“I said to Cartier-Bresson I’m really not interested and I’m not going to read The Decisive Moment”: Interview with Joseph Koudelka

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.

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Virtual Palestinians: From Sabra and Chatila to Arab Spring

On the 30th anniversary of the Sabra and Chatila massacre, it is worth rereading Jean Genet’s song to the beauty of revolutionaries

“Martyrs’ Square”, Beirut, 2005. photo: Youssef Rakha
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For me, the word “Palestinians,” whether in a headline, in the body of an article, on a handout, immediately calls to mind fedayeen in a specific spot—Jordan—and at an easily determined date: October, November, December 1970, January, February, March, April 1971. It was then and there that I discovered the Palestinian Revolution…

***

When I went to Sabra and Chatila in April 2005, I had already read Jean Genet’s “Four Hours in Chatila”—and loved it. It is a rambling meditation on death and revolution, written within a day of the killing of the entire Palestinian and Shia population of the two refugee camps within greater Beirut—ostensibly in retaliation for the killing of the pro-Israeli Kataeb leader Bachir Gemayel after he was elected president. Kataeb militiamen did the work for the Israeli army on 16-18 September 1982.
“Goyim kill goyim,” Prime Minister Menachem Begin told the Knesset, “and they come to hang the Jews.”
In the end neither Jews nor Maronites were hanged. With the PLO already in Tunis, what transpired was the termination of the Palestinian (Arab) Revolution so conceived—the apex of the counterrevolution led by Israel’s allies, and the end of the glorious legend of the fedayeen.
For reasons that had more to do with where I was in my life than sympathy with the Palestinian cause, when I went to Sabra and Chatila, I broke down in tears. It happened at the end of my walk through the site, at once so inside and outside Beirut that, spending time there, you feel as if you’ve travelled in time. It happened when I got to the tiny cemetery where the remains of some victims of the massacre are buried. There was no obvious context for crying in public, and it must’ve looked ridiculous.
But I was in Beirut for the first time to witness the Cedar Revolution: the young, apolitical uprising against the hegemony of the Syrian regime and its sectarian practices in Lebanon, directed at the army and mukhabarat whose personnel had enjoyed arbitrary power over the Lebanese for as long as anyone could remember. After Iraq’s disastrous liberation from Saddam, this was the first ever evidence of an Arab Spring—and, thinking about being “a virtual Palestinian”, as I had been called in Beirut, my tears anticipated another moment almost six years later, here in Cairo.

***

A photograph doesn’t show the flies nor the thick white smell of death. Neither does it show how you must jump over bodies as you walk along from one corpse to the next. If you look closely at a corpse, an odd phenomenon occurs: the absence of life in this body corresponds to the total absence of the body, or rather to its continuous backing away. You feel that even by coming closer you can never touch it. That happens when you look at it carefully. But should you make a move in its direction, get down next to it, move an arm or a finger, suddenly it is very much there and almost friendly. Love and death. These two words are quickly associated when one of them is written down. I had to go to Chatila to understand the obscenity of love and the obscenity of death. In both cases the body has nothing more to hide: positions, contortions, gestures, signs, even silences belong to one world and to the other…
In the middle, near them, all these tortured victims, my mind can’t get rid of this “invisible vision”: what was the torturer like? Who was he? I see him and I don’t see him. He’s as large as life and the only shape he will ever have is the one formed by the stances, positions, and grotesque gestures of the dead fermenting in the sun under clouds of flies. If the American Marines, the French paratroopers, and the Italian bersagliere who made up an intervention force in Lebanon left so quickly (the Italians, who arrived by ship two days late, fled in Hercules airplanes!) one day or thirty-six hours before their official departure date, as if they were running away, and on the day before Bashir Gemayel’s assassination, are the Palestinians really wrong in wondering if Americans, French and Italians had not been warned to clear out pronto so as not to appear mixed up in the bombing of the Kataeb headquarters?

