Category Archives: art

The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock

t.s. eliot is one of my favorite poets: “His poetry has all the advantages of a highly critical habit of mind,” writes A. Alvarez; “there is a coolness in the midst of involvement; he uses texts exactly for his own purpose; he is not carrie…d away. Hence the completeness and inviolability of the poems.”

John Pilger – The books that counter our “training” to make war

In their modern classic Manufacturing Consent: the Political Economy of the Mass Media, Edward S Herman and Noam Chomsky describe how war propaganda in free societies is “filtered” by media organisations, not as conscious “crude intervention, but by the selection of right-thinking personnel and by the editors’ and working journalists’ internalisation of [elite] priorities and definitions of newsworthiness”. Full article.

Somali-Canadian Rapper K’naan on Journey from Civil War Refugee to Global Hip-Hop Artist

Piracy in Somalia is something that is fairly new. Since the fall of Siad Barre’s government in 1991, a lot of major Western nations had been bringing their vessels into Somali waters and not only illegally fishing, costing Somalia over $300 million a year in stolen fish, but also dumping nuclear toxic waste. So fishermen, ex-fishers and even ex-coast guards and militiamen got together to hold these criminals at bay. Watch interview.

“Divided selves” by Salman Rushdie (The Guardian, 23 November 2002)

The most precious book I possess is my passport. Like most such bald assertions, this will come across as something of an overstatement. A passport, after all, is a commonplace object.

You probably don’t give a lot of thought to yours most of the time. Important travel document, try not to lose it, terrible photograph, expiry date coming up soonish: in general, a passport requires a relatively modest level of attention and concern. And when, at each end of a journey, you do have to produce it, you expect it to do its stuff without much trouble. Yes, officer, that’s me, you’re right, I do look a bit different with a beard, thank you, officer, you have a nice day too. A passport is no big deal. It’s low-maintenance. It’s just ID.

I’ve been a British citizen since I was 17, so my passport has indeed done its stuff efficiently and unobtrusively for a long time now, but I have never forgotten that all passports do not work in this way. My first – Indian – passport, for example, was a paltry thing. Instead of offering the bearer a general open-sesame to anywhere in the world, it stated in grouchy bureaucratic language that it was only valid for travel to a specified – and distressingly short – list of countries.

On inspection, one quickly discovered that this list excluded almost any country to which one might actually want to go. Bulgaria? Romania? Uganda? North Korea? No problem. The USA? England? Italy? Japan? Sorry, sahib. This document does not entitle you to pass those ports. Permission to visit attractive countries had to be specially applied for and, it was made clear, would not easily be granted.

Foreign exchange was one problem. India was chronically short of it, and reluctant to get any shorter. A bigger problem was that many of the world’s more attractive countries seemed unattracted by the idea of allowing us in. They had apparently formed the puzzling conviction that once we arrived we might not wish to leave. “Travel”, in the happy-go-lucky, pleasure-seeking, interest-pursuing, vacationing western sense, was a luxury we in India were not allowed. We could, if we were lucky, be granted permission to make trips that were absolutely necessary. Or, if unlucky, denied such permission, which was just our tough luck.

In Among the Believers, VS Naipaul’s book about his travels in the Muslim world, a young man who has been driving the author around Pakistan admits that he doesn’t have a passport and, keen to go abroad and see the world, expresses a yearning for one. Naipaul reflects, more than a little caustically, that it’s a shame that the only freedom in which this young fellow appears to be interested is the freedom to leave the country.

When I first read this passage, years ago, I had a strong urge to defend that young man against the celebrated writer’s contempt. In the first place, the desire to get out of Pakistan, even temporarily, is one with which many people will sympathise. In the second and more important place, the thing that the young man wants – freedom of movement across frontiers – is, after all, a thing that Naipaul himself takes for granted, the very thing, in fact, that enables him to write the book in which the criticism is made.

I once spent a day at the immigration barriers at London’s Heathrow airport, watching the treatment of arriving passengers by immigration personnel. It did not amaze me to discover that most of the passengers who had some trouble getting past the control point were not white, but black or Arab-looking.

