Legendary photographer Josef Koudelka packed the house at the Paramount Theater in downtown Charlottesville during the Look3 Festival of the Photograph over the weekend, and the audience greeted him with a standing ovation after master of ceremonies, photographer Vince Musi, announced that Koudelka had been reluctant to participate. Koudelka, who has a reputation as a lone wolf among a group of peers known for their independence, has rarely granted interviews during a career that spans more than 40 years.
“Of course I don’t feel very comfortable to be here. I am not a good speaker,” said Koudelka, who was nevertheless gracious to Anne Wilkes Tucker, curator at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, who was also on stage to interview him. “I don’t know what she’s going to ask me, [but] I gave her assurance I would answer everything…I will try to be as honest as possible.”
Koudelka also told the audience at the outset that he “never listened much to what [other] photographers say,” and recounted how Henri Cartier-Bresson had asked him to read and comment on the text of The Decisive Moment before that book was published. “I said to Bresson I’m really not interested and I’m not going to read it.” Koudelka added, “I think the best portrait of a photographer are his photographs, so please judge me on my photographs.”
The audience cheered, and the program got under way with a projection of a sampling of Koudelka’s earliest work–a documentary of stage actors during performances, followed by a series of abstract images that stemmed from his work as a theater photographer. The program alternated between silent projections of Koudelka’s major bodies of work, presented chronologically, followed by several minutes of Q&A conversation between Tucker and Koudelka about that work.
Here’s an edited version of the conversation. The headings indicate the subjects of the major bodies of Koudelka’s work, and when it appeared during the program.
Egyptian intellectuals and the revolution
Egypt has had Islamists and “revolutionaries”. So who are the nukhba or elite routinely denigrated as a “minority” that “looks down on the People”? Educated individuals, non-Islamist political leaders, the catalysts of the revolution itself… But, in the political context, this group is to all intents synonymous with the cultural community. As per the tradition, which long predates the Arab Spring, writers, artists, scholars and critics often double as political activists/analysts and vice versa; and in this sense much of “the civil current” (anything from far-right conservative to radical anarchist) is made up of “the elite”—of intellectuals.
Construed as a political player, the cultural community in Egypt has been the principal challenge to the Islamists since January-February 2011, when the revolution took place—an understandably weak rival among the uneducated, materialistic and sectarian masses. Yet how has the cultural community dealt with the revolution regardless of this fact, assuming that what took place really was a revolution?
A long time ago — it must have been 2000 — I was briefly in trouble at work for apparently belittling the achievement of Hezbollah against Israel in an article I had written. The censure came from a left-wing, thoroughly secular editor; and I wasn’t particularly distressed to have to redraft the paragraphs in question. Perhaps, I thought, I had let my Islamophobia get the better of me. (I should point out that, though steadfastly agnostic, I am still Muslim, as eclectically proud of my heritage as any post-Enlightenment individual can reasonably be; so my self-acknowledged Islamophobia refers neither to the religion nor the historical identity but specifically to the far more recent phenomenon — perhaps I may be allowed to say “catastrophe” — of political Islam.) I was to realise that much of the Arab left’s respect for Hezbollah centred on the concept of resistance and, especially, its perceived triumph over a materially superior power, independently of a quasi-commonwealth of incompletely constructed modern states whose majority’s compromised position had rendered it an ineffective rival to “the Zionist entity”.
The Gaza Spring
At the time I had Islamist tendencies. I was still a schoolboy when the inqilab happened in 2007. (Thus spoke Amin, which is not his name: 22, author, activist, affiliate of Fateh, lifetime resident of Palestinian Rafah. We spoke on the roof of a mid-range hotel in Gaza City late last week. By inqilab, the accepted term—literally: “overthrow”—Amin was referring to the post-democratic, forcible overtake of power in the Gaza Strip by Hamas. Now I notice that, every time he said “they” in the abstract, “Hamas”, especially its security apparatus in Gaza, was what he meant.) At first they blew up all the security agencies; it’s unclear why, the buildings were empty. But they did. And they arrested everyone who said ‘I am Fateh': all the militias, of course, but also civil servants, citizens, students…
We thought it was an overthrow of the Palestinian Authority but it was really an overthrow against Fateh; and it was driven by power hunger… I happened to have relations in Fateh so I could see how they dealt with people. They would give you something called “the acquittal”: ‘Hand over your weapons and you can go, but don’t engage in any activity of any kind whatsoever.’ Sometimes they kept you under house arrest. That was the earliest period. Later President Mahmoud Abbas issued a decision that everyone should stay at home: all the Authority employees. He never called it that but it was a form of civil disobedience—a general strike. Everyone did stay at home, more or less. And so we discovered that they already had a full team of professionals in every field imaginable: security, health, education, everything; it was predictable that they should have security forces since they were a force of the resistance but they turned out to be ready to replace the Authority in every aspect of life.
The bus is more than half empty when I get on…
An old woman in black scuttles down the aisle to my right; before I’ve had a chance to see her face, two glossy pamphlets are in my lap. They are manuals of prescribed supplications, precisely classified by subject, object, even time of day. I’ve seen them too often to maintain an anthropological interest. Looking out the window to my left, I slip the pocket-size compendia into the pouch on the back of the seat in front of me, where someone better disposed could pick them up. I manage to extract some change from my shirt pocket just in time for the dark-robed ghost scuttling back to pick up on her way; the briefest glimpse reveals unusually personable features.
Already we are moving… But if so few passengers are headed for the North Sinai resort town of Arish, why was it so hard to obtain a ticket last night?
… of all the Palestine-inspired fare, no gesture in the direction of the ongoing Intifada could have hit the nail on the head with greater precision than the Swiss filmmaker Richard Dino’s Genet à Chatila, a Panorama screening.
The film is a long, audiovisual document of Jean Genet’s experience of the Palestinian revolution in Lebanon and Jordan in the early and mid-1970s, and again in 1982, when the aging Genet, already a well- known supporter of the Palestinian cause and now accompanied to Beirut by Leila Shahid (the Palestinian ambassador to France, then a university student in Paris), witnessed the immediate aftermath of the Chatila massacre just outside Beirut. The Lebanese Phalangist militia, under the direction of the Israeli army, had undertaken a “barbaric feast,” and Genet couldn’t help but revel in it in his way: “A photograph can’t capture the flies,” he states, “nor the thick white smell of death, nor can it show how you have to jump when you go from one body to another.”
When a Palestinian school child in Abu Dhabi is asked what the difference is between Israelis and Jews, and he replies that, while the Jew is somewhat of a Muslim, the Israeli remains a fully fledged idolater, you automatically conclude that this child must be a Muslim. But it makes you wonder about the presence of Palestinian Christians in local consciousness, and whether the identification of the resistance with militant Islam over the last few decades has wholly precluded them from global debate (the late Edward Said, Allah have mercy on him, may have been a spokesman for Muslims as well as Arabs, but he was not Muslim).
The more you pay attention to the answers given by grade-four students of the Azhar Palestine Private School, one of Abu Dhabi’s less glamorous co-ed institutions, to questions posed by the Zayed University student-cum-film maker Salma al Darmaki in her 35-minute documentary My Palestine, the more you wonder.
You wonder where these little girls and boys got the idea that it was the Shia who invaded Lebanon, kicking the Palestinians out (could this be a warped reference to that episode of the Lebanese Civil War during which Shia militias of the Amal movement fought the refugee camp-based guerillas of the PLO?) You wonder how Israeli military atrocities against Palestinian civilians came to be symbolised by the mythical act of soldiers cutting open a pregnant woman’s stomach, removing the foetus, killing it, and placing a live cat in its place before sewing the stomach back up – leaving the woman, who is still alive, heavy with cat. You wonder whose mistake it was to forget that the post of Lebanese prime minister is open only to Sunnis, leading to the belief, among many of the students, that the late Prime Minister Rafik al Hariri was assassinated because he was a Palestine-hating Shiite.
You wonder if there could ever be any excuse for a parent to teach their child the second half of the broken rhyme Falastin bladnah welyahud klabnah: “Palestine is our country and the Jews are our dogs”.
With less outrage, you wonder what the Danish cartoon crisis, re which the students chant an anthem calling on Arabs, Muslims and the rightful to boycott Danish products, could really have to do with the Palestinian cause, when all is said and done. And you wonder whether religion class, extensively and beautifully featured so that you hear the bigoted, sexist and dogmatic woman teacher without seeing her, might have a role to play in the washing of palpably innocent brains with such hideously subverted narratives about who they might be. You wonder about this and other questions relating to “the construction of identity and how it is being debated”, as the deceptively quiet Darmaki, a petite, modest, focussed, extremely self-possessed 21-year-old in a abaya, phrases the issue at stake.
An international relations student, by the time she embarked on My Palestine Darmaki had, with her colleague and assistant on My Palestine, Hermeen Adam, co-directed two films – Katkout, about real-life dwarves in Abu Dhabi, and Chained, Stripped and Branded, about women’s prison – as part of a course named Peoples of the World, taught by the humanities professor Nizar Andary, who required, in place of the written word for by way of assessment, visual ethnographies. “But the quality was so bad. We didn’t have experience,” she says.
The outcome of an independent-study class devised by Andary specifically because they loved making films, Darmaki’s better planned project for a documentary on plastic surgery was falling through when, curious about the curriculum taught to stateless expatriates (as opposed to schools servicing communities like the Pakistani, for example, which taught their state curricula), she started spending time at the Azhar School. The subject gradually shifted from school curricula to Palestinian identity, however, and when she eventually found the required rapport with fourth graders, she was all too happy to record their unadorned views in impressively seamless cinema verite. Even on the horribly noisy ground floor of the Marina Mall, where she refuses to drink anything and categorically forbids me from smoking, Darmaki will not comment about what the students have to say. Subtly, she explains, the question of UAE solidarity with the Palestinian people is raised. And subtly, when the students chant a salute from the Emirates to Palestine, it is answered, she says, in part: “I too will support the cause but in a less violent way.”
What she supports is the undifferenciated dynamism of underprivileged members of the Palestinian diaspora in an oil rich Gulf state – something about which she is understandably reticent. Darmaki’s homage to Palestine has less to do with either Palestinians in the UAE or the insane reactions of these children’s evidently uneducated parents to the political situation than with the intensely moving humanity of the children, their energy and sheer good will sharply contrasting with what they have to say. Under better circumstances, you wonder, would they be saying the same things? And then you remember the little boy who, conceding his teacher’s view that, “yes, of course, Shia in itself is bad”, points out that individual Shiites are not all bad, actually. “My father has a friend who is Shia and he comes over sometimes so I sat with him,” he says, with heart-rending earnestness. “He really is totally normal.”
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