COMMENT: Identity Of Many
An exploration of boundary-pushing Music, Literature and Film from The Middle East.
In the age of the 24-hour news cycle and constant societal upheaval, the mainstream public eye seems forcibly fixed on the world’s most negative happenings. The Middle East is the most commonly pinpointed target – as many of its member states are war-torn and repressive – and as with anything in these circumstances, there are so many cases of beauty & expressionism within the arts that are overlooked simply due to location. Thus, at MCR Live we have decided to combat this behaviour: highlighting two musical artists, two writers and two filmmakers from the Middle Eastern diaspora who are pushing boundaries and deconstructing prejudices and perceptions with their work.
A native of Tunisia and now based in Toulouse, Deena Abdelwahed’s confrontational brand of dance music is a socially engaged melting pot of Eastern culture and Western perception. Klabb (her 2017 EP released through Infine records), is deeply entrancing and shape-shifting – reflecting the violence and less savoury aspects of the Middle East, whilst celebrating the power that art and music can have. The songs fuse both grinding and dissonant industrialism with colourful ambiguity, all coming from the same dark core and desire to – in her words – “critique injustices in Arab society” but allowing minds to wander through decomposing cityscapes, unsure of the future but actively clawing on to hope. Klabb is a rich example of how real cultural issues can be tackled and affronted by art; something which Tunisia’s 2015 lifted media blackout, in turn, helps.
Saint Abdullah are a sibling duo based somewhere between Iran’s capital Tehran and Brooklyn respectively. Stalwarts of New York’s Boomarm Nation roster, their music is described on the labels bandcamp as “political music, sacred music, and for most of us in the west, new music”. Their music is steeped in the traditions and tragedy of the duo’s homeland, but it faces sternly westwards as well. Both 2017’s The Sounds of Evil Vol. I and this February’s Stars Have Eyes challenged Western perceptions of Iranian and Muslim culture. Saint Abdullah have created a way of taking their post-Islamic revolution starting point and transmitting it through suffocating atmospherics, sonically poetic cut n paste sampling & rhythmic hypnotism – the result? A world-weary, but profound, exploration and explanation of their own ethos.
When it comes to literature, so vast is the landscape and societal diaspora of the Middle East that the range of perspectives is in rude health. In an age where femininity and repression are steadfastly under the microscope, its the female voices which offer the most direct viewpoint. Hoda Barakat’s The Tiller of Waters, though revolving around a male protagonist, is a beautifully poetic and poignant analysis of the psyche that embodies travel, migration, art, industry, love and desire set against a chillingly hallucinogenic backdrop of war-torn Beirut during the Lebanese civil war. Her work oftentimes showcases a passionate and deep-set understanding of culturally definitive cloth and weaving practices as a metaphor for the entire human condition, and in such finds beauty in the little things when the larger picture seems so bleak.
By contrast, Rajaa Alsanea’s The Girls of Riyad adopts a far more colloquial, accessible prose and a form of narrative that would probably be written off as Sex And The City– esque vacuity to some. However, it would be churlish to do so. Constructed through a series of diary-style emails written by an unnamed protagonist, and depicting the life of four women from the higher echelons of Saudi Arabian society, the novel follows the travails of its characters through themes of love, religion and meaning in life in a deeply misogynistic place. At its best, Alsanea is pacey and properly electrifying – chilling and funny, and chapter eleven in particular works wonders to crush a number of misconceptions and prejudices attributed to the mentality of women in the Middle East region. Though serious and sensitive at its core, Alsanea’s book approaches life in Saudi Arabia with a twinkle in its eye, something that seems crucial to fully understand the mechanisms of Riyad’s community.
I’ve not seen a huge amount of Middle Eastern horror movies, but it’s probably fair to say that few of them cover as much profound societal, genre-orientated or psychedelic ground as Babak Anvari’s 2016 movie Under The Shadow. After an Iraqi missile hits the Iranian block of flats where a mother lives with her young daughter, the anxiety, paranoia and stress of the ensuing war outside begins to have catastrophic effects on central character Shideh and her family – as her mind unravels, she becomes convinced that they’re being haunted by evil spirits. It’s an incredibly claustrophobic, stripped back, vision that melds classic horror movie tropes with location-true themes of war and the repression of women. However, at its heart, it’s about the relationship between a mother and her daughter and how the misfortune of their environment turns them against each other. It’s genuinely fucking scary, too.
Whereas Anvari’s movie marries real-life horror and surrealism in a fictional setting, even more horrifying is the first-hand account – all presented through the lens of Emad Burnat’s primary recorded footage – of Burnat’s 2011 film 5 Broken Cameras. A stark and deeply harrowing documentary about the struggle of a Palestinian farming community during the Israeli occupation of Gaza’s West Bank, the 90-minute film is an uncompromising purveyance of death and oppression and a direct summary of what living in desperate situations drives people to do. There are glimmers of a hopeful future; Burnat’s community show a breath-taking amount of spirit and the instances of joy feel all the more prominent in the face of such adversity. Emad is ultimately fighting for his community, and by doing so, celebrating what he believes to be just. His determination to carry on filming, despite the pain it lands him and those closest to him in, is an example of artistic expressionism in its most powerful form.