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Arab Women at Wrk: Simone Fattal Retrospective

June 06, 2019

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

 

           Even in New York, it’s not often one has an opportunity to view a sculpture exhibit on the scale of Simone Fattal’s 50-year retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art PS 1. It’s a splendid assemblage of work—247 items— from a prolific artist generously distributed over spacious galleries in a grand museum space in Long Island City, New York

            As I moved through the eight halls devoted to stages of Fattal’s work—collage, canvas paintings, work on paper, ceramic and glazed terracotta, I found her sculpted pieces particularly compelling. Many are rather whimsical; although they initially appear somber. The overriding impression from these sculptures is of movement and ‘becoming’; while the striking paintings and collages evoke contemplation, for me. Even Fattal’s stark back and white lies on canvas are heavy with deliberation.

            This is not a crowded, ponderous mind we are witnessing at work; there’s some playfulness here, along with a reach into history. The range of work is not surprising given that they represent half a century, in Lebanon, California, and France.

            Accompanying captions refer to the impact of displacement and geopolitical conflict on the artist. This may apply to mystical terracotta items-- mostly standing humanoid figures, their blunt torsos anchored by heavy trunk-like legs. While these pieces evoke something colossal from early times, there is nothing daunting in them. Is Fattal telling us they represent past (or present) experiences which, while they may embody dislocation, are in fact manageable and embraceable?

            The headless, armless figures stand unambiguously erect, about to step forward. Speaking with Ms. Fattal at her home in Paris last week, she affirms: “I want to show man on his feet, as witness, still standing.”

            She began sculpturing long after she left Syria and then Lebanon in 1980 where she’d worked on canvas. Taking with her the detritus of war with an energy she would never lose, she turned her attention to founding a publishing house. Her Post Apollo Press featured innovative texts, mainly poetry—especially the writing of the powerful poet and painter Etel Adnan.

            Settled in California, Fattal returned to the plastic arts in the late 1980s not to resume painting (some striking canvases from that period are exhibited here). She began clay sculpting, a medium she chose, she explains “because clay gives the sense of being alive; it retains the quality of fragility and lightness at the same time.”

  

            Too often creations of artists originating in places we associate with conflict are interpreted as cathartic; their images seem baleful or angry, we are told, to expunge or transform painful past experience. I don’t see this in Fattal’s work on exhibit in this grand New York gallery. With the mostly diminutive scale of her massive (in image, not size) ceramic and clay shapes, perhaps the artist is showing us how she prevails as an energetic being celebrating a continuous forward movement.

            The reference to ancient antiquity in some sculpted forms may derive from a ‘memory’ of lost civilization. But through their color and their weightlessness, the artist transforms them into celebratory images. Those massive feet under the torsos are not irreconcilably anchored; they seem ready to spring off the platform.

            Still, there’s an undisputed historical feel to many sculpted figures, especially the mystic ceramic and stoneware torsos. While possessing a sense of emergence, they simultaneously remind us of recovered, damaged reliquaries. I found myself meditating on them.

            Accompanying exhibition notes inform us how Fattal draws from her personal experience in the Middle East and from the epics of Gilgamesh and Dhat al-Himma created in that cradle of civilization millennia earlier. Characters from these tales populate the exhibition and may provoke viewers to search out those classics. The art itself is however strong enough to suggest an intentional reach into the elemental aspect of civilization.

            Simone Fattal is a fine example of the many women with roots in the Middle East, Asia and Africa who exist in a global 21st century, bringing powerful messages, with courage and limitless energy that speak to all. Their female voices represent a universal past, a present and a future.  

            This is an exhibition for anyone, and for any age. But I encourage women to see this display of one woman’s vision. Just as I encourage women to read the poetry and novels of the abundance of contemporary women who seem to be in the forefront of groundbreaking research, of invention, of reinterpretations, and of honest truth-telling. Fattal is in the vanguard of creative women demonstrating our ability to reinterpret history and reality, and to project the power of our gender in completely new terms. To my question to Fattal about women in the arts, she replies—“We can pick up and move on from adversity maybe more easily than men can, perhaps because we fall from a less elevated place.”  

*********

The exhibition runs to September 2nd, well worth a trip to New York just to imbibe this display of energy and imagination. Allow extra time to view “Autoportrait 1972-2012”, a 47 minute film by the artist. It’s screening at the same venue. Attached photographs from the MoMA PS1 installation are taken by M. Gurung for this article.

[ Arab Women at Wrk: Simone Fattal Retrospective ]

The Ever Dependable Bully on Embassy Row; Venezuela and Iraq Are No Longer Worlds Apart

May 28, 2019

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

             Embassy raided; citizens starved by sanctions; coveted oil resources targeted--again.

            The United States is still punishing Iran for the 1979 takeover of its ‘sacred’ premises, its embassy in Tehran. By contrast, when American authorities occupy another nation’s embassy there’s nothing but approval from the American public and silent acquiescence by others. I don’t know about you, but I heard no outcry, not even a quiet show of concern emanating from the diplomatic corridors of Washington or New York earlier this month around the violation of sovereign diplomatic property—that of Venezuela. That hush recalls a similar embassy raid:—the American assault on and occupation of Iraq's embassy on Massachusetts Avenue in late 1990.  

            Anticipating the recent incursion, at least the Venezuelan administration was able to remove their files and to made arrangements with a brave team of American supporters, The Embassy Protection Collective, to occupy the building for as long as possible in order to attract some media attention to the threat and eventual (illegal) takeover of its property by U.S. law enforcement personnel. That handful of activists stood against not only a police force, but a menacing crowd of Venezuelan opposition supporters eager to assume control of the building in the name of U.S.-backed Venezuelan president-in-waiting Juan Guaido.

            The 1990 assault on the Iraqi embassy went unnoticed and completely unprotested at any level. At that time, a public unfamiliar with Kuwait (and Iraq) was overwhelmed by terrifying media accounts of an unspeakable military aggression. Worldwide, emotions were swiftly roused by images of a new Hitler; Saddam Hussein was reframed as a menace to the entire world, his arsenal directed at Europe.

            There wasn’t a whimper when Washington’s Iraq embassy was stormed and barricaded. It would remain empty and barred to any Iraqi presence for more than 12 years (until 2003 when the U.S. occupied Iraq and installed its chosen leaders in Baghdad).

            The American assault proceeded at multiple levels, as with Venezuela, but more rapidly in Iraq’s case and with blanket global approval. Within a mere four days, after the August 2nd invasion of Kuwait, an unprecedented international embargo, probably drawn up in anticipation of an Iraqi miscalculation and blunder-- was imposed on the nation of 18 million. It was comprehensive, ruthlessly policed and internationally adhered to, lasting long after Iraq’s weapons-of-mass-destruction were neutralized, after billions of dollars of Iraqi revenue from controlled oil sales were essentially stolen, after the country’s overseas holdings were impounded, after treasures were pillaged, after millions died or were stricken by embargo-related illnesses and starvation, after medicines were long unavailable, and after millions of its citizens fled in search of relief from that punishing siege.

            Sound familiar? Today we hear how Venezuelans’ health and living standards have deteriorated, how unemployment is driving poverty, how American allies have frozen Venezuelan assets held in their banks, how millions of desperate citizens have emigrated, how Maduro is a tyrant, how his police are smothering dissent, how opposition is deepening--all endorsed by American media and members of Congress’ support for regime change.

             Thus far, remarkably, Venezuela has resisted outside efforts to instigate a coup and impose its chosen leader. A few voices are calling for a negotiated settlement to the standoff, although Amnesty International is playing its part in demonizing the Maduro government. Recall how AI affirmed the story of Kuwaiti babies ripped from hospital incubators by Iraq’s occupying forces-- a phony but effective ploy, later exposed to be totally fabricated.

