d never played with the Green build, and it doesn’t exactly answer the Wurmcoil question anyway. The altar is no place to breakup with your girlfriend! I sideboard nothing.
Vindication. I swarm him with nerds. His Nim’s Deathmantle? My Scrapmelter. I win pretty quickly.
The Steel comes out. A bit later this time, but by then board has stalled. He has a Spikeshot Elder, but still only one Mountain. I’m generally short on lands. I have a Stag and the Sword in hand. He’s been beating with a pumped Glint Hawk Idol, life is low. I end up double-blocking it when I probably should’ve just taken the damage (leaving me at 2) and swung back with the Sword. As it was, I had to spend all my creatures to hold off his steroid horde. I lose with the Sword and the Forgemaster in hand. I probably misplayed this a little. But my opponent was nice, and I hope he did well in the draft. It was his first Top 8.
To keep my mind off the waiting, waiting, I play bridge.
Omar Sharif represented Egypt in the 1964 Olympics for the game of contract bridge, according to one of the more benign rumors circulating about him on the internet. The secular trinity of Google, Google Books, and Wikipedia are uncharacteristically useless in confirming or denying the story, but the fact is, it just can’t be true, because bridge isn’t an Olympic sport. Bridge players have tried for decades to make it one, and in the late 1990s, the Olympic Committee recognized as it as one of two “mind sports,” along with chess. But the committee, which apparently finds curling perfectly tolerable viewing, has yet to be persuaded that the bridge is, in any conceivable sense, watchable. After considerable digging, I was able to trace the source of the rumor to a 1966 story in the Washington Post, which reported that Omar Sharif had captained the United Arab Republic’s bridge team for the World Bridge Olympiad of 1964. So much for the legacy media: there was indeed something called the World Bridge Olympiad, held every four years between 1960 and 2004, but the United Arab Republic — the short-lived union of Egypt and Syria — ceased to exist in 1961.
Still, there is something apt about the bogus story. If anyone could have turned contract bridge into a spectator sport, it would have been the Omar Sharif of the swinging sixties. He was religiously devoted to the sport, occasionally refusing films if they interfered with his bridge-playing schedule. And he tried valiantly to bring attention to the game, even forming a barnstorming “Omar Sharif Bridge Circus,” a caravan of crack players who traveled the world playing tournaments and exhibition matches. Truly, there has never been a more beautiful, more glamorous bridge ambassador than Omar Sharif. The only way he might have given the Olympic Committee something to watch is if he had agreed to compete, like Olympians in the age of Pindar, naked.
I have no plans for tomorrow and I don’t have memories of yesterday. I live now.
The acting career of Omar Sharif, né Michael Demitri Chalhoub, is generally thought to have begun in 1953, with Youssef Chahine’s Sira`Fi al-Wadi (The Blazing Sun) in which Sharif starred opposite his future wife Faten Hamama. The truth is, it began several years earlier, when he was still a teenager enrolled at Cairo’s posh Anglophone Victoria College. He appeared as Mrs. Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer, a venerable eighteenth century comedy of manners, and delivered the play’s opening lines:
I vow, Mr. Hardcastle, you’re very particular. Is there a creature in the whole country, but ourselves, that does not take a trip to town now and then, to rub off the rust a little?
Gilbert de Botton, the future financial wizard and Montaigne scholar, played Mrs. Hardcastle’s stepdaughter Kate. This was a British boarding school, after all, and boys will be girls.
Sharif ’s 1977 memoir, The Eternal Male, contains no recollections of cross-dressing, in that production or any other. Its author does, however, recall “thrilling my classmates with lines I’d learned by heart with all the confidence and conviction of a born ham.” Among the thrilled was a smaller, shier “VC-Cairo” boy three years his junior, whose end-of-century memoir, Out of Place, we have to thank for the insight that that icon of virility who emerged from a desert mirage to enter collective fantasy had prepared for that and other priapic roles by playing an eccentric, ambitious, over-protective mother. The younger boy, Edward, had been bullied by Michael, and took as much pleasure in witnessing that performance as his older self did in recalling it.
Michael may have drawn on personal experience for the role of Mrs. Hardcastle. His own ambitious mother, a “kind of crazy woman,” he told Al-Jazeera in 2007, “who had decided when I was born that I was going to be the most handsome and most famous man in the world,” found to her horror that by age eleven he’d grown fat. “My son is ugly, I can’t stand it!” she said, and promptly switched him out of his French boarding school into an English one, reasoning that the worst food in the world was English. Within a year he was lean and handsome again. Had it not been for VC-Cairo, “I would have been a fat Levantine timber merchant like my father!” Instead he was an athlete, a budding actor, head prefect of a colonial boarding school, and Edward Said’s “chief tormentor.” It was the first of many transformations.
It is a taste I have for working out puzzles — cards, bridge, maths, it’s the same thing. Bridge like math is all about logic, but with bridge every two or three minutes, every time you deal the cards, you have a new puzzle.
His next big role was one he cast himself in. Born Catholic (later rumored to be Jewish), he converted to Islam, maintained his agnosticism, and rechristened himself Omar Sharif. He converted to marry a Muslim girl; the rechristening, too, mixed aspiration and practicality. “I thought to have a name that the Occidentals would have no trouble remembering,” he said:
The name Michael annoyed me. I tried to come up with something that sounded Middle Eastern and could still be spelled in every language. OMAR! Two syllables that had a good ring and reminded Americans of General Omar Bradley.
Next, I thought of combining Omar with the Arabic sherif [of noble ancestry] but I realized that this would evoke the word “sheriff,” which was a bit too cowboyish. So I opted for a variant.
Sharif had graduated from VC-Cairo and quickly became an Egyptian matinee idol; Said was kicked out for being a “troublemaker,” then sent by his parents to a Massachusetts boarding school, where he was “found to be morally wanting, as if there was something mysteriously not-quite-right about me.” In a few years’ time Sharif and Said found themselves at the heart of things in the antipodean capitals of the Jewish-American twentieth century, Hollywood and Manhattan, where they would reprise their practiced roles.
Said, whether with Arabs or Americans, would “always feel incomplete. Part of me can’t be expressed.” Sharif, by contrast, when “confronted with a civilization that differed greatly from mine… was very much at home. Human contact has always been easy for me.” Said lived almost half a century in the same city, at the same university, yet still felt an exile, always “reliving the narrative quandaries of my early years, my sense of doubt and of being out of place, of always feeling myself standing in the wrong corner, in a place that seemed to be slipping away from me just as I tried to define or describe it,” while Sharif was an exile in the Nabokovian mold, living in an archipelago of borrowed rooms and impersonal hotels, a vagabond aristocrat, always at home.
I live in the hotel Royal Monceau of Paris because the proprietor is a Syrian friend of mine who invited me and is enchanted that I am his guest… I believe he always gives me the same room and I do not know if it overlooks the patio or the street. I have never opened the curtains to see what there is outside. I have already seen all possible landscapes… In the room I do not have anything personal, only my Armani suits. I wear a few each year and then donate them to Father Pierre… In my room there is neither a book nor a photo. In Deauville, the same. And in Cairo I have a small apartment with some memories, the minimum. If they give an award to me, I accept it, I am grateful for it and I leave it in the hotel. I do not have a car, I do not have possessions.
Sharif and Said indeed might have been comic transnationalist doppelgängers in a Nabokov novel, or for that matter tragic ones in a Sebald novel. Actually, I think they are tragicomic transnationalist doppelgängers, of a sort, in a novel by Ahdaf Souief. Her 1999 Map of Love features two protagonists, both of whom are clearly modeled on different aspects of her great friend Said: one is Omar, a Jerusalem-born pianist and political activist based in New York City, who identifies as Palestinian, Egyptian, and American; the other is Sharif, Omar’s legendary great uncle, a charismatic intellectual who writes about the encounter between the Arab world and the West.
Sharif found a better plan, aware from the bidding that he was facing bad breaks. He won the first trick in the dummy and ran the club jack, losing to the king. He expected that if he lost to a singleton, West would have to do something helpful, and so it proved.
The sense of exile crystallized for both Sharif and Said in the summer of 1967. In Said’s case the catalyst was the lightning-fast Israeli defeat of the Arab armies. The annexation of Jerusalem, where he was born, and the occupation of what remained of Palestine, left him “for the first time… genuinely divided between the newly assertive pressures of my background and language and the complicated demands of a situation in the US that scanted, in fact despised, what I had to say about the quest for Palestinian justice.” Things were even more complicated for Sharif. As the Egyptian Air Force was being decimated on the tarmac, principle shooting had just begun for Funny Girl, which had Sharif playing Jewish con artist Nicky Arnstein and kissing Barbara Streisand, at that point an increasingly vocal Zionist. “Omar Kisses Barbra, Egypt Angry,” read the headlines. “Egypt angry!?” Streisand is reported to have sneered. “You should hear what my Aunt Sarah said!” Aunt Sarah’s outrage was in turn no match for that of General Nasser, who made clear that Sharif was no longer welcome in Egypt. He was not to visit until a decade later, after President Ford introduced him to Anwar Sadat, and Sadat convinced him to return.
I’m the only actor I know who is a nomad. I never belonged where I was working. I’ve worked in dozens of countries and then gone home to hotels.
Sharif ’s routine, in the hotels he has called home, in Paris, Cairo, and elsewhere, consists of rousing himself around noon, stretching out in a hot bath for hours, reading newspapers in several languages — “I speak many languages, but I don’t have a mother tongue. I don’t speak any language without an accent, even Arabic” — before heading down to the hotel bar for a cocktail, and to watch the horse races on television.
In his gambling days, he’d then take a trip to town, rub off the rust a little. He has lost enormous sums at various times. At such moments, he says he “felt nothing” — no repentance, no remorse or self-disgust. When he gambled away his Paris apartment one night, he got up in the morning, phoned his agent, and said, “Find me any trash. I need money.”
Sharif kept his bridge sessions separate from his high-stakes gambling. Bridge had a formal purity, uncontaminated by thought of gain, or motives about the future; its strategies were for their own sake. If a passion had to be sullied, let it be the cinema.
When you make movies, you wait two or three hours to do two or three minutes’ work… Boredom is always reflected in the face and picked up by the camera. I started to play in order not to be bored. I could have easily picked up a book on fishing. But bridge fascinated me. My interest in bridge is another form of destiny.
Sharif was first exposed to cards and gambling as a child, when his mother played with King Farouk, but he didn’t learn bridge until, at the age of twenty-two, he found himself stranded on a film set with a lot of down time and idled it away reading a book on bridge someone had left lying around.
Bridge is generally understood to be the most strategy-based of all card games. (For a dissenting view, see “Cerebral Eruption” by Christian Rudder on page 100.) A “mind sport” like chess, bridge is fundamentally different in that its design does not seek to eliminate the role of chance, but rather to proliferate the points of contact between strategy and contingency. Chess begins always with the same arrangement, and maintains transparency throughout: the only unknowable is the mind of the other player. Bridge by contrast begins in randomness, with each player knowing only his own cards, which he tries to signal to his partner and obscure from his opponents, until formal distribution clarifies, strategic possibilities narrow, and a narrative telos emerges.
In bridge, two teams of two players are arranged like points of the compass: North and South are paired, as are East and West. After the deal, the “auction” begins, with players taking turns “bidding,” that is, wagering how many tricks their team can win once play begins. The highest bid becomes the “contract,” and play begins, after which the “declaring” side is rewarded for fulfilling their contract, or penalized for falling short. There is a great deal of tacit, oblique communication between partners throughout, the success and subtlety of which depends not only on individual skill but on the strength of the partnership, the synchronization of instincts, intuitions, and styles of play.
Bridge has, moreover, an unusually elaborate, evocative, and hermetic vocabulary, much of it derived from the eighteenth-century heyday of bridge’s direct ancestor, whist: slam, ruff, slough, rubber, dummy, vulnerability, flag-flying, psychic bid, semi-psychic bid, cue bid, courtesy bid. Forte, fortissimo, pianissimo and other musical terms are sometimes used to describe the tenor of auction bidding. A player “finesses” by playing a series of low cards in a suit in order to draw out and drain his opponent’s high cards. A “huddle,” according to a 1930s writer who knew his Shakespeare, refers to “a session of sweet silent thought indulged in by a player either during the bidding or during the play.” As in: “East, a player of considerable experience, emerged from his prolonged huddle with the nine; thereupon, declarer rattled off nine tricks without giving a thought to the spade finesse.” That’s from “Defender Finds Self in Doghouse,” one of the four thousand, seven hundred, and eleven bridge columns Sharif wrote for the Tribune in the 1970s and ‘80s. Nowhere in those hundreds of thousands of words does he trade in celebrity schmaltz or anecdote. Nowhere does he do anything except talk about bridge strategies and scenarios, in the most rigorous possible way.
My life, until I found myself in that remote corner of Jordan, had been only a succession of landscapes, places where people and animals lived together. And there I was under that canopy riddled by little fireflies, subjected to the uniform desert, obeying its law, its magic. There were a thousand of us and yet I was alone, face to face with myself. My mind had been trained by my French studies in what is called Cartesianism, but in the desert my Islamic atavism surfaced.
Sharif, who named himself after an American military general and has described modulating and thickening his accent for the purposes of seduction, has always had a gift for seeing himself through Western eyes. His penetrating gaze, as the anthropologist Steven Caton has pointed out, is also an Orientalizing one, and never more so than when trained on his own reflection: he refers to his “Middle Eastern fatalism” and “laziness,” his “very Eastern, very melodramatic” emotions, to “the Arab’s character” being “forged among the dunes where he pitched his tent.”
“Islam!” he exclaims in The Eternal Male. “This Arabic word means ‘resignation’ and codifies, all by itself, the law of the desert.”
If Sharif ’s “Islamic atavism” surfaced in the sands of the Jordanian desert, Lawrence of Arabia’s director was there to reassert Cartesian rigor. “Arab film actors use lots of mime and grandiose gestures… David Lean curbed my Middle Eastern temperament mercilessly. ‘He who can do the most can do the least’, he told me,” and Sharif learned thereby to play his cards close to his chest, to be cryptic instead of operatic. Skills like that could be put to all manner of use: to radiate enigmatic absorption onscreen — is it contemplation, admiration, or desire playing across Ali’s face as he watches Lawrence ride off toward the horizon? — say, or to false-card a king such that West knows what you’re up to, but not North and South.
East would have put up the ace of hearts if Sharif had led a low heart from dummy, but the jack of hearts was a different story. East thought declarer was void of hearts, so he played low. Sharif won with the queen of hearts and looked at me sympathetically. He was about to win the rubber with a second slam.
With the help of Martin Sokolinsky, The Eternal Male’s Brooklyn-born translator, Sharif was recast yet again, this time not as the polished cosmopolitan, mandarin in manners and elusive in his ethnicity, but something altogether different and surprising: an American, born and bred. The narrative begins with Sharif — on the eve of Lawrence of Arabia’s American premiere — sharing a jail cell with Lenny Bruce and Peter O’Toole, and speaking an unmistakably American vernacular:
Obviously, I’d never have believed it. Get to Hollywood and spend your first night in jail — that isn’t exactly obvious. Especially when you haven’t done anything wrong. When you haven’t killed your father, pimped for your sister, or trafficked in narcotics…
This Sharif fits right into an American genealogy of bad-boy innocence and longing, which — along with what Mark Twain called his hero’s “sound heart and deformed conscience” — runs from Huck Finn to Fitzgerald and Hemingway’s heroes to Holden Caulfield (and beyond Sharif ’s time to a different Omar, the sound heart and deformed conscience of David Simon’s The Wire). A persona, in short, the polar opposite of European and Oriental old-world decadence, whether European or Oriental.
The Winnipeg bridge promoters met all of us at the airport and presented Omar with a beautiful (not to mention warm!) authentic buffalo coat to ward off the too-cold evil spirits. Omar was delighted by both the warmth of the coat and the warmth of the presentation. He proudly sported the coat all week — at least until we left the following Monday, when this same entourage relieved Omar of the coat, belatedly explaining that it was just a loan… Our final stop was Philadelphia. It was particularly noteworthy because of the history of Philadelphia bridge, the cradle of so many of our top bridge personalities. The city has produced such impressive superstars as B.J. Becker, Johnny Crawford, Bobby Goldman, Charlie Goren, Bobby Jordan, Norman Kay, Peter Bender, Arthur Robinson, Sidney Solidor, Helen Sobel, Charlie Solomon, and Sally Young…
If Ali the Arab and Dr. Zhivago brought Sharif into the bedroom of the American mind, it was the bridge player (and bridge columnist for the Chicago Tribune) who brought him into the middle-class salon, conferring on his ineradicable glamour something suburban and unthreatening. He wouldn’t sleep with your wife; the most he would do is take advantage of her being star-struck, so as to beat her all the more resoundingly. You could hand him an “authentic buffalo coat,” and he’d wear it! And then you could take it back. His languid eyes seem somehow avuncular when they gaze at us from the back of Bridge for Dummies, or from the packaging of Omar Sharif Bridge, a video game.
