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.

Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder