Friday, December 30, 2011

Yemen through Films

First published at YEMEN TIMES

50 years ago, when the Soviet Union still existed, a political theorist, Hannah Arendt, suggested that the clearest sign that the Soviet Union could not be longer called totalitarian was the amazing recovery of the arts during that decade. The suggestion was very shocking: the Soviet Union would fall because of art; the suggestion was met with laughter by the experts, until it was proven true.

While Yemen was never totalitarian by classical definition, it was yet not free, and the process of liberation that resulted from a peaceful uprising will require more than good will to succeed: Corruption and tyranny have left a country plagued by poverty and lack of education. In these circumstances, it is difficult to speak about cultural production in general, let alone art and films. 

Films play an important role in educating our taste and enriching our experiences: Before television and commercial photography, it was in the cinema that we learnt about love, fashion, politics, landscapes, etc. that happened elsewhere and that way we became acquainted with universal experiences. 

The status of film remained obscure until 1960’s when some theorists began to take it seriously as an art form, and it still remains a curious format, for as in words of Alan Badiou, “after all, cinema is nothing but takes and editing, there’s nothing else.” Its relevance however is indebted to its ability of being both artistic and entertaining.

Films are enjoyed and appreciated by a far larger audience than that of those who read great works of literature or attend art exhibits, but interesting as the theoretical consideration is, it is unfortunate to say that there is no Yemeni cinema, even though Yemen has occupied a place in the history of film:

The country has been the foreground or background in a number of films. Since the 1920’s, with the arrival of expeditions from Europe, documentaries and travelogues were made in the country. European film archives contain works by Hans Helfritz from the 1930’s, Walter Dostal in the 1960’s, Gordian Troeller and Marie-Claude Deffarge in the 1970’s, Volker Panzer in the 1980’s, and Khadijah al-Salami in the 1990’s.

Pier Paolo Pasolini filmed a segment of “The Decameron” (1970), as well as his “Arabian Nights” (1973) that contained sexually provocative imagery. He also filmed a little known short documentary, “The Walls of Sana’a”, about the architectural heritage of Old Sana’a.

Hollywood has also drawn inspiration from Yemen and movies such as “The Queen of Sheba” (1921), Solomon and Sheba (1959) and Rules of Engagement (2000) have been at least partially set in Yemen. In 2003, two Lebanese filmmakers, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joriege, filmed the travelogue of their adventure to recover a copy of their earlier film, “Around the Pink House” that disappeared after a screening in Yemen.

In 2005, the first and only Yemeni film to be shown at Cannes Film Festival, “A New Day in Old Sana’a” by Bader Ben Hirsi, a British filmmaker of Yemeni ancestry, received the best Arabic film award at Cairo International Film Festival. It is a romantic drama set in Sana’a, shown through the eyes of a photographer from Italy, in which a love story unfolds around a friend of the photographer having to choose between two women. 

It received positive criticism and one reviewer called it “a tale of magic realism”, similar to that evoked by the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. This film was also shown in London in 2007, when SOAS organized the first Yemeni film festival. Even though it ran through three days, Ben Hirsi’s was the only Yemeni-made feature. The rest were short documentaries directed by European filmmakers such as Pascal Privet, Catherina Borelli and Tina Gharavi. 

Notable exception was a short film of Khadija al-Salami, “A Stranger in her Own City”, documenting the story of a young girl that refused to wear the veil. Since then, the only Yemeni contribution to film has been Ibi Ibrahim’s debut film “Sounds of Oud” (2012), a short film set in New York, but unmistakably against the background of Yemen; a colorful love story that faces the viewer with questions of religious tradition and family values against deeper edges, out of which emerge topics such as fidelity and homosexuality.

The film has a successful cinematography, partly enhanced by excellent musical arrangements and the use of choreography in story-telling that while in line with American avant-garde, is authentically Middle Eastern. Its achievement can be better put into words by the legendary designer Vivienne Westwood, from a 2009 interview:

“I am sometimes misunderstood because on the one hand I am called avant-garde, and on the other side I know that ideas come from tradition, from the technique of tradition, they come from looking at wonderful things that people did in the past, trying to do something as good, I’ve tried to demonstrate in my work that in order to see the future you have to understand what’s been done, what’s still worth keeping and what could be done.”

Westwood’s appropriation of tradition is an interesting paradigm for a country in need to reinvent itself looking at the future with the questions of the present, without breaking off from what Pasolini, looking at Sana’a, called “grace of obscure centuries” and “scandalous revolutionary force of the past”. 

The relevance of art and of films in Yemen in a moment of transition is not only that of being entertaining or of documenting the rite de passage, or becoming tools of political persuasion. 

The art and films that will define the history of Yemen’s revolution will not be necessarily documentaries about the revolution – such as “Karama has no Walls” and a few short documentaries highlighting forms of social and political participations, but films that will confront us with the real question of the revolution: How can life be changed? In that sense, the steps of Ben Hirsi and Ibrahim to break taboos connected with love and sexuality, among others, are in itself, revolution on the make.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

From 9-11 to Arab Spring: Susan Sontag

First published at BIKYAMASR

Exactly 7 years ago – on December 28, 2004 – we received the news that Susan Sontag had died in New York City after a battle of nearly three decades with cancer. Her death did not go unnoticed and it could not have: The dark lady of American letters had been for decades an icon and something of an institution in everything that had to do with literature, art, photography, film, political activism and also homosexuality.
This notorious celebrity, though not undeserved, was a combination of many factors:
She wrote in the course of the 1960’s and 1970’s essays that vastly influenced the way we look today at popular art forms like films and photography, at the avant-garde movement in general and introduced into contemporary culture a certain seriousness to discuss these things, the momentum of which, has still not withered.
Then there was her celebrated role in the anti-Vietnam movement, her call for military intervention during the Bosnian war, which intensified and captured international attention after she moved to besieged Sarajevo in 1994 to direct a performance of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” in the ruins of a local theater; and then in the early 2000’s, a fierce criticism of the Bush administration, vocal opposition to the occupation of Iraq and a defying look at the events of 9-11.
Lastly there was also her dramatic and distinctive physical presence: A combination of grace and melancholy, easily recognizable by a long mane of dark hair with a shock of white at the temple; the walking voice of America’s finest intellect and a frequent sight in the cinemas and theaters of New York.
Yet, to remember Susan Sontag today, and write at length about her several achievements, scandals and celebrity status seven years after her death, would be nothing but a poor substitute for admiration, and, in her own words: “The best emotions to write out of are anger and fear or dread. The least energizing emotion to write out of is admiration. It is very difficult to write out of because the basic feeling that goes with admiration is a passive contemplative mood.”
But to be sure, there has been hardly anything passive and contemplative about this past year, and while anger, fear and dread have been at an all-time high, it is not with admiration but with preoccupation that Susan Sontag is worthy of remembrance today.
It would be difficult to think about Sontag without bringing up the metaphor of cancer that ironically she popularized in 1967, writing for Partisan Review these scandalous words:
“Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Balanchine ballets, et al. don’t redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history.”
In later years, after surviving cancer for the first time, Sontag had second thoughts about the language that people use to talk about sickness and cancer in particular, that she put together in a now canonical study titled “Illness as Metaphor”.
Her argument was that this language – often inflected with military terminology such as battle, attack, invasion – made people feel responsible for their condition, and that in the end cancer had become a metaphor for all evil.
This is no novelty to anyone who leafs through a newspaper today, in which we are likely to find at least three types of cancer:
Most prominently in Western media the now popular idea that Islam is the cancer of Western civilization, in Israel the opinion heard since the times of Ariel Sharon that the Palestinians are the cancer of Israel and the so-called “free world” and lastly the assumption in the Arab world that both the West and Israel are a cancer at the heart of the Ummah.
To think that a country, a group, a race or a people are an illness or the embodiment of “evil” serves to suggest the presumption of absolute innocence on the part of the group that passes such terminal judgment, no less than that there is no possible solution other than complete extermination, which is what is often necessary to treat a limb or an organ affected by cancer.
Her observation was that humans are capable of unimaginable cruelty as much as they are capable of unimaginable goodness, but that it is only a minority of us that are inclined toward either, while the majority could do one or the other, depending on where the wind blows on that day and what our motivations, drives and influences are. Being both cruel and good is not exceptional.
Generalizations such as “Terror”, “Islam”, “the West”, are not cancers or forms of radical good or evil, but rather imaginary institutions that help us ensure a degree of sanity and make us comfortable in a turbulent world, by safeguarding our innocence.
This is what happened in 2001, after 9-11, when Susan Sontag wrote a brief editorial in the New Yorker, assaulting the peace of mind and self-pitying comfort of the American public:
“The voices licensed to follow the event seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilize the public. Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a “cowardly” attack on “civilization” or “liberty” or “humanity” or “the free world” but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?”
The reactions came without delay: She was nicknamed Osama bin Sontag, people demanded that she were strip of citizenship and deported, and the New Republic published an article that opened with the question, “What do Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden and Susan Sontag have in common?” The answer of course was that Ms. Sontag wanted nothing but the destruction of America.
These reactions are giving us a lot of information about the mood of moral outrage in which we have been living permanently since 9-11 and that has been exponentially augmented in the course of the continued invasion of Iraq, Afghanistan and the events surrounding Arab Spring.
In the aftermath of the scandal, Ms. Sontag said in different interviews not only that “this country is going to change, and not for the better” but also expressed concern about how more terror attacks – in her view illegitimate in every way and place – would transform the United States into something close to a police state.
Since then, war on terror has become the morally purified excuse for invasion, looting and destruction of entire countries, and perpetuated the old self-inflated McCarthyism in which it is acceptable to use totalitarian means to fight totalitarian enemies, even by democratic countries.
This imperial project has tirelessly looked for new enemies of mankind, freedom and liberty that can impose and reflect a binary opposition between the West and the rest of the world, out of which no one has benefited more than tyranny.
This paranoia, actively promoted by the Bush administration has not fallen on deaf ears and has certainly obscured the fact of what Sontag said in one of her last public interviews, that there is only one political party in America – the Republican, and has a branch, the Democratic.
Scandalous as the statement is, it has been confirmed time and again by the Obama administration in its treatment of Arab Spring, in which emphasis was put on some dictators and loosened on others, at the same time that “free world” rhetoric made a spectacular come back in the NATO plan to liberate Libya while it has been remarkably slow on Syria, has almost universally failed to address the countless human rights violations in Egypt by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and kept silent on Yemen and other countries.
It seems as if in the mind of policy-makers, free world is a very selective concept and does not necessarily translate into decent world; what is easily observable in the copious quantities of weapons and tear gas that are shipped to countries at war with their own citizens, as quickly as expressions of moral outrage and deep concern on the part of the same policy-makers are televised on a daily basis, only to be quickly replaced by news of more assaults, massacres and violations.
The illusion of a free world that is plagued by imaginary enemies that threaten the perfect order and with which we are at “war”, is as banal as the anti-Western rhetoric in the Middle East that universally blames the West for each and every failure. These illusions are not only equivalent but also the two sides of the very same policy coin.
It seems that with and in spite of Sontag, we keep living in a world that is plagued by cancers, after whose elimination, peace and order will be restored and the revolutions or democratic institutions will deliver all their fantastic promises. The enemy is always somewhere out there and can be easily identified, often by name and place of residence.
“Terror”, “Islam”, “West” as described in these sanitation manuals that go by the name of policy, are not concrete enemies but methods and means of action whose purpose cannot be viewed as uniform and that are not only one person.
In the period that followed 9-11 and in which we witnessed the re-making of the United States by the Republican Party, Susan Sontag stood in the public eye as the now commonplace figure of the traitor: Someone who blasted the appeasement of media to war and scaremongering leaders, with people universally conforming to whatever they are being told, and the bigger the lie, the greater the sense of self-satisfaction and moral outrage.
In this sense she embodied like very few in America a sense of patriotism that is misunderstood in the Middle East now:
Patriotism is not loyalty because loyalty is something that can happen only between individual people, and it is because of patriotism that Ms. Sontag became the scapegoat of the Right, in the same way that people like Samira Ibrahim, Alaa Abd El Fattah and Maikel Nabil are singled out by authorities and public alike as traitors and people who want nothing but the destruction of their country.
A patriot is not the one who best conforms to the popular lies of the day, but whoever refuses to let an entire country go down the path of deceit and self-destruction at the hand of an irresponsible leadership that encourages moral outrage but is of course not in possession of any morality to begin with, simply because morality is not a prerequisite for policy-making.
What singles out Ms. Sontag from the activists of Arab Spring is that she was not primarily an activist and that her work, varied as it was, was mainly in the domain of art and literature. This doesn’t tell us so much about politics as it does about art and literature, and the reason why they should be encouraged beyond ideological, cultural and political divides.
To remember Susan Sontag now is still nothing short of admiration, because of the clarity of her vision of politics and of the future of the United States and its relationship to the Middle East. But it is important to realize that it was not this political vision what shaped her role in contemporary culture but rather the other way around: It was because of having entered that zone of freedom that is literature and art, and being one of its makers, that she could come up with an insight that seemed obvious to her: “It is hard to find all the truths at the same time.”

Friday, December 23, 2011

Yemen’s “Life March” monumental, but media remains silent

First published at BIKYAMASR

Thousands of Yemenis have joined the “Life March” that began its 250 kilometers journey from Taiz to Sana’a on Tuesday December 20, due to arrive to the capital Sana’a to stage a demonstration in front of the Parliament on Saturday December 24.

The “Life March” could be one of the longest marches recorded in history, but just as remarkable as the march, has been the complete silence of international media about this unprecedented event, including TV networks and newspapers in the Middle East, all of which have circumvented the importance of the event by simply calling it “peaceful rally”.

To Yemenis and readers in the Middle East this is hardly a surprise: The revolution in Yemen has received hardly any coverage, even though hundreds of people were massacred, cities stormed and peaceful demonstrators attacked.

For a country at the edge of breaking down, being one of the world’s poorest, with a long history of unrest and secession, continued strife in the north, and with millions and millions of firearms, the fact that the Yemeni revolution did not escalate into a civil war is one of the most remarkable and yet unheard of, successes of Arab Spring.

On Saturday, the Parliament is scheduled to vote a law that would grant full immunity from prosecution to President Ali Abdullah Saleh and many senior officials, in compliance with the terms of the deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council and signed by Saleh in November in Saudi Arabia.

The Yemeni revolutionaries have made clear the aims of this peaceful march: Rejection of the deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council and political compromises with Saleh, their adamant refusal to circumvent the goals of the revolution and to accept guarantees or amnesties granted to those who have looted and savaged Yemen for decades.

Lastly they emphasized that the world show know that what is happening in Yemen is a revolution and not just a political crisis. In this spirit, they call for peaceful coexistence between all political and religious groups, to ensure true freedom for all of the Yemeni people.

As it is often the case with Yemen, the march has not been without opponents and challenges: The ruling party has accused the opposition of inciting and funding demonstrations with the only aim of thwarting the GCC deal. They have called again for mediation by GCC and threatened to halt the march if not stopped. These accusations have been denied by the protesters.

There is also a measure of dissent within the pro-democracy camp in Yemen and the support for the march is not univocal. It remains however true that the GCC initiative, while appealing to different players in the political spectrum, ignored the grievances of the Yemeni street and was not representative of them.

It is not only the violence in the course of the revolution but the decades of destruction, corruption and oppression, that have driven Yemenis to seize the streets again and demand that Saleh and is aides be put to trial for their crimes.

Justice being served to the people remains the real question for many people involved in Arab Spring, while political players and international bodies have played down the role of justice in effective political transitions.

The case of Yemen is not unique: It was reported recently that in Tunisia, none of the victims in the course of the uprising had been acknowledged or compensated, and in Egypt, the crimes perpetrated by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces on the Egyptian people continue unmolested while vocal activists and critics of the regime remain imprisoned on fictive charges.

The march that began in Taiz with a few hundred people has been joined by many along the way and already numbers thousands. The marchers have already crossed over 150 kilometers and reached the city of Dhamar, where they were welcome with lunches and greeted by a march from the whole Thamar province.

The protesters have also been joined by marches coming from Aden and other places in Yemen.
It is reported that two groups of women have arrived from Taiz to Dhamar to join the march and already a third group is leaving Taiz to join “Life March”.

It is important to notice that the role of women has been exceptionally prominent in the Yemeni revolution. Women’s contribution toward the revolution has been unprecedented and recently, Yemen Times, reported on a couple short films made in Yemen to highlight the transformation of gender roles in the course of the revolution.

Saif al-Shara’abi, a Yemeni expatriate in the UK, commented on his blog about “Life March” saying: “This is a trek of 250 kilometers through rugged mountainous terrain by people who have been in revolt for 10 months, who live on 1000 calories per adult and nearly a third go hungry every day.

It seems to have started with 700 men and 18 women. The numbers are swelling as they pick up joiners along the way. There is something epic about what is happening. It almost does not matter what the eventual outcome is, or even if the world hears and reacts to this or not. The message is, do not expect us to go back into the box.”

Yesterday it was reported that there were armed groups preparing to attack the peaceful march. The sources stated that the armed groups have been deployed along the direction of Dhamar and in the vicinity of the capital Sana’a, ready to attack the demonstrators on their way to Sana’a. So far no attacks have been reported, the revolutionaries are well informed and in the words of Abdulkader Alguneid, “rogue elements have been exposed”.

It is necessary here to highlight the strong symbolism of the march in the complex cultural map of Yemen, in which Taiz has always remained one of the main targets of Saleh’s violence and has refused to submit to the dictator.

According to al-Shara’abi: “Taiz, the indisputable heart and soul of Yemen revolt against the corrupt, surprised us again. Taiz just won’t stay down. Singled out by the regime, this suspended town in the mountains has taken the full brunt of Saleh’s vindictiveness. They have been shelled, sniped, and bombed.”

Writing for the Facebook page “News of the Yemeni revolution”, Atiaf Alwazir, a Yemeni research, stated how “The Life March has revived hope that peaceful resistance is still possible even after ten long months of protest. In the many cities and villages protesters have passed through, they have been welcomed with cheers, music, food and shelter. Along the protest route, many have also joined the march… By fostering new forms of resistance, Taiz city has become a symbol of innovation and inspiration in Yemen. This trend has continued with the Life March, making people feel proud and hopeful once more”.

She concludes by saying: “The Life March demonstrates that the revolution will continue and evolve into different forms. Political players have yet to learn that the Yemeni people will no longer tolerate a system of exclusion. If a real solution is to be reached, protesters and major stakeholders need to be part of the process. Collective participation is the only way to give the people a sense of ownership and endow the political process with real legitimacy.”

In the meantime, while international media keeps silent about this major turn in the Yemeni revolution, social media users have been very active with blogs, Facebook groups created to document the march, and a live stream has been set up for people to follow the protesters’ journey.

In an unprecedented move, the Yemeni protesters have embodied the idea of peaceful resistance as a form of political power that was elaborated by Hannah Arendt in 1952 with Ghandi in mind: “Power always grows in between men, whereas violence can be possessed by one man alone. A modern example of how power helped to destroy violence is Ghandi. He never advocated for an impotence of the Christian kind. He rather thought that the power of the masses in India is the only thing that could bring British violence to an end”. 

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Can Sana’a Survive The Arab Spring?

Shorter modified version, now published at YEMEN TIMES

In 1971 during a brief stay in Yemen to film scenes from his already classic “Arabian Nights”, Pier Paolo Pasolini filmed a short and little known documentary about the beauty of Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, under the title of “The Walls of Sana’a”. Rarely screened, this documentary was Pasolini’s appeal to the UNESCO to help save the incredible architecture of the almost 3,000-year-old city.

The curious film ended with a passionate speech of Pasolini himself saying:

“For Italy, it is all over. But Yemen can still be saved entirely.

“We appeal to UNESCO – Help Yemen save itself from destruction, begun with the destruction of the Walls of Sana’a.

“We appeal to UNESCO – Help Yemen to become aware of its identity and of what a precious country it is.

“We appeal to UNESCO – Help stop this pitiful destruction of national patrimony in a country where no one denounces it.

“We appeal to UNESCO – Find the possibility of giving this nation the awareness of being a common good for mankind, one which must protect itself to remain so.

“We appeal to UNESCO – Intervene, while there is time, to convince an ingenuous ruling class that Yemen’s only wealth is its beauty, and that preserving that beauty means possessing an economic resource that costs nothing. Yemen is still in time to avoid the errors of other countries.

“We appeal to UNESCO – In the name of the true, unexpressed wish of the Yemenite people, in the name of simple men whom poverty has kept pure, in the name of the grace of obscure centuries, in the name of the scandalous, revolutionary force of the past.”

Pasolini’s appeal resonated in Europe and in 1986 the city of Sana’a was declared by UNESCO a world heritage site. His appeal however, followed by the decision of the international body, did little to rescue the ancient buildings from their disastrous condition.

In 2006 photojournalist Eric Hansen published in Saudi Aramco World an impressive travel photo-log of his journeys to Sana’a between 1978 and 2006, concluding that even though many significant changes had been made, roughly 40 percent of the ancient city was gone or in a very bad state.

In his reportage, Hansen further added that Sana’a “has survived flash floods, earthquakes, massacres, repeated looting by tribesmen, civil wars and even, in 1991, Scud missile attacks. The city’s architecture has been demolished, damaged and rebuilt innumerable times, but in every instance, Sana’a has risen from the debris and survived”. 

It is however unclear whether Sana’a this time will be able to survive the Arab Spring. Cultural destruction is already the norm rather than the exception in the Middle East and can be seen everywhere from Morocco to Bahrain.

Many examples come to mind: The area surrounding the old city of Jerusalem known as Mamilla, the legendary neighborhood Wadi Abu Jameel – the old Jewish quarters – in Beirut and most prominent, the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia now famous not only for the annual hajj pilgrimages but also for having destroyed nearly everything Islamic and otherwise to make space for comfortable hotels and other luxury residences.

The destruction of Sana’a however has been seldom reported anywhere. According to eye-witnesses writing for an American newspaper in November, nowadays the tanks, mortar and firefights rumbling and cracking through the ancient city of Sana’a are endangering not only the future of the country but also its magnificent architecture.

The Old City of Sana’a has been inhabited for at least 2,500 years and contains dozens of mosques, baths, gardens, orchards and markets, some of which date back to pre-Islamic times, among thousands of houses estimated to be between 6,000 and 12,000. The particular style of architecture seen in Sana’a is thought to have existed already in the 10th century when Persian geographer Ibn Rustah – who travelled extensively in Arabia – wrote that “It is the city of Yemen – there not being found in the highland of the Tihama or the Hijaz a city greater, more populous or more prosperous, of more noble origin or more delicious food than it. Sana’a is a populous city with fine dwellings, some above others, but most of them are decorated with plaster, burned bricks, and dressed stones.”

Despite the urban sprawl, the city has managed to remain more or less intact and the architectural style that Ibn Rustah described has been preserved well into the 21st century. After the end of the civil war in 1969, traditional life in Yemen began to change radically as many expatriate workers returned and began to fuel an uncontrolled modernization of the city.

Since Sana’a was declared a world heritage site, many conservation plans were put in action in a combination of public and private initiatives, international organizations and foreign investors – all of which has been put to a halt since around 2007.

Even though efforts were underway to preserve the old city itself, right outside, both Bir Al-Azab – the historic Turkish residential and garden quarter – and Al-Qaa’ – the Jewish, Christian and Persian neighborhood – lie neglected because in the words of a government official “there is no money to preserve them – and little interest”.

