Sunday, November 29, 2009

Jiggly Boo Dance Crew Seeks Fat* Dancers

Jiggly Boo Dance Crew Is Seeking:

Dancers/movers who identify as having a “non-traditional” dancer’s body, specifically a “fat”* body. Dancers need not have “formal” training, and may come from any kind of movement/dance background.

For: Participation in a spring semester series of workshops, discussions, movement, exercises, which will culminate in a final collaborative performance in April 2010.

When: Tentatively Sundays, January 24 – April 18, 2010, 4-6pm

Location: On NYU Campus, details TBA.

Additional information: Please see included information below. For any additional questions or if interested, please email

About Jiggly Boo Dance Crew:

"Jiggly Boo Dance Crew is a much needed project for exploring the intellectual and creative potential of the fat dancing body. Within the Western performance context, fat bodies are systematically excluded or typecast into demeaning or ancillary roles.

Within this framework, Jiggly Boo Dance Crew (founded by Alice Fu and Kantara Souffrant) will run a series of workshops which will culminate in a performance. These workshops will create a space in which other self-identified female “fat” dancers, movers, and performers, can dialogue about the following questions: What is a "fat dancing body"? How are fat bodies read, understood, felt (emotively and viscerally) and represented? What does it mean to identify oneself as a “fat dancing body” and what are the political implications of identifying oneself as such? How can (re)presentations of fat dancing bodies be understood alongside critical discussions of race, gender, sexuality, and the political movement of bodies that have been traditionally marginalized and invisibilized within Western stage dance?

Through these workshops, which will build towards a final performance, we hope to personalize and politicize the fat dancing body and the fat dancer. Jiggly Boo Dance Crew hopes to re-write and re-imagine these scripts of the fat dancing body. We are neither invisible, nor hyper-visible objects of ridicule.

Workshops will be based on movement, academics, as well as the participants' personal experiences as dancers. By marrying readings from fields such as fat studies; critical race theory; gender, sex, and sexuality studies; (dis)ability studies; and dance and performance studies with sessions that emphasize movement, gesture, and performance, we will create a space that views theory and praxis as mutually informative and necessary for achieving our goals.

*On the usage of “fat”: Jiggly Boo Dance Crew intentionally reclaims and uses the word "fat" as opposed to other euphemisms (i.e. "plus-sized" or "big-boned") to explore the politics of size-deviant bodies. Our reclamatory gesture also pays homage to area studies, such as queer studies, that have viewed the reappropriation of words as part of a larger political process of creating visibility and challenging hegemonic discourses and systems of oppression."

Saturday, November 28, 2009

On "Burqa Barbie": Girls, You Can Be Whatever You Want! Except a Muslim.


Italian designer
Eliana Lorena created over 500 Barbie dolls for an auction hosted by Sotheby's for Save the Children. The dolls, created to coincide with Barbie's 50th anniversary, represent women from all over the world and three of the 500+ are meant to be from Islamic cultures and are covered to varying degrees.

The UK Daily Mail article on the exhibition (titled "It's Barbie in a burkha: World-famous doll gets a makeover to go under the hammer for 50th anniversary") quotes a Barbie collector with over 250 dolls in her collection who said, "I think this is really important for girls, wherever they are from they should have the opportunity to play with a Barbie that they feel represents them... I know Barbie was something seen as bad before as an image for girls, but in actual fact the message with Barbie for women is you can be whatever you want to be." This response, while decidedly Barbie-centric (more on that later), is a pretty reasonable assessment of the goal of the project, which was designed to be inclusive.

Nevertheless, the presence of dolls representing covered, Muslim women has driven a strange-bedfellows-coalition of establishment feminists, Zionists and Christo-conservatives completely APESHIT. The dolls are not being mass produced, but were designed for the purpose of the charity auction, however the fear-mongering rhetoric around the auction has suggested otherwise. While such Islamophobic/Orientalist rhetoric itself is nothing new, the dust up over the production of so-called "burqa Barbies" is instructive of the way these particular racist themes are expressed on the western Right AND Left. Let's have a look, shall we?

The amusingly-named blog Angry White Dude (which is subtitled, In defense of the the most ridiculed and unappreciated being on the planet... THE WHITE MALE. I am not making this up), covers the Barbie-imbroglio thusly:

"Just forcing the burkha upon women is terribly degrading. When one considers the horrible culture of genital mutliation, stonings, honor killings and the rest of the degradation forced upon Muslim women, it is appalling a doll maker or any other organization would manufacture the Burkha Barbie. Islam is deeply seated in barbarism and violence. There is no good that comes from this “religion.” Only death and violence. All the PC wishes in the progressive world cannot hide or deny the violence perpetuated by Islam and its followers. Of course, you will hear nothing about Burkha Barbie from the mainstream media and (lesbian and ugly) women’s groups such as NOW. Women’s groups don’t care about women…they only care about women aborting babies."

