Contrary to popular opinion, the Bidoun Library is neither a repository of the best and coolest art books from and about the Middle East; nor an invaluable resource for researchers interested in the region; nor even a long-overdue educational initiative fostering dialogue and cross-cultural understanding. It is, rather, a material critique of cultural discourse and production carried out through the acquisition, exhibition, and production of printed matter — carefully selected with zero regard for taste or quality — that just happens to document every possible way that people have depicted, defined, slandered, celebrated, obfuscated, surveyed, and/or exhumed that vast, vexed, nefarious construct known as “the Middle East.”
The core collection was the outcome of a series of escalating searches on the World Wide Web. Deploying a search term like “oil” or “Arab” or “Middle East” would return an unmanageable array of books. But adding an additional search term would narrow the field in telling ways. Books about oil before 1973 that cost less than five dollars are few and almost entirely in hardcover—usually technical guides written for a specialized audience. After 1973, the same search yields a completely different sample: hundreds of hardcover books about the impending oil crisis, Arab money and influence, global bankruptcy, world war, and biblical Armageddon. Meanwhile, in paperback, the terrorist novel is born — cover after cover depicting special agents, Israeli commandos, lone wolves, soldiers of fortune, and even a black samurai, The Black Samurai, who karate-kicks djellaba’d sheikhs beside burning oil rigs. A similar set of searches substituting “Iran” for “Arab” produced its own assortment of types and stereotypes.
The Library, then, is an experiment. Less a collection of books arranged according to an organizing principle than an organizing principle that collects and arranges books, the end result is an indiscriminate archive: a library without qualities, but enormous in its quantities.
The Library is also itinerant, acquiring and generating new publications as it roves. At last count it has visited nine cities, including major exhibitions at the New Museum in New York, the Serpentine Gallery in London, and the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh.