Monday, December 15, 2014

Art and amnesia in Lebanon

„The difference between modern and contemporary art is very simple“, a French art professor once told me. „You can frame modern art, or put it on a pedestal, which you cannot do with contemporary art.“

MACAM, Lebanon’s modern and contemporary art museum, is dedicated to both forms of art. MACAM exhibits artifacts on a pedestal, mostly sculptures, but also installations that need a lot of space, being laid out over the floor.

The museum is located on the hilltop of Alita, in the district of Jbeil/Byblos. It was inaugurated in June of 2013, in two industrial halls with high ceilings that used to be factories for lime, paint and blackboards for schools.

When I visited MACAM last summer, I was lucky to meet the two co-founders of the museum, Cesar Nammour and Gabriela Schaub. Cesar was particularly proud of the various installations from Lebanese artists such as Mario Saba that he was able to show me. „The MACAM is a museum second and a documentation center first“, he told me. 

Since the 1980s there has been a lot of installation art in Lebanon. But once exhibitions ended, installations were dismantled and disappeared. Lebanese are world champions in forgetting - their past, their present, their future - and MACAM makes it a goal to document the art of Lebanon and preserve it for the generations after.

the art of memory, the memory of art: MACAM

„In our first year of existence“, Gabriela said, „we received over 3000 visitors that came especially to see the museum, although we are 37 km away from Beirut. For Lebanese standards this is quite far.“ „Unfortunately“, she went on, „the museum’s non-Lebanese visitors were small in number due to the insecure situation in the country.“ 

In order to start their adventure, Cesar and Gabriela were successful in having 400 sculptures by 65 Lebanese artists to be exhibited in the museum. They have a special love and relationship with the Basbous brothers, the Lebanese master sculptors of the 20th century. In fact, a retrospective that presents wood sculptures of Youssef Basbous has just opened at MACAM on November 15; it will run until April of 2015.

When I strolled through the MACAM, hearing Cesar Nammour speak about „documenting and preserving art“, I involuntarily started to think about Lebanon, its identity as a nation and its national character. Why is it that many things in Lebanon are being destroyed - consciously or mindlessly? Why is it that only a few things in Lebanon seem to be given a lasting value? I had more questions than answers.

Public space means not much in Lebanon. Its importance for the society is not recognized, its maintenance is often neglected. The private space on the other hand is almost sacred. Apartments and restaurants in Lebanon are proof of the sure taste and the flair for style that many Lebanese possess.

Is art in Lebanon seen as a public good and therefore only a second rate commodity? Does Lebanon, as a distinctive „throw away society“, also trash art easily? With Cesar, I tried to go to the root of the issue. „Is there such a thing as a national identity in Lebanon, a collective Lebanese memory“, I asked him. „Or is the immense diversity of Lebanon precisely an obstacle for this?“

Cesar Nammour’s reply was well conceived and explained the state of the Lebanese as much as it is explainable. „When Lebanon was established as greater Lebanon in 1920“, he said, „it was against the will of many factions of society who opposed its creation. When all the factions agreed in 1943 on an independent Lebanon from the French mandate, each faction imagined Lebanon in a different way, so until today there is no unity in perception of what Lebanon is.“

Cesar then talked about the war. „The civil war of 1975 to 1990 is viewed in so many ways. Lebanon does not have a national identity; the Lebanese citizen is loyal to his religion or her political leader, but not to the nation. Memory to each faction is different. We do not have one memory.“

„And that is why“, Cesar concluded his lecture, „there is always an eraser of facts rather than an accumulation of facts to create one solid memory for a national identity.“

How important is it for a nation to have a collective memory? How much of the past needs to be retained and restored? Back at my apartment, I googled for scientists like Maurice Halbwachs who argued that history is the largest element in men’s self-conception, because: „for a man to lose his memory, to lose his past, is to lose himself.“

Yet other scientists made equally pervasive claims on behalf of collective amnesia and social forgetfulness. Must a people forget in order to make its history, and the memory of past events, bearable? Or in Lebanon’s case: what did the civil war and the horror of these 15 years do to the minds of the Lebanese?