What was surprising is that there was one factor that overrode blackness or Arab looks. That factor was the possession of an American passport. Produce an American passport, and immigration officers at once become colour blind, and wave you quickly on your way, however suspiciously non-Caucasian your features. To those to whom the world is closed, such openness is greatly to be desired. Those who assume that openness to be theirs by right perhaps value it less. When you have enough air to breathe, you don’t yearn for air. But when breathable air gets to be in short supply, you quickly start noticing how important it is. (Freedom’s like that, too.)

The reason I needed that first Indian passport, limited as its abilities were, was that eight weeks after I was born a new frontier came into being, and my family was cut in half by it. Midnight, August 13-14, 1947: the partition of the Indian subcontinent, and the creation of the new state of Pakistan, took place exactly 24 hours before the independence of the rest of the former British colony.

India’s moment of freedom was delayed on the advice of astrologers, who told Jawaharlal Nehru that the earlier date was star-crossed, and the delay would allow the birth to take place under a more auspicious midnight sky. Astrology has its limitations, however, and the creation of the new frontier ensured that the birth of both nations was hard and bloody.

My own Indian Muslim family was fortunate. None of us was injured or killed in the partition massacres. But all our lives were changed, even the life of a boy of eight weeks and his as-yet-unborn sisters and his extant and future cousins and all our children too. None of us is who we would have been if that line had not stepped across our land.

One of my uncles, my mother’s younger sister’s husband, was a soldier. At the time of independence he was serving as an aide-de-camp to Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck, commanding officer of the outgoing British army in India.

Auchinleck, known as “the Auk”, was a brilliant soldier. He had been responsible for the reconstruction of the British Eighth Army in north Africa after its defeats by Erwin Rommel, rebuilding its morale and forging it into a formidable fighting force; but he and Winston Churchill had never liked each other, so Churchill removed him from his African command and packed him off to oversee the sunset of empire in India, allowing his replacement, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, to reap the glory of all Auchinleck’s work by defeating Rommel at El Alamein.

Auchinleck was a rarity among second world war field marshals in that he resisted the temptation of publishing his memoirs, so this is a story that came down to me from my uncle, his ADC, who later became a general in the Pakistani army and for a time a minister in the Pakistani government as well.

My uncle the general told another story, too, which created a ripple of interest when he published his own memoirs late in life. The Auk, he said, had been convinced that he could stop the partition massacres if he were allowed to intervene, and had approached Britain’s prime minister, Clement Attlee, to ask for permission to do so.

Attlee, rightly or wrongly, took the view that the period of British rule in India was over, that Auchinleck was only there in a transitional, consultative capacity, and should therefore do nothing. British troops were not to get involved in this purely Indo-Pakistani crisis. This inaction was the final act of the British in India. What Nehru and Mohammad Ali Jinnah would have felt about a British offer of help is not recorded. It is possible they would not have agreed. It is probable they were never asked. As for the dead, nobody can even agree on how many there were. One hundred thousand? Half a million? We can’t be sure. Nobody was keeping score.

During my childhood my parents, sisters and I would sometimes travel between India and Pakistan – between Bombay and Karachi – always by sea. The steamers plying that route were a pair of old rust-buckets, the Sabarmati and the Sarasvati. The journey was hot and slow, and for mysterious reasons the boats would always stop for hours off the coast of the Rann of Kutch, while unexplained cargoes were ferried on and off: smugglers’ goods, I imagined eagerly, gold, or precious stones. (I was too innocent to think of drugs.)

When we reached Karachi, however, we entered a world far stranger than the smugglers’ marshy, ambiguous Rann. It was always a shock for us Bombay kids, accustomed as we were to the easy cultural openness and diversity of our cosmopolitan home town, to breathe the barren, desert air of Karachi, with its far more closed, blinkered monoculture. Karachi was boring. (This, of course, was before it turned into the gun-law metropolis it has now become, in which the army and police, or those soldiers and policemen who have not been bought off, worry that the city’s criminals may well be better armed than they are. It’s still boring, there’s still nowhere to go and nothing to do, but now it’s frightening as well.) Bombay and Karachi were so close to each other geographically, and my father, like many of his contemporaries, had gone back and forth between them all his life. Then, all of a sudden, after partition, each city became utterly alien to the other.

As I grew older the distance between the two cities increased, as if the borderline created by partition had cut through the landmass of south Asia as a taut wire cuts through a cheese, literally slicing Pakistan away from the landmass of India, so that it could slowly float away across the Arabian Sea, the way the Iberian peninsula floats away from Europe in José Saramago’s novel The Stone Raft.

In my childhood the whole family used to gather, once or twice a year, at my maternal grandparents’ home in Aligarh in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. These family gatherings held us together; but then my grandparents moved to Pakistan, the Aligarh house was lost, the gatherings ended, and the Indian and Pakistani branches of the family began to drift apart. When I met my Pakistani cousins I found, more and more, how unlike one another we had become, how different our basic assumptions were. It became easy to disagree; easier, for the sake of family peace, to hold one’s tongue.

As a writer I’ve always thought myself lucky that, because of the accidents of my family life, I’ve grown up knowing something of both India and Pakistan. I have frequently found myself explaining Pakistani attitudes to Indians and vice versa, arguing against the prejudices that have grown more deeply ingrained on both sides as Pakistan has drifted further and further away across the sea.

I can’t say that my efforts have been blessed with much success, or indeed that I have been an entirely impartial arbiter. I hate the way in which we, Indians and Pakistanis, have become each other’s others, each seeing the other as it were through a glass, darkly, each ascribing to the other the worst motives and the sneakiest natures. I hate it, but in the last analysis I’m on the Indian side.

One of my aunts was living in Karachi, Pakistan, at the time of partition. She was a close friend of the famous Urdu poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911-84). Faiz was the first great writer I ever met, and through his oeuvre and his conversation he provided me with a description of the writer’s job that I accepted fully. Faiz was an exceptional lyric poet, and his many ghazals, set to music, earned him literally millions of admirers, even though these were, often, strangely unromantic, disabused serenades:

Do not ask of me, my love,
that love I once had for you…
How lovely you are still, my love,
but I am helpless too;
for the world has other sorrows than love,
and other pleasures, too.
Do not ask of me, my love,
that love I once had for you.

He loved his country, too, but one of his best poems about it took, with lyrical disenchantment, the point of view of the alienated exile. This poem, translated by Agha Shahid Ali, was put up on posters in the New York subway a couple of years ago, to the delight of all those who love Urdu poetry:

You ask me about that country whose details now escape me,
I don’t remember its geography, nothing of its history.
And should I visit it in memory,
It would be as I would a past lover,
After years, for a night, no longer restless with passion,
With no fear of regret.
I have reached that age when one visits the heart merely as a courtesy.

An uncompromising poet of both romantic and patriotic love, Faiz was also a political figure and a very public writer, taking on the central issues of his time both inside and outside his poetry. This double-sided conception of the writer’s role, part private and part public, part oblique and part direct, would, thanks in large part to the influence of Faiz’s example, become mine as well. I did not share his political convictions, in particular his fondness for the Soviet Union, which gave him the Lenin peace prize in 1963, but I did quite naturally share his vision of what the writer’s job is, or should be.

But all this was many years later. In 1947, Faiz might not have survived the riots that followed partition had it not been for my aunt.

Faiz was not only a communist but an outspoken unbeliever as well. In the days following the birth of a Muslim state, these were dangerous things to be, even for a much-loved poet. Faiz came to my aunt’s house knowing that an angry mob was looking for him and that if they should find him things would not go well. Under the rug in the sitting-room there was a trap-door leading down into a cellar. My aunt had the rug rolled back, Faiz descended into the cellar, the trap-door closed, the rug rolled back. And when the mob came for the poet they did not find him.

