Ten years out from the heady euphoria of the uprisings across the region, Arab artists and intellectuals now find themselves in a long present marked by the doubled oppressions of politics and the pandemic. While it is perhaps too soon for new art and media to adequately take stock of the accumulating disasters and betrayals of the past months and years, this panel recognizes the multiple ways in which historical images, archives, and media can inform the present. Working with historical and contemporary media, we ask what happens when assumptions of linear progress or continuity are disrupted by conditions that are unexpectedly archaic, premodern, or simply anachronistic. In the wake of Beirut’s latest destruction, the first paper returns to Lebanese filmmaker Jocelyne Saab’s poetic, essayistic films from the Lebanese Civil War. Addressing the relative invisibility of these films and their filmmaker (who died in 2019), the paper shows how Saab’s films perform a kind of memory work, both in their production and from the perspective of the present, whereby the films document a city that has been witness to seemingly endless destruction and rebuilding. The second paper considers the way that recent appropriations of Egyptian cinema’s belly-dancing traditions have animated a new politics of queer imagination that has resisted state militarism and violence and fostered a new essayistic mode of melancholic poetry, music, and sensuality. The third panelist addresses a redistributed temporality in which current crises return us to the complicated mechanisms and media of water supply and use during the Lebanese civil war. But the paper also suggests a generative affective reading practice that by necessity connects us to Greek and Arab mythologies, Orientalist texts, and childhood memories. Continuing the juxtaposition of moments and texts that this panel animates, the final paper reveals the ways that some contemporary experimental films have embodied talismanic tendencies reminiscent of ninth and tenth-century Islamic texts. Showing how cinema can “fold history” in order to force action, the paper considers occulted Islamicate media practices that inform contemporary practices of media. Taken together, these papers not only track some of the compelling recent experiments in creative expression from the region, but they model a kind of transdisciplinary practice in their own right, turning to different temporalities and spatial logics in order to expand how Middle Eastern studies might think about culture in the present.
The career of Jocelyne Saab (1948-2019), Lebanese journalist, filmmaker, and artist, was as unprecedented as it has been overlooked. Her earliest films predated the Lebanese Civil War (1975-90) but from the mid-1970s she became an important chronicler of that conflict and, in the process, became a key figure in the emergence of a Lebanese cinema. Her extraordinary access as a documentary filmmaker within Lebanon and outside it—whether filming Colonel Muammar Ghadafi, Yasser Arafat, or a ship full of PLO members as they were expelled from Beirut—was matched only by her fearlessness as she shot films within a divided and dangerous Beirut throughout the immediate civil war period and after. In addition to her documentaries, she also made several feature films (including Suspended Life (1985), from which this paper takes its title).
Saab’s pioneering documentary work occupied another pole, though: that of the poetic. In collaboration with artists like painter and poet Etel Adnan, Saab developed a creative practice that combined documentary footage with a poetic voice that was manifest in both sound and image. In films like Beirut, Never Again (1976); Letter from Beirut (1978); and Beirut, My City (1982), Saab uses a poetic and essayistic mode of filmmaking to reflect upon both the realities of the war but also on the affective and emotional states that it provoked in Beirut’s population. Saab’s films were personal, essaying what it meant to reside in a city that was eating itself alive; but they are far more than just documents of a past moment. Seen in the context of the present, what Judith Naeff has termed Beirut’s “suspended now,” the films offer a way to understand the contours of personal and collective experience as the city is continually transformed. Saab’s films thus animate issues that are also considered in the work of Lebanon scholars like Chad Elias and Samir Kassir, while exhibiting qualities theorized extensively in Catherine Russell’s work on experimental essay films. Drawing on primary sources regarding Saab’s long history as a filmmaker as well as the scant secondary literature on her, the paper will theorize the ways that her films function as complex meditations on Beirut in a future perfect tense: how they trace a destruction that they propose will have already been repeated by the time we encounter the films.
In a short video posted on Facebook, the body moves of Nadia Gamal meet the voice of Madonna. What seals this fusion is a resemblance between the American pop singer's iconic cone-shaped brassiere and that of the Egyptian belly dancer. This video clip is part of an ongoing art project by Lebanese artist, Nasri Sayegh, to resurrect moments from old Egyptian films, mainly featuring belly dancers, and reconfigure them by adding different music, or creating loops, slow-motions and subtle rewinds. Sayegh describes his work as "an investigation, an attempt to recess, an 'encyclopedic embrace' that runs through the thread of Arab musical passion within the depths of the Arab night, the "Leyl", that is host to poetry, sensuality and melancholy."1 Using scholarly work on the seriality and inconclusiveness of essay films by Catherine Russell and Timothy Corrigan as well as queer film theory, such as Gayatri Gopniath's work on the circulation of desire and queer viewership of musical numbers in Bollywood films, I argue in my proposed paper that Sayegh's engagement with film archives of female bodies is contributing to the expansion of a distinctly Arab queer imaginary. By "awakening" these fragments of film, placing them in new cosmopolitan contexts and circulating them on social media, Sayegh produces new queer modes of appropriation of Arab culture.
