Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Story of the Caliph Hakem

Review: ¨Histoire du Calife Hakem¨, by Gerard De Nerval, 92 pages, L´Esprit Frappeur.

¨Everyone has their obsession when they are drunk. Yours is to be God.¨

So Gerard De Nerval, a young romantic French author of the 19th century, described the Caliph Hakem in his novella about the founder of the Druze faith. The quotation is made by Youssef, a Sabaean who manages to help Al Hakem - or Al Hakim bi Amr Allah as he is more accurately known - investigate the wiles of hashish on a riverboat on the Nile.

This is one of many inventions De Nerval imputes to the Fatimid ruler of Cairo (996-1021) whose life was bizarre enough without the Frenchman's orientalist intrusions. The Shiite ruler was known for his strict, almost Wahhabist, adherence to his faith, prohibiting alcohol and mulukhhieyeh (a famous Egyptian culinary dish), and placing great restrictions on women, Christians and Jews. In his enthusiasm, he destroyed many churches, including the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem - an act that contributed to the arrival of the Crusades some seven decades later.

In a concoction of drug-induced hallucinations, madness, and dopplegangers, Hakem declared himself God, was imprisoned by his Vizier for this blasphemy, and then escaped to find his double, Youssef, in the lap of his beautiful sister, Sitt-Al Mulk.

According to Nerval, Hakem burned down one third of Cairo in the uprising after his departure from the Muristan, or mental hospital.

In fact, this Caliph did declare himself God in 1017. Those who followed him were later called the Druze, named after the man who apparently helped convince Hakem of his divinity - Mohammad Ibn Ismail Al Darazi.

Hakem was also known for his visits to an astronomical observatory in the Mokattam hills, where Cairo's zabaleen garbage village today stands. There he observed a bronze knight set in a circle with the names of all places on Earth written in Chaldaean and pointing to the upcoming Abbasid invasion of Fatimid Cairo.

The Caliph, in addition, was known to ride around Cairo on his grey donkey, "Qamar", and accompanied by his mute slave. According to De Nerval's account, one day, Caliph Hakem went out on Qamar never to return. He met up with three criminals around Cairo's city of the dead, who attacked him with daggers until they realized his identity and ran off. Only his donkey and bloodstained clothes were ever found.

Some believe Hakem's sister had him killed. His future followers, the Druze, believe that he simply disappeared.

Gerard De Nerval's story is very much the seductive and romantic vision that the Orient has inspired in so many Europeans in the 19th century. The writer also drew upon his own tenure in a mental asylum in Paris, as well as from the "Club des Hachachins" in Paris's Ile St. Louis - the same haunt of Delacroix, Daumier and Baudelaire.

But De Nerval mostly bases his book on a tale told to him during his travels in Lebanon in 1843. There, he met a young lady called Salema, the daughter of a Druze notable who was imprisoned by the Ottomans for various mischiefs.

He subsequently met with with this notable - named Al Shirazi - in his prison cell in Beirut, where the old sheikh revealed all he knew about the founder of his faith. This he recounted to De Nerval in Italian, the only common language between the Frenchman and the Lebanese.

At the end of the day, it is not known whether the Druze sheikh al-Shirazi, who spoke Italian and recounted this tale to De Nerval, ever really existed.

All text in this post copyright John Bell and John Zada 2008

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Hejaz Railway

My grandfather helped rebuild the railway that Lawrence of Arabia helped destroy. Robert Smith Bell, graduate of engineering from Columbia U. and hailing from Philadelphia, came to the Middle East in 1917 and ended up with the British team in Amman assessing how to rebuild the Hejaz railway after the First World War.

That line, first conceived in 1864 by Sultan Abdel Hamid and completed by the Ottomans in 1908, extended from Damascus to Mecca, and was intended to facilitate the pilgrimage to the Holy City.

The railway was a major financial undertaking for the Ottomans, trying to vault themselves into technological competition with European powers. Building railways was a major financial exercise requiring its establishment as a 'waqf' or religious endowment with innovative funding techniques including 'donations' on the part of Turkish soldiery.

Its construction was fraught with dangers - lack of water, fuel, risky and hostile terrain. Indeed, many Arab bedouins and caravan operators attacked the line because it threatened their ancient livelihood of escorting pilgrims to Mecca. The line saw 8 years of solid service (1908-1916) and carried 300,000 passengers in 1914 until the First World War and T.E. Lawrence presented its destruction in the great Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire.

My father was born in Amman because of the Hijaz railway and my grandfather's death in 1937 was a result of the desert conditions and the scourges of such difficult engineering endeavours. 'Mr. Lava' as he was known succumbed to a stroke in the upper eastern arm of what is now Jordan while building the road on the lava plain in that area. The road was needed to construct the oil pipeline from Kirkuk to Haifa.

He is now buried in the British cemetary in Haifa near the very railway lines that run along the Mediterranean coast, once stretching from Cairo to Beirut.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Two Views from Apamea

Looking west towards Qalaat al-Mudiq, the Orontes River Valley, and the Jebel Ansariya (Syria)

Looking north along the cardo maximus towards the Pillar of Bacchus

(Photos in this post copyright John Zada and John Bell 2008)

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Cairo Portraitist

All text in this post copyright John Zada and John Bell 2008
All photos in this post copyright the Rare Books and Special Collections Library, The American University in Cairo, (AUC)

Levon Boyadjian, or ‘Van-Leo’ as he called himself, was a 20th century portrait photographer who lived in Cairo, Egypt. Working for over half a century, this eccentric Armenian-Egyptian created some of the most stunning, and often bizarre, black-and-white portraits of himself, and others, ever seen in the Middle East.

A strange mix of artist, philosopher, and aspiring actor and director, Van-Leo became one of the last in a line of Armenian photographers that emerged during Cairo’s Belle Epoch: a cosmopolitan period today known for its liberalism, flamboyance, and multi-ethnic flair. He would later come to be seen as one of the first Middle East photographers to employ innovative and creative techniques, fusing glamour photography with documentary studio-portraiture.

Born in the Hatay region of eastern Turkey in 1921, Van-Leo fled with his family at the age of four to Egypt, escaping the genocide of Armenians during, and in the aftermath, of the First World War. As a teenager in Egypt, he became obsessed with Hollywood movie-stars, collecting magazines and miniature cards featuring still images of his favorite actors and actresses in character. Actors like Clarke Gable, Greta Garbo, Gary Cooper, and Marlene Deitrich, and the many films in which they appeared, were memorized and absorbed into the photographer’s psyche. Intoxicated by cinema and living in a fantasy world of fictional characters, games and make-believe, Van-Leo made the decision to leave his floundering studies at the American University and to devote his life to photographing people in the manner of a possessed cinema director with a stills camera.

Van-Leo made his grand entrance as a photographer in Cairo just before the beginning of the Second World War. While Europe regressed into a period of bombings and destruction, Cairo flourished, becoming centre-stage for the intrigues that simmered behind the war's front lines. British soldiers stationed in Cairo, and the countless entertainers that flocked to the city to find work, provided Van-Leo with his first and most cooperative subjects.

Partnering with his brother Angelo, the two siblings opened shop in the living-room of their parents’ apartment in 1941. Often in exchange for a free portrait the photographer would convince his sitters to give him full creative license. His approach was to employ cinematic techniques of artificial light, shadow, and creative poses, to generate charismatic personas that bordered on film noire in their mood and dramatic effect.

As his reputation grew, countless people flocked to his studio to be photographed, from army officers, to aristocrats, to cabaret dancers, to singers, to actors, expatriate foreigners and Egyptian commoners from all walks of life. The famous too would be drawn by his flair for playfulness and creativity in the studio. Writer Taha Hussein, actors Omar Sharif, Rushdie Abaza, and Samia Gamal, and the singers Farid al-Atrache and Dalida were among the many notables who passed through Van-Leo’s studio and whose images today still periodically appear on walls, books, newspapers, magazines, and on television in the Arab World.

But within photography circles Van-Leo is just as much known as a self-portraitist, having taken hundreds of photographs of himself disguised as just as many characters. His fictional avatars ranged from Zorro to Rasputin to Sam Spade and all manner of personas in-between from a shirtless Bohemian, to a Cossak Prince, to a Geisha girl, to a pipe-wielding steam-ship Captain, to a British fighter bomber. Each of these images provides a key to the deepest depths of Van-Leo’s psyche, linking the observer directly with a man who wanted to live every fictional character in endless worlds of his own making. Living as a minority Christian foreigner in a predominantly Arab-Muslim Egypt, his self-portraits are also a clear reflection of fundamental identity issues. He deals with the reality of who he is by reveling in his lack of attachment to any nation or creed by literally becoming anyone he wants.

