Monday, September 24, 2012

Bab Al Bahrain - The Architectural Production of Modernity

First published on THE MANTLE

Unlike other cities in the Arab world, before the 19th century the history ofManama survives merely as an unimportant locality recorded in few documents1. Thus, a great deal of confusion – undermining the importance of urban history in the Gulf – is wrought when the history of Manama is understood simply as a transition between pastoral nomadism to petroleum tribalism2.  
Manama did not welcome the modern age only through the oil boom in the 1940s and 1950s but takes its point of departure already in the 1880s, during the first era of global capitalism and the boom of pearls from Bahrain and the Gulf in world markets. The imperial history of the city is instrumental in being a passage-way for the penetration of Modernity in the region3.
Pearl diving and trade in Bahrain wasn’t simply the result of small-scale exploration but mainly of an organized bureaucracy that towards the end of the 19th century merged colonial intervention and a centralized government that abolished tribal feudal states giving rise to a series of reforms that unavoidably opened Bahrain and in particular Manama to the rest of the world4.
The heterogeneous society of the islands of Bahrain created a complex dynamics ofurbanization that did not emerge with oil but rather, whose repercussions were still felt after the discovery of oil.
Oil however did not radically transform the pattern of urbanization that Manama had adopted in the course of the 19th century and the modern outlook of the city – in particular its cosmopolitanism – is largely indebted to the position of Bahrain as the region’s first modern state, long before independence, and the rise of Manama as the first regional metropolis.
A series of reforms implemented already since the 1920s gave the city a more or less coherent form that nevertheless did not translate into organic growth. A master plan had been concocted since the 1940s, officially approved in 1968 but only implemented after independence in 1971, with more or less mixed results5.
The most significant urban modernization project that took place in Manama was the famous Bab Al Bahrain, part of the renewal of the waterfront implemented through land reclamation. The project was designed in 1945 as the seat of government which created a city center in accordance with modern regulations and featured modernist architecture into some indigenous features6.
Further land reclamation projects have significantly altered the face of Bab Al Bahrain and have also shifted the functional city center towards the sea – once just across and now about ten minutes away, turning Bab Al Bahrain into a less cosmopolitan and also less Bahraini quarter of the city, in line in global urban trends that increasingly drive elites away from poorly maintained quarters.   
It should be noticed that no other city in the Gulf enjoyed a master plan before the oil boom and as such, Bab Al Bahrain remains one of the few public spaces in the Arab world that are not circumscribed to the context of the dynamics of the Islamic city.
Here it is important to nuance the definition of public space: A political space as opposed to a space for politics. The point being raised here is that contemporary public spaces are political insofar as interaction – and exchange – between different segments of society takes place rather than a locus for immediate political participation.
It is in this spirit that the great public squares of Europe were conceived: Places to ground citizenship and civic experience grounded in shared attachment to a built place that provides an enduring home for members of a political community extended over many generations7.
The urban transformation of Manama into high rises and the internal displacement into suburbs of the native population has caused the square to turn into a series of parking lots, while still retaining historical and geographical importance, being located at the very entrance of the Manama souks.
In February 2012, the Ministry of Culture in Bahrain launched the contest Open Ideas Competition – Bab Al Bahrain for architects all over the world to propose a redesign of the area according to criteria that may turn it again into a significant public space: Sense of place, connection to the seafront, public activities, soft landscaping, neighborhood context, road traffic and parking, among others.
An interesting article appeared in the Huffington Post under the title Urban Design Serves as a Tool of Repression in Bahrain in June, highlighting that “The theorists and practitioners who form the avant-garde of an international community of architectural thinkers are unfortunately, perhaps unwittingly, participating in political repression via urban design.”
The central claim of the author is that there is a connection between the demolition of the Pearl Roundabout in March 2011 in the course of the larger Arab Springprotests in Bahrain and the desire to implement a new public space in the city.
The author also claims that each of the winning designs serves to effectively block public aggregation of people on the square and prevents preemptively peaceful assembly and democratic protests such as those that took place in the former Pearl Roundabout: “Design tactics to achieve this include – flooding the site with water (the winning proposal), creating a wall around the site, and filling the site with parking spaces.”
The great misunderstanding of the article in question is that it underestimates the dynamics of Modernity in the Arab world as independent of technical, economical and ideological considerations that have emerged in the region since the 19thcentury.
Disappointment with Modernity and/or the alternative version of reckless modernism without foundation – the criticism often passed on the skyline of Dubai – in theMiddle East is not an anti-modern gesture.
Paradoxically enough it was the oil economy what transformed port towns such as Manama and Kuwait City from pluralistic and cosmopolitan centers into “Arab” cities, showcasing the paradoxes of Modernity in which the processes of liberalization are often parallel to increasing hegemony and the results of national homogenization are often less satisfactory than the natural result of more or less loose frontier societies8.
Disappointment is also part of Modernity’s survival and an intense form of irony about itself. Modernity reproduces itself in unexpected ways because it is an open-ended cycle that can happen in a variety of forms – democracy, authoritarianism, totalitarianism, fundamentalism and everything in between – and one shouldn’t be deluded into assuming that only democratic modernities are functional; a myth long dispelled by China and the former Soviet Union.
The urban history of Manama has shown time and again that its status as the location of a frontier society is also the result of Modernity, albeit in radically nuanced ways. To ignore that this Modernity is idiosyncratically rough-edged at the contours just like Western Modernity is in many other respects, is simply a futile attempt to dovetail history in such a way that is no longer available to moderns.   

[1] Nelida Fuccaro. Histories of the City and the State in the Persian Gulf: Manama since 1800 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009): 60.
[2] Nelida Fuccaro. 2009: 10.  
[3] Nelida Fuccaro. 2009: 10.
[4] Fuad Khuri. Tribe and State in Bahrain (Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 1980): 85-108.
[5] Nelida Fuccaro. 2009: 191-192.
[6] Nelida Fuccaro. 2009: 193-195.
[7] Ronald Beiner, “Our Relationship to Architecture as a Mode of Shared Citizenship: Some Arendtian Thoughts” in Techné, Vol. 9:
[8] Nelida Fuccaro. 2009: 3.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

"Keep your mind in hell, Despair Not" - For Wajih Al-Ajouz

First published on THE MANTLE 
Also available from SKeyes
["Assassinat de Samir Kassir au Liban", oil on canvas, Romain Chabin, 2005] 
Sometimes one would think that Lebanon is too demanding. It demands too much from those who ever want to love it. Anyone who has been a journalist in the second Lebanese republic, knows well, to paraphrase the late Samir Kassir, that this republic has proved to be as pusillanimous as the first. Being a journalist or a writer in or about the land of Amin MaaloufNadine Labaki and Hassan Nasrallah, is something that always begins with great excitement and one can hear young correspondents growing intensely frantic over terminology such as “war-torn”,“conflicted”“restless”. The truth is that Lebanon is an endless supplier of intellectual pornography that is consumed just as avidly.
But there are other phases too. After the excitement comes the agony, and with the agony the disenchantment, the questions, the what if’s… One tries to find his own comfort zone, and since modern history is hardly a candidate for this, there is always the uproarious humor, the extravagant laughter and intense feeling of uncertainty that Lebanon produces. And like the Lebanese and with them, one laughs, one laughs because there is nothing else to do. Laughter is seemingly meant to stage hope in a truer and far more terrifying way. Laughter seems to be an affirmation of life, whereas tears are simply a demonstration. You’re doing your job. This is what people do. They write stuff. They pack. They leave. They forget the stuff they wrote.
On any night one can stroll around Beirut, and sense its infinite possibilities. Infinite also means unmovable, somewhat eternal, fixed and unchangeable. There are always the parties; everyone talks about the parties, as if it was a secret society that is not so secret after all, and half the population of Beirut has had honorary membership in it at a point. From the outside it seems as if there were this spectacular resilience and sense of life. With time one also learns that they’re only waiting. You learn to wait too. What could I have done if I were born Lebanese? You ask yourself that too. Having Lebanese ancestry doesn’t help. Of course you know you’re simply being permitted to watch. You can’t take part.
You tell yourself: I love Lebanon. I love the Lebanese. But you don’t. At least you don’t want to. Why on earth would you want to fall in love with disaster? Maybe you love yourself in Lebanon. It makes you feel brave, powerful, informed and more than anything, playing with death a little bit. It’s the uncanniest flirting. But this isn’t only about wars. Whoever has lived – and especially whoever grew up – in awar zone knows well that life still goes on. What is really terrifying isn’t the strength of war, but the fragility of things. Stuff still happens, you know, weddings, accidents, falling in love, beauty contests. Those are the bigger questions: How? The terminology changes again. One stops saying “war-torn”“conflicted”,“restless”. One goes back to basics: “beautiful”“ugly”“good”“bad”.
Talking with a Lebanese musician about Lebanese art, he says something revealing about what one sees in the country: “This weekend for example in the neighborhood where I live – Achrafieh – they implemented for the first time a no-car zone. For twelve hours no cars can drive in this big crowded neighborhood, so that people can enjoy walking their dogs, discovering the architecture of the old houses, biking in clean empty streets, etc. while an hour drive from here people are shooting at each other because they decided they don’t like each other, or because they are from a different sect! That for me is contemporary art by itself. We are a big piece of contemporary art; good or bad.” A big piece of art, art is like that. Crazy. Now you can sleep better.
In the early morning of September 14th, one wakes up and scans through the news. Maybe something interesting? Writers are like that. Pickpocketing. Surprise me once more, life. traffic accident“A Volvo car trailing at an excessive speed hit the back of a truck on Jal El-Dib highway leading to the death of the driver, citizen Wajih Raed Al-Ajouz.” Name sounds familiar. One doesn’t really want to think about it. How many times did one write somebody died here, somebody died there. Death acquires singularity. Wajih Al-Ajouz was different; he was somebody, someone you could recall. You had spoken to him. Only the day before. You had laughed about something. A few hours later the confirmation of his death arrived.
It was a cold breath. One of those moments in which you reproach yourself for loving the Lebanese, or particular Lebanese. This could happen to one of them, you know. It’s not that this couldn’t happen anywhere else, but simply that in such overflow of life and circumstances, stuff becomes bigger, so much bigger than historical events. You thought of the musician, and said to yourself, how I wish that Lebanon was just that, a piece of art. A piece of art that you can cover with a sheet and not see it anymore once it turns ugly.  A young man, 25 years old, a journalist, reckless atheist and advocate for freedom of speech, a liberal flirting often with debauchery and a researcher for the foundation that bears the name ofSamir Kassir.
These things sound commonplace, but they’re particularly enjoyable in Lebanon. The privilege of free, unrestrained, uncensored and intimate conversation. The immense responsibility of freedom. That’s how one talked to Wajih Al-Ajouz. This young man, who disappeared just like that, on a cold morning, he loved freedom and life. Something that cannot be said about Lebanon. Critic of censorship, supporter of freedom of expression, a believer that embodied what he believed in such a way that it was impossible to do what one usually does: Look the other way. He liked looking at life right in the face. But Lebanon demands too much. How much more can be given to it? How long more will its enemies prosper and live? No one knows.
Ayman Mehanna, the executive director of Samir Kassir Foundation’s SKeyes told Lebanese paper The Daily Star"“He will be greatly missed. Today we are gathering Wajih’s writings and pictures, and we want to publish a booklet in his honor. Wajih worked on monitoring all forms of violations of press and cultural freedoms in Syria and was a point of contact for the SKeyes correspondents in Syria.” How sorely missed is and will be the privilege of friendship, of political bravado, of sincerity and of free-thinking in a part of the world so consumed by the radical opposites of all that. As usual in Lebanon, the news report ended with: “It is worth noting that the driver of the truck continued driving and fled to an unknown destination.”
“Keep your mind in hell, and despair not” was a saying of a little known Orthodox monk quoted in the opening of Love’s Work, the parting memoir of the British philosopher Gillian Rose, whose intensity and reckless sincerity can only be matched by the likes of Al-Ajouz. One imagines him speaking through Rose from wherever he is now: “I will stay in the fray, in the revel of ideas and risk; learning, failing, wooing, grieving, trusting, working, reposing – in this sin of language and lips.” In the meantime, Lebanon keeps demanding, demanding, demanding, consuming, and we keep letting it happen. Gillian Rose sums it up succinctly: “I’ve told you the tale, the Midrash is not beautiful, it is difficult.”
[Wajih Al-Ajouz 1987 - 2012]
A moving tribute to Al-Ajouz, published by a Lebanese blogger, "See you in Beirut, Wajih".

Thursday, September 13, 2012

“At the Ocean”

 For T.A.

And the conversations were always sad. ‘Do you like walking in New York City?’ And he did like it. “’I love walking in London,’ said Mrs. Dalloway. ‘Really it’s better than walking in the country.’”  It made him feel different and reminded him of his true size in relation to the rest of the world and the people in it; infinitesimally small but yet not entirely alone. He was right: ‘New York is different. It’s too much of a city.’ “For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, in the triumph and the jingle and strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.” And that was a sign of agreement, which was as necessary as in war. He loved the past always, so colorful, emotions infinitely expanded; the only thing that was not available there. This endless growth, asphyxiating as it was accelerating; largesse of signposts and aluminum. Besides, he had never met anyone there and everyone was busy, there were no accidents. ‘It’s one of the reasons why I feel sad.’ And he couldn’t tell if he meant New York or him. Also, he didn’t want to know.

He had loved the long walks in the city by himself; one could be alone in it. “It was strange; it was still. Not a sound was to be heard above the traffic.” The presence of the waves, undulating as it was, tiptoeing around every imaginable achievement, with callous indifference. One felt so foreign, and this added the privilege of invisibility. Everything that had to seem miraculous was surprisingly orderly, unaltered by repetition and ultimately too visible, imperceptibly at risk. “She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.” He liked to go for walks, but there was no point in inviting him to the city. There are so many boundaries, and so many walls, and inside the walls, more walls. Bastions in which, one morning, I wake up condemned. Cities where I am isolated, quarantines, cages, “rest” homes.” He probably wouldn’t come. Those walks are better in other cities, listening to oneself, he thought, as he tried to walk in the opposite direction, so that he couldn’t find him.

‘What does your voice sound like?’ was the question that he found extraordinary. He had never heard it. But he was seeing him, yet couldn’t quite point a finger on what he was seeing but he knew full well that he couldn’t talk without seeing: “Not indeed in actual words; that is, he could not read the language yet; but it was plain enough, this beauty, this exquisite beauty.” There was nothing he wanted to have in that moment; everything seemed trivial and delicate, fragilemost, and the silences found their way into the voices as enormous blocks of concrete that could be removed only by feathers zigzagging through them. What could be had here anyway? You want to have. You want everything. But having is forbidden to human beings. Having everything.” Am I still taking you for dinner? The painting was perfect, that moment, a Last Supper, a feast, a vigil through the hours of the night, but the image was blurred and without texture; an abstract painting, headless, on a convex stretched canvas. “’Peter! Peter!’ cried Clarissa, following him out on to the landing. ‘My party to-night! Remember my party to-night!”

A singular moment of attention. Unrestrained.  Like a river, humongous, flattening basalt stones on the first dawn after the end of winter. “Outside the trees dragged their leaves like nets through the depth of the air; the sound of water was in the room and through the waves came the voices of birds singing.” Nothing else was needed. For the others, it could have been any other morning; a postman arrives with a letter and enquires about the well-being of the sender, somewhere else a postman delivers a letter to an anonymous mail box and the letter is never answered. Like that. One could take pleasure in such details. Arranging flowers, counting pennies, sorting papers. It’s like this. “What she liked was simply life.” Nothing can be so unsettling, so marvellous, so lustful. Why would you be interested in anything else? He had been told by an expert critic that contemporary art had to be boring, in order to be good. “And of course she enjoyed life immensely.” It felt wildly precarious, and there would be no need to say anything, if only one could stare, if only, for a single moment.

A dinner would would be fantastic, he thought. He was quivering at the same time and responded to the question with a nod, with a minuscule smile of the eyelid, reflected on the corner of the mouth. He also knew he would never be on time. “He almost cried out that he couldn’t attend because he was in Hell!” Maybe a letter would do, with an apology. But the golden rule was, never write letters to strangers, especially if you don’t know their address or can make sure that the letter would be delivered. Why was it so important to speak? Sometimes the conversations were more like humming, and yet it felt so infinitely impotent because of how realistic that language was, less is more, his friend has said. “For she had come to feel that it was the only thing worth saying – what one felt. Cleverness was silly. One must simply say what one felt.” He wanted to feel nothing else, in that moment. As a trained art historian, he thought that one should be able to take the whole painting in one stare, without reading. To the point of choking.

He had been unarguably a good painter, others had said, when he was younger, but he now considered those achievements of triffling importance. “It was her warmth; her vitality – she would paint, she would write.” Painting hadn’t made him a good artist, but rather, a good seer. He had never painted George for example, because the vision was already unaltered and perfect; he no longer read his letters either, there were other things he remembered, about which he didn’t permit himself to talk about. All the canvases stood there, half finished, and there were other things that occupied him now. “Writing is good; it’s what never ends. The simplest, most secure other circulates inside me.” He was interested in the conversations, in all what couldn’t be easily remembered, in things that they couldn’t have, not even in New York, in things that burnt. “We welcome, the world seemed to say; we accept; we create. Beauty, the world seemed to say.” He liked dinners. There were others thing too. “She made old Joseph tell her the names of the stars, which he liked doing very seriously. She stood there: she listened. She heard the names of the stars.”