In bridge terms, free will appears to prevail over predestination all the time. Within the laws of the game, bidders can do whatever they like and opening leaders can choose whatever card they like. True? Not quite.
At a certain point Sharif ’s elaborate formal strategies for keeping the present uncontaminated by past and future began to falter, and he came to regret, of all things, his success. “Fate threw me into the diaspora, made me succeed in cinema and live outside my country.” If it weren’t for Lawrence of Arabia, he has said on several occasions, he might have remained in Egypt with his wife, he might have fathered ten children. He and Faten were happy for sixteen years; she returned to Egypt during the time he was effectively banished, because she missed the cinema. From then on he lived in hotels; there was never another real partnership, he says, only flings.
I dreamt about cards. I was driven by the competition. I was good at it and I wanted to be perfect. But… you can never achieve perfection. You get better, but because it is a game of partnership, there is no way you can get there. You need to perfect a system between you and your partner.
Relatively late in his life Edward Said decided that even if a Palestinian state were to come into existence, it would be “too late” for him to return there. “I’m past the point of uprooting myself again,” he said, and then added: “New York is the exilic city. You can be anything you want here, because you are always playacting; you never really belong.” He and his old tormentor would continue to mirror each other, even as their trajectories crossed paths and they reversed roles. By the late 1990s, Omar Sharif had begun to feel what Said had experienced as the defining condition of his existence from early adulthood on. “I felt I had lost my identity,” Sharif told a journalist. “I was a foreigner everywhere. When I came back to Cairo and saw childhood friends, it made me realize that I want to spend my last years here, I want an old man’s routine, to sit and chat about the past with people who remember.” He now resides in Cairo’s Semiramis Intercontinental, where, at the time of this writing, he is watching the revolution from his window and imploring Mubarak to read the writing on the wall. He has given up the game of bridge, saying that he’d grown tired of dreaming about his cards, and how he might have played them differently.
Italicized passages of this article incorporate material from The Eternal Male; published interviews with Omar Sharif; bridge columns by Alan Truscott, Charles Goren, and Sharif; and The Lone Wolff: Autobiography of a Bridge Maverick, by Bobby Wolff.
From 1892 to 1946, India’s premier cricket tournament was fought on the pitch by a pantheon of adversaries: the British, the Hindoos, the Parsees of the Zoroastrian Cricket Club, the Muslims of the Mohammedan Gymkhana, and, as of 1937, a team called “The Rest,” made up of Buddhists, Jews, and Indian Christians. (The Rest never won a match.) The Bombay Pentangular, as it was finally known, was abolished in 1946, condemned for its forthright communalism. And yet, like most things in India, the Pentangular has undergone an unlikely reincarnation. This year, India’s regional film industries — the lissome fivesome of Bollywood, Mollywood, Tollywood, Kollywood, and Sandalwood — will slug it out in the inaugural season of the Celebrity Cricket League. In this latest phase of the ongoing metastasis of a stodgy sixteenth-century British gentlemen’s game into mega-Asian sportainment, the league hopes to cater to (and cash in on) the hundreds of millions of Indians for whom cricket and cinema are two faces of the same god.
The Victorians thought that the edifice of civilization could be built on the values of cricket alone. The edifice of cricket, in turn, is built on the Test match. Thirty-three hours of play, stretched out over five days, Test cricket is an exercise in humility. Excellence at cricket requires self-denying stoicism, sportsmanship, and a continual refinement of one’s relationship to the Laws of Cricket — an actual document, safeguarded by the Marylebone Cricket Club at Lord’s Ground in London. A cross between baseball and a garden party, the luxurious pace of the cricket match makes the character of the player nearly as important as his athleticism, requiring precise psychological evaluations of opponents’ strengths and weaknesses on the field. Players are obliged to halt the match for lunch or even tea with enemy cricketers and the umpire, no matter how nail-bitingly tense the game. It is a sanctified lull, not unlike the evening recess in the epic battles chronicled in the Mahabharata — a recurring trope of Bollywood films — during which mortal enemies chat pleasantly, discoursing on this and that, until it’s time to rest for the morning’s war.
Even before it arrived in India, cricket was in many ways a Brahmin game: its insistence on order, its immaculate uniforms, the channeling of aggression into ritual. Soon enough, cricket stood for life itself, and for the expectation that justice, if not glory, might be obtained by following the rules. (“It’s not cricket” became a kind of general-purpose complaint against unfairness.) Cricket is an Indian game accidentally discovered by the English, the essayist Ashis Nandy once wrote. As it spread across the subcontinent in the nineteenth century, the game was considered part of the Raj’s civilizing mission, spreading English values with every wicket. But at the high noon of the Empire, British rule was judged according to the ethos of the Laws of Cricket, and found wanting.
In recent years, cricket has met a thoroughly Indian fate: recast as a kind of live-action Bollywood movie, full of crime and money, sacrifice and betrayal, beautiful women, and song-and-dance routines. In 2008, the Indian Premiere League (IPL) made its billion-dollar debut. The IPL plays Twenty20 cricket, based on a new set of rules developed in the UK in 2003 and quickly embraced by Indians in all its brutish glory. Twenty20 has been called “cricket on crack”: in a T20 match, each side has a single inning at bat, and bats for a maximum of twenty overs. (In a Test match, each side bats two innings, and a player bats until he is out; a good team on a good day might bat until sundown.) There is no time for psychology in a T20 match — every swing is precious, and by necessity, batsmen are solely concerned with scoring runs, and fast. The whole thing is over in three hours (coincidentally, the length of a typical Bollywood film). There are even cheerleaders, jiggling their praises as the runs pile up. For the IPL debut, the Bangalore Royal Challengers reverse-outsourced eleven Washington Redskins cheerleaders to sing pompom’d praise songs at M. Chinnaswamy Stadium and help train the first generation of, dare we say, Bangalore Brownskins. The IPL was an immediate hit, and last year, 134 million televisions tuned in to watch the 2010 finals.
The Bollywood connection isn’t just an analogy. Many cricket franchises are owned by film stars, including Preity Zinta, the actress and owner of the Kings XI Punjab, and Shilpa Shetty, who has a stake in the Rajasthan Royals. There are actor-cricketers like Salman Khan, “icon player” on the Mumbai Heroes, the Celebrity League club owned by his brother Sohail. There are cricketers who date actresses, like M. S. Dhoni. There are cricketers who’ve gone on to become actors, like Kapil Dev, whose films include the 2005 cricketsroman Iqbal. The audience is part of the merry-go-round, too. The IPL hosts an annual Miss IPL Bollywood beauty pageant, where contestants are fans who have been selected from the crowds at the cricket stadium. The grand prize: a starring role in a Hindi film with Shah Rukh Khan, the most famous movie star on the planet.
You might think that the market would be flooded with films about cricket, yet most cricket films wash out at the box office. The exception is Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India, Ashutosh Gowariker’s 2001 epic, in which a ramshackle team of Kutch villagers who’ve never played the game are pitted against their colonial overlords in a cricket match that will either relieve the village of its oppressive tax (lagaan) debt… or, you know, not. Lagaan has a happy Bollywood ending: the villagers win; a sudden rainstorm ends a long drought; Captain Russell, the arrogant colonial governor, is humbled, and as punishment, gets transferred to the worst place imaginable: central Africa. Part of Lagaan’s appeal lies in the unruly maneuvers invented by the newly minted cricketers from the village, especially the gnarly fortune-teller Guran, who astonishes the British players (and the Indian audience) with his bizarre, wide-batting stances and uncouth swings. In one startling play, he breaks the momentum of a bowl with a light swing and then swings again, whacking the ball past the boundary. Lagaan obsessives are convinced that the iconic film has actually changed the way the game is played on the pitch. In 2010, the Australian “kangaroo cricketer” Doug Bollinger thrilled audiences with an epic two-part catch during his IPL debut with the Chennai Super Kings. Hustling to the edge of the boundary, Bollinger caught the ball and then started to fall back over the line, at which point he tossed the ball up, found his balance, and leaped back inside the line to complete the catch. It earned him an award for the best catch of the match, but some spectators were quick to point out that it was identical to a play from Lagaan.
Part of Lagaan’s genius, it emerged, is that most of the actors in the film were actually hapless when it came to playing the game. Apoorva Lakhia, the assistant director, recalls that most of them didn’t know how to hold the bat. “It was great fun watching the Indian actors trying to play cricket,” he told me, “and shocking that in India there were so many adults in one place who had no clue on the game which is a religion in this part of the world.”
Lakhia is himself a cricket devotee. He is also an all-around cricketer — both batsman and bowler, as they say — with several tattoos coiling up his arms, including one of the goddess Kali with the face of the American model Christy Turlington. Lakhia, a writer–director whose credits include Ek Ajnabee, a 2005 Hindi remake of the Denzel Washington vehicle Man on Fire and an original gangster film, 2007’s Shootout at Lokhandwala, plays for the Mumbai Heroes in the Celebrity League. He’s also a mainstay on the International Indian Film Academy team, which represents Bollywood abroad. Of course, he plays Twenty20. “IPL and Twenty20 is like fast food,” he says. “It’s the game of today. It’s fun for the kids, the women love it, it gets over fast, there is always a result.” (Test matches might end in a draw.) “Everything about cricket is good, you get to wear white clothes.” But Lakhia nevertheless admits that he admires Test cricket more. “You have to be a fantastic player to last out for five days,” Lakhia says. “As long as it has something to do with cricket, no one is really going to mind, but the comparisons cannot be made with the two. You can be an average player to get through twenty overs but you have to be a king to play Test cricket.”
If Test cricket’s timelessness once served as a kind of relief from modernity, Twenty20 has become a phantasmagoric affirmation of the culture of consumerism. Over the course of a single IPL match, as many as ninety brands are advertised, their logos pasted onto everything from the boundary to the wicket to the cheerleaders. Sportsmanship, the bleeding heart of cricket, is just another form of public relations: players are chosen for their charisma and marketability rather than their athletic skill. It’s a huge business, with players trading for as much as $4 million in the annual auctions, which, naturally, are broadcast live on TV. As Lakhia says, “India is booming right now. The rates paid to cricketers and actors are at par with the West.” The boom has changed the nature of the game irrevocably, and not just on the subcontinent. In 2005, the sport’s official governing body, the International Cricket Council, relocated from its ancestral home in London to Dubai, nearer to the seat of cricket’s new empire.
The rise of the IPL is often decried as a disaster for the game. Certainly, it has been good for business, including that Mumbai specialty, gangsterdom. The IPL has featured no end of intrigue: match fixing, rigged player auctions, spectator violence, shadowy underworld connections. Lalit Modi, the billionaire founder of the IPL, was suspended from his own organization on twenty-two counts of corruption charges. (India’s case against Modi, which occasioned a staggering 15,000-page legal brief from the defense, is still pending.) Last year, Shashi Tharoor — the charismatic Indian State Minister for External Affairs with a flair for Twitter — was forced to resign amid allegations that he had arranged for his Dubai mistress to receive a free stake of $13.2 million in the new Kochi IPL team. This is all a far cry from the 1830s, when young Bombay Parsees learned sportsmanship and fair play whilst improvising matches with hats for wickets and umbrellas for bats. Recalling the quiet thwack of leather against willow, Indian historian Rudrangshu Mukherjee laments, “I came to associate cricket in my own boyish and starry-eyed way with all that was good, noble, and worthwhile. Today the game is spoilt, and spoilt rotten. The days of innocence have been gobbled up by sponsors and Sodom.”
This is true, as far as it goes. It is equally true of India itself, in the nearly two decades since liberalization. But if many of cricket’s new kingpins are less than savory businessmen (and women), it’s hard to hate the man who has come to represent the new India to itself, and who has gladly hitched his stardom to the IPL (and vice versa): Shah Rukh Khan, the god of heartthrob. “King Khan,” as he is known, has acted in over eighty films, counts 3.5 billion fans in his official fan club, and has won every film award save Best Actress. Of Peshawari descent, the great Muslim flirt wisecracks, dances contagiously, gets the girl in the end, and makes the audience weep, whether he’s playing a high school slacker, a women’s field hockey coach, or the Emperor Ashoka. As a global brand ambassador, SRK has endorsed everything from Hyundai to Sunfeast Dream Cream Biscuits, and claims to hold the world record for “hero who has sold the most products.” Yet Khan often acts for free in films made by younger directors, as well as in artistically ambitious (and commercially weak) films. He has his sponsors and his Sodom — tabloids recently berated him for refusing to comment on an ambiguous photo of him kissing another man — but SRK firmly embraces family values. The son of an Indian freedom fighter, Khan married a Hindu — and has stayed married — siring two children who’ve been raised with both Hindu and Muslim faiths.
King Khan’s sovereignty also extends to the cricket stadium. Red Chillies Entertainment, his production company, owns an IPL team, the Kolkata Knight Riders. Befitting SRK’s public persona, his team features Muslim players as well as Hindus; indeed, the Knight Riders have included a number of cricketers from Pakistan. The employment of Pakistani cricketers became controversial after a series of scandals involving rigged matches, steroid use, the murder of Pakistan’s head cricket coach — and especially after the 26/11 terrorist attacks on Mumbai in late 2008. In 2009 the IPL announced that Pakistani players would be barred from its annual auction. Though effigies of Lalit Modi burn in the streets of Lahore, few in India voiced dissent — save Shah Rukh Khan. The militant Hindu group VHP called for the boycott of Khan’s feel-good movie about an autistic Muslim, My Name Is Khan, forcing cinema halls in Mumbai to station thousands of police in riot gear outside the theaters. As the King wrote to his Knights in a passionate text message leaked to the press, “Right now, all of us have become part of a failed script. A bad IPL script.”
“Flannelled fools at the wicket,” thundered Rudyard Kipling in a 1902 poem condemning a British Empire made languid by sports and entertainment. He imagines a world in which men prepared for war, “As it were almost cricket — as it were even your play / Weighed and pondered and worshipped, and practiced day and day.” After the sun set on the Raj, the dark lord descended in the form of a Bollywood avatar, and the age of the Cricket Yuga is upon us. (It has the face of Christy Turlington.) In this apocryphal stage of the innings, darkness bounces off the Royal Challenger’s White Mischief Gals, and time itself moves in three-hour bursts. Yet in cricket’s sanctified lulls, integrity and sportsmanship are still revered. When Shah Rukh Khan announced that he would dance naked to his song “Dard-e-disco” in the event his Knight Riders won the 2010 IPL championship, he was accused of giving his team an unfair advantage. It’s a cricket world, and all of us, gods and men, want to see Shah Rukh naked in it.
Last week we showed you some controversial images from Saadat Shahr Stadium in Fars province, near Shiraz. Let’s take a look at it again and then we will present further discussions.
Saadat Shahr Stadium is known to host Premier League games. Here is the stadium and, as you can see, cows and sheep are grazing on the pitch. We asked Mr. Ayatollahi, head of the Fars Football Association, what is going on.
Sorry, I don’t understand what Mr. Ferdosipour’s intention is by showing these images. If the implication is that the sheep are destroying the grass, I have to say that according to Mr. Hajipour, using sheep instead of lawn mowers, in addition to reducing fuel consumption, prevents frost in the cold season. He also mentioned that their fertilizers are good for the growth of the grass and their urine reinforces the grass roots.
We have used this very grass for Premier League games, for league one and league two games, and also provincial games, alhamdulillah, and all of the organizers and players are satisfied with the field. In fact, I saw on Iranian TV that one of the European countries has recently come to this same conclusion — that using sheep to cut the grass of sports complexes is very useful.
Narrator: But the question remains: What are the effects of sheep manure and urine on the players’ health?
Adel Ferdosipour: I still haven’t managed to wrap my head around this. OK, we now have Mr. Hajipour, the director of sports in Pasargad, on the line. Mr. Hajipour, hello and good evening.
Mr. Hajipour: Hello, at your service, Mr. Ferdosipour.
AF: Mr. Hajipour, you mentioned that in Denmark, I think, they use this same method. Do you have any evidence for that? Also, could you please turn down your television, if possible?
Mr. H.: I am on the way home, sorry.
AF: So can you explain?
Mr. H.: Mr. Ferdosipour, first, I have a complaint about you and what you broadcast, which — I did not see it last Thursday, but our friends in Saadat Shahr were all very disappointed and sad.
AF: But what does this have to do with the dear and honorable people of Saadat Shahr? This is something that happened on a football field. They’re two separate issues.
Mr. H.: Because the people of Saadat Shahr play a key role here — as in all sports matters, they are with us and help us and have built this beautiful stadium. But I have to say first of all that there were absolutely no cows. I don’t know from what angle our friend has taken this photograph, but there are no cows in Saadat Shahr. Sheep we have, and they go onto the field when the pitch is resting. And we have had great results.
AF: Mr. Hajipour, even just imagining such a thing happening in a football stadium — let’s say here in our own Azadi Stadium — is a disaster!
Mr. H.: Do you mean sheep fertilizer?
AF: No, just the mere presence of cows and sheep on the football field.
Mr. H.: Mr. Ferdosipour, we have had this grass pitch for fifteen years. The effective age of a grass pitch is seven years. We have had this for fifteen years and each year it looks as if it’s new. You should come to Saadat Shahr — there are experts who should come and examine our pitch closely, and see if what we have done is good or bad.
AF: We go now to Dr. Kafi, a professor of landscape architecture at Tehran University. Mr Dr. Kafi, can you hear me?
Mr. Dr. Kafi: Hello, Mr Ferdosipour and all sports lovers.
AF: Mr. Dr. Kafi, do you approve of taking sheep onto the grass pitch for, let’s say, a scientific study?
Mr. Dr. K.: No, Mr. Ferdosipour, this is in no way acceptable. Let me explain, briefly. Our goal in maintaining the grass is not just to create a green surface. Our aim is to have a healthy surface. It’s not just a question of whether sheep so-called fertilizer or urine will make the grass grow. There are concerns about, for example, the flexibility of the surface, so as to avoid pressuring the players’ joints. And there is the issue of hygiene. When animal manure is used as fertilizer, the first problem is that it brings in the seeds of weeds and other bad grasses and spreads them around on the field. But on the other hand, the players run on this field. Even if we imagine that the flock of sheep hadn’t been on the pitch for two months, that’s not enough time for the manure to completely disintegrate. And that manure is dirty and has parasites and is extremely dangerous for any player who falls on the pitch. Furthermore, inhaling the gases and the particles of the manure that are in the air is also dangerous. And another issue regarding the football pitch is the compression of the field from the players running around on it — this is a problem around the world and we use a special device to decompact the soil to let air and water…
AF: So you do not approve of this?
Mr. Dr. K.: Not at all.
AF: Thank you, Mr. Kafi. Now let’s look at some images that were sent to our website, www.90tv.ir. These were sent by a friend of ours; Masoud Babayi from Esfehan has sent them — again, a flock of sheep grazing on a football field. This is in Fars-Yasouj Road. And let’s clear this up: Are these sheep or cows? It looks like they are mostly sheep but in the back there are some cows? Are these sheep or cows, Mr. Hajipour?
Mr. H.: Well, you tell me, Mr. Ferdosipour. You are the expert, sir.
AF: Mr. Hajipour, this is extremely dangerous. I am so sorry, but if there is cow
and sheep excrement on the pitch it’s very bad…
Mr. H: Mr. Ferdosipour, I am sorry, but they cultivate the grass pitch with fertilizers to begin with.
AF: But this is too natural!
Mr. H.: First, I invite Mr. Kafi to our Saadat Shahr to see our pitch.
AF: Mr. Dr. Kafi was talking from a scientific point of view.
Mr. H.: What he says is true, but I want him to come and study the pitch closely. This is an experiment that we did. Also, when the season is over, after the sheep come and graze — only for a day, mind you — the day after we take the mowing machine and mow the grass and clear the fertilizer.
AF: But if you have the mowing machine why don’t you use that in the first place?!
Mr. H.: Mr. Ferdosipour, I invite you come to our pitch, too. Bring experts. This is a creative method and we have witnessed a miracle. Come, you have seen Premier League games on our pitch.
AF: There have been Premier League games on this pitch, yes. And now our friends have found more images. It’s like a fashion now, Mr. Hajipour.
Mr. H.: Maybe it’s a good experiment.
AF: Please don’t say that, Mr. Hajipour. From any point of view, scientific or otherwise — I mean, let’s say that I and all the people from all the other stadiums around the world don’t know what we’re talking about. But if you look at it scientifically…
Mr. H.: I agree, yes. And I agree with what Mr. Dr. said. When we started this experiment, about ten to fifteen years ago, we did not have a good mowing machine. But we tried this, and saw good results on the pitch, and that it was good for the grass. Also, we do it only once a year, not every day or every week.
AF: Okay, well — thank you Mr. Hajipour. We wish you success and good fortune.
Mr. H.: You are welcome, Mr. Ferdosipour.
AF: That was our exclusive report from Saadat Shahr. And now, the rest of the program.
In 1984, Madonna Louise Ciccone left a downtown Manhattan club without her leather wristbands. She’d swapped them for a test pressing of “We’re Rocking The Planet,” a 12-inch recorded by an eighteen-year-old from Upper Manhattan called Hashim. Despite what Madonna’s wrists might tell you, it was an even trade. One year earlier, Hashim had conquered the Danceteria club scene with “Al-Naafiysh,” an epic six-minute b-boy anthem that made kids spin smoking bald spots into their heads. New York stations like WKTU blew it up, while hip-hop DJs used its vocoded imprimatur, “It’s time,” as a scratch tool. (Disclosure: My high school basketball team ran onto the court to “Al-Naafiysh.”) “Al-Naafiysh” was an easily misunderstood hit, thanks to its Arabic air; more than once I heard it referred to as “the fish song.” We masses dancing and battling to its ominous synthesizers had no idea that the track was the work of a kid who’d ditched his Catholic upbringing and found himself through Islam.
Hashim, born Jerry Calliste Jr. got his start in the music biz by infiltrating (read: cleaning) the offices of indie hip-hop label Tommy Boy; he went on to cofound Cutting Records (later home to 2 in a Room, whose “Wiggle It” went gold). In the 1990s, he jumped out of the game and into Columbus, Ohio, where he runs his own management consulting firm, a technology company, a music video service, and probably something else he’s started up in the time it’s taken to write this sentence. (Vast swaths of information and social networking links can be found at his personal website, www.jerrycallistejr.com, including how to pronounce his last name.)
Meanwhile, “Al-Naafiysh” has appeared on approximately 1.5 million compilations, anthologies, videogames, and remix albums. Calliste claims that a new project, Hashim Electro-Tech, featuring an array of Silver- and Bronze-age hip-hop heroes, will see the light before the end of 2011 — especially now that he’s said so in print. Madonna’s wristbands remain in his custody.
Dave Tompkins: Five years ago I was in a studio with Aldo Marin, one of your partners at Cutting Records, and he showed me the original editing blocks, scuffed all to hell, that the Latin Rascals used back in the day. One thing about the music from that period is that a lot of releases sounded like they were recorded on dog-food budgets. But the recording quality of the Cutting releases was superior.
Hashim: A lot of that clarity came from Aldo’s ear. Aldo had a certain sound and he knew how to get it. And I brought a lot of the fun stuff. I was always in the clubs. You name any disco, I was down there. And I was mostly there to watch people, watch their reactions, see what songs had that thump. There were certain songs that, when they got played in the clubs, they did something to people. You could see it on the dance floor. You could feel it in your chest. That’s what I was trying to get.
You have to understand that I was always more of a businessman than an artist. The only reason I made “Al-Naafiysh” was so I could afford to buy business cards and stationary.
DT: Wait — what?
Hashim: I was going to start a management company. My original goal, back then, was to manage rappers.
DT: Stationary? The fifth element! That must be one fresh-ass set of business cards. So how did you meet Aldo Marin?
Hashim: Aldo and I knew each other from the neighborhood. We went to the same Catholic school, though he was two years ahead of me. And then by the time we were in high school, he’d established himself as a DJ and a mixer. He was on the radio, spinning for KTU. I was running around with a really hissy demo of the song, and I had various offers but Aldo was starting a label with his brother and he said if I brought in some other artists, I could have a third of the company. So I went with that.
DT: And “Al-Naafiysh” was the first release, right? People were baffled by the title.
Hashim: Always. Two years ago I was speaking with this Arab over in the UAE. He said, “What’s the title?” And I said, “‘Al-Naafiysh,’ it means the soul in Arabic.” He goes, “Brother, no disrespect, but the soul in Arabic is al-nafas. That might be Turkish or Hebrew or something else, but it’s not Arabic.” I said okay, that’s another thing I can add to the list. I made up a word. Made the music and made the word.
DT: And Hashim?
Hashim: Oh yeah, that was given to me by a mentor. It means decisive — at least, that was always my understanding of it. This was before I took my Shahada. I was sixteen.
DT: How did you get into Islam?
Hashim: I was introduced to Islam in high school. I ended up going to John F. Kennedy High School. I’d been at Catholic schools until then, and I actually got into Fordham, but my parents didn’t want to pay for it. I was coming into myself as a teenager — I mean I’d started DJing when I was twelve — and they had this vision of me going to Fordham Prep and acting out, wasting their money. So they said, “Why don’t you go the public school for a year or two and let’s see what happens.”
So I went to JFK, and pretty soon I was introduced to various people who were talking about Islam. I read a book called The Movement. It had that picture of African Americans being hung from the trees, you know, with all these Caucasians looking at them, smiling and everything, laughing. It’s a famous picture, but I’d never seen it before, and it made me want to find out more about the civil rights movement. I knew a lot already — my grandfather had a huge book collection, Countee Cullen, Nikki Giovanni, the autobiography of Martin Luther King. I’d read all that stuff growing up, but I found myself wanted to hear the rhetoric of some of the people out there in the streets.
And then I just knew that there was something other than Catholicism for me. Not that I was against it — it was more like I felt I was ready for more. Catholicism was like a stepping stone. That’s how I viewed religion back then. I was reading a lot of philosophical stuff then, too — The Finding of the Third Eye, Plato. I was really just in search of the truth, and that’s what led me to Islam.
DT: What did your parents think? I bet they wished they’d sent you to Fordham.
Hashim: The parents definitely didn’t approve. My mother said, “Well, just because you’re a Muslim now doesn’t mean I’m going to stop buying pork.” I remember that statement vividly. And she didn’t — there were nights I didn’t eat.
But the big turning point was the Christmas after I became a Muslim. I was supposed to get a turntable that year — my parents had told me I was going to get one. And then… nothing. They said, “Your grades aren’t good enough,” which came out of nowhere. My grades were fine, and I said so. And then they said, “If you’re a Muslim, then you don’t celebrate Christmas.” And I just looked at them. I could not believe they threw that in my face. And I just thought, fine then, if you’re not going to respect me as a Muslim, I’m going to take my Muslim self and get out of here. I grew up right there on the spot.
I left home when I was seventeen. “Al-Naafiysh” took off right away — I licensed it to somebody in France, somebody in the UK. I moved out a few weeks after it came out.
DT: “Al-Naafiysh” sounds so focused. Even hearing it back when it came out, it sounded like something else was going on.
Hashim: I really felt inspired. Honestly I felt like Allah was performing through me. I picked up the keyboard and just played by ear, so I must have been inspired by something. And for this song to reach so many millions of people around the world? That’s out of my hands.
But I had very specific ideas about what I wanted it to sound like. And I had to fight for it. Everybody wanted me to put a rap on it, because rap was popular. And they wanted the hook to be in English — they said it’d never get played on the radio, that no one would understand it, you know where it goes “naafiysh naafiysh naafiysh.”
DT: Disbanded through a vocoder, no less.
Hashim: Obviously, they were wrong.
DT: But then what about the B-side? The B-side opened with the words: “It’s time.” I knew a lot of people who thought that was the name of the song. I, uh, may have been one of those people. And DJs would scratch that phrase. I remember going to see the Fresh Festival in North Carolina. I was obsessed with people cutting “It’s time” to pieces. I just wanted to hear “time, time, time, time” going back and forth. [Laughs] Remember Grandmaster Dee, Whodini’s DJ? They used to hold him up by his ankles and he’d scratch with his mouth on “It’s time.”
Hashim: I never saw him scratch that up! It’s funny. You know I did that part last. We put “It’s time” on the B-side and “Just feel it” on the A-side, deliberately, for people to scratch.
DT: I think I got the song for the first time when I bought that Street Sounds Electro 2 comp. You were keeping good company on there — The B Boys, Rammellzee. “White Lines” was on there.
Hashim: You know, “Al-Naafiysh” has been licensed eighty times for “best of” and “definitive” and “classic” compilations.
DT: No doubt. I guess I was just wondering whether you were going to any of those electro parties in the Bronx back when you were at Catholic school? Was there anything in particular that informed your musical outlook?
Hashim: I used to like “Moody” by ESG a lot. “Al-Naafiysh” almost ended up on 99 Records, their label, actually. Ed from 99 introduced me to Rick Rubin, who was going to NYU at the time. Actually, I remember Rick came up to my house one time and he brought one of the Beastie Boys with him, back when they were still a punk band. I think it was Adam.
DT: The squeaky kid? That was Adam Horowitz.
Hashim: So they came up to the projects in north Manhattan, you know, and my mom had all this food and everything, and they didn’t want to eat it. And I was like, “Come on.” [Laughs] And Adam didn’t want to touch it. And finally I got him to taste it, and then he would not be stopped. He kept asking for more turkey legs, and my mom thought it was funny, too. But Rick and I were going in different directions. He was doing like 102, 100, 98 beats per minute, and I was doing 126, 127, 130, even 132 bpm. We were on opposite ends of the spectrum.
Anyway, you were asking about what I was listening to. Back then we used to get mixtapes — we called them outside jam tapes. My favorite was Charlie Chase from the Cold Crush Brothers and Whipper Whip and Dota Rock… Grand Wizard Theodore & the Fantastic Five. Actually, before Hashim I called myself Wiz Kid and I used to go to Downstairs Records, this tiny little hole-in-the-wall, where you could get all the hip-hop beats. You’d bring in one of those outside jam tapes and play it and the guy’d be like, “Oh yeah, I can get you that.”
The thing is, it came to my attention through those outside jam tapes that there was another Whiz Kid out there, who was down with Kool Herc. So then one day, there I was in Downstairs Records, wearing a Wiz Kid T-shirt. And the guy was like, “Are you Whiz Kid?” And I was like, “Yeah, what’s up, yo?” And he’s like “Are you the Whiz Kid?” And I was trying to play it off, and the guy says, “So what kind of equipment you have?” And I started stuttering, I said, “I have a s-s-s-s-system.” I couldn’t even say what it was because I had nothin’. I just stood there stuttering. And he says, “You ain’t no Whiz Kid.” But then he asked if I wanted to meet the real Whiz, up in the Bronx where Herc had his store. And we set it up — one day he showed up and we talked and he was like, “Well alright, Wiz Kid, I’ll take you back to my house and battle you right now.” And I’m like, “Okay, let’s go!” [Laughs] So he got on the turntables and started scratching and… I don’t think I even got on. I was like, “Okay, you won.” I just threw in the towel. Because he was just this ultimate scratcher.
DT: His work on that Imperial Brothers 12", “We Dub to Scratch,” is insane.
Hashim: So I just conceded. But we became good friends. And Whiz Kid, peace be upon him — he passed away at a young age, he was in his twenties — played a big role in the birth of “Al-Naafiysh.” Remember I’d never had any musical training, I never had a piano lesson or anything. But Whiz was playing a little Casio keyboard. So I’d borrow a friend’s Casio to battle Whiz Kid. We’d be listening to the radio and we would sit there looking at each other and go, “That one? Okay, go!” And as the record was playing it was a matter of who could figure out the notes faster than the other. So he and I would battle each other on that, and it turned out that he beat me at the DJing but he couldn’t get me on the keys. [Laughs] Of course when I was back home I’d listen to the radio and learn the songs in advance, so I would win every time… but he was doing the same thing. And of course we’d get a note or two wrong or whatever, but we got most of the songs correct, just by hearing it. And that’s how I learned to play the keyboard. I started coming up with these different licks on the Casio, which led to the melody on “Al-Naafiysh.” It was the same with beats actually — Whiz Kid was always creating these hot beats. But I learned how to make beats from hanging around with him.
DT: Whiz Kid did “Play That Beat Mr DJ” with G.LO.B.E. (with the fingernails painted with the Tommy Boy logo on the cover). Is that how you got the connect?
Hashim: You know, Whiz started out at Tommy Boy cleaning the office two days a week. And he was about to do a deal with them to start producing records, and he was getting ready to leave his job as, uh, janitor [laughs]. And he was like, “I’m going to get you in, but you gotta do something for us. I need this graffiti artwork done.” They needed banners for, I think it was Soul Sonic Force and the Jonzun Crew. Whatever it was, I did those banners — I spray painted bed sheets because I couldn’t find any other material — and that was my introduction to Monica Lynch. And then Whiz was like, “Hey man, I got you a job at Tommy Boy!” And I was like, “Great.” And he said, “You’re gonna clean the office!” And I said, “I’m not cleaning that office, are you kidding me? I’m too smart to be cleaning offices.” And he was like, “Exactly!”
