Friday, January 29, 2010

Shereen El Feki: Pop culture in the Arab world

My colleague Hazem Azmy forwarded the link to this video of a short talk by Shereen El Feki on "Pop culture in the Arab world". Although she seems to be concentrating primarily on the Islamic Arab world... Arab Christians only appear in her talk as a too-sexy pop-culture counter-example, something I am still thinking about (I am a Maronite Catholic and, in my particularly Mediterranean brand of Christianity there nothing wrong with a hot Lebanese Pin-up girl) But of course I understand the potential Islamic objections to this sort of entertainment and perhaps the need for alternatives.

So, for me at least, there are more questions here that need to be unpacked... especially in terms of the way that religious paradigms shape cultural expressions. But I really love her point about the "mesh 0f civilizations", which is a much more realistic description of the way culture actually flows back and forth irrespective of national borders, religious proscriptions and/or political expediencies. I wish she'd included a historical element to this point, especially since Arab and Islamic innovation, which bled into Europe through trade helped pull Europe out of its Dark Ages...

I have included the transcript below.


"Hello everyone. Because this is my first time at TED, I've decided to bring along an old friend to help break the ice a bit. Yes. That's right. This is Barbie. She's 50 years old. And she's looking as young as ever. (Laughter) But I'd also like to introduce you to what may be an unfamiliar face. This is Fulla. Fulla is the Arab world's answer to Barbie. Now, according the proponents of the clash of civilizations, both Barbie and Fulla occupy these completely separate spheres. They have different interests. They have divergent values. And should they ever come in contact ... well, I've got to tell you, it's just not going to be pretty. My experience however, in the Islamic world is very different. Where I work, in the Arab region, people are busy taking up Western innovations and changing them into things which are neither conventionally Western, nor are they traditionally Islamic. I want to show you two examples. The first is 4Shbab. It means "for youth" and it's a new Arab TV channel.

(Video): Video clips from across the globe. The USA. ♫ I am not afraid to stand alone ♫ ♫ I am not afraid to stand alone, if Allah is by my side ♫ ♫ I am not afraid to stand alone ♫ ♫ Everything will be all right ♫ ♫ I am not afraid to stand alone ♫ The Arab world. (Music) ♫ (Urdu) ♫

Shereen El Feki: 4Shbab has been dubbed Islamic MTV. Its creator, who is an Egyptian TV producer called Ahmed Abou Haïba, wants young people to be inspired by Islam to lead better lives. He reckons the best way to get that message across is to use the enormously popular medium of music videos. 4Shbab was set up as an alternative to existing Arab music channels. And they look something like this.

(Music Video featuring sexy girl writhing)

That, by the way is Haifa Wehbe. She's a Lebanese pop star and pan-Arab pin-up girl. In the world of 4Shbab, it's not about bump and grind. But it's not about fire and brimstone either. It's videos are intended to show a kinder, gentler face of Islam, for young people to deal with life's challenges. Now, my second example is for a slightly younger crowd. And it's called "The 99." Now, these are the world's first Islamic superheros. They were created by a Kuwaiti psychologist called Nayef Al Mutawa. And his desire is to rescue Islam from images of intolerance, all in a child-friendly format. "The 99," the characters are meant to embody the 99 attributes of Allah, justice, wisdom, mercy, among others. So, for example, there is the character of Noora. She is meant to have the power to look inside people and see the good and bad in everyone. Another character called Jami has the ability to create fantastic inventions. Now, "The 99" is not just a comic book. It's now a theme park. There is an animated series in the works. And by this time next year the likes of Superman and Wonder Woman will have joined forces with "The 99" to beat injustice wherever they find it. "The 99" and 4Shbab are just two of many examples of this sort of Islamic cross-cultural hybridization. We're not talking here about a clash of civilizations. Nor is it some sort of indistinguishable mash. I like to think of it as a mesh of civilizations, in which the strands of different cultures are intertwined (emphasis mine).

Now, while 4Shbab and "The 99" may look new and shiny, there is actually a very long tradition of this. Throughout its history has borrowed and adapted from other civilizations both ancient and modern. After all it's the Quran which encourages us to do this. "We made you into nations and tribes so that you could learn from one another." And to my mind, those are pretty wise words, no matter what your creed. Thank you. (Applause)"

"Shereen El Feki is based in Cairo, where she works on issues related to health and social welfare in the Arab region. Half-Egyptian, half-Welsh, Shereen was brought up in Canada. She started her professional life in medical science, with a PhD in molecular immunology from the University of Cambridge, and later worked as Healthcare Correspondent at The Economist magazine.

In recent years, Shereen has re-oriented her career towards the Arab world. While she has worked in regional media, as a presenter with the Al Jazeera Network, and continues to write on social issues in the Arab world, her passion lies in the many projects in which she is involved which aim to better understand, and surmount, the social challenges facing Arabs, particularly young people."

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A History Lesson, Pt.3: To Heal Haiti, Look to History, Not Nature

... I hadn't intended to continue to blog about Haiti. But the tragedy, and the responses to it have raised all sorts of flags re: racism and its sustaining institutions--especially colonialism, so I feel an obligation to respond. I have reposted an excellent New York Times Op-Ed from Mark Danner below that makes the crucial point that the West has essentialized Haitian suffering separate from any historical perspective, which necessarily includes colonialism: a move that should be familiar to those of us who write about Palestine. Danner's essay eloquently describes the fear of free black people the United States displayed from the first moments of Haiti's revolution.

New York Times
January 22, 2010
Op-Ed Contributor

To Heal Haiti, Look to History, Not Nature

"HAITI is everybody’s cherished tragedy. Long before the great earthquake struck the country like a vengeful god, the outside world, and Americans especially, described, defined, marked Haiti most of all by its suffering. Epithets of misery clatter after its name like a ball and chain: Poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. One of the poorest on earth. For decades Haiti’s formidable immiseration has made it among outsiders an object of fascination, wonder and awe. Sometimes the pity that is attached to the land — and we see this increasingly in the news coverage this past week — attains a tone almost sacred, as if Haiti has taken its place as a kind of sacrificial victim among nations, nailed in its bloody suffering to the cross of unending destitution.

And yet there is nothing mystical in Haiti’s pain, no inescapable curse that haunts the land. From independence and before, Haiti’s harms have been caused by men, not demons. Act of nature that it was, the earthquake last week was able to kill so many because of the corruption and weakness of the Haitian state, a state built for predation and plunder. Recovery can come only with vital, even heroic, outside help; but such help, no matter how inspiring the generosity it embodies, will do little to restore Haiti unless it addresses, as countless prior interventions built on transports of sympathy have not, the man-made causes that lie beneath the Haitian malady.

In 1804 the free Republic of Haiti was declared in almost unimaginable triumph: hard to exaggerate the glory of that birth. Hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans had labored to make Saint-Domingue, as Haiti was then known, the richest colony on earth, a vastly productive slave-powered factory producing tons upon tons of sugar cane, the 18th-century’s great cash crop. For pre-Revolutionary France, Haiti was an inexhaustible cash cow, floating much of its economy. Generation after generation, the second sons of the great French families took ship for Saint-Domingue to preside over the sugar plantations, enjoy the favors of enslaved African women and make their fortunes.

Even by the standards of the day, conditions in Saint-Domingue’s cane fields were grisly and brutal; slaves died young, and in droves; they had few children. As exports of sugar and coffee boomed, imports of fresh Africans boomed with them. So by the time the slaves launched their great revolt in 1791, most of those half-million blacks had been born in Africa, spoke African languages, worshipped African gods.

In an immensely complex decade-long conflict, these African slave-soldiers, commanded by legendary leaders like Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, defeated three Western armies, including the unstoppable superpower of the day, Napoleonic France. In an increasingly savage war — “Burn houses! Cut off heads!” was the slogan of Dessalines — the slaves murdered their white masters, or drove them from the land.

On Jan. 1, 1804, when Dessalines created the Haitian flag by tearing the white middle from the French tricolor, he achieved what even Spartacus could not: he had led to triumph the only successful slave revolt in history. Haiti became the world’s first independent black republic and the second independent nation in the Western Hemisphere.

Alas, the first such republic, the United States, despite its revolutionary creed that “all men are created equal,” looked upon these self-freed men with shock, contempt and fear. Indeed, to all the great Western trading powers of the day — much of whose wealth was built on the labor of enslaved Africans — Haiti stood as a frightful example of freedom carried too far. American slaveholders desperately feared that Haiti’s fires of revolt would overleap those few hundred miles of sea and inflame their own human chattel.

For this reason, the United States refused for nearly six decades even to recognize Haiti. (Abraham Lincoln finally did so in 1862.) Along with the great colonial powers, America instead rewarded Haiti’s triumphant slaves with a suffocating trade embargo — and a demand that in exchange for peace the fledgling country pay enormous reparations to its former colonial overseer. Having won their freedom by force of arms, Haiti’s former slaves would be made to purchase it with treasure.

The new nation, its fields burned, its plantation manors pillaged, its towns devastated by apocalyptic war, was crushed by the burden of these astronomical reparations, payments that, in one form or another, strangled its economy for more than a century. It was in this dark aftermath of war, in the shadow of isolation and contempt, that Haiti’s peculiar political system took shape, mirroring in distorted form, like a wax model placed too close to the fire, the slave society of colonial times.

At its apex, the white colonists were supplanted by a new ruling class, made up largely of black and mulatto officers. Though these groups soon became bitter political rivals, they were as one in their determination to maintain in independent Haiti the cardinal principle of governance inherited from Saint-Domingue: the brutal predatory extraction of the country’s wealth by a chosen powerful few.

The whites on their plantations had done this directly, exploiting the land they owned with the forced labor of their slaves. But the slaves had become soldiers in a victorious revolution, and those who survived demanded as their reward a part of the rich land on which they had labored and suffered. Soon after independence most of the great plantations were broken up, given over to the former slaves, establishing Haiti as a nation of small landowners, one whose isolated countryside remained, in language, religion and culture, largely African.

Unable to replace the whites in their plantation manors, Haiti’s new elite moved from owning the land to fighting to control the one institution that could tax its products: the government. While the freed slaves worked their small fields, the powerful drew off the fruits of their labor through taxes. In this disfigured form the colonial philosophy endured: ruling had to do not with building or developing the country but with extracting its wealth. “Pluck the chicken,” proclaimed Dessalines — now Emperor Jacques I — “but don’t make it scream.”

In 1806, two years after independence, the emperor was bayoneted by a mostly mulatto cabal of officers. Haitian history became the immensely complex tale of factional struggles to control the state, with factions often defined by an intricate politics of skin color. There was no method of succession ultimately recognized as legitimate, no tradition of loyal opposition. Politics was murderous, operatic, improvisational. Instability alternated with autocracy. The state was battled over and won; Haiti’s wealth, once seized, purchased allegiance — but only for a time. Fragility of rule and uncertainty of tenure multiplied the imperative to plunder. Unseated rulers were sometimes killed, more often exiled, but always their wealth — that part of it not sent out of the country — was pillaged in its turn.

In 1915 the whites returned: the United States Marines disembarked to enforce continued repayment of the original debt and to put an end to an especially violent struggle for power that, in the shadow of World War I and German machinations in the Caribbean, suddenly seemed to threaten American interests. During their nearly two decades of rule, the Americans built roads and bridges, centralized the Haitian state — setting the stage for the vast conurbation of greater Port-au-Prince that we see today in all its devastation — and sent Haitians abroad to be educated as agronomists and doctors in the hope of building a more stable middle class.

Still, by the time they finally left, little in the original system had fundamentally changed. Haitian nationalism, piqued by the reappearance of white masters who had forced Haitians to work in road gangs, produced the noiriste movement that finally brought to power in 1957 François Duvalier, the most brilliant and bloody of Haiti’s dictators, who murdered tens of thousands while playing adroitly on cold-war America’s fear of communism to win American acceptance.

Duvalier’s epoch, which ended with the overthrow of his son Jean-Claude in 1986, ushered in Haiti’s latest era of instability, which has seen, in barely a quarter-century, several coups and revolutions, a handful of elections (aborted, rigged and, occasionally, fair), a second American occupation (whose accomplishments were even more ephemeral than the first) and, all told, a dozen Haitian rulers. Less and less money now comes from the land, for Haiti’s topsoil has grown enfeebled from overproduction and lack of investment. Aid from foreigners, nations or private organizations, has largely supplanted it: under the Duvaliers Haiti became the great petri dish of foreign aid. A handful of projects have done lasting good; many have been self-serving and even counterproductive. All have helped make it possible, by lifting basic burdens of governance from Haiti’s powerful, for the predatory state to endure.

The struggle for power has not ended. Nor has Haiti’s historic proclivity for drama and disaster. Undertaken in their wake, the world’s interventions — military and civilian, and accompanied as often as not by a grand missionary determination to “rebuild Haiti” — have had as their single unitary principle their failure to alter what is most basic in the country, the reality of a corrupt state and the role, inadvertent or not, of outsiders in collaborating with it.

The sound of Haiti’s suffering is deafening now but behind it one can hear already a familiar music begin to play. Haiti must be made new. This kind of suffering so close to American shores cannot be countenanced. The other evening I watched a television correspondent shake his head over what he movingly described as a “stupid death” — a death that, but for the right medical care, could have been prevented. “It doesn’t have to happen,” he told viewers. “People died today who did not need to die.” He did not say what any Haitian could have told him: that the day before, and the day before that, Haiti had seen hundreds of such “stupid deaths,” and, over the centuries, thousands more. What has changed, once again, and only for a time, is the light shone on them, and the volume of the voices demanding that a “new Haiti” must now be built so they never happen again.

Whether they can read or not, Haiti’s people walk in history, and live in politics. They are independent, proud, fiercely aware of their own singularity. What distinguishes them is a tradition of heroism and a conviction that they are and will remain something distinct, apart — something you can hear in the Creole spoken in the countryside, or the voodoo practiced there, traces of the Africa that the first generation of revolutionaries brought with them on the middle passage.

Haitians have grown up in a certain kind of struggle for individuality and for power, and the country has proved itself able to absorb the ardent attentions of outsiders who, as often as not, remain blissfully unaware of their own contributions to what Haiti is. Like the ruined bridges strewn across the countryside — one of the few traces of the Marines and their occupation nearly a century ago — these attentions tend to begin in evangelical zeal and to leave little lasting behind.

What might, then? America could start by throwing open its markets to Haitian agricultural produce and manufactured goods, broadening and making permanent the provisions of a promising trade bill negotiated in 2008. Such a step would not be glamorous; it would not “remake Haiti.” But it would require a lasting commitment by American farmers and manufacturers and, as the country heals, it would actually bring permanent jobs, investment and income to Haiti.

Second, the United States and other donors could make a formal undertaking to ensure that the vast amounts that will soon pour into the country for reconstruction go not to foreigners but to Haitians — and not only to Haitian contractors and builders but to Haitian workers, at reasonable wages. This would put real money in the hands of many Haitians, not just a few, and begin to shift power away from both the rapacious government and the well-meaning and too often ineffectual charities that seek to circumvent it. The world’s greatest gift would be to make it possible, and necessary, for Haitians — all Haitians — to rebuild Haiti.

Putting money in people’s hands will not make Haiti’s predatory state disappear. But in time, with rising incomes and a concomitant decentralization of power, it might evolve. In coming days much grander ambitions are sure to be declared, just as more scenes of disaster and disorder will transfix us, more stunning and colorful images of irresistible calamity. We will see if the present catastrophe, on a scale that dwarfs all that have come before, can do anything truly to alter the reality of Haiti."

Mark Danner is the author, most recently, of “Stripping Bare the Body: Politics, Violence, War,” which chronicles political conflict in Haiti, the Balkans, Iraq and the United States.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Haiti and the Difference Between Looting and Finding

The difference between "looting" and "finding"

These are, as they say, interesting times. Haiti remains an open wound and I am attentive to the ways that the story is framed in the mainstream media and on (in? around? among?) the blogosphere. Partly out of solidarity with Haitians, whose situation is tragic and partly because it is a text book case of the ways Western/ European nations deal with the "postcolonial" Global South, in which pity for human suffering is so often rendered grotesque by revulsion and judgment. I had a run-in online recently that crystallized this formula for me.

As an experiment I joined Open Salon and set up a Vs. the Pomegranate outpost there in an attempt to broaden my readership. I'll be honest with you, it isn't going great. The interface there is wonky so it took me forever to set up but once I got going I decided to have a look around. Back in the day I used to read Salon-proper and I still like columnist Glenn Greenwald a lot so how bad could it be?


The casual racism there is jaw-dropping. (I'm not even gonna get into Orientalism and Islamophobia in this post, but they are also well-represented thereabouts). It's an overwhelmingly white space, but lefty-leaning. There are some conservative cranks there, just like everywhere, but the overall tone of the community is kind of "Middle Class White Liberal": Home turf of the PUMAs but you know, lotta Obama '08 bumper stickers too... So, even though I probably shouldn't have been I was thrown by some of the stuff I read about Haiti.

As I was poking around I came across a post by Open Salon Blogger Heather Michon called "The Language of Looting" which she'd written, taken down and reposted in the space of a few hours. Apparently incensed by criticisms of coverage that focuses on looting in Haiti, Michon writes,

"Most of the blogo-punditry has deemed any coverage or mention of looting or lawlessness as 'racist,' hearkening back to shoddy, race-tinged reporting in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Theoretically, these critics would prefer the media make no mention of post-disaster violence, and focus exclusively on the stories of people coming together in the face of catastrophe. Moreover, they'd prefer a narrative of lawlessness as a socially-acceptable response to a desperate situation."

Um, what?

Michon continues,

"This is the language we have to work with: to loot means to plunder, and to plunder means to seize wrongfully or by force. The Germans call it 'pluendern.' The French say 'pillage.' Spaniards call it 'saquero.' In every language, the word 'looting' carries within it the terrible breakdown of civic order. And this is exactly why the media needs to keep covering it. Because lawlesslness is indicative of a much larger, more critical issue than racism."

I... what?

Michon concludes,

"While individual groups are doing extraordinary work, their efforts are diluted by the inability of the Haitian government, the United Nations, and the United States to come together and get a command-and-control system in place that gives the people of Haiti the security, the food, the water and the medical care they need to get through this disaster. Yes, the situation is complicated and yes, the challenges are huge. But a week, and people are still hungry, still thirsty, still walking around piles of unburied bodies and nursing unattended wounds? Huge piles of food are still sitting at the airport? Roads still obstructed? No centralized clinics and feeding stations set up throughout the city? So I say to the people of Haiti: Loot and lynch away. Wave those machetes. Set stuff on fire. Walk up to Anderson Cooper and pop him in the chops. (Trust me, CNN will replay it ten times an hour.) Do whatever you have to do to scare those in charge into helping you."

So... if you mention race at all you are doing "shoddy reporting" (you know, like after Katrina), looting is a breakdown of the social order, which is more important than racism (and not at all related to it), but Haitians, who have been failed by their own government should do it to force them into helping?

That is crazy. Seriously, tiny wooden Austrians should emerge from that argument every hour on the hour and bow to one another. Nevertheless, it was an Open Salon Editor's Pick. What. The. Fuck.

When questioned about her points (in the mildest way) by some of the commenters Michon reacted defensively, writing,

"See, this is why I deleted this goddamn thing in the first place, and why I'm tempted to pull it down again -- because I knew a fair number of people were going to misinterpret.

1) "Looting" is race neutral.

2) Looting is not morally neutral. It's morally UNDERSTANDABLE, and as I said, I would likely do it myself in similar circumstances, but it DOES have an impact on those who are the victims of looted, and that's not something we should trivialize as "well, they're just trying to survive." It's not a victimless act. That's why looters quite often end up shot, stabbed, hung or beaten to death.

3) Etymologically, looting indicates a response to a breakdown in civil, civic and legal order. That's the only thing that's really important in Haiti right now: looting as a leading indicator of the current state of affairs in this devastated country. And if showing looting on international television gets puts wheels in motion, that's all that matters right now."

In response a commenter named sagemerlin wrote, "You're making an important point. First, we complain when the media doesn't do its job and fails to report the dark side of the story. Then we complain when the media does it's job and shows us exactly what's going on on the grounds that it is prejudicial to people of color. Get over it. The news is the news and when it is playing out right in front of you, unedited and not commented upon, you're getting the raw truth. If you can't handle it, dig a hole in the ground and stick your head in it."

Hazel Singer added, "I believe that the words 'looting' and 'plunder' were used to describe the behaviour of the Wall Street gang. These words have also described the behaviour of Mugabe and others. Bad behaviour is not bound by skin colour or class."

sickofstupid argued, "I am so sick of people seeing "racist" terminology everywhere they look, for many reasons, particularly because these same people who see racism everywhere don't seem to know the correct definition or usage of the word. Also, because "poor" isn't a race. Those who make claims of "racism" tend to completely ignore the plight of those who are poor but have skin of lighter shades; it seems to me that these days, to be poor and white means that you currently are among those who are most disenfranchised."

And Gordon Osmond expounded, "It's too bad that some rabid partisans use this human tragedy as an excuse to take a punch at O'Reilly and FOX News. Actually, O'Reilly would probably do a better job than most in making sure that aid resources are honestly distributed without diversion to corrupt politicians."

... That earned some boos from the other regulars, but while Osmond was overtly conservative in his criticism of Haiti and Haitians the "liberals" weren't doing much better.

New Buddha Fun wrote, "My position attacks those who do the looting and pillaging because I find it reprehensible and insulting that poor people have to revert to savage and brutal behavior when natural calamities occur...rather than pulling together and helping one another. Ultimately this type of selfish behavior is indicative of WHY THEY ARE POOR in the first place. If they learned how to pull together in times of calm and peace...they would have their situation improved. It is very revealing insight into the world's poor when something like this happens."


In case you weren't keeping track, the "bad guys" identified by Michon and her readers are: The Haitian government, Haitian gangs, PC-loving partisans, and those selfish Haitian poor... And this is from (mostly) liberals.

So I wrote,

"Here is the difference Heather: if there were a comparable natural disaster on the Upper West Side people would be doing exactly the same thing but the press would be calling it "The Triumph Of The American Will to Survive." The reporting on Haiti that focuses on the looting does so to make a point about the character of the Haitian people, not the desperation of their circumstances. And essays like yours try to have it both ways, display pity for the Haitian people, which proves you are a *good* person, while maintaining a tastefully curled lip at their behavior. It reads to me like you are struggling between pity and disgust so you are trying to use one feeling to justify the other. I think perhaps you know this, which is why you deleted it in the first place.

Do I think the looting in Haiti should be reported on? Of course, it is part of this tragedy. But when (not if, When) emphasis on the (Ha!) "dark side of the story" (thanks for the unintentionally revealing phrase sagemerlin) is employed--as it was in Katrina--to dehumanize the victims of this disaster I am going to say so. The demand to control the narrative of other people is the very definition of white/western privilege.

If your point is that looting = a breakdown in civil order well then, duh. There was a massive old-testament earthquake Heather. There are no hospitals left standing. People are dying in the streets. What exactly do you expect? Forgive me, but it begins to seem suspicious that you would make such a point about "civil order" at this particular moment. The fact that you understand so little the tragic colonial history of Haiti that you would blame the Haitians themselves for their lack of infrastructure tells me all I need to know about where you are coming from here."

As I've written here and here there has been precious little discussion of American and European culpability for Haiti's lack of infrastructure and that absence creates a model of suffering that is self-sustaining:

Haiti is a mess because Haiti is mess.

Haiti is lawless because Haitians are lawless.

Haiti cannot be saved because Haitians cannot be trusted to run their own country.

... And already the familiar refrain against Haitian immigration to Europe and the United States is beginning again.

If white liberals can't see that making a moral judgment about the "bad behavior" of looting after an MGM Technicolor epic natural disaster in a majority Black country that has been crippled by colonialism and its aftermath is not "race-neutral", then I don't even know what to say next. This is the same logic that repeatedly calls for the Palestinians to "get their act together" in order for the peace process to move forward. It is racism disguised as rationality.

If this is any indication of the level of discourse it is going to be a fun (meaning not fun) couple of years.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Screening and Discussion: A Road to Mecca: The Journey of Muhammad Asad. Discussion with Talal Asad and Joseph Massad

Screening and Discussion: A Road to Mecca: The Journey of Muhammad Asad. Discussion with Talal Asad and Joseph Massad

Wed, January 27, 2010 7:00 pm at Alwan for the Arts

Georg Misch Austria, 2009, 92 minutes, Color, Digital

Free and Open to the Public

In the early 1920s Leopold Weiss, a Viennese Jew, alienated by the materialism and spiritual emptiness of the West, travelled to the Middle East, visiting Jerusalem, Egypt, the Transjordan and Saudi Arabia. After studying the Koran, he left his Jewish roots behind, converted to Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Asad.

Asad (1900-1992) became one of the most important Muslims of the 20th century, spreading its message of peace and brotherhood as a journalist and author of books such as Islam at the Crossroads, The Principles of State and Government in Islam and his autobiography, The Road to Mecca. He served as an advisor to the royal court of Saudi Arabia and was a co-founder of Pakistan and its Ambassador to the UN.

A ROAD TO MECCA traces his spiritual journey, from the Arabian desert to Ground Zero, visiting the places where Asad lived and travelled. Archival footage and photos and excerpts from Asad's writings are blended with contemporary interviews with writers, historians, scholars, and his friends and associates, revealing Asad's legacy as a modern theological thinker.

In portraying the lifelong evolution of the philosophy of Muhammad Asad, who sought to be a mediator between East and West, A ROAD TO MECCA provides a portrait of contemporary Islam, challenging deeply rooted Western prejudices by revealing the distance between fundamentalist beliefs that support terrorism and the core beliefs of a profoundly humane religion.

“Fascinating... the film presents different viewpoints from a moderate middle ground to fundamentalist takes on the larger conflict in the Middle East... The history of Asad and his mental and physical journey are used to give the viewer a new insight into the current attitude and understanding of religion.” —Cecilie Bolvinkel, Dox Magazine

Talal Asad, son of Mohammed Asad, is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His publications include On Suicide Bombing (Columbia University Press, 2007), Formations of the Secular (Stanford University Press, 2003), Genealogies of Religion (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), and a number of influential articles, including “On Re-reading a Modern Classic: W.C. Smith's The Meaning and End of Religion,” History of Religions (2001). Asad is a member of the SSRC working group on religion, secularism, and international affairs.

Joseph A. Massad is associate professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University. He is the author of Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan; The Persistence of the Palestinian Question: Essays on Zionism and the Palestinians and Desiring Arabs.

"Fascinating... informative... a well-judged combo of travelogue and biopic... a fine piece of anthropology, worthy of the dedication it copies from Asad's translation of the Koran: 'For people who think.'"—Alissa Simon, Variety

"Lively, entertaining and very topical. A most astounding perspective on multicultural identities."—Der Falter

"A tactful and astute portrait."—Kleine Zeitung

Alwan for the Arts

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

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Tonight: A Report from Gaza & the West Bank The Gaza Freedom March and Beyond

Gaza Swimming Pool by Latuff

Tonight: A Report from Gaza & the West Bank The Gaza Freedom March and Beyond

Date: Thursday, January 21st, 2010 at 6:30pm
Location: Judson Memorial Church
Address: 55 Washington Square South, NY, NY 10012

Ali Abunimah - co-founder Electronic Intifada: The Gaza Freedom March and Beyond
Michael Ratner - president Center for Constitutional Rights: Report from Cairo and the West Bank
Fida Qishta - journalist and filmmaker from Gaza
Jenna Bitar - student Hunter College H.S.: A Student Perspective

Admission at the door $10, Students $5 - none turned away

For more information call 917-912-2597 or 212-979-1381

Sponsors: Gaza Freedom March, Adalah-NY, Brooklyn for Peace, Codepink, Committee for the Open Discussion of Zionism, Jews Say No, Jewish Voice for Peace, Middle East Crisis Response, Wespac Tomorrow, January 22nd Ali Abunimah Speaks on: Global Grassroots Activism & the Gaza Freedom March

Tomorrow Night: 1300 People, 43 countries, 1 aim: Lift the Siege on Gaza

Date: Friday, January 22nd, 2010 at 2:15pm
Location: Earl Hall Auditorium (2nd Floor), Columbia University
Address: 2980 Broadway, NY, NY 10127
RSVP: recommended via Facebook:

Ali Abunimah, author of “One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse” and co-founder of the Electronic Intifada (EI), which is one of the primary news media resources that offers sound analysis and refreshing perspective on the Israel-Palestine conflict, will speak on his experience on the March, grassroots activism, and the current state of the "peace process."

ABOUT the Gaza Freedom March (GFM):

The Global grassroots initiative inspired by Gandhi/Mandela aims to break the blockade of Gaza.

The Gaza Freedom March that will take place in Gaza on December 31 is an historic initiative to break the siege that has imprisoned the 1.5 million people who live there. Conceived in the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and nonviolent resistance to injustice worldwide, the march will gather people from all over the world to march—hand in hand—with the people of Gaza to demand that the Israelis open the borders.

Marking the one-year anniversary of the December 2008 Israeli invasion that left over 1,400 dead, this is a grassroots global response to the inaction on the part of world leaders and institutions. Over 1,000 international delegates from 42 countries have already signed up and more are signing on every day. Participants include Pulitzer Prize winning author Alice Walker, leading Syrian comedian Duraid Lahham, French Senator Alima Boumediene–Thiery, author and Filipino Parliament member Walden Bello, former vice president of European Parliament Luisa Morgantini from Italy, President of the U.S. Center for Constitutional Rights Attorney Michael Ratner, Japanese former Ambassador to Lebanon Naoto Amaki, French hip-hop artists Ministere des Affaires Populaires, and 85-year-old Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein.

Also marching were families of three generations; doctors; lawyers; diplomats; 70 students; an interfaith group that includes rabbis, priests and imams; a women's delegation; a veterans group; and Palestinians born overseas who have never seen their families in Gaza.

This event is sponsored by the Arab Student Association at SIPA, TURATH, Adalah-NY, Codepink, MSA and the Grassroots Policy Network.

Co-sponsored by the Columbia Coalition Against War, Students for a Democratic Society, ISO, and Al-Awda NY.

Visit us on line at

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A History Lesson Pt.2: Haiti: The Pearl of the Antilies

This great essay from Joslyn Barnes in the Nation on the history of Haiti has been passed around the internet, so you may have seen it already, but I thought it was so concise and well done that I wanted to repost it here as well. I was recently reading a comment thread at Open Salon where a woman asked rhetorically "How did Haiti get to be a hell on earth"? The complete ignorance of Haiti's colonial history is shocking but typical. It is the same story all over; South Asia, Africa, the Middle East etc. The West colonizes a place thereby crippling its infrastructure, sits back during its "postcolonial" phase while it falls to pieces and then clicks its tongue, saying "See? Those people cannot manage themselves"... which retroactively justifies colonial intervention in the first place.

Haiti: The Pearl of the Antilles

By Joslyn Barnes

January 19, 2010

"The French colony of Saint-Domingue achieved its independence and became Haiti in 1804 after a brutal twelve-year struggle that began with an uprising of enslaved peoples led by Toussaint Louverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henry Christophe, who together defeated the French royalist and revolutionary armies, the Spanish and British imperial armies who tried to take advantage and finally Napoleon Bonaparte. Bonaparte sought to restore slavery and use Haiti as a launching pad for an invasion of the United States, sending some 50,000 troops to Haiti, where they were decimated by the Haitian forces and yellow fever. Bonaparte finally surrendered the project and sold the Louisiana Territory for 60 million francs to Thomas Jefferson, our Francophile president. Jefferson expressed his gratitude to the Haitians by assisting in the French blockade intended to punish Haiti. He closed our ports to all Haitian vessels as US slaveholders were terrified of the spread of the "contagion" known as liberty. It wouldn't be the last time the word "contagion" was wielded in association with Haitian people, nor would it be the last time Haitians would be wrongly turned away from these shores.

The three great revolutions of the time period: the US (1776), the French (1789-1799) and the Haitian (1792-1804) should be taught in our schools as a trilogy. Haiti under the visionary Toussaint Louverture sought to realize the ideals of the US Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man for all men--unlike their authors. Haiti contributed massively to liberation struggles elsewhere, perhaps most significantly in Venezuela, assisting Simón Bolívar twice in his quest to achieve independence from Spain. That the Haitian Revolution alone has been virtually erased from history impoverishes us all. We should know whose shoulders we are standing on.

The blockade of Haiti eventually brought the new nation to its knees. The price of lifting the blockade was the payment of some 150 million francs (equal to $21 billion today) in reparations to the French for lost "property"--some of which was in the form of enslaved human beings. France also required that Haiti discount its goods at 50 percent, making it even harder to pay this debt. Though France later lowered the payment to 90 million francs, the cycle of forcing Haiti to borrow from French banks to make the payments chained the nation to perpetual poverty. Haiti did not finish paying her "debt" until 1947.

In the interim, concerned by increasing German interests in Haiti, and fears that it might occupy the Panama Canal, the United States invaded and occupied the country from 1915-1934. The US Assistant Secretary of the Navy at the time--none other that Franklin D. Roosevelt--rewrote the country's constitution. Since then, and especially under the brutal Duvaliers supported by postcolonial interests--Haitians have endured one corrupt dictator after another. Only those receiving the bribes have been blamed, however. What of the postcolonial corporate interests who offered? Are they not to be held accountable too?

In 1990 the populace elected the leftist priest Jean-Bertrande Aristide. History eventually repeated itself: the same "former" colonial powers intervened and used indebtedness again as their controlling weapon of choice. Former US President Bill Clinton, now the US envoy to Haiti and in charge of leading the quake assistance brigade, championed the structural adjustment programs imposed that effectively privatized Haiti's infrastructure.

The massive disaster we are seeing unfold on our television screens is directly connected to this policy. There are no first-responders--police, firemen, medical rescue workers or otherwise--in Haiti because the national infrastructure had already been gutted by powers far more devastating than the earthquake. The country has been servicing an unbearable and wrongful debt for centuries, at the expense of its own people.

That aid comes with strings attached is an old story, but when we are complicit in creating the conditions that make aid a survival necessity, and then cut off every other alternative--what have we done but reinstated slavery?

We can stop this cycle now. We must prevent, at all costs, our government, any government, the IMF or the World Bank, commercial lending institutions or corporate interests from taking any actions whatsoever that will further indebt or privatize Haiti's resources. Haiti's debt should be canceled completely, and it is Haiti that should be the recipient of long-overdue reparations."

Joslyn Barnes is a writer, producer and co-founder of Louverture Films with Danny Glover. She is the author or co-author of numerous commissioned screenplays for feature films including the upcoming epic Toussaint.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Pat Robertson, Kanye West and Tiger Woods: Who is Held Accountable? And Why?

I was struck by Pat Robertson's latest round of hateful comments--this time directed at the suffering people of Haiti. But even more disturbing to me has been the relative impunity with which he offers his religious opinions. We are after all, living in a moment when President Obama weighed in on Kanye West's drunken(?) intrusion into Taylor Swift's acceptance speech for a video music award. So the notion that our leaders are working steadily inside a culture-free bubble wherein it would be inappropriate to comment on such things is applied only selectively. If Kanye West was/is (in the words of the President) a "jackass" for inserting himself into a situation that had nothing to do with him and pushing his agenda, what does that make Pat Robertson... besides a rich old white guy? Doesn't a pronouncement of sweeping religious intolerance that purposefully obfuscates the history of colonial intervention in Haiti made by one of the most powerful Christian leaders in the West deserve the same amount of attention accorded a narcissistic hip hop performer who stole a moment from a wide eyed country-pop ingenue? Or, say, Tiger Woods? Whose various infidelities with a growing list of women each of whom is 25%-40% less attractive than his actual wife? Apparently not. I am not suggesting that West's actions were anything less than boorish (and probably self-destructive) or that Woods's infidelities (see also: boorish, self-destructive) be nudged, winked and shrugged off either. But their infractions were marginal to the point of meaninglessness in the sense of their ability to actually impact the lives of others, besides perhaps the editors of tabloid magazines. When Pat Robertson claims that the natural disaster that befell Haiti and crippled its children is a self-fulfilling prophecy brought on by a pact with the devil, he preemptively short circuits any expression of sympathy (or empathy) among his followers. In Robertson's paradigm the Haitians may deserve "our" pity but we should not forget that they can never be "our" equal, even in God's eyes.

Thus far there has been no official call to accountability for Pat Robertson--from anyone in a position of power. I think this speaks to the enormous amount of political power and influence wielded by Robertson and his evangelical fellows. In that absence I have reposted an essay below from Dr. James Zogby's Washington Watch column written for the Arab American Institute. In it, he says many of the things I wish someone in government would say about Robertson and offers a brief history of Robertson's (once heretical, now mainstream) Christian theological and political philosophy.
As far as I can tell Zogby is the only public figure loudly calling for Robertson to be held accountable for the effect of his words.

Another Robertson Outrage: Time for Accountability

"On Jan 13th, television evangelist Pat Robertson pontificated on the horrific earthquake that had struck the country of Haiti. Noting how many recent tragedies had befallen the Haitian people, Robertson told his TV audience that, “something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it…they were under the heel of the French and got together and swore a pack pact to the devil. They said, we will serve you and you’ll get us free from the French. And so the devil said, OK, it’s a deal. But ever since they’ve been cursed. But it may be a blessing in disguise.”

As outrageous as these comments might be, they were shrugged off by many as just more nonsense ranting from an old religious fanatic. Robertson has a practice of using his bizarre theology to explain world events. It was, he said, debauchery that brought the terror of 9/11 to New York or the devastation of Katrina to New Orleans. And it was the decision to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza (dividing God’s gift to the Jewish people) that caused then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to be struck down by a stroke.

As a student of religion I have long followed the ranting of Robertson. His peculiar brand of theology—“dispensational pre-millenialism”—once seen as heretical by most Christians, has within the past two decades developed a strong following becoming a political force, especially within the Republican Party. Its adherents believe that the current era is an exact replay of the Old Testament, and that the events that led up to the birth and death of Jesus and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem are being mirrored in events today that will lead to the return of Jesus and the final battle that will lead to the destruction of the world.

In fact over the years, most every war in the Middle East was accompanied by a Robertson TV show in which the televangelist gleefully prophesied that the “end was at hand”.

Again, given his theology, Robertson is a fanatic supporter of Israel (except that his support is based on their role in his theology, requiring them to convert to Christianity and ultimately be destroyed in the final battle) and a virulent foe of Arabs and Muslims. This has led him to make additional outrageous comments.
For example:

If we don’t stop covering up what Islam is … Islam is a violent — I was going to say religion, but it’s not a religion, it’s a political system, it’s a violent political system bent on the overthrow of the governments of the world and world domination, Robertson said. You’re not dealing with not a religion you’re dealing with a political system, and I think we should treat it as such, and treat its adherents as such as we would members of the communist party, members of some fascist group.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have to recognize that Islam is not a religion. It is a worldwide political movement meant on domination of the world. And it is meant to subjugate all people under Islamic law.

What is troubling to me is not only how Robertson masks hateful remarks passing them off as “absolute” religious truth or the powerful political reach his television program and movement have given him. Rather it is the double standard that is applied to this man’s outrages. If a Muslim Imam somewhere in the Middle East had made comments of the sort made by Robertson, political leaders would demand a crackdown requiring the Imam’s government to take definitive measures to end incitement. If that Imam were an American citizen and had made contributions to political campaigns, recipients would be pressed to denounce the Imam and return the money. But for years this approach has not been used with Robertson. Instead, he has been revered by some and dismissed as a “quack” by others. This really should end.

Research shows that in the last decade Robertson has given over $550,000 to the Republican Party and candidates in Virginia (including over $100,000 to newly elected Governor Bob McDonnell). He has given another $50,000 to national GOP candidates. Shouldn’t those politicians who have been recipients of Robertson’s largess be pressed to denounce his remarks and return the amounts they received from him (or maybe asked to send an equal amount to Haitian relief)?

At the end of the day, Robertson should be free to say or believe whatever he wants, however vile his views may be. That is not the issue. Rather it is that his political influence and power should be exposed and challenged, and those who accept his support should be held accountable."

Monday, January 18, 2010

Shameless Self Promotion: "Gutted" at LACE

Hello Internet friends and followers. My work is appearing at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) in a show called "Gutted" on Saturday, February 2o/2010. It's a benefit for LACE, which is an important space for weird art in LA. In his curatorial statement "Gutted" curator (and artist) Dino Dinco writes lovingly,

"As a teenager in mid-‘80s Los Angeles, Ron Athey, Luis Alfaro, and Vaginal Davis were but some of the artists who schooled me in what it meant to use the body – their bodies – to investigate a matrix of race, sex, power, community, activism, sexuality and desire through performance art. Many of the spaces where I first saw these artists are long gone: The Onyx Café, Club Fuck!, Glaxa Theater, Troy Café and countless alternative, temporary spaces in and around Downtown Los Angeles when Downtown was a vastly different landscape.

LACE isn’t only one of the few venues from that era that has survived but a vital creative force in Los Angeles, offering a space in which to present work deemed difficult or transgressive by many other established arts institutions. LACE has always occupied an awkward space – not really a gallery, not really a museum -- and perhaps it’s this awkwardness that has kept it alive, flexible to change and adapt more quickly than a larger institution. Some of my first memories of seeing live arts in Los Angeles happened at LACE on Industrial Street. I’ll never forget Nina Hagen prancing around the outside patio of LACE performing intergalactic opera or feeling the spray of warm sparks blanket my face during a Babyland set when Michael Smith applied rotary saw to oil barrel..."

If you are in or around Los Angeles please attend the show. (And if you have a mind to, report back and let me know what you thought.) In this era of general disregard for art-- let alone extreme or experimental art-- I hope you'll support a space like LACE and spread the word. Please feel free to repost:

2300 12.0

LACE’S ANNUAL WINTER BENEFIT Saturday 20 February 2010 I 8pm – Midnight I Doors open 7pm I $10

To purchase tickets, visit
Free to all LACE members

LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions) is pleased to present GUTTED: LACE’S ANNUAL WINTER BENEFIT. This year, LACE has teamed up with Los Angeles-based curator Dino Dinco, who brings his own passions and experience to this annual fundraising event. Inspired by Los Angeles’ history of performance art and LACE’s role as an open platform for artistic expression, Dinco has reached out to a range of artists, both established and emerging, to present an unrestrained evening of contemporary performance. GUTTED showcases a daring ensemble of live performance, texts and objects speaking of, from and to the body. With a roster of creative talent spanning thirty years of live performance, GUTTED illustrates an array of ways artists have addressed the human form, spanning issues of domesticity and labor, AIDS, race, social activism, queerness, straightness, bodybuilding, body destruction, fantasy & grotesquerie.

Participating artists include: Benjamin Weissman, Raquel Gutierrez, Xuanito Carlos Espinoza Cuellar, Sheree Rose, Luis Alfaro, Alice Cunt, Lucas Michael, Elle Mehrmand & Micha Cardenas, Marcus Civin, Ryan Heffington, Rafael Esparza and Gronk, Brian Getnick/THE BALLET, Hi Fashion $9.99, Julie Tolentino & Pigpen, Taisha Ciara Paggett, Heather Cassils, Mariel Carranza, Dorian Wood, Samuel Vasquez, Bela Messex, Juan Martin del Campo Jr., Joseph Shahadi, and more. For a complete list, visit

"The impetus for GUTTED stems from my love for performance as well as my ongoing interest in the work of French philosopher and social critic Jean-Luc Nancy, particularly his work Corpus. In this work, Nancy articulates that there is no ontology of the body, but rather, the body is ontology itself. The body is a familiar subject of discourse in the arts, as we have and will always already work from the body. A body of work. A body of knowledge. Through Nancy, I view LACE – the space – as a body that will fill with bodies, where the ongoing conversation about our / their / your bodies will continue". –Dino Dinco

All proceeds benefit LACE programs.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Downtown Pix: Mining the Fales Archives, 1961–1991

David Wojnarowicz, Untitled, from the series Rimbaud in New York, 1977-79
Gelatin silver print. David Wojnarowicz Papers

Downtown Pix: Mining the Fales Archives, 1961–1991
On view: January 12 – April 3, 2010

New York City (November 13, 2009)—Jointly organized by New York University’s Grey Art Gallery and Fales Library, NYU’s repository of rare books and manuscripts, Downtown Pix: Mining the Fales Archives, 1961–1991 features over 300 photographs and other printed materials from Fales’s pioneering Downtown Collection. On view at the Grey Art Gallery from January 12 to April 3, 2010, the exhibition is drawn from the papers of artists, writers, poets, and arts organizations that comprise this important archive. The images presented in Downtown Pix create a rich photo-graphic portrait of the creative practices and social protests that defined the Downtown scene as it evolved over the course of three tumultuous decades.

For successive generations of New York artists, “Downtown” has signaled a state of mind as much as a geographic location. The artists, playwrights, choreographers, and political activists who called Downtown home built a lively community that fostered aesthetic experimentation and countercultural rebellion. Downtown Pix focuses on the central role played by photographers in capturing the vital but ephemeral practices of a diverse range of artists. Following in the footsteps of the Grey’s landmark 2006 Downtown Show, Downtown Pix maps a multifaceted cultural scene whose influence on the arts is still felt today.

As critic and guest curator Philip Gefter observes, “The photographs in Downtown Pix register not so much as moments frozen in time as paused frames from a live-action film. This is due, in part, to the kinetic energy of the period—the live performances in loft spaces that encouraged audience participation, the scene’s irreverence and experimentation, as well as a sexual charge that served as a live wire of social behavior—at least until the arrival of AIDS. Downtown Pix provides a photographic chronicle of the period when formal conventions were abandoned with a kind of nose-thumbing glee. And, for a period of time, photography itself became more authentic, more animated, and more fun.”

The exhibition includes work by renowned artists such as David Wojnarowicz, Nan Goldin, Jimmy DeSana, and Andy Warhol. Three photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, recently acquired as joint gifts to the Grey Art Gallery and Fales Library, will also be on display. Equally important to Downtown Pix are the works by photojournalists who reflected the scene as it developed. Fred W. McDarrah’s images of Greenwich Village’s Gay Pride Parade for the Village Voice document the annual event’s evolution. Robert Alexander’s iconic images of dancers, commissioned by the Soho Weekly News, appear alongside examples from his fine-art practice. Snapshots found among artists’ personal papers point to photography’s role in documenting private obsessions and capturing everyday beauty. Poet David Trinidad is represented by more than 40 color photos of miniature tableaux he made featuring his extensive collection of Barbie dolls and accessories. Martin Wong’s images of derelict cityscapes, made as source material for his paintings, offer a glimpse into the artist’s creative process. Whether records of performances, portraits of friends and lovers, or one-off experiments, the photographs in Downtown Pix blur the distinctions between fine-art photography, photojournalism, and amateur snapshots.

Downtown Pix focuses on the intergenerational dialogues and cross-disciplinary resonances that emerge from the archives’ sprawling logic. Photographs of Richard Hell’s concerts at CBGB, Richard Foreman’s experimental plays with the Ontological-Hysteric Theater company, Mabou Mines’s multimedia performances, the happenings at Judson Church, including Carolee Schneemann’s Meat Joy performance, and the installations at Creative Time’s Art on the Beach seriesmark explosive intersections of punk rock, art, dance, and drama. Lynn Gumpert, director of the Grey Art Gallery notes: “The photographs not only document seminal cultural practices, but also survey the vast ecology of artistic subcultures that flourished Downtown.”

Since 1994, when director Marvin J. Taylor founded Fales Library’s Downtown Collection, it has grown substantially to include over 12,000 printed items and 10,000 linear feet of archives. Taking a broad, inclusive approach, the Downtown Collection aims to document the entire scene rather than highlighting individual artists or groups. Among the invaluable materials Fales has acquired, and which are highlighted in Downtown Pix,are the archives of Fashion Moda and the papers of Andrea Callard, co-founder of the artists’ collective Colab. “To truly understand the climate in which key Downtown works were made,” Taylor writes, “requires an archive documenting the culture. All media are included: paper, film, video, and approximately 5,000 photographs from which the images in Downtown Pix were selected.”

The breadth of Fales’s Downtown Collection thus allows for individual artists, writers, and performers as well as collective groups to be situated within broader cultural and social contexts. Each photograph bears the indelible trace of its moment: from the pervasive sense of possibility of the 1960s, through the years of urban decay of the ’70s, and to the galvanized identity politics of the ’80s. The bohemian posturing evident in so many images celebrates a sense of personal freedom that was, for each generation, undoubtedly hard-won. The shared triumphs and inevitable failures documented in Downtown Pix continue to shape the memory of a scene that, through its many permutations, thrived on an ethics of experimentation, and a commitment to radical forms of urban life.

Organized by New York University’s Grey Art Gallery and Fales Library and Special Collections, Downtown Pix is guest curated by Philip Gefter. The exhibition has received the generous support of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation; Ronald and Frayda Feldman; New York University’s Visual Arts Initiative; the Grey’s Director’s Circle, Inter/National Council, and Friends; and the Abby Weed Grey Trust.

About the Grey Art Gallery:
The Grey Art Gallery is New York University’s fine-arts museum, located on historic Washington Square Park in New York City’s Greenwich Village. It offers the NYU community and the general public a dynamic roster of engaging and thought-provoking exhibitions, all of them enriched by public programs. With its emphasis on experimentation and interpretation, and its focus on exploring art in its historical, cultural, and social contexts, the Grey serves as a museum-laboratory for the exploration of art’s environment and its contributions to civilization.

Exhibitions organized by the Grey have encompassed all the visual arts: painting, sculpture, drawing and printmaking, photography, architecture and decorative arts, video, film, and performance. In addition to producing its own exhibitions, which often travel to other venues in the United States and abroad, the Gallery hosts traveling shows that might otherwise not be seen in New York and produces scholarly publications, many of which are distributed worldwide.

General Information:
Grey Art Gallery, New York University, 100 Washington Square East, New York, NY 10003
Tel: 212/998-6780, fax: 212/995-4024, E-mail:
Web site:

Tuesday, Thursday, Friday: 11am–6 pm
Open Late Wednesday: 11 am–8 pm
Saturday: 11 am­­–5 pm
Sunday, Monday and major holidays: Closed
Admission: Suggested donation: $3; NYU students, faculty, and staff: free of charge

Saturday, January 16, 2010

In His Own Words: Pat Robertson on Haiti (And Almost Everybody Else)

Photo illustration by Anthony DeVito

There are no shortage of bad guys in US politics at the moment, any one of whom I could write about at length. Sarah Palin, whose arrogant stupidity makes her the perfect post-W political celebrity; Dick Cheney, whose spotted hands are busy re-writing history every moment, even as it happens; Liz Cheney, whose entire qualification as a conservative pundit seems to be sharing her father's surname and easy gift for lying; Rudy Giuliani, who seemed to forget that 9/11 happened at all-- let alone that it happened during the Bush presidency... ironically negating the entire justification for his political second (third?) act; etc. etc. etc.

But even in my worst moment I could not have guessed at the smug cruelty displayed by Pat Robertson this week when he attributed the devastating earthquake in Haiti to a pact with the devil made by Haitian slaves to free themselves from French colonization. Robertson said,

"Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it... They were under the heel of the French, you know Napoleon the third and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, 'We will serve you if you'll get us free from the French.' True story ... And the devil said, 'OK, it's a deal.' And they kicked the French out. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after another."

In other words, he blamed the Haitian people for their own tragic misfortune and used Haiti's checkered political history as proof of its "original sin", a tautology that only the most serpentine brain could conceive. And he did it at the moment of Haiti's greatest suffering, when children are still trapped beneath rubble and people are dying in the streets from broken bones because there are no antibiotics anywhere.

The Haiti/Devil story is an apocryphal legend, like George Washington's cherry tree, which says more about the character of the person who repeats it than of Haiti itself. But what might pass for stunning tone-deafness in another person emerges as a pattern of willful, hateful comments (that are incitements to violence as often as not) in Pat Robertson. This man is a human cancer-- and the fact that he clothes his racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia and assorted other hatreds in a perverse, fun house mirror version of "Christianity" is sick-making. There is nothing of Christ in him.

The most effective way to make my point is simply to let Robertson speak for himself...

On Hurricane Katrina [Which Robertson suggested was divine retribution for abortion]:

"I was reading… a book that was very interesting about what God has to say in the Old Testament about those who shed innocent blood… Have we found we are unable somehow to defend ourselves against some of the attacks that are coming against us, either by terrorists or now by natural disaster? Could they be connected?"

On New Year's 2010 [ After God told Robertson He would not bless the United States because of abortion and homosexuality]:

"You can't have legislation that is anti-God. You can't foster in your midst things that I call an abomination… If you do, sooner or later judgment's going to come."

On a bomb attack on the United States he prophesied in January 2007:

"I'm not necessarily saying it's going to be nuclear. The Lord didn't say nuclear. But I do believe it will be something like that."

On Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stroke in 2006, which he blamed on Sharon's stated intention to make peace with Palestinians and give them land (Yeah, he shouldn't have worried):

"He was dividing God's land and I would say woe unto any Prime Minister of Israel who takes a similar course…God says 'this land belongs to me. You'd better leave it alone.'"

On Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in 2005:

"(Chavez) thinks we’re trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it. It’s a whole lot cheaper than starting a war. And I don’t think any oil shipments will stop… We have the ability to take him out, and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability."

On Jews:

"The Antichrist is probably a Jew alive in Israel today."

On Muslims:

"I want to say it again, and again, and again: Islam is not a religion, it's a political system meant on -- bent on world domination, not a religion. It masquerades as a religion, but the religion covers a worldwide attempt to exercise power and to subjugate the world into their way of thinking."

On Hindus:

"We're importing Hinduism into America. The whole thought of your karma, of meditation, of the fact that there's no end of life and there's this endless wheel of life, this is all Hinduism. Chanting too. Many of those chants are to Hindu Gods -- Vishnu, Hare Krishna. The origin of it is all demonic. We can't let that stuff come into America. We've got the best defense, if you will -- a good offense."

On Hindus and Muslims:

"The media challenged me. `You're not going to bring atheists into the government? How dare you maintain that those who believe the Judeo-Christian values are better qualified to govern America than Hindus and Muslims?' My simple answer is, `Yes, they are.'"

On Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Methodists:

"You say you're supposed to be nice to the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians and the Methodists and this, that, and the other thing. Nonsense, I don't have to be nice to the spirit of the Antichrist."

On women [in a 1992 fundraising letter]:

"The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians."

On post-Apartheid South Africa:

"I think 'one man, one vote,' just unrestricted democracy, would not be wise. There needs to be some kind of protection for the minority which the white people represent now, a minority, and they need and have a right to demand a protection of their rights."

On Planned Parenthood in 1991:

"(Planned Parenthood) is teaching kids to fornicate, teaching people to have adultery, every kind of bestiality, homosexuality, lesbianism – everything that the Bible condemns."

On 9/11, in conversation with Jerry Falwell:

JERRY FALWELL: "And I agree totally with you that the Lord has protected us so wonderfully these 225 years. And since 1812, this is the first time that we've been attacked on our soil and by far the worst results. And I fear, as Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense, said yesterday, that this is only the beginning. And with biological warfare available to these monsters - the Husseins, the Bin Ladens, the Arafats--what we saw on Tuesday, as terrible as it is, could be miniscule if, in fact--if, in fact--God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve."

PAT ROBERTSON: "Jerry, that's my feeling. I think we've just seen the antechamber to terror. We haven't even begun to see what they can do to the major population."

JERRY FALWELL: "The ACLU's got to take a lot of blame for this."

PAT ROBERTSON: "Well, yes."

JERRY FALWELL: "And, I know that I'll hear from them for this. But, throwing God out successfully with the help of the federal court system, throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools. The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way--all of them who have tried to secularize America--I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen.'"

PAT ROBERTSON: "Well, I totally concur, and the problem is we have adopted that agenda at the highest levels of our government. And so we're responsible as a free society for what the top people do. And, the top people, of course, is the court system."

JERRY FALWELL: "Pat, did you notice yesterday the ACLU, and all the Christ-haters, People For the American Way, NOW, etc. were totally disregarded by the Democrats and the Republicans in both houses of Congress as they went out on the steps and called out on to God in prayer and sang "God Bless America" and said "let the ACLU be hanged"? In other words, when the nation is on its knees, the only normal and natural and spiritual thing to do is what we ought to be doing all the time--calling upon God."


Friday, January 15, 2010

Conference: Critical Ethnic Studies and the Future of Genocide: Settler Colonialism/Heteropatriarchy/White Supremacy

Critical Ethnic Studies and the Future of Genocide:
Settler Colonialism/Heteropatriarchy/White Supremacy

A Major Conference
March 10-12, 2011 (NOT 2010)
University of California, Riverside

Jacqui Alexander·Keith Camacho·Cathy Cohen·Glen Coulthard·Angela Davis·Gina Dent·Vicente Diaz Roderick Ferguson·Ruth Wilson Gilmore·Gayatri Gopinath·Avery Gordon·Herman Gray·Judith Halberstam Sora Han·Cheryl Harris·David Lloyd·Lisa Lowe·Wahneema Lubiano·Manning Marable·Fred Moten José Muñoz·Nadine Naber·Hiram Pérez·Michelle Raheja·Dylan Rodríguez·David Roediger·Luana Ross Josie Saldaña-Portillo·Ella Shohat·Denise da Silva·Audra Simpson·Nikhil Singh·Andrea Smith·Neferti Tadiar João Costa Vargas·Waziyatawin


Ethnic studies scholarship has laid the crucial foundation for analyzing the intersections of racism, colonialism, immigration, and slavery within the context of the United States. Yet it has become clear that ethnic studies paradigms have become entrapped within, and sometimes indistinguishable from, the discourse and mandate of liberal multiculturalism, which relies on a politics of identity representation diluted and domesticated by nation-building and capitalist imperatives. Interrogating the strictures in which ethnic studies finds itself today, this conference calls for the development of critical ethnic studies. Far from advocating the peremptory dismissal of identity, this conference seeks to structure inquiry around the logics of white supremacy, settler colonialism, capitalism, and heteropatriarchy in order to expand the scope of ethnic studies. An interdisciplinary or even un-disciplinary formation, critical ethnic studies engages with the logics that structure society in its entirety.

As ethnic studies has become more legitimized within the academy, it has frequently done so by distancing itself from the very social movements that helped to launch the field in the first place. Irrefutable as the evidence is of the university's enmeshment with governmental and corporate structures, the trend in ethnic studies has been to neutralize the university rather than to interrogate it as a site that transforms ideas into ideology. While this conference does not propose to romanticize these movements or to prescribe a specific relationship that academics should have with them, we seek to call into question the emphasis on professionalization within ethnic studies and the concomitant refusal to interrogate the politics of the academic industrial complex or to engage with larger movements for social transformation.

We invite panel and individual paper submissions on a wide range of topics that may include but are not limited to the following:

  • Settler colonialism and white supremacy
  • Critical genocide studies
  • Queering ethnic studies
  • Heteropatriarchy
  • Ethnic studies and un-disciplinarity
  • Professionalization, praxis, and the academic industrial complex
  • Decolonization and empire
  • Social movements and activism
  • Multiculturalism and colorblindness
  • Critical race studies
  • Liberationist epistemologies
  • Critical ethnic studies and its relationship to other fields
We encourage submissions of traditional academic conference paper and panel formats, as well as alternative, creative, collaborative, and site-specific presentations, workshops, roundtables, etc. from academics, independent scholars, artists, cultural producers, activists, community workers, and others.

Please submit individual paper abstracts (250 words) along with a 1-page CV that includes contact information. If submitting a panel proposal, a panel abstract (250 words) should also be included.

Deadline for submissions: June 1, 2010
Email submissions to:
All conference participants will need to register at:

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A History Lesson: Haiti, Guantanamo and Our "Common Humanity"

Wednesday morning President Obama issued a statement regarding the humanitarian crisis following the earthquake that has devastated Haiti. Obama said that Haiti would have the "unwavering support" of the United States and specified that "this is a time when we are reminded of the common humanity we all share." Obama's comments, a precursor to an international relief effort directed toward the suffering people of Haiti, reminded me of a different moment in US-Haiti relations when the "common humanity" of Haitians with Americans was not assumed, or acted upon:

In the early 1970s Haitians began to flee to the United States and until 1981 they were detained in South Florida, their point of entry into the US, and quickly deported. In the early 80s a "migration crisis" occurred as 125,000 Cubans attempted to enter the United States at the same time as 25,000 Haitians. The Carter Administration responded by inventing a new legal status to describe these immigrants, "Cuban-Haitian Entrants", which allowed most of those entering the US to stay. However, following this measure the official policy toward Haitian immigration became more strict. Under the new policy Haitian boats were intercepted and escorted directly back to Haiti, never reaching our shores and without offering the Haitians aboard the opportunity to apply for political asylum. After the overthrow of President Aristide in 1991 the Haitian army and other repressive groups within the country began to slaughter his supporters, causing a massive outflow of people from Haiti to the United States. Unable to simply return the fleeing Haitians because of the inevitability of political retaliation and acutely aware of how it would look if they did, the first Bush Administration re-directed them to a small island off of Cuba, which is held indefinitely by the United States: Guantanamo Bay.

A tent city was hastily erected at the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay to house 12,000 Haitians and a massive review process was undertaken to judge their acceptability to enter the United States. A bit more than 30% of the Haitians originally held at Guantanamo were permitted to enter the United States, but they kept arriving and by 1992 the Bush Administration reconsidered the policy and began to circumvent the process by--once again--intercepting Haitian ships and escorting them back to Haiti, which had descended into lawlessness by that point. The Bush policy successfully discouraged Haitians from fleeing to the United States but human rights advocates criticized Bush's policies. During his presidential campaign Bill Clinton decried them as "cruel"; however in the early stages of his Presidency when Haitian refugees once again began trying escape to the United States he reopened Guantanamo (which had closed) and employed it for the same purpose, reneging on his campaign promise to treat them differently. Further, the Clinton Administration championed new legislation that would allow it to reject the incoming Haitians wholesale despite the fact that they were fleeing political persecution, in direct conflict with the Refugee Act of 1980 which states that the Attorney General "shall not deport or return any alien" to a nation "if [s/he] determines that such alien's life or freedom would be threatened there". The justification for circumventing the Refugee Act was that it applied only to migrants on US soil, a bit of legal acrobatics that should seem familiar post- W. Of course there were objections to this legal maneuvering. In his (singular) dissenting opinion Justice Blackburn wrote,

"I believe that the duty of nonreturn expressed in both the Protocol and the statute is clear. The majority finds it "extraordinary" that Congress would have intended the ban on returning "any alien" to apply to aliens at sea. That Congress would have meant what it said is not remarkable. What is extraordinary in this case is that the Executive [meaning President Clinton], in disregard of the law, would take to the seas to intercept fleeing refugees and force them back to their persecutors and that the Court would strain to sanction that conduct."

And New York Congressman Charlie Rangel said, when interrogating INS Commissioner Gene McNary,

"Rangel: I hope I'm making it loud and clear that I think the policy is racist. And I would like to just ask you, Mr. McNary, is there any question in your mind that if the people on these boats came from Ireland, that we would exercise the same policy, notwithstanding the law? And if the situation existed in Ireland with this ragtag, crooked, violent group of gangsters who call themselves soldiers, do you think for one minute that the United States of America would return these Irish people to Ireland?

McNary: Congressman, that is even an offensive question. We return anyone who is supposed to be returned under the laws of the United States of America.''

Despite high profile objections from human rights advocates, politicians and celebrities such as Katherine Dunham and Arthur Ashe (who protested the Clinton repatriation policy a year before his death), the overwhelming political opinion was in favor of the repatriation policy. The popular perception among Americans that the Haitian "boat people" were infected with AIDS fed the justification for first holding them at Guantanamo and then turning them away en masse.

In a larger sense, this popular and legal shift set the stage for many subsequent elements of US policy. President Carter's Presidency was perceived in retrospect as suffering irreparable damage because he allowed an influx of Cubans and Haitians into the country and the US Presidents who followed him--Republican and Democrat alike-- became increasingly hostile toward immigration in general. In the 1990s, emboldened by the Haitian case, the Clinton Administration repatriated hundreds of Chinese boat people seeking asylum in the United States. And after the first World Trade Center bombing Orientalism and Islamophobia became intertwined in the public perception that immigration into the United States is "lax"-- a charge that is often repeated in our present moment. By the end of the 90s politicians like California's Pete Wilson led the charge for stricter immigration legislation, which developed into full scale xenophobia under the second Bush Administration, with immigration becoming tied to fears about the US economy and the "war on terror".

And of course, Guantanamo Bay... well, we know what happened there, right? (Actually, is happening. The prison and interrogation camp at Guantanamo Bay is still open. Just saying.)

In legal terms Guantanamo Bay is an "anomalous zone": a space where the rule of law under which Americans live is temporarily suspended. Its geographical position, just outside US borders supports this function (although historically there have been anomalous zones within national borders, like sanctuary churches and red light districts, for e.g.). That means the people detained there, whether it was Haitian boat people in the 90s or Arab and Muslim prisoners post 9/11, do not enjoy the rights--even basic human rights--that the US extends to world citizens outside this space. The space itself is designed for that purpose. So while different categories of immigration and asylum--legal and illegal, economic and political--have been collapsed into a blanket rejection of foreign (read: non-European) "others". And Guantanamo provides a place to act on those populations the US government decides do not count as entirely human.

So no matter how sincere he is, when President Obama pledges the "unwavering support" of the US to Haiti in the name of our "common humanity" there is a lot of history being swept under the carpet. The priority should be getting aid to Haiti in this moment of crisis, but the smart thing to do here--if history is any indication-- would be to keep the side-eye at the ready.