In other words, for the "Dude" the Arab/Islamic world is a single monoculture wherein every bad thing that happens to women at the hands of men is permitted, justified by religion and even celebrated. And that is Bad. However, homegrown American feminists are ugly, abortion-loving lesbians. This dynamic, justifying colonial violence under the premise of feminist concern while simultaneously denigrating western women who demand rights like reproductive freedom at home, is an old patriarchal trick designed to use the concerns of women against them. But apparently no one seems to notice (or care) that such "civilization-building" projects are less about freeing Arab/Muslim women from local patriarchy than it is about installing a new-and-improved colonial version. Or, that the loudest male western voices critiquing the position of women in the Arab and Islamic worlds often actively work against the rights of women in their home countries.

However, despite his thoughtful analysis, it turns out the "Dude" is wrong, mainstream feminists are all over this Barbie thing. Marcia Pappas, President of the New York State National Organization of Women (NOW) released this statement,

“As feminists we believe that women must be able to make their own choices and that includes choices about the clothing they wear. But the burqa is more than a choice. Women are forced to wear the burqua or risk being murdered. Mattel should be ashamed. Making a profit by selling a doll that is clearly wearing a symbol of violence is not acceptable and there should be a public outcry to take this doll off the market.”

Okey-doke. So: covering is always about men controlling women. (Scary, violent, mostly Brown men who will murder you as soon as look at you! Because hey, if history has taught us nothing it's that white, Christian, European men LOVE women's rights. Love 'em!) In this paradigm Muslim and Arab women have no agency whatsoever to make choices that shape their lives. They need white feminists to save them. So that's the liberal feminist position. Check. And if we go a bit further to the right?

Feminist/Orientalist/Zionist Phylis Chesler's article on the dolls screeches, " What will they think of next? A be-headed doll?" (I wonder who she means by "they"? The list of related articles running alongside Chesler's "Boycott Burqa Barbie" includes, "Under the Islamic Veil: Faces Disfigured by Acid", so that should give you an idea where she is coming from). She writes,

"A wonderful Muslim feminist hero just stayed with me for a week. She is a lawyer and an author. Her name is Seyran Ates, she is a Turkish-German, and she lives in Berlin. Like Algerian-American professor Marnia Lazreg, whose book about the Islamic Veil I’ve previously discussed, Ates absolutely opposes the veil in any form. She will not wear a headscarf. Ates is a religious Muslim woman."

Oh, okay. You know a Muslim woman and she agrees with you. Well that changes everything.

My bad.

Although... if there are religious Muslim women who don't wear the scarf --and become lawyers and scholars and get to stay in your guestroom even-- then there must not be a direct relationship between Islam, covering and violence against women after all? Or are they safe from such oppression only in the West? And because they are halfsies? Is that the point, that their big brown badness has been properly diluted by western blood and culture? Ahhh, so it's not Islam per se, but rather those scary brown men of Africa/The Middle East/ South Asia who are racially predisposed to violence, you have to get rid of. Got it. Chesler concludes, "Mattel: take Burqa Barbie off the market. Parents: Boycott it. Calling all Charities: Save the children from it." Like her left-er leaning colleagues Chesler is calling for a boycott of Mattel for daring to acknowledge that covered women even exist. The logical paradox here: that the best way to support such women is to not allow them to be represented at all, seems to not bother anyone.

And a tick or two further Right on the crazy-lady meter?

Pin-up girl for internalized racial/orientalist self-hatred, Michelle Malkin writes, "No word yet on whether the dolls will be subjected to female genital mutilation or come with stoning pits in order to accurately represent their 'diversity.'" Yeah, diversity really sucks, Michelle. It inevitably leads to female genital cutting. Let's burn some books!

Malkin echoes the Dude's earlier point about genital cutting--a chorus that is echoed throughout the blogosphere, equating covering with genital cutting and then globalizing both throughout the entire Arab and Islamic worlds. Once again, these conflations rely on a blatantly racialized imaginary Islam, which flattens cultural differences between countries and confuses cultural practices for religious ones. Cutting is practiced mostly in Africa and Asia while Muslims live all over the world. The styles and requirements around covering differ greatly throughout the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. Even within single countries covering is not always consistent and there is no direct relationship between covering and religious piety. And there are significant historical examples of women assuming the veil specifically to frustrate their colonizers, as in Algeria and Palestine... But you probably knew that already, right?

As I've said before, I have no attachment to covering one way or the other. It isn't a religious or cultural value in my family. And like a lot of people who write about the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia I am weary of rehashing the same arguments about covering over and over. Which is not say that covering, like pretty much everything else connected to women can't be used against them. But the point I consistently return to is: what do Muslim feminists have to say about the practice? And then I take my cues from them. As far as I'm concerned, the fact that all of this "outrage" and "concern" for Muslim and Arab women doesn't ever translate into a large-scale western platform for their voices tells the tale.

Neither am I especially interested in the gender politics around Barbie dolls, whose dubious history as icons of femininity has been well-documented by others. Like the veil, Barbie has been reviled as a tool of the patriarchy and celebrated as a strategic weapon against it. I have no problem admitting that I have no idea which is the proper take, although it seems to me that such a range of interpretations suggests that simple answers are reductive and arbitrary. And, not incidentally, politically motivated.

So for me the element of this Barbie scandal that is most telling is that it was instigated merely through the presence of dolls representing unambiguously Islamic women. Imagine what might happen if they actually spoke.

The entire spectrum of western politics is invested in the silence of Muslimahs, from aggrieved white men to mainstream feminists whose common concern, the overriding threat of super-violent, oppressive maleness emanating from the East, unites them. So in the end, this conflict over Barbie dolls is not about Arab and Islamic women at all. If it were, someone might have asked them how they felt and taken their thoughts into consideration before making sweeping racist, culturally and historically inaccurate statements. Rather, this--like almost everything else-- is really about the threatening specters of Arab and Islamic boogeymen, who must be conquered, controlled and/or destroyed to preserve "our" way of life.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Paucity of Hope

As we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving here in the United States, a holiday devoted to being thankful for the bounty we enjoy, which has a dubious colonial history, my thoughts turn again to Palestine. I have been struggling to express my disappointment with the Obama administration about its Middle East policies. As I write this the prison and interrogation camp at Guantánamo Bay remains open, Iraq is in shambles, we are sending more troops into Afghanistan and Palestine... sigh. This essay by Yousef Munayyer, the Executive Director of the Palestine Center describes the current situation in Palestine eloquently.

By Yousef Munayyer (via the Palestine Center)

"Ibrahim Abu Jayyab, 23, was a big Barack Obama supporter and during the election campaign he spent hours phone-banking for him. However, unlike some of Ibrahim’s Palestinian-American counterparts, he was calling from Gaza, dialing internationally to American households, urging votes for Obama.

Today, a year since the election, prospects for “hope and change” coming to the people of Palestine have all but vanished. Despite fifteen years of talk of creating a Palestinian state, Palestinians have seen only increased illegal Israeli colonization of the land that was supposed to be their future state. A devastating assault on Gaza which left over 1,400 people, mostly civilians dead, was the culmination of eight years of failed George W. Bush administration policy. Still, you cannot blame Ibrahim and his fellow Palestinians for being hopeful when Barack Obama first took office.

Things could not seem worse during the Bush administration for the Palestinians, so Obama was an improvement before his first day in office. Many Palestinians felt President Obama would carry out an evenhanded policy for the first time. His lofty and populist rhetoric during the campaign resonated with a people long trying to appeal to a sense of international equality and justice. Despite failed peace efforts and a heinous attack on an already suffocated Gaza, many still remained hopeful.

However, the only real change taking place since Obama’s election is Israel’s continued illegal geographic expansion in the West Bank and increased defiance of international law. Israel continues unchecked settlement expansion and evicting scores of Palestinians and demolishing their houses in Jerusalem, defying their obligations under the 2003 Road Map for Peace.

Factually, there is little change between the Bush and Obama administrations’ approaches to the peace process. Both administrations have failed to enforce Israel’s obligations under the Road Map. Furthermore, the Obama administration has adopted the Bush administration’s failed and flawed policy of supporting one Palestinian faction against the other, rather than unite them under a common theme of mutual interest.

Despite repeated requests from the Obama administration for Israel to stop colonizing Palestinian land, the colonization continues unabated. Israel’s Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, has openly defied and publicly ridiculed U.S. policy.

Yesterday, Israel announced the expansion of yet another illegal settlement. The Obama administration’s response was a toothless statement expressing “dismay”. The failure of successive U.S. administrations to increase political and financial pressure on Israel for violations of international law and U.S. policy has led to a West Bank littered with Israeli settlements and only emboldened the Israeli government to defy us further. Even Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has put what little domestic legitimacy he had left on the line to participate in fruitless negotiations, said yesterday that Obama is “doing nothing” to advance the peace-process right now.

Today the effect of this, especially at this moment in history, is devastating. Palestinians were at the brink after the attacks on Gaza and the only thing that brought them back from the edge was optimism about the future. The focus now has returned to the pain of Gaza and years of wasted time invested in a process that has only resulted in dispossession of the Palestinian people.

There is a communication gap between the U.S., Israel and the Palestinians when defining the goal of a “peace process”. Palestinians, and most of the world, believed the goal was to end the illegal occupation that started in 1967, creating a state in that territory for Palestinians which would ultimately lead to peace in the region. However, Israel’s actions continue to defy that goal. The Israeli government’s continued apartheid-styled occupation jokingly refers to a “piece process” as it continues to carve up Palestinian land one piece at a time. The world is not laughing.

The United States must immediately define to Israel and the Palestinians clear goals with specific and reasonable time tables enforced with tough political and financial repercussions for any party that fails to follow obligations.

Palestinian youth are unlikely to dedicate time to volunteer for President Obama’s re-election and, the way things are going, are unlikely to be living in a free and independent state of Palestine by that time either. The future of the next generation of Palestinians, their ambitions, hopes and desires reflect our policies. So far, these policies have been hopeless."

Yousef Munayyer is Executive Director of the Palestine Center. This policy brief may be used without permission but with proper attribution to the Center.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Performance: Swimming to Spalding

Photo of Lián Amaris: Jesus Sanchez

Directed by Richard Schechner (of East Coast Artists and formerly, The Performance Group), performance artist Lián Amaris goes in search of Spalding Gray's "perfect moment" by following the map of experience described in Gray's masterpiece Swimming to Cambodia, nearly a generation later.

While returning to Gray's traditional story-telling, Amaris also ventures away from the "table and notebook" to embody a year of experiences all over the world- from Bangkok brothels to Baghdad bombings, from Mardi Gras to mental institutions.

HERE Arts Center
145 6th Ave (Enter on Dominick, 1 Block South of Spring)
New York, NY 10013-1548

For Tickets: or call (212) 647-0202

$25 or 2-for-1 at the door with Student ID

Thursday 12/3 Preview 8:30pm
Friday 12/4 Previews 8:30 and 10:30
Saturday 12/5 Preview 4pm and OPENING 8:30pm
Sunday 12/6 Performance 4pm

Wednesday 12/9 Performance 8:30pm
Thursday 12/10 Performance 8:30pm
Friday 12/11 Performances 8:30pm and 10:30pm
Saturday 12/12 Performances 4pm and 8:30pm
Sunday 12/13 Performance 4pm with post-show TALKBACK

Wednesday 12/16 Performance 8:30pm
Thursday 12/17 Performance 8:30pm
Friday 12/18 Performances 8:30pm and 10:30pm
Saturday 12/19 Performances 4pm and 8:30pm
Sunday 12/20 Performance 4pm

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Christian Conservatives Pray for God to Kill President Obama

I have already noted that some self-described "Christian" conservative nutjobs are praying for the death of President Obama. Friend of the blog Atlasien of the great blog Upside Down Adoption informs me that this is called "imprecatory prayer", literally a Church Lady-style prayer against your enemies. A brief Google search of the term yields many frightening contemporary examples of this phenomenon among conservative Christians. I'd assumed praying for the President's death was a fringe sentiment but it appears I was wrong: It has its own t-shirts and slogan--complete with dog-whistle, as noted in the article below.

Does it need to be noted that these are the same "Christians" who are always condemning Islam as an inherently violent religion? Riiiight.

Christian Conservatives Pray for God to Kill President Obama

Via the Cleveland Leader

by Leader Staff on November 18, 2009 - 2:45pm.

"That's not very Christian-like, now is it? Nevertheless, a few religious zealots have taken their dislike of U.S. President Barack Obama to a new level - bumper stickers and t-shirts which command viewers to pray for the president's death. Of course they don't come right out and print "Pray for our President to die". Instead, the perpetrators take a far more cowardly approach, utilizing the slogan "Pray for Obama - Psalm 109:8".

If you take the time to look up Psalm 109:8, you'll notice right off that it is not a happy and cheerful passage. Psalm 109 is better known as "A Cry for Vengeance". Psalm 109:8 specifically reads:

"Let his days be few; and let another take his office."

While that verse does not specifically mention death or harm to the leader in question, read on and you will see that Psalm 109 has a far more sinister message.

6 Appoint [a] an evil man [b] to oppose him;
let an accuser [c] stand at his right hand.

7 When he is tried, let him be found guilty,
and may his prayers condemn him.

8 May his days be few;
may another take his place of leadership.

9 May his children be fatherless
and his wife a widow.

10 May his children be wandering beggars;
may they be driven [d] from their ruined homes.

11 May a creditor seize all he has;
may strangers plunder the fruits of his labor.

12 May no one extend kindness to him
or take pity on his fatherless children.

13 May his descendants be cut off,
their names blotted out from the next generation.

14 May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the LORD;
may the sin of his mother never be blotted out.

In other words, referencing this passage when speaking about President Obama is secret Christian code for "Kill the President." As sad or as crazy as it may be, this veiled death wish is not the first to have arisen since Barack Obama took office in January. Other examples include the classified ad that was placed in a Pennsylvania newspaper hoping that Obama follows in "the footsteps of Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley and Kennedy" - all of whom were assassinated. Then there's also the gun totating teabagger from New Hampshire who waved a sign saying that it is time to "water the tree of liberty", making reference to Thomas Jefferson's reminder that the tree of liberty must from time to time be watered with the "blood of tyrants and patriots".

If you too would like to be added to the Secret Service's watchlist, have your phone calls tapped and emails read, by all means, buy one of the Psalm t-shirts or bumper stickers. It's still a free country after all. But don't say we didn't warn you."

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

YES ARABS CAN! A Night of Comedy

Comedians Maysoon Zayid and Dean Obeidallah

A Night of Comedy with Dean Obeidallah and Maysoon Zayid
Thursday, November 19, 7:00 pm, Wang Center Theater

"Two of the founders of the New York Arab American Comedy Festival come to the Wang Center to make you laugh with their insight and wit.

Born in New Jersey, DEAN OBEIDALLAH's comedy comes in large part from his unique background of being the son of a Palestinian father and a Sicilian mother. Dean, an award-winning comedian has appeared on ABC’s “The View,” Comedy Central’s “Axis of Evil” Comedy special and is the co-creator and co-producer of Comedy’s critically acclaimed Internet series “The Watch List,” featuring a cast of all Middle Eastern-American comedians
performing stand up and sketch comedy.

MAYSOON ZAYID is an actress and professional stand-up comedian, who received her BFA in acting from Arizona State University. Maysoon has performed comedy in top New York clubs, including The Improv, Caroline's, Gotham, and Stand-Up NY, and has toured her stand-up act extensively in both the USA and abroad. Maysoon was the first comedian to perform standup
live in Palestine, performing in Nazareth, Haifa, Bethlehem, Ramallah, and Jerusalem.

Opening Act by SAAD SARWANA
Saad grew up in Pakistan and moved to Canada for college and eventually the US where he completed a graduate degree in physics at Stony Brook. He 's a professional physicist and a published scientist, and still works in Superconductivity. But he continues to make people laugh as "Pakistan's #1 Comic" and the “Wacky Packy.” Saad will have you rolling in laughter as he
breaks stereotypes while talking about physics, racial profiling, and being a Pakistani-Muslim living in the US."

Tickets: $25 for VIP; $15 for General; $10 for Student/Senior
Please reserve your tickets by e-mailing or call (631) 632-4400.

Buy tickets online from the website:

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts seeks artists for Gentrification Project

The Angel of Gentrification, Michael Roman

The Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) is seeking visual, performing, literary, musical and cinematography artists who are either living and working in Brooklyn or have been forced to relocate as a result of gentrification, to submit work that visually represents their own perspectives and opinions on gentrification in the borough of Brooklyn.

The exhibition The Gentrification of Brooklyn: The Pink Elephant Speaks will be on view at MoCADA from February 4, 2010 – May 16, 2010.

All submissions must be received by Monday November 30, 2009

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Deathface at The Trash Bar in BK Saturday

Roberto Osorio, Aidan Collins, John McCann (l-r)

My friend Oso's band Deathface are playing a full set at Trash bar in Williamsburg this Saturday. You should leave your homes and attend. Thank you.


When: Saturday, November 7, 2009
Time: 8:00-11:00pm
Where: TheTrash Bar

256 Grand Street, btw. Driggs and Roebling
Williamsburg, Brooklyn 11211

Open bar from 8-9pm with the $7 admission

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo

Alwan for the Arts presents:

A documentary film by Polly Nash, with Andy Worthington, 74 mins

Co-sponsored by The World Can't Wait

Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo is a new documentary telling the story of Guantánamo with a particular focus on how the Bush administration turned its back on domestic and international laws, how prisoners were rounded up in Afghanistan and Pakistan without adequate screening, and why some of these men may have been in Afghanistan or Pakistan for reasons unconnected with militancy or terrorism.

The film is based around interviews with former prisoners, lawyers for the prisoners, journalist and author Andy Worthington, with appearances from Guantánamo’s former Muslim chaplain James Yee, a London-based imam, and the British human rights lawyer Gareth Peirce.

Focusing on the stories of three particular prisoners -- Shaker Aamer
(who is still held), Binyam Mohamed (who was released in February 2009) and Omar Deghayes -- Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo provides a powerful rebuke to those who believe that Guantánamo holds “the worst of the worst” and that the Bush administration was justified in responding to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 by holding men neither as prisoners of war, protected by the Geneva Conventions, nor as criminal suspects with habeas corpus rights, but as “illegal enemy combatants” with no rights whatsoever.

About the Filmmakers

Polly Nash is a lecturer at the London College Of Communications (LCC), part of the University of the Arts, London, and has worked in film and TV for 20 years.

Andy Worthington is a journalist and blogger, and the author of three books, including The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees.

Alwan for the Arts
16 Beaver Street (between Broad and Broadway), 4th floor,
New York, NY 10004
(646) 732-3261

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Accidental Arab: Alexander Siddig interviewed by Jamal Mahjoub in Bidoun

I am re-posting an excerpt of this interview with the Sundanese/ English actor Alexander Siddig (née Siddig El Tahir El Fadil El Siddig Abderrahman Mohammed Ahmed Abdel Karim El Mahdi), who is best known as Dr. Julian Bashir on Deep Space Nine-- and more recently for a series of noble, if morally ambiguous Arab and Muslim characters in American and European TV and films. I found the interview frustrating, although I admire Bidoun for running it (I love that magazine).

By Jamal Mahjoub for Bidoun Magazine

Jamal Mahjoub: Let’s begin at the beginning. Tell me how your parents met.
Alexander Siddig: My mother had gone to Sudan with a friend, an archaeologist of sorts. He took her to Nubia—it must have been a romantic thing. To impress her, he introduced her to the ruling family at the time. And one of his friends was a young man, Tahir, who became my father. Tahir’s father, I am told, had prophesied that he would marry a white woman. My mother fell in love with him as he walked in, wearing his white djellaba and headscarf. She spent the next three years in Sudan. She was an adventurous spirit. She had lived in Paris. She had a brother, Malcolm McDowell, who was a blossoming film star, so she was quite worldly, quite pragmatic. It was only a few years later, when she brought Tahir back to London, that people would spit on her as she walked along the street. How did your parents meet?

JM: My father was posted to London to take care of the students coming from the Sudan, my mother was a trained accountant working in Sudan House. They got married here and moved to Khartoum. And they stayed there for decades, until the coup, when Omar al-Bashir closed down the Sudan Times, the newspaper where my father was working. But I think our parents must have overlapped in Khartoum for a time. A friend of mine who remembers you as a child described your parents as having a touch of glamour about them. Your father, in particular, had that “mysterious Mahdi thing.”
AS: That would make sense, because they were probably quite cosmopolitan. He had studied at Cambridge in the 50s, he was a socialist, very secular. He spoke the most beautiful, prosaic English and was a meticulous conversationalist.

JM: So your connection to the Sudan was broken off when you came here as a child?
AS: Yes, I only spoke Arabic when I arrived. According to my mother, within six months I had learned English and within two years I had forgotten Arabic.

JM: Did it ever come back?
AS: No, and I never learned it again. I find it very hard to learn it for films. Some of the sounds I find easy, but my accent is very vague and slides around. I miss all the nuances, even if I am listening to someone else speaking. I just hear a noise and repeat it like a song.

JM: So you were completely assimilated?
AS: Totally British. I even picked up a slightly East End accent. I was at an Anglican school. Singing Sunday worship with all the other Christians, playing cricket—I was, you know, perfectly happy. I was only exposed to English people—in school, in my mother’s milieu. At that time she was a publicist in the theater world.

JM: At some stage in this, you decided you wanted to become an actor.
AS: Not until very, very late. I am by nature not someone who decides things for myself ahead of time. It never occurred to me until much later, when I was about twenty and I had finished schooling and gone to university and left after a year. Then I went to drama school. I remember thinking that being a director would be something I would really enjoy—I love working with actors.

JM: It didn’t occur to you that you had what it took to be an actor yourself?
AS: I was a skinny boy. I wasn’t what I thought of as Hollywood material. And I’ve never liked being in the limelight. Then someone called. They wanted me to do a TV show. Then another film came up where they were looking for an Arab actor. That was A Dangerous Man, starring Ralph Fiennes and produced by David Puttnam. This was big league. It was somehow much easier to act on film than it was onstage.

JM: And already you were playing Arabs.
AS: Playing Arabs. But I was totally English. I certainly wouldn’t have described myself as Arab.

JM: So you find yourself in this strange situation where you don’t see yourself as Arab, but you are playing one on all fronts.
AS: Yes—more absurd than ever because I don’t even consider myself an actor! So I am really just busking this, trying to get away with it. I’m getting paid. I wasn’t getting paid as a director.

JM: In A Dangerous Man you played Prince Faisal—following in the footsteps of Alec Guinness in Lawrence of Arabia.
AS: Yes, I even got a letter from Alec Guinness afterwards, saying, “What a lovely job.” But there was no competition. There was no one else, apart from Omar Sharif, who had long since become a different animal. No one had been introduced, so it was quite glamorous. A lot of people in England and America had never seen an Arab man. I was of course half-English, half-Arab, and I had nothing to do with the part of the world I was portraying.

JM: But you wouldn’t even explain...
AS: No, I would say my father is Sudanese. It gave me the credentials to play an Arab. I think it still does, because the Arab roles I play are not designed for Arab people, they are designed for the West. So, being half-Arab and half-English, I think you make a good messenger, in the same way as in your novels. You can express what you need to for an ear that is not accustomed to an Arab speaking. As a half-and-half person, you are bicultural in some weird way. It’s like a language, and to be able to speak in a culturally understandable, coherent way is very valuable. It was very glamorous. I suddenly had money to burn. And as a result of Dangerous Man, I got the job on Star Trek.

JM: Which is like a world unto itself.
AS: I was on a course to being where I am now before Star Trek, which was a complete interruption. Don’t forget that at that point in my life, I didn’t have a philosophical compass for how I should be as an actor.

JM: Going to LA meant you were in the Hollywood system.
AS: I never looked for another job while I was doing Star Trek. The Arab world wasn’t on the radar. There weren’t even Arab taxi drivers in New York. It was all just starting.

JM: Thinking about your connection to the Mahdi, I notice that Deep Space Nine has a strong spiritual angle to it, all about prophecies and oracles.
AS: It’s a soap opera, for mass consumption. For two million dollars an episode, they’ve got to deliver mass-market product. The religious aspect was really a thinly-veiled nod toward Palestine. It was all about terrorism, which was quite prophetic. I was about as apolitical as you could be at that point. I barely read a book in a year. I watched loads of movies. I played loads of computer games. I wasn’t hedonistic. I didn’t get massively drunk. I didn’t take many drugs. By the end, I began to become more frustrated with politics in America. Also I had had a child and got married. I’d changed my name for ordinary reasons of people being able to say my name.