***

I’m pretty sure that circle of sparse vegetation where people are buried is in Sabra, not Chatila. But Sabra and Chatila are so interwoven in my memory it really hardly matters.
The walls and the unpaved ground were white, and white was the dust staining what asphalt there was. As I sobbed uncontrollably before the unmarked graves, what my tears anticipated—unbeknown to me, of course—was the night of 25 January 2011. That evening on my way home from the offices of Al Ahram, having laughed at the concept of revolution-as-Facebook-event, I decided to walk through Tahrir to see if the demonstrations planned for Police Day were any different from endless—useless—protests I had seen since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Then, arriving there, I realised something was happening. The sight and especially the sound of unbelievable numbers of young Egyptians willingly offering up their bodies—not for abstract notions like “resistance” or Islam, not against any greater or lesser devil, but for the right to live like human beings in their own country—made me weep. “It is not Islamist,” I wrote feverishly in my Facebook status later that night. “It is not limited in numbers. And I saw it with my own eyes in Maidan Al-Tahrir.”
After Cedar, it had taken five and a half years for Jasmine to break out in Tunis, driving what would sometimes be called the Lotus Revolution here. Events were not to start for real until 28 January—two days after, hearing the national anthem in a meaningful context for the first time in my life, I sang tunelessly along, tearfully ecstatic. But already, through phone and other communications after midnight, I realised the killing had started. “I want to go out,” I remember telling a Canada-based friend over Facebook chat in the small hours, “but I’m scared.”
At that same moment a younger, renegade-Muslim-Brother friend was running through the streets of Shubra, tattered, soiled and in tears, pursued by armoured vehicles whose siren almost two years later still gives him the shivers. Another, even younger Catholic friend had fielded a load of Central Security pellets at close range; some barely missed his eyes, and he couldn’t get up unassisted; after receiving first aid in the nearest government hospital, he was sneaked through a backdoor to avoid arrest by State Security. During the day, a young woman friend had fainted from an overdose of tear gas and barely escaped being run over. Hundreds were in custody without charge; a good few were beaten up or detained for hours in police cars; some had been haplessly killed, too…
But, on the morning of 26 January, it was as if nothing had happened. The front page of the daily Al Ahram (already notorious for the “expressive” wire picture in which Mubarak was Photoshopped from the back to the front of a group of heads of state) did no so much as mention unprecedented numbers of demonstrators protesting police brutality and corruption in Tahrir. A minor demonstration in Lebanon of all places was highlighted instead. Downtown, I noticed, people went about their business.
What pained me was not “the beautiful young” dead or injured “for nothing”; “nothing” was a condition of their beauty, after all, and perhaps there weren’t enough casualties yet (though in this context what do numbers mean?) What pained me was that a turn of events that promised to yield a voluntary communal purge of society, a sort of post-religion repentance, seemed to come to nothing the next day. It hadn’t, of course; but later when it did come to something that thing very quickly became political, which meant that power would pass into the hands of religion mongers leaving society intact, with all the evil inside it.
By the time Mubarak stepped down on 11 February—not that this is technically true—there was hardly a young or a secular person in Tahrir. There was to be much more death from then on.

***

The statement that there is a beauty peculiar to revolutionaries raises many problems. Everyone knows, everyone suspects, that young children or adolescents living in old and harsh surroundings have a beauty of face, body, movement and gaze similar to that of the fedayeen. Perhaps this may be explained in the following way: breaking with the ancient ways, a new freedom pushes through the dead skin, and fathers and grandfathers will have a hard time extinguishing the gleam in the eyes, the throbbing in the temples, the joy of blood flowing through the veins. In the spring of 1971, in the Palestinian bases, that beauty subtly pervaded a forest made alive by the freedom of the fedayeen. In the camps a different, more muted beauty prevailed because of the presence of women and children. The camps received a sort of light from the combat bases, and as for the women, it would take a long and complex discussion to explain their radiance. Even more than the men, more than the fedayeen in combat, the Palestinian women seemed strong enough to sustain the resistance and accept the changes that came along with a revolution. They had already disobeyed the customs: they looked the men straight in the eye, they refused to wear a veil, their hair was visible, sometimes completely uncovered, their voices steady. The briefest and most prosaic of their tasks was but a small step in the self-assured journey towards a new, and therefore unknown, order, but which gave them a hint of a cleansing liberation for themselves, and a glowing pride for the men…
Here in the ruins of Chatila there is nothing left. A few silent old women hastily hiding behind a door where a white cloth is nailed. As for the very young fedayeen, I will meet some in Damascus. You can select a particular community other than that of your birth, whereas you are born into a people; this selection is based on an irrational affinity, which is not to say that justice has no role, but this justice and the entire defense of this community take place because of an emotional – perhaps intuitive, sensual – attraction; I am French, but I defend the Palestinians wholeheartedly and automatically. They are in the right because I love them. But would I love them if injustice had not turned them into a wandering people?

