curator of Lens on Syria & in collaboration with the artist Ziad Antar

Rasha Salti is an independent curator and freelance writer, working and living between New York City and Beirut. Trained as a printmaker, she earned a graduate degree in Liberal Studies from the Graduate Faculty at the New School for Social Research in New York City, in 2000. She has administered the organisation of a number of cultural events, including a tribute to Edward Said titled “For a Critical Culture” (Beirut, 1997), and a 3 months-long cultural season for the fiftieth commemoration of the tragedy of Palestine, titled “50, Nakba and Resistance” (Beirut, 1998). She has collaborated on the organisation of a number of festivals and international artistic manifestations, beginning with Moukhtar Kocache on the first Lebanese film and video festival in postwar Lebanon, titled “Image-Quest” (Beirut, 1995), and Ashkal Alwan, on the second and third editions of “Home Works: A Forum on Cultural Practices” (Beirut, 2003 and 2005). She is also the director of CinemaEast Film Festival, a festival of films from the Middle East, North Africa and their diasporas in New York City organised by ArteEast a non-profit arts organization based in the city. She writes about artistic practice in the Arab world, film, and general social and political commentary. Her essays, articles and chronicles, have been published in Arabic and English, in publications such as al-Ahram Weekly (Egypt), Zawaya (Lebanon), The Jerusalem Quarterly Report (Palestine), Naqd (Algeria), MERIP (USA), Bidoun (USA), in addition to contributions in catalogues for international festivals and artistic manifestations. In 2005, she earned the Phillip Shehadi award for new writing on the Middle East.


Bringing the region's artists into focus
Freelance curator and writer Rasha Salti discusses her work and the activism that drives it
By Jim Quilty
Daily Star staff
Beirut, Saturday, July 14, 2007

BEIRUT: "So I'm a curator now? You know where this word 'curator' comes from," says Rasha Salti, smiling mischievously from behind her spectacles. "In French, it's someone employed to care for infants and the mentally and emotionally -" " - retarded?"

" - challenged."

Definitions aside, Rasha Salti is best known as a freelance curator and writer. Though she sometimes curates exhibitions of visual art, she works mostly with film. "Insights into Syrian Cinema," a collection of essays to which she contributed and edited, was co-published late last year by ArteEast, the non-profit arts organization based in New York.

It's not "art for art's sake," either. Salti was among a slew of politically-engaged cultural activists who threw themselves into a civil response to Israel's summer 2006 bombing campaign. Part way through a meandering conversation in a boisterous Hamra Street cafe, Salti seems amused as she situates herself as "a pure product of West Beirut in the 1970s.

"It was horrible and magical at once," she says, toying with a cigarette and recollecting the fragile, cosmopolitan pandemonium of Ras Beirut during the revolutionary early days of the civil war. "I feel engaged politically and culturally. I don't mind instigating something that needs to be done if it contributes to the enlivening of the public sphere ..."

A fallen print-maker and former graphic designer, Salti enrolled in a graduate-level liberal arts program at the New School for Social Research in 1998. "Cultural studies," she says, best describes what she does now.

"Right now I'm interested in writing," she says. "Serious writing. Though I'll probably keep doing film programs for a while. I'm terribly worried about making a living."

Lebanese, with roots extending throughout the Arab Levant, Salti lived in New York for eight years, working with ArteEast. The New York-Middle East nexus has been a key element in both her most recent project and her upcoming show.

In London she is organizing "Lens on Syria: Thirty Years of Contemporary Cinema." In Istanbul, Salti assembled "Waiting for the Barbarians" a two-day conference saluting Edward Said that took place May 25-26. Participating was an array of international writers, artists and activists, many if them from Lebanon, Palestine, and Turkey.

"Said was really a unique figure," she says, "with interests in so many different fields - comparative literature and critical theory, music criticism and political activism. The idea was to bring some academics but more of the poets and artists and activists.

"Since he spent so many years teaching at Columbia, I had this idea to have a big Said tribute in New York. The politics of Columbia University being what they are, though, the project never happened. Then Columbia had its own Said salute." Salti pauses to measure her words. "Let's say Columbia's tribute wasn't up to the expectations of those who loved Said and whose work was profoundly inspired by him."

Salti says the Istanbul tribute grew out of contacts she made during the World Tribunal on Iraq initiative in New York. Born of Turkey's anti-Iraq war movement, the initiative was one of several that took place in a number of cities around the world.

"In January 2006, we were talking about establishing an International Tribunal on Iraq, in the spirit of Jean-Paul Sartre and Bertrand Russell's Tribunal on Vietnam. There I met Basak Ertur, who was finishing a degree in NYC and moving back to Istanbul to work at Metis Publishing, and Metis cofounder Muge Sokmen.

"Metis had published some of Said's work in Turkish, and Muge had met Edward and Mariam during one of their visits to Istanbul ... So the idea of organizing the tribute in Istanbul instead of Columbia University seemed possible.

"I was surprised to learn from them the expanse and depth of Said's influence on Turkish scholarship. This was fascinating to me, because his influence upon Arab scholarship has been despairingly small.

"I think there are several reasons Said has been less influential in Arabic critical circles than he has in other languages. For one thing, it just took a long time for his work to be translated into Arabic. For another, he was chiefly engaged in the Western canon. That body of work hasn't long been studied in Arab academic circles. In Turkey, perhaps, it was more commonsensical for them to be engaged in the Western canon.

"I don't want to be mean, but contemporary Arabic academic scholarship hasn't reached its golden age yet. This isn't just the fault of Arab scholars. The structure of the academy in the Arab world is rickety at best. From its funding to the diffusion of work around the region to its critical engagement with the media, Arabic scholarship is far more parochial than it is worldly. Arab scholars tend to be obsessed with events in their own countries and the fact is that since the 1960s, the Arab states have been neither plural nor democratic nor particularly tolerant.

"The Arab world is populated by an intellectual class that behaves like taxidermists - I'm talking about state-sycophantic intellectuals here. They hollow out these figures and brandish them as empty signifiers, solely to invoke sentiments that were foundational in shaping our sense of dignity. These effigies - hollowed-out of their complexity, of their full historicity - are resurrected for the purpose of populist mobilizations.

"The figure of Gamal Abdel Nasser, for instance, is brandished by political parties or movements to legitimize actions that have nothing to do with the man or his rule. Nasser was an ambivalent figure. Arab nationalism didn't work and Nasser wasn't a democrat. He put who knows how many Communists in prison. His nationalization program wasn't carried out in the most sensitive or enlightened way.

"It's because of this fixation on effigies that, in a matter of two years, it's possible to take a Lebanese citizen living in a popular quarter like Basta and reduce him to a hateful, parochial, Sunni Muslim."

"Lens on Syria," Salti's next project, will open in London this fall. It will screen as part of "In Focus," four multi-disciplinary projects overseen by curator Predrag Pajdic that began in May with "This Day," a series of short films and videos from the Middle East. Pajdic has said he wants to screen Salti's entire program of 28 feature-length and short films from Syria.

"Lens on Syria" takes its cue from Salti's ongoing project in New York. She collaborated with ArteEast to curate a twice-yearly film program called CinemaEast. After six seasons, CinemaEast became its own biannual festival.

"It's the curatorial approach that makes this festival worthwhile," she says. "Instead of going to the big festivals and gleaning films from there, I travel to the countries themselves. That allows us to undermine the inbred quality you sometimes find at these things and gives us a chance to screen films that would otherwise fall through the cracks.

"The Syrian film program premiered with the Film Society at the Lincoln Center in May 2006, where it was received well beyond everyone's expectations. Since then, it's toured the US and Canada and there are plans to screen the films in Algiers, Amman, Zaghreb, Beirut or Istanbul from September 2007 to January 2008.

Salti's program showcases an array of genres that have been explored by Syria's filmmakers - from romantic comedies to social and political satire, from historical epics to coming-of-age stories.

The backbone of the program is a selection of work from Syrian "auteur" filmmakers like Mohammad Malas ("The Night," 1993) and Oussama Mohammad ("Sacrifices," 2002). Nearly all have been screened overseas to critical acclaim and some, like Abdellatif Abdul-Hamid ("Nights of the Jackals," 1989, "Verbal Letters," 1991), have achieved great popularity at home and abroad.

"Lens on Syria" also includes the work of some younger talents -Ammar al-Beik, Husam Chadat and Hisham al-Zouki and offers a six-film homage to the work of Syria's pre-eminent documentary pioneer, Omar Amiralay ("A Flood in Baath Country," 2003, among others).

"Syrian cinema is the Arab world's best-kept secret," Salti grins. "It's a cinema of paradox. A body of work that speaks Arabic, tells the stories of Arabs that is independent of dominion of Egypt. A cogent body of work involving shared motifs ... a state-sponsored cinema that's the opposite of propaganda cinema.

"Except for a few of the younger filmmakers, these directors were all trained in the Soviet Union - some in Moscow; others in Kiev - so they're all children of Tarkovsky, Paradjanov and those fellows. In their stories they're very local but stylistically they are also in conversation with the legacy of Soviet cinema.

"It's a cinema with little means for diffusion, though, so seldom seen. The filmmakers are a tightly bound community or collectivity. At the same time, they are profoundly individualistic. They are deeply conversant with the issues of the Arab world."

Salti says the program is tentatively scheduled to run at the Metropolis Art Cinema in Hamra in early 2008, regardless of whether relations between Beirut and Damascus improve or not.

"Syrian cinema," she says, "is well known for not being an instrument of pro-regime propaganda - unlike Egyptian cinema. Oussama Muhammad and Omar Amiralay are both prominent members of the anti-Baath opposition and both have suffered the consequences of this. In fact many Syrian filmmakers take critical positions vis-a-vis the state.

"Any anti-Syrian Lebanese who boycott these films are effectively being pro-regime."