Adding a political dimension to this gesture of excavating the iconic figure of the belly dancer from the archive, Lebanese contemporary belly dancer, Alexander Paulikevich, is another artist whose work perpetuates belly dancing traditions in new queer forms. An openly-gay gender bender, Paulikevich, who actively participated in the past year's mass protests against the Lebanese government, became an unlikely poster child of the Lebanese revolution. A widely circulated drawing depicts him bare-chested in his signature vermilion tutu skirt. With an audacious dance pose, he faces the muzzle of a military tank. At the end of 2020, Paulikevich created a dance performance to comment on government's brutality against protesters adding to the queer imagining of the Lebanese revolution.
Both these recent forms of engagement with belly-dancing, whether through film or in embodied performances, contribute to a growing body of art work that is casting a queer lens on Arab culture.
1 "Lam Adri Ma Tiba Al Inaq Ala Al Hawa / Fragments for an Arab melancholy." The Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, accessed February 12, 20021, https://www.arabculturefund.org/Projects/24.
As the thirteenth-century Latin Picatrix, a translation of Maslama al-Qurtubī ’s tenth-century magic text the Ghayāt al-Hakīm (Goal of the Sage), puts it, “The talisman is nothing other than the force of celestial bodies that influence bodies” (Picatrix 2003: 120). Talismanic magic in the Islamic Neoplatonist tradition of Al-Kindī (801-873), building on the Sabean star magic of Harrān Thābit ibn Qurrā (d. 901) and the astrological causality of Abu Ma‘shar al-Balkhi (d. 886), allows the practitioner to manage the cosmos in miniature. Talismanic practice spread across Southwest Asia, North Africa, and Persia and, in translation, to the Latin West.
Talismans’ effectiveness depends on many factors, including causal connection by emanation, which makes sympathetic magic possible; the discipline and knowledge of the practitioner; the élan requisite for auspicious timing; and the affective responses of the participants. As operational images (Farocki 2004), talismans do not represent but connect directly to their objects. Scholars such as Pesis Berlekamp (2016), Nader El-Bizri and Eva Orthmann (2018), Charles Burnett (2007, etc.), Matthew Melvin-Koushki (2017), Liana Saif (2015, 2017), and Nicolas Weill-Parot (2011) examine talismans’ historical formation and conditions of efficacy.
Even in disenchanted modern times, the talisman’s legacy remains as a minor tendency. A few films and artworks of our time also manage the cosmos in miniature, whether or not their makers are aware of this medieval Islamicate heritage. The necessary qualities of causal link, discipline, right timing, affect, and operationality are complemented by qualities particular to the moving image. For example, cinema can fold history by drawing together points from the past that are incommensurable in the present (Deleuze 1989: 98-125): the resulting untenable situation forces individual or collective action in the present. I will examine three experimental movies that I believe qualify as talismanic: Basma Alsharif’s Deep Sleep (2014); Jeanne Finley’s Journeys Beyond the Cosmodrome (2019), made in collaboration with Kazakh orphans; and Basim Magdy’s 13 Essential Rules for Understanding the World (2011).
Like a nightmarish tale that has upended modern living, Covid-19 has caused a rip in space and time, pulling us back into the 1920s and the epoch of the Spanish flu, even into 14th-century Europe and the plague that Boccaccio confronted through storytelling in The Decameron. Requiring lockdowns and threatening our food supply and access to water, the pandemic conjured up the experience of war in the Middle East thereby allowing us to tie in the study of conflict in the region and its effect on daily lives and human psyche to the new state of emergency playing out on the global stage. Exploring confinement anxieties, in this talk I revisit Lebanon’s civil war (1975-90) and analyze the ways in which access to water and questions of hygiene become a stage for an embodied experience that reconfigures the boundaries of the subject. Moving from my work on leaks and porosity discussed in the context of digital media, I turn in this talk to the porosity of the subject of confinement as a way of exploring a comparative framework that connects different temporalities and geographies on the one hand, and different literary and cultural traditions. Specifically, the talk engages water distribution in war-torn Beirut by constructing a genealogy of water representation involving the figure of the cupbearer in Greek and Arab mythologies, baptisms and miracles, and Gérard de Nerval’s description of Istanbul’s water boutiques in his Voyage en Orient (1851). It shows how water distribution is a way to manage fluids, losing and regaining control of lives and bodies, containment and leaks. The circulation of water in plastic containers in times of pandemic and war just like that of oxygen in blood cells reveals the workings of memory, an intellectual process, and an affective reading practice that initiates dialogues across fields and disciplines including Middle Eastern studies.