deutsche Version
Contemporary Arab Artists from the Middle East
A Diary of Disorientation: Part 1
Jack Persekian
Intifada, Islam, desert, identity, remembrance, violence
Picture Gallery
Writing as an autobiography of the soul
Is writing an adequate alternative to despair?

Procreation and Ambivalence
A Sky so Close
The Jordanian Desert
Bedouin, satellite dishes and mirrors of stone

Paths through Literature and Exile
Thoughts on Music from the Orient
Imagining a Different Future
A Diary of Disorientation: Part 2
Jananne Al Ani, Untitled
Jananne Al Ani, Untitled
The travel, search and research work I describe below attempts to shed some light on the context and circumstances leading up to the exhibit DisORIENTation, and which, in so many ways, shaped its outcome.

Thursday, August 15, 02

Amman, the capital of Jordan is just 100 km east of Jerusalem, but in order to cross the Israeli military checkpoint at the Jordan River one requires a special permit from Israel’s Ministry of Interior. The Ministry’s employees are currently on strike. Their shut-down has lasted nearly 4 months already. Fortunately, I happened to have had my Israeli travel document issued a few months earlier so that I could leave the country from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. This indispensable travel document is reserved for all “resident” natives of Jerusalem. Valid for a full year, the document contains a reentry visa that allows us - as non-citizens of the Jewish State - to return to the city of our birth. Since the 1967 Israeli annexation of the city, Palestinian natives of Jerusalem have been defined as “permanent residents.”

I didn’t expect entering Jordan to be problematic. Thanks to the American passport that I hold, I am generally spared many of the vexing problems, the questioning and prolonged delays that other Palestinians have to contend with. I am considered a foreigner. A non-Arabic name like mine usually helps too.

Ali Jabri was the most outstanding of the artists I met with in Amman. In our initial encounter he appeared exasperated by the lack of any serious art-related activity in Jordan. Later on, I sensed how utterly alienated and out of place he felt – unable to even dream of realizing any of his artistic projects in his own country. The public there, in general, was unappreciative and unconcerned with any authentic exploration in the realm of art. Ali attributed this pervasive indifference to the violent rupture between present reality and the creative cultural heritage of the past.

As soon as Ali heard about the idea of the HKW Berlin exhibition, he was quick to propose the reconstruction of an abandoned ruin of a house that he had come upon on the desert highway leading south from Amman to Aqaba. He showed me numerous photographs that he had taken of the site, including close-ups of the house. The reconstruction of this ruined but beautiful place for the show, he explained, would be emblematic not only of Jordan but of our whole region which he saw as undergoing disorientation, gradual disintegration, and as ultimately destined for decay.

As I listened to Ali exclaim his frustration and despair at the darkness surrounding him, I never imagined that the tragic state this passionate man was describing would soon devour him completely. On December 2, 2002, Ali Jabri was left to die in his Amman apartment, his throat viciously slit. Nobody knows what motivated this act of violence and the assailant is still at large. The gruesome and pitiless manner in which Ali Jabri was killed shook me to the core. I am still unable to come to terms with the loss. Although he was the oldest of the artists chosen to participate in the show, he had been the youngest at heart.

Thanks to an email Ali wrote me less than a month before his tragic death, the project he proposed has taken its place in the show. His words were as follows:
“On my own last day at Haus der Kulturen der Welt - situated in its dreamy parkland, so remote from our own degenerative urbanisms - mindful of themes of 'dislocation', 'disturbance', 'disruption', 'disculturation', 'dissolution', 'disappearance', etc, I remembered my photo-series of late June 02 from the newly-opened industrial-traffic Aqaba-Autostrade Detour (while Highway reconstruction proceeds through Wadi Al Yutm)- for which I had to specially request official support: in no Middle-East regime might one stop to document State infrastructures without being at risk of arrest: always that paranoia of alien networks.... My innocuous subject was the impressive chain of High-Tension Electric pylons following that topography of jagged ravines (their now-traceless memories of Arab Revolt campaigns 1918) to the city-enclave on the Red Sea shore ... in my panic of non-possibility, wrong b & w film, wrong hour (too early, as I realized on leaving by the same route 2 days later when those steel cages took on an incandescent definition in mid-afternoon light). My proposal is to enlarge those rather poor Kodak T400 CN prints to the heights of the 5 successive rows of columns supporting the Upper Floor Theatre, which forest the entrance-Foyer with its varying directionalities of light and shadow from morning to afternoon … a receding perspective of quotes from once culturally-charged landscapes naturalistically portrayed since 25 years, now revealed in black & white linear graphics as emblems of irrevocable Change” .

Sunday, August 18, 02

From Jordan I wanted to go to Syria and Lebanon. The logic of geography would dictate traveling to Damascus – an easy three-hour drive from Amman – and then proceeding to Beirut. The befuddled politics of the region, however, impose a different route: Lebanon first, then Syria. Were I to go directly from Jordan to Syria and present my American passport -- which states Jerusalem as my place of birth -- to the Syrian border official, he would immediately be alerted to the fact that I was coming directly from Jerusalem. To avoid any complications at the Syrian and Lebanese borders, I decided to leave my Israeli travel document with a friend in Amman along with all other documents that traced my route. That way, it would be impossible for any border official to refuse me entrance because I was coming from “enemy territory”. I even ripped the Hebrew label off my shampoo bottle as a further precaution in case my luggage was searched. If I were caught with that label I would be lucky if all they did was put me on a plane back to Amman. Eventually, in order not to jeopardize my mission, I decided to go to Lebanon first. So I took a plane from Amman to Beirut and to my surprise, as an American, was granted entry with no need for a visa.

In Beirut I met with several local artists I had become acquainted with on previous occasions. Walid Sadek, reproductions of whose work I had seen and admired, was the only person that I was meeting for the first time. Walid, however, seemed to have reservations about participating. His reluctance would persist, even after our October gathering in Berlin and he eventually sent me an unequivocal message declining to take part in the show. He did promise to consider doing so on another occasion. This was a big disappointment to me. The comments he made during our discussions in Berlin were most interesting and I found the concept he proposed extremely thought-provoking. The proposal highlighted certain problems that dogged the project of Modernity and which loom even larger over aspects of a belated multi-culturalism and tired post-modernism. Walid made a point of emphasizing the purport of the inscription at the entrance of the House of World Cultures: the words of Benjamin Franklin loudly proclaiming a time when any philosopher will be able to go anywhere on this earth and say: “This is my country”. For Walid, these words spoke eloquently, albeit hyperbolically, of a nascent and ambitious Modernity, itself a project which posited, in spite of many contradictions, the future subject of a universal civic society. Franklin’s words decorated the entrance to the Kongresshalle, the same building which now stands on the vague terrain of multi-culturalism in the shape of the House of World Cultures. True, the Kongresshalle of the 1950’s was also an American post on the front lines of a lengthy Cold-War, yet for Walid, Franklin’s words have resonance. Not as a reminder -- nor even a receptacle of -- a viable nostalgia but rather as a gentle warning that this building is no longer capable of carrying itself, let alone its German staff, European visitors and other exhibitors. The waning of Modernity as a project is our predicament, and it is our responsibility to think it through. The Modernity which Enrique Dussel reminds us: “is not a phenomenon of Europe as an independent system, but of Europe as center” , is what makes us visitors from the third world equal in despair and in contribution, to our German and European hosts. Should we not then, said Walid, close the building, shut it down for the length of the exhibition, and present our thoughts and works in the profane space outside and in front of the temple/house/halle. In that outside space we might recognize that we are all equal, and all need to prove our potential worth in a bid to belong to this world, to reclaim its inherent value.

In Beirut, I met Akram Zaatari at the Arab Image Foundation, an organization established with Walid Raad (presently living in New York), Lara Baladi (see p.14) and several other artists. Raad and Zaatari had produced a project for the Foundation based on a reading of the photographic archives of early to mid 20th century photographers from the region. Their work is a pioneering act in many ways, for it does not simply scan these photographic archives and raise questions about portraiture, performance, photography and identity, but also tries to “examine how the photographic portrait functioned in the Arab world as a commodity, a luxury item, an adornment; as a description of individuals and groups; and as the inscription of social identities”. Raad and Zaatari present these photographic practices as documents reflecting budding identities -- an outcome of the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of the different Arab nation states -- as well as contributing to the evolution of “new notions of work, leisure, play, citizenship, community, and individuality”.

The work consists of a series of pages from the photographers’ studio archives displayed on the walls and in glass cabinets, along with two video films. Running in loop, the first video scans the institutional group photos that seem like landscapes. The second video animates what Raad and Zaatari dubbed “surprise” photographs. The unusual scope this project embraces and the manner in which it re-addresses the past made me very glad to make Mapping Sitting part of the show that is presently touring Belgium and Germany.

It was important to me to include Lamia Joreige from Lebanon in the show. After several discussions with her on previous visits to Beirut, I was convinced that her contribution to this event would underscore what I consider a significant trend in the works of several Lebanese artists of her generation. This trend involves a blurring of the lines between reality and fantasy, fact and fiction. Even though this time around, our meeting was brief and she expressed some hesitation, we agreed to talk again within a month. During the second week of November we met in Berlin and she proposed Objects of War. This project consists of video documentation of interviews she conducted with people in Lebanon. Lamia asked each of her subjects to present an object that personally represented their own experience of the war in Lebanon and explain why. A number of the objects referred to in her video interviews are on display as complement to the films. Lamia also proposed Somewhere, Someone, a published version of a story that she authored, based on interviews, in which with five fictitious characters investigate the killing of a man during the war in Lebanon. Several objects referred to in the story would be displayed alongside the publication. In both projects the viewer would be unable to tell real life situations from the artist’s own invention.

Thursday, August 22, 02

I struggled to concentrate during the brief Beirut meeting with Lamia, because I was preoccupied with how I would enter Syria. Did I need a visa or not? Would the Syrian border official find out that I had actually come from Jerusalem? What would happen if he did? How could I possibly cross the borders without arousing suspicion?

I asked friends in Beirut their opinion of how risky it would be to just take a taxi to Damascus. Most of them discouraged me unequivocally, some warning me of the consequences should I get caught. Eventually it occurred to me: I am an American citizen after all; why not call the U.S. embassy in Beirut and get official information as to the realities of, and rumors about, travel to Syria. I was told that I did indeed need a visa to Syria, but that there was no way for me to obtain one in Beirut. Why? because there is no Syrian embassy in Lebanon (there would appear to be no need for one). This meant I had to fly to a nearby neutral country such as Cyprus, and apply for a Syrian visa from there. But going to Limasol and waiting for a visa to be issued there was a risk I could not afford, especially since there was no guarantee that this would ever actually happen.

As a last resort, I decided to call Omar Amiralia in Damascus. A prominent Syrian filmmaker, Omar is a member of the curatorial team for the film section of disOrientation and he is well acquainted with the urgency of my mission. His response was prompt. He sent a taxi that he uses regularly to pick me up. After all the anxiety, I was courteously collected at my Beirut hotel and dropped on the doorstep of my hotel in Damascus. I did not even have to step out of the air-conditioned car at the border checkpoint. The driver took care of all the paperwork.

This was the first time I had visited Syria. I was a bit overwhelmed and confused (perhaps I say disoriented so as to avoid the word disappointed?). Here I was in Damascus, and yet the memorable charm and beauty of the city that my parents had described over and over were nowhere to be detected. Could the images that my parents retained and I cherished have been mere fantasy? Had any local artist captured the disparity I experienced between the Damascus of the imagination and that of reality? I met a few artists and gallery people. What I saw, however, did not go beyond self-indulgent orthographies and anachronistic development. Had I been putting together a show that aimed to overview all art activities in the region, I would have worked with a couple of people I met there. My declared focus however, was to highlight new trends in contemporary Arab art and to present a somehow coherent and homogenous manifestation in terms of the genre of work and the underlying conceptual framework. The decision whether to include or exclude artists and works was based on the compatibility of their aesthetic language with that of the other artists and works, and not on the fact that a certain nation/state needed to be represented in the show. I perceived the show as an opportunity to give the floor to individual voices so they could elaborate their positions and articulate their ideas and thoughts. I actually went beyond the geopolitical boundaries of the region defined by the House of World Cultures and engaged artists with family/blood links to the region yet born and/or living elsewhere. Sad and exasperated, I left Damascus empty-handed.

Monday, August 26, 02

On my way back to Amman, I began wrestling with another problem: should I venture into Iraq or not? Although it is a neighboring Arab country that has for centuries been part and parcel of the Fertile Crescent, heralding the birth of modern Arab art, I have to gravely weigh the risks of traveling to Iraq for a mere visit. In this case, everyone I consulted as to the pros and cons of traveling there issued a vehement and unanimous “no”. The only encouragement I received came from people at the Palestinian embassy in Baghdad. I gave that a little bit of thought because traveling on my own seemed out of the question. To go on my own, carrying an American passport at a time when Iraqi resentment of Americans is at its peak, would really be reckless. On the other hand, were I to go through the Palestinian embassy in Baghdad, I would have to submit to the dictates of Baghdad’s cultural officials. I presumed these officials would want to make their approval and involvement felt, if not impose their preferences. To me, that meant ending up having to rely entirely on them for anything I needed. But again, at the height of the tension, with war imminent, I did not even want to imagine getting stuck in Iraq. I returned to Jerusalem after paying a short visit to Ali Jabri. This time, I was the one to recount my ordeals. That was the last time I saw Ali in his apartment in Amman.

Sunday, September 8, 02

Back in Palestine, there were three artists with whom I considered including in the show. I decided to start with Ahlam Shibli. Ahlam lives in Haifa, which is 150 km north of Jerusalem. As both Haifa and Jerusalem are within the boundaries of what is known as the Green Line, I would be spared, for the time being, the road blocks and checkpoints erected by Israel’s army throughout the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. A person could lose entire days on those roads. So, I drove up to Haifa with my wife and our little Tamir, and within three hours we had reached Ahlam’s place.

Ahlam works with photography and she showed me two series of photographs she shot in the northern region of the country. The first documents a desolate and uninhabited neighborhood traditionally known in Arabic as “Wadi-as-Salib” (Valley of the Cross). The neighborhood was once the home of Haifa’s most affluent Palestinian families. In 1948, the unarmed inhabitants of the neighborhood were forcibly evicted by Jewish forces. Today, remains of their lofty stone houses stand empty, except for a few negligible domestic remains.

In contrast, the second series of photographs Ahlam showed me captured a fully inhabited village called Arab El-Na’im. The inhabitants are mainly composed of the offspring of Palestinian refugees who fled their homes at gunpoint in 1948. After their ancestral villages were razed to the ground, the villagers found shelter in what they called Arab El-Na’im. Since the establishment of Israel however, this village is one of many that was never recognized by the State. It remains “officially” non-existent and no trace of it may be found on any Israeli map.

Visually, Ahlam’s work might be considered documentary photography that alludes to the plight of a people, their suffering and the discrimination they continue to be subjected to. Yet her photographs transgress the dreadful and depressive reality of a people by introducing a stupendous dimension of life into what may otherwise look like mere journalistic documentation. Through her crisp and well-targeted subjects, she suspends the whole work somewhere in between the horrors of a political reality and the absurdity of discrimination. Ahlam’s work offers viewers, bombarded daily by media images that highlight the polarization of opinion, a more sobering reflection.

The second artist I considered was Jumana Abboud who lives in Shafa-Amer in the northern region of the country. This summer however, she was coming to Jerusalem twice a week to conduct an art workshop for children. The workshop was organized by Al-Ma’mal Foundation for Contemporary Art in cooperation with one of the Old City’s community centers. Jumana and I thus had convenient opportunities to discuss at some length what she would present at the House of World Cultures. She had just returned from a six month residency in Aarau, Switzerland, during which time she had produced three video performance pieces.

The first work, Edel Weiss Music Box, shows Jumana dancing to a hybrid mixture of Arabic musical rhythms. Borrowing the theme of Eugene Delacroix’s 1831 painting Liberty Leading the People, Jumana’s performance turns the subject of French nationalism into a personal declaration. Instead of the tricolor flag that appears in the painting, Jumana waves a white flag. The rhythm ascends to the heights of a blissful trance, then fades out like bubbles in a stream.

Viewed literally, her second video performance Al-Awda (The Return) unfolds like the children’s fairy tale “Hansel und Gretel”. On the connotative level, Jumana poses questions that pertain to a critical issue that the Palestinians have considered a birthright and the Israelis have deemed inadmissible, namely, the Palestinian right of return to their ancestral homeland.

Arabic Pins and Swiss Caps, Jumana’s third video, is a performance in which she acts out a children’s game, inserting several pins under the skin of her thumb. At first the game dabbles in austerity, demanding reverence as the act is executed with clinical accuracy, any wrong move having the potential to cause damage and pain. As it unfolds however, it reveals the delicate, simple, and unabashed nature of a child’s pastime.

In contradistinction to the ease with which I could meet with Ahlam Shibli at her home and Jumana Abboud at my workplace, meeting with Khalil Rabah (my long-time friend and colleague) who lives in Ramallah continued to pose a problem. Though his place is only 8 kilometers away from my own house, he could not come to Jerusalem. All Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip have been besieged in their towns and villages for months. They have been unequivocally denied travel to any other part of the country. As for me, at some point I could no longer consider traveling to see him because the Israeli road blocks and military checkpoints I would have to go through would stretch the 8 kilometer journey into an entire day’s travail. That sort of thing burnt me out. So, after a couple of brief meetings in Ramallah, we resorted to telephone conversations.

Based on ideas we discussed on the phone, all of which touched on issues of individual and national identity, I understood that Khalil was keen to concentrate on an investigation of the olive tree. He had grown up among ancient olive groves and this indigenous natural feature of the Palestinian landscape has been adopted by Palestinians everywhere as their national symbol. I visualized the setting of Khalil’s work, Olive Tree, as a type of laboratory wherein it might be possible to investigate, analyze, construct, deconstruct and reconstruct the significance of the olive tree. While the activity would recognize the physical aspect of the tree, it would seek to uncover the cultural, geographic, political and symbolic realities pertaining to it. Thus the spectator would not only encounter the tree as an autonomous entity composed of a trunk of wood with leaves and branches, but also experience it as the source of oil, olives, pits, dust, skin, insects and moss. The exposure would put the spectator in touch with the tree’s own transformation, its territorial significance, and its cultural consecration. This framework personifies the tree as a cosmos and living object with political connotations, and ultimately as material for art which attempts to articulate a vocabulary pertaining to the presentation and representation of “national” identity.

Author: Jack Persekian