The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged Culture
Blind Ambition

I'm sitting in the beautiful old Radio movie theatre in Downtown Cairo, watching a black and white movie filmed on a cell phone. On screen, people (all so familiar I feel I crossed them once in the street) are complaining, arguing, not listening to each other while charging forward in endless linguistic loops. The dialogues, as one audience member suggest afterwards, are as frusrating as unresolved mathematical equations. They are also captivating, the way overheard snatches of intense conversation often are, full of urgenty invoked cliches and naked self-assertion and self-righteousness.

We laugh, out of both the pleasure and the discomfort of recognition. Humour, I would venture to say, is rare in contemporary art films, which is another reason that Egyptian artist Hassan Khan's "Blind Ambition" is worth seeking out (although I do wonder how much of this very verbal film is lost to non-Arabic speakers). I saw it last night, as part of the ongoing D-Caf cultural festival. As Khan explained after the screening, it is based on "daily, personal observations" but also elaborated through a painstaking directing/acting process (which as far as I understand toes the line between scripted and improvised) and clever formal choices meant to undercut the exchanges' seeming naturalism. When people aren't speaking, for example, the film is silent. It is as if the characters' voices make them "come into being," says Khan -- the space of single, memorable moments. 

Here's a good write up in Egypt Independent, too. 

Re-imagining culture post-uprisings

Sonali Pahwa and Jessical Winegar, in the latest issue of Middle East Report:

The Arab uprisings have brought major challenges, as well as unprecedented opportunities, to the culture industries. According to a flurry of celebratory news articles from the spring of 2011 onward, protest art is proliferating in the region, from graffiti in Egypt to hip-hop in Morocco to massive photographic displays and political cartoons gone viral in Tunisia. These articles then adopt a predictably ominous tone to express the concern that resurgent Islamist forces represent a danger to arts and culture writ large.

Two fundamental aspects of this emerging cultural politics are frequently overlooked: the support for culture industries in mainstream Islamist circles and the underlying structural transformation of the relationship between arts and the state. The story is not simply one of liberation from authoritarian states, new desires to criticize such states or Islamist threats to freedom of expression. Rather, there are complex shifts in the overlapping cultural and political fields. Changes in the cultural scene are not simply a barometer of broader political and economic change, but part and parcel of it, particularly in countries with strong, centralized ministries of culture, such as Egypt, Syria and Tunisia. In these places, the dominant state ideology poses culture as a path to progress and enlightenment. In this moment of opening, cultural producers, intellectuals and politicians are asking foundational questions about the role of government in the field of culture and vice versa. Egypt, the most populous Arab country and thus a bellwether of sorts, is a case in point.

Read on.

What I've been up to lately (besides obsessing over presidential elections)

So here are a few recent stories I've forgotten to link to:

An article on curricular and education reform in Egypt and Tunisia (which with the exception of some edits to the civic education books -- the most egregious offenders in terms of flattering references to the countries' dictators -- hasn't really started yet) in Foreign Policy. In Egypt, at least, the challenges to reforming public education are so gargantuan that removing sycophantic references to the Mubarak regime is the least of anyone's worries. 

And a piece in The National on the verdict against Egyptian comic Adel Imam last week for "insulting Islam" in his comedies featuring religious fundamentalists. Of course the verdict (whatever you think of Imam's movies and politics) is terrible, but I try to put it in context. The final verdict is expected early July. 

Imam's portrayals of religious fundamentalists are broad and unflattering - featuring false beards, furrowed brows and stentorian deliveries. The overwhelming suggestion is that Salafists (the ultra-conservative Muslims who have recently won 25 per cent of seats in parliament) are all extremists, hypocrites and manipulators. Then again, while his portrayals may lack nuance and be unsympathetic, it's worth remembering that they were filmed at a time when armed Islamists groups were engaging in terrorism in Upper Egypt and that it's hard to find anything more ridiculous or extreme in them than what some Islamists have actually said and done.

Egyptian law allows anyone to bring charges against "whoever exploits religion in words or writing or any other methods to promote extremist ideologies, with a view of stirring up sedition, disparaging or contempt of any divine religion or its adherents, or prejudicing national unity and social peace." Islamists have taken this already spectacularly broad clause to mean that they have legal protection from ridicule, whereas it should be obvious that making fun of the way certain individuals practice their religion is not the same thing as insulting religion itself.

Imam's position is complicated by the fact that his relationship with the former regime and the Mubarak family was cosy and he often spoke out in defence of government policies. His movies never had any trouble with the censors, and many of those that skewered religious fundamentalism aligned themselves so neatly with government positions as to skirt the edge of propaganda and lead some of his colleagues to accuse him of being a government "spokesman".

The Noise of Cairo

Singer Shaimaa Shaalan

I had the chance to see the documentary "The Noise of Cairo" last night. The film is about Egyptian artists and their relationship to the revolution -- their engagement, whether political, personal or professional, and the effect they expect the uprising to have on the creative field. (This is a topic I have written on myself, in "Art in Egypt's Revolutionary Square," at the Middle East Research and Information Project).


The film is excellent. It consists of a well-chosen and well-edited series of interviews with a broad cross-section of Egyptian artists. It addresses some fundamental questions (How do you creatively engage with such an extraordinary political moment, if at all? Will the uprising lead to new and different work conditions for artists, to increased freedom of expression? Should artists find new audiences now; try to, as writer Khaled El Khamissi says, build a bridge between culture and society?) without belaboring the points or putting words into the artists' mouths.

There are some poignant and powerful moments, as when middle-aged artist Khaled Hafez talks about teaching his students to avoid and transcend censorship because his generation had been "programmed" not to engage or believe in direct confrontation and says "I discovered what it was to be a citizen at 48." Or Hany Rashed's account of being harassed by state security for his great work featuring policemen, and how one of the first thing he did was photograph cops in the street and return to this theme after the revolution.  

But the documentary, although it's sub-titled "art and revolution," take the artists' own matter-of-fact attitude to their political engagement -- current events are just something they inevitably react to (and some say they purposely want to avoid commenting on the revolution). I liked the film for how it shows the breadth and variety of artistic production that was already taking place under Mubarak and that has increased in volume and confidence since. My favourite discovery: dancer Ezzat Ismail, whose performance "Waiting?" in the YouTube video below, is meant to capture the elation and anxiety that followed Mubarak's ouster. He filmed it at 2am one night, with the curfew still in place and an army checkpoint stationed nearby. 

Culture and activism

I have a new piece up at the Middle East Research and Information Project about cultural production and cultural activism in Egypt. There is so much different kinds of cultural activity going on these days that it's hard to categorize, and there are many more artists and projects I could have referenced.  I've tried to make some general observations:

It is not easy to combine aesthetic and political ambitions in order to creatively address the revolutionary moment. For one thing, many artists and writers have continued to be active in the protest movement itself -- they have little detachment from the events of the last year, and their energies are depleted by their participation in protests, organizing meetings and advocacy campaigns. In their political work, they can face significant personal risk, like their fellow citizen-activists. In late December, at a press conference convened to deny army responsibility for the horrific violence visited by soldiers upon protesters near the cabinet, a blustering member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces suddenly denounced Muhammad Hashim -- head of the independent and widely esteemed publishing house Merit -- as one of several conspirators being investigated for instigating attacks upon the army. (His crime, it appears, consisted of supplying protesters with blankets and helmets.)

For another, it is too early for artists or anyone else to map the contours of the current juncture with any clarity. In late January 2011, there was a rupture in the reality Egyptians had known for so long. Many artists and novelists, returning home elated if exhausted from weeks of protesting, simply scrapped whatever work they were doing. Since then, the rapid pace of events -- or, many would say, of reversals -- has rendered it nearly impossible to fix a vantage point from which to consider developments. The Egyptian revolution is not yet a subject of art; it is an ongoing experience.

And I only just saw the trailer for this cool-looking documentary, "The Noise of Cairo," -- on artists and their relationship to the revolution. 

The Noise of Cairo (Trailer) from scenesfrom on Vimeo.

The uprisings and the arts in the Arab world

One of the key people to follow for Middle Eastern news — particularly analysis of the media and cultural scenes — is Andrew Hammond, who works at Reuters. He also has a blog where he posts the occasional non-Reuters article, the latest of which is about the arts scene after the uprisings. After first discussing worries in arts circles about the rise of Islamists, Hammond writes:

However, I think a more pertinent issue to raise here is the general state of the al-wasat al-fanni, or the arts scene, as it is often referred to in Arabic, since this is what exercises the minds of these new players on the political scene. It is utterly corrupt. The arts were and are an intimate part of the rotten structure of Arab state politics. To rise to the top in Mubarak’s entertainment world you had to play the game with the regime, because the state placed itself at the centre of artistic production, giving the more sordid aspects of fame familiar anywhere a more sinister turn. Numerous actresses have fallen out of favour because they didn’t want to submit to the sleazy rules of fame laid down by Media Production City and its former boss Mamdouh al-Leithy. Wealthy ministers or princes from Gulf countries enter into the equation, funding films or promoting actresses who might receive a phone call from an intermediary offering them a three-day trip to visit the prince, ferried on a private jet without need for stamping passport, and topped off with a large amount of dollars placed in bank account (something Lebanese presenter Tony Khalifa once fished at in questions to two well-known actresses on his show). Egyptian independent and opposition newspapers often hint at these deals, with articles noting the sudden wealth of so-and-s0 who now has a limousine, or who just returned from a major shopping trip to Paris or the Gulf. The transnational corruption of Arab arts was hinted at by the murder in 2008 of a not-so-talented Lebanese singer taken out in Dubai by a hitman sent by her former tycoon lover in Egypt.

Read the whole thing, and while you're at it you might want to get yourself a copy of Andrew's book, Popular Culture in the Arab World.

Cultural revolution

Since Mubarak's ouster, I've been trying to follow some small portion of the many creative reactions to this time in Egypt's history. Many of the artists and writers I know personally were in Tahrir Square, and have since been struggling to make sense of their experience; to balance their work and their political commitments; and to take advantage of new opportunities for collective action, free speech, and making use of public space. 

A mural in Downtown Cairo (since painted over) created as part of an art awareness campaign

For the design magazine Print, I put together a selection of images that speak (or spoke, a few months back -- these things change quickly) to the visual legacy of the revolution.

And I just wrote a piece on "cultural revolution" for Foreign Policy looking at some of the many grassroots cultural initiatives taking place now; at artists' efforts to contribute creatively to the revolution (and their many acts of opposition, well before it, to the Mubarak regime); and at how the cultural landscape might be changing. There is also an accompanying slide show

Book review: The Puppet

I just reviewed The Puppet, by Libyan novelist Ibrahim Al-Koni (recently translated by University of Texas Press). I'm a great admirer of Al-Koni's work but was not particularly impressed with this book:

Perhaps one of the reasons The Puppet disappoints is that, for the most part, it doesn't take place in the desert. The novel is the middle instalment of a three-part trilogy al-Koni penned in the late 1990s, charting the decline and moral corruption of a nomadic tribe after its settlement in an oasis and the subsequent shift towards more sedentary and commercial ways. The puppet of the title is the would-be leader Aghulli, who is manipulated and betrayed by the tribe's noblemen and traders.

In his introduction, the translator William M Hutchins (who has translated al-Koni's Anubis and The Seven Veils of Seth, as well as Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy) connects al-Koni's work to the medieval Arab sociologist Ibn Khaldoun's theory of cyclical social expansion and disintegration. The book is also reminiscent of the Saudi writer Abdul-Rahman Munif's masterful Cities of Salt trilogy, which charts - with much greater nuance and historical specificity - the disorienting transformation of a nomadic population into a sedentary work force.

The rot of society, the temptations of settled and "civilised" life - as opposed to the purity of the traditional nomadic existence - is a recurring theme in al-Koni's work. In The Bleeding of the Stone, the shepherd Asouf lives as a hermit in the mountains. The arrival of two modern hunters represents the eruption of human evil into his innocent natural world. In Gold Dust, the hero chooses his camel companion over his family and reputation. The opposition between the corrupting demands of society and nomadic freedom is romantic and sometimes simplistic, but al-Koni imbues his characters' longing for the desert as a spiritual homeland with pathos and urgency.

The Puppet unfortunately retreads this familiar territory without adding anything new. There is no tension about the oasis' future, no ambiguity over the characters' natures and motivations. One of the general charms of al-Koni's work is that his characters are both archetypal and sui generis. Here, they are just archetypes: the puppet, the hero, the merchant, the lover.

Nonetheless, this is a writer very much worth discovering. There are several other works by Al-Koni available in English and I'd recommend starting there (in particular with The Bleeding of the Stone). 


Six cool things about Morocco

 As most readers of the blog know, Issandr and I spent the summer visiting and reporting from Morocco. What follows is a belated, personal and haphazard list of some cool things I discovered there. 

1. Music. Hindi Zahra, a Berber-Moroccan-French singer-songwriter. 

Hindi Zahra - Stand Up
Uploaded by EMI_Music. - Watch more music videos, in HD!

2. The online magazine Mithly, the first Arabic magazine by and for gay men (Click here to hear my interview with the editor).

3. Casablanca's new "culture factory"--the city's old abandoned colonial-era slaughter-house, which has been taken over by a collective of artist and cultural professionals. Although the government is dragging its feet in recognizing and funding the space, it's already amazing. 

4. The Cinematheque of Tangiers. This movie theatre--beautifully restored and lovingly run by photographer Yto Barrada--has been around from some time, and remains one of my favourite spots in the country. 

5. Abdel-latif Laabi. The Moroccan poet and 2009 Goncourt prize winner is immensely talented; his poems pull you back and forward between the lyrical and the ironic, the poetic and the mundane. 

From his collection Mon Cher Double, a poem called "Matin gris" ("Gray morning"):

Matin gris

Images marquées au fer rouge

d'un autre matin gris:

rictus d'un fauve

juché sur ta poitrine


te mettant les tripes à l'envers

insultes pleuvant

sure le sexe et la religion 

de ta mère

loque sanguinolente de ton corps

trainée, jetée dans un debarras

couche à meme le ciment

pain sec en guise d'oreiller

Nuit succédant aux nuits

plus de matin

meme gris

et nul sauveur

nul témoin

I can't translate this poem, which seems to be about someone homeless, the victim of violence--but the last lines read: "lay flat on the cement/dry bread for a pillow/night following upon nights/no more morning/not even a gray one/and no saviour/no witness." You can read Laabi's poetry in French at his own site and others. Unfortunately, he has been little translated into English. 

6. Did I mention music? This song ("Schizo Country"), by the well-known group Hoba Hoba Spirit. The video is also very cool.

Sonallah Ibrahim, taking stock

Sonallah Ibrahim in his home, June 2010 (Victoria Hazou)

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing the great Egyptian man of letters Sonallah Ibrahim. The interview--and discussion of his novel التلصص (Stealth), recently translated into English--was fascinating. Ibrahim is one of Egypt's most formally interesting and politically uncompromising writers and although there was a melancholy note to a lot of our conversation, he is a kind, charming and funny man. 

Also as it turns out, Stealth--an affecting, autobiographical novel that deals with Ibrahim's unusual childhood--is a story he has been turning around in his mind for the last forty years. 

It was while in prison that Ibrahim self-published his first book. Financed by his cigarette allowance, the hand-written volume had a cardboard cover of flattened food boxes, chapter titles in red ink made from mercurochrome, and a spine held together by bread paste. It included the introduction to a novel, Khalil Bey, the never-finished forerunner of what would become Stealth. After his release, Ibrahim wrote novels that were published in more traditional, less painstaking ways. But the subject of his childhood haunted him. All along, he says, “I was thinking of it, of how to deal with it.”

You can read the piece here.

When I went back a few days after the interview, with photographer Victoria Hazou, to take Ibrahim's pictures for the article, I brought along the Proust Questionnaire to entertain us while Victoria snapped away. We got through most of it. 

What is your favourite virtue? Telling the truth.

What is your favourite quality in a man? Tolerance towards women.

What is your favourite quality in a woman? Beauty (laughs)...and mind. 

What is your chief characteristic? Being very fond of women. And persistence. When I start something--whether it's washing the dishes or writing a novel--I  have to finish it.

What do you appreciate the most in your friends? That we can understand each other quickly and laugh together.

What is your main fault? Not being aggressive enough... (laughs)...especially with women. 

What is your favourite occupation? Writing. 

What is your idea of happiness? Sexual harmony.

What is your idea of misery? Not being able to do what you want to do.

If not yourself, who would you be? Nobody.

Where would you like to live? Here. I hate Cairo but when I tried to live in other places it just didn't work. 

Who are your favourite prose authors? Hemingway and Raymond Chandler.

Who are your favourite poets? I don't enjoy poetry.

Who are your favourite heroes in fiction? Philip Marlowe and George Smiley.

Who are your favourite heroines in fiction? Scarlett O'Hara and Anais Nin.

Who are your favourite composers? Stravinsky, Dvorjak, Orff, Karloff. 

Who are your favorite painters? Cezanne. 

Who are your favourite heroes in real life? I don't believe in heroes. 

What characters in history do you most dislike? Henry VIII and  Hosni Mubarak.

What is your favourite food and drink? Vodka. 

What do you hate the most? Hypocrisy. 

How do you wish to die? Peacefully, in my sleep. I hate the idea of going to a hospital.

What is your present state of mind? Depressed.

For what faults have the most tolerance? So-called moral faults...

Your favourite motto. Don't have one. 

And for more material on Ibrahim, see Youssef Rakha's  2003 interview and recent conversation with him. 

Culture links

I've been traveling and then had trouble logging into the blog, so it's been a while since I posted. But here's a collection of interesting culture links from the last weeks. 

1. Beirut 39 -- an event that selected 39 writers under 39 from the region, and aimed at raising the profile of emerging Arab writers -- came to a close. I'm eager to read the anthology that came out of it (even though I am not really a fan of anthologies...) Here's an article about the event in the Daily Star, but I haven't found many reviews yet. 

2. The latest edition of the  Palestinian Literary Festival -- a literary festival that travels around the Occupied Territories, because it is so hard for audiences to all gather in one place, and whose participants regularly face long waits at checkpoints and harassment by Israeli security forces -- also came to an end. Not before Ethan Bronner could lament, in the NYTimes, that it hadn't held some joint events with a concurrent Israeli festival. 

Again, it seemed like the two groups of writers could benefit from hearing one another’s reflections. Should the festivals meet? Should Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss, A. B. Yehoshua and Daniel Mendelsohn, all of whom were speakers in Israel, join Geoff Dyer, Victoria Brittain and Raja Shehadeh, the writers on the other side?

Yes, said Anthony David, an American biographer and professor at the Bard Honors College of Al Quds University in East Jerusalem. “It is ridiculous to have writers from all over the world in the same city and not meeting each other,” he said as he waited in Ramallah for a reading to begin. “The boycott thinking here among Palestinians is so entrenched that people are threatened by meeting people from the Israeli side. Building networks is the only way to undermine nefarious forces.”

But Ahdaf Soueif, an Egyptian-British author who runs the Palestinian festival, disagreed. “I feel that Palestinians are too often seen as an adjunct or reverse side of another coin,” she said. “Palestine is an entity in its own right and it deserves its own festival. If the day comes when Jerusalem is a shared capital, then we can reconsider.”