***

Genet just didn’t know about political Islam, did he? He didn’t appreciate the effects on collective consciousness of nearly a century of social-cultural-sexual—forget political—repression, of systematic misinformation, humiliation and discouragement of initiative, of words denoting things other than what they say even in life-and-death circumstances, actions failing to yield consensual meaning, courage going unnoticed and festering “tradition” prioritised over such birthrights as sense, sensibility and sensation.
It was all through Friday 28 January, from noon to midnight, that I drew my own connections between youth, death and the—revolutionary—identity of the tortured. However partially or peripherally, I had that identity too; and I was no longer scared. Without the leisure of Genet’s macabre stroll, without the mythical underpinnings of the Arab Revolution or the feeling that I was a Frenchman among Palestinians with no more reason to be there than the fact that I “loved” them, I perceived how the human body responds to being run over by a speeding vehicle, the colour of what comes out of the head when it is gashed open against a solid surface, the smell of sweat on a dead young body mobbed by loud mourners and the sound of fear. There was water-hosing, live ammunition, slaughter and many things besides.
People trembling before the murder of others on the side of the road, adolescents taking metal fences apart to use as weaponry, valiant, bare-chested battles with tear gas canisters and the increasingly expert hurling of stones and Molotov cocktails: it was a bonanza of desperation, a grafting onto the scene of “revolution” of all the violence and madness prompted by living for decades under inhuman conditions; fear and loathing in the Maidan.
That day there was plenty of opportunity for political identification with Palestinians—Qasr Al-Aini Street looked and felt like the site of an Intifada against a repressive power less competent or self-respecting and so even more brutishly undiscriminating than the Israeli army—but it wasn’t the sight of stone-throwing children facing armed men in uniform that evoked Palestine.
It wasn’t being Arab, or to the left of a counterrevolutionary, pro-Israeli status quo. As would later be confirmed on finding out about Hamas’s atrocious response to Arab Spring demonstrations in Gaza, it was my social (human or cultural) connection with Palestinians that Friday 28 January made me aware of in a new way. And that was practically beyond tears.
As the Lebanese already knew, the position of the secular Arab as a Palestinian—state- or citizenship-less, disinherited, disgraced, betrayed and blamed for being who they are—is even more pronounced under resistance-mongering regimes like the Assads’ than elsewhere. All Arabs have their little Israels to torture them through their respective Kataeb in full view of the international community; even the Islamist banner—“Death to the infidels,” in which the latter word replaces the conventional Arab nationalist “traitors”—does not prevent that.

***

Many died in Chatila, and my friendship, my affection for their rotting corpses was also immense, because I had known them. Blackened, swollen, decayed by the sun and by death, they were still fedayeen. They were still fedayeen. Around two o’clock in the afternoon on Sunday three soldiers from the Lebanese army drove me, at gunpoint, to a jeep where an officer was dozing. I asked him: “Do you speak French?” — “English.” The voice was dry, maybe because I had awakened it with a start. He looked at my passport, and said to me, in French: “Have you just been there?” He pointed to Chatila. “Yes.” — “And did you see?” — “Yes.” — “Are you going to write about it?” — “Yes.” He gave me back my passport. He signaled me to leave. The three rifles were lowered. I had spent four hours in Chatila. About forty bodies remained in my memory. All of them, and I mean all, had been tortured, probably against a backdrop of drunkenness, song, laughter, the smell of gunpowder and already of decaying flesh. I was probably alone, I mean the only European (with a few old Palestinian women still clinging to a torn white cloth; with a few young unarmed fedayeen), but if these five or six human beings had not been there and I had discovered this butchered city, black and swollen Palestinians lying there, I would have gone crazy. Or did I? That city lying in smithereens which I saw or thought I saw, which I walked through, felt, and whose death stench I wore, had all that taken place?

***

I know Sabra and Chatila was about racism, imperialism and the ugly side of humanity. I know it had to do with the accepted construction of the Palestinian cause and (confirmed by it) the perennial suspicion that minority (as in non-Muslim) Arab communities are potential traitors to the greater nation even when that nation pretends to be other than the Umma (a pretence now backfiring throughout the region in the worst possible ways). What I have learned from the Arab Spring is that Sabra and Chatila may also have been about something else, something like a mirror image of what Genet saw in the fedayeen. Like the sectarian aftermath of the Arab Spring, like the failure of the so called international community to reign in all the little Israels whose existence Nazism’s progeny justifies, like the failure of Arab societies to make use of the sacrifices of the young and the beautiful, Sabra and Chatila was about Arab self-hatred. It was about the ugliness peculiar to revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries in times of grand narratives that, in the absence of societies to support them, are bound to end badly. In the most oblique way imaginable, Sabra and Chatila is about the ugliness of the fedayeen.