            Iraqi people’s resistance to the murderous U.S. embargo was noble but the experience was nevertheless silently punishing—a war whose harmful ramifications continue today. It was a brutal siege worth remembering because of this, also because the deaths and suffering during that 13-year prelude to the invasion are not calculated into the Iraq war record. Neither are they included in U.S. war crimes and obfuscations by our media. First, the 1990 embargo on Iraq was wholeheartedly sanctioned by the United Nations. Second, within a few months the U.S. led a massive bombing campaign to drive Iraqi troops from Kuwait and to bomb key infrastructure in the Iraqi capital and other population centers. That strategy smashed bridges and factories and the nationwide power grid, unleashing a torrent of toxicity that would infect Iraq’s water, its soil and its air for decades—a plague that persists to the present. American-led bombing continued for years, theoretically aimed at an illegal ‘no-fly zone’ prohibiting flights in the north but effective nationwide, allowing allied jets (mainly U.S., British, and French) to terrorize the entire population. Well documented but little known were summer attacks by fighter jets loaded with incendiary bombs that set Iraq’s ripened wheat fields alight, destroying one of the people’s few domestic sources of food.

            While the Bush Sr. administration designed and imposed the embargo, the succeeding Democratic Clinton presidency (1993-2001) strictly maintained it. So critics of the current policy against Venezuela who blame a pugilistic Trump administration need to recognize this is a tried and tested non-partisan American—Republican and Democrat—war policy.

            Eventually—rather late, as is often the case— documents would provide details of that embargo war. My own reports joined voices of colleagues, notably John Pilger, Felicity Arbuthnot, Kathy Kelly, George Galloway and the International Action Center led by former attorney general Ramsey Clark documented devastation wrought by the embargo. 

            It was only in 2012, after the U.S. invasion and occupation ended, when noble institutions like Harvard Press risked publishing The Invisible War: The United States and Iraq Sanctions a specific study of that episode. Also belatedly (in 2010) came Cultural Cleansing in Iraq, a credible account of the pillaging of Iraq following the U.S. invasion.

            What informs our consciousness of that distant war today? Accounts of ISIS atrocities and memoirs by retired American marines of their lost comrades.

 

[ The Ever Dependable Bully on Embassy Row; Venezuela and Iraq Are No Longer Worlds Apart ]

Laila Lalami's Latest Novel-- A Story We All Can Relate To

May 15, 2019

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

The Other Americans, by Laila Lalami— book review

            America is still discovering itself. The rise of Donald Trump alerted those citizens who thought they alone defined our culture and values to the existence of a significant population holding very different views-- and the will to back a candidate who might speak for them. (Thus, the most unlikely candidate entered the White House.) Political pundits, sociologists and media analysts had been wrong. Liberalism was flawed; it meant little to too many Americans.

            A bewildered media rushed to embrace that awakened alien America. Hillbilly Elegy was welcomed as a sobering portrait of people viewed as marginal. Strangers in Their Own Land was next. First published in 1995, then reissued with a new forward in 2016, its author, Berkeley sociologist Artie Russell Hochschild, emerged as the new interpreter of those forgotten and angry ‘others’. 

            With a new right wing administration installed in Washington, liberals and college educated who’d believed that they represented the nation and that they framed the debate dispatched reporters and camera crews to the hinterland to gather further testimonies from what is now identified as Trump’s base.

            Laila Lalami’s novel The Other Americans is very unlike Vance’s memoir or Hochschild’s ethnography of Louisiana’s bayou country. As good creative writing often does, The Other Americans offers a more revelatory slice of contemporary America. Lalami invites us into a fragile, complex web of social and political relations in rural California. Here, everyone is worthy and decent, although all harbor grievances; everyone feels slighted or mistreated at some level, yet all need fulfillment; everyone quietly bears scars yet seeks outlets for frustrations and dreams.

             If there were any doubts about Lalami’s remarkable storytelling skills, this, her fourth novel, settles the matter. (The Other Americans also affirms Lalami’s grasp of a range of literary genres, coming after her stunning historical novel The Moor’s Account, an imagined memoir of a 16th Century Moroccan slave-- the first black explorer of America.)       

            The Other Americans is on its surface a crime investigation. But in Lalami’s hands it’s an absorbing exploration of daily social interactions underpinned by seemingly inconsequential yet persistent racial tensions.

            The setting is Mojave, a desert town in California, where on a quiet summer night a man is struck and killed by a vehicle which then speeds away. The story moves through a number of short chapters, each one narrated in the first person by one of ten characters, all local residents. The protagonist is Nora, youngest and favorite daughter of Driss. She is determined to find the truth about her father’s death, believing it was no accident.

            A community of characters is brought into play, while the search for the culprit moves slowly forward.

            Driss, Nora’s mother Maryam and her sister Salma each play essential but small parts in the story. They help narrate the family’s move from Morocco to the U.S. thirty-five years earlier and how they’ve become an ordinary American family, their lives characterized not by hardship or fear but by modest ambitions, sibling tension and marital compromise. Maryam and Driss, an educated couple-- Arabs in this case, left behind middleclass lives and became unassuming shopkeepers in small-town USA, their dreams of success transferred to their children. (Nora aspires to be a musician and composer; Salma became a dentist.) There’s little sentiment for the missing culture of North Africa, no yearning for Moroccan dishes. Although, Arab/Muslim values seep into the story in barely perceptible allusions which only an immigrant writer like Lalami can so subtly articulate. Arab readers – perhaps any Asian or African immigrant too-- may identify those fleeting references; but Lalami doesn't allow us to dwell on them.

            As for being immigrants, if Nora and her family had been objects of prejudice, they hardly recognize it. Whatever disrespect they might experience is matched by the five townspeople who fill out the plot:--the Black detective Coleman trying to earn the love of her stepson; Efrain, a reticent Hispanic (possibly undocumented) resident who witnessed the death; Jeremy, a novice policeman who after combat in Iraq returns to the town, then falls in love with Nora; Anderson and his troubled son A.J. who are protective of parking space for their bowling alley next to Driss’ restaurant. Bullying, insecurity, racial slurs and financial worries are familiar to them all.

            How this manifests in each character is expertly arranged in the book’s structure, with each chapter narrated in the first person by one of these characters.

            Author Lalami adroitly moves the story forward; one chapter and one voice continue in the subsequent chapter with another character. The entire story becomes a single dialog, with Lalami adopting a style of narration for each character that itself constructs their personality. Skillfully woven into this are images from the setting but also past memories. Flashbacks from each life show us everyone’s motives, pains, grievances.

            The relationship Lalami most thoroughly explores is not that between Driss and the man who killed him; it’s between Nora and Jeremy, her former classmate, around his experience as a marine in Iraq. After they become lovers, she’s aware of lingering violence from his war experience:-- his love of guns, his casual attitude of what he did in combat, and the violence he unleashes towards his friend, a fellow veteran. In his narrative, Jeremy recalls some ugly, murderous encounters he was part of, the racial epithets he freely used. And although he bears physical scars and experiences sleeplessness, he does not exhibit undue melancholy or remorse. Indeed he fails to understand how being a marine troubles Nora, who in the end rejects him.

            Lalami makes this uncomfortable dialog between Nora and Jeremy the core of the story and, I suspect, this is a dynamic she really wants to explore. Doubtless the author is aware over two million Americans, veterans from conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, live among us today. We all have to deal with them in their new roles-- as our policemen, classmates, neighbors and as our lovers.  

Rajia Hassib’s 2015 novel In the Language of Miracles is another well crafted, moving fictional account of American Muslim family’s estrangement from their neighbors after a personal tragedy.

 

[ Laila Lalami's Latest Novel-- A Story We All Can Relate To ]

Posted June 2012, by Lamees Al Ethari

April 30, 2019

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

I first met Lamees in 1990 a student of Al Aqaida School, Baghdad. At the 2012 RAWI (Arab Writers') conference in Detroit, accidentaly but not by chance, we met once more. She wrote this soon afterwards.

Long-awaited Meeting

The black, unkempt curls

have long vanished, now replaced

with the white short strands of a pixie cut.

But there, in her eyes

is the same expression.

 

That familiar thick silver bracelet

around her forearm,

a talisman of tradition

and belonging

 

I approach, hesitant

afraid of rejection

afraid of seeming childish

I am that teenager longing

to be heard

by someone on the other side

who knows there is more

to the world than sanctions

and bombs

and fear 

 

I clear my throat,

I brace myself

 

It's a strange feeling.

 

Like finding a part of

my childhood, of

my country,

that was lost

in the folds of

sands and oceans

 

By finding her,

I seem to have found 

another part of

myself. 

 

Lamees Al Ethari  sent May 7/19

[ Posted June 2012, by Lamees Al Ethari ]

Just Another Spring in Progress?

April 22, 2019

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

 

            My corner of New York’s Catskill Mountains is shortly due to explode in green. Today however, it’s brown, beige, russet and auburn:-- a wrapping of spindly trunks with naked branches cascading uphill draws my eyes to the horizon. I wait. My neighbors wait. Landscapers and gardeners wait. We wait to plant even a few pansies; we wait before replacing our glass doors with screening. Big Tim waits before detaching his truck plow, so we too keep our snow shovels handy.

            Impatiently, in search of soft loam, I strike into a plot in front of the house. Not far beneath dry white grass and pallid corn stubble, the steel of the spade meets resistance—not rock but still frozen earth not far below the surface.

            Other warnings of change are undeniable however. First there’s the smell of the air itself-- not fragrant yet still inviting; new sounds floating through the atmosphere invite me to ease open a window early in the morning.

            The male merganser ducks arrive and stake out their territory along the riverbank. Small creatures lodged under bark or found in other moist crevices during their metamorphosing months stir. I slap at two insects as they fly past me eager to flee the stale winter air of the house. Though they’ll soon encounter predators gathered in nearby branches.

            With snow and ice finally gone, we really don’t want more precipitation, even if it’s spring rain. Sun is enough, we feel. But it’s not up to us, is it? We should not forget the millions of living things evolved to this point and their descendants have survived this winter, awakening only if saturated by tomorrows’ downpours. Indeed rains are forecast to arrive on schedule. They’ll soften the dark loam and soak into it to loosen that ice underground.

            In the cities, rain may be welcomed to wash off their smelly, gritty streets. Here, while it may nourish the soil, rain creates acres and miles of mud:—heavy slosh that spatters cars, ruts driveways, sticks to shoes and reaches across hallway floors.  

            A few days ago when I ventured northward deeper into Delaware County, I was surprised—somewhat envious too-- to survey fields of bright green grass already sprouting across treeless meadows and still unplowed garden farms. Covetousness gives way to the reassurance of winter’s end. Our valley on the south side of the watershed will soon have its turn.

            On this drive through the hills my very first recognition of spring is not in green but in red; hillsides covered by naked trees are tinged in burgundy. These are not fruit trees but green-leaf trees, I remark to my companion. Then I’m reminded how those red buds are just protective sleeves; soon all will give way to tender green pushing from within.

            Be patient. Nothing is definitive at this point; but it’s there, inside that burgundy mist. In days, if not hours, the green will strike out. If we miss the burgundy signal of spring we may detect it in a new morning light. I fantasize that this change of light is actually the rising energy of photosynthesis, of green creeping out of those billions of buds high on the hillside, across the meadows, lining the riverbank, through a sparse orchard, around corn stubbled fields.

            It doesn't matter if we fail to notice the shift from burgundy to tender green. That green will thoroughly capture us and hold us for many months.

            In Iraq, spring, always brief, has lingered this year because of good rains. “Merciful rain” is how Iraqis greet whatever precipitation blesses their land. This, after two hard and worrisome years of drought. My friend in Kerbala reports that his garden remains in bloom today, long past what he’d expected. Iraq’s northern wheat fields are high and dense too, thanks to heavy winter rains; we’ll have a normal harvest before summer’s pitiless heat descends. Across the border, after a long and painful arid period, Syria’s northern wheat basket is once more readying to feed its parched and forlorn inhabitants. Colleagues in both nations talk with pleasure and gratitude of extended and abundant rains this winter. 

            It’s hard not to be mollified by the return of spring here, and by good rains across the Levant. How could these cycles possibly be so distorted by massive global shifts threatening our entire planet? Well, they can. And the sight of the changeover of seasons can impress on us just how vulnerable everything is. Trained people are systematically measuring water temperatures on which so many creatures and plants depend. How populations are decreasing and shifting and how habitations are disrupted at alarming rates are unarguable.

            Better accept spring not as a familiar visitor but as a newborn in need very special care. Take nothing for granted—neither spring’s green nor political liberties. END

[ Just Another Spring in Progress? ]
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