A dizzying abundance of events this coming week

There’s never a shortage of rich cultural programming in a cosmopolis like Chicago, but the coming week presents an absolute frenzy…

 

Monday, April 3 at 6:00 PM

Joel Beinin discusses his book Workers and Thieves: Labor Movements and Popular Uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt — at the Evanston Public Library (in partnership with Northwestern University’s Middle East and North African Studies Program)

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Wednesday, April 5 at 6:00 PM

Mustafa Akyol discusses his book The Islamic Jesus: How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims — at Bookends & Beginnings in Evanston

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Continue reading “A dizzying abundance of events this coming week”

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My Interview with Cultural Theorist Tzvetan Todorov (1939–2017)

Tzvetan Todorov (1939–2017)
Tzvetan Todorov (1939–2017)

The recent death of the Bulgarian-French cultural theorist and historian of ideas Tzvetan Todorov at the age of 77 flew largely under the radar of the digital commons. Precious few obituaries have appeared in English. The New York Times ran a good one. The literary scholar Françoise Meltzer of the University of Chicago wrote a nice tribute for the blog of the journal Critical Inquiry. That’s about it as far as I can tell, at least as of yet. This is surprising, given Todorov’s enormous influence and voluminous output across a wide swath of fields and themes.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Todorov a decade ago for Critical Inquiry. I had wanted to interview him for some time. I pitched the idea to the journal’s editor, W. J. T. Mitchell, over dinner at the Ethiopian Diamond in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood after an event for his book What Do Pictures Want? Mitchell (who would later have his own exchange with Todorov) immediately gave me the green light, for which I remain deeply grateful. Todorov and I covered a range of questions, beginning with his intellectual biography and style, onto a series of political issues — ones that remain strikingly relevant today.

The full text of our interview can be found here.

Dancing in Damascus

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This review of miriam cooke’s new book was published at the Guardian.

Syria’s revolution triggered a volcano of long-repressed thought and emotion in cultural as well as political form. Independent newspapers and radio stations blossomed alongside popular poetry and street graffiti. This is a story largely untold in the West. Who knew, for instance, of the full houses, despite continuous bombardment, during Aleppo’s December 2013 theatre festival?

“Dancing in Damascus” by Arabist and critic miriam cooke (so she writes her name, uncapitalised) aims to fill the gap, surveying responses in various genres to revolution, repression, war and exile.

Dancing is construed both as metaphor for collective solidarity and debate – as Emma Goldman said, “If I can’t dance, it isn’t my revolution” – and as literal practice. At protests, Levantine dabke was elevated from ‘folklore’ to radical street-level defiance, just as popular songs were transformed into revolutionary anthems.

Cooke’s previous book “Dissident Syria” examined the regime’s pre-2011 attempts to defuse oppositional art while giving the impression of tolerance. The regime would fund films for international screening, for instance, but ban their domestic release.

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“Dancing in Damascus” describes how culture slipped the bounds of co-optation. Increasingly explicit prison novels and memoirs anticipated the uprising. Once the protests erupted, ‘artist-activists’ engaged in a “politics of insult” and irony. Shredding taboos, the Masasit Matte collective’s ‘Top Goon’ puppet shows, Ibrahim Qashoush’s songs and Ali Farzat’s cartoons targeted Bashaar al-Assad specifically. “The ability to laugh at the tyrant and his henchmen,” writes cooke, “helps to repair the brokenness of a fearful people.”

As the repression escalated, Syrians posted atrocity images in the hope they would mobilise solidarity abroad. This failed, but artistic responses to the violence helped transform trauma into “a collective, affective memory responsible to the future”.

Explicit representations of “brute physicality and raw emotion”, from mobile phone footage to Samar Yazbek’s literary reportage, soon gave way to formal experimentation. Notable examples include “Death is Hard Work”, Khaled Khalifa’s Faulknerian novel of a deferred burial, the ‘bullet films’ of the Abounaddara Collective, and Azza Hamwi’s ironic short “Art of Surviving”, about a man who turns spent ordinance into heaters, telephones, even a toilet. “We didn’t paint it,” he tells the camera, “so it stays as it arrived from Russia especially for the Syrian people.”

This section also covers full-length films such as “Return to Homs”, which follows the transformation of Abdul-Basit Sarut from star goalkeeper to protest leader to resistance fighter.

Cooke’s consideration of the role of social media is better informed than the somewhat superficial journalistic takes on the cyber aspects of the Arab Spring which filled commentary in 2011. The internet provides activists anonymity and therefore relative safety. It also offers a space in which to display and preserve art, even while Syria’s physical heritage, from Aleppo’s mosques to Palmyra’s temples, is demolished by regime bombs and jihadist vandalism. Online gallery sites archive the uprising’s creative breadth and complexity. One such is the Creative Memory of the Syrian Revolution, whose multimedia approach sometimes “connects specific elements within each genre to produce a film about the process of painting that responds to music.”

Certain digital images ‘aestheticise’ sites of destruction in order to both lament and humanise the war. The best known are works by Tammam Azzam which superimpose Klimt’s “The Kiss” on a crumbling residential block, Matisse’s circle dancers against a rubble-strewn street, and Gaugin’s Tahitian women on a refugee camp.

A section on arts produced in exile examines refugee theatre created in the youth centres of camps and urban slums. Via Skype, a cross-border Shakespeare production played by Syrian children cast Romeo in Jordan and Juliette in Homs. The performance was completed despite bombs, snipers and frequent communication cuts. The play’s conclusion was optimistically adapted. The doomed lovers threw away their poison and declared, “Enough blood! Why are you killing us? We want to live like the rest of the world!”

Through ‘applied theatre’ techniques women performed Euripides’ “Trojan Women” and so found a way to talk about the regime’s mass rape campaign. Director Yasmin Fedda incorporated the rehearsals into her prize-winning documentary “Queens of Syria”.

Of course, “Dancing in Damascus” doesn’t tell the whole story. There’s nothing on hip hop or several other important genres. The book tends to concentrate on ‘high art’ rather than the arguably more significant bottom-up production. Yet, with admirable concision and fluency, it assists what journalist Ammar al-Mamoun calls “an alternative revolutionary narrative to contest the media stories of Syrian refugees and victims”. It shows how, despite everything thrown at it, the revolution has democratised moral authority, turning artist-activists into the Arab world’s new “organic intellectuals”. As such it is an indispensable corrective to accounts which erase the Syrian people’s agency in favour of grand and often inaccurate geo-political representations. Beyond Syrian specifics, it is a testament to the essential role of culture anywhere in times of crisis.

The ‘Hakawati’ as Artist and Activist

hassanI interviewed my friend Hassan Blasim, a brilliant writer and a wonderful human being, for the National.

Hassan Blasim is an Iraqi-born writer and film-maker, now a Finnish citizen. He is the author of the acclaimed story collections “The Madman of Freedom Square” and “The Iraqi Christ” (the latter won the Independent Foreign Fiction prize), and editor and contributor to the science fiction collection “Iraq +100”. His play “The Digital Hat Game” was recently performed in Tampere, Finland.

Because it’s so groundbreaking, his work is hard to categorise. It deals with the traumas of repression, war and migration, weaving perspectives and genres with intelligence and a brutal wit.

Why do you write?

To be frank, I would have killed myself without writing.

If you read novels and intellectual works since your childhood, your head is filled with the big questions. Why am I here? What’s the meaning of life? You apply this questioning to the mess of the world around you – why is America bombing Iraq? why are we suffering civil wars? – and you realise the enormous contradiction between your lived reality and the ideal world of knowledge. On the one hand, peace, freedom, and our common human destiny, and on the other, borders, capitalism and wars.

Writing for me began as a hobby, or a way of dreaming. And then when I witnessed the disasters that befell Iraq, it became a personal salvation. It wouldn’t be possible to accept this world without writing.

Maybe writing is a psychological treatment, or an escapism. It’s certainly a dream. But it’s also to confront the world, and to challenge all the books that have been written before. And it’s a process of discovery. It’s all of these things.

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Shakespeare’s Freedom

Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt discusses his book, “Shakespeare’s Freedom,” presented by Harvard Book Store. Greenblatt discusses how Shakespeare was averse to the authorities of his time — religion, monarchs, and social structure — and how this spirit manifested itself in his work. (This talk took place on November 15, 2010)

TERRORisms: Israel’s Colonialist Dialogue Comes to the Oslo National Theatre

TERRORisms inaugural conference  in Oslo 2013
TERRORisms inaugural conference in Oslo 2013

There’s drama stirring in the Oslo National Theatre, but not the kind most cultural institutions expect. Under the auspiciousness of The Union of Theaters of Europe, the Oslo National Theatre has committed to a two-year project titled “TERRORisms”:

From 2013 to 2015, theatres from Oslo, Stuttgart, Belgrade, Tel Aviv, London and Reims will get closer to their TERRORisms. They will elaborate different points of view, exploring different aspects likely to determine fundamentally our societies… dealing with the issue of terrorism and its appropriation by artists.

I’ve just come back from Oslo, and to be honest, Norwegians- as individuals and as a society- didn’t strike me to be particularly “determined fundamentally” by “their” “terrorisms”. Admittedly, I’m not an expert on European contemporary art, but it doesn’t seem to me like there’s a lot of  artistic appropriation of terrorism being done in the European cultural sphere, and the notion is rather- let’s just say- foreign.

The Union of Theaters of Europe: The New Propaganda Front for Israel’s TERRORisms

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Almost 200 Hollywood Celebrities Sign on to Israel’s Genocide of the Palestinian People

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Today, [Creative Community for Peace] say, there is not a single musical act, from Justin Timberlake to the Rolling Stones to Alicia Keys, that they have not approached and coached in advance of their performance in Israel. ~Times of Israel

It’s no surprise that the genocidal Times of Israel is so eager to push anti-BDS initiatives. It’s also no surprise that one of Israel’s most well connected, elite whitewashing team, Creative Community for Peace [CCfP], is doing exactly what it vowed to do- whitewash genocide. However one might wonder about some of the names on the below statement that CCfP has published:Crceative Community For Peace Genocide

Continue reading “Almost 200 Hollywood Celebrities Sign on to Israel’s Genocide of the Palestinian People”