Hashim: “I want you in that office so I can have somebody there on the inside. I want you to keep track of what’s happening for me and you’ll learn how to run a record label at the same time.” And I thought, you know, that’s not a bad idea. And so I ended up going in there two days a week, and I’d watch Monica work the phones. It was a pretty small office — there were maybe four employees. And then on occasion Monica would ask me to take some records down to the clubs, where I was introduced to a lot of people — club DJs and managers. Remember I was like fifteen, sixteen at this point — technically I shouldn’t have been in there, but, you know, I had the Tommy Boy T-shirt and the records in my hand and Monica would call to put me on the guest list. And it got to a point where I would call and get myself on the guest list, and I just kept going. But that was a big part of my job at Cutting Records, you know, hitting the pavement, getting the records out, see what people were responding to.
DT: Which clubs?
Hashim: My main party was Danceteria. First it was the Roxy for a while, then it was Danceteria. But I was everywhere — the FunHouse, the Tunnel, Limelight. It was a funny scene. You know Robert Downey Jr. used to work at Area, way down near Canal St. And there was a guy who always used to give me a hard time, like a majority of the time, this bouncer named Mark Vincent. I would be on the list, plus whatever, and he’d be having a fit with me. And years later I’m at the movies and — that’s Vin Diesel. I was like, “Oh my goodness, that’s the guy from the clubs!”
Hashim: I mean, he used to break-dance back in the day. He knew the music. Maybe he was mad ’cause he was stuck bouncing at the door while I was hanging out with the girls. This was about the time I was dating this girl Paula, who was a receptionist at Unique Studios. We lived near each other uptown. And one day Steve Peck, the engineer at Unique, came up to me and was like, “Hey man, I see you getting all cozy with Paula, that’s cool. She’s Paula Ciccone.” And I was like, “Yeah, and I’m Jerry Calliste Junior! What’s your point?” I had no idea who she was. And then eventually it came out, and I was like, “Hey, why didn’t you tell me you were Madonna’s sister?”
DT: That’s great.
Hashim: This was after Madonna gave me the wristbands, by the way.
DT: You sort of moved away from the music business, literally and figuratively, when you left for Ohio in the nineties.
Hashim: Again, really, I’m a businessman first. These days I run a technology company, I also run a management consultancy. I’ve got two PhDs on my team — one in Vietnam, one in China. There’s another one in the works. So I’m not just hanging out, kicking it, smoking weed all day. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I don’t do any of that. I’m not just playing video games. That is not the life of a retired old-school electro hip-hop artist on this side of the fence. So you could put that in the interview!
DT: Last question: Are you Nitro Deluxe?
Hashim: A lot of fans have written in thinking that I’m Nitro Deluxe. They hear “Get Brutal” and think that I had something to do with it. I did not. Nitro Deluxe is a nice guy from Philly, legally blind, big Hashim fan. One day he came into the office with his keyboard literally under his arm and played us his stuff, and we liked it. We put out some records with him on Cutting. But I am here today to tell you that I am not Nitro Deluxe.
The Olympic Committee of Malaysia Sports Museum and Hall of Fame lies behind an unmarked door in the Olympic Committee’s administrative offices, part of a vast complex that includes a multipurpose indoor-sports facility, a banquet hall, and a hotel for visiting guests. I made my first visit on a characteristically moist Saturday afternoon, the better to see the place in action, only to be informed by a slightly amused OCM staffer that the museum was not open on weekends. This gentleman did not seem particularly inclined to encourage me to return at a later date, either. Personally, he said, he found the whole business of awarding pins, medals, and plaques a frivolity.
The Hall of Fame is a national sports museum for a nation that is not particularly interested in sports. When I returned on a weekday, the receptionist professed ignorance of the Sports Museum’s very existence. But soon I was talking to Jaffar Abu, the OCM’s Director of Social Functions, who confirmed that there was indeed such a place, and that he would show it to me, if I really wanted to see it. He led me deep into the complex, to an unmarked door sealed with chains and a padlock, and rifled around for the keys. Inside at last, he turned on the lights to reveal a spacious, egg-shaped hall, brimming with stuff, including mountains of boxes full of yet more stuff. Abu immediately apologized for the boxes, and for the air conditioning, which did not appear to be working.
The Sports Museum and Hall of Fame, it turns out, is an eccentric archive of photographs, biographies of beloved players, and glass cases extending in all directions, showcasing a dizzying array of memorabilia, from ornate batons to laptop bags to decorative plates from Belarus and Thailand and Samoa, along with stuffed animals from dozens of countries: elephants, snow leopards, camels, roosters. The vitrines, loosely organized in order of prestige — South East Asian Games, Asian Games, Commonwealth Games, Olympics — seemed to incorporate every type of commemorative object imaginable. Holographic trading cards flickered alongside collectible pins of ducks enjoying archery, diving, and football at the 1994 Asian Games in Hiroshima. The 1998 Commonwealth Games were held in Kuala Lampur — the first time that venerable (some might say, undead) competition was held in Asia — and its display case is a thicket of mugs and neckties and patches, among many other items. The Malaysian national mascot — a monkey, naturally — makes multiple appearances, including a starring role as kind of latter-day King Kong, amid a 3-D diorama of Kuala Lumpur’s skyline, painted in impressionistic, dreamy pastels.
Abu is also responsible for the OCM library, which houses its archive and a selection of books with titles like Badminton: a Malaysian Chapter and The Basic Skills of Badminton. He is a sober, soft-spoken man, but in his charmingly understated manner he addressed his frustration at the status of athletes in Malaysia. Sports in Malaysia are considered more along the lines of games — hobbies, if you will. Academic, technical, and artistic pursuits are valued much higher than athletic prowess, and neither the government nor the schools do much to encourage young people to consider sports as a profession. Would-be athletes are forced to work with private tutors and clubs, an expensive luxury for most families. (Abu, a top tennis instructor in his day, got his start fetching balls on the tennis court in exchange for lessons.) He speaks wistfully of nations where athletic ability is so prized that students are actually awarded scholarships.
Still, there is something cheering about a museum that celebrates the contributions of athletes who might elsewhere be neglected, including famous names like Zaiton Othman, a heptathlete and Malaysia’s “Iron Lady of Athletics,” or the badminton brothers, Razif and Jalani Sidek, winners of the country’s first Olympic gold in 1992, but also the nearly anonymous — the promising thirteen-year-old swimmer, the long-suffering squash coach. Amid the plush lambs and the tracksuits, this museum-in-waiting lies dreaming of a public that will one day rally to its displays and validate the work of the small yet devoted community of former athletes, coaches, and fans that staff the OCM.
The Hall of Fame’s muted longing for affirmation, oddly enough, is shared by the country that neglects it. Malaysia has a booming economy, a highly diverse population, an impressively spiny skyline, and a largely successful policy and practice of tolerance. A majority Muslim country, it might be said to have found an enviable balance between tradition and modernity. Yet it is reputation lags far behind its accomplishments, eclipsed by a whole pack of Asian Tigers, especially China.
There’s still hope for the OCM. In a city that feels sometimes like an overgrown theme park with heart — an innocent, gambling-free Las Vegas of water slides, bowling alleys, world-class spas, rugged ecotourism, seedy karaoke bars, and a mind-boggling number of restaurants, where the Police Museum, the Orchid Park, and the petroleum-themed rides at the Petrosains Discovery Center receive more than their fair share of visitors, why shouldn’t there be room for The Little Hall of Fame That Could? I ruminate on the future of this place and its stewards as I take my leave, ushered out by the sound of two OCM employees gossiping loudly in Malay while unpacking commemorative T-shirts from the cardboard boxes that have come to feel like a valid part of the exhibition in their own right.
The road to perdition is paved with chocolate. “If I wasn’t a boxer, I would probably be a fat boy,” Sadam Ali tells me. When most non-fat celebrities say that sort of thing, you can almost taste the false modesty. Not Ali: “One of my cousins is like four hundred, five hundred pounds. He’s big.” I came to the Sadam Ali Boxing Gym in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, a building whose outside looks like a pachinko parlor and inside like a trophy room, to ask the Yemeni-American boxer about food. Or, rather, about his mother’s cooking.
Do you like saltah? Does she make you fatut?
“I love my mother’s food, but it’s always there. I prefer to go out.” He sounds bored and resigned. Ali was the first-ever Arab American to represent the United States at the Olympics. He’s scored two Golden Glove championships and holds an undefeated 11–0 (6 KO) record. This interview has got to be a little dull, if not totally demeaning.
I prod him for more details of his boxer’s diet and all he says is “chicken and fish.” It turns out that Red Bull and other energy drinks are legal before fights, but Sadam’s father and manager, David Ali, doesn’t look kindly on stimulants. Ali Sr. is down on snake oils, whether herbal, chemical, or other. He doesn’t believe in specialist diets. Despite the fact that Ali the younger runs six miles a day, six days a week, on top of hours and hours of bag and footwork, he seems to possess none of the perverse, all-consuming interest in vitamins and supplements so common among his peers (and boxing aficionados). He grudgingly eats his protein bars and has his tales of epic post-workout shakes. “This big,” he says, making a space between his hands with room for 2.5 Gutenberg Bibles. “It was worse than the workout.”
On the walls of the gym, several flat-screen TVs are looping his ESPN2 fight against Julias Edmonds — the boxing equivalent of Fred Astaire dancing at a high school prom. It lasts two-and-a-half rounds — some seven minutes of Ali swerving around the ring, scoring precise hooks and uppercuts — before the referee pulls a pulped Edmonds aside and stops the fight. Ali lights up momentarily when we talk shop, his versatility both in fighting inside (that is, inches from the face of one’s opponent) or out. Like another welterweight, Manny Pacquiao, Ali’s trademark isn’t some particular strategy or style; it’s the fact that he doesn’t really need one.
I’m still asking him about food. Where do they go for takeout? What about all these mom-and-pop Yemeni joints all over the neighborhood? His father starts talking about the fish spot across the street — the shrimp, the salad, the pita. Ali’s eyes glaze. “Hold on, let me handle this,” he finally interjects, throwing a finger toward the door of the gym. “There’s a Chinese food place right there — ”
“You know he always say that, ’cause he can’t have that stuff.”
“I love Chinese food. He’s trying to ban me from Chinese food.”
“No Chinese food!”
Sadam isn’t finished. “You know, I have my own menu of Chinese food. You know sesame chicken, right? I love sesame chicken. But instead of the sesame sauce, I tell ’em to put on barbecue sauce. They have the best barbecue sauce by my house and so I get barbecue sesame chicken.” It’s safe to say the elder Ali has been looking on this shift in the conversation with total, if loving, disapproval. “See baba — he likes Chinese food, too!
“That’s the best place.” The facade is crumbling. From there, talk moves fluidly to double cheeseburgers, which he takes without dressing or condiment, and the cookies ’n’ cream milkshakes he’ll have after fights. Ali is a late riser — he gets to the gym around 3 or 4pm. I ask him about his favorite late-night TV shows (Jersey Shore, Bad Girls Club) and midnight snacks. “You’re gonna kill me for this,” he says, looking over at his father. “I can’t say this.” He laughs, bows his head. “But, uh, Oreos with some milk… Double Stuf.”
“I’m going home tonight and if I see any of this, you ain’t fightin’ no more.”
Slightly defeated, father Ali gets up and walks into a back room, presumably to fish out some boxing gear for one of the ten or so school-age kids training in the two-ring gym downstairs.
“I love cake,” he says, quietly. “Red velvet cake.” His eyes roll into the back of his head. “I love that the most.”
Red Velvet Cake
2 ½ cups sifted cake flour
½ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons regular or Dutch-processed cocoa powder
½ cup unsalted butter at room temperature
1 ½ cups granulated white sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
½ teaspoon of ground cardamom
1 cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons liquid red food coloring
1 teaspoon white distilled vinegar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 8-ounce cream cheese at room temperature
1 8-ounce tub of Mascarpone cheese at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup sifted confectioners’ sugar
1 ½ cups heavy whipping cream
¼ cup chopped pistachios
To make the Red Velvet Cake:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and place the rack in the center of the oven. Butter two 9-inch round cake pans, line the bottoms of the pans with parchment paper and set aside. In a mixing bowl sift the flour, salt, ground cardamom, and cocoa powder together and set aside.
In a larger bowl with a hand or electric mixer, beat the butter until soft, for one to two minutes.
Then, add the sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Lastly, add the vanilla extract and beat until combined.
In a bowl, whisk the buttermilk with the red food coloring. If using an electric mixer, keep it on low speed and alternately add the flour mixture and buttermilk to the butter mixture, in three additions, beginning and ending with the flour.
Combine the vinegar and baking soda in a small cup and let the mixture fizz. Then immediately fold it into the cake batter.
Divide the batter evenly between the two buttered pans and smooth the tops with a spatula.
Place in the oven and bake for approximately 25–30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cakes comes out clean.
Allow the cakes to cool for about ten minutes. Then place a wire rack on top of the cake pan and invert by lifting off the pan.
For the frosting:
With an electric or hand mixer, beat the cream cheese and mascarpone cheese in a bowl until smooth. Add the vanilla followed by the confectioners’ sugar and beat again until smooth.
Slowly add the heavy cream and whip the frosting until thick enough to spread. If needed, add more cream or sugar until the consistency is just right.
Flip one of the cakes upside down and spread a generous layer of frosting on the top. Place the cake that is right side up on top of the frosted one. Then, frost the tops and sides of the entire cake. Garnish with chopped pistachios.
Photography by Anthony St Leger; Gaffing by Charlie Nahas
Zeina Durra is the ultimate cosmopolitan. Born to a Jordanian-Lebanese father and Bosnian Palestinian ancestry, the Oxford-educated filmmaker spent most of the last decade in New York before settling in London. Her most recent film, THE IMPERIALISTS ARE STILL ALIVE (a line from Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise), depicts a ravishing young artist, played by Élodie Bouchez, whose childhood friend disappears. Perhaps he has been abducted by the CIA? A sort of Bidouni emigre urban romance, the film is an intelligent and moving riff on some of the prevalent paranoias of our times. Hot off the heels of the THE IMPERIALISTS! debut at the IFC Center in New York, we asked Durra to take a break to launch our exercise column for this special issue devoted to SPORTS.
I first came across Ashtanga yoga in New York. There’s a yoga place in a building off Tompkins Square Park in the East Village where Jimi Hendrix is said to have lived. Maybe that explains the headband I’m always wearing. (I made it myself from an old black T-shirt!)
Ashtanga is great for building strength and flexibility. The proven links between stress and flexibility make me wonder about Middle Eastern people. Maybe there’s a direct correlation between our stiffness and our constant political stress. At school in London, the Arab and Iranian girls were always the worst at gymnastics. The Nordic girls made backflips look effortless. (The Middle Easterners at our school were great at tennis and swimming, thanks to summers on the French Riviera.)
One of the most important things to remember when you practice yoga, especially if you’re not especially flexible, like me, is to breathe and extend from your core. That helps a lot, I find. Yoga is all about breathing.
Concentrate on how your “inhale” ends and becomes your “exhale.” When you’re in your seated poses, try and fill your back up with air, envision your back full of breath, as you move forward.
Series 1 Sun Salutation Surya Namaskara
Series 2 From basic sequence Prasarita Padottanasana
Series 3 Part of the Primary Series, Marichyasana (right side)
Nicky Nodjoumi: Educating the Horse
Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde
December 13, 2010–January 13, 2011
Dour, staid men in business suits are often the protagonists of New York–based artist Nicky Nodjoumi’s large satirical paintings. Though they are more expressionistic than Magritte’s canvases, there is a sense of bureaucratic surrealism transposed onto contemporary global politics. Nodjoumi casts his surrogates, who are sometimes recognizable and often based on photographs in newspapers and magazines, as the captains of politics, industry, and finance in surreal, theatrical tableaus. His paintings serve as absurd allegories of power, or allegories of the absurdity of power. In ‘Educating the Horse,’ an exhibition of recent paintings and drawings at Dubai’s Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, Nodjoumi engages with the Middle East’s financial hub, where the influence of men in suits is ascendant.
Nodjoumi was an early member of Kanoon, the famed Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults in prerevolutionary Iran, which, starting in the mid-1960s, which produced countless books and films for children. In the lead-up to the 1979 revolution, Nodjoumi collaborated with other artists designing anti-Shah political posters. Aspects of this background in illustration and design are evident in Nodjoumi’s paintings. His figures are rendered in sketchy, monochromatic strokes, in stark contrast with his otherwise vivid palette, and he approximates with oils the matte look of ink or watercolor illustration. The hierarchical arrangement of figures gives his paintings the communicative clarity of successful agitprop.
Nodjoumi’s life-size figures are perched on low horizon lines, against nondescript backgrounds, and painted in wet, hasty, broad strokes — paint dribbles down into figures and sections underneath — focusing our attention on the figures and the relationships between them. Nodjoumi often slices his compositions and figures horizontally, fracturing or refracting the picture plane to create two adjacent, related, but distinct realities, which are distinguished by a slight misalignment or the use of a different color or pattern. This modest formal device recreates the collage process Nodjoumi uses to plan his compositions and subtly registers displacement and difference. It also dismembers the body, implying (without representing) violence; amputated limbs and disintegrating bodies are playfully rendered in colorful dots, which float like flakes of confetti, the interlocking diamonds of Picasso’s famous harlequins, gauzy nets, or bandages.
Stern, stout mullahs and nudes draped in chadors also regularly feature in Nodjoumi’s paintings. These Iranian foils for men in suits were conspicuously absent from ‘Educating the Horse,’ perhaps in deference to local sensibilities. But their omission was not limiting. In fact, Nodjoumi’s suited men benefited from not being cast in strict opposition to stereotypes strongly associated with the Middle East; they became not just Western, but universal signifiers for political and corporate functionaries.
Nodjoumi conjures up whimsically absurd scenarios for these global power players. An astute student of body language, he subtly infantilizes the men, amplifying the ludic resonances of “power player” by presenting them as overgrown boys fighting and playing games. In Educating the Horse (2010) the titular equine hangs in a large net between two suited men. The man on the right has a deep blue head and shoulders and a brown body; he holds a stick in his left hand, ostensibly for disciplining the trapped animal. The man on the left is doubled over, knees bent, head turned upwards, as if this unconventional perspective might afford a unique insight into the animal being examined. But his cohort’s hunched shoulders, and the blank look directed at the cowering man on the left — a stance resembling that of a child who has just done something he knows is wrong but is unrepentant — suggest a more sinister reading: his colleague is keeled over in pain after being unexpectedly jabbed in the stomach. Similarly, The Personal Confession (2010) shows a larger-than-life man seated frontally and looking straight ahead while playing a game of cat’s cradle, strings going back and forth between his outstretched arms. Painted in a dark pink and partially hidden behind a translucent layer of grey paint, his tiny head sits atop a comically thickened, elongated, and segmented body.
In other works Nodjoumi literally entangles the men — stand-ins for the omnipotent but invisible puppet masters who call the shots — in webs of strings. In the masterful Push and Pull (2008) Nodjoumi achieves a startling balance of dark and light tones. Two men, bisected at mid-thigh by a horizontal line, engage in an elaborate tug of war, manipulating strings that control not only their own but their opponent’s displaced lower limbs. They try to stabilize themselves while tripping up their adversaries, a precarious dance that poignantly visualizes the gymnastics of political or corporate negotiation.
Though a resolutely political painter, Nodjoumi steers clear of representing politics. Instead his scenarios dramatize the invisible relationships, connections, and behaviors through which power is expressed, maintained, and circulated. He reveals the machinations of politics for what they truly are, games played by the powerful, often without a clear sense of the real consequences of their actions.
Karthik Pandian: Unearth
Whitney Museum of American Art
December 5, 2010–March 27, 2011
To call the prevalence of 16 mm film projection (and 35 mm in some instances) a “phenomenon” in contemporary art borders on the hyperbolical. And yet, it is everywhere. The use of 16 mm in an art context has a long history, but within the last ten years, it has had a palpable resurgence, a development on a parallel, though seemingly different trajectory to those artists who use the latest digital technologies. To cite a few standout examples, Mathias Poledna, Tacita Dean, T. J. Wilcox, and Sharon Lockhart all employ analog looping projection as installation strategies in contemplative ways. When almost all of the commercial movie theaters have decommissioned their analog projection systems with digital replacements — a transformation that happened within the last five years — museums and galleries have emerged as among the rarer places where filmic projection can be experienced. Perhaps this return to analog film points to a desire for abstraction, or abstracting, stemming from an aversion to the pervasive digitization and high-def of contemporary image culture. Is this a desire with a sentimental yearning? Or is it a desire to go against our lived technological reality, rooted in a constant striving for maximum resolution, excavating the still-available potentialities of mediums and processes waning in obsolescence?
In contrast to the standard bustle of the Whitney lobby this past fall, the darkened mezzanine gallery of Karthik Pandian’s first solo museum exhibition, ‘Unearth,’ became a peculiar vault-like chamber that beckoned with the familiar whirring sounds of 16 mm projectors, interlaced with occasional sounds of cannons and fireworks playing through speakers. It took a moment to navigate the labyrinthine arrangement and locate the origins of the projected images pointing in east-west directions, emanating from a row of five totemic pillars arranged in a true north-south axis. The line of pillars bisected the rectangular space into two scalene triangles, encouraging a meandering through and around the columns that recalled the manner in which one might move through a site of ruins.
The works in this installation were made in response to research trips Los Angeles–based Pandian took over the course of two years to Cahokia, a historic, pre-Columbian city outside and in part buried beneath East St. Louis that thrived from 600 to 1300 CE. The remnants of this civilization today consist of eighty immense, pyramidical monumental mounds. The three pillars flanking the projection pillars in the installation are made of a “rammed-earth” process derived from a Cahokian building technique, the earthen exterior revealing the stratum of buried shells, magenta twine (a common tool of archeologists), and filmstrips.
Processional movements through the architectural and projected elements in the installation sparked a spatial and metaphoric connection with the Cahokian landmark, the gallery site a surrogate for the site of origin. Of course, Robert Smithson’s spectral presence in this exhibition is difficult to ignore. Pandian’s preoccupation with monuments, ruins, and historical sites echoed Smithson’s familiar fascination with sites of ruin, from the derelict town of Passaic, New Jersey, to the entropic Hotel Palenque in Mexico. The dialectical relationship Smithson continually mapped out in his site/non-site works looms heavily in Pandian’s exhibition. Smithson speculated in his 1968 text A Provisional Theory on Non-Sites, “Everything between the two sites could become physical metaphorical material devoid of natural meanings and realistic assumptions. Let us say that one goes on a fictitious trip if one decides to go to the site of the Non-site.”
The two filmic projections in the Whitney installation go further to reveal this diametrical connection, taking viewers on a mediated and imagined journey between the two sites by showing footage of dealers hawking arrowheads and various “found” Cahokian artifacts. These projected sequences were set in opposition to those of artisans peddling their Cahokia-inspired artworks, activities that point to another preoccupation of Smithson’s: entropy. If the unidirectional forces of entropy sway all things toward an eventual equilibrium, archeological endeavors (amateur or academic) seem to slow down this process, suspending the gradual and inescapable breakdown of matter in general by preserving and extending the life span of discarded and no longer useful things.
Perhaps the entropic forces affecting all things apply to technological processes as well. One can imagine mechanical vision (and the recording and presenting of this vision) reaching an eventual event-horizon, ultimately replicating in exactitude the sensations and experiences of our own biological eyes. It is the usurping of these slowly outmoded processes (like analog film) that counters the entropic forces, once again unearthing their as yet exhausted possibilities. In this way, Pandian’s work manages to evoke the question of whether art is or can be a force against entropy, and whether its oppositional force is a constructive one.
Sajil: A Century of Modern Art
December 30, 2010–October 1, 2011
December 30, 2010–May 28, 2011
December 30, 2010–May 28, 2011
The new museum of modern art in Doha, known as Mathaf, opened in late December with a list of promises to fulfill. In the months leading up to the inauguration, Mathaf’s principal players embarked on a five-city tour to introduce and drum up support for the museum, in what was billed as a series of conversations. While those conversations were too often quite short, particularly in Beirut and Cairo, they held out a number of interesting prospects, positioning the museum as the mother of all projects, finally addressing the gaps in knowledge, access, and exposure that have blunted the study of modern art in the Arab world.
Mathaf would be the first of its kind, a major hub for research and a center for education of great relevance to the region and to the world. With a collection of more than 6,000 artworks, it would give an encyclopedic view of the different phases through which Arab modernism has passed. With the development of its programming, it would challenge the notion that modernism can only be understood as a western phenomenon. With its first major exhibition, entitled ‘Sajjil: A Century of Modern Art,’ it would explicitly avoid constructing an Arab canon running parallel to or in the shadow of a Western canon. Instead of one narrative, it would offer many in a bid to show that Arab modernism wasn’t an alternative to Western modernism, but that modernism everywhere was part of the same tangled knot, which unraveled differently, and provoked different forms of engagement, in different parts of the world all at once.
Given the prelude, by the time Mathaf actually opened in a refurbished school on the edge of Education City, the air of anticipation was thick. In a way, the museum couldn’t lose. Opportunities to see works by the region’s major nineteenth- and twentieth-century artists are frustratingly rare. The international auction houses that have become active in the Middle East over the last five years have given the market a good shake, but some of the best and most ravishing works remain firmly in private hands. The events staged around Mathaf’s inauguration included a conference organized by AMCA (the Association for Modern and Contemporary Art of the Arab World, Iran and Turkey), and many of the art historians, who lined up to speak were thrilled to wander around ‘Sajjil’ for the first time. Imagine spending years of your life writing a dissertation on an artist whose paintings you had only seen reproduced in books, and then finding yourself in front of those paintings in all their physical, tactile presence.
At the same time, the museum couldn’t win, either. Even if the curators of ‘Sajjil’ — Mathaf’s acting director and chief curator Wassan Al Khudairi, guest curator Nada Shabout and the museum’s head of strategy Deena Chalabi — organized the exhibition according to a narrative that was fragmented, multiple, and occasionally contradictory, they were bound to be criticized by dint of being the first to do so. That isn’t to say that the narrative proposed by ‘Sajjil’ is weak, just that any narrative would have been challenged, and that is precisely Mathaf’s point. During the museum’s pre-opening presentation in Beirut, Chalabi characterized ‘Sajjil’ nicely as “an invitation to research.” As Khudairi explained further: “There’s still so much to be done on the collection, and a lot of these works have not been made accessible before. I just think once we get some things out there, there’s going to be a lot of feedback, and a lot of information coming our way.”
The only problem is that ‘Sajjil’ isn’t couched in any narrative at all. The show consists of more than 250 works by some 120 artists spanning roughly 150 years (the earliest piece is an oil painting dated 1847, the latest a fiberglass sculpture from 2008 — a century give or take). The works have been grouped into galleries according to themes such as city, nature, society, and family. Those themes correspond to what is literally in the picture. The nature gallery features paintings of mountains and trees and still lifes with flowers or fruit. The city gallery features paintings of buildings, markets — indications of industry. The gallery tagged “individualism” is all portraits. The gallery tagged “struggle” dips into politics. And yes, there are nudes.
But as the first glimpse into a collection Sheikh Hassan bin Mohammed bin Ali Al Thani has been building for 25 years, ‘Sajjil’ plays it extremely safe. Single galleries jumble decades, movements, and styles. Works are crammed together in random fashion. Pity the small but striking sculpture by Saloua Raouda Choucair from the 1960s, with six stacked aluminum pieces that lock together to form one of her wonderfully tactile “poems.” Jammed into a glass box with an artist’s book by Kamal Boullata, it has no room to breathe.
Artists are identified by where they were born, where they lived and worked, and, for about half of them, where they died. While it is refreshing to see a curatorial approach that casts aside chronology and nationality, the story being told here about modernity is really just a sampler. It hints at what the museum could (maybe) do in the future, but it doesn’t, as yet, make good on Mathaf’s promises.
Although it is uneven, the show offers flashes of brilliance. Truly stunning works are placed sporadically throughout the museum, such as an untitled 1962 landscape by Fateh al-Moudarres, so different from his usual compositions of crowded faces, so thick with paint that you want to run your hand across its surface to feel the tiny drips of red scattered across a deep green forest. Equally impressive is the texture of an undated oil, pastel, ink, and gouache work on paper by Jawad Selim, a portrait of a woman holding a chicken while balancing a sewing machine on her head. And Jassim al-Zainy’s oil on board from 1973, titled Features from Qatar, is a revelation. A woman pulls back the thob of a reclining young man, whose face is averted in an expression of shyness or fear. She has a threaded needle in her hand, poised above the man’s abdomen. Is she about to repair his dress or suture an unseen wound? The scene is ambiguous, deeply intimate and tinged with strange sorrow.
But overall, the links that could have been made between works are buried far beneath the surface. Over the course of his career, the Lebanese painter Saliba Douaihy made a radical transformation from hazy realism to hard-edged abstraction. His late work consists of brutalist, geometrical compositions, which remain landscapes to the letter, albeit dramatically distilled down to form, color, and flatness. ‘Sajjil’ includes three completely different paintings by Douaihy. One of them captures a pivotal moment between his early and late styles: an untitled oil on canvas from 1968 shows a swirling, expressionist landscape in tempestuous strokes of deep purple mountains and heavy, redolent pink skies. But there’s no thread to tie this piece in the “nature” gallery to an earlier, figurative portrait in the “individualism” gallery, or to a later, totally abstract painting — tough and austere — in one of the two “form and abstraction” galleries. By so fiercely resisting the urge to canonize, ‘Sajjil’ dodges the duty to make meaningful connections.
It is not quite the case that no museum of this kind has ever existed in the region before. Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt all have their own museums of modern art. Morocco has the Villa des Arts in Casablanca; Jordan has the National Gallery of Fine Arts in Amman. The Musée Nicolas Sursock in Beirut has been closed for renovations for years, but it does hold a large if uneven collection of paintings, sculptures, ceramics, and more. Same goes for Lebanon’s Ministry of Culture, with a collection of paintings that has been added to (and deleted from) since the 1950s. True, there are only 1,610 pieces; they’ve been assembled to achieve a sectarian balance; many have been damaged by war, dust, and water; and what passes for public airing is being hung in the presidential palace. The problem is that all of these museums are old-fashioned. None of them are so explicit in treating the Arab world as a whole, or modernity as a territory so fraught. This is where Mathaf could make a crucial contribution.
In addition to ‘Sajjil,’ the museum opened with two secondary exhibitions installed off-site, in a kunsthalle of sorts erected on the grounds of the Museum of Islamic Art. This new space, Al-Riwaq, was reportedly built to the exact specifications requested by Takashi Murakami, who is scheduled to do a show there in 2012. For now, it is hosting ‘Told/Untold/Retold,’ organized by the guest curators and consultants Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, and ‘Interventions,’ curated by the multitasking Shabbout. Both shows consist of new commissions, emphasizing Mathaf’s potential to make Doha a site of production. And both shows exemplify the good that can come from curators putting the theoretical frameworks aside and lending support to their artists, providing them with the time and material resources to make ambitious work.
‘Interventions’ pulls off a subtle twist by glancing in on the long-standing relationships between artists and patrons (the five featured artists are all represented in Mathaf’s permanent collections, and their new works have been commissioned for the museum to own). ‘Told/Untold/Retold’ says it’s about one thing — the vague convergence of time, storytelling, and transmodernity — but delves into another, concerning men and masculinity. A number of visiting curators and critics walked out of the show asking: “And where are the women?”
‘Told/Untold/Retold’ offers a tiny percentage of terrific work — such as Hassan Khan’s mesmerizing video installation Jewel and Akram Zaatari’s tender and thoughtful inquiry into photography, collecting, and memory, On Photography, People and Modern Times. But overall, the show feels padded and excessive, a biennial without the buzz.
It also suffers unnecessarily. After a brief, preliminary paragraph that bashes together quotations by Orhan Pamuk and Yve-Alain Bois, the catalog essay introducing the show begins like this: “‘Told/Untold/Retold’ is a response to an exigent disparity in critical discourse evident in the putative designation of form as subaltern to content and the posturing of the referent and iconological as the cardinal gateway for all understanding.” Then it continues for forty more pages of gibberish. If this is representative of the quality of texts Mathaf intends to produce, then the museum is definitely going to need a dictionary, an editor, and a copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.
Pouran Jinchi: Entropy
November 17–December 23, 2010
The painter Pouran Jinchi’s recent show at Leila Taghinia-Milani Heller Gallery, ‘Entropy,’ deftly explored the delicate relationship between art and text. With ‘Entropy,’ Jinchi remains true to her distinctive approach to painting, a semiotic reversal in which she turns text into image. She likewise uses ink rather than paint on canvas, but allows the watery flat ink to pool and spread, presumably to give the medium a more painterly liveliness. Jinchi uses Farsi script, beautiful in its own right, as strokes, transforming otherwise legible but obscured words into gestural flourishes that are pilled on top of one another to create spiky masses that then suggest natural forms — fall leaves drifting down onto a raked pile, a whirlpool that could double as a black hole, or kissing nebulas floating through a void of space. In previous works, these natural forms were not only hinted at, but the script congealed to create, for example, clearly defined branches or trees. Here the forms taken by Jinchi’s “strokes” have a less defined character and likewise suggest less calming forms, like a pile of industrial debris or the dangerous detritus of sharp metal shavings.
While the use of Farsi script itself may be a loaded proposition, Jinchi avoids pointing to any potential political or symbolic suggestions that the words or script may offer. The words are sourced from the work of modern female poet Forough Farrokhzad and can be translated here and there (so I am told — I cannot read Farsi myself), but such a thwarted translation that offers up random vocabulary without grammar only reinforces the objective to look and sense. Jinchi studied traditional calligraphy as an old master might study drawing, seeking out mastery of technical skill as a means to reach a purity and fluidity of expression. The informative function of the words becomes form through the calligrapher’s technique.
In this way, Jinchi seeks to reconcile the traditional function of text as educational with its necessarily decorative and visual function within iconoclastic Muslim art, which traditionally does not otherwise allow for figurative religious imagery. In so doing, she connects the iconoclasm of Muslim art with the iconoclasm of high modernism and abstract expressionism in particular, in a soft postmodern gesture that is more concerned with art than geopolitics. But in subjugating text to image, Jinchi only appears to analyze text and language. In practice she never exposes any unseen cultural or political meaning. Rather, Jinchi delights in the construction of new forms, much as a proper modernist might.
Jinchi has previously engaged in more pointed commentary and imagery that is either political, as with Flag 5 (2002), an American flag made of Persian script and decorative motifs, or poetic, as with works like Derakht 11 (2001), in which Jinchi’s words create an oblivious bushy tree whose future autumnal waning is only hinted at by a few falling words/leaves. With her most recent exhibition, then, Jinchi distances herself from such legible or symbolic imagery. Even the title of her show, a hulking word like “entropy,” was left to the gallery to produce. As an artist who will in any case be persistently subject to stereotypical readings of anything Persian, political, or poetic, such a rebuff is more than understandable but nonetheless unfortunate.
If there is a problem with this show then it is that there is no problem. Despite their jagged forms, the content of the works is “soft.” These works are not fully intellectual nor sensual, political nor poetic, serious nor lighthearted. It is unclear whether her use of text functions as a modernist critique or as a celebration of the power of form, even beauty, over cognition and “reading.” The paintings are attractive, well done, and well conceived, but sometimes lack conceptual or formal focus. The meaning of the words used is consistently — and intriguingly — subverted, but so is the grace and fluidity of their form. Her palette of cool-as-can-be blues, greens, and blue-greens is likewise pervasive but apparently not meaningful, or at least not symbolic, but to my eyes also subverts the sensuality possible in the tangled calligraphic script. The shapes and forms also hint at a sense of humor. Words reach out for each other like hands, even yearning for contact, but are not truly funny. The liveliest moments in the canvases often come from Jinchi’s signature, which is hidden among the calligraphic melee in tidy block script, a neat touch.
Intellectual decisions, like the use of ink over paint, often water down the formalist power of the paintings, while formalist decisions, like the obfuscation of the text, water down the conceptual power of the works. Jinchi cleverly sees that the use of the gorgeous and simultaneously politically charged Farsi text has the power to offer at the same time conceptually and sensually satisfying works of art. This of course is no small feat, but Jinchi has tapped into a motif that offers such possibility that one senses that, given a louder voice, her words will have much more to say.
December 7, 2010–February 6, 2011
In August, 1993, a red line was drawn on a map of the West Bank, dividing it into three zones: one in Israeli hands, one under Palestinian control, and one under shared (Israeli military and Palestinian civilian) supervision, in an arrangement known as the Oslo Accords. In ‘Decolonizing Architecture,’ a recent exhibition project at REDCAT, this thread of a line is spatialized, transformed into a five-and-a-half-meter stripe, and projected deep into a series of photographic landscapes. Rescaled at 1:20,000, red ink razors across empty territory and through dividing walls, bleeding indiscriminately into the real space of local communities. The width of the line is presented as an undefined, extraterritorial space where prevailing legal contingencies are void and indeterminate possibilities open up. Titled The Red Castle and the Lawless Line (after a newly built castle that falls in its trajectory), the project is one of a trio that make up this exhibition, where territorial surveys, research reports, architectural plans, photographs, and architectural models provide a site for politics and poetics to converge.
Founded in 2007, DAAR (Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency) focuses on Palestine as a prism through which to view larger issues of architecture and decolonization in general. The REDCAT exhibit marks the first time that the Bethlehem-based DAAR has shown in the US, and though the exhibition bears the names of Alessandro Petti, Sandi Hilal, and Eyal Weizman, the group cites a range of other resident-collaborators. At his opening talk, Weizman framed DAAR’s activities as a search for a “third way” to inhabit defunct colonial infrastructures — an approach that would neither resort to pure destruction nor continue to trace the well-worn paths of colonial use once power had shifted.
In How to Inhabit Your Enemy’s House, for example, the collective confronts the deserted Israeli settlements left behind in Gaza and the West Bank from 2005 onward, model suburbs turned post-apocalyptic when they were forcibly emptied out on short notice. Their main proposition is visualized in the literal superimposition of pre-settlement landownership maps over the existing suburban fabric, dual projections printed in a row of glossy research publications (with white gloves to turn white pages), and accompanied by two short videos (one 3-D) and an architectural model. The premise is straightforward: voided domestic spaces might host new public services, including hospitals and schools, in an area where these were previously unable to develop. The literal act of superimposition from above, the discussion of “returning public property to the public,” and a palpable phobia of suburban models in general, seemed perplexingly basic, even dogmatic, in the wake of Weizman’s eloquent explanation of the far-from-basic circumstances in which DAAR functions. Is there something more to be gained by recalling the variegated histories of these structures themselves, established for an array of reasons — in some cases, with rabidly ideological intent, in others, because of a literal lack of space in the region? What remains disappointingly unaltered in How to Inhabit Your Enemy’s House is a vision of these sites as an abstracted territory from which we remain at a comfortable remove — something that the other two portions of the exhibit more successfully move beyond.
Shifting registers, the project Return to Nature features a series of photographs, projected alterations for a deserted military base in Oush Grab. In what Weizman memorably described as a “Hitchcockian nightmare,” the unused site has been taken over by migratory birds. Photographs of the project, which is being conducted in cooperation with the Palestinian Wildlife Association, show cement walls encouraged to crumble via a regular grid of perfectly round holes drilled across their surface. What do you do with a military ghost town filled with sepulchral black birds? It’s hard to argue against the addition of a minimalist grid to enhance a process of guided ruination in the face of such surreal circumstances.
In 1995, Francis Alÿs staged The Leak, an embodied reinterpretation of Moshe Dayan’s iconic 1948 gesture of tracing a green line across a map to mark the armistice boundary at the end of Israel’s War of Independence. Alÿs followed the same border on foot, trailing a thin, wobbly stream of green paint behind him, pushing Dayan’s historic act of line-drawing to the brink of the absurd. Like Alÿs, the altered digital photographs in The Red Castle and the Lawless Line follow the impulse to shift an abstract cartographic gesture to a new site, in an effort to provoke alternative interpretations by engaging with its implications on the ground. But what may initially appear as catchy theorizations on a gallery wall are, in DAAR’s projects, embedded in a range of physical and institutional sites whose very distance from the gallery context is not always a comfortable one.
According to Weizman, DAAR hopes to translate the thickness of the red Oslo Accords into legislation; the Palestinian Wildlife Association will ostensibly be funding some kind of undertaking at Oush Grab. And when Weizman spoke of the unique power of the architectural model to focus a roomful of people on “transcending their ideological blocks,” one couldn’t help but wonder if this happened at meetings held to discuss the fate of the Israeli settlements, where both Weizman and Condoleeza Rice were present. Because this is first and foremost an architectural project, the concrete (political boundaries, historical facts) and the projected (ideas for the future, into a specific space) carry rather a different valence than they might in works (like Alÿs’) that we are a bit more accustomed to seeing in the art gallery context. The architectural collective emphasizes that their practice is a perpetual process; that it is not solution-oriented; that it is “not design, but an arena of speculation” devoted to “future scenarios for Palestine.” Nevertheless, REDCAT debut ‘Decolonizing Architecture’ never makes it entirely clear: where do “speculation” and “execution” begin and end?
Walid Raad: Miraculous Beginnings
October 14, 2010–January 2, 2011
More than once, I visited Walid Raad’s retrospective with art professionals and saw them scoot around its opening phases — devoted to Raad’s best-known work, The Atlas Group (1989–2004), his complexly dissimulating, copiously detailed array of “documents” relating to the Lebanese civil war between 1975 and 1990 — at a pace that suggested overfamiliarity. (The first time around, I joined in.) Ironic, no? You devote your artistic practice to holding images and the historical events they open onto in perpetual suspension, resisting the neutering effects of both historical amnesia and the unthinking consensus that documentary materials can create around past events. You consequently influence the archival and fictional turns in recent art. And as a result your work comes to be treated as a known quantity, as open to second looks as the average whodunit. More ironic still, those viewers who didn’t even ascend to the show’s second floor would, had they done so, have found Raad almost seeming to anticipate such a response. Here, at the center of his latest project, Scratching on Things I Could Disavow: A History of Art in the Arab World (2008–present), was a miniature architectural model of a gallery interior (Beirut’s first “white cube” space, Raad writes), hung with tiny replicas of many of the photographs and videos on view downstairs: The Atlas Group decisively made small.
Raad, an artist acutely aware of how art is modulated by the changeable conditions of reception, speaks here of the depredations of context. In his purposely quixotic accompanying text, he describes being asked to exhibit The Atlas Group in Beirut repeatedly from 2005 onward, refusing, finally agreeing, and then visiting the gallery and being “surprised to find that all my artworks had shrunk to 1/100th of their size.” So, he says, “I decided to display them in a space befitting their new dimensions.” If location can defuse art, so can the kind of hasty categorizing that’s a pitfall of our proliferating art world. At this point, a viewer who has accelerated through ‘Miraculous Beginnings’ might be advised to return to the start, to the nuance, grit, fissuring and poetry discernible in The Atlas Group on 1:1 scale.
Rife with digital tweaking and tinctured with radical doubt, The Atlas Group is a patchwork of factual fictions, its dissembling pointing toward truths concerning ambiguity and subjectivity. Take, for example, Notebook volume 72: Missing Lebanese wars (1989–98), which introduces a narrative in which “the major historians of the Lebanese wars were avid gamblers.” Volume 72 is, in this regard, an assiduous if slightly pushy bit of scene-setting concerning historical certitude.
Here, notebook pages — in which photo-finish images of horseracing are surrounded by fervent penciled notations — stand as “evidence” of historians betting, significantly, not on accuracy but on gradations of inaccuracy: “precisely when — how many fractions of a second before or after the horse crossed the finish line — the photographer would expose his frame.” Raad — who, here as repeatedly elsewhere, faked the “proof” — often locates his art in just such a void of final knowledge at the center of a swirl of persuasive detail. See, for instance, Hostage: The Bachar Tapes (#17 & #31) (2000), a video testimonial attributed to Souheil Bachar, who discusses the intimacies, including the sexual ones, of being abducted and detained in Lebanon between 1983 and 1993 with five Americans, all of whom wrote their own accounts of the experience.
Affect and aesthetic pleasure further complicate Raad’s dynamics, as in Let’s be honest, the weather helped (1998/2006–7): photographs of shelled Beirut architecture speckled with overlapping, color-coded, diversely scaled circles marking the location of bullet holes, their size, the “mesmerizing hues I found on bullets’ tips,” and their country of origin. This strategically problematic push-pull of opulent visuality and objective tabulation is redoubled when one experiences these works alongside, say, I only wish that I could weep (2002/1997), a sedulously antiqued VHS-to-DVD compendium for which, we’re told, a Lebanese army intelligence officer deserted his duties (video monitoring of a busy boardwalk in Beirut) once an evening to film the sunset, an accelerated succession of these appearing on screen. In such cases, the usefulness of Raad’s deflected authorship becomes most apparent. The seemingly sentimental is permitted by the maker’s supposedly being not an artist but an official, though we probably know this isn’t true; and the freighted sunsets (symbolic endings that never really end) disarm us anyway, most likely because they don’t feel wholly vouchsafed by Raad.
It’s perhaps no surprise that, following his increased exposure within the art world — and, more widely that of artists from the Middle East — Raad would switch tack and take an aerial view of his art’s absorption into the art system (as in his miniature museum), the idea of a regional aesthetics per se, and the narratives that preceded the current moment in the form of the contested histories of Arab modernism. So ‘Miraculous Beginnings’ divides the earlier works of The Atlas Group from the newer Scratching on Things I Could Disavow, bridging them with Sweet Talk: Commissions (Beirut) (1987–present), a photographic project that takes a catalog by Walker Evans as the template for an extensive documenting of the Lebanese capital. In contrast to Raad’s earlier work, which probes the relationship between representation and meaning-making, the section of Scratching titled “Appendix XVIII” projects into a tentative, slightly maladroit space where — vouchsafing Jalal Toufic’s concept of “the withdrawal of tradition past a surpassing disaster” — another syntax, in this case underpinned by abstraction, is called for. Ranged around the walls, rectangular expanses of primarily single colors are augmented with slim lines of text characterized by styles of obstruction: overprinting into illegibility, translation into foreign languages, rotation through ninety degrees, etcetera. The fact that these abstractions are in fact born of ephemera that the artist assiduously collected from exhibition invitations, catalogs, and art-historical theses on the histories of modern and contemporary art in the modern world is only vaguely alluded to. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, for in this way, their abstraction is physically, and conceptually, complete.
This is finished work that characterizes itself as a starting point, with cohesion, closure and complacency kept judiciously in abeyance. Despite the superficial sense of rupture, however, it’s convincingly contiguous with the artist’s earlier work. The continuity resides partly in Raad’s gravitation toward useful fictions: Appendix XVIII, if you like, is a darkly ludic fantasia wherein the lineaments of art are irrevocably recomposed in the wake of a traumatic war, turning fugitive, inward, gnomic. But ‘Miraculous Beginnings’ also underlines that, at its broadest, Raad’s art consistently concerns itself with how cultures operate when existing languages do not suffice, and how the latter ought not be replaced by something equally authoritative. What this show sustains, and succeeds in conferring from its uncharted end back onto its recognizable beginnings, is an alternative: a singular, paradoxical tone — urgently provisional — that Raad evidently owns.
July 1–September 12, 2010
December 13, 2010
While its self-described status as a “biennial” and its patronage by the Egyptian government lent it some gravitas, the twelfth edition of the Cairo Biennial surprised few by presenting very little in the way of good work. Nevertheless, the local press, with a mantra-like insistence, ascribed the sudden increase in winter-season art-world activity to this flawed event. Traditionally, there is an assumption that the biennial brings an influx of international visitors and whets the local appetite for looking at art. How true is this, and (regarding the former) does it make a difference? We can say, at least, that the biennial carries enough symbolic weight to inspire statements of protest, or at least, in this year’s case, productive dissent.
I put off seeing the biennial in anticipation of the usual dubious quality of work and shoddy installation. As for the latter, look to Angela Harutyunyan’s online piece in Al-Masry Al-Youm on the DIY ethos of the biennale (including the first reference in text to an elephant in the gallery: neglect). Harutyunyan, who until recently served as acting art program director at the American University in Cairo, plays on the unintended “interactive” nature of the exhibition as the viewer obligingly turns on TV monitors, DVD players, and ceiling lights. Perhaps someone in the Ministry of Culture, which is charged with organizing the biennial, read this tragicomic assessment, because I found things in relatively good working order upon visiting some two weeks later. I only mention this because we search for signs of response from the government: Have these bureaucratic messengers of culture flinched in the face of those clean white cubes sprouting in the Gulf and in their own city, even?
An international panel of jurors awarded this year’s biennial Grand Prize to a work that might be understood as a critique of the state’s self-enforced dominance of the cultural sphere. The piece, by Amal Kenawy, is composed of multiple works. At the biennial’s opening it took the form of a performance. The artist used the kitchen facilities she had installed in the museum to cook a meal, which she then offered to the Egyptian Minister of Culture, the long-reigning Farouk Hosny, as he passed through the space, literalizing the work’s “consumption” and recognizing the minister as the primary arbiter of artistic taste.
Anyone who missed the opening, however, encountered a room-size installation dominated by the fully functioning kitchen, a dining/picnic table, and a series of shelves filled with plants and household knickknacks. Strings of colored lights wound through elements of the space like a kind of electric fiber. The décor simultaneously invoked a multipurpose domestic interior and an exterior public space.
Two videos unified this otherwise scattered context by restating the artist’s engagement with public and private spheres as the work’s central concern. The first loops a series of short “home videos” featuring the artist’s young son playing piano and dancing with his mother. The second, projected on the wall, reads formally as a window with a view onto an outdoor urban scene. In this video, Kenawy corrals a flock of men and women (these included artists and friends, but also young men from the neighborhood who were paid to participate) who crawl across busy downtown streets on their hands and knees. Public performances are rare given the ubiquitous policing (both official and civic) of any site outside of the domestic sphere in Egypt. So to the surprise of no one, crowds gathered around the artist and fights ensued. Intended as an exercise in public engagement, the work does not manage to escape (and seems indeed to celebrate) a quick descent into spectacle, with predetermined roles for its protagonists and an overly familiar script.
Accusations flung at Kenawy by incensed bystanders included the charge that the work presents a demeaning image of Egypt to the world: a complaint consistently leveraged against works of art, films, texts, or any contribution to public discourse that doesn’t reproduce the terms of a status quo. A serious indictment of the piece, however, was raised when onlookers objected that paid participants, who didn’t necessarily understand or support the artist’s aims, were coerced into what was perceived as a humiliating performance. Kenawy seemed to cast herself in a heroic role as the defender of art’s right to exit the gallery so as to enter into a more direct relationship with a Cairene public sphere. The invocation of the artist’s domestic life elsewhere in the installation lent this gesture a vaguely gendered inflection. Ultimately, however, Kenawy’s odd insensitivity to the nuances of the class dynamics animating both the art world and its ostensible other — “the public” — suggest that these spheres are even more alienated than we had previously suspected.
Across the river, in the decrepit Viennoise Hotel, a group of young artists staged their own DIY exhibition under the tongue-in-cheek title ‘Cairo Documenta.’ Mahmoud Hallwy’s piece (To Be a Hero) comprised three poster-size portrait photos produced, according to the artist’s text, in ‘Am Hamdy’s studio in Torah al-Balad. Dressed as an Egyptian army officer, the artist appears against incongruously pacific pastoral, computer-generated backdrops: geysers, a white picket fence, a willow tree, and pink flamingoes. In one, he holds a machine gun while spearing a mangy stuffed fox with his sword.
If ‘Cairo Documenta’ became a focal point this season, it is perhaps a result of its promise to offer an exhibition in extraterritorial waters, outside of art world jurisdiction. The exhibition statement, invoking strident language, might be interpreted as a kind of manifesto proceeding through a series of negations, i.e., this is not an institution, a permanent space, or a curatorial initiative. Such claims are legible primarily for their appeal to long-standing ideals (of the artist’s “autonomy”; of a group of young artists asserting their autonomy from authority, writ large) rather than through the unfolding of a focused argument or a directed attempt at critical engagement. Curator Sarah Rifky’s recent text for Al-Masry Al-Youm online raised a similar concern in pointing out the paucity of professional curators and institutional framework for the arts in Egypt against which the exhibition’s claims would seem to fall flat. Nonetheless, the “success” of Al-Masry Al-Youm online raised a similar concern in pointing out the paucity of professional ‘Cairo Documenta’ seems to lay bare an elusive space of public receptivity, in which works of art win visibility and attract visits and discussion while avoiding the spectacularization that befell Kenawy’s downtown performance. Both, however, remain squarely within the bracketed space of the art world, despite (and even because of) assertions to the contrary.
My favorite work at ‘Cairo Documenta’ was Ahmed Kamel’s two-channel video. A small dog appears on each screen; they face one another and, through their incessant barking, seem to communicate. It’s not clear how this crude dialogue relates to language, what meaning the viewer misses, or even to what extent these interlocutors understand each other, but there is undeniably a conversation transpiring. Encountered in the context of this season’s exhibitions, the work appeared to present the terms of a preferred logic of art world engagement. Speak to us, it seemed to say: resonant, specific, and insistent, yet without the burden of message.
New institutions are opening in Egypt: nonprofit and commercial alike, exhibition spaces and educational projects. Cairene collectors seem finally to have been stirred from their deckchairs, and a new collector base is emerging regionally. Members of the state cultural sector are befriending wealthy patrons of an emerging private market. Alongside all this endures an “international” hesitancy to invest at various registers in art coming out of this region. The terms of a meaningful engagement in the context of these intersecting, sometimes contradictory trajectories remain unclear. Merely reinforcing established scripts is clearly problematic, yet for the most part, artists seem unable to change the broader terms of reception despite not infrequent statements of their intentions to do so. The obligation to remain sensitive to how artworks and exhibitions might challenge the established conditions of viewing — and therefore risk invisibility by demanding more challenging terms of communication — seems to have acquired a renewed urgency as of late. At least, my own implication as a viewer lingers in the afterimage of this season’s exhibitions, leading me to wonder if I know what it is I saw. And that may be a good sign.
Mourina Al Solh / Wael Shawky
Exhibition No. 17 / Contemporary Myths II
November 25, 2010–March 19, 2011
It’s hard to imagine the humble toothbrush assuming greater artistic gravitas than it did in the work of Allan Kaprow, who scripted the act of cleaning one’s teeth — half asleep, alone or with a lover — as a performance of profound intimacy, an ordinary act as the art of everyday life. But one of Mounira Al Solh’s uproarious new videos does just that, turning a pair of brand-new toothbrushes in an otherwise empty apartment, soon to be inhabited by her brother and his wife, into a set of ingenious (and hilarious) props. With the heads of those toothbrushes peeping out from behind her ears, the stems jammed into the corners of her collarbone to hold them in place, Solh plays the parts of five comically construed animals in A Double Burger and Two Metamorphoses: A Proposal for a Potential Cat, a Potential Dog, a Potential Donkey, a Potential Goat, and Finally a Potential Camel (2010–ongoing).
The video proceeds in five heavily scripted episodes. Each follows the same formula, with Solh playing herself and the animals as they arrive at her house, one by one, and demand to be fed. Solh, however, has invited them over for a different kind of social interaction. She wants to discuss books she’s been struggling to read — from the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s On the Social Contract to the satirical novel Max Havelaar by the Dutch writer Eduard Douwes Dekker, better known by the pen name Multatuli, about coffee and colonialism in the late nineteenth century. Moreover, she also seeks out some awkwardly intimate exchanges. She asks the cat for a slow dance, the dog for a kiss on the eyes, the goat for a swap of saliva. And yet, all of the animals gruffly turn her down.
Solh reads each piece of dialogue with a white sheet of paper covering her mouth, such that the conversations hinge on her muffled voice and the expressiveness of her heavily made-up eyes. The episodes are spliced with still photographs of Solh improvising her characters with random bits of clothing and household goods — think spandex, construction paper, rolling pins, mounds of flour, face paint, a beaded necklace and a magnifying glass, all outrageously effective means of conveying a lot with very little.
For her first solo exhibition at Galerie Sfeir-Semler in Beirut, A Double Burger and Two Metamorphoses is projected onto the back of a large shipping crate, with another, smaller shipping crate serving as a bench for viewers to sit and watch. The crudeness of the installation amplifies the provisional nature of the piece, which is both the documentation of a bravura performance and a rehearsal for a work that is very much still in progress. (Solh hopes to reshoot it entirely in Arabic, and imagines installing it one day in a room adorned with a series of cuckoo clocks.)
Solh’s show bears the utilitarian title ‘Exhibition No. 17.’ It’s not her seventeenth exhibition to date, mind you, but rather the gallery’s. It’s also Sfeir-Semler’s second experiment with mounting two robust, self-contained shows at once. The first paired Yto Barrada with Etel Adnan, who, though very different, shared so many material affinities and elusive political sensibilities that their parallel exhibitions were rousingly complementary.
Lining up Solh’s ‘Exhibition No. 17’ with Wael Shawky’s ‘Contemporary Myths II’ is, by contrast, a totally schizophrenic affair, to the extent that separate entrances, or an insurmountable barrier between them, might not have been a bad idea. And yet, the experience of drifting back and forth between Solh’s world and Shawky’s, or of hearing the sounds of one artist’s work bleed into the other’s, or of filling your head with Shawky’s delicate drawings while Solh’s are still making impressions on your mind does evoke something of a sensible and generative union.
Both shows are pierced by moments of sudden and rather jarring eroticism, such as the gorgeously weird scene of an adoption ceremony in Shawky’s video Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show File, when Thoros of Edessa and his wife name Baldwin of Boulogne their son and sole heir. Baldwin drops to his knees, lifts the skirts of his new mom and dad, and them shimmies up into their gowns for a strange little dance with them. (Shawky explodes this suggestion of sex in the following scene, when Baldwin thrusts his spear into his parents, killing them both and claiming their kingdom for the Franks.)
Both shows also deal, albeit very differently, with dress, props, and intense theatricality — through Shawky’s elaborately cinematic production involving two hundred-year-old marionettes from Turin, and Solh’s delightful drag impersonation of the artist Bassam Ramlawi. But what links the two shows most is a subtle, even muted, undercurrent on the relationship between time and drawing, the quick and spontaneous exercises that both artists do as a kind of mental and physical form of calisthenics.
Shawky’s second major work to tackle the history of the crusades, the Cabaret film is by far the artist’s most epic and magisterial piece to date, focusing on a string of events in the eleventh century leading up to the crusaders’ conquest of Jerusalem. The political implications of using marionettes to convey this history are quite clear. The aesthetic power of those puppets, however, is quite a surprise. Their faces are haggard, at times even grotesque, but a series of rather straightforward portraits of each figure set against a white background comes across as deeply haunting and strangely beautiful.
A long glass vitrine filled with the flags and emblems that would have been sewn onto the crusaders’ clothes, but are rendered in sandpaper and tarmac, ties this body of work to Shawky’s early videos and installations, such as Asphalt Quarter (likewise a large, extravagantly detailed yet still somehow dark and subdued diorama of a gunmetal gray castle in Aleppo surrounded by a moat of oil and a landscape of gravel).
And then, set back in a nearly hidden room is a suite of drawings in ink, pencil, and metallic pigments, depicting dreamlike fortresses, dragons, and whales worthy of giving Moby Dick another read. Over on Solh’s side of the gallery, meanwhile, is her own suite of drawings — or rather, those of the fictional Ramlawi. As the story goes, Ramlawi has devoted his life to exploring the work of Otto Dix, Cindy Sherman, and the Dutch painter René Daniels. The son of a Basta juice vendor, constantly stuck in Beirut traffic or subject to the whims of associates who are chronically late, he also doodles away whenever he’s waiting for someone or something, and then layers those drawings with colored vellum.
That Solh — who studied painting at the Lebanese University’s Institute of Fine Arts and took drawing lessons for a year with the inimitable Hussein Madi before heading off to Amsterdam to attend both the Gerrit Rietveld Academie and the Rijksacademie — has invented a character to inhabit, a male artist who paints and draws and works on tactile things, while she, through him, explores what it really means to be an artist. In videos and faux documentaries and keen installations, her work marks a brilliant extension of the themes (gender, identity, the pitfalls of an artistic persona) she previously explored in videos such as The Sea Is a Stereo and As If I Don’t Fit Here.
More than this, ‘Exhibition No. 17’ also wrestles with a whole new constellation of ideas (freedom) and desires (for a second passport, for belonging, for knowledge). Her nineteen-channel video installation titled The Muted Tongue, in which the Croatian artist Sinisa Labrovic acts out nineteen Arabic proverbs, not only relishes the richness of the language and exemplifies Solh’s bawdy, quirky humor; it also shows her as adept at directing performances and embodying them herself. Given that several of the works here are still unfinished or incomplete but hold their own against Shawky’s that are so resolutely polished, it’s a fine indication of good things to come.
By the end of the 1960s, Artforum had become the country’s dominant art magazine — part Sears Roebuck catalog for the McLuhan generation, part promotional vehicle for a clutch of New York abstract painters and the formalist critics who favored them. Younger artists came to see it as embodying a system that favored galleries and dealers over artists and viewers, and whose primary interest was maintaining its own power. In order to talk back to critics who misunderstood or ignored their work, artists went about founding magazines of their own, especially in New York City, the bastion of the (increasingly wealthy) status quo. Rather than indulge in a singular, authoritative perspective (consolidated by a “house style”), these magazines — Aspen, 0 to 9, Avalanche, Art-Rite, FILE, and Real Life among them — provided a space for artists to colonize the discourse, and do so in their own voices, however idiosyncratic or naive or choleric.
Gwen Allen’s Artists’ Magazines chronicles the rise and fall of these publications, and a sampling of their contents. Artists like Robert Smithson, Dan Graham, Mel Bochner, and Vito Acconci created magazine art where criticism had once been, emphasizing the materiality of language, denying its ability to communicate. (Graham’s Schema, a site-specific instructional piece published in a variety of magazines in the Sixties and Seventies, is a paramount example; it consisted of a template to be completed by the editor, in accordance with the magazine’s typography, design, and layout, producing a new work in each iteration.) They published texts that were oftentimes unresolved, propositional, exploratory — concerned with process, not product; conjecture, not conclusion. Allen, an art historian at San Francisco State University, describes their “articles” as “guerrilla tactics that attempted to commandeer the commercial publicity of the magazine by manipulating its form, content, mode of address, and audience.”
While this suggests a certain measure of calculation, much of what is compelling about these magazines is a product of their messiness, the substitution of passion for professionalism, and the sense — inevitably inflated — of the importance of the present moment. Of course, there was also the desire to kill the father, to unseat the ancien régime. The experience of the sublime proffered by abstract painting is sucked of its power in the pages of these magazines, which sought to embody conceptual art’s focus on the contingencies of time and space, and the activation rather than supplication of the viewer.
For Smithson, the magazine was a site not unlike the Great Salt Lake, the page a material not unlike rock or sand. He described the magazine in his patent geologic vocabulary, as “a circularity that spreads into a map devoid of destinations, but with land masses of print… and little oceans with right angles.”
Transforming the magazine into a venue for art was not just an aesthetic strategy, but part of a utopian program. The art historian Benjamin Buchloh, who for a time edited Interfunktionen, voiced the sentiments of many editors and artists: “We were deeply convinced in all earnestness that the elimination of the commodity object from the work of art and the reduction of the work of art to linguistic proposition had a tremendous pedagogical and political potential and an egalitarian democratic implication that would have vast consequences in terms of the collectivization of aesthetic experience.”
Aspen perhaps best represents that dream. The so-called magazine in a box was started in Aspen, Colorado, in 1965 by Phyllis Glick, a New York journalist and editor who initially wanted Aspen to reflect the town’s alternative cultural scene. Within a couple of years, however, it became one of the century’s richest experiments in publication, and perhaps the first veritable new-media magazine. Each issue was published in a box that included films, texts, images, and interactive projects. Aspen 5+6, edited by critic and artist Brian O’Doherty, included recordings of Marcel Duchamp reading “The Creative Act” and Max Neuhaus performing John Cage’s “Fontana Mix-Feed,” Susan Sontag’s “The Aesthetics of Silence,” a sculpture by Mel Bochner in the form of seven translucent grids (to be put together by the reader), and a construction kit for a miniature sculpture by Tony Smith. The experience of Aspen mirrored Roland Barthes’s argument in “The Death of the Author” (originally published in the magazine), being incumbent upon the reader rather than longer plotted and linear.
To Allen, Aspen also harnesses the democratic potential of the form: “Rather than cloistering art from everyday life, the magazine released it back into the world, countering the timeless, contemplative visuality of the modern museum with a distinctly temporal, interactive experience.”
If Aspen is the most forward-thinking magazine discussed by Allen, and also the least like an art magazine, Avalanche seems, in hindsight, to be the most conventional. Started by Liza Béar and Willoughby Sharp in New York City in 1970, Avalanche combined the parochialism of a community newspaper with the cinematic design and attention to personality that were characteristic of the era’s new-journalism stalwarts. And yet it also epitomized the artists’ magazine: Béar and Sharp used extensive, probing interviews and lavish portfolios to convey the voices and working processes of artists, in what Béar describes as “investigative reporting that aimed to understand rather than to expose, in which the questioning voice was closely attuned to the artist’s sensibility.” (Avalanche’s entire print run was recently reissued by the publisher Primary Information.) And while the magazine was moored to the SoHo scene it had helped foster — each issue carried news of neighborhood goings-on in the form of “rumblings” — Béar and Sharp placed the work of their clan in the context of new art from Europe, Canada, and California. Avalanche epitomizes the dominant characteristics of all these magazines: the ambivalent relationship, but constant concern, with publicness; the effort to disseminate the work of artists without commodifying it; the desire to create alternative spaces for art that were nevertheless linked dialectically to the institutional spaces they opposed (and eventually subsumed by them; see Documenta 12 Magazines, 2007).
