The Nile Hilton Incident: The Struggle for the Land and the Soul

Indeed, no cruel man is so cruel as he whom he has misused believes; the idea of pain is not the same thing as the suffering of it.

– Nietzsche

In The Nile Hilton Incident, I see characters exist outside the debate on moral settlement. What I also see, is space, I see Cairo, in both its making and unmaking; in its residue and revival. 

A police officer (Faris) who discovers a murder of a pop singer in Cairo’s Nile Hilton Hotel soon finds himself in a position where he has been asked, and later threatened, to not to pursue the same by the social and political elites of the land. In between this equation lies a helpless Sudanese maid (Malik), a daily wage worker at the Hotel who is also the only witness to the incident. The plot is set in the Cairo of 2011, just days before the breaking out of the Arab Spring. 

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The characters are unapologetically non-dichotomous, so much so, that they are very much living. The very fact that they have survived in such a milieu, and continues to do so, is because of the certain flaws that they both internalise and resist. Noredin (Fariz) is committed to bring down the man who is backed by a system which has corruption and nepotism seeping through its every possible branch. However, at the same time, he demands bribe from the local sellers, and pockets confiscated money. Salwa (Malik) is aware, to some extent,  of the gravity of what she has witnessed, but still proposes to enter into a financial compromise to stay quite; perhaps forced by her unprivileged socio-economic status. Even in the most insignificant of characters, we see the same characterization being reflected.

The plot seems to be resting on an unsettled bedrock; of many upheavals happened, and waiting to happen. There also exist turning points; moments that changed the pattern of how characters went on to exist and function. ‘Dignity cannot be bought, son’, as said Noredin’s father while aimlessly glaring at the television screen. 

The political revolution of Cairo runs parallel to that of Noredin’s; having a synonymous evolution. What started as a mere sub-narrative, the revolution grows into a climax and finally ends with the only thing left standing. The two narratives, of the revolution and of Noredin, are unaware of each other until  they both find each other engulfed in the agony directed against a common enemy. The development of this relation is slow yet apparent and cathartic. 

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And amidst all this, there is Salwa. Just like the plight of Sudanese refugees in Egypt, she lives in silence and denial until she decides to remain silent no more. She is made aware of both the triviality of her life and the significance of her death. She continues to live under the bridge, both literally and figuratively, until she decides to finally surface and speak up. After an illegal arrest, attempted deportation and an attempted murder, all directed against her, we see her running hysterically in an open field. Noredin asks her to go away and set herself free, but just like the plight of her community and her gender, we see an inconclusive end to her story; or maybe, just the continuation of how it ever was. 

The Nile Hilton Incident is a story of both the people and the land; told in isolation but very much shared and lived together. The multi-layering of  these elements sets up  chaos and uncertainty that gives meaning to life that existed during the Arab Spring; both of the land and the people. As the main character fails and collapses, there is victory of some virtue within;  a virtue that also marked and led the revolution to finally bring down the system in the days to come. 

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The Construction of Meaning in Photography

‘Photograph… a record of a reality refracted through a sensibility’

– Victor Burgin (1986)

Shadi Ghadirian and her range of artistic photography vocalise two of her most personal identities: Iran and womanhood. However, as expressed in her collection Miss Butterfly (2011), and in various films that struggle to sieve through the web of state censor board,  personal and public are not significantly distinguished and demarcated spaces for Iranian women. However, it is not the politics of her subject matter that is the only fodder for one’s fascination; if one may look closer, or deeper, it is her process that fancies. 

In her frames, Shadi Ghadirian captures the duality of contemporary existence in Iran; imbued in life’s contradictions and an innate desire to be understood. This duality can be seen as a struggle, if not a conflict, between tradition and modernity in the prevailing sense of representation in Iran. To Shadi, this duality in representation is more apparent in the representation of women. In her collection, Qajar (1998), Shadi uses the style of traditional Qajar photography, famous in the 19th century Iran, and twitches the construction of meaning by invading the traditional space with an object that signifies modernity.

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Shadi Ghadirian : Qajar

The duality represented in Qajar answers well to the understanding of a ‘photograph’ as provided by Roland Barthes. Instead of its artistic composition, Barthes was more focused on its construction of cultural myths on a mass scale. In Mythologies, Barthes asserts that a photograph is a coded, historically contingent, ideological speech which is amenable to scientific study  and semiotic analysis. In Qajar, we can see Shadi substituting the surface understanding of the picture with a larger ideological and political meaning which is represented through well coded symbols that carry certain political meanings in themselves. Therefore, the use of a traditional style (Qajar) as a space where little objects of modernity are placed, alienates the meanings earlier associated with these two elements and conjoins them to construct a new political meaning. Interestingly, the women in these photographs maintain the facial features and aesthetic sense that was prevailing during the Qajar period. In such a frame, an object of modernity seems like an inevitable reality to which women in Iran might have dealt with in an operational sense but not in a cultural sense. 

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Shadi Ghadirian : Qajar

 

 

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Shadi Ghadirian : Qajar

Apart from construction of duality in representation of Iranian women, we see another very fascinating feature in Shadi Ghadirian’s photographic process: The symbolisation of the subject matter. 

Photography for Shadi is as symbolic as it is real. So much so, that when the urge to surface the reality, which has been brushed aside for so long, becomes irresistible, the symbols become the voice that speaks on behalf of reality so silenced. It is when the language of reality becomes too hard to gather, that the symbols become the mouthpiece of  one’s truth. 

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In Miss Butterfly, we see the frames depicting meanings that are drawn not from the referrant herself, but from the space in which the referrant is placed. In addition to this, the interplay or engagement created between the referrant and the object (in this case, the web) alienates both the referrant and the engaged object from their own meanings and reduces them to become mere symbols of a political message. 

Miss Butterfly was inspired by renowned Iranian playwright Bijan Mofid’s piece about a butterfly’s ill-fated pursuit to encourage her fellow insects to escape captivity of a spider’s web and go see the sun again. In each of the images from the collection, women are shown weaving or unravelling webs attached to the frames of light (an exit). They seemed at turns overpowered by the narrow staircases and rooms or dwarfed by the stately homes in which they are placed (Nagree : 2006). More than anything, it is the overpowering darkness that reflects the most upon the reality of the lives of these women. 

Shot in black and white, the women in these frames are symbols of multiplicity of layered meanings. One such layer is the public-private divide in the lives of Iranian women. The images show women wearing the headscarves even in the private space within a domestic setting. Some critics argued that the same was deliberately done by Shadi to comply with the guidelines of the state censor board. One might not see this distinction as relevant within the religious context but the same does come across as a constructed meaning from the direct reading of the photographs. 

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Shadi Ghadirian : Miss Butterfly 

 

Unlike the meaning usually associated with photography theorists, the pictures in Miss Butterfly are much alienated from the actual reality of the referrant. Such alienation is much evident in the poetic construction of the frame where the object which symbolises captivity is enlarged from its usual/normal size. Moreover, the careful selection of space and source of light, also work towards alienating the referrant (women) from their actual historical context; hence reducing them to mere symbols of general understanding of oppression. One may say, Shadi Ghadirian in Miss Butterfly, becomes the author of the photograph; metamorphosing the reality into well construed ideology and representing the same through intelligently placed symbols.  

We can see this well thought of placement of incongruous objects to create meaning in her other acclaimed works such as Like Everyday (2000) and Nil Nil (2008) as well. In all of these works, the ideological motive becomes a vantage point from which objects (including humans) are seen through preconceived meaning. 

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Shadi Ghadirian : Like Everyday 

 

 

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Shadi Ghadirian : Nil Nil 

It is through her well choreographed process, that Shadi Ghadirian imbues movement in stillness. Since the subject matter of her photograph is not the historical fact or abstracted reality but a political meaning, the pictures escape the socio-temporal existence and remain relevant till the political objective is achieved. Therefore, the referentiality and indexicality of Shadi Ghadirian’s  photography is not reflective of the world represented in the photograph but of the world ‘out-there’; that is, the world outside the photograph but yet so near. 

This subject matter, however, runs contrary to the classical understanding of photography which considered a photograph to be stillness; so much so that some considered it to be a death. Christian Metz in his Photography and Fetish (1985) argues that photography operates as a figuration of death. Metz says ‘photography is an instantaneous abduction of the object out of the world into another world, into another kind of time… photography by virtue of its stillness ‘maintains the memory of dead as being dead.’  In common parlance, photography is compared with shooting; the camera becomes a gun.

Shadi Ghadirian, on the other hand, is bringing alive the voices of the dead and the denied. With every frame and image, she challenges the ‘still’ nature of her medium of expression by constructing meanings that remain relevant, existent and omnipresent. Shadi’s camera is not a gun; it is not a flag of peace either. More than anything, it is a mirror; reflecting what ever movement and the moved fails to see through his own naked eyes. 

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Trump-NATO Mismatch on Paris Agreement

Trump’s decision to pull America out of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change comes just two months after the publication of NATO Report on Food and Water Security in the MENA region. Taking into consideration the amount of control US enjoys over collective decision making of NATO, Trump’s decision has made a mockery out of the Science and Technology Committee of NATO.

The report which was published in March 2017 heavily emphasises upon the interconnection between scarcity of natural resources and the rising civil conflict in the Middle East and North Africa Region (MENA). According to the report, this interconnection manifests itself in the form of humanitarian crisis, migratory pressures, and intra-state and inter-state conflicts.

It is not just NATO but even US Department of Defense considers climate change to be a threat multiplier. Former US Secretary of State Chuck Hagel said that climate change will lead to disputes over refugees and resources. In addition to this, a research paper submitted to the US National Academy of Sciences claimed climate change as one of the major reasons behind the civil war in Africa. Assenting to the choir, former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called the war in Darfur as the first climate conflict. Many scholars in US universities have conducted comprehensive studies to demonstrate the impact of global climate change on armed conflict.

As the scientific and academic community, both in US and UN, is constantly focusing on understanding the impact of climate change on rising conflicts, the current decision of President Trump doesn’t shy away from disregarding the entire body of literature on the matter. As the clamour for greater environment protection grows louder, and leaders such as Modi, Macron and Merkel explicitly declaring their stance on the Paris Agreement, this move further isolates America from Europe and provides a gateway to China to muscle up its diplomatic relations with the region.

Existential Says

Let there be no world that says there’s no home for you

No language that has hailed misinterpretations

over what could have been a melody

No eye that holds a vision of a future,

over what could have been a day more of present

Let there be no love that feels ashamed to face itself

Let there be no love,

that fails to touch the life that wanted

 

 

 

Mutarada (The Chase)

She was unkempt, much like her thoughts

Chasing her bewildered cat

At least, what she thought she was upto

Step, swirl, hush, hush, silence; Aaah! There you are

Come here, come here; and missed

So there she ran again

Racing past a reel of known faces but unknown aspersions

With her hands reaching outwards

Her eyes, glared and watered of excitement

There’s no rest to this chase

The winds that she felt on her face carried sweetness of evening prayers

And the music, she ignorantly loved

But the sky’s getting darker

But the cat’s still not here

And now the songs have detuned to screams

Prayers have paved way for wails

The music she could not ignore, not love

The chase is still on, but of what

Where did the cat go, did it find a safe escape

A foreseen future that could not harbour here

She draws nearer to the faces

And the aspersions start to paint her knowledge

The sky is lighted, but not of stars

The vendor’s cart is red, but there are no fruits

The hands are reaching outward, the eyes are watered,

Is this the same place

Oh cat! Could you please find me now?

Can you trace my shadows?

I wish I could vanish into future, like you

Or just vanish

Leaving behind no hurt