Sunday, December 23, 2012

Geographies III

For R.J.

"You never left", Youssef Nabil, 2011

"There is a beauty in the world, though it's harsher than we expect it to be." -Michael Cunningham, The Hours

"He would be back from India one of these days, June or July, she forgot which, for his letters were awfully dull; it was his sayings one remembered; his eyes, his pocket-knife, his smile, his grumpiness and, when millions of things had utterly vanished --how strange it was! --a few sayings like this about cabbages." -Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway.

Beautiful things. They were. They still were. Beautiful. Beautiful, as it were. There is always a first day.  There was a first day. The beginning of everything, of all things, of the world. An ordinary morning, like any other morning in your life. But. "What I wanted to do seemed simple. I wanted something alive and shocking enough that it could be a morning in somebody's life. The most ordinary morning. Imagine, trying to do that." And what is a beginning, really, in a morning, just like that? "In the beginning, there is an end. Don't be afraid: it's your death that is dying. Then: all the beginnings. When you have come to an end, only then can Beginning come to you." He remembered that morning, he was in bed. They drove to the middle of nowhere, and just talked, for an entire night with all its hours, under the perfect warmth of summer, as if in the most total wakefulness. Someone talked about sighting a comet. That was an important detail, he thought. And yet nothing had changed, it was still, it was still just like that. The letters still tiptoed around the throat without making the slightest noise; imperceptible, delicate motions. So delicate that feeling anything at all seemed threatening, impossible, and dangerous. It was so difficult. Difficult to achieve that. The most ordinary morning in anybody's life. "What a thrill, what a shock, to be alive on a morning in June, prosperous, almost scandalously privileged, with a simple errand to run."

Some things. They have. They have already vanished. Tangible and predictable. The words are not important; it is things that matter most. Events. A certain manner of observing other things, and people. The conversations were unimportant too, and so were the letters. Many of them. He would have wanted to paint.  Writing sometimes took too long. It never permitted them to take the whole; an instance of happiness, the terror of joy, the encircling of the hand. Writing always comes a moment too late. In writing, it all has already happened; it has all been already decided. It is an act of mourning. The painting is immediacy, the cruel and violent immediacy, the unmediated unfurling, the knife in the moment right before it punctures the soft skin of the limb, while the knife is still clean and the skin is still beautiful. "The way I would like to live. Maybe the way I manage to live, sometimes. Or rather: the way it is sometimes given to me to live, in the present absolute. In the happening of the instant. Just at the moment of the instant, in what unfurls it, I touch down and let myself slip into the depth of the instant itself." In writing, the blood has been already cleaned, the wound has been partly healed, the absence has been occupied by other kinds of absences, of spaces; it has allowed for some memories to be embalmed, for some others to be lost. That is the essential quality, of the painting. Of what one would have wanted to keep.

Everything. One would have wanted to keep everything, without even yet knowing everything. Without ever knowing. Knowing and feeling are perhaps misplaced categories, hierarchies, grandiose structures. Observation is very different. A reckoning with danger. Being far out in the sea. You can't know, you can't feel. Not yet. There, while being there, you wanted something else. Life to stop. Death to stop. How can I have this? You asked. But you were already not having. A suffocating terror took you on, took hold of you, blinded you with light, the shimmering light of Monet, the shimmering light of the sea. But it's only water! You thought, and the water responded: Open your eyes, it is nothing but light, fool! And you faded, you faded because you were intensely alive; you faded because you were already dying, like all living things are, except that, the instant that is always a last instant. Again and again. "I wanted to take hold of the third person of the present. For me, that is what painting is, the chance to take hold of the third person of the present, the present itself. But in life, it is 'only the act of love - by the clear, star-like abstraction of what one feels [that] we capture the unknown quality of the instant, which is hard and crystalline and vibrant in the air, and life is that incalculable instant, greater than the event itself.'" But you still know the colors. And now you must burn the painting; you must hide it. Or, leave it behind in an island.

I didn't keep the letters. So secret they were that they had to be sent by post, through an alibi, a confessor. How corrupt is the postal system of the world, you thought. Two weeks to deliver a letter that should have been sent yesterday. No, not yesterday, but the day before. Not the day before, but a day before that. No, it should have been sent before all the days, all days. You should have written and sent that letter before you acquired your first language, before you learnt your first word, before there was language. They were not kept, because you should never give anything, that is not everything. Give everything, let go of everything, lose everything. This is not possible in writing. It wasn't writing because you had anything to say. It was writing because it was necessary to fill up the empty space around the gazes and the gestures. This unbearable monstrous void, the present tense. "I would like to break your heart with the magnificent calm of a beach safe from man. But I can't do it. I can only tell it. All I can do is tell the desire. But the painter can break your heart with the epiphany of a sea. There's a recipe: 'To really paint the sea, you have to see it everyday at every hour and in the same place, to come to know the life in this location.' That's Monet. Monet who knows how to paint the sea, how to paint the sameness of the sea." There were other vital questions. Could it be true? We didn't want to find the answer. "Yet what misfortune if the question should happen to meet its answer! Its end!"

There are preconditions for writing. "The condition on which beginning to write becomes necessary - (and) - possible: losing everything, having once lost everything." On the last day, a refined gentleman asked why was it that there were so many good writers to be counted among the people of my land. And I didn't know what my land was, therefore I had to improvise an answer. I had lost everything. The land came first, many years ago. "No legitimate place, no land, no fatherland, no history of my own... At a certain moment for the person who has lost everything, whether that means a being or a country, language becomes the country. One enters the country of words... Exile makes one fall silent/earth. But I don't want exile to make silence, I want it to make earth; I want exile, which generally a producer of silence, extinction of voice, breathlessness, to produce its opposite... I lost Oran. Then I rediscovered it, white, gold, and dust for eternity in my memory and I never went back. In order to keep it. It became my writing." I wanted it to become my own land. There were no people from my land, and I made it into my occupation, to find them. Nothing, no land, is far, for those without maps. "You want to give him the book of his own life, the book that will locate him, parent him, arm him for the changes."

There were other things, I kept. A painting that was not mine; there were no people in it. But it contained secrets about light, about being awake. A absurd circle of cities, Bogota, New York, Manama, Istanbul, Beirut. Chasing the citizenship of secrets. New cities became newer and larger arenas of imprisonment, between walls of impossibilities, and the world became so small that it only held enough space to house the painting. Everyone else was now a refugee, everywhere; a refugee from war, from faith, from himself. "Why did you put me in the world if only for me to be lost in it?" Moments of agony? But why? You've never been in the dark! You're an spectacular source of light! The moments of agony was the only thing one could truly remember, because everything else, and the space around it, was that, just the most ordinary morning in a person's life. Just like that. The light had a tendency to consume itself eventually, like that comet they sighted once, and he wrote a poem, in four lines; the poem painted and cried, as it witnessed what had escaped Cézanne: The landscape. Man absent but entirely within the landscape. Flights and impossibilities. There was a second lesson in painting. "And the lesson is: one does not paint ideas. One does not paint "a subject." One does not paint water lilies. And in the same way: no writing ideas. There is no subject. There are only mysteries. There are only questions... What enlarges a person's life are the impossible dreams, the unrealizable desires. The one that has not yet come true. And these hopes, these desires are so strong that at times one falls, and when a person falls, she sees, she is once again turned towards the inaccessible sun. Why does the flower have a fragance that is not for anyone, and for nothing..." He couldn't possibly know that. Cities of refugees. They are all waiting. God knows for what. Waiting to be able to wait again.

"Everything that is (looked at justly) is good. Is exciting. Is "terrible". Life is terrible. Terribly beautiful, terribly cruel. Everything is marvelously terrible, to whoever looks at things as they are." Just look Omar, look, never stop looking. When this war will be over, we'll be both going home. To the sameness, the spectacular sameness, of the instants, fleeting from our hands, irreparably kind, irreparably terrible. But we've never been to that land before. There are no instructions. Imagine something so ambitious; a first day. Again. Beautiful things remain just that, it's us who change Omar, it's us.

[Passages taken from Helene Cixous' "Coming to Writing & Other Essays" & Michael Cunningham's "The Hours"]

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Geographies II

For R.J.

"There were so many boundaries, and so many walls, and inside the walls, more walls. Bastions in which, one morning, I wake up condemned. Cities where I am isolated, quarantines, cages, "rest" homes." -Helene Cixous

"Tell me something, before I sleep". That question always paralyzed me. Do you remember the beginning of Mrs. Dalloway, Rana? "And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning--fresh as if issued to children on a beach." Yes, I agree, that was not the first sentence, it's the fourth to be more precise. How to end a story? You know why I found that question so difficult? Because I never wanted my stories to end. I always chose vagueness, openness, and sometimes even, a certain touch of abandonment, to circumstances, without a final word. It seemed to me as if the ending was always already implicit in the first line, regardless of the content. Do you know what they say about Maalouf's last book? "The novel ends in darkness, solely with the purpose of showing that the disappearance of the past is something one can find consolation for easily; what is inconsolable is the disappearance of the future as well." I wanted ends to write themselves out, when I were elsewhere already, or at least somebody else, occupying the same body, here and at the same time. Did I tell you Abdulrahman loved Istanbul? Yes, he loved Istanbul with the eyes of a child. He could have been like me on the first day, when it took me an entire day to circle the mosque nearby on foot and then a whole another day to go on a boat trip with Anwar. Do you know that moment when you dream of things and then they happen? It was a morning like that. So fresh. With friends, with laughs, on a sunny day, going from Europe to Asia, across the Bosporus and then the Marmara, on a little boat, admiring things with glee, admiring them as if no one had seen them before, the way Magritte would. How would we see things if we were really awake? That was the question of his paintings. Yet never had I been so cold, never had I been so tired.

Abdulrahman wanted to come, because he wanted to feel being in my shoes: He wanted to write Istanbul. But I was afraid, I was afraid that he would come and that then I would find that he is gone the next morning, perhaps to a church or to a little shop, in the Asian side, and then, I would find myself entirely alone. So I didn't let him come. He also wanted to come to Adliya, but again I was afraid that he would see me across that painting, and its scenes of drowning, its surgical colors, its smothered words. I didn't want that to happen either. Nor did I plan for the painting. I had bought an elegant grey jacket, from a tailor, that I would wear only on that day, at the dinner, located somewhere at the center of the map. It wasn't the past what disappeared, but the immediately present and the absolutely future, while the past remained untouched, and just as distant. But yet it was a beautiful day, mapless and all, so I wore the jacket to go to Seef with her, and spend the hours, the most beautiful hours, the hours that still did not end. "I love you so much", she said, and I understood that she was the most real thing in the world, and we understood that some things are better left unsaid. And I loved her too. It was the longest of lunches, in a most singular morning, although it was late afternoon, and when we parted, I began to realize, it was her, in front of me, what I had loved too, from a respectful distance, through the most squalid laughter, through cynical pain, in just a moment, like that. Through a hundred days. "He had never felt so happy in the whole of his life! Without a word they made it up. They walked down to the lake. He had twenty minutes of perfect happiness." Do you know the pleasure of agreement? The agreement that begins at the height of the eyelid and then, like a tear, slides through the corner of the mouth and becomes a smile? The home, the place, the possibility of space, was here gratuitous but never free. How far would you go, just for that, Rana?

Perec writes: "To be far away... To discover what you've never seen, what you didn't expect, what you didn't imagine... Not what, over time, has come to be listed among the various wonders and surprises of the world; neither the grandiose nor the impressive; nor even the foreign necessarily. But rather the reverse, the familiar rediscovered, fraternal space." And everywhere is far away. The closer I came, the further it receded from reach, the more intoxicating that the distance became. There was this sweet tenderness, and it had a body, a body of proof, it occupied the entire room, as if it was the only thing that mattered. "For she had come to feel that it was the only thing worth saying - what one felt. Cleverness was silly. One must simply say what one felt." Once I saw it in Istanbul, actually twice, and I chased it across the hall, I detected this beauty, I knew of its existence, I let it surround me, between the walls, the walls of the cities, the walls of the hills, the walls of the rivers. We had met before, I thought, and yet it was surprised that I didn't recognize it more immediately. I stood there, pretending to admire the artwork, letting it take me on completely, and even walk me to the elevator, speaking a language I didn't understand. It was so fragile, even more than me, I stood for hours; it was the moment, right there. It reminded me of what I never had, with kindness, as if it were the first day after the war, with its bristling air, teaching our limbs, how to live now, and I felt it was still far, so far away, a gaze, a glimpse. I adored the moment, irreparably not mine, stamped on a new jacket that was no longer new, and bathed in this sweet perfume. I circled it with my hands and I faded. It remained.

What is that place? Where is it? From Perec: "I would like there to exist places that are stable, unmoving, intangible, untouched and almost untouchable, unchanging, deep-rooted; places that might be points of reference, of departure, of origin: My birthplace, the cradle of my family, the house where I may have been born, the tree I may have seen grow (that my father may have planted the day I was born), the attic of my childhood filled with intact memories... Such places don't exist, and it's because they don't exist that space becomes a question, ceases to be self-evident, ceases to be incorporated, ceases to be appropriated. Space is a doubt: I have constantly to make it, to designate it. It's never mine, never given to me, I have to conquer it." I told Abdulrahman in a letter that I wanted to go back home. Home isn't a recorded voice note. There's a far beyond. But you need to make yourself comfortable first in the empty space, bask in the privilege of exile, and then, only then, reach for the bodies, first you need to see the eyes and through the eyes touch the hands, and then occupy the words, at last. The sentences. The ends. Do you know the last sentence of Mrs. Dalloway? "'I will come,' said Peter, but he sat for a moment. What is this terror? What is this ecstasy? He thought to himself. What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement? It is Clarissa, he said. For there she was." And indeed, there she was. I wore the new jacket, it was the perfect moment, we drove past the Ocean, Monet's, basked in it, it was worth everything. Even the empty space. The overwhelming empty space coating everything else ever since then.

There're no given homes. All space is but conquered.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Geographies I

For R.J.

I went there for a third time. I wanted to be recognized, essentially recognized, yet not known. I had seen that smile, or, at least I had imagined, in that land, where yellow was immediately turned into sparkling white. The name of the land is only a fraction of a name, a fleeting presence, a moment without mediation, by other moments; standing by itself, suspended. The smile had a name, had a voice, and a physical shape, without yet occupying a body. On the contours, I detected the familiarity, the warmth, the distortion. I wasn't interested in the food, or in the companion even; I simply stared into the signs, hoping that I would recognize myself in the eyelid. That I would recognize who I had been, who I had become in the expectation, I wanted to witness again the delicate lines of the transformation; how I had broken myself to become visible only to the one eye of the world. What had I done with the rest of my body? That I could no longer remember. Why was I still afraid? Afraid of the letter that would never arrive? That I didn't know. Each time, I became more familiar, and hence, less and less visible. Perhaps an object, something incomprehensibly sensory, yet unreachable, undecipherable, a fraction of empty space. So void I became, like a postcard, sent to the wrong address, muted.

What is it that vanished? Was it the void or the space circling around it with dots? Every hour of the day, in my mind, I wrote a different letter, a letter that would never be sent, a letter whose signs would disappear as it is being read. Or, like that letter, that meant to lure someone to Istanbul, cut into shreds by the hand and thrown at a hotel bin in Adliya, as the words pierced the limbs of the writer himself as if burning coals were entering his exhausted body. A body of exhaustion, that is how he began to understand the spaces of the world. Spaces are not places, cities, desired destinations or even moments of love; the space is only delimited only by the contours of the absence around it, by what one would have wanted to have in them, by the traces of disappearance. I would like to look at the photographs of missing persons, wondering if I may find myself too. The clear gladness of water, that was the initial sign on the map, on the map that contained the names and the instructions, and at the end, of a circular journey, there were bodies, traces of food, a walk to the lake, no more than twenty minutes, it could have been the ocean. No one knows. The instructions were lost on a certain night, at a hotel in Juffair, when everything went dark, he fell into a pit, on a  26th of November. All the pages turned blank, the next day.

Hundreds of pages they were, hundreds of days they had been. It was like a summer day. No one asked any questions anymore, someone traveled to another city, somebody else traveled to another country. On the last day, he saw the water, at day time, and the island didn't disappear, or become smaller, but for a moment it was infinitely big, many times larger than the entire world. All the orders of happiness and unhappiness were small enough to fit in it, and it never altogether faded from view. I still see it, sometimes, when I dream that I am awake, and that we still kept our secrets, like children, who could laugh at their own mistakes and repeat them time and again. That dream, albeit so small, seems now like that point, where the universe began. Have you ever been at the beginning of things? Maybe that's why he wanted to be free. Free from the names, free from the embodiment, free from the enclosure, free to tiptoe around the delicate lines that one day were to form the bodies. The firm bodies. An anchor in the ocean of uncertainties. Aren't maps more enclaves of enclosure and limitation than merely descriptive topologies of what is possible? Parallel lines, horizontal lines, cages, cages in search of birds. How can you lose what you never had? The temptation of impossibility runs larger than any of the edges of mis-having. Have everything. Have without limits. Have without giving anything... That is not everything.

I must go everywhere. Into the most difficult places. Into places where being afraid is the only human possibility available. I must go at a going without having, a place that circumvents its own space by collapsing unto itself, imploding, subverting the order of the maps, coloring the highest places first and in a crescendo, descending into the fertile valleys, imagining that they are like a skyline, growing in blotches and then bleeding from the top, into the deeper womb of the highest peaks. I was in a place like this, it was without regrets, no one had questioned the motifs then, and that would have been easy, easy to say we're sorry, wonderful to say we regret it. But there's no sorry and no regret from a position of having no choice. He wanted to live. He would live at any price. Unlike the poet, whose survival skills were tuned only in a dialectical relationship with death. He understood so late what the clear gladness of water meant: No aesthetics is possible from a position in which the orders of reality are far more advanced than those of the imaginary. In the absence of aesthetics, the confrontation is brutal, and one has to be prepared, too, for mercilessness. This is what the peak was: A free fall. He stares into an old photograph. Have you ever seen the beginning of all things? It was right there, in front of him, a fleeting moment, it contained everything. That was his belief, that he could never stare into the photograph for long; he wanted to capture the moment and make it not last, but reenact itself, on and on. It was his endless faith in fragility, as the readable sign of ever lasting strength. That is what it was. Only a quick stare. That's all what he was permitted to keep.

I must go everywhere, again.

أنت، إذا، الشعور الذي لم أبحث عنه، إذا. أنت، إذا، ملايين المجرات التي
لم تخلق بعد، إذا. لأني أنا، ملايين الذرات،إذا، التي لم تبكي رحيلك، إذا

Monday, December 10, 2012

Where Is Bahrain?

For R.J. & T.A. 

"Reclaim Bahrain" by Camille Zakharia

This question is asked a lot in Istanbul, and you keep wondering, "Where is Bahrain?" before you can seriously answer the question. You are perhaps fully aware that the answer to the question is only partial, and that a pointer isn't enough to locate Bahrain on a map. Then you say, it is in the Middle East, it is an Arab, "Islamic" country, and yet you also know none of that is true at all. As Bahrain approached me, on the earliest morning of November 23, I felt descending upon a pond of light in which I could only tiptoe around the flashes without becoming completely intoxicated. You think you can grasp the entirely place, visually, in terms of its relative size, but you truly can't. At some times of the day, Bahrain is so infinitely small and you want nothing but to escape, to reach the shore, to love the Ocean and swim far away in one of those little boats. There're other times when it is so immensely big. No point of observation in the horizon can eventually lead you anywhere and you want to be soaked into this endlessness so that it never leaves you; a basin of pure concrete rises out of its own proportion from within the womb of the sand and the shadow of the palms that are no longer there. Manama has a tendency to grow erratic and chaotic, according to its own rules, it is a patchwork.

Buildings grow naturally and nowhere in the shadows you can see an old Bahraini trying to pick up memories from the glorious history of the island. You had to imagine the old Bahraini, telling you a story, accompanied by the drumming beats of a mirwas. The soundscapes were different: Indian pop, conversations in Urdu, a stench of Chanel everywhere and this absence, this infinite sense of absence. The absence of those who are not allowed to fully become what they are. So close I was! They say, and then they try again, and every time, the shore withdraws a few miles more. The journey can never be completed. At a beautiful but small palace in a village, you admire the linoleum prints of the late Nasser Al Yousif, perhaps one of the greatest masters of painting in a largely unknown part of the world, and too much known for all the wrong reasons, at the same time. In his prints you can see the bastari - no longer existing in Bahrain - or mud houses, the women clad in abayas dancing and the men playing the mirwas and the jahlah. "Where is Bahrain?" You keep asking the question, especially after you know that Nasser Al Yousif did these prints when he was already blind. "Back to basics", is what Jamal told me, when we spoke about the younger Bahraini artists, a generation that doesn't like drawing and painting (or wouldn't admit it in public).

If you would like to go back to basics, in Bahrain, where would you go? Who could tell you how to get there? Even if you knew the names of all the roads - which is very difficult in Bahrain - they all lead into each other, and like a logical tautology, you would end up again in your departure point, or even prior to your departure point. Sometimes the sky is pink, if that hint helps you in anything at all. Have you ever seen the sun? No, you truly haven't. Only in Bahrain they've seen the sun. That is ought to be explained. Not now. There was another painter, whose colorful nudes I had seen, those that no one in Bahrain had seen, so colorful and innocent, almost childish. As he drove me to Adliya - a new home or at least a pointer in the map of one's hope - he told me about Dilmun. Someone else was looking for Bahrain, and it wasn't just me.
I recall Helene Cixous, who taught me three months ago, how to see Bahrain, if I wanted to go there, if only to have that dinner, that someone once promised in a letter. Everything else was secondary: "But I feel, after all, “at home.” What you can’t have, what you can’t touch, smell, caress, you should at least try to see. I want to see: everything. No Promised Land I won’t reach someday. Seeing what you will (n)ever have. Maybe I have written to see; to have what I never would have had, so that having would be the privilege not of the hand that takes and encloses, of the gullet, of the gut; but of the hand that points out, of fingers that see, that design, from the tips of the fingers that transcribe by the sweet dictates of vision."

I had come to Bahrain to learn to see again. I told this to Jamal, that as a painter and as an art historian, one is never trained for knowing things, for interpreting - which always tries to dissect art works into sections and make them so comfortable and comfortable - but for precision of the eye. This is what I had discovered about three months ago when I wrote that story that begins in New York and ends with Mrs. Dalloway: "'I will come,'said Peter, but he sat for a moment. What is this terror? What is this ecstasy? He thought to himself. What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement? It is Clarissa, he said. For there she was." In the end of the story there's a painting lesson, the painter wanted to teach his dinner host, how to paint at the ocean and he brought up Monet, who said: "There's a recipe. To really paint the sea, you have to see it everyday, at every hour and in the same place, to come to know the life in this location." While in Istanbul, and still trying to locate Bahrain, looking into the Bosphorous, every morning and every night, I began to think about Monet's lesson, and why it had been so important for me. Once I had written a story for George, and I had changed that same passage about Monet for another one. The new passage from Monet was this: "What I am looking for, instantaneousness... The same light spread throughout, the same light, the same light." How can I see again?

Monet's Garden Exhibition in Istanbul
I spent a night in Manama with Camille, the Lebanese photographer, thinking together about Bahrain's fleeting moments, and the history of the last minute, but of the minute after the last minute. How to reclaim Bahrain? We thought about the fishermen huts along the coast, the murals that appear and disappear everyday, the fluctuating identity of a country that can be described only when one's not in it. We spoke about memory, and how the vault of memory is like a box in which no empty space is allowed - and anyway there's no such a thing as empty space - and in order to make the space composite we need to stretch some memories and aggrandize them and yet to shrink and belittle others. Is visualizing, touching, enclosing, a way to prevent memory, or at least to delay it? Is memorizing a form of abstraction? If so why would it be important to paint from memory? Memory can only be stable within the confines of the home and the place, but dissolves unto itself in the intersection between spaces. Traveling causes intense distortion, and loss has a lot to do with the use of magnifying glass at times. Dan Pagis wrote in his poem, "Fahr, fahr doch... Du darfst nicht vergessen" (Travel, travel far... You're not permitted to forget) and perhaps this doesn't have to do with traveling at all. A curious childish observation would be that life is the same everywhere. 

Things don't really change as we move places, because it is fundamentally the same concept of space - isonomy, but perhaps it is true that the intensity of life can change, sometimes, depending on the circumstances. There was a day, I remember that night, I was in Juffair, and all of a sudden, everything went dark, I fell into a pit, and could no longer recognized the difference between light and day, I was unable to see the light anymore, even though I was in the one only place where people had truly seen the sun, this transparent yellow beauty that made everything glimmer towards itself and become illuminated by waters, without any external interference. I was too afraid to read the signs; I feared it would hurt too much. Helene teaches: "In the beginning, I adored. What I adored was human. Not persons; not totalities, not defined and named beings. But signs. Flashes of being that glanced off me, kindling me. Lightning-like bursts that came to me: Look! I blazed up. And the sign withdrew. Vanished. While I burned on and consumed myself wholly." And I so wanted to read his sign, to see all the colors, to find myself at home there, to fall asleep for the first time in my life, to really fall asleep. This enormous mountain I never wanted to climb, although I recognized its beauty, and then with encouragement and love I began to ascend, so slow, so very slow, and I withdrew often, let myself slip and fell. But he kept me always standing. And as I reached my destination, exhausted and weary, at the moment I was about to touch the peak, he grabbed me by the neck and dropped me in a free fall; I fell on my face, entirely alone, and hurt myself with the shattered pieces of my own bones reentering my body like burning coals. 

"What had reached me, so powerfully cast from a human body, was Beauty: there was a face, with all the mysteries inscribed and preserved on it; I was before it, I sensed that there was a beyond, to which I did not have access, an unlimited place. The look incited me and also forbade me to enter; I was outside, in a state of animal watchfulness. A desire was seeking its home. I was that desire. I was the question. The question with this strange destiny: to see, to pursue the answers that will appease it, that will annul it." In the end, beauty was never a promise, but already a thing in itself, something that needs to be taken raw when it appears, and it is not ruled by the laws of matter and energy. So happy one had been and so happy one could be. This thought itself is a Messianic vision, for the object had already presented itself to you, it had screamed in your face, it had said to you, happiness, behold, I am here. It couldn't be boxed and stored unfortunately. Or perhaps fortunately. To keep happiness is the very modern possibility of not dying, it is the end of the perpetual illusion of new beginnings throughout one's life. 

What did you want from this happiness? You wanted having, the one thing humans aren't permitted, and yet you insisted. "Having? A having without limits, without restriction; but without any “deposit,” a having that doesn’t withhold or possess, a having-love that sustains itself with loving, in the blood-rapport. In this way, give yourself what you would want God-if-he-existed to give you." In Istanbul you see Monet, you see the Bosphorous, again and again, trying to learn this place, trying to learn this location, for once at all. "Non piangere" (don't cry) screams at you a Florentine painter, and anyway you can't, you're too overwhelmed trying to take in the water, to understand black, to understand white, to understand grey. To understand where truly Bahrain is. You wanted to have everything. A dinner could be everything, you know. Like the day Mrs. Dalloway died, at the party. How can you learn to see? Learn to see even once? How to not beg the possibility? To really see once would be enough, without understanding, without knowing, just taking it in, like the most important painting, like something in purple, done by Monet, imitating how the lilies would see the water. Helene Cixous comes to writing when she says: "Writing is good. It's what never ends". This is Bahrain. What never ends. It's only a light, spread throughout, a blinding light. We're yet to find what is it that never ends, while looking at the Bosphorous and trying to learn how to paint at the Ocean. "Writing is good. It's what never ends." This is Bahrain. This is where Bahrain is. In what never ends.

"Belonging" by Camille Zakharia 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Not Entirely Red

First published on REORIENT

Faika Al Hassan - Untitled
While Bahraini painter Faika Al Hassan was preparing for The Universe of a City – her 2010 exhibition, which revolved around the constant mobility of people looking for security and certainty – she began working on a painting that laid the foundations for her subsequent endeavour. The circular movement of her paintbrush in motion and the red colours she was using reminded the artist of the fez, the traditional Moroccan hat of Ottoman origin. Shaped either as a truncated cone or a short cylinder, it is made either of red felt or kilim fabric, and is inextricably linked to not only its hometown of Fez, but the whole of Morocco as well. ‘I began to recall my memories of Cairo, and how fascinated I was with the fez that I used to see a lot at Khan El Khalili’, says Al Hassan.
The major souk in Cairo’s Islamic district, the Khan El Khalili, dates back to the 14th Century and provides the perfect setting for one to visualise the contemporary Middle East. Celebrated in Naguib Mahfouz’s 1947 novel,Midaq Alleyit’s imbued with wild eroticism, restlessness, a state of permanent wakefulness, and the melancholy of a past half-passed, and half unable to pass. Here too, the history of the fez as a singular object is as noteworthy. It was first made fashionable in the 17th Century by the Moors in Fez, and was later introduced into the Ottoman Empire in 1826, as a means of replacing the traditional turban. From its original usage associated with the Ottoman military, the fez spread throughout the Empire and beyond, to Cyprus, Greece, the Balkans, as well as Muslim communities in South Asia, among other regions.
As the artist notes:
They used to be worn as a sign of respect … the idea of the fez ‘solidified’ while visiting my best friend last year in Damascus. I commissioned the best craftsman in the industry to make around one hundred and twenty fez pieces in the traditional style, and then cover each one with the white solid paint that is ground to cover canvas. This all happened before the uprising in Syria, and as a result of countless experimentations and tests. All the pieces were then sent to me, and thus I began the journey of my exhibition, titled Not Entirely Red.
Al Hassan paints objects – in this case, depicting the fez in paintings, and painting on fezzes – not so that they serve as mere adornments, but with the intention of interpreting and understanding the spaces surrounding them.
When the artist, a Baghdad-trained economist by profession, took up painting lessons at the Bahrain Arts Society – the usual pathway for Bahraini artists in the absence of a proper art school – she began experimenting with the traditional genres of painting (i.e. still life and landscape) taught in the Arab world. However, since Hidden, her first solo exhibition in 2007 at Albareh Gallery, she has developed a particularly unique style. It’s novel in its use of symbolism, lying somewhere between expressionist and abstract, yet it still retains a figurative quality, in its employment of delicate lines and shapes. Such elements reveal their true forms, and bring to the forefront archetypes, everyday objects, and thoughts, rather than simply images.
Faika Al Hassan - Untitled
The traditional pictorial space fades and dissolves unto itself in Al Hassan’s paintings, in a gesture that at times brings to mind the texture of cloth, impressionist landscapes, and a photographic montage. The small people that appeared inUniverse of a City, in her investigation of how people shape the spaces they dwell in, rather than the opposite, reappear in Not Entirely RedThe artist confesses that her ‘figurines’ are wholly abstract and symbolic, and in observing them, one can see a classical, miniaturist tendency. ‘Those were small figures representing the ones that were mentioned in poetry. I have used my own style, and perhaps unconsciously, I was influenced by those miniatures as I am an avid reader of poetry’.
Regarding the disappearance of the ‘pictorial space’ in modern painting, the French philosopher Michel Foucault remarks, with reference to the work of the impressionist painter, Manet:
… He [Manet] made a representational play of the fundamental material elements of the canvas. He was therefore inventing, if you like, the ‘picture object’, the ‘painting object’, and this no doubt was the fundamental condition, so that finally one day we could get rid of representation itself, and allow space to play with its pure and simple properties, its material properties.
The space on the two-dimensional surface of a painting is that optic illusion, which appears to recede backwards into depth from the plane of the image. Since the Italian Quattrocento in the 15thCentury when the pictorial space formally made its appearance, it was a tradition to make the viewer forget that the three-dimensional space inscribed in a two-dimensional surface was precisely that: a fragment embedded in a material space. This optical illusion was achieved by a regular light that came from within the canvas, and which relied on a monocular perspective that made the human eye the centre of the painting.
A change came about with Cézanne and Manet, when painters began to work with, and depend on the materiality of physical space, rather than a perfectly enclosed room with fixed points of light. ‘What I am looking for, instantaneousness … The same light spread throughout, the same light, the same light’, remarked Claude Monet in 1890. Eventually, this process fully materialised with the realisation that, in the words of the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, ‘it becomes impossible to rigorously distinguish between space and things in space’. Space was no longer conceived merely as a surface, but as field that encompassed the whole physical universe; and the human eye, so limited, seemed so unsuitable a device to survey it fully.
To paint objects in a world of new, enlarged visions became a practice that came about only slowly, and had little to do with the still life of the classical world, or the Dutch painters of the 17th Century. This is because in these paintings, objects were not part of compositions, but rather self-standing figures with a principle of self-reference. The question was, how does one paint an object in isolation? What would it look life? Suspended? Fixed? Attached to something? Merleau-Ponty insists that though paintings resemble the world and the objects therein, they are not meant to represent or resemble the world; rather, they should stand as worlds of their own.

The fez isn’t merely an object here, but rather something fully immersed in the space wherein it happens to appear – a mirror of thought and contradiction

The small object worlds that appear over and over in the pieces in Al Hassan’s Not Entirely Red reflect simultaneity in thoughts being shaped by objects, and objects being shaped by thoughts. The fez isn’t merely an object here, but rather something fully immersed in the space wherein it happens to appear – a mirror of thought and contradiction; and is contradiction not the basis of everything that is rich about human thought? The painted fez mirrors what we would see if one could peer into someone’s thoughts by a gesture as effortless as uncovering their head; yet, these thoughts appear in a world of shared meaning, where we exist together with others – that is, the small figurines that characterise Al Hassan’s paintings. ‘They are either moving together in a group, or in different directions, meaning that they might not share the same opinions or views. I often ask in my dreams why people do not live together peacefully’, she says.
There is no pure space here than can be seen or judged from a distance; rather, one has to become immersed in the painting, to replace mere resemblance or representation – of a woman, landscape, hat, anything – with the feeling of its lived experience: the experience of an unfinished world.
Faika Al Hassan - Untitled
At the same time, however, there seems to be little or no arbitrariness in her work. The very large-scale paintings – some of which are as high as four metres – are coherent compositions in uniform strokes.
It is a rarity in the Middle East – and particularly in the Gulf – for a woman painter to complete the whole journey from landscape and still life to expressionist and abstract styles, and although she is not the only painter of her kind in Bahrain – being in the company of such distinguished artists as Rashid Al Khalifa, Balqees Fakhro, and Omar Al Rashid, for instance – contemporary art from the tiny island kingdom remains largely unspoken of.
Modern paintings are like a field of objects which approach one only one at a time, and whose totality is unlikely to be digested in one glance. Paintings require many eyes, many perspectives, many details, and associations that carry deeper relationships. These are what Faika Al Hassan’s paintings provide, and they appear as continuously unfinished works, born the moment they’re gazed upon. In the words of Merelau-Ponty, ‘Essence and existence, imaginary and real, visible and invisible – painting blurs all our categories, spreading out before us its dreamy universe of carnal essences, efficacious resemblances, muted meanings’.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

If Things Were Perfect

First published on THE MANTLE

For T.A.
[L'empire des lumières, 1954]
“It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.” –Oscar Wilde
A jocular story was told about the Belgian painter René Magritte: He went into the grocer’s shop intent on buying a few slices of the traditional Dutch cheese; when the saleswoman moved on to grab the block on cheese on the display to cut the slices for him, he objected. What is the problem? Asked the saleswoman. Magritte responded that that block of cheese had been stared at the whole day[1]. This anecdote sums up succinctly the impetus of the eye in Magritte’s paintings: Objects transform into other objects merely by seeing them. He aimed not at an eye of knowledge or interpretation but at a Cyclopean eye – once confidence is lost in optical illusions, all what remains is a fleeting moment of anguish in which the impossible dissolves into the possible.
The temptation of the impossible is not realized in the absent subject of abstract painting in which only the vague voice of consciousness blends in with the brush of the painter – as for example in the paralyzing color-fields of Mark Rothko – but in visualizing wholly visible and real objects as impossibilities. The painter roughly classified as a surrealist – perhaps because of a period convention and association with prominent names of the movement – defies the illusion of the surrealists in positing that what interests him is not the world of dreams, for two reasons: Firstly, dreams have a time-movement quality that is only available to films; secondly, for Magritte the dream in painting is trivial and unimportant if it is not fully tangible.
What Magritte wanted in his paintings was not to translate dreams, but rather to present a world in which rather than sleepwalking through images and representations, one stands before primal objects, at an interlude in which interpretation is not possible. Full wakefulness without reference to dreams as if in a procedure similar to that of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake“Through all these scenes glide similitudes that no reference points can situate. Translations with neither point of departure nor support.[2] What does it mean to be awake? That seems to have been the real question that haunted Magritte. It is not persons or landscapes what he wanted to see but objects as they appear to us without standards or possible interpretations of reality.
Paul Cézanne comes to mind when he says: “Well, no one has ever painted the landscape, man absent but entirely within the landscape”. Is it perhaps a re-configuration of both the still-life since its appearance in the Dutch paintings of the 16th century and of the pictorial space of the Italian 15th century“The lived object is not rediscovered or constructed on the basis of the data of the senses; rather, it presents itself to us from the start as the center from which the data radiate.[3] Magritte’s interest was not in objects as compositions but in doing what his predecessor Manet would do – and whom he deconstructed in his own work – not in inventing non-representative painting but rather picture objects or painting objects[4].
[Golconde, 1953]
Magritte wanted to represent things: “I just painted the paintings I thought to paint and did it. There’s nothing behind it. It is the picture I wanted to paint, and you see it. You don’t have to look for a symbol in there.” Franz Kafka, in his posthumously published Blue Octavo Notebooks (set to music in 2004 by German-British composer Max Richter), had a literary image for the kind of wakefulness that Magritte demanded: “Everyone carries a room about inside them. This fact can be even proved by means of the sense of hearing. If someone walks fast and one pricks up one’s ears and listens, say at night, when everything round about is quiet, one hears for instance, the rattling of a mirror not quite firmly fastened to the wall.”
What is this mirror? What can be seen through the mirror or through the window?Schlegel had the idea that the problem with mirrors or windows is that they become obstacles between spectator and landscape, however, there’s no real landscape in Magritte because he has left the pictorial space and is not content with representing. Sarah Kofman tells us in reference to a painting by Greuzedepicting a crying girl and entitled “The Broken Mirror”“The bird is always already flown, the mirror is already broken, cracked, and it is this shattering of meaning that the girl is crying over –the loss, along with the mirror and the bird, of all reference and thus of all discourse.[5]
Kofman tells us that the painting does not mean to say anything at all and explains further: “Between the figurative order of the painting and the discursive order of language there exists a gap that nothing can bridge.[6] Similar is the demand of Magritte when he calls himself an objective painter and rejects both the arbitrariness and the lack of distinction between crass objects and art objects in modern art – exemplified by the practices of DadaSurrealism and Duchamp – and yet says: “Don’t search for hidden images in my paintings.” He considered himself more of a thinker in terms of images than a painter and objected the notion of art for art’s sake: “There is thus no art for pleasure’s sake alone. One can manufacture objects that are pleasurable by linking ready-made ideas in a different way and by presenting forms that have been seen before.[7]
Magritte’s point of departure, if any, was a painting by Giorgio Chirico“Chanson d’Amour”, a proto-Surrealist academic study in free association of images that opened a possibility distinct to that of the totality that was being practiced and experienced by the painters of his time. In between the objects themselves, there seems to be a lot of empty space, a room of anxiety and uncertainty. Magritte is the painter of the absolute absence, faces covered with blankets, objects that come to life only in their dislocation, and life that emerges out of a syntactic chaos that is yet composite: “The presence and absence of the painter, his proximity towards his model, his absence, her distance, finally all of this would be symbolized by that empty space.[8]
It is said that Monet and Magritte’s project of painting the impossible culminated at the limits of Impressionism when touching at the edges of the inhuman character of things to bring forth the human world of alienation, highlighting a devotion to the visible by contrast[9]. This is the courage of his art, as Hélène Cixous speaks of Monet: “And the greatest kind of courage? The greatest kind of courage. The courage to be afraid. To have the two fears. First we have to have the courage to be afraid of being hurt. We have to not defend ourselves. The world has to be suffered. Only through suffering will we know certain faces of the world, certain events of life: the courage to tremble and sweat and cry is as important for Rembrandt as for Genet.[10]
This is why Magritte finds redemption in the wholly and absolutely visible: “I think that the world is a mystery and we cannot say anything about a mystery. It cannot be a subject of fear or hope.”
[Le Retour de Flamme, 1943]

[1] Ellen Handler Spitz. Museums of the Mind: Magritte’s Labyrinth and Other Essays in the Arts (New Haven: CT, Yale University Press, 1994): 48-49.  
[2] Michel Foucault. This Is Not a Pipe (Berkeley: CA, University of California Press, 2008): 52.  
[3] Maurice Merleau-Ponty. “Cézanne’s Doubt” in The Merleau-Ponty Reader: Northwestern University Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy(Evanston: IL, Northwestern University Press, 2007): 75.
[4] Michel Foucault. Manet and the Object of Painting (London, Tate Publishing, 2012): 79.
[5] Sarah Kofman. “The Melancholy of Art” in Selected Writings (Stanford: CA, Stanford University Press, 2007): 210-211.
[6] Sarah Kofman. 2007: 211.
[7] Maurice Merleau-Ponty. 2007: 78.
[8] Michel Foucault. 2012: 77.
[9] Maurice Merleau-Ponty. 2007: 70.
[10] Hélène Cixous. “The Last Painting or the Portrait of God” in The Continental Aesthetics Reader (London: Routledge, 2000): 591-592.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Everyday, Crass, Object

Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, "Circle of Confusion", 2010
For R. & T. 

Drowning in familiarity. It's an everyday scene, with an added quality of stupor: A half-tilted tryptych hanging from a porous wall, and the waters uniformly painted in between blue and white, lacquered on the surface. Rather than giving the effect of water, the texture is absent and nothing seems to move. The painting seems to stand well among other objects, without being so much an object as a mirror of the surrounding. There are other things too, not as yet objects: Sofas mounted on tables, a mural being painted on the floor, an old-fashioned stereo, oil paintings disappointed with themselves, vases holding immobile plants that grow only sideways, an assortment of keys on a hanger. There's even a dartboard affixed to the wall, parallel to the tryptych, beneath a lightbulb. Do random objects exist outside a composition? What distinguishes crass objects from let's say, an installation? Imagine this to be a museum... Your entire life on permanent exhibition, or, at least, the external objects that once carefully delinated its topography. There's no composition. The sounds are so sterile, conversations, conversations that never become. Every word becomes smothered by the absence of other words. Forget the museum. Imagine throwing a thousand-piece puzzle in the open ocean.

What really is an everyday scene other than a pictorial imposition? Did anyone ever find himself in an everyday scene and claim a feeling for himself? The aspirations of art are sometimes cruel: An everyday scene is the highest degree of abstraction; photographs and standstills thrive on them. It's a still-life. It was much better when you imagined it, when you had - while far away - the sensation of what home would feel like. "Is this it?" was the question of a saint as he walked into a holy city and found the streets littered and flooded in nauseating smells from decomposition of matter. It looked much better in the painting. Paintings do not speak; they have no need to articulate anything. The mirror is already broken. What was ever so exceptional about this? So comfortable? Perhaps exceptional and comfortable are not compatible. Do you want to hide or to disclose? But disclosure yet seems so simple, it can all be fit into a three-word phrase. How often can it be uttered? How long until it dissolves and drowns in the familiar? Why would one want to be back? The depiction of objects should never be like in dreams, because of the time quality associated with them as they unfold. The true nature of the object is awakefulness, hence, radical whatness.

The whatness of an object in a painting isn't thingness, rather, the opening of a world in itself. Worlds are composed by objects, self-referent and self-contained. Can objects be moved from one location to another? Does it matter in a painting if the view can be alternatively rotated? Adjusting points of view, manifold times, this is what seems really important. But how do you call something a point at all from a position of permanent dislocation? I occupy a privileged place, a space, without texture or topography, without mapping, without true perception; it's constantly fleeting, a mere reminder of a possibility that never quite materializes. Perhaps everything would be better than the collision between this free floating space and the curse of familiar topography. You can touch over and over, test your limits, tune your judgments, and yet feel nothing at all. How to escape from what you never were? I would like to recover something more fundamental, more fundamental than conversations and images, something on the back of memories. Something so primal like the puncturing smell of detergent one felt in the bathroom of somebody you once loved, that breeze of the summer that only invades desiring bodies at the ocean, the texture of unshaven skin in the morning. 

Did you ever walk in a souk? The ideal museum of the mind, that is. Everything is an object, everything is a thing, and everything is in a composition, a composition of perception rather than of order. This is what I'm looking for: composite and yet irreducible feelings, in lieu of sterile memories. How to assemble one crass object next to another without losing their quality of crassness and yet forming a unity that is not a totality but more like a sequences of monads? Totality is perverse: there's no entrance or exit. Crass, like "interesting" is not an aesthetic quality or a degree of intensity in appereance - in appereance there's always isonomy and equality - but rather the negation of the possibility of a phenomenon, it's the anti-phenomenon: The illusion of durability without appereance - pure thingness. But pure thingness is also the negation of creation, that's why crass objects create the illusion of anti-art, nevertheless, "This is not a pipe", writes Magritte in his own painting. I want an inventory of memory populated with things, with primal things, and not with photographic memory; photography is the fulfillment of the contemporary illusion of death, of a transient death, that happens over and over. 

I want it to happen only once, like the moment of love. I want to be able to die. I want to be able to live. I want to be able taste. I want it to happen only once. It's the reenactment of memory, the reenactment of feeling, what causes the perpetual distortion, as if one were forever willing to return to a primal moment of intensity that was never experienced in this life, a vault of memory that remains closed for as long as one lives. That's why I'm so attracted to thingness. Caressing the cheek of a sleeping T. and feeling at the simple touch the years of absence between the longing and the moment of love, the water of glass atop the piano tiptoeing carefully around the notes, the smell of letters, the pearly texture of mussels, intoxications of mint and basil, the skin of blue cheese, imagining what Kuwait looks like from the Portuguese Fort, an I love you in the Arabic language. Those are the things I love. I am reminded of God, should he happen to be. He didn't describe feelings, he didn't see images. He only named things. Isn't that what Klimt did in his paintings? Think of Adele Bloch-Bauer. The sleepless nights our lips cracked. Familiary is a curse, so is the everyday. It's like an installation. I want the excitement, the endless possibility, the strangeness, of what can never be had.

Gustav Klimt, "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I", 1907

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Impossible Possibilities

First published on REORIENT

Mounir Fatmi - Save Manhattan (Detail)
Still from Mounir Fatmi’s ‘Save Manhattan’
The idea of ‘the end of art’ first appeared in the 19th Century, and was quickly denounced by connoisseurs as modern art made its way into painting salons; yet, the idea again returned in the 1960s when it became a household slogan not only among critics and experts, but also artists themselves. What was implied by the idea of ‘the end of art’ wasn’t that art was dead – for art, good or bad, was, and still is being produced – but that, to paraphrase the political theorist Hannah Arendt, the way in which artists’ questions were framed and answered had lost plausibility.
In the world of art, the problem turned out to be not that there wouldn’t be any more art, but that art history was now faced with endless accusations of cultural hegemony, colonialism, political ideology – and more than anything else – of making art and artists politically irrelevant. These accusations were especially important at a time when non-Western artists began to reach galleries, dealers, and panels. Additionally, the ‘end of art’ referred to the birth – or rather, the privileged place – of conceptual art; that is, of the fusion of art and theory, as if its final phase, art were to become a theory about itself. As Arthur Danto, one of the main proponents of the ‘end of art’ thesis, once wrote, ‘Art carries no historical significance whatsoever’.
Yes – one could say that art, or art history no longer has a specific trajectory, and that only individual works now exist. However, this does not mean that artworks are not more dependent on history (in a broader sense) than ever before. The book, War and Other [Impossible] Possibilities: Thoughts on Arab History and Contemporary Artby Lebanese art historian and photographer Gregory Buchakjian is just one example of how history has heavily inflected the practices and discourses of contemporary art in the Arab world. It is not an art history book in the traditional sense, however – like those embedded in the authority of scholars, connoisseurs, and experts – but rather a book about the art of history.
Emily Jacir - Sexy Semite (Detail)
Emily Jacir – Sexy Semite (Detail)
As Buchakjian notes, ‘The number of Arab conflicts today largely surpasses the number of Arab countries’. Thus, it would seem an almost impossible task to speak about art in general terms, not only because of the geographic and thematic variety of such a large region, but also because of the turbulent history, that for better or for worse, produced this art. Buchakjian’s book nevertheless focuses on an art collection founded in 2007 by Qatari art patron Sheikh Abdulrahman bin Saud Al Thani and Lebanese art dealer Saleh Barakat, which aimed to bring together artworks related to the implications of the 9/11 incident on the Arab art scene from 2001 up until the rise of the Arab Spring a decade later.
While much is known about the way in which Westerners – and the West in general – have reacted to the rise of ‘Islamic terrorism’ (a term whose use is suspect, as it precedes 9/11 by decades, having been used in contexts such as the Palestinian struggle, the Lebanese Civil War, and the first Gulf War, for instance), little is known about how Arab societies reacted to these moments of historical transformation. More than just a point of reference, the book and the collection are both attempts to visualise these reactions through art.
The 19 artists represented in Buchakjian’s book span across different generations in-between the first Arab-Israeli war, and the broader Arab Spring, and though preference is given to painting, other formats are present as well, such as photography, installations, and mixed media works. It is also worth noting that over half of the artists are Lebanese; and, while that speaks volumes for the privileged place that Lebanon occupies in contemporary Arab art, the works in question are not necessarily representative of the kind of Lebanese art present in galleries in permanent exhibitions. Rather, they belong to a larger thematic assembly that reflects well on the historical and political vicissitudes of the Arab world at large.

