Thursday, May 28, 2009

book on ali al-jabri reawakens painful memories

The artist Ali al-Jabri, born in Jerusalem in 1943 to a prominent Aleppine family, was murdered in his apartment in Amman in 2002 in circumstances that are still unclear. In an obituary published in the London-based Independent newspaper, Lucretia Stewart paid tribute to him as one of the leading Arab artists of his generation, whose art master at the English public school Rugby described him as the most artistically gifted boy he had ever taught. Stewart described an enormously charismatic "handsome, tall, blue-eyed olive-skinned effortlessly charming and sophisticated" man who was "open to anyone and everyone and completely without prejudice or preconception". His father's sister Sitt Saadiyeh Tal was the widow of Wasfi Tal, the Jordanian Prime Minister who was assassinated in 1971. She was the founder of the Museum of Popular Culture in Amman and for many people Jabri was "the eye through which they discovered Jordan: his vision, communicated through his work and his life, was equally revealing to both Jordanians and visitors."

Now a book on al-Jabri,
'About This Man Called Ali: The Purple Life of an Arab Artist' by Amal Ghandour, has been published by Eland Books of London. A review by Matthew Mosley was published in the Beirut newspaper The Daily Star last Friday. Mosley considers there are two limitations in Ghandour's account; one is that as al-Jabri was killed only in 2002 it is too early for a summing up of his life and works, the other is that Ghandour is not just an observer but was a close friend of the artist and became a player in the narrative towards the end of his life. Despite these limitations, she paints a "thrilling, infuriating, thought-provoking portrait of a family in decline and a people in chaos." Mosley alludes to al-Jabri's sexuality by reference to T E Lawrence, "Lawrence of Arabia". In a review of 22 April published in Newsweek, veteran journalist Christopher Dickey tackles al-Jabri's sexuality head on. Dickey was at a dinner party with his wife in Jordan in November 2002 at which al Jabri was expected. The artist did not turn up and the next day a friend phoned to say he had been murdered in his apartment, and that the main suspect was his Egyptian male lover who had fled across the border. Dickey highlights the gay aspects of al-Jabri's life; the strapline reads: "Arab gays are under siege in societies that want to pretend they don't exist. But a new biography of an Arab artist offers another view." Through the prism of al-Jabri's life he looks at the intolerance of homosexuality in the Arab world, which has led for example to a spate of killings in Iraq.

The review provoked an outburst from Nadine Toukan, who wrote in the comments section: "Read this essay yesterday and got very angry to tell you the tructh. This thin slither perspective of Ali Jabri is not what his life was about. Yes Ali was gay, but that is not the legacy he left behind." She links to a piece she has
blogged about Ali.

Toukan fisrt met Jabri at the age of 18 when "after a couple glasses of wine, I got into a heated argument over art with a man twice my age with piercing blue eyes and a spirit larger than life. I was stubborn, opinionated and apparently quite blasé that I had pissed off this man who left the party abruptly and in turn that irked the host who showed her annoyance at me and my idiotic teenage behavior.

"A couple years passed and I later met Ali Jabri thru friends. That was the beginning of a friendship with the man who made me fall in love with Jordan and got me to understand our relationship with our environment. For the many years later, we continued to argue about art, culture, politics, life, yelled in rage at each other, got into heated debates over meals here and there, and cultivated a wonderful friendship." Others have contributed comments to Toukan's post.

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