Saturday, November 29, 2008

Again, the boycott and its many questions

Again the boycott issue, with its difficult questions already tackled in previous posts, like that one about two movies, an Israeli one, The Band’s visit, and another, Egyptian, Salata Baladi (Salade maison).

This time the discussion concerns a book, Madinah, City Stories from the Middle East. This collection of short stories edited by the Lebanese writer Joumana Haddad gathers ten texts written by various Arab writers, by a Turkish one and… by the Israeli writer Yitzhak Laor with a text about Tel Aviv.

The Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish started the whole discussion in the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar asking how Arab writers could have accepted to participate in a project which presents Tel Aviv side to side with the other Arab towns, as a figuration of the New Middle East map…

Because of such reactions, the English publisher published on his site a declaration mentioning among other things that “the request to include an Israeli story was the publisher's” and that the editor “was initially very much against it (…) until the name of writer Yitzhak Laor was eventually suggested”, an idea “highly supported by the Palestinian contributor to the book, Ala Hlehel.”

Hlelel, a Palestinian living in Acco, had already expressed his point of view in Al-Akhbar saying that Yitzhak Laor, as a radical opponent to the Sionist state, was perfectly entitled to participate in such a book, even with a story about Tel Aviv, a city built on the ruins of the Palestinian villages.

Later on, Al-Akhbar published Laor Yitzhak’s answer. His text begins with an interrogation about the wijdân¸a word used by Najwan Darwish and for which there is no easy translation in other languages. Then, Yitzhak Laor goes on saying that Darwish’s attitude means in fact that when an Arab public discourse speaks of secularism, democracy and so on, another one, like in Darwish’s article, denies any right for a Jewish presence in the Middle East.

Of course, explains Yitzhak Laor, nobody is asked to forget on which ground Tel Aviv has been built but, at the same time, somebody like Najwan Darwish should learn that all the people who live in that city are not the same. Something the reading of his text, which describes Tel Aviv as a huge and frightening military camp, makes quite obvious…

Pierre Abi Saab, the editor of Al-Akhbar cultural section, comments on Yitzhak Laor’s position. He regrets that the Israeli writer sees Najwan Darwish’s position as racist when it is just the denial of a policy which aims at making the Jewish occupation like something natural (tabî‘î, a key word very closed to the Arabic tatbî‘ for “boycott” "normalization" [see comments]).

Of course, the dispute is much more elaborated than said in this short summary. But it has to be mentioned that it was published in Al-Akhbar, a daily supposed to be very close to the Lebanese Hizbollah, and thus to Al-Manar. A TV station that Germany has recently banned on grounds that it violates the country's constitution!

Just to make things more complicated, another boycott issue was raised by the same Al-Akhbar with the possible coming to Beirut of the West-Eastern Divan. Founded by Daniel Baremboim and the Palestinian Edward Said, the orchestra has played only once in an Arab country. It was in Ramallah, some three years ago. Knowing that the players come from various Arab countries, from Spain and from…Israel, should the visit be boycotted?

As usual, here are the links to the more developed posts in French, about Al-Madinah and the West-Eastern Divan.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Occidentalism : the other face of Orientalism

In Beirut, two galleries run an exhibition of art works by the well-known Lebanese film director Jocelyne Saab. In the first one, called Soft Architecture, pictures of abstract patterns taken from the local traditions are displayed at the Agial gallery. In the second one, Sense, Icons and Sensitivity, the artist uses neo-pop art icons objects of mass production and of popular culture like Barbie dolls to express the hidden thinking of Arab society towards changes in cultural taste and habits due to globalization.

Some of those last works have been deemed unsuitable by Solidere, the company which which owns the venue where the exhibition opened. Among the most controversial pictures was a photo entitled "American-Israeli playground" where Christ is on a crucifix surrounded by images of Nasrallah and two Barbie dolls in the background. “French Can Can in Bagdad,” with Barbie dolls wrapped in Iraqi currency bearing the image of former dictator Saddam Hussein has not been very much welcomed too!

Even if the Agial gallery has agreed to host, not in a too noticeable place, the pictures expressing “the popular anger in the face of Israeli-Lebanese conflict,” Jocelyne Saab’s last exhibition shows how politics and religion remain two very sensitive issues.

As usual, links to articles in Arabic or English with the more developed post in French.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Taxis in Egypt and in Palestine

Are the old Cairene taxis due to disappear? According to the new regulation, cars over 20 years will not be used for taxi cabs anymore and new authorisations will not be delivered to cars over ten years. Before long, the eternal Nasr 1300 should not be seen in Cairo streets.

In Khaled Al Khamissi’s view, the author of the unexpected best-seller Taxi, it would also be the end for the typical “osta”, the classical local taxi driver. Around 100.000 copies of his little book, largely written in colloquial Egyptian arabic (and translated into English, Italian and very soon French), have been sold, probably as much as there are taxicabs in the streets of the capital of Egypt! An indication, according to the writer, of the new cultural climate made possible by the absolute failure of the actual regime.

Less famous abroad than film directors like Michel Khleifi (Wedding in Galilee, 1987) and Elia Suleiman (Divine Intervention, 2002), Rashid Mashharawi (رشيد المشهراوي), born in Gaza in 1962, has just finished Laila's Birthday, the story of a juge obliged to work as a cab driver but still fighting in order to enforce the law on his fellow citizens in a country tore to pieces by the Israeli occupation.

Mohammed Bakri, probably the more praised Palestinian actor, plays the main character who compels his clients to fasten their seatbelt in a taxi with a sticker on the windshield which says: Forbidden to people bearing arms!

Things are changing, and artworks are not anymore the narrow-minded expression of an ideology. For those two Arab writer and film maker, the taxi is thus a way to stay in line with a definition of art which commands the artist to be a careful commentator of the social reality, but paying attention not to the great historical narratives but to the many little stories of everyday life.

Here is Laila's Birthday trailer and as usual, the link to the more developed post in French.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Made in KSA: the Saudi hip-hop

Hip-hop music has become popular in the Arab world since a few years in places like Palestine, Morocco, Egypt… But today, it is also a reality in the supposedly less flashy country of the whole area, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Qusay, a Saudi-born musician who has lived a few years in the USA before he came back to the KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia), is the leader of a band called The Legend of Jeddah (a reminiscence of Star wars Legend of the Jeddai?). Their last CD has been an unexpected success.

Obviously, rap music in KSA does not come from the ghetto. Performing in places like the economic forum of Jeddah and adopted by the prestigious MTV Arabia, the Legend of Jeddah has nothing to do with "gangsta rap" music.

On the contrary, its clean hip-hop music can be seen as a perfect advertising for a modern KSA, far away from the clichés of islamic radicalism and moral rigor, something Qusay himself explains in great detail in his various interviews for the Arabic press.

Still, the Legend of Jeddah rappers make clear that things are changing in the KSA. For instance, their greatest hit, the Wedding, is a slightly ironic parody of the local traditions, with a wedding party which almost becomes postmodernist when Qusay starts singing, nicely mixing modern rhythms with traditional tunes.

Have a look to their 5’ minutes clip which should calm down the advocates of the so called “clash of civilizations” !

As usual, the link to the more developed post in French. Illustration from