Yeah, the Palestinians don't get to keep their olive groves or their home in "contested" East Jerusalem, can they  have their own literary festival, for #*@*'s sake? 

3. At the Guardian, Jack Shenker gave the Cairene publishing house Merit the kudos it so amply deserves.

Mohamed Hashem's office seems an unlikely home for Egypt's nascent literary revolution: to find it you have to ascend a shabby set of stairs in a downtown Cairo apartment block shared by, among others, the Egyptian Angling Federation and an orthopaedic surgeon. It's a far cry from the slick headquarters of Egypt's biggest publishing houses. Yet on any given day it's here on Hashem's threadbare sofas that you'll find the cream of young Egyptian writing talent, chain-smoking cigarettes, chatting with literary critics and thumbing through some of the thousands of books stacked from floor to ceiling.

4. At the National Kaelen Wilson-Goldie reviewed the latest edition of the home-grown Lebanese art event Home Works, and wonders if it hasn't fallen victim to its own success: 

And this is the thing. Home Works was never meant to be a sprawling international art event, a spectacle divorced from its context. When Ashkal Alwan began in 1994, its mandate was to engage the city and create artworks that tackled urgent social, economic and political issues inextricably linked to the experience of Beirut and its relationship to the region and the world. 

Home Works was an alternative to big-budget biennials and splashy arts festivals well before either of those models was even plausible or desired in a place like Beirut. For better or worse, in its fifth incarnation, Home Works became the very thing it never needed or wanted to be: an art-world power summit, an occasion for lavish lunches, dinners and after parties, an event with little to no local audience or consequence that rolls into town, makes a lot of noise, blows a lot of hot air and disappears.

5. At Al Ahram Weekly, novelist and critic Youssef Rakkah reviewed AUC Professor Samia Mehrez's just-out-in-English Egypt's Culture Wars: Politics and Paradise. 

By juggling straightforward political commitments with bookish frameworks in which they do not always obviously fit -- freedom of expression and gender awareness, for example, with Pierre Bourdieu's notion of literary autonomy -- Mehrez manages, for better or worse, to bring depth to arguably shallow cultural products like Alaa Al-Aswany's phenomenal bestseller, The Yaqoubian Building ; by the same token, she takes purely academic topics -- the family in Egyptian literature of the 1990s, say -- out of the narrow parameters of literary criticism. And the vitality with which she does this, her insistence on weaving in her own experience as both producer and consumer is, more than any theoretical or "intellectual" achievement, what makes Egypt's Culture Wars an important and versatile stroke.

6. And at Al Masry Al Youm English, I reviewed the latest collection of short stories (actually written before his novels) from Hamdi Abu Golayyel and the recently translated Drumbeat by Mohammed El Bisatie

In the margins

Worth noting:

* Geoff Wysner, at Words Without Borders, reviews the memoir Algerian White, by Assia Djebar.

Algerian White was written as a tribute to three men. Each was a friend of the author. Each was a writer himself, in addition to his regular profession. All three were killed in the space of less than a year, and the stories of each of their deaths are at the emotional heart of the book.

Read more

* Interesting cyber-publishing venture: An Iranian novella is translated thanks to a collaboration between three websites, excerpted and put on sale online. The translator writes about the process here. The story has a stream-of-consciousness, Kafkaesque quality: 

When I get to the hotel, the smiling deskman portends bad things and I am right. He gestures to a woman sitting on the couch in a corner of the lobby. And from here, I see only her salt and pepper hair and when I can almost see her profile, she sees me. There is no time to run away. Although I am really tired. I didn’t talk to a woman on the phone and I was not waiting for a woman. My thoughts are lining up. I see her hand come toward me and with no choice I shake her hand and start to say how are you, with no choice, and that is the way of life no choice, apparently. Automatically, without thinking, we go and sit down where the woman had been seated. So quickly you got to know the city.