art of resistance, Sudan

Salahi’s Garden & What’s Inevitable.

el_salahi/photo: Behind the Mask 1 by El-Salahi © Haupt & Binder/

Ibrahim El-Salahi is a Sudanese artist, an important figure in African and Arab modernism. El-Salahi is considered a pioneer in Sudanese art and was a member of the Khartoum School that was founded by Osman Waqialla.

Hassan Musa writes about El-Salahi (he first heard stories about him when he was a teenage boy): “I was fascinated by the idea that an ordinary Muslim man could live as an artist, because in my imagination they were unreal creatures who came out of European literature”.

El-Salahi’s international success soon turned him into a national hero, so much so that in 1970 the Department of Tourism distributed a poster in which El-Salahi posed in his studio, with the caption “Sudanese artist at work”.

mid-late-60s-6e_0/photo © Ibrahim El-Salahi, via Tate/

El-Salahi developed his own style and was one of the first artists to elaborate the Arabic calligraphy in his paintings. He developed an iconography from sources in primitive and Muslim art, leading to the formation of the Khartoum School.

He was an assistant cultural attaché at the Sudanese Embassy in London from 1969 to 1972, when he returned to Sudan and became Undersecretary in the Ministry of Culture and Information until September 1975. At that time he was imprisoned without charge for six months.

Deprived of pen and paper, El-Salahi secretly drew designs in the sand during his daily 25 minute exercise break, protected by other prisoners, and quickly erasing his work as the guards approached. He summed up his experience in prison in a series of parables. Hassan Musa mentions his favorite one:

For the first few weeks of detention, we claimed Freedom and Respect according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Then, because the prison food was tasteless, we asked for a few onions.

One day, during the monthly visit of the Director of Prisons, it was my turn to ask for the precious onions. We were given three onions, which were to last us until the next visit. I took a piece of onion and planted it in the damp soil under our earthenware jar of drinking water, hoping to see something growing. When the onion became a plant, my fellow inmates called it ‘Salahi’s garden’.”

ibrahim el salahi/photo © The Inevitable, Ibrahim El-Salahi/

The Inevitable is El-Salahi’s reaction to his time spent in prison: the canvas divided into nine separate sections that represent the different periods of time incarcerated. Niccoló Milanese writes about the painting:

In The Inevitable, eyes are either shaded-out into black voids, or are averted from the viewer. Only a soldier keeps a sideways watch on us. The picture is machine-like, sharp and cold. For there is a demand and a prayer made in each of El Salahi’s designs, and in this picture the questions posed are the same, but here the responsibility is even greater: who will dare to look at this? Who will dare to do something to avoid The Inevitable?”.

In the summer of 2013 a major retrospective show of El-Salahi’s work was mounted at Tate Modern – it was Tate’s first retrospective dedicated to an African artist.

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art of resistance, Egypt

eL Seed & Perception In Cairo’s Garbage City.

el seed perception
/photo © Perception, eL Seed/

In a new scope of work, French-Tunisian street artist eL Seed explores the topic of perception by exploring how outsider judgment and misconception can unconsciously impact a community. This is a beautiful, important and powerful piece of art.

Here’s the story – in the neighborhood of Mokkatam Mountain in Cairo, the Coptic community of Zaraeeb has collected the city’s trash for decades, developing one of the world’s most efficient and highly profitable recycling systems. Yet the place is perceived as dirty, marginalized and segregated.

The Zaraeeb community is not – as public conception has suggested – poor, but rather isolated; not marginalized, but rather pushed away. They are a reflection of the society: they don’t live in the garbage but from the garbage; and not their garbage, but the garbage of the whole city.

el seed1

To bring light on this community, in his new project called Perception, eL Seed created a massive, anamorphic piece covering almost fifty buildings – visible in its entirety only from the mountains above.

The piece of art uses the words of Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, a Coptic Bishop from the 3rd century, that said: “Anyone who wants to see the sunlight clearly needs to wipe his eye first”.

The project uses the context of Zaraeeb to question our perception of the people who were once part of the general community, and despite thriving beyond comprehension, are still looked down upon.

el seed2

eL Seed stated that the project in Zaraeeb neighborhood was one of the most amazing human experiences he ever had.

“They have been given the name of Zabaleen (the garbage people), but this is not how they call themselves. They don’t live in the garbage but from the garbage; and not their garbage, but the garbage of the whole city. They are the ones who clean the city of Cairo”, eL Seed wrote.

//all photos © eL Seed//

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For more on eL Seed and his work, visit his facebook page.

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art of resistance, Israeli - Palestinian conflict, Palestine

(Interview) Hala Alyan: Poetry As Emotion, Memory, Resistance.

hala a vimeo/Hala Alyan, photo via Vimeo/

Hala Alyan is an award winning Palestinian-American poet who has lived in various cities in the Middle East and the United States. Her poems reflect her life – the life of searching, making and remaking, longing and surviving on the food of memories. All of her torn anchors found new waters in her poems.

Alyan was the winner of the 2012 Nazim Hikmet Poetry Festival Competition and her first book of poetry, Atrium (Three Rooms Press),  a powerful debut, won the  2013 Arab American Book Award. Her third collection, Hijra, won the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry contest and will be published in the fall this year.

I was thrilled to be able to exchange thoughts with Alyan and dive into her world – the world of captivating poetry, untamed emotions and new ways of seeing, feeling and thinking through words.

How did you start writing, did you feel the great need to express yourself through words, was it a calling in a way?

I’ve written for as long as I can remember; it was a way to feel less lonely as a child and also to escape into other worlds. As I got older, it also became a way to make sense of chaotic environments, messy breakups and the general grit and loveliness of life.

hijra/Hijra by Hala Alyan/

Atrium was the winner of the Arab American Book Award in 2013. Did the success and experience of your first book make it easier to write the second (and the third)? What was it like to go through the process of writing  another collection?

Winning that award was wonderful for me, and I definitely think it helped me get the second book published. It also was such lovely reinforcement for my writing, which enabled me to take more risks in the second and third manuscripts.

The process was a lot easier after the first manuscript, perhaps because I knew what to expect and also knew that it would take time; for Atrium, I was so impatient to see it out in the world!

You are doing your post-doctoral training in the field of clinical psychology. How do you manage writing and working? Does it take away the energy for writing, how do you keep the motivation?

I’m a licensed clinical psychologist now, and it can be a challenge to balance both lives. For the most part, though, I feel very lucky to be able to exist in the two worlds. I’ve said often that I believe each field complements the other. My work as a clinician allows me to be a more effective and compassionate writer.

Also, something I’m learning about myself is that I’m not the kind of writer that can sit and write for several hours at a time. I like the urgency of only having a lunch hour to write; I’m more productive when there’s a time limit.

What do you do when “dry days” come along, how do you feel when you are not able to write anything?

I’ve learned to stop resisting those days, just accepting that sometimes I won’t be able to write but also trusting that it will come back. I used to struggle with that a lot, believing myself to be an imposter just because I couldn’t always sit down and summon the “muse”. But now I recognize that it’s just all part of the process.

Your third collection of poetry, Hijra, will be published in the fall this year. Poems in Hijra explore what it is like to lose home, language, and culture as the result of political conflicts over which you have no control. Could you tell me more about the book?

They are basically poems of exodus and flight, a mediation on how physical space is refashioned, transmitted and remembered. The hope was to write poetry that creates a dialogue between two worlds (land of origin vs. new land), using language as a cultural vehicle. Many of the poems follow women from unnamed, war-torn villages/countries as they migrate to the West.

Your poems deal with exile, with being a refugee. With all the conflicts around the world, climate change and poverty, migrations became inevitable for so many people. Do you feel the responsibility to bear witness to these hard times with your poems?

Yes, I do feel that it’s a universal responsibility to bear witness, using whatever tools one has at their disposal: whether that’s through poetry, journalism, art, song, photography, law, etc. Those of us with the privilege of having a voice that’s heard have the responsiblity to amplify the voices of those that don’t.

How do you keep the connection with Palestine? Do you visit often? Do you feel the pressure, like some of your poems reveal, to at least watch the news and be constantly informed about the situation there?

I hope to visit again soon. I think the connection stays alive through family, stories, reading the wonderful writing that comes from Palestinian writers. I do feel like it’s important for people (not just myself) to remain informed on and invested in the situation in Palestine.

linking the body/photo © Sama Alshaibi, Linking the Body and the Desert/

What are some Arab writers (poetry and prose) you hold dear to your heart, whose writing inspires you?

So many! Etel Adnan, Fady Joudah, Naomi Shihab Nye, Khaled Mattawa, Philip Metres, Mahmoud Darwish, Deema Shehabi and more.

What is the beauty and power of poetry, in your words – why is it important?

It’s important for many reasons, not least of all that it grants the reader access to another world, another mind. Poetry rearranges things, which can help us see things not only in a different way, but sometimes in a clearer way. The best poetry tugs at you, releases something authentic—an emotion, a memory, even resistance.

 ✍

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art of resistance, Israeli - Palestinian conflict

Rachel, Who Came To Rafah.

rachel/photo © Tom Hurndall/

Today marks thirteen years since American peace activist Rachel Corrie was killed by the Israeli military in the Palestinian city of Rafah. Today, I remember Corrie through the post I wrote two years ago, introducing her and her letters from Palestine.

In his article for The Independent Robert Fisk wrote:

“An American heroine, Rachel earned no brownie points from the Bush administration which bangs on about courage and freedom from oppression every few minutes. Rachel’s was the wrong sort of courage and she was defending the freedom of the wrong people.”

I remember Corrie through thoughts she expressed in one of her letters:

If I lived in Bosnia or Rwanda or who knows where else, needless death wouldn’t be a distant symbol to me, it wouldn’t be a metaphor, it would be a reality. And I have no right to this metaphor.

But I use it to console myself. To give a fraction of meaning to something enormous and needless. This realization. This realization that I will live my life in this world where I have privileges.

I can’t cool boiling waters in Russia. I can’t be Picasso. I can’t be Jesus. I can’t save the planet single-handedly. I can wash dishes.”

Read the full article about Corrie and her letters here.

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art of resistance, Israel, Palestine

(Interview) Iris Zaki: Between Black & White.

women in sink/Women in Sink, photo courtesy of Iris Zaki/

Iris Zaki is an Israeli documentary filmmaker, living in London since 2009. She shot her first short documentary My Kosher Shifts (2011) at the hotel where she worked at the reception desk in order to pay her rent. In 2013 she commenced a practice-based PhD in documentary filmmaking.

Her latest documentary Women in Sink (2015) takes place at Fifi’s, beauty salon in Haifa, owned by a Christian Arab. The film is highly praised and currently showing on festivals around the world.

I’ve talked with Zaki about Women in Sink, her beginnings in filmmaking, reasons why she likes to keep the camera rolling while she works and chats with people she is filming, and the surprising ways which made her love the colour gray.

After several years of working in the Israeli music media industry, you moved to London and started a Masters degree course in documentary filmmaking. Why documentary filmmaking?

I was working for the Israeli music television, in an office, from 9 to 7. I was really bored and I realised that there is something I need to do in my life, that I need a change. I went to London for a holiday and really liked it so I decided to move there. I applied for studies and was accepted, but it wasn’t documentary filmmaking. However, my friend took the documentary filmmaking course and I went to some of the classes and really liked it, so I switched.

Working to pay the rent at the reception of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish hotel in North London, you decided to make your debut film, My Kosher Shifts. How was that experience like?

I love to talk so I was just talking with these people, and I had never before had any communication with ultra-orthodox Jewish people. I found myself talking with them so openly and they opened up to me, and I decided to make my final film about my conversations with them. I was very cautious when directing, I didn’t want to change the way it is.

I thought that bringing people to do camera and sound and all of that would ruin the atmosphere, the natural flow of things. So I just decided to leave the camera filming and communicate normaly. So, with that film, the technique of “abandoned camera” developed and I continue working that way.

The technique of “abandoned camera” functions very well in your films, and you mainly film in closed communities, communities you don’t know well. How does it work, tell me more about it?

I really like to work this way, it suits me. After finishing my masters, I decided to do a PhD and continue filming that way. I like to go into communities that I am not a part of, that is what is very interesting to me. I am not a great cinematographer or a director, and this techinque allows me to find my place in documentary filmmaking. If I am talented for something, then that is first and foremost my communication with people.

This technique allows me to capture this very sensitive and interesting interaction with the people, instead of staging something or doing interviews. I want to get the normal, everyday flow of conversation, that is my main interest.

iris zaki/Zaki and her abandoned camera/

You are from Haifa, usually portrayed as a model of co-existence between Arabs and Jews. Growing up, did you interact with Arabs/Palestinians/Muslims living in your neighbourhood? Was there segregation and was it obvious?

No, there was absolutely no interaction. The educational system separates children by their religion, so there was no possibility for interaction in school. In Haifa, segregation is actually very obvious in relation to the class – rich people live on the top of the mountain, and under it, around the sea, are the poor people, and mostly Arabs live downtown.

In Haifa the difference might be that there is more respect between people, more respect for otherness, even though it is not ideal. You can’t really look at it in a black or white perspective, it’s complex. The biggest issue is the social mobility – when an Arab wants to buy a house in a Jewish neighbourhood, there can be a problem. The same thing goes for jobs.

You ended up doing a film, Women in Sink, in a mixed hair salon where Arabs and Jews come to get their hair done. What were your thoughts when coming into that film, what did you want to find out?

I actually didn’t go there because it is a mixed hair salon, I didn’t want to talk to Jewish women, my aim was to talk to the Arab women. I wanted to find a place that will let me do this crazy thing. When I came to Haifa, I ended up at Fifi’s hair salon, and I really liked the people and the atmosphere of the place. The energy was great, and I didn’t think about anything else, I decided to film there.

But yes, in the beginning in only wanted to talk to Arab women, it was important to me as a Jewish girl from Haifa, to hear how they feel living in the city where I grew up and felt very welcomed. I wanted to know how different our experiences were.

/Fifi’s hair salon/

What happened and changed during the shooting of the film? How did you end up filming Jewish women too?

There were two things that happened at the same time. The first one is that I didn’t have a lot of Arab women that wanted to be filmed nor women who allowed themselves to be very political. Living in Israel, I think that everybody is political, but I think the issue here was that some of the women didn’t want to share it with me.

At the same time, when I started washing Jewish women’s hair and talking to them, they turned out to be very political, very opinionated. Also, I felt more comfortable to confront Jewish people than to confront Arab women. Jewish women felt more comfortable to criticize Israel, because when you are the priviliged one you can complain, but as a minority it is more complicated and that is what came to surface when I started filming.

Did Women in Sink surprise you? Have you expected more extreme positions from the women you talked to? What can we learn from that?

I think that a lot of documentary filmmakers, most of them really, go into filming with a certain agenda and then they find characters that fit their agenda. I put myself in places and just hang out with people, and I let the film develop in its own way. Of course, with Women in Sink, I did have my position and expectations from day one and I was very open about it. During the shooting, I learned a lesson, and I decided to let people say what the want to say.

What is surprising to many people, and it was also surprising to me, is that most of these opinions are very light, altough they are very different. There’s no extremes. A lot of filmmakers look for extremes, they want black and white, and the gray area is not interesting to them, it can even be disturbing to many. It’s the same with news and media. While making this film, I became really interested in the gray area, because that is where majority of the people fall into.

Were you afraid that, after watching your film, people would generalize and take it as a representation of the whole community?

I was worried and I am worried about that. Whenever I am doing Q&A, I say that it shouldn’t be taken that way, I already feel like a lawyer who worries about being sued. These are individual stories and they should be seen that way and that’s it. But yeah, I am still worried.

WOMEN IN SINK - Official/Women in Sink/

You live in London now. When you visit Israel, how do you feel, do you feel the changes in the atmosphere, how is the situation now? Would you like to go back and live in Israel?

I feel it is going in a very bad direction, I am very sad about it. When I finished Women in Sink I went back to London a little hopeful, but then there was the war in Gaza. The goverment now is so racist and the atmsophere is the one of creating fear.

I want to go back to Israel at some point, but as long as this goverment is in charge, as long as Netanyahu is in charge, I am not going back for sure. They don’t offer any solutions, they see war as the only solution. The word peace used to be something that every party included in their manifest, and now they don’t even mention it, it’s not even on the agenda.

To end this conversation on a more positive note – what are your plans for the future, what are you working on at the moment?

I am working on my next film for the PhD, this time I want to do it in a settlement. I already chose a settlement where I’ll be living for a month and filming the people. I don’t know anything about settlers, all I have is black and white stories about them, and I want to find out more. I am doing that this spring and we’ll see what happens.

• • •

//all photos courtesy of Iris Zaki//

Find out more about Women in Sink here.

This interview was also published in Croatian, on Libela.

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art of resistance, Syria

Playlist: Kaan Wafi | Pieces From Exile.

kaan wafi/photo © Pieces From Exile/

Displaced Syrian artist and producer Kaan Wafi has been living in Germany for the past two and a half years. Like many Syrians in exile, he is preoccupied with the war and its devastating effects on the country where over 300 000 people have been killed, over 4 million have become refugees and over 7 million are internally displaced.

Wafi’s album Pieces From Exile is a pastiche of clips from Syrian activists and survivors of war mixed with hip hop beats and samples from traditional Syrian music. The album was done in memory of those lost, abducted and displaced by the war.

The album’s dreamy sound creates a sense of nostalgia relatable to any exiled person – looking back and going through memories of a homeland devastated by war, violence, poverty. Dreams of change on hold, rivers of people leaving the country to find the doors already closed before them.  Darwish is echoing everywhere – The Earth is closing on us, pushing us through the last passage.

One hundred percent of proceeds of this record will be donated to Syrian NGO White Helmets. Do something good today – listen to the music, buy the album.

Previous Playlist:

Yasmine Hamdan

Atab by Cheb Abid

Fadimoutou Wallet Inamoud

Khebez Dawle

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