Tuesday, July 31, 2012

At the Square VI

First published on THE MANTLE
For G. Maalouf
"Never seek friendship... Never permit oneself to dream of friendship... Friendship is a miracle!" -Simone Weil
There was an abandoned rock quarry at both edges of the hill south of Nahr el-Jaouze in a valley that once wrapped around in greenery the castle of Saladin's sons, and it was rumored that after "the events"(*), the rock quarries had been banned, but like ants - or cockroaches - the workers continued to plunder the weather-sculptured rocks laboriously at night. A highway from Tripoli to Beirut had been built on its contours, in between the years of the saga of the Ayyubid princes of the Koura and Tripoli and "the events", so the workers were easily spotted by the drivers and had to leave one early morning in a hurry, leaving behind bulldozer tracks and toppled rocks. The now barren hill, with its little fort and a surviving tree, looked upwards: "For that country submits utterly to heaven, holds heaven over itself in vaulted colors, variform, intricate with cloisters, triforia, stained-glass roses, windows opening onto eternity. Year after year that country grows up into the sky, merges with the dawn redness, turns angelic in the reflected light of the greater atmosphere."  
So different from the Castle of St. Gilles, so small, I thought. An expert on castles of the crusaders had told us that when a fortress was besieged, the defenders didn't throw boiling oil but sand which would get inside the armor of the attackers and begin to burn, until they were in far too much pain to fight. "Had we known this, probably we could have won all of our wars!" is what I told George. I had wanted to climb up the polished stairway, but I remembered then we were aimless legs. "You are different, and for me that means irreplaceable". I tried to look around in order to detect where his voice had come from, but it was an ocean of aimless legs, and we looked the same, with our summer hats and elegant foulards. "How did he recognize me?" That's all I could muster. One man - or his leg - fretted about the destruction of the valley, now half covered with rubble again, even the Roman bridge. I mistook him for my friend. "Today those remote dreams come back, and not without reason. The possibility suggests itself that no dreams, however absurd or senseless, are wasted in the universe."
[Ala Younis, "Tin Soldiers", 2010-2011, 12th Istanbul Biennal]
"You're courageous. I, -like lots of others and unlike you- do not have the courage to write, and probably will never have." The castle had been thought to be the crusaders', and the French, mistook it for Turkish or Mamluk. Only in 1956Emir Izzat al-Ayyubi, while studying at St. Joseph in Beirut, revealed the mystery of the virtually unknown Zahrite branch of the Ayyubids. Courageous? I was so afraid to leave, so afraid that everything would turn to rubble, that he would suddenly disappear, like the names of Saladin's sons, carved in stone, on the fortress walls. "And the kind of courage? The greatest kind of courage. The courage to be afraid. To have the two fears. First we have to have the courage to be afraid of being hurt. We have to not defend ourselves. The world has to be suffered. Only through suffering will we know certain faces of the world, certain events of life: the courage to tremble and sweat and cry is as necessary forRembrandt as for Genet." We wanted to see the world - the impressive valley - from within Mousayliha, but as it happened with every fortress, there were no windows; the crusaders sat in a pitch-dark.
Autumn music played. How could a leg play music in a valley? "We resolved to become self-sufficient, create a new life principle, establish a new age, reconstitute the world -on a small space, to be sure, for ourselves alone, but after our own tastes and pleasures." The night began to invent maps of the city, mistaking the village for a stellar map, and was puzzled because Batroun - a few kilometers away - seemed so far for us, who couldn't walk. "To really paint the sea, you have to see it everyday, at every hour and in the same place, to come to know the life in this location." Everything was so inviting. The rubble, the barren hill, the procession of Saladin's sons. I kept asking about the voice, the voice that had said all those things, until I found myself walking and was reminded of what the moon said to the night as she papered her windows: They can only walk in pairs.  "We went for a walk all together along a steeply falling street, pervaded by the scent of violets; uncertain whether it was the magic of the night which lay like silver on the snow or whether it was the light of dawn..."
"I would like to write like a painter. I would like to write like painting. The way I would like to live. Maybe the way I manage to live, sometimes. Or rather: the way it is sometimes given to me to live, in the present absolute. In the happening of the instant. Just at the moment of the instant, in what unfurls it, I touch down then let myself slip into the depth of the instant itself... Monet, in 1890, is the one who said that: what I am looking for, instantaneousness... the same light spread throughout, the same light, the same light." Where are you going, George? I asked. "Nowhere in particular." He said.

[Passages from Bruno Schulz taken from "Cinnamon Shops" & "The Republic of Dreams", in "The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories", Penguin, 2008. Passages from Hélène Cixous taken from "La dernier tableau ou le portrait de dieu", in "La Venue à l'écriture", U.G.E., 1977.]
[Robert Montgomery, 2009]
(*) "The events" or "Al-Hawadeth" is the popular term in Lebanon to refer to the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990).

Thursday, July 26, 2012

After Two Months

First published on ART CLVB / RE-ORIENT 
Detail from 'Bekaa Batikh Vendor's Siesta'
Detail from ‘Bekaa Batikh Vendor’s Siesta’
Any discussion about contemporary Lebanese art is inescapably fraught with questions about the Civil War and the ongoing regional conflicts that more often than not find a buffer zone in Lebanon. All of this has led to the assumption that the prism of war – or the denial of it thereof – is the sole identity of Lebanese art; and, as is the case with the Arab ‘Spring’, collectors and buyers in the West tend to have preconceived expectations that glorify the images of war when it comes to Lebanon.
In speaking about this fascination on the part of Western collectors, Lebanese artist Bernard Khoury notes that local artists are ‘prisoners of war’ – or at least, of the depictions they make of it. In his opinion, Lebanese artists are either trapped in the romantic images of Lebanon during the years between its independence in 1943 and the Civil War in 1975, or are portraying Lebanon exclusively through the prism of war. His luminous fresco, Catherine Wants to Know (2009), which mixes images from other contemporary artists depicting both views of an idyllic pre-war Lebanon and of war-torn Beirut, reflects on this practice.
There is no doubt that Khoury is reflecting on certain trends and practices, and obviously on the demands and expectations of the market for Middle Eastern art in general. However, there is more than meets the eye. At the recent edition of the Beirut Art Fair (2012), no fewer than twenty galleries represented the Lebanese art scene; and, while images of war occupy an undeniable place of their own, they by no means account for all the subjects explored in Lebanese art. In a country comprised of many different communities and influences, it can hardly be said that there are any ‘common’ themes or styles.
Bernard Khoury - Catherine Wants to Know
Bernard Khoury – Catherine Wants to Know
The works of Lebanese painter Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui are illuminating in this respect, if only because of how they belong in the Lebanese context, yet remain altogether very unique and contemporary. Sehnaoui was born in Cavafy’s Alexandria, and began her classical training in painting at an Italian academy, followed by a period at the American University of Beirut, and later at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Like most artists of her generation, her training in art was very formal, and fully embedded in the Western perspective.
After returning to Beirut, Sehnaoui took a long intermission to place herself at a distance from the path of isolation and ennui that Western art had taken – a dominant trend among Lebanese painters. However, Sehnaoui’s ‘comeback’ wasn’t necessarily a restoration of traditional Arab or Islamic art, as much as it was an exploration that led her to develop a particular style from scratch, drawing on the particular traditions and iconography of the Middle East.
Although Sehnaoui’s style is figurative (a dominant trend in Lebanese art), a whole world of Middle Eastern imagery, indigenous not only to traditional Lebanese landscapes and images of old Beirut, but also to other lands such as Oman, Syria, Jordan, Yemen and Abu Dhabi, surfaces in her art. Images from Phoenician mythology, Byzantine icons, Persian miniatures, birds from ancient frescos, and Arabic calligraphy painted in pastel quarter tones appear in oils, watercolors and gouaches.
Malak Al Batikh
Malak Al Batikh
How does Sehnaoui’s work relate to the aforementioned images of war? Contrary to the thesis expounded by Khoury, her paintings do not depict nostalgic images of Beirut (the colours, contrasts, and especially the cartoon-like handling of space are profoundly contemporary), and do not represent a constant bombardment of war images. Paintings of war are not common in Sehnaoui’s exhibits and catalogues, and she herself mentions that she rarely shows or sells such paintings (although she has considered including them in a book).
One relatively recent work of Sehnaoui’s, an installation entitled After Two Months … (2008) was exhibited in the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center in Washington, D.C., in an exhibition of contemporary Lebanese art held in the spring of 2010. Installations are perhaps the most difficult and ambitious among all the contemporary art forms, due to the fact they use the content of the artwork as a kind of quotation – to paraphrase the Hungarian philosopher Agnes Heller – in the medium in which the work is produced to provide a message external to it.
After Two Months ...

After Two Months …

As the troubadour sings of things passed, he prays that indeed all the windows are just windows of the past, and that they should be a memory to remind us not to go down that path again Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui

After Two Months … differs from traditional installations (i.e. ones which cease to exist as art once an exhibition finishes) in the sense that each of its three components – the painting Days of Antar (2008), The Widows (a jacket) and The Suitcase (a mixed media piece) – are works of art in their own right, and its accompanying text opens the vaults of memory. ‘We carry a linear past within us. Our present opens up windows and different time spaces that interact with the music of our lives’, Sehnaoui posits.
With respect to Days of Antar, the painting in the installation, Sehnaoui states that:
The painting expresses the hope that war (with its string of horrors, death, destruction, futility, lovers, and vile politicians) is only to be part of the past, and related by singers and poets like the exploits of Antar – the father of Arab chivalry … not to be suffered again.
Furthermore, the artist’s accompanying text for the exhibition completes the thought. ‘As the troubadour sings of things passed, he prays that indeed all the windows are just windows of the past, and that they should be a memory to remind us not to go down that path again’.
The other two parts of the installation also tell their own stories. The text next to the mixed media piece, The Suitcase, reads: ‘How many times have we heard and repeated the phrase, “after two months all will be well?” Thus, in the middle of planning, to leave or not to leave?’ This recalls an older painting of hers, Sneaker Generation (1989), and makes an explicit allusion to the fact that the Lebanese lived for so long with their possessions and lives rolled up, waiting for the Civil War to end.
The final piece, The Widows, relates the sorrows shared by many Lebanese women. Beside the jacket, the accompanying text reads:
The tragic role of young widows is to clear away the remnants of their dead husbands. Long after someone dies, his particular odours remain on the clothes in his closet. After the death of their loved ones, women from all communities are brought together in the same gut-rending sorrow.
These are not images of war being depicted, but rather suggestions, clues, and meditations. ‘I often put references to what went on over those years in my paintings, notably so that people don’t forget them and make the same mistakes’, she notes.
To Be or Not to Be
To Be or Not to Be

How many times have we heard and repeated the phrase, “after two months all will be well?” –Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui

Moreover, as Sehnaoui says regarding the years during the Civil War (1975 – 1990):
Were we aware over the terrible years of war, which I refuse to refer to as a Civil War (but that is another story), that this state of affairs would go on for so long? No. I don’t think we could have survived if we knew how long it would last. There were periods of peace that lulled us into believing that things would improve (we are eternal optimists), and there were moments of foreboding when one’s insides churned.
Today, artists in Lebanon have resorted to different media to express the hopes of the post-war generation, going beyond the usual clichés of nostalgia or war. Together with the work of Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui, one could consider, for example, the album Golden Beirut – New Sounds from Lebanon, including music from some rather well known names in the Lebanese post-war underground scene such as Scrambled Eggs, The New Government, Mashrou Leila and Soap Kills.
Furthermore, two films by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, A Perfect Day (2005) and Je Veux Voir (2008), or more recently, Samer Daboul’s Out Loud (2011) are also great examples of the ways in which Lebanese artists are expressing the sentiments of the new generation. All these works fill a gap in collective Lebanese memory, the dynamics of which are twofold: at the same time that remembering is an important part of reconciliation, forgetting – or more precisely, selective amnesia – is also an important aspect of rebuilding and moving on. However, the work of Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui does not simply stop there; rather, it moves in many directions at the same time. It is contemporary, with a broad outlook that is at once Arab, Lebanese, Mediterranean, and modern.
Sehnaoui’s upcoming exhibition in will open on December 7th at the Aida Cherfan Gallery in Beirut.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

At the Square V

Published on THE MANTLE 
For G. Maalouf
"But why do we loiter? The journey should be pursued. Now let us see whether we are in a sound condition, for that is the first step." -St. Augustine, "Soliloquies"
He drove down from Al Mina, and we could have spent the whole night going in circles around Al Maarad; I loved the modern buildings, so unblemished, and admired the vulgar geometric shapes, with splattered colors from the lights, in sharp contrast from the rest of the city, bathed in a shabby ochre that resembles a glowing gold sprayed with grey, with the colors and gestures of a dying oak. The radio blasted away with that song from the basement; I saw it announced once in a half-torn poster in Beirut, as I was heading with Eman toward Damascus Road. I daydreamed - even though it was night - that he would about-turn in Al Mina again and from there head down to Riad El Solh, to the very end, so that I could see the statue of Abdul Hamid Karami. I had seen it once in a postcard that a distant relative had sent in 1969. I also knew that the statue had been bombed with dynamite in 1976 but that still didn't quench my curiosity. The statue stood impassive at the center of a square of the same name, and the cars, like ballet figurines, tiptoed around it.
I had spent years leafing through the books at the library, trying to trace down the name of the artist, but to no avail. The novel of Bergsson, forgotten on page 115, under a stairway, came to me: "How could he have loved the woman if, in his mind, she is only a photograph? How can a picture be more real to the memory than the actual, living person?" I also knew that the name of the square had been changed, by the Tawhid, and that there was now a sculpture of the word "Allah". Perhaps Ismail had been right, it was God who had blown the statue at the square and replaced it with a sign. As I had all these thoughts in my mind, the old Peugeot drove into Bassel El Asad and Tripoli was being left behind. There had been no conversations since we left and the music kept blasting away; we spoke only with a timid smile that began in the corner of the mouth and rose through the pupils with a thick halo reflected at the height of the eye lids. It filled the entire space and as I gasped for air, the coastal highway opened its arms to us.
Al Qalamoun, it was, the old mosque. I preferred the churches, St. GeorgeSt. Catherine and the Monastery of St. John; at that point Tripoli was nowhere to be seen, and you could no longer hear its sounds, nor the riffle neither the fear. I was reminded then of St. Jerome's commentary on the Testament of John: "The blessed John the Evangelist, who remained in Ephesus to an advanced age and could scarcely be carried to church with the help of his disciples, could no longer put many coherent words together. At each assembly, he used to say no more than this: 'Little children, love one another!' Eventually, the disciples and brethren who were present grew tired of always hearing the same thing, and said: 'Master, why do you keep on saying this?' He replied with a sentiment worthy of John: 'Because it is a precept of the Lord, and it is sufficient if this alone is done." There was not a soul in the sight, until the prophet Isaiah spoke: "Against all the cedars of Lebanon, lofty and lifted up; and against all the oaks of Bashan."
Back at the theater in Tripoli, it was the year 1885, the first theater in the Middle East. The vendor woman, an old Alawite, told us that once they had rolled the red carpet all the way from the harbor to the theater for Oum Kalthoum to perform at the glorious Ottoman building. There was nothing but rubble to be seen now, and the sound of diggers and hammers. The Ingea Theater was no more. Now I recalled, it was Rabih Mroué who had asked Catherine Deneuve in that film, "You wanted to see, I also want to see but I can't seem to. Do you see that?" And the truth is that neither of us would see anything, but diggers, hammers and rubble. It wasn't only the theater, but the city and the whole country, there was nothing to see but rubble. At some point I wanted to ask him if maybe the whole world was made of rubble now. As we drove away, he told me: "You know, we, the Lebanese and the Jews, we are perhaps the first peoples to have advanced from the idea of nationalism." I nodded and woke up from the still quiet of the highway and heard at last the delicate voice.

"Do you see that?" He asked me. "The constellations on the sky stood steeply on their heads, all the stars had made an about-turn, but the moon, buried under the featherbed of clouds which were lit by its unseen presence, seemed still to have before her an endless journey and, absorbed in her complicated heavenly procedures, did not think of dawn." Does the sky look the same everywhere? I didn't ask that question, if only because my vague knowledge of science provided the answer. "Do you remember when I first saw you?" I asked him. And he was thinking the same thing I was thinking. "I shall never forget that luminous journey on that brightest of winter nights. The colored map of the heavens expanded into an immense dome, on which there loomed fantastic lands, oceans and seas, marked with the lines of stellar currents and eddies, with the brilliant steaks of heavenly geography." He didn't answer my question and insisted on driving into the village that suddenly carved itself out before the entrance of Batroun.

We couldn't get lost because in order to get lost, you have to know where you're getting lost from. At the entrance, we had to leave the car and our countenances too, in order to be transformed into aimless legs. We were not sad to let go of our possessions, for St. Augustine had taught: "Two things here on earth are essential: health and a friend. They are the two things most to be prayed for. Woe to the person who despises them. Health and friendship are natural gifts. God has made human beings for living -hence health, and for not living alone -hence the search for friendship." We took one of those cabbies that looked like tricycles in the miniature city and tried to make up our minds. "But who would entrust oneself on such a night to the whims of an unpredictable cabby? Amid the click of the axles, amid the thud of the box and the roof, I could not agree with him on my destination. He nodded indulgently at everything I said and sang to himself. We drove in a circle around the city."
"Is this you, George?" I exclaimed, and for the first time I recognized my friend.

[Passages taken from Bruno Schulz, "Cinnamon Shops", in "The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories", Penguin, 2008]
"After Two Months", installation, Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui, 2010
After Two Months, installation, Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui, 2008

Monday, July 23, 2012

After We're Free

First published on BIKYAMASR

“The American Soldier”: That is the title of a traveling photographic exhibition that has been on the road since 2007, capturing unusual scenes from nine wars, since the Civil War – one of the first armed conflicts to be widely photographed – to the streets of Baghdad, in 116 images. Cyma Rubin, the creator of the exhibit, says that she first thought about the project in 1995 while seeing a picture taken of an American soldier during World War II and wondered: “He looks like he’s thinking, ‘Why should I be here?’”.
From an initial selection of 4,000 pictures she came up with the hundred-and-something: “This exhibit touches a patriotic nerve – capturing the joy, the sadness and, sometimes, even death – that’s at the core of soldiering. It’s very emotional.” Furthermore, she adds that the exhibit is totally apolitical and that those looking for an anti-war statement, or one that glorifies conflict, will be sorely disappointed. The exhibit still is – undeniably – a tribute to American soldiers, and one is uncertain whether it humanizes or romanticizes the drama of war.
In the introduction to Annie Leibowitz’s 1999 book of photographs, “Women”, Susan Sontag writes: “It’s for us to decide what to make of these pictures. After all, a photograph is not an opinion. Or is it?” The bombardment of war images taking place daily makes it seem unlikely that an image suffices to make an opinion, at least an informed one. The case of books – particularly those dealing with the selfsame dramas of war – is very different and it would be difficult to pin down a book without an opinion.
In the genre of war writing – ranging from chronicles, to diaries, memoirs, history books, journalists’ accounts and novels – that inundate the bookshelves of Middle Eastern contemporary history, we find the most diverse range of opinions about war and the many wars that have plagued the region; what is rare however is to hear a story told by the “Other”, that is, an American soldier deployed in Iraq, and rarer even how difficult it is to think of his book as having an “opinion”.
Vince Perritano’s novel “After We’re Free” (2008, third edition 2011, Wheatmark) comes to fill this gap with an uncanny sense of impaired judgment about the overtly complex and multi-layered story that he is telling, while at the same time he offers us a glimpse into the opinions that the experience of war imprinted on his fictive characters. But what he is offering in this curious novel isn’t simply the literary geography of what an author might think, imagine or research that the experience of war is like.
In the preface to the novel he writes: “In late March 2007, I was twenty-one and in my third year with the U.S. Marine Corps when my unit, 3rd Battalion 7th Marines, was deployed early as part of the 3,000 extra Marines sent to take control of the Al Anbar Province in the troop surge. We were sent back to Ramadi, the capital of Al Anbar, which is where we fought Al Qaeda and its partners at a critical part of the war in 2005 and 2006.”
We also learn that the novel was written during the author’s second tour in Iraq in 2007. Whatever there is of truth in the novel – as distinguished from simply fiction – is something that we will never know.
Would have the book been “truer” had it been a memoir or an auto-biography? An answer is difficult to come by. Freud, one of the greatest readers of the modern consciousness writes in a letter to a friend in 1929: “What makes all autobiographies worthless is, after all, their mendacity.” In another letter from 1936 he completes the thought: “Anyone turning biographer commits himself to lies, to concealment, to hypocrisy, to flattery, and even to hiding his own lack of understanding.”
The crucial point for Freud is that both biography and autobiography essentially lie and Sarah Kofman, a contemporary French philosopher and one of the 20th century’s most able readers of Freud, insists that any auto-biography is false and written with a retroactive illusion and with the purpose of idealization. While Kofman pointed at the fallacy, she also recognized that autobiography leaks itself into any literary and intellectual endeavor, and paradoxically, after writing her own autobiography, she took her own life in 1994.
But Isak Dinesen’s famous saying, “All sorrows can be borne if you can put them into a story or tell a story about them” serves here the purpose of showing how novels – and literature in general – perform a task nobler than that of chronicling events in which one was himself a participant, and that are probably already diluted and watered down infinitely by personal subjective experience. A case in point here would be the enormous corpus of auto-biographical literature on the Lebanese Civil War or the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
“After We’re Free” is a polyphonic novel, ineludibly American, set simultaneously in Ramadi and different American cities, written in a discontinuous present that defies the narrative ego – for the story is told in the first person – and in itself proves how unreliable a device the memory is for storing events chronologically; preferring to speak in terms of colors and tones, grasping or at least attempting to grasp the ever changing particulars of existence, that are never bound by any such a thing as a fundamental essence.
The events – for want of a better word – are interrupted constantly by dreams, by nightmares, by hallucinations and sometimes by fragmentary recollections that are indistinguishable from the above mentioned. But the somber realities of the Iraq war are indisputable: “As a new guy I came to Iraq scared, but when I hadn’t been hit after a couple of months I gradually lost the fear. The complacency set in, and as soon as I began to wonder if I could go the whole time here without being hit, I got smacked hard.”
Bradley Multriener is a twenty-one-year old corporal in Ramadi, a place that he dares to call home: “As much of a home this place is for me, I still can’t find a place to escape my disposition. No matter where I go, my discontent follows me.” One is here reminded of Amin Maalouf’s writing: “It could be that an accident, a casual encounter, weigh more in our feeling of identity than a thousand years heritage.” In the words of Multriener: “I was now part Iraqi, and Azooz was part American. Not by choice, we just rubbed off on each other like that.”
How could an American soldier feel himself at home in Iraq? Is this not a war? An occupation? To be sure there’s little Romanticism to invoke here, for the young soldier sees Iraq with the eyes of unmistaken accuracy: “I’ve heard some say that this place was once the Garden of Eden. If that place really existed I could see how this might be it. If it was, we must have fallen hard, hitting our head on the crumbling concrete ground.” In between a wide array of singular meditations, far and close to the trenches of war, he continues:
“I wasn’t even sure on which side I’m fighting. I felt at times that, as a Marine in Iraq, I might be the real terrorist.” He expresses uncertainty over the Anbar Awakening: “That’s the reason I was told why the city, in which I lost my best friend last year, was suddenly the prototype for a new Iraq. I can’t be so sure, though. I remember hearing that Al Qaeda claimed Ramadi as the capital of The Islamic State. How could they let it go that easy? They have to be out here somewhere; waiting, planning, recovering.”
Everyone in both East and West recalls by now the haunting images of Iraq’s Abu Ghraib at the hands of American soldiers and Susan Sontag warns in “Regarding the Torture of Others” (2004) with prophetic vision:
“After all, we’re at war. Endless war. And war is hell. “I don’t care what the international lawyers say, we’re going to kick some ass.” (George W. Bush, September 11, 2001) Hey, we were only having fun. In our digital hall of mirrors, the pictures aren’t going to go away. Yes, it seems that one picture is worth a thousand words. And even if our leaders chose not to look at them, there will be a thousand more snapshots and videos. Unstoppable.”
That this happens to be case – Afghanistan, Syria, Bahrain – is only illuminating in respect to the novel: “The way so many people were able to treat Iraqis are subhuman really disturbed me. I don’t know where they got it from, and trying to change them always seemed to be in vain. To avoid serious disputes I usually avoided talking to anyone on a deeper than surface level. That’s not how it’s supposed to be with your brothers in arms, and that’s not how it always was. But now my best friend’s dead and all of our minds seem to be further casualties of war.”
The horrors of war are not spared even by one bit – there are painful descriptions of witnessing the suicide of a woman or being invited to an Iraqi home to be told how an American missile had made the man’s daughter blind – but interestingly enough, that is not the gist of the novel. At the core of the story there is nothing but an intense tale of bonding and friendship between Azooz, an Iraqi insurgent translator and the American soldier: “Azooz told me how, in Iraq, everyone lost someone, but most lost everyone to the war.”
The late Tim Hetherington, both and expert and casualty of war, told Tyler Malone in an interview shortly before his death: “The war-machine is: take a group of young men, train them together and put them on the side of a mountain, and they’re gonna kill and be killed for each other. It’s something very human.” This is precisely the story that “After We’re Free” is telling.
The novel does manage to form and offer an opinion: “They got us fighting against each other. They want us both to lose. And the longer we fight each other the more we are winning the war for them.” In the end, war isn’t simply a moment in time, it’s not a past, but rather a never-ending present that devours itself; the riddle of the mysterious and redeeming novel is found at the very beginning: “It’s a strange path one walks to make himself able to kill a man. Stranger, though, is being there and trying to return.”

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Rashid Al Khalifa at Beirut Art Fair

First published on 5PM BAHRAIN

Beirut Air Fair opened its doors to visitors from July 5th through the 8th, held at the Beirut International Exhibition and Leisure Center; entering its third year, the fair has become an absolute must destination for art collectors and buyers in the art world, looking for the most interesting developments in Middle Eastern art. Beirut Art Fair is the only venue entirely dedicated to contemporary art from the larger Middle East – unlike art fairs in Dubai and Doha that have a global showcase – and affords visitors the opportunity to see contemporary art from the Gulf, together with artists from the rest of the region.
As it is generally the case with Middle Eastern art, the Lebanese presence was overwhelming with over twenty galleries representing local artists, Gulf artists were present with prestigious galleries such as Jeddah’s Al Mohtaraf and Dubai’s Tashkeel; it is however rare to see art from Bahrain displayed in such international venues and yet this time Maria Vivero’s ArtBahrain.Org was present with a selection of paintings from Bahraini artist Rashid Al Khalifa’s exhibition “Reflection”. The exhibition opened initially on January 30th at the Bahrain Financial Harbor Fine Arts Gallery and was open to the public from January 31st to March 30th.
In “Reflection”, Al Khalifa’s fifteen works explore and investigate mirror-like chrome surfaces on convex stretchers rather than flat canvas, with complex color fields that reflect the environment and invite to participate rather than simply contemplate. In the words of the artist: “Once the viewer is face to face with the artwork, it breaks down the barriers; it becomes a journeying encounter like a free-flowing sense of interaction – a glance of the real, a starting point, waiting to be followed through, allowing the viewer to do the completing, the reflection of the self.”
This series reflects the artist’s unfinished contemporaneity, bringing together forty years of painting with the necessity to transform and redefine self-reflection and the subjective expression of art overall, and posing the question – through the chrome – of the ambivalence between the real and the imaginary worlds. A careful examination of Rashid Al Khalifa’s oeuvre however reveals the long journey that has led him to abstraction and field color. Born in 1952 and trained in the art in the United Kingdom, his early works showed the influence of Realism, impressionism and abstract painting that he had learned in England with European masters.
In the 1970’s he turned to figurative painting of landscapes and anatomical compositions with pastoral themes – a counter-trend of Arab artists educated in the West – and in the 1990’s Individualism begins to appear in his work with more reflective two-dimensional canvas, suggesting rather than representing.  What is interesting is how one of the most interesting painters in the Arab world has remained relatively unknown, seldom exhibited outside of Bahrain and whose works have never been reported to be in Western auction houses and catalogs.
It was only in 2011 when he presented at Bahrain National Museum his exhibit “Convex” covering works from the period 2001-2011 and that according to the artists, grew out of “accidents” in landscapes and portraits – which still appear in his two hundred and something entire production and with some Romantic influence that can be hardly called Oriental – that his work caught the attention of the international market.  This series offered a first installment of what would be seen later in “Reflections”: Convex stretchers that give images a three-dimensional quality in which the view comes close rather than distant as in flat canvas.
As with many other distinguished artists, the turn to abstraction was somewhat accidental and reflects on the historical and thematic progression of his work throughout the years. Whether this painting is more Middle Eastern or European, he is comfortable saying that every artist has its own background, displaying a typically contemporary attitude in which there are no longer schools or themes in art – regional or otherwise – but individual styles. “Convex” and “Reflection”, while falling in line with contemporary art practices in the West that aim to re-contextualize art, appear still highly crafted and appeal to a traditional gallery public.
During the vernissage in Bahrain, a number of pieces from “Reflection” caught the attention of the public, such as “Do you see anything?”, “Going Alone”, “Fragmented” and “Fabric of Society”.  Beirut Art Fair is only the first of different international fairs and exhibitions to showcase Al Khalifa’s work in 2012 and 2013, not to mention his upcoming solo exhibit at Gagosian Gallery in New York during 2013. Additionally, his work will be now represented also by well-known dealer Leila Heller who was among the very first art dealers to present artworks from the Middle East in prestigious galleries in the West.
Heller was introduced to Al Khalifa’s work during “Convex” at the Bahrain National Museum and has since then called his work “aesthetically intriguing and complex”. According to British journalist Godfrey Barker, Rashid Al Khalifa’s work is one of the Gulf’s best-kept secrets and is considered by Canvas magazine, “close to the top of contemporary Arab achievement.” In 2011 he spoke to Barker about his technique: “My aim is to open up hidden depths and movements in the paint. If the effect demands it, I may then add extra layers in small or large areas and build up the surface.”

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Brownies & Kalashnikovs

For A.N. & G.M.
First published on BIKYAMASR

In his book “The Human Province”, Elias Canetti notes how “It is only in exile, that one realizes to what an important degree the world has always been a world of exiles”; it is but with this predicament in mind that one objects to the whole genre of war writing, and raises the question of whether exile, displacement and war had not been there already to begin with. Are not wars and exiles more constants than exceptions? An answer isn’t easy to come by.
The lives of writers themselves however, for whom the home is easily lost – regardless of the spurious claims for citizenship in a so-called republic of letters – and who have to flee this or that country are a reminder of the cruel state of affairs described by Susan Sontag in “Regarding the Pain of Others”: “This is what war does. And that, that is what it does, too. War tears, rends. War rips open, eviscerates. War scorches. War dismembers. War ruins.”
But as Canetti is careful to note, this realization happens only in exile. Though it is not impossible to find oneself at home in exile – and for some, exile becomes not only a permanent home, but the preferred home, showing how being at home has become a rather vague illusion for the millions of denizens – rather than citizens – of a world made at once bigger and smaller: Infinitely less familiar and more pregnant with possibilities.
In the Middle East, exile and displacement – and not necessarily voluntary in most of the cases – is nothing of a literary metaphor or novelty in most of the cases. What is this home, though, to which so many yearn to return to? Was that home so sweet after all? Was it not the scenario of violence and pain? Was it not a tunnel without light at the end? What is the meaning of regret – over what is left behind – when you had no choice?
Fadia Basrawi’s memoir “Brownies and Kalashnikovs: A Saudi Woman’s Memoir of American Arabia and Wartime Beirut” (2009) is one of those question marks that ask the reader to enter the perilous zone of liberating oneself from the convention of reading memoirs intensely trapped in a by-gone past, and paradoxically just as intensely focused on the future. A tale of love and darkness that reveals more about its unusual characters than about its usual subjects.
The author, a Saudi woman raised up in a gated American community inside Aramco’s Dhahran, in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, from one of the first Arab families allowed to live in the compound, recounts with vividness – and sometimes emotion – a journey of five decades between Dhahran, Beirut, Abu Dhabi and Vienna but specially Beirut. Written over the course of seven years and published in the late 2000’s it is specially revealing in its precocity.
Even for the most experienced observers of the Middle East of uprisings and revolutions, it is nothing short of uncanny to read into the thoughts of a Hejazi woman back in the 50’s and 60’s, seeing reflected in them battles that are still our own and that also portray the deep ambivalence of the educated classes towards the relationship of the region to the Western world: “Our father wanted us educated but unaltered, an impossible task”.
Her book is illuminating about the history of Saudi Arabia in early days of the 20th century and the intricate connections between the discovery of oil, the hegemony of the United States and the rule of Al-Saud for which she does not spare her sharp assessments: “Until today, the oil wealth has yet to reach other than those in Saudi Arabia’s ruling circle and their entourage and the United States’ ruling circle and their entourage.”
She speaks without reserve: “We, the modern inhabitants of this part of the Arabian Peninsula, are born subjects of the Al Sauds whether we belong to the Al Saud tribe or not, or, more importantly, whether we care to be subjects or not. Our ‘independent nation state’ is a theocracy with no constitution except the words of the Quran, no separation of powers, no press outside the official line, no elected parliament, no judicial independence, no separate identity for women, no recognition of residing non-Sunni sects like Shi’is and Ismailis.”
The early history of Aramco and how deals were brokered between the Americans and the Saudi royalty in detriment of the natives, surfaces clearly with richness of details usually unavailable to historians, mentioning the expertise on beatings of the Saudis since time immemorial coupled with the proverbial indifference of the corporate establishment towards a region rich not only in oil but in illiteracy and backwardness.
As a student at the American University of Beirut – a true luxury for women of her generation, she offers an onlooker’s glimpse into pre-war Lebanon that usually escapes the Lebanese, badly embittered by the ongoing conflict: “My first taste of cappuccino will remain forever entwined in my memory with my first taste of freedom in Beirut at its finest hour […] The Beirut I was seeing that day in 1965 was the Beirut my generation will always hold in our nostalgic hearts.”
In Lebanon, Fadia became acquainted with her future husband, Adnan Hayyat, a journalist for the newspaper An Nahar and with whom she would marry in secret from her own family; what would tie her fate to that of the Lebanese and would estrange her ever since from Saudi Arabia. She reflects on the beginning – and permanence – of exile in her book: “I knew I would never belong in Lebanese society; did that matter to me when I had never fitted into the American or the Saudi Arab one?”
This brings to mind the words of Amin Maalouf, who was an editor at the selfsame An Nahar when the war broke out and sent him into exile in France: “Isn’t it a characteristic of our time to have turned all human beings, somehow, into immigrants and minorities? We are all forced to live in a world that resembles so little the hearth we are coming from. Before we are immigrants, we are migrants; before arriving to a new country, we have had to abandon another, and the feelings of a person towards the land that he abandoned are never simple.”
She recalls the words of her husband at the onset of the Civil War: “Unless we agree to carry arms, we do not belong here. Rivers of blood are going to gush across this country, and soon” and from there begins a passionate and at times irreverent storytelling about the fate of Lebanon during the worst years of the war, living in and out, between Beirut, Abu Dhabi – whose early beginnings are beautifully chronicled in the book – and Vienna.
Memoirs of the civil war – particularly written by women – are not rare, and passionate accounts have found their way into books such as Lina Tabbara’s “Surviving the Siege of Beirut: A Personal Account” (1983), Jean Makdisi’s “Beirut Fragments: A War Memoir” (1990) and Soha Beshara’s “Resistance: My Life for Lebanon” (2003); so extensive is the corpus of this kind of chronicling that Miriam Cooke’s book “War’s Other Voices: Women Writers on the Lebanese Civil War” (1996) is entirely devoted to it.
There are many aspects however that distinguish Basrawi’s writing: The fact that she was not an active participant in the ideological and political conflicts and also that she experienced a great part of the war in Lebanon rather than exile, added to the fact that her chronicling does not end with the Civil War but stretches all the way to the summer of 2006 when the July War between Hezbollah and Israel ends.
Her account of the war mixes personal recollections with facts: “That day, September 17, 1975, when blood, gore, and gold bullions mixed with twisted ideology, organized crime and just plain stupidity, was the day that Beirut died.” This doesn’t keep her story from being highly subjective, for she was not only an onlooker but also a wife and a mother in the highly polarized Lebanese context and the book obviously reflects that.
Halldor Laxness instructs in one of his novels that “The closer you try to approach the facts through history, the deeper you sink into fiction.” Had the history been told through the eyes of a Christian, for example, the events and victims would have been portrayed differently. It is for example slightly awkward that although the recollection of events in recent Lebanese history is very detailed, there is not one single mention of the Cedar Revolution.
The book however does not claim to be a history of Lebanon and in spite of the gloom that it recounts throughout decades, it is still bent on putting an emphasis on the celebration of life, on resilience, resistance and on the future; what does not prevent it from having moments that overwrite the subjective into meditations, whispers and profound reflections: “The beauty of life is particularly striking in times of war.”
In a recent Podcast released in July by Middle East Youth, the author responds to Rola Hayyat’s questions about her fascinating book:
“How would you describe the whole process of writing your memoir and did it in some way force you to face some uncomfortable memories and maybe turn a new page? Was it a cathartic experience in the end?”
FB: “I wouldn’t say cathartic but it was rather painful because I did force myself to look into matters that I had glossed over, because there was just so much going on, and there were so many things that my children didn’t know about because I felt they had enough to deal with grey days of war going on around them.”
She also expresses the degree to which the book relates to current Saudi politics: “It’s pure politics, actually, my book.” What truly highlights Eduard Said’s insight that literature is of the highest relevance when attempting to understand Imperialism and Totalitarianism. Basrawi sends also a message of encouragement to all Arab and Saudi women, and is straightforward when asked about the Arab revolutions: “It’s the only way to go”.
The book is illuminating in so many ways that it is impossible to entirely agree or disagree with it; many Lebanese would find themselves puzzled at some of the revelations and insights offered by the book, and probably some Saudis would too. What remains true is that her voice is very much worth listening to at a time when the old ghosts of sectarianism and violence begin to haunt the Lebanese again with the Syrian revolution next door – one of the most sensitive topics in Lebanese politics, recalling one Biblical verse that the author chose for the title of one of the memoir’s chapters: “Weep for your allies in Lebanon. Shout for them in Bashan. Search for them in the regions east of the river. See, they are all destroyed. Not one is left to help you.”
Lebanon scholar Sune Haugbolle put it succinctly in a lecture discussing memoirs and public testimonies of the Lebanese Civil War: “No one is in possession of the absolute truth of the war… In such a public sphere, one might have to stop insisting on the truth and instead listen, very carefully, to the conversation.”

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

10 Fragments

Most of the time I feel that I communicate better as a writer than as a person. In writing I can express myself with less anguish and violence, especially on myself; there's also a room for redemption which I have abandoned in life, being too impatient about whether people will be there to listen or be listened to next time. Writing also makes people conform to durability; what I have never achieved through friendship.

I have not mastered solitude and apparently never will. There's an incessant craving for talking, which is the obvious result - paradoxically - of spending so much time - if not most - alone. It all has to do with the risk taken by those in permanent isolation, of forgetting what being part of the world (any world) feels like. Being alone and feeling alone are not the same, the latter can happen even with people and is so far the worst.

I am in constant conversation with people I intensely love - not just letters, but all forms of writing, whispers, dreams, nightmares, daydreaming - and yet the moment the real conversations break off, I drown in a pool of death, being so absolutely sure that they will never come back. If they do - which isn't so common - I become insanely excited, but I hide it, since I don't want to be offered compassion in lieu of love.

I am learning to respond with grace to writing I profoundly dislike - except if it is for poor aesthetic qualities -  maybe not because I am growing into adult virtues, but more like because my sense of solitude is so extreme that I will go into conversation with anything that opens its borders to me, even if only temporarily and if there is a feeling of empathy, which is something so vastly different from agreement.

The fact that I'm so merciless with myself and not with other people is what might give people the idea that I'm merciless on them too. I would like to be a lot more forgiving, but sadly that's something I can only achieve in writing. In personal life I tend to break down at the slightest breach or lack of attention from the other party, and being too afraid to show any emotions, I freeze into silence.

Too often I assume people will be easily scared about me, therefore I work intensely on proving it to them only in order to prove myself right and very often succeed. There's nothing necessarily evil or cruel about this; it's but this mistaken assumption I cling to forcefully that I should feel guilty for desiring any human warmth and nearness.

I'm not used to receiving kindness from anyone, therefore I always find it highly suspect and need to subject it to merciless testing. With this age-old brilliant method, I have succeeded in eroding even the most faithful, patient and devoted friendships. I, of course, am not interested in political friendships, or friendships as commodities. If the world cannot be changed - even for a second - through them, it's not worth the time.

At some point - a long time ago - I toyed with the idea of the safisfaction that I would derive from having my work read by other people. The idea has self-destroyed itself. It's not that there's no pleasure at all, what would be a mere Philistine and snob lie, but more like that the ideal readers - truly loved friends, people with insights, other writers - cannot bother most of the time, assuming that I am a "good writer", even if I'm not.

Nothing in this world can scare me, no wars, no massacres, and certainly not death, for the idea of writing implies per definition the idea that you toy with your death often; but there is the one thing that can unnerve me infinitely and without repair: The idea that anyone could love someone as simultaneously extroverted and introverted as myself. Not being loved makes me sleepless, but being loved makes me absurdly unkind.

The one reason why I personally dislike most of my writing is because I don't think it's honest enough. I manage to dovetail myself and stop at a point before I am about to get lost in it, which is the only thing I ideally want. The problem is that when art gets "lost", it becomes its own blindspot, and is no longer available to consciousness; it becomes elitist, withdrawn and abstract. Not something anyone could sensorily love.

Friday, July 13, 2012


First published on BIKYAMASR

Loneliness has been one of the oldest topics in cinema. This isn’t surprising for an art form that was born out of a century pregnant with the dissolution of the traditional community and whose experience – different from criticism – required a type of attention significantly different from that of fine arts: Strangers sat in a barely lit room and stared into images projected onto a screen affixed on the wall.
The further development of cinema into a massive commercial and entertainment space – and the proliferation of home sets – have all significantly transformed the nature of cinema into simply “the movies”; however the relationship between cinema and loneliness has not receded and certain nostalgic trends confirm the privileged place that the origins of cinema and the “modern” condition have in the film industry overall.
Cinema has been able to go where the brushes and the daguerreotypes have seldom gone: The intimate spaces of the home, the noise of the highways, and the conversations behind the counters at the banks and supermarkets. It’s not that the arts had no interest in this – for there is no topic more present in modern art than the “everyday” – but that the simultaneity of moving images conferred cinematic realism a new authority.
Nuanced portraits of loneliness in full color didn’t appear in the history of art until Impressionism, in the works of Pisarro and Cezanne, but most prominently in the night life scenes of Toulouse-Lautrec; the sad faces quickly disappeared then in the abstract impetus of Expressionism and what followed after, however it was the appearance of cameras what infinitely enlarged the cultural imaginary about the varieties of the human face.
When loneliness made a spectacular comeback in 20th century realism – Edward Hopper for example – it wasn’t the natural development of a technique as much as the influx of photographic and cinematic techniques into an art already highly abstract. Silent film evoked this kind of presence, the absolute stare and the modern condition of alienation; it developed a vocabulary that was unavailable to literature, except as a suggestion.
Maya Deren writes: “The silent film had attracted to it persons who had talent for and were inspired by the exploration and development of a new and unique form of visual expression.” Silent film remains always the preferred trope for testing the limits of what can be achieved in cinematography. While the technique itself is somewhat outdated, art cinema keeps returning to it not only out of nostalgia but also as a part of cinema’s recognition of itself.
That a silent film, “The Artist”, won the Best Picture award at the 2012 Oscars means that probably silent film will return once more at a time when art keeps trying to recognize its own foundations under the increasing pressure of entertainment culture, from which it can hardly be distinguished. Silent films are rare in Middle Eastern contemporary film but some interesting pieces have been released in recent years in different genres.
Emirati director Nawaf Al-Janahi explores urban loneliness in his film “Mirrors of Silence” (2006), set in his native Dubai, offering a wholly contemporary stare into the young modernity of the Arabian Gulf; Bahraini director Mohammed Bu Ali explores in his films “Absence” (2008) and “Canary” (2010) the condition of loneliness, in the former with a poetic reference to Qassim Haddad and in the latter with the narrative relationship between a blind girl and a mute man, with a topography bordering on illness; Lebanese director Alain Nasnas explores in “Et si” (2011) the open-ended possibilities of human encounters.
It is important to point out that these films are not silent in the traditional sense, for sound is not absent and there might be even conversations, but what is absent is the dialogue – analytical statements overwrite narrative completions. The terminology “silence film” would do more justice to this developing genre in which the innuendos are more often than not suggested rather than implied, and needless to say, all these short films explore loneliness in particular ways.
Another addition to this limited but select repertory of short silence films is Lebanese director Niam Itani’s “Super.Full.” (2010) set in Qatar’s opulent capital, Doha, and telling an apparently simple story: A very poor couple of foreign laborers from South Asia struggles to make a living in the rich emirate, far from the commonplace images of Qatar and revolves around the promise of the husband to take his wife to a luxury hotel for her birthday dinner.
There would be perhaps nothing exceptional about the story – unless one would view the film for its social realism alone, what is something of an outdated practice – weren’t it for the fact that the couple is hearing-impaired and communicate only through gestures, which is essentially what silent film does. The uncanny development of the story depicts the husband’s plight to deliver an apparently simple promise, under severe difficulties.
Hannah Arendt writes: “Promises are the uniquely human way of ordering the future, making it predictable and reliable to the extent that this is humanly possible.” Without the ability to keep our promises, in such an uncertain world, life would be subject to the mercilessness of the biological cycle, and the whole texture of the human world – its durability – would disappear. In this sense, Itani’s film isn’t simply telling a story, but embedded in a highly complex conceptual language, accurately presenting a condition, a human condition.
The plight of foreign laborers in the Middle East had remained until recently – particularly in Lebanon and the Arabian Gulf – something of a shameful secret, and though the situation has gained exposure, it is rare to see it presented in the arts, but art has a strange way to come around and approach the topics of the day in forms other than political art and chronic documentary, all of which are being constantly challenged aesthetically and conceptually by more creative re-workings of the present in Middle Eastern documentary and fiction.
The film approaches their inability to communicate through spoken language in an unambiguously graceful manner that questions not only the assumptions of the viewer about the underprivileged in our societies, but also the nature of our verbal communication: Is it necessary to speak at all? Are we more or less lonely because we speak?
Aesthetically, it also offers a glance into the world of an immigrant couple in the Middle East with their cultural codes, colors and mannerisms, in a way that affords the possibility to see the region – if only for 13 minutes – through eyes other than our own and far from the commonplaces of local cinemas. The film has been screened in different festivals, including 2011 Seattle International Film Festival, and is at the moment shortlisted for YourFilmFestival, an initiative born out of a partnership between YouTube, Emirates and La Biennale di Venezia. “Super.Full.” is the only film participating in the competition, directed by an Arab woman.