What Is That and between Arab Women and Video? The Case of Beirut
For Western scholars and artists, the phrase "women and video" brings to mind the heady days of feminist video production in North American (as well as European and Australian) cities in the early 1970s. Compared to film, the newly available medium was cheap and portable, did not require a crew, could (in principle) be widely distributed, and, most importantly, was not institutionalized and thus already controlled by men. Individually and collectively, women took up video for personal expression (artists like Joan Jonas, Ardele Lister, Lisa Steele, and Hannah Wilke), formal experimentation (signal-disturbers like Carol Goss and Steina Vasulka), and activism (groups like New York Newsreel, Reel Feelings in Vancouver, and the National Film Board's Challenge for Change program). Women produced a vast and varied body of work characterized by a kind of organic relationship between the materiality of the medium and its expressive and political properties. The addition of "women and video" equaled a movement: feminist video.
Thirty years later, for this dossier on women and video, I've undertaken to ask whether the conjunction "women and video" designates a similar movement in the Arab world. 1 What is the nature of the and in "Arab women and video"? Under pressure, this question generates a hailstorm of other ands: women and video, women and art; video and cinema, video and television, video and art; women and the Arab world, artists and the Arab world, Arab artists and the West; video and self-expression, video and politics, art and politics. My task became to press each of these conjunctions to see which yielded the most generative equation in turn.
Having heard much about the lively postwar independent media production scene in Beirut, I came to see it for myself during a year-long stay beginning August 2002. Stimulated by the powerful films and videos of the Lebanese and Arab diasporas, I wanted to learn what this production is like at the source. Watching the work and talking with artists and media organizers here, I began to find that, insofar as we continue to ask how the conjunction andis deployed in "Arab women and video," the answer seems to be: by the West. Arab women videomakers work along what we might call first-wave feminist lines mainly for outside funders and outside audiences. When they can produce with relative autonomy, Arab women videomakers take a situated approach in which gender, if it is a topic at all, remains entangled with other issues.
Still the question generates an entry to the scene of independent media production (much of which is in video formats) in the Arab world, to its sources of vitality, and to its interesting and gendered relationship to Western supporters and audiences. Currently Beirut is the only Arab city that has the critical mass of artists, activists, organizations, equipment, capital, and audience for a full-fledged local video scene.
Finally, almost all Arab independent media is what I have termed intercultural, with the local being inextricable from the global and the diasporan. 2 I shall suggest that autonomy for independent videomakers, both women and men, occurs in a delicate relationship between local and foreign interests. Beirut offers a possible model of how an independent video scene might develop in other Arab cities. At the same time, the specificity of Beirut video emphasizes that it is important not to impose Western ideas of modernism and modernity on Arab art. The work produced within what have been called "Arab modernities" 3 manifests constellations of formal properties and social interventions that are particular to country, period, and local concerns.
Video has always been a homeless medium and never easy to define. For the purposes of this essay I define it as independent work using the video medium that cannot be entirely subsumed under theatrical cinema, commercial television, or visual art. We shall see that even this negative definition is troubled by the material circumstances of video production in the Arab world.
How Do Arab Women Artists Arrive at Video?
Steina Vasulka categorizes the people who first engaged with video in North America as filmmakers using video as a substitute, artists based in other media, activists, and people interested in video as video. 4 In the Arab world at present, rather different groups have happened upon video in a slightly different manner. Beirut, which will be my focus, is certainly atypical given its combination of relative wealth, high degree of Westernization, large Christian population, and relative liberalism even in increasingly fundamentalist times. Nevertheless, I assume that other Arab cities, though more poor or more conservative, and women in these cities in particular, will eventually catch up with video through one or more of the avenues I describe below.
Many people from Arab countries, perhaps even the majority, receive at least some of their professional media training overseas at present. Lebanon has "indigenized" training in cinema, television, art, and video, so its example allows me to concentrate on training in the Arab world itself.
The most radical social critics in Arab countries in the twentieth century were poets and novelists. Many of these participated in progressive politics, including socialist and feminist movements, at great personal risk. 5 They debated how to develop formal means and means of distribution that would be appropriate to their local circumstances. 6 Although many Arab filmmakers began as writers, including the Maghrebi women Assia Djebar, Farida Ben Lyazid, and Néjia Ben Mabrouk, the power of poetry suggests a correlation between the lightness of formal means and the ability to intervene in social situations. As video becomes more accessible, it claims the activist ancestry of the pen: an agile, portable, and, if necessary, disposable medium that condenses and expresses political situations in a personal voice.
There is a long tradition of women working in the visual arts in the Arab world. Here I mean visual art on the Western fine art model: needless to say, Arab women have been experts at traditional craft forms for millennia, but the formal introduction of Western art can be dated to 1908, when the first school of the fine arts in the Arab world was founded in Cairo. Art historians Wijdan Ali and Salwa Nashashibi, surveying schools, galleries, state support, and other art institutions in Arab countries, show that women have been integrated from the earliest days in Arab art institutions, especially in Egypt and Iraq, as artists, art teachers, curators, and employees of state arts organizations (70-91). In many Arab countries it is not difficult for women to circulate in the art world because, Nashashibi suggests, art is considered an innocuous career. 7
It is a postcolonial irony that art practice in the Arab world developed
in the twentieth century on a conservative, European academic model just
as artists in the West were abandoning that model. Only recently are Arab
artists who work in Euro-originated media moving away from painting,
drawing, and sculpture and catching up to the international "biennale"
style of conceptual, video, and installation art. The most celebrated
of all Arab women visual artists, and perhaps of all Arab artists,
is the Palestinian Mona Hatoum, who lives in London, circulates in the
international art world, and uses video in the context of installation
Given the expense of video installation, Hatoum's superb oeuvre, like
that of other Western-based conceptual artists of Arab descent such as
Jamelie Hassan, could have been produced only in exile.
University art departments are beginning to train artists in contemporary international forms. At the College of Fine Art in Alexandria, two women painters have also worked in video installation. 8 Hadel Nazmy, who studied at Alexandria University and briefly in Stockholm, creates video installations and performances dealing with language. As part of a week-long performance at Cairo's Townhouse Gallery in 2002 titled "Personal Diary in Desolate Town," Nazmy struggled to converse with a Sudanese artist in their different Arabic dialects, inscribed a powerful diary-poem on the walls, and used video to play back her private speech. 9 Rehab El Sadek produced two videos, one of which she describes as feminist, but eventually rejected video for sculpture. She writes, "I stopped working with videos cause it took my energy away. I used to use my own hands with my brain." 10 While Nazmy remains enthusiastic about video, both artists have expressed frustration with the need to work with an editor. This is understandable, as it can be frustrating to try to communicate to another person aesthetic distinctions as fine as fractions of a second.
In Beirut, Nadine Touma, an artist who studied at Wellesley College, uses video to complement performance, installation, and activist work. Touma is one of a few Lebanese women videomakers who have explored gender. Interestingly, in a recent work she used the technology not of video but of a greengrocer's truck and several kilos of marzipan. "Ode to Rhinos" sweetly critiqued the epidemic of plastic surgery among young Lebanese women desperate for Western-looking noses. Touma drove the borrowed truck "Sousou la Coquette" around Beirut offering for sale not fruit but marzipan noses in "ethnic" shapes. Over the truck's megaphone (which usually alerts customers what vegetables are for sale) Touma "incit[ed] people to fight the monolithic Lebanese nose—with its political and social implications—and much more." 11
The examples of El Sadek and Touma suggest that visual artists have a take-it-or-leave-it attitude to the video medium, which is a passport to international art circles yet technically and financially cumbersome. Working in video installation limits exhibition to those venues that can house the work, and in turn limits the local audience. The decision to return to sculpture or performance is continuous with twentieth-century Arab practices (and indeed with movements like arte poveraand Fluxus) where the most radical interventions took simple, inexpensive, locally accessible forms. Thus we may be more likely to find the Arab equivalent of what "women and video" meant in North America in the 1970s in contemporary women's painting, poetry, or performance than in the still-expensive medium of video.
Training in filmmaking is rare and costly. Several universities and colleges offer degrees in cinema and television, including six in Lebanon, where some graduation projects are realized on film. Most Arab women who make 35mm narrative feature films, such as the Moroccan Farida Ben Lyazid, the Tunisian Nadia Fares, and the Lebanese Randa Chahal Sabbagh, trained and work overseas. But for the most part, few people in Arab countries have access to the technology, training, and funds for film production. Also, unlike the visual art world, the film industry with its immoral associations is generally not considered an acceptable place for Arab women, as critic and historian Viola Shafik points out. However, she adds, many Arab women do work as screenwriters, documentarists, and television directors, or approach cinema from a background as writers. 12 These two factors suggest that it is easier for women to approach cinema through the medium of video, which is cheaper than film and "below the radar" of the film industry. Nevertheless, many people who make video refer to themselves as filmmakers, implying that they don't intend to stay below the radar forever.
Vasulka did not include the category of television in her list of influences on early North American video work, but in Lebanon and the occupied territories, television has been the springboard for many independent video artists. Akram Zaatari writes that many media producers in Beirut received their formative training in the 1980s during the civil war. Foreign news agencies based in Beirut hired young Lebanese camerapeople to shoot in the dangerous parts of the city. "These agencies, acting like small production units, provided the market with features and news footage. But most importantly, they furnished the city with a simple infrastructure," which developed into the communication program at the Lebanese American University. 13 No Lebanese women videomakers emerged directly from these wartime production units (although Lebanese journalist Jocelyne Saab was already well established in France at the time), but many benefit from the new production infrastructure. Similarly, many Palestinian film- and videomakers received their on-the-ground training shooting for the Associated Press during the first intifada. At least one is a woman, Suheir Ismail from the Deheishe refugee camp, who is now a documentary filmmaker. 14 The Palestinian videomaker Azza El-Hassan studied in Scotland and then worked for various Arab satellite stations. 15
Zaatari describes a surge of video production tied to postwar reconstruction in Lebanon. Future TV, founded in 1993 (and owned by current prime minister Rafik Hariri), "recruits young people from theater, film, advertising, and graphic design." 16 Future TV, as well as Tele-Liban and LBC, occasionally sponsors independent production, but this work is rarely broadcast. Instead a new generation of television workers make independent work on their own time.
Arab television is a good place to get training but not to show one's work. Palestinian American documentarist Mai Masri, whose works have been broadcast internationally, says that Arab satellites have never supported Arab filmmakers. "There's an Arab complex: when you become successful in the West, suddenly they acknowledge you." 17 A rare countercurrent of television-supported video is currently taking place in Dubai. The satellite channel MBC (Middle East Broadcasting Company) and its new news affiliate Arabiya have engaged a subsidiary company, O3, to acquire, produce, and commission documentaries that focus on the Middle East. O3's programmers are construing documentary broadly, to include quite experimental works, and its six current commissions include the work of two women, El-Hassan and the Lebanese Lamia Joreige. 18 O3's mandate looks promising for Arab independent video in general and women videomakers in particular, given their strong representation in this current group. But more established documentarists reject O3's advances. Masri says that at first she was glad to hear that there was "a serious effort to set up a channel that would screen independent Arab filmmakers' work. But then we were disappointed at the terms they were proposing: unlimited satellite rights for ten years for the whole world and a low price. Many of the more established filmmakers felt these terms were exploitative and proposed amendments. We are still waiting for an answer from the channel." 19
Yet imagine what satellite subscribers may see when they momentarily surf away from Al Jazeera. An intimate, almost imageless interview with former prisoners of the horrific Khiam detention center, who kept sane by fashioning objects like rosaries and pencils: Khiam (Lebanon, 2000), by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige. 20 A dreamy, quirky documentary about the defunct Lebanese railway: Train/Trains (Lebanon, 1998), by Rania Stephan. A deconstructive and homoerotic portrait of the Armenian Egyptian photographer Van Leo: Her + Him Van Leo (Lebanon, 2002), by Akram Zaatari.
As I will discuss in the next section, the Arab world witnesses plenty of imported activism. Grassroots activism, however, is rare. Perhaps the only local Arab media organization with a distinctly activist mandate is Beirut DC (Beirut Development and Cinema). The passionate (and exhausted) founders of this five-year-old video production organization, Dmitri Khodr, Mohamad Soueid, Hania Mroué, and current director Eliane Raheb, have backgrounds in development and human rights work. Its mission is to decolonize the screen, represent marginalized people, and recognize media makers' creativity and humanity as undervalued resources. Thus the work Beirut DC sponsors is both activist and personal.
Video As Video
Video as video—not as cinema, television, or an extension of visual art—has been introduced by two bootstrapping interventions in Lebanon in the last ten years. Concerted efforts to involve artists trained in other media, as well as non-artists, and to involve women, these projects attempted to create a video art scene (almost) ex nihilo. In 1992 two video artists, the Lebanese Canadian Jayce Salloum and the Lebanese American Walid Ra'ad, visited Beirut with a portable editing suite and a Hi-8 camera and offered a workshop for artists and writers to develop independent video projects.
In 2001 Akram Zaatari and Mahmoud Hojeij organized a similar project with a pan-Arab focus, "Transit Visa." Recognizing that few artists in the Arab world have access to video, Zaatari and Hojeij tracked down nine young Arab artists who they hoped might discover an affinity for the medium and invited them to Beirut for a week of meetings, screenings, video training, and video production. The four women included Mais Darwazeh, a Jordanian studying interior design; the Syrian Lubna Haddad, a student of theater and French literature; Farah Dakhlallah, a Lebanese studying film at FEMIS in France; and Ghazel, who, as an established Iranian video artist, seemed an odd fit. While the participants in Transit Visa produced one-minute videos during the week, what is most fascinating about the project is its forced propagation of a video scene, whose first tiny sproutings are well documented in four documentaries by the organizers and a book. 21
Both projects generated works that are comfortably within an international style of video art—a hybrid of critical documentary, experimental video, and personal video—yet are also strikingly inventive. In Transit Visa's documentation video Welcome (dir. Mahmoud Hojeij, Lebanon, 2001), for example, artists are asked to write names of cities on their bodies and explain why they associate, say, Damascus with the belly and London with the spine. Video as video has also been established by artist and writer Jalal Toufic, as a degree program at Kaslik University, Video Studies.
What Is That and? Western Feminism and Foreign Funding
In recent years, the intersecting concerns of Western feminism and Western economic and nongovernmental organizations have resulted in a wave of interest in "empowering" Arab women. These projects often miss their mark, and Western feminism is deemed "maternalistic" in its misrecognition of the interests of Third World women.
Western feminism is strongly based in a notion of individual sovereignty and identity. Identity politics begins with the individual, including the individual body, and in principle moves through a rigorous analytical process to understand how family, society, economy, and legal structures inscribe that body. However, I would argue that many feminist critiques fail to move beyond the body. Hence the outrage at cultural practices whose impact is felt directly on the body, such as the resurgence of hijab or veiling across the Muslim world, the rare but in some places legal practice of polygamy, the prohibition on driving for Saudi women, and female genital cutting in rural, often Muslim, regions of African countries. In focusing on these practices Western activists are just not doing their homework; doing so would link such practices, and the religious fundamentalisms that underlie them, to tradition, education (or lack thereof), poverty, international politics, and the neocolonialist global economy.
A little bit of study shows that Western-style identity politics simply cannot be exported. As Inderpal Grewal writes, we must ask "whether women in many parts of the world can be seen as autonomous individuals outside the structure of the family or whether the problem of their oppression can be addressed by attacking the very families that support many women." 22 And as other feminists argue, interventions in the Third World that divide women from men are both disrespectful and destructive. 23
These feminist debates are not only academic, for they intersect with and support the funding priorities of the World Bank, UNESCO, and nongovernmental organizations. The World Bank increased its attention to Third World women after it became apparent that women, who bore the major burden of bank-imposed austerity measures in the 1980s, were also great economic resources in Third World countries. Economist Sophie Bessis argues that the World Bank deploys an instrumental feminism, simply because investing in women is profitable. She argues that the bank's new focus on gender is misguided: "Placing the emphasis on gender depoliticizes searing questions of social inequality and conflict, and breaks down notions of solidarity based less on gender than on social class." 24 Such critiques argue againstsingling out women for particular concern.
At present, foreign coproduction is essential for noncommercial productions using a considerable budget in most parts of the Arab world. 25 Foreign funding politics insert a very particular andbetween Arab women and video. Notions that oppressed Arab women must be saved from oriental patriarchy in general and Islamic patriarchy in particular inform the funding priorities, content, titles, and marketing strategies of productions. Arab women mediamakers may package work for export in an act of preemptive self-Orientalism 26 intended to meet the interests of an outside audience. Thus many Arab women videomakers living in the Arab world or diaspora are solicited to make works that "give voice" to Arab women presumed to be voiceless (as in Johns Hopkins University's "Arab Women Speak Out" program of 1997). And of course, foreign television is endlessly interested in the hijab or veil, one example being the 1994 series Women of Islam: The Veil and the Republicthat French-born, Algerian-rooted Yamina Benguigui made for the French television channel Canal+. In Egypt, as Viola Shafik shows, the increasing number of women videomakers results directly from foreign NGO funding. With the retreat of the Egyptian public sector, it is organizations such as UNICEF and the Ford Foundation that support documentary production. The topics that interest them include female illiteracy, in Nabiha Lutfi's Where To?(Lebanon, 1991); child labor, in Taghrid Al-Asfuri's Daily Bread (Lebanon, 1995); and women in politics, in Attiat al-Abnoudi's Days of Democracy(Egypt, 1996). 27
Of course, artists and documentarists have some degree of freedom within the requirements of funding. "Arab Women Speak Out" permitted Azza El Hassan to move from television production to more personal work in News Time (Palestine, 2001), a diary of daily life in Ramallah. Mai Masri has received almost all her support from Western television, such as the BBC and the Independent Television Service in the US. Yet she is well enough established to have autonomy in her choice of subject. When the BBC requested a documentary about Palestinian women during the first intifada, Masri was able to substitute something quite specific for this general topic: a return to her childhood town of Nablus. The BBC accepted her change and aired and distributed the resulting work, Children of Fire (Palestine, 1995). 28
Videomakers must balance the interests of funders and subjects, as well as audiences both west/north and east/south. Shafik describes these delicate negotiations in her case study of two Egyptian documentaries, Al-Abnoudi's Days of Democracy and Yousri Nasrallah's On Boys, Girls, and the Veil (Egypt, 1995). Days of Democracy follows the campaign trail of several female political candidates in 1995. It was made with both Egyptian and foreign NGO funding and succeeded in reaching both Egyptian and foreign audiences, a rare accomplishment. Shafik suggests that the video's conservative form, relative to other documentaries by Al-Abnoudi, might have resulted from the requirement of the funders, who intended it to be used for public education in Egypt. 29 By contrast, male director Nasrallah's On Boys, Girls, and the Veilwas supported not by NGOs but by Youssef Chahine's company Misr International and the French television company La Sept (111). The result is an entertaining discussion of gender relations and the new phenomenon of veiling in Egypt. Shafik argues that On Boys, Girls, and the Veilconstructs an image of Egypt for export, in order to appeal to the French audience newly concerned about Muslim schoolgirls wearing the hijab in France (114-15).
By this point in my argument, Western readers may be thinking that any kind of sympathy with Arab issues translates as Orientalism. So now I would like to defend Orientalism as a legitimate approach. Orientalism is a Western approach to the East that acknowledges the locatedness of its interest in the "Orient," those countries where the sun rises on the other side of the Mediterranean. "Good Orientalism" does not pretend to be objective. It is intended for Western audiences, to educate them about matters that are self-evident to Arab audiences or simply that concern Westerners more than Arabs. For example, works that deconstruct Western clichés of the Orient, like the US-based Tania Kamal-Eldin's Hollywood Harems (Lebanon, 1999), while not essential viewing for Arab audiences, are a necessary first step for Western audiences who want to approach the Arab world. Arab artists who live in diaspora speak largely to Western audiences, becoming forces of intercultural understanding. For example, the Lebanese director Jocelyn Saab, educated and based in France, worked as a journalist for European television in the early 1970s and is now one of the most prolific of Lebanese film- and videomakers, male or female. Sana Wassef remarks that Saab's works "contain a gaze from the inside and an understanding often lacking in western journalism and documentaries." 30
Finally, there are some works that can only be made in exile. Lack of resources in their own countries means that women can only work in the expensive media of film and video with resources available abroad. Political upheaval in their home countries makes it necessary for many artists to work overseas. Working in exile and/or for an outside audience allows film- and videomakers to deal with issues that cannot be covered easily in Arab countries, as well as issues that arise only in diaspora. Palestinian Canadian Jamelie Hassan makes conceptual video and installations dealing with exile, identity, and language. Yasmina Bouziane, a Moroccan artist now living in the US, made the short video Le Regard (1993) to explore the power of her own gaze.
In short, foreign funding both enables Arab women mediamakers and constrains them to deal with gender issues of interest to the West. Foreign support is also one of the threads that weave Arab mediamakers in a thick intercultural fabric spanning home and diaspora.
Women (and) Video in Beirut
Still recovering from the war and recoiling from new economic violence, Beirut is a city that needs art—critical, creative forms of storytelling, archaeology, and healing—when official voices are guarded or mute. Rather than wait for an independent art scene to happen, artists and curators have conjured it into existence. As well as the workshops I described above, these projects include the work of curators Christine Tohme at Ashkal Alwan, the Lebanese Association for the Plastic Arts, and Pascale Feghali of the Ayloul Festival. Here curating extends to commissioning, bringing into existence the art that curators think the city needs.
Tohme argues that discussing women's art separately in the current Beirut scene is a misbegotten project. 31 The more I learn of the local art scene, the more I agree with her. Both women and men are taking on the pressing political issues, at both global and intimate levels, that shape Lebanese life. They include gender issues, but men are as capable of dealing with them as women are; there is no sense of a separate women's art movement in Beirut. Instead, as a survey of works by women shows, Beirut video tends to focus on immediate issues of local interest. Unlike work made to suit the interests of foreign funders, it is characterized by topics and approaches that resist translation. Typical in its atypicality is Rounds (Lebanon, 2001), a modest video by Joanna Hadjihomas and Khalil Joreige, in which a chain-smoking driver performs an urban archaeology as he deftly handles the wheel. Why does the census count cars, not people? How many bodies are buried under the expanse of new roads? And what is on the radio: national symbol Fairouz, her left-wing son Ziad Rahbani, or the song from Titanic?
Works made at Beirut DC focus on local and regional social issues yet maintain a quirky, intimate tone. Eliane Raheb's So Near Yet So Far (Lebanon, 2002) depicts in a very personal manner Raheb's journeys to three countries to meet children who actively support the Palestinian intifada. Zeina Sfeir's In Spite of the War (Lebanon, 2001) also takes a very personal tone, and its inside references privilege a Lebanese, indeed Beiruti, audience. Her interviews reveal a young generation nostalgic for the war and disgusted with the false peace, a mere band-aid affixed by the Rafik Hariri government. While many Lebanese are newly impoverished, downtown Beirut has been rebuilt at vast public expense into a Disneyland-style simulacrum. In a downtown café, an elegantly veiled woman says, "I cannot be here; a strange sadness overtakes me. Why have they done this? Why did they erase our memories?" She also confesses, "When they [Israel] bombed the power plant ... I felt a certain ecstasy." She almost skipped to the store to buy candles and canned food, as she had during the war. "I felt that I was reconnected to my fight, to my country."
Downtown cannot replace the loss of Hamra Street, the irrepressibly lively center of the city before the war, which has fallen on hard times in the postwar retreat of Muslims and Christians to West and East Beirut. Hamra means "red" in Arabic, and Red Is the Color of My Eye (Lebanon, 2000) is Nesrine Khodr's love letter to this street, still the city's memory center. Khodr interviews longtime Hamra inhabitants who tell about how Yasir Arafat occupied buildings on the street and how the anti-Israeli resistance started at the Wimpy Café, but also about how once local residents went to the local authority to file a complaint against the sun, whose slanting rays bothered them early in the morning. "People in [the neighborhood of] Ras Beirut are a bit thick in the head." Hamra residents disavow that they live in one of the most important archaeological sites of recent Lebanese memory. It is up to the gentle persistence of Khodr, as well as Ashkal Alwan, which commissioned the video for the 2000 Hamra Street Project, to carry out the excavation.
A work about the war, yes—but not about the cliché of "war-torn Beirut" for which foreigners search the city. Red Is the Color of My Eyeis so extremely local in its care and tenderness that it cannot and need not travel.
Similarly untranslatable is the aforementioned Train/ Trains by Rania Stephan, who divides her time between Beirut and Paris. Stephan visited the Lebanese towns where the now defunct railroad used to pass. The locals, delighted to see her, reminisce fondly about how noisy the engines were, how they used to rush out and collect the laundry so it would not get dirty: they miss the trains. Odd and lovely, dreamily edited, Train/Trains only subtly critiques the privatization policies that brought this and other national projects to a halt.
Patriarchy is alive and well in Lebanon—the revised family law continues to disadvantage women, Muslim fundamentalism is on the increase with its concomitant pressures on women, and young women, outnumbering men, face extreme pressure to attract husbands while maintaining the semblance of virginity. Yet gender politics are a rare topic in Beirut women's video. Some works approach sexuality in a tender and gently critical way. Reine Mitri's five-minute A propos de la poire [About the pear] (Lebanon, 2002) poetically explores sexuality and its taboos through a history of erotic art. Nesrine Khodr and Ghassan Salhab's De la séduction [On seduction] (Lebanon, 1997), a thirty-two-minute personal documentary, is unmistakably Beiruti in its mise-en-scène and attitude toward life. Exquisitely, rigorously composed and edited, De la séduction provides an aestheticized frame for seven women who speak with a frank mixture of delight and ruefulness of love, seduction, fantasy, and disappointment. Men are barely present in this work: they populate a café, one man's shadow is cast on a bedroom wall, another's limbs sprawl from under the bed sheets. Khodr includes herself as a fictional character who prefers to love a man she never sees.
Interestingly, Lebanese male video artists seem to pay more attention to gender politics than their female counterparts do. Mahmoud Hojeij's video Shameless Transmission ofDesired Transformations per Day (Lebanon, 2000) approaches, with great subtlety and sensitivity, the social surveillance of single women in Beirut. This faux, Foucauldian documentary tracks the work of barely fictional morality police who survey parked cars, trap couples having sex, and force confessions from the young women they catch. These confessions are intercut with the sexist wisdom of a greengrocer who compares women to fruit: they should be easy to peel like a banana, not too ripe, etc. Similarly, Akram Zaatari's Majnounak [Crazy of you] (Lebanon, 1997) interviews several young Beirut men boasting about their sexual conquests. At least one of these sounds like a date rape, and others might well be fabrications. It is a charming, cutting portrait of Lebanese masculinity. Masculinity is also the subject of Nabil Kojok's January 10 (Lebanon, 2002), produced in the week before the artist began his mandatory military service. Its intimate shots, such as one where Kojok uses a vacuum-cleaner tube to deform his handsome face, convey his anxiety about taking on the hypermasculine and deindividualized identity of the soldier. What distinguishes these works from North American works that investigate gender is that issues of gender identity are inseparable from a critique of the state and of Lebanese society. This they hold in common with the women's works I have mentioned.
Interestingly, the video that won Best Lebanese Work at the 2002 Beirut Cinema Days festival was made by a foreigner, as though one can see the whole Lebanon only from a distance. Katia Jarjoura, a Canadian of Lebanese descent, moved to Lebanon in 2000 with the intention to produce a video about the role of Hizbullah after Israel's withdrawal from the south. Jarjoura came to perceive that people in south Lebanon find themselves torn, scandalously but normally, between two loyalties: on one hand toward Israel, which "liberated" the south from Palestinian presence in 1982 and offered employment, including in the military; on the other toward Hizbullah, the Shi'a party that came to power in 1990, defended the south against Israeli occupiers, and provided jobs, education, a welfare system—and a political identity. Jarjoura's fifty-two-minute video Caught in Between (Lebanon, 2002) portrays people from both sides. One is De Gaulle, a Christian who was imprisoned in Khiam and who chose to side with Hizbullah. Another is Maha, who worked in Israel before the withdrawal and is now impoverished and hated by her neighbors as a collaborator. Maha's husband, a former soldier in the Israeli-supported Southern Lebanese Army, is now imprisoned and spends his time building ever-larger boats out of matchsticks.
These and other people in the south, with Jarjoura as witness, give voice to a desperate cry to the Lebanese government that turned away from its people when their region was occupied. Echoing the feelings of nostalgia and dispossession voiced both in Stephan's Train/Trains and in Sfeir's In Spite of the War, Maha bitterly explains her choice to side with Israel: "There is no state to tell you, 'You are Lebanese and we will help you.'" The video expresses the Lebanese national trauma of a people abandoned by their own government.
Lacking a sectarian identity of her own, speaking poor Arabic, Jarjoura was equally strange and equally approachable to both parties. Also, her Canadian passport allowed her to shoot in Israel (although her Lebanese passport meant she could be imprisoned for doing so). Jarjoura told me that at the first screening, Christian viewers accused her of making propaganda for Hizbollah. Yet at the same event, some Hizbollah members attacked her: who was she, an outsider, to show compassion to Israeli collaborators? Still others acknowledged that no Lebanese person could have made it. After one screening, where Jarjoura had demurred that it was a film made for outsiders, a man approached the videomaker to say, "Your film is not for a foreign audience; it's a necessary film for Lebanon." 32
In Lebanon at present, politics is everywhere, and art need only press the surface of everyday life to bring political contradictions forward. This may be why artists pursue common issues regardless of gender, and also why the work produced here is so consistently interesting. This in turn is what has attracted international attention to this small art scene. In the international art world, politics is capital, and Beirut art has it.
Beirut: The Global in the Local
The West and the diaspora can be found at the heart of the most intimate Beirut production. In part this is because of the constraints of funding that I have discussed; in part it is because many works by Lebanese artists reach the international festival circuit before they are exhibited locally, and so they return "home" marked with the gaze of others. And in part it is because many artists study overseas, where they learn the contemporary "biennale" style; or, as in the workshops organized by Ra'ad and Salloum and by Hojeij and Zaatari, the international style is passed on to local artists. These styles are animated by local issues, with a zest and urgency that would be the envy of Western artists. Yet the combination of international style and local content makes these works difficult to place.
Rasha Salti, in a fierce Marxist assessment of the contemporary art scene in Beirut, notes that when Beirut artists borrow forms from postindustrial cultures, such as conceptual, installation, video, and performance art, some critics judge these to be "imported 'postmodern' forms, unfit for expression within Lebanese society." 33 While she does not agree with this assessment, Salti notes, "Besides the hollow questioning of 'authenticity,' the problem of legibility lingers nonetheless, and elicits the question, with whom do these works communicate? To what extent do they wish to mediate to an audience, and is there significance to their incommunicability" (88)? Salti's striking question begs a response that will locate Beirut on an international map without sacrificing its specific emplacement.
That emplacement, I have been arguing, is a sign of the autonomy of Beirut art. The very qualities that make Beirut art "illegible" also protect it. Walid Sadek argues that globalization is built on a fascination with local culture, but that this fascination in turn rests on an assumed interchangeability of local cultures. "All issues dealing with the internal hierarchies of these different cultures, which order not only their social existence but also their reception of the other and subsequent hybridization of and by the other, are usually ignored. For to delve into such difficult political issues is to accept that the cultural/political topography of the world is based on contention and not on continuity." 34 That is, the specificity of Beirut art, as of that of any city that can name and claim local politics, makes it somewhat indigestible to outside interests. Being illegible, or indigestible, prevents Beirut art from feeding into the homogenizing discourses of development and modernity that characterize some (not all) NGOs and international art institutions, as well as some (not all) Western feminist approaches.
I wrote above that in the international art world politics is capital, and Beirut art has it. Yet, to pursue the metaphor, this capital cannot be exchanged into just any currency. Similarly, what matters in Beirut may not be measurable by the top-down models that some NGOs and reformers wish to impose. And if translation/exchange is so delicate in the relatively Westernized example of Lebanon, it may be even more so in other Arab countries and cultures.
Yet while Beirut art resists homogenization, it also builds an internationallocal culture. Given the size of the Lebanese diaspora, many Beirutis are likely to see, for example, Red Is the Color of My Eye for the first time ever in Minneapolis. 35 And while its meaning cannot be generalized, this work is available to some degree to other Arabs, and beyond ethnicity, other survivors of civil wars, other café-goers, and other lovers of experimental documentary. A work is completed by its audience, and some Beirut works take a long trek from Hamra Street to Brussels to Seattle, for example. Along the way they build connections among those who care to try to translate. 36
Beirut's cultural scene is like a tide pool: a fascinatingly lively and diverse microcosm whose existence is tentative, subject to the crashing of foreign waves on eastern Mediterranean shores. Over the past few years, support for Beirut art has grown from strategic local initiatives, to foreign NGO support, to recognition by foreign critics and curators. 37 These stages should reflect progress toward sustainability. But they might be signs of the delicacy of life in a tide pool.
Foreign support is necessary in a country like Lebanon that has a lively art scene and an impoverished government. The Lebanese Ministry of Culture coughs up very little funding for these projects. In its mission statement, Beirut DC notes that NGO funding, though it has fallen off since the war, is more necessary than ever, as the government's reconstruction policy "cares only about stones and not human beings." 38 Organizers exhaust themselves chasing after money from local businesses (for whom cultural contribution is a new notion), 39 foreign embassies, organizations such as the Goethe Institut and the French Cultural Center, and, principally, foreign charitable funds and NGOs. These include the European Commission, the Ford Foundation, the Getty Grant Program, the Prince Claus Fund (Netherlands), and UNESCO. 40
But as I have noted, foreign support is subject to the winds of political fashion that blow from the International Monetary Fund, and other powers that determine world "hot spots." Christine Tohme worries that such foreign support may wane when Beirut is considered less "hot," both politically and culturally, than other Third World cities like Cairo or sites in sub-Saharan Africa. In fact this shift is already taking place. The Prince Claus Fund abruptly withdrew its support for Ashkal Alwan this year, and the Ford Foundation has informed both Ashkal Alwan and Beirut DC that it will not continue to support them. 41
Beirut's sophistication may be its undoing. Its synthesis of Western and Arab discourses and its artists' capacity for dialogue with the West, not as subaltern but as cultural equal, are beginning to appear to funders as a sign that it no longer needs foreign benevolence. The example of this city suggests that when an art scene becomes autonomous, foreign supporters lose interest and move on. Yet, as I have argued, this autonomy is also the condition for women, and artists in general, to pursue work that reflects their own concerns and not those of outsiders.
Economic dynamics encourage Arab independent media to persist in the context of development, but not on an equal footing with Western art. Sophisticated and fickle in a different way than NGOs, the international art market demands a certain translatability of non-Western art to which a well-developed local scene, like Beirut's, might not cater. A third resource for Arab independent media is public and private funding in the Arab world itself. As mentioned above, the satellite networks MBC and Arabiya will soon be broadcasting quantities of independent documentaries from the Arab world, including works sponsored by Ashkal Alwan and Beirut DC. Although it is a risky venture, I am excited about this "door to the sky" for experimental video in Dubai and hope it does not slam shut too soon. 42 And given the increasing rift between the Arab world and the West, it seems crucial that Arab artists find local sources of support. 43
After Western NGOs, the international art market, and Arab support, artists still have a fourth option. That is to work under the radar, to maintain their autonomy by working in impoverished conditions and struggling individually to bring their work to publics. But Arab artists deserve better than that.
Arab independent media in its nascent period is inextricably intercultural. Yet if its center of influence swings slightly eastward, as it appears to be doing, at this point that may be a good thing for women artists and others who want to deal with local concerns, speak in their own languages (which may or may not be Arabic), and stop explaining their worlds to the West.
Information about individual works can be obtained via e-mail. Regarding
A propos de la poire by Reine Mitri, send e-mail to
firstname.lastname@example.org; regarding Ashkal Alwan curator Christine Tohme, send
e-mail to email@example.com; regarding Caught in Between by
Katia Jarjoura, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org; regarding Children
of Fire by Mai Masri, contact Arab Film Distribution via their Web
site at www.arabfilm.com; regarding Days of Democracy
by Attiyat Al-Abnoudi, send e-mail to Women Make Movies at email@example.com;
regarding De la séduction by Nesrine Khodr and Ghassan
Salhab, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org; regarding work by Hadel Nazmy,
send e-mail to email@example.com; regarding Her + Him: Van Leo
by Akram Zaatari, contact V Tape via their Web site at http://www.vtape.org,
or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org; regarding Hollywood Harems
by Tania Kamal-Eldin, send e-mail to Women
Make Movies at email@example.com; regarding In Spite of the War by
Zeina Sfeir, send e-mail to Beirut DC at firstname.lastname@example.org; regarding
January 10 by Nabil Kojok, send e-mail to Akram Zaatari
at email@example.com; regarding Khiam by Joana Hadjithomas and
Khalil Joreige, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org; regarding
Majnounak by Akram Zaatari, contact V Tape via their Web site,
www.vtape.org, or send e-mail to Akram Zaatari at email@example.com;
regarding Ode to Rhinos by Nadine Touma, send e-mail to
firstname.lastname@example.org; regarding News Time by Azza El Hassan,
send e-mail to email@example.com; regarding On Boys, Girls, and
the Veil by Yousri Nasrallah, contact Arab Film Distribution via
Web site, http://www.arabfilm.com; regarding Red Is the Color of My Eye
by Nisrine Khodr, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or
email@example.com; regarding work by Rehab El Sadek, send e-mail
to firstname.lastname@example.org; regarding Rounds by Joanna Hadjihomas
and Khalil Joreige, send e-mail to email@example.com; regarding Shameless Transmission of Desired Transformations
per Day by Mahmoud Hojeij, contact V Tape via their Web site,
http://wwwwww.vtape.org; regarding So Near Yet So Far by Eliane Raheb,
e-mail to Beirut DC at firstname.lastname@example.org; regarding Train/Trains
by Rania Stephan, send e-mail to email@example.com; regarding the
"Transit Visa" project, contact V Tape via their Web site, http://wwwwww.vtape.org,
or send e-mail to Akram Zaatari at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Laura U. Marks, a theorist and curator of independent and experimental media, is the author of The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000) and Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002). She has curated numerous programs for festivals and art spaces in North America and Europe. She is the Dena Wosk University Professor of Art and Culture Studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. This essay was written while she was a fellow of the Center for Behavioral Research at the American University of Beirut.
My learning curve these past months in Beirut has been steep indeed and not without potholes. I am warmly grateful to the many people who steered me along, especially Samirah Alkassim, Dorit Naaman, Walid Ra'ad, Christine Tohme, and Akram Zaatari.
1. A word about the terms Arab and Arab world. I use the former to indicate people who speak in Arabic, even if they do not consider themselves to be ethnically Arab—for example in Lebanon and among the Berbers in North Africa—and the latter to indicate countries where Arabic is an official language.
2. Intercultural media is that work produced by artists who move between cultures and, as such, cannot be defined by the discourse of a single culture, as I discuss in The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000), 6-10, 24-30.
3. I have borrowed the title of a conference, Modernités Arabes, organized by the Centre pour Recherches en Intermédialité, Université de Montréal, April 2002.
4. Steina Vasulka, talk at the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, Aurora, NY, August 1997.
5. See Fouad Ajami, "The Suicide of Khalil Hawi: Requiem for a Generation," in The Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation"s Odyssey (New York: Vintage, 1998), 26110; and Nawal El Saadawi, "Seeing the True Color of Things," in The Nawal El Saadawi Reader (London: Zed, 1997), 228-32.
