Tuesday, May 11, 2010
Indian arts journal focuses on Palestinian culture
by Susannah Tarbush, Saudi Gazette May 9 2010
In recent years a growing number of Palestinian artists have come to international attention, including filmmaker and actor Elia Suleiman, visual artist Mona Hatoum and the late poet Mahmoud Darwish. In January the play “I am Yusuf and This is my Brother” was brought to London’s Young Vic Theater by the Palestinian theater company ShiberHur – meaning “an inch of freedom” – and received rave reviews.
The most recent issue of the Mumbai-based publication International Gallerie brings together these and other Palestinian accomplishments in the arts and presents a compelling picture of intense creativity energized by a traumatic history and a defiant response.
The handsome 124-page issue is a valuable record of the work of Palestinian artists in the visual arts, music, reportage, photography, theater and poetry. And tucked away in its pages is a specially compiled CD, “Checkpoint Palestine: Rhythms of Palestine”, featuring artists such as Sabreen, Reem Kelani , Marwan Abado, Suhail Khoury, Khaled Joubran, Ahmad Al-Khatib, Al Bara’em and Ramallah Underground.
International Gallerie was founded in 1997 by the prominent cultural entrepreneur, writer and poet Bina Sarkar Ellias as a journal dedicated to the journey of arts and ideas. Published twice a year, it has won prizes and has established an international reputation, with subscribers including top galleries, museums and universities worldwide.
Ellias is editor, designer and publisher of the journal. In preparation for the Palestine issue she traveled to the West Bank and Jerusalem seeking an answer to the question: “What is the significance of going through a checkpoint in Palestine?” In a hard-hitting editorial she writes: “Artists, writers, thinkers, poets, musicians, dangers, theatre people, photographers and filmmakers, from the homeland and the diaspora, are activists in the truest sense. Their work, a form of resistance, emerges from wounds of loss and displacement.”
There could be no better authority on the Palestinian visual arts, past and present, than the 67-year-old Jerusalem-born artist and writer Kamal Boullata [pictured] who now lives in southern France. His work is held by leading public collections in the Middle East, Europe and the US and he is author of the groundbreaking work “Palestinian Art: From 1850 to the Present” (Saqi, 2009).
In his substantial essay, “From the Crucible of Struggle: Innovation in Art”, he asks: “In the chaotic world of the uprooted, where there is not even such a thing as a written art history or anything close to a tradition of art criticism, how can the issue of innovation in art be investigated?”
His survey begins before the Palestinian ‘nakba’ (catastrophe) of 1948 when the establishment of Israel led to the uprooting of some 800,000 Palestinians. The ‘nakba’ made the pre-1948 pictorial traditions mostly inaccessible. Since 1948, the “cosmopolitan cultural centre” that Jerusalem represented has been demolished and the dispossessed generations of Palestinian artists have grown up in distant regions.
In the first two decades after the nakba Palestinian innovations in visual expression fell within two broad currents. One current was the emergence of artists from the rural population of refugee camps emerged, practicing a populist form of art. The other current was of artists from urban centers, mostly trained in European institutions at home or abroad. Beirut became an important magnet for such artists.
The 1967 war and occupation ushered in a new phase of artistic development. The 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and expulsion of the PLO from Beirut, and eruption of the first intifada in 1987, also led to changes on the art scene.
In a profile of leading Palestinian artist 63-year-old Sliman Mansour, Gannit Ankori of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem describes how Mansour’s art “delves into the traumatic experiences of exile and military occupation” which have dominated Palestinian life in the post-nakba period. But Mansour also expresses “the profound beauty of the homeland, the power of native traditions such as olive picking, embroidery and pottery, and the strength and resilience of the people and their desire for liberation and justice.” [pictured: Mansour's iconic image "Camel of Burdens"].
Sharif Waked turns the table on the Israeli humiliation of Palestinians at checkpoints through his video “Chic Point Palestine” juxtaposing a catwalk show of young men modeling “checkpoint chic” with documentary stills showing the reality of checkpoints. The clothes are designed to “preempt those daily imperatives of Israeli soldiers, who order Palestinians to lift their clothes and expose their flesh.”
Gallerie has a double spread of fold out pages of seven images by Palestinian photographer Steve Sabella. Six of the images each show a different young Israeli man dressed only in boxer shorts standing in front of the separation wall. Facing them is a picture of the photographer similarly dressed. Sabella explains: “Getting rid of clothes signals the need to go back to the essence in a hope to reconsider a different way of ‘seeing’, and to be rid of what is currently shaping us.”