Faiz was safe, although he went on provoking the authorities and the faithful with his ideas and his poems – draw a line in the sand and Faiz would feel intellectually obliged to step across it – and as a result, in the early 1950s he was obliged to spend four years in Pakistani jails, which are not the most comfortable prisons in the world. Many years later I used the memory of the incident at my aunt’s house as the inspiration for a chapter in Midnight’s Children, but it’s the real-life story of the real-life poet, or at any rate, the story in the form it reached me by the not-entirely-reliable route of family legend, that has left the deeper impression on me.

As a young boy, too young to know or love Faiz’s work, I loved the man instead: the warmth of his personality, the grave seriousness with which he paid attention to children, the twisted smile on his kindly Grandpa Munster face. It seemed to me then, and it seems to me still, that whatever endangered him, I would emphatically oppose. If the partition that created Pakistan had sent that mob to get him, then I was against it. Later, when I was old enough to approach the poems, I found confirmation there. In his poem “The Morning of Freedom”, written in those numinous midnight hours of mid-August 1947, Faiz began:

This stained light, this night-bitten dawn
This is not the dawn we yearned for.

The same poem ends with a warning and an exhortation:

The time for the liberation of heart and mind
Has not come as yet.
Continue your arduous journey.
Press on, the destination is still far away.

The last time I saw Faiz was at my sister’s wedding, and my final, gleeful memory of him is of the moment when, to the gasping horror of the more orthodox – and therefore puritanically teetotal – believers in the room, he proposed a toast to the newlyweds while raising high a cheery glass brimming with 12-year-old Scotch whisky on the rocks.

Thinking about Faiz, remembering that good-natured, but quite deliberately transgressive incident, he looks to my mind’s eye like a bridge between the literal and metaphorical worlds, or like a Virgil, showing us poor Dantes the way through Hell. It’s as important, he seems to be saying as he knocks back his blasphemous whisky, to cross metaphorical lines as well as actual ones: not to be contained or defined by anybody else’s idea of where a line should be drawn.

The crossing of borders, of language, geography and culture; the examination of the permeable frontier between the universe of things and deeds and the universe of the imagination; the lowering of the intolerable frontiers created by the world’s many different kinds of thought policemen: these matters have been at the heart of the literary project that was given to me by the circumstances of my life, rather than chosen by me for intellectual or “artistic” reasons.

Born into one language, Urdu, I’ve made my life and work in another. Anyone who has crossed a language frontier will readily understand that such a journey involves a form of shape-shifting or self-translation. The change of language changes us. All languages permit slightly varying forms of thought, imagination and play. I find my tongue doing slightly different things with Urdu than I do “with”, to borrow the title of a story by Hanif Kureishi, “your tongue down my throat”.

The greatest writer ever to make a successful journey across the language frontier, Vladimir Nabokov, enumerated, in his “Note on Translation”, the “three grades of evil [that] can be discerned in the strange world of verbal transmigration”. He was talking about the translation of books and poems, but when as a young writer I was thinking about how to “translate” the great subject of India into English, how to allow India itself to perform the act of “verbal transmigration”, the Nabokovian “grades of evil” seemed to apply.

“The first, and lesser one, comprises obvious errors due to ignorance or misguided knowledge,” Nabokov wrote. “This is mere human frailty and thus excusable.” Western works of art that dealt with India were riddled with such mistakes. To name just two: the scene in David Lean’s film of A Passage to India in which he makes Dr Aziz leap on to Fielding’s bed and cross his legs while keeping his shoes on, a solecism that would make any Indian wince; and the even more unintentionally hilarious scene in which Alec Guinness, as Godbole, sits by the edge of the sacred tank in a Hindu temple and dangles his feet in the water.

“The next step to Hell,” Nabokov says, “is taken by the translator who skips words or passages that he does not bother to understand or that might seem obscure or obscene to vaguely imagined readers.” For a long time, or so I felt, almost the whole of the multifarious Indian reality was “skipped’ in this way by writers who were uninterested in anything except western experiences of India – English girls falling for maharajas, or being assaulted, or not being assaulted, by non-maharajas, in nocturnal gardens, or mysteriously echoing caves – written up in a coolly classical western manner. But of course most experiences of India are Indian experiences of it, and if there is one thing India is not, it is cool and classical. India is hot and vulgar, I thought, and it needed a literary “translation” in keeping with its true nature.