Perhaps he wasn’t paying any attention, he thought, but how would he know? All what he wanted is for him to see him in the exact same way, the writer, would. To see him in the possibility. I want to see: everything. No Promised Land I won’t reach someday. Seeing what you will (n)ever have. Maybe I have written to see; to have what I never would have had; so that having would be the privilege not of the hand that takes and encloses, of the gullet, of the gut; but of the hand that points out, of the fingers that see, that design, from the tips of the fingers that transcribe by the sweet dictates of the vision.” There are people who believe in great things regardless of circumstances, he said. It made him both bold and smothered, smoothed out on the contours. It felt like the truest thing ever said. He didn’t have particular liking for moral seriousness and always prefered to speak in uprorious paradoxes, yet this was the closest to art that he had ever been. ‘Funny how we write our sentences, as if they are ultimatums’. That part of seeing was important too: seeing what will never be had. Art is also about that. But art is not life. He thought too.

Moments are always easy to see, easier than things. That’s why he no longer liked the paintings. What he was looking for – and unable to detect because of his obsession with precission of eye – was signs. In the beginning, I adored. What I adored was human. Not persons; not totalities, not defined and named beings. But signs.” George was like this; he knew all the signs and had no need to speak about them. That was the secret. The unspeakable. It didn’t require much artistic talent, just an extra storage room in the soul; what wasn’t a guarantee of constance. One needed faith to make up for that.  “And the sign withdrew. Vanished. While I burned on and consumed myself wholly.” And yet he could still see, like a painter, because he had learnt to see from a distance, and the signs became checkpoints, available every day of the year. The real problem wasn’t just things, though, but faces, the most difficult thing to see. To see the face, to remember it, it was to live with the terror too. “But there was nothing. They were alone in the room. It was a dream, she would tell him and so quiet him at last, but sometimes she was frightened too.”

‘Tell me something, before I sleep’. That was the most terrible request, not only because his stories always end in disappointment or vagueness, but also because he couldn’t understand how people still slept. “Writing: a way of leaving no space for death, of pushing back forgetfulness, of never letting oneself be surprised by the abyss. Of never becoming resigned, consoled, never turning over in bed to face the wall and drift asleep again as if nothing had happened; as if nothing could happen.” He had known fear, long before he had known faith, that is why he frightened at the idea of sleep. What if a letter arrived? Or simply just one word? Or if he could finally learn to see signs? Was is not worth the trouble? The exhaustion? Losing the humming even, was an unbearable thought. “’Clarissa!’ he cried. ‘Clarissa!’ But she never came back. It was over. He went away that night. He never saw her again.” That was a horrible mistake; beauty is always returned to. Painters know this well.

Nothing could be lost this way, not even an invitation for dinner, not even the opportunity to set the table. “Still, the sun was hot. Still, one got over things. Still, life had a way of adding day to day.” He had also been told that perhaps he was sweeter than he thought, and less indifferent, and that made him feel defenseless, but for the first time, he basked in this knowledge. It was like a long walk. It was the long walk. “He had never felt so happy in the whole of his life! Without a word they made it up. They walked down to the lake. He had twenty minutes of perfect happiness.” There are many ways to avoid risk, to avoid disappointment, to avoid charm, to avoid lust. Perhaps going for dinner isn’t one of them. And he wanted to learn the face. “’I will come,’ said Peter, but he sat for a moment. What is this terror? What is this ecstasy? He thought to himself. What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement? It is Clarissa, he said. For there she was.” And there they were.

‘I want to know if you are real. I want to touch your cheeks and make sure they’re not rubber.’ There was no response. He taught him his first painting lesson, how to paint at the ocean: “There’s a recipe. To really paint the sea, you have to see it everyday, at every hour and in the same place, to come to know the life in this location.”

[Passages from Virginia Woolf taken from "Mrs. Dalloway", Aziloth Books, 2010. Passages from Helene Cixous taken from "Coming to Writing & Other Essays", Harvard University Press, 1992]

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Duality - Approaching Abjection II

First published on THE MANTLE
[Samer Daboul, Out Loud. 2012. Film]
In Mediterranean culture and the Arab world, the question is far more complex because different substrata of the pagan cultures that precede monotheism – unlike in Europe – survive almost intact in different cultural and social forms, not limited to the vague memory of Greek culture. Khaled El-Rouayheb’s book Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World, 1500-1800 is very illuminating in this respect: Through the study of poetry, biographies, medical treatises, interpretation of dreams and Islamic texts, he arrives at the conclusion that Islamic culture of the Golden Age lacked the concept of homosexuality.
The conclusion of El-Rouayheb’s book is very telling: Homosexuality as a concept and the infamous sodomy laws in Arab states, are largely derived from colonial legislation brought in by the British and the French, and only much later incorporated into the body of Islamic legislation. Also, in the Jewish world, 14th century philosopher Kalonymus ben Kalonymus, presents in his book Even Bochan, a narrative that by today’s standards would be considered transgender, or at least, the feeling of being trapped in the wrong body.
Mosaad tells us in the interview: “What does a man with faith in his heart do with his sexual inclination? Where do one end and the other begin? This gap between the super-ego and the identity. And how do two extreme opposites meet in one psyche at the same exact moment? It’s quite a limbo actually, especially for a young person who is still coming out, still molding his identity; only armed with a halo of confusion and an inescapable inner shame.”
The annihilation of the self that Mosaad is set to explore, can be identified – for the sake of an analytical view, rather than the impossible interpretation of the work – with the concept of “abjection” proposed by Julia Kristeva. What is abjection? A state of degradation, baseness and rejection. The abject for Kristeva is the complement of the superego: The abject is an object already lost, and the experience of abjection is the mourning of that object; standing outside the symbolic orders of culture.1
How do we experience abjection? Either by purification (religious ecstasy) or defilement (sexual ecstasy) the body is reunited with the lost objects and annihilates the subject, if only temporarily: “Abjection is a resurrection that has gone through death (of the ego). It is an alchemy that transforms death drive into a start of life, of new significance.”2 Being abject is precisely the state of being exactly opposite to the ego or to myself.3
The abject is an object that has been not only lost but also repressed and through both ecstasy and defilement the object and the subject become whole again.4 This relationship is determined by a marker, by a cultural marker, out of which the ego is born, but is a world that frightens and intimidates because it poses the instability of the ego: “What is so terrifying about it is that it is so terribly clear and such gladness. If it went on for more than five seconds, the soul could not endure it and must perish. In those five seconds I live through a lifetime, and I am ready to give my life for them, for it’s worth it. To be able to endure it for ten seconds, you would have to undergo a physical change."5
In other words: “The vision of the abject is, by definition, the sign of an impossible object, a boundary and a limit."6 What is it that happens in “Duality” that is so paralyzing and frightening? Why is annihilation so present and real a possibility? Perhaps because both experiences are so qualitatively similar that  survival as a self is impossible in the visual and mental presence of both, at least in a world dominated by repression as the most powerful impetus of the ethical: Civilization requires the suppression of animality.
[Dalia Mosaad, Duality. 2012. Short Film]
While the animality of sexual intercourse is also present in religious ecstasy, its character is merely symbolic and performative. The effect of the water in “Duality”– since the religious ecstasy, shame and guilt, all take next to the Sea, but yet not in it – has the cleansing quality of restoring the subject and the ego by placing a limit and a boundary across; precisely what the bodily defilement shattered.
But the clear distinction between ecstasy and defilement is no longer possible in our contemporary scenario, where the sensorially empty absolute present of Modernity no longer recognizes the boundary between the primal and the conscious and conceives of history as one monotonous extension of the whole. Both ecstasy and defilement can be experienced as lifestyles, to be visited at will.
Returning to New York, a fascinating discussion between different commentators took place on the New York Times in July 2012 over the question, Are Modern Men Manly Enough? Question begot in an age in which the traditional roles and attitudes between men and women have been slowly eroded. One of the commentators, Lawrence Schlossman, responded with a piece titled Manly is a Lifestyle, Not a Look. Without realizing, Schlossman revealed more than he thinks about the fluidity of genders and sexuality nowadays.
Susan Sontag insists that the taste for sadomasochism and rituals of domination and enslavement in affluent societies is simply a logical extension of the tendency to turn every part of people’s lives into a taste, a choice and a lifestyle. Once masculinity, religion and sex become tastes, they are severed from personhood, relationships and love, and ultimately, become a self-conscious form of theater.7 It is in this sense that: “Everyone has felt (at least in fantasy) the erotic glamour of physical cruelty and an erotic lure in things that are vile and repulsive."8
Both ecstasy and defilement require an obsession, that is, abjection from oneself:“Insofar as strong sexual feeling does involve an obsessive degree of attention, it encompasses experiences in which a person can feel he is losing his self."9Sexuality in this sense, in its lifestyle commodity form – like pornography or science fiction – is the attempt, the impossible attempt, to enter a total universe that was once filled with religious content. This is what is so terrifying in “Duality”: Both images, the defilement and the ecstasy, are one and the same.
[Dalia Mosaad, Duality. 2012. Short Film] 

[1] Julia Kristeva. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (Irvington, NY: Columbia University Press, 1982): 15. 
[2] Julia Kristeva. 1982: 15.
[3] Julia Kristeva. 1982: 1.
[4] Julia Kristeva. 1982: 10.
[5] Julia Kristeva. 1982: 19.
[6] Julia Kristeva. 1982: 147.
[7] Susan Sontag. “Fascinating Fascism,” in Under the Sign of Saturn (New York: Picador, 1972):104-105.
[8] Susan Sontag. “The Pornographic Imagination,” in Styles of Radical Will (New York: Picador, 1966): 57.
[9] Susan Sontag. 1966: 58.  

Monday, September 10, 2012

Duality - Approaching Abjection I

First published on THE MANTLE
[Raeda Saadeh, Vacuum. 2007. Video-Installation]
What is it that we actually see in cinema? Something that is withdrawn or cut from the visible: “It is of absolute importance that the flowers cinema displays (as in one of Visconti’s sequences) be Mallarmean flowers, that they be absent from every bouquet."1 For Badiou the idea is grounded not in seeing the flowers, but rather, in having seen them. Eisenstein said that there’s no such a thing as cinema, only cinematography: cuts, edits, frames. In this sense cinema is both impure and invisible: “Cinematography is first and foremost, montage."2 The shift towards entertainment in the film industry somewhat turned the invisibility into the hyper-reality of the always visible, piercing through the realities of mass-media.
But in turn other forms of cinematic experience replaced the dying cinema culture in the West and enthroned video as the default medium of 21st century art, breaking through into the mainstream of the gallery, mainly in the format of the video installation. Although the format is now well established, it has been tardy to come by in Middle Eastern art. Some salient examples would be Mounir Fatmi’sSave Manhattan” (2007) that creates illusions of old New York City skyline before 9/11 with objects such as books about the Arab world published since 9/11, VHS tapes and loudspeakers, or, Raeda Saadeh’s Vacuum” (2007), in which you watch the artist vacuuming – endlessly – sand in the deserted hills of Palestine.
Video-art however is one of the most difficult among contemporary art forms. This is derived from the temptation to realize all types of ideas and experiment with all concepts that comes along with the new media, while at the same time the heterogeneity of concepts lives in tension with the uniformity of the medium.3Nevertheless video has been one of the main gramophones recording the vicissitudes of Arab history, especially since the Arab revolutions, and being one of the world’s toughest regions, we read in War and Other (Impossible) Possibilities, a book by Lebanese art historian Gregory Buchakjan“Useless violence makes history. Useless violence makes art history." Recently an unprecedented number of short-films and documentaries have appeared not just documenting, but also constructing, destructing and deconstructing both old and new realities. 
Dalia Mosaad’s short-film Duality explores the dilemma of gay Muslim men in the Arab world stranded in a disjunctive between sex and religion. Mosaad’s work is not unique in this sense, for two films have appeared in the post-Arab Spring era openly dealing with homosexuality: A short-film by US-based Yemeni filmmaker Ibi IbrahimSounds for Oud, dealing with the struggle of a married man who has a homosexual partner, and, Lebanese director Samer Daboul’s full-length featureOut Loud, a film dealing with bonds of friendship and prejudice against homosexuality in post-Civil War  Lebanon. I wrote about “Sounds of Oud” forYemen Times in November 2011 and about “Out Loud” here at The Mantle in May 2012.
[Dalia Mosaad, Duality. 2012. Short Film. 1:26 min]
“Duality” stands out, nevertheless, because it is not a narrative film but rather the portrayal of a condition, sense in which more – or perhaps less – than a short film, it is both a visual essay and an installation: In less than two minutes, “Duality”offers a two-planes visual meditation – one would imagine each plane running in parallel screens in a gallery suspended on a thin corridor of running water – on an everyday scene, in which a homosexual Muslim is confronted with two equally selfless, paralyzing and ecstatic experiences: Sexual intercourse and prayer.
Although the scenes are merely suggestions – and here Mosaad picks up the invisibility theme expounded by Badiou – there is a great degree of emotional violence in the work, which has been a recurrent tent of modern artistic sensibility, the aesthetics of shock. The experience is so strong that no interpretation is possible and one should either let himself be consumed by it or reject it altogether with repulsion. More than shock, Mosaad plays with aesthetics of annihilation.
She tells us in a short interview: “I chose to focus on one moment particularly; the climax of the inner battle between him and himself. I see it as a very critical moment, it could lead up to him self-destroying his identity or him annihilating his religion, or choosing to live a split dual life of both extremes, etc. And that’s the whole point of this short piece, it raises an open question.”
The 26-year-old Cairene, studying film in Los Angeles, is interested not only inLGBT-issues but in gender fluidity. The characters in her short films are often androgynous, homosexual or playing an opposite gender’s role. The question of gender identity is explosive in her native Egypt nowadays and in the larger Middle East. Homosexuality is not only tabooed by society but also forbidden by religion, in a part of the world that combines wild eroticism with firm repression.
Egyptian writer Yahia Lababidi tells us: “Much of the new morality is fanned by a kind of Islamic panic, quite foreign to the laid-back Egyptian character. It is the difference between a quiet confidence and a loud insecurity […] With female flesh under wraps, and no promise of release in the near future, sensuality spills into unexpected spaces. In Cairo, the human need for physical contact manifests in intense same-sex intimacy."4 Here, however, Lababidi is not specifically referring to homosexuality; what provides some insight into Mosaad’s visual essay.
In 2005, the New York Times’ style magazine published an interesting feature,Straight, With an Asterick that questioned how for example it is acceptable in America’s night life – and even chic – for heterosexual women to have a gay fling but completely unacceptable for men. The feature is a look into the life of a few New York males who find themselves having flings with other men without questioning their sexual identity.
The topic has been the subject of different studies by psychoanalysts and psychiatrists and findings have been revealing: Many of the men found themselves looking for the kind of same-sex bondage and intimacy that is frowned upon in a society shaped by monotheism and patriarchy; paradoxically enough the only way to obtain that bondage was through anonymous sex. In other cases, they spoke about narcissism and the cult of the phallus as an object, independent of any human relationships.
[Dalia Mosaad, Duality. 2012. Short Film]

[1] Alain Badiou. Handbook of Inaesthetics (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 2005): 78.  
[2] Sergei Eisenstein. “The Cinematographic Principle and the Ideogram” in Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings (New York: OUP, 1992): 127.
[3] Agnes Heller. Aesthetics and Modernity: Essays by Agnes Heller, ed. John Rundell (Landam, MD: Lexington Books, 2010) 58-59.
[4] Yahia Lababidi. Trial by Ink: From Nietzsche to Belly Dancing (Champaign, IL: Common Ground, 2010): 107 & 112. 

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Being Modern in Lebanon: Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui

First published on THE MANTLE 

Ain Mreissy (oil on canvas), 2002
“For me, it was obvious when I finished my art training that there was no point in painting in any other artists’ style. Obvious, too, that the road Western art had taken at that point offered isolation and boredom, as far as I was concerned. Why should only an elite understand a minimalist art work? Why should a cleaning woman in Bordeaux throw out an artwork she thought was just garbage left to get rid of?”
This is how Lebanese painter Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui begins to reveal, in the course of correspondences between February and March 2012, a great deal of information not only about her own work, but also about some of the crucial dilemmas in 20th century art and the ambiguous relationship of Lebanese painting to the Western canon.
The history of Lebanese painting reflects this ambiguity in terms of themes and works, ever since Daoud Corn set for Italy in 1870 to study under Roberto Bompiani. Under the influence and mentorship of European masters—but without established traditions or art schools at home—Lebanese painters were free to develop their own styles. To be sure, they were influenced by European trends, but these artists also remained aware that they simply could not fully embrace the Western perspective; during this period, at the climax of Modernity, European art was immersed in its own battles. The rise of photography and cinema had advanced a concern with either realism or abstraction. Filmmaker Maya Deren notes: “Is not the relative poverty of contemporary art at least partly due to the fact that, in taking realism (which is not at all the same as objectivity) as its ambition it has basically denied the existence of art and substituted science?”1
Lebanese artists in this period were busy with the cause of staging a Lebanese nation and giving certain shape to the Lebanese identity. During the Arab renaissance, or El-Nahda—roughly equivalent to Modernity—portraiture enjoyed certain popularity as did the reproduction of well-known works of European art.  The emergence of Habib Srur and Khalil Slaybi in the 1920s, however, gave art its professional status and later, with the birth of a true artistic movement with painters like Yusuf Hoyek, César Gemayel, Omar Onsi, Mustafa Farrukh, and Saliba Duayhi, Lebanese painting acquired a certain European style.Yet far from the surrealism that was exploding the traditional modes of representation, Lebanese artists left the old portrait tradition explore a late and timid impressionism in the treatment of landscapes and still lifes.2  
In his book Dictionaire de la Peinture au Liban (Escalier, 1998), Michel Fani speaks about a certain tension between East and West in Lebanon, but cautions the reader about not taking at face value the history of art in Lebanon as simply the result of this tension. Lebanese art experienced Modernity less as a break with figurative art than as a quest for authenticity. Though a wide array of abstract styles were also found in Lebanon, figurative art predominated in broader lines.
Unfortunately, Fani’s book ends in the period before the Civil War and so does Edouard Lahoud’s L’art contemporain au Liban (Dar El Machreq, 1974).3Nevertheless, in a country with such diversity of styles, influences, and communities, it would be difficult to pin down systematically what the years of the war and its aftermath wrought in contemporary painting. The oeuvre of Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui’s is significant in all of these contexts —Western and Eastern, pre- and post-war, modern and traditional—because of how broadly her art is exposed to all of them, but still remains highly idiosyncratic.

The Artist

Born in Constantine Cavafy’s Alexandria before the Nasser era (she remarked in another letter from June 2012 that she used to take painting lessons a few doors away from Cavafy’s house), classically trained in art first at Silvio Bicci Art Academy, and later at the American University in Beirut, then at the University of Arizona in Tucson; she has lived since in Beirut. After being exposed to minimal and abstract art, Sehnaoui took a salutary pause and, for a while, headed the graphic arts department at the National Council of Tourism before the war. She took this time to question what was lacking in Western art, placing herself at a distance from the blind spots of this tradition.   
In 2011, Sehnaoui remarked to art collector Taymour Grahne:
Where to go from there? The answer came as I discovered Lebanon and the Middle East. My generation’s schooling had been axed on the Western world. The feeling of emptiness was replaced by excitement as I read about the legends, history, and art that had been overlooked for so long, right there in this part of the world. Walking in the Lebanese hills and coming across abandoned Roman temples, themselves built over foundations carved into solid rock by the Phoenicians, then occupied by later civilizations, Greek, Roman Byzantine, and Arab, made me marvel. As I extended my exploration to other fabulous Arab countries; Yemen, Oman, Jordan, Syria, Dubai and Abu Dhabi I realized what a rich and extraordinary treasure we have.4
Mosque in the Desert (oil on canvas), 2011
Certain features drawn from the culture of the Middle East are unique in Sehnaoui’s work: take Byzantine icons and Persian miniatures, for instance, but given a contemporary treatment, unlike the work of the painter Hrair Diarbekirian whose painting work is inspired by icons but treated in classical fashion. There’s also the history and mythology of Lebanon, the palm trees and mosques of Abu Dhabi, and the birds from ancient frescos and medieval Islamic art. While these subjects might seem commonplace, Sehnaoui’s particular technique of flat painting using soft and delicate pastel tones stands out. An intriguing influence on her work, seldom mentioned, is revealed when discussing her own iconography:
Walt Disney was, undeniably, one of the great artists of the 20th century. There is no doubt that his cartoons influenced the visual arts of the ‘40s and ‘50s generation. Soon people will forget and think that artists like Murakami or Jeff Koons were original. I wonder if Disney had his inspiration from the ancient Egyptian wall frescos and their almost kinetic illustrations of daily life. Would it be far-fetched to think that he may have seen Persian illustrations of the Shȃh- Nȃhmeh?
From icons and cartoons Sehnaoui acquires a very particular understanding of space in which the almost mathematical architecture of the impressionist landscape is replaced for a freely expressed perspective, without breaking from the format of figurative painting.
In terms of effect, Sehnaoui’s questioning of the alienation of contemporary art takes on the democratization of art in the age of criticism: “Another desire: that my art should be understood by people in all walks of life.” One is reminded of Sontag’s thesis that interpretation of art—as a profession and tradition—is the revenge of the intellect upon art: “In most modern instances, interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone. Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable.”5This typical modern gesture transforms the whole content and experience of art into its parts and, ultimately, into what is not visible. Maya Deren explains this best: “For the interaction of the parts so transforms them into function that there are no longer parts, but a simple, homogeneous whole which defies dissectional analysis and, in so sublimating the complex history of its development, seems an instantaneous miracle.”6
While the seemingly modern, deconstructive attitude is promulgated religiously by art critics, the gesture is typically Platonic; the approach assumes that what is real and true in art is what appears, but what is hidden and an ideal form. French philosopher Sarah Kofman has called this “the imposture of beauty,” in which an essence is attributed to art in its striving for immortality that deprives it from truly aesthetic qualities. Since its inception, the modern era has done away with the experience of art itself.
In Mélancolie de l’art (Galilée, 1985), Sarah Kofman writes:
Writing on art—is that not an impossible task? What is art in general? Can we maintain the same discourse about what is called “representative” art and about “modern art”? Moreover, can we speak unequivocally of music, architecture, sculpture, painting, poetry, painting, cinema, photography, etc? Is there one type of art that we might privilege and that might serve as a model, a paradigm? All these questions are based on a primary certainty, that there are works of art, and a hierarchical classification of the arts, which in turn presupposes that the initial ontological question has been resolved: what is art? A question that is itself replete with metaphysical presuppositions.7
The formulation expresses one of the crucial difficulties in contemporary art and aesthetics: Something seems to have gone very wrong with the concept of the beautiful since the beginning of the modern era, and in order to fix both the beautiful and the dislocated place of art in a secular society, the two have become merged, so that art and the beautiful are one and the same. As a consequence, art has become merely conceptual and philosophical while the beautiful has become redundant:
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 found 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 work, an addendum, a synonym for perfection or “fitting form” (Stimmigkeit by Adorno). The Moor did his service; the Moor can leave.8
In Sehnaoui’s work we find a double reading of art which is both conscious and unconscious, conceptual and material, fully restored: “In this sense my paintings are a meditation: they deal with actual and visual things, yet they always have them in some subconscious reminder of the awareness of unanswered questions.” The actuality of her work is expressed clearly in her sense of observation: “Artists are generally people who have an acute sense of observation and are extremely sensitive to situations, obvious and less obvious. We are affected by everything that goes on around us and within us. The colors, the emotions, the vibrations of the Middle East have always been like particles in my life blood.”
The difficulty inherent in her work for the task of the critic lies precisely in that it is not only readily available to any viewer—regardless of artistic and critical training—but at the same time is also embedded in a series of critical and conceptual procedures that cannot simply be dismissed as traditional or merely craftsmanship:
There is no double without devouring, without cutting into what, without it, might have passed for a full, self-sufficient presence. The double makes the original differ from itself; it disfigures the original, calls up and disturbs what, without it, might simply be identified, named, classed in this or that determinate category. Art is not a matter of some “shadow world” that could be opposed, in any simple sense, to the real world of the living. Art upsets the opposition between these two worlds, causes each to slip into the other.9
To Be or Not to Be (gouache on paper), 2010

O Lebanon

Any discussion of a contemporary Lebanese painter would be incomplete without considering the Civil War. Al-Hawadeth (the events) refers not so much to a war between “each other,” but rather of others on Lebanese soil.”10 Says Sehnaoui:
True, we live an area of constant turbulence, nothing new, although it seems to be happening all at once, all over, at the moment. For us Lebanese … something of déjà vu or rather déjà lived. Were we aware over the terrible years of war, which I refuse to refer to as Civil War, 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.
In an unusual gesture to many Lebanese artists who are trapped in either the memory or denial of the war, war paintings are only one aspect of her work. Rather, she insists on the point of showing happier and more positive sides of life inspired by the Middle East, its history and traditions: “I still do paintings that reflect my feelings about what goes on politically. However, I rarely show these works or want to sell them. I only sold two of these paintings and regretted it and tried unsuccessfully to buy them back.” Early in the 1970s for example, she drew a party in Beirut with women sipping drinks and a gunman hidden in the bushes, a token to the sense of foreboding chaos that she felt. Overall, Sehnaoui remains optimistic; her work is the clearest manifestation of her feelings about the region:
“For me the Middle East is life: Vibrant and pulsating, stupid and loving, cunning and wise, kind and cruel, simple and mysterious. A place where cold mathematics could be proved wrong, a place where God and the Gods have chosen to appear. Life has the power to overcome when coupled with love.” Entirely comfortable with her multicultural heritage—Egyptian, Lebanese, Western—she beams: “I feel privileged to have a foot in each culture; it is not a handicap as far as I am concerned. I don’t think that my multicultural background has been a handicap in the long term. Thanks to this dual heritage I believe I have found my home.”
The complexity of the colors, streams, and influences that convene in Sehnaoui’s work reminds one of what Amin Maalouf writes in Les Identités Meurtrières(Grasset, 1998): “The identity of a person is not the juxtaposition of autonomous belongings, it is not a mosaic: It is a drawing on tense skin; it suffices to touch only one of those belongings to make the entire person shake.”11 Sehnaoui’s uniquely Lebanese art is traditional and contemporary, colorful and melancholic, Persian, Byzantine, Arab, Western, and all of these belongings—for want of a better metaphor—are both hers and the world’s. The undeniable resilience in her work is succinctly expressed in the last stanza of her 1993 poem “One More Painting:”
Life to go on a while longer.
One more day, one more color,
One more painting.12
After Two Months (installation), 2008

September 4, 2012

frontispiece: "Ain Mreissy" by Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui. Oil on canvas, 2002.

1. Maya Deren. “An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form, Film,” in Essential Deren: Collected Writings on Film by Maya Deren, ed. Bruce McPherson (Kingston, NY:Documentext, 2005): 45.
2. Samir Kassir. Beirut (Berkeley: Univ.  of California Press, 2011): 331-2.
3. An art history in Lebanon in between the wars or in the post-war period has never been written. Nevertheless, Cesar Namour’s In Front of a Painting: Writings on Painting (Beirut, Fine Arts Publishing, 2003) and Kirsten Scheid’s Ph.D. dissertation “Painters, Picture-Makers, and Lebanon: Ambiguous Identities in an Uncertain State” (Princeton, 2005) have filled a partial gap.
4. Taymour Grahne. “Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui,” (April 18, 2011):
5. Susan Sontag. “Against Interpretation,” in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (New York: Picador, 1961): 8.
6. Maya Deren, 2005: 47.
7. Sarah Kofman. Selected Writings  (Stanford: , Stanford Univ. Press, 2007): 205. 
8. Agnes Heller. Aesthetics and Modernity: Essays by Agnes Heller, ed. John Rundell (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010): 36.
9. Sarah Kofman, 2007: 208-9.
10. Esther Charlesworth. Architects Without Frontiers: War, Reconstruction, Design and Responsibility (Maryland Heights, MO: Elsevier, 2006): 57. Samir Kassir (2011: 511) notes that at the start of the war in 1975, the Lebanese used Al-Hawadeth in the spring and the word “war” began to be used in the fall that same year.
11. Amin Maalouf. Les Identités Meurtrières (Paris: Grasset, 1998): 16.
12. Correspondence with the author, March 2012.