The name of the radical cartoonist Naji Al-Ali is particularly associated with the figure of Hanthala – a refugee boy with his back to the viewer – who appears in many of his cartoons. “Hanthala represents Al-Ali himself, as well as all Palestinians,” writes Hani W. El Haddad in his essay on the cartoonist for Gallerie. Al-Ali was assassinated in London in 1987 by an unknown killer.
Dance, and especially dabke, is a vital ingredient in Palestinian popular culture. El-Funoun Palestinian Popular Dance Troupe, founded in 1979, fuses traditional dabke with contemporary dance styles. The troupe’s director Khaled Katamesh (46), who lives and works Al Bireh in the West Bank, writes on dabke in his article “Dance for Freedom”, illustrated by Nida Haj Ali-Qatamesh’s gorgeous photographs of dancers in vivid costumes.
The CD provided by the journal is complemented by an article on music by composer and musician Suhail Khoury, who lives and works in Jerusalem and is director of the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music and a member of the Oriental Music Ensemble. In his overview of music, he observes that it was in the late 20th century that a unique Palestinian musical identity became evident. The Edward Said conservatory and the Palestine Youth Orchestra were subsequently created.
In the realm of the written word, Gallerie has poetry from the late Mahmoud Darwish, in translation from Arabic, and from Nathalie Handal who lives and works in New York, and Jerusalem-born Najwan Darwish.
The journal includes Palestinian reportage on Israel’s Gaza war. There are striking and harrowing photographs from Eman Mohammed. She is probably the only local female photo journalist in Gaza, which she describes as being “a curse and a gift” [picture shows her image of a girl praying in a Gaza mosque]. In “Sorry! We Are From Gaza” text by Fares Akram is married to photos from Hareef Sarhan. In his essay “Encounters with a Renaissance Man”, Art historian Professor Partha Mitter writes on the “pleasant yet distant” friendship he enjoyed with the late Palestinian professor Edward Said whom he first met at Columbia University in 1980. They last met in Calcutta in 1997 when Said was invited to deliver the Nataji Oration. In an aside Said confessed to Mitter with some sadness that he envied him. “I had a home to return to but he had none. For me, this seems to sum up Edward Said’s anger and pain at his complex transcultural background and his feeling as a perpetual exile lacking a homeland that he could call his own.”
Sunday, May 09, 2010
Rodaan Al Galidi
translated by Luzette Strauss
Aflame Books, UK; 2009, pbk, 323 pp
edited version appears in Banipal 37
by Susannah Tarbush
In this satirical epic, published in translation from Dutch, the Iraqi-born novelist Rodaan Al Galidi gives a sweeping view of Iraqi politics and society through the experiences of four generations of one family.
Al Galidi’s inventive and entertaining prose interweaves the action of the novel with folk tales, myths, secrets, prophecies and dreams, in language ranging from the scatological to the lyrical. Tragedy and horror are juxtaposed with black comedy as the author explores the corrupting effects of dictatorship. Thirsty River has much heart and humanity and makes a powerful emotional impact, while revealing a great deal about Iraq.
The Bird family lives in the town of Boran on the banks of the Thirsty River in southern Iraq, and long ago “lost its reputation and its glory”. The family name had originally been Star, but was changed after family member Dime, a girl living under the strict control of her ten brothers, was driven crazy by frustrated desire and raging hormones. She ran naked through the streets of Boran, screaming to a hunter that her genitals had become a bird, and drowned herself in Thirsty River. From then on the family was known as Bird. Dime’s remains were found by one of her brothers when Thirsty River ran dry, as it does every winter, and he took her bones and hair home in a sack.
The discovery of Dime’s bones has resonances many years later when a member of the Bird family, ex-military man Rizen, devotes himself after the 2003 invasion to excavating mass graves, putting bones and documents in bags to be identified by families.
The family is headed by tough old matriarch Simahen, who never forgave her brother for marrying her off to the “filthy weaver” Nadus. She asserted her dominance from the start, beating her husband on their wedding night rather than sleeping with him. Simahen is a survivor, and in the last year of her life she tells her great grandson that she is “eight wars old.”
Kosjer, the youngest child of Simahen and Nadus, marries Wasile. Every time Wasile gives birth to one of their six children (except for the one daughter) there is a change of power in Baghdad. This is the case on the day in 1979 that Saddam comes to power, and Kosjer and Wasile’s youngest, Adam, is born. But the day proves disastrous for the Birds after Kosjer ties a newly-bought ram to the TV aerial outside a teahouse where the customers are watching Saddam on the small screen. The ram charges at the aerial, disrupting the transmission of Saddam. The secret police detain Kosher and all the men of the family, and they are never seen alive again.
From then on Simahen goes daily to the Ba’ath Party offices to inquire after the family’s menfolk. Among the myriad of characters created by Al Galidi is the local Ba’ath Party bigwig, Hadi the Rocket, who takes full advantage of his position to enrich himself, and take multiple wives.
Adam was born sleeping and remains apparently asleep throughout Saddam’s rule. He is neglected by the family, save for his devoted sister Mira, and is left to sleep in the stable. He is the family scapegoat; Wasile has him brutally castrated, and Simahen deploys him as a human scarecrow in the vegetable garden. But the otherworldly Adam has been absorbing all the family’s secrets and conversations, as his young nephew Rasjad finds when he takes the time to communicate with him. After the overthrow of Saddam Adam wakes up properly and says he has “missed four peaces”.
The members of the Bird family, including Rizen’s brothers Sjahid, Joesr and Djazil, live through a gamut of experiences. Sjahid wants to be an artist and works for a time with Naji, a humorous artist who studied in Catalonia but who now spends his time repainting the ubiquitous public murals of Saddam Hussein. He warns Sjahid that his job is very dangerous, and that any mistake in painting Saddam could result in execution.
Images of Saddam in his different guises dominate TV screens and walls during his rule. Saddam regularly appears to the women of the Bird family in their dreams, listening to their complaints and sometimes seeming to foretell the future.
Djazil is a thief and a chaser of girls. One of his ears is cut off by an irate father whose daughter he has been pursuing, and Hadi the Rocket severs the other for the same reason although Joesr sews it back on.
When a local girl Baan is deflowered and impregnated by Djazil, her mother takes her to the Bird family to complain. Djazil evades all responsibility, and although Joesr pledges to marry the girl if Djazil will not, he is too slow to act and her uncle shoots her dead and hangs her severed right hand from a door.
Consumed by guilt, Joesr burns all his possessions, smashes up his room and takes refuge in the cellar until he is found by the secret police, tortured and sent to the army. He manages to get himself smuggled out of the country and trains in Afghanistan. After the 2003 invasion he turns the cellar into a workshop making bombs which he sells to suicide bombers until he can no longer live with himself.
Djazil and his men set up a feared militia, the Army of God militia. Rizen’s brutal son Saddam, who had been a member of Saddam’s commandos before the invasion, also joins and is transformed into Abdullah the Pious. When Djazil is captured by the Americans and photographed in a pyramid of naked bodies in Abu Ghraib, the family recognise him from the eagle tattoo on his buttock. As Rizen’s daughter Shibe puts it: “The arse of my uncle Djazil is now famous all over the world, just like Elvis Presley! We have a world famous member of our family!”
Various members of the family meet a grisly end over the years. One of Rizen’s sons, Edjnaad, is captured by soldiers and buried alive after he comes across them with trucks at night dumping live captives in pits and covering them with earth. Rasjad, pays a people smuggler to get him to Amman in order to follow a girl he has fallen in love with, only to fall victim to a broker of human organs. His heart is transplanted into a woman in Germany.
The novel ends on a few notes of hope. Rizen’s youngest son Tali strikes up an e-mail friendship with an American soldier who has deserted. The Bird family finds that the soil in which the bodies of so many murdered Iraqis lie is ideal for growing sunflowers. The family moves into sunflower farming and the production of sunflower oil.
As highlighted in the special feature ‘Writing in Dutch’ in Banipal 35, Al Galidi is one of an increasing number of writers of Arab origin who live in the Netherlands and are gaining prominence as writers in Dutch.
Al Galidi grew up in a village in southern Iraq and wrote from an early age, although his training was as a civil engineer. After leaving Iraq in the mid-1990s he arrived in 1998 in the Netherlands where he claimed political asylum. He spent eight years in the asylum detention system, and although his asylum application was finally refused he benefited in 2007 from the general pardon given to asylum seekers who had arrived before 2001.
Al Galidi has made his mark on the Dutch literary scene with impressive speed. He started teaching himself Dutch from a dictionary while held in asylum detention, and before long he was writing poetry and had columns published in newspapers. In 2002 he won both the El Hizjra Literature prize and the Phoenix Essay Prize; two years later he was shortlisted for the J C Bloemprijs and the Debut Prize. His poetry collection De herfst van Zorro (The Autumn of Zorro) was shortlisted in 2007 for the prestigious VSB Prize.
Thirsty River was first published in Dutch as Dorstige Rivier by Meulenhoff/Manteau in 2008, to much acclaim. It was in 2009 runner-up for the BNG New Literature Prize, and was also nominated for the Gerard Walschap Prize for Literature.
Thirsty River is Galidi’s third published novel, and last September Meulenhoff/Manteau published the fourth: De Autist en de Postduif (The Autist and the Homing Pigeon).