Youssef Nabil

Across the Universe

Sisyphus, Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, and Sindbad Syndrome: musings on contemporary Arab art and belonging

‘No, I’m not him’, I say with a smile, returning my gaze to the photograph before me while brushing a hand through a thicket of coarse curls. Though I’ve let them down, their giggles and hushed chatter linger on. I’ve been mistaken for Tahar Rahim – known to the twenty-something girls as ‘the guy in the video’ – who, moments earlier, was pressing his lips impassionedly against those of Fanny Ardant in a picturesque desert landscape, before resigning himself to a fate of exile and the unknown. Sipping quietly on a soon-to-be-gone glass of chardonnay, I find myself transfixed by a rather unassuming piece that has been largely overlooked by the silk-draped, stilettoed throng. A block of ice, consummately sculpted by the Lebanese artist Joseph Charbel H. Boutros (for whom I’ve also been mistaken), is lying modestly amidst foliage by a riverbank. The composition, though almost deceptively simple and facile, belies a haunting quality and poetic beauty. Essaying to depict the struggle involved in leaving one’s home and later returning to it, Boutros moulded the block of ice from the river, and later submerged the mass within it again. Though the matter completes a ‘cycle’, it is not an effortless one; it has been removed from its natural environment, and, in becoming frozen, has had its state altered. To return to its origin, it will need to melt and dissolve back into the river, assuming shapes and forms far less romantic than Boutros’ sugar cube-like figure. It may complete the cycle once; or, it may be forced to undertake it again, depending on its fortune. In either case, neither shall the mass of water remain the same, nor the depths from which it arose.

Joseph Charbel H. Boutros

Joseph Charbel H. Boutros – From Water to Water (courtesy the artist)

Like Boutros’ block, I have repeatedly undergone such transformative cycles – or so I think. I left Iran with my parents at the age of one, and began making regular visits there many years later as a teenager. I still think of Iran as home, though soon after the excitement of landing in Tehran dissipates and the smell of petrol and burning wild rue become all too familiar, I’m reminded that I’m light years away from any notion of ‘home’. Having lived the greater part of my life – and the formative one, at that – between North America and western Europe, I’m a far different person than the Joobin who might have stayed behind in Iran in the eighties and become a Tehrani through and through. Though I often don’t like to admit it, I’m very much a stranger in a strange land, a condition I think will little change as time goes on. I may submerge myself in my beloved homeland from time to time for weeks – and months – on end, but, come what may, I’ll always dream in English, think in English, and let out the odd accidental ‘yeah’ and ‘umm’ here and there. I have, however, developed a peculiar tendency (and proficiency) to curse in Persian rather tastefully – a fact by which yours truly is deservingly chuffed.

Youssef Nabil – You Never Left (video, 8 min, detail; courtesy the artist and Nathalie Obadia Gallery Paris/Brussels)

If, while looking at Boutros’ harrowing black-and-white photograph, but one consoling thought permeates the unruly brambles strewn over my ears and brow – other than the fact that I smell ‘exceedingly of flowers’, as one onlooker has told me – it is that I am not alone. An hour earlier, as we sipped on wine and sweated through our every orifice, Suheyla and I chatted about the experience and oft-accepted state of nomadism in the 21st century. Upon hearing the word ‘nomad’, Tasleem – another of the ‘tribe’ – joined us from afar. So much for being the displaced dreamer of the night, I thought to myself, albeit not with surprise; after all, the entire premise of the evening was an exploration of what Suheyla referred to in languid tones that fell on my ears like birdsong amidst the babble as ‘Sisyphean’ struggles. ‘Do you know Sisyphus?’ she asked, as if he were present amongst the motley crowd. I found it hard to respond in a way that wasn’t gauche: ‘Uh, yeah, I said, after thinking for a moment that she’d enquired about an STD. Sisyphus … the name reverberated in my head, while a few footsteps away, Sultan whizzed about like a butterfly on speed, a childlike twinkle in his eye all the while.

For as long as I’ve known, I’ve been running along the sands of an endless shore; ah, the sweetness of the moment I shall utter those glorious words: ‘The sea! The sea!’

Asim Abu Shaqra

Asim Abu Shaqra – Cactus (courtesy Swetlana Gasetski, Capital D Studio)

Cactus, we meet again. I had first seen Asim Abu Shaqra’s solemn painting of a potted cactus on a windowsill at Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi’s Dubai dwelling a few months back, just before the sun-worshippers ate their words. I’d had one too many bottomless glasses of choice merlot, and, distracted by the flowing tresses of one whose name now escapes me, was finding it rather trying to listen to Sultan as he hurriedly told us the story behind the not-just-any-old-cactus. A leitmotif in Shaqra’s work, the cactus has served both as a symbol in Israeli and Palestinian narratives. To Shaqra – as with his compatriots – it stood as a metaphor for the Palestinian struggle: a cactus plant can survive in the harshest of conditions; sprouting from its native soil, it stands its ground aright and proud as an often solitary figure in a barren landscape. Left alone, it is unimposing and keeps to itself; provoke it, however, and it is quick to prick. Though in Tel Aviv, Shaqra forgot not his motherland and the résistance. Perhaps a memento from his native Umm el Fahm, it found its way to the ‘other side’ in Tel Aviv, and, from there, journeyed across borders and boundaries to the Emirates, God knows where else, and now, Toronto, of all places. I find it rather heartwarming that my drunken meeting with the prickly déraciné was not to be my last, and that we – two drifters ‘off to see the world’, to quote Ol’ Blue Eyes – have found each other again in ‘Terannah’, as Sultan likes to call it.