„Injuries too well remembered cannot heal“, Benjamin Barber wrote. David Lowenthal went even further in his book „The Art of Forgetting“ when he underscored the close etymological connection of „amnesia“ with „amnesty“. 

injuries remembered: MACAM

French historian Pierre Nora finally evoked the pitfalls of a collective memory when he noted that „the representations of collective memory are those that have been selected by those in power; collective memory is both a tool and an object of power.“

That made sense. Destroying all the memories thus means not giving power to anybody. It’s a somewhat childish behavior. „This is not my toy but it’s not yours either, because I broke it.“ Welcome to Lebanon’s reality! Welcome to the fractured, ungovernable Lebanon. No memory, no president, no power, no tourists! 

But let’s return to the MACAM, to Cesar Nammour and Gabriela Schaub. „What are your plans for 2015?“, I asked them. „With MACAM“, they replied, „we will enter the age of iron in 2015. We will have a competition and an exhibition that will feature Lebanese artists who have excelled in iron artworks.“ The plans don’t stop there: „beyond sculpture and installation art, another future projects is to open a new hall for Lebanese paintings and photography, to reach a wider public.“

As a rule, the Lebanese can’t agree on anything. They can’t agree on which lane to drive, or whether to leave the country or stay. Some want to smoke a thick cigar in bars and clubs while others want smoking banned in all public places. It would only be fitting if the Lebanese couldn’t agree on the significance of art. 

Cesar had the final word, and once again his idealistic side came through. „We established the museum with a deep belief in the positive role of art in a society“, he said. „MACAM aims at preserving the memory of art in Lebanon, as art is a unifying factor to its people.“

And unity is everything this country needs!

This post was originally published by Your Middle East online Media, here.



Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Only a union can save the Middle East

Turkey has been much criticized lately for its policies in the Middle East and for „not doing more“ in the fight against the Islamic State. One of the latest question marks over Turkey’s position came with President Erdogan’s speech at Marmara university on October 13, in which he denounced the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 that defines the current borders in the Levant. 

„Each conflict in this region has been designed a century ago“, Erdogan said, „it is our duty to stop this.“ What are Turkey’s ideas to stop the many conflicts that plague the Middle East? How can the Middle East walk out of the quagmire that seems to be its perennial fate? For Voix magazine, I spoke with Ceylan Ozbudak, a political analyst based in Istanbul. Ceylan is also a commentator on A9 TV and a regular contributor to Al Arabiya English.

Voix: What is Turkey's vision for the Middle East?

C.O.: The Arab World post World War II suffered either from fundamentalist traditions or from Marxism, both of which never permitted the people to live in a truly secular, democratic, libertarian and peaceful environment. By distancing itself from all kinds of fundamentalist influences, Turkey has realized a democratic conception of Islam that is far removed from radicalism and bigotry. 

While in the European Muslim societies we are seeing the discussion of whether or not Sharia courts should be allowed, Turkish Muslims were protesting a politician who commented on the décolleté of a TV presenter. Despite the negative propaganda by many Western media outlets: Turkey showcases a sort of Islamic understanding which is accepting and peaceful.

Turkey foresees a Middle East that is united on financial and political issues, which offers visa-free travel, free trade and equal rights for all. Turkey is proposing to form a Middle Eastern Union. What was possible for the European countries in the second half of the 20th century must be within reach of the Middle Eastern peoples today.

This is not Ottoman era thinking, this is contemporary Western-oriented thinking. We need to stop Balkanizing the Middle East. 

„Sometimes the dreams that come true are the dreams that we never even knew we had“, Alice Sebold writes in her book „The Lovely Bones“. And that’s how we must think about a future Middle East.

Voix: A Middle Eastern Union, ok. But how to get rid of all the violence and tension that plague the Middle East?

C.O.: Let’s not forget that the sectarian wars in Europe lasted for centuries. England and France fought (almost) forever. But when the time was ripe, when there was simply nothing more to lose, they decided to elevate each other in unity. This is the same ripe environment that we see in the Middle East right now.

Voix: What would be the concrete steps to get to a Middle Eastern Union? What’s your 7 step program?

C.O.: Seven steps, I don’t know. However Turkey has already started to take the initial steps. It lifted the visa obligation for more than 70 countries, among them Lebanon. We have been aspiring for a free-travel zone and this was the first and most important step.

Another step is the bonding power of the non-sectarians in the Middle East. Turkey proves to be far away from any form of sectarian rivalry, like many analysts try to paint it. Even as a NATO member, Turkey eased the sanctions of Iran, the fortress of Shia power. Since this non-sectarian vision is embodied in Turkey itself, it is easier to extrapolate this vision to other states. 

We in the Middle East are open to embrace a less rigid form of secularism, like the one that is dominant in the USA and in large parts of Europe. Most AKP leaders also support this form of secularism.

Voix: Every development starts with the economy. How to tackle the endemic economical crisis in the region?

C.0.: Arabs, Turks, Kurds and other groups in the region could find a relative peace in an ever closer union. After all, most of the problems of the Middle East - terrorism, poverty, unemployment, sectarianism, the refugee crisis, water shortages - require regional answers. No country can solve its problems on its own.

The union must start with the economy. As did the European Union when it first started out as the European coal and steel community. Only later it transformed into a political and social union.

The next step would be to organize the capabilities of the region for the best of everybody. For example, Egypt has low-cost labour but high youth unemployment. Neighboring Libya has excess capital, huge infrastructure projects and an insatiable demand for workers. Unfortunately the security situation in Libya is very bad today.

Turkey has the expertise to build airports, bridges and roads very fast. All these dots need connecting. At least $20bn of Gulf money has been pledged to Egypt for development in recent months but where is the long-term plan?

the environment is ripe for a Middle East Union

Voix: The Middle East already has a regional organization, the Arab League. Is there a future role for the Arab League?

The Arab League, the existing regional structure, does not have the credibility, capability or creativity to help these nations pull together because it rests on the fascist ideology of Pan-Arabism. Middle East is not only home to Arabs. We all own this place. In polls, most people in the Middle East call themselves Arab or Muslim before, say, Jordanian or Saudi. Pan-Islamic identity still has more resonance than national identity.

Therefore one of the next steps must be to make the vision of a Middle East Union a mainstream idea. And this step is in the making. Calls have been echoed by the Saudi king, the president of the United Arab Emirates, Turkey's prime minister, Jordan's monarch – and also by voices among Hamas, Egypt's Salafis or the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s no question for me that Israel and Armenia need to be part of this union as well.

Voix: Let’s go back to secularism. In its constitution Turkey defines itself as a secular state. Why doesn't Turkey act more decisively in favor of a "de-religionization" of the Middle Eastern conflicts?

C.O.: Where does Turkey’s ruling AK Party stand on the secularism issue? To answer this, we must distinguish between the two conceptions of secularism prevalent in contemporary Turkey. One may be called ‘assertive secularism’. Its ultimate goal is to privatize and individualize religion and to ban or limit its visibility in the public space. The other concept, ’passive secularism’, is prevalent in most Western democracies and implies state neutrality towards the various religions and allows the public visibility of religion.

The AKP’s ideology is in conformity with passive secularism, but not with an Islamist’s worldview which aims at Islamicizing the society by using the coercive power of the state.

On the other hand, the lack of religious identity will not necessarily bring peace to the region. Look at the brutality of the Baath regimes in the Middle East where the religious identities were oppressed by a leftist Baath mindset. 

Voix: But how does Turkey justify living the passive secularism at home yet nurturing the assertive secularism, even the Islamist approach, abroad, for instance when supporting the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Egypt?

C.O.: The Erdogan who stood in solidarity with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt after General Sisi’s coup was the same Erdogan who was shunned and criticized by the very same Muslim Brotherhood when he insisted on a secular-democratic constitution for Egypt. And it was also Erdogan who advised the MB to start wearing suits and ties if they want to be taken seriously as politicians.

Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood came at a time when all nations including the U.S. recognized them as a powerful government. I’m sure that you remember the TIME magazine’s cover stating that Mursi was now the most powerful leader in the Middle East. Turkey never went to that length.

When there was a military coup, Turkey opposed the toppling of a democratically elected government by the hands of a system that was no different than Mubarak. Turkey was not supporting the MB, but it was calling a coup a coup. 

So Turkey criticized the MB when they didn’t put together a secular and democratic constitution and Turkey criticized Sisi when he staged a coup. We always need to see things in a broader perspective.


Voix: Thank you, Ceylan, for this interview.

This post was originally published by Voix magazine, here

An alternative version of this post was published at Your Middle East online media, here



Thursday, November 13, 2014

Watch the fires burning in Kobani

Out of the 36 Chinese stratagems for ruse and tactics in warfare, there is one that I always particularly liked: watch the fires burning across the river.

The meaning of the stratagem is easy to decipher: when there are multiple combatants, let others fight one another until they are exhausted, then march in with a fresh force to win the final battle.

These days, the fires are burning in Kobani, a Kurdish city in Syria. Kobani, besieged by the hordes of the Islamic State (IS), is in danger of falling into the hands of the Jihadi fighters any day.

Kobani is a town in Syria right at the border with Turkey. The government of Turkish president Erdogan was therefore harshly criticized for not doing more to help the Kurdish defenders to ward off the charging fighters of the IS.

While Kobani is not the strategic place some commentators in Western media want it to be, it has become the symbol of the fight against the reign and the terror of the Islamic State. If we cannot beat them in Kobani, where can we?

But does everybody want to knock out the Islamic State, at least just now? There is a serious doubt. Rather it seems that the Islamic State is being instrumentalized by various powers inside and outside of the Middle East to do the job that these powers are not capable or willing to do themselves. IS is the useful tool in the hands of apprentices of sorcery.

This is not to say that the Islamic State doesn’t have a dynamic of its own. When we look at the narrative of the IS, Ceylan Özbudak, a political analyst based in Istanbul says, we see it basically built on two pillars: fabricated hadith of the orthodox Islamic texts and widespread grievances.

Grievances that were particularly felt among the Sunni population of Iraq. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Nouri al-Maliki had established an authoritarian regime himself, supported by Iran and favoring the Shia share of the Iraqi people.

The Sunni tribes of Iraq might not especially like the ideology and the brutality of the IS fighters. But when they helped to get rid of al-Maliki, this was just fine. Also in the Anbar province of Iraq, the Chinese stratagems had been studied.

the fires are burning: in Kobani

However, the instrumentalization of the IS goes further. Saudi Arabia and Qatar first financed them and now use them. With Riyadh and Doha remaining silent, IS fights and kills the Shia wherever they meet them. If IS should also be strong enough to tackle and topple Bashar al-Assad, this would be even better.

It very much looks like Turkey exploits the Islamic State as well. Have them fight the Kurds, in particular the PKK, Turkey’s nemesis, and their Syrian brothers, the PYD, which both are now actively engaged in Kobani, so Turkey can spare its own efforts.

As with many others, Bashar al-Assad also fell out of favor with Erdogan. Sending an IS force, acting out of a hard won stronghold in Kobani, after Assad seems like an interesting scenario. And then have the two battle it out for the control of the Syrian heartland.

In uninformed Western media the Kurds are often depicted as a homogenous entity. They are not. The Kurdistan doesn’t exist. The Kurds are a very fractured people, splattered across several states, speaking different languages and pursuing diverse interests.

Who in Kurdistan is fighting the Islamic State? It depends on whom in Kurdistan the IS is attacking. Masoud Barzani, the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region, may fear the IS and will fight it wherever he can and must. But he fears the PKK, the political and military representatives of Turkish Kurdistan, even more. So when IS fights the PKK in Kobani, Barzani is not too eager to come to their rescue.

Let’s talk about the Western powers, finally. Of course nobody in Washington, Paris or London likes the Islamic State. These countries, together with Canada and the rest of the European countries, are also very much concerned about their citizens joining IS in Syria and Iraq and later returning to their home countries to commit terrorist attacks like the one in Ottawa last week.

However many of these countries also share common interests with the Islamic State. Removing Assad is on everybody’s wish list. The 5+1 among these countries were not too unhappy when IS taught al-Maliki and the Iranians a lesson. Any leverage to get Teheran to an easier yes in the nuclear negotiations is a good leverage.

While the Marxist-Leninists of the PKK are certainly applauded for bravely resisting the IS in Kobani, they cannot hope to have many friends within the administration of any United States’ president.

If we just could manage the Islamic State like a puppet on a string, I hear them say in Washington. Faustian approaches have been tried before. If we just could support the Kurdish fighters in Kobani a little - just as much as it is needed to silence our critics from the humanitarian camp.

And if we could air strike the IS fighters outside Kobani just a little - so they will be bogged down, slowed down, but not completely stopped. Then the fire in Kobani will continue burning and the Chinese stratagem would be executed in an almost unprecedented beauty. 

striking the IS fighters just a little: in Kobani

Because the American strategy for the Middle East is fixed, as George Friedman layed out in a recent analysis for Stratfor. „Allow powers in the region to compete and balance against each other.“ Friedman explained. „When that fails, intervene with as little force and risks as possible. For example, the conflict between Iran and Iraq canceled out two rising powers until the war ended. Then Iraq invaded Kuwait and threatened the overturn the balance of power in the region. The result was Desert Storm.“

The Islamic State is not a given course of history but the consequence and the result of many flawed policies in the Middle East. No one wants IS to be really strong. But many like them to be strong just a little.

Who’s with whom, who is against whom, openly, tacitly: Kobani shows the real realities of the Middle East. This is a region with no pity. There are no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, only permanent interests.

It’s obvious that the Islamic State’s project is inherently doomed to fail. Not least because controlling and administering large swaths of land is not a core competence of a terrorist group.

But maybe the strategists in Riyadh and Washington have placed their bets without taking the devil into account. The main fighters of IS are survivors of a combat Darwinism that began in Iraq in 2003. They are hard to kill. And maybe they will be survivors once more, not getting exhausted and die as the strategy wants them to become.

And perhaps in the end the Islamic State will be gaining an unplanned momentum and the fire will burn those who have been watching it burn for too long. It will still be day in Washington and Paris. It may get darker in Ankara and Riyadh. But it will mean good night in Damascus, Bagdad and Mosul.

This post was originally published by Your Middle East online Media, here.



Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Funkytown Beirut: The Middle East needs a Pop Art break!

I recently published two articles describing the work, art and ideas of Lebanon's pop art designer Rana Salam. 

Article one was published by Your Middle East, here. And article two was published by Voix magazine, here.

So here's the Your Middle East version:

When I leave my Lebanese apartment last summer to attend Rana Salam’s pop art workshop in Beirut, I feel the anxieties that Western Europeans in Lebanon often suffer from: will I be on time? Will I find the location in difficult to navigate Beirut? Will I find a parking spot? Will I have enough fuel for the trip?

When I finally enter Rana’s design studio in Achrafieh, my stress is immediately relieved. I step into a world of objects, colors and shapes, and in the middle of it is Rana Salam, the literal embodiment of her world: energetic, colorful and open to welcome anything and anybody in her realm.

Rana Salam is Beirut’s best known graphic designer. After having lived abroad for quite some time, studying at the Royal College of Art in London, she moved back to Lebanon in 2010. 

Rana became famous for working with popular Arab icons and Islamic patterns. Her style is unique. She adds new colors, combines the objects with other elements and applies her designs - pop art that is - to stools, makeup boxes, aprons and restaurants in need of a rebranding. 

„In my workshop“, Rana begins her program, „I will reveal all my secrets.“ „Designing is like cooking“, she goes on, „you start with the ingredients.“

Actually, Rana’s secrets start with something each of us can do: looking. „You have to see the beauty in things“, she declares. Rana is always on the lookout for beautiful things, and according to her definition, there are many. She discovers and buys objects almost by the hundreds, for instant use or to be used sometimes later.

don't think too much; play!: Rana Salam

Rana’s favorite word is funky. Everything is funky, anything has the ability to be funky. Rana wants to create funky objects. „How do you achieve this?“, she is asked. „It’s observation followed by application“, Rana explains the designing process and then reveals another of her secrets: „don’t think too much; play!“

And playing I truly try, as much as my natural competences allow it. I browse through the numerous magazines lying around on the tables and on the floor to find one funky object that I can complement with another funky object from another magazine to develop my own style of pop art. 

It sounds like an easy thing to do. But don’t be deceived by the casual look that Rana’s designs often have. It takes hard work and the eye of a master to make designs look as easy and funky as Rana does.

„Since nothing is non-political in the Middle East“, I ask Rana when I have time to chat with her, „what is the political message behind your work?“ „I want to change the perception of the Middle East through the power of design“, she replies, getting very serious. And indeed! The contrast between the bearded, dark guys of the Islamic State and the vivid Arab pop art of Rana Salam couldn’t be starker. 

Rana’s workshop is aptly called ‚cut and paste‘. But instead of going back to my cutting and pasting, which seems to be something my workshop companions are much more skilled for, I keep interviewing Rana. She runs her workshop on a rather long leash.

revealing all her secrets

„Do you see yourself as an artist or as a designer? Is there a difference?“

„I am a designer“, Rana tells me, „but many people like to label me as an artist. I love design as it is a great form of visual communication in which I can apply my ideas on any surface. Art is very personal and sometimes it does not need to say anything.“

„What is the relationship between design and business?“, I keep asking. „Is the art of design appropriately used when it is simply helping to sell banal consumer goods like clothes from H&M and lipsticks from Bassam Fattouh?“

Rana’s answer is well considered. „Design is great when it is being used well for a commercial purpose“, she says. „If a designer is good at branding, when she or he knows how to manipulate or serve a specific market, they will surely make money for their clients.“

And then Rana talks again about the difference between art and design. „Art is far more limiting when we speak of commercial use“, she explains. „Design is a great form of ‚art‘ that becomes accessible to all.“

With my last question, I am out to test Rana’s quick-wittedness. „How do you react when people say that your designs are brilliant, but boy, $60 for a set of Um Kulthum coasters, that’s pricey?“

Rana’s answer comes with a laughter, as quick and witty as I had expected it: „I tell them to piss off!“

„Of course not“, Rana rapidly softens her statement, „I’m just kidding“. „You see“, she says, „people will pay that $60 when a customer values what I do. A coaster is a coaster is a coaster. It’s the idea that people buy. Not the coaster.“

In the meantime, Rana’s workshop has come to an end. Everybody is finishing their first attempts at Lebanese pop art, Rana Salam style. The workshop hasn’t changed my view of the Middle East - I already knew that the region is much more diverse than what is reported in the news - but hopefully Rana’s products and designs will do this trick for the general public in the years to come.

Just when I am about to leave Rana’s studio, I spot „Funkytown“, the Lipps, Inc. disco record from 1979, placed on a shelf left of the entrance door. I take a closer look. How fitting is this? Just how funky is this!

Lipps, Inc.: FUNKYTOWN!

and here's the Voix magazine version. Can you tell the difference?

Andy Warhol, in an interview with Art News in 1963: Someone said that Brecht wanted everybody to think alike. I want everybody to think alike. Brecht wanted to do it through communism. I think everybody should be a machine. I think everybody should like everybody.

Art News: Is that what Pop Art is all about?

Andy Warhol: Yes. It’s liking things.

When I leave my Lebanese apartment last summer to attend Rana Salam’s pop art workshop in Beirut, I feel the anxieties that Western Europeans in Lebanon often suffer from: will I be on time? Will I find the location in difficult to navigate Beirut? Will I find a parking spot?

As soon as I enter Rana’s design studio in Achrafieh, my stress is relieved. I step into a world of objects, colors and shapes, and in the middle of it is Rana Salam, the literal embodiment of her world: energetic, colorful and open to welcome anything and anybody in her realm.

Rana Salam is Beirut’s best known graphic designer. After having studied at the Royal College of Art in London, she lived abroad for many years before moving back to Lebanon in 2010. 

Rana became famous for working with popular Arab icons and Islamic motives. Her style is unique. She adds new colors, combines the objects with other elements and applies her designs - pop art that is - to coffee tables, makeup boxes, aprons and restaurants in need of a rebranding. 

„In my workshop“, Rana begins her program, „I will reveal all my secrets.“ „Designing is like cooking“, she goes on, „you start with the ingredients.“

you have to see the beauty in things: Rana Salam

Actually, Rana’s secrets start with something each of us can do: looking. Rana is always on the lookout for beautiful things, and according to her definition, there are many. She discovers and buys objects almost by the hundreds, for instant use or to be used sometimes later.

„You have to see the beauty in things.“

Rana’s favorite word is funky. Everything is funky, anything has the ability to be funky. Rana aims to create funky objects and uses the simplicity of Islamic patterns as the basic ingredient.

„How do you achieve the funkiness?“, she is asked. „It’s observation followed by application“, Rana explains the designing process and then reveals another of her secrets: „don’t think too much; play!“

And playing I truly try, as much as my natural skills allow it. I browse through the numerous magazines lying around on the tables and on the floor to find one funky object that I can complement with another funky object from another magazine to develop my own style of pop art. 

It sounds like an easy thing to do. But don’t be deceived by the casual look that Rana’s designs often have. It takes hard work and the eye of a master to make designs look as easy and funky as Rana does.

With her creations Rana taps into the collective subconscious of the Arab nation. It often starts with Egypt - her films, her actors and actresses, Um Kulthum and Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nostalgia sells. It’s emotional. However, a designer must be careful how he or she arabizes an object without milking the Islamic art, Rana says.

„Since nothing is non-political in the Middle East“, I ask Rana when she and I have time to chat, „what is the political message behind your work?“ „I want to change the perception of the Middle East through the power of design“, she replies, getting very serious. And indeed! The contrast between the bearded, dark guys of the Islamic State and the vivid Arab pop art of Rana Salam couldn’t be starker. 

Rana’s book from 2008, „the secret life of Syrian lingerie“, catches my eye. I start turning the pages. Now here’s a secret and something to look at! I had no idea that the world’s most outrageous and exuberant women’s underwear was sold in Damascus’ souks.

Does Asma al-Assad also sport this risqué lingerie, I wonder, even during the times of a civil war? Or precisely because? Then my thoughts return to Beirut: how funky would an iPhone cover designed after Syrian bras and panties be?

tapping into the collective subconscious of the Arab nation: Rana Salam

Rana runs her workshop on a rather long leash. „Do you see yourself as an artist or as a designer? Is there a difference?“, I continue the interview.

„I am a designer“, Rana tells me, „but many people like to label me as an artist. I love design as it is a great form of visual communication in which I can apply my ideas on any surface. Art is very personal and sometimes it does not need to say anything.“

Still, I have some doubts. „Is the art of design appropriately used when it is simply helping to sell banal consumer goods like clothes from H&M and lipsticks from Bassam Fattouh?“

Rana’s answer is well considered. „Design is great when it is being used well for a commercial purpose“, she says. And then she talks again about the difference between art and design. „Art is far more limiting when we speak of commercial use“, she explains. „Design is a great form of ‚art‘ that becomes accessible to all.“

With my last question, I am out to test Rana’s quick-wittedness. „How do you react when people say that your designs are brilliant, but boy, $60 for a set of Um Kulthum coasters, that’s pricey?“

Rana’s answer comes with a laughter, as quick and witty as I had expected it: „I tell them to piss off!“

„Of course not“, Rana rapidly softens her statement, „I’m just kidding“. „You see“, she says, „people will pay that $60 when a customer values what I do. A coaster is a coaster is a coaster. It’s the idea that people buy. Not the coaster.“

In the meantime, Rana’s workshop has come to an end. Everybody is finishing their first attempts at Lebanese pop art, Rana Salam style.

The workshop hasn’t changed my view of the Middle East. It didn’t need to. Except for the Syrian lingerie, I already knew that the region is much more diverse than what is reported in the news. But hopefully Rana’s products and designs will do this trick for the general public in the years to come. The Middle East desperately needs a pop art break.



Wednesday, September 17, 2014

I forgot about my dreams: a Palestinian refugee in Syria tells her story

While the world’s attention is focused on Iraq again, with the Islamic State being the commonly agreed evil to be destroyed, the civil war in Syria is far from being over. The fight is in its fourth year and has entered a stalemate type of situation where none of the waring factions can win or lose. 

In many conflicts in the Middle East, Palestinian refugees suffer particularly from conflicts forced upon them. In Syria they risk being crushed between Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the many groups opposing him or battling each other. 

How does one live under these circumstances? How does one survive? I was able to conduct an interview with Wardeh, a Palestinian student who lives with her family near Damascus. Here is what she told me.

Voix magazine: who are you?

Wardeh: I am 22 years old and I study journalism at Damascus University. I wanted to study „media“ since I was 14 and I had plans for a career in radio or TV.

In 2009, the Damascus University established a new college, the media faculty, and I signed up for their program. The faculty had a fully equipped building; however the building was soon taken over by a national TV channel, leaving the students with no tools. Therefore we didn’t have any practical training at all. Many lessons were also cancelled because of a national holiday or a supporting march for the regime.

What are your interests in life?

I love reading long novels, they help me to get distracted from reality. Nowadays I don’t read a lot, and if I do it’s mostly borrowed books or pdf files. We left our home in July of 2012 because of the war. Back home, we had a great selection of books, but we had to leave everything behind. It’s hard to find a good book now.

I love to try out everything. I took music classes, then I started to study Spanish, I completed six courses. However when the crisis began, the Instituto Cervantes closed and I had to stop studying. 

There is a shelter nearby where I live, with IDPs (internally displaced people). I go there every now and then to give English classes, for the kids, for the teenagers and even for the men. 

Where do you live?

Until 2012 I lived near Yarmouk. The Palestinian refugee camp was only a seven minutes walk away from my house. Everything I did, everybody I knew was inside the camp. You would find everything that you needed at Yarmouk, from the needle to the fridge. People from all over Damascus came to Yarmouk to do their shopping. Yarmouk was full of life. In hindsight, Yarmouk was like heaven then.

What happened?

