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The sweetest taboo.


    Alex Bach: I’ll Be Bach
    December 2003

    For those of you who have tired of Bono and the Dixie Chicks, here’s a new pop rock activist for you: virtuoso Alex Bach plays for US troops in the Middle East.

    “Al salamo alikom ashkedaie!” reads the certificate of the Egypt Office of Military Cooperation, thanking US rock musician Alex Bach for joining the Forces’ entertainment in Abu Hammad in December 2003, and maintaining the “high morale” of military personnel. Following Egypt, Bach went on to play for troops in what is mysteriously termed, “unidentified parts of the Middle East,” where helicopters zoomed by en masse while she had armed escorts at her side wherever she went.

    So will Bach soon be playing her rock music, a sugary blend of Brian Adams and new metal, at a Mideast venue near you? “I’ll Be Bach!” is the reassuring slogan gracing the t-shirts on Alex’s website. One thing is for sure: Bach believes in fighting for a good cause. Over in what she lovingly refers to as “somewhere in Bumf**k, Egypt,” Bach regained appreciation for “grocery stores, restaurants and music stores that open late.”

    “I do realize,” she explains, “that to have these amenities, sometimes we have to fight for them.” World citizen Alex Bach spent a good part of her childhood in the Emirates, and reportedly still speaks Arabic. This is why she can offer us a rare, insider’s perspective on the region, which she describes as filthy and volatile.

    A glance at her tour schedule reveals that Alex will be performing in downtown Boynton Beach as well as the Brass Mug in Tampa. Hardly the kind of venues that will get her back on the evening news, so maybe she’ll be Bach sooner than you think. Perhaps — who knows? — at the Azadi stadium in Tehran? Or will it be “Al salamo alikom Damascus”? “Ali salamo Ramallah”? Keep checking your Time Out Dubai for details.

    Zaha Hadid: A Monochrome Model
    Garanti Galeri
    November 30, 2004–January 15, 2005

    Zaha Hadid has a thing for Istanbul. She visits regularly, stays at the Ciragn Kempinski and has been spotted shopping in the up market district of Nisantasi. So perhaps it is only apt that the second exhibition devoted to a single architect ― the first was Steven Holl ― at Istanbul’s architecture and design gallery Garanti Galeri (GG) is a review of recent work by Hadid.

    GG is the sister gallery of Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center. Its space, also on Istiklal Caddesi, is smaller and more corporate in design than Platform’s, and whereas Platform only has to incorporate a a cashpoint to denote its connection to the Garanti Bank, GG has to endure the street’s main branch residing on its shoulders. In spite of these more rigid features, the new GG space has been promoting product design, urban planning considerations and architectural exhibits in educational and expressive ways. GG has also established a devoted and extensive audience base: last year a lecture by Steven Holl, held to coincide with his exhibition, filled the auditorium of the Hilton Conference Center. If all goes to plan and Zaha Hadid finds the time to speak in Istanbul in January, there will no doubt be queues at the door.

    The size of Hadid’s exhibition proposal reflects the modest budget and the modest space available, and yet the installation offers a concise reading of five of her most recently realized projects: LFone Landesgartenschau, in Weil am Rhein, Germany; Car Park and Terminus in Starsbourg, France; Bergusel Ski Jump, in Innsbruck, Austria; the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, in Cincinnati, Ohio, US; and the Phaeno Science Center, in Wolfsburg, Germany.

    The collection of these works offers an opportunity to consider the variety of Hadid’s recent buildings — work that earned her the prestigious Pritzker Prize in 2004. In two of these works Hadid transforms potentially mundane spaces with dynamic architectural moves. The natural sweep of the highly specialized sports apparatus of the ski jump is dramatically extended to link the café and sundeck poised at its peak. In her car park, the slight shifts in the orientation of the parking spots hijack the cars, incorporating their transitory presence as a formal element of the design. The frenetically elegant Cincinnati Arts Center and the ambitiously fluid Science Center in Wolfsburg are cultural institutions that allow for a fuller implementation of Hadid’s vision.

    In mounting the exhibition, the design team has covered Bulent Erkmen’s wall cladding (that supposedly offered a flexible display system for the gallery), returning the space to the paradigm of a clean white cube. Large-scale photographic prints of the buildings in question have been mounted on the walls, four finished and one under construction, all taken by the well-known architectural photographer Helene Binet. Binet’s practice focuses on the contrasts, shadows and negative spaces created by contemporary architecture. Here the viewer is dwarfed by the images that draw you into the concrete interiors and entrance spaces they depict.

    In the center of the room a sample of white museumboard models sit on plinths. The exhibition’s monochrome nature draws the visitors’ attention to both the details shown in the photographs and those carved in the models. At the entrance a collection of plans owe their only 3 dimensional quality to the intricate folds and cuts applied to a sheet of card. These delicate techniques used by Hadid’s studio suggest the delicacy of origami creations, or pop up cards, that have no more purpose than to exist at the scale they were conceived. But of course these models are proposals for human use. The intense concentration required to shift one’s imagination to another time and scale, also influenced by the looming photographs and the whiteout effect of the models themselves, is seductive.

    In contrast to the steadfast elements, two animated videos, one playing at the back of the space and the other projected at night on the window of the gallery, explore the same buildings further. It is here that color emerges. And while such animation often allows for the most easily understood and informative description in the exhibition of architectural design, Hadid’s models are so explanatory that the moving images provide little more than a backdrop for an already accessible, engaging display.

    Halim Mahdi Hadi al-Karim: Layers of the Soul between Hallucination and Schizophrenia
    Espace SD
    January 13–February 5, 2005

    Something of an anomaly in Beirut’s ersatz art scene, Espace SD is a large, austerely designed contemporary art gallery that negotiates the fine line separating the commercial from the critical, the retro bougie from the cutting edge. In addition to its size, Espace SD’s location is an asset — with its proximity to Beirut’s working port and the presence of massive floor-to-ceiling windows lend themselves to a give-and-take dynamic with the city. Few artists have successfully explored the gallery’s public-private rupture, but as of January, the Iraqi-born, Holland-based artist Halim Mahdi Hadi al-Karim is giving that aspect the full treatment.

    Karim’s exhibition, Layers of the Soul between Hallucination and Schizophrenia, is about light, transparency, and weightlessness (philosophically in tune with Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being). Although now based in Amsterdam, Karim has family roots in Lebanon and has been studying the effects of SD’s windows on occasional visits home, spending hours at a time feeling out the space.

    In the past, Karim has labored to make metaphorical meaning out of windows in his work. Twisting the classic picture-plane as window-fame conceit, he has conceived of paintings and wall hangings as thresholds between various states of being. Whether they manifest themselves as gateways, portals, doors, or deep gashes in canvas representing an orifice on the female form, for Karim, these windows represent layers of consciousness and tissues of experience.

    At Espace SD, he is pushing that idea further. Karim is overhauling the entire gallery space to give it the feeling of an old souk. In addition to works strewn across the floor and fabrics slung from the track-lit ceiling, he plans to hang nine translucent panels in each of those huge windows, toying with acts of exposure and concealment, of looking in and looking out.

    Karim’s hand at titling can sometimes make for unkind readings of his work. His emphasis on the soul, dreams, and states of consciousness can cause the jaded to assume his has read entirely too much Carlos Castanada. But the idea of layered experience has concrete roots, attached to the places Karim has lived in, left behind, been forced from and pulled to. All those locales dwell in the domain of memory, which is itself a suspect space. The real window in Karim’s work opens up onto his own headspace, where scientific, psychological, and spiritual sources compete for adequate forms of representation.

    At his best, Karim distills his ideas into sharp, singular gestures. In this show, for example, there’s a certain poignancy to the faint impression of handprints detected on paintings and silks, as if to say someone was here, at some point, at some time, someone left their modest mark on this thin layer of fragile skin.

    New York
    Mapping Sitting: On Portraiture and Photography
    Grey Art Gallery, New York University
    January 13–April 2, 2005

    The Beirut-based Arab Image Foundation presents Mapping Sitting at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery — Walid Raad and Akram Zaatari’s mega-rumination on the place of the portrait photograph in the Arab world. Drawing upon sources as disparate as group military photographs from Iraq and Egypt, and “surprise” photos taken in the Lebanese town of Tripoli, Mapping Sitting offers an alternative view of vernacular photographic practices, defying mere aestheticization tendencies and instead, examining the nuances of portraiture as a social practice in itself.

    The result is a presentation that, once placed in the gallery, negotiates a fine line between history as presented in the museum and, oddly enough, contemporary art. In this context, a variety of media are used in exploring the range of representational issues raised by the portrait. Even the archaic photo, a relic of the past, is mediated through video, as projections of military photographs render assembled soldiers larger than life. Suddenly, the bounds between the photograph and the moving image are impossibly blurred — portraiture becomes performance becomes cinema and so on.

    Also within the exhibition, a series of passport reference albums from the studio of Anis el Soussi emphasizes the tangibility of the archive in exaggerated fashion — the reality of these photographers as markers. Fellow studio portraitist Antranik Anouchian’s portraits are reproduced en masse, lining the walls of the Grey Gallery space, globalizing the portrait and raising questions as to the art of classification. Hashem El Madani’s beach and tele-ferrique series showcase notions of leisure as played out before the camera. The prolific Saida-based Madani was canonized late last year in a Photographer’s Gallery exhibition curated by Zaatari and Lisa Le Feuvre.

    Here, photography is far from the fetishized icon, for the Foundation’s selection stresses neither the potential for fantasy in self-representation (the classic Hollywood-inspired portrait) nor the exoticism of the other (the picture postcard), but rather engages with the photograph as commodity. Revealed within these halls are a glimpse of how we have negotiated our places in relation to notions of modernity at large — and, if you look hard enough, an insight as to how that legacy continues to inform the present.

    After closing at the Grey Art Gallery, Mapping Sitting travels to the Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where it will be on view from April 16 to June 5, 2005. A more extensive tour is in the works.

    The Dialectics of Hope
    Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art
    January 28–February 28, 2005

    The Dialectics of Hope is a sufficiently lofty theme to encompass the opposing poles of trite handholding and the hysterically apocalyptic. Whether it catches the many nuances in the middle will be the test of the first-ever International Moscow Biennale, the next in an ongoing series popularly known as The International Biennale. The Moscow exhibition, for its part, will be an extension of a great inclusionary experiment that counts among its highlights Okwui Enwezor’s Johannesburg Biennale (1997) and Paulo Herkenhoff’s Sao Paulo Biennale (1998) — products of a decade-long flirtation with the international given an often narrow, Euro-American conception of the art marketplace.

    An all-star curatorial team (Daniel Birnbaum, Lara Boubnova, Nicolas Bourriaud, Rosa Martinez, Hans Ulrich Obrist), combined with Joseph Backstein of Moscow’s Institute of Contemporary Art, hold the potential to engage the city in a manner that speaks volumes to the particularities of place, but also has resonance for so-called peripheral spaces at large (the irony of calling Moscow peripheral is not lost). Fifty artists — among them Christian Boltanski and Bill Viola — will exhibit work in a series of state-owned museums, monumental spaces that bear the names of Lenins, Pushkins and beyond.

    And Moscow is not just another venue. Thirteen years after the great undoing of the Soviet Bloc, Russia is renegotiating its place in the world. What to watch out for will likely be the Russian artists featured, not to mention those hailing from the immediate neighborhood of satellite states that equally find themselves facing existential questions surrounding future-hood, hope and the like in the shadow of the (former) big daddy.

    Finally, the Biennale’s self-proclaimed goal of “reintegrating contemporary Russian art into the international art world” sounds good, but then for a former superpower, why not turn the tables? Reintegration sounds like a civilizing process, a reconciliation project that aims to access the canon, or in this case, the market. Note there is far more to be gained here.

    And why the dialectical nature of hope? Why Hegel? This may in fact be the key to the Biennale’s success: embracing the complexity, defying the one-dimensional. Perhaps things are not so simple in Moscow as the average post-colonial, post-communist manifesto. In principle, things are looking good from this end.

    We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us
    Redux Gallery London
    February 3–28, 2005

    Bridging the metaphorical, social, cultural and often times constructed divide between “us and them” is difficult terrain. The situation becomes a bit more complex when the ethnic or historical origins of one or more of the parties becomes a stamp — the only stamp. All too familiar with tired labeling tendencies, contemporary London based artist Shezad Dawood has curated a group show critically questioning such an approach. We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us includes the work of artists Rasheed Araeen, Reza Aramesh, Shezad Dawood, Babak Ghazi, Mustapha Hulusi and Runa Islam.

    By referencing the standard formulae often applied to the formation of group shows, Dawood’s selection of artists has been informed purely on the basis of the artists’ Islamic names. No conspiracy intended. The selection questions the notion that all artists from the Islamic world necessarily connect with one another through a unified practice and belief system. Indeed, the assembled artists could not be further detached from one another, in every sense.

    Take the film work of Islam, for example (Stare Out) Blink, (1998). The artist uses video to reexamine the notion of self-portraiture and the female “gaze” through the image. A woman stares intensely at the viewer, demanding reciprocity — only to suddenly disappear, leaving her ghostly mark imprinted upon the observer. A reappropriated poster by Hulusi, Mustapha Hulusi, (2003) is inspired by Victor Burgin’s 1970s-80s political posters, such as Possession. Hulusi has reworked the broadsheet by inserting his own name into the body of the text — an act that suggests both an art and historical protest in which he highlights his own personage in both histories. While there are representational approaches that tie together works within the show, the ethnic stamp is certainly not among them.

    We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us hopes to defy curatorial practices rooted in ethnic rubrics. Artists are placed within a super ghetto in which the “enemy” is both central and peripheral. The show’s aim is to express a mixture of indifference and defiance against any classification process, presenting works that embrace nuance rather than absolutism.

    Emirates Fine Art Society Members’ Exhibition
    Sharjah Art Museum
    February 2005

    Any visitor to the superficially culture-starved UAE would assume that the Emirates Fine Art Society specializes in the usual touristand palace-oriented watercolors of romanticized desert scenes. But the Sharjah-based organization has its gaggle of multi-media contemporary artists, thanks largely to the influence of Hassan Sharif, the father of the conceptual mini-movement in the Emirates. Sharif, together with local theorist Talal Al Muala, is curating the 24th annual outing for the three hundred members, selecting key works that fit with the theme of al tabadul (interchange). At the time of writing, only a handful of artists have been confirmed. These include Khalil Abdulwahed Abdulrahman, whose disorientating video work examines artistic process and practice, as well as the stuff of the everyday; Mohammed Kazem, who works in installation and photography, chronicling the heady pace of commercial development in his native Dubai; multimedia artist and sculptor Hossein Sharif; and Abdullah Al Saadi, a painter and installation artist who focuses on the “memory” of found and traded objects, usually exhibited on the seashore in Khor Fakkan near the Oman border.

    Some of these more established artists have had outings internationally — through the last Sharjah Biennial and exchange projects in the Netherlands and Germany — but the exhibition should be a revelation to those who include only the UAE’s myriad of commercial art showrooms specializing in desert exotica in their gallery beat. The organizers promise that the show will also include emerging artists working across all media, allowing critics to size up whether Sharif and co have managed to impart their “pluralism” to a younger generation.

    Wael Shawky: Circus
    Townhouse Gallery
    March 17–April 10, 2005

    Wael Shawky draws upon the historic space of the circus in his March exhibition at Cairo’s Townhouse Gallery. Erecting an enormous cloth tent within the gallery’s factory, complete with theatrical lighting and the works, Shawky intends to recreate the spectacle of the iconic American tradition in the unlikely context of Egypt.

    Nevertheless, this particular circus tent is oddly reminiscent of an Egyptian shader, a cloth enclosure used for both weddings and funeral. In this way, Shawky collapses boundaries of geography and even time in evoking spectacle, differentiation and the consumption thereof. In his execution, fiction meets reality; the artist draws upon documentary-style videotaped testimonies as projected in a mini-theatre within the circus — finally confusing us as to where reality ends and the fiction of performance begins.

    Elements drawn from popular Egyptian life, such as the tradition of commercial comic theater (think evoking the midget) suddenly have remarkable parallels to the iconic history of the circus. Equally, Shawky references the fashion industry, engaging models, raising questions as to the performative nature of that particular industry subculture. Like the acts on display in the circus context, the models serve an audience poised for consumption of that which is different — here as manifest in a freakish construction of perfection. Yes, Shawky says, it’s no wonder Diane Arbus got her start working for fashion magazines.

    Shawky, whose body of work is often marked by a concern with globalization and its discontents, seems to be extending these ruminations in this exhibition — here, veiled as a ubiquitous culture of capitalism = consumption = spectacle. The fact that this exploration is taking place within the context of the art market adds a further layer of complexity. His message: the circus is all around us.

    The Seventh Sharjah International Biennial
    April 6–June 6, 2005

    In April 2003, on the eve of the US invasion of Iraq, director Sheikha Hoor al Qasimi and curator Peter Lewis opened the ’Sixth Sharjah Biennial’ and transformed the fortunes of contemporary art in the Gulf. Previous biennials had been provincial, painterly affairs; this behemothic exhibition, complete with a symposium and an incomprehensible doorstop catalogue, featured over 100 international artists working across all media. So far, so humdrum to global art trippers; so far, so radical for culturalists in the Gulf, even the Middle East.

    The 2005 Biennial promises the same edgy delivery, but a sharper, more focussed approach under curator Jack Persekian, director of Jerusalem’s Al-Ma’mal Contemporary Art Foundation. Qasimi, daughter of the ruling Emir, is again directing the two-month-long event. Astutely, they have brought Ken Lum and Tirdad Zolghadr on board as associate curators.

    This time around the organizers are keen to wed the transnational format of the art biennial to the event’s locale. An accompanying symposium will debate “biennialicity” — the nature of the art biennial industry and how this new(ish) tradition has influenced the consumption of art. Meanwhile, the curatorial approach foregrounds the question of “belonging and unbelonging in a context of change” — specifically, and fascinatingly, the rapid commercial developments taking place in the UAE.

    The curatorial team is selecting around fifty international artists. They will show their work, much of it site-specific, in the “traditional” galleries of the Sharjah Museum of Modern Art and in the nooks and crannies of the city’s central Heritage Area. This setting itself raises key questions; in the words of the organizers, it provides a “kaleidoscopic fabric of shifting social structures, long-standing traditions, consumer cultures, archaeological assets, modern and postmodern architectures, and other interfaces including the biennial itself.”

    Besides the exhibitions, symposium and catalogue, there’ll be a competition, overseen by a jury that includes Rina Carvajal and Okwui Enwezor. Readers weary of identity issues — post recent biennials and Documentas — should stay with this one: the curators promise that those standard enquiries will be tested to the limits, beyond the comfortable frame of a customary artworld gathering.

    Home Works III: A Forum on Cultural Practices
    April 8–15 2005

    In its third edition, the Home Works Forum is among the premiere self-styled international cultural experiments hosted in the Middle East. Bringing together artists, writers, intellectuals, filmmakers, architects and beyond for a period of eight days in Beirut, organizers Christine Tohme and Rasha Salti of the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts (Ashkal Alwan) have set the foundation for a revolution in prevailing representational tactics today. In its first two years, Home Works, known simply as the Forum, has managed to reveal the strength of homegrown expression, finally affirming the region and its Diaspora’s own agency in playing the oft-tricky game of culture politics. In this neighborhood, the Forum provides an unprecedented venue for critical international exchange, not to mention a premiere venue for the visual arts. This time around, as in past editions, the Forum has commissioned works from a number of emerging and established visual artists, writers and beyond.

    The principle guiding the forthcoming edition of Home Works is largely self-reflective — a self-proclaimed “exploration of the notion of our being in this world, as reconstituted in narrative and representation.” The Forum’s mission statement continues, “We must assert the fact that we are not merely a face caught on a security camera, a stamp on a passport, a fingerprint filed in a court, a visa denied, a stereotype confirmed, or a silent misunderstanding hardened into unspeakable fact.”

    Overtly political perhaps, but what artistic expression is not at least mildly political in this region and, furthermore, in this global climate? Enter the Forum, Beirut’s own novel artistic platform. Importantly, the event challenges participants to initiate a critical reading of their own works in relation to the specificity of their lived context. What is the epistemological value of the past, the role of political crisis and social ruptures in the construction of alternative histories? Participants from Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Iraq, Turkey, the United Kingdom, Jordan, the Netherlands, Italy, the United States and Iran will be engaged in a variety of multidisciplinary interventions, including lectures, public performances, exhibitions and screenings.

    As in the previous round, Ashkal Alwan will produce a series of novel publications in conjunction with the Forum, an invaluable task given the dearth of local references on the arts.

    Istanbul Modern
    Opens December 11, 2004

    The new Istanbul Modern has certainly been getting love from European figureheads. German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder compared it to New York’s MoMA, London’s Tate Modern, and Paris’ Centre Pompidou, while British PM Tony Blair was a bit more transparent when he said, “As we look ahead to the prospect of Turkey joining the European Union, it is increasingly important that the world learns more of what Turkey and Turkish people have to offer us.” And there is a lot being offered for Tony to sink his greedy little teeth into.

    The museum launched last December in a newly renovated 8,000 square meter space on a pier in Istanbul’s port. Its primary mission is to tell the story of 20th century Turkish art; but in order to join the ranks of other cultural capitals, an institution must push in all directions. Accordingly, the Istanbul Modern includes a gallery for temporary exhibitions; a sculpture garden; a dedicated photo gallery exhibiting three shows year; a new media gallery where visitors can tap into a wireless network; an education program that promises to edu-tain 20,000 school children in its first year; a research library open to the public; and a stellar cinema center featuring exclusive independent films, festivals, and midnight movies on the weekends. There is also the upscale Museum Café put together by the trendy Loft restaurant and a gift shop where you can find all of your favorite Turkish artists reduced to posters and mouse mats.

    Architecturally, it has all of the subdued yet impressive qualities of most other international museums. Hopefully the museum will grow into its new space by figuring out how to hang shows in a way more conducive to viewing and jettison the iffy titles like “Touching Time” and “If Walls Could Speak” that break up the rooms of paintings in the permanent collection.

    Kicking it off in the temporary exhibition gallery is a retrospective of Fikret Mualla, curated by Ferit Edgü. This exhibition will run until March 2005 when Spanish curator Rosa Martinez will announce her presence as head curator with a show called This is Just the Beginning. Martinez has curated many shows on the international scene notably the 5th International Istanbul Biennial in 1997 and she is currently curating the upcoming Venice Biennial. She therefore seems to be a good fit for a museum looking for an interlocutor between Turkey and the rest of the EU (and beyond).

    All in all, this ambitious project will certainly be a point of pride for the people of Istanbul, but those in its art world will be a little bit harder to please. Some are already lamenting the missed opportunity to construct a truly local museum that blazes a new trail and avoids the pitfalls of the internationally standardized touristic spectacle museums.

    Natascha Sadr-Haghighian

    present but not yet active, 2004

    “I cannot make out a difference between presentation and representation,” says Natascha Sadr-Haghighian, stubbing out her Marlboro Medium in a porcelain ashtray. “Everything you present already represents something at the same time.” If such assertions have become rather commonplace in the contemporary art scene, Sadr-Haghighian is one of the few who have taken them to their logical conclusion in one of the most tenacious highgrounds of authenticity, the artist’s biography.

    How to write a profile on an artist whose current intellectual concern is to subvert identity precisely in the “curriculum vitae,” “career profile” sense of the term? Sadr-Haghighian’s project “,” one of many collaborations with the Berlin-based possesst group, is a website offering the possibility to trade in your CV for someone else’s on the “CV market,” or to use a “CV DIY kit.” The idea of the “death” of the creator, most famously defined by Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes, aimed at diverting attention away from the author/artist, towards the reader, and the ideological context in which both writer and reader do their writing and reading. Though such notions have been successfully integrated within literary studies, in the visual arts, the artist’s persona, and, by proxy, her intention, are still routinely upheld as hermeneutic guidelines. If the role of a biography is already a tricky issue when it comes to discussions of homegrown artists in homegrown contexts, it turns rather burlesque, arbitrary and embarrassing when it comes to artists from geographically removed — or indistinct — places. Sadr-Haghighian has now started using biographic data according to shifting criteria. For example, on the website of the Johann König gallery representing her, Sadr-Haghighian’s bio specifies professional activities that have little to do with her artwork (but arguably with the conditions under which it developed); 1988-90: telephone operator at a transport agency, 1990-96 bartender, 2002-2003 unemployed, etc.

    Today, Sadr-Haghighian, 29 years of age, is a fake blonde of an impressive height of six feet one, who nonetheless dresses in mercilessly high heels. Sitting in her atelier in Santa Monica, I listen as she elaborates on the bioswop project, quoting Toni Negri, Gertrude Stein and Stéphane Mallarmé, but I cannot concentrate. I’m mesmerized by a black leather collier of metal studs gracing her left wrist, which impeccably complements the purple lighter with which she is lighting a fresh Marlboro, saying “HAVE A GREAT 98” in orange Serpentine font.

    “See, it’s a question of whether you can mirror the oil crisis — which, to state the obvious, paralleled the crisis of the “object” in the arts — in present conditions of production.” I realize she hasn’t been talking about bioswop at all, but some project she did at the Kunstverein last summer.

    I nod, trying to look sympathetic, and think back to the website explaining how Sadr-Haghighian had documented the oil crisis of ’73, staging a dialogue between two women standing on a German freeway, discussing the neo-Hegelian convictions of Henry Kissinger. She stubs out her cigarette, the filter lined with lipstick (Chanel Crushed Rose, unless I’m very mistaken), reaches for her handbag and starts furiously rummaging through its contents until she finds a DVD. “OK,” she mumbles, “this is where Kissinger and biography meet.”

    After making us coffee, Sadr-Haghighian shows me the DVD, a short and unassuming video from 2003. Sure enough, it refers to biography from a more geopolitical angle, light-heartedly pointing out that, according to the copyright specifications for Adobe, and other software, it is against the law to export the programs to “rogue states” such as Cuba, Syria, Iran, Sudan, etc. — but also that any citizen of these countries is automatically barred from using them.

    The first time I met Sadr-Haghighian, at the Istanbul Biennial 2001, she was presenting the video Present but not yet Active, (which is the dictionary definition of latency), a commentary on the 1999 Manifesta. Instead of accepting the invitation to the Manifesta, Sadr-Haghighian in turn invited the three curators to a visit to the famous Frankfurt zoo. The zoo in question is based on the theories of zoologist Bernard Grzimek, who began his illustrious career during a time of decolonization, when Africa and its wildlife resorts was being left to people he could not trust. Grzimek was very intent on modernizing the zoos in the West.

    His suggestion was a new and more authentic mode of display, with painstaking reconstructions of the animals’ surroundings. The problem, of course, is that if you stick a tiger in dense jungle foliage, people can no longer see what they’ve just paid 10 Euros to see. Not only does this raise good questions regarding authenticity and visibility, the images, in Sadr-Haghighian’s film, of the three curators — hiding behind their shades as they wait by a Grzimekian jungle setting with Sadr-Haghighian, dressed in a zebra-striped camouflage outfit, standing by — are among the most gripping I’ve ever seen.

    “So did you ever meet Grzimek?” She looks pained by my question, and frowns grimly out the window into the Santa Monica sunset. But then she smiles, and changes her mind. “Actually, I attended one of his workshops on spectator psychology. Harare, 1995. Such a charming man. A true gentleman in every sense of the word.” I have a feeling she’s mocking me. Not all of Sadr-Haghighian’s work so clearly hails from an artistic tradition of institutional critique, or sociopolitical reflection, at least not at first glance. Her practice is too engaged with convoluted questions of form and structure, of performance and ceremony, to be as predictable as so many political artists, and other compagnons de route.

    A number of installations, such as Schnitte (Cuts, 1998), operating with little more than furtive slices of shadow, or Trigger (1999), a superposition occurring every two hours of two urban images shot in Munich, are inquiries that in many ways stick close to the mechanical medium of the slide projector, even as they probe into larger questions of representation. A third piece involving slide projectors, fast moving consumer goods (1999), uses images of three different types of spaces — abandoned spaces, artspaces, business offices. The more visitors walked into the gallery, the faster the slide projector was activated. The activity accelerated the change of images, making the piece a witty allegory of gentrification.

    Through Sadr-Haghighian’s selection of particular visual elements, be they curators, biographies, or shadow slices, the chosen entities become decontextualized objects of observation and projection, and are “individualized, hooked to their new host — the system that they were chosen by,” she says, pensively pouring some Nutrasweet into her coffee.

    “Its place within reality, its state of being becomes completely dependent on the evaluation and further observation by the system. Any method of creating an image of someone, or something, is ultimately a technique of isolation. It begins with pointing a spotlight at the object, which becomes brighter than its surroundings, more detailed, easier to observe. To be more sophisticated, you can exchange the spotlight with a camera, or a microscope, but the mechanism stays the same.”

    “Same goes for an interview, right?” I ask, trying to sound suave and self-reflexive. She smiles a tired smile, obviously bored by the question. Punctuating the hushed silence of her studio, her studded wristcollar gleams and flickers in the fading auburn sunlight pouring through her windows. “So how tall are you exactly?”

    She sighs. “Five foot ten.” I know she’s lying.

    Women Under the Sun

    Ajram Beach for women only

    Thankfully, there are enough social spaces with their related practices and rituals in the Arab world today to ridicule prevailing social constructions of the Arab world. Ajram Beach for Women Only is one such space. Ajram, for short, is a private humble beach that caters exclusively to a female clientele, located at the mouth of Beirut’s seaside corniche, in Ayn el-Mreysseh. It is uncanny, certainly unbecoming, to claim that a social realm shaped by antiquated segregation of gender should be hailed as the theater for anything life-affirming. Particularly considering Beirut’s obsessive compulsion to present itself as the seething urban setting with a unique portend to cosmopolitanité (faux) and modernité (faux) and westernité (faux). The moment you push the heavy wooden door leading onto the concrete-clad upper deck of Ajram, and the sea of supine bodies almost entirely naked and brazenly serene unfolds, you find yourself drawing a deep breath of relief. A weight is lifted, a weight you lugged around for so long, surreptitiously, you no longer realized it was there. The nonchalance with which every woman has disrobed, the insouciance in her gait, the care with which she has staged her sabbatical of leisure at the beachfront, are immediately infectious.

    I landed in Ajram on a ruthless Beirut summer day, the kind that drives you to the beachfront for salvation, because all other undertakings seem like unwarranted challenges to the natural order. That Sunday I could not join my coterie lounging in one of the private beaches of Beirut’s glamour belt because I had not had time to schedule a grooming séance during the week. To beach without grooming (read waxing) is so deep a breach of social graces, not only would have I had to seek political asylum, but my family would have suffered reverberations for a generation or two after my exile. I suspected the strict society of women would be clement to my appallingly hirsute disposition. And I was right.

    Women have many reasons to go to Ajram. Considering the diversity of the clientele, it would be difficult to chart hierarchies in motivations. For some, it is a beach that complies with a proclivity endorsed by observant religious practice. For others, it is a beach where the presence, gaze and authority of men is overcast. And for others, it is a beach where patriarchal values and judgments pertaining to aesthetics of the body and its public display, generally enforced and policed by men, are suspended. Liberté, égalité, fraternité: la république de Ajram.

    Contrary to prevailing representations of Beirut, the social space and its population of Ajram is not subsumed in sectarian or confessional cleavages associated — forcibly, more often than not — with almost every sphere of socialization and consumption in the city. In fact, the clientele is very plural in terms of confessional affiliation. It is however, solidly homogeneous in terms of class affiliation. Therein lies the perfidy of sectarianism in post-war Beirut: its discursive power is relentlessly used to permeate and overcast overshadow a lived experience soundly embedded in class structure, such that everyday experiences are tenaciously sorted in an official script that legitimizes sectarian difference and tension, undermining the strong collective commonality within the framework of class.

    So I pushed through the heavy wooden door, feigning familiarity, scanning slowly the upper deck and the lower esplanade, looking for a space to settle down, carefully measuring my gaze so it did not linger too long on anyone or any spot and intimidate. My light summer dress flapping in the sun, I dropped my bag on the cement ground. As I unbuttoned slowly, it dawned on me that the magic lay precisely in that moment, when I shed all my civilian accoutrements, dress, shoes and others, and revealed myself almost in the nude, like everyone else around me; then I became a woman just like every other woman, with my hips, my thighs, and my yearning for leisure and abandon. It took only a few minutes, after I adjusted my long chair and initiated the ritual for tanning, for my neighbors to my left — a triptych of women in their mid-forties, reclined in a diagonal angle to maximize exposure to sun rays — to greet me and introduce themselves: Eva, Suzanne and Marie. Their commitment to deep tanning was impressive. They asked questions, more in jest of conviviality than prodding, and babbled on commentary amongst themselves. They slipped me in and out of their conversations with a comfortable familiarity that left me startled momentarily. A seriously swarthy woman in her late forties, seriously swarthy, wearing a t-shirt exhausted from too many rinse cycles, and tied up in a knot around her protuberant belly, walked over and asked if I wanted a parasol, water or anything else from the cafeteria. I looked at her face, carved with wrinkles from a life of physical labor and too long a tenure under the sun. She was smiling, and had called me “honey,” gently. Intimidated by her demeanor and humbled by her means of production, I asked for water and coffee. Eva interjected authoritatively and added a plate of sliced carrots with lemon juice to my request list, “It will make your tan a nice orange brown, you’ll see.” I looked in her direction, she smiled widely, with confidence. I thanked her, smiling.

    At the other end of the esplanade, suddenly, there was cheering. A teenager, whose curves had yet to be fully formed was dancing to entertain the group of older women around her. Music was blaring, pop hits (all Arabic) jammed one after the other, screaming into the open horizon. Eventually one of the elder women rose to join her and began to instruct her gently, widening the circles she drew with her hips. It was a lazy Sunday, despite the packed crowd, the music, incessant cellphone conversations all around, children running amuck, and waves crushing on the rocky shore. I found my body unwinding effortlessly, languorous, slowly relishing the rays of the sun roasting my curves. Although fundamentally not ill at ease, only self-conscious of the indictments contained in a gaze, I am never eager to display my body’s girth and gait, my curves and their adipose buttresses. I will spare you this story. Perhaps too familiar to repeat, a B-drama scripted and directed under the dictatorship of the phallo-centric-patriarchal-industrial-military complex. Women flung around me exposed their bodies with a nonchalance I had only witnessed in traditional hammams (public baths). Luscious curves and boyish hips, protruding welt-like breasts and dangling heady bosoms, stretch marks, pregnancy scars, pimples, acne, all was out on exhibit. And not a single gaze vested in judgment.

    Most women covered their faces in thick brightly colored pastes, their hair tied up in bundles and scarves. “To protect the scalp from burning by sun rays, and severe drying from the sea-salted breeze,” explained Suzanne. My neighbor to the right, Amira, interjected in her turn, to confirm Suzanne’s cautioning. The women around me ordered salads and arguilehs, they drank freshly squeezed fruit juices, they chatted about life, its miracles and its everyday. They changed the positioning of their long chairs following the movement of the sun, they used plastic chairs, pillows and all sorts of paraphernalia to ensure exposure of every nook and cranny in their bodies. They regularly applied products on various body parts in accordance to some wisdom collected in women’s beauty magazines. Ajram was their self-styled “do-it-yourself” spa, their makeshift hammam upgraded to house beautification rituals and frivolous indulgence, in the wide, open-air of the Mediterranean.

    Admittedly beaches catering exclusively to women are rooted in a conservative tradition of gender-segregated social practices associated with tenets of observant Muslim practice. They were common in the 1940s and the 1950s in Beirut, but with the loosening of mores and “women’s lib,” they had slowly lapsed by the 1970s. As an urban space for the consumption of leisure, Ajram is perhaps emblematic of the legacy of the civil war, and its microcosmic demographic shifts. But it is equally imbricated in the political mindset guiding the post-war. In the “wild nights” and “days of wine and roses” representations of pre-war Beirut, the neighborhood was identified as an extension of the “hotel district,” in reference to the high incidence of hotels. The reference extends also to activities associated with tourism and urban leisure, namely restaurants, discothèques, beaches, and brothels. During the war, the hotel district became the quasi-permanent theater of violence. Its extension into Ayn el-Mreysseh was less turbulent. While its hotels, restaurants and discothèques shut down, brothels remained operational, even after as its narrow and sinuous streets fell under the political control of Hizbollah. Operational, with a marked shift to a more lowbrow clientele and workforce. Ajram fell in that interstitial space negotiated between the chauvinist conservatism of Hizbollah and the subversive laxity of brothels. Neither the governing regime nor the entrepreneurial class proved able to imagine a vision and a plan for the reconstruction and rehabilitation of the country in the aftermath of the war beyond a flaccid re-enactment of the “days of wine and roses.” The downtown city center, and its branching peripheries like the hotel district in Ayn el-Mreysseh, were resurrected to their former glory, or at least boasted to do so with prohibitive prices and select high-end luxury affect. In post-war Beirut, Ajram maintained its “Women Only” proclivity, but witnessed an upgrade in its clientele to include the petite bourgeoisie. Its proclivity contrasts sharply with the jet-set glamorous identity of neighboring business establishments and is generally endured by the new proprietors of the lustrous hotels and restaurants as an eyesore. Under the guise of contempt for an antiquated segregation of gender, their discomfort is actually grounded in the classical disdain of the ruling class for the petite bourgeoisie.

    I was just beginning to doze off, comatose from the heat, when a woman my own age poked me softly, and asked if she could use the empty long chair deserted by Amira, to my right. She was wearing a headscarf, long dress, sleeves tightly buttoned at her wrist, sandals and socks. I smiled and invited her to settle in the spot. She slowly began to unbutton her dress, babbling at me at about how much difficulty she had finding a service (shared taxi), and how hot the day was, and thank God for Ajram, etc… I babbled back at her, introduced Eva, Suzanne and Marie who had perked up and could not contain themselves from joining in. I watched her disrobe, witnessing slowly, how she transformed from a woman whose relationship to her body and notions of chastity were fairly removed from my own, into a woman in a bikini almost identical to my own, eager to take time for herself, darken her tan, simply abandon herself to the warmth of the sun. She, like Eva, Suzanne and Marie, was a real cognoscenti, with a bag full of lotions and potions for different body parts and a whole set of beliefs regarding standards of beauty, delaying signs of aging, and preventing skin cancer.

    To many, both locals and foreigners, Ajram is no more than an anachronistic, exotic, kitschy beach, where women in manteau and hijab reveal themselves in skimpy bikinis and thongs: it appears to them as a place for a futile, elusive release from the repressive regime of conservative religiosity muhajjabat (veiled women) endure amongst their own. I, Eva, Suzanne and Marie are systematically excluded from their gaze. Furthermore, in their judgment this gendered makeshift spa of the petite bourgeoisie remains pathetically and tragically captive to the oppressive dominion of phallocentric patriarchy. The male gaze may be temporarily abstracted, but its regime is all-ever-present. While some of these observations contain grains of truth, ultimately, these summary indictments stem from a misunderstanding. Ajram is a social site for release, not for resistance. As such, it is in effect shaped by its clientele, where social convention and prejudice are negotiated and reformulated to suit their inclinations and whims. Nowhere else in Beirut, have I seen obese women, midgets, and women with significant scarring, walk around as comfortably almost in the nude. In fact, Ajram is the unlikely site where a covert solidarity is knit, in generous acceptance of others, an embracing a tolerance of difference, rooted in the shared collective lived experience of class and complicity in deriding and subverting the absolute dictatorship of phallocentric-patriarchal-industrial-military complex. I walked out of my leisurely sabbatical, still hirsute, but empowered in the convivial society and acquaintance of Eva, Suzanne, Marie and Fatmeh. Four more reasons to love Beirut.

    Preening Alterity

    Softly she then parts her féradje (coat) and offers herself entirely as prey to my gaze. I saw her angelic body as white as camphor or virgin wax; then, continuing my inspection downward, I admired her secret recess with gracefully rounded hare’s lips, and, for greater pleasure still, absolutely free of any down. For starkness one could have hardly better compared her than to crystal or to the [eye] of the phoenix; in the middle, a cleft, due to the steady and infallible penknife of the Creator, divided it into two parts. —Anonymous1

    In her landmark essay “The Body as Inscriptive Surface” (1994), Elizabeth Grosz has argued that various corporal practices — ranging from tattoos, piercing, and scarification, to dieting, exercise, manners, and fashion — “mark the body as a public, collective, social category, in modes of inclusion or membership.” In other words, she suggests that the body is transformed by these practices and infused with meanings and values consonant with societal norms; it is socialized, endowed with identity, and labeled as belonging to a particular community.

    Islam prescribes a number of such practices, notably in a Hadith narrated by Abū Hurayra according to which the Prophet said “Five things are in accordance with al-Fitra: to be circumcised, to shave the pelvic region, to pull out the hair of the armpits, to cut short the mustaches, and to clip the nails.” In addition, different Muslim societies engage in a variety of practices not necessarily stipulated by religion, such as the application of henna to the hands and feet, and the dyeing of eyelids with kohl.

    Personal grooming habits like these, especially as they apply to women, greatly preoccupied European travelers and orientalist writers. However, while these habits acted to bind together the communities that practiced them, for westerners they were markers of “otherness” — always narrated in the third person, and always from a distance that simultaneously betrayed both fascination and repulsion. They were nothing less than tools with which to construct difference. Thus, James Dallaway wrote in his Constantinople Ancient and Modern (1797) that Turks “have a custom… of drawing a black line with a mixture of powder of antimony and oil, called Surmèh, above and under the eyelashes, in order to give the eye more fire… The nails both of the fingers and feet are always stained of a rose color. Such is the taste of Asiatics” (emphasis added).

    Such testimonials go back several centuries. Luigi Bassano da Zara wrote in I Costumi et i Modi Particolari de la Vita de Turchi (1545) that Turks “like the hair black, and she whom nature has not so endowed resorts to trickery, so that when it is blond, or white from old age, they dye it red with Archenda, which they call Chnà, with which they dye their pony tails; with the same medicine they dye their nails, many dye their entire hands, some their feet, but in the form of the shoe; there are some who also dye their pubic hair and four fingers above it; and they make the hair fall out because they consider it a sin to have hair in the secret parts.” Likewise, in his Voyage dans la Haute et Basse Égypte (1799), Charles Nicholas Sigisbert Sonnini de Manoncourt described in painful detail how women “are unmercifully stripped of the veil of nature” since they are “anxious to preserve over their whole bodies an exact and uniform polish.” It is very difficult not to interpret the emphatic and repeated use of the pronoun “they” in these accounts as a statement of difference: the modes of personal hygiene and grooming practiced by — or ascribed to — the women of the “Orient” thus worked to set them apart in the western imagination. To use a Foucauldian term, they were technologies of alterity.

    Travelers were not the only ones to dwell upon the topic of depilation. In an interesting and voluminous pseudo-anthropological book entitled Medizin, Aberglaube und Geschlechtsleben in der Türkei (1903), Bernhard Stern wrote that “on the day before her marriage, the Fellah bride in Syria takes the greatest care of her body. Accompanied by friends and relatives she goes to the bath. There she is washed, scrubbed, rouged, and decorated. It is an important duty of the friends with the aid of a plaster made of honey and other ingredients to rip all the hair from the body of the bride — she becomes smooth and shiny, like a small immature girl.” Similarly, Stern goes on to note that in Egypt, “several days before the wedding the bride takes a bath. On a fixed evening she comes together with her friends and they remove the hair from every part of her body except her head; for this they need a sticky semi-fluid resin, which they pour on the hair which is to be removed, and after it cools, they tear it off violently with the hair.”

    Evidently the topic of hygiene and personal grooming in the “Orient” was often eroticized, even in fairly clinical accounts such as Stern’s. But some writers were quite a bit more explicit in their efforts to titillate their audience; John Richards wrote in 1699 that “upon solemn occasions, when a virgin does prepare herself for her husband’s bed, they make a feast in the baths to which they invite their friends, at which time she takes off the hair of her body, which she never does before, and is always practiced afterwards in these hot countries. With how much modesty this is done I cannot tell” (emphasis added). Substituting innuendo for fact, Richards made sure at least to plant the seed of doubt in his reader’s mind as to the sexual nature of the custom. Such preoccupation with the removal of body hair, incidentally, gains particular significance when one considers that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century mainstream pornography in Europe generally tended to emphasize a thick growth of pubic hair. Waxed or clean-shaven genitals, which have become relatively mainstream these days in the West, were still very much an exotic curiosity as recently as a decade or two ago.

    In her essay “The Fiction of Fiction” (1973), Susan Koppelman Cornillon describes the centrality of the grooming rituals of depilating “legs, armpits, chests, chins, cheeks, upper lips, and eyebrows” to the lives of American women, noting “and yet, with all this that attaches itself to female leg-shaving slavery, I have never seen any fictional female character either shave or pluck a hair.” She is making the point that the “real” lives of women are not always reflected in their literary representation, and that is no doubt correct. In contrast to western fiction set in the West, however, western accounts of “oriental” women are replete with descriptions of grooming practices, including depilation, precisely because such practices were part and parcel of what made them different. The hammam was portrayed as the nucleus of an empire of the senses, and the women who languorously whiled away their hours there as preoccupied, indeed obsessed, with their bodies and with sex.

    In part, this rhetoric served the important purpose of constructing the European self by projecting onto others those qualities that the rising western middle classes disavowed, such as sensuality, luxury, and self-indulgence. At the same time, however, it bolstered colonialism by portraying Europe’s “others” as incapable of ruling themselves. As Lewis Wurgaft writes of the British in The Imperial Imagination (1983), while the European bourgeoisie regarded itself as “the incarnation of austerity, courage, and self-control,” the natives overseas “were caricatured to an increasing extent as their emotional opposites, and as captives of a constitutional weakness for emotional excess and moral depravity. Such moral shortcomings were said to reflect the inroads of centuries of breeding and climate, and were not amenable to simple legislative or educational remedies.” It is not hard to see how this reasoning led directly to the conclusion that colonial rule was necessary and inevitable.

    From smooth pubes to colonialism — is this just another case of abstract theorizing run amok? Not necessarily. Colonialism was not just spatial appropriation, military coercion, and economic exploitation; it was also imagination, narration, and interpellation. In an age when ideas like “liberty, equality, fraternity” were taking root, the unadulterated evil of colonialism needed to be legitimated in one way or another. Constructing an unbridgeable chasm between colonizer and colonized was but one element of that legitimation process, and sexual difference but one aspect of that unbridgeable chasm.

    Anonymous, Le Livre de volupté (Bah Nameh). Translated by Abdul-Haqq Efendi (Brussels: Jules Gay, c. 1878–79).

    Roots of Rebellion

    Beards and beyond in Iran

    It seems that “unconventional” hairstyles are this season’s taboo in the Islamic Republic. “Football clubs have been ordered to stop players with long, messy hair, ponytails, hair bands and certain kinds of beard, or they will be fined and banned from playing,” warned Iran’s Football Federation in November.

    Unconventional beards reference a host of Iranian variations on the goatee (bozi). The professori, the thicker traditional version and the diplomat, a sculpted matrix of thin lines from lip to chin, are both under fire: last year the Tehran passport office stopped accepting either, demanding either a full beard or no beard at all in official pictures. Photo studios opposite the office digitally erase offending beardlets on request, producing computer images which the authorities then accept. Less inventive travelers head, glassy eyed, for the barber downstairs. Goatees have also become the bête noire in official advertising. A new cartoon advert on Tehran’s highways warns of the dangers of driving and mobile phones. It sketches a fast-living young gun wearing the shades and studied diplomat of North Tehran coffeeshop cruisers: he shouts into his mobile as he ploughs into an angelic, veiled, young girl.

    But despite being unorthodox, renegade beardlets now outnumber the beard on Tehran’s streets and new regulations are unlikely to have much affect. Recent restrictions are testimony to a conservative attempt to shore up revolutionary self-presentation, long on the defensive. In 1979, the full beard became the flag-bearing reversal of the smooth-cheeked pahlavi model and Ayatollah Khomeini himself underlined Islamic fiqh against shaving. But after less than a decade of pre-eminence, the beard’s crown began to slip, and creative razor work has been undermining its position ever since.

    The Pahlavi era was marked by a clean-cut reorientation westwards, sandwiched between two eras of hairier clerical influence. Reza Shah banned chadors in 1936 and endorsed shaving in his drive to “modernize” Iran, dragging his country towards Europe and brow beating it into gender desegregation. Until then, smooth cheeks had been a passing stage, the ephemeral beauty of the ghilman, heaven’s lithe cupbearer, on the road to clerically mandated, bearded adulthood. Amongst the elite, the tide had been flowing towards the European prettyboy since the turn of the century, but with Reza Shah’s injunction the Iranian male lost a potent emblem of manhood, and the mustache drooped under the pressure to fulfill the beard’s former role.

    Though today a dying breed among Iran’s youth, for the older generation and in northwest Iran, mustaches have maintained their past significance. “By the hair of my mustache” remains a binding pledge for Kurds and Lors. A Qomi Ayatollah was handed a hair from a Kurd’s mustache, carefully plucked and filed in a plastic wallet, as surety for a loan of 50,000 Tuman ($44). A year later the Kurd returned with the money, to the Ayatollah’s surprise and pleasure. His smile faded, however, when the Kurd adamantly demanded the return of his hair. A panicked rummage through drawers and cupboards finally yielded the item, and the Kurd departed, his honor satisfied.

    The Islamic Revolution tipped the balance back in favor of the beard. A bushy beard bore the double hallmarks of Islam and the Red Revolutionary. Fidel Castro, whose own beard has for so long been the object of tragic-comic CIA machinations — exploding cigars and depilatory dust attacks top the list of intrigues — became a favorite of the new establishment. But aside from its philosophical symbolism, beards soon signaled adherence to the new regime, and became an employment and university prerequisite. Iranian Communists maintained their uniform of short hair, thick mustaches and spectacles for the first few years of the revolution. But by 1981 their tokens were fading, sinking into the sea of conformist beards as they came under attack.

    Wall paintings are odes to the beard’s glory days. Memorials to martyrs throughout Iranian cities almost exclusively feature men with beards or at least a heavy tah-rish, the revolutionary stubble that is still favored by soldiers and intelligence agents, most often meticulously painted a moldy green in murals. The unbearded portrait signals youth, full growth denied by death. The beardless martyr sacrifices his manhood for the revolution, and the celestial lights, fields of flowers, beckoning sunsets, invoke once again the ghilman.

    But from the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, beards of ordinary Iranians started thinning. In 1997, President Mohammad Khatami’s suave beard and pressed clothes accompanied an easing of social regulations and altered “the rougher the better” principle that had lived on in establishment corridors. It was the beginning of the end. Clerics trimmed their manes, and stubble started fading from government ministries. For the first time, long-haired boys found themselves un-harassed in universities. Today, dread locks remain a pipe dream but on the streets of the capital, but shaved patterns of the hip-hop generation are taking their tentative first steps.

    Ahmad, proprietor of Mootah, “Tehran’s best barber,” pioneers these new styles. His salon is tucked away upstairs from a quiet mall near Shariati, a major Tehran boulevard. High maintenance males bask in the warmth of hair dryers, admire their highlights and pat down implants on leather padded swivel chairs. Foreign styles have long influenced Iranian barber techniques, and satellite-beamed international football is today’s strongest influence. Ahmad charted the history of “the West” on Iranian hair for me one day, from Elvis and the Beatles to “the Beckam” and the “del Piero.” My name, Cornelie, it turns out, is the Iranian version of John Travolta’s Grease bonce, a dinosaur still lurking in “the provinces.” While the Duran Duran posht boland (mullet) lingers on it’s the plain, shaved staple of western offices that’s gaining ground.

    And today, as the razor calls siren-like even to news readers and policemen, the beard is scrabbling for a role within the official message of the establishment. While a bearded renaissance, has been gaining ground on the margins for the past few years among artists, poets and musicians, the style is an emblematic world away from its revolutionary counterpart. Their long beards, long hair and long mustaches have a separate history, rooted in both the Sufi Dervish and the hippy in an ironic to-and-fro of East and West. In a twist of fate, this style was in fashion in the late seventh and eighth century: it announced opposition to laws laid down by Arab invaders bringing Islam and shaved upper lips to the land of the Aryans. The revolutionary beard, once the sign of conformity, is confronted by a rival contender.

    But as the once-ubiquitous revolutionary model becomes sidelined, styles that formerly signaled opposition are becoming just another form of self-expression. In the relative freedom of modern Iran, men have abandoned the fanfare of the great historical volte-face, and are sounding the death knell for the facial icons of Iran’s recent past. The disappearance of these traditional symbols of manhood flags the demise of the Iranian uber-male in favor of the cherub-cheeked international everyman.

    Looking for Ali

    Notes from “How I learned to stop worrying and love the spectacle”

    Figure lying on floor of mosque, surrounded by standing soldiers. Hooded figure on box, wires trailing from fingers. Figure on a leash with soldier. Green-hued landscape crisscrossed with moving lights. Aqua-tinted aerial view of anonymous city intersected by moving lines of light. There is an abstract and uncanny quality to many of the images of violence in Iraq that are circulating today. These images distinguish themselves from the more familiar humanist portraits of life under occupation in that they don’t come with reliable instructions. One is never sure how to really look at them. Perhaps that is their power. Of the abstract images, there are two types. One is characterized by distance and abstraction. In the other, all sense of distance is erased. How are these two types of image related?

    In a critical studies course I taught at New York University a few years ago, I showed my students nineteenth and twentieth century American photographs of lynchings. The photos had circulated first as postcards, later as a traveling exhibition, and then as a coffee table book. Wanting to avoid a discussion about white guilt, I challenged my students to respond to the images formally, as images. If this were a Francis Bacon painting, how would you describe it? What does it do and how does it do it? Describe for me the relationship between the background and the figure. It was a difficult exercise for us all. One image was particularly disturbing. In it, a crowd had gathered around the smoldering remains of a male figure. The white boys were staring directly back at the camera. Have you ever looked for too long into someone’s eyes? There was an uncomfortable intimacy that was established in that gaze across historical time. Where is this moment located in the development of humanist perspective? Is this the birth of the subject? What exactly occupies those figures left standing? It’s obscene, one student remarked, because it gives the appearance that what is happening is happening every day.

    By all accounts Ali was a difficult person to work with. “I spent a week in Palm Springs with him,” comments co-star Jackson Phillips. “He was so difficult to work with that in the middle of our scene I slapped him as hard as I could across the ass. He jumped five feet. The crew and director — ChiChi LaRue — applauded me.” When he entered the adult film business in the late ’80s, Ali took a marketable name. First it was Johnny Diamond but then, trading on his “Mediterranean” looks, he changed it to Gianfranco. It’s not clear whether he chose the name for himself or whether his agents, Con Merten or David Forest did. He went on to star in all-male adult movies like Leathermen and Pleasing Young Men and Erotikus and Gianfranco Delivers. Phillips commented, “He was focused on becoming famous. He seemed to believe that if he told the gay press he was straight, it would benefit his career. Shortly after we filmed he began a serious campaign to get physically bigger. I would not rush back to work with him again.” It’s not clear whether Gianfranco was of mixed Iranian and Italian parentage or if both parents were Iranian, but Forest comments that Gianfranco was “100% homo.” Whatever that means. He appears to have been selective about the sex acts that he engaged in on camera. Perhaps that is what made him so difficult.

    He left porn in the Nineties and resurfaced as an escort. Images of him at the time show a more bulked-up, shaved-down version of his porn persona. Later he would advertise as a masseur in Los Angeles under the name of Ali. It’s been said that he attended chiropractic school and now has his own practice in West Hollywood. Doctor Ali. There are competing fragments about Ali floating around on and offline. If I were to narrate them into a believable story, it might go something like this: the child of Iranian émigrés grows up in California and is conflicted about his identity; he is 5’7”, swarthy, and different from his sun-bleached peers; as a young adult, he learns to pass for a more acceptable form of Mediterranean; later, he matures into a new sense of self-awareness, quits porn and goes to school to prepare for a more sustainable livelihood; sometime during this period, he finds comfort in Islam, attends a local Los Angeles mosque from time to time and keeps an image of his imam in his bedroom.

    Spread across 280 acres, Abu Ghraib is the largest prison in Iraq. At times it held more than 10,000 prisoners (although some estimates account for 20,000). Built under British supervision and American design in the 1960s, the prison is modeled on the 19th century linear example of Auburn Prison in upstate New York. Cell blocks run perpendicular to a central corridor. The seventh cell block is where most of the torture took place. It is an uninterrupted hallway of 103 cells, each measuring 6 x 10 feet. It can only be monitored by guards on foot, thus providing intermittent supervision.

    Every society produces its own space. Industrializing society produced the modern prison type. In the nineteenth century, prison became the general form of punishment, replacing torture. The body no longer needed to be marked. In prison the body was restrained, its time measured out and fully used, its forces applied continuously to hard labor. Michel Foucault has pointed out that the prison form of penalty corresponds to the wage form of labor. A new optics also came into play. Drawing on Jeremy Bentham’s ideas of the Panopticon, this new way of seeing demanded that everything be observed and transmitted. With this new way of seeing came a new mechanics of isolating and regrouping individuals and a new physiology of standards that define the criminal class and its inverse, the bourgeoisie. Historically produced, space both shapes and is itself shaped by social practice. Spatial structures like the prison don’t just reflect political and social practices. They shape the spaces in which social life takes place and condition those practices. Architecture forms habits in its users by engaging them in a state of distraction. The typology of the modern prison was instrumental in the development of the psychology of the subject.

    In the military, homophobia coexists with latent homosexuality. This suppression of desire is the foundation for military cohesion and soldierly bonding. There is a flourishing underground economy of all-male pornographic videos of American soldiers, many of whom have returned from or are about to embark on tours of Iraq. They are part of the same industry of videos of misbehaving frat boys, co-eds gone wild on spring break, suburban swingers taping their trysts. Slavoj Zizek has written that the Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib were being initiated into American culture: they were getting a taste of the obscenity that counterpoints the public values of personal dignity, democracy and freedom. Donald Rumsfeld has already promised that there are stronger images to come, suggesting that the photographs were merely a coming attraction to a more exciting main feature.

    To paraphrase Guy Debord, pornography is not just a collection of images; it is a relationship between people that is mediated by images.

    Walking across campus at night I am struck by the sheer number of students who traverse the quads speaking on their mobile phones. They move with little acknowledgement of the other students, also on mobile phones, who cross their paths. It is almost as if they are not there. Or the campus is not there. It has disappeared into the 0s and 1s that define our current reality. We can be there without being there.

    On film, Gianfranco was never penetrated without a condom. Did he insist on only engaging in safe sex? The desire to be safe often contradicts the desire for experience. This is a moment in which safety has far outstripped experience. We can have coffee without caffeine, beer without alcohol, sex without touching, and war without casualties. I am assured that flying is completely safe before I step on the plane and plug myself into the entertainment console on the back of the seat in front of me. At the end of the process of virtualization we begin to experience reality itself as a representation. We are daily immersed in the reality of space-defining forms but another level of our psyche resists that immersion. Extreme violence erupts in the spaces that are stripped of reality’s deceptive layers.