UNESCO has urged the government of Saleh to protect the architectural character of the old city, and they have expressed their “deep concern” about the state of preservation while the residents and shopkeepers in the old city are increasingly anxious about the unrest since the inflation and sense of insecurity have driven out all tourism and radically ruined the local economy.

The vision of Pasolini might seem to us today a little charged with Romanticism; however the appeals that he made to the UNESCO remain today as valid as they were in 1971 and should include not only Sana’a but so many other secrets of “Arabia Felix”:  Marib, Serwah, Quernow, Barakish, Djiblah and Shabwa, to mention only a few and whose history dates back as far as 11th century BC.

To save buildings alone however, without the diversity of cultures and peoples that live in them, is nothing but a futile and merely aesthetic enterprise.

Many cities in the world have “preserved” their historical heritage by driving away their own working-class population from historical centers and then turning them into lavish palaces for the wealthy, depriving these centers from all the sounds and smells of traditional cultures, turning them into museums that are only open for distant observation.

Yemeni cities and antiquities – abundant as they are, have been threatened and despoiled for centuries, ruined, demolished, burnt. In the same way that Pasolini appealed to the UNESCO, I would like to appeal not to international bodies but to the people of Yemen and to recent Nobel laureate Tawakul Karman to not let their country be ransacked and destroyed by the imperatives of the present, to use their recently gained influence on the international stage to save the old city of Sana’a and other places in Yemen from ultimate destruction.

In 1974 after Pasolini had been in Yemen, he reflected about the direction the modern world had taken: “To reach the standards of living of the West, the peoples of the Middle East will abdicate their ancient tolerance and will become horribly intolerant”. His words, poetic as they are, wouldn’t resound so strong today if they hadn’t become the living reality of the Middle East for decades now.

The preservation of Yemen’s antiquity is not only a matter of aesthetic comfort but rather represents an ideal of political life – cultural heritage is one of the most elementary forms of nation-building. The ancient tolerance to which Pasolini appealed, struck by the beauty of Sana’a, was not the contemporary idea of barely tolerated peoples and ideas, but rather, a deep appreciation of the cultural diversity so deeply entrenched in the history of the region.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Hungarian journalists on strike for media freedom

First published at BIKYAMASR

It was approximately one-year ago, almost coinciding with the uprising in Tunisia that soon turned into the Arab Spring that a controversial media law was announced in Hungary and raised alarms all over Europe, with the concern that Hungary might become fascist again.
The controversial law, proposed by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, has been compared to the way press was suppressed in Hungary during the long Communist era and under totalitarianism in general.
Under this law, a government-appointed media council would be in charge of what is technically censorship, being able to decide whether a publication has broken the rules of what they term “balanced” and “moral reporting” and would be endowed also with the authority to issue fines.
Print and Internet media can face fines of more than $100,000 and broadcasters nearly $1 million if their coverage is deemed unbalanced.
News programs will not be able to use more than 20 percent of airtime on crime-related stories and journalists might be forced to reveal sources. Presenters at state-run Hungarian radio were dismissed for protesting the law.
The controversy was only augmented as Hungary took over the rotating presidency of the European Union. According to some EU politicians, the law raised the question whether such a country was worthy of leading the EU and it was said that it was the worst media law in all European countries.
Critics of the media legislation said that it could turn Hungary into “Orbanistan” and intellectuals in the country expressed their concerns about how Hungary could take again a sinister turn into totalitarianism.
In February 2011, the EU stated that Hungary agreed to amend the controversial media law in order to comply with EU requirements and EU telecommunications chief Neelie Kroes said that the European bloc was pleased with the proposed changes.
Several related incidents however, have raised alarms again:
The Hungarian parliament is currently debating a bill on family protection that would grant the status of households only to married couples, excluding same-sex registered couples and unmarried heterosexual couples. The bill will be voted on December 23.
Recently, a prominent Roma intellectual in Hungary filed for refugee status in Canada, and argued that Hungarian Roma are fleeing to Canada since the visa requirement was lifted in 2008, not because of economic reasons but fear of persecution.
Last week, Hungarian dissident and former Yale University Dean Eva Balogh wrote on her blog that the right-wing prime minister and his party Fidesz control over two-thirds of parliamentary seats, arguing that they are putting the country through a thorough makeover. Her post was titled: “Hungarian democracy in tatters.”
The final straw in a long series of worrying events was a TV report from December 3 on the state-run MTV channel and Duna Television, in which the face of a former chief judge, Zoltan Lomnici was pixelated, giving the impression that the former judge, who is a critic of the government, had a dubious reputation.
In protest, a group of Hungarian journalists have been on hunger strike since December 10 in front of the Hungarian Media Center in Budapest, and according to one of them, Balazs Nagy Navarro, they are planning to stay until their demands for free media are met, even if there is a risk of hospitalization.
Navarro added: “Our strike will continue until the world realizes that what is happening in Hungary under the label of press freedom, are employees being terrorized and programs being manipulated or falsified.”
With a new constitution coming in 2012, there are concerns about this law, which according to international observers remains highly troubling.
Even though media censorship is the dish of the day everywhere in the Middle East, from Morocco to Bahrain, including also imprisonment and constant harassment of journalists, it seems that the incident in Hungary together with the recently announced SOPA, introduced in the United States House of Representatives on October 26, point towards a global trend that has also emerged in many other countries.
Free speech, the most basic requirement for political freedom remains dovetailed in the Middle East: Dissidents Maikel Nabil and Alaa Abdel Fattah remain imprisoned on bogus charges for nothing but their opinions; Bahraini blogger Ali Abduleman has been missing since March and only recently, Syrian blogger Razzan Ghazzawi spent weeks imprisoned.
While the struggle in the Middle East is always about more free speech, the West seems to have gone repressively in the opposite direction, leaving us with a bad taste about the near future.
In Hungary, when the media law was announced, prominent Hungarian thinker Agnes Heller, who survived the Nazi Holocaust in Hungary and who has spent over fifty years understanding the phenomena behind totalitarianism, said that the government does not realize that things have changed in the Internet era.
According to Heller, “nowadays you can have a server in another country and you cannot censor Internet production if the server is in another country. Some people organize a so-called ‘samizdat’ television station on the Internet and asked me to participate. So the technology is above it. In the classical style of the Soviet Union, technology allowed that everything could be supervised. Now not everything can be supervised. So, Orban will not succeed.”
What Heller expressed early in 2011 has become a living reality in the Middle East where the Internet has significantly aided the revolutions and enabled free media to sprout everywhere, no matter how tight is the censorship in one or another country. It is still uncertain however, if this will continue being the case, reason for which many nowadays are becoming increasingly worried about the future of Internet freedom everywhere, and not only in the Middle East.

Monday, December 19, 2011

On Sounds of Oud

On Sounds of Oud – by Ibi Ibrahim

By Arie Amaya-Akkermans
Sounds of Oud
Directed by Ibi Ibrahim
Short Narrative Film

“I was a poet before I was a film maker and I was a very poor poet because I thought in terms of images, what existed as essentially visual experience in my mind, poetry was never able to put it into verbal terms. When I got a camera in my hand, it was like coming home, it was like doing what I always wanted to do without the need of translating it into a verbal form.” –Maya Deren

When I first heard about “Sounds of Oud”, I realized that the limiting formats that we have grown into have already become more limits than formats and in the format we always encounter the powerless abstraction and formality of the film review, the academic paper and the intellectual essay – none of which are adequately fit to serve the critical function to “review” a film. Beyond that, it is my contention that as with any form of art, there’s no such a thing as “critical” or “review” when it comes to films, but rather, a watered down expression of an experience: “It is clear that film criticism is forever suspended between the chatter of empathy, on the one hand, and historical technicalities, on the other. Unless it just a question of recounting the plot (the fatal novelistic impurity) or singing the actors’ praises (the theatrical impurity). Is it really so easy to speak about a film?[1]

Here it becomes necessary to add that whenever we come up with theories about anything, we are no longer thinking, and in something as fragile as film, anything resembling a theory comes close to the actual disintegration of film in the same way that Biblical criticism divides up a text – wanting to have an omelet and the eggs at the same time – into periods, layers and sections, with an ultimate pretension to elucidate its ultimate meaning. Reasoning, clever arguments and witticisms are not thoughts. All of which brought me back to the question of how to write about a film about which I heard, long before I saw it, and I use the expression “I heard” because what really struck me to go on to write this essayistic review – and to do it in the first person, unlike the other formats established to talk about film that border between journalistic and scientific – was the impression that had on me to hear the filmmaker say that “I want to feel so much and think too little”.

The proposition in itself was nothing short of shocking and it made me consider – without any plausible answer until now – what is that place where we are when we feel and whether this is something that is possible to separate from our thoughts, and even though I held steadfast to the following rather conservative position that… “One of my oldest crusades is against the distinction between thought and feeling... which is really the basis of all anti-intellectual views: the heart and the head, thinking and feeling, fantasy and judgment. We have more or less the same bodies, but very different kinds of thoughts. I believe that we think much more with the instruments provided by our culture than we do with our bodies, and hence the much greater diversity of thought in the world. Thinking is a form of feeling; feeling is a form of thinking.[2]…the problem, I realized later, had to do with the nature of films.

I am not entirely sure until now that films are thought like philosophy or felt like painting or music, as much as they are experienced, not experienced in the same way that we experience life – in brutal immediacy – but in the way we experience a visit to the planetarium: The screen is a telescope with which we are permitted to gaze into distant worlds that might have a different range of emotional and intellectual references for us, but we are not allowed to keep anything and the crucial relationship between time and space is disfigured into what I would call, an art of memory: Films as acts and arts of memory.

Remembering is not only a form of knowledge but that which gives wholeness and unity to human existence and films rather than thought or felt, are experienced as memories that, depending on the quality and personal empathy to the film in question, might become part of the visual inventory of our own memory and experience. Films, unlike paintings or musical compositions are not really determinate forms, or, in the words of Badiou: “After all, cinema is nothing but takes and editing. There’s nothing else.[3] We might think or feel many different styles of art involved – beautiful images, captivating music, impressing acting – but the whole remains the subject of an illusion in which nothing remains pure or is allowed to become purified.

What we most remarkably remember in films is not what is offered to us but precisely that which is taken away from us in the gumption of the movement: “A film operates through what it withdraws from the visible. The image is first cut from the visible. Movement is held up, suspended, inverted, arrested. Cutting is more essential than presence – not only through the effect of editing, but already, from the start, both by framing and by the controlled purge of the visible. It is of absolute importance that the flowers cinema displays (as in Visconti’s sequences) be Mallarmean flowers, that be absent from every bouquet[4].” Because we are not exactly thinking and not exactly feeling, it becomes ever so impossible to use our judgment – in good or bad taste – to judge a film because our faculty of judgment is itself suspended as it is the case in every form of experience and action: The thinking subject is temporarily absent when we act.

To resort to aesthetic categories is of very little avail here, only because in the modern age, as Agnes Heller pointed out, something seems to have gone so wrong with the concept of the beautiful (together with the true and the good). It is often the case that in everyday speech, “beautiful” is an essentially empty unit of meaning, a punctuation mark, or the sophisticated replacement of commonplace words such as “cool”, “nice”, “cute”, whose capability to relate to experience is too limited. It is limited because “beautiful” is not something that we only get to think about: “The experience of Beauty is never merely a mental experience; it is the experience of emotions, passions, desires, senses –of feelings. When we experience beauty our senses are also normally aroused. We hear the beautiful sound, we see the beautiful sight, and sometimes (although rarely) we also touch and smell beautiful things. Our body participates in the experience of beauty. This is so even if the what of the experience is purely spiritual. A kind of rapture, strong or mild, desire and satisfaction are ineliminable elements of the experience of the beautiful. The beautiful is erotic.[5]

Aesthetics (in the plural, for there are many) are always an impediment in the discourse about art and films (except scientifically conceived) not only because in philosophy, they are intimately tied with the faculty of judgment – that film deliberately suspends – but also because the experience (not the concept of beauty) cannot even be properly addressed by aesthetics alone: “The aesthetic experience is an autonomous experience; it has nothing to do with loving a wine or a particular food. Aesthetic theory is not the theory of beauty but the theory of art. If you still want a theory of beauty, it belongs in the theory of love”[6]. Having abandoned here a certain measure of intellectual prejudice, I would like to say that there is no theory of film as much as there is no theory of art in art, and that the theory of art – aesthetics itself – is not thinking about art but about judgment.

