The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged The arts
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.

Ahmed Basiony at the Venice Biennale

Artist Ahmed Basiony, during the Egyptian revolution, a few days before his death.

In a review of Arab art at the Venice Biennale, a tribute to Ahmed Basiony - FT:

And so to Egypt, where wasted energy was also the inspiration for a performance piece by Basiony. In February 2010, he wired himself inside a transparent sweat suit and ran on spot for a month in a glass vitrine. The film of that happening is now part of an exhibition put together by two friends of Basiony, artist Shady El Noshokaty and curator Aida Eltorie. The other work is footage of the protests in Cairo last Janaury, which was shot by Basiony himself three days before he was killed by snipers.
Certain critics assert that the informal nature of this latter film invalidates it as art. How wrong they are. In an installation whose success depends on its simplicity, the juxtaposition of Basiony’s caged, relentless jog with his nerve-wrackingly unpredictable images of the crowds as they chant, pray and flee from police, is riveting. Watching those impassioned yet peaceful faces brings to mind Robert Rauschenberg’s declaration that he worked “in the gap between art and life”. That was long ago, and in another country. Basiony may be dead but the promise of his revolution lives on – not least in this year’s rich panorama of Arab art.


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.

The art of development
Last week I attended a cultural festival in the small northern town of Asilah.


A mural on the walls of Asilah's medina and a "A vendre" ("For Sale") sign on the right. A mural on the walls of Asilah's medina and a "A vendre" ("For Sale") sign on the right.


Morocco has dozens of cultural festivals, most of them dedicated to music. These are often fantastic--I had an unforgettable time at the Gnawa festival in Essaouira three years ago. But as I note in an article that just came out in the National, many of the festivals are sponsored by powerful politicians and seem to be motivated by issue of personal prestige. The idea that a cultural festival is enough to put a town "on the map"--and attract tourism and investment--has become a common-place, but the results aren't always there to back it up.
New Bidoun
Great new issue of Bidoun out--the interview issues are always my favourites.

There is a lot of wonderful content available online, including Elizabeth Rubin's interview of Pakistani writer Daniyal Mueenuddi (whose "In Other Rooms, Other Wonders" should be on your reading list) and Negar Azimi's profile of the Lebanese comic artists behind the tri-lingual, graphic publication Samandal (below are a few snapshots from the first issue, available for download). 

[gallery link="file"]

(Disclaimer: I also have a small piece in this issue, a review of the Kennedy Center's "Arabesque" festival).