Art is one of the few reliable loudspeakers that can help one understand what exactly has taken place in a region where memory is constantly interrupted and distorted by chronic violence

Buchakjian resorts to the use of aesthetic fragments interwoven with political commentaries and visual journeys between the selected works – side by side with other known and lesser-known works of Arab and Western artists living in the Arab world – creating an effect similar to that of Walter Benjamin’s Passages, a book which explored the visual culture of Paris in the late 19th Century. As Buchakjian shows, the ‘barbarian’ makes a spectacular comeback in the international media as the hater and destroyer of modernity, wearing the keffiyeh or the veil, the antitheses of civilisation. Concurrently, an interest in Middle Eastern art grows all around the ‘civilised’ world, perhaps not as a reflection of the experience of these wars and conflicts, but as a living document.
‘Art from the Middle East became a new iconic representation of the Middle East. As Véronique Rieffel pointed out, “these artists became ‘Muslims’ from one day to the next, even those who were Christian, such as Mona Hatoum’, Buchakjian’s book explains. In reading such passages, one is reminded of the optimistic period of the Middle East peace process when Hatoum returned to Jerusalem to work on her installation, Present Tense, which was constructed entirely out of Nablus soap – the ancient factories of which had been attacked by the Israeli army – and on which she drew the map of Palestine according to the Oslo Accords. In the words of Buchakjian, this was ‘an impossible map for an impossible country, an impossible life, and a certainly impossible peace’.
Mona Hatoum - Present Tense (Detail)
Mona Hatoum – Present Tense (Detail)
Other artists such as Mounir Fatmi and his celebrated Save Manhattan series appear in the collection, with subversive attempts to dislocate these iconic representations and narratives. According to Stephen Dewyer of Yale University, ‘Fatmi scrambles the authority of spectacles meant to orient a class to a symbolic object (Muslim, French, Moroccan, proletarian, etc.) by locating such identity in an origin of infinite possibility’. Similar is the procedure of Palestinian artist Emily Jacir in her work, Sexy Semite, which challenged the American public in narratives about identity and belonging in the Palestinian-Israeli context.
The idea of Arabs as barbarians – a term which refers almost exclusively to Muslims, obliterating the Arab identity of Christians and Jews in the Arab world – is contradictory, as it presents the Middle East as a field of absolute otherness, contrasting with the image of the Orient during imperial and colonial periods as the most external part of Europe. Paintings such as Ali Hassoun’s Untitled, with its Warhol-like background displaying a certain irony about this ambiguity of representation, and other works related to the American occupation of Iraq – in particular, Saadi Al Kaabi’s Abou Ghraib – silently reflect the consequences of 9/11 and other collateral historical events for the peoples of the Middle East.
It seems to be a constant in the Middle East that in the midst of such a Tower of Babel (as an installation by the Syrian artist Diana Al-Hadid suggests), art is one of the few reliable loudspeakers that can help one understand – in the long term – what exactly has taken place in a region where memory is constantly interrupted and distorted by chronic violence. Buchakjian in his book poetically remarks, ‘War. As if all other possibilities were impossible’. He then goes on to conclude his timely meditation, positing that ‘The highs and lows of Arab history are part of the violent and tormented history of mankind … In the contemporary age, man can ignite the Apocalypse at any time. It’s terrifying and sublime’.
Diana Al Hadid - The Tower of Infinite Problems
Diana Al Hadid – The Tower of Infinite Problems
The Colombian sculptor Doris Salcedo, who has spent decades imbuing her work with the memory of political violence in her native country, says regarding the importance of articulating the recent past in art:
Man has the need to draw from the past criteria to act in the present. When man does not understand his past, his own history, he is deprived of reference points, and finds himself suspended between a past that is perceived as an accumulation of incomprehensible events, and a future that he cannot possess. Therefore it seems like an abyss in front of him. The past is the only place where can find both our origins and our destiny.


REORIENT recently spoke with Buchakjian about the creative process of his book, his favourite pieces in the collection, and the representation of war in Middle Eastern art.
Do you think the Middle East is faced with a challenge in representing images of the West in art, the same way that Western popular culture does with respect to the Middle East?
The same way? Certainly not. Let’s not forget that Western popular culture is a dominant culture that is appropriated in all parts of the world, including the Arab world. To answer your question, the Middle East includes a very wide and heterogeneous group of peoples that do not share the same ideas and visions about the West. Some can see it as an ideal – other as the ‘Grand Satan’.
Hassan Musa - Saint Georges Terrasant le Dragon et le Museé de Bagdad II
Hassan Musa – Saint Georges Terrasant le Dragon et le Museé de Bagdad II
If you had to pick one work from this collection, which one would it be, and why?
Many pieces from the collection have been of great interest. [I would choose] Hassan Musa’sSaint Georges Terrasant le Dragon et le Museé de Bagdad II for its exceptional embroidery technique, Emily Jacir’s Sexy Semite for all the narratives in and around it, and Mounir Fatmi’sSave Manhattan video, a very poetic work.
What comes after war for artists in the Middle East? More war? Does representation stop here or are there other (impossible) possibilities?
Being an art historian and an artist, I live with this question day and night. War has definitely been a dominant subject in art in the Arab world, and it’s no wonder why. But it’s not the only one. Youssef Nabil and Chant Avedissian explore popular culture. Nadim Asfar has been digging into intimacy. Akram Zaatari has been working on sexuality before his major historical photographic landscapes. However, these apparently ‘apolitical’ artworks are often related to specific events occurring in the region.


On how the politicising of art threatens its integrity, Arthur Danto notes, ‘There’s a sad lesson that activist artists must sooner or later learn: the goodness of the message of art does not translate into the goodness of art’. It’s difficult to know right now whether the motivations for such recent examples of historically informed art were political or not. One would be tempted to say they were. Only in the years to come will one be able to tell if the future of the Arab world – and of Arab art – will be as terrifying and sublime as the pieces presented by Buchakjian make it seem.
For the time being, the writing’s on the wall, and it seems to encapsulate his whole book in a single phrase: ‘Useless violence makes history. Useless violence makes art history’.