Dia al-Azzawi

Dia al-Azzawi – Handala (courtesy Niccolo Corradini, Capital D Studio)

How I evny Handala; Handala, barefoot with his back to my face, his hands crossed in resignation, looking almost as if pinioned. Won’t you give us a smile, Handala? Ah, but you have no mouth. Won’t you look upon this lonely one, ya Handala? Ah, but you have no eyes. Handala, you see, has long been waiting, and will long wait yet. It is said that he will only deign to turn around and break his silence once those from yonder leave his land, and let his people go. ‘His land’ – can the same term be used in reference to me? At the very least, this oblong caricature knows whom and what he’s fighting for, and, like my friend the cactus, stands his ground with pride and purpose. I know well that I’m a dreamer, that I see my beloved through rose-tinted glasses, beyond the sage boughs and creepers of a rambling mind. Does what I dream of exist, or, am I just a helpless, starry-eyed romantic? Wipe clean the pages, if a confidante art thou, for cannot love’s ways in a book be found.

‘This is Joobin – he’s from Canada’, said Sultan earlier, introducing me to a friend. I was left dumbfounded.
‘Err … I’m Iranian, although … I suppose –’
‘– So you’re Canadian, then?’

Yes, I’m Canadian; but why does this have to be so hard? Would that I could introduce myself as an old soul from the forests of Hyrcania, from a magical realm which may or may not exist …

Mohammed Said Baalbaki

Mohamad-Said Baalbaki - Heap I (courtesy the artist)

Splashes of suitcases, jocund yet unsettling, come to occupy the corner of my eye. Mementos of a bloody civil war though they be, they’re jarringly familiar to me. Just as the constant thought of having to flee and relocate weighed heavily upon Baalbaki in wartime Beirut, so does it on my mind. I sometimes think it’s to do with the way I’ve been wired, that it’s simply in my blood as an Iranian. How often would I daydream as a bored university student about the migrations of the ancient Indo-Iranians, those noble fleet-footed horsemen commanding swift chariots through the harsh and unforgiving steppes before descending into the Iranian plateau, the subcontinent, and elsewhere. The names of tribes peppered throughout the books of Herodotus and Xenophon fascinated me: Scythians, Sarmatians, Alans; though of many only names and vestiges remain, their spirits loom large within me. Not considering any physical place to be ‘home’, I have little attachments to my surroundings, and often feel the need to simply … move. Even when comfortably settled in some sleepy town or other, I instinctively think about how I will take my belongings with me around the world – usually consisting of skinny jeans, secondhand books, and electric guitars – should I decide to call it a day tomorrow. I’ve become accustomed to living out of suitcases, those damned vessels that have taken to chasing my silhouette like spectres. This feeling of homelessness, of the impulse to perpetually wander and wend, is something I’ve come to coin ‘Sindbad Syndrome’. That intrepid, foolhardy sailor, however, eventually found his way home (not unlike Boutros’ block of ice) after his seven daring voyages, until he was ultimately seized by the Destroyer of Delights. I, on the other hand, am still searching for it.

Mona Hatoum

Mona Hatoum – You Are Still Here (courtesy Alexander & Bonin Gallery)

You are still here. Tell me, O Mona, I think to myself, where do I go? Her infinity symbol reminds me of my alter-ego Tahar, who in ethereal hues and landscapes is forever leaving and returning, leaving and returning. ‘I’ve got no place, no address’, he says amongst the stars. We’re not so different after all, you and I – although the giggling girls are long gone. Mona’s words carry a sense of urgency, and I don’t care to think of what ‘you’ and ‘here’ in this context mean to her; they mean something to me, and that’s enough. Youssef tells me that with displacement comes the hope of rebirth and renewal, of renaissance. I have yet to experience such ‘rebirths’. Toronto bores me, London kills me, Tehran breaks me to pieces, and everywhere else seems imaginary; yet, what else can I do but continue searching for somewhere bearing some semblance to what I’ve never known as ‘home’? What else can Sisyphus do but continue to bear the brunt of his load upwards, ever onwards? We’re damned if we do, and damned if we don’t. At the same time, I find something romantic, almost otherworldly, in the pursuit for a place to call my own. For as long as I’ve known, I’ve been running along the sands of an endless shore; ah, the sweetness of the moment I shall utter those glorious words: ‘The sea! The sea!’

Do you know Sisyphus? Suheyla’s question rings again in my head, this time with added poignancy – perhaps as a result of the chardonnay. Yeah, I know Sisyphus alright … 

‘Home Ground: Contemporary Art from the Barjeel Art Foundation’ runs through January 3, 2016, at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto.

Cover image: Youssef Nabil – You Never Left #1 (detail; courtesy the artist and Nathalie Obadia Gallery Paris/Brussels).

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About the Author

Joobin Bekhrad
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An award-winning writer, Joobin Bekhrad (BBA, MSc.) is the founder and Editor of REORIENT. He has contributed to such publications as The Guardian, The Economist, the BBC, Forbes, i-D/Vice, Frieze, The Columbia Journal (whose Guest Editor he served as in 2016), The British Library's Untold Lives, Encyclopaedia Iranica, Aesthetica, Artsy, and Harper’s Bazaar Art Arabia, been interviewed by news outlets including Newsweek, The Art Newspaper, and the CBC, and seen his writings republished and translated into a variety of languages. He is the author of a translation of Omar Khayyam’s Robaiyat, a novella (Coming Down Again), a collection of stories (With My Head in the Clouds and Stars in My Eyes), and a volume of poetry (Lovers of Light).