6. Salwa Nashashibi, "Elements of Empowerment: Support Systems in Women's Art Practice," in Contemporary Arab Women's Art: Dialogues of the Present, ed. Fran Lloyd (London: Women's Art Library, 1999), 72-73.
7. Salwa Nashashibi, Laura Nader, and Etel Adnan, Forces of Change: Artists of the Arab World (Washington, DC: National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1997), 169.
8. I thank Samirah Alkassim, a filmmaker teaching at the American University of Cairo, for introducing me to Nazmy and El Sadek.
9. The conversation itself was titled "Jargon." Hadel Nazmy, correspondence with the author, 22 May 2002.
10. Rehab El Sadek, correspondence with the author, 21 and 25 May 2002.
11. Nadine R. L. Touma, "Ode to Rhinos," in Home Works: A Forum on Cultural Practices in the Region, ed. Christine Tohme and Mona Abu Rayyan (Beirut: The Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts: Ashkal Alwan, 2003), 136. The book documents Ashkal Alwan's 2002 multimedia event.
12. Viola Shafik, Arab Cinema: History and Cultural Identity (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1998), 204.
13. Akram Zaatari, "The State of Producing Video in Lebanon," catalog essay, Instants Vidéo de Manosque, 1998, n.p.
14. Dorit Naaman, communication with the author, 18 March 2003.
15. Azza El Hassan, "When the Exiled Films Home," in Middle Eastern Media Arts, special issue of Framework, ed. Dorit Naaman, 43.2 (fall 2002): 65.
16. Zaatari, "The State of Producing Video in Lebanon."
17. Mai Masri, interview with the author, 17 March 2003.
18. Mohamad Soueid, e-mail communication with the author, 18 March 2003.
19. Masri, interview.
20. Khiam was run by the Southern Lebanese Army, a proxy for Israel, until May 2000.
21. Transit Visa: On Video and Cities, ed. Akram Zaatari and Mahmoud Hojeij (Beirut: Transit Visa, 2001).
22. Inderpal Grewal, "On the New Global Feminism and the Family of Nations," in Talking Visions: Multicultural Feminism in a Transnational Age, ed. Ella Shohat (New York: New Museum and MIT Press, 1998), 505.
23. Interestingly, Obioma Nnaemeka makes this comment in response to Alice Walker's account of her visits to African villages during the making of Warrior Marks with Pratibha Parmar. Seeing the village males as the enemy, Walker received their hospitality with what the author interprets as grievous rudeness. Obioma Nnaemeka, "If Female Circumcision Did Not Exist, Western Feminism Would Have Invented It," in Eye to Eye: Women Practising Development across Cultures, ed. Susan Perry and Celeste Schenck (London: Zed, 2001), 187.
24. Sophie Bessis, "The World Bank and Women: Instrumental Feminism," in Perry and Schenck, Eye to Eye, 21-22.
25. This hasn't always been the case. For example, Attiyat Al-Abnoudi was able to make her first documentary, and the first documentary by an Arab woman, Horse of Mud (1971), through Youssef Chahine's production studio, Misr. Free from the constraints of both Egyptian television and foreign funding, Abnoudi's film had a free and intimate style, which she continued to pursue in later, funded works. But as Magda Wassef points out, Al-Abnoudi's films are rarely seen in Egypt. "Three Arab Women Documentary Filmmakers," Yamagata Film Festival Documentary Box 16 (1 December 2000), n.p.
26. Livia Alexander and Dorit Naaman discuss this term in "Re-'Producing' the Middle East for Metropolitan Audiences: The Challenges of the Transnational Art Film," forthcoming in World Literature Today, ed. Stephen Prince.
27. Viola Shafik, "Class Difference, Nation, and Subjectivity: Two Egyptian Documentaries," in Middle Eastern Media Arts, 106.
28. Mai Masri, interview with the author, 19 March 2003.
29. Shafik, "Class Difference, Nation, and Subjectivity," 110.
30. Wassef, "Three Arab Women Documentary Filmmakers."
31. Christine Tohme, interview with the author, 20 February 2003.
32. Katia Jarjoura, interview with the author, 26 February 2003.
33. Rasha Salti, "Framing the Subversive in Post-war Beirut: Critical Considerations for a History of the Present," in Tohme and Abu Rayyan, Home Works, 88.
34. Walid Sadek, Karaoke (Liverpool: CAIR and Bluecoat Gallery, 1998), 27-28.
35. Khodr's video was shown at Minnesota's first Arab film festival, "So Much I Want to Say" (the title of a video by Mona Hatoum), curated by Rawi Hage and cosponsored by Mizna and Intermedia Arts, in March 2003.
36. Some works mentioned in this article were seen at Jayce Salloum's program of Arab video for the Argos Festival in Brussels in October 2001 and are carried by Arab Film Distribution in Seattle.
37. For example, the Montreal-based art journal Parachutedevoted its October 2002 issue to Beirut, with many essays by Beirut writers; and French curator Catherine David, formerly of Documenta, organized "Contemporary Arab Representations: Lebanon/Beirut," for the Fondacio Antoni Tàpies in Barcelona and Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam.
38. Beirut DC dossier, n.p.
39. An exception is the Audi Bank of Lebanon, the major financial supporter of the Arab Image Foundation.
40. The Ford Foundation has supported the Arab Image Foundation, Ashkal Alwan, the Shamms Film Festival, and Beirut DC; the European Commission and the Getty have supported the Arab Image Foundation; the Prince Claus Fund has supported Ashkal Alwan and the Arab Image Foundation; UNESCO has supported the Beirut Documentary Film Festival.
41. Tohme, interview.
42. Here I borrow a title from Farida Ben Lyazid.
In an echo of strategies of North American media organizations that lost
their funding in the early 1990s, Eliane Raheb of Beirut DC hopes that
her organization will be able to earn income, for example by renting
its video editing suite. Interview with the author, 28 February 2003.
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