notes_27 A global economy all at sea; its sinuous embrace of the Arabian peninsula with Laleh Khalili | TT

“Powerful and unconstrained conceptual and poetic tools establish the shorelines of Khalili’s sea, then, and it is here that global capitalism takes its tightly woven place. Sinews narrows its focus to the northerly Indian Ocean world, the Arabian and Red Seas, as well as the Persian Gulf itself … a stimulating read and a surefooted introduction to the subject, with deep pockets of research.”

Guy Mannes-Abbott – Third Text – August 2020

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Laleh Khalili, ‘Sinews of War and Trade: Shipping and Capitalism in the Arabian Peninsula’

Verso Books, New York and London, 2020
368pp, ISBN978-1786634818

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Guy Mannes-Abbott

Laleh Khalili announces the raison d’être of her new book, as well as its primary call on our attention, in the second sentence; ‘Ninety per cent of the world’s goods travel by ship’. [1]  Within this overwhelming figure, 70 per cent of global cargo by value is carried by container ships, and 60 per cent of oil trade travels by sea. The resulting system of marine transportation is not, she continues, ‘an enabling adjunct of trade but is central to the very fabric of global capitalism’ (p 3). Sinews of War and Trade traces the histories of a fast-developing present, now centred on China as the ‘factory of the world’ and the Arabian peninsula as the infrastructural heart of flows through post-Independence era ports, with ‘Dubai’s Jabal Ali foremost among them’ (p 2).

Khalili is a Professor of International Politics at Queen Mary University, London, a sharply engaged speaker and Tweeter who describes her book as ‘untidy’ (p 6) in its attempts to shuck off disciplinary constraints. This appealing untidiness betrays a consciousness of dimensions beyond the academic, signalled by her prefacing Sinews with Derek Walcott’s famous words ‘the sea is history’, amongst many other literary references. I associate Walcott’s words with Dionne Brand’s expansively resonant memoir of a Caribbean childhood in which ‘The sea was its own country, its own sovereignty’, [2] everything beginning and ending in water. I also think of Michel Serres’ contention that water is finite on our planet and more enduring than rock, [3] as well as Christina Sharpe’s painfully exact construction of ‘residence time’, in relation to massacred Black bodies and the Atlantic Ocean, a time that is ongoing. [4]

‘I associate Walcott’s words with Dionne Brand’s expansively resonant memoir of a Caribbean childhood in which ‘The sea was its own country, its own sovereignty’, everything beginning and ending in water.’

Powerful and unconstrained conceptual and poetic tools establish the shorelines of Khalili’s sea, then, and it is here that global capitalism takes its tightly woven place. Sinews narrows its focus to the northerly Indian Ocean world, the Arabian and Red Seas, as well as the Persian Gulf itself, where sinews of war and trade form a knotty profusion around the Arabian Peninsula in ports, free zones and naval bases. These are connected by peculiarly indelible shipping routes and communication infrastructure, as well as interconnected levers of military and financial control described as invisible or hidden here. Khalili took two trips on CMA CGM-owned container ships in 2015 and 2016 that involved variant length journeys to Jabal Ali, ‘the biggest port in the Middle East, and the ninth-busiest container port in the world’ (p 10). Thus, in conception and content, the book approaches its peninsula-world ‘written from the sea, gazing at the shores’ (p 4), only venturing landside on arrival at Jabal Ali Port, with its extended Free Zone, transport infrastructure and labour accommodation a distant haze.

Sinews sets up a further specific question, to be addressed with temporal, geographic, economic and legal scope, well-digested data and startling examples: ‘The emergence of Jabal Ali (and its smaller cousins Khor Fakkan, Port Khalifa, Hamad, and Salalah, among others) in the Arabian Peninsula calls for an explanation: what accounts for such a proliferation of destination ports, when the population of the Peninsula is only around 60 million?’ (p 15) Those cousins are in Sharjah’s Indian Ocean enclave, Abu Dhabi, Qatar, and Oman’s southern coast, respectively.

Dubai -‘an offshore financial centre for the whole of its territory’, in Keller Easterling’s conclusive phrasing- was the region’s first designated free port in 1904, a model that has since proliferated, not least in the form of Dubai Ports World with its empire of seventy-eight port terminals ranging between Gujarat, Djibouti and London/Essex.

Jabal Ali’s port, construction of which began in 1976, was only part of the Jabal Ali Free Zone that commenced operations in 1985 and was planned as ‘a symbiotic whole’ (p 113) from the offset, to produce goods, trade and services, and act as an export processing, special economic and free trade zone. It is the largest of the twenty free zones that form Dubai, making it ‘an offshore financial centre for the whole of its territory’, [5] in Keller Easterling’s conclusive phrasing. Dubai was the region’s first designated free port in 1904, a model that has since proliferated, not least in the form of Dubai Ports World with its empire of seventy-eight port terminals ranging between Gujarat, Djibouti and London/Essex.

Khalili offers an authoritative portrait of the Jabal Ali Free Zone, which now hosts 7,000 companies after opening to foreign transnational businesses in 1992, when it also became ‘a hub for US military logistics’ (p 114) during the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan – warring that also diverted transhipment traffic to Jabal Ali, just as the Saudi Arabia/United Arab Emirates invasion of Yemen and destruction of the port of Aden does today. Khalili describes the ‘organism’ of Port and Zone as ‘heaving… with pollution, cloaked in secrecy, protected by scrubland and high-security fencing and underpaid Nepalese security men’ (p 115). She concludes that the fact that under one percent of the work force is Emirati ‘speaks to the regime of control at work there’ (p 116).

I know that scrubby hinterland well, especially the Industrial Areas full of labour camps operated by Laing O’Rourke, Arabtec, G4S, and other regional and global household names. I’ve spent days on foot and alone there…

I know that scrubby hinterland well, especially the Industrial Areas full of labour camps operated by Laing O’Rourke, Arabtec, G4S, and other regional and global household names. I’ve spent days on foot and alone there, [6] as well as with Gulf Labor Artist Coalition colleagues, [7] speaking with entrapped South Asian men fresh from servicing the American warships at the port or building the western-branded museological spectacles on Saadiyat Island – including the Louvre and the Guggenheim, just across the border in Abu Dhabi. [8]  Testimony gathered in this way from Al Quoz in downtown Dubai formed the core of a successful International Labour Organization (ILO) complaint on forced labour, which forced the UAE to introduce laws in 2016 allowing migrant workers to change their jobs – just one of the restrictive components of ‘modern day slavery’.

Sinews begins with excellent introductions to the route- and harbour-making that brought transformation, drawing together pre-colonial histories, European domination, post-Independence development funded with oil revenues, and the new century with its gravitational shift ‘eastwards’, even if many financial, legal and engineering services underpinning it remain in old colonial centres like London and Rotterdam. As Khalili remarks: ‘Today’s shipping businesses in the Arabian Peninsula continue to provide a route to comfortably paid jobs for British, Dutch, and other northwest Europeans’ (p 147).

On board her 363–366 metre-long CMA CGM container ships, owned by the French-Lebanese Saadé family headquartered in a Zaha Hadid building in Marseille, the author notes that charts are still kept by hand: ‘a palimpsest of past pencilled routes, erased and replaced on every trip [following] the same latitudes and longitudes’ (p 16). Many routes ‘have a solidity, a durability that their marine ephemerality belies’ (p 14), she adds. Before Europeans stiffened these waves, the peoples of the northerly Indian Ocean world and Gulf had, of course, ‘already developed sophisticated navigational methods for travel across the unruly waters’ (p 19).        

I have watched the last dhows coming in from Dubai to Mandvi on the Arabian Sea, weighing their reduction to flotsam in the massive pre-monsoon waves. Those seasonal winds determined routes throughout these waters until the coming of steam, and the need for coal bunkering to facilitate British merchants and warships.

Kachchh (Kutch) in western India, bordering the easternmost mouth of the Indus, is celebrated for these ancient skills and dhow-making ports that recur across the Gulf of Kutch in western Saurashtra. There is a several hundred-year-old graveyard and mosque for Iranian seamen on its coast, while Greek amphorae have been found buried inland from even earlier trade. I have watched the last dhows coming in from Dubai to Mandvi on the Arabian Sea, weighing their reduction to flotsam in the massive pre-monsoon waves. Those seasonal winds determined routes throughout these waters until the coming of steam, and the need for coal bunkering to facilitate British merchants and warships.

‘Steamships’, Khalili writes, ‘changed the face of navigation and the pathways of trade’ (p 22). Ports were forced to specialise; ‘new monetary and credit regimes were introduced. Racialised hierarchies and various forms of exploitation of labour … were institutionalised by law’ (p 21), territories and floras mapped for extractive value. The years 1839 and 1869 consolidated these changes, with 1839 marking the snatching of Aden by the British to establish ‘the first coaling station annexed to any empire’ (p 23). The latter year marks the opening of the Suez Canal, thus completing the transformation, a process underscored with the coming of telegraph to Aden and elsewhere, ‘technology crucial to the control of the colonies’ (p 25).

Undersea cabling now under-scored established shipping routes; this concretised ‘the British Empire’s claims to rule the waves and transformed the less visible pathways of its dominion into materially substantial subsea passages’ (p 26). Today the peninsula is tightly ringed with cable infrastructure and Khalili cites the Falcon network, part of the Ambani family’s Reliance empire in India with its links from port to port across the region. Falcon even makes a suddenly crucial landfall at Al Ghaydah, on Yemen’s eastern coast, now occupied by the Saudi/UAE coalition, picking up where European colonisers left off.

‘“The music of the world”’ is confined to ports or creeks where the dhows still thrive, as they did until recently in Sharjah’s downtown Creek and as they do in Dubai’s founding Creek. Dhows inhabit realms beneath official containerised networks but are complementary to them, making connective runs between ports and deploying their ‘fine-grained knowledge of local conditions’, cannily adaptive to changing circumstances.

Sinews reproduces the inglorious photograph of Lord Curzon arriving at Kuwait on his Viceregal tour of 1903, fresh from Bandar Abbas and Sharjah, carried to shore by Arab porters in order to be able to ride horseback into Kuwait City in more characteristic pomp. Today, the same site is occupied by Shuwaikh’s thriving cargo port. In 1925 Walter Benjamin visited Genoa’s cargo port on a freighter, and ‘was titillated by the sensory profusion’ of orchestral clanging and rattling, which he called ‘“the music of the world”’ (p 76). This musicality is now confined to ports or creeks where the dhows still thrive, as they did until recently in Sharjah’s downtown Creek and as they do in Dubai’s founding Creek. Dhows inhabit realms beneath official containerised networks but are complementary to them, making connective runs between ports and deploying their ‘fine-grained knowledge of local conditions’ (p 42), cannily adaptive to changing circumstances. After the 2008 crisis, dhow trade boomed, the size of the boats grew and new exchanges developed; cars and white goods headed from the Gulf to Zanzibar, goats and charcoal flooded back.

Labour Power, fr Companions, Guy Mannes-Abbott, 2014 (The Gulf: Hard Culture/Hard Labour, 2015)

Meanwhile, ‘today’s container ports: vast, distant from the town centre, and thoroughly and entirely secured’ (p 64) are automating the musicality of unruly humans away in service of an economy dominated by ‘petroleum and chemical tankers, offshore loading and unloading platforms, and the importance of bunkering to the economies – at least, of the UAE’ (p 76). Aden was the major bunkering port in the region but lost that traffic to Dubai and other Gulf ports. Fujairah, near Khor Fakkan on the UAE’s eastern coast, is now the world’s second largest refuelling stop, serviced by a pipeline from Abu Dhabi. The deliberate inaccessibility of these complexes ‘not only shapes landscapes but labour regimes and living and working conditions for those who work there’ (p 78). Yet, and this is the value of Khalili’s informational blizzard of a book, even at Khor Fakkan she admires the gracefulness of men at work, noting the way the ‘contrast between the complex gantry and the stevedores’ rudimentary poles embodies the tension between automation and cheap labour’ (pp 189–90).

The problem with settling exclusively for the view from the sea, mirroring exactly the approach that British colonisers took to the Arabian coast of the Gulf, is that you don’t get close enough to the storied realms of humans – the often overwhelming majority of whom are migrant here – and their potent anecdotes.

So, finally, to labour and the real potential for untidiness in a book which proceeds with steady flows of data and incident that tend inevitably to mirror the steady flows of global capital, imperial and post-imperial event. Khalili uses the word ‘story’ ten times in the short introduction and says the book ‘wanted to tell stories’ (p 6). However, the problem with settling exclusively for the view from the sea, mirroring exactly the approach that British colonisers took to the Arabian coast of the Gulf, is that you don’t get close enough to the storied realms of humans – the often overwhelming majority of whom are migrant here – and their potent anecdotes. So when Khalili mentions Walter Benjamin, it reminded me of Benjamin’s contrast between the marching of narrative history and the insurgent force and spatiality of the anecdote, or ‘story’. [9]

Post-1948 Palestinians were in high demand, making up 17 per cent of the workforce for Saudi Arabia’s Aramco in 1951. By 1970, 140,000 Palestinians were living in Kuwait, until they were expelled after the first Gulf War.

The best chapters here are the two that attempt to make up for that, ‘Landside Labour’ and ‘Shipboard Work’, and it is a pity the book was not organised around them. The chapter on port labour concentrates around pre-Independence histories of organisation and strikes, and the tailing off of such possibilities as autocratic regimes crushed any protest with ‘deportations [that] were brutal, rapid, and irreversible’ (p 199). In the 1960s and ’70s, Khalili reports that migrants in Dubai and the Gulf were from Iran, Baluchistan or Pakistan. By 2015, foreign workforces ranged from 33 per cent in Saudi Arabia to 88 and 90 per cent in the UAE and Qatar respectively. ‘In all these countries, South Asians outnumbered all other foreigners, with 7.2 million Indians, 3.3 million Bangladeshis, and 3.2 million Pakistanis’ (p 200). In highly concentrated passages Khalili describes the transformation of ‘“native” workers’ into ‘“migrants” after such categories were invented by modern states to classify and control workers’ (p 194). Post-1948 Palestinians were in high demand, making up 17 per cent of the workforce for Saudi Arabia’s Aramco in 1951. By 1970, 140,000 Palestinians were living in Kuwait, until they were expelled after the first Gulf War.

I like Khalili’s story about protests against autocratic British rule in Bahrain during the Suez War in 1956, when Britain, France and Israel attacked Egypt. ‘The leaders of the strike were detained, put on a show trial and exiled to St Helena’ (p 204)! Meanwhile, in Aden, Antonin Besse, a ‘ruthless businessman’ (p 71) and a powerful agent of Shell (Trading and Transport Company, founded by an Iraqi Jew born in Whitechapel, London), made a founding donation to St Anthony’s College Oxford, which generated a strike in protest at the size of the gift.

Khalili reminds us of Michel Foucault’s description of the ship as ‘the heterotopia par excellence. In civilisations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates’ (p 220). Rhetorically spicy, it is almost laugh-out-loud funny and wrongheaded in equal measure. I write that as an occasional sailor, picturing Timurid Emperor Jahangir, taking his 400,000-member court to the coast of Gujarat to stand in the sea for the first time. However, the reality of labour at sea is all too often ‘mind-numbing, boring, repetitive labour for everyone, including the officers, and back-breaking toil for the seafarers’ (p 220). Khalili found that port visits are exhausting and stressful for crew on understaffed ships, often unable to go landside in peninsula ports. In contrast comes a Foucauldian paean to the ‘copious artisanal skill’ witnessed in the engine room ‘always hot and loud and throbbing with the motion of the cylinders and the rotation of the massive one-metre-wide drive shaft where the handful of people who work in the engine room are engaged in reparative or regular maintenance’ (p 221) hand-machining damaged pieces of the ‘awesomely powerful engines’ (p 222).

Khalili writes movingly of crew members tasked to watch the horizon for anything that the Automatic Identification System (AIS) doesn’t pick up. The watchers mystify her with their ability to detect the slightest of movements through the ‘haze and heat and shimmer of the Indian Ocean’. It is a world that Bombay-based studio CAMP brought alive in their film of dhow traders on these routes, From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf (2013)

Khalili writes movingly of crew members tasked to watch the horizon for anything that the Automatic Identification System (AIS) doesn’t pick up. AIS monitors all shipping movement across the world, with wikis on every vessel it picks up, but various clandestine actors, smugglers or pirates, escape it. The watchers mystify her with their ability to detect the slightest of movements through the ‘haze and heat and shimmer of the Indian Ocean’ (p 222). It is a world that Bombay-based studio CAMP brought alive in their film of dhow traders on these routes, From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf (2013), [10] triangulating Gujarat, Dubai or Sharjah and Zanzibar via Salalah, etc. The sweet camaraderie, layered cargo, praying, exercise and strangely liberated unofficial status that crews enjoy even in the Gulf is highly affective.

I made a film with CAMP for the Folkestone Triennial in 2011, [11] called The Country of the Blind, and Other Stories – which did something similar, working with amateur coastal watchers who filmed and spoke over clips from their bunker above Folkestone’s harbour, recording exactly the same flows of global capitalism as Khalili writes about, with all the same names: CMA CGM, Maersk, the IAS, and flags of convenience. The latter identifier ‘transforms the ship into a quantum of sovereignty of that country’ (p 236) with ‘absolutely no restrictions’ (p 237). Flags of convenience began in Panama in 1916 and were taken to their abstract extreme in the ‘Liberian registry’ headquartered in the US state of Virginia.

Small scale activity reminded me of the intimacies of the dhow world in the Gulf, in whose vessels I have also admired the engine rooms, accessed via rough wooden steps, below the water line, and stifling hot even when the engine is being fixed. A beach beneath globalisation’s spanking new public realm.

From the bunker above the English Channel, activity at the Port of Dover was visible to the east, Dungeness nuclear power station to the west and the Sangatte ‘refugee camp’ over on the French shore. In between a world of socio-political complexity bloomed, including boats cheating fishing quotas, P&O strikes, aggregate dredgers, and the Algerian, British Royal and Belgian navies. Small scale activity reminded me of the intimacies of the dhow world in the Gulf, in whose vessels I have also admired the engine rooms, accessed via rough wooden steps, below the water line, and stifling hot even when the engine is being fixed. A beach beneath globalisation’s spanking new public realm.

Sinews ends with a short chapter that draws together the bounties of war since the age of independence, like the tripartite invasion of the Suez Canal and the Israeli assault on Egypt in 1967, both of which disrupted movement through the canal with significant impacts, and maps an ongoing geopolitical shift. The canal reopened in 1975, by which time Khalili claims that regional power had already shifted from Cairo to the Arabian peninsula, a process that accelerated during the Lebanese Civil war, which saw most major international companies moving their headquarters to Dubai and Sharjah. A ‘massive rerouting of petrodollars from Beirut to the Gulf resulted in a frenzy of construction and consumption’, she adds, plus ‘wholly new ports’ (p 249). Desert Shield/Desert Storm consolidated these trends, the main beneficiary of which was Jabal Ali.

A new race is now on to access or develop ports and naval bases along the Red Sea coast and beyond that ‘echoes the European competition over footholds in the Gulf a century ago’ (p 256). The so-called War on Terror generated a US naval presence at Jabal Ali, Fujairah, and the Musandam Peninsula in Oman proper, as well as Kuwait and especially Bahrain. Nevertheless, Jabal Ali is, of course, ‘the US Navy’s busiest port of call, receiving up to 200 warship visits per year’ (p 260). US forces lurk offshore in massive vessels, their AIS turned off. The Saudi/UAE invasion of Yemen and belligerence towards Qatar has hurt Jabal Ali, Khalili writes, but they have achieved ‘total domination of navigable harbours and port structures’ in Yemen; ‘future strategic bases for commercial and military control’ (p 268). She concludes that Al Ghaydah may become a future version of the Gulf oil terminals.

Sinews is a stimulating read and a surefooted introduction to the subject, with deep pockets of research. It performs a task that multiple books should have done already and ought to inspire further correction of that kind. It might have been sufficient to add a chapter or two here to develop landside connections, given the inherent human hinterlands but also the classic colonial framing and missed entanglements. It is a lament made in a comradely and writerly way, given the enormity of the patch of sea Khalili has taken on so ably.

There is something elemental in this paradox that resonates throughout all that Sinews offers, as well as in my own experience of its peninsula, which is a generator of deep ambivalences, for sure, but which also possesses an entangling dynamism that resists a firm, or fixed, grasp.

My own view of the region is the all-too commonly constrained one of the Deportees Room at Dubai International where I was detained last time I was invited to the UAE, and despite a Residency and Production Award contracted by the Government of Sharjah to develop a work focused on the landside consequences and residues of port activity. [12] Abu Dhabi is the power centre in the UAE; its autocratic regime’s insecurity is unlimited when it comes to organised migrant labourers, artists, writers, academic researchers and Emirati reformers, as well as human rights workers who challenge their abuses and the failing western institutions that profit so shamelessly from the enslaved migrant labour building their container-scaled spectacles.

Khalili reminds us that the Persian Gulf is a young sea in geological terms, yet its ‘world’ will be significantly impacted by climate change. Change is not something that fazes the region; Sinews details a scale and speed of changes over the last couple of hundred years that is mesmerising. I am struck by the simple fact that the port- and Free Zone-addled UAE only acquired a concrete plant in 1975, the year before work on Jabal Ali’s port began. Yet, weirdly, wind-worn desert sand is the ‘wrong sand’ for its purposes: ‘Concrete mixing requires angular sand, which is either marine or riparian, mined from beaches or rivers’ (p 83). There is something elemental in this paradox that resonates throughout all that Sinews offers, as well as in my own experience of its peninsula, which is a generator of deep ambivalences, for sure, but which also possesses an entangling dynamism that resists a firm, or fixed, grasp. You wouldn’t want to miss out on that.
 

[1]    Laleh Khalili, Sinews of War and Trade, Verso, London, 2020, p 3

[2]    Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging, Vintage, Canada, 2011, p 7

[3]    See Michel Serres, Biogea, Univocal, 2012, in which he makes these references in the context of asking ‘what philosopher thinks like a river’ or the earth

[4]    ‘they, like us, are alive in hydrogen, in oxygen; in carbon, in phosphorous, and iron; in sodium and chlorine. This is what we know about those Africans thrown, jumped, dumped overboard in Middle Passage; they are with us still, in the time of the wake, known as residence time.’ Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, Duke University Press, 2016, p 19

[5]    Keller Easterling, Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space, Verso, London, 2014, p 45

[6]    See Guy Mannes-Abbott, ‘Utopian Dust or Perfumed Amplification: Object Lessons from Saadiyat Island and Gehry’s Guggenheim, Abu Dhabi’, in Future Imperfect, Anthony Downey, ed, Sternberg Press, 2017, pp 292–309; an early online version can be found on Ibraaz

[7]    See Gulf Labor’s campaign handbook, with essays by Andrew Ross, Paula Chakravartty & Nitasha Dhillon, Greg Sholette, Mabel Wilson, Mariam Ghani & Haig Avazian, and myself plus statements, by Hans Haacke, Naeem Mohaiemen, Walid Raad, and others: The Gulf: High Culture, Hard Labor, Andrew Ross, ed, OR Books, 2015

[8]    See Guy Mannes-Abbott, ‘Laboring One to Seven (Island of Terror)’, in Supercommunity: Diabolical Togetherness Beyond Contemporary Art, Julieta Aranda, Brian Kuan Wood, Anton Vidokle, eds, Verso, London, 2017, pp 247–253; online version available at supercommunity.e-flux.com (NB the names used are not, of course, real)

[9]     ‘The constructions of history are comparable to military orders that discipline the true life and confine it to barracks. On the other hand: the street insurgence of the anecdote. The anecdote brings things near to us spatially, lets them enter our life.’ Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Harvard University Press, 2000, p 545; this is a reference that has arisen often in my work – see, for example, Guy Mannes-Abbott, ‘Forting’, AA Files 42, London, 2001, pp 2–21

[10]   From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf, exhibited at Sharjah Biennial 2013, Sharjah, UAE, and as part of The Boat Modes installation at dOCUMENTA 13, Kassel, Germany

[11]   See CAMP, The Country of the Blind: Photolog; and reviews by Colin Perry in frieze, 1 November 2011, and Adrian Searle in The Guardian, 26 June 2011

[12]   See Guy Mannes-Abbott, ‘Tales from the Deportees Room, Porting One (DXB)’, di’van, issue 4, 2018, pp 46–64


Guy Mannes-Abbott  is the London-based author of In Ramallah, Running (London 2012), whose work often performs in visual art contexts. He once taught theory at the AA School of Architecture, London, and is a core member of the Gulf Labor Coalition. His cultural criticism has been widely published in multiple volumes and journals.

Download a PDF of this review HERE

notes_25 BASQUIAT (nope, not).

(UPDATE; Next day, I am very unsure if this works; it’s intended to share these close ups/visual notes as lightly as possible. I may have failed! If so, please scroll down to the two ID mag links, which are excellent. I may delete this virtually private reflection on further reflection, and after all…)

Nope, not going to do that. That thing of taking up public space out there with nice-white-guy thoughts on Basquiat. I’ve had my (notional) chances after all! When Boom for Real came to London’s Barbican in 2017, after very few actual opportunities to write (the UK could not distinguish him/his work from the celebrity-gloss-at-a-distance around him/it), I realised it was too late. Definitely, definitively; I should not be writing about him or it, positively or negatively. No more white intros to be essayed. Tricky, but I’m not being nice about being a nice-white-guy, it’s just done (which ought to preclude publicly saying so nice-whitely at one’s next book event/or panel, no?).

The above applies even if nobody took up that space, btw. That’s another way of trying-but-failing in white niceness isn’t it? If you take up the space, you’ve done it again. Unthinkingly. If you don’t, then yes it may remain untaken-up because of the institutional prejudices of commissioning bodies, organs, institutions, editors, the whole deeply embedded (imperial) culture of it, but still: don’t! There’s no excuse. And, by the way, I don’t think I have nothing to say, or that what I have to say may not have value, or that I am not entitled to write/work/essay (vs so many other inherent constraints), and I’ve tried to not-say-so in drafts since 2017 (burning, thirsting)! Ideally, we will get beyond this horizon to a transformed/repaired form of commonworld, but for now it’s about whether, when and how. Oh, and who, did I mention who?

Continue reading “notes_25 BASQUIAT (nope, not).”

note_18 On the work Abu Dhabi banned from Sharjah (Biennial) 2019? #DXB

Gold-tips in Abu Dhabi’s Emirates Palace Marina (GM-A, 2013)

Gold-tips in Abu Dhabi’s Emirates Palace Marina (GM-A, 2013).

(EXTRACT)

IMBECILIC CONTINGENT INTRUSION(4)*

Everything we know about ourselves and our various shared and not well-shared histories affirms that systems of hermetic control never work for long, that consolidation hastens collapse. The more autocratic the regime, the messier the collapse. I will leave all of that to time, which will operate unerringly.

Meanwhile, to demonstrate a simple truth, we are going to plant a forest in DXB’s Terminal 3. It’s easy. Those of us who know the place will return from various ports in carefully staged flights that betray no joint venture. We will all be either prevented from getting on a flight, stopped at and detained at DXB, or held in the Deportees Room for some hours. Two of us at least will get in—to the airport, not the country!—and overlap in the Room on ROLEX time. We will take our allotted hour to find food in the Terminal and head up to our Costa rendezvous. We will have seeds of trees with us. We will be carrying gorgeous presentation boxes of fertilised roals or figs, like the kind from Aliya Dates Farm that I recall from a leather-lined yacht in Abu Dhabi’s Palace Marina.

Gifts, you see. Gifts of the Rolla tree, the put-upon-banyans, these potent embodiments of hopes, wishes and dreams for change. Continue reading “note_18 On the work Abu Dhabi banned from Sharjah (Biennial) 2019? #DXB”

notes from a biennial – on a day of words [one]

Screenshot 2017-05-15 12.38.25

Screenshot 2017-05-15 12.38.52

(Links to the original SAF site and these thumbnails no longer exist. UPDATED 2017)

Notes from a Biennial – On a Day of Words [One]

Sharjah Biennial 10

18.03.2011, 14:06

by Guy Mannes-Abbott

It should not be a surprise to find a lot of words -in the form of writing and image- at this Biennial in particular. Then again, it is quite surprising to find quite so many high quality publications; from the hulking sanctuary of the ‘Plot for a Biennial’ catalogue [ed. Ghalya Saadawi], to the thumb prints of individual artist publications and on to the stack of books entitled Manual for Treason.

Words flourish here as text and speech as well as in many languages, signing the Biennial site and as translations of the variously published texts. ‘Manual for Treason’ itself [Ed. Murtaza Vali] for example contains English, Hindi, Urdu, Bengali and Kannada -at least. Manual for Conspiracy [Ed. Basak Ertur] is published in English and Turkish -and so on.

Throughout the Biennial works engage the world they were made to ‘breathe together’ with [to quote Ertur’s etymological elaboration on the word Conspiracy], to notable effect. It is to the credit of all involved that what these things mean has been taken seriously especially as it takes place at a time of real and systemic change in the region. In many places there is a radical revisiting of archives of revolution, from the large scale and actual [Harun Farocki & Andrei Ujlica Videograms of a Revolution 1993] through comic projection [Ahmad Ghossein My Father is Still a Communist 2011].

One morning artists and I breakfast on a headline reporting that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have sent military and police reinforcements to support the ruler of Bahrain. It’s clear that something must be said; next morning artists make a gesture of saying it. [For something of an elaboration on the wider context of this, see Notes from a Biennial – On Reflection] In the early hours of the next day, avid attention is paid to Blackberries for a New York Times report about a large group of distinguished artist friends, many of whom are present here, who have been working with Human Rights Watch to ensure or enable the coming Guggenheim Museum in Abu Dhabi to pay all those who will build and service it properly. (A small cut of this last sentence, made live -by me, for an unnerved curator friend then involved both with SB and GAD- March 2011 is now restored. NYT link here PDF below. UPDATED 2017)

Words. CAMP are showing their 65 minute film; The Neighbour Before The House [2009]. I’ve seen a version of this before -in a show curated by Samar Martha at the Liverpool Biennial- and settle to watch it all here. It is a fascinatingly subversive use made of surveillance cameras to explore the view of the Occupied in Jerusalem/al Quds. As the security cameras are turned against the Occupation, zooming in and out on details in otherwise prohibited places, voices describe what I’m watching in Arabic, their words flashing up in English below.

In one section a family whose home has been stolen and who are forbidden to go close to it, narrate what is being shown close up from a significance distance away; “61 days they haven’t once cleaned the stairs” to the street. One notable thing is that the building has been extended, a right denied Palestinians in Jerusalem and elsewhere. All of a sudden the family’s children appear before the house, insistently ignoring the ban and pointedly refusing to leave. Then there’s another child’s gasp as the mother of the family appears in frame, pressed up against security infrastructure attempting to peer inside her own, confiscated home.

Another section focuses on security cameras mounted on a building, but also a series of signature holes in the wall where they’ve been removed, on one occasion by a Palestinian seeking reparation -an anecdote that provides a bitterly comical moment. The words tell a familiar story to anyone who has noticed the daily demolitions, expulsions, detentions and killings that define the Occupation. But they remain peculiarly raw when, as Amitava Kumar’s contribution to the ‘Manual’ observes, “the world watches cowardly and indifferent.” [See Appendix i – Camp & I for an interview and more details.]

Words as aural and visual elemental are central to Naeem Mohaiemen’s brilliant and widely admired 70 minute film piece; The Young Man Was… [Part 1: United Red Army] which is about the hijacking of a plane to Dhaka by the Japanese Red Army in 1977. Tense negotiations ended with the release of hostages and the escape of the hijackers and prisoners they’d sought to free -during which time a military coup takes place. The end of the film lists the fates of many of the ‘cast’ and it’s notable that a number of Interpol warrants remain open for some of the revolutionaries involved.

NM found and used the actual records of negotiations between the control tower and the plane and those cryptic and repeated words make up a significant amount of what I’m watching, the sound track clear despite faltering English and Bengali background chatter. Viewers hear both sides from the control tower, which reveals the panic, duplicity and episodic fury that is anticipatable but unnerving to actually witness. It also reveals the robotic iterations of the hijacker’s simple and unswerving demands.

It’s a poem of a piece, beautiful executed, difficult to describe, not least because, as Naeem says himself, to do so and to sketch the mountain of which the film is a very small ‘tip’, takes longer than the film and inevitably undoes it as a work with real potency. The piece revisits a time when hijackers said things like “we hurt bourgeois people” or “it is duty of revolutionary soldiers” but the approach is pointed in its sophistication.

That point is well sketched by a phrase in the piece about how histories repeat in unpredictable ways and at unpredictable times. It’s a point that reminds me of Mourid Barghouti’s response to the Tunisian uprising which ended; “When it happens, it will not have happened suddenly.” NM’s remark is a direct reference to revolutionary events in Bangladesh itself, as well as more of that ‘breath’ I referred to earlier.

These are just two of the films that any visitor to the Biennial should ring fence enough time to see. The fact that you can is, despite my need to mark the larger context of the day/s here and I think important to acknowledge too, a credit to all the curators and freedoms -granted by funders of the Foundation at a National level- that they have made such productive use of.

To be continued…

 


 

A pdf of the NYT article linked above, in case the link does into work:

Guggenheim Threatened With Boycott Over Abu Dhabi Project – The New York Times