JM: So what happened after Star Trek? You left LA not long after, right?
AS: Los Angeles felt like the wrong place to be, so I took my family and we went up to New York. The town seemed dark and dismal and boring. Lonely. But it wasn’t, that was just my life. And I couldn’t find any work. I did a couple of films right away. Vertical Limit and Reign of Fire. In Vertical Limit I had six lines. I spent six months in New Zealand to deliver those lines. I was playing a kind of Afghani or Pakistani Sherpa dude, a mountain guide. It was fun. It kept me going financially. No one was sending me scripts. No one wanted to know, really. I was flailing. My marriage was falling to pieces. In my imagination, we were in New York for a ridiculously large amount of time. It was a year. And then they blew up the World Trade Center.

JM: You were there?
AS: My wife and son were. I had gone back to England on September 10. I was going to direct a film. The very next day, they blew the building up. And that was the beginning of a new chapter of my life, the beginning of becoming Arab, becoming politicized. I think that happened to the whole swath of people who have Arabic or Islam in their culture. Everybody had to change their tune on that day.

JM: Certainly, you had to have a position.
AS: You and I particularly. It’s as much an internal problem as it is external. Your father is Sudanese and your mother English. These are the two sides, which are at war.

JM: It did seem to have repercussions everywhere. My children in Denmark began to feel confused about where they belonged. It sent a seismic shock through what was already a very uneasy social fabric.
AS: My ex-wife changed my son’s last name so that it didn’t sound Arabic. All sorts of things happened. And I started to work. After about six months, people began to approach me with projects.

JM: That fast? Was that The Hamburg Cell?
AS: Yes. The director, Antonia Bird, was a fan and just wanted me in the film. She gave me a cameo as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. It was the first of those movies discussing that subject and probably the last that I did. But actually the first thing to come out was an episode of Spooks, which I did after The Hamburg Cell.

JM: Your character in Spooks, Ibhn Khaldun, was quite complex—a reformed terrorist, a freedom fighter now committed to trying to stop the violence. You come across the channel clinging to the back of a train in a very elegant white suit.
AS: That was the beginning of a particular crusade of mine. The first of a series of characters in which I have tried to explore that element of academic Arabs who are disenfranchised by the modern militant wave, whose ideas of Islam have been completely usurped by a much more vocal youth and the various clerics. To me, he represents old Islam, where you can shake someone’s hand or have a whiskey and talk about whatever.

JM: So, a familiarity with the West while remaining rooted in Arab culture?
AS: That character was a godsend, because it enabled me right away to portray various aspects of an Arab man who was readily credible. He came out of a new identity I was looking for, trying to take a snapshot of this guy before he disappears. He was my father. He was your father. He was the father of all the generations that had a liberal upbringing and didn’t make a lot of money.

JM: That episode of Spooks was written by Howard Brenton, the playwright, wasn’t it? Your character comes across with tremendous confidence. You know who you are. The British agents have to trust in someone they don’t understand. The story hinges on that doubt, that blind spot in the West’s understanding of what is going on.
AS: The point is—and why this can be a trap for young Arab actors right now—is not to be too sentimental, too giving. We are tough. It’s a tough ethnicity. It’s not a sentimental culture. This is dark stuff. No bunnies. No dogs on the sofa. And it would have been a betrayal of this man that I had in my head had I let him be anything but a very tough man who was empathetic. All of the characters are defiant, from that time to the present day. They change a little bit in their detail, but they firmly stamp that this guy exists and he’s no fool. He is extremely sophisticated and learned. He’s someone you can talk to, make a deal with, make peace with.

JM: He’s also the archetype of old Arab nationalism, the intelligentsia who became marginalized, the technocrats of Nasser’s early ambitions. But they were deemed a threat, and the West feared them. So did Nasser, who imprisoned them. They left a void that was eventually filled by political Islam.
AS: At one end of the scale you have Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabism—very proud, extremely strong, capable of creating enormous trouble, vis-à-vis Suez, and on the other hand you have the Saddam Husseins, who are extremely weak but very useful to the British and Americans. My guy is more in the territory of Nasser, though I know Nasser is no hero. In his original vision he was quite an extraordinary Saladin figure.

JM: You went on to use a variation on that character in 24.
AS: 24 was very much in the same mold as Spooks, though I didn’t have the same freedom. I was still able to do stuff, still able to be quite attractive and charismatic—so much so that there was a plan to keep me and Kiefer Sutherland together. We were going to be a double act. So this character just came along and, yes, he’s sexy and dangerous. He’s capable of destroying the World Trade Center, and yet we are drawn to him.

JM: We need him.
AS: At this point we need him. So this was a very definite linear continuation. But then go back to the Kingdom of Heaven, for example, which I think is one of the bravest films to be made in the early part of this century, because it was the first film after 9/11 that said Arabs were cool. It was a tipping point that started a slew of films discussing Arab culture and Islam, reversing the process of vilification.