Genet’s text (in italics) quoted as is in Daniel R. Dupecher and Martha Perrigaud’s translation

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Dumb from human dignity

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***
So like a bit of stone I lie
Under a broken tree.
I could recover if I shrieked
My heart’s agony
To passing bird, but I am dumb
From human dignity. – William Butler Yeats

Dumb from human dignity
Youssef Rakha refuses to assess the cultural life to be expected

So like a bit of stone I lie/Under a broken tree./I could recover if I shrieked/My heart’s agony/To passing bird, but I am dumb/From human dignity. – William Butler Yeats
After the first round of presidential elections, the bleak prospects facing Egyptian society since the revolution have become apparent – with the incumbent, largely fake polarisation between the former NDP and the Islamic-style NDP (aka, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party) consuming far more energy than it is really worth, all things considered. This is due, as much as anything, to the failure of “the civil forces” representing “the revolutionaries” to coalesce into an effective political front – if not to compete with the two blocs, one of which, that supporting the SCAF-cum-former regime candidate Ahmad Shafik, is detracted far more consistently than the other: the Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Mursi – then to provide the revolution with adequate representation in society at large. Aside from the fact that culture has been relegated to a secondary and less visible part of the stage, it is hard to see how or why the cultural and social renaissance promised by 25 January might happen in the foreseeable future. Yet the vapid polarisation has transferred itself into cultural circles too, and much intense argument has taken place therein.
Feeling that Mursi (being, if only temporarily, against SCAF) is the candidate who must be closer to the revolution or the one, at least, who does not represent a mere extension of the Mubarak regime, many have felt morally obliged to vote for the Brotherhood. From the viewpoint of culture this would seem to be the easier standpoint to discredit. Art, literature and the lifestyles associated with them have been the most frequent targets for Islamist attack; and, though it may be argued that the Brotherhood – conservative as it remains – may generally be more or less sensible, it is also clear (from the experience of Tunisia, if nothing else) that a Brotherhood monopoly on power would provide adequate cover for all manner of less civilised and less enlightened practitioners of political Islam to attack and, with various degrees of social and security support, eventually abolish contemporary cultural practises. Most writers, artists and performers would be subject to charges of offending public morality if not contempt of religion or even apostasy. Most would have to work outside official and mainstream spheres. Judging by Brotherhood attitudes, performance in parliament, and Freedom and Justice-controlled media, what is more, the Mursi choice poses serious issues for freedom not only of creativity but also of expression: women, journalists and other gauges of a functional public sphere will be at best marginsalised, at worst criminally persecuted.
Following this line of thought, equally many intellectuals – those not too wrapped up in blind loyalty to an increasingly irrelevant “revolutionary moment” – have opted for the opposite choice, seeing Shafik – the military man with a propensity for Bushisms and Bush-like (more or less fascist) statements – as the only possible safeguard to “civil society”. Notwithstanding the stark irony of military dictatorship once again posited as the answer to a quasi-theocratic threat, such writers and artists purposefully forget that it was under Mubarak, his predecessors and, especially, technocratic aides to him like Shafik – and partly as a result of intellectuals allying themselves with a repressive, short-sighted and incompetent regime out of concern about the spread of political Islam in a society given to repression, prurience, piety and double standards – that Brotherhood lies about the greater good took root, identifying (otherwise rightful) dissidence with social Islamisation and enabling Islamists to instantly occupy the “democratic” space generated by the revolution. That is not even to begin to explain how the regime is economically, politically and (to some extent) socially responsible for the power (and, especially, the victim’s power) of Islamists among the grass roots.
As culture minister for life under Mubarak, even a reportedly gay expressionist painter like Farouk Hosni occasionally agreed to ban books published by the ministry in response to legal cases filed by then banned Brotherhood MPs. What liberal margin existed under Mubarak eventually resulted in the revolution, but it had not been wide enough to nurture viable alternatives to the military-religious pincers holding political life in place. Hosni is but one example of how the regime, while presenting a liberal façade to the world at large, was actually just as traditional – repressive, prurient, pious and immoral – as the Islmists. As a writer I am deeply concerned about the kinds of censorship and aggression that may develop under the Brotherhood, but I would be engaging in self-delusion if I was to believe or claim that Shafik in power will protect me against such censorship or against any other form of suppression. What is missing from Egypt is a vision for life, including culture. And wherever it comes from, that vision will never come from either arms- or religion-based, ultimately corrupt identity-based power. It will come from a presumably ever widening margin not of protests as such but of social liberalism, whatever form it takes and whoever it happens to be under.
The question remains of what is to be done about the elections. Proactive and community-aware attitudes have resulted in boycotts and strikes being totally ineffective all through the last year and a half. Yet as far as culture goes, at least, the only humane position to take remains refusing to participate in the travesty of democratic transition to which the revolution has been reduced by political power.

