Friday, March 23, 2012

No Justice for the Justice: Venezuela

First published on BIKYAMASR

In his book about the modern legal tradition, “The Gift of Science”, American philosopher Roger Berkowitz, offers us a glimpse – somewhat academic but not without a spirit of its own – into the failure of science – or of rationality, to be more precise – to bring about a rebirth of law and justice in an age when the traditional foundations of both, namely the religious institutions, have been eroded.
At the end of his book, Berkowitz offers the following meditation:
“For those of us living through the divorce of law from justice, the rules of law appear naked, stripped bare of any claim to 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 has fled the earth.
Law, the last bastion of the ethical world’s resistance to the rule of scientists and experts, has 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”.
Both things – that there is a divorce between law and justice and that law is nothing in itself, is not simply a theoretical consideration of the first order but a living reality in the Middle East and in fact, the fuel behind the uprisings and revolutions that have swept the entire region: The demand of justice – social, political and legal – was of course the main reason why millions of people took to the streets in the first place.
Such demand – legitimate in every case – however was met with the full force of the law: Brutal crackdowns on protesters anchored in a plethora of legal arguments – security, terrorism, and disrespect to authority – were set in full force and justified rationally on the basis of constitutions safeguarded by political institutions that turned a blind eye to the legitimacy of the demands, with the pretext of restoring safety and stability.
In a way it could be said that the protest movements demanded something – justice – that no law could grant them and that in turn the laws had to be changed in order to serve justice; but as it turned out – in Tunisia and Egypt – the independence of the judiciary from political institutions was all too compromised in its commitment to the laws and eventually, in the absence of secure political institutions, no laws could be applied effectively to deliver actual justice.
While this is the case with the vast majority of the citizens, what happens when the law is actually turned around to divorce law and justice for the law-givers and law-makers themselves?
This is precisely what occurred to Venezuelan judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni in 2009 when she was arrested on charges of corruption after she ordered the conditional release on bail of Eligio Cedeño, a Venezuelan businessman, who was then pending trial for evading currency controls.
In 2007, Cedeño, a banker and then president of Bolivar-Banpro financial group was arrested on charges of circumventing government currency rules to gain US dollars and then accused by the Attorney General of illegal dollar transactions. In the course of an entire year, prosecutors failed to turn up at court, what eventually led to suspicion that the charges were trumped and that there was no factual evidence. In 2009 he was declared on arbitrary detention by the United Nations.
According to his lawyers, he had become a target of the Chavez government because of its support for the opposition. He had provided financial support to opposition politicians, and provided assistance to union leader Carlos Ortega and columnist Patricia Poleo, who later fled the country seeking political asylum.
The banker was held imprisoned for 34 months until he was paroled in December 2009 by judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni following guidance of the United Nations, since he had been detained without trial longer than allowed under Venezuelan law. Attorney General claimed that the release on bail was determined at hearing without prosecutors, who by all means had made an effort not to appear at court hearings repeatedly, and following the opinion of the UN’s working group on arbitrary detention.
Shortly thereafter Afiuni was arrested and the prosecution filed charges for irregularities in the release of Cedeño. President Hugo Chavez lauded the arrest, called her bandit and was vocal in expressing that she should receive the maximum penalty and be put away in prison for 30 years. Charges were trumped as well of having received bribes to rule the case in favor of Cedeño.
With similar handling on the part of the judiciary, the case had been postponed several times without any basis other than to prolong her arrest indefinitely – similar to the bogus trials against Egyptian blogger Maikel Nabil – and in February 2011, she was eventually granted house arrest after an emergency surgery for cancer, but is barred from speaking to the media.
Several international bodies have expressed concern about Afiuni’s arrest and called for her immediate release; among them the United Nations, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, the Law Society of England and Wales and the European Parliament.
It is not surprise that the rights of dissidents and political opponents are violated on a regular basis in Venezuela since Hugo Chavez came to power in 1999 and has placed the country on a watch list on a large number of issues including not only human rights, but unprecedented corruption, links to totalitarian states, money laundering, aiding terrorist groups from the Middle East, and most recently, of aiding the embattled regime of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria.
This month, Human Rights Watch published a report stating that there is no independence of the judiciary in Venezuela, country where appointed judges are not only sacked and threatened but as in the case of Afiuni, arrested and denied basic rights to a fair trial, insofar as their rulings do not conform to the interest of the President Chavez’s tight grip on power, while temporary judges are appointed by the regime to deliver tailor-made rulings that are politically motivated, as in the case of the infamous Caracas Nine, a group of individuals – journalists, students, judges, military personnel – who faced discrimination, censorship, intimidation, false arrest, imprisonment and torture, for the sole reason of speaking loudly against an incessant wave of abuses of power and rights in the country.
Since Chavez came to power, the once liberal and relatively wealthy country has been severely impoverished, business and private property looted, political freedoms eroded, Caracas has become of the world’s most dangerous cities and the Venezuelan diaspora in neighboring countries, Spain, the United States and other countries has grown by the tens of thousands in recent years.
In 2011 her arrest was extended for another two years and in spite of being a cancer patient, she is denied the right to healthcare – another similarity with Maikel Nabil’s former case – and her lawyer petitioned for over eight months for something as simple as the right to receive medical treatment, at the same time that President Chavez traveled repeatedly to Cuba to seek cancer treatment and expressed via social media his love for all Venezuelan women on women’s day this March; what obviously seems to exclude judge and now political prisoner Maria Afiuni, despite her deteriorating physical and emotional health.
On March 16, an NGO and a group of students took to demonstrate across the judge’s residence to show their support and demand freedom and justice for the judge. She sent a thank you letter to the youth who demonstrated and asked them not to abandon political prisoners like herself who are deprived of the right to express themselves.
In a brief phone call with Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, from the time when she was arrested, she expressed acknowledgement of the risks involved in Cedeño’s case and had full knowledge that there might be consequences for those who would dare to make decisions in anyway unfavorable to the parties interested. When asked why she decided to do it anyway, aware of the circumstances, she said:
“When one is a judge and is a judge out of conviction, because of a career in the judiciary, one is able to make decisions in accordance to our laws, constitutions and international treaties. It seems to me incredible that the norm now is the total opposite. Cedeño’s file even had a resolution from the UN that urged me to release him.”
She sent also the following message in reference to what is happening in Venezuela with the powers of the judiciary: “Those who study law know that justice is the basis, the heart of an independent nation. A nation without justice is not a nation, and even less independent. Because all the institutions are about justice, when justice is absent, everything is. It is hard, my message is that people should remain alert, because Venezuela is not a state of the law, and even less, a social state or a state of justice. It is terrible.”
The lesson from Afiuni’s case for Arab Spring is that when the powers of the judiciary are not independent, anything can happen and against anyone. In Egypt, it has been demonstrated time and again not only that the judiciary is not independent, but that it is tightly controlled to meet the needs of the interim rulers in exerting a total control over private and public life, what is not significantly different from the recently deposed regime and in fact, in some cases, it is even worse, as has been demonstrated in cases such as the crackdown on NGO’s and the infamous military trials.
While there is hope for Venezuela with upcoming elections and a well-respected opposition candidate expected to win, it is uncertain that Chavez and his entire apparatus of corruption – that includes tight links with totalitarian states – can fade away quickly to be replaced with democracy; reason for which Afiuni’s case is the writing on the wall for countries going through the upheaval of revolutions like Egypt, to strive for maintaining or recovering the independence of the judiciary.
Sometimes we tend to assume that the law is a prerequisite for justice, but as the period in which Egypt has been ruled under SCAF shows, there can be a strong law and a functioning legal system, without the slightest trace of justice to be found. But the struggle of many – including judge Afiuni – to seek justice over the technicalities and rationality of a legal system divorced from law, remains a source of hope.
This is what Berkowitz concludes from his long study of the modern legal traditions of Europe:
“As long as the ideal of justice is still heard, albeit faintly, in its connection with transcendence – as long as we can still make sense of the idea of justice that connects us with our friends and fellow citizens without the need for law and contracts – there is the possibility that acts of justice will inspire, ennoble, and enable some to heed the call.”

Friday, March 16, 2012


The avoidance of the "I".

The supreme task of philosophy, and to a great extent of journalism and of any "profession" for which fact-checking, data-analysis and ultimately, the pursuit of truth, is important. Where do you draw the line? Story-telling of course would hardly qualify as "disclosure" of truth, not because it doesn't disclose truth as such, but only because that truth is not terminal, it's not a finished product and therefore, can hardly define anything.

Then there's the news, like the movies: Eisenstein spoke about cinema as such and such stars, such and such capital, what might be applied to the endlessly innovative repertory of news, as in such and such massacre, such and such revolution, such and such gossip. News. Production of information. First fallacy: Wherever the concept of production is involved, meaninglessness is inherent to the labor cycle itself and other than dialectical, the process is circular.

Information isn't the equivalent of truth, simply because truth isn't produced. The thinking process itself is circular, but truth and thinking through intimately related, are not synonymous. The process of information production is of course selfless - facts, facts, facts. Where's the "I"? Who's telling the story? Selflessness is an extreme position, as extreme as that of reckless subjectivity - Both are a reaction to loneliness, to political loneliness.

In both selflessness and (Romantic) confession the subject is absent insofar as it has either foregone all the objects or rendered them abstract and irrelevant, and is turned into a solipsism. The former has little to do with what we call truth, and the latter has little to do with what we call literature. Truth is not literature and literature is not truth; however literature does disclose truth.

We could learn from the Romans: The "persona" is but the mask that is worn when we appear in public, and though several masks are worn by the same actor - and we're all actors - the voice is unmistakably the same. When the "I" is entirely absent, the persona through which we appear in public spaces - in the political realm - vanishes together with the objects of knowledge. Then we're only crowded together, without objective personalities and facts lose all validity, as they can be easily exchanged in production of newer facts.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Tunisia’s GayDay Magazine hacked

First published on BIKYAMASR

More than one year after the revolution, there is little hope for emancipation and full equality before the law for the LGBT population in Tunisia. Even though Tunisia counted with a strong civil society, somewhat more developed than that in neighboring countries, the situation on ground has remained more or less unchanged.
Last October after “moderate” Islamist party Ennahda scored a victory in the elections – setting the mood for what would happen in Egypt later and probably a trend for the entire Arab Spring – they offered assurance to women, gays and drinkers, as if they were some sort of minority that needed special protection in a democracy.
Ennahda party spokesman Riad Chaibi said to the media that the newly elected Islamist-led government would not pursue the use of alcohol or punish atheism and homosexuality. According to Chaibi, “individual freedoms and human rights are enshrined principles”. He also added that “atheists and homosexuals are a reality in Tunisia and have a right to exist.”
The reality however has proven very different: Even though it has been for long considered the most progressive Arab country and has made some improvements in its human rights record – also legislative –, the reports from human rights organizations say that the government has been at best slow in serving justice to those wronged by the former regime during the uprising.
LGBT people however have received nothing of the soft approach promised: Last month, appointed human rights minister Samir Dilou made openly homophobic remarks on a TV talk show for which he has shown absolutely no regret and his press secretary insisted that Dilou believes that being gay is an illness rather than a human right.
At the same time there has been a curious renaissance of homophobic slurs used in politics in which Islamist and liberal parties accuse each other of being homosexuals; incidents that went as far as to implicate the new interior minister in a gay sex video scandal.
The last in a long line of small incidents, slurs, threats and accusations against LGBT in Tunisia took place yesterday when Tunisia’s first gay (online) magazine was hacked. Hacking threats had been issued before and finally paid off on the morning of March 10th. The threats were anonymous and it has not been possible to identity who is behind the cyber-attack.
Hackers succeeding in accessing most of GayDay magazine’s internet accounts (E-mail, main site and Twitter). GayDay, Tunisia’s first gay magazine was renamed by hackers to “Garbage Day Magazine”, what was a clear homophobic reference to the content of the magazine, one of the first of its kind in the Arab world and the first in the post-Arab Spring scenario.
The attack took place exactly one day after the Tunisian magazine published an investigative article – produced jointly with Gay Star News, Gay Middle East and Iraqi activists – about the massacre of emo and gay people in Iraq. The news of this massacre went all over the world and has now been reported by every major news outlet.
According to GayDay magazine, hackers removed all contributors’ accounts and posted a photo titled “GarbageDayMagazine: Never accept your DIRT and MOLD”. They also changed the security questions and recovery e-mail accounts.
Speaking to, Fadi Krouj, editor and founder of the magazine, expressed that the hacking news was met with numerous sympathy reactions and announced that GayDay magazine has restored full control over its online presence.
He added: “We call upon activists not to panic because of such incident and to keep their continuous fight. Serious security measures need to be performed to protect online movement.”
According to him, GayDay magazine’s e-mail and related online accounts do not contain any sensitive personal information that might endanger anyone and that the hacking attempt was not harmful to anyone but yet, it was an invasion of collective property.
Recently it has been reported in different outlets that the future of the LGBT rights and organizations in the entire region remains highly uncertain and events have only confirmed the trends. Newly formed authorities in Tunisia and Egypt turn a blind eye to the plight not only of LGBT but also of women and other minorities threatened under Islamist rule.
While the hacking incident of GayDay magazine was minor, it is a clear sign that people cannot rely on authorities to protect their basic freedoms and that instead, as it was the case with minister Dilou, they are going in the direction of eroding even more the little freedoms that had been achieved under previous regimes.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Art and Censorship in Kuwait and the Arabian Gulf

First published at 5PMBAHRAIN

In recent years there has been a lot of hearsay about the boom of the arts in the Gulf region, and while this has been somewhat exceptional in some respects, it has also been plagued by a number of myths. The first one is that art as such didn’t exist in the Arabian Gulf and the second is that freedom for artists has increased exponentially.
The first myth is easily dispelled by the large number of prominent painters and artists in other formats hailing from the region, particularly from Kuwait and Bahrain, that have more or less kept with trends learnt from European art and that are displayed in prominent galleries and private collections all over the region.
The second myth is not as easily dispelled and behind it, there are different layers of multiplex realities lurking in a somewhat tense environment. The rise of the arts in the region coincides with the branding of certain cities and countries as global players in political and financial scenarios.
At the same time the coincidences aren’t always fortunate and in between this rise to prominence in global affairs (particularly of Qatar and United Arab Emirates) figures the last Gulf War, 9/11 and also Arab Spring. Those events are meaningful in the rise of the Gulf as an art hub because of the way in which art from the region came to understood elsewhere.
In many galleries and art circles in the West, art from the Middle East gained a whole new perspective after 9/11 and became a household item in auctions but perhaps all for the wrong reasons. It was expected from Arab artists to immediately reflect the new – turbulent – world order in their works and it was on this merit alone that many were judged.
A similar movement took place in 2011 after the Egyptian revolution when a certain cliché of “revolutionary works” was demanded by the market from Egyptian artists, as if the revolution were a finished product now handed to the artists for contemplation. While this brought to prominence some themes and artist, infinitely devalued the intrinsic value of art.
Whatever the critique called “Arab art”, it was nothing but a halal version of traditionalist art in which Arabian landscapes and horses, veiled women and Islamic-themed motifs made a spectacular come back out of the Golden Age of Islamic art, with flat and politically neutral messages that little had to do with the questions asked by society at the time.
While all this happened, galleries and auction houses opened by the dozens in the Gulf and took over Lebanon and Egypt as the regional epicenters of culture and art. Curators, art writers, magazines, exhibits and what not, fled to the affluent region and tried to create a radically chic art scene, fluently conversant with the West.
The problem here is that such growth was by no means natural and since there is an obvious lack of art schools, critics and especially a public art culture; it was not only that – ironically – it was all built on sand, but also in a more or less complete indifference to whatever artists in the region had been working on for decades.
Recently Qatar and the Emirate of Dubai have come under strong criticism because their art scene is something “glittering but empty” and with enormous financial resources, they have created institutions, world-class events and venues that while appealing to a global public, are not quite understood by the locals.
In spite of these great efforts – that sometimes have to do more with global branding than with an authentic interest in the arts – the Gulf leaders and art policy-makers have been oblivious to the fact that an art culture is created from bottom-up: It is artistic production and culture what generates successful institutions, rather than the other way around.
To have a culture of art is different than presenting art and the most obvious difficulty here is that the more time and resources have been invested to modernize the infrastructure, the more time, policy and efforts have been put into making it impossible for the society to modernize itself – an entire paradox.
Culture is not cultural production but the discussion about that same production. The leverage produced by art isn’t simply touristic or a financial asset; it is found rather in how art helps shaping the public sphere through education, criticism and educated conversations. That is the only way in which art becomes culture and not stay simply at the level of display.
While the citizens of the Gulf become more and more affluent, the restrictions imposed on society become more and more stringent: Censorship of movies, books, works of art and media are common; but this places the leadership in a very difficult position vis-à-vis their citizens:
The richer a nation is, also the more opportunities will be available to receive an education and it is at best naïve to think that in a part of the world where higher education isn’t precisely world-class, a large chunk of citizens will receive their education abroad and not return home challenged by influences, ideas and questions of the time in which they live.
While artists from the West flock to the Gulf in numbers to have their works exhibited and to occupy different chairs and residences; the local artists are often marginalized and sometimes are able to show their work to the public only overseas – as for example Saudi filmmakers and some painters from Kuwait and Bahrain.
If the local art scene will not nurture the local talent, it will have been a missed opportunity and if whatever art is exhibited, is not discussed in the open and permitted to challenge certain boundaries, the whole enterprise will collapse as a house of cards built on Arabian sand.
This week in Kuwait city, an exhibit of celebrated painter Shurooq Amin, “A Man’s World”, that offered a provocative and critical look inside the world of Middle Eastern men, or to be more specific, of Khaleeji men, was permanently shut down because of complaints received by the police about the work being pornographic and inappropriate.
While this was hardly the case, and the event provoked an uproar among certain liberal voices in the country, it is a troubling symptom of the mistaken direction in which censorship and art policies have taken in countries traditionally considered liberal such as Kuwait and Bahrain that are decades ahead of their neighbors in developing a rich cultural scene.
There’s no doubt that censorship in the region is no longer met with conformity, but that rather, the digital age has made it possible to by-pass censorship in many creative ways. People buy books from abroad, watch uncensored films on the Internet and are exposed to uncensored content everywhere.
A website or a TV channel that was censored can be simply hosted in another country without major hassle. There was a time when technology made it possible to control every aspect of life through surveillance, but at this point in time, to simply apply censorship laws arbitrarily can hardly contain the desire of an educated public to be exposed to the world.
The news of Shurooq Amin’s censorship incident spread quickly through social networks and a large number of Kuwaitis and people from elsewhere in the region and otherwise, expressed support for her cause. While there might be a question about some sensibilities being eroded, the challenge of and to authority must be met in a more graceful way.
Shutting down an art exhibit is not successful in imposing censorship as much as it is very successful in encouraging others who oppose censorship to become more and more vocal about it, and what began as a simple incident, could become a tipping point for people who think that so much more is being compromised here: Basic freedoms.
In a region where international art is being promoted at the expense of local talent, for whatever purpose it is – even if ideological, one can be sure that the arbitrariness will not remain unchallenged. Without the freedom to produce, present, discuss, the idea of the Gulf as an art hub is nothing but a wishful illusion.
One could not say that these incidents are everyday life in Kuwait or Bahrain – where they have also happened, but they do highlight clearly how countries constantly modernizing and becoming part of a highly global culture, cannot keep their societies from modernizing as well, and from accepting the challenge of something as simple as the questions posed by works of art.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Paint to Freedom in Kuwait

First published on BIKYAMASR

In his book “Trial by Ink”, Egyptian writer Yahia Lababidi offers us an intimate look into the world of self-censorship and sexual morality in the Arab world from the perspective of a man himself and he begins his reflection by speaking with brutal sincerity about the new morality of Egypt:
“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 of a cigarette.”
Lababidi throws the punch of his case when he hints at the distorted sense of sexuality implicit in every casual contact between a man and a woman, under this new world order of traditional morality extending all over the Middle East and that yet, it is nothing but the most fundamentally modern of all fundamentalist responses to the challenge posed by the modern world:
“What’s more, even shaking a veiled woman’s hand has become an awkward proposition. Yet why invaginate one palm and make a phallus of the other? This is not religion, and certainly not spirituality.”
He goes on to offer us a whimsical insight of what it is that happens when an otherwise laid back and friendly society charged with the erotic nature of peoples who have lived through the splendor of time, are robbed from the gift of spontaneity of behavior in which passion occurs naturally. From here onwards everything is but a reaction:
“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 is to witness men affectionately wrestling like scrapping puppies, or playfully grabbing each other like testosterone-maddened teens, well into middle age.”
One doesn’t need too much insight to know that the natural reaction to an extreme interpretation – of anything – is a reaction as extreme as whatever it is that is being held in contempt. Thus, Yahia Lababidi puts it into words: “El mamnua’a marghoub, the forbidden is coveted, goes an Egyptian saying (also the oldest human truth). When very little is permitted, everything becomes eroticized.” This same kind of Islamic panic of course, is what has popularized the entirely mistaken assumption that everything that is erotic is sexual – hence sinful – and vice versa.
Hungarian philosopher Agnes Heller has expressed with great clarity how the experience of the erotic is intimately associated with beauty and by association, with art: “The experience of beauty is never a merely mental experience; it is the experience of emotions, passions, desires, senses – of feelings. When we experience beauty our senses are also normally aroused. We hear the beautiful sound, we see the beautiful sight, and sometimes (although rarely) we also touch and smell beautiful things. Our body always participates in the experience of beauty. This is so even if the what of the experience is purely spiritual. A kind of rapture, strong or mild, desire (Eros) and satisfaction are ineliminable elements of the experience of the beautiful. The beautiful is erotic.”
Under the sign of this confusion, it is obvious how art will always come under attack by those for whom morality is the exact equivalent of religion, eroticism of sexuality and censorship of virtue. However there is no ground more fertile for artistic metaphors and codes to develop, than under this selfsame censorship. Lababidi himself writes: “Literature under restrictive regimes has tended to develop a flair for allegory – confessing in code, or through the use of symbolism. As Borges shrewdly observes, Censorship is the mother of metaphor.”
The work of celebrated Kuwaiti painter and poet Shurooq Amin is one of those loud metaphors that resist the temptation to merely react to whatever it is that is being offered in the market of truth, and rather, it is something of a detective work: A piercing look inside the paradoxes of Kuwait’s modern life stranded between scandalous wealth – what never comes without excesses of desire – and the just as scandalous attempt to keep morality in check; and this type of intrusive morality is less an article of faith than it is a crusade against values – Western or otherwise – that might translate into political demands for more freedoms.
It couldn’t be otherwise: Amin is certainly the leading figure in Kuwait’s vanguard art and probably the most international painter in the Gulf region, whose work has been exhibited in prestigious European venues and can hardly be classified as “Arab” art: There are no bucolic dreams of the lost pearl divers, no Arabian horses and no frescoes of women hiding behind the veils.
Her work is distinctively modern and as such, more than a school of painting or a political statement – and any art that is consciously politicized can be safely assumed to be false – it is a free arena of expression and experiment in which the social issues of the day surface not globally and totally, but through subtle details that permeate the imagination and the most basic sensuality more than the historical memory of one time or another.
In the same way that Lababidi explored in his writings many experiences belonging to the realm of men, so did Amin in a series of works from 2010 titled “Society Girls” in which she explores deeper layers of the life of women in Gulf society: The extravagance coupled with sameness of identity, the pariah world of the woman free and at home only among her equals; the self-imposed roles in which everything is visible but the truth.
As a sequel to the series “Society Girls” that enjoyed international acclaim, she worked on a new series called not without irony “It’s a Man’s World” in which she explored the private and more or less clandestine inner world of Middle Eastern men; in her own words: Straight, gay, traditional, liberal, and Islamic fundamentalist. It is often the case the men depicted in these incisive works are more than one man, at more than one time. And this is the Middle East of the non-news: Erratic, highly eroticized, sometimes sexual, paradoxical, contradictory, colorful and polemic.
This is the life of men that her 18 paintings – in mixed technique – strips nude along invisible threads of imagery and ideas: Homosexuality, polygamy, alcoholism, vice, adultery, consumerism, indifference, and objectification of women. To the curious observer, perhaps from far away, it might seem whimsical and sympathetic, perhaps a little sarcastic and a little accusatory. However, for those – like the artist and her public – conversant in the language of Kuwait’s society, the works are nothing but an X-ray of unspoken realities taking place behind the thick veil of a paternalist and patristic society.
The metaphors of Amin’s work do not reveal clues or other metaphors but rather reduce reality to its most basic units, so that everything otherwise invisible becomes ineludible to the eye and to the mind. Hence it is not surprising that the pioneering works would have been met with disapproval: After a long-awaited opening that took place at AL M. Gallery in Kuwait City, yesterday March 5; it is reported that the local police received complaints of people feeling insulted by her work. Accordingly, 3 hours after the opening – with record attendance – police notified her that the gallery would be shut down.
The exhibit was permanently closed and pictures of the artworks were said to be sent to the ministry, considering them pornographic and inappropriate. While this doesn’t come entirely as a surprise, knowing the work and trajectory of Amin in Kuwait and outside it, one would have to have either too little or too much familiarity with pornography, in order to consider works of the highest international quality, pornographic. Beyond the pale of legal arguments, it is absolutely certain that what we are dealing with here is simply censorship on Kuwait’s most renowned artist, and the grounds are far from moral, it has to do only with fear and panic of social criticism that might have political consequences.
One of the works, “My Harem in Heaven”, portrays a Kuwaiti man laying barefoot on a couch, wearing the traditional dishdasha, smoking shisha and hiding a bottle of whiskey underneath a deliberately invisible table, surrounded by doll-size women that serve more as the adornment to his manliness than as companion, representing the seventy virgins in heaven, sitting around in a mood of sensual abandonment, all of which happens away from the visible public world in which alcohol is condemned, in which promiscuity is condemned, in which homosexuality is condemned, in which women are banned from, in which sin is a social stain. This work, almost perfectly achieved and composed is not simply a modern painting but a poetic representation of the world of the elites in the Middle East, unmistakably.
As a perfect sequel to “Society Girls”, the paintings in “It’s a Man’s World” materialize what Lababidi had in mind when he wrote that “sensuality spills into unexpected spaces”, and bring us to ask ourselves a lot of questions, not only of the personal kind. I do not think that there is an intrinsic worth in art that pretends to moralize or to teach, but rather, what is at work here is that privilege that the artist has over the journalist, of telling the truth in such singular ways that no facts or theories can be construed out of such truths. The real value lies in the singularity and in the power to evoke and ask questions: Any of the observers could be the man, clad in the dishdasha, without renouncing the world, without renouncing his position in society, and without renouncing his humanity.
Hannah Arendt was right in the 1950’s when she said that the renewal of the arts in the Soviet Union signaled that it was no longer strictly totalitarian and that this fact alone would advance the ineludible collapse of the system. While it cannot be said that Kuwait or any Arab country is strictly totalitarian; there is no doubt in the artist’s mind that authoritarianism can only be defeated through powerful ideas that might call for self-criticism rather than through the powerless power of violence alone.
In an interview from 2011, Amin expressed with clarity her vision about the role of art, offering advice to the younger generation of artists:
“There should be no fear among the new generation! Each artist is a voice of society; every painting, art work should have a message that opens a discussion and has a domino effect. In other words, each work should advocate people to deliberate, make one person cascade the message to another. An artist can change the world in the simplest way and with little effort. Another advice I’d give them is: Be bold! It’s important for me as a Kuwaiti artist to show this to the world and it opens the door for new generations, though I might get into trouble, but someone should take the first step and break the society boundaries in art.”
It has been often said that something like the Arab Spring – in whatever form, even intellectual – would never reach Kuwait, but the truth is that even if you have the right to a house, an education, healthcare, citizenship and food, if you do not have the right to your own opinions, you’re not being permitted to become fully human. That is the reason why Shurooq Amin and Kuwait, will continue painting into freedom.

Will the Jewish silver craft survive in Yemen?

First published at YEMEN TIMES

Numbers of the once prominent Jewish community in Yemen are dwindling fast. Especially since the revolution, many Jews fled from hostility in the northern province of Sa’ada and Amran. The exact number of Jews left in the country is unknown, but government sources estimate it around 450 people, while Jewish organizations in the United States estimate it at slightly over 100 people. 

Of the ancient cultural legacy of Yemeni Jewry, one element has stood the test of time, migration and revolution: The craft of hand-made silver jewelry. Last year in December, Yemeni silversmith Kamal Rubaih and retired American diplomat Marjorie Ransom presented a selection of Yemeni jewelry at the Library of the Congress in Washington, focusing on Jewish designs. 

Ransom and Rubaih have collaborated on the book “The Demise of an Ancient Craft”, to be published this year by the American University in Cairo Press. The book will deal with jewelry from all of Yemen, with particular attention to the near-forgotten topic of the Jewish silversmith.

In his shop “World Friend” located in the old silver market in Sana’a, Rubaih collects jewelry in both traditional Jewish and Muslim designs. According to Rubaih, from the great variety of traditional jewelry made in Yemen, the most exquisite was done by the Jewish silversmiths in the northern mountains and in the large cities, alongside Muslim jewelry from Tihama, the Hadramaut and Mahra, where Indian influence is strong.

Jewish history in Yemen, as reported by Arab historians from medieval times, goes back to the year 1451 BC, and legends still circulate that they settled in the Arabian Peninsula around the times of King Solomon. What was once a prosperous community, heirs to unique cultural traditions, is today an impoverished and rather marginal group in Yemen’s multilayered cultural landscape.

The traditional silver jewelry of the Middle East – including Turkey and Iran – has been largely replaced by gold jewelry, much of it imported and not handcrafted. The larger repertory of styles and techniques in Middle Eastern silver jewelry – casting, chasing, embossing, repousse, filigree and granulation among others – have been left mostly to the work of a few specialized artisans.

It is said that until the 1960’s, it was a deep-seated tradition for Muslims to give a bridal dowry in Jewish jewelry. At the once thriving silver market in Sana’a just 30 years ago both Jewish and Muslim silversmiths worked alongside each other. However, the ancient Jewish craft has declined progressively in the last decade as more and more Jews left the country or abandoned the craft. On the Muslim side, only a few silversmiths remain, but a few are attempting to rejuvenate the traditional Jewish style. 

According to Rubaih, Yemeni brides these days prefer to wear gold over silver. Thus, only a few silversmiths continue to work in a trade that caters predominantly to tourists, many of whom have been chased away by constant unrest and Yemen’s deteriorating economic situation.

Yet, it turns out that there are younger artisans, offspring of the elderly Jewish silversmiths, who are trained in the craft. They would like to take it up, if it were only possible to make a living with it. 

Unless there is an effort on the part of the Yemeni government to support traditional craftsmen familiar with Jewish silversmithing, as well as other artisans working with traditional crafts—weaving, embroidery, pottery and the like—Rubaih insists that it is very likely that they will soon disappear and with them, an ancient heritage spanning sometimes into thousands of years. 

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Spaces of Anxiety – Religion and Film

Spaces of Anxiety – Religion and Film
(Poems by Yahia Lababidi)

By Arie Amaya-Akkermans

“morning epiphany
applicable to love and life
in haiku-like purity:

only freshly squeezed
separation is natural
shake well to enjoy!

in fructose veritas.” Yahia Lababidi, “Truth in Advertising”

Auden writes in 1968 that “Poetry is not magic. In so far as poetry, or any other of the arts, can be said to have an ulterior purpose, it is by telling the truth, to disenchant and disintoxicate”. Then he says that the theory of advertising is the reverse of the theory of poetry, not in juxtaposition, but rather in that advertising is exactly what poetry is not: magic. Yet for us, religion and films – both of which employ poetry – are commonly associated with the effect of magic; the priest and the filmmaker are both magicians, they appeal to our senses with images that yet we do not see: we see the sacraments, the frankincense, the ecstasies, also the cuts, frames and lights; but what is really crucial – the miracle, the resolution, the riddle, the source – remains hidden from us.

“certain words must be earned
just as emotions are suffered
before they can be uttered
 – clean as a kept promise.”

But Auden goes on to say: “In all ages the technique of the black magician has been essentially the same. In all spells the words are deprived of their meanings and reduced to syllables or verbal noises. For millions of people today words like communism, capitalism, imperialism, peace, freedom, democracy have ceased to be words, the meaning of which can be inquired into and discussed, and have become right or wrong noises to which the response is as involuntary as a knee reflex”.

How does this differ from and/or is removed from the worlds of religion and film, if this is actually the case? And how do they even meet? The relationship of religion to art is not short of paradoxical at least on two counts: First, art is always secular in because any attempt at representation – symbolic, figurative or abstract, following the historical progression of Hegel – is an essential transgression of the divine; secondly, the technical possibilities of the modern age have radically transformed our relationship to art from mere contemplation to participation.

“In the transition from cathedral, to gallery and then to the streets of everyday life, it is not only the place but also the authority of art that has undergone radical transformation. The authority of art has moved from sacred to secular, and the production of art has blurred the boundary between the unique object and the mass commodity”, in words of Nikos Papastergiadis.

“the cinematic power in a drop of water
crashing against the stomach of a sink
smashing into iridescent pieces
scattering in resplendent shards”

On the other hand, in spite of the status of film as the seventh art, its artistic qualities remain a matter of dispute and not in vain did Badiou write: “After all, cinema is nothing but takes and editing. There’s nothing else”. Many years before him, the great Eisenstein, Soviet filmmaker and theoretician, writes that it is both weird and wonderful to write a pamphlet on something that in reality does not exist, making a reference to cinema and then adds: “Cinema is: so many corporations, such and such turnovers of capitals, so and so many stars, such and such dramas. Cinematography is, first and foremost, montage.”  In the view espoused here, there’s nothing to cinema but the configuration aspect of cinematography that is not all necessarily technical, or put in other words, what Maya Deren calls the “controlled accident”.

Deren, an avant-garde filmmaker on her own right, theorizes about the indebtedness of film to so many of the other “purer” arts, in one of the least popular readings in film theory:  “The motion-picture medium has an extraordinary range of expression. It has in common with the plastic arts the fact that it is a visual composition projected on a two-dimensional surface; with dance, that it can deal in the arrangement of movement; with theater, that it can create a dramatic intensity of events; with music, that it can compose in the rhythms and phrases of time and can be attended by song and instrument; with poetry, that it can juxtapose images; with literature generally, that it can encompass in its sound track the abstractions available only to language.”

“but, words must not carry
more than they can
it’s not good for their backs
or their reputations.”

Her thread is picked up by Badiou and given a sounder and fully formal argumentation: “Cinema is the seventh art in a very particular sense. It does not add itself to the other six while remaining on the same level as them. Rather, it implies them – cinema is the “plus-one” of the arts. It operates on the other arts, using them as its starting point, in a movement that subtracts them from themselves.” But what Badiou expresses with such matter-of-factness, remains a troubling matter for Deren who wants to rescue cinema from this indebtedness:

“If cinema is to take its place beside the others as a full-fledged art form, it must cease merely to record realities that owe nothing of their actual existence to the film instrument. Instead, it must create a total experience so much out of the very nature of the instrument as to be inseparable from its means. It must relinquish the narrative disciplines it has borrowed from literature and its timid imitation of the causal logic of narrative plots, a form which flowered as a celebration of the earth-bound, step by step concept of time, space and relationship which was part of the primitive materialism of the nineteenth century. Instead, it must develop the vocabulary of filmic images and evolve the syntax of filmic techniques which relate those. It must determine the disciplines inherent in the medium, discover its own structural models, explore the new realms and dimensions accessible to it and so enrich our culture artistically as science has done in its own province.”

This becomes problematic as she dwells on two particular issues that are of concern not only in the filmical sense, but also in the crucial and unexplored relationship of cinema to religion and faith, up to here, a vast unexplored field; as such, the appropriation of reality and the question of the medium. As per Deren, she brings up both themes when she opens her investigation on the nature of cinematography and reality with the use of the camera: “The motion picture camera is perhaps the most paradoxical of all machines, in that it can be at once independently active and infinitely passive. Kodak´s early slogan, “You push the button, it does the rest”, was not an exaggerated advertising claim, and, connected to any simple trigger device, a camera can even take pictures all by itself.”

“what fanciful creators we are:
bestowing shock absorbers on cars
sprinkling tenderizer on meats
and stitching wrinkle-resistant shirts

such wishful thinking, this
gifting what we desire.”

Even though the images of photography can be always be accused of being accidental, and dependent on an existing reality, the film-image is not equivalent to reality or to that reality, because it is already a reflection from another world. For S. Brent Plate, “Films create worlds. They do not passively mimic or directly display what is “out there,” but actively reshape elements of the lived world and twist them in new ways that are projected on screen and given over to an audience.” Maya Deren speaks of the specific arrangements of images in films and urges us to abandon the image as the end-product of the creative process in cinema, in order to see that “The images with which the camera provides him are like fragments of a permanent, incorruptible memory; their individual reality is in no way dependent upon their sequence in actuality, and they can be assembled to compose any of several statements.”

What is it that there is to film if it is not images? “All invention and creation consist primarily of a new relationship between known parts” is the answer of Maya Deren, hinting at a relationship that as previously alluded is not pure – either in the spatial or temporal, but one of fragmented memory. Artaud tells us what it is that happens in cinema: “You will look in vain for a film which is based on purely visual situations, whose action springs from stimuli addressed to the eye only and is founded, so to speak, on the essential qualities of eyesight, untrammeled by psychological and irrelevant complications or by a verbal story expressed in visual terms. The essence of the visual language should be so presented, and the action should be such, that any translation would be out of the question; the visual action should operate on the mind as an immediate intuition.”

If the visual aspect is rendered if not irrelevant, at least of a secondary nature and, the narrative aspect wants to be overcome – at least insofar as it is indebted to other purer forms of art – the purpose of films is ought to be redefined as a form of experience, without the brutal immediacy with which we experience life, but rather as second-hand experience such as that we acquire during a visit to the planetarium: The screen is a telescope with which we are permitted to gaze into distant worlds that might have a different range of emotional or intellectual references for us, but of which we are not allowed to keep anything at all. The crucial relationship between time and space is disfigured and we are left with the experience of films as an act of memory, interrupted as it may be. The crucial aspect is not what is happening but what exactly it feels like and what it means.

“sometimes simply hanging there
airborne abstract art
in open air

suspended animation
continually contorting:
great sky whales, now, horse drawn carriages

unpinpointable thought forms,
punctuating the endless sentence of the sky.”

It is precisely here that films and religion are experienced in a similar manner. They are both beyond visual and verbal codes and create whole composite worlds in a way such that a certain desire for visualizing – rather than viewing – is always left incomplete and at the mercy of that which cannot be properly viewed. Faith and filmic language enforce ethics and codes of experience through an assemblage of symbols, but whose real message and intent stand outside of themselves:

“could it be, that from the start,
the thing he sought, this demon-angel,
was always just outside the page”

And then many have spoken since the early days of cinema about the redeeming qualities of films, and redemption comes in many different textures: end of times, end of history, birth and beginning, death and consummation or even tragedy. The implication of redemption is always one not only of religious language but also of a temporal index, and what is religion if not orientation in temporal indexes and the rearrangement of those indexes to transcend, overcome and purify the present from its natural quality to want to crush against our heads with the full weight of past memory and future expectation?

But unlike revealed religions, in which the community is the living entity par excellence of the faith, films are always a solitary epiphany; in the cinema there is no audience as there is in the theater but rather a fragmented group of individuals, such as a book club reading a novel. The revelation of the film is an individual act or calling in which the composite world of images cut over images move toward an infinitely present presence that in reaching the climax of its articulation dissolves upon itself:

“for, whether they dance alone
or with an invisible partner,
every word is a cosmos
dissolving the inarticulate”.

In “The Decay of Cinema”, written over 15 years ago, Susan Sontag tells us something that stands on the way of Deren’s spiritual project: “Each art breeds its fanatics. The love that cinema inspired, however, was special. It was born of the conviction that cinema was an art unlike any other: quintessentially modern; distinctively accessible; poetic and mysterious and erotic and moral – all at the same time. Cinema had apostles. (It was like religion.) Cinema was a crusade. For cinephiles, the movies encapsulated everything. Cinema was both the book of art and the book of life.”

In the same way that the authority of art left the domain of the sacred and jumped into the institutions of the public space, and then, into the public space itself; modern religion underwent the same transformations and crossed the boundaries of the community of faith – once this was dissolved in the traditional sense – and acquired a richer lens in which private religion is translated in a variety of alphabets, unique and personal, individual and perspectival. The book of art and the book of life have become highways and oceans in the topography of the world, and the book of religion among them, another navigation map.

“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?”

Accordingly, the appearance of newer filmic genres, beyond the experimental – and what theoreticians, not without analytical obsession call first (Hollywood), second (art) and third (political, ethnic, global) cinema, including so-called religious films and films of faith are not willy-nilly appearances on the repertoire of available and accessible realities, but rather, the confirmation that the desire and curiosity for observation and experience – somewhat nullified by the predominance of images bombarding us from everywhere – other than that offered by the world in its bare thingness, has become intensified by a century of cinema and film culture.

In 1953, during a symposium on Poetry and Film, Maya Deren introduces two models of film structure: She describes as horizontal films those associated with drama – and literature – in which one circumstance or action leads to another; in opposition to a vertical film structure, that she calls also poetic, in which images are put on top of one another, digging deep into the ramifications of the moment and exploring the quality of time rather than merely narrating it. Nowadays most films involve a mixture of the two and a variety of technical maneuvers and formats are available to the filmmaker and to the film lover, to appropriate reality and medium in whatever way the book of life, art and religion, he finds suitable.

Films distance themselves more and more from the narrative plots of literature, even in their more commercial versions and no longer aim to bewitch or to entertain only, but rather, want to offer richer edges of reality, the plurality of which is the insurance of the imagination. In that sense, no, there’s no black magic or sorcery in film in the same way after which the truths of faith want to liberate us from the immediate factness of reality, from the rawness, which is neither true nor false. Just like once, God was in the little details, now poetry and truth are in the little frames.

These frames have undeniably infiltrated religion and religion has broken the boundaries between the mere ritual and the experience of the street, both of which are found in films. The faith of film, solitary as it is, is one of the building blocks of the modern experience, and the world, so freely offered through images now has become a smaller and crowded place in which representation and self-representation, once considered the quintessence of secularity, has become one of the most intense forms of prayer:

“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.”