JM: Well, Kingdom of Heaven was certainly radical by Hollywood terms, though very much in line with Amin Maalouf’s book, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, published twenty years earlier. People stood up and cheered in the cinemas in Beirut when Saladin paused in the church in Jerusalem to lift a fallen cross and put it back in its place.
AS: I think it’s an amazing piece. I’m not sure that the whole is as great as the sum of its parts. The film is better dissected. Nevertheless, I’d found my theme as an actor. This seems to be a kind of obsession of mine. The more I see pictures on Al Jazeera or the BBC of mad Arabs with blood running down their faces, wailing because their children have just been blown up in front of them, the more I want to show a solid, still figure.

JM: I was in the West Bank last year for the Palestine Festival of Literature. And the humiliation that you feel just going through a checkpoint made me realize how difficult it is to imagine people still enduring, still working for peace and not succumbing to the same madness.
AS: The trouble is more and more people have no idea about it. I read Haaretz on the internet as a matter of interest, and they are fierce. I am looking forward to going out there in a couple of weeks to see for myself.

JM: It seems to me that your allegiance to this man, this Arab intellectual, is driven by political awareness, but also by personal questions about your own identity and your relationship to your father.
AS: That’s absolutely true. It is self-motivated in that sense and also self-serving. This is the world I would like. These aren’t choices for everyone. This will be the man, the only Arab man that most people are going to remember. Albeit they’ve met him onscreen, they actually form a relationship with him.

JM: I had a similar thing when I began writing my first novel. I was living in London and was aware of the nonexistence of the world I came from. In order to tell my story, I first had to tell the story of Sudan. Being between cultures involves a relationship with both sides, where nothing can be taken for granted. It demands constant interrogation.
AS: In terms of my identity, the childhood need to be English no longer exists. And the forcibly adult Arabism, I’m very aware that it’s happening. This character I’m picking more on the ambassadorial level with much less “them and us” in mind.

JM: You come back to him again in Syriana.
AS: Syriana was kind of going back to the Prince Faisal character, but again he was a tough negotiator. He was a potential Nasser. That was a definite shot at the Emirates, at Dubai, at Qatar, all those states that live behind the smokescreen of American protection.

JM: Have you been back to Sudan since you acquired this new role, this new persona?
AS: No. I went back in 1985. It was uncomfortable. My cousins and aunts and uncles seemed like aliens to me, and I missed the creature comforts of the West. I felt like we spoke a completely different language. It was a bit of a barren visit. I am very ambivalent about my feelings toward the Sudan. The Sudan I remember, the Sudan in my head, is full of generous people who help, just a rich vein of generosity. My family was very much Sudanese, very much part of the blood of Northern Sudan. There was never any sense of “us” and “them.” My grandmother used to take food down to the mosque to feed the children every day. Obviously, they were wealthy, but it wasn’t an ostentatious wealth. It was still sandstone walls. The sense that you could put yourself in a glass-and-steel tower and not interact with “those people” down there did not exist. People were extremely caring and loving and great, and I know that not to be true anymore.

JM: Well, it’s still true of a good number of people.
AS: Still true of a good number of them—but they’re being beaten, too, right now, and they are finding it harder and harder to be sweet and generous. The youngsters are growing up militants.

JM: I went back a couple of years ago for the first time in a long time. It has changed, of course—the old middle class has disappeared, and there is the new oil wealth. Still, a lot of people are dissatisfied with what has become of the place.
AS: I am frightened of what I would think of the Sudan now. I think I would probably despise it.

JM: So where do you go from here? You now have more freedom to choose your projects.
AS: In terms of where I want to go, like Pirandello, I am always in search of an author. I have done two films for Arab women directors, and I look forward to doing more. I have a lot of faith in women in the Arab world.

JM: Those were Un homme perdu and Cairo Time?
AS: Un homme perdu was the first. Cairo Time hasn’t come out yet—a love story by Ruba Nadda, a Canadian/Syrian filmmaker, a very big up-and-coming director. Un homme perdu was more in an artistic vein. That character was the personification of the sadness of the Arab world and more a performance art piece than a narrative film.

JM: Does this mean you’re moving away from Hollywood toward more Middle Eastern and European ventures, more art films, more experimental?
AS: If the characters are there, yes. In Hollywood, I would play a small part. So, I’m just in with all the other actors. But if it is an auteur piece, I will usually play the lead, or one of those leads.

JM: Do you think film is moving on from more immediate reactions to current events, to exploring more complex aspects of the Arab world?
AS: I am looking for solid characters, more in the old-fashioned way that books and films are very similar, rather than segmented films with uneven time. The great narratives, the great stories, have been appealing to all cultures, whether they are written by Tolstoy, or Garcia Marquez, or Mahfouz, and they are usually very simple stories. The film I am about to shoot in Israel with Julian Schnabel is about a very simple man who doesn’t want to fight. He’s a husband and a father.

JM: Beyond that, you have no idea what he is?
AS: No. Most women actors over history have never known what they do—just the housewife or the girlfriend. I’m just the man in this scenario. Which means that I’ll probably make him something like a gardener—something I understand."