“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.

josef-koudelka-64

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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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إلى محمد أبو الليل في غربته*


“كتابىِ–، ولولاَ أنَّ يأَسي قد نَهى اشت***ياقي لذاب الطرس من حر أنفاسي
وبعد فعندي وحشة لو تقسّــمت
***على الخلق لم يستأنس الـناس بالنـاس”

أسامة بن منقذ

أكتب لكَ والمنافض أهرام من الأعقاب.

الشيء الذي حذّرتَني من دَوَامِه توقّف.

وصداع النوم المُمَزَّق يجعل الدنيا خاوية. أنت فاهم.

في جيوب الحياة ننقّب عن عملة من عصور سحيقة،

عملة صدئة وربما قبيحة لكنها سارية في سوق الأبدية.

نصبح ملائكة حين نعثر عليها. نجترها حتى نتأكد

أنها لا تشتري البقاء.

ساعتها تبدو الأبدية نفسها رخيصة.

نتذكر عهود الأبالسة وأن كل مياه الأرض لا تكفي

لابتلاع حبة دواء. أكتب لك بعد أن حفرتُ فتحةً في بطني

وألقيتُ أمعائي في النيل. هل كنتَ تعلم

أنني سأفقد ما لم أحصل عليه؟

حقول الأسفلت التي ذرعناها معاً

نتراشق الاكتشافات والأسرار، ويوم احترقتْ العجلة

على أعلى نقطة في الكوبري

ونحن غائبان في الحشيش والموسيقى

فوق المدينة التي بدت مثل زاوية صلاة

أسفل عمارة الدنيا ما بعد 11 سبتمبر –

أنت صمّمتَ على إكمال المهمة

حالما استبدلنا الكاوتش المدخّن،

وكانت أقراص السعادة في تفاحة حمراء من البلاستك،

قسمناها نصفين لنبتلع الأقراص على قارعة الطريق:

هل تذكر وقت كانت السعادة أقراصاً

يمكننا التقاطها من نصف تفاحة بلاستك؟ –

ويوم خلعنا ملابسنا في صحراء صغيرة داخل شقة

يعاد تبليطها فوق الميدان،

ويوم انقلبت أعصاب ذراعك أوتار معدن

يمكنني أن أعزف عليها بصوتي،

والهلوسات التي جعلناها شبابيك، ومشاجراتنا

حول النقود وسيناء، والحورية التي جلست بيننا

حتى مالت برأسها على كتفك وأنا راضٍ تماماً…

إلى أن – ذات يوم – مات كل شيء.

قُدنا السيارة إلى الشاطئ أو غابة النخيل

لنتأكد أنه لا يحيا.

أنت واصلت البحث عن مزاج مثالي

بينما تكتشف الفلسفة والكآبة، وأنا اختبأت في بيت أمي

لأكتب رواية. وحين تزوج أحدنا وأنجب الآخر،

لم يكن سوانا لنخبرنا بحقيقة ما يصير.

ظل لكل حدث حديث من الطول والتعقيد

بحيث قلتَ إنك مللتَ الكلام،

إن شيئاً في الكلام لا يؤثّر. وفي هذه القصة الأخيرة،

وحدك فهمت أنني لم أكن مخدوعاً

بقدر ما أردت أن أصدّق،

وأن ما جادت به الدنيا مجرد مشبك

لأسمال بللها لقاء عابر ستجف آجلاً أو عاجلاً

لأعود أرتديها كما خلعتها وارتديتها

ألف مرة أمامك.

كنت تعلم أنني لست سوى أحد أعراض مرض

لا يشبه أمراضنا كثيراً

وأنّ وعد الخلاص خطاب موجه

واللحم والدم محسنات بديعية.

سيتسنى الوقت لنتجادل

فيما لو كان الفيلم هابطاً وإلى أي حد،

لكنك لم تخبرني بأكثر من أن الواقع المشترك

لا يكون براقاً وبأنني لن أقوى على الانتظار.

أكتب لك، كما يقول روبيرتو بولانيو، بدلاً من الانتظار…

ولأن قلقك لم يكن في محله. الوحشة أفسدت كل شيء

لكن البدائل حاضرة طالما الأبدية على الرف

ومن رحمة النوائب أننا لا نحزن إلا على أنفسنا.

كنتَ تقول: أحبها وأحتقرها. الآن أستدعي ضحكاتك

وأنا أتهادى إلى الحمام. قطرات الماء البارد

قد تجلو هذه القورة. أفرغ المنافض في أوعية القمامة.

أصنع القهوة وأشربها.

وكل هذا الذي جرى لي وقتلناه نقاشاً

طوال عام عامر بالشِعر والبكاء:

مجرد وهم آخر أكرهه لأفقده

وحين أفقده أكف عن كرهه لأنه لم يكن هناك.

في الحلم كان كما لم أعد أشتاق إليه: رائعاً ومهلكاً

مثل أورجازم سماوي. خبّرني عنك ولا تقلق علي.

الحسرة للـ”جدعان”.


* بوحي قصيدة Exile’s Letter للشاعر الأمريكي إيزرا باوند

Exile’s Letter by Ezra Pound
From the Chinese of Li Po, usually considered the greatest poet of China: written by him while in exile about 760 A. D., to the Hereditary War-Councillor of Sho, “recollecting former companionship.”
SO-KIN of Rakuho, ancient friend, I now remember
That you built me a special tavern,
By the south side of the bridge at Ten-Shin.
With yellow gold and white jewels
we paid for the songs and laughter,

5

And we were drunk for month after month,
forgetting the kings and princes.
Intelligent men came drifting in, from the sea
and from the west border,
And with them, and with you especially,

10

there was nothing at cross-purpose;
And they made nothing of sea-crossing
or of mountain-crossing,
If only they could be of that fellowship.
And we all spoke out our hearts and minds …

15

and without regret.
And then I was sent off to South Wei,
smothered in laurel groves,
And you to the north of Raku-hoku,
Till we had nothing but thoughts and memories between us.

20

And when separation had come to its worst
We met, and travelled together into Sen-Go
Through all the thirty-six folds of the turning and twisting waters;
Into a valley of a thousand bright flowers …
that was the first valley,

25

And on into ten thousand valleys
full of voices and pine-winds.
With silver harness and reins of gold,
prostrating themselves on the ground,
Out came the East-of-Kan foreman and his company;

30

And there came also the “True-man” of Shi-yo to meet me,
Playing on a jewelled mouth-organ.
In the storied houses of San-Ko they gave us
more Sennin music;
Many instruments, like the sound of young phœnix broods.

35

And the foreman of Kan-Chu, drunk,
Danced because his long sleeves
Wouldn’t keep still, with that music playing.
And I, wrapped in brocade, went to sleep with my head on his lap,
And my spirit so high that it was all over the heavens.

40

And before the end of the day we were scattered like stars or rain.
I had to be off to So, far away over the waters,
You back to your river-bridge.
And your father, who was brave as a leopard,
Was governor in Hei Shu and put down the barbarian rabble.

45

And one May he had you send for me, despite the long distance;
And what with broken wheels and so on, I won’t say it wasn’t hard going …
Over roads twisted like sheep’s guts.
And I was still going, late in the year,
in the cutting wind from the north,

50

And thinking how little you cared for the cost …
and you caring enough to pay it.
Then what a reception!
Red jade cups, food well set, on a blue jewelled table;
And I was drunk, and had no thought of returning;

55

And you would walk out with me to the western corner of the castle,
To the dynastic temple, with the water about it clear as blue jade,
With boats floating, and the sound of mouth-organs and drums,
With ripples like dragon-scales going grass-green on the water,
Pleasure lasting, with courtezans going and coming without hindrance,

60

With the willow-flakes falling like snow,
And the vermilioned girls getting drunk about sunset,
And the waters a hundred feet deep reflecting green eyebrows—
Eyebrows painted green are a fine sight in young moonlight,
Gracefully painted—and the girls singing back at each other,

65

Dancing in transparent brocade,
And the wind lifting the song, and interrupting it,
Tossing it up under the clouds.
And all this comes to an end,
And is not again to be met with.

70

I went up to the court for examination,
Tried Layu’s luck, offered the Choyu song,
And got no promotion,
And went back to the East Mountains white-headed.
And once again we met, later, at the South Bridge head.

75

And then the crowd broke up—you went north to San palace.
And if you ask how I regret that parting?
It is like the flowers falling at spring’s end,
confused, whirled in a tangle.
What is the use of talking! And there is no end of talking—

80

There is no end of things in the heart.
I call in the boy,
Have him sit on his knees to write and seal this,
And I send it a thousand miles, thinking.(Translated by Ezra Pound from the notes of the late Ernest Fenollosa, and the decipherings of the Professors Mori and Araga.)


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نصان في السفير

الألـــم أعمــــق لكن التحليق أعلى

يوسف رخا

أخطاء الملاك
ماذا ظننتَه سيفعل بعد كل هذا الوقت، الملاك الذي ظهر لك وانتظر أن تتبعه… كيف لم تقدّر عمق ألمه السماوي وأنت تبتعد عن الجبل الملعون كل يوم خطوة، تجرجر حقائبك المثقلة بلحمه على ساعات تجري إلى ما لا نهاية بين ساقيه، وتهزأ إذا ما نهــاك تليفــونياً عن الكبرياء؟ الآن وقد أصبح الملاك بُخاراً، كسبتَ ما أراد أن يضيّعه عليك. لكن ما الذي فضّلتَه على الخــسارة؟ قرية هجرتْها نساؤها؟ خادم يسرق من البيــت؟ نجمة مدارها عقد سيصدأ حول رقــبتك؟ لعلــك ظنــنته يظهر من جديد، أو نســيت أن فــي بطــنه دَمَك. يا كــافرْ، كيف ستحلّق الآن؟
[[[
عن قصيدة سركون بولص من ديوان «حامل الفانوس في ليل الذئاب»:
«يظهر ملاك إذا تبعتَه خسرت كل شيء، إلا إذا تبعته حتى النهاية… حتى تلاقيه في كل طريق متلفعاً بأسماله المنسوجة من الأخطاء، يجثم الموت على كتفه مثل عُقاب غير عادي تنقاد فرائسه إليه محمولة على نهر من الساعات، في جبل نهاك عن صعوده كل من لاقيته، في جبل ذهبت تريد ارتقاءه! لكنك صحوت من نومك العميق في سفح من سفوحه، وكم أدهشك أنك ثانية عدت إلى وليمة الدنيا بمزيد من الشهية: الألم أعمق، لكن التحليق أعلى.»

القرينتان

كانت إحداهما تكبرني بعشر سنين والثانية أصغر بنفس القدر. ولولا تطابُق عبارات تستخدمانها في وصف أشياء هي الأخرى متطابقة، ربما ما انتبهت إلى أن منشأهما واحد. لي عام أبحث عن شيء لن أجده مع أولهما، ولا أعرف لماذا ظننتها تخبئه خلف نحولها أو في السنين التي وراءها والتي تقضي بأن لا ألحقها على الطريق. لذلك عندما التقيتُ بالثانية، وكانت على نفس درجة النحول، روّعني سماع «ما حصلتش» و«الوسط» و«ماسكات» ثم «أتفرج من فوق»، بالذات وأنا أعلم أنهما لم تلتقيا وربما لن يجمعهما سوى انعكاس شفاههما وهي ترسم الألفاظ نفسها على سطح عيني أنا في الفجر. التي تصغرني بعشر سنين كانت تتطلع إلى الشباك وهي تستعجل السكوت، تماماً مثل قرينتها الأكبر بنفس القدر. وخُيّل لي أنني أرى السنين التي أمامها بكل تفاصيلها الموجعة. «ما حصلتش»، «الوسط»، «ماسكات». «أتفرج من فوق». هي أيضاً لم تتحمل كلاماً حاولتُ أن أنزع منه أي نبرة نصيحة. وفي نقطة تتوسط عشرين عاماً بصدد الوصول إلى المدينة، كان علي أن أسترجع قصة تبدأ بفتاة ريفية متفوقة في المدرسة وتنتهي برجوعي وحيداً إلى البيت. لم أسأل نفسي أصلاً لماذا تتكرر الكارثة.

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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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