By the 1970s, artists’ magazines were being shaped in part by a disillusionment with the promise of mass media, especially in light of conceptual art’s hermeticism. “Whatever minor revolutions in communication have been achieved by the process of dematerializing the object,” art historian Lucy Lippard wrote in 1973, it had become clear that “art and artists in a capitalist society remain luxuries.” The later magazines discussed by Allen seem less intent on revolutionizing the relationship between art and mass media than on self-consciously tweaking and critiquing it. FILE, started in 1972 by the Toronto collective General Idea, was a campy performance of mass-media tropes. The artist-editors pulled much of their material from the pages of the popular press, cannibalizing its images of the good life to produce its own subversive myths — mostly about itself, whether that meant raunchy diaries from the Canadian mail-art scene or reports on the never-ending preparation for a great spectacle called the 1984 Miss General Idea Pageant. “If Life mirrored life,” Allen notes, “FILE mirrored Life.”
Real Life, founded in New York City in 1979 by Thomas Lawson and Susan Morgan, circled around the so-called “Pictures generation” artists, whose work often dealt with appropriated imagery (often sourced from mainstream magazines), and was concerned with “the possibility that reality might evade representation, that it might exist outside of the visual economies of both art and media,” as Lawson put it. Though these magazines continued to insist that art must engage a greater (if hazily defined) public, the work they published remained obscure; the democratic potential of the form rarely infiltrated its contents.
The world of these magazines can be understood as linked to what historian Anthony Grafton has called an “information regime,” the study of which considers “not just the formal content of ideas but the institutions and practices that enabled them to be created and transmitted.” By doing so, Allen inevitably holds up a mirror to our own institutions and practices. In the past few decades, the galleries, museums, and magazines against which Avalanche and FILE railed have become expert at incorporating, homogenizing, and commodifying expressions of dissent and difference; ironically, these moves seem to have finally expanded art’s public reach (or at least its sphere of consumption). The publication of Artists’ Magazines reflects a broader resurgence of interest in the form, due in part to a nostalgia for the deeply felt intellectual communities they represent — and, as Allen recognizes, a concurrent, and paradoxical, fetishization of these magazines as art objects, and as an essential part of the twentieth-century avant-garde canon.
While this process may have drained the artists’ magazines of the Sixties and Seventies of their radical potential, the environment that birthed them is in many ways analogous to our own, and they become newly relevant when considered as precursors to present-day experiments with the latest new media. While we like to think of the Internet as somehow, automatically, birthing such communities, breeding innovation, and spewing forth novel ideas, it tends to only offer the faintest facsimiles. And while we hail the democratic potential of today’s information technologies, few artists have figured out how to make compelling work that capitalizes on it. Allen’s book clarifies the potential and the limitations of the Internet as a medium for artwork, and the magazines she discusses provide a framework for considering emergent forms of publication. Artists’ Magazines affords a view not just of alternative spaces but of alternative futures; they are fecund, unorthodox, genuinely social, and not yet inconceivable.
By Ibrahim al Koni
Translated from the Arabic by William M. Hutchins
University of Texas Press, 2010
Published in Arabic as al-Dumya
Beirut, al-Muassas al-Arabiya Li-I-Dirasat wa-I-Nashr, 1998
Towards the end of Ibrahim al-Koni’s recently translated novel The Puppet, a character is exiled from a Bedouin settlement and abandoned in the desert. After a night spent staring at the sky and looking for omens, the exile sets off to find his way to safety: “He did not change course the way careless people would. Instead he chose the same direction he had selected the day before, because setting a new course is an error the desert will not forgive… . In the desert those who think they have been granted enormous knowledge and who therefore debate and resist will perish… . The other group, those who surrender control to the wasteland and seek the desert’s protection against the desert, survives.”
The Puppet is the middle installment of a trilogy that chronicles a Bedouin community’s turn towards sedentary life and its concomitant moral decline. The puppet of the title is Aghulli, who is chosen to rule the tribe, but is ceaselessly manipulated and betrayed by its noblemen and traders. In his introduction, translator William M. Hutchins traces the foundations and concerns of al Koni’s work to the medieval Arab sociologist Ibn Khaldoun’s ideas about cyclical social change. It should be said that the trilogy is equally reminiscent of the Saudi novelist Abdul-Rahman Mounif’s Cities of Salt series, which chronicles the disorienting social transformations brought about by the discovery of oil.
The Arab novel is to an overwhelming degree the product of an urban, middle-class experience, and it has largely focused on this milieu in its lifetime. The desert and the Bedouin have featured mostly, if at all, as symbolic figures (a few notable recent exceptions include the Egyptian writers Hamdi Abu Golayyel and Miral El-Tahawy). In this context, al-Koni has probably produced the largest, most admired body of work in Arabic with a focus on the desert and its itinerant inhabitants.
Unfortunately, The Puppet does not give readers a full sense of al-Koni’s talents. At his best, al-Koni, who has published some sixty novels and is of Bedouin provenance himself (he was born in 1948 in Ghadames, an oasis in western Libya), creates magical but very particular worlds, places where every tree and animal has life, mystery, and power; where natural phenomena carry urgent messages; and where heroes face difficult, often impossible, choices between freedom and the claims of society.
The Puppet lacks the marvel and originality of, for example, The Bleeding of the Stone — one of al-Koni’s best works, beautifully translated by May Jayyusi and Christopher Tingley (Interlink Books, 2002). In that book, al-Koni spectacularly conjures the shepherd Asouf’s secluded sort of paradise, on the outer edges of history and organized religion (pagan, magical, and Islamic beliefs mix in Asouf’s world). Al-Koni portrays a life led in a state of constant proximity to the natural world — whether in kinship or in struggle — and how both exhilarating and frightening it can be. And even as the book veers towards the mystical and the surreal (featuring intra-species curses and bonds, reincarnations and transformations), it remains utterly gripping.
The problem with The Puppet, on the other hand, is the schematic way in which the writer plots the tribe’s moral downfall into the muck of commerce and politics. There is no suspense over the direction of events, and no effort to make the characters anything but archetypes (the greedy, scheming merchant; the blind, stalwart leader; the passionate young lover, et cetera). Al-Koni’s point — that the tribe is better off in its pure, traditional nomadic state — veers toward the trite and anachronistic (for one thing it’s hard to sympathize with tribal noblemen who keep referring to everyone else as “the rabble”).
There are some notable passages, though, such as the powerful opening sequence in which a “she-jinni” threatens the village with her disturbing siren call: “Mystics were inflamed by the sweetest forms of longing, and tears flooded all eyes. The oasis shook, cavaliers reeled, and hearts felt drained. Some became so intoxicated that they fell from the roofs of their homes. In musically induced ecstasy, men and women began writhing in ditches. Some were so overcome by grief that they drew their swords and stabbed themselves. Another group lost their minds; they sang a little and then went insane.”
Or this description, which transfers the ambiguities of an unresolved conversation onto the scene around it: “They retraced their steps silently, their feet sinking into the muddy mires. A muffled sound rose behind them: a mocking, suppressed laugh, a sob of lament, or a phrase so choked in a throat that it emerged as an indistinct cry.
All sounds resemble each other when muffled.
All opposites seem concordant when a matter is confused.
But still, throughout the book, characters get mired in long, abstruse discussions, in language that is at times absurdly stilted. It’s hard to know how much of the fault here lies with the original and how much with the translation. But Hutchins, who has translated Naguib Mahfouz and other works by al-Koni, seems unwilling to break down and rearrange the syntax of the Arabic original in a way that would render it into fluid, graceful English. Too often, sentences are over-long, clumsy, or downright unintelligible. Here is the hero heading off to do some solitary thinking: “He set off alone to hunt for the voices of the Unknown, to pray for stillness’ assistance in calling to mind eternity’s whispers, while here in the oasis the din abrogated inspiration and cast prophecy into the abysses of chaos. Here the nugatory absorbed detestable voices to annul the sign that the stratagems had devised to lead him and to assist him in a matter he had not himself chosen.”
Al-Koni has fared better at the hands of Elliot Colla, who translated Gold Dust, a powerful, tragic story centered on the bond between a man and the piebald camel of which he is inordinately proud. (In that book’s opening pages, the hero rides his mount across the desert, talking to and teasing him. “Leaning forward, spitting, and chewing at his bridle in his joyous rush, the thoroughbred would respond: ‘Aw-a-a-a-a-a-a.’ And Ukhayyad would laugh and slap him”). As it happens, Colla’s translation of another of al-Koni’s novels — The Animists, reportedly his masterpiece — is forthcoming from the American University in Cairo Press in June of this year. Here’s hoping it will make for a more fitting, less stilted, introduction to the vibrant and shifting landscape of al-Koni’s fiction than The Puppet.
A Culture Trip
By Michael Schindhelm
Translated by Sharon Sharpe
Arabian Publishing, 2011
You’ve resigned from the prestigious directorship of a Berlin opera house because you forbade the burning of the Quran on stage. What to do next? Where will life take you? Of course. Go to Dubai! You’re now a high-ranking employee of a booming multi-billion dollar private development company. Within a year, you will be the first director of culture the emirate’s ever had. And you, Michael Schindhelm, you will keep a meticulous daily diary. Does that sound too good — or weird — to be true? Or does it make perfect sense in a neo-liberal, New-Middle-East kind-of-way? It’s a stock characteristic of Dubai’s hey-days (circa 2001–2009) that descriptions of real, lived life come across as vivid, florid fiction. Facts may be sacred, but they’re also scarce in this desert dream. Regardless, in this twelve-month account of a German intellectual’s encounter with the dying days of Dubai’s decadence, Schindhelm tells it like it was (though many names have been changed: this is no embittered “name and shame” memoir). His details on how the city looked, pulsed, connived and conspired are some of the best I’ve read. This is because they’re not written from hatred, or resentment, or embedded European superiority. That doesn’t mean Schindhelm wasn’t worried by what he’d stepped into (which included presiding over a proposed three thousand seat opera house with predicted visitor figures running in the millions — because the business plan demanded the figures to get the borrowed capital, et cetera, et cetera).
Many, too many, books have been written about Dubai’s dangerous and deluded ascent built on giddy amounts of debt. Sheikh Mohammed famously alluded to his city-state as a kind of corporation with himself as its CEO. Trade, business, deal, and profit making are Dubai’s history perhaps more than any surviving material can attest to. But culture, that’s new. That’s been the preserve of Dubai’s less showy, more sober sibling, Sharjah, with the tenth iteration of its Biennial taking place this March. In Dubai, as Schindhelm here confirms, culture could only really be conceived by Emirati decision makers through the prism of financial profit (the category of a “not for profit” entity has been met with ontological bewilderment for years). A few have tried in Dubai to introduce the notion of intangible profit, the strange currency by which the good of culture is measured by those already part of its insider trading system. Of all the museums and theaters and opera houses threatening to exist during the boom, none materialized by the time the crash came. However, Art Dubai did, and around it, a vibrant commercial gallery scene. This makes sense. Art that operates as commodity, capital, that’s OK. And herein lay Michael Schindhelm’s uphill struggle, one that, by the end of 2008, was exacerbated by the global financial crisis. If Dubai had been the physical expression of non-physical credit booming then it soon came to a chilling halt once nonexistent money stopped moving around the world. Schindhelm’s November and December entries are filled with stories of peoples’ lives shuddering to a stop, overnight. The dream couldn’t be dreamt any longer.
Translated by Khaled Mattawa
Yale University Press, 2010
Experimental in form and mythic in tone, the poetry of the titan of Arabic literature Adonis resounds in this new English survey of his work, translated by the Libyan poet Khaled Mattawa. Adonis’s impact on letters has been immeasurable, as leader of a modernist movement in Arabic poetry and as editor of Shi’r, the legendary Beirut-based literary journal he ran with Yusuf al-Khal in the 1960s. Said by Syrian textbooks to have ruined poetry, Adonis freed verse from classical diction and meter, bringing contemporary spoken Arabic into his work while infusing it with European lyrical traditions — even as his poetry worked to undermine these categories. In Mattawa’s selection, spanning the fifty years from 1957 to 2008, the poet, exiled from his native Syria, emerges flooded with the anguish of displacement, the rush of eros and existential doubt (without which it wouldn’t be ’60s modernist poetry). Outspokenly secular and vocal in his rejection of politically and religiously committed literature, Adonis, who has regularly declared the end of Arab culture, holds poetry responsible for igniting a revolution and renewal in thought. Rather than conveying social norms, the poet “sets his words as traps or nets to catch an unknown world.” Of the poet’s language, he writes in the mystical, Greco-Roman-infused Songs of Mihyar of Damascus, “It is more than a mask; it is a vortex where Arab culture would meet with all its dimensions in the central and pivotal cause: crossing from the old Arab world into the new.”
Rich Texts: Selected Writing for Art
By John Kelsey
Sternberg Press, 2010
How can art critics reclaim the legitimacy they have relinquished to powerhouse art advisors and blue-chip dealers? In Rich Texts: Selected Writings on Art, a collection of essays published this past September, art-world polymath John Kelsey is both cool observer and impassioned activist, acutely describing what a new kind of valuable, persuasive critical activity might look like. The collection’s nominal centerpiece, “Escape from Discussion Island,” provides a guide for excavating temporary autonomous zones within the ruthlessly efficient contemporary art world, creating liminal spaces unencumbered by the subjectifying strictures of live/work lofts, trending/branding, and other knee-jerk formalizations of time, space, and life. In other essays culled from across the critical spectrum (Artforum, artist monographs, theory readers), Kelsey writes about Alice in Wonderland 3-D, Rodarte, and Wade Guyton. The pieces are quick and dirty, written against deadline and from a range of perspectives, but always thoughtful and engaged. This collection makes clear that by working from inside, flitting between the art world’s many character types (gallerist, curator, writer, artist) but never settling into a single one, Kelsey has cultivated a form of criticism that is all his own.
Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East
Edited by Reza Aslan
WW Norton, 2010
In Tablet & Pen, pop Islamic scholar Reza Aslan gives the American reader who knows nothing about Middle Eastern literature a tour of its greatest hits from 1910 to the present. Conceived by Words Without Borders, this gargantuan anthology covers the past hundred years of writings across genres in Arabic, Turkish, Persian, and Urdu. Naturally overambitious, Aslan hopes the anthology “may help move our consciousness of the region away from the ubiquitous images of terrorists and fanatics and toward a new, more constructive set of ideas and metaphors,” an image fashioned not by the “descriptions of invaders,” but forged by the Middle East’s own poets and writers. And yet, Aslan opens his introduction with a reminder of Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, and then goes on to explain, “What binds together the writers in this collection… is neither borders nor nationalities, but rather a struggle for self-definition in the context of imperialism, colonialism, and Western cultural hegemony.” By framing this immense range of literatures as a response to political enmity, he diminishes the writers’ ability to speak in their own set of metaphors and cedes ground to the mentality the anthology wishes to change. Western cultural hegemony actually interests only a few of these writers, and it is those works that deal with more universal themes of love and loss that are most likely to draw new readers and build bridges between literatures. One such highlight is the excerpt from Iranian writer Sadegh Hedayat’s classic 1937 novella The Blind Owl, a spooky, surrealistic meditation on obsession and loss that revolves around an unearthly, beautiful woman who walks into an illustrator’s house and dies.
Chandigarh: Living with Le Corbusier
Texts by Clemens Kroll, Arno Lederer, Arthur Ruegg
Photographs by Barbel Hogner
Following partition with Pakistan, the Indian side of the divided Punjab required a new capital to make up for the loss of Lahore. In 1951, the Swiss architect Le Corbusier was commissioned by newly minted Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to design an ideal modern city, a symbol of the new republic at the foothills of the Himalayas, where more than one million people now live. Attracted by the apparent contradiction between the reinforced-concrete Swiss architecture and the daily rhythm of Indian life, German ethnographer Bärbel Högner moved to Chandigarh and began photographing the city in 2006. In Chandigarh: Living with Le Corbusier, Högner examines the architect’s contribution to India’s first planned city, surveying its distinctive vernacular modernism to determine how even the most rigid, functionalist architecture is molded by its inhabitants. From the High Court building, whose severe concrete columns have, in very Indian fashion, been painted pink and yellow, to traditional rituals held in the city’s public spaces, we see what it is like to live with and within Le Corbusier’s plan. As it happens, Chandigarh epitomized the architect’s philosophy of the Radiant City, a rationally ordered space where the spheres of life each have their own zone and all the messiness of urban existence would be eliminated — a vision that has not come to pass, and that today’s India seems to challenge hourly.