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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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear