Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Fragments of Unquotable Literature

First published on THE MANTLE
In 1891 the Icelandic-Canadian poet Stephan Stephansson concluded his poemThe Exilewith the following stanza:
Still on spring nights green fields
Are warmed by light sun,
Still creeks coil around
The breast of domed hills,
The wavelet chants as before
Out by the coastal sand –
But I have acquired somehow
No fatherland.

This poem serves as inspiration for Birna Bjarnadóttir’s enigmatic collection of poetic fragments, simply titled A Book of Fragments.
She writes about Stephansson’s travels – who anyway had left the impoverished island in 1873 for the new world – with a singular twist of the notion of “travelling:”
“I have acquired somehow no fatherland, wrote Stephan G. Stephansson,Emerson’s disciple in the ranks of North American poets and philosophers, the farmer who had emigrated from Iceland to Canada at the end of the nineteenth century and taught himself to travel in world literature and philosophy of man and nature.”
The obsession of Bjarnadóttir with traveling Icelanders is at the core of the book with the idea of being “away” – and the book is written in the third person.
First there’s the reference to the traveling Icelanders: Not only Stephansson but also the poets Benedikt Gröndal and Jónas Hallgrímsson.
Bjarnadóttir writes about the house at Vesturgata 16 in Reykjavik that Benedikt Gröndal had bought:  “One fall night in Reykjavik at the beginning of the 20thcentury, college students went marching with torches to a house at Vesturgata 16… If one wants to understand why one of the most profound aestheticians of the 19th century in Europe is still a blank paper in the world, there is no need to look abroad for any explanation.”
Here is the travel: “He sailed back to Iceland penniless and without a degree, only to leave again after a few years, torn by sorrow and misery.”
The final lines of a poem by Gröndal come to mind:
“From whence it came, and where ‘twill go.
We here on Earth can never know.”

Then there’re the travels of Jónas Hallgrímsson: “On October 27, 1842, Jónas sailed to Copenhagen, never to return to Iceland.”
Bjarnadóttir brings up the seventh stanza of Hallgrímsson’s poem “The Journey’s End” (Ferðalok) written in 1844 or 1845, when he was already in Denmark:

Haraldur Jónsson, Crumpled Darkness (detail) 2006, black paper
Haraldur Jónsson, Crumpled Darkness (detail) 2006, black paper
The wise flower-elves
wept in the hollows,
they knew we would need to part.
We thought it was drops
of dew, and kissed
cold tears from the crossgrass.

Grétu þá í lautu
góðir blómálfar,
skilnað okkarn skildu;
dögg það við hugðum,
og dropa kalda
kysstum úr krossgrasi.

There’re other kinds of traveling. Fragments, images, disciplines.
Fragments: Hannah Arendt instructs us that “thought fragments” (in Benjamin) were born out of despair with the present and the desire to destroy and tear apart its continuous flow. In the introduction to A Book of Fragments George Toleswrites: “As the Romantics well knew, the fragment suggests the constancy and magical stamina of ancient ruins.” The book is a roadmap through the history of Iceland – from Saga to Romanticism to Icelandic-Canadian writing – and the inroads of European thought. As it was the case with Benjamin, fragments are fraught with tragedy. But there’s more.
Images:  The enigmatic fragments are surrounded by artwork of Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin, Icelandic artist Haraldur Jónssonand it contains visual references toSteingrimur Eyfjörd’s exhibit from 2007 The Golden Plover Has Arrived, in which Bjarnadóttir participates as an “aesthete:” “Should we blame the experts? Aesthetics, the former beauty queen has been discharged from the prolific and profitable scene of theory-making. However, unnoticed by the anti-aesthetic theory-makers, this shattered, yet curiously vital term may not have been abandoned by literature itself.”
Disciplines: Why would a scholar of Icelandic literature in Canada write a book like A Book of Fragments? It reads like Kafka’s “Blue Octavo Notebooks.” It can be picked up and left at any time, it doesn’t have any moral lessons or offers points of view; it is a meditation on art, a travel book, a book of philosophy and a manual of Icelandic literature.
It stands as a unique curiosity in Icelandic letters – although it is written in English – and while there have been similar works, for exampleGunnar Harðarson’s work on Walter Benjamin, Haukur Ingvarsson’s work on Laxness and Halldór Guðmundsson’s recent workWriter’s Livesthose fine works of literature do not match the simplicity but enormous endeavor of Bjarnadóttir. Her littlebook unknowingly rescues the ideas behindFjölnir, the journal of Icelandic letters published by Hallgrímsson in Denmark between 1835 and 1847 and that died after him with much of the Romantic movement in Iceland.
George Toles put it simply – and infinitely difficult – in the introduction: “She proposes a religion without walls that finds its animating force in love. This love requires an acceptance of the imperfection of all human arrangements.” It is like a small Icelandic Bible, the book of art, the book of life, the book of love.
Birna Bjarnadóttir’s new book Recesses of the Mind: Aesthetics in the Work of Guðbergur Bergssonwas published in January 2012.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

I Need Someone to Go on a Little Journey for Me

First published on THE MANTLE
That is what the Bishop of Reykjavik told the “Undersigned” (from then onwards known as “EmBi”: Emissary of the Bishop) in Halldór Laxness’ strange novel Under the Glacier. I had begun reading the book in 2009 and it took me slightly over three years to finish a “simple” 200-pages novel.
I guess that in order to write a review of a work of literature like this, one has to let go of everything that one knows about literary reviews (based mainly on theoretical prejudice) and adopt a singular point of view in which the plot, characters and the actual dramatic climax is not the most important element or lens.
In Under the Glacier this and that happens. Blah blah blah. The end is like this. The beginning is like that. Such and such dramas.
The story could be quite simple: The Bishop of Reykjavik sends a young theologian to investigate the status of Christianity and strange events in a town at the top of a mountain in Western Iceland, at the entrance ofSnæfell glacier.
But the events are so strange that EmBi’s travelogue – and this is all what the novel is – becomes an epic legend about religion, reality and storytelling itself. The bishop instructs EmBi: “Don’t forget that few people are likely to tell more than a small part of the truth: no one tells much of the truth, let alone the whole truth. Spoken words are facts in themselves, whether true or false. When people talk they reveal themselves, whether they’re lying or telling the truth.”
A stream of consciousness would be so unfitting a term. The idea of stream of consciousness doesn’t tell stories as much as capture situations and conditions. What storytelling is is better captured by Hannah Arendt:
 “It is true that storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it, that it brings about consent and reconciliation with things as they really are, and that we may even trust it to contain eventually by implication the last word which we expect from the Day of Judgment”.
Susan Sontag tells us in the introduction to the novel’s English translation that the long prose fiction called the novel has yet to shake off the mandate of its own normality as promulgated in the 19th century. She goes on to add that narratives that deviate from the artificial “norm” of the novel and tell other kinds of stories are considered bizarre and mentions some of those genres:
Science fiction
Tale, fable, allegory
Philosophical novel
Dream novel
Visionary novel
Literature of fantasy
Wisdom lit
Sexual turn-on

Then concludes by saying: “The only novel I know that fits into all of them is Halldór Laxness’ wildly original, morose, uproarious Under the Glacier.
It would be difficult to read Laxness without being familiar with Icelandic saga and the Icelandic tradition known as “kvöldvaka” (or the night-watch, similar to what is called in Yemen “samar”). In many farms in Iceland during the long winter nights, members of the household sat in the common room as they listened to Icelandic sagas read aloud, folktales about mysterious women, ghosts and magic or rhymes.  
Stories about the creation of the world – in which Snæfell glacier and the entrance to the volcano underneath are the center of the universe – figure prominently in this tradition. And this is how Laxness’ novel ought to be read: As if it were one long story told orally during a night-watch: “The difference between a novelist and a historian is this: that the former tells lies deliberately and for the fun of it; the historian tells lies in his simplicity and imagines he is telling the truth”.
Can Christianity survive in the glacier? This question is answered by the priest of the Snæfell: “The closer you try to approach the facts through history, the deeper you sink into fiction.”
The only fitting review I could find for Laxness’ novel was a poem of Laxness’ predecessor, the poetJónas Hallgrímsson, written in 1837. Hallgrímsson like some of the characters that people Laxness’ curious novel was a poet andscientist, interested in the mysteries of the universe – like a good Icelandic storyteller – and who used his extensive knowledge of science and nature to describe Icelandic nature in his poetry.
He even wrote a cosmological treatise: On the Nature and Origin of the Earth” that leave us without knowing whether it was scientific prose, a legend or a poem.  His poemThe Vastness of the Universe,”based on one of the young Schiller, begins with a stanza that recreates the ambition of Laxness, more than a hundred years later:
Eg er sá geisli,
er guðs hönd skapanda
fyrr úr ginnunga
gapi stökkti;
flýg eg á vinda
vængjum yfir
háar leiðir
I am the speeding
spark of light
flung by God
from the forge of Chaos.
I soar on wings
swifter than wind
above the paths
of the pulsing stars.

A collection of different reviews of Under the Glacier is available here: Laxness in Translation

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Huna London (Bahrain)

First published on BIKYAMASR

CAIRO: “All films are the same.” That is what Um Salman (Huda Sultan) told her husband Bu (Mubarak Khamis) on a certain night while watching a film on TV, after he had asked her if they hadn’t seen that movie before.
The question is two-fold: On the one hand, haven’t we seen all the movies before anyway? They’re vaults of memory and consciousness, expand upon them and are only limited by our experiences; on the other hand, the movie that they are watching is nowhere visible or perceptible and on a Truman Show fashion, the screen of their TV is unknowingly allowing them to peer into the world of the audience – that is, our world.
The scene takes place in “Huna London” (2012), a short film of Bahraini filmmaker Mohammed Rashed Bu Ali, a joint Bahraini-Emirati production that was just released on April 12 in the course of the 5th Gulf Film Festival, and the 6th production of the talented filmmaker.
In line with his previous work from “Absence” (2008) through “Under the Sky” (2011) the film draws on the language and cultural codes of Bahrain’s traditional life, but unlike the commonplace genre of “tradition” film, vastly popular in the Arab world, the project of Bu Ali is a lot more ambitious technically and conceptually.
Tradition films are usually seen as battlegrounds where the conflicts and struggles between traditional ways of life and the advance of modernity are staged and often ambiguously solved in a poetic manner, but also the center stage of radical criticism of society and nostalgia over a past already buried or forlorn.
Bu Ali’s films present a different strategy to stage the theater of consciousness in which the purely filmic finds its expression in storytelling rather than in history. The storytelling at work in these films isn’t the well-known strategy imported from literary prose in which a plot – whatever it might be – comes to a happy or moral resolution of the struggle of the hero, in a linear sequence.
The abstract poetics of his earlier films that were reviewed recently on, nevertheless, gave way to a more mature process of filming and editing in which the experimental, poetic and highly realistic qualities of his films did not have to be sacrificed in order to conform to a more normative and linear film.
His previous work, that drew heavily on the idea of loneliness – without falling into gaps of consciousness and alienation – is somewhat left behind in “Huna London” and replaced by a more spoken, dialogical and whimsical film bordering on comedy; a genre today swallowed up by Hollywood and nearly forgotten in Arab cinema. Once again, Bu Ali manages to surprise and innovate.
The story of “Huna London” is rather simple: The couple of Bu and Um Salman are on a mission to have a photograph of them taken and sent to their son, who has left the homeland to go and study in London. What could have been easily done at a studio in the city becomes a movie-long adventure when the wife refuses to go to the studio, and a young photographer has to think of a way to capture the shot.
This could have never been the subject of a movie – let alone a comedy – hadn’t it been the case that something keeps getting on the way and preventing the simple task. A number of parallel stories unfold: The couple chasing after a rat, a cloud of indecision and the religious precautions on the part of Um.
Day after day, the couple stages another attempt to have their photo taken and after a series of predicaments, difficult positions, change of photographer, dress, background and a lot of laughter, the mission is accomplished in a singular manner.
As it is the case with Bu Ali’s film, the excellent music score provided by the great Bahraini composer Mohammed Haddad, heightens the dramatic effect of the whimsically written movie and what was a long series of meditations and silences in his previous films, becomes here a fairy tale, a legend, a chronicle and a parody.
Using the same visual configuration – and spatiality – of his previous films, the shift from an abstract dialogue – sometimes bordering on insanity and incommunicability – into a fully spoken narrative film is very smooth, and provides a natural continuity into a film that appeals to a more commercial audience and retains all of the aesthetic and thematic richness of his earlier films; in particular the creative use of “tradition” and “traditional life” without falling prey to the limited plot-resolution dialectics, normative of Arab films that make use of visual and social realism in their making.
Limited as the number of productions is in the emerging cinema of Bahrain – consisting of one full-length motion picture and a good number of short films – the tiny Gulf kingdom made a singular appearance during the Gulf Film Festival with a larger number of short films than that of many other countries and a broad range of topics and styles.
Mohammed Bu Ali continues being one of the youngest and most active filmmakers in the Bahraini scene and “Huna London” is a prime example of precise development and maturity, heading towards a new kind of cinema in the Arabian Gulf.
The region has managed to turn the genre of short films into a fully developed genre of cinema that is available also to an audience less specialized and less familiar with experimental and documentary films. At the same time that they are carrying out successfully the transition from cinema with specific social and historical messages and conflicts, into a home-grown cinema with universal themes and motifs, disenfranchised from political polemics and into a purer cinema, opening the way for a professional industry with limited resources and unlimited raw material.
The re-birth of cinema in the Arab world and its birth in the Arabian Gulf is an indicator of the democratization of culture in which cinema is not only the expression of conflict or the off-shot of a mass-media driven film industry in which the region is nothing but a geographic trope.
As more filmmakers and titles begin to emerge, films such as “Huna London” explore not just technical possibilities but also the identity of a new cinema – both artistic, global and regional – at the crossroads of turbulent transitions, not necessarily political, but mainly of consciousness and perception, in which cinema has played a pivotal role for over a hundred years, as one of the most vivid and immediately available vehicles of transmission.
Perhaps it is true that all films are the same. That is why we continue watching them, producing them, passing them under the lens of criticism. It is one and the same struggle always: Travelling without moving.

Mirrors of Silence (UAE)

First published on BIKYAMASR

CAIRO: In “Aesthetics of Silence” (1967) Susan Sontag writes: “Every era has to re-invent the project of “spirituality” for itself. (Spirituality = plans, terminologies, ideas of deportment, aimed at resolving the painful structural conditions inherent in human situations, at the completion of human consciousness, at transcendence.) In the modern era, one of the most active metaphors for the spiritual project is art.”
She goes on to add that modern art has re-drawn the lines of consciousness and hence of the site on which to stage the formal dramas besetting consciousness into an art that is something else than consciousness or knowledge, and in fact sees itself as an antidote to consciousness.
The quasi-religious or mystic aspirations of the modern artist crave for a cloud of knowing beyond knowledge and beyond consciousness, and as per Sontag: “for the silence beyond speech, so art must tend toward anti-art, the elimination of the “subject” (the “object”, the “image”), the substitution of chance for intention, and the pursuit of silence.”
This performance might seem in a way similar to that of the grandiose 19th century – said not without certain irony – and Romanticism that also found its way into the cinema in the radical aestheticism of American films from the early days of cinema that subsequent cinematic movements tried to mend with just as radical exercises of opposition.
The difference between the religion of art in the 19th and the 20th century – and cinema was born in the period in between – is that the concept of the beautiful underwent a significant transformation and “something went wrong” with it:
In the words of Agnes Heller:
“The aestheticization of the concept of the beautiful began with the religious cult of the works of art and with the cultivation of aesthetic taste in the service of this newly founded quasi-religion. As a result, aestheticization expands – it encompasses the way of life, the emotional household. The beautiful soul is no longer a simple and virtuous soul, but the soul of emotional over-refinement, receptivity, and good taste.
The concept of the beautiful paid a heavy price for having received a comfortable abode in the world of artworks; it became redundant. Beauty became just another word, an addendum, a synonym for perfection or “fitting form”. The Moor did his service; the Moor can leave.”
It is to this movement that the whole of 20th century art and cinema of course, responded with a radical divorce between beautiful and artistic. One can read in the novels of Milan Kundera his commonplace metaphor that beauty happens in the modern world by accident. The entirety of contemporary art – first only visually but later also in sound and the written word – can be now considered an accident, or, a long series of violent transgressions on itself.
Sontag writes: “Therefore, art comes to be considered something to be overthrown. A new elements enters the individual artwork and becomes constitutive of it; the appeal (tacit or overt) for its own abolition – and, ultimately, for the abolition of art itself.”
One of best known strategies in artistic transgressions is silence. But there’s no absolute silence, rather, only different modes of conversation and communication. Silence is one of the most gifted forms of storytelling and Danish writer Isak Dinesen tells us what it entails:
“When the storyteller is loyal to the story, there, in the end, silence will speak. Where the story has been betrayed, silence is but emptiness. But we, the faithful, when we have spoken out last word, will hear the voice of silence.”
There are silent films and there is silence in films. The configuration of film is always very different than that of the other arts – if filmmaking is considered an art – because there’s nothing to film but cuts and editing. Films are cinematography and cinematography is exclusively montage. For this reason the performance of silence is always something other than itself, it is not the absolute renunciation of poetry in Rimbaud or the invisible theater of Kleist; silence in films is always filmic.
But silence in films was not born with silent films, rather with its demise: It wanted to find a stronger language, a purer code, to subtract itself from the noise in such a way that it would transgress the rules imposed by literature – specifically by prose – on the way films are made. Silence in films – at a time when sound was technically possible – was a contestation on the artistic authority of the movies and hence a confirmation of the quasi-religious visions that would turn filmmakers – at least certain kind of – in artists rather than entrepreneurs.
Sontag comments on the choice of silence on the part of Rimbaud and Wittgenstein: “But the choice of permanent silence doesn’t negate their work. On the contrary, it imparts retroactively an added power and authority to what was broken off – disavowal of the work becoming a new source of its validity, a certificate of unchallengeable seriousness.”
In the history of contemporary films there are many examples of this transgression towards silence as an absolute seriousness, but it would be difficult to come up with too many examples from Middle Eastern cinema where traditional storytelling and a battleground for ideological conflicts with politics and tradition is the most commonplace of cinematic experience.
If anything, Emirati director and actor Nawaf Al-Janahi’s film “Mirrors of Silence” (2006) may well be among the most interesting silence films produced in the Middle East to date. It is not that this kind of films are not produced and showcased often in every regional film festival but the fact that the film is not dealing with the silence associated with religion, with history or with the conflicts between modernity and tradition – to which the most common response in art is often an ambiguous and elongated silence.
“Mirrors of Silence” is a modernist tale set in Dubai and asking the question of distressing loneliness in a modern city, rather than telling a story about it. Its literary counterparts wouldn’t be the lamentation or the social critique as much as the stream of consciousness – the desire to overcome consciousness into a different, less hesitant kind of knowledge but within the paradoxical assumption that the question itself warns about the impossibility (or insufferableness) or the answer.
The movie is in a genre of films that do not portray situations as much as conditions and the main character – the only character if one is watching the film with the eye of consciousness rather than mere perception – is an archetypal portrayal of the modern condition of loneliness as opposed to solitude.
Solitude is the two in one: A situation – vital for the life of the mind – in which the person withdraws from appearing in the public world in order to be with himself and to keep himself company. Loneliness on the other hand appears here as the inability to appear in the world and to even keep oneself company; other words for this condition – which is not a situation – are alienation, solipsism and in popular culture, depression.
It is a refreshing curiosity to find this type of modern meditation on “being” expressed in a regional film that draws its inspiration from something other than the conflicts with modernity: What is at work here is a conflict within modernity rather than in opposition, defiance or rejection of it.
Urban loneliness is an eternal trope for filmic meditation that goes back to the first films ever made and that dialectically, gave birth to a type of cinema whose main characteristic isn’t to tell a story as much as to portray the inability to do so under conditions of modern life.
While “modern” isn’t an entirely uniform concept, the phenomena associated with it on the global scale are indeed very similar, and since the dynamics of modernity – consumption, loneliness, moral ambiguity, cultural and geographic promiscuity – can be seen replicated over the entire world, it has been very uncommon to find in the Middle East a discourse to reflect upon these things that is not deeply embedded in the critique of modernity, among which the discourse of neo-colonialism is prominent.
It would be foolish nonetheless to assume that the questions haven’t been asked, because the critique of modernity is a part of modernity itself and one of the requisites for its survival. With singular ambiguity – of the visual and historical kind – “Mirrors of Silence” dares into the grey zone of a more contemporary kind of cinema, breaking down the dividing lines – that exist only in the minds of critics – between art cinema and the so-called third or global cinema, that is characterized as a non-Western movement.
The film presents a meditation not only on the singularity of modern life but on the role of art itself within such life, and the position of the artist – that the character of the film is – in a society where emotional impoverishment is apparently the price to be paid for homogeneity and technical survival. What Al-Janahi tries to do in his film, is put to words by the Egyptian-Lebanese writer Yahia Lababidi: “No one is interested in the hunger artist. Professional fasting has lost its cachet with the public. The hunger artist is wasting away, forgotten, in the dirty straw of carnival rage.”
The questions raised by “Mirrors of Silence” cannot be possibly be answered with the languages available to art and to film, they can only be raised, and Al-Janahi has done so more than once; his film “On A Road” (2003) poses a similar question whose metaphors and visual codes are far stronger, and all the more poetic rather than narrative, if only because it is a raw experiment on filmic experience – and that is the distinction between art films and literature, films are about the expanded possibilities of experience rather than of consciousness alone – where the topic of loneliness figures even more prominently in the situation of a young man stranded on a road.
While the short duration and immense aesthetic and narrative ambiguity of “On A Road” leave very little space for commentary – other than inane criticism of technicalities – the film does stand as a relatively unique piece in Gulf cinema and “Mirrors of Silence” can be easily understood and perceived as a sequel. A meditation on loneliness in a film does not come without certain irony of the aesthetic and artistic kind, because there can hardly be any experience more solitary in itself than the cinema and the watching of films, completely different from book clubs and music shows.
But the transgression from the colors of tradition and the sounds of noise – urban and otherwise – into a reckless absence of dialogue and silence – without being a silent film – is very successful in placing the markers of experience on a level higher than it is normally given in casual conversation. The only other film comparable in experience and intensity to “Mirrors of Silence” is Alain Nasnas’ “Et si”, a Lebanese experimental film recently released but that has still not been featured in festivals.
Sontag concludes her “Aesthetics of Silence” with: “It seems unlikely that the possibilities of continually undermining one’s assumptions can go unfolding indefinitely into the future, without being eventually checked by despair or by laugh that leaves one without any breath at all”. This is precisely what happens in Al-Janahi’s films; both despair and laugh leave one breathless and judgment is suspended, giving way to something very essential – and very loyal to the nature of films – in which the story itself becomes an obstacle.
His last film “Sea Shadows” (2011) premiered at Abu Dhabi Film Festival last year, being the first truly international full length motion picture from the United Arab Emirates. This film, very different in length and form to his previous work, falls under the normative “tradition” films genre from the Middle East and has been one of the most attended films in the United Arab Emirates. “Sea Shadows” will be a screened at the Gulf Film Festival on April 14.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Storytelling & Reconciliation: Isak Dinesen and Anna Banti

First published on HANNAH ARENDT CENTER

"It is true that storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it, that it brings about consent and reconciliation with things as they really are, and that we may even trust it to contain eventually by implication that last word which we expect from the Day of Judgment”.
- Hannah Arendt, “Isak Dinesen: 1885 – 1963” in Men in Dark Times
According to Arendt, it is through action – and all action is but acts of speech – that human beings disclose themselves in their whoness rather than merely on the basis of their whatness. Her indebtedness for storytelling comes from a two-fold source: The Greek world on the one hand - the poets and the historians, and on the other the writings of Isak Dinesen.
Arendt devoted no theoretical effort to pass Dinesen under the lens of theory, other than some occasional mention and a literary profile in the book that Auden called her most German book – because of the form of epic legends in which the stories of the anti-heroes, under the shadow of dark times, are told.
Herself a talented storyteller, her books can be read better against this background of storytelling than on theoretical impetus; this is not because Arendt wasn’t a vehement defender of the life of the mind but because of her insight about the inability of intellectual traditions and history to understand and comprehend the events of her century.
Her reading of Dinesen conforms to the difficulties of understanding Totalitarianism. Spanish philosopher Fina Birulés puts in the following words: “While storytelling does not solve any problem and does not master anything forever, it adds yet another element in the repertory of the world, it is a way for human beings to leave a lasting presence in the world, not as species, but as a plurality of who’s”.
The relationship between storytelling and reconciliation is laid out by Arendt through Dinesen: “The reward of storytelling is to be able to let go: “When the storyteller is loyal to the story, there, in the end, silence will speak. Where the story has been betrayed, silence is but emptiness. But we, the faithful, when we have spoken our last word, will hear the voice of silence”. To let go is an act of reconciliation.
Arendt writes the story of this anxiety and melancholy of her own through Dinesen: “That grief of having lost her life and lover in Africa should have made her a writer and given her a sort of second life was best understood as a joke, and “God loves a joke” became her maxim in the latter part of her life”.
Agnes Heller writes that Arendt knows in advance what it is that she wants to find in her storytelling, in spite of – often – finding something unexpected.
Dinesen becomes a reflection of mirrors for Arendt who in writing about Dinesen’s own storytelling that seems artificial and blurs the distinction between truth and fiction, finds the detachment necessary to comprehend the world, temporarily: “To become an artist also needs time and a certain detachment from the heavy, intoxicating business of sheer living that, perhaps, only the born artist can manage in the midst of living.”
The flight into imaginary worlds at the hand of Dinesen’s pen isn’t simply a performance and re-enactment of the Gothic – as is for example William Beckford’s “Vathek” – but rather a coming to terms with the present by telling a story about its burdens.
It is nothing but an anchoring on the present at a time when the foundation of the present itself – the past – seems irrevocably lost. A similar example of storytelling through mirrors would be, for example, Susan Sontag’s review of Anna Banti’s “Artemisia” for The London Review of Books in 2003.
“Artemisia” is a novel written late in the Second World War about the life of Artemisia Gentilenschi, a 17th century Italian painter:  Banti, trained as an art historian, is meticulously careful about her treatment of sources on Gentilenschi’s life and writes in what Sontag calls “a double destiny”; according to her, Anna Banti does not find herself in Artemisia and is careful enough to write in the detachment of the third person, only available to the truly committed storyteller in a game of hide and seek: “We are playing a chasing game, Artemisia and I”.
More than a biography or a historical novel, Artemisia is a deeply emotional but sober and detached portrait of a woman in the early 17th century, tainted by the scandal of a rape that disgraced her family and haunted no more  by her total commitment to art, than by the immense loneliness of living as an artist in a male-dominated world – but told with more grace than resentment.
The story about Banti and Artemisia that Sontag is telling is one of permanent displacement and loss; not only because of the female story being told but because the original novel was lost  under the ruins of Banti’s house in Borgo San Jacopo when the mines detonated by the Germans wrecked the houses near the river, including hers.
Without knowing as much, Susan Sontag is writing about Banti in the same way that Arendt is writing about Dinesen: Behind a story of loss and womanhood, there is an affirmative and rather reckless anchoring in the present – in Sontag’s case, the world after Totalitarianism: The Cold War, Iraq, Afghanistan, 9/11 and Abu Ghraib. It is against this background that she is writing about a “phoenix of a novel”, which is in itself a testimony to Sontag’s own work.
What both writers learnt from their own writers is a bitter lesson in contemporary history, as eloquently put by Arendt about Dinesen:
Thus, the earlier part of her life had taught her that, while you can tell stories or write poems about life, you cannot make life poetic, live it as though it were a work of art (as Goethe had done) or use it for the realization of an “idea”. Life might contain the “essence” (what else could?); recollection, the repetition in imagination, may decipher the essence and deliver to you the “elixir”; and eventually you may even be privileged to “make” something out of it, “to compound the story”. But life itself is neither essence nor elixir, and if you treat it as such it will only play its tricks on you.
When Lebanese writer Mira Baz left Yemen in 2011, in the course of the revolution and just before the deadly “Friday of Dignity” massacre, after nearly a decade teaching and writing in the mysterious land – similar to Dinesen’s Africa seen through Arendt and Banti’s Florence seen through Sontag, a sort of paradise lost and not without heavy taxes levied by the status of paradise, she was to become displaced and would turn her poetic travelogue of Yemen into a vast vault of memory.
In March 2012 she wrote – exactly a year after the massacre – about the experience of the displacement, invoking the following lines from Dinesen:
“If I know a song of Africa,
Of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back,
Of the plows in the field and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers,
Does Africa know a song of me?”
After which she writes:
The house and the garden had quickly become my home, where in the mornings I fed my regular guests Bulbuls and Serins, and found serenity when, through watching them, I meditated on existence, on cycles, on life, on everything and nothingness. Out there was Yemen. Within the garden walls, and all the walls, was me, inside my head.
Through reading and writing, life cannot be changed, but it can be made understandable and livable, after the same fashion of John Updike when he described the prose of Bruno Schulz: “The harrowing effect of Schulz’ prose is to construct the world anew, as from fragments that exist after some unnamable disaster”. The disaster is always the turbulence of history and the unnamable is the loss, but here storytelling becomes a privilege, a sign of truth, and the burden of a presence – entering the world once again, even if it had been lost once.
Fina Birulés concludes her timely meditation on Arendt and Dinesen: “The political function of the narrator – historian or novelist – is to teach the acceptance of things as they are. From this acceptance, that might be called as well veracity, is born the faculty of judgment, by means of which, in words of Isak Dinesen, in the end we will have the privilege to see and to see again, and that is what is called Day of Judgment.”