The third and worst crime of translation, in Nabokov’s opinion, was that of the translator who sought to improve on the original, “vilely beautifying” it “in such a fashion as to conform to the notions and prejudices of a given public”. The exoticisation of India, its “vile beautification”, is what Indians have disliked most. Now, at last, this kind of fake glamourising is coming to an end, and the India of elephants, tigers, peacocks, emeralds and dancing girls is being laid to rest. A generation of gifted Indian writers in English is bringing into English their many different versions of the Indian reality, and these many versions, taken together, are beginning to add up to something that one might call the truth.

© Salman Rushdie This article is an edited extract from Step Across This Line, the 2002 Tanner Lectures on Human Values, given at Yale and included in Step Across This Line: Selected Non-Fiction 1992-2002 , by Salman Rushdie, published by Cape

“walls” by beck

addicted to beck…

listen to “walls” from his album “modern guilt”.

LYRICS

Some days we get a thrill in our brains
Some days it turns to malaise
You see a face in the veneer
Reflecting on the surface of fear
Because you know that we’re better than that
Some days are worse than you can imagine
How am I supposed to live with that
With all these train wrecks coming at random?

Hey, what are you gonna do
When those walls are falling down
Falling down on you?

Hey, what are you gonna do
When those walls are falling down
Falling down on you?

You got warheads stacked in the kitchen
You treat distraction like it’s a religion
With a rattlesnake step in your rhythm
We do the best with the souls we’ve been given
Because you know we’re nothing special to them
We’re going someplace they’ve already been
Trying to make sense of what they call wisdom
And this riff-raff ain’t laughing with them

Hey, what are you gonna do
When those walls are falling down
Falling down on you?

Hey, what are you gonna do
When those walls are falling down
Falling down on you?

You’re wearing all of the years on your face
Turn a tombstone all over place
And your heart only beats in a murmur
But your words ring out just like murder

feminine writing: some thoughts on hélène cixous’ “le rire de la méduse”

as i began to read hélène cixous, the first thing that struck me was the awesome power of her writing. it’s hard to describe — it’s poetic, non-linear, complex, yet cogent enough for “the laugh of the medusa” to have become a celebrated treatise on rhetoric and feminism.

cixous’ thesis is equally forceful. she advocates feminine writing, writing that inscribes femininity. women must return to their bodies, write through their bodies — bodies that have been confiscated in the name of modesty by the “great arm of parental-conjugal phallocentrism” and become the “cause and location of inhibitions.”

“censor the body and you censor breath and speech,” proclaims cixous. she writes a particularly brilliant paragraph about how women speak in public and how their style of speech is quite different from that of men:

“listen to a woman speak at a public gathering (if she hasn’t painfully lost her wind). she doesn’t “speak,” she throws her trembling body forward; she lets go of herself, she flies; all of her passes into the voice, and it’s with her body that she vitally supports the “logic” of her speech. her flesh speaks true. she lays herself bare. in fact, she physically materializes what she’s thinking; she signifies it with her body. in a certain way she inscribes what she’s saying, because she doesn’t deny her drives the intractable and impassioned part they have in speaking. her speech even when “theoretical” or political, is never simple or linear or “objectified,” generalized: she draws her story into history.”

like speech, feminine writing must originate from, be express through and give voice to female sexuality. but how is that possible when the logical structure of language itself is phallocentric, set up to maintain male dominance and exclude female bodies? western culture is based on the dichotomy between binary opposites – male/female, good/evil, light/dark, language/silence, speech/writing. in each of these pairs the first term has primacy over the second.

cixous talks about freud’s description of women as being the “dark continent.” women are synonymous with darkness, otherness, africa. men are the opposite. they represent lightness, selfhood, western civilization. women are the colonized, men the imperialists. this same apartheid is imbedded in language.

given these rigid, linguistic hierarchies, whoever uses language is inadvertently taking up the position of a “man”. but cixous sees these restrictions as being historico-cultural and surmountable. to her writing must take place in the spaces in-between, without any preference for or reference to opposing terms. women are more than equal to the task on account of their “gift of alterability.” as mothers, women are naturally adept at nourishing, eliminating separation, re-writing codes: “in woman, personal history blends together with the history of all women, as well as national and world history.”

women must not remain trapped inside men’s language and grammar but explode that structure and invent a language they themselves can get inside of. this is why cixous describes feminine writing in non-representational ways such as song, milk, flight, rhythm.

feminine writing is important because “writing is precisely the very possibility of change” and since most “history of writing is confounded with the history of reason” and “one with phallocentric tradition,” women cannot change the world until they change the ground rules of writing itself.

personal aside: this article puts me in the indelicate position of having to compromise my absolute faith in the equality of the sexes. generalizations make me squeamish. i have always believed that individual differences within groups (whether they be based on gender, race, ethnicity or religion) far outweigh collective differences between the groups themselves. generalizations are therefore always reductive, always misleading. however, there is so much that i recognize in cixous’ thesis that i have to think about how male and female writing can be essentially different and how the very structure of language makes it difficult for women to express that difference.

i changed over from writing exclusively in french to english sometime in high school. as i began to write in english, i retained some of the vividness and fecundity i so cherished in french. my writing was picturesque, creative, unorthodox. however, in business school i took two classes in business english and the intensity of my writing was slowly whittled away. i started to write more simply, clearly, in a much more structured and ordered fashion. my personal style of writing was sacrificed to the god’s of lucidity and succinctness. in cixous’ words, my writing became neutered. who knows how neutered it was already on account of linguistic constraints i could not even grasp, but there was a decisive switch at that time.

cisoux’ description of how women speak with their entire bodies and how they can integrate (rather than divide into opposites) by perceiving world history as an ever-mutating patchwork of billions of personal histories like their own, is spot-on, magnificent.

it reminded me of ismat chughtai (1911-1991), the grande dame of urdu literature. she was not only a prolific writer who changed the rules of urdu wrtiting but she was also a fierce feminist who challenged ideas about what it meant to be a good muslim woman. her short story “lihaaf” (the quilt) came out in 1941. it dealt with lesbianism. she was charged with obscenity and taken to court in lahore. however, her lawyer was able to argue that public morality would remain safe as only lesbians would get the sexual drift of the story! chughtai’s seminal work is her semi-autobiographical novel “terhi lakeer” (the crooked line). in it she explores the quotidian rhythms of women’s lives, the expression of female sexuality within the phallocentric confines of cultural mores, women’s relationships with both men and other women and their struggles to self-actualize through work and career. chughtai’s writing is intimate, explosive, unflinching, voluptuous. it’s hard to contain within the structure of the urdu language. it’s feminine writing.

for my friend damien who made me read cixous.

hélène cixous

Interview with Iranian Poet Farideh Hassanzadeh

Farideh Hassanzadeh (Mostafavi) is an Iranian poet, translator, and freelance journalist. Her first book of poetry was published when she was 22 years old. Her poems appear in the anthologies Contemporary Women Poets of Iran and Anthology of Best Women Poets. She writes regularly for Golestaneh, Iran News, and many other literary magazines and newspapers. Her poems translated into English appear in Kritya, Jehat, interpoetry, museindia, earthfamilyalpha, and Thanalonline. Her anthology of contemporary American poetry will appear in 2007. Read the entire interview.

“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” by Gil Scott Heron

The revolution will no be televised
You will not be able to stay home, brother.
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out.
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip,
Skip out for beer during commercials,
Because the revolution will not be televised.

The revolution will not be televised.
The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox
In 4 parts without commercial interruptions.
The revolution will not show you pictures of Nixon
blowing a bugle and leading a charge by John
Mitchell, General Abrams and Spiro Agnew to eat
hog maws confiscated from a Harlem sanctuary.

The revolution will not be televised.
The revolution will not be brought to you by the
Schaefer Award Theatre and will not star Natalie
Woods and Steve McQueen or Bullwinkle and Julia.
The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal.
The revolution will not get rid of the nubs.
The revolution will not make you look five pounds
thinner, because the revolution will not be televised, Brother.

There will be no pictures of you and Willie May
pushing that shopping cart down the block on the dead run,
or trying to slide that color television into a stolen ambulance.
NBC will not be able predict the winner at 8:32
or report from 29 districts.
The revolution will not be televised.

There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down
brothers in the instant replay.
There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down
brothers in the instant replay.
There will be no pictures of Whitney Young being
run out of Harlem on a rail with a brand new process.
There will be no slow motion or still life of Roy
Wilkens strolling through Watts in a Red, Black and
Green liberation jumpsuit that he had been saving
For just the proper occasion.

Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Hooterville
Junction will no longer be so damned relevant, and
women will not care if Dick finally gets down with
Jane on Search for Tomorrow because Black people
will be in the street looking for a brighter day.
The revolution will not be televised.

There will be no highlights on the eleven o’clock
news and no pictures of hairy armed women
liberationists and Jackie Onassis blowing her nose.
The theme song will not be written by Jim Webb,
Francis Scott Key, nor sung by Glen Campbell, Tom
Jones, Johnny Cash, Englebert Humperdink, or the Rare Earth.
The revolution will not be televised.

The revolution will not be right back
after a message about a white tornado, white lightning, or white people.
You will not have to worry about a dove in your
bedroom, a tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl.
The revolution will not go better with Coke.
The revolution will not fight the germs that may cause bad breath.
The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat.

The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised,
will not be televised, will not be televised.
The revolution will be no re-run brothers;
The revolution will be live.

(watch the video).

art must indict

“My deep feeling is that today art must indict, or at the very least, play the role of the jester who unmasks the unspeakable lies of the powerful. Americans have been deceived and victimized by our government’s propaganda, and if art cannot rebuff and contest this grave situation by fueling the political will and imagination of resistance, I wonder why we need it at all.”
Joseph Nechvatal

“awaiting for men” and much more

katy lena ndiaye’s “awaiting for men” is set in the beautiful red-walled city of oualata, in southeastern mauritania. the film is based on a series of intimate interviews with three women who speak with candor about their relationships with men. the cinematography is rich with the bold colors, patterns and textures of northwest africa. the pace of the film is unhurried, almost languorous. there is a stillness to the film. it has an uncluttered, poetic quality.

oualata was one of the four ksours (arabic for village) erected between the 11th and 12th centuries in what is now mauritania. these settlements were built around a mosque, mostly a simple unadorned prayer hall comprising a madrassa or islamic school, with the houses radiating outwards from this center and getting progressively bigger. the entire ksour was contained within a single continuous wall and many of the village’s amenities were shared – there were common storehouses, ovens, baths, shops, etc. the four kasours were immensely prosperous until the 16th-17th centuries. not only were they trade posts for caravans traveling across the sahara but they also became renowned centers of islamic thought and culture, attracting a multitude of foreign students. it is said that some mauritanian libraries and schools have managed to preserve over 40,000 extremely rare, priceless islamic manuscripts. however, with the gradual desiccation of the sahara much of the farmland that was fertile enough to feed local inhabitants has now become buried in sand.

a faltering economy is apparent in the film, as most oualata men seem to be employed elsewhere. it’s the women who inhabit the kasour for the most part. they take care of the cattle, run their shops, deliver babies, gossip while sipping mint tea, and wait (sometimes for months) for their men to return.

the women who are interviewed speak directly to the camera. they are frank, self-assured, articulate. they are also quite different from one another, a fact that belies western perceptions of other societies (especially muslim ones) as being homogenized, where the individual is largely overshadowed by the collective. many of them have had multiple marriages.

one woman, who exudes sheer power on screen, explains how she can only live with a man as long as she loves him. once she falls out of love, she divorces him. if he annoys her, she has no qualms about beating him. this woman is all business. she frequently challenges the director, the woman behind the camera, with a certain brazenness that’s rarely seen in interview subjects, irrespective of race, religion, ethinicity or gender. this woman is single right now, after going through 5 marriages. she supports herself by painting tarkhas (beautiful murals involving endlessly repeating designs that are painted exclusively by women on the exterior and interior walls of houses in order to highlight doors, windows and alcoves). she also makes money by using henna to draw the same arabesques on the hands and feet of women, and by playing conga drums.

another woman introduces herself by confessing that she is not the prettiest woman around but she likes to talk and men enjoy that. she is lively, down to earth and happy to share her innermost thoughts and feelings. she works as a midwife and runs her own clinic. she is madly in love with her fourth husband and isn’t shy about expressing her physical attraction to him. “a handsome man around here” she explains, “is a man who is generous and tall and can please his woman.”

the third woman is the most reserved. she owns a shop and dreams of one day owning an entire market. she is demure and when prodded too much about her sex life, she turns away, saying “that’s enough, you tire me.” she struck me as being better off than the other two. for her, painting tarkhas is a hobby, not a source of income.

i moderated a discussion after the film. it was most interesting. some in the audience were frustrated by the lack of information, the focus on three women only, the conversations about men and women to the detriment of the women’s interactions with their children, families, communities. some thought the film was a bit too slow, every shot even though beautiful was held for a bit too long. someone thought the women were “sad” because one of them posits that girls don’t need to be educated and another confides how she staged a fall in order to abort an unwanted pregnancy.

others enjoyed the film’s lyricism. they compared it to a piece of music. i agree. as with poetry, everything does not need to be explained away. sometimes a film, even a documentary, can simply create a mood, a feeling, a thought without having to formulate a formal beginning or end. that’s certainly true of french cinema – much of it is open-ended, something that american audiences find frustrating. i like to fill in the blanks and make the film my own. viewing becomes more participative, more active.

i certainly didn’t find the women “sad”. it’s unfortunate that we apply a rigid western or maybe even “christian missionary” filter to how we view other cultures. we have such confidence in our achievements as a society that our instinctive, gut level reaction is one of condescension towards what is different. it’s like this discussion i took part in on facebook, where someone asked if “third world” was an offensive term. many agreed that it was a judgmental term. to me it almost sounds like “third rate”. someone exclaimed: why not just call them poor countries? my answer was: poor in terms of what, really? over-consumption? obesity? materialism? capitalistic greed? production of waste? many third world countries r much richer in how families and communities function. their relationship to the environment is far less toxic. if first world countries stopped exploiting and interfering in third world countries, the gap between them would lessen over time. we seem to transpose our template for what we see as “civilization” onto other cultures without trying to develop an understanding of their circumstances – climate, geography, history, economy, ethnography.

to me the women seemed quite independent, both financially and emotionally. they were used to living on their own. they were well-adjusted, content, confident in who they were. education does not mean the same thing to them as it does to us. i don’t think that the men were much more educated. education refers mostly to studying the quran and hadith. mauritanians are a mixtures of original african agriculturalists, nomadic north african berber tribes and yemeni arabs who conquered the region in the 11th century. in berber society women have a preeminent role, as mothers of the clan. they r the ones who are educated in the histories of their ancestral tribes and they pass on that oral tradition from one generation to another. some of that matriarchal culture is reflected in the attitudes of the three women. the ease with which they divorce men is probably made easier by islam, which gave women the right to divorce in the 7th century.

as far as abortion, with all our western civilization and its legal protections for women, isn’t it sad that a doctor who performed late term abortions was recently shot in the united states? harassment, death threats, murder and terrorism are used to stop women from having abortions. we have a long way to go before we can criticize mauritanian culture.

the slow rhythm of the film with its abundance of still shots, seemed to be informed by photography. i was happy to learn from an interview with katy nadiaye that the film was in fact inspired by a book of photographs called “africa paintings”.

henna design
tarkhas