These same social and political mores that affected Van-Leo’s private life would deal the photographer his final and most serious blows where his work were concerned. With the rise in the latter part of the 20th century of socialism in Egypt, and later, Islamic extremism, and with the flight from Cairo of its foreigner and liberal classes, Van-Leo found his pool of subjects ever-dwindling. Also vanishing was an epoch in which manners, civilities, pomp and glamour had characterized photography - and by extension, life at large.

The transformation of Cairo into a more homogenous, more religiously conservative and less tolerant society, combined with the rise of instant-development color-photography, challenged Van-Leo at every level as an artist and as a photographer. No longer could he create his film-noire style portraits as easily as he once had. The glamour, shadow and fantasy that once marked his photographs were slowly replaced by big hair, bright colors, and bland faces - all wrapped in a mood of conservative sobriety. Unlike many of his artistic contemporaries who eventually fled to Europe and beyond, including his brother Angelo who moved to Paris in 1961, Van-Leo stubbornly chose to cling to the past and remain in Egypt, continuing to attempt his unique brand of photography late into the 20th century. This he would do despite the deteriorating artistic environment and growing disapproval of his aesthetic that existed in many quarters.

This downward spiral continued into the 1970s and 1980s until his “rediscovery” by a group of foreign expatriates in the 1990s would revive his art and popularity, helping to garner for him the international recognition and accolades which he so much sought. But despite the late resurgence of his art and his name, he continued to see himself until his death in 2002, as a victim of history, a living relic of a tragically forgotten age.

Van Leo’s importance as a photographer in the early photographic tradition cannot be overstated. His portraits covering six decades of life in Cairo are an important social and historical document of Egypt and the Middle East, and of its sudden and radical transformation as a society. He was decades ahead of his contemporaries as an artist and had an experimental attitude, seen especially in his self-portraits, that was very rare at the time and is still rare among photographers in the Arab world today. His story exemplifies the extent to which one’s environment, its society and politics, can impact or even dictate the life and work of any given individual, especially an artist.

Felucca Captain

Aswan, Egypt

Photo in this post copyright John Zada and John Bell 2008

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Town Scene

Kerman, 19th century
Courtesy of Cyrus Carpets, New York

Monday, August 18, 2008

Moving Forward

In recent years, a new approach in the field of psychology has opened up possibilities for understanding important aspects of human nature. This new organizing idea, known as The Human Givens, postulates that when certain specific important human needs are not met, or are denied to an individual, that mental illness and suffering can ensue. Optimal well-being therefore can only be assured when a person’s needs are both known to that person and are sufficiently met.

We believe that this scientific, evidence-based approach, which is now gaining wider currency and is replacing outmoded models of psychology, can be applied to collectives as well, and can be used to better understanding the situation in the Middle East - a region which is undoubtedly today in a state of disequilibrium.

We propose that not only does the issue of unmet human needs hold as true for collectives, groups, and societies as much as for individuals - indeed, the goal of collectives is mostly to ensure that individuals have all those needs met - but that unmet needs are at the root of many of the problems in the Middle East today – fueling “issues” which are grappled with endlessly by politicians and diplomats using traditional methods and mechanisms, often with little or no results.

Viewing issues through the lens of unmet needs offers new possibilities for addressing complex issues in the Middle East.

Below is a list of needs, which we have adapted from the Human Givens approach, and which we believe societies in the Middle East must have met if a more healthy, productive, and promising future for the region is to be realized. This follows our July 2 post entitled "The Problem":

Security - safe territory and environment free of threat for the healthy growth of individuals and of societies respectively.

Ecological and Environmental Health – the maintenance and promotion of a balanced physical environment that can provide for the physical sustenance/needs of individuals and societies – clean air, water, and food and sufficient living space to avoid crowding.

Economic Welfare and Opportunity – systems for governments to deliver sufficient economic welfare and opportunity for their citizens.

A Sense of Autonomy, Control and Responsibility – for communities and nations in relation to each other and the outside world, and for individuals within all societies in the Middle East. Too much control by one country over another, one group over another, or by governments over its own citizens robs collectives and individuals of the sense of volition, and leads to frustration. Examples of greater autonomy and control include:

* Israel allowing Palestinians greater freedom of movement
* Palestinians having autonomy and control over their lives through an independent government and state.
* Easing of controls and restrictions by certain Arab governments on their people on access to information
* Greater opportunities for individuals and communities to be involved in politics, local or national.
* Less intrusion by governments into the lives of citizens through security services, informants and the like
* Greater allowance and encouragement of independent thought and dissent within groups or communities

Recognition – a recognition between communities and political entities of each others’ existence and the right to exist, and the cultivation between them of healthy relations, interactions, and exchange on an equitable and mutual basis.

Connection to the Wider Community – a more integrated Middle East, and more integrated countries within the Middle East with fewer divisions, separations, and barriers, and greater interconnectivity between countries, regions, and people. Some examples:

* Greater freedom of movement for people in the region to travel to different countries
* Greater allowance for people of the same ethnic community who are currently separated by borders to meet with one another in other countries or regions, ie – Palestinians, Kurds, Druzes etc.

Individual and Group Competence, Achievement and Status – better run societies with more effective frameworks for providing groups and individuals greater opportunities to realize their economic, political and cultural goals - thereby providing individuals and collectives with the need to have a sense of their own competence, achievement and status.

Corruption, nepotism, inefficiency, greed, and government apathy, deny individuals and groups fair access to opportunities for political and economic growth, leading to frustration and the channeling of energies by individuals and groups towards violence and dangerous ideologies in an attempt to meet those unmet needs.

Meaning and Purpose - Enabling an environment and culture which permits individuals to pursue meaning and purpose in their life.

Friday, August 15, 2008

From Beirut to Jerusalem to Beirut to Jerusalem to Beirut to Jerusalem...

All text and photos in this post copyright John Zada and John Bell 2008

These two cities somehow belong together:

Beirut: Sexy, vibrant, pretentious, fed by sea breezes, a city of Mercedes cars and Cohiba cigars, sophisticated restaurants, electronic trance music and a cosmopolitanism that speaks of Babylon - a place for food and fun, a city to drive and dance in, and get very tense in.

Jerusalem: Elegant, quiet, inspiring, covered in a cool mountain breeze, clearly lit, surrounded by golden stone city walls, cypresses - yet also oppressive in its cultish heaviness, its worship of rocky monuments and odd ritual gear - a city to walk and converse in, and get very tense in.

In these two extremes, the very nature of the Middle East is expressed. On one hand: a worldly cunning where all is possible, all can be bought, the give and take of the bazaar, a love of food, talk, and smoke.

On the other hand: a sense of spirituality, profundity, magnetism, the land of prophets and ideals, of reaching transcendence and unity, of overreach, self-obsession and of a grace embodied in the very hills of the Holy Land.

The two belong together because they complete one another.

The social psychology of the Middle East is very much like these two cities: a daily friendliness and form mixed with a brutal pursuit of dreams, a toughness in business mixed with a fatalistic submission to the future. The surface and the depth are not always in harmony and the schismatic labyrinthine Easterner is difficult to understand for the much more linear Westerner.

This schism can be found within the borders of each Middle Eastern nation: Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in Israel, Cairo and Mount Sinai in Egypt, Beirut and the Cedars of Lebanon, each exposes the polarity of the other. It is most profoundly exhibited between Beirut and Jerusalem, these two cities seven hours apart by car. Yet, the border between Lebanon and Israel has ruptured them. Except for Israeli soldiers and the few Lebanese who had access to Israel during the latter’s occupation of the South, plus a few UN workers, the great majority of Israelis have no access to Beirut’s ample charms, nor Lebanese to the grace of Jerusalem.

The two cities are only 250 km apart, by highway only 3 hours apart, and in between are the great old Phoenician cities of Sidon and Tyre, the Crusader Keep of Acre, Mount Carmel and the bay of Haifa, the valley of Megiddo, and inland, off the beaten path, Nazareth and its olive groves, and the hills rising to Jerusalem. Each stop, a station in mankind’s history, the places of battles that formed the world, or thinkers and prophets whose words echo still today in our laws and morals, of potters and merchants who moved wares from Assyria to Rome, or from Baghdad to Venice. Throughout the trip, the Mediterranean accompanies you, with the possibility of the setting sun, or the olive groves of Galilee creating a corridor of travel.

Beirut and Jerusalem would be better off in connection with each other and the rest of the region, for they work together, balancing each other, finding what is missing in the other. Not through politics but by the very movement and interaction of people with all their wares and vices, their sweat and illusions. This movement, now interrupted by national projects, is the very core of a healthy Middle East – in this way can the various peoples find balance to their local excesses.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

A View of Amman

Amman, Jordan

Photo in this post copyright John Zada and John Bell

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Al-Fishawy's Cafe

All text and photos in this post copyright John Zada and John Bell 2008

Barring times of war, domestic turmoil, and national emergency, al-Fishawy cafe - located in the Khan al-Khalili district of Islamic Cairo - has been serving customers non-stop for over two hundred years.

This 24-hour 7 day-a-week establishment, located in a narrow alleyway just off of Midan Hussein, began as an informal meeting place with coffee after evening prayer. The meetings were hosted by a man whose name we know only to be al-Fishawy. As time went on the gatherings grew, tea and sheesha tobacco were added to the menu, and the clientele ballooned. Today al-Fishawy's is run by the descendants of the cafe's originator and has become one of the most famous coffee-shops and social gathering places in the Middle East.

The old adage of location being the primary factor in a business's success was likely coined in relation to this coffee-house. The establishment owes its immense popularity to being at the epicentre of old Cairo life - lying on the cusp of the overlapping meeting places of the Khan al-Khalili bazaar, the 1000 year-old al-Azhar University (the world's oldest university), and the Sayyidna al-Husayn ibn Ali Mosque, where the head of one of the Prophet Mohammed's grandsons is said to rest.

With its tucked-away location, partial open-air view, and antique disposition, al-Fishawy has long been a magnet for intellectuals, musicians, artists, and writers. Today, local and out-of-town Egyptians mingle with foriegn tourists and expats beneath the old oil paintings and enormous mirrors with guilded Arabesque frames. A steady stream of stray cats, child urchins and trinket salesmen move through the alleyway seeking to capitalize on the daily gatherings of humanity.

In addition to the staple coffees and mint tea, the cafe serves kirkaday (a deep-red hisbiscus tea said to have curative properties), fresh lemonade, and sahlab (a hot milky drink consumed in winter and topped with nuts and raisins).

Saturday, August 9, 2008

The Coast

Gaza Beach, Thursday, August 7, 2008

(photograph by Diaa Hadid)

The Artist

Yara is an artist from Tyre. Her etching of a black and white tiger hangs near her desk in the office where she translates press articles. All day, she spins through the Arabic media searching for relevant articles for foreigners to read and understand her region better. Like many millions in the Arab world, she wishes for a normal life but instead has war, corruption, and limited horizons. She sits and watches as the political robbers or bearded ones have their way with her world.

Yara will never leave her beloved Tyre, her city by the sea - a place once conquered by Alexander and since, transformed from an island into a peninsula. She stands every evening at the rocks above the Christian cemetery where the Temple of Melqart once stood, the Phoenician god of strength and deeds, their Hercules. There, Yara watches the red sun drift into the Mediterranean and then walks home through the narrow streets of the old district where children play like fairies in the night, the sound of the surf mixing with their giggles.

Yara spends most of her day imagining she is an artist in the hills above Tyre, living in a terra cotta home, working with others in sculpture, paint and ceramics, away from the gossip, politics, and restrictions her society places on her.

She has seen the Palestinians use her land as a platform to attack Israel and to liberate their land. She has seen the Israelis invade to get rid of them and then stay in occupation for 22 years. She has seen Shiite militias fight the Israelis and encourage them to leave, and she has spent years in Beirut being shelled by God-knows-who. Yara concluded that politics is a cynical business with no winners and many losers. She gave up her sense of justice, all her ideals, and just cried out for the liberation of her soul. An impossible task among the gossiping women and oppressive men around her day in day out.

At times, she thought she must have once been a woman of ancient Tyre, watching her people make the purple dye that would give them their name in Greek: the Phoenicians. That woman worshipped at the altar of Baal and Ashtarut and looked out at sea for the sailors of Tyre off to sell their wares in Alexandria, Athens, or the Sicilian coast. She saw the invading armies of Assyrians and Persians come in galleys and chariots to her island city and burn it to the ground in a red fire.

Yara knew somehow that her people were still living that memory, in the invading armies of today and in their sense that life was toil and destruction, anger at your neighbour, and survival of the fittest.

But her soul spoke otherwise. She thought there was too much obsession with past glory, land, or sacred texts - all more important than the present gift of being alive. She remembered that we are the source of our happiness, and live the mystery of tomorrow with creativity.

So Yara spent her days and nights imagining a thousand sketches of her tiger, a thousand students working with her, and a few masters with the touch of Florence and the engraved mosques of Isfahan, guiding her. They would learn together what it means to be free to create, to explore what is inside them, and not just who has the latest, hottest, car or what the latest speech was by the demagogue.

She'd need a large degree of courage, and a patron with good money, to break with her family and feuding friends to establish her terra cotta school in the hills above Tyre.

For the time being, she would dream it.