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Museum of _______ Art

28 Mar

I am currently in Qatar, the richest country in the world. Think about the challenge of becoming the richest country in the world only in the last couple of decades. What do you do? How do you handle the transition from being desert people and pearl fishers to…this? This country is currently re-inventing itself with extraordinary drive, ambition, and progressive thinking. It is the home of Al Jazeera, it conducts a very active foreign policy, it is striving to create an open society even as it maintains traditional dress and customs, and it is also collecting a lot of art and opening new museums.

Today I was in the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha. This I.M. Pei building opened in 2008, so it is very significant as the first of the big new modern museums to be opened in the Gulf States. You can sit in the cafe in the central space and have a view of the city and the newly installed Serra sculpture.

I was amazed at the collection. But as I walked around, stunned by the early Persian blue and white slipware bowls and the Mamluk brassware, I started to wonder: why Museum of Islamic Art? 

A bowl for domestic use with Arabic script is not “Islamic.” A Turkish animal carpet is not “Islamic.” A prayer carpet, yes, is Islamic. A Quran is. But just because something is made in an area where the majority of the population is muslim, does that make it “Islamic?” Do we call all art made in western Europe between 325 and 1525 “Christian?” No. We talk of Anglo Saxon art, or Romanesque art, or Frankish art, or Gothic. And then, when it is altarpieces and icons and reliquaries, we talk about Church art, or devotional art, or sacred art. It seems to me retrograde and parochial to identify all art of a whole period and vast geographic range as “Christian.” To do so implies definitional opposition:  it is Christian, not Jewish, Christian, not Muslim. It is to say that we identify ourselves by our religion. But in fact that really isn’t the case, most of the time. People identified much more readily by their city, or by their  region, or by their profession, or by language, than by their religion. And the same, I am sure, goes for those areas where the majority of the population was and is muslim.

The Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris has refashioned itself in order to reflect the new awareness that Arabs and the Arab identity pre-existed the rise of Islam. Read all about it here.


Doesn’t Gothic look pretty “Islamic”?

3 Mar

In Old Cairo, I was searching for one thing, really: the madrassah or school of the Mamluk Sultan Al Nasir Muhammad, built in the 1290s. The reason is that I knew it was a building that contained an architectural relic transported from the Holy Land. This relic is extraordinary. It is a portal from the city of Acre, in the northern part of present-day Israel, and it was part of a structure built by western crusaders in the 13th century. Acre was the last outpost of the crusaders in the Holy Land. They finally got ousted from there in a major defeat in 1291, at the hands of the Mamluks (Sultan al-Ashraf Khalil,  conquered Acre in 1291, and the portal was assimilated into the facade of the madrasa by al-‘Adil Katbughaour, Sultan Al Nasir Muhammad’s predecessor). The entire portal was transported like a military trophy to Cairo. As the portal to his school for the study of the Qu’ran, built in the 1290s, it was a gem in a new setting.

It took some searching, but I found it:

That’s just to give a sense of the whole. Here is a closer view of the portal:

The Sultan’s appropriation is sealed by that little roundel right above the pointed arch. It reads, “Allah.”

The thing about this portal is that the thousands of people who have walked by it every week since the 1290s probably have not recognized it as foreign. I mean, compare it to the other arches, real Islamic ones, in this same building. It’s just not that different.

Experts can tell the difference: the colonnettes in the jambs and the ribbing in the arches are typically Gothic, as is the trefoil of the innermost arch. Also, the marble is whiter, clearly from elsewhere. But the main point is that this portal doesn’t look very out of place in an Islamic context because–get ready! this is the eureka moment!–because Gothic itself was an imitation of Islamic architecture. It took its cue from Islamic architecture encountered by crusaders in the Holy Land. But here’s the twist: they didn’t think of this style as Islamic. They thought of it as “ancient Holy Land style.”

If you look in your textbooks, the first Gothic buildings are St Denis near Paris and Noyon cathedral, both built in the 1140s. But there is another first Gothic structure, and that is the rebuilt Holy Sepulcher church in Jerusalem, done by the crusaders. They did it in 1140 or so. They used pointed arches on that structure because that was what they were seeing all over Jerusalem on all the important buildings. Gothic was a Holy Land import, a direct effect of exposure to the architecture of the eastern Mediterranean.

So when Sultan Al Nasir Muhammad imported this portal back to Cairo, what did he think he was doing? Was this a knowing reclamation? If that was the case, he would have been saying something powerful, something along the lines of “You thought you could occupy the Holy Land, but you barely laid a claim to it. In fact, it occupied you. And now we will re-assimilate your derivative efforts back into our grand structures.” Or is that granting too much self-awareness? Clearly he knew this was a crusader portal. He had just taken back the city of Acre. This is a trophy, and it has been islamicized.

I’m not sure what the more moderate claim would be. Maybe he simply saw the subtle difference and enjoyed it, enjoyed owning it: “Look at this exotic portal: now it’s ours.”

If you have any thoughts, please comment.

Alexandria, did I miss it?

2 Mar

Alexandria! Imagine my excitement coming upon the entry gate to the city, with the name spelled out in Greek, in honor of its founder Alexander the Great.

But just past the gate the trouble started. There has been some rain here, and it took out a part of the highway. Water up to the chassis!

This was starting to look pretty different from Alexandria as I had pictured it. A city’s outskirts tend to be its ugliest parts, but the center is usually the old city, with some monuments left. Embarrassingly enough, how I pictured old Alexandria was informed by this painting, started by Gentile Bellini and finished by his brother Giovanni. It shows St Mark preaching in Alexandria.

The painting shows some of the famous monuments of Alexandria. To the extreme left you can see the tip of the Pharos, or lighthouse, one of the 7 ancient wonders of the world. It was destroyed centuries ago. To the right is the top of a column, known (erroneously) as Pompey’s Pillar, because it was believed to hold the remains of the Roman general who had taken refuge from Julius Caesar in Egypt.  In the center is a highly imaginative reconstruction of the Temple of Serapis, destroyed in the 4th century. St Mark is shown converting the pagan residents of Alexandria to the new faith. Do you see the obelisk directly above his head?  Well, there were two obelisks here near the Temple of Serapis, but in the 19th century, the height of colonialism, they were “given” away, one to London and one to New York.  Here is the New York one, installed in Central Park right behind the Met.

So I wasn’t expecting obelisks, and I wasn’t expecting a great Temple of Serapis, but I thought maybe I would see some old structures, at least ones going back to the period of Bellini, and I knew that Pompey’s Pillar was still there.  I know it seems silly, but it was the one thing in the painting that had some real connection to what is on the ground here, and I wanted that connection. Bellini had never been to Alexandria (though he had visited Istanbul), so his information was highly filtered, but he did know about the pillar, and it is still here. I knew it wasn’t going to be anything special, just a column, but I wanted to see it, touch it, the one material connection between this painting, this place, and me.

So I went first to the Museum, saw some nice things, then met a representative of a new local art school, called Mass Alexandria, and asked her whether she wouldn’t mind seeing Pompey’s Pillar before we headed to the school, where I was going to talk to the students. We walked and walked and walked in the very, very busy streets of Alexandria, streets no less busy than those of Cairo. We saw Cavafy’s house, so we paid a visit. We walked some more. I thought I had it pretty well figured out where the Pillar was, but we just couldn’t find it. Absolutely no one in Alexandria speaks a word of English and, foolishly, I had forgotten to memorize the Arabic name for Pompey’s Pillar (which has nothing to do with Pompey). The hour was getting late and the school is miles outside of town, so I proposed we get in a cab, make him take us past the Pillar so I could get out, have a look, and we could proceed. But he had no idea what we were trying to say. So we just ended up going to the school, arriving an hour late because of the terrible traffic. Basically, I was defeated by Alexandria.

The school, though, was another story. Mass Alex is an effort to provide an alternative to traditional art schools here, which still operate on the beaux arts model.  Here is a good link to it. These students are interested in being part of the world of contemporary art. Bellini was turned eastward, in his day the origin of most of the important things, but these students want to be part of the contemporary scene, which means they are turned west. But they didn’t know much about it. I had to spell the name Sol Lewitt for them. They had never heard terms such as Institution Critique and Post-medium condition. So what I wanted to get across to them was that the modalities of contemporary art–the stuff that fills contemporary galleries and biennials of art–seems like a recent and foreign language, but actually that wasn’t true. Installation art did not “belong” to contemporary art.  Neither did the idea of anti-authorship or collective production. And the same goes for Conceptual art, Process art, Performance art. Etc.. There are ways to see these ways of producing art in other contexts, in premodern contexts, for example.

The idea, ultimately, was to encourage them to see these things not as a foreign international language that they needed to learn but as modes to be dismantled and repurposed. They seemed pretty excited when I left. They wanted me to advise them on their specific projects, things like how to turn script into video art. (Still not sure what that student meant!) So I missed old Alexandria (or Alex as the residents call it) but I saw something of the new Alex.

Then I saw her face…I’m an unbeliever

1 Mar

Being called an unbeliever by a group of teenage girls in headscarves on the streets of Cairo has a specific resonance. I hear it as follows:

“You don’t have rules governing your life. You do what you want. That woman walking with you is not your wife. Actually, we are fascinated and scared by the freedom you claim and flaunt–about the possibility that it opens up in our consciousness. But rather than confront those conflicted thoughts inside ourselves, we will externalize them and demonize them. You are the incarnation of what is dirty and naughty.”

There were smiling and twittering before one of them said it. I had even smiled knowingly at one of them, as if to say, I know you are talking about us.  It was as if they were getting up the courage to say…something. As it happens, the white, American woman I was walking with grew up here and speaks perfect Arabic.  She responded with: “Be polite,” which in Arabic is much harsher. It means, don’t be uneducated savages. They must have been pretty surprised by that, but they hid their surprise well.

Walking away, I said to my friend, “It makes me want to adapt the Monkees song to: ‘I’m an unbeliever.'” When I came back to the hotel in the evening, I learned that Davy Jones had died.

The desert is in a constant state of reclamation.

26 Feb

Big fat Kumzari wedding.

18 Feb

Wedding day, so get ready for a long post. Well, actually, it was the fifth day of the wedding, the last and most important. I decided to go to the “Coffee Shop” for 9:30 and take my new friend up on his offer. But I had to figure out what I was going to wear. I hadn’t come expecting to go to a wedding! I was faced with the poor choice of wearing local clothes and being ridiculous or wearing my clothes and being ridiculous. I don’t yet have a dishdasha so it was going to be my version of ridiculous. I tried to make myself as presentable as possible.

Good. But now I also had to get a gift. Luckily, the meeting place was across the road from the town “Hypermarket,” so I headed there. I decided not to try to get all fancy and mess up, so I just got some chocolates. The Indian fellow at the cashier did not approve of the wrapping paper I got so he personally took me in hand and selected paper and did the wrapping, very very carefully.

I showed up at the appointed spot and there were certainly guys there who were going to the wedding, but the one I had spoken to was nowhere to be seen. I was feeling a bit awkward trying to mingle, especially as I soon realized I hadn’t gotten his name! I couldn’t even explain what I was doing there. “Uh, some guy, one of you, said I could come”–that just wasn’t going to cut it. But luckily he showed up and first thing I did was ask him his name.

Here is Ali, in profile, wearing the very traditional keffiyeh with black akal, more typical of United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia than Oman. I guess here it is a sort of tux.

To the left is the Sheikh of Kumzar. He is only 23 and currently studying at the University of Sharjah. He is in the ruling line and his father died recently, so he has assumed his position. He is holding a kind of mini shepherd’s staff. Many of the men were holding those. The fellow on the right is holding swords–there were a lot of swords on display. His holster or whatever it’s called also had rounds of bullets. That’s right. During the preparations, Ali was very busy grabbing and packing guns. “You afraid, so many guns, yes?” Some looked close to picturesque muskets. Some were automatic weapons.

The old gentleman brought his drum. He was a real cut-up. (Click on any photo to enlarge.)

Time to push off. Now one thing about Kumzaris is that when it comes to water or fishing or boats, they ALL have an opinion. And that was great, because I got a really good video clip of lots of Kumzari being spoken by different people as we set off–that is, until they got self-conscious about my shooting the video.

Much of the time on the boat was spent looking around for fish activity. These waters are teeming with fish–and dolphins. More than once I have heard people say that there are more fish in these waters than they know what to do with.

There was also a lot of horsing around of the sort that people like to do on boats. Racing the other boat, blasting music, etc. You see the fellow in the middle? That’s Adi, and he had a much better camera than mine. Also, cell phones were going off and being checked pretty continually. There is no reason to get all National Geographic on this. They used to use daggers, then they got guns, and now they have AK-47s. They used to fish in dhows, now they have motorboats. That’s Ali at the wheel.

Now you might well ask why is everyone going there in a boat if they are from there? Well, there is no work in Kumzar. These men all live in Khasab. Ali is a teacher and social worker.

Finally, we rounded the point and Kumzar became visible at a far distance. Here is a shot of it as we got nice and close. The first sighting of Kumzar! You can see that it is wedged into a craggy ravine in the mountains. The main street is not a street but a dried river bed.

Now what better way to announce the arrival of the new party than to fire off a lot of guns. I have a longer video than this with serious automatic weapon fire, but this short one should do to give you the flavor.

Much of the day was spent sitting in the middle of the town watching dancing and singing happen in the middle. The young Sheikh took a good position on a couch that was brought down from someone’s house for him and some elders. I was told almost immediately that the town was divided into factions–the riverbed separates them!–but that the young ruler was doing a good job of keeping relations steady.

There was also a lot of standing around. Standing around in the sun. It’s winter inshallah otherwise I don’t know if I could have withstood it.

There was almost continual cooking going on nearby. A young man named Hasan explained that they were cooking goat. “But not these bad goats here. Strong goats from the mountains!”

The men in western trousers are Indians. You encounter them everywhere along the Arabian coast, immigrant workers–it’s been going on for centuries. They are always polite and incredibly hard-working. All these places are kept running by these men. When I ask Indians in these parts where they are from, 80% of the time the response is Kerala. You know how in New York the restaurant may be Italian, or French, or just American, but you peek in the kitchen and it is Mexicans actually making the stuff? Here it is often Indians.

Ok, the dancing and singing! There are two basic kinds. The slow kind, all men, is Dan. At about second 40 you will notice an older man in a brown dishdash walking around the group, occasionally speaking instructions. He is giving the next verse, and also keeping the dance in order. You will also notice that I wasn’t the only one doing video recording.

Towards the end of that clip you may have heard the high-pitched trill of a group of women. They were actually responding to a dance going on in a different part of the road. That is the faster dance, which involves a row of women facing a row of men, and is called Rowah:

That’s Ali admonishing me. “Problem, women.” If it sounds like Robert Johnson saying that, that’s fair enough, since Ali is saying that any kind of contact between me (or any man) and a woman who is not one’s wife is going to cause conflict. (And you know that’s how Mr. Johnson met his end.) I never saw the bride. No one ever pointed her out. She was never near the groom. The women wore the real burqas, with the metal piece over the face. I wouldn’t say this is to protect the men from temptation. I would say most of this is to do with controlling and harnessing the libidos of women.

The main impression I took away from all this is that marriage here is not between two people. It is a social contract. It is between each of the marrying individuals and the community. We, by contrast, don’t have all these rules limiting contact between men and women. We have no boundaries. Instead, we leave it all to the couple itself, who are supposed to love each other deeply and protect their bond all by themselves. It is a ridiculous thing to ask of a couple.

There is a third kind of dancing, all men, and it is the most intense kind. The week of celebrations ends with it. It is called Ramsa, or Wuhayiba. Pseudo sword fighting goes on all around the central group–pretty much tailor made to suit Orientalist taste.

(I know it looks like I spent the entire day looking at things through my camera, so let me say right now that I took a couple dozen photos and about 6 mins. total of video recordings. The rest of the 8 hours I was just there.)

This was just the start of the Wuhayiba. It kept going and building up. I didn’t shoot any more video, but maybe this progression of photos gives a sense of the growing frenzy.

At a certain point in this mêlée a boy in front of me went into an epileptic seizure. He was immediately gathered up and carried away to be cared for. It takes a village! No one was surprised by this–of course something like this might happen when things start to go a little mad. In the second photo in the sequence you will see towards the center an older man with a light green turban, facing the camera, his face mostly visible. He brought the proceedings to an end by going into a frenzy right and proper, chasing people around with his stick, his eyes rolling around like a madman’s. He was controlled by some of the men and made to lie down.

All the children, of course, came closer to stare at him, giggling but also scared. When he finally sat up–well, you haven’t seen pigeons scatter as fast as these kids did. He turned to one side and people scattered in that direction. You see, the djinn had gotten into him. (The closest translation is daemon. It’s the word our genie comes from.)

The kids all understood that he had become the vehicle of some powerful and not entirely benevolent juju. (OK, that’s an unofficial term.) When he stood up he went straight up to one of the men sitting down, grabbed both armrests, and said some things straight into his face. The man in the chair sat stone-like, unable to move. I wanted to move in front of him to see his face, but it was clear to me that we had reached a somewhat…touchy juncture in the proceedings, and as the foreigner I felt I was liable to become the attractor for the crazy energies. But I stood behind him with some others and I tell you that man did not and could not move.

Just ten minutes before, the main road had been loud with festivity, but now it was almost empty. It was just the stunned guy in the chair and a few people tending to him (some serious, some finding humor in it–he elicited both responses with no contradiction). I had to catch my boat home so I left him there, sitting in his plastic chair in the dark.

Vernacular architecture stylings in Khasab.

17 Feb

Especially after having the “Should I go or should I go?” excitement building in my mind about the next day’s wedding festivities, the rest of the afternoon proved a lovely walking experience in Khasab. The tough anti-pedestrian vibe of the morning subsided, and I found myself walking in smaller back alleys and more shaded areas.

I started noticing that there was a beautifully consistent and yet various vernacular style to the architecture here. By vernacular I mean it isn’t designed. It is simply done a certain way by the local craftsmen. Style is a designation that someone like me gives to it, after the fact.

You see the metal door in the photo above? Here it is, a little closer.

There are a lot of these doors in Khasab, all related and yet, as far as I could tell, each one different.

You get the feeling that these literally are not designed, in the sense of there being working drawings that are then realized in metal. You have the sense, instead, that the door shape is a familiar frame, and that they do things with metal (and with color) inside that frame.

An invitation to a wedding.

17 Feb

I spent a good part of the last week in Musandam Peninsula, which is the Arabian prong of the Strait of Hormuz. My real goal in going there was to see Kumzar, which is the outermost inhabited point, on the far side of an island off the peninsula, only 45 kilometers from Iran. Here are a couple of maps for purposes of orientation.

Do you see Kumzar in black at the top of the more detailed map, in one of the island’s inlets?  It is isolated, in the strict sense that you only get there by boat, even today. Their oil and water and other necessities all come by boat. And that means it is also a cultural and linguistic island.  The language, Kumzari, which is unwritten, is a mish-mash of Farsi, Arabic, and…Portuguese. The Portuguese ruled this coast 400 years ago. Kumzari is a linguistic archeology of this place. I wanted to hear it spoken.

I spent my first day on the peninsula walking (and walking, and walking) in Khasab, on the mainland. Even the small towns here are distinctly unfriendly to pedestrians. Things are not very modern, but they want to be modern, and so everything is designed for cars to use, in anticipation of some suburban future. It is a tiring place to walk around in. So when I saw a “Coffee Shop” appear on an otherwise fairly desolate coastal road, I approached with joy…only to find it closed. There was a group of locals standing around in front of it. I threw up my hands, the universal sign for frustrated coffee desire, and one of them who knew a little English told me he would take me in his car back to the souk where I could have some. He and a friend of his and I got into the car and started talking.

After the usual “where from?” preliminaries, he asked why I was there and I told them I was planning to go to Kumzar the next day. (To get to Kumzar you need to book a private boat all day, a really, really expensive proposition. I had gotten the tour guy down from his starting price of $500, but it was still going to be a lot.) When my new friend heard me say that, he laughed and said, “We are Kumzaris and we are going there tomorrow. You can come with us. There is a wedding.” Then he asked why I wanted to go, and when I said that I really wanted to hear the  language, he laughed and said, you can hear it right now, and proceeded to talk with his friend the rest of the way.

Now here are some highly unprofessional phonetic observations. Arabic is a dry language and one has the sense that words tend to be broken up into fairly regularly sized syllables. There is a staccato that is particular to it. Kumzari is much more liquid, and also much more irregular in its tempo. I recognized those long, elegant, slightly undulating A’s of Persian, closer to an O than our A but not an O at all. I was listening hard for the Portuguese, but I have to admit I didn’t hear it. That said, I often find Portuguese (not Brazilian Portuguese but Portuguese Portuguese) pretty hard to pin down anyway.

When he dropped me off he said, “Yes, we meet at the coffee shop where I saw you first time at 9:30 tomorrow and we will go in the boat about 10. You don’t pay me, but we are all day there. OK see you.” I think it’s fair to say that when he drove off he assumed I wouldn’t show up. And to be honest, I wasn’t certain I would, either. Did he really mean it? Wouldn’t I be intruding on the wedding? Should I really cancel the boat I had booked? What if I canceled that and then this fell through? What if his friends weren’t down with it?

Pretty soon, of course,  it was settling in my gut that I was going to give it a try.  I was being offered a Patrick Leigh Fermor-type experience and there was no way I was going to miss my chance at it. I spent the rest of the afternoon walking around in Khasab and getting increasingly excited about what the next day would bring.

New mountains being pushed up out of the sea, Musandam Peninsula.

15 Feb


It’s two hours across on a little motorboat.

14 Feb

I’m in Khasab, the Arabian side of the Strait of Hormuz, and I’m told that’s an Iranian boat. I also read today in the paper that there is increased Iranian submarine activity in these waters with all the rising tension. The Iranian boats on the surface are just small traders, bringing 30-40 goats each, which scamper onto Arabian hills. In return they bring, cigarettes, cell phones, and…me?

Here is one of the more rampant goats I encountered. Must be Iranian, by my reckoning.

This place is so low-key; the water is so placid. But right now you have to ask, are there submarines in there?

I made a new friend while sitting on this rock looking out over the Strait. Her name is Sarah.