At this point, it should be clear that entering the world of a film is no exercise on criticism but rather an open-ended travel book in which we might jot down some notes, but we might as well not since we are not exactly in control of what we have remembered. Speaking about films is an expression against interpretation if we happen to consider them works of art: “Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable.[7] In developing this radical style – which is already old – of speaking about art as a form of art in itself, one is not so concerned with interpreting and tools of composition and interpretation, as much as with bringing up the need to translate the experience into erotics: The text must be a companion in, rather than an observer of the film – It must love the human maker, eroticize the memory and ultimately participate in the experience without being constrained by the merely visual or the merely conceptual.

If there is one film with which (and not about which) we are able to leave the province of literatures and theaters, of spaces and times, in order to enter the vast field of memory – and with it, of beauty and love as experience, that film would be “Sounds of Oud”. The reason behind choosing a rather short, relatively experimental and not completely formed work of art, with the sovereign ambition of discussing art, love and beauty, rather than the commonplace intellectual configurations of films, it is not because it is a grandiose film about beauty or love, or because it is tailor-made to subdue itself to the paradox of a critical apparatus set against criticism itself – the articulation is much simpler: It is only because of its great limitations, because of the humility of its purpose and because of the very limited aesthetic topography in which it is located, that it becomes an observation point rather than a lens. I will refrain myself from resorting to descriptive geographies such as beautiful or “good” only because the experience of a film, and of this film in particular, is more intense and deep-seated yet fleeting, than the language of adjectives.

I personally never liked going to the cinema or enjoyed too many films in general because of subscribing to what the legendary Vivianne Westwood said exactly two years ago: “I hardly ever go to cinema, I find it too boring, it’s something… it’s a waste of my time, I can’t do it, I think I rather just stand at the bus stop”[8]. Looking back in time, I feel urged to say that this had to do if anything with that conception of films – called movement-image by Deleuze – as a narrative in which one event leads to another, only with the intention to create a solid and concise narrative that reproduces the literary and the theatrical and that Artaud called “pure cinema” – the equivalent of reading a book. I certainly preferred reading the book because of the freedom with which I could make up my mind and my own impressions; I could leave, pick it back later and above all, dream. I looked for the suspension of the image outside itself, for the subtraction from itself, and ultimately for the bus stop where I could stand and just idly watch life – rather than contemplate – in a certain sense of passing in which I was myself involved. This concept of film, which runs all throughout the history of film, is what Maya Deren called “horizontal” films.

There was however, for Maya Deren, a second class or style of films that she called “vertical” – and that I call Messianic – in which the elements were superposed one on top of the other not in order to tell a narrative story but to achieve the only thing that film can achieve as art – to poetize. Poetics often means chronological, temporal and spatial destruction for the sake of an intensified effect in which the mere “cutting and editing” out of which films are made, becomes not a sequence but the eternity of a passage or a visitation during which all the compositive elements are consigned to their own shortcomings in order to set free a force beyond the particulars of narratives, images and sounds. “Sounds of Oud” has no other supreme achievement but to poetize a rather disrupted and linear sequence of events in order to redeem them, and it redeems them not for the expectant viewer but for the maker, and in that sense, it is an acute expression of individuality as non-identity, as translation of storytelling into erotics, and as an expression of despair that rips itself off from the chest. Rather than merely filming bodies and conversations, it uses the camera in itself as a bodily organ that records not with the eyes of lens, but with the skin of the textures, a story that quickly fades from view and that stands out as hunger rather than as satisfaction. It is not a vertical film, but it is not horizontal either: The horizon is constantly shattered by the verticality of elements that are not filmical – they are theatrical, musical and performative.

The verticality of the film appears in full view in the form of cultural translation: The streets of New York are adorned with a sense of passion and a certain serendipity that is not at home in the streets of New York and endows it with the achievement of being a camera obscura about itself: The estrangement from the physical spaces in which it happens, becomes strangled by the unnatural light, by the absence of adornment and glamour, by the litanies that appear in the conversations that nuance another landscape, crave for another world. The film is an open wound that happens on the skin of a stranger and that does not necessarily yearn for a time past or looks into an infinite future – two classical strategies in horizontal films –; instead it demands a radical and absolute change in the morphology of the world so that it can unfilm itself, without success: “Do you know then, -she interrogated me, do you know then what you yearn for, what is missing in you, what you seek like an Alpheus his Arethusa, over what are you so sad with such sadness? It is not about the years that passed, one could never say that, or about what happened there or what it happening here, it is but about what there is in you, the problem is in you. What you look for is a time more beautiful than this. Only that new world which is old because you were there with your beloved friends in that world”[9].

The loud scream of the filmmaker is best heard when the lights dim, when the conversations are replaced by the reflected shadows of the TV, by the sounds of footsteps, by the interruptions of the theatrical and the musical that seem to drain the film out of its own vital energy: That is when the filmmaker stands at the bus stop and films not with a camera but with a bare chest smeared on tradition. A little film, we would say, picturing out a conventional love story of unconventionalities in which Muslims battle with tradition, and tradition there is not merely the conflation of religion and modernity or a deliberate expression of sexuality, it is rather an impure and imperfect fracture that moves beyond the merely thematic and representational into a visual field that can no longer sustain the poetry about itself. It breaks desperately into erratic movements of dance, strokes of hairs and lips, blurred visions and defies the imprisonment of the everyday. The strictly filmical is betrayed by horizontal quotations – the clearest symptom of modern art, that is, of a rootless art that mourns itself – almost imposed on the visual aspect of the film, to conform to the horizontality, at the same time that the imagery points upwards vertically and mutes the conventions of story-telling.