One day in July of 2012 my dad told us that we had to leave our house tomorrow and move to Yarmouk. He didn’t say why, but then we realized that everybody in our building already had left, except us. 

I spent all night walking around the house, looking at every corner of it. I never thought that this would be my last hours in this house. I felt so much hate inside me and I didn’t even know what to pack. I expected that after a couple of days we will find out that nothing had happened and that we will return.

My dad picked us up at 3pm, we only carried a few bags and we went to my grandfather’s house inside Yarmouk. Two hours later a military operation started in our neighborhood.

one day, some day, nothing will remain the same: Yarmouk Camp

How was life in Yarmouk in 2012?

I only lived in Yarmouk for five months. After that we had to leave and we moved out of the camp again. During the five months, Yarmouk had its own share of bad times; there were many mortar shellings and many lives were lost.

Many people were staying inside the camp all day long. They were afraid to go out. I left the camp almost every day to go to university. It was my way of escaping. It was very emotional to see Yarmouk in so much pain and nobody could do anything against it.

Why did you leave Yarmouk after five months?

On December 15, 2012, I posted on my Facebook site, „one day, some day, nothing will remain the same“. I don’t remember what I was thinking when I posted it. It is really strange, because what happened the next day changed everything and nothing remained to same.

On December 16, the situation in Yarmouk got worse. Suddenly, without any previous warning, the Syrian regime started to strike Yarmouk from the air. They hit a street near the UNRWA school and a mosque was also hit. 

The reason for this was the Free Syrian Army that had entered the camp. They said that they would only stay for a few days, all they needed was a passage to Damascus. The few days became 18 months and they are still here!

But your family was able to leave Yarmouk, right?

We left on December 19, 2012, after three days of air strikes and fighting. We left by running under bullets. 

When I left my house for the first time, I wished that my bag was as big as my house so I could carry everything with me. The second time, when we had to leave Yarmouk, all things had lost their values and I didn’t feel like I wanted to carry anything with me.

During the three days that we stayed in Yarmouk under the bombs, my mother gave us „the talk“. She said that we had to be ready for everything. Whatever happens, we should keep going, even if one of us gets hurt. It’s okay to leave this person behind and keep going.

That talk… that talk gave me that feeling in my throat… and now I am feeling it again… I cried alone and cursed the Free Syrian Army and the regime for making innocent people going through all this hell.

How do you live now? 

After Yarmouk, we rented a house in a good, peaceful area. The house was in a very bad condition, so luckily after three months we were able to move to a better house.

Everybody here survives day by day, we spend less time thinking about the coming days and the future. I stopped watching the news on Syria long time ago. We are living the news, right? When something happens you will hear it from the people around you or you will see it on Facebook.

How do the Palestinians deal with the civil war in Syria?

They deal with it according to what happens in their area. Not all the Palestinians live in Yarmouk camp. Many people believed that they would be safe for ever as we also believed when living in Yarmouk. But many people have fled now, to a safer city or a safer area, or even abroad when they had the chance.

From day one, my dad was very clear with us. Don’t let anybody know what you really think, he said, don’t trust anybody, and pray to God to protect Syria.

The Palestinians look trapped between all fronts in the Middle East. What are your thoughts on this?

As I grew up I learned that nobody is on our side.

Palestinians never did anything wrong to be treated this way. I don’t know why these Arabic countries don’t facilitate things for us. Why can Syrians go to Lebanon, Jordan or Turkey during the war while the Palestinians haven’t access to anywhere?

The whole situation gives me pain, a lot of pain. Why do the Palestinians have to go through this all of their lives? Wherever we go we are faced with many obstacles.

Only a small example: 1 kg of sugar costs 150 Syrian pounds in Damascus. When food aid gets into Yarmouk, 1 kg of sugar is sold for 700 Syrian pounds. And once the food aid stops, shops in areas around Yarmouk will sell 1 kg of sugar for 1700 Syrian pounds!! Why this treatment? I don’t know.

What are your dreams for the future?

Future? I guess that this question should be asked in the past tense. We all had big dreams: to get the best education, the find the best job, to make money and to get married.

When the war started, when people had to leave their houses, you forgot about all of your old dreams and you lived with one dream and one plan only. My dream is to go back to my house, I am curious to see what is left.


My plan for the future is to leave Syria and go somewhere where I can get a better education, where I will have more chances and where I can live the life we deserve.

This post was first published at Voix magazine, here