Monday, January 30, 2012

Promised Lands: A Film by Susan Sontag

First published at BIKYAMASR

"You can’t fight only because someone told you to fight, you know, you have to fight because you know we can’t lose” –Those are the words of an Israeli soldier deployed in the south of the country near the end of the Arab-Israeli war which is the central theme of “Promised Lands”; a documentary film made in Israel in 1973 and released a year later to critical acclaim of a few aficionados and cinema lovers who found in it that power of the visual essay that was many decades ahead of its time.
You ask yourself now: Is this a scripted line? Is it the answer to a question? And this must be asked because one can never be sure whether it is a documentary or some kind of literary nonfiction for the screen; but we do know that the images are real and it is nothing but the careful ensemble what creates this particular effect on the viewer. If it was the answer to a question, what was the question then?
The question here is of the visual kind: the barren land from the desert adorned with scorched bodies over which flies are hovering, contrasted to the comradeship of soldiers in the trenches of war; the glamor of military honors at the Jerusalem War Cemetery, contrasted with the hysterical wailing of Moroccan women during the funeral of a young soldier; the official history of the state told through a visit to the wax museum, contrasted with an acute examination of Jewish consciousness; fragments read out of anti-Semitic pamphlets from the school curriculum of Syria, Egypt and Jordan, contrasted with silent images from Palestinians and Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint anywhere.
As it is often the case with images – photographs, paintings, films or even mere memories – they can redeem the subject and offer an alternative to reality, but they are neither questions nor answers and function more like the kind of random questions asked by children – that either do not require an answer or can only lead to newer questions in a circular sequence. Images can console, stir up, excite, provoke, but they carry none of the meanings usually associated with arguments and explanations.
The film, directed by Susan Sontag, whose film career has resisted the celebrity status associated with her writing, has little or nothing to do with the kind of films made by writers – such as screen adaptations of their own prose work; the obsession with images overrides not only the narrative quality of storylines but also the rules of the documentary: there’s no criticism, agendas, messages, interviews, dialogues or even a point of view to be offered. The visual element is not predominant but total; what Artaud called once pure or abstract cinema.
The genre of the documentary is seriously defeated in this film, advancing a kind of visual aesthetics that might resonate today in that art form known as the installation or in certain styles of short and art film but hardly the case with documentaries; perhaps with the sole exception of the late Tim Hetherington who was himself, also the adopted child of many promised lands, that is, of promised lands without any promises.
Sontag the writer, and not the filmmaker, offered us a glimpse into what she was trying to do: “The reason why I cavil at the term documentary to describe non-fiction films is that it’s too narrow. “Documentary” suggests that the film is a document. But it is, or can be, much more. As fiction films do something analogous to what is done in prose forms like the novel and the short story, so nonfiction films can have a broad choice of nonfiction literary models. Journalism is only one: the film as reportage. More analytical kinds of writing are another model: for instance, the film as essay. (Possible literary analogues to the film discourse of “Promised Lands”, I suppose, are the poem, the essay, the lamentation).”
After it was banned in Israel at the time for portraying the country negatively according to government opinion – even though it would seem so mild today – and being overshadowed by Sontag’s celebrity status as a writer, essayist and public intellectual; the film was re-issued in 2011 and released on DVD the same week that Suzanne Mubarak prostrated herself at the presidential palace and wept inconsolable about her inevitable departure from the villa, moment that would separate one era of history from another.
There is probably no connection between Suzanne Mubarak and Susan Sontag other than a land and the failure to deliver on a promise: Just like the departure of Mubarak from her villa failed to substantiate the promise of freedom delivered by the revolution, so did Sontag in her film fail to promise anything at all and the land promised in it, resembles more an anxious hope in an open sea than a dry land somewhere.
It is strange that a filmmaker who had done previously fiction films says that her one documentary is her most personal film; she appears nowhere in the film either in person or as a voiceover narrator, and all of the tropes often found not without alacrity, in her writing, are entirely absent here. But there is a relation to the material found in the footage both in the general and the particular sense – On the one hand the direct confrontation with the horrors of war and human conflict without a need to moralize them; on the other hand, it might have been the one and only opportunity in which Sontag dealt with the topic of her own estranged Jewishness and the crucial relationship to the State of Israel.
Central to the film is a conversation between two Israelis: Yoram Kaniuk, a writer and defender of Palestinian rights and Yuval Neeman, a physicist who pioneered Israel’s nuclear technology program. The conversation in fact never happened but it is created in the film through monologues in which they address the camera not without a certain shy coolness and that is yet, a nervous intervention sewn into the images as it becomes perceptible that they are making up their minds about what they are going to say.
Neeman espouses the view that the Arabs – Palestinians and otherwise – are committed to the task of exterminating the Jewish state and that they view it as something temporary just like the Crusaders from Europe were ultimately expelled; what is really not entirely out of touch with the reality of the Middle East in which the word Zionist is constantly used to refer not only to each and every inhabitant of the Jewish state but also to a European invader. He then says, not without certain cockiness, that he would like Israel to be more like Andalus – a territory forever lost to the Muslim conquest – and less like the Crusaders.
Kaniuk on the other hand is perhaps the most enriching part of the entire film and not because of what he has to say, but because of the stark contrast between the images of war and the incisive and introspective melancholy and hesitation made manifest in his interventions: He reflects upon the Israeli-Arab wars explaining to the viewer – without ever facing the camera directly – that whenever Nasser and Sadat threatened the existence of the young state, the same people who had come to Israel because it was the answer to Auschwitz, had seen in the same Arab attempts to eradicate the state, Auschwitz once again.
But he doesn’t stop there. He goes on to explain in detail why the whole phenomenon of Jewish existence and of Israel in particular is nothing short of a paradox; and that there is something of a false Messianism in the alternative offered by Zionism to repair the paradoxical nature of Jewish history. In a humorous manner, he says that no matter how rational, Western, educated and enlightened are many of the Jews who came to the land of Israel, there is something absolutely irrational about going back to a land a few thousand years later and claim it as their own.
But to be sure, this isn’t an attempt to delegitimize the state or the right of the Jewish people to occupy the land. In a beautiful metaphor he says how the Jews and the Arabs have never understood the meaning of tragedy – in which there are two opposing forces, one heroic and beyond the world and one evil and of this world – but only dramas, and poses the question that tragedy in the Greek sense occurs not even once in the Biblical narratives. What he is saying is that the drama of Israelis and Palestinians is that one right is opposed to another right.
In what is probably the most significant narrative passage in the film, he says: “But the Jews have a right too. Don’t ask me why. But they have. Maybe. Where should we go?” and concludes by saying that in tragedy, such as in Shakespeare, everything gets solved when everybody gets killed in the end; but as far as Israelis and Palestinians, there is no solution. One can only wonder if today we are not headed for anything but Shakespearean solution? Kaniuk argues how both peoples have come to a point of all or nothing, in which it’s either reclaiming all the land for Palestinians or occupying all the land for Israelis.
The stark contrasts presented through these conversations is translated into images captured almost accidentally: The processions of Christians along the Via Dolorosa in the Old City of Jerusalem juxtaposed to posters of scantily dressed women half destroyed by bullets and still hanging lazy from the same ancient walls; or the signposts in a street in central Jerusalem that lead to the left toward the Street of the Prophets and to the right to the Street of the Paratroopers. The history of Israel and Palestine; one of joy and pain, happiness and gloom, victory and defeat, right and wrong, tragedy and salvation, at all once, and usually at the same time and in the same place. Nevertheless, a common history.
Works of art like films are never made relevant or irrelevant, but they are only re-invented by the audience each time anew and viewed with either distance or love, and in a time different than their own they become tropes not only of melancholy and contemplation; they also introduce new experiences, codes of seeing, ethics of interpreting and offer alternatives to reality. In her film, Susan Sontag does achieve what has been a benchmark of her writing and the sign of wisdom – not only intellectual, but also visual and spiritual: she doesn’t make up her mind about a certain point of view or another, adopting all them and none at the same time, representing a condition – which is ultimately something very human – rather than an event or an action. In her own words: “Promised Lands hardly tells all the truths there are about the conflicts in the Middle East, about the October War, about the mood of Israel right now, about war and loss of memory and survival. But what the film does tell is true. It was like that. To tell the truth (even some of it) is already a marvelous privilege, responsibility, gift.”

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Holocaust and Charlotte Salomon

First published at BIKYAMASR

“Life? Or Theater?” is the title of an unusual series of paintings by a little known artist, the German-Jewish painter Charlotte Salomon. Unusual here becomes a cruel understatement when the bizarre nature of the work is considered: Conceived as a “Singspiel” – a form of antiquated German operetta blending many styles and genres of music, often humorous and including folk songs and marches – the work consists of over seven hundred works painted in between 1941 and 1943, while Charlotte Salomon was hiding from the Nazis in the south of France.
Seven hundred seventy nine paintings is an astounding number even for the lifetime work of an artist, let alone to be assembled under a single concept, but this is where the idea of the “Singspiel” is deployed: The hundreds of paintings are not only images meant to evoke, please, stir up or confront, but rather, a continuous narrative of painted images, text and music. The paintings, presented in acts and chapters, tell the story of the painter’s life from the perspective of an outside narrator and include a plethora of characters, including herself, her father, her step mother, an obsessive love and other relatives and acquaintances.
Not being satisfied with the production of images alone, Salomon conceived “Life? Or Theater?” as a total work in the now unpopular but ambitious – and Romantic – tradition of the German 19th century to merge poetry, music and visual arts; including a script with words written into the paintings or overlaying the images and also a soundtrack chosen by her to complete her stories, ranging from Nazi march songs, lieder from Schubert and music by Mozart and Mahler.
In less than two years she painted over two thousand gouaches and as the work progresses, she turns more expressionistic and violent, perhaps being aware of her own fate and being consciously aware of wanting to give all the details of her story before the tragic end: In 1943, when she was only 26, she and her husband were captured by the Gestapo and deported to Auschwitz, where she and the unborn child in her womb were gassed to death soon after arrival.
Coming from a wealthy family and born in Berlin in 1917, Salomon succeeded – surprisingly – in gaining admission to the Berlin Academy of Fine Art in 1936 and studied there for two years when the quota on Jewish students already existed, and was forced to leave in the summer of 1938. After the infamous Kristallnacht that year, the family decided to leave the country for France and there both her mother and her grandmother committed suicide. Around this time, Salomon began working on her extraordinary lifework haunted by the question of, in her own words, to take her own life or undertake something wildly unusual.
In 1943, as the Nazis intensified the search for Jews, she entrusted the works to a friend with the words, “Keep this safe, it is my whole life”, just shortly before her arrest. Salomon’s work, though exceptional and highly praised by Chagall, has never been exhibited or printed in its totality due to the massive space required – hardly fit for a modern gallery – nor has it reached the art market – unlike for example the famous and controversial paintings of Adele Bloch-Bauer by Klimt – since it was entrusted in its entirety in 1971 to the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam. Nevertheless, her work remains one of the most vivid and loquacious documents and testimonies of the Nazi Holocaust whose unfolding story, told through the eyes of an extremely talented young girl, is recounted step by step.
Had Salomon and her family not been rounded up in France by the Nazis and sent to meet their deaths in Auschwitz, we would have been met here with what was probably one of the most prolific careers in European art that was brought to a premature end by the wave of Totalitarianism that swept all over Europe in the middle of the 20th century. Little as we know about Salomon’s work, it is more than we know about the hundreds and thousands of others whose lives were also taken by the brutality of the Nazi war machine in its attempt to exterminate the Jewish people and many others – gypsies, homosexuals, dissenters – that the most murderous regime of modern times, considered undesirable.
The liberation of the concentration and death camp known as Auschwitz-Birkenau – where over one million people, Jews and non-Jews alike met their deaths – by the allied forces on January 27 1945 was commemorated yesterday by the vast majority of Western nations, in what the UN General Assembly designated in 2005 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. On this annual day of commemoration, according to the UN, every member state has an obligation to honor the victims of the Nazi era and commit to develop educational programs to prevent future genocides.
In 2012, the commemoration of the atrocities of Auschwitz in which countless lives were lost – including that of Charlotte Salomon and her unborn child – comes not without a certain degree of bitter irony as many respectable UN member states – including the regime of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria – in the Middle East not only failed to live up to their obligation to commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz.
They are also committed not to the development of educational programs to prevent genocide, but instead, engaging actively in it; waging a cruel and bloody war against their own citizens at the same time that the same UN and Western states that declared January 27 International Holocaust Remembrance Day, watch idly and engage in political jumbo mambo while the lives of countless Syrians are lost by the hour to the stubbornness of the Assad regime and their allies, to relinquish power to the people. On that very day, human rights keep being abused not only in Syria but everywhere in the region from Israel to Egypt, Saudi Arabia to Bahrain, Turkey to Iran.
With unprecedented smugness and a distorted sense of reality, commemorations – that resemble more celebrations – were held in the United States and Israel, under the selfish and arrogant pretense that the legacy of the Holocaust is the private property of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. While no doubt the Holocaust is fundamental to the narrative and logic on which the existence of the Jewish State is defended – probably more so than on a Biblical right – it is an act of political exploitation and hypocrisy that the lessons of the Holocaust are claimed to have been learnt, at the same time that the world turns a blind eye to the burnt and dismembered bodies, to the shelling of houses, to the countless rapes, displacements and assaults that come out of Syria on a daily basis.
It would be safe by now to assume that hypocrisy is a two-way street: On the one hand, while many elderly Holocaust survivors in the State of Israel live below poverty line without a decent pension or access to proper welfare service, it is also true that in the Arab world many people – not only governments, but also activists, peace organizations and human rights defenders – keep deliberately silent about commemorating something of such historical importance as the liberation of Auschwitz, at the same time that they claim to have not a grudge against the Jewish people but only with the State of Israel.
One of the most prominent Jewish scholars on the phenomenon of Totalitarianism and who actually made the term fashionable in the 1950’s, Hannah Arendt, spoke frankly about the Holocaust in a famous interview in 1962 and made a crucial reference to the Nazi Holocaust in the following terms: “This ought not to have happened. And I don’t mean just the number of victims. I mean the method, the fabrication of corpses and so on – I don’t need to go into that. This should not have happened. Something happened there to which we cannot reconcile ourselves. None of us ever can.”
Elsewhere, in an exchange of letters with the Zionist scholar Gershom Scholem who had severed ties with Arendt over the publication of a controversial study on Adolf Eichmann in which Arendt made the argument for the thoughtlessness of Eichmann, claiming that he was just a bureaucrat, a clog in the system, another element in the “onion” shape of the Totalitarian regime and not necessarily evil in a radical manner but rather in a completely banal and thoughtless way; Arendt tries to explain to Scholem that even though anti-Semitism was central to the totalitarian nature of Nazi ideology, what took place in the camps was the collapse of all moral standards of good and evil and at that point, it had nothing to do anymore with the Jews. It is precisely this phenomenon what Arendt claims that we cannot become ever reconciled with.
It does not mean to say that there is such a thing as universal guilt or universal innocence – idea which is naïve as much as it is irresponsible – but rather that the problem of the Holocaust, the fabrication of corpses, the bureaucratic and systematically planned destruction of human life, the superfluous state in which human life is placed and the consequences that stem thereof, are not a problem exclusive to the Jewish people or to Israel but rather, it is something with which every citizen of the modern world should be concerned.
More than fifty years after the liberation of Auschwitz however, it is not only that the systematic destruction of life innovatively introduced by the Nazis has been practiced continuously but it has also been improved and mastered in detail by more countries than fit in the fingers of the hand.
The same countries that commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz and take pride in having been elementary in the construction of what we call today, not without irony, the free world, also turn a blind eye themselves to the daunting presence of this evil – radical or banal as it may be – whenever it happens and the Madison Avenue language of political marketing and image-making takes precedence over the priceless lives of entire cities, regions and nations; just like it was over fifty years ago when Charlotte Salomon and her talent and her child were gassed to death in Auschwitz.
It is not only that they turn a blind eye to what happens elsewhere but at home too, for example in Austria – country that has witnessed an increase in far right-wing activity – where far-right leaders have organized a ball on the occasion of Holocaust Remembrance Day in which in words of a demonstrator against the event, they would be dancing on the graves of Auschwitz. In the meantime, public discourse against Muslims in many other Western countries has moved to the mainstream and can no longer be considered offensive as it has been endorsed by nascent political figures who have thrived on promoting this agenda, rather than in spite of it.
While the legacy of the Holocaust is monopolized by a few and deliberately denied by many, one can only wonder how many Charlotte Salomon are somewhere out there in Syria? How many of their stories are going to be saved? Who is going to commemorate them? The remembrance of Auschwitz today is not only a matter of remembering our dead, Jewish and otherwise – and that is not really the essence here – but also of remembering what happens when people and nations turn a blind eye to human suffering, which is alas, what is happening in Syria this very moment.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Two Poems

Two Poems of Yahia Lababidi translated into Hebrew

The priest desires. The philosopher desires

And not to have is the beginning of desire.
To have what is not is its ancient cycle.
It is desire at the end of winter, when
It observes the effortless weather turning blue
It knows that what it has is what not
And throws it away like a thing of another time
As morning throws off stale moonlight and shabby sleep.

-Wallace Stevens, "Notes toward a Supreme Fiction"

Nur was nicht ist ist möglich / Only what is not, is possible

- Blixa Bargeld, "No Beauty without Danger"



"What Is To Give Light"

What is to give light must endure
burning, a man once said
Another man became the matchstick
that set a nation aflame

But fire, and its appetite, cannot be
calculated, like freedom
Injustice and desperation make men
combustible, like dry wood

When words lose their meaning
and an entire people their voice -
so they can neither laugh nor scream-
death and life begin to taste the same

From Tunis, to Egypt, to Lebanon to Yemen
the light from a burning man proved catching
And those with nothing to lose, or offer, but bodies
fanned the embers of their hopes into a blazing dream.

מהו מתן אור

מתן אור הוא מוכרח לעמיד
בער, פעם נאמר
מישהוא אחר גרפור הולם
בוער עם

בער אבל, רעבו, אינו
מתוכנן, דרור לא גם
איוש, צדק אי, מבער
אנשים, כעץ הישב

כאשר מילים נאבדות מכיונן
ועם שלם קולם איתן
הינם מחרישים מצחוק או בכי
חיים או מוות, טעמם חל לזהה

מתוניסיה, למצרים, ללבנון לתימן
אור איש בוער נדלק ונדבק
ההם, בשום דבר להפסיד, למתן, אלא גוף בשר
האירו גלחת תקוה, בחלום נלהב.



Tell me, have you found a sea
deep enough to swim in
deep enough to drown in

waters to engage you
distract you, keep you
from crossing to the other shore?


תגיד, היית כבר מוצא ים
עמוק מספיק לשחות בו
עמוק מספיק לטבוע בו

מים שימאלו
שיטרידו, יחזיקו אותך
כדי שלא תעבור לחוף ממול?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

אותו הים / The Same Sea

To M.N. & Y.L.

 לפעמים יש הרגשה שאינם בעצם מחייכים אליך, אלא רק להקרנת עצמם על ענייך. טיול הימה מאמת התרשמות ההיא של טביעה בהמון הנרקיסיסאים. עם גבם בכיון לים הרחוק, ערמת גופות סוף הדרך, אינם שמים זין, מעמידים פנים ומתגנדרים מסביב בריכה שבה בכלל לא מתכונים להכנס. זה הכל רק להופעה, חביבי.

יחיא לבאבידי

At times one gets the feeling they're not really smiling at you, but at their own reflection in your eyes. A trip to the beach confirms this impression of drowining in a crowd of narcissists. With their backs positioned disinterestedly to the distant sea, a pile of perfect bodies preen and pose around a swimming pool they have no intention of entering. It's all about appearances, habibi.

Yahia Lababidi

- אופק הים מאבד ספינותיו
קשה לשמר על משהו עכשיו.
מאחורי ההר חכו הלוחמים.
כמה זקוקים אנו לרחמים.
שנינו ביחד וכל אחד לחוד.

יהודה עמיחי

The horizon losing ships off the sea shore.
Hard to hold onto anything no more.
The fighters that waited behind the hill.
How much are we in need of mercy still.
The two of us together and each one alone.

Yehuda Amichai


העיר, אינה, למתגעגע, חלל החוסר
החילון אבל, זמנים טהורים יותר
שעות לספור, על ספסל, הויה
מרחב שתוי, שטוף, בחושך הים
היום, המים צבועים, אתה, חויה

שולחן הפורח, בינינו, בידוי גופות
מתרחב בין מדינות, שפתיים, שפות
החרשתי, תמיד תחת עור הדף
דממה, בגובת העין, אחריי רדף
מתפללים, עמוסים, הם מתבוללים בעשן

דימוי, השקר, הופך לצליל הקרבה
איוש כאן אין, אלא רעב
תואה הטורפת תועבה, מידך, הדקה
לבדו, אותו הים, ידיד חרב
ערום הבית הזה, אחיו אי-שם

מדמם הגג, אך בפנים רוקדים
חיילים, צעירים מאוד, כאילו בתולות
במים, בתוך פגזים, היו נולדים
אני חושב וחושב, בלי זכרונות
מנסה למצוא דרקון, היכן אתה?

צולל מדי פעם באותו הדף
מת קצת, חצי ער, לוחם
ואיני מוצא, עין או זרוע
היה סיכוי בכלל, לשיחה?
שנינו תמיד, מפוזרים, באותו הים

The city, is not, what is longed for, in the void of the lack
But rather, the profanation, of purer times
Hours to count, on a bench, pure existence
The distance so drunk, rinsed, in the darkness of the sea
Today, the waters colored, yourself, experience

A prosperous table, in between us, a confabulation of bodies
Extending across countries, with lips, with languages
I silenced up, always, the skin of a page under
The stillness, at the height of the eye, chased me after
The supplicants, so busy, assimilated into the smoke

The image, of the lie, becomes the sound of nearness
Despair behold, there is not, but hunger
Lust that abomination devours, from your thin hand
By himself, the same sea, friend of the wilderness
So naked this thouse, elsewhere its hearth

Bleeding from the roof, while they are dancing inside
Soldiers, very young, as if mermaids
Being born in the water, from within mortal shells
I think again and again, without remembering
Trying to find my passport, you, where you are?

I dive from time to time into the same page
Dead a little bit, half awake, battling on
And do I not find, arm or eye
Was there a chance, at all, for small talk?
Both of us always, scattered, in the same sea.


Saturday, January 21, 2012

Maikel Nabil and the Trials of the Egyptian Revolution

“Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning. His landlady’s cook, who always brought him his breakfast at eight o’clock, failed to appear on this occasion. That had never happened before”. Those were the words of Franz Kafka from his novel “The Trial”, published one year after his death.  The novel, one of Kafka’s best-known works, even thought it was never completed, tells the story of a certain someone arrested and prosecuted by a remote, inaccessible authority and the nature of his crime is never revealed to either himself or the reader.

In the beginning of the novel, a senior bank clerk known by the name of Joseph K., is arrested suddenly by unidentified agents for an unspecified crime. As the story unfolds, Joseph K. is summoned to court back and forth, between advocates, witnesses and bureaucratic procedures, and even though the idea is clear that there is a process against him, no charges are trumped against him, as he repeatedly visits the court and stands in the witness box pleading his case, not knowing exactly what it is that he is pleading. One of K.’s bank clients advises him to visit a man known as Titorelli, a painter from the court, who seems to have no connections within the system but demonstrates an acute understanding of the process taking place.

K. learns from this mysterious man that not a single defendant has been ever acquitted in that court and explains to him what his best options could be: The only resource available to him is to use different tactics to delay the inevitable guilty verdict for as long as he can. There seems to be nothing else that can be done since nobody really knows what it is really the crime of which K. has been accused. After an entire year in which doors have been closed before him even before he tried to open them, and ultimately not knowing what he is being accused of, two men arrive with orders to execute him and his last words serve to describe his own death: “Like a dog!”

What at the time was for Kafka a metaphor for things other than law – in the words of legal scholar Reza Banakar – while presenting an examination of a particular concept of law which operates as an integral part of the modern world, there is just so little of metaphor today in trials without accusations, without charges and above all, without justice.

These kind of haphazard arrests and trials, no longer a novelistic gimmick or an exceptional event, have become an everyday event in the Middle East where mock trials are the most iconic manifestation of the counterrevolutionary efforts deployed by the dying regimes to hold onto power by any possible means, and nowhere else more than in Egypt, where the revolution of 2011 lapsed into a comatose state of confusion after the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) took over the country’s leadership from ousted president Hosni Mubarak, transforming Egypt into a de facto military dictatorship led by a military junta. Since the revolution, over ten thousand Egyptians have been subject to such trials, what is in numbers, several times more than those put to trial during the entire Mubarak era.

That these arrests and trials have been made in compliance with the laws of the land – whatever those laws may be and whoever wrote them – is even less of a surprise, since it does not take too much familiarity with politics or history anywhere to be fully aware of the imminent divorce between law and justice in our times. Roger Berkowitz, a scholar of law and philosophy phrases this contemporary situation in the following terms: “For those of us living through the divorce of law from justice, the rules of law appear naked, stripped bare of any claim to a higher good. We may praise law for its legitimacy, its fairness, or its efficiency, but we do not love it for its justice. The sequestering of justice in the world beyond leaves this world prisoner to the whim of calculating bureaucrats, legislators, and judges.

With the reduction of law to policy, the weighing of interests, and the overwhelming demand that law achieve political and social ends, the ethical idea of law as justice had fled the earth. Law, the last bastion of the ethical world’s resistance to the rule of scientists and experts, had succumbed to the lure of social engineering. Just as man has become a human resource in the service of whatever social or commercial end, so too is law nothing in itself.”

Clearly Egypt is nothing of a lawless country; in fact, the opposite is true: a thick forest of both archaic and modern legislation makes it possible for the world’s oldest state to come even close to deliver justice: The Egyptian constitution provides diversity of punishments for those critical of the regime or the state religion, but yet offers little justice to victims of a wide range of crimes perpetrated not only by other citizens but by the system of law and the government itself. Where Kafka might have been mistaken in describing the current state of affairs in Egypt is when he writes “That had never happened before”; since it is well known that the grievances in the Egyptian street that led to the uprising and subsequent revolution were not only economic, but also social and political. Widespread corruption, censorship, random imprisonment and a wide range of restrictions imposed on the Egyptian public sphere are not an innovation of the military junta, but rather deep-rooted traditions of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, that in Egypt go back to the Egyptian revolution of 1952.

Of course it is another paradox – among the many that plague life in the Arab world – that the revolution of Tahrir in 2011 would come to an apparent end when power was handed out to the army, in order to fix the results of half a century of injustice by the same institution – the military – that brought to an end the glorious era of Egyptian cosmopolitism during which Cairo was known as the Paris of the Orient, and musicians, intellectuals and businessmen flocked to the city looking for opportunities and inspiration.

Egyptian writer Yahia Lababidi tells us in his book “Trial by Ink” about the contradictions of that “new” Egypt begot after the first revolution: “Much of the new morality is fanned by a kind of Islamic panic, quite foreign to the laid-back Egyptian character. It is the difference between a quiet confidence and a loud insecurity. By defiantly accentuating a superficial religiosity, contemporary Egyptians downplay their natural strengths and exaggerate their weaknesses.” Though apparently secular in nature, these pseudo-secular nationalist regimes of the Middle East profited infinitely by striking deals with the nascent religious fundamentalism that making claims to an ancient religious tradition, is in fact nowhere more at home than in the most irreligious and unspiritual radical fundamentalisms of modernity.

Lababidi concludes by saying: “Yet it was not always so. Witness local film stars of a few decades ago – happily prancing around in minis and bikinis – or hear rueful stories from members of past generations to know how open-minded and cosmopolitan Egypt once was”. All of this was common knowledge before the uprising in 2011 and during, in which hundreds and thousands of people took to the streets in order to both restore Egypt to its former glory and create a new and different future for all Egyptians. After weeks and weeks of massive protests that demanded the resignation of long-time president Mubarak and the end of authoritarian rule, weeks during which hundreds of people were butchered at the hands of the military, in a surprising move, the army took the demonstrators’ side and helped topple the long-time dictator.

A common saying was coined in the Egyptian street and proclaimed out loud – “The Army and the People Are One Hand”, which was followed by photographic footage of demonstrators sleeping on top of military tanks and soldiers defending private citizens from thugs, apparently sponsored by the dying regime. Did people know at the time that this would be the beginning of a military junta period rather than an age of democracy and freedom? Perhaps not. But there was one man, Maikel Nabil, who did know, and who did not hesitate to publicize his view in order to warn his fellow Egyptians that what had happened when power was turned over to the military wasn’t the end of a revolution but rather the hijacking and theft of the revolution itself on the part of a military council that was neither democratic nor opposed to the salient regime.

Maikel Nabil Sanad, a 26-years-old blogger of Coptic origin, but self-proclaimed atheist and political activist, was arrested by the military police on March 28, 2011, from his home in Cairo and sentenced to three years imprisonment because of a blog post titled “The Army and the People Were Never One Hand” in which he described in detail the extensive number of violations committed against demonstrators and human rights activists even after the departure of Mubarak. Nabil was a controversial figure in the Egyptian scene of human rights because of his being one of the very few activists in the entire Arab world who advocated peace with the State of Israel and who in 2009 founded the movement “No to Compulsory Military Service”, declaring himself a conscientious objector, demanding to the exempted from military service. To be sure, human rights activist or not, his ideas were not welcome by the vast majority of Egyptians.

His criticism of the army was mocked by many, but it was also the case that after his arrest, not only did many Egyptians – including activists – fail to demand his release but actually supported the decision of the military council on grounds that Nabil was a traitor and a Zionist because of his support for Israel. Unlike other activists arrested for a variety of reasons, Nabil’s plight did not make any headline at the time and the case fell into complete oblivion in the mind of average Egyptians. Arrested and put to trial just like Kafka’s Joseph K., Maikel Nabil knew – unlike K. – what he was being put to trial for and that he army had wanted to make an example of him because of his sharp criticism, using the always handy card of Israel that in the Middle East resounds beyond the borders of reason. Whenever something goes wrong at home or something is found to be rotten, it is always possible to blame Israel for something, deflect attention and champion the Palestinian cause selectively, only in order to further the regime’s own agendas. In the words of Nabil, written from prison, he knew he was signing his own death sentence when he wrote his blog post and he has courageously demonstrated that he has no intention to give in or offer apologies to the military rulers.

Even though the silence on his case was deafening, his words became more and more accurate as the weeks of incarceration turned into months, and the military junta continued unmolested to trample the human rights of the entire Egyptian nation. The list of all the crimes committed by SCAF against Egypt are too long to be mentioned in one article or in a dozen, but they include virginity tests performed on women, over then thousand civilians put to military trials, almost monthly massacres, constant clamping down of protests and the most absolute failure to deliver justice to the hundreds of families that lost their sons and brothers and fathers in the course of the revolution, at the hands of the military, then under Mubarak’s orders. While Maikel Nabil and so many others remain in jail, ousted president Mubarak´s trial keeps being delayed and his aides, including those who murdered protesters, run free and were even allowed to run for office.

His plight remained unheard for several months until August when he began a hunger strike that lasted over a hundred days, in order to demand his immediate and unconditional release. At the time, even at the threat of his imminent death and the fact that all his words had been corroborated against reality time and again, the Egyptian public remained silent and so did the vast majority of the international community. In Egypt, only a select number of activists – and I say select not without irony, because what was select about them was their absolute minority in Egypt – championed his release, in many cases, only in the name of liberalism and freedom, while still stressing the reasons for which they didn’t support Maikel’s cause. It became common amongst them to quote Voltaire saying, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. What was interesting here is not only that they disapproved of his ideas, but that they had confirmed many times over and over, that his analysis of the future of revolutionary Egypt under the military junta was completely accurate.

Slowly the international community took an interest in his cause, especially after the very prominent blogger and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah was also arrested on similar charges and some human rights organizations in Europe and elsewhere began to demand the release not only of Alaa, but also of Maikel and so many others that to this day remain unknown outside Egypt, including another blogger, Ayman Mansour, who was sent to prison for insulting Islam on Facebook. For several months the possibility of his death as a cause of the extended strike became very real and at that, he was refused hospitalization by the military council and even once, was sent for psychiatric evaluation with the sole intention to declare him insane and keep him confined in a mental hospital, a well-known tactic from totalitarian regimes. To Maikel’s luck, a doctor at the mental facility intervened with the support of her superiors and prevented the military council to carry on with their plans. Nevertheless, nearly every month he was expected to be put to trial again and given a final verdict, but as in Kafka’s narrative, the verdict kept being delayed each time again and again on the ground of some bureaucratic procedure.

After Maikel Nabil decided to end his hunger strike in December and was transferred to another prison, after being in solitary confinement, a momentum for his cause was finally reached and articles began to appear all over the world, even by very prominent writers and personalities, explaining to the world why it was so important to release the Egyptian blogger. Nevertheless, in purview of so many events happening in the Arab world now, including the never-ending crisis in Syria that has reached over 5000 dead, the threat of war between Iran and Israel, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, no less than the complicated transitional politics of Egypt that is everything but transitional, the case of Maikel Nabil has been forgotten once again, even though he was the first political prisoner since the revolution – an irony in itself – someone who has demonstrated not only courage, but great determination and remarkable intellectual skills in his analyses not only of Egypt but of the situation in the Middle East at large, and who could contribute infinitely to the new Egypt, if that Egypt is going to be built once.

Nabil wrote from prison in December 2011: “It’s beautiful that there are many people who started to speak out about me after long months of silence and ignoring, and it’s beautiful that many people care to know about me… But I think that people should care more for my thoughts than for my personality, because in the end I am confined because of my thoughts, not because of my personality. My thoughts are what I sacrifice for”. So many months after his arrest, a vast majority of people keep conveniently ignoring what Nabil wrote and said, and have sheltered themselves upon the cause of human rights in general, trying to escape from the sharp criticism of the imprisoned blogger that very few in the course of the Egyptian revolution have been willing to apply on themselves at all.

In the meantime, human rights are still violated in Egypt on a daily basis and media constantly censored, foreign journalists harassed, the tourism industry suffering from record losses and in between, Marshall Tantawi, leader of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and now officially ruler of the country, has announced that celebrations will be held to commemorate the first anniversary of the Egyptian revolution. One cannot help but wonder what is it exactly that which is going to be celebrated when Maikel Nabil and many others remain in prison for nothing but their thoughts and criminals are still at large.

Berwokitz was right; the law is nothing in itself today. In Egypt, however, it is even less than that, it is an instrument of tyranny whose only aim is not to deliver justice but to strip millions of people from their basic rights and to starve them out not only physically, but also emotionally and spiritually, only in order to prevent them from demanding what is theirs: The possibility to make decisions about their own destinies.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Cruel Sea - A Film from Kuwait

First published at BIKYAMASR

In 1992 David Douglas directed a short documentary about the Kuwaiti oil fires in the course of the First Gulf War, under the title “Fires of Kuwait”. His documentary, rich in apocalyptic imagery – that since then has become popular and almost mainstream in TV documentaries – takes the viewer through a carefully documented tour of the indescribable damage suffered by the tiny Gulf state during the war.
From all the tragic events recounted in this already legendary film, there is one Kuwaiti casualty left out and that has seldom received any attention in historical accounts of the war; of which Bill Badley reminds us briefly in the Rough Guide to World Music: “One of the less reported tragedies of the First Gulf War was the loss of Kuwait’s national sound archive, which held a treasure trove of music recordings from the whole region.”
The aboriginal music of Kuwait was traditionally well-recorded until that war, when Iraq invaded the country and destroyed the archive. This traditional music, known as fidjeri, is an age-old repertory of vocal music sung by the pearl divers of Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar. The nahham, or pearl diver singers, were backed up by a chorus of singers and clappers accompanied by the mirwas – a small drum – and the jahlah – a clay pot.
This music, strange and distant as it seems, is the most vivid recollection of the lifestyle of the pearl divers, singing praises to Allah, sometimes erotic poems, sometimes hymns to the sea; and with it we are able to imagine the boats and the annual pearl diving seasons, the rudimentary but elaborate pieces of clothing used by the divers that preceded the modern diving suits by many centuries, and perhaps conjure up images of what Fuad Khuri described in his now classic “Tribe and State in Bahrain”; mixing scholarship and narrative prose to tell us about the life of the pearl divers long before the oil economy.
Most of the music archives in Kuwait were lost, and the only extant recording known internationally, of the fidjeri music, is the musical atlas of Bahrain published by UNESCO in 1979. In it we can see, listen and read the curious songs of the pearl divers and get a glimpse of what life was like in the Gulf in those days.
Kuwait however, surprised the world when a film by Khalid Al-Siddiq, “The Cruel Sea” – better known by its Arabic name, “Bas Ya Bahr” – appeared in 1972, representing artistically the pre-oil life of pearl divers in the country and probably the only film in history to have done so. For being a country without any experience in cinema, the film demonstrated great talent and immediately became a master piece of Arab cinema.
Even though theaters existed in Kuwait since the legendary Al-Sharqiah cinema opened in 1954, in the early days of cinema the country was still too poor and populated entirely by tribes that roamed the sand and dived into the sea for pearls; later on after the first oil boom, what began was a culture of film watching rather than producing, hence the surprise when Al-Siddiq’s film – made independently and certainly free from the film celebrity culture of Cairo, Beirut and Teheran at the time – hit the international scene and even won a prize at the Carthage Film Festival in that year, 1972.
Undoubtedly it was the first film made in the Gulf – with the exception of a state-sponsored film made in North Yemen in the 1960’s that never reached outside Yemen – and for a long time considered the only, even though Al-Siddiq won an award in Cannes for his 1976’s film “The Wedding of Zein” based on a novel of Tayeb Saleh, and produced some other films. Nevertheless the film industry in the region remained dormant until 1990, when Bahrain released a full-length feature.
“The Cruel Sea” was and is still of interest today not necessarily because of its first film status or because of its depiction of the life of the pearl divers; set in Kuwait prior to the discovery of oil, it is highly unlikely that the most celebrated of all Kuwaiti films wouldn’t have been banned, had it been released today. For years it was sent repeatedly to film festivals – all the way to 2011 – even though it is rarely screened in Kuwait and it has never been released in DVD. A few years ago, the director himself claimed that not even he had a copy of the film.
The film revolves around two central thematic edges: On the one hand, it is an aesthetic representation of the Sea as a persona – treacherous, mysterious, sensual – whose qualities stand in apposition if not, deliberately in opposition to the traditional milieu on which it moves or that it serves; on the other hand it is also a critical representation of life in Kuwait before oil. However, the film is not short of gumption in its radically savage criticism of a feudal society too much contented by its ancient privileges, no less than the miser condition of women in that society and the exaggerated role of religion. The visionary social realism of Al-Siddiq is unparalleled in Arab cinema, and accordingly, the film contains some very violent scenes that could be said to be, by far, the most daring and accusatory in Middle Eastern cinema, up to this very day.
In the plot, a crippled pearl diver forbids his son to go into the sea to dive for pearls, wanting for him a much better future than that he had for himself in the turbulent sea at the mercy of the inclement weather and the dangers associated with pearl diving – money feuds, ruthless overlords and greed. Mussaid, the young son, is in love with a woman from a wealthy family and needs to make enough money to marry her. Her father is a rich merchant who desires nothing but her to marry for money.
But the story soon turns to tragedy, and a very particular type thereof, because there are no moral lessons to be learnt or any victorious heroes, not dead or alive, not redeemed or forsaken; the message remains absent from the screen but yet written on the wall. Out of this tremulous convulsion of events, there is no survivor or witness other than the sea, treacherous, unmovable, unchanged and eternal.
There is always something almost mythical about the cultures of the Sea that in the Middle East, are all of them, at least in their formative periods. In the Gulf, a great deal of prosperity came from the Sea, from fishing and pearl-diving, from sea-trade and even from piracy. Only in later periods as the learning centers of Islam turned inwards into the land – as did the souls of the peoples – the passion for the water receded somehow, but a cruel sensuality remained somewhere; somewhere in the language, always so naturally sensuous, in the atavistic prayers, in the largesse of the embraces and the laughs.
In his book “Trial by Ink”, Egyptian writer Yahia Lababidi makes a case for the sensuality of the sea-men: “I began to think that living by the sea – with its rhythms and vastness – spawned more unruly, free spirits. That it fostered an amorality, a sensuality even, beyond good and evil. In fact, the more I observed these remarkable creatures, the more I found myself thinking of another sea-loving, sun-worshiping people: the ancient Greeks. Here’s philosopher Nietzsche in rhapsody: Oh those Greeks! They knew how to live. What is required for that is to stop courageously at the surface, the fold, the skin, the adore appearance… Those Greeks were superficial – out of profundity!”
Amorality here may not be necessarily immorality or bad judgment, but rather, no judgment at all. This is precisely what happens to the viewer of Al-Siddiq’s film, who is invited to join the sea as a witness, without consequence of the results – unruly and free, however tragic. Mussaid eventually receives permission from his father to go to the sea, and there he works with the man to whom his father owes money – a story commonly heard among pearl divers; while he is away Nura, the rich merchant’s daughter and his beloved, is forced by her father to marry a rich and old suitor.
In the end the amoral – that is, unable to teach anything – tragedy unfolds when Mussaid dies in a diving accident while Nura is being raped by her husband on their wedding night. And here one cannot help but ask himself whether the social criticism leveled by Al-Siddiq was not perhaps ahead of his time? The answer is definitely no, since his powerful imagery and dialogues were not even set in his own time, but rather, decades before him. The question that remains is, how have the times changed after all?
The same structure of the feudal society is reproduced almost in its entirety into the oil-based economy with thousands of stateless citizens in their midst and few policies to promote a healthy balance of economic and political modernity. The role of religion remains unchallenged and if anything, has been nothing but accentuated since the discovery of oil – and not only in Kuwait – and lastly, the situation of women, though improved, leaves many at the mercy of the still patriarchal society, in which these rapes are common, and following from the sharp commentary of Lababidi on the sex culture of Egypt – “issues are further complicated in a culture that discourages premarital sex, and where a woman’s virginity is governed by a kind of gift shop morality – you break it, you buy it”, it is often the case that women that are raped, end up being forced to marry their rapist in order to follow this logic of honor.
Modernity is often understood in the Gulf as economic and structural policies, in which the social tissue remains unchanged. A great degree of laws – divorced from justice – exist to prosecute people for crimes more or less imaginary and that would strike most people as fiction, such a practicing magic or imitating the other sex are in place; while many stateless, women and homosexuals cannot have their basic rights granted. One keeps wondering here what was it that led Al-Siddiq to his passionate vision, and how through telling a simple story he would bring into full view hundreds of years of Kuwaiti history, looking into both the future and the past. One is reminded then of the great Pasolini, who in the same years that Al-Siddiq filmed his debut film, was in the Old City of Sana’a shooting a documentary that would help save Sana’a from cultural oblivion and after which he said, with sadness:
“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, though somewhat Romantic, were prophetic in their own way and can certainly describe the vision of Al-Siddiq: To witness the unfolding of a collapsing structure of the past and tradition clashing against the limitless possibilities of a modern world ever so new and changing.
After the death of both lovers, there’s no morale other than perhaps it is not the feudal society, or the religion or the father or ultimately the sea, what can bring change into a person and a nation’s life, but small acts of courage, unprecedented and miraculous as they may be. Perhaps that is all what it will take to have a Kuwaiti Arab Spring: That one man will say no to his fate and will choose to transform it into his destination. All what Mussaid and Nura could not do. In the meantime the sea remains impassive, indifferent, eternal, unchanged; or in the words of Lababidi, in his description of Beirut:
“Behind this wondrous-strange, triptych, bristling with contradictions – mosque-shrine, music store-temple, and inscrutable skateboarders – stood the amoral sea, reconciling all differences.”

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Permanent Exiles - Book Review

First published at BIKYAMASR 

Only a few weeks before her death in 2004, Susan Sontag completed an introduction to “Under the Glacier”, a novel by Icelandic Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness, published in an English translation of Magnus Magnusson, a year later. Her copious introduction begins with a reflection about the nature of novels and fiction:
“The long prose fiction called the novel, for want of a better name, has yet to shake off the mandate of its own normality as promulgated in the 19th century: to tell a story peopled by characters whose opinions and destinies are those of ordinary, so-called real life. Narratives that deviate from this artificial norm and tell other kind of stories, or appear not to tell much of a story at all, draw on traditions that are more venerable than those of the 19th century, but still to this day, seem innovative or ultraliterary or bizarre.”
She goes on to mention some of those traditions or alternative genres:
Science fiction.
Tale, fable, allegory.
Philosophical novel.
Dream novel.
Visionary novel.
Literature of fantasy.
Wisdom lit.
Sexual turn-on.
Then she concludes the section by saying: “Convention dictates that we slot many of the last centuries’ perdurable literary achievements into one or another of those categories. The only novel I know that fits into all of them is Halldór Laxness’s wildly original, morose, uproarious “Under the Glacier”.
Among the few works that can be said to engage in this form of transgression is Yahia Lababidi’s “Trial by Ink”, even though it is not anywhere close to a novel, and is easier to categorize in the both libidinous and sobering kind of essays written by Sontag herself than in the articulate but realistic dream-worlds of Laxness. Lababidi begins his book by explaining that “Essai” is the French word for trial, and that in 1580, Montaigne set out to interrogate and discover himself, minting a new literary form: the essay.
His book of essays, judgments, witticisms, aphoristic thinking and other sensuous devices available to writers; he describes in the following manner: “This, too, is a subjective work where I attempt to evaluate what I care for and generally test my responsiveness to literature and culture. In the course of such investigations particular judgments emerge, expressions of taste and values. These are my trials, where I am simultaneously scratching my head and pen across paper, to determine what I think about a given subject”.
The observer, unconcerned as he may be, can only resort to Lessing’s epigraph taken from St. Augustine: “For the same reason this is all in a certain sense true and in a certain sense false”. And yet one keeps wondering what is it that Lababidi, an Egyptian writer, wants to put to trial? The answer is not easily found in his book, after all, books are not meant to answer questions but rather to shake up, to make uncomfortable and to unsettle. At least good books, that is.
What could have been mistaken for an elaborate treatise on literary personalities and styles in the world of culture and seen through the conventional lens of highly modernist literature, is rapidly enough transformed into a journey from the classrooms of an American college, reading English literature and other select pastries in the delicatessen of European letters, to the throbbing womb of the Middle East and the most unusual cityscapes, capturing with almost erotic curiosity, frames cut out of life in Beirut and Cairo. The transformation is not a rite de passage that unfolds in a crescendo but rather, it is a constant state of emergency that is made manifest in the figure of the “I”: “I was 18 years old when I began to guess that I too might be a writer. The change stunned me. I had known myself one way and that knowing was silenced”.
The confession, somewhat stranded in between the mystic of exaggeratedly talented and now legendary artists, reminds one of Mary McCarthy’s “How I grew”, a passionate account of how, in her own words, “I was born as a writer”, that she wrote in the last decade of her life, recounting the adventure of her years through the inane schooling of America’s finest secondary institutions – not without irony – and then at Vassar College. But Mary McCarthy had prepared us for the confession: She had written over a dozen novels, edited the posthumous work of her late friend Hannah Arendt, and above all, 20 years before that, wrote her “Memories of a Catholic Girlhood” that recounted the years preceding “How I grew”.
Lababidi’s confession, on the other hand, leaves us perplexed if not slightly disconcerted at how little we know about him and even more, how little can we know about him from his poems, before reading his book. For those of us who were trained in academic philosophy or journalism and practice any of the two, even if we write about objects so personal like books and films and works of art, there is something terribly sinful about the “I” figure in writing. At times it is disquieting, and other times it is almost embarrassing. We have made it into a profession to avoid confessions and writing as an “I” by all possible means.
Yet here there is this “I” that speaks about great figures in the history of modern literature, about popular figures in the world of pop culture and reflects upon the life of the mind and the spirit in the Middle East – and not just about the Middle East. Is it narcissistic? Is it overblown? Is it perhaps worthy of condemnation by the charge of advancing his death in offering confessions? All the charges would be true if the I would be an imposition on the reader, a lens, a point of view.
Something else is at work here: He resorts to Wilde in order to say that “to become a spectator of one’s life is to escape the suffering of life”, and here it is the writer himself who does precisely that, doing with the pen what Sontag said that people do with the camera – “The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own”.
The touristic impetus in his book becomes clear when the “I” is such a polite intersection rather than interjection or intervention. In spite of the passionate entourage and the complexity of landscapes offered, commenting on everything, from the great philosophers, to Michael Jackson, to belly dancing and sex; he looks askance at what the world is offering him and places himself at a certain distance, but without alienation – philosophical or otherwise: “The artist prays through attention. I think of my dreams. I think of those times when I fly in my dreams. I think there must be some connection between how I fly in my dreams and this state I sometimes come to in writing when I feel that I am aloft, ecstatic.” Is this a trial? An essay? A novel? A poem? The reader needs to make up his mind on his own about the answer.
His eloquent commentary on the Middle East is only intensified and brought to life by his observation point, placed inside the womb and yet outside, in the grand academic halls and altitudes of art; realizing and carrying through and through what I – and here it would not be entirely inadequate, disquieting or embarrassing to use I, since I am not only a dumb confidante of journalistic events, but also a reader and a writer on my own right – had demanded from artists, writers and filmmakers in the Middle East to take upon themselves as a spiritual project: To find a language, refined and sophisticated, but unpretentious, to speak about religion and sex, without resorting to the flip side of repression – vulgarity and pornography:
“Much of the new morality is fanned by a kind of Islamic panic, quite foreign to the laid-back Egyptian character. It is the difference between a quiet confidence and a loud insecurity. By defiantly accentuating a superficial religiosity, contemporary Egyptians downplay their natural strengths and exaggerate their weaknesses. As a general rule, extreme positions are to be mistrusted. In this context, extreme Islamic interpretations are buttressed by people’s insecurities so that seemingly innocuous everyday activities acquire sexual connotations, such as: the slapping of slippers on a woman’s feet, the smacking of chewing gum, or smoking a cigarette.”
His criticism of religion – which he defines to be now as irreligious as it is unspiritual – and society never leaves the domain of art and that is why I contend to the revolutionary nature of this work, not because it has revolutionary affiliations per se, but because all art is always revolutionary. The Arab Spring as we know it now – with its discontents as well – has had its predecessors, independent and solitary as they might have been, in works such as the films of Bader Ben Hirsi and Samer Daboul, the paintings and installations of Amna Al-Nassiri, the novels of Naguib Mahfouz. To this list that runs very long in time and quantity I wouldn’t hesitate to add the poetry and essays of Lababidi, even though they might not be as easy to classify as the above mentioned.
He goes on to comment on the sex culture of Cairo: “With female flesh under wraps, and no promise of release in the near future, sensuality spills into unexpected spaces. In Cairo, the human need for physical contact manifests in intense same-sex intimacy. It is not the least bit unusual to encounter men holding hands, pinkies interlocked, hugging and kissing, while calling each other unusually sweet names: sokkar (sugar), a’assall (honey) or rohe albi (my heart’s soul). Equally common to witness men affectionately wrestling like scrapping puppies, or playfully grabbing each other like testosterone-maddened teens, well into middle age”. What is surprising here is not what he writes, but that we need to resort to an artist’s observation to get a full view of what is common knowledge to us.
Amidst his incisive but always delicate commentary, it is also possible to find certain abandonment to melancholy which is always abandonment to the world and not out of it: About Beirut for example, he says that “Strolling the streets of Beirut, one senses a low frequency erotic charge in the air, diffused desire. All communication is a kind of casual flirtation.” Is this criticism? Excitement? Longing? The answer is to be found soon in an apparently insignificant but telling passage, coming from an Egyptian holding a Lebanese passport and writing in the English language: “For the majority of Lebanese, exile is a matter of fact as well as a way of life – with around 15 million living abroad in comparison to Lebanon’s total population of some 4 million.”
Zygmunt Bauman writes about Derrida saying: “Derrida is obsessed with ‘being away’. There is some reason to surmise that the obsession was born when the twelve-year-old Jacques was in 1942 sent down from the school which by the decree of the Vichy administration of North Africa was ordered to purify itself of Jewish pupils. This is how Derrida’s ‘perpetual exile’ started. Since then, Derrida has divided his life between France and the United States. Culturally, Derrida was to remain ‘stateless’. This did not mean, though, having no cultural homeland. Quite the contrary: being culturally stateless meant having more than one homeland, building a home of one’s own on the crossroads between cultures. His home on the crossroads was built of language.”
This is precisely the exercise that Lababidi performs and successfully – Using his Egyptian background to intersect the crossroads of Western thought with aphoristic thinking and his home in the letters of America and Europe to see the Middle East critically, lovingly, detachedly and intimately attached, putting it to trial, inside out. His many homes are not only cultural but also emotional and spiritual. When he writes about the calling of literature thinking of the great writers, perhaps unknowingly emulating his heroine Susan Sontag – to whom he devotes an entire chapter – he writes: “Again, the calling. Again the gift slash curse privileged. The whole life structure developing the necessary faculties, the necessary conditions. Rimbaud must be drunk and whoring all the time, Kafka has literally to abstain and deny himself everything.”
Here I begin to wonder if it is not himself that he is talking about, in between the ecstatic fasting of Ramadan and the pretensions of beauty and appearances in Beirut, both of which are intimately described in his book. If I would have to sum up his work and his book in one paragraph, I could only resort to what the homeless Derrida, the permanent exile, would say about his pupil Sarah Kofman, another devoted reader of Nietzsche:
“For she too was without pity, if not without mercy, in the end for both Nietzsche and Freud, whom she knew and whose bodies of work she had read inside and out. Like no one else in this century, I dare say. She loved them pitilessly, and was implacable towards them (not to mention a few others) at the very moment when, giving them without mercy all that she could, and all that she had, she was inheriting from them and was keeping watch over what they had – what they still have – to tell us, especially regarding art and laughter.”
Yahia Lababidi
“Trial by Ink: From Nietzsche to Belly Dancing”
Common Ground