Monday, April 09, 2012

The Good Omen: Films from Bahrain

First published on BIKYAMASR

“Who would leave the sea and build his house in the desert?” is the question posed by Hussain, lifelong friend of Mohammed, the main character in “The Good Omen” (Al Bishara), a short-film from Bahrain by director Mohammed Rashed Bu Ali and one of the first internationally screened films, produced in the tiny island-kingdom.
The question is asked while the two men navigate the tranquil sea of the Arabian Gulf on a traditional fishermen boat and behind them stands in the background the bridge between Muharraq Island and the main Bahrain Island as a highway from the once modest fishing and pearl diving village, into the skyline of the now modern state.
“The Good Omen” (2009) rescues with minimal resources – technical and aesthetic – the traditional life in the island of Muharraq alongside the conditions furnished by the nascent state, rather than before, as it happens to be the case in some of the region’s films.
“Traditional” is not only a strong word but the key word in cinema from the Arabian Gulf, and from the greater Middle East in general, where the questions posed by tradition – in both content and form – have become a battleground where a plethora of social, ethnic and cultural conflicts are meant to be solved by means of aesthetic responses often loaded with critical but ambiguous messages.
This strategy, albeit proven successful in films since the rise of social realism in film – coeval with the social revolutions of the 20th century and responding to the radical aestheticism and one could say, Romanticism, of a great deal of early 20th century art, has done an enormous injustice to the potential of film as an art form and belongs in the primitive materialism of the 19th century, to use the expression coined by Maya Deren.
“Tradition” films – though not recognized yet as a genre – are not exclusive to the Arab world, and have been very popular in Chinese and Latin American cinema too, but they do account for a great number of the films produced in the region. The very fact that tradition is the most commonly addressed topic in Arab films indicates only that tradition has become significantly weak or at the very least, is being contested in the mind of the artists.
The early history of Arab cinema – going to back to Egypt’s “Layla” from 1927 and Lebanon’s “The Adventures of Elias Mabruk” from 1929 – tells us that Arab filmmakers were interested in the radical aestheticism of American films and the films themselves presented conditions and situations of the time rather than questions and challenges.
This was more or less the driving force behind Arab cinema and was maintained throughout the golden periods of Egyptian and Lebanese cinema, until its demise and decline in the 1970’s that coincided with the Lebanese civil war and the beginning of Hosni Mubarak’s rule in Egypt. In this period, cinema in the region entered a comatose period after which it never recovered and it was out of this predicament that the new – independent – Arab cinema was born.
The idea of “tradition” films is highly paradoxical: The resources made available by the modern era to cinema – the quintessential modern art form – are put at the service of delivering modernity an acute visual and thematic critique. The movement however is not entirely undialectical: Disappointment with and criticism of the modern world are part of its dynamics and survival.
Embedded in “realism” – both the poetic realism of France and the neorealism of Italy – these films are understood as a practice and extension of reality, out of which the so-called “Third Cinema” – opposed to both Hollywood and avant-garde or art film – was born. Primarily a Latin American movement from the 1960’s, it was a manifesto against bourgeois values and individualism.
“Third Cinema” rejected the idea of cinema as an instrument for personal expression and appeal to the masses, presenting the “truth” in order to inspire political activism. As an art form, it eventually became the normative format of the documentary that followed modes imported from prose narrative, identical in their primitive materialism to Hollywood films in being enslaved to the linear sequence of the realist novel and the play.
Tradition film retained the aesthetic social realism of the documentary but rejected the idea – strongly Marxist – of collectivism and this gave way to richer layers of composition and cutting in which elements of literary modernism crept it: the stream of consciousness, the interrupted narrative and the psychological description.
It is in this sense that Bu Ali’s film “The Good Omen” can hardly the classified as “tradition” not because it has not made use of the advantages and resources of tradition films but because it has expanded the narrative possibilities of film beyond the linear plot and has introduced poetic elements at all levels of expression: filmic, aesthetic, conceptual and narrative.
The difference between prose and poetry in films is not one of content or even narration but an index of temporality: In prose events unfold horizontally whereas in poetry they are superimposed vertically on top of one another, not in order to present a logical sequence of events but to represent a condition, rather than a situation.
The only predecessors in the region to Bu Ali’s styles of films could be Bader Ben Hirsi’s “A New Day in Old Sana’a” (2005) that was described by a critics as a piece of magic realism, but that still in comparison would lack to poetic visions and the abstract quality of the Bahraini director’s films.
The poetic impetus of “The Good Omen”, where it defeats tradition films is in picking the good omen from Bahraini culture; the act of hanging the traditional and highly elaborate woman’s dress – known as thobe al-nashal – over the roof of one’s home as a joyous announcement of the return of a family member after a long absence.
Mohammed, the protagonist and an archetype for the human condition of loneliness rather than merely a fictional character, is awaiting his long-departed wife and from whom he refuses to part, even though the news of her death is no longer news. He refuses not only to cross the bridge into the main island but also to settle into the conditions of modern life – for example, by going to live with his son in a modern house – and clings to the constricted space that can keep alive the memory of the dead wife, rather than dilute it.
There is in the film an implicit but very powerful relationship to the waters surrounding the island expressed in the adamant refusal of Mohammed and Hussein to severe their ties to the water, as if the water – unmovable – were a strong metaphor for frozen and stable time. In the opening of the film the question of Hussein is answered with another question from the narrator and protagonist Mohammed: “What good is the sea when it has all dried up… and the waters covered with sand?”
The condition of loneliness presented in the film isn’t that of modern alienation – as for example in “Mirrors of Silence”, a short film of Emirati director Nawaf Al Jahani – but something a lot more essential: The loneliness portrayed by Bu Ali isn’t a form of temporary depression or mere sadness but rather a permanent mental condition in which the characters are unable to relate to the world in its current form and need to circumvent it through establishing inner worlds of language.
His previous films “Absence” (2008) and “Canary” (2010) can be said to form a thematic trilogy with “The Good Omen”, even though they offer different visions and perspectives.
“Absence” (with a reference to “The Lonely Alone” of celebrated Bahraini poet Qassim Haddad and partially set to the famous piece “Fat Al Mi3ad” of classical singer Um Kalthoum) offers a singular meditation on loneliness from the perspective of the Arabic tradition of hospitality – a guest that never arrives. The trope is traditional but the condition is modern; the guest that never arrives provides a Messianic interlude that runs throughout the whole of modernist literature. A similar feature of fulfillment or hope beyond hope can be found as well in the development and end of “The Good Omen”.
“Canary” on the other hand puts the stress on the idea of loneliness as a permanent mental condition and a form of insanity that had been expressed in “The Good Omen” but in a far radical manner. It is not only that the protagonist – and owner of the canary – expresses his self-exclusion from the world by holding lengthy phone conversations with a friend through a phone whose wires are cut but also that the rest of the characters – a blind girl and a mute man – through whom the canary is passed, are just as unable to communicate with the world through normal channels; it is not only a question of a debacle.
The break with the genre of tradition film and authenticity of Bu Ali’s productions also surfaces with the scores of the film that are nowhere improvised or realistic but carefully chosen pieces of Mohammed Haddad, the greatest composer and music critic from Bahrain and himself the son of the poet Qassim Haddad. The classical pieces – although in “The Good Omen” there is traditional Bahraini music, in the tradition of the Fidjeri – heighten the poetic revelation of the films and render the stories being told less relevant than the conditions they represent.
In “The Good Omen” there is the added element of a narrator voice – what does not weaken the other two films, it only makes the spectator experience them as more abstract pieces – and sung music that set the space for some kind of orality, in tune with the creative use of local traditions, that is for the most part absent from contemporary cinema and that abstracts the cinematic realism of the film into a composite space between pure storytelling and pure art.
If anything, the films of Bu Ali perform for the culture of Bahrain and the Arabian Gulf what Costumbrismo did in the painting and literature of the Hispanic 19th century: Literary and pictorial – in this case narrative and visual – interpretation of local everyday life, mannerisms and customs.
Bu Ali seems himself primarily as a storyteller rather than a producer, writer and director; writing today – even from a theoretical perspective – encompasses a vast range of media and techniques, not all of which are served by the established genres of literature. While seeing films as an alternative to literature does great injustice to films as mere entertainment or ersatz literature, his films – unlike tradition films – do constitute literary achievements.
Like most of the directors from the region, he is self-taught and does not come from an art school background but that has not kept him from acquiring the skills and especially the acute understanding of the concepts at work in contemporary film, and even of taking some of them one step beyond the established canons of the time, looking at great things people did in the past and envisioning great things people will do in the future.
His films were screened yesterday in Bahrain at the creative art space Alwan 338 in Adliya, in collaboration with Al Riwaq Art Space, in great anticipation to this participation in the 5th Gulf Film Festival where his new film “Huna London” is going to be premiered on April 12. Even though Bahrain has not been on the agenda of film critics and aficionados even in the Arab world, the country remains a pioneer in the Arabian Gulf, producing films since 1990 with a good number of directors, of which Bu Ali is among the youngest and most active.