“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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All those theres: Sargon Boulus’s Iraq

4 September 2011: Baghdad via San Francisco, for Youssef Rakha, makes more sense than Baghdad

Thanks to a flighty wi-fi connection at the riad where I stayed that time in Marrakesh, I heard Sargon Boulus (1944-2007) reading his poems for the first time. Sargon had died recently in Berlin – this was the closest I would get to meeting him – and, lapping up. the canned sound, I marvelled at his unusual career. He was an Iraqi who spent more or less all of his adult life outside Iraq, a Beatnik with roots in Kirkuk, an Assyrian who reinvented classical Arabic. He translated both Mahmoud Darwish and Howl.

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In Sargon’s time and place there is an overbearing story of nation building, of (spurious) Arab-Muslim identity and of (mercenary) Struggle – against colonialism, against Israel, against capital – and that story left him completely out. More probably, he chose to stand apart from it, as he did from a literary scene that celebrated it more often than it did anything else. Is this what makes him the most important Arab poet for me?

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M for Manar

Al Manar has dragged itself into the future and away from the 1950s sets.

It seems the graphics people at al Manar TV are brushing up their act. NileSat’s most resolutely retro news channel, whose sets used to look like they were out of the 1950s, is suddenly using slick digital transitions to advertise its programmes. It is pacing broadcasts much faster, challenging the competition with colourful plaques, distinctive logos and the full gamut of special effects. The anchors are adopting Jazeera-like voices and the stringers, like al Jazeera’s, report breathlessly from the thick.
It is also screening historical soap operas and serial documentaries on topics like the struggle of the Palestinians, the struggle against colonialism and the struggle to maintain national identity. Many of these are imported from Syria, some are dubbed from Farsi, but all seek to lure the global Arabic-speaking viewer into that world of eternal truth, ruthless justice and ever so punctilious philanthropy dreamt up by Hizbollah.

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Five cases of exorcism

Facing each others’ shadows but not actually facing each other, seculars and Islamists were at daggers drawn, writes Youssef Rakha. Then came the Revolution

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10 Years Since The Intifada, 8 Years Ago

Disengagement

Youssef Rakha reviews two years of Intifada-inspired culture


While in no sense dependent on politics, cultural life tends to wait for political upheaval. For many Arabs this is only as it should be: the notion of Sartrian engagement has taken such a hold that it often acts to obscure the very distinction between the two disciplines; the title of “intellectual” covers artists and writers as well as activists and, even, sometimes, politicians. Yet being an intellectual in itself hardly ever implies an involvement in the politics of everyday life — the politics of individual and civil rights, of governmental reform, of autonomous opinion. Rather, and only in times of crisis, it prompts intellectuals to express unevenly strong opinions about regional or international affairs — whether or not this involves direct opposition to government policy. And cultural activities likewise emanate from regional events — so much so that culturally vibrant periods are more often than not defined by the shape and colour of their political backdrop.

One example of this is the surge of political strife that preceded and followed the two-year-old Al-Aqsa Intifada — prompted, in its turn, by Sharon’s visit to the Palestinian holy site, which the Israeli side claimed was more of a cultural than a political act. In the Egyptian context culture was on the wane both generally speaking, and with specific reference to the political forces that drove it. A proposed intellectuals’ tajamu’ (rally), initially focussed on issues of self-expression and creative freedom, instantly dissolved into the more inclusive call to arms that formed around Hizbullah’s widely celebrated victory once Israeli forces withdrew from southern Lebanon. The event was soon followed by the Israeli incursion, and while Gaza and the West Bank were being reoccupied intellectuals were not about to miss the chance to voice discontent with government policy. It didn’t matter that the discontent was rooted in unrelated concerns; it didn’t matter that these concerns would remain unvoiced. The Intifada was once again upon us.

During that first year the flare-up of the second Intifada engendered a culture all its own — one whose tendency to forsake any form of true, risk-ridden support in favour of melodramatically impassioned and over-emphatically orchestrated protest lent the exercise even less credibility. Celebrities began to make special appearances, with actors on state-sponsored stages singing the patriotic praises of Arab unity and promising their audiences an inevitable, if never quite determined, triumph. The most expensive singers had already collaborated on El-Quds Haterga’ Lena (Jerusalem Will Return to Us), a song that affirms what remains an impossible goal as if it were a forgone conclusion, without for a moment suggesting how it might be achieved. Blood donations, seminars, demonstrations overpowered the cultural news. “Caravans” of intellectuals carried food and first aid supplies all the way to Rafah — only to wait indefinitely for those responsible to receive them. The Egyptian knack for disorganisation became an increasingly relevant factor, but what lay at the root of the ineffectiveness of most efforts was the fact that the Intifada — the pop theme of street-peddled wares like hats and scarves, T-shirts and mugs — was appropriated as something over and above (political) reality.

Even in the most highbrow circles, cultural manifestations of solidarity were abundant, but more than the reality of the situation or even the Egyptian response to it, they reflected the state of Egyptian culture itself. The most obvious cultural response was to be found in the popular media, however. The urban folk singing phenomenon Shaaban Abdel-Rehim, arguably the Arab world’s first self-made rapper, made his name with the internationally circulated hit Ana Bakrah Israel (I Hate Israel), a “protest” song, which, without making any direct allusion to the political dynamics of the incursion or the Egyptian government’s response to it, managed to crystallise and express the most popular sentiment in raw form. For two years Shaaban would jump from one summit of popularity to the next, largely due to his quasi-political stance on the ever elusive, ever undiscussed Intifada. Amrika ya Amrika is one example of such a song; so is a duet with his son Essam in which they impersonate Mohamed El-Dorra and his father in the last moments of the former’s life. El-Dorra — in the end a Western-mediated icon — became the centre of too many cultural interventions. And intellectuals, turning increasingly away from the nitty-gritty of the conflict, likewise began to tackle Washington.

With films like Fatah min Israel (A Girl from Israel), production companies had already bought into the Palestinian issue, even the most frivolous comedies (Saedi fil Gamaa El-Amrikiya; Abboud ala El-Hudoud) incorporated a major solidarity component. In the former — the film that made the name of contemporary comedy’s brightest star, Mohamed Heniedi — American University in Cairo students undertake the burning of an Israeli flag. Sharon — for a long time the Egyptian cartoonist’s treasure-trove — began to assume central symbolic significance. Comedian Youssef Dawoud, one disillusioned practitioner who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly, explained that in Zakeya Zakareya Tathadda Sharon — the second of two plays based on Ibrahim Nasr’s tasteless, completely disengaged candid-camera television programme — he was initially contracted to play the part of the dictatorial and cruel head of an orphanage. However, following the emergence of Sharon as an object of universal hatred, if not universal ridicule, the play’s producer renamed Dawoud’s character and provided the actor with a wig. The play had been in no sense a political statement, but in a desperate attempt to make it more commercially viable its producers were content to exploit regional developments. Even if this is an extreme example of an otherwise many-hued trend, the decision to capitalise on a political development without fully understanding or dealing with it typifies the Intifada’s cultural manifestations.

On the home front, 11 September effectively brought the Intifada to an end. Yet along the infinitely curvaceous corridors of Egyptian culture the struggle doggedly continues. America has naturally solicited a greater degree of enmity, with intellectuals, increasingly of the scholar or pundit designation, discussing American foreign policy in relation to regional affairs. Cultural agents are encouraged to express support for the Palestinians, and even hatred for Israel continues to be permissible to some degree. Yet official Arab policy, the increasingly undermined state of Arabs and Muslims everywhere in the world, the plight of the Afghans and the absence of any indication that the Arab-Israeli conflict will be appropriately resolved remain by and large subjects for occasional meditation. Books are written, talks staged. But the fact remains that had the so-called terrorists, whose prerogative it is to resist the New World Order, been in any way culturally inclined, they would probably have produced the most resonant cultural response not only to the Indifada but to the state of things as they are, articulating rather than voicing how they should be.

Al-Ahram Weekly on 26 September 2002

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حديث محمد فرج في السفير

محمد فرج: ما يكتبه ليس أدب رحلات ولكنه سياحة روحية في الأماكن
يوسف رخا: ما يسمّونه الانفجار الروائي أنتج كتابات لا تمتّ للجنس الروائي


استطاع يوسف رخا أن يصنع شكلاً جديداً ومغايراً لأدب الرحلات عبر ثلاثة كتب، صدر أحدثها مؤخراً تحت عنوان «شمال القاهرة، غرب الفلبين.. أسفار في العالم العربي» عن دار رياض الريس للكتب والنشر. بدأ مشروع يوسف رخا مع بيروت عندما قام بزيارتها في الذكرى الثلاثين للحرب الأهلية وكتب كتابه الاول «بيروت شي محل» 2006، بعد بيروت كانت رحلته إلى تونس ثم كتابه «بورقيبة على مضض..عشرة أيام في تونس» 2008 ثم الكتاب الأخير الذي شمل رحلات عدة الى المغرب وتونس ولبنان والامارات وايضاً القاهرة. عبر لغة متوترة ذات جمل قصيرة تلغرافية، تقدّم قراءة للمكان ولتاريخه القديم وحالته الآنية وايضاً ترصد حالة الرواي الذي هو عربي يلتقي بعرب آخرين لتظهر من خلال هذا اللقاء أسئلة كثيرة تشغل يوسف عبر كتبه الثلاثة أسئلة متعلقة بالهوية والقومية والشتات العربي والتاريخ وكيفية رؤيتنا الحالية له وايضاً كيفية تعاملنا اليومي معه.

استمر في القراءة

Sound and vision

Time stopped at Cassells hotel in Abu Dhabi on Friday. It was a fleeting impression, but haunting. The photographer had positioned the three musicians in dramatic formation on the stairs to shoot them with their instruments: Tarek Banzi hugging an Iraqi-made oud; Julia Banzi flaunting a stately flamenco guitar; and Charlie Bisharat balancing the smallest instrument yet, a violin, on his shoulder.

Thus arrayed while the camera click-clicked, occasionally pitting its flash against the sunlit window to one side, the three musicians started, reflexively, indolently, to play. It happened without so much as a nod to each other, evidently without thinking: the auditory equivalent of doodling, but with three distinct hands on the same scrap of paper. And while it lasted, in a very real way, time stopped.

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