art of resistance, Syria

Paintings By Boutros Al-Maari.

boutros//all images © Boutros Al-Maari//

Boutros Al-Maari was born in Damascus in 1968. He has held several solo exhibitions in Paris and Damascus, and participated in a large number of group exhibitions in Damascus, Beirut, Alexandria, Hanover and Paris. Al-Maari currently lives and works in Hamburg, Germany.

Through his paintings he transmits a feeling of the contemporary and the traditional, all on the same canvas. In a way, his paintings are an exaggerated drawings of the typical characters from the Syrian daily life, with a twist of magic in them.

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For more on Al-Maari and his work, and many other great Syrian artists – follow the page Syria.Art on Facebook.

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art of resistance

Call For Papers: Towards An Arab Left Reader.

borovoy-169hero-5mffnanowrimo-istock//illustration: iStock.com/Marvid//

Why is there as yet no reader or anthology of Arab leftist thought in English translation? If that question is of interest to you, read on.

The workshop will take place at the University of Cambridge, from 12- 14 April 2018. It will bring together an international group of scholars and translators from a wide range of disciplines to identify, discuss and translate a selection of documents that have played a pivotal role in the formation of socialist, anti-colonial and democratic thought in the Arab world.

The ultimate outcome of this gathering will be the publication of the first English-language Arab left reader, in which translated documents will be accompanied by essays that locate them within a larger historical, political and translational context. The collection aims to bring Arab leftist traditions into conversation with other non-Western and international political texts now available in English, as well as to function as a pedagogical tool and a resource for those interested in political thought in the Arab world.

The workshop will be comprised of six panels on the following themes:

1) Political Mobilization & Muslim Societies

2) Turath: Heritage and Cultural Decolonization

3) Literary Aesthetics and Politics

4) Nation, State and Liberation

5) Feminism and Gender Equality

6) Political Economy

Call for papers:

Proposals for texts on one of the above panel subjects (including party or anonymous tracts, collectively authored documents, etc) are invited for inclusion in the reader. After the workshop, participants who will contribute to the reader should be prepared to translate the entirety of their proposed text, and offer a short summation of its location in broader Arab leftist thought and political practice.

You should submit the following by October 15, 2017:

  • 400 word abstract with the following: description of the text and its author, including bibliographic information (date of production, length, publisher (if any), etc; and political location of text (i.e. when and why was it written, intended audience, distribution method), as well as the relevance of the text to the topic of your chosen panel (please state clearly on which panel you wish to present)
  • 1-2 paragraphs of proposed text in original Arabic and English translation.

Send the proposals to arableftreader@gmail.com.

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art of resistance, Palestine

(Interview) Jehan Bseiso: This Is Not A Border.

JB by Ahmed Fouda/Photo by Ahmed Fouda/

Jehan Bseiso is a Palestinian poet, researcher and aid worker. Her poetry has been published inWarscapesThe FunambulistThe Electronic Intifada, and Mada Masr among others. Her book I Remember My Name (2016) is the creative category winner of the Palestine Book Awards. Bseiso is co-editing Making Mirrors a new anthology by, for and about refugees. Her work also appears in an anthology marking a decade of the Palestine Festival of Literature titled This is Not a Border (published by Bloomsbury Press, 2017).

She is currently working on a collection of poems: Conversations Continued, a compilation of real, misheard, and misremembered conversations. Bseiso has also been working with Médecins sans Frontières /Doctors Without Borders since 2008.

To me, Jehan’s work embodies the pride, dignity, love, defiance, resistance and bravery expressed in one sentence/thought/sentiment – This is not a border (also the title of an anthology of PalFest). In that spirit, This is not a border entails a vision of a different landscapes of today and tomorrow, a desire and determination to write one’s own narrative and own who you are, it means challenging power and staus quo, and finally – it’s an expression of love. With that in mind, Jehan and I meet again.

Our meeting is not in cafés on Hamra in Beirut, where we hugged for the first time, nor watching the blue horizon stretching all around tiny Croatian islands, which we both keep under our eyelids – but typing e-mails, thousands of kilometres apart – the same way we started talking four years ago, when I contacted her for the first time, intrigued by her poetry. We discuss borders, wars, diaspora, homeland, love…

Just last month, a new Israeli construction plan to cut off Ramallah from East Jerusalem was presented. The project would add 1,100 housing units to the settlement of Geva Binyamin. In his book Palestinian walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape, Raja Shehadeh captures the changing landscape of (the idea of) Palestine. How do you personally deal with that landscape?

Before I visited Palestine for the first time in 2012, its landscape was emotional and imaginary, both known and unknowable. Now if I close my eyes I can see the occupation’s determination to violate and violence the land. Only couple of days ago, settlers set farmland on fire near Nablus and Palestinians were prevented even from putting it out, they were forced to watch it burn.

I actually had the good fortune of walking the hills of Ramallah with Raja Shehadeh in May 2016 and 2017 as part of the Palestine Festival of Literature activities. With a group of international writers and artists from all over the world, we walked the hills of Ramallah, reflecting on the way the occupation marks and transforms the lands.

In her poem Gaza Hala Alyan writes: This is diaspora… This is dont change the channel/the least you can do is watch. In your poem Gaza, From the Diaspora Part Two, you write: Dear Diaspora, Boycott. Could we talk about the diaspora experience – its mixture of guilt, loss, misremembering, responsibility, fatal loving –how can one unravel that web?

I think of that beautiful poem by Hala as an alarm bell and a prayer for the diaspora.
The first time I heard the word diaspora, I was in a classroom and the teacher wanted someone to explain it in English and translate it into Arabic. No one could, she singled me out that day and said you should know what it means, you’re Palestinian – Al Shatat. Since then I’ve felt a strange affinity with the word. For me diaspora is a layer of citizenship you can choose to opt out of; when you are physically so far away, you can decide to switch off mentally and emotionally.

There is apathy dust that can settle on the diaspora that I like to challenge; which is why I call on them in some of my poems, asking them to engage, read, listen, ask questions. The thing is, even those who are on the move willingly, for education, for work, for a better future with better prospects are also leaving home and homeland behind. The Palestinian diaspora cannot go back, that’s what the right of return is all about.

In connection to the previous question, I will ask you a question asked by Ghassan Kanafani in Returning to Haifa – what is a homeland, after all?

For refugees forced to flee, homeland is a ball of fire they’re running fast as possible away from. For others, born and raised in refugee camps, homeland is a place beyond the sun, accessible only in dreams.

For me, Home is not a physical place, it’s a warm feeling radiating through all the little details that make our lives worth living. A perfect cup of coffee in the morning, made with exactly the right amount of milk, hearing my mother’s laugh, holding the hands of the man I love as the plane takes off. The truth is that I feel at home everywhere I go because after a certain point you carry all those details with you.

Homeland on the other hand is a very specific shape on the map, often misnamed and misrepresented. As a Palestinian born, raised, and living outside Palestine, homeland is on the other side of the border. It’s in the questions of the private security company contractors hired by the Israeli government at Allenby bridge, it’s the look on my grandmother’s face when she talks about orange fields and blue Gaza waters. Homeland is every time I say “occupied Palestine” when someone says Israel, in the little narrow streets of the old city in Jerusalem.

I often wonder how my children will understand or experience homeland, it’s not like I was indoctrinated by my parents, I was never told or forced to feel anything. I gravitated to homeland in my writing, my sense of grave injustice took me there, my heart travelled first and then my body followed. 

You are one of the authors featured in the anthology I Remember My Name, together with Ramzy Baroud and Samah Sabawi. The book was the creative category winner of the Palestine Book Awards. How did you get involved in this project and how important is it for you to have your work published in collaboration with other poets?

I Remember My Name is the quintessential diaspora project; all of us come from Gaza but Ramzy lives in the US, Samah lives in Australia and I was in Cairo when we started talking about the anthology. Editor Vacy Vlazna and artist David Borrington put their heart into it and when it finally came together we were all so proud.

Until today, I’ve only met David – we went to London together to receive the award on behalf of Ramzy, Samah and Vacy. Having my work in such good company is very important to me, and most recently two of my pieces appear in an anthology marking a decade of the Palestine Festival of Literature titled This is Not a Border (first published by Bloomsbury Press in the UK).

You’ve been working for Médecins Sans Frontièrefor almost nine years. Was it hard to keep it going parallel with  your writing, which is, I assume, taking more of your time and energy? You once beautifully said there’s work in your poetry, and poetry in your work – is that the key?

Yes! That’s my new motto: poetry in work, and work in poetry.
As a literature graduate I was told I have two choices, write or teach. I would love to write or teach full time at some point, but for now I made a different choice by joining Médecins Sans Frontières with whom I’ve been working in places near home like Iraq and Libya but also further away like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somali region of Ethiopia.

When I joined MSF I actually hid the fact that I was a poet from everyone because I wanted to be taken seriously as a humanitarian worker. However, despite all my efforts to choose between poetry and MSF I have so far failed miserably. My poems are about love and war, heartbreak and refugees dying at sea in their attempt to run away from poverty and conflict. Poetry is now a site of intersection that displays the explosive choices i’ve been making as an aid worker and a writer.

How did working for Médecins Sans Frontières change you? Is there a specific MSF moment you will remember – a trip somewhere, or meeting someone?

I met two lovers in detention two years ago, they were criminalized even just for trying to escape war and poverty. They attempted to leave by boat to Europe more than once, they were arrested several times, but they still had so much determination and hope it was amazing. They finally succeeded to get on a boat, and it sank, leaving one of them alive and the other dead. When I think of love, I think of the way they looked at each other in detention, the way he was worried about her when we took her to the hospital because she was ill. Somehow that was one of the most moving encounters I’ve had.

A colleague once told me that the more he travels and works with MSF, the more he realizes how much we all have in common, despite our insistence on all the details that make us different. We all want the same things; love, success, community, a better future, dignity in life and death. 

Nowhere refuge, only refugees, you write. How important is it for you to respond to the burning issues of our time through your poetry – one of them being the crisis of European refugee policy?

The media is reporting about refugee fatigue and compassion fatigue. I find the notion that compassion can be finite truly terrifying. I spend a lot of time looking at facts and figures, and reading “human stories”; I prefer just saying “stories”, because humanity is obvious, once we start having to state that the refugees are “also human-look at them!” we are catering to anti-refugee propaganda even with the best of intentions.

Like many people I can say that i’m haunted by the refugee crisis, and it’s a global one. I’m haunted at my work, by the images of bodies clinging to orange life vests, and i’m haunted at night when I think of how random it is, that it’s not me, not my family.

People must realize as you mention that it’s not a European refugee crisis, but one that is being exacerbated by European refugee policy. It is also a global refugee crisis. For example, hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing conflict and famine in South Sudan and seeking safety in Uganda. Few people are aware that Uganda is now hosting more than 1.3 million people, more than any country in Europe at the height of the “European refugee crisis”.

I currently live in Lebanon, a country where one in four is a Syrian refugee, and at least 400,000 Palestinian refugees have been living in camps for more than 50 years – it’s impossible to ignore the refugee crisis, and its political and economic drivers.

You are co-editing Making Mirrors, a new anthology by, for and about refugees. The anthology is challenging the objectified, passive refugee narrative. Can you tell us more about it?

The plan is to offer a volume of poetry by, about, and for refugees, that seeks to connect artistic voices of those fleeing violence from Afghanistan, Syria, Palestine, Somalia, Iraq, and other war torn countries. I am editing this anthology with US poet and scholar Becky Thompson, and our hope is that Making Mirrors will provide a multilingual interactive, collaborative volume of poems that will be published as a book and also a website.

Among those whose work is set to be included in the collection are prominent poets Naomi Shihab NyeZeina Hashim BeckZeina Azzam, and Hala Alyan. We have received incredibly powerful poetry from first-time writers, in different languages, and we are currently working on holding writing workshops to generate more poetry from within refugee communities. 

In one of our previous talks, you said how women from the MENA region are portrayed either as victims or superheroes, and that is too much of a burden. Just last month, Mashrou Leila put out a new video, for the song Roman. The video aims to “celebrate and champion a coalition of Arab and Muslim women, styled to over-articulate their ethnic background, in a manner more typically employed by Western media to victimise them”. Do you feel the victim/superhero narrative is being more challenged nowadays, with efforts such as this one?

I think a lot more needs to be done in order to dislodge Western media’s obssession with the victim/superhero narrative in the portrayal of both men and women from the MENA region; and now you can also add terrorist to that oppressive framework so it’s victim/terrorist/superhero.

I am a big fan of Mashrou Leila; I find their music and lyrics original, subversive and full of heart and mind. That video is like a good poem, it recalls and disrupts images, ideas and narratives from a perspective of expansion; you always end up with more at the end. This is precisely what I love about poetry; freedom of interpretation and play.

You are performing your poetry all over the world and working on a collection of poems, Conversations Continued, which is a compilation of real, misheard, and misremembered conversations. What has that process been like so far?

I have divided the poems in Conversations Continued into three main chapters; Conversations Homeland is mostly about Palestine and the search for home inside and outside, Conversations Habeebi is about love, its necessity and impossibility sometimes. In Conversations ThawraI write about hope and despair in the wake of the so-called “Arab Spring”. Many of the pieces started as incomplete letters, facebook posts, interrupted conversations all distilled into poems.

I am always listening to people talking around me, because I am fascinated by what we call “ordinary” use of language in conversation – I find it actually quite extraordinary.

Finally, what are you reading at the moment, can you share some words/thoughts that have inspired you lately?

In a world that continuously divides and conquers our concentration, lately I have become a reader with commitment and attention span issues. This is why I read more than one thing at a time. Currently I am in awe of Look by Solmaz Sharif; her writing perches at that intersection between politics and poetry, art and life – it’s an important collection of poems, one that needs to be studied not only read. I am also going in and out of Hisham Matar’s The Return and rereading a collection of dark and somber short stories by the inimitable Ghassan Kanafani.

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This interview was also published in Croatian, on H-Alter.

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art of resistance, Kuwait

Illustrations By Owaikeo (Ahmed Al-Refaie).

owa/all art © Owaikeo/

Ahmed Al-Refaie, going by the artistic name of Owaikeo, is an illustrator from Kuwait. His illustrations are colorful, clever and playful – definitely worth your attention.

About the inspiration behind his work, Al-Refaie says“I’m sparked with everything around me, spinning old cultures with a modern twist to bridge the gap between what’s modern and what’s traditional.”

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Follow Owaikeo on Instagram, plus – click here if you’re interested in checking out his merchandise.

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art of resistance, Syria

Jehan Bseiso | Requiem For Raqqa.

raqqa_bread/Scenes from Syrian War: Raqqa, by Molly Crabapple/

Requiem For Raqqa

4th of July fireworks descend hot as acid,
call it chemical, not white phosphorus,
call it mistake, not massacre.

A doctor in East Ghouta tells me one grave holds his entire family.
(you left me)

A pharmacist sends me a voice note saying there is no more Insulin.
(you left me)

A politician in the US doesn’t know what Aleppo is.
(how could you leave me?)

In occupied Jerusalem, a young man says:
“Syria is the Nakba of our generation.”

(you broke my heart)

Hide in a cafe in Marseilles, order Turkish coffee with lots of sugar.
Go to the library in Alexandria, order lots of books about politics.
Stop reading.

Don’t watch Al Jazeera.
Don’t listen to the BBC.
Make up your own mind, says Beirut graffiti.
(but, you left me, you really left me)

It’s been six years since I slept, Syria.

This poem was first published on Mada Masr.

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art of resistance, Syria

Playlist: Basel Rajoub.

Capture/photo: The Queen of Turquoise album, Basel Rajoub/

Basel Rajoub is a little wonder. He is a Syrian saxophone player – a skilled improviser, and highly original composer. Rajoub performs both as a solo artist and a leader of the Basel Rajoub Ensemble.

His Soriana Project (“Soriana is ‘our Syria’, a homeland we left behind”, Rajoub says) features collaborations with like-minded artists celebrating their heritage and paying homage to the gift and beauty of music.

You can listen to Rajoub’s Soriana from the album Asia here. Turn the lights low and enjoy.

Previous Playlist:

Crystalline (Omar Souleyman Remix)

Aynur Doğan

Hello Pshychaleppo

Grup Bunalim

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art of resistance, Libya

Khaled Mattawa | Bedtime Reading For The Unborn Child.

2013-09-10-iran-artist-2 /art by Hayv Kahraman/

Khaled Mattawa is a wonderful Libyan-American writer, poet and a translator. Mattawa’s poetry frequently explores the intersection of culture, narrative, and memory.

Here is one of his beautiful poems, Bedtime Reading for the Unborn Child, from the collection Amorisco (Copper Canyon Press, 2008).

Long after the sun falls into the sea

and twilight slips off the horizon like a velvet sheet

and the air gets soaked in blackness;

long after clouds hover above like boulders

and stars crawl up and stud the sky;

long after bodies tangle, dance, and falter

and fatigue blows in and bends them

and sleep unloads its dreams and kneads them

and sleepers dive into the rivers inside them,

a girl unlatches a window,

walks shoeless into a forest,

her dark hair a flag rippling in darkness.

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She walks into woods, her feet light-stepping

through puddles, over hard packed dirt,

through grassy hills, over sticks and pebbles

over sand soaked in day, stones sun-sizzled

over lakes and frigid streams

through dim cobbled streets

darkened squares and dusty pastures.

She runs from nothing, runs to nothing,

beyond pain, beyond graveyards and clearings.

In the dark the eyes of startled creatures

gleam like a herd of candles.

They scatter and give night its meaning.

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What echo of a bell lulled her

what spirit, what scent of a word

whose storm wrote her

what banks fell to drown her

which blood star

which thread of water

which trickle of light

whose heart being launched

whose floating soul seduced her

what promise did it make her

whose memory burned her

whose prayer did she run to answer

whose help, what sorrow clot

what pain dammed inside her

what wall must she rebuild now

whose treasure beckons her

who spread ivy like a veil to blind her?

Daybreak lies chained to a blue wall

from which the stars drop

and lose all meaning.

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She runs past villages that lost their names

roads that lost their destinations

seas that lost their compasses and sailors

rivers that lost their marshlands and travelers

houses that lost their sleepers and criers

trees that lost their songs and shadows

gardens that lost their violets and benches

valleys that lost their worms and farmers

mountains that lost their prophets and marauders

temples that lost their sinners and spires

lightning that lost its silver and wires

chimeras that lost their bridges

minotaurs that lost their fountains.

Crescent moons hover above her,

ancient white feathers, birdless, wingless

lost to their own meaning.

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Music rises out of her vision.

It stands, a wall covered with silver mosses.

A clarinet sounds a wounded mare,

violins women who lost their children.

Flutes blow their hot dry breezes.

Drums chuckle the earth’s ceaseless laughter.

Pianos are mumbling sorcerers

calling spirits and powers.

Cellos chew on the sounds of thunder.

Dulcimers skip about on crutches.

Dance floors flash their knives

daring their dancers.

Words mill about the streets like orphans.

Then a lute begins groaning

and dawn loses its meaning.

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Night girl, night girl

your book is full now.

You have drawn all the pictures.

You have seen many weepers.

Stars held your sky in place and moons

floated on your lakes and washed them.

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