    “A space must be maintained or desire ends,” writes Anne Carson in Eros the Bittersweet. To fill that space would be annihilating but we try to fill it nonetheless. In loving you I found something inside you that I needed to destroy much more. The woman holding the leash, the soldiers standing over the fallen figure, the crowd gathered around the burning body, the rockets lighting up the color field, Gianfranco on his back with his legs up in the air: these images are the evidence that everything we want can’t really be touched. They are the state of tension on which we’ve built the fragile universe.

    Heavy Metal

    Carnage and commotion in the oil fields of Kirkuk

    Photos: © Marie-Laure Widmer Baggiolini

    We’d been traveling for five months, following the pipelines from Texas to Iraq, via the Caucasus, the Caspian sea, Siberia, Central Asia and West Africa, trying to describe the new crude world order of countries in which the United States is seeking viable alternatives to Saudi Arabia.1 To illustrate our travelogue, we searched and found a variety of luscious, lip-smacking icons along the way. Texas wildcatters, Moscow oligarchs, child soldiers in Luanda, Baku belly-dancers, highwaymen in Tbilisi and African dictators. But this was more than we’d hoped for — imagine an old-school heavy metal band, greasy and hirsute, in the middle of Baba Gurgur’s oilfield, northern Iraq, against a stage backdrop of flames punctuating the oil fields.

    In the offices of the North Oil Company, we found Americans in flowered shirts and beige bermudas, armed with Thuraya satellite telephones, walkie-talkies and Swiss pocketknives, installing Korean air conditioners in every room: these were men from Kellog, Brown & Root (KBR), a subsidiary of Dick Cheney’s old paycheck Halliburton, men responsible for bringing Iraqi crude production up to par.

    All around their gigantic compound, Iraqi guards watched on, wearing US nametags indicating their age, height and weight. They all had long hair, coiled up under their caps.

    “Are you Sufi?” we asked.

    “Well, actually, yes. How did you guess?”

    It was the hair. Uncoiled and shaken — headbanged — during mystic dance sessions, their coiffure embodies the bond between Earth and Heaven, man and God. Most of the guards were members of the Kasnazani order, mainly a Kurdish affair, established under 12th-century Iraqi mystic Abdul-Qader Ghilani (1088–1166), whose influence spread from Istanbul to Delhi. The day we met happened to be a Thursday, the day of the Kasnazani regular meetings. “Be our guests this evening, in the gardens of the Sheik,” one of them said, before politely asking us to leave; it generally isn’t safe hanging around premises that are the regular target of rebel attacks.

    There are two types of Sufis. On the one hand, there are the intellectuals, the poets, who read 13th-century Iranian poet Rumi with a blend of ecstasy and academic pedantry. On the other hand there are the brutes. Perhaps a difference comparable to that between the Republican Party and the armed rednecks haunting the woods of the Bible Belt. Or, alternatively, the one dividing the Basque independence movement, which includes both the Batasuna party, with their press conferences and their search for political recognition, and ETA, the brutes with bombs.

    The cab driver that evening was clinging to his gun, as terrified as we were of having to drive at night for the first time since the city had surrendered, plunging it into chaos. We got lost, driving past the citadel of Kirkuk three times before arriving there over an hour late. The dervishes (regular members of a brotherhood) were already well into their recital of la ellaha ell’ Allah (there is no other God but Allah), a ceremony that all mystic brotherhoods practice, with the ultimate aim of reaching a trance-like state. The long-haired men were pouncing to and fro to the rhythm of the drums, surprisingly reminiscent of Angus Young on a good night. When he had considered that the congregation had had enough warm-up, the master of ceremony’s assistant opened a kit revealing an impressive array of cheap cutlery and neon light bulbs.

    Dervish Fikrad, a scrawny twenty-year-old, started things by breaking off the metallic fuse of a 1.20 meter fluorescent tube, swallowing the rest as if it were spaghettini. In the silence that followed, everyone could hear him chewing on the glass, while a small dribble of blood ran down his chin until his mouth was indeed completely empty. This managed to put everyone in a jubilant mood. The old dervish Khatib started lacerating his tongue with two daggers, as if he were sharpening them. A cloud of blood and drool began to spray from his mouth.

    Next in the lineup was Momad Vlahieh, with his cheerful, cherubic face. Using a Kalashnikov cartridge as a hammer, the master of ceremonies nailed three daggers into his skull. Wearing this rather daring and idiosyncratic headdress, Vlahieh started dancing across the room. “Hey foreigner, come pull them out!” the caliph shouted in my direction. The congregation was already giggling, knowing what would follow. We each grabbed a dagger and pulled hard. Nothing. The blade was, quite simply, stuck in the dervish’s head. “That’s perfectly normal,” we were told, “you need God’s help for this sort of thing.” He shouted “Allah!” and released the knives with a small tug. For this particular redneck brand of Sufism, these entertaining stunts prove the existence of God, and are used to recruit new followers.

    An interview was scheduled for the following day at 7:30 am, with two representatives of the occupying army. Major Joe Hanus was in charge, along with John Cox of the US Army Corps of Engineers. Both were charged with restoring Iraqi oil production to prewar levels. Hanus had no intention of giving us any relevant information whatsoever, and simply handed us a booklet that, he assured us, “will be very useful.” Within, we read that his team was the “best in the world,” that there is “no mission they can’t carry out” and that they are incidentally “a strategic partner of the army and the nation to fight terrorism at home and abroad.”

    “Major, those people you employ to watch the oilfields, do you know how they spend their Thursday evenings?”

    “Err, I think they have religious meetings or something.”

    “They’re Sufis.”

    “Yeah, someone told me, a bunch of fanatics. But they’re extremely efficient at keeping the site secured. Everyone’s happy.”

    “Not fanatics, Major, mystics. In order to prove the existence of God, they accomplish miracles, such as planting knives in their—”

    “Don’t tell me that!” he interrupts us with a high-pitched voice. “I don’t want to know any of this. It’s disgusting!”

    “No, it’s just like the fakirs, they swallow—”

    “Don’t tell me that! Don’t tell me that!” shouted the timorous and sensitive major, whose army, according to recent statistics, has caused the death of some 100,000 people during the course of its invasion and occupation of Iraq.2

    1 This journey was documented in a publication entitled Un monde de brut (A crude world), published by éditions du Seuil in Paris.

    2 A study published on October 29th 2004 in the British medical journal The Lancet estimates that 100,000 civilians have died in Iraq as a direct or indirect consequence of the March 2003 United States–led invasion. The article is based on a new study carried out by a research team at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

    From Trash Heap to Emerald Lung

    The Aga Khan Trust’s ambitious Al Azhar Park

    Photo: Hadani Ditmars

    Green space comes at a premium in Cairo. While there are many parks in Cairo, these tend to be relatively small and neighborhood-centered affairs. There are no Central Parks here that help define the center of the city, no Hyde Parks or Jardins du Luxembourg that provide a central lung to an asphyxiated metropolis.

    The sad fact is that like many other things in Egyptian capital, access to large green areas where one is free to roam as one wishes is limited to a small elite. Following the example of the Gezirah Club in the middle of the central island of Zamalek — which before the Free Officers’ coup of 1952 was the key gathering point of the city’s foreign dignitaries, and to a lesser extent, native aristocracy — a series of vast clubs now dot the city’s more affluent neighborhoods. These attract different clientele — military officers, the management of large state-owned companies, the new middle class that made its riches either in the Gulf or through the comprador capitalism of the economic liberalization begun in the 1970s — but provide an important social service for status-conscious Egyptians. These clubs, along with private schools and hair salons, offer a place where Cairenes may socialize safe in the knowledge that they will be among their peers, and perhaps most importantly of all, that their sons and daughters will grow up and play only with other children from “good families.”

    Membership in these clubs is not only very expensive, but also hereditary, ensuring that a family that is down on its luck but of “good stock” can continue to frequent them. This is an arrangement that ensures, among other things, that pedigree and wealth can mix easily, reinforcing one another against the rabble outside these hallowed lawns, more often than not through marriage. This spatial segregation — the rationing of green space for the well-heeled — may have now come to a partial end with the creation of the Al Azhar Park, a 30 hectare project that has created a luxuriously green oasis in the middle of a city of stone and sand. Entering the Al Azhar Park for the first time is a powerful experience for a resident of Cairo, whose typical foliage consists of dust-covered trees. Entering the park on a chilly Friday morning, when many Cairenes are either still asleep or preparing for prayer, was an almost overwhelming emotional experience for this writer. Perched atop a series of hills salvaged from rubbish dumps and a storage area for a government-owned construction company (and previously stables for the Egyptian cavalry), the park is a rich green speckled with flowers. (The horticultural aspect of the park is one of its greatest feats; as it is built on multiple layers of the city’s garbage, thorough testing had to be done which flowers and trees would thrive on its nutrient-poor, alkaline soil. In the end, a 20 hectare nursery was created for the park outside the city to grow its plant stock and test several thousands of breeds for suitability.) Its lawns are perfectly manicured, its flowerbeds a mixture of French rigidity and English abandon, while marble and other rich materials adorn its structures. Most impressively, the skies — usually thick with smog — seem to part over the area, showering it with warm sunlight. Set against a vista of dozens of minarets, the impressive Cairo Citadel complex, an escarpment adorned with military radars, and perhaps most of all the rag-tag third world architecture of the city (which could be any large city of what development experts now call the global south) the impression it gives is, as one writer put effusively put it, of paradise.

    There is something Augustinian about the Al Azhar Park in that it evokes a city of God surrounded by a seemingly endless city of Man. It is an image of perfection by contrast, but with a cruel twist: it is all too evident that the park is an exception to a rule of chaos and pollution that is Cairo; next to a discombobulating, hopelessly flawed but warm and often embracing city it seems achingly beautiful but cold and austere.

    The Al Azhar Park is the result of twenty years of work by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture’s Historic Cities Support Program, an initiative that seeks to address conservation issues in the cities of the Islamic world. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture, perhaps best known for its Aga Khan Award for Architecture, is the brainchild of the current Aga Khan — the title given to the spiritual leader of Ismailis, an offshoot of Shia Islam with its roots in Persia and the Indian subcontinent as well as the Arab world.

    The Aga Khan launched the Al Azhar Park initiative in 1984 during a conference on the future of Cairo, after noting that the city lacked any major public green space. But its implementation was delayed until the 1990s, after the area chosen for it along the medieval city walls was emptied and the construction of several water reservoirs by the US Agency for International Development was completed. In the twenty years it took to take the park from concept to its current status, the project also grew to include other elements, including the restoration of the wall bordering it and of several important listed buildings in the popular neighborhood of Darb Al Ahmar on the other side of that wall, which contains one of the highest density of Islamic sites in the city. In turn, the restoration project led to the creation of a social development program that included restoring houses adjacent to the wall and providing an opportunity for the local community to get involved in the overall plan.

    The Al Azhar Park project — seen as a whole that includes social and conservation elements as well as the creation of park — can be commended for having taken a holistic approach that is sensitive to the needs of the local population and receptive to their input. Indeed, over the past decade, the project has been one of the main drivers of change in the neighborhood. Not so long ago, Darb Al Ahmar was refuge to some of Cairo’s biggest drug lords, who held complete sway over the neighborhood and were left to their own devices — along with ordinary residents — by the police. They held a daily ceremony that took place in a back alley not far from the now restored medieval wall, wherein these drug lords would gather around large tables covered with huge stacks of bango, the local rather mind-numbing variant of marijuana, and distribute it among dealers and addicts that would come from across the city. While drugs have not disappeared from Darb Al Ahmar — indeed in many poor districts of Cairo heroin has begun to replace bango has the opiate of choice — Darb Al Ahmar’s drug lords were forced to retreat in the 1990s, when a police force no longer distracted by Egypt’s long war against Muslim fundamentalists began to take its role more seriously. It is thought that the presence of the Trust in the area may have convinced local authorities to police the neighborhood again.

    Photo: Hadani Ditmars

    The Trust’s employees established one of their main offices in one of the neighborhood’s alleyways, eventually restoring a beautiful late nineteenth century mansion into what has become today a community center and children’s library as well as office space. The Trust’s employees are partly foreigners and partly recruited among Egyptians. The very presence of the project, therefore, created a dynamic of social mixity that is relatively rare in contemporary Cairo. Conceivable, Darb Al Ahmar became important again to the police and others because there were respectable people there to point out its decay.

    Cairo is really multiple cities built one after another, each a new incarnation of the city beginning as a grandiose new project and often finishing in abandon as developers and the city’s status-conscious denizens rush to the latest new neighborhood. Although the historic heart of the city has always been on the eastern bank of the Nile, since the 1960s there has been a vast expansion westward — an encroachment on scarce agricultural land (only three percent of the country is arable) driven by the manifest destiny of demography.

    Over the years, these new areas drew affluent inhabitants from the overflowing old quarters and new immigrants from the provinces. This left many of Cairo’s historic neighborhoods in slow decay, only to become overcrowded slums whose confined, labyrinthine structure offended the lock-step sensibility of the modernist 1960s. Darb Al Ahmar, one of the richest areas of the capital in terms of medieval Islamic architecture, is one of those areas of Cairo that has been left behind.

    Darb Al Ahmar borders sites that are central to Cairo’s historic identity, the such as the Khan Al Khalili, a merchant’s quarter whose current tourist-trap appearance hides a long history as a hub of trade and craftsmanship for several centuries, or Al Azhar university, perhaps the most influential center of Sunni Islam in the world. It is a warren of mosques, madrasas, regal houses and awqaf — religious endowments left behind by wealthy patrons for posterity — all huddled together, almost atop one another, competing for attention from the odd adventurous tourist that strays from the central attractions of Fatimid Cairo.

    Originally, Darb Al Ahmar was the first extension of Al Qahira, the city founded in 969AD after the Fatimid conquest of Egypt to house the new elite. Al Qahira — literally “the victorious,” and the name from which we derive Cairo — had been built as a fortress city. Most Egyptians did not live there, but rather in an earlier incarnation of the Egyptian capital at Misr-Fustat. Centers of power, however, have a tendency to draw visitors, merchants and supplicants, and it became clear before too long that Al Qahira would grow beyond its walls. Darb Al Ahmar became the first of a long series of expansions after an extension of city walls and the immigration of Misr-Fustat’s inhabitants after a drought in the eleventh century. Its boundaries were defined by the pre-existing walls of Fatimid Cairo on the one side, and the new wall linking Fatimid Cairo to Saladin’s citadel, which by then had usurped Al Qahira as a center of power. Darb Al Ahmar, in the middle, became an area for the nouveaux riches not unlike the neighborhoods that emerged on the west bank of the Nile in the 1970s.

    Despite this illustrious history, today’s Darb Al Ahmar exemplifies the abandonment of former centers of Cairo for new areas. Islamic Cairo as a whole — that is including various neighborhoods such as Darb Al Ahmar, Fatimid Cairo, the Citadel area and others — was abandoned in the late nineteenth century by the Khedives, the descendants of Muhammad Ali, who moved the seat of government to a new Italianate palace in Abdin and decided to build a new nervous center for Cairo around what is currently known as downtown. The brief apogee of this area, a mishmash of art nouveau, art deco and early modernist buildings that once earned the capital the moniker of “Paris on the Nile,” shifted the political and economic center of the city back along the eastern shore of the Nile, creating wide avenues and imposing, spacious buildings rather than the narrow alleys and the small but ornate Islamic architecture of the old city. Islamic Cairo may have been the favorite setting of the doyen of twentieth century Egyptian literature, the Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz, but that may have only been because it represented an Egyptian authenticity that the westernized downtown area — with its strictly class and at times nationality-segregated clubs and cafes and its large expatriate population — could not possess.

    Ayyubid Wall, Al Mahruq Tower during restoration. Courtesy Aga Khan Trust

    On one trip to the park, I brought along Vincent Battista, a French anthropologist who specializes in gardens and oases in the Middle East. Battista, with the keen eye of the expert, pointed to the trees that line the entrance and the main artery of the park. They were, he said, Cuban royal palms. As their name suggests, Cuban royal palms are not indigenous to Egypt, although they are often preferred to the local variety because their smooth, graded bark evoke luxury. “Cuban palms are used to denote class and wealth,” Battista told me, explaining they are often used in the landscaping of sites that need to convey a sense of exclusivity.

    The same sense of the grandiose extends to the park’s main attraction, a central artery that descends from the luxurious restaurant atop its highest hill (which during the holy month of Ramadan was booked full every night for iftar (breaking of the fast) by corporations and foreign embassies.) The Fatimid archways and chic understatement of the restaurant morphs into a 250 meter promenade facing the Citadel complex, with a central canal taking water on a gentle downhill slope to a fountain at the bottom. The effect is perhaps more Persian that Arab, with a touch of Versailles thrown in for good measure.

    The park’s other main features — a gazebo behind the restaurant, an artificial lake and the large café that borders it — have also been done in keeping with carefully groomed rendering of Islamic architecture — although it is an ad lib on general Islamic themes more than a precise period imitation. It is not surprising that some of the landscapists and architects who worked on the park — including a local company, Sites International — normally work on the five-star resorts that have proliferated along the coasts of Sinai and the Red Sea. While certainly beautiful and tasteful, their creations have a manufactured sense to them, particularly when surrounded with genuine period architecture ennobled — and decayed — by the passage of time. There is a wonderful irony in the friction between the buildings of the Al Azhar Park and those in the bordering neighborhoods. While the original buildings have often decayed, left only to attract the odd tourist or Islamic history buff, the derivative buildings of the Al Azhar Park are attracting the cream of Cairene society. Historic architecture languishes among shoddily built concrete buildings, most of them unfinished to accommodate the whim of another floor (even if at the expense of structural stability) while the cultural elite are content to admire the vista from the safe distance of their VIP parties.

    There is therefore an awkward duality to the Al Azhar Park. On the one hand, it was envisaged as the city’s park (even if it is in a location that is not easily accessible by most Cairenes) and one of the project’s ambition was to tackle the lack of large-scale green space in Cairo. On the other hand, by virtue of its location and the aspects of the project that have focused on restoring some of Darb Al Ahmar’s buildings and the wall separating it from the park, it also has a local dimension. This duality is at its most evident when it comes to the pricing policy to enter the park. The entry price for adult Egyptians has been set at six Egyptian pounds. This means that a family of four or five would be asked to pay up to twenty pounds, which is an exorbitant sum when one considers that the Cairo Zoo, the other main open space in the city, only costs a quarter of a pound. And yet, locals from Darb Al Ahmar can benefit from a reduced pricing of around two Egyptian pounds. These sums — six Egyptian pounds are worth a little less than a dollar — may seem paltry but by western standards the majority of Egyptians have extremely low salaries, with civil servants often making around three hundred pounds per month (less than fifty dollars).

    While officials involved in the project said that the pricing scheme is under revision, they are clearly of two minds about it. Seif Rashidi, an Egyptian urban planner who has worked on the park’s Darb Al Ahmar project since the late 1990s, told me that one of the ideas for the park was that it should be a place where all social classes could mix but there was also a concern that entry should not be free to help foster the idea that the park was a valuable site worth preserving. And while the Hilltop Restaurant is clearly dedicated to an elite clientele, the lakeside café is not exactly cheap either, particularly by the standards of nearby coffee shops. Likewise, it does not seem that the park’s authorities would allow peddlers to sell less expensive food and drinks, a move that would also foster employment in the area.

    “It’s difficult to work with people from both extremes,” Rashidi said. “On the one hand people from areas like Darb Al Ahmar need to feel comfortable, and on the other people from the elite need to feel that it is elite enough. It’s a difficult balance.”

    So far, the Trust says the park has attracted 1700 people per day during weekdays and more on weekends — nowhere near the number the park could accommodate. But one gets the sense that the park’s creators are protective after all the effort made to create such a magnificent site. Egyptians tend to have a low opinion of their ability to maintain order; the chaotic quality of life in their capital has in particular convinced the polished elite that the masses are undeserving of green areas. The few public areas on the recently created pedestrian zone along the Nile’s corniche are, for instance, ruthlessly policed and it is not infrequent to see people (for whatever reason) turned away from its gates. There is a feeling that the same phenomenon could take place in the Al Azhar Park, even if its patrons have endorsed the idea that at the very least the residents of Darb Al Ahmar should have cheap and convenient access to it.

    But perhaps it is too early to tell. One wonders whether the park will simply be yet another semi-public space, like the new neighborhoods’ gilded shopping malls, that are in theory open to all but in practice are prohibitive to poor Egyptians because of their cost or, simply, the overwhelming feeling that they do not belong. There are also concerns that within a few years, stewardship of the park may be handed over to an underfunded Cairo governorate which will fail to fully fund the maintenance of the luxurious garden. The act of creating the park in of itself was a broad pledge of optimism. Let us hope that it will inspire its benefactors to preserve it and work to reduce its Olympian, otherworldly qualities and weave it into the fabric of the city.

    Aerial view, Al Azhar Park under construction, 2000. Courtesy Aga Khan Trust

    The Forward Thrust of Christine Tohme

    Beirut-based curator Christine Tohme has been organizing events in public spaces since 1994, creating platforms of exchange between artists in Lebanon and other countries. Tohme is one of the founding members of the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts (Ashkal Alwan), a nonprofit arts organization of which she is the director. From the outset, Ashkal Alwan has been committed to developing art practices across a wide range of disciplines and media, including installation art, video art, photography, performances and publications. In 2001, Ashkal Alwan conceived Home Works, A Forum on Cultural Practices, a multidisciplinary event intended as a public arena for artists, curators, intellectuals and cultural practitioners to engage in critical reflection and debate. Since that time, Home Works has grown, with edition III to be held this April (see previews). Beyond the Home Works Forum, her most recent curatorial projects include Missing Links (Cairo-Beirut, 2001), Possible Narratives — jointly curated with Akram Zaatari in the framework of the Videobrasil festival (Sao Paolo, 2003) — and Laughter: A Program of Contemporary Lebanese Art, produced by the London International Festival of Theater (London, 2004).

    Bidoun: Which professional background do you come from. Did you work as a curator before organizing the forum?

    Christine Tohme: From 1995 to 2000, I worked in public spaces, Beirut’s seafront, and in gardens, one where a public hanging took place after the civil war. This was the first postwar art project. It came at a time when East and West Beirut were still completely closed to one another. Officially, the war ceased in 1990, but there were still many conflicts and clashes between different militias and so on. What was important to me was the question of: do we have a public space in Beirut? And when I say Beirut I don’t mean Lebanon. I’m interested in Ramallah, Cairo and Tehran. I’m not interested in Palestine, Egypt and Iran. I’m interested in cities.

    Bidoun: So you moved from working on a specific urban environment to a large international context. It so happens that in this international arena, there is also a huge fascination for Beirut specifically.

    CT: Beirut has always been a center. They used to call it the Champs-Elysées of the Orient. And historically, it was a port city, a commercial center, a role that might be passed on to Dubai now, because Beirut has not rediscovered its role, the one it had before the war.

    Bidoun: But does the fascination for the Beirut art scene have the same roots as the Champs-Elysées of the Orient?

    CT: It is democracy that creates artistic accumulation. And Beirut is still democratic. I’m not saying 100%, but, relatively speaking, it is democratic. You can still talk. Can we talk in Egypt? Can we talk in Syria? In Amman? In Beirut, we’re getting work done to a certain extent. I’m not saying it’s the way it used to be in the Seventies. Even today, censorship is one of the threats we’re dealing with all the time. But in comparison to other Arab contexts, it’s a city that’s kicking.

    In 1999, we installed a sculpture by Tony Chakar for a seafront project [Ashkal Alwan’s Corniche 1999], and it created a big row with the mosque. They thought it was blasphemous. At that point, some people started mobilizing to protect the sculpture, because people were feeling that Islamic fundamentalism was invading everything. It was on the front page of all newspapers, even the Municipality and the Minister of Culture dropped by to discuss it. Can you imagine this happening in any other Arab country?

    The piece was not anti-Islamic in any way. It was questioning notions of museum art. But even though we felt threatened, we were able to shake the city with this artistic manifestation. This is what I call constructive failure, because it pushed us to ask ourselves: do we have public space in Beirut?

    Bidoun: Still, what I find difficult about your distinction between art in democratic and non-democratic societies, is that, working in Tehran, for example, which is largely non-democratic, the largest challenge wasn’t the regime, nor the mosques. It was completely different things, like the fact that the whole art scene was completely bourgeois. And that it had such antiquated, beaux-arts ideas about contemporary art.

    CT: I’m talking about artistic accumulation. Not about artistic practices. You can have art practices in hegemonic atmospheres. But I’m talking about layers, about strata of artistic accumulation. And actually, Iran for me is a big example. The Shah got Bob Wilson to come and perform in Iran in the seventies, a twenty-four-hour performance in the mountains around Tehran. And yet, the Shah was the man who built the SAVAK. This is very schizophrenic: the man who built all the museums I saw in Tehran, and who brought in the very best designers, also erected one of the most ferocious secret services in the world. Even the now-famous cinema industry in Iran was initiated under that very structure of hegemony. We have to question that industry as well. Just as we have to question the fascination for Beirut. How many artists do we have here in Beirut? There may be hundreds but all in all, I relate to about twenty-five artists. Why is the West getting seduced by this place?

    We have to see that the artists here are definitely privileged with respect to others in the Arab world. They’re functioning in a more accessible, democratic space. It’s much easier for them. Of course, in Egypt, the international funders have decided to shower money throughout the country because they want to quench fundamentalism, and thanks to Sadat’s agreement with Israel there’s more money around, but how do artists function in Cairo? As far as I can see, these artists suffer censorship a lot.

    Bidoun: But there has to be some kind of pragmatic way of theorizing art under dictatorships. I don’t think it’s necessary to set up this hierarchy of yours between places like Beirut, and others.

    CT: I agree — maybe it isn’t necessary. But I believe in working for change. And when I talk about censorship and modes of production in this way, people in the Arab world will know what I mean. I don’t believe in art that’s put in the service of political causes. Militant art has lost its meaning. And yet we still have to think about resistance. How can we keep our pockets of resistance?

    Bidoun: Some say that in countries that are the object of much international attention, the pressures exerted by NGOs is comparable to government censorship in repressive countries. They say donors can fine-tune your program according to what they want you to be.

    CT: Never. Even when they try to do so, I refuse. I say, “Thanks, but I don’t want your money.”

    Bidoun: Not at all? You’re never tempted? Aren’t these difficult choices when you can gain so much from the funds they’re offering you?

    CT: I’m not a fundamentalist. I’m not saying, “I don’t submit to agendas, I don’t play the role, I’m not part of the market” — I AM part of the market, I’m seduced by it and I’m playing the game. But there are limits. If someone says [takes on a high-pitched voice], “I’d like you to get an African artist to Beirut!” Then I say, “OK, seeing as the Lebanese have historical ties with Senegal, seeing as they’ve gone and done business there, and enslaved the blacks there, then I myself am compelled to do this project. But don’t try and impose it on me.” I’ve been confronted with such requests a number of times and I always refuse, and in an intelligent way. The funders have their own agenda, we have ours.

    Bidoun: You use the word “region” in the title to the forum. Isn’t this a slippery slope, conceptually speaking?

    CT: Maybe you didn’t realize that, but we dropped it. It’s now Home Works: A Forum on Cultural Practices, and no longer Cultural Practices in the Region. A region means too many things. Some, for example, would argue that Turkey is not in our region, while others consider Turkey its very heart.

    The program this year deals more with complementary diversity. It’s a platform for everybody, and not a regional manifestation. We’re not inviting artists for geopolitical representation, but for their work. We’re not interested in creating another cocoon. The region is already full of cocoons, and we have to be aware of this trap.

    The forum initially came out of a very honest attempt to try and explore what the region is. What is the role of Lebanon within the Arab world, and what is its relationship with regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict? But then I came to understand the incestuous side to Arab Nationalism. Do we want to go back there? No. Personally, I’m not interested.

    Bidoun: There’s a lot of excitement these days that contemporary art is produced in comparable ways absolutely everywhere, art that can be shown in commercial galleries in Paris, at prestigious biennials, etc. Does that leave you optimistic?

    CT: Why not? I don’t have a problem with commercial work, nor with biennials, even though biennials are slowly turning into dinosaurs. Some like to pretend that the market doesn’t exist, and I myself, I do prefer small-scale forms of representation, but as much as I have problems with the market, we have to think harder about what it is, and use it as a space.

    Bidoun: Then what do you think about Catherine David, for example? Has she opened any doors?

    CT: Catherine David came to Beirut like any other curator, and, again, we could talk about a specific agenda. But she did open many doors for Lebanese artists. And I respect her, since, compared to all these curators who come to Beirut and don’t know a thing, she’s a woman who has done her research, who came here for three years before initiating Contemporary Arab Representations. At least this was the case in Beirut, I’m not referring to her other projects. I do, however, have problems with the title. There are nuances and differences within “Arabness.” What is my relationship as a Lebanese to someone from Saudi Arabia or Sudan?

    Generally, people like to talk about curators as if they were monsters who come and invade our cities. But we need them, and they need us. We’re playing this game, so why do we have to blame them for “coming and taking.” It’s up to the artist to resist. And if the artist falls into a trap, then that’s the artist’s problem, not the curator’s.

    I meet many curators in Beirut, and it’s MY job to resist and to say, “I’m not interested in doing a project with you.” I’m constantly offered to work on projects outside Beirut, and I refuse, because I’m working on the city, and I’m creating a structure. I’m not creating a festival. And if I was seduced by all these offers, I wouldn’t be spending any time in Beirut.

    Bidoun: In that context, what role can a magazine like Bidoun play?

    CT: Its identity is not clear to me yet. I just hope Bidoun can play a role that is something other than a regional magazine. I’m sorry, but we don’t need a regional magazine. Again: we don’t want to fall into this trap. We need Bidoun to be a platform, so it needs to be in India, Syria, Palestine, Paris, the US; we need it wherever there is a possibility of diffusion. Bidoun shouldn’t take on the responsibility of being the regional spokesman. It took me a few years to understand that I don’t want to be a regional representative. I’m sorry.

    Lessons from the Boss

    I was looking for a four-letter word

    Masoud Golsorkhi, founder and editor in chief of Tank teaches Lisa Farjam a thing or two.

    Bidoun: Why Tank? Do you think one-name magazines are better than others?

    Masoud Golsorkhi: I was looking for a four-letter word. English has a tradition of having very effective four letter words.

    Bidoun: I can think of a few right off the top of my head.

    MG: It also refers to think tank, tank as a container, but it also one of those words that actually has no translation — it means the same thing all over the world.

    Bidoun: Our issues are themed around a central topic. This issue is themed around hair. And so I wanted to ask you a few questions related to hair.

    MG: Well, I’m very pro-hair, so that’s fine with me.

    Bidoun: Great. What was your hair like as a child?

    MG: I had very straight black hair, like most Iranian boys. But when I hit puberty, it all went very curly. It made me very unpopular. You know, in Iran, there is a slight prejudice. If you look too much like an Arab, it’s not such a good thing. People used to call me “the Arab.”

    Bidoun: Who is the biggest hair icon in the Middle East?

    MG: All I can think of is Googoosh. Before Madonna, before postmodernism, she was so capable of reinvention and reinterpretation.

    Bidoun: What would you consider the ugliest thing on earth?

    MG: I have to say I can’t think of anything uglier than the Rumsfeld, Cheney, neo-con militarist #*$! that’s in power in America at the moment. They are the biggest threat to survival of humankind, and to peace, safety and security to most people in the world. They are the ugliest thing since the Cold War, since the Gulag and Stalin.

    Bidoun: Agreed. Why all the hair in the last issue? Do you have spies infiltrating other magazine enterprises?

    MG: Well, facial hair has been a kind of feature for the last couple of years — we did a big feature on mustaches a while ago, an article which took me almost a year to write because the first idea came up as I was listening to a radio program about Turkey, and it was a kind of small line in it which said that in Turkey you can always tell someone’s politics by the shape of their mustache! I thought that was kind of true, so, there it is.

    And as for the Cousin It shoot, well, that is my daughter, she’s a bit of a gremlin, a bit of a monster… but there is of course the pun on It girls, and so on… I haven’t had more compliments on a shoot in Tank than this one for about 5 years…

    Bidoun: What does it take to make “it” in your opinion? Besides good hair?

    MG: I think in almost any area, ambition. You need good hair, and ambition. Ambition will get you further than almost any other quality I can think of.

    Bidoun: What was your favorite issue to make?

    MG: It’s always the next one. I really enjoyed making “Arabica” in ’98, because people just didn’t understand, they thought we were sponsored by a coffee company, there was a real degree of bafflement. That was a landmark issue because we worked on the theme. And I am very proud with the issue before last, with the Prada cover — I really loved that one.

    Bidoun: Are you hairy deep down?

    MG: No, I’m more hairy on the outside than on the inside. People think I am quite fearsome, but I am an absolute pussycat.

    Bidoun: What advice would you give me at Bidoun as a starting magazine?

    MG: First of all, I enormously admire what you have done so far. I love the look of the magazine so far, and I would just advise you to be more ambitious than you thought to be and don’t be afraid of approaching things that you think are bigger than you. In school, or in prison, you need to pick a fight with someone to make a name for yourself. Pick a fight with someone twice as big as yourself. Because whatever happens, you will always win.

    Just be shamelessly ambitious, and don’t listen to anyone else. It’s always better to make a coherent, strong mistake, than a bland, run-of-the-mill product that “pleases” everybody.

    Bidoun: Do you ever wish that you had done it differently? Did Tank come out as you imagined it?

    MG: I suppose when you imagine it as always a collective effort, where everyone gets along all the time… but I guess I never imagined it would last… I think in the beginning there was tremendous support from everyone, but as soon as we kind of showed that we were here to stay, people were a little less helpful…

    Bidoun: Would you ever consider having a column in our magazine? Defect and work with us?

    MG: Well, um… I am very honored… how ’bout next issue?

    Bidoun: Sounds good, we’ll do lunch then…

    Streetmusic Arabe

    Photos: © William Eckersley

    The recent Streetmusic Arabe tour, put together by the UK’s Arts Council funded Contemporary Music Network, hit the British Isles in late October, with venues around England, Ireland and Scotland. The tour featured a unique line up of artists from the Arab world: tradition was represented by the Rai stylings of Nass El Ghiwane, Morocco’s oldest and most venerated band; populism by the incendiary live hip hop of Clotaire K; innovation by DJ/Rupture’s blend of live sampling with the taqasim tradition of Arabic music. The novel approach to contemporary music which informed the tour offered a vision of a “world” or “fusion” music which transcends the glib appreciation of those who perceive it as a tasteful lifestyle accessory, another alluring commodity with an accessible touch of the exotic. The diversity of the London audience, which ranged from eagle-eyed culture vultures to London-based Arabs and defiantly baggy trousered hip hop heads, bore out the value of combining such different artists on the same bill.

    I caught up with Clotaire K and Jace Clayton (DJ/Rupture) in the dingy dressing rooms at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank, just a couple of hours before their London date. Amidst the hectic atmosphere of sound checks and demanding journalists, both were voluble on the subject of the tour itself and on the ideas that inform their approach to music. The concept of showcasing “streetmusic” (albeit in the sedate surroundings of seated auditoria rather than dancefloor-based venues) as being the best of what one culture can offer another seems radical in itself. It points to a more fluid and democratic conception of world music, one which is based less on notions of authenticity or tradition than on the idea of what Clayton refers to as “what you hear bumping on a stereo system wherever you happen to be.” And that could be hip hop, dancehall, or Arabic pop in Brooklyn or Beirut and anywhere in between.

    Dance music in general and hip hop culture in particular could be seen to have opened up different cultures to each other — a propulsive rhythm aimed at the dance floor works equally well in numerous different contexts. The tour was billed as a “Strike Against Cultural Imperialism” and it does seem that the kind of fusions and cross fertilizations which it offers may have a powerful political potential. As Clayton explains, when asked about the political possibilities offered by his medium: “Music can always get to places where other media can’t, where other ideas can’t. There’s this French saying that ‘nothing travels faster than music’ and I really believe that, in many ways because it has this abstract element which can do without language but still contain quite a bit of social and political content, even sometimes at a non verbal level. It really can suggest other possibilities, other ways of rooting things and thinking about things and so, in that sense, yeah I think it is and this tour’s particularly interesting because it’s possible for us to have all these different types of music.”

    The idea that music can play a part in “rooting” (or routing) things differently suggests the ways that it could make widely different cultures begin to understand and communicate with each other, as Benetton as that is. Throughout the concert later, there are heads nodding all around the Queen Elizabeth Hall (as well as some impressive singing from the North African contingent during Nass El Ghiwane’s set), even though many of those present doubtless speak little Arabic. Equally, Timbaland or the Neptunes can move a dancefloor in Beirut or Dubai, even if the lyrics of their songs remain obscure to those not versed in US slang.

    As well as presenting other cultures in a more appealing and sympathetic light, the adaptability of hip hop’s universal formula of beats and rhymes can offer a voice to those who have few other means of self-expression. The global reach of MTV and the cheapness and accessibility of modern studio technology have made it one of the most open contemporary art forms, lending itself to Arab, African or European voices. Clotaire K suggests that “it’s good if youngsters can recognize themselves in these hip hop beats which allow them to express the truth the way they want, on top of beats which push their friends to dance. And on the other side, not being ashamed of Arab culture. And that’s what’s happening and I think it’s good.” As he self-deprecatingly points out, musical talent is not a prerequisite for making hip hop (though his show suggests he has it in abundance). Talk of an Arab hip hop scene is, however, more the product of journalistic hype than the reality on the ground, he suggests, observing that even in cosmopolitan Beirut there are only a couple of serious hip hop acts.

    There is perhaps more evidence of what some have called an “Arabesque” sound evolving amongst western producers — Clayton’s Nettle project stands out, as does the work of Smadj, a Tunisian born artist signed to London label Most records. There is, however, a risk of what Clayton calls “facile appropriation” involved in fusing traditional instruments and contemporary beats, particularly when sampling technology means it’s possible to add a superficial flavor of the Orient (or anywhere else) to your music for the price of a CD. Both he and Clotaire K are quick to address the issue. The latter asserts that he has no problem with people who listen to his work “for the exotic side of it” but points out that “it’s not a lot of people who’ve interested themselves enough to understand exactly what it talks about or why these scales are like that.” It is this concern for an informed and respectful approach to the music of other cultures which Clayton suggests may have some political value, especially when it leads to direct collaboration. Living in Barcelona, he tracked down musicians from amongst the North African community and found himself “trying to work towards this common ground between everyone.” He continues: “You know, Abdel is steeped in Moroccan folk and Egyptian classical and I’m steeped in whatever it is I’m steeped in and we all come from different backgrounds. So we try to work towards this space where we can all feel equally comfortable contributing… so I think the forming of that space, I think there is something political about that.”

    Boy from Brazil

    Meet Razi Barakat

    His platform shoes evoke John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, while his latex bodysuit fuses sci-fi with a nostalgic hint of the King. It’s all part of the way Razi Barakat, German-Palestinian punk rock performer, plays with his audience’s expectations — feeding them a cocktail of Elvis and the Dead Kennedys, Charles Aznavour and the Cramps, all mixed with Dada lyrics set to surreal video visuals. Back when the world was replete with good old revolutionary ideals, Barakat pursued punk and rock’n’roll — a path celebrating individualism and freedom — an alternative reaction to the “clash of civilizations,” but one less intellectualized and far more transgressive, raw.

    True to the textbook rocker persona, Barakat is pale, shy and brooding off stage. His reserved body language and sallow visage seems to be channeling Adrian Brody in The Pianist more than anything else. I asked him to define punk music.

    “Punk is much more than leather jackets, pink Iroquois and studded belts, as the fashion industry celebrates it. Punk allows you to wear whatever comes to your mind; self-made clothes out of plastic and all kinds of pattern combinations. Punk has been originally the opposition to dictated fashion. The same is true for the music. Even if you don’t play any instrument, you can play punk. That’s one reason why I’ve felt so addicted to it.“

    Barakat’s music and attitude evade “Orient meets Occident clichés,” although his personal approach is rooted in an upbringing situated somewhere between Germany and Palestine. As a child, Barakat was all over the place, visiting communist summer camps in the Soviet Union and PLO training weeks in Beirut, attending high school in the former German Democratic Republic and even visiting his parents in the bourgeois, antiseptic city of Geneva. Somehow, Barakat managed to be caught in the midst of seminal moments in the histories of both Germany and Palestine. Simply serendipity — or just bad luck? The 1967 Six Day War found him in Jerusalem as a child, while Black September in 1971 saw him in an old Fiat, driving with his family from Amman to Beirut; in Shatila in 1982, he was at a summer camp playing chess when the Israel invasion started, and in 1989, he just happened to be in West Berlin when the wall came down.

    “I think I have something of a Forest Gump attitude because I always tend to be at historical events without being aware of their drama. For sure, it was also interesting to see all those images and stories and to have the chance to look behind the curtain. But going through all these experiences, I stayed very autarkic in a rather weird way. I suppose I’m more a silent observer.”

    Trash and hardcore clearly offered Barakat a way out, giving him a chance to express the provocative contradictions he sees in the world. He defines himself as a “child of the Seventies,” and questions prevailing norms surrounding “morality” and “justness.” The latter is a theme running throughout his work, one that confronts his audience with parallels rarely drawn these days.

    The People vs. Larry Flint is a film mixing images of Vietnam and pornography to question perversity per se. What is obscene? People making love or people getting butchered and massacred? It might seem to be a simplistic conclusion but there was definitely a connection between the ideas behind Liberation movements and sexual liberation. As I see it, those two phenomena are mutually dependent — and that’s why they are both a part of my work.”

    Following a number of digital projects in New York and curating art shows on sexuality and liberation in Europe, Barakat came back to Berlin to initiate “Boy from Brazil,“ inspired by the title of a 1978 anti-Nazi film directed by Franklin J. Schaffner. Barakat’s work has a definite edge to it, while the new project seems to have the explicit aim of disturbing his audience. The “Boy from Brazil” project may be less physically demanding, but it still attacks people’s collective indifference. His latest album, Pointless Shoes, is accompanied by a show that pays a homage to the last century, very hermeneutic, packed with a multitude of musical layers. Nevertheless, the immediate impression of raucous, electronic exhibitionism is misleading. Underneath, the pieces are finely tuned and carefully staged, packed with cultural references and veiled criticism.

    “It’s a bit like my own musical history over the last twenty-five years — a kind of getting clear. I was trying to re-live my life through the music, like a personal jukebox. My aim was to bring the last half of the century — surrealism, rock and roll, punk rock, and even disco — back to this new millennium, and give them a cultural validity. I am looking for cultural elements you can recombine and repeat and put them out of context. It is a game of transferring real things into unreal ones, and vice versa.”

    It is also a clear statement against standard music industry practices, which Barakat vehemently opposes. “Betrayed and sold-out souls — the speculation in the industry means lots of good musicians never get a chance.” The fact that he recycles ideas has nothing to do with keeping up the status quo. "Not long ago, I played at a punk congress. I was the only one who didn’t play guitar, but also the only one with a punk attitude. Most of the others were just revivalists or people missing the good old days — which were great and I miss them myself — but you should never loose contact to what’s contemporary. So I do it by making fun of people who try to keep genres separated, and just stick to what they know.”

    The new show seems more like performance art than a punk concert. Within are three elements which only work in combination: music, video clips and Barakat himself. The music is “canned,” leaving Barakat free to exploit a range of dramatic poses against the video projection. But his short statements and eulogies of praise between the songs are interrupted by peals of recorded laughter. Meanwhile, the repeated film sequences from the early sixties or eighties blend with the brash electronic punk to create a new, bizarre mix.

    Berlin Mitte, the “Zentral” club, two days after the US elections. Between acts, the red curtain falls from various sides across the video projection, accompanied by artificial laughter. In its new punk version, “Amerika,” originally a 1970s summer hit by David Essex, gets a new, honest interpretation. Socks with US flag pattern hop to the beats and blondes in swimsuits stretch lasciviously. For a brief moment, reality seems almost bearable. The idea for “Amerika” comes from video artist Safy Sniper, who works together with Barakat. For one and a half years, Safy has independently selected and edited all the video material. Safy is an Israeli, a point the press loves to fixate on. The artists have known each other for 15 years, and clearly respect each other’s work, having worked together on numerous projects. For Barakat, that’s not a conflict. He’s not about to hide his political views, either from the mike or from his project partner. His relationships to Israel, the US and the Arab states are linked to his upbringing, though he contends with the tendency to frame his views as absolutes.

    “My work is clearly a political act and politics is the motor of my expression,” he says. “But I really suffer from a misperception when people focus only on my past. Whatever I say, it is taken out of context and makes me look like an idiot, exploiting my past and my family for my own ends. It makes me really angry. Of course it’s part of my life and had its impact on my personality, and in that way, on my music. But people tend to interpret facts to confirm the picture they already have in their head. It is more than annoying when you read an article about yourself where they just focus on some sexy guerrilla past, and even compare your father to Osama Bin Laden.”

    And it’s not only journalists who at times miss the gist of Barakat’s music. Indeed there is much more to him than a mere child of the ’70s — though the first impression he makes so easily fuels an image of the “wild years.” “I wish articles would be more informative — analyzing what I do, from the visual concept to the musical one. I love to be understood, despite the fact that my message is not always clear. But I try to show my perspective on the world, how multifaceted it is — and celebrate the existence of hybrids.”

    A fond plea for tolerance through punk rock. Who knew?

    Hair Is for Headbanging

    Heavy metal in Iran

    We leave his mother half-watching Russian TV in a crocheted cardigan and head into the next room. Kahtmayan’s drummer puts on Dream Theater’s latest CD as we inspect the satanic iconography on the walls. He spins tales of oblivion at Dream Theater’s last Istanbul concert and offers us more tea. A strangely easy coexistence of the macabre and the mundane met us at every juncture as we peered into the Islamic Republic’s metal scene.

    Kahtmayan have a concert in one month in Semnan, a city south-east of Tehran. Esfahan and Mashad have hosted the only metal concerts to date outside the capital and even within the mega-metropolis of Tehran they are a rare phenomenon. “We’re the first metal band they’ve seen,” explains Ardavan, the group’s bassist. “It’s going to be sick.” Kahtmayan have been playing together for two years and are one of Iran’s best known outfits. The concept of metal is alien to Iranians of an older generation but it has a huge following of youth who manage to paralyze home phone lines for days downloading tracks. A book of Metallica lyrics is on its eighth print run and hundreds of bands are registered on Tehran Avenue’s (one of Iran’s most active cultural websites) Underground Music Competition (UMC). Recording in bedrooms and broom closets, bands from all over the country enter songs and online voters pick the winners. A gothic metal track by the young group Amertad won last year’s second prize.

    Kahtmayan’s sound is heading slowly away from thrash towards progressive, almost funk metal. In their new track, “Irreversible,” keyboards break into an incessant baroque horror of the fairground, before giving way to the increasingly intricate insistence of the lead guitar, underlined by a fast funky bass. But their fans aren’t happy with their new direction. “At our concert last year bodyguards had to pull back kids shouting for harder, faster songs,” complains Homayoon, the group’s guitarist and driving force, as he ties back the mane of hair he let loose for the session. Homayoon, who heard Iron Maiden for the first time at age twelve, has been working on a solo album, deftly piecing together Arab and Marakeshi rhythms with old Iranian melodies, layered on the foundations of western metal. “Sony liked it but I can’t release it. There’s no market here for experimental metal,” he says with a dry smile.

    Kahtmayan are not alone in seeking new waters. Pod, a band who made their name playing Dream Theater covers have started weaving their own fierce but complex sound, labelling themselves “progressive” without hesitation. Every Sunday they gather in a Fifties bungalow in a gated leafy enclave near Karaj, Tehran’s industrial annex, where an elderly gentleman in silk paisley pyjamas welcomes us. They believe there is a market for their music: “Joe Satriani (a US progressive metal legend) plays to five hundred people in the States. If he came here, he could fill the National Stadium.” I balance my teacup on the Marshall amp and ask if that’s because Iranian kids understand his music better. “I guess they’re just hungry for anything,” Arash Mogaddam, the band’s drummer says rethinking.

    Both Kahtmayan and Pod have encyclopedic knowledge of western metal, rock, pop and Iranian classical and modern music, which fold into their subtle constructions without artifice. The results are inspiring. Pod has also had two concerts in Tehran, but the process nearly broke them. “Running up and down Ershad steps (the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance) was exhausting,” explains Ardavan, their lead guitarist. “The permission only came through days before the concert. Every Iranian band has had more cancellations than concerts. They wait until the last minute. And they never say no. They just trail you along until you get cold and give up.”

    Mogaddam, a prodigiously talented drummer who lived in the States for years, pictures Iranian metal in a painful never-land. “When this was all totally underground, totally unacceptable, we found our own way outside the system. Now bands are bending themselves, morphing to play by the rules and losing themselves in the process.“ Amertad, now firmly on Iran’s metal map since their success at Tehran Avenue’s UMC, produces two versions for every song: the Ershad version and the music they want to play. Their website has attracted a fan base from Norway to Japan, but they’ve never performed live. Their mix of gothic metal and Iranian traditional sounds, translated from the setar and the santur onto the violin, reverberates no further than the egg cartons lining the walls of their bedroom/practice room. Fans have to make do with blurry pictures of the drummer, stripped to the waist, nestled between teddy bears and computers. Since this summer’s elections returned radical conservatives to government, metal music has taken a battering: Iranian state television recently declared Metallica “against Islam.” Jazz and classical concerts are now routinely cancelled and it will be a while before any of these groups get back on stage.

    Sipping tea in leather loafers in the smooth white space of his recording studio, Farshid Arabi is the success story of Iranian heavy metal. Last year he released the only officially sanctioned metal CD in Iran, an unlikely combination of Mowlana (a canonical Iranian poet) and the soaring guitars of old school heavy metal. He spent three years trailing after permits and finally gave up. He turned to the music mafia, four or five producers with a strangle hold on the business who print CDs, conjure up permission and bankroll concerts. They produced his CD for free in return for the profits. Their world is the soft pop bubblegum of Tehran traffic jams, but they were prepared to take a chance, and sales have been good. For him the underground is definitely over. “Fifteen years ago, when we started, if they found you with a guitar, they’d smash it over your head. Now everything’s on offer.” The last eight years of eased social regulations under President Mohammad Khatami have brought electric guitars, mixing desks, amps, and drum kits to Iran’s musicians. But though they now have the means, the cold war is on for a platform.

    Bands remain that can’t and won’t work with the system, that still rage into a sweaty mike at the world around them. Squeezing past a Mercedes Benz in a North Tehran garage, we head downstairs, following drumbeats. Crammed into a sauna, guitar cases resting on the jacuzzi cover are Scourge, angry “motherf***ers,” who despite only five months together, pump out convincing Judas Priest, Carcass and Megadeath covers, interwoven with their own “brutal” songs. Their growling screams spread fury and destruction and their hair is magnificent: two guitarists have thick locks to the waist, which soar and crash as they hammer out thunder. The bassist looks like a Safavid monarch and though his hair is shorter, he leans sideways and thrashes till sweat drips from the roots. “Death Metal is the only music I listen to,” explains Reza, the vocalist. “It’s the only music that speaks to my soul.“ His studded leather wristbands are only slightly undermined by the stick-on tattoo on his bicep. Arvin who brought us here compares the session with a brief history of Napalm Death (a Birmingham band). Blood drips from skulls on his Death t-shirt, but he looks surprisingly clean-cut. “I’ve had to shape up for eight months of military service,” he explains. But he can’t help himself and plays air guitar with the conviction of a true metal-head.

    But apart from the friends who shuffle for sauna space on Friday afternoons, no one has, or will, hear the Scourge sound. They have carved out a private world where they are free to play and do what they want. And to date Scourge have styled themselves into carbon copies of the Children of Bodom and Megadeath posters on the walls, from the hair cuts to the chord changes.

    Others who are willing to negotiate the system have been forced to adapt and reinvent. And while they feel and resent the squeeze, bands like Pod and Kahtmayan are creating truly original and arresting tracks. For these bands metal can’t be “a way of life.” It’s just about the music. Image has yielded place to intense, intricate and original sounds in a third space beyond metal’s western roots or its Iranian home. Kahtmayan’s album Virtual Existence is a hymn to the isolated but dynamic world sustained by global computer networks that are Iran’s music scene.

    Little Prince Gets Political

    Stills from Cinnamon Girl

    As much as I want to resist it, Prince and Madonna will be forever linked in my mind. The two are linked not only because they made us want to be teen sluts and do our part toward the heartbreaking excesses of the 1980s, but because they are both still here, both still stirring the Pop Idol’s many requisite pots: musical, aesthetic, spiritual, political, and even (the most caustic pot of the day) moral. Over the years, they’ve matured (as artists and as human beings); both Prince and Madonna have confused the issue of their own names, and each has also traded up pushing sexual buttons for pushing religious ones. These days Madonna would like us to recognize her as Esther, the intercontinental star/author/mom who brought us Judaism anew with her kabala bracelets and life-coaching. Prince famously renounced appellation altogether back in the nineties but has since reclaimed the name Prince — albeit a Prince whose prurient, provocateur lyrics are now either cast out of the playlist or reworked to become songs about faith in God.

    That’s right, he is a practicing Jehovah’s Witness who, gossip tells us, goes door-to-door with four bodyguards in a limousine to proselytize and hand out copies of Awake! On his 2001 release, The Rainbow Children, Prince deploys his endless funk to more or less pay an album’s worth of homage to The Watchtower. With his contemporary target demographic yearning to be seduced by the classics — “Purple Rain,” “Kiss,” “Darling Nikki,” “Cindy C,” “Get Off” — it is immediately clear that this is an artist who will risk dividing an audience for the sake of calling it like he sees it. This is certainly the case with his recent single “Cinnamon Girl” (off of this year’s Musicology) and especially with the song’s so-called controversial video.

    I say so-called because when I looked for the controversy, all I could find was brief mention of the controversy. The video features Whale Rider’s fourteen-year-old Oscar nominee, Keisha Castle-Hughes, as a young Arab-American who becomes the target of discrimination by her non-Arab peers after a terrorist attack. She is shown struggling with bullies and “betweenness” in her school-life and home-life. Bear in mind, too, that all of the backdrops to the actors are drawn in watercolor and pencil so that the video literally becomes an illustration. At the end of the four-minute piece, the young girl goes to an airport and has a fantasy about detonating a bomb. This dream quickly reveals itself as such, and the protagonist wakes, filled with relief both for herself and the innocents nearby. The narrative is provocative. But regardless, whatever protest was “aired out on cable news networks” at the end of October turns out to be far less captivating than Janet’s immortal nipple.

    At the moment the detectable voice in opposition to the “Cinnamon Girl” video belongs to Stephan R. Silverfarb, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (otherwise known as the JCRC). After carefully acknowledging the musician’s First Amendment rights and the deplorable nature of discrimination on the whole, Mr. Silverfarb’s press release states, “Prince’s attempt to reflect a reality facing Arab Americans is laudable. But he does the Arab American community a disservice by suggesting that an Arab American teenager would consider a suicide bombing as justified for any reason… Regrettably, by choosing to connect suicide bombing with a just cause, Prince attached a measure of legitimacy to a categorically barbaric act.” While ice may get thin when people refer to acts of the oppressed as barbaric, these are not the most pointed fighting words. Mr. Silverfarb does not overstate his case.

    Of course how far can one take the argument that Prince is legitimizing anything at all in his video? The artist himself refuses to comment on “Cinnamon Girl.” His PR camp insists that he wants us to draw our own conclusions, but it’s also hard to forget that celebrities speaking explicitly about politics have been booed into submission repeatedly (by TV’s real intellectuals). In addition, the ubiquity of debates about pop media inciting youth violence has dulled our attention spans and left us paranoid of preachy exchange.

    So where does that leave our understanding of the Palestinian youths who have in fact “martyred” themselves and murdered others? Precious few American MTV viewers or their parents hear about such kids. In March of 2004, the BBC’s Jerusalem correspondent, James Reynolds, published an interview with a fifteen-year-old Palestinian boy named Hussam Abdo. Hussam was caught at a checkpoint with explosives strapped across his chest and immediately incarcerated by Israeli soldiers. When Mr. Reynolds asked Hussam why he had been not only willing but unafraid to kill himself and others, he replied, “The reason was because my friend was killed. The second reason I did it is because I didn’t want to go to school. My parents forced me to go and I didn’t feel like going.”

    What astounds is what limited range Hussam has, how few options, how detached he must be when even the banal becomes damning. His short life seems filled with a catastrophic futility. And what is astounding about a Jehovah’s Witness who made a video with a Maori actress portraying a mixed-heritage Arab teen who responds to post-9/11 prejudice with dreams of mass destruction? That Prince is still aware of issues beyond himself, making records that sound pretty damn good, and perhaps even leaving us thinking, a bit.

    Dear Madge — what have you done for me lately?

      Fall Film Festival Diary

      Beirut Cinema Days, Carthage Film Festival, Dubai International Film Festival

      Best Times

      The heavyweights of Arab film festivals, Cairo and Carthage, accustomed to battling it out between themselves, have been joined in the ring by a couple of middleweights in recent years. Some critics dismiss the Marrakech Film Festival as a themed holiday for the Parisian film industry, but its rise over the past three years has been impressive; increasingly, it is seen in the same league as the big boys. The various festival directors might eschew our rather ham-fisted boxing metaphor, maintaining publicly at least that this league of autumn film festivals is ruled by cooperation rather than competition. But privately, of course, they’re all in the game of schmoozing directors and distributors for premieres.

      This year, the timing of Ramadan from mid-October to mid-November forced the players into two camps. Marrakech and Cairo’s clash in early December was complicated further by newcomer Dubai, which made it straight into the big league thanks to an injection of Gulf-style cash and the canny employment of international expertise. But those festival heads thinking that creating atmosphere and garnering the support of regional directors is a mere matter of money and imported glamour could look for inspiration to September’s Ayam Beirut al-Cinemaiyya (Beirut Cinema Days), a featherweight contender in its third year.

      Beirut Development & Cinema (DC), the cooperative of young directors running the show, displays an admirable commitment to independent Arab cinema — a concept that the big boys can lose sight of in their quest for foreign kudos and the sponsorship dollar. In the Gulf in particular, where “cultural cringe” means that the stock value of a Hollywood personality on the red carpet soars way above that of their Arab equivalent, it takes a local programmer of the caliber of Masoud Amralla Al Ali to keep regional filmmaking in the spotlight.

      Beirut Cinema Days enjoys the support of local cinephiles as well as some key directors; audiences of close to ten thousand flocked to a program of around 110 films from twenty countries. Young talent is at this biennial festival’s core, but the organizers bagged some high profile hits fresh from Cannes. These included the opening night film, Yousry Nasrallah’s five-hour epic The Gate of the Sun, continuing the festival’s strong commitment to Palestinian themes, and Jean-Luc Godard’s Notre Musique, a meditation on Bosnia and Palestine, violence and death.

      “The established festivals only accept a limited number of entries, so there was little opportunity for young directors to show their work to a wider public,” said co-founder and filmmaker Eliane Raheb. Attempting to ease the glaring lack of industry or government support, Raheb and her colleagues began organizing the (non-competitive) festival out of a ground floor flat in the Beirut suburb of Furn Ash-Shubbak. Behind the red shutters of the modestly refurbished building, digital editing facilities also offer support for upcoming talents with ample ideas and little funding, keeping the place abuzz day in, day out. However, Raheb remains adamant that private initiative cannot replace state support and quotes as an example the current success of Moroccan and Tunisian directors.

      Change may be afoot though, with satellite channels such as Al-Arabiya and New TV commissioning documentaries and a growing number of commercial Egyptian producers picking up scripts by independents. “Egyptian film producers realize now that there are younger filmmakers who have scripts that speak to the younger generation,” says Raheb. Hala Khalil’s Best Times, a box office success in Egypt that played to acclaim at the Beirut and Dubai festivals, is indicative of this brighter future.

      Perhaps the gutsy featherweight analogy is wearing a little thin these days: Beirut Cinema Days increasingly punches well above its weight and is a festival to watch — especially given the cancellation of October’s Mideast Film Festival, ostensibly due to security concerns expressed by French and US visitors. In an example of its commitment to “political” cinema, Cinema Days hosted the premiere of Omar Amiralay’s documentary A Flood in Baath Country. The Syrian director’s account of the political bankruptcy at the heart of the incumbent regime was of such damning proportions that the Carthage Film Festival felt compelled to pull the film from its program just days before opening night. In response, fifty-three Arab directors present in Beirut signed a note of protest “refusing categorically that artistic and cultural festivals be turned into platforms for repressive regimes to settle accounts with intellectual opponents.”

      Within a few days, Carthage festival director Nadia Attia had re-admitted the film, giving it a single showing on the final day of the festival. Perhaps mere coincidence, but the screening happened to clash with an organized trip to Tunisian mogul Tarek Ben Ammar’s Empire Studios, which saw the majority of festival attendees escape contemporary politics for Ancient Rome on a typically balmy October evening.

      After the Paris-based Biennale of Arab Cinema, Carthage is perhaps the most important showcase for Arab cinema, but this, the twentieth edition, provided a mixed bag. There were no surprises in the award stakes, the big winners being Cannes favorite Mohammed Asli’s In Casablanca Angels Don’t Fly and Ossama Fawzi’s controversial I Love Cinema.

      Luminaries of Arab cinema Youssef Chahine, Omar Sharif and Yousra dominated the opening ceremony, but it was emerging, first-time directors who got the critics talking. Debut directors Waha Erraheb (Les Visions Chimeriques), Danielle Arbid (In the Battlefields) and Amer Alwan (Zaman, Man of the Reeds) all produced works of real note.

      While Arbid’s film has already been justly feted around the world, Alwan’s was a revelation, to Arab audiences at least. An elegiac tale of an elderly man forced to travel from his house in southern Iraq to Baghdad, Zaman traces his journey along the Tigris on the eve of the US-led invasion. Alwan looks back with the nostalgia of the exile. “When I left Iraq in 1980 I left with a memory of what the country was like, of its beauty and its landscape,” he told Bidoun. “After twenty years it affected me greatly to see how much some things had changed. I wanted to return to an image of beauty in Iraq.”

      Unfortunately, Alwan’s light touch was rare. A plethora of other Arab films sought to tackle a host of issues, including the Arab-Israeli conflict, the plight of women in society and endemically repressive regimes, but too often suffered from heavy-handed writing and direction. Erraheb’s prize-winning film concerned a young girl, possessed with haunting visions, who decides to run away from her family in Damascus to fight against the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. But this intriguing storyline was overshadowed by an overabundance of social commentary. For Erraheb, just shooting the film was an achievement, given that it took seven years to gain approval from the Syrian Film Board. “They kept finding new issues in the script. When I changed it they would just find something else,” she told Bidoun. “In the last two years I thought the film was never going to get made, so I just went to war with the authorities. We fought each other, swore at each other but we got there in the end. Hopefully this will open the door for others to come and not go through what I went through.”

      Countless other films, from the Moroccan The Black Room by Hassan Ben Jelloun, to Bahij Hojeij’s Lebanese civil war-set Ring of Fire, seemed to get lost in translation, their admirable attempts to show the iniquities of Arab politics ultimately scuppered by an inability to provide a satisfying ending.

      At the time of writing, Cairo, the grandmother of Arab film festivals, was struggling to attract the interest of Middle Eastern and film journalists and society snappers, such was the dominance of the inaugural Dubai International Film Festival. The maverick Gulf city made a bold bid to become the new centre of Arab cinema, as well as a bridge between Western cinema and the booming Indian movie industry. Though the festival included only some seventy-five films, it managed to live up to the hype — which was considerable, given a high-profile publicity campaign outside the region — and provide a forum for discussing the tense relations between the United States and Arab and Islamic countries. Besides a strong program of new Arab cinema, the festival included some high profile regional premieres for acclaimed films concerning the Middle East, including Control Room, a documentary about Arabic channel Al-Jazeera’s coverage of last year’s Iraq war; and British film The Hamburg Cell, Antonia Bird’s look at the al Qaeda cell behind the September 11 attacks, which is due to make its debut in the US in January on HBO television.

      Both films, which have won praise from critics elsewhere, provoked emotional, lively public debate — a rarity in the politically reserved Emirates. Irishman Ronan Bennett’s script suggests that Mohammed Atta — played by New York-based Egyptian-American actor Kamel, who does not use his surname — turned to fanaticism in part because of a cold, strict father. The more sociable Ziad Jarrah — played by Lebanese-French actor Karim Saleh — is brainwashed by al Qaeda radical fundamentalists in Hamburg. “You are excellent actors, but everybody knows the political motivations,” one man said to shouts of approval, while another responded, “The film takes the easy route and shows negative stereotypes of Muslims as extreme, fervent terrorists. There’s not one positive image here.” Saleh responded, to applause: “But that’s what they were.”

      The contrast with reactions to the film elsewhere — in Europe, some critics have said the carefully researched film is too sympathetic to the hijackers, while US victims’ relatives have protested that it’s been made too soon after the attacks — was not lost on the actors. “I was really nervous tonight. I thought maybe somebody could throw something,” Kamel told Bidoun. He argued that the film tried to put a human face on the men but sought to steer away from the political motivations, partly because it would make for less interesting cinema. “There is absolute evil in what they did and I did it knowing there’s no way to take it any other way. But the film is asking you to know that this is where they came from,” he said. “If someone were to make a film about Muslim suffering every day, it would be imperfect. If you just tell stories, people will want to know every story. So here we start with one, and maybe tomorrow there will be another one. And I know that as a people, when we go out in public our vocabulary tends to become a bit numb. You can sense how people emotionally want us to stop our ranting.”

      The audience response to Jehane Noujaim’s celebrated documentary Control Room, a box office success in the US this year, was mixed — one of gratitude, excitement, anger and unease. The film, which has not yet secured a release in any Arab country, not only brought back memories of the huge firepower unleashed on an Arab capital, but includes frank discussions among Arab journalists and US officials about the motives behind the war and the inability of Arabs to stop it. “You’re appalling, you son of a dog. May your house be destroyed!” one Egyptian member of the audience loudly exclaimed at a clip of US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld slamming scenes of grieving Iraqis as stage-managed. Many laughed bitterly at soundbites from President George W. Bush requesting that Iraq treat US prisoners of war as well as the US military treats its POWs. At the post-film seminar, one Lebanese-Canadian man emotionally exclaimed, “I didn’t see anything to laugh at. Your film made me feel more angry and powerless.” Hassan Ibrahim, a Sudanese Al-Jazeera producer who features in the film, welcomed the frank comment. “As a people we have a long journey ahead. [But] why are you afraid of realizing the full gravity of the situation? But I thank you for your honesty, it’s a beautiful reaction,” he added, to a round of applause.

      In the audience watching Control Room was Hollywood icon Morgan Freeman, one of a number of Hollywood stars who made the long trip to the Gulf. They seemed genuinely in awe of Dubai and thought it had a good chance of putting itself on the international festival circuit map. “I love it here, I have to tell you. I think the region is absolutely beautiful, and I can’t believe how clean the city is,” said The Grudge star Sarah Michelle Gellar, though she confessed she had not managed to see a single Arab film. The Arab cinema industry itself certainly seems convinced that Dubai could be the future. Some seventy Arab actors old and young deserted the simultaneous Cairo film festival to make pilgrimage to Dubai, from the aging Egyptian grandees in their twilight years such as Nadia al-Gindy and Nelly to Syrian comic Doreid Lahham. They took to the catwalk at the opening gala alongside English heartthrob Orlando Bloom and others from The Lord of the Ring trilogy — no doubt where a fair amount of the six million dollar budget went. Star-struck, festival organizers came under fire for failing to promote and adequately involve local filmmakers — and some regional directors left wondering where Dubai’s ambitious internationalism would take the festival in years to come. But as one Lebanese distributor commented wistfully: “We have several festivals in Beirut that have been going for years, but we’ve never managed anything as grand or efficient as this. Only in Dubai.”

      Kitsch and Kitchen Sink Drama

      “There is no monasticism in Islam,” declared the Prophet Mohamed. And yet, that is what Ramadan offers a taste of: daytime renunciation and celibacy. Although ideally a time to practice wakefulness, or awakening, people pass the month of fasting sleeping, or sleepwalking through the day. A time prescribed for meditation and quiet reflection, it is instead marked by shot concentration and short tempers, as people stagger around in seven degrees of stupor leading up to and following the iftar (breaking of the fast). The abstinence and self-denial observed during the day are vengefully displaced by overindulgence in the evening, with unequaled quantities of Oriental sweets devoured during this month. Unsurprising then, in this stupefied and passive condition, that the other glut of the season should be television; more than half of the serials produced by the state-owned Egyptian Broadcasting Company debut during Ramadan. Factor in that most movie theaters are closed for the month, and you have an idea as to why escapist entertainment might be so desperately sought after.

      For nearly three decades, the hotly anticipated pièce de résistance of Ramadan TV has been the fawazeer (riddles show). This popular mainstay is more an occasion for song and dance than the solving of facile riddles presented to the viewing audience (who must answer, via post, in hopes of winning prizes). Although most agree that the show has seen better days, it has survived several death knells. Nelly, a charismatic dancer from the early eighties, was the most talented and popular of the fawazeer stars. In one hallucinatory sequence, with tinny spaceships and surreal outer-space photo montage, her improbably blonde hair is stylishly tousled as she mugs for the camera, and coos: “I’m walking on air, barefoot; with my mind’s screws troubling me.” And there, in a line, you have a summary of the prevailing mindlessness of Ramadan TV.

      Another popular show is camera el khaffiyya or (candid camera), but with a twist. For the past couple of years the portly star of this equal opportunity show, where presenter and unsuspecting participants are humiliated alike, has taken to dressing in drag. Garishly made up and clearly enjoying it, the ringleader of this cirque de grotesque excels in pushing people to the very edge until he is either verbally or physically abused, or both. Sketch highlights include a butcher chasing the presenter down the street with a carving knife because he insisted on trying to build a kiosk directly in front of the butcher shop; the presenter maniacally cleaning store windows with a filthy rag; and the presenter barking in the streets and biting unassuming pedestrians, claiming to have been bitten by a rabid dog himself. That the unwitting participants of this show consent when asked for their permission to broadcast these episodes may be attributed to unfathomable good-naturedness on the part of Egyptians. Word has circulated, however, that participants are financially compensated for their efforts, following a lawsuit by a disgruntled participant. Whichever the case, the immense success of this program went on to spawn a popular play, based on the same cross-dressing character and played by the same actor.

      Amidst all this insipid entertainment, there was at least one inspired show, lakhbat lakhabeet (mixed-up nonsense). The presenter, unassuming and verging on the goofy, takes to the street to interview people, deliciously garbling his words and coining a few phrases along the way. So, what do you think, he asks, after having said absolutely nothing in so many words. And, unbelievably, people almost always answer, or try to. Vaguely, cautiously, hedging their bets, but answer they do rather than asking: Excuse me, what exactly did you say? And, therein lies the genius of this skit. The man on the street will sooner volunteer elaborate answers or extravagant misinformation rather than simply admit: I don’t understand or I don’t know.

      This year, Ramadan TV showcases the same strained hilarity, the same rambling talk shows and celebrity interviews. It lasts until nearly five in the morning, keeping people mind-numbing company right up to suhour (the pre-sunrise meal), before their fast begins anew. The split personality of the whole exercise is evident in the preponderance of religious programs shown before iftar, and the variety shows broadcast afterwards. The set-up of the former, versus the get-ups of the latter could not be in sharper contrast. By day, in an unimaginative studio environment, one man sits with one book, preaching the dour intricacies of the faith for hours. Meanwhile, the singing and dancing forbidden in nightclubs and theaters during Ramadan feature prominently in the post iftar television programming. A modern adaptation of a 1,001 Nights, for example, is merely the flimsiest excuse for a 1,001 costume changes.

      Of course, there can be no discussion of Ramadan entertainment without mention of the de rigueur dramas, avidly consumed by the bored and the dutiful across the country. Here, the world of soaps is the world of slaps; in other words, of Dostoevsky — hysterics, histrionics and inexplicable tears — minus the profundity. Exceptionally, over the past few years there have been controversial soaps tackling issues like polygamy and inter-faith relations, as well as the occasional well-realized historical drama, such as one based on the life of musical icon Oum Kalthoum. Moreover there is a trend this year, on non state-owned satellite television, toward the political soap. One about Afghanistan, The Road to Kabul, was pressured off the air after only eight episodes, and another, Palestinian Exodus, continues to stir controversy.

      Throughout this intemperate season of mass-distraction, when the public permits all shades of madness into their living room, what emerges is an all-too-human balancing system, fasting and feasting along the slippery road to moderation. There is an obsequious jingle that comes on at the end of every Ramadan, lamenting its passing, that typifies the spirit of overcompensation. Leaving so soon? But it’s still early, O month of fasting, the refrain disingenuously repeats. Whoever sings along should be made to fast the rest of the year.

      I Love Cinema

      Ossama Fawzi’s new film

      A young boy walks into a cinema foyer for the first time. Angelic ushers, complete with celestial wings and halos, direct him to his seat. Images from La Dolce Vita, Gone with the Wind and Snow White burst forth on the silver screen as the boy looks on, his face lit with uncontrollable joy. Director Ossama Fawzi infuses I Love Cinema, his chronicle of a Christian family in Egypt during the 1960s, with a sense of wide-eyed wonderment. The relationship between seven year-old Naim and his strict father Adli takes center stage. While Naim lives and breathes cinema, Adli is tormented by guilt, praying endlessly and questioning his own mortal failings in front of an unforgiving God. “I am a dog, my Lord, I am rubbish,” he confesses, kneeling in front of a cross. He forbids the winningly cheeky, sprite-like Naim from going to the cinema, decrying the big screen as sinful and telling the fearful young boy that all actors go to hell. (One of the film’s funniest moments comes when the impressionable Naim sees a vision of God on the big screen, only to fall and bump his head.)

      Fawzi’s I Love Cinema, a hit at this year’s Carthage Film Festival, where it took home the Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography awards, is arguably one of the most significant Egyptian films of recent years. A heart-felt paean to cinema, the film is readily reminiscent of Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso, with Yusef Osman’s mischievous Naim a match for that film’s young subject, Salvatore. More importantly, though, Fawzi has composed a love letter to Egypt and its cinematic history.

      After all, the fortunes of Egyptian society and cinema have arguably gone hand in hand. Egypt blazed a trail for the Arab world into film production: the first cinema projection in the region took place on November 5, 1896, at the Cotton Exchange in Alexandria, and in 1925 Misr Bank began producing the first homegrown films, with Leila, an Aziza Amir production directed by Wadad Orfi, making its debut in 1927. In the heyday of the 1950s and 1960s, “Hollywood on the Nile” was the world’s third largest film industry behind Hollywood and Bollywood, producing up to ninety films a year and boasting the likes of Youssef Chahine, Henri Barakat and Salah Abu Seif at its helm. The industry’s decline over the past three decades, however, increasingly has seemed inexorable. As Gaby Khoury, managing director of Misr Studios has mused, “We’re now down to about twenty-five films a year. Of those films only five, or twenty percent, actually make any money. Every time an interesting film comes out of Egypt it’s a miracle.”

      Tellingly, I Love Cinema is set in 1966, the heyday of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s United Arab Republic, a time when Arabs feared not to dream and the humiliations to befall the region only months later remained the preserve of only the most pessimistic commentators. Fawzi uses the extended family to paint a broad portrait of Egyptian society, tackling a plethora of issues, most particularly the inhibition of personal freedoms, be they political, cultural or romantic. Just as Adli’s personal repression hovers over his family, so does the figure of Nasser cast an ever-present shadow over proceedings. At one point Adli, an honest if powerless teacher, attempts to tell his students about Nasser’s political aims. This is, however, far from an idealized recreation of pan-Arab nationalism. Moments later, Adli is faced with the endemic corruption of his superiors when he discovers the disappearance of funds supposedly earmarked for the poorer students. Outraged at their fraud, he vents his frustrations, even coming to blows with his headmaster. Ultimately, however, his protestations prove futile. He is accused of “adopting destructive thought,” essentially a synonym for communism at a time when Nasser was clamping down on political dissent. Off-screen, he is tortured; Fawzi subtly exposes the fissures in the system, the tainted reality behind all the vainglorious rhetoric.

      Naim’s character provides some light-relief and most of the film’s laughs, from the slapstick — him urinating during a church wedding ceremony — to the more poignant — his efforts to blackmail members of his family to take him to his beloved cinema. But it’s Adli’s father figure that provides the film’s heart and soul. This is a bravura performance from Humeida. In a notable departure from his customary comedic roles, Humeida masterfully takes a character who could so easily have become a pantomime villain and instead imbues him with a riveting complexity. Throughout the film his body is wrought with frustration, a coil of tormented guilt and fear. One outstanding scene comes when his wife, played by Leila Elwi, pleads with him to be more intimate. As she attempts to seduce him, wearing lingerie, whispering sweet nothings into his ear, Adli’s face is a compelling contradiction, ashamedly yet lustfully eyeing up his voluptuous wife. In these moments, Fawzi treads a careful line between comedy and poignancy, and generally manages to avoid the farce that plagues latter-day Egyptian cinema.

      The film is at its most successful when at its darkest, as in the scene when Adli reaches his breaking point. Fired from his job, suspicious that his wife is cheating on him, and ignored by his family, he sets out to get drunk. Stumbling home, he launches into a verbal assault on his omnipresent tormentor, the threat of divine punishment finally proving too much to bear. “Why don’t you love me my Lord?” he proclaims, tears swelling in his eyes. The moment is pivotal: Adli chooses his own path of love over fear, and relents, taking Naim to the cinema and making love to his wife. He is finally able to repent his sins simply by indulging in them.

      Not that the film is without its flaws. Fawzi juggles too many subplots, especially in the myriad tangled love lives of the various characters, while the characters of Naim and Adli compete for center stage. The character of Nabil, Adli’s uncle, who first introduces him to cinema by recounting scenes from his favorite films, is underdeveloped. The film also overstays its welcome by a good fifteen minutes. Fawzi eschews what seems to be a perfect ending — Adli and Naim riding a bicycle into the setting sun, the crimson sky slowly fading to black as we hear the voice of Nasser’s infamous 1967 resignation speech on the radio — in favor of an unnecessary and misjudged farcical coda.

      For all that, I Love Cinema remains a powerful and moving testament to the wonderment that persists when the lights go down, the curtains part and that beam from a projector is allowed to simply entertain its audiences. It’s also something of a milestone in recent Egyptian cinema. Playing hard and fast with the sacred cows of sex, politics and, most importantly religion, the film generated considerable controversy following its premiere in Cairo this summer. By focusing on Egypt’s minority Christian Copts, who make up between five to ten per cent of the population, Fawzi and screenwriter Hany Fawzi (no relation), have taken a bold step in reminding audiences of the pluralistic society Egypt — and by extension, the Arab world — once was. The result was flack from all sides. Both the screenwriter, a Copt, and the director, a Muslim convert, found themselves attacked by a coalition of Copts and clergymen who accused the film of demeaning religion.

      But perhaps the (presumably) jaded members of Egypt’s censorship bureau still retain a certain sympathy for the likes of young Naim, falling in love with the silver screen for the first time: I Love Cinema was passed with no cuts — a landmark decision and hopeful harbinger for the future.

      Baheb El Cima (I Love Cinema), 2004. Dir. Ossama Fawzi, Egypt, Arabic, 125 min.

      Cola Turka

      Turkish stache

      In the summer of 2003 a Turkish food conglomerate, Ülker, launched a high-profile advertising campaign for a new product: Cola Turka. In the first TV ad for the product, we watched wholesome Chevy Chase, whose everyday New York City morning turns very strange as he chats in a diner with David Brown. Looking decidedly Texan, complete with cowboy hat, Brown is drinking Cola Turka — which compels him to fuse Turkish phrases into the otherwise English conversation with Turkish subtitles. Cola Turka has Turkified even his general attitude, we understand later, when he insists on paying for Chase’s coffee with an authoritative “Bendensin!” (It’s on me) and further agitates him by embracing him and kissing him goodbye on both cheeks. Awkwardness ensues in the second part of the ad, now awash in Turkish gesticulation and language. But a tolerant Chase, never a coward when it comes to new cultural frontiers, resolves the dramatic tension by taking a sip of this Cola Turka. He immediately grows a thick mustache.

      As this fantasy of a cultural hegemony in reverse (the jingle for the ad goes “Oh when they drink the Cola that is Turka / there will be America no longer, it will be Turkafied / We drank the Cola that is Turka / that famous American dream is now Turkafied”) proved extremely popular among the Turks, the ads started to become somewhat tedious and repetitive, but still, anxious to please. In May of 2004, those behind the campaign decided to mobilize the demos via interactive technology, by appealing to the national religion of soccer and, again, to the mustache. This time, the TV ad featured Pierre Van Hooijdonk, a Dutch soccer player currently on a major Turkish team, training for the UEFA Euro 2004 Portugal. With each sip of Cola Turka he takes in between his free-kicks, Pierre grows a different style of “Turkish” mustache: first a very thick one with sharp ends (associated, in the Turkish collective memory with the warrior/nomadic ancestors of the race); then Ayhan style (a major actor of Turkish Cinema in the 50s, 60s and 70s) — well trimmed, short and narrow; Camoka style (the evil villain of a popular 60s comic strip) — a thin crescent that grows down to the chin; and finally no mustache at all (an explanation is offered to dispel our doubts as to the virility of the brand: that last sip was from a can of Diet Cola Turka). The ad calls on the Turkish audience to vote via an SMS message for the best of these four looks, promising that the mustache chosen by the Turkish people will be the mustache that Hooijdonk wears to Euro 2004. Insignificant note: Turkey had failed to qualify for Euro 2004. A later ad informed us that the people had spoken, and much to Hooijdonk’s disappointment, they had spoken (with a 35 percent vote) for no mustache. Was this the refusal to bestow precious Turkishness upon Pierre; was it the rejection of mustache as a viable Turkifier; or was it the articulation of the desire for a smooth, razor-fresh, hairless new face for Turkey?

      The electoral message awaits deciphering.

      It’s Makeover Time, Ladies

      Few will dare dispute the power of reality television. From Survivor to Star Academy, a once American phenomenon has become a truly universal one. Go figure. Perhaps out of recognition of the medium’s ability to penetrate the masses, one entrepreneurial Israeli production company has crafted its own novel version of reality TV. Its mission? To airbrush the image of Israel and Israelis at large. Launched last November, Hashagrir, (Ambassador), features fourteen young Israelis engaged in tight competition to sell their wares. It’s makeover time, ladies.

      Hashagrir’s debut episodes have featured all manner of contexts, from the group presenting their case to students at Cambridge University, to creating a one-minute ad to be aired on MTV. The young adult contestants include a lawyer, a communications student, a graduate student in chemistry, and immigrants from Holland, Ethiopia and the United States. The program’s press image features the photogenic group posing in front of Capitol Hill in Washington, DC (the logic in that PR tactic is lost to this writer).

      Much like the US program The Apprentice, in which participants vie for a management post under business magnate Donald Trump, a three-member panel including an ex-security chief and a former army spokesman eliminates one contestant each episode in brutal fashion. In the end, the victor will be the person who best demonstrates the qualities of a professional advocate, presenting Israel in the most positive light. What’s behind door number two? An all-expenses-paid year working as an Israeli public relations liaison in New York with a group called Israel At Heart.

      Why the sudden concern about Israel’s image? In March of 2004, “secret” Israeli Foreign Ministry documents were leaked revealing that Israel ran the risk of being branded a pariah state on the scale of apartheid-era South Africa. The report cited the separation wall being built between Israel and the occupied territories as one among several issues that have opened the state to attack on human rights grounds. Incidentally, an International Court of Justice ruling last summer citing the illegality of the wall has likely not helped Israel’s case.

      Hashagrir taps into an already well-established market for reality shows on Israeli television. Other Israeli reality TV programs mirror those in the US, with local versions of Idol, The Bachelorette, Big Brother and The Last Comic Standing. A far cry from starving on an island whilst clad in a pink bikini or turning people into instant celebrities, the Israeli program is an uncanny phenomenon, at best. When reality TV gets co-opted in diplomatic efforts for a nation, you know you’re getting desperate. Hashagrir gives us one more reason to love globalization.

      What’s in a Name?

      This winter, Iranians around the world have been subject to a flurry of hysterical emails jamming the collective inbox. What is all the fuss about? Human rights abuses committed under the name of the Islamic Republic? Forfeited elections? America’s flirtation with unilateral invasion in the name of Freedom? Not so.

      Instead, it’s an attack on our cultural heritage. It seems that the good, authoritative people at National Geographic magazine have decided to take it upon themselves to rename the Persian Gulf in their latest version of the world atlas. The oversized lake’s new name? Strike “Persian,” replace it with “Arabian,” and you’ve got it. For Iranians bent on distinguishing themselves from the Arab world — rather, Persians consumed by their civilizational import — the development is anathema. Nothing short of criminal.

      Is this another attempt to appease angry Arabs? A mishap? Regardless of the reasons for the novel coinage, the mass mobilization it has inspired is undoubtedly the most massive since the buildup to the 1979 revolution. Perhaps it tells you something about what our priorities are.

      Dear friends:

      Apparently, the National Geographic’s latest World Atlas, one of the world’s leading publications in this topic, has misrepresented (mistake or by purpose?) “The Persian Gulf”. In its latest (Eighth) Edition the Persian Gulf has been introduced as Arabian Gulf!

      1. Please read the details and review the United Nations documents.

      2. It is very important that every single one of us provides feedback to National Geographic, since it is one of the most widely used publications in this field!

      Please visit this site to express your objection.

      For those of you who are very busy (like me), below is a sample letter that you can use. You can simply copy and paste this in the above website. It might take only 1 minute!

      National Geographic

      Dear Sir/Madam:

      I find it highly offensive for your organization to change the historical name of Persian Gulf to Arabian Gulf.

      World historical records abundantly make it clear that this body of water for many thousands of years has been called “The Persian Gulf ” that belongs to Iran (Persia). I strongly condemn this offensive and colossal mistake (or politically motivated action?) in your part to compromise a well known historical fact and Iran’s territorial integrity. Your actions, if not corrected, will be considered a total disregard to the history of the world, as well as international laws and regulations. This unjustified mistake can also be considered an act of hostility toward 70 million Persians/Iranians.



      When the arts become intimately tied to questions of national reputation, religion, identity and the like, you know you are in tricky territory. November’s installment of the annual Paris Photo exhibition received a blow when four Iranian photographers scheduled to exhibit their works under the umbrella of Tehran’s Silk Road Gallery were summarily banned from participating — by their own government no less. The offense in question: “mocking Islamic values and the image of Iranian women.”

      Arash Hanaei’s use of writings taken from a ketab-e-estekhareh (book of specific imprecations to God — here superimposed on the face of a woman), Yelda Mayeri’s depiction of women dancing sans the requisite hijab, Ramzin Haerizadeh’s recreation of the female body and Shadi Ghadirian’s presentation of women as faceless domestic objects (brooms and the like) donning veils all managed to irk the powers that be who run the Islamic Republic’s cultural outfit.

      Three artists (all but Ghadirian) were given funding by the state-run Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMCA) to travel to Paris for the exhibition, and in the end, were forced to accept the censorship. Ghadirian, for her part, went ahead and showed the work. She no longer has a close relationship to the TMCA, while most recently she showed the veil series (concurrent to the Paris show) at the Luxembourg Biennale.

      But questions remained about the timing and nature of the ban. Most of the work in question had in fact been shown in Iran before (not to mention Dubai, in Hanaei’s case), hence raising questions as to why the works were suddenly inappropriate in the far-removed context of Paris. The museum, for its part, defended its decision. Censorship continues to be a rule of thumb in Iran, though many continue to find admittedly ingenious ways to circumvent its oft-predictable reach.

      And censorship of this variety is not an exclusively Middle Eastern phenomenon. A November fundraiser for an exhibition of Palestinian artists faced the possibility of being shut down last November. New York State Assemblyman Ryan Karben, whose district includes much of Westchester County, issued a two-page statement condemning the Made in Palestine exhibition, calling for its cancellation and arguing that it “glorifies terrorism.” Karben had the following to say about the show: “it is offensive to me as a Jew, as an American, and as a civilized human being.”

      Karben’s beef with the exhibition? He noted that one of the artists, Abdel Rahmen Al Muzayen, was a former general in the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), while the PLO, he argued, was responsible for the murder of hundreds of Israelis and Americans. Other pieces within the show included Emily Jacir’s Memorial to 418 Palestinian Villages Destroyed, Depopulated and Occupied by Israel in 1948 (created and shown while the artist was taking part in the PS1 Museums Studio Program), artist Ashraf Fawakhry’s homage to the first thirteen Palestinian martyrs of the Intifada, as well as a work that depicted an Arab kaffiyeh trapped in a star of David fashioned from barbed wire. The list continues. In fact there was precious little within the exhibition that Karben did not find problematic.

      In the end, the Made in Palestine fundraiser was allowed to carry on as planned, though the degree of outrage it inspired managed to reveal that censorship is not only the tactic of choice by the “rogue.” It seems that civilized world, courtesy of Karben and company, is privy to its uses as well.

      Architectural Reading

      Cairo’s Al Azhar Park

      Ayyubid Wall during restoration. Courtesy of Aga Khan Trust

      In a city in which cemeteries double as residences, where life and death can occupy the same spaces in myth and reality, the recent opening of Al Azhar Park on a site adjacent to the City of the Dead underlines the extant relationship between sacrality and recreation in Cairo. In the eighteenth century, Cairo was a walled city with specified sites of recreation. The two main recreational spaces frequented by families to celebrate mowlids (celebrations of saint’s birthdays), to have picnics, and to honor the dead, were the southern cemetery of the City of the Dead and the agricultural fields north of the city. Cairo spread to its present prodigious proportions in the early twentieth century, while its open spaces shrunk and its built spaces rapidly crept outwards. The prior tradition of open spaces converted into sites of gathering and recreation, is still reenacted today, though often in Lilliputian terms. Families are found picnicking upon slivers of land, traffic medians and the like, upon which some semblance of grass may be growing, providing a valuable, occupiable “green” space in an otherwise extremely dense and congested city. Wealthier families find more manicured, generous grounds to picnic upon in exclusive clubs.

      Today Cairo boasts a new recreational site, Al Azhar Park, a seventy-four acre public green space replete with lush landscapes of fantastic plantings, scenic views, promenades, and Neo-Islamic architecture. The site lies beside the original grounds of the Fatimid royal city, the Ismaili dynasty that conquered Egypt in 969 AD/358 AH and upon an antique trash dump of 500 years. Its almost mythic landscape of groomed green mounds stands out lush and mirage-like against the backdrop of a city permanently dulled by the dun colored dust coating all its built surfaces. This uniform hue gives the city a visual conformity, which the park disrupts with its saturated tones. Visually distinct, the site is also physically discrete; it is an oblong shaped island whose boundaries are defined by infrastructure, roads and walls. Its western edge is divided from Darb Al Ahmar by the Ayyubid wall, while on its eastern front the site is separated from the City of the Dead by the Salah Salem highway. The exception to these distinct borders is the site’s southern edge, which directly abuts the City of the Dead, differentiated by having been an uninhabited landfill. These infrastructural devices reinforce the site’s location within an edge condition by segregating it from adjacent geographies. The sequestered site begs for either integration or reified distinctness.

      The park’s completion has not mediated the site’s edge condition but instead has complicated the reading of the park’s physical and social boundaries: to what and whom does it belong? The twelfth century Ayyubid wall discovered buried within the site had marked the eastern boundary of Salaheddin’s Cairo when it was built to protect the city from marauders, and established “outsiders,” by physically defining their exclusion from the city. At another point it separated the residential city from its cemeteries. Later it simply marked historical boundaries, separating Ayyubid Islamic Cairo from the Mamluk City of the Dead, until finally, over time it just disappeared under layers of refuse. The uncovered wall, 270 meters high and 3.5 meters wide, is now the western boundary of the park and marks a point of entry, inverting the original exteriority of the space beyond the wall into an exclusive site of interiority and otherness — socially, physically and architecturally.

      A great success of the project remains its approach to the restoration of the Ayyubid wall. The Trust chose to preserve housing that was built along the wall, noting that the area’s Islamic urbanism was marked here by an organic growth and the integration of the wall with the lived-in surroundings. There are points where housing lies against, and even snakes over and rests upon, the wall. In one area a community center opens up onto the top of the wall, so the wall becomes a walkway, a striking proposition and inversion of figure and ground, both literally and conceptually. An alternate approach would have been to raze the housing and maintain a setback between future housing and the historic wall, a move that would be both historically inauthentic and less interesting. Engaging the structural and aesthetic nuances of how the housing rests upon or beside the wall, blurring the boundaries of monument and residence, and manipulating lines of vision through and over the site, are all provocative concepts. The subtleties and complexities of this endeavor present incredible architectural potential. Whether these potentials are realized inventively is another question, since these interventions that create spaces for Darb al Ahmar residents are not yet completed. The Salah Salem gate is currently the only operating entrance and only park workers use an open community entrance. Yet it is apparent that the park’s urbanism is sensitive to the particularities of Cairo’s history in its approach towards the Ayyubid wall, where the intertwined fabric of the residences and mosques is preserved as part and parcel of the history and essence of the monuments. It is here that the boundaries of the park become fuzzy, where Islamic Cairo rests atop the wall, with a favorable vantage point connecting it visually to the park, and brings in the inhabitants of Islamic Cairo.

      The park’s essentialization of Islamic motifs, however, is problematic. Its planning relies primarily on an axial promenade, referencing Persian and Timurid influences, lined by royal palm trees — a surreal addition to such hilly topography since palm trees are found in river valleys and oases. This is acceptable if the concept behind the park was that in such an unnatural site, built upon a landfill, the site’s landscaping and architecture would celebrate its synthetic nature. But the design of the park contradicts this, it references a range of Islamic Cultures and their architectures but not self-consciously. The Hilltop Restaurant presents its diners with a voyeuristic view of Darb Al Ahmar below, whose labyrinthine streets virtually no restaurant-goer would ever find reason to wander. It sits at the northernmost apex of the promenade, while at its opposite end lies the lakeside restaurant. These buildings graft aesthetic elements from various Islamic cultures — Fatimid and Mamluk — but these qualities are superficially reproduced, not altered nor modified with new technologies nor spatial complexities. The buildings become weak resuscitations of inbred Islamic architectures, without infusing new meanings. It is here that the park has lost a unique opportunity, what with the profiles of the regal, squat, Turkish style citadel and the more nuanced minarets of the Mamluk-era Madrasa of Sultan Hassan visible in the distant southern horizon. These monuments evoke the grandeur of previous Islamic architectural eras; against such delicate and visionary work, the project’s constructions fall flat. Nevertheless, such a failure is hardly to be attributed to the Islamic world’s refusal of western modernity, rather the park is interested in compressing version of historical time into a packaged environment. Instead the goal of the work should be innovation, architectural styles of the region could be tapped into and innovated upon, instead of dressing boxes with Islamic features in an attempt to lend the architecture regional authenticity.

      The pastoralism of the park belies the urban and layered character of the site. The buildings do not take advantage of the unusual topography of the site, the only hilly region in all of Cairo besides the Mu'attam. Because the site is ideally sited on a landfill, an archaeological site embedded with remnants of antique ceramic shards, the park could speak to the historical layering of the location and Islamic Cairo as a whole. Yet the buildings do not engage with the ground but perch lightly upon it. Seemingly unaware of the site’s slopes, no effort is made to cut sectionally into it, instead maintaining simple figural relationships to the ground plane. Furthermore, the park promenade as it exists could be transplanted to a different location without any disruption, with the exception of the southern lookout, a viewing point that affords a breathtaking view of the city and its monuments. The impression of the park from afar is more that of the ground functioning as a plinth upon which the palm trees and architecture rise up as figure. The result is a simple reading and trite experience of the park.

      Despite the park’s failure to integrate the site into some urban fabric or exaggerate its fantastic character along with its hackneyed architectural references, the physical presence of the park and the Trust’s joint interest in design and development is incontestably impressive. Their argument is inherently one that prioritizes people and admits that the success of urban development in the inhabited historic district can only occur in conjunction with social and economic development aimed at its inhabitants. Yet such commitments and ideologies must manifest themselves spatially in order to be effective.

      Gilbert Hage

      Ici et Maintenant

      Sara Saliba, from Ici et Maintenant. © HAGE

      Gilbert Hage: Ici et Maintenant
      Espace SD
      November 4–20, 2004

      In his most recent exhibition, Ici et Maintenant, at Beirut’s Espace SD, photographer Gilbert Hage has set out to create a visual atlas of post-war Lebanon — one thousand portraits of Lebanese subjects between the ages of eighteen and thirty.

      “The young people in the portraits of Gilbert Hage all hold the same pose,” writes Lebanese poet Abbas Beydoun. “Yet there are no two that look the same. Needless to say there are no two among them with the same ideas. This single pose… further highlights their difference, as their association depends wholly on the camera and the photographer’s will. At the end of the day, nothing remains of this staged resemblance.”

      Beydoun’s ruminations upon the image and reality were read at the November 3 launch of Ici et Maintenant. They provided a fitting complement to Hage. An artist of portrait and cityscape for fifteen years, his works have been exhibited in Sao Paolo and Paris as well as Beirut and Damascus. He lives in Beirut, teaching photography at the Academie Libanaise des Beaux Arts and the Universite de Saint Esprit de Kaslik.

      Ici et Maintenant is both slight and substantial. Slight because the body of work on display is made up of only eight portraits, substantial not only because they are part of a much larger project, but because of the sheer scale of the images. The portraits of Halim Sabbagh, Rasha Kahil, Jad Eid, Karen Safi, Yves Atallah, Hala Dabaji, Sara Saliba, and Charbel al-Fakhry are upwards of three times the size of the originals.

      It is tempting to regard the images as over-sized passport photos. Given the emigration rates among Lebanese youth, the comparison is not without weight — indeed Beydoun draws upon the image of the passport photo as an ambivalent signifier of identity.

      Virtually as much meaning can be derived from the social, cultural and political context of the portraits — or their subjects — as the technical precision and artistry of the portraits themselves.

      The artistry, the confluence of technique, image quality and scale, can be startling. The representation of the eight subjects is systematic — the only difference coming in the lighting reflected in their irises. All eight engage the lens in an attitude bereft of overt expression. It cannot, however, be mistaken for repose.

      Different as they are physically, the subjects’ faces bare residues of mood that are just as distinct. It is these subsurface tensions, which accentuate the differences between one “expressionless” visage and another, that render the exhibition so engaging.

      Hage knows that a portrait has the potential to be the most deceptive marker of identity. He writes in his notes to Ici et Maintenant that he is struggling against “the myth of the photographic portrait that unveils the soul and reveals the profound interior of Man.”

      “Human expressions,” he writes, “are culturally defined and structured socially.” No surprise, then, that he regards the different “subsurface tensions” of the portraits to be less emotional than cultural.

      Karen Safi from Ici et Maintenant. © HAGE

      “What they lived before,” he says. “What they were before, where they’re coming from. What each person is in his portrait is the result of this culture and his lived background of twenty-to-thirty years.”

      Hage’s “culture” is something more varied and nuanced than the reified kitsch — the tabbouleh, dabkeh, and triple-arched arcades — that are usually served up as Lebanese culture.

      “What is ‘Lebanese culture’? That’s precisely my problem. That’s the project,” he laughs. “I don’t think there is a ‘Lebanese culture.’ There is culture in Lebanon, but I don’t know how to define Lebanese culture. It’s a mélange, a blend of elements. It varies from individual to individual, depending on if you’ve lived abroad for five years, ten years, two years, or if you never lived outside of Lebanon.”

      This variety is mirrored in the portraits. In the intimate space chosen for the Beirut launch, the portraits’ 3-1 scale accentuates the range of eye color — from deep brown to green — skin tone and hair texture.

      Certainly the portraits defy any racial stereotypes the viewer might harbor about this place. It is also vanity’s worst nightmare. Every blotch and furtive wrinkle, every eyebrow hair that defies convention, stands petulant before the viewer, and the subject.

      Indeed the launch is made all the more intriguing by the fact that Hage’s subjects have been assembled for the occasion. It is a curious voyeurism, looking on as one of these young people approaches himself or herself, and leans forward to examine the amplified self. Facial hair is dense thicket, otherwise discrete veins on the arms are elevated to the status of rivers.

      A young woman — one of the two whose portraits have a slightly disheveled left eyebrow — runs fingertips over her eye sockets with automatic hand.

      The effect is indeed like looking upon a series of maps and Hage characterizes this project as an exploration of the geography of the person, one that renders his subjects so that the portrait conveys the sum of the parts, the varied geography of face and being.

      The map is a suitable metaphor not only for the style of the portraiture but for the subjects Hage has chosen. The face of post-war Lebanon that he wants to capture is one that looks outside as much as in. So it is that, aside from age considerations, he classifies his subjects as “people with intelligence, who are doing something.”

      Rasha Kahil, from Ici et Maintenant. © HAGE

      These eight faces, and the 992 that he hopes will follow, are part of a globalized culture that will “actualize” Lebanon. The photographer wants to break down the stereotypes of “Arab culture” — whether it be that of camels and gazelles or gunmen, explosions and sheikhs, stock images that might have been generated during the Lebanese civil war, then later ascribed to Iran or Palestine or Iraq.

      “And yet some,” writes Beydoun, “would like to identify with their image, identifying themselves, their community, their nation or their people, with one single image. This desire, owing nothing to reality, sometimes succeeds in eclipsing it. Can an abstract idea or an artificial image be more powerful than reality?”

      “It’s a part of globalization that the West doesn’t know,” says Hage, “or refuses to know or doesn’t have the chance to know. If you know Lebanon through the media only, it’s not the real Lebanon. It’s not my Lebanon, not the actual Lebanon I want to show.”

      Pinar Yolican


      New York
      Pinar Yolacan: Perishables
      Rivington Arms
      December 10–January 21, 2005

      Pinar Yolacan presents a series of photographic portraits in her first solo exhibition in New York City. Yolacan, a native of Ankara, moved to London in 1998 to attend Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. Her first time living outside of Turkey, she was struck by a certain icon — that of a British female whose mature age, pin straight posture, and aristocratic air seemed unique to the visual culture of Great Britain. Yolacan sensed a pride and mystery in these women, a particular kind of ”other-ness” (note her own word of choice) that would become the basis for her latest exhibition, Perishables, at Rivington Arms.

      While studying in London, Yolacan developed a keen interest in materials, how they may be manipulated to take on wholly new lives. She produced a body of work that included a pumpkin whose interior she upholstered with velvet, she bedecked a melon with gold sequins, and made a blazer out of popcorn. These pieces are surreal and humorous, and play with the fantastical possibilities of the quotidian. Yolacan is drawn to organic materials for reasons she cannot fully articulate. Her ability to transform and suspend something just before it begins to decompose is a kind of feat — the added layer of velvet preserves the pumpkin just long enough for one to appreciate all the other things it could be.

      Yolacan left London in 2000 with a BA, and in 2004 graduated from the Cooper Union in New York City with a BFA. While at Cooper she worked solely on Perishables, which began with the ladies in London and ended up being comprised of a cross section of similarly aged women in New York. The photographs on view are a selection of nineteen subjects whom the artist found through a Craigslist casting call. All of the subjects were white, between the ages of fifty and seventy, some were professional actors, others curious and willing to support a young artists’ project. Yolacan took a Polaroid of each woman and sent them off with a lose date at which they would reconvene. In the interim the artist studied the subjects’ faces, the kinds of personality traits their looks conveyed, and devised a garment that each would wear for the second shoot.

      The clothes Yolacan created for her subjects were made with various kinds of animal flesh: tripe, cow stomach, chicken skin, and lamb testicles. In some instances the artist incorporated the flesh into a pre-existing garment, others were made completely of flesh. It was important to Yolacan that the flesh-clothes retained the buttoned-up elegance she was so fascinated by in London, a kind of Victoria-era haughtiness that spoke as much of good breeding as it did of secrets and speckled pasts. The puffed-sleeves, ruffles, and sharp lines, which characterize Victorian clothing, lend a dignified elegance to the wearer. Replacing fabric and line for animal flesh steals away some of the power from this kind of stylized dress.

      Looking at all of the photographs in sequence, one notes a varying tonality. A few photographs are a bit green, others cyan, and some magenta. Yolacan’s technique is not flawless — she took up photography simply in order to realize this project. Nevertheless, the tonal variation saves each portrait from being a cold study; it provides each woman with a distinction, a facet of personality. As each garment was made of perishable flesh, they were all damp and sticky, some incredibly heavy, and imposed themselves on the wearer in exactly the way they should — like a second skin. The burden, the absurdity, and the sheer grotesqueness of wearing another’s skin upon one’s own forced each subject to squirm, or remain defiantly poised, while adjusting to her new corporeality. Those moments of transition were the one’s Yolacan was most concerned with.

      A woman with steely blue eyes, sharply cut blond bob, and a square, dignified, face, regards the camera, her hands clasped beneath her chest. She wears a creamy-white silk blouse with cascading folds. The neckline has been replaced with a draped layer of chicken skin, its slightly peach hue barely contrasting against the subject’s skin and blending nicely with the blouse. Where the chicken skin meets the subject’s neck it is slightly bunched and rough-edged, but the meeting of the two wrinkled fleshes allows for a smooth transition from one skin to the next. This woman seems perfectly natural and not necessarily at ease, but at least in full command of her new appendage. Other subjects look more disheveled. They are not as statuesque but a little heavy, hair messier, bodies less defined. Perhaps unconsciously, Yolacan made full suits that cover these ladies. A surly looking woman faces front, her outfit wrinkled and bunched where it is sewn together down the centerline. The flesh pulls and puffs at her shoulders and breasts, adding additional lumpiness to her person. Her garment acts aggressively as an extension of her body, literally adding mass rather than blending into a preexisting garment. Her expression is due in part to the weight of such a large piece, and additionally, to her need to reacquaint herself with her dimensionality.

      An immediate interpretation of these portraits reveals that animal flesh, pimpled and limp, mimics the way that an old woman’s skin sags and wrinkles. Perishables may be read as a commentary on aging and beauty, a critique on the plastic-surgery industry, a sarcastic play on the idea of skin, as the title and the materials the artist chose support such readings. Additionally, Yolacan chose a particular group of women as subjects to reflect what she is not — that is to say, a white westerner. This is an important and immediately evident aspect of the work. Choosing the “other” as artistic subject is to open a can of worms in contemporary art — one bulging with a breadth of previous work and critical theory from Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gomez-Pena’s performance as two undiscovered Amerindians to Franz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, that are as heavy with history as they are heavy-handed. Despite the playful way that Yolacan approached the subject , it is not easily eluded with wit and naïveté.

      The artist possesses a sophisticated understanding of her subject matter that goes beyond the either/or of “self” and “other.” She hopes to present a scope of ideas around the grotesque, performance and psychology. Perhaps one of the subtlest aspects of Perishables is the morbid sexuality that threads through each portrait. Damp animal flesh, perhaps a mere twenty-four hours old, laid upon the subject. The action of putting on the skin and each subject’s reactions to it reveal themselves through a single shot, a time during which she adjusted, played with, and embraced or rejected the strange garment. Yolacan’s primary interest was this moment of transition. She sought to capture how each woman would respond to the shock of something foreign and frightening physically imposing upon her. The artist created an experience for her subjects that the viewer could understand as analogous to Yolacan’s need to adjust to western culture. As much as Yolacan may have felt scrutinized or judged by the white women she was so intrigued by in London, she found herself exoticizing and questioning them. Perishables presents a reversal of expectation. Yolacan has rendered her subjects even more “other,” rather than being critical of “otherness” itself, or finding the similarities and parallels between herself and her subjects. Yolacan’s skin-clothes create each subject anew as strange hybrid beings. She prods each woman to withdraw further within herself while forced to reconsider the body and its indeterminate nature.

      Ayse Erkmen

      Ayse Erkmen, durchnässt (soaked), 2004. Schirn Rotunda, Schirn Kunsthalle

      Ayse Erkmen
      Schirn Kunsthalle
      October 15-31, 2004

      Ayse Erkmen is a classically trained sculptor whose work is far from classic, in the sense of “standard” or “common.” Though born in Istanbul, she declines being categorized as a “Turkish artist.” The same denial of categorization appears in her work. It has no consistent material, no signature shape or form, it cannot be labeled as either installation, sculpture or performance. She is exceedingly demanding and precise with the medium she finally selects; after her five years of sculptural studies in Istanbul, she immediately and unceremoniously dumped her work in the ocean as not being up to her exacting standards. Such a sense of destruction and the acknowledgement of the transience of her work has remained. She tends to work exclusively in a site-specific and completely non-transferable manner. Says Erkmen, “I am not interested in permanence. The fact is that I am afraid of permanent installations.”

      In 1993 she was invited to take part in the DAAD scholarship in Berlin. She produced a three-part project at the end of her residency that encapsulated a practice that dealt with the translation of space, changing context, or the rendering of a new perspective. In one gallery she simply lowered the fluorescent ceiling lights; in a second she hooked up television monitors that screened the view from her own studio window; and finally, in a section of Berlin predominantly inhabited by Turkish immigrants, she covered a building’s façade with very particular Turkish verb endings that convey not only the past tense, but the past as witnessed by a third party.

      Other projects followed that were somehow similar in thought structure but entirely different in realization. In 1996 she placed metal detectors at the entrance of Frankfurt’s Portikus, accentuating the threshold between real life and art, leaving the viewer aware of his entrance, presence, and the surrounding physical space. The themes of control of access and freedom of movement were again addressed a year later in her piece for the Münster Sculpture Project when Erkmen was denied access to the main cathedral, her preferred site. She overcame this hiccup by flying fifteenth and sixteenth century sculptures by helicopter from the roof of the museum to a platform opposite the cathedral’s west façade; the airspace above the site was not under the Provost’s control. For Shipped Ships in 2002, she moved passenger ferries from Istanbul, Venice, and Shingu on larger transport vessels to Frankfurt, where they were then used — manned by their original crews from their countries of origin — to transport city workers and tourists across the river Main, giving them all an entirely new view of the city. Again using a river as venue, this time in Bremen at the GAK institution, which sits on the edge of the Weser, Erkmen floated buoys, their number corresponding to the number of the building’s riverfront windows. Through the windows, each buoy was attached with a rope to a ball, which would reflect any changes on the river, waves from passing boats, the lowering tide. Appropriately, this piece was entitled Übersetzung (Translation).

      Now at the Schirn Kunsthalle in the city of Frankfurt — where Erkmen is a professor at the Städel Art Academy — the artist has again translated a common, everyday site by both accentuating its historical association and endowing it with new meaning. The Schirn is a colossal postmodern building built in the eighties, all marble, concrete and plate glass. One of its main features is the Rotunda, a sort of circular outdoor atrium topped by a glass dome and ringed by concrete pillars through which various paths lead to different places. The site functions as an area of ingression (framing the Kunsthalle’s main entrance), an area of transition for the public (at the top of a flight of stairs that connects through to Frankfurt’s main old square), and an area of congregation for visitors both to the institution itself (especially during the chic opening night cocktails) and to the glamorous Schirn Café directly opposite.

      The Rotunda’s floor is usually paved with concentric circles of neatly laid cobblestones. But for Erkmen’s project, entitled durchnässt (soaked), the cobblestones have been unearthed and replaced with earth, heaping great bucketfuls of dirt, mixed with water to create a sloppy, muddy passage. Irregularly placed islands of dirt seem to float among the filthy puddles and offer themselves up as stepping stones through this dismal wasteland. Where once people could confidently stride through, now they must tread carefully, walking around or picking their way through, and are thus forced to notice and pay more attention an area that might otherwise have been overlooked. The contrast between the Schirn’s clean, pure facade and this swamp is striking, as though a farm yard were transported into the center of this gleaming metropolis, home of the European Central Bank and high finance. It is somehow uncomfortable, perhaps like mud-soaked boots on a society hostess’ white sofa.

      Yet the piece is not only about contrast. The Kunsthalle’s name comes from the archaic German word “Schirn,” which referred to an open-air stall for selling goods; surely at the medieval markets the ground looked similar — perhaps not with the cigarette butts now ground into the mud, but certainly other detritus of trade and passage? Into the late nineteenth century the butchers’ stalls were still located on this strip of land, which was completely destroyed along with the rest of the old town during the Second World War and remained unreconstructed for the next thirty-seven years. Again, while the city was in ruins, the population likely had a muddy walkway not dissimilar to what is now presented by this artist, whose particular form of archeology does not unearth other structures but only the earth itself and the stories buried within it.

      Ethnic Marketing

      Erik van Lieshout, Fantasy Me, video, 2004

      Ethnic Marketing: Art, Globalization and Intercultural Supply and Demand
      Centre d’Art Contemporain
      October 20–December 5, 2004

      Since 1989, the art market has witnessed a steadily increasing demand for non-Western works of art. Harald Szeeman brought China to Venice and Okwui Enwezor brought Africa to Kassel. Enter the Middle East.

      In this particular encounter as much as in ones preceding, questions abound as to how the dialectics of globalization will operate. Is the Western concept of art to be challenged and redefined, or simply to be exported? Are non-Western artists to cling to their cultural roots, or rather to learn the “lessons” that Western art has to offer?

      Swiss-Iranian curator Tirdad Zolghadr and Swiss curator Martine Anderfuhren take on these questions in an exhibition at the Centre d’Art Contemporain’s appropriately titled Ethnic Marketing. Ethnic marketing is a reference hitherto widely used in economics, public relations and advertising; a classically defined ethnic marketing references a strategy of shaping products according to customers’ desires — desires supposedly determined by their cultural habits.

      In applying the term to the art market, Zolghadr has reversed its meaning. In the realm of the arts, ethnic minorities are no longer customers, but rather, are rendered producers. International artists are welcomed to the new global art market — but only if their works bear witness to an ethnically specified, cultural background. And as in traditional ethnic marketing, such specifications do not mean that we are given completely new products. Rather, the product often remains the same — namely Western art — only slightly modified. Zolghadr’s mantra: the process of globalization forces non-Western artists to produce works that both follow the Western tradition and differ from it. If globalization is a dialectic process, in which the Western norm is at the same time modified and reaffirmed, then Western artists have to say as much about it as so-called eastern ones.

      Are we right in assuming that artists have to say anything novel about the dynamics of the art market within which they are presenting themselves? In looking at most of the pieces Zolghadr and Anderfuhren exhibit, we might at least suspect that the answer could be no. To begin with, a look at the strategy employed by the majority of artists is revealing — many question the history of colonialism and its uncanny remains, such as migration, tourism and the like. Peter Stoffel travels across Africa wearing a sport sweatshirt with the (racist) name of Schorsch Caco, the hero of a Swiss radio play popular during the Seventies. Lisl Ponger contrasts found footage from amateur tourist films with narrations of local microhistories, and Dirk Herzog offers to edit tourist holiday films. The works of Gülsun Karamustafa and Leyla al Mutanakker both reflect on the history of orientalist painting, popular during the nineteenth century. While photographer Ursula Biemann portrays New York tribal art dealers together with their goods, Alex Gerbaulet stages professional strategies of illegal immigration on film. And Eric van Lieshout places himself at the center of a neo-colonial artistic quest, questioning his own role as a successful Western artist visiting China.

      Some of these works are rather weak in comparison to the questions Zolghadr poses, falling into the trap of evoking pity for the “colonized,” loosely defined. In this way, they play on the traditional trope of evoking pity for “victims” — endemic to Western art since its beginnings (think of the ubiquity of images of martyrs, the Crucifixion itself). What then of a reversal of the classic colonial relationship? Solmaz Shahbazi, for example, films the Fête de Genève, a seminal event for the local tourist industry for the purpose of entertaining moneyed visitors (primarily from the Middle East). Here, the Swiss present themselves as an ethnic minority, complete with strange cultural habits. Wong Hoy Cheong, for his part, recreates a typical Austrian living room with the television displaying a “documentary” about the colonization of Austria by the Malawian Empire. In these works the non-Western subject is not the victim, but rather the smart and strong counterpart. The same applies for a second piece by Jens Haning, who launches a poster campaign exhibiting an Arabic joke (written in Arabic) installed in the center of Geneva — and even for the more ironic work of Natascha Sadr-Haghighian; the artist has constructed a website that invites artists to share pieces of their biography — the aim being to provide fictive biographies to artists that have to meet specific demands. But such strategies have their weak points, too: are these true alternatives to a so-called Western approach? Let us turn to a third, smaller group of works. In their film The Road to Tate Modern, Erkan Özgen and Sener Özmen stumble through the West Asian countryside, referencing Don Quixote throughout. Quixote, the epic sixteenth century figure who is central to Western culture to the present day, represented the reader’s failure in trying to emulate ideals of feudal chivalry as celebrated in medieval romances. In presenting their quest for the ideal of Western art as an enterprise analogous to Don Quixote’s, Özgen and Özmen attain a double aim. On the one hand, they simply fulfill the demand of the art market by delivering a piece of heroic failure. But it is exactly in doing so that they provide a starting point for a true and profound critique of the art system.

      An artist whose approach is close to Özgen’s and Ozmen’s is Farhad Moshiri. Already known for his constructed Iranian living rooms, replete with gilded icons of kitsch, he presents a new piece at Geneva. Chador Package, co-produced with Shirine Aliabadi, turns the Islamic veil into a Western consumer good. In this way Moshiri and Aliabadi not only show that the dialectics of globalization aim to develop new, culturally specified products to be sold according to the rules of the Western ideology called capitalism, but also present the work of art itself as a product underlying this ideology. In the end, these two works reach the level of Zolghadr’s theoretical conceptualization.

        Form Through Light

        Ahmed Askalany, palm wooden structures, 2004. Courtesy of Mashrabia Gallery

        Form Through Light
        Palace for Art Galleries (Ministry of Culture)
        October 30–November 25, 2004

        Mashrabia Gallery Goethe Institute Champollion Street (outdoors)
        October 24–November 12, 2004

        Lights are perhaps the ultimate form of vernacular expression during Ramadan — as manifest in their awesome use to decorate streets, buildings and beyond throughout the holy month. Even typically draconian government bureaucrats are more sympathetic to the masses’ will to celebrate and less inclined to press for municipal violations en masse. It is the one time of the year during which the street is the space, and parochial notions of art as championed by the Ministry of Culture and their ilk slowly fade away.

        In September 2003, artist Mohamed Abou El-Naga proposed holding a forum on “form through light,” an artistic event that would adopt light as a core value, to be held during Ramadan each year. The forum would be a venue for artists, both local and international, to present expressions related to light.

        A classic clash over the ownership of the lights concept left Cairo with two smaller-scale shows, wholly separate — one in the private Mashrabia Gallery, and the other in the Ministry of Culture’s Palace of Arts. Unfortunately, both exhibitions failed to capitalize on the possibility of using the street as a venue.

        Mashrabia’s context for its light installation show, Menawwareen, is the Noubar Project, an initiative that seeks to question the value of contemporaneity in an urban context like Cairo — a pool rich in abrupt changes that stimulate a mishmash of individual responses despite a city which is, in many ways, a collective experience. “The urban space with its democratic nature is a privileged field for non-elitist confrontation,” reads the initiative. Menawwareen is the third episode in this experiment, following Anne du Boistesselin’s Pop-Up (May – June 2004) and Pascale Favre and Mahmoud Khaled’s Two Single Rooms (September – October 2004).

        An extension of past projects, Menawwareen brought together nineteen artists presenting more than fifteen original works. For Stefania Angarano, Mashrabia director and Noubar initiator, the artists managed to speak to a broad Cairene audience. “There was a deal of coziness, a coziness that addressed itself to the audience. There was no coldness or incomprehensibility. Instead, there was a dialogue, an intimacy with an audience that has not necessarily acquired basic notions of contemporary art,” she said. Indeed, the show did manage to penetrate a wider audience through its use of popular visual codes.

        Dialogue was also Naga’s word of choice in describing his show, Form Through Light, held in the Palace of Arts under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture. Naga’s dialogue was more related to nuanced notions of culture, where art is at once exposed and hidden, both explicit and embedded in the world around us. The Palace of Arts’s show assembled sixty-nine artists, most of whose work was specifically commissioned for the event. In a few cases, existing works were recycled — or in Naga’s words, “rediscovered in a novel context.”

        Space remained a point of contention. While the initial aspiration was to take the art community to the streets, both shows remained indoors — with the exception of two installations of Menawwareen, built in the vicinity of Mashrabia. While the use of alternative space was not privileged, the use of the spaces in question was relatively original. Installation at large is rather new to the Palace of Arts, which has tended to stick to more traditional mediums such as painting. The space is conventionally torn by a classist division, in which better-known artists’ works were shown in the outer halls, while lesser-known works would be concealed inside. This time, artifacts were unreservedly spread around the space, challenging its confines and inviting the visitor to meander through its most mysterious corners. In Mashrabia, the charm of the space emanated from the contrast between its darkness and the light rising out of the objects, an immersing quantity of light that vanquished the prime obscurity.

        Derno Ricci, Sobia bags surrounding white-egged lamp, 2004. Courtesy of Mashrabia Gallery

        Light, the raison d’être of this artistic demonstration, was not always used interestingly. Its presence was sometimes reduced to a sidebar of a pre-existing form, where precious little fusion took place. In other cases, light presented an array of themes. Mohamed Salem’s lustrous book and Naga’s luminous strands of paper pastries were explorations of the metaphysical relationship between knowledge and light.

        Light’s relationship to spirituality and the universality therein was the preoccupation of Amr Abdul Qawy in his Pulse of Essence installation. Two sides of a black cubicle presented spiritual verses on light, collected from the Book of Genesis, the Qur’an and Buddhist scripts. Genesis’s “let there be light” materialized, as sparkles of light hit the opposing wall on and off. Perhaps a more compelling take on spirituality and light was manifest in Hayyam Abdul Baqi’s work. In a pitch-black room, a short detour lead to a rounded spot of tens of shimmering rosaries. Combining light with rosaries, customary in religious rituals, served as expression of (admittedly trite) notions of spiritual welfare.

        In the Goethe space, Huda Lutfi further explored the relationship between light and spirituality, with a specific view of Islam. Her five doffs (local traditional drums) were painted with camels, referencing Sufi values of endurance and patience. But her use of light to insinuate the camels’ movement could have used more development — an opportunity lost.

        In the end, themes of light as manifest in memory, constructions of outside and inside, identity and beyond were explored in myriad ways by the artists in both shows. Nevertheless, it remains unfortunate that we did not end up with one cohesive show. How the initiative evolves in the next year is a mystery, though we can hope that event organizers recognize the value of the city itself as a space in their conceptualization.

        Inconvenient Evidence

        Iraqi Prison Photographs from Abu Ghraib

        New York
        Inconvenient Evidence: Iraqi Prison Photographs from Abu Ghraib
        International Center for Photography
        September 17–November 28, 2004

        The exhibition halls on the ground floor hosted a showcase of black and white, almost noir, photographs of the moment in American life that has been rescripted by Botoxed-baby-boomers, as the “end of innocence,” or the tragically abbreviated aegis of John F. Kennedy. Inconvenient Evidence was staged in the underground level of the International Center for Photography (ICP), in a room that housed nearly twenty desktop-printed reproductions of the digital photographs captured by US soldiers as they tormented, tortured and sexually abused Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison. On the fourth wall of the room, four framed photographs captured by photojournalists from the news services were hung, documenting reactions of everyday people to the worldwide release of the images of torture. The exhibition was bracketed during a period of widespread political activism in New York, beginning with grass-roots opposition to George W. Bush’s tenure during the Republican National Convention and ending with the elections on November 2, 2004.

        Despite the charge of the horrors the pictures documented, Inconvenient Evidence did not really generate a debate beyond the circles of cognoscenti and literati in the city. Trials of a number of indicted servicemen and officers, taking place in the same time bracket, garnered significantly less media attention than for example the trial of Scott Peterson, accused of killing his pregnant wife, Laci, on the very “holy” day of Christmas in California. Questions were raised in the media regarding the showcasing of these images in a museum. Reviewing the exhibit for the New York Times (October 12, 2004), Michael Kimmelman titled his piece “Abu Ghraib returns — as art?” He writes: “Once ubiquitous on television and in newspapers, they now qualify as quasi-aesthetic artifacts, pictures you may choose to seek out — for edification, as a distraction, even,” and in closing he writes: “We live in an amnesiac society. The Abu Ghraib photographs have passed from the headlines to the art pages in half a year. One can only imagine how much further they may retreat in six more months.”

        The intention of the chief curator at the ICP, Brian Wallis, was not to co-opt the photographs as art. Rather, as the statement posted on the center’s website claims, it was to treat the images as documents, “evidence,” that raise a number of meaningful questions to be addressed in the public sphere. The digital snapshots, Wallis argues, interrogate “the relationship between photography and war” because beyond conventional function, they were also “instruments of maltreatment and sexual/cultural humiliation.” Their nature as digital snapshots by amateurs, he continues, as well as their mode of dissemination via the worldwide web marks “a sea change in representations of war via image-making technology.” The amateurs standing behind the lens were not “objective observers” but elements in the army corps of perpetrating the crime. Perhaps inspired by Susan Sontag’s article entitled “Regarding The Torture Of Others,” published in the New York Times Sunday Magazine (May 23, 2004), Wallis perceived the exhibition as an occasion to reflect on “the place of photography in documenting and constructing the truth.” In jest with all these considerations, a symposium was organized (in conjunction with the Vera List Center for Art and Politics) on November 9, at the Cooper Union, hosting Brian Wallis as the moderator for a panel discussion with Seymour Hersh, Luc Sante, and David Levi-Strauss.

        I cite Wallis as the author of the statement posted on the website, because it is the statement he presented at the symposium. The text he authored in the small catalogue distributed to visitors at the exhibition, was markedly different. This is one of the many oddities surrounding the showcase, all stemming from the profound ambivalence of the liberal American intelligentsia in relation to their relationship to American empire, its history, but also its present manifestation in the occupation of Iraq. The motivation to find a politically coherent position, vaguely clutching to a discourse of humanism, in the midst of a discursive realm shrouded in the fog of punditry, a body politic collapsed from by a bankrupt hegemony of two political parties, and a civil society practically entirely decimated by a corporate take-over from business philanthropy, falls flat on its face.

        Just consider the discreet discursive shift in the titling of the exhibition, Inconvenient Evidence: Iraqi Prison Photographs from Abu Ghraib. “Iraqi Prison Photographs” elides the identity of the photographers. The subject to whom the “evidence” will cause “inconvenience” is thus abstracted, left open to interpretation and to the possibility of redeeming the photographers, who are documenting one another engaged in the crimes; the regime and its institutions that have afforded the venue and means for the crimes committed and documented; and the society at large embodied in the visitors to the exhibition. At first glance, the use of “Iraqi Prison” and “Abu Ghraib” seems peculiar because of the redundancy: Abu Ghraib is a prison in Iraq, arguably an Iraqi prison, although it falls under the jurisdiction of the American military command and could also qualify as an American prison. The second operative shift is in the re-iteration of “prison.” It avoids the direct reference to what the photographs depict very explicitly: torture, abuse, rape, practices in breach of the legal regimes guiding prisons and incarceration. Not only is responsibility abstracted, but so are the crimes.

        Less discreet and more troubling was the choice of geographical locales in the four images borrowed from photojournalists depicting outrage and grief the digital snapshots of crimes roused, namely Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Israeli occupied Gaza. In the American public sphere, all four places are tightly bound in representations as festering grounds for suicidal anti-American terrorism and radical freedom-hating Islamism. At the symposium, I asked Wallis to explain how their inclusion and their implications integrated with to the set of interrogations the curators intended to raise with the exhibit, specifically, considering the photographs were, according to Sontag, another face of Americans. He replied that by the time the exhibition was in the process of being set-up, there was no photographic evidence of the digital images’ presence in the public sphere in America. And moreover, he chose these locales because he wanted to show instances of civil protest inscribed in the Middle East, in the framework of a religious war. He saw the acts they represent as pertaining to religious practice.

        There is yet a clear mapping of how the digital snapshots have penetrated American consciousness, and the variety of significations they carry. If their display at the ICP can be regarded as portend, then they are well on their way to being emptied of their immediate signification and canonized as icons. To cite one example, the Los Angeles–based Forkscrew Graphics have appropriated the advertisement campaign for iPods to produce a posters series entitled “iRaq” replacing silhouettes of youth dancing to the sound of their iPods with, for one, the silhouette of a hooded man with electrodes attached to his fingers. In Iraq, all the significations contained within the digital snapshots of torment, torture and sexual abuse have remained intact. An exhibition of twenty-five Iraqi artists organized by the Hewar Gallery, produced works that showed no ambiguity as to Sontag’s assertion.

        Sadly, it has become all too facile to quote George Orwell under the Bush regime. I will refrain from invoking Big Brother as a literary parallel to John Ashcroft. Rather, I will invoke him in order to understand the American liberal intelligentsia, the curators at ICP and their scuttling to reconcile the Geneva Conventions with “manifest destiny,” and the International Court of Justice with “The White Man’s Burden.” The most propitious parallel to their confounded moral and political dilemmas, I have found is in Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant. Within, the author transcribes a moment of supreme ambiguity in his youth, when asked to kill an elephant “ravaging the bazaar,” while employed as a sub-divisional police officer in the British colonial administration in Moulmein, lower Burma, as a sub-divisional police officer. The text is available on the worldwide web, free of charge.

        Curated by Brian Wallis at the ICP and by Jessica Gogan and Thomas Sokolowski at The Andy Warhol Museum.

        A Conversation with Shahzia Sikander

        I recently met artist Shahzia Sikander in New York City for a 7-Up and a chat. What began in earnest as a discussion about her recent exhibition at the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art rapidly evolved into a broader discussion about the state of arts criticism, the dangerous politics of identity marketing, and the burden of representing a subcontinent. We also talked about the show.

        Bidoun: I sought out reviews of your work after having seen the show at the Aldrich. It seems that art critics emphasize one subject in particular — namely the restrictive nature of the miniature—the medium on which much of your work is based.

        Shahzia Sikander: The premise that the miniature is restrictive is subjective. It becomes globalized. In that respect being a Pakistani is limiting. Being a woman is limiting. I have become the poster person for breaking the limitations.

        Bidoun: I know little about the miniature.

        SS: The deconstruction of miniature painting has a transformative nature that propels dialogue. The miniature in its most traditional aspect is extremely multi-dimensional. There are schools of painting that vary dramatically. Some have illustrative roots, some are purely narrative based, some use extremely clever devices of abstraction. I have always been drawn to the hierarchy within the practice, of labor and time, issues of scale, precision and gesture.

        Bidoun: How dramatic. Your deconstructing the miniature, or demystifying it seems a veritable revolution. Sexual or otherwise. I’ll bet your work is read as autobiography.

        SS: Yes, it is interpreted as autobiography. It’s about identity, my identity. So they say.

        Bidoun: As an aestheticized construction of the Pakistani woman, I imagine. When did that become evident to you?

        SS: The introduction of my work happened in the Nineties — in the midst of identity politics. That time was a sort of coming of age. The first serious introduction of my work was in 1997, simultaneously at the Drawing Center and the Whitney Biennial. I was exploring experimental drawing plus trying to avoid being ghettoized as a South Asian/Muslim/Pakistani woman artist. What followed was an exoticization of some type; readings focusing on the cultural entity rather than the work itself. I was using “traditional” language for personal expression. How reductive! I became a spectacle. And there were hardly any South Asian artists at the time, which created a responsibility somehow.

        Bidoun: So critics and others came to the table with their own readings.

        SS: The readings being primarily about cultural specificity. The things written were incredible. I have these interviews where people literally described the way I speak rather than what I would say.

        Bidoun: Are there any of your works in particular that have lent themselves to critics’ and curators’ exoticizing tendencies?

        SS: There have been some images that have been repeated, read with post-orientalist tendencies. I can name three or four works that addressed the notion of identity as being fluid, unfixed. Identity being like theatre. These works play with that idea and were informed by a performance I had taken part in. I dressed in braids and mapped my movements in airport zones — studying how people react when there is a visual encounter that looks familiar and is not. A self-made costume hid my body language, at times it was transparent.

        Bidoun: So what was the problem?

        SS: The work was read as a piece about self-liberation and the veil.

        Bidoun: Shocker. How ironic that it was meant as a testament to the fluidity of identity and was consumed as the opposite.

        SS: My coming from a Muslim country as a woman was suddenly the point of it all. I was actually running these performances to generate imagery that would come back into my paintings, building an archive so to speak. But so many people reduce the work to one assimilated understanding.

        Bidoun: It’s tricky because the veil is the lens through which much of the Occident constructs the East. It’s so damn seductive and lends itself to knee-jerk absolutes, hysterics.

        SS: Yes. People are image-oriented and seek the stylized. But I am not interested in autobiography.

        Bidoun: There is a noted reductionism in the art world, not to mention mainstream thought. Whatever that is. The same treatment of the veil as a fetish is also transferred to ideas about “East and West.” The New Yorker has called your work a “fond plea for multiculturalism.” Is it just me or is that pretty brutal? It seems to me this reading is more consistent with some of the Pakistani work shown in last year’s The American Effect show at the Whitney. On the flip side, I have read Homi Bhabha note that your work is about “the closeness of difference.” This makes more sense to me than this Benetton-style handholding. Do you feel like the nature of your references is lost sometimes to western audiences?

        SS: Yes.

        Bidoun: Okay, so Bhabha is a post-colonial scholar and in the academy, but is there room for such discourse in the art world?

        SS: Yes, why not? But that shouldn’t mean that the only way to address work of people like myself has to happen through the post-colonial construct. What about Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar’s essay on alternative Modernities? His proposition is that similarities are elusive and fragmentary.

        I am interested in reclaiming the production of context for my work. It’s been frustrating to encounter the same rhetoric of culture and technique, tradition and innovation. Recently in collaboration with Jessica Hough, we had a round table discussion with Feri Daftari from MoMA, Vishaka Desai from the Asia Society and Joan Kee from IFA [Institute of Fine Arts] — to discuss the problematics of representation, especially in light of what has been written about my work in the past ten years.

        Bidoun: Speaking of representation, what do you make of the so-called internationalization of the arts — the CNN Documenta, the growth of international biennales, etcetera. Your visibility preceded most of it, and I am not including the Magiciens de Terre exhibition and all those tired examples because the height of the movement I am referring to really did not start until far after that. How do you feel about this so-called internationalization of the arts, all the mobility?

        SS: Mobility is a privilege. I have a Pakistani passport. Let’s just say that I only have visions of mobility. My work travels, I travel less.

        Bidoun: Okay, so the globalization or internationalization of art is a myth. You’re right, that’s breathtakingly provincial of me.

        SS: But there are international venues that are still very young, promising. When Vasif [Kortun] was here he mentioned that he is inviting artists to Istanbul for a period of time to produce work. That makes a lot more sense than just shipping work with no relationship to place, theme.

        Bidoun: That seems to me a more authentic vision of the “international,” less token and rooted in aggressive ethnic marketing.

        SS: Yes, I would love to produce work in that way.

        Bidoun: And your arts education is also the subject of much writing, again spun as hyper-restrictive in the Pakistani context. Is that accurate, or sensationalism again?

        SS: On the contrary, the Eighties in Pakistan were very restrictive and given that context, the National College of Arts was a haven for dialogue. It was a great place to be, not restrictive at all in the larger context of Lahore and Zia’s military regime.

        Bidoun: And you studied miniature painting.

        SS: That just happened circumstantially. Art for me was about application, and exploration of the conceptual and formal. The conventional approaches in the painting department at that time were rigid and boring. How much landscape and figurative painting could one do? I gravitated towards miniature painting because no one else was interested in it, literally. Its social context was intriguing. It supposedly represented our cultural platform, yet laden with suspicion and ridicule. I had grown up thinking of it as kitsch. My limited exposure, primarily by looking at the work produced for tourist consumption, came into question.

        Bidoun: Would you ever teach miniature at the National College of Art?

        SS: I did. I got fired.

        Bidoun: Okay. What were students reading in school as reference material on the arts?

        SS: The readings were as limited or diverse depending on the individual. A grasp of western art, compliments of Art Through the Ages, and then several books on local arts, non-western modernism.

        Bidoun: Pretty standard. Was the emphasis on canonical western modernism? You mentioned Art Through the Ages.

        SS: No we looked at Pakistani and Indian artists too, it was quite progressive for that time.

        Bidoun: Your success must have left an impression on students.

        SS: My success created an incredible mushrooming of miniature painters. There was a perception that one would gain fame and opportunity by pursuing miniature painting. I see a lot of my work plagiarized.

        Bidoun: I guess I have seen that in Iran among younger artists recreating Shirin Neshat videos with handi-cams. It looks more like Lars von Trier meets Celine Dion. Sometimes artists are as complicit in the labeling game as the market that they operate in.

        SS: Yes, the hypocrisy is incredible. Many who criticize my work as not being faithful to the tradition of the miniature are the very people who are copying it. And anyway we are talking about copying a copy! The miniature is the ultimate copy. The irony.

        Bidoun: Can you tell me about the work at the Aldrich, which is predominantly drawings and a new animation work?

        SS: There is a suite of fifty-one drawings, titled 51 Ways of Looking. Drawing is space for stripping to the basic. The drawings start with a sphere and a rectangle — the abstracted space of representation, the abyss, the fundamental unit. Everything is created from that base, and viewers must create their own progression or narrative. The drawings are fairly controlled. They are works on paper but also paintings. They’re not heroic in the sense that there is no pigment stretched on large canvases, but they are large in representation.

        Bidoun: Why the animation? You have created a seven-minute video called Pursuit Curve.

        SS: “Pursuit curve” is a term used in mathematics to describe the path an object takes when chasing another object. Much of the imagery in the work is inspired by landscape and its connection to history. I was inspired by desert landscapes I visited in California and Mexico. I returned to my books of miniature paintings to look at the ways artists treated the landscape in their work. So I focused on the natural world — both on a human and on a microscopic scale.

        Bidoun: What about the iconography you use in the video?

        SS: The iconography within the animation has number of possible interpretations. The starburst shapes, for example, could be read as celebratory fireworks or exploding bombs, benign growth patterns or bleeding wounds.

        Bidoun: So there is an ambiguity. And the loop, or “pursuit,” engenders multiple readings.

        SS: Yes, I am interested in the aspect of time being cyclical, nonlinear. What is the active agent here? The larger object pulling or the more aggressive object being chased — is one the active agent in the American landscape or the one dying to assimilate?

        Bidoun: With regard to the animation, the work seems anti-animation, anti the intricacy of the miniature. Many of the images are child-like, even naïve.

        SS: The drawings are scanned into digital files to eliminate the hand drawn element and then threaded together to create a sense of navigation. The shift is purposefully subtle, not challenging, not confrontational. Technology is not instant, it’s controlled.

        I am experimenting with traditional techniques, non-traditional materials, scale, labor and performance, perhaps to explore identity — not mine! — proposing a psychological space in which it is flexible. The narratives are open-ended. They renegotiate difference. The work is inspired by a range of painting schools, but they’ve been simplified and stylized to become non-nostalgic, stripped of any sentiment.

        Bidoun: Stripping is a bit like driving through a desert landscape.

        SS: I have always operated on the principle of adding. I wanted to reverse that. How much information can I strip off. Stripping is not about vulnerability. Just like how drawing is fundamental. It is not vulnerable.

        Bidoun: Stripping all the baggage surrounding your work and approaching some vague notion of the essential. That sounds a bit like our conversation.

        SS: Yes.

        Gardens of Persia; Old Wisdom, New Visions

        Abbas Kiarostami, The Leafless Garden, 2004

        Gardens of Persia; Old Wisdom, New Visions
        Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art
        September 13–November 3, 2004

        Persian gardens are commonly recognized as reflections of a promised Paradise, a central motif within Persian culture. The constitution of these gardens follows a traditional morphology, complete with a series of symbols referring to a transcendental world. Such symbolism is inspired by an ancient literature continuously referencing a distant Heaven.

        While the Persian gardens are superb architectural achievements, it is arguably the divine aspect and the religious associations therein that have inspired a recent exhibition at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMCA).

        Despite lofty aspirations, the exhibition in question as a whole is hardly cohesive. To begin with, the show includes a series of antique art works presented in parallel to historical texts on gardens in Iran. Needless to say, the show is packed with a wide, if not random, range of artists. The choice of the museum directors to be inclusive in this exhibition is perhaps cause for chaos.

        Importantly, the exhibition conveys a nostalgic sense in relation to a heritage that seems (dramatically) at the brink of extinction. Few of the artists have managed to engage what is otherwise a surface level romanticism.

        Mahdokht, a video by NY-based Shirin Neshat, is entirely consistent the artist’s tendency to engage in a symbolic signification of the social role of women. Mahdokht (based on a Shahrnoush Parsipour story) is arguably used in reference to a barren civilization seeking revival — here as manifest as a woman obsessed with fertility. Neshat’s protagonist is seen frantically weaving yellow threads. Finally, we see her dead in the watercourses of the garden, having taken her own life. Mahdokht, the mother of civilization and the soul of the garden, has been weaving with the “wrong” threads — stuck in an impossibly hopeless state. Now all that is left is a mass of seeds, presumably to disseminate throughout the world. Neshat, who also explored the timeless essence of the female in a previous work, Tooba, has once again dealt with the subject in this work. Filmmaker and sometime-photographer Abbas Kiarostami contributes an installation, The Leafless Garden, a series of bare trunks organized geometrically in an orthogonal array over a lawn-covered square at the center. Four mirrors positioned in the perimeter produce an endless image in four directions. The composition references the geometrical organization of the typical Persian garden while the parallel mirrors produce a visual effect that seems to allude to a vague notion of “eternity.” The title of Kiarostami’s work, combined with the visual austerity of the trees, seems to reveal the artist’s oppositional attitude toward the theme.

        Among the younger artists represented in the show, Avish Khobrehzadeh presents the video Distant Memory, a looped animation of two horses grazing tranquilly. The projection screen is covered with a transparent plastic sheet, upon which pale sketches of trees are vaguely visible. The deliberate, inconvenient continuity of the animation, along with the repetitive movements of figures disturbs in a subtle manner. Khobrehzadeh seems to be making reference to an impassivity through history, questioning the myth of advancement at large.

        Behrooz Darash’s A Night in the Persian Gardens is a thoughtful installation. The work comprises several backlit boxes of Styrofoam that accommodate a variety of abstract compositions made up of delicate elements. The piece is accompanied by a piece of abstract music by Ankido Darsh. Darash has focused on the timeless nature of Persian gardens.

        Presumably, the outcome of this exhibition is far from the original intention of the TMCA directors to commemorate a glorious cultural heritage. Considering the social context in which this project has been initiated, it is not surprising that the majority of the artists share an alternative, if not critical attitude toward the theme.

        Gardens of Iran seems a desperate attempt to resuscitate a fading transcendental icon. Nevertheless, the brutal truth is that a gap exists between the contemporary reality and the fantasy of an exalted image.

        Hashem El Madani


        Hashem El Madani, Two Syrians, Pro-Palestinian resistance. Studio Shehrazade. Collection FAI

        Hashem El Madani: Mediterranean
        The Photographers’ Gallery
        October 14–November 28, 2004

        A successful portrait photograph often reveals what the sitter actually wants to think of him or herself. August Sander’s early twentieth-century mission to document the population of Germany, for instance, might now seem unthinkably grand and simplistic, but a cursory look again at his photographs reminds us how full and revealing the representation of the steady gaze can be. Having photographed the residents of Saida for the past fifty years, Hashem El Madani has amassed a collection of over 75,000 images representing around ninety percent of the population of that city in the south of Lebanon. This project — on show for the first time outside Lebanon — may not have originated out of Sander’s lofty ideals, but makes for an exhibition that is equally revealing nonetheless.

        Think how much people use photographs to instantly portray what they are, what they do; we live in a more immediately retrospective time than ever, using our mobile phone cameras to document even the most apparently meaningless moments. This exhibition shows the universal need people have to construct themselves. Madani seems to be the most selfless of photographers; he insists that photography is a service profession and that a portrait must render its subject beautiful, reducing full-faced people with a sharper angle, allowing crossed eyes to be either retouched or at least hidden. This is not about lies; it is in fact about the “truth” that people want to present about each other, to each other.

        With their scarves wrapped in a cross under their armpits, the resistance fighters stare out directly at the camera. Madani offers an explanation, as he does about all of the work: “These are Syrians… . They used to come unarmed to the studio.” He began taking photographs of the population of Saida in the 1940s. Perhaps the high point came in the 1960s and 1970s, and after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, business started to decline. Madani worked to produce imagery that was acceptable in every way to the sitter, the parent, the lover; he would cover every conceivable physical blemish and sacrifice the useless image of truth in the production of an elaborate facade. How fascinating to go right back to the surface of a photograph, with the negative scratched and doctored, to remove an unwanted, unmentionable ex-wife! Madani would retouch work by other photographers, as well, to remove the occasional crossed eye, for instance. Girls kissing, boys hugging, a loss, new love, good friendship are all conveyed with equal attention, intensity and purpose.

        Probably the most unusual aspect of the exhibition is that this mass of imagery is accompanied by a series of accounts written by the photographer. The retrospective nature of this signifies that he is commenting and explaining in the present about something in the past: it would be difficult to see, concentrate, and understand otherwise. Here, a practical characterization of a set time and state can combine with light touch to reveal how functional the work is; in any other circumstance it would not be at all desirable for such a level of narrative, such anecdotal account, but this works in a different way. Time is held still but also consciously revived and commented upon.

        The mass of work means that patterns evolve quickly, and gaining a knowledge of the general project makes concentrating on the particular individual very difficult. The runs of images include a young women holding the back of a chair; naked boy babies on a sheep skin rug; women and children touching the dial of the studio radio; Palestinian “resistance fighters” with their guns; young girls standing around a table with table cloth; a Palestinian girl writing a letter to her lover. All start to produce slight shifts in pose and a movement across the surface — with the radio here, the radio there, the pattern of the table cloth, or a jauntily set hat. The unconscious nature of constructed imagery seems to speak back and create its own rhythm.

        Madani’s atelier in the Chehrazade building, which he opened in 1948, was one of the first functioning “drop-in” photographic studios in Saida. Madani worked here, in his parents’ home, and in the homes of families. With such an equal dose of fiction and fact inherent in the nature of the work, the actual place where the photograph is taken is of little significance. To Madani, it matters much more that the place be accessible. He describes his studio as perfect, as “appropriately discreet, large, and inexpensive”; women could come in and leave unobserved, and his clients could pop in over and over again, often late at night, after having seen a movie, for instance.

        The exhibition, part of the Photographers’ Gallery’s Mediterranean season, was jointly organized by Akram Zaatari of the Fondation Arabe pour l'Image and British curator Lisa Le Feuvre. Madani’s collective portrait of a particular society over half a century exemplifies the interdependent, close relationship between imagery and desire.

        Hasham El Madani, Anonymous, early 1970s. Studio Shehrazade. Collection FAI

        Amman Meeting Points

        montage CH

        Amman Meeting Points
        Various venues
        October 6-8, 2004

        This year’s Amman Meeting Points, organized by the Brussels-based Young Arab Theatre Fund and the Makan gallery space, created a stir of unprecedented activity in the capital. The event served as a novel forum for both local and international artists to meet, while its theme was rooted in notions of borders and travel — fitting given the geographic situation of the Jordanian capital as an historic crossroads. In the course of three days, five spaces were used to exhibit visual arts and showcase a diversity of performative events, including Makan, Darat al Funun, The Royal Film Commission and The House.

        Rotterdam-based artist Lidwien Van de Ven’s large photographs addressed borders in explicit fashion, as she installed billboards in public spaces depicting borders, interestingly giving them a commercial venue in a compelling twist on the documentary medium. The video Chic Point by Jerusalem-based Sharif Waked presented an alternative understanding of the Israeli check point, a physical element that is at once common and absurd. Danish artist Vibe Bredahl brought her “doll” to Makan, as part of her Embroidery in the Middle East project that has traveled to several Arab countries as part of a year’s long journey. People were asked to embroider directly onto the doll, leaving a powerful collective expression — at times light, at times less so.

        Walking into The House, a neglected residence renovated by the Amman Municipality specifically for the event, was an experience in of itself. Within, Amman-based artist Oraib Touqan, presented her relationship to the city, an Amman driven by contradictions and constructed on multiple layers of culture, histories. Touqan divided a room into two, while within was an enormous image of two Palestinian women from a refugee camp, along with a fuchsia neon lit space representing a nightclub.

        Importantly, the use of new media in Meeting Points provided local audiences with incredible exposure to alternative art forms. Egyptian Amal Al Kenawy stunned audiences with two powerful installations, The Journey and The Room — both exploring the body as a zone of potential rupture. Alexandrian Wael Shawky presented his video installation Asphalt Quarter in a revamped, simpler form — a multimedia exploration of the problematic poetics of modernization.

        “Amman is craving art,” noted Alma Khasawneh, a member of Makan, “Through Meeting Points Jordanian art has been taken from Seventies-style oil-painting-hung-on-the-wall to a contemporary interactive encounter.” Artists who came to Amman from abroad were equally enthused about taking part in an event that seems to be part of a movement, “The art scene in Amman — compared to the one in my own city, Copenhagen — is quite exciting. There is an energy and a feeling that something is underway — that something is about to happen in the field of art,” commented Vibe Bredahl.

        There is no doubt that Meeting Points was an extension of a movement already in motion. Slowly, the Jebal al Weibdeh quarter is developing into a genuine center for the arts. Major cultural centers such as The National Gallery for Fine Arts and Darat Al Funun have made their homes there, while many artists had been moving into the neighborhood and establishing studio spaces. These usually quiet streets served as a hub for art during the event, as people were strolling from one space to another, creating an energy that was reminiscent of a street festival. In the end, Meeting Points took art from its sheltered exclusive space to the public sphere.

        Great Looking

        GLH stands for “Great Looking Hair.” It comes in a can. We sent a can of “Ronco GLH Formula Number 9 Hair System” to four artists and asked them to make something with it. And despite the occasional allergic reaction, the results were definitely “Great Looking.”

        Farhad Moshiri and Shirin Aliabadi © 2004, Tehran
        Doa Aly, Cairo
        Amirali Ghasemi, Tehran


        Nima: Ladies & Gentlemen, welcome to the c-rrrrrraziest thing this guy has done since selling his retainer to pay for his self-tinting glasses. Moments after this picture was taken, he shaved the rest of his beard off and everyone around him continued not caring. Friend count with full beard: Zero. Friend count with half beard: Zero. Friend count with no beard: Zero. On the brighter side of things, he was finally taken off the “no-fly” list and is now allowed to get on American airplanes again.

        Mani: Ohhh my God, John Lennon is alive. Or half alive at least. The real question that I have is, is this a permanent or temporary thing? If it’s temporary, can someone tell him that all good things must come to an end? And if it’s permanent what do the other inmates at the asylum think?

        Nima: Oh, come on, man. If you’re gonna get into the beard game and compete with the big boys, you gotta groom that motherfucker like you mean it. Look at you, your loops are all asymmetrical and crooked and the tip of your little loopty side thing is all jagged and shit, and you’re so subconsciously freaked out about it that you’re already giving me that defensive stare like you’re trying to intimidate me and throw me off the fact that your half ass beard is maybe OK at best. I’m not impressed, homie.

        Mani: I would love to see this guy’s business card. I’m sure there is a picture of him on it, right next to his name and the job title circus freak.

        Nima: Hey Eduardo, bad news buddy. Looks like your peacock went to the cops and ratted you out. He showed them the pluck scars and everything. I suggest you ditch the Fancy Hair Pageant, get home and turn yourself in before things get really ugly. Nice twirly things, by the way.

        Mani: This must be just another in a long line of mistakes. Let’s just count the mistakes in this picture, shall we? 1. The color of that shirt that is showing way too much neck; 2. the weird pony tail thing; 3. the feathers; 4. the twirly things just hanging there… Can you imagine this persons furniture? Hey bitch, you’re on our planet now, just try to blend in before Ashcroft gets suspicious.

        Nima: Hey man, I’m pretty sure the saying goes “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours,” but if you think its “soap,” then I’m down to give it a shot. Ok, you’re all done… My turn!

        Mani: Hey, if anyone knows were I can find the gay video of the shower scene that led up to this picture let me know. ’Cause there is no way this gumbas’ fat arms reached back and made twirls on his own back. Believe me, I’ve tried.

        Nima: Uh, hi… sooo… ya… I’m gonna go now. What? No, no… nothing’s wrong. I’m just gonna turn around and leave. Matter of fact, officer, I might just moonwalk home.

        Mani: The death of disco hurt all the members of the Village People in different ways but none as badly as Ray Simpson, the gay black cop.

        Nima: Hey doggie, sorry about your little predicament there… I bet it sucks. She probably talks to you all day in a funny voice and sometimes when you’re sleeping she’ll lie down next to you and tickle your nose with the tip of her long-ass hair. You hate it when she does that, don’t you? You fantasize about mauling her. You can do it, bro. Cujo her ass up. Right now, man, go for it. Just a quick, ruthless lunge at the throat… she’ll never know what hit her. Come on you pussy… don’t just sit there with your tongue out… Attack! Fetch!. You wanna take these portrait shots forever? 1, 2, 3… Go! Fuck, dude, KILL HER!

        Mani: The only real question is which one of them is on top?

        Nima: Hi there, little dude! I’m not sure if you’re poor or hungry or what, so I won’t be mean. I just think your hair looks (and probably feels) great. You’re really pulling off that “I just rolled out of my hammock, put on my loin cloth and stumbled out of the hut” look, and your whole “step to my tree and I’ll bust a spear in your ass” vibe is really getting some looks from the village hotties. We should really get together sometime for a canoe trip or something… chew some tobacco leaves… you know, the usual. Anyways, I gotta get back to ridiculing people for other people’s entertainment now. See ya!

        Mani: Holy god — this kid is officially the coolest kid in the world. It’s like he is saying hey, I may be poor malnourished and will most likely be undereducated but did you check out my hair…

        Nima: Hey, wanna play “You’re Sad & I Don’t Care”? Ok, you’re on!……………… Good game, buddy.

        Mani: What the hell are you, a witch? Shouldn’t you be out tormenting Snow White or something? At this point the only thing to do is go home find a razor and then find an artery. Buddy, you need a shower, a shave, a tan and anything but an Adidas jacket with frills.

        Nima: At what point does this shit happen exactly? I mean his ear hair couldn’t have always been record breaking… He just must have neglected cutting it for so long that one day he turned to a friend and said “Fuck it dude, I’ve come this far, I can’t turn back now.” And now he’s the guy with the ear hair, and all bald-eared guys jock his stringy “moldilocks” steez.

        Mani: I only wish that when I was younger this was my grandfather, then I could ride on Grandpa Punjab’s back while using his ear hairs as reins. Hey punjy — they’re called scissors. Use them. Seriously, when you can taste your own ear hairs there is a problem. And they don’t even taste that good either.

        Nima: Hey you know you’re still “the fat guy with the beard and glasses,” right? Cuz for a second there, it looked like you thought the whole “I’m gonna dye my hair blue so no one calls me the fat guy with the beard and glasses” plan was working. Nice try, fattie! Oh, and your beard and glasses suck too!

        Mani: Hey, freak show! I’m sure there is a law against having hair that color. People are shot for a lot less than that in other countries. What were you thinking? Was it “Hey, I look like a loser, but I’m sure with a little blue hair the girls will just start lining up?” I hate you for ruining blue for me… the Smurfs and blueberry Capri Sun will never be the same.

        Nima: When Raad saw this, he said “That’s a helicopter!… What?!… Why… would you do that?… That’s like a Helicopter Turd… A Helicopter Slash Tuuuuuurd… Hehe… That’s DUMB!” His actual words, I swear.

        Mani: I mean did she just wake up and think, “hey, do you know what I need? … A helicopter on my head… that’s what!” At first I just wanted to touch it… then I wanted to be Lilliputian size so that I could get in and ride the damn thing, and perhaps do a traffic report or two. Now I actually want to be the helicopter… holy flying hairstyles, batman!… is that a wire sticking out of the back of her hair? Does that thing actually rotate?? The only justice for that hairdo is if the motor shorts and sets her head on fire.

        Nima: “Remember that time when we were laughing so hard about our matching beards that our shirts tore off and I touched your nipple?”

        Mani: I wonder which one of them brings the shaved puppy to the party?

        Nima: Hello, nice man! You look like you are going to give me chocolates from Denmark, and then skip down the road with me and the neighborhood kids singing harmonica-accompanied folk songs. On the more likely side of things, you probably won’t do anything but lure me back to your seedy bachelor pad with those damn chocolates of yours, where your roommate Sven will keep trying to touch my beard, asking “Vy don’t you just play vid us?” Damn Danes.

        Mani: I love this gypsy! I mean look at him, he’s the life of the party. He has a triple beard thing going, how crazy is that?? If only I owned a gypsy freak show, I would tie this guy up behind the counter and have kids try to throw balls through those hoops for a dollar. Actually I might just tie the guy up behind the counter… and just leave.

        Nima: Whoa! Are those things real? No, I’m being serious this time… is your hair real? Ya? How did they do that? Oh ya? That’s pretty damn interesting. Looks good too. How about your boobs though, are those real?

        Mani: If there is a god, then this girl will some day soon beat me with her dirty orange hair. Slut.

        Nima: First I thought, “Hmm… what could this guy love so much that he would shave a heart into his own back and then go to a baseball game and show it off?” Then I thought, “Hmm… how could he even reach his own back to do the shaving?” Then I noticed the bastard with the shades and camera, and it all came to me. That rascal has always loved this dude, so last night when this guy was sleeping he shaved the heart into his back, kissed the shorn center and said “You are mine now, I have marked you.”

        Mani: Nothing says “I care” like shaved back hair. I wonder if it says “Will you marry me?” on his chest. What a great proposal that would be… he would get up from dinner with his girlfriend, turn around take off his shirt and then ever so slowly, turn around with a button popping Superman move to reveal the “Will you marry me?” on his chest to his his blushing bride. Hey monkey boy, loosen that belt before it snaps!


        Selling Amrika

        Classic American values will soon be coming to a newsstand near you, courtesy of Hi! Magazine, a product of the US State Department and among the latest in a multimedia, multi-pronged approach to win the hearts and minds of the Arab world.

        Hi!’s self-proclaimed mission: to “address issues of universal appeal to young adults — such as family, education, entertainment, technology and sports.” State Department spokesperson Christopher Ross has deemed its goal to “introduce the real face of America.”

        In a time of nasty rumors about (gasp!) dubious American foreign policy goals and the like, the time has never been so ripe for such intervention. It seems that in Baghdad, Beirut, Cairo and beyond, misinformation about America and Americans abounds.

        Substantive issues taken on by Hi!’s staff include sandboarding, yoga, the Atkins diet, trendy “ethnic” eateries and spa culture. Hi! even boasts of a special section reserved for relationship advice. This is journalism at its best. Eat your heart out, People magazine.

        Past features have included portraits of famous Arab Americans, from former NBA player Roni Seikaly to actor Tony Shaloub. The message? Arabs call us cultural imperialists? People like you can make it here, too! Yes, Hi! says, the tables are turned.

        Spurred on by an influential 2002 report issued by the Council on Foreign Relations espousing the need to invest in public relations campaigns in the region, the State Department has hired a private Washington-based company, The Magazine Group, to initiate the mission at hand. The (hefty) price-tag has been an initial investment of $4.2 million alone.

        But it’s worth every penny.

        Hi! continues: “With its vibrant editorial and eye-catching format, we hope the magazine can serve as a springboard for greater dialogue and understanding between young Arab readers and young Americans.”

        And this is dialogue without a mention of all of that heavy political business. According to Hi!, building the basis for dialogue begins with yoga and Atkins. It seems that some social phenomena know no borders — and that’s a beautiful thing.

        Radical Chic

        Yeslam Bin Laden launches a new brand of perfume

        Geneva-based businessman Yeslam Bin Laden, a half-sibling of Osama, has recently introduced “Yeslam,” a perfume to be launched on European and Mideast markets by early 2005. “Yeslam is a rare name,” the Swiss citizen Bin Laden explains, “it means ‘bliss,’ although there is no single translation.” The fragrance is based on a 1920s French formula called “Air de Paris.” Mr. Bin Laden is a man who spends generous amounts on charity, and is quick to point out that he hasn’t seen his half-brother in decades. In recent years, he concedes, the police raids, searches, insulting headlines and pointing fingers have been taxing. But, he is quick to add, it is “only natural” for people to become “cautious.” For the numerous reporters covering the product launch, Mr. Bin Laden dabs the women’s blend of “Yeslam” on his wrists. “I prefer it,” says the gender bending millionaire. Yeslam is represented by Benador Associates, a spicy mix between a right-wing news agency and a PR consulting firm.

        Listening to Yeslam Bin Laden wax lyrical about his particular blend of lily-of-the-valley, narcissus, jasmine, sandalwood, ylang-ylang, and musk, one cannot blame the press for pouncing on sarcastic comparisons with the relative, wondering which sprigs and bushes, which aromatic herbs and blossoms are lining his path through Northern Afghanistan. How many competitors on the perfume market can boast of such an edge. Even Jennifer Lopez and Britney Spears are about as sexy as après-sport deodorants or dashboard fresheners by comparison.

        So what is the Yeslam aroma? Bidoun reassures you that if you enjoy the scent of jasmine, but still want to smell professional, this is the perfume for you. To be sure, the first whiff from the bottle is a powerful blast of incense and woody sticks, but as it warms up on your skin it brings out discrete floral notes that make the scent more solemn. From this point on, it lingers for hours, and one doesn’t detect any changes in its notes at all; you don’t have to walk away from the fragrance section and wander through the department store to get the authentic smell. One might think of this perfume as Versace with a twist — think dark grey suit with meticulous tailoring, but with a ruched lace paisley shirt of silk chiffon in the middle. If this is your style, this is your perfume.

        Cooking with Ghada & Sahar Amer

        Ghada Amer, Arlequin for Andy (detail), 2003. Acrylic, embroidery and gel medium on canvas, 70" x 72". Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery

        Whereas in the medieval West, the domain of the erotic and of sexuality is generally thought to be anti-religious by definition (due to the Judeo-Christian perspective that associates all sexuality with the Fall, women and sin), in the medieval Arab-Islamic tradition, the practice of eroticism and sexuality are thought rather to be the duty of every Muslim. In fact, most treatises on love and sexuality written in Arabic in the Middle Ages insist on the fact that it is the knowledge of sexuality, of sexual pleasure and of courtesy that ultimately distinguishes man from beasts. These works expound the desirability, the necessity rather, to be fully educated in matters of sexual ethics, for only then is one truly a practicing Muslim and only then does one distinguish oneself from animal behavior. The list of aphrodisiac herbs and foods that follows has been compiled from readings on sexuality in medieval Arabic literature; the two recipes that are presented here have been selected for their use of ingredients known to stimulate love and sexual performance.

        Aphrodisiac Spices

        1. Anemone (used for oil in bath or massage only)
        2. Artichoke
        3. Barberry
        4. Calamus
        5. Carline Thistle
        6. Celery
        7. Clove
        8. Coriander
        9. European Vervain
        10. Fenugreek
        11. Galangal
        12. Ginger
        13. Ginseng
        14. Jasmine
        15. Johimbe
        16. Juniper
        17. Lady’s mantle
        18. Lovage
        19. Maidenhair fern (used for oil in bath or massage only)
        20. Matico
        21. Mexican Damiana
        22. Nasturtium
        23. Pansy (used for oil in bath or massage only)
        24. Parsley
        25. Periwinkle (used for oil in bath or massage only)
        26. Prickly asparagus
        27. Queen of the meadow
        28. Saffron
        29. Sarsaparilla
        30. Savory
        31. Saw Palmetto
        32. Valerian

        Taken from Dell Richards, Lesbian Lists: A Look at Lesbian Culture, History, and Personalities (Boston: Alyson Publications, 1990), p. 163–64.

        Aphrodisiac Foods

        1. Chocolate
        2. Crabs
        3. Eggs
        4. Honey
        5. Lettuce
        6. Mussels
        7. Onions
        8. Snails

        Taken from Dell Richards, Lesbian Lists: A Look at Lesbian Culture, History, and Personalities (Boston: Alyson Publications, 1990), p. 165.

        To which I add from Arab sources (from One Thousand and One Nights especially)

        1. Almonds
        2. Apricot
        3. Aubergines (eggplant)
        4. Chickpeas
        5. Garlic
        6. Grenadine
        7. Rose flower
        8. Sesame seeds


        1 can of chickpeas
        2 lemons
        2 tbs white vinegar
        2 garlic cloves
        1 tbs ground cumin
        4 tbs tahini sauce (puree of sesame seeds)
        salt and pepper to taste
        paprika (optional)

        Drain the chickpeas and wash them in cold water. Place them in the bowl of a food processor to finely grind them. Add a little bit of water if necessary; add the crushed garlic, the juice of both lemons, the white vinegar, the cumin and the tahini sauce. You may add water as needed to adjust the texture (thinner or leave it thick). Add the salt and pepper to adjust the seasoning.

        Right before serving, sprinkle the top of the sauce with paprika.

        Gazelle Horns

        2 cups flour
        one pinch of salt
        12 tbs softened butter cut in pieces
        Cold water, as needed

        Almond filling
        1 cup lightly toasted almonds, finely ground (measure after grinding)
        1 cup sugar
        1 egg
        4 tbs softened butter
        2 pinches cinnamon
        3 tbs rosewater
        Confectioner sugar

        Begin by preparing the dough: Mix the flour with a pinch of salt and the softened butter. Add cold water as needed to obtain a smooth and elastic dough. Let rest dough in a warm spot for about one hour.

        In the meantime, prepare the almond filling: mix the ground almonds with the sugar, the egg, the softened butter, cinnamon and one tbs of rosewater till you obtain a soft dough. Shape this dough in thin sausage-like forms.

        Roll the flour dough thinly, and cut it into lozenges. Place one almond filling in each lozenge, and roll the dough around it, pinching the edges to enclose the filling completely. Shape each lozenge, giving it the form of a horn (or croissant).

        Bake in a medium oven (375 degrees) for about 30 minutes. Sprinkle with confectioner sugar as soon as the horns come out of the oven. Let cool completely before serving.

        Bonus Miles

        The case for cosmopolitanism

        “So now the Americans are coming over here to teach us how to be critical.” I was standing outside the US pavilion, featuring Fred Wilson, at the Venice Biennial 2003, talking to an arts theorist from Graz. Wilson had chosen to reveal the unacknowledged history of African slaves and migrants in Venice, and there was something sublime about my perspiring Austrian friend in his drenched Missy Elliott T-shirt and Diesel khakis, reprimanding Fred Wilson, of all people, for American expansionism — declaring him the flagship of the very US elite that would routinely mistake him for the porter at his openings.

        I tried to defend the artist with some unadventurous and predictable postcolonial wisdom, saying art was always instrumentalized in some way or other, that there was no harm in rubbing Venice’s nose in its racist past, and so on, sounding like a Routledge textbook. I don’t think I was doing justice to the ironic subtlety of the situation. What exactly was it about Wilson’s pavilion that made him look like he was an uninvited guest “coming over here”? His race? Hardly. Geopolitics? With the enlightened European reacting strongly to the imperial superpower? But then, surely it would make a difference that Wilson was the outstandingly critical type, rather than your average US warmonger. So it may have been sheer populism, a reaction against established mouthpieces endorsing (supposedly) anti-establishment positions. Whether or not this is really what made my critical companion shudder in his clammy khakis — seeing as it is now increasingly common for all sorts of social hierarchies to be played down by transnational gestures of critical awareness — it is, I would argue, the most pertinent side of the situation.

        Back in the mid eighties, Gayatri Spivak wrote her seminal essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” hoping to tease open fissures in the walls of Western academia for the subaltern voice to twitter through into the undergrad seminars and PhD programs. Over the twenty-odd years since her essay’s publication, Afro-Venetians and other subalterns have become more present in both academic research and contemporary arts production. Subalterns aside, scores of intellectuals with surnames as racy as a Bidoun editorial board started “coming over here,” straight into the epicenters of western “high culture” and “learning.” 9/11 hysteria notwithstanding, it is now significantly harder to argue that racist bias is still a career stumbling block, or that it is what makes Austrian art critics raise their voices in anger.

        A magazine like Bidoun is relatively vulnerable as an obvious example of “coming over here,” and I’d like to take a brief look at the particular, latter-day brand of cosmopolitanism with which it will be associated. Although cosmopolitanism smacks of privilege and repose, it is easy to relate it to open-minded progressives who all agree on voting for Kerry as the lesser evil, and on deconstructing the western gaze, and on the fact that third world filmmakers are important political voices even though “third world” is, like, a really problematic concept if you think about it. The outright opponents of cosmopolitanism, however, go a step further, and consider it the common denominator between the proponents and the adversaries of US expansionism, as a symptom of deep-seated complicity with western economic interests, across party lines.

        The use of the term “third world” plays an important part in Timothy Brennan’s monumental critique of cosmopolitanism (At Home in the World: Cosmopolitanism Now, Harvard University Press, 1997). Seeing as, according to Brennan, most critical intellectuals of today have a distinctive tendency towards self-irony, subtlety, complexity, and shades of grey, a term such as “third world,” in all its glaring Manichaeism, is inappropriate. To name a second example, it’s not surprising that, during the 1990s, Homi Bhabha’s concept of “hybridity,” which plays down polarity, confrontation and conflict to the benefit of wit, negotiation and re-inscription, became something of an international hallmark throughout Euroamerican academia. Cosmopolitans — a “network of academic and governmental media” who uphold the ideal of “globalizing experience and outlook” (Brennan) — are of course critical of the West, but only as those “whose sympathies finally belong here.” The hand that feeds is not so much bitten as flirtatiously nibbled at.

        Brennan’s At Home in the World traces a genealogy of cosmopolitan “murmurings of a world community of peace,” running from the pre-Socratics to early biblical sources, and on to early colonial travel writing, Immanuel Kant, the Jacobins, and various strands of the European Left of the nineteenth century, when it was reconceptualized to fit the collective demands of the politically marginalized. In the twentieth century, the term came to signify a dystopian urban culture bereft of authenticity, and was beset with antisemitic connotations playing on the “wandering Jew” cliché (the uprooted highbrow, not clearly discernible in terms of national affiliation), at one point becoming a vague synonym of “intellectual”. The latest chapter in the history of cosmopolitanism was ushered in with the discourses of globalization, when it gained a postnational, heroic touch, a herald of the impending ”global village.” Those who refused to partake in the cosmopolitan celebration of rhizomatic flow and hybridity came to be seen as difficult individuals who had yet to theorize their own role in a common global heritage.

        Peer pressure aside, it is always tempting to cast oneself as a harbinger of a new age, and biennial catalogues, Routledge readers and conference introductions are now rife with announcements of epochal upheavals and historical thresholds. With globalization, we are, among many other things, (a) leaving the Neolithic age behind, and (b) realizing that the western intellectual heritage is so colonialist, we must, in fact, redefine art, theory, culture and criticism as know it.

        The rhetoric of rupture begs the question of how globalized things are really. Depressing statistics on the number of phone lines in Ghana and Bolivia notwithstanding, even if we reduced globalization to its most banal characteristic — that of unmistakable traces of western culture in metropoles worldwide, whether in art exhibitions, restaurants, fashion collections, government policies, medical facilities, transport technologies or university curricula — such traces have been noticed in most parts of the world, for a century or more. In some places, Muslims listening to Mambo, or concept art in Calcutta, simply isn’t the same scintillating globalization fetish that it is in others. In other words, at one point, globalization itself needed to be globalized, and the breathless enthusiasm for a new era had to be disseminated somehow. This is where, in Brennan’s view, the cosmopolitans come in.

        Today, provided you equip your project with the fitting theoretical armature, your standard, voyeurist game of show and tell — DAKAR DESIGNERS! RANGOON REVOLUTIONARIES! — can become a daring approach to bridging intercultural gaps in the global infoscape; the bridging of which, by the way, remains unquestioned and unquestionable as a moral imperative. The sheer romance of exploration aside, Body Shop hermeneutics and the cushy sense of ideological superiority through critical consumption, is now an integral part of our everyday culture, both high and lowbrow. As Brennan points out, the difference between painful political struggles in faraway places, and the consumption of representations thereof — research, journalism, art installations, video clips, consumer goods and fundraising festivals — is increasingly blurred. This, he argues, is a further, decisive danger inherent to the spread of cosmopolitanism as we know it.

        And yet, I’m sure even Brennan would admit that the cosmopolitan tenor, in our present context of hardnosed imperialism, is the most potent key to penetrating the “center of the real,” to working it from within, and that it would be risky to abandon such tools in the name of lofty ideological credentials. If Brennan is arguing for the aggressive use of concepts that are as embarrassing and alienating as “third world,” and other terminological Birkenstocks, then he should embrace the term “cosmopolitan,” wholeheartedly. Let’s face it: who would call themselves “cosmopolitan” at, say, the Venice Biennial opening dinner, and keep a straight face while they’re at it? As an agenda, the blue-eyed buoyancy of cosmopolitanism is widely shunned; which is precisely what shows its potential as an analytical utensil. The alternative, that of simply jumping over our own ideological shadow and returning to anti-spectacular, localized grassroots parameters, is as boring as it is strategically ineffective — and impractical.

        Precisely like my own, Brennan’s take on cosmopolitanism as a global phenomenon already partakes in that pipe dream of epochal, planetary rifts. Can cosmopolitanism be the same in Venice and DC? In Dakkar and Rangoon? The fact that it obviously cannot is one of the challenges not only for Brennan, but also for a magazine like Bidoun. If a quarterly is distributed in Europe, the US, North Africa and the Gulf, the definition of its clientele implies awkward and repeated leaps of faith. It assumes that there really is a transcontinental mainstream of some form, a horizon of expectation that all metropolitan areas share in — like, for example, the notion that Kerry may have been the lesser evil or that “third world” is, like, a problematic concept, and more. At first glance, Brennan would define this awkward “reaching out” as a pernicious form of “taking in,” the sort of thing that ultimately buttresses America’s interventions beyond its borders with impunity. But other passages in his book are decidedly less paranoid, implying that the two may be symptoms of some common problem, rather than related in terms of cause and effect: “Trends in book markets are not equitable with decisions made in corporate boardrooms or with speeches by a US president on world order. But it is important, I think, to sketch out the atmosphere in which all three are simultaneously happening.”

        Indeed, latter-day cosmopolitanism can be set up as an “effect” of the globalization of globalization, i.e. a new self-image of a global community of middle class, bourgeois-bohemian culture workers. But it could just as well be staged as the very motor of these mechanisms, a prescriptive, middle class, bourgeois-bohemian ideal that has no clear existing referent a priori. As even Brennan appears to be suggesting — despite himself — instead of indulging in chicken-and-the-egg speculations regarding cause and effect, we could, rather, be considering common roots in matters such as colonialism and class privilege.

        As far as the former is concerned, since the appearance of Gayatri Spivak on the academic stage, colonialism has been established as a critical cause célèbre in many university departments, while the class issue, by contrast (despite Spivak’s own efforts in this regard), has not. Considering the frequent flyer biennial crowd, the Third Text aficionados with G4 Powerbooks and Paul Smith jackets who speak fluent English, hold double or triple nationalities, and diplomas composed not in Arabic or Farsi or Hindi but in French or German or English, analyses like Brennan’s could prompt a useful and rigorous discussion of the economic parameters of cosmopolitanism. It would also entail a more incisive definition of what one stands to gain from a cosmopolitan agenda. Why exactly must any gap be bridged in the first place? Hasn’t the enthusiasm for bridging been part of the problem in recent years? Who stands to gain from all this bridging?

        Arguably, the best we stand to gain from cosmopolitanism itself is a forceful reminder that expectations shouldn’t be raised to a point where they’re hopelessly overheated, or channeled towards objectives which the middle class, social democratic, bourgeois-bohemian romanticism can never fulfill. If consumer ideologies and other sympathies and self-interests could be presented as such, and not as selfless tributes to momentous ruptures in the history of humankind, then that would make the likes of us, and of Fred Wilson, a lot more simpatico already.