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Link

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Late February. “Some day soon,” I wrote, referring to festive demonstrations in Tahrir Square after Mubarak finally stepped down, “people taking to the streets spontaneously to celebrate (a thousands- or hundreds of thousands-strong, heterogeneous group of people exercising the right to use their own public space without being subjected to tear gas bought with their own money) will be the norm in Egypt.”
5 August. On the way to Bab al Louq, my taxi passes a throng of Central Security officers at the site of “the Revolution”, their unassuming black caps spattered with the bright red berets of Military Police. Facing the stalling cars, soldiers line the edge of the main traffic island, the kernel of the by now dreaded Sit-In. Like well-fed orks from two different clans of Arda — army conscripts, all — both Central Security in black and Military Police in desert camouflage are shielded, armed and ready to strike. In and around the sickly myrtle trucks parked everywhere — those evilmobiles forever associated with the violent appropriation of public space, now bolstered up by army deployments — there are many, many more of them: why this desperation to deprive the young, the socially and politically conscious and the ethically inclined of using public space they are entitled to by birth?
***
Craning his neck dramatically the way taxi drivers do, to look at nothing in particular, my driver suddenly remarks, “Something’s up” — no kidding! Later that night, I will find out about the needlessly vicious disbanding of an open-air iftar outside Omar Makram Mosque; earlier in the day a symbolic funerary march in honour of the Martyr of Abbassiya was likewise violently blocked from entering the square: and a good portion of the public have wholeheartedly supported the use of force: “Hit hard with ‘the electric’ to scare the enemy,” one participant in the iftar testified to hearing Military Police personnel bark urgently at each other as they charged.
As it is, I am thinking, the business of collective self-expression is left to that all-male adolescent mob leisurely crammed, for lack of anything better to do on a Ramadan evening, behind the rails of the pavement, shrieking and running idiotically while they fawn over the soldiers from afar. Individual rights are not an issue, not even for the revolutionaries of a few months ago themselves.
Grunting an expression of sympathy to the driver, I listen to him vent his impatience: “They should calm down, for God’s sake. The army took Mubarak to court to please them — what more do they want? Can’t they let the country get on?” He is referring to protesters; it strikes me that it is they, not the menacing usurpers now literally overrunning Revolution, that bother him. “Who would have dreamed of seeing Mubarak and his sons behind bars,” he says, echoing a huge majority of Egyptians. “The army has been good, they should let justice take its course.”
***
I too have seen justice, I am thinking: the Historical Moment everyone is so excited about. I have seen the grotesque spectacle of an octogenarian, seemingly drugged, brought into a court room lying down (no doubt only to be acquitted in due course). It was a patently unnecessary pose, as it seemed to me, which served to strip Mubarak of what rags of dignity he might still have on. With the faux patriarch were his two prodigal sons, once scourges of the economy and democratic process simply by virtue of being the strongman’s progeny. In this Society the head of state is idolized regardless of his credentials, and his sons have absolute impunity: Society gives it to them voluntarily, as it voluntarily cleans religion not only out of spiritual but also out of moral substance, marginalises or casts out its best human assets, turns political opposition and intellectual activity — culture, into CV-building exercises, morally and materially liquidates difference, and relinquishes people’s basic birthrights.
They are standing at attention in white prison garments invented solely for cronies of the official mafia, the two prodigal sons, surrounded by some of the top brigands in the torture-reliant extortion gang known as the Ministry of Interior. Between a distinctly unimposing judge bumbling his Arabic grammar and Mubarak’s singularly eloquent lawyer, scores of more or less ridiculous ambulance chasers jockey for a few minutes of rhetoric. One of the two sons holds a Quran. Looking impassive as ever, his hair freshly dyed, Mubarak desultorily picks his nose.
For this, while no one is allowed to loiter in Tahrir Square, the martyrs died.
***
I too have seen the patriarch and the prodigal sons, the brigands and those who protect them, and I have seen the so called revolutionaries shedding tears of joy over the Historical Moment. But it is the iftar, ending with electroshock batons and “the enemy” running on the asphalt, that I keep thinking about. I think about the iftar and the significance of the trial, the capacity of even the most highly educated and politically conscious people to say that they are grateful to have lived to see it happen, adding — in the same breath — that events reflect a vendetta between Mubarak and powerful figures in the army (not, it is to be surmised, the will of either the revolution or the people). The motherland, then, remains unchanged:
Emotional response is one thing, political analysis another. Moral responsibility is lost somewhere in between.
I think about the iftar and I think about those who died, how we will always have their blood on our hands — the Optimists especially — and how the grotesque spectacle of the unnecessarily prostate octogenarian is the lie by which we convince ourselves that we have avenged their deaths; vengeance, of course, being the object, not the rights they died standing up for.

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