Speaking From Collapsing Infrastructures
In this text, we discuss the journey to our exhibition, The Eclipse of the (Fe)Male Sun, shown at Tegel, Stockholm, August 2020, where we presented three stories based on a series of photographs from the Asghar Beechareh, Photo Caron, and Studio Marjan Collection, archived at the Arab Image Foundation in Beirut. They consist of mid-20th century hand-colored photography portraits from Iran, Kuwait, and Lebanon.
It began in Beirut. On a December evening at the bar Chaplin in Mar Mikhael where I was having a drink with my newly made Swedish friends. Almost two months had passed since October 17 when nation-wide protests broke out. They were the result of the culmination of governmental and parliamentary corruption and incompetence. That day was gone, but the feeling that overtook me then remained. The streets were bustling with energy. Strangers were smiling at each other. People were handing out food on the sidewalks. Protesters were screaming their lungs out. Students were blocking roads. We were walking, everywhere, and walking is not something people normally do in this city.
I was late since I had fallen asleep as soon as I arrived home from work. It happened constantly – naps turning into hours of sleep. Stressed, I ordered a taxi, and just a few minutes later, I was stuck in traffic. My conversation with the driver began when she noticed the Armenian heritage of my last name on the Uber app.
“No, I’m from Iran,” I answered. “Many Armenians used to live there but most of them left after the Revolution.”
“I don’t mind if you're a Muslim.”
The red neon lights seemed to be buzzing harder than usual or maybe it was me who could not stay still. It was already around past three Aperol Spritz o’clock when Afrang walked into the bar and towards our table. We greeted each other and I asked:
“What are you doing in Lebanon?”
“I'm researching at the Arab Image Foundation where I’m looking into photo collections, mainly from Iran or by Iranian photographers. The hand-colored portraits in the collections have seduced me completely.”
Afrang described the work of the photographer Zarganifard and how his photographs awakened a memory of a visit to a photography studio where he went to get his new Iranian passport photo taken. He expressed to me how the photographic processes of this self-experienced event revealed structures and norms pertaining to gender, race, and class.
The light disappeared for some seconds, and the rumbling of the crowd dropped. Our conversation was interrupted by the lack of functioning infrastructure. Soon after, the generator kicked in.
“What were you saying?”
“I was just telling you that I study Art History at the American University of Beirut and that I’ve been reading a couple of texts about portraiture during the Qajar dynasty.”
Nour spoke of literature that described a region and period where gender norms were, at times, as fluid as water. She told me about a royal family in Iran that lived next to the Grand Bazaar in Tehran. The story goes that mothers and sisters of the family used to play with cameras together, and the Princess Qajar, Zahra Khanom Tadj es-Saltaneh, after divorcing her husband from an arranged marriage, Amir Hussein Khan Shoja'-al Saltaneh, dressed all up in black, covered her arms in golden bracelets, trimmed her mustache, and never smiled at a camera again.
Weeks later, we were on our way to the mountains, and Afrang grabbed my phone to put on what I would later discover to be the song, Pol, by the Iranian singer Googoosh. I could not understand the language but I strongly related to the music. The caressing melodies flowed in a familiar way. The rhythm was tiptoeing its way into my body; I swayed. The fragility of the singer’s voice made it clear; she was in love. I should really tap into Iranian music. The sound waves filled the car as the sun rays slipped out of the slits between the high-rise buildings and blinded my eyes. As if it was only through gaps that the sun was allowed to shine on us.
I looked at the port of Beirut – a stunning view visible from the dancefloor at the club, The Grand Factory. Nour tapped my shoulder to tell me something. I could not hear what she was saying even though it looked like she was screaming. The music was just too loud; nothing could pierce through. Tomorrow my ears would probably be ringing. I gave her the “I can’t hear you” signal, so she pointed to the windows. Suddenly, the power cut. In the short moment of silence that arised, Nour caught her breath to speak to me, but her words dissolved into the cry of the people on the dancefloor chanting: “THAWRA! THAWRA!” (REVOLUTION! REVOLUTION!). These cries were making up for years of silence caused by the collapsing infrastructure in a corrupt state.
Afrang left for Stockholm, and we said goodbye – good – because I would surely see him again soon. He loved Beirut, and I have an aunt in Malmö. “Do you want to do an exhibition together?” he texted me a month later. A strenuous process of grant applications began; we would have to answer questions like: “Are you a citizen or a national of an Arab country?”
“Iran is not an Arab country, so I guess you have to be the main researcher for this one,” Afrang told me.
“My whole life revolves around circulating through airports,” I thought to myself while waiting for Nour to fly to Stockholm. After countless Skype conversations and discussions, we would finally meet again. The whole summer, we had been reading texts by the Persian gender theorist and writer Afsaneh Najmabadi discussing, and contextualizing them in our daily lives. The title, Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards, was very intriguing to us as it suggested something deemed impossible in normative, contemporary, Western Asian society. We had been talking, listening, and laughing about experiences we went through; comments we received on the streets of Mar Mikhael in Beirut, at a hairdresser salon near the corniche in Hamra, at lunch with our families in a village at the foot of the mountains, or from a photographer near Mesbah Square in Karaj. “Too feminine, too masculine.” Critical theory is like a new pair of glasses to experience and witness everyday life through, but there is often a gap between theory at a meta-narrative level and the day-to-day. To the best of our knowledge, emotions can bridge that gap. We learned that colonial beauty standards were implemented and enforced through portrait photography. It made us realize why we were feeling offended by the photographer when he found it necessary to lighten our complexion to make us “Look more beautiful, habibi.” We also understood why photographs of men and women were edited in the same manner. Strict notions of femininity and masculinity did not prevail in premodern Arab, Iranian, and Islamic image cultures. Instead, specific human facial expressions were celebrated as more beautiful than others. That is until an eclipse took place in an attempt to push this narrative of gender-fluidity to the margin to allow for new structures to dominate.
The sun was shining straight into the exhibition space, Tegel, and sweat ran down my face. It did not matter that the door was open; the air was completely stagnant. Thankfully, the hanging of our exhibition, The Eclipse of the (Fe)Male Sun, was just coming to an end. The only thing left to do was to attach the vinyl to the window, which would be the first work to confront the visitor: a sun with a mustache, locks of hair, and thick eyebrows, covered by a mask – an eclipse – all blowing up in flames. I picked up my cell phone that had been lying in my bag since lunch. I had received a text from my sister on WhatsApp: “There’s just been an explosion in Beirut.” I sat down and went to the website of SVT. “Breaking news: Explosion in Beirut.” I could not believe what I was reading. Automatically, I started calling and texting my friends to see if they were alive. I hoped that Nour was in her house in the mountains far away from Beirut. She never left for Sweden as the EU borders were closed, and curating an exhibition in a non-locked-down Sweden is not deemed an essential function that would justify one’s necessary physical and bodily presence on foreign land.
“Hello? Oh, it’s so nice of you to call! Are you okay?” he asked in a quiet voice.
How to answer this question? I did not. I asked about the exhibition.
“It’s going so well, Nour. There are a lot of people here!”
I barely managed to hear Afrang’s words for I was deafened by an overbearing silence. Exactly a day had passed since the world as I knew it was reduced to shreds. How was I supposed to make sense of any of this? How was I supposed to make sense of the fact that the same bar where I met Afrang had now vanished, probably forever? An art show in Sweden made little sense to me at this moment. I was as alienated from Stockholm as I was from Beirut. I have never lived in Sweden, but I have also never lived in a destroyed Beirut.
I was standing outside Tegel while people were looking at the show. A long-haired man with nail polish on and a mustache came up to me with a question:
“So was it Nour Helou who wrote the story where her Dad calls her Papa, and her Teta (grandmother) calls her son Mama? This is so typical of Lebanon.”
As these words were resonating in my head, all I could think of was; what makes something typically Lebanese? This fluidity in gender attribution is also expressed in Farsi. With nationality comes a fixed narrative – we are all the same under one flag, identifying with a specific set of customs that we think solely belongs to us, and no other population. These ideas dominate our daily actions. The question left me wondering; what are you when your national identity is taken from you?
Installation images from Afrang Malekian Nordlöf and Nour Helou's 'The Eclipse of the (Fe)Male Sun' at Tegel, Stockholm, Aug 6 - 11, 2020.
Images courtesy of the artists.
This text will also be published in Swedish in the 4th issue of 2020 of the anarchist journal Brand.