PROVIDING A SPACE FOR MIDDLE EASTERN EXPRESSION
by Olivia Snaije
"From the shores of the Mediterranean, I prefer to remember the warmth and the dance."
Courtesy of Vogue Hommes International
When was it that Arabs and Muslims living in the West began to feel like “unidentified subjects”, as artist Khaled Ramadan puts it, “easily associated with conflicts, violence and fanaticism”?
One might argue that Arabs have been portrayed in a negative light in Western media, literature and films for years, but then again so have other ethnic groups. Most people agree that September 11, 2001, was a marker, a turning point that spiralled into a space where people from the Middle East had no voice.
Richard Buckley, former editor of the style bible for men, ‘Vogue Hommes International’, experienced first hand the discomfort and denial that the general public in the West feels about the Middle East. In 2003 Buckley published an issue called ‘Ch’adore’, a play on words referring to Christian Dior’s perfume J’adore, and chador, the veil. The magazine cover was a headshot of Olympic champion flyweight boxer Brahim Asloum, wearing a customised Swarovski-crystal gum-shield.
“The idea for Ch’adore came a little over a year after the September 11th attacks. I felt very strongly about the way Muslims were being demonised in the press and the daily doses of negative sound bites were reinforcing stereotypes. My idea…was to explore the region culturally through its artists and writers. To let them present their perspective on their people and their part of the world.” Says Buckley. The result was a brilliant compendium of contemporary artists including an interview with the late Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz, photographs of hip Beirut architects by Lebanese Fouad Elkoury, work by Egyptian photographer Youssef Nabil, a fashion shoot in Ramallah, on the West Bank, and the Iranian arts scene photographed by Magnum Agency’s Abbas.
“When the magazine hit the newsstands in September, I sat back and waited for positive or negative criticism…and what came back was silence. I was surprised at the lack of response. It was almost weird that something like “Ch’adore” would go completely unnoticed.” Says Buckley.
One very disturbing element that 9/11 brought to the fore was that the Middle East became part of a single entity and it was to be mistrusted. Middle Easterners living in the West lost their anonymity. They were noticed for all the wrong reasons.
Yet the Greater Middle East, the area loosely defined as extending from Libya in the West to Afghanistan in the East, is incredibly complex and diverse. Iranians are for the most part Muslim, but are not Arabs and consequently do not speak Arabic, but they use the Arabic alphabet to write in Persian. Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians, Iraqis and Egyptians can be from a dizzying array of Christian backgrounds: Maronite, Melkite, Chaldean, Protestant, Copt to name a few. The Gulf countries are as bewilderingly foreign to a Cairo resident as to a Parisian. The countries of the Maghreb, in North Africa are not included in the term “Middle East”, yet Ibn Battutah, the Marco Polo of the Arab world was from Morocco. One of the most forward thinking Muslim intellectuals today, philosopher Mohammed Arkoun, is Algerian-born, while Ziryab, the Iraqi musician, poet, astronomer and epicure honed his talents in 9th century Cordoba, the cultural capital of Islamic Spain.
Olivier Roy, the French academic, writer and expert on Islam cautions his readers against the constant confusion between Islam as a religion and the Middle East, and between Muslims and Arabs. “Arab societies include Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews, while most of the world’s Muslims are not Arabs.” He reminds us.
On the burning subject of religion, two examples from the past remind us that Arabs and Muslims have not always been considered as “the other”:
An entry in Moroccan traveller Ibn Battutah’s diary from July 1326, when he visited the town of Latakiya, Syria, reads: “Near this town is the monastery known as Dair al-Farus, which is the largest monastery in Syria and Egypt. It is inhabited by monks, and Christians visit it from all quarters. Every Muslim who stops there is entertained by the Christians; their food is bread, cheese, olives, vinegar and capers.”
Jews and Muslims fleeing the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century founded the whitewashed Moroccan hill town of Chefchaouen. They kept their town off-limits to Christians until the Spanish took it in 1920.
Franco-Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf observes in his book ‘In the Name of Identity: violence and the need to belong’: “…too much emphasis is often laid on the influence of religions on people, and not enough on the influence of peoples and their history on religions… What I am objecting to here is the habit that people have got into, both in the North and in the South… of classifying everything that happens in a Muslim country as related to Islam, whereas there are many other factors that are much more relevant. You could read a dozen large tomes on the history of Islam from its very beginnings and you still wouldn’t understand what is going on in Algeria. But read 30 pages on colonialism and decolonization and then you’ll understand quite a lot.”
Today the divide between West and Middle East is sadly very real, and so is conflict and a general “Arab malaise” as the late journalist Samir Kassir described it in his last book, ‘Considérations sur le malheur arabe’. On a more positive note, this “malaise” is fuelling a dynamic movement of independent artists in the region who have no qualms about examining conflict, identity, social issues, religion and politics.
Mixed-media artist Khaled Hafez, who is based in Cairo, feels that after 9/11, “real people” began looking for activities and events that would “initiate a dialogue and enhance a bridging between East and West.” Furthermore he believes that Western interest in artistic movements in the Middle East “only started with the grave incidents of 9/11.”
Luckily, this interest in the West is slowly growing, with European cultural on-line magazines such as ‘BabelMed’ or ‘Qantara’ that focus on the Mediterranean area and the Middle East. In the United States ‘Bidoun’ magazine sees itself as a “platform for ideas and an open forum for exchange, dialogue and opinions about arts and culture from the Middle East.” ‘ArteEast’, established in 2003, is a New York based non-profit organization that exhibits the work of artists and filmmakers from the Middle East and its Diaspora.
It may be useful to remember a time when the Arab-Islamic countries were an intellectual and cultural beacon and produced, from the 7th to the 15th century, an effusion of great scientists, astronomers, mathematicians, philosophers, humanists and artists.
Returning to the 21st century, it seems essential to reiterate that situations are never conveniently black and white, and that the Middle East is kaleidoscopic, multi-cultural and not as “foreign” as many like to believe.
Shimon Ballas, the Iraqi-born Israeli writer has to deal wearily with the fact that he doesn’t fit into the mainstream writing establishment in Israel.
“It is much more convenient…to refer to my work as the work of an ‘Oriental Jew.’” He said in 1996. “In other words, work that belongs on the margins, beyond the mainstream. This, however, absolves [critics from] having to contend with my work on its own terms. I think that by operating in this way, a great disservice is done not only to the state of literary criticism itself--even as practiced by mainstream critics--but to the state of Hebrew literature. As for myself, I haven't compromised myself, nor do I intend to in order to make it easier for this literary establishment to accept me. It is not for them that I write…I came from the Arab environment and I remain in constant colloquy with the Arab environment. I also didn't change my environment. I just moved from one place to another within it.”
Another writer, Ahmed Abodehman, a member of the Kahtani tribe from the Assir Mountains in southern Saudi Arabia wrote his first novel, ‘The Belt’, in French. He says, “Arabia was Jewish, Christian then Muslim. I’m proud of this plurality. I conjure a happy Arabia and a tolerant Arabia.”
In short, Yasmeen Al Awadi, an Anglo-Kuwaiti artist whose recent projects focus on the “invisible” Asian immigrant workers in the Arabian Gulf, says that it would be futile to sum up an area as diverse as the Middle East: “It is a region of contradictions, it hinges between developed/underdeveloped, extremes of poverty and wealth, progressive and backward - they all co-exist.”
The challenge, then, is to provide a space in the West where Middle Eastern artists can express themselves.