The #COMETOGETHER exhibition, revolution and the Gulf

Ripples of the Arab Spring felt in the Gulf States.

The #COMETOGETHER exhibition opening in London’s Brick Lane may be about modern and contemporary art by Middle Eastern artists, but it is also about how revolution has affected seemingly stable Gulf States.   As Stephen Stapleton, organizer and founding member of Edge of Arabia points out: “In bringing these artists together at this time we want to explore the frontiers of technology and ideology that are shaping the contemporary borderland between East and West.”  The case of Saudi poet and columnist Hamza Kashgari who published a conversation with the Prophet on his twitter account is illustrative of Mr. Stapleton’s point.  Saudi Arabians were divided as to how to deal with him crossing red lines.  

The #COMETOGETHER exhibition then, reflects and explores the fissures and cracks that the Gulf States are experiencing. The art of Ahmed Mater focusing on the huge changes that Mecca is experiencing is a good example. The investment and the rise of high rise hotels have wiped out the archaeological heritage of Islam’s founder. It has in the words of author Henry Hemmings caused a sense of dissonance.  It’s hard to focus on the House that Abraham built for God when halal Big Macs, Dr. Dre headphones and Ann Summers lingerie calls you within a huge clock tower that resembles a cross between Big Ben and the tower of Mordor. Whilst none of the latter is sinful of course; Mecca’s worldliness has disturbed many Saudis and has no doubt contributed to shaping the world view of many radicals.  The kingdom has lost the spirit that it was initially founded on. #COMETOGETHER not only explores the discord between Gulf States and its citizens but also reflects how the Gulf States are trying to adapt to their new environment.

Admittedly the Gulf States are not adapting very well.  Saudi Arabia has dealt with the Arab spring through a combination of repression and pay rises.  It is still somewhat unsure about what it should do with petitions like that presented in February 2011 which asked for a state based on institutions and rights. These were signed by thousands, not just islamists but by a younger generation willing to challenge religious authority.  Oman, described as the world’s most charming police state, has similar problems. Since Sultan Qaboos seized power in the 70s, Oman has been staunch ally of the West. With the Arab spring compounded by the fact that the sultan has no designated heir and oil resources are declining; Omanis are becoming increasingly restless. Dissent has been expressed through social media sites and protests in the oil sector. Kuwait and United Arab Emirates have also seen its Islamist parties gaining confidence. As a recent Chatham house paper suggests the authorities view the Islamist’s manifesto for democracy as a veiled attempt to gain power.

So what course of action should the Gulf States adopt in order to avoid instability? It cannot adopt a Bahraini or Syrian attitude. Neither can it think short term and do what the Saudi king or the Omani sultan did: pay rises, release political prisoners and remove some ministers.  In order to survive fundamental changes need to occur. Political reform probably in the form of constitutional monarchy must happen with real accountability. Strategies that deal with the post-oil economy and bridges the socio-economic cleavages that the region is experiencing must be implemented.

As for the West, how can it ensure stability yet maintain good relations with these Gulf States? Britain’s good relationship with the Gulf States can prove instrumental in managing these relationships. Encouraging educational contacts through scholarships or British universities expanding in the Gulf help create an alternative political culture. Cultural contacts like #COMETOGETHER strengthen relationships with the younger Arab generation and allow them to create their own political role models.  Oman for instance, is bringing award winning British Graffiti artist, Aerosolarabic this December to change young Omanis’ penchant for fast and furious driving and pimping up their rides. Cultural contact is the best medium for future political reform and dialogue. #

#COMETOGETHER opens at the Old Truman Brewery, E1 6QL, on 6 October at 6pm

Tam Hussein is an award winning writer and journalist specialising in the Middle East. He spent several years in the Middle East and North Africa working as a translator and consultant. Tam also writes for the Huffington Post.

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism