art of resistance, Syria

Remembering Louay Kayali: Life Is On The Streets.

the match seller/The Match Seller by Louay Kayali/

Louay Kayali was a Syrian modern artist, a brilliant painter born in Aleppo in 1934. He began painting at the age of eleven and held his first solo exhibition when he was eighteen.

Kayali died in 1978, from burns incurred from his bed catching fire, reportedly from a cigarette (he suffered from depression, leaving many to think it was suicide).

Kayali studied art at the Accademia di Belle Arti, and met Syrian artist Wahbi Al-Hariri there – they would remain friends for the rest of Kayali’s life (Al-Hariri became his mentor). Later on, Fateh Moudarress (also mentored by Al-Hariri) and Kayali represented Syrian modern art at the Venice Biennial Fair.

laundrette/The Laundrette/

Kayali graduated in Rome in 1961 and returned to Syria where he started his career as a fine arts professor at Damascus University, where Fateh Moudarres also taught.

Kayali’s artwork changed during his life, he was inspired by various things and made beautiful paintings of still nature and village landscapes, but what moves me deeply when it comes to his work are his painting of “ordinary” people, the way he captured life on the streets.

woman-selling-figs/Woman Selling Figs/

When Kayali made his atrwork about the people around him, people we pass by every day, people that are not often thought of as important, as the ones that deserve attention – that is when his art became so powerful, it became a statement of resistance, a portrait of struggle that cannot and should not be unseen.

His ways of capturing the psychological condition of the people, the harshness of life in the way they hold their bodies, the way they look at you – it is a true skill, it is a way of seeing and understanding people, not just trying to paint them.

In that sense, his portraits of people in the streets of Syria, the relationships he made, can be compared to those of Vincent Van Gogh and the miners he lived with and painted.

fisherman in arwad/Fisherman in Arwad/

Kayali is also famous for capturing the agony and the decampment of Palestinians in his paintings, particularly during the 1967 war.

His painting Then What shows Palestinian refugees, barefoot and disoriented, and it remained one of his most powerful works. You can see the misery, you can feel the despair.

kayai so what/Then What/

In his work, Kayali did not adhere to the idyllic image of national heroes, and his shift towards “everyday” people did not go without criticism. After all of the turmoils and attacks, in 1977 he decided to leave for Italy, he sold his house and left Syria, dreaming that he would work on his art in Rome, in a more peaceful atmosphere.

But he couldn’t do that and he returned to Aleppo, to live in solitude. He died in solitude, but in his work all of the connections he made remain visible.

He cared about people deeply. He was a keen observer of life, a mad person, a genious, a humanist not well understood in a world that is very often so far from humanistic values.

the bread maker/The Bread Maker/

He made sure we remember and notice the bread makers, fishermen, ice cream sellers, corn sellers, match sellers, bead sellers, fig sellers, socks sellers, flower boys, flute players, shoe-shine boys, oud players, cleaning ladies, beggars, refugees, single mothers….

That is why we should remember Louay Kayali.

//all paintings by Louay Kayali//

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Previous Remembering… sessions:

Remembering Ronit Elkabetz: A Thing Of Soul And Beauty

Remembering Leila Alaoui: The Moroccans

Remembering Mahdi ‘Amel: The Importance of Resistance

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art of resistance

Remembering Howard Zinn: To Be Hopeful In Bad Times.

In his 2002 autobiography You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Howard Zinn wrote:

To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.

What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places–and there are so many–where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.

And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

howardn/Howard Zinn, photo via Howard Zinn facebook page/

Zinn passed away five years ago, a remarkable historian, a passionate activist. He wrote more than twenty books, including his best-selling and influential A People’s History of the United StatesHe was the first historian to write about American history from a perspective of indigenous people, from a perspective of the working class – people who worked in the steel mills, people who worked in the mines, people who worked on the railroads. He told the stories of immigrants, and presented all the rough hands and tortured faces that built the country we know as America.

When talking about his motivation and inspiration to write A People’s History of the United States, Zinn reflected on his first real teaching job in Atlanta, Georgia. He taught at Spelman College, a college for black women in Atlanta. He did so for seven years, from 1956 to 1963. Those were important years. In an interview on Democracy Now! Zinn described the experience:

“Those were the years of the civil rights movement and of turmoil, and they were very exciting and still perhaps the most intense experience of my life. And I became involved in the movement. I became a kind of participant, what sociologists call a ‘participant observer’ or participant writer. I was involved in the movement, and I began writing about it for The Nation and for Harper’s, and became involved with SNCC, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. And I began to think about history from the black point of view, because it’s hard to live in the black community and teach in a black college without beginning—at least beginning to think of history from a different point of view.

And everything looks different in history when you look at from the black point of view. If you take just something like the Progressive period in American history, anybody who studies history goes through and there’s always a period called the Progressive Era or the Progressive period in American history, which is the first years of the 20th century, roughly between 1900 and, you know, World War I, the Progressive period. Why is it called the Progressive period? Well, because some reforms were passed, right?

The meat inspection—Meat Inspection Act was passed. You notice how good our meat is? Meat Inspection Act, railroad regulation, 16th Amendment, 17th Amendment, Federal Reserve Act—this is what you learned in school, right? You got multiple-choice questions about—to see if you knew the difference between, you know, the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Reserve Commission. And if you read a black historian, which I read while I was teaching in Spelman College, a black historian named Rayford Logan, who wrote exactly about that period—he didn’t call it the Progressive period, he called it ‘the nadir,’ the bottom. The Progressive period was the period in which more black people were lynched than any other period in American history. And still it continued to be called the Progressive period in American history.

So, from a black point of view, all the presidents of the United States look different. Lincoln looked different. Lincoln suddenly was not, you know, the Great Emancipator represented in that statue with the black kneeling before him gratefully, you know, where Lincoln bestows emancipation. From the black point of view, or from any decent point of view, Lincoln was a reluctant emancipator. Lincoln had to be pushed into it, by a movement, by an anti-slavery movement, by black abolitionists and white abolitionists, by a crescendo of criticism of him for not doing anything about slavery, even while a civil war was going on and even after the South had seceded. You know, Lincoln looks different.

Roosevelt looks different. Did any of you see this new series on the Great Depression? There are some—a few of you are nodding your heads, so a lot of you haven’t, I assume, right? I won’t berate you for not seeing that, but it’s very good. Some of you may know the series Eyes on the Prize, and this is a little follow-up by the same producer, Henry Hampton, and it’s about the Great Depression. And the interesting thing about this, about the Great Depression, is that black people and their point of view—and I guess because Henry Hampton is doing it—are much more evident in looking at the Great Depression. And so, he points out to what anybody who has studied FDR fairly closely knows, that Roosevelt, who was, you know, I guess, one of our best presidents, in many, many ways—no question—but Roosevelt would not support the passage of an anti-lynching law in Congress, because he was tied in with the Southern Democrats and dependent on their political support.

Same thing with Kennedy. Kennedy, you know, the liberal president, the young and, you know, we all know the good things about—that everybody believed about Kennedy. But from the point of view of people in the movement, people in the South in the movement in the early 1960s, Kennedy was no civil rights advocate. Kennedy appointed racist segregationist judges in the deep South, in Alabama and Georgia and Mississippi. Kennedy’s Justice Department stood by while people were being beaten, and Kennedy didn’t respond. Same thing with his attorney general, Robert Kennedy. Heroes look different, everything looks different, when you look at it from a different point of view. So all of these things affected my thinking about history.

In the first chapter of People’s History, Columbus, The Indians, and Human Progress, we are, maybe for the first time in Western history textbooks, presented with a different view of Columbus and his great ‘discovery’ of America.

“Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island’s beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. He later wrote of this in his log:

‘They … brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned… . They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features…. They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane… . They would make fine servants…. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.’

These Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like Indians on the mainland, who were remarkable (European observers were to say again and again) for their hospitality, their belief in sharing. These traits did not stand out in the Europe of the Renaissance, dominated as it was by the religion of popes, the government of kings, the frenzy for money that marked Western civilization and its first messenger to the Americas, Christopher Columbus.

Columbus wrote:

‘As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts.’

The information that Columbus wanted most was: Where is the gold?

The Indians’ attempts to defend themselves failed. And when they ran off into the hills they were found and killed. So, Las Casas reports, ‘they suffered and died in the mines and other labors in desperate silence, knowing not a soul in the world to whom they could turn for help.’ He describes their work in the mines:

‘… mountains are stripped from top to bottom and bottom to top a thousand times; they dig, split rocks, move stones, and carry dirt on their backs to wash it in the rivers, while those who wash gold stay in the water all the time with their backs bent so constantly it breaks them; and when water invades the mines, the most arduous task of all is to dry the mines by scooping up pansful of water and throwing it up outside….’

After each six or eight months’ work in the mines, which was the time required of each crew to dig enough gold for melting, up to a third of the men died.

When he arrived on Hispaniola in 1508, Las Casas says, ‘there were 60,000 people living on this island, including the Indians; so that from 1494 to 1508, over three million people had perished from war, slavery, and the mines. Who in future generations will believe this? I myself writing it as a knowledgeable eyewitness can hardly believe it….’

Thus began the history, five hundred years ago, of the European invasion of the Indian settlements in the Americas. That beginning, when you read Las Casas-even if his figures are exaggerations (were there 3 million Indians to begin with, as he says, or less than a million, as some historians have calculated, or 8 million as others now believe?)-is conquest, slavery, death. When we read the history books given to children in the United States, it all starts with heroic adventure-there is no bloodshed-and Columbus Day is a celebration.”

I think there are no words to thank Howard Zinn for all his efforts, his work, dedication, strength and optimism. History is something we make every day, and it is not seealed in a vacuum, high above, out of our reach. It is up to us to stand up for change, it is up to us to release the pressure. “Historically, the most terrible things – war, genocide, and slavery – have resulted not from disobedience, but from obedience”, Zinn always warned.

The best way to thank Zinn is to keep on educating ourselves, to keep on thinking from different perspectives, to be active, to participate in our society and help all the ways we can. Zinn will always be remembered, for he was a true freedom fighter and one of the rare ones who used history as a tool to show the stories of the oppressed majority, and not as a celebration of the oppressing elites.

Paul Laverty, the screenwriter of También la lluvia (the film is depicting the struggle of the indigenous people of Bolivia against the privatization of their water supply, and is dedicated to Zinn’s memory), reflected on Zinn’s influence:

On the 27th of January 2010, while we were editing the film, Howard Zinn, after a lifetime of teaching, writing and activism, died while swimming at the age of 87. It was  a blow to lose such a wonderful collaborator, and modest friend, and I wish we could  have sat in that darkened cinema together, along with another 1000 strangers at the Toronto Film Festival, to watch the first public screening, and thereafter to have  participated in what was a wonderful debate. It was not to be, but I was massively  touched by the spontaneous applause from the audience when his name went up on screen.

Howard’s books are a homage to the courage and creativity of ordinary people. He doesn’t romanticise them, but he makes them central to our understanding.

You can read Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States online. You can also visit the website dedicated to Zinn’s work, offering a great archive of his articles and interviews, bibliography and video & audio material. Long live Howard Zinn!

• • •

Previous Remembering… sessions:

Remembering Pablo Neruda: Pablo Neruda, Presente!

Remembering Nadia Anjuman: One Day, My Hands Will Become Weavers

Remembering Meena Kamal: Hope is The Thing With Feathers

Remembering May Ziadeh: Ahead of (her) Time

Remembering Edward Said: In The Name of Humanism

and more.

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art of resistance

Remembering Pablo Neruda: Pablo Neruda, Presente!

Since the first time I read his poems, it seemed to me that poems came to Pablo Neruda as easily as air comes to those who breathe. I remain fascinated by that, and it is hard for me to name any other poet who had been blessed with the same talent as Neruda.

Pablo Neruda/Pablo Neruda, photo via greatthoughtstreasury/

An extraordinary person, Neruda was born Ricardo Eliecer Neftali Reyes Basoalto, in a working class family. His mother died when he was a baby, his father was a railroad worker. In Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People, a picture book written by Monica Brown and beautifully illustrated by Julie Paschkis, Brown describes Neruda’s rides on train with his father: “Whenever the train made a stop, Neftali would run off into the forest to search for beetles and birds’ eggs and tall ferns that dripped water like tears.”

Early on, Neruda showed great talent for writing, and was encouraged by one special teacher, a great Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral, to write poetry and read more.

PicMonkey Collage/from the book Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People/

Neruda was only nineteen years old when the famous Veinte Poemas volume was published. It was considered controversial because of its explicitly sexual nature. Later on, his poetry and prose advocated an active role in social change rather than simply describing his feelings, as his earlier works had done. He became a true activist for change.

That is very obvious in Residencia en la Tierra, or Residence on Earth, Neruda’s most extraordinary and powerful work of poetry. It was concieved among the feelings of alienation, and reflects the chaos of the world, hard to understand, hard to make sense of. Introducing Neruda at a lecture at the University of Madrid in 1934, Federico Garica Lorca described him as “a poet closer to death than to philosophy, closer to blood than to ink.”

Matilde-Urrutia-and-pablo-neruda/Neruda and his wife Matilde, photo via cafleurebon/

One of Neruda’s strongly political poems that stayed in my mind for a long time is Almería. During the Spanish Civil War the city was shelled by the German Navy. Almería surrendered in 1939, being the last Andalusian capital city to fall into Francoist forces.

A bowl for the Bishop, a bowl chewed and bitter,
A bowl of steel scraps, of ashes and tears,
A bowl brimming over with fallen walls and sobs,
A bowl for the Bishop, a bowl of Almería’s blood.
A bowl for the banker, a bowl of cheeks 
of children from the happy South, a bowl
of explosions, mad waters, of ruins and terror, 
a bowl of broken ankles and trampled heads.

Each morning, each murky morning of your life, 
you’ll have it steaming and hot on your table: 
you’ll push it back a bit with your soft soft hands 
so as not to see it, not taste it so often; 
you’ll push it back a bit between the bread 
and the grapes, this bowl of silent blood 
that will be there each morning, every 
morning.

A bowl for the Colonel and the Colonel’s wife, 
at a garrison party, at every party, 
over curses and spit, with the dawn’s light of wine,
so you’ll look out over the world, trembling and cold.

Yes, a bowl for you all, richmen here and there,
monstrous ambassadors, ministers, atrocious dinner-guests,
ladies with comfortable tea tables and chairs:
a bowl destroyed, overflowing, filthy with the blood of the poor,
each morning, each week, forever and ever,
a bowl of blood from Almería before you,
forever.

Pablo Neruda died in 1973, shortly after the military coup in Chile occured. His funeral procession was delayed by Pinochet’s regime, but in the end, it was the only public demonstration the military dictatorship could not suppress – thousands of people broke curfew and attended the funeral. Thousands of people marched through Santiago, chanting “Pablo Neruda – presente” meaning “Pablo Neruda – present/with us”. It was dangerous to do that, but they still did it, paying respect to Neruda, poet of the people.

davidburnett2136728

11241768_1c54975e9f_b/Neruda’s funeral. First photo via David Burnett, second via Flickr/

In 2003, thirty years after Neruda’s death, an anthology of 600 of Neruda’s poems was published as The Poetry of Pablo Neruda. The book remains one of my favourite little treasures.

Although Neruda has forever ensured his place in the hearts of people with his magical sonnets and unique ways of portraying women and love as the driving forces of the universe, his political poems are what always captured me the most. His call for justice. One of them, like Almería, is United Fruit Co.

When the trumpet sounded

everything was prepared on Earth,

and Jehovah gave the world

to Coca-Cola Inc., Anaconda,

Ford Motors, and other corporations.

The United Fruit Company

reserved for itself the most juicy

piece, the central coast of my world,

the delicate waist of America.

The United Fruit Company was an American corporation that traded in tropical fruit (primarily bananas), grown on Central and South American plantations, and sold in the United States and Europe. The business blossomed in the early and mid-20th century, and the company soon controled vast territories and transportation networks in Central America, the Caribbean coast of Colombia, Ecuador, and the West Indies.

It rebaptized these countries

Banana Republics,

and over the sleeping dead,

over the unquiet heroes

who won greatness,

liberty, and banners,

it established an opera buffa:

it abolished free will,

gave out imperial crowns,

encouraged envy, attracted

the dictatorship of flies:

Trujillo flies, Tachos flies

Carias flies, Martinez flies,

Ubico flies, flies sticky with

submissive blood and marmalade,

drunken flies that buzz over

the tombs of the people,

circus flies, wise flies

expert at tyranny.

The company maintained a virtual monopoly in certain regions, some of which came to be called banana republics, such as Costa Rica, Honduras, and Guatemala. It had a deep and long-lasting impact on the economic and political development of several Latin American countries and was frequently accused of bribing government officials in exchange for preferential treatment, exploiting its workers, paying little by way of taxes to the governments of the countries in which it operated, and working ruthlessly to consolidate monopolies.

With the bloodthirsty flies

came the Fruit Company,

amassed coffee and fruit

in ships which put to sea like

overloaded trays with the treasures

from our sunken lands.

Latin American journalists sometimes referred to the company as el pulpo (the octopus), critics often accused it of exploitative neocolonialism and leftist parties in Central and South America encouraged the company’s workers to strike.

Meanwhile the Indians fall

into the sugared depths of the

harbors and are buried in the

morning mists;

a corpse rolls, a thing without

name, a discarded number,

a bunch of rotten fruit

thrown on on the garbage heap.

United Fruit was merged with Eli M. Black’s AMK in 1970, to become the United Brands Company. In 1984, Carl Lindner, Jr. transformed United Brands into the present-day Chiquita Brands International, leading distributor of bananas in the United States. There are still a lot of issues connected to the company’s business, just one example is the case in 2007, when the  French NGO Peuples Solidaires publicly accused the Compañia Bananera Atlántica Limitada (COBAL), a Chiquita subsidiary, of knowingly violating workers’ basic rights and endangering their families’ health and their own. According to the charge, the banana firm carelessly exposed laborers at the Coyol plantation in Costa Rica to highly toxic pesticides on multiple occasions. Additionally, COBAL was accused of using a private militia to intimidate workers.

So – United Fruit Co. might have a new face on, but it still is, like in the days of Neruda, an expert at tyranny.

I love that Neruda wrote about it. I love the way he was presente. I might be over-romanticizing his era, but I can’t escape the feeling we are in the need of  Nerudas of our time – and I can’t seem to find them.

• • •

Previous Remembering… sessions:

Remembering Nadia Anjuman: One Day, My Hands Will Become Weavers

Remembering Meena Kamal: Hope is The Thing With Feathers

Remembering May Ziadeh: Ahead of (her) Time

Remembering Edward Said: In The Name of Humanism

Remembering Rachel Corrie: Letters From Palestine

Remembering Mustafa al Hallaj: The Master of Palestinian Art

and more.

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