Vivianne Westwood herself criticized the avant-garde saying for herself that even though she has been always placed as a part of this movement – that doesn’t really specify anything but a rupture with traditional images and messages: “I’m sometimes misunderstood because on the one hand I am called avant-garde, and on the other side I know that ideas come from tradition, from the technique of tradition, they come from looking at wonderful things that people did in the past, trying to do something as good, I’ve tried to demonstrate from my work that in order to see the future you have to understand what’s been done, what’s still worth keeping and what could be done[10]”. Something similar happens in “Sounds of Oud” where sounds and invisible hues from the past – the immediate and the historical – are set in motion inside an insatiable present that looks always elsewhere. It is not the traditional trope of the (lost) Orient so widely available in Western film, but rather, a vertical movement in which the past falls upon the texture of a ruined present not as its alternative, but as its glue. The music, the traditional utterances, the prayers, the screams, they glue the filmical into a tapestry that is found to be homeless. Linguistic translation and comprehensibility is to no avail: The Messianic impulse pushes the truncated conversations down and drowns them in a visual richness – called cinematography – that constitutes a style of art – pure in this case – never completely bending over to narrative conventions.

The director is doing nothing but succeeding in filmmaking while failing in storytelling: “Once we abandon the concept of the image as the end product and consummation of the creative process (which it is in both the visual arts and the theater), we can take a larger view of the total medium and can see that the motion-picture instrument actually consists of two parts, which flank the artist on either side. The images with which the camera provides him are like fragments of a permanent, incorruptible memory; their individual reality is in no way dependent upon their sequence in actuality, and they can be assembled to compose any of several statements. In film, the image can and should only be the beginning, the basic material of the creative action. All invention and creation consists primarily of a new relationship between known parts. The images of film deal in realities which, as I pointed out earlier, are structured to fulfill their various functions, not to communicate a specific meaning[11]”.

The incorruptible memory in “Sounds of Oud” becomes somewhat corrupted when dialogues attempt to hold steadfast to the present in a way inconsistent with the images, but the film is saved by masterful photographic sequences that tell a story by destroying its unity into – in words of Deleuze – purely optical and sound situations. Probably a restraint on experimentation? Perhaps the sin of perfection that comes from the submission of the beautiful to the aesthetic? Beauty in the larger orders of reality – not necessarily artistic always – is preconditioned by danger and by surprise, by miracle and by chance. From this we should infer that the sin of contemporary art, loaded by the illusion of entertainment that comes with films, of attempting to achieve persuasion at the expense of experimentation is an Archimedean point – you are allowed to find it only under condition you use it against yourself. While this is all palpable in the film, it does let its achievements – simple and technical, but deep-seated – shine in the mere thingness that it is an unfinished product that might be well displayed alongside other works, as a sketch of a deeper edge, of a more individual style of filmmaking, of a counter-avant-garde that supports itself more on its own serenity than on the social and cultural challenges it presents. Challenges that are always secondary to poetics, whose only aspiration is not to destroy history or to tell alternative stories, but rather, to transform – even if minimally – the memory of both maker and viewer, and in doing that, bares nude the possibility to experience love and beauty as a radical transformation – reason for which it can never be entirely visualized, it is dovetailed, and yet it couldn’t be otherwise, lest life and art become lost in one another.

When I think about the filmmaker, and about the humanity displayed in his work, I believe that I wasn’t able to solve my uneasiness about his “I want to feel so much and think too little” because there is no such a thing as films that are strictly intellectual or strictly emotional and that can still be considered art – the memory is neutral to both. I stepped out of the dialectic by appealing to a force larger than that of mere rationality, by invoking the power of love and beauty as a supreme ruler in the domain of art, a temporary and only temporary cure to the fragility of the dignity of art, of its autonomy. Yet, going through the largesse of his photographic work – which magically conjures up in the film without forms and without colors – I can only insinuate my craving for seeing a more daring experiment in which the sounds of Oud acquire the truly vertical nature expressed by the eyes and the dancing limbs of the silent moments in his film, that instead of negating his work, bring it to life. He represents the weakness and limitations of language that are replaced by the greatness of visual thinking deployed in Maya Deren and about whom was said something that always comes to mind, whenever I think about the melancholy of Sounds of Oud and the artist behind it, out of the vaults of the memory:  “She was strong, but she was also fragile and even helpless at times[12]. The achievements at the expense of the shortcomings and the shortcomings at the expense of the experiment are nothing but the loyal confirmation of the intensity of his camera as a part of his body, still maturing and nurturing itself from the outside in order not to fall prey to solipsism. His film and his photography – and I imagine him filming and photographing himself frantically, trying to find in every image a pointer in the direction of the world that he so vehemently desires – could be only put into grammatical topologies by slightly altering what Benjamin wrote to Adorno about Kafka, phrasing it as such: “There’s an infinite amount of love, but not for us”. This statement contains his love and his hope; it is the source of his radiant serenity.


[1] Alan Badiou, “The False Movements of Cinema” in “Handbook of Inaesthetics”, Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics, Stanford University Press, 2004, pp. 83  
[2] Susan Sontag, The Rolling Stone Interview with Jonathan Cott, 1978, published 1979
[3] Alan Badiou, ibid. pp. 86
[4] Ibid. pp. 79
[5] Agnes Heller, “Aesthetics and Modernity: Essays by Agnes Heller”, Lexington Books, 2010, pp. 33
[6] Ibid. pp. 39
[7] Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation”, Picador, 2001, pp. 8
[8] Vivianne Westwood, Interview, New York Times Style Magazine, Lynn Hirschberg, October 2009
[9] Friedrich Hölderlin, “Hyperion”, Continuum, 1990
[10] Vivianne Westwood, Interview, CNN, April 2009
[11] Maya Deren, “Cinematography: The Creative Use of Reality,” in “The Avant-Garde Film: A Reader of Theory and Criticism”, Anthology Film Archives, New York, pp. 60-73
[12] Jonas Mekas, “A few notes on Maya Deren”, in “Inverted Odisseys”, ed. Shelley Rice, MIT Press, 1999, pp. 129