Postcard — March 21, 2018, 10:00 am

The Curator

Touring Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi’s art collection

The twin prisms of Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi’s compound rise above a sprawl of palm trees and squat sandpaper villas. Dubai’s Safa neighborhood is empty-feeling and opulent, especially when it’s in the grips of a 110-degree August heat that drives everyone behind their pilastered perimeter walls and tinted-blue mansion windows. Al-Qassemi, the forty-year-old political commentator, art collector, and member of the royal family of the emirate of Sharjah is never openly contemptuous of the maximalist brand of conspicuous consumption perfected in his home country, but he also isn’t above hinting that there’s a better way. “I hope all the malls turn into art galleries,” he said during a presentation in Washington, DC, in September.

In Dubai, al-Qassemi was dressed in a flowing kandoorah, the semi-official uniform of aristocratic locals and a clear visual marker separating the United Arab Emirates’ male citizens from the other 95 percent of the country’s population. The compound’s main house had a museum-like atmosphere that compelled me to tiptoe around the rugs, although al-Qassemi assured me this was unnecessary. In contrast to these trappings of tradition and control, al-Qassemi has slummed it on the New York-to-Boston Greyhound, robe-free of course—“I am a Greyhound expert,” he later boasted. He spent much of September road-tripping around the United States in a modest rental car with a couple of close friends.

At the Safa houses, al-Qassemi bubbled with an aesthete’s enthusiasm. The radiant brushstrokes of a colossal portrait by the Syrian-born artist Marwan screamed across the ground floor sitting room of the main building—Marwan, who died in 2016, “was one of the most important artists, I believe, of the post-war period in the world,” said al-Qassemi. Every piece was “gorgeous” or “stunning”; the Portrait de Mademoiselle AC, a 1939 work by the Egyptian Ezequiel Baroukh (who was also Jewish, al-Qassemi noted) had the special distinction of being “stunning, stunning, stunning.” Al-Qassemi paused in front of the painting, in which half the sitter’s face is absorbed in shadow and her eyes are locked in a disarming forward stare. “I feel like she’s almost going to speak, you know?” he said.

An ink work from the acclaimed Sudanese abstractionist Ibrahim el-Salahi hung in the neighboring bedroom. Al-Qassemi had just acquired one of el-Salahi’s masterpieces: The Last Sound, completed in 1964 to commemorate the death of the artist’s father. In the painting, Sufi symbols and prayers for the dead orbit an unnerving black void. “Everything about this work just kills me,” al-Qassemi said. Lately the image of the painting had been the last thing to flicker in his mind before falling asleep each night, and he had been trying to buy it from an Arab seller in London for more than three years. “As we say in Arabic, You cook it on a cool fire. You wait for it, wait for it.”

The Safa houses are an education—in the Baghdad modernist school of the 1950s and 1960s, in the Kuwaiti sculpture movement, in the stories and histories that Western art scholars and frequent museumgoers have probably never heard before. Just off the living room of the main house is one of the few surviving sculptures by Issa Saqer al-Khalaf, a pioneering Kuwaiti artist whose disapproving son destroyed much of his father’s output shortly after his death in 2000. Nearby hangs an ennobling earth-toned portrait of two nameless Jordanian boys by Ali al-Jabri, a Syrian whose male lover murdered him in 2002. One of the most famous paintings in al-Qassemi’s collection, Kadhim Haider’s Fatigued Ten Horses Converse With Nothing, commemorates the killing of Iraq’s communists in the early 1960s. “See how the person depicted refuses to die,” al-Qassemi said of the subject of Mahmoud Sabri’s The Hero, which recounts the 1963 execution of the Iraqi communist leader Salim Adil and which al-Qassemi excitedly summoned on his iPhone during a meeting with an architecture scholar in New York in September—the conversation had set him on a tangent about depictions of leftist movements in Arab art. Then, pointing just beside the condemned man in the painting: “See how this child is looking straight ahead, instead of down.”

There are hints of subversion in al-Qassemi’s collection. In a painting by the Palestinian artist Jeffar Khaldi, a woman in a bikini leans out from an ethereal thought cloud hovering over a group of bored-looking old men. Banish the thought that this is a Saudi royal conclave: “I’m not gonna comment,” al-Qassemi smiled. It’s “a ruling family.” His grin widened. “It could be anyone!”

There’s art attached to every available surface, inside and out—a Jawad al-Mahi photograph of East Jerusalem’s Shuafat neighborhood covers over fifteen feet of a low mezzanine wall, roughly at knee-level. Towering Arabic calligraphy painted by the French-Tunisian graffiti artist eL Seed spans the back of the compound’s guest house—set against the still, eggshell surroundings, the painting is a fiery black-and-red announcement of the collection’s presence that’s visible from blocks away. Still, the house couldn’t be mistaken for an Emirati version of the Frick Collection. Art books were piled on a coffee table just under the unnerving gaze of the Marwan head, and when I visited, a neighbor’s butterscotch cat had made it over the property wall, with its occasional mewing becoming an anguished reminder of the outdoor heat. Al-Qassemi says that he has the resources to build a museum, but the cost would force him to stop acquiring new art. This would be an unacceptable trade-off for him. Al-Qassemi’s work as a collector isn’t complete yet, and he believes his collection’s significance goes beyond what a single building could achieve at the moment.

Since 2003, al-Qassemi has accumulated around 1,000 modern and contemporary works by Arabic-speaking artists or artists of Arab heritage. Under the guidance of three curators, works rotate through his Barjeel Foundation space, a small public gallery inside of a large arts center in al-Qassemi’s home city of Sharjah, about twenty minutes north of Dubai. Between 200 and 300 pieces are lent to museums around the world each year, something from which al-Qassemi derives no financial benefit. The collection, now one of the most important of its kind, is so vast and geographically scattered that there are major pieces al-Qassemi hasn’t actually seen before. At an opening of an exhibition of his works at Washington’s American University in September, he confronted an eerily static blown-up photo of exploding mortar shells by the Lebanese artist Akram Zaatari for the first time, and uttered a long, guttural “wow.”

Until the UAE joined in the Saudi-led boycott of Qatar this past summer, al-Qassemi hosted a show on Al Jazeera’s AJ+ where he walked viewers through collection highlights. He had over 500,000 Twitter followers before he deactivated his account, and was one of Gulf Business’s one hundred most powerful Arabs of 2017, falling within respectable distance of Gigi Hadid. Al-Qassemi’s high profile doesn’t come from the art collection, but from a previous phase of his life as a public figure, when he emerged as one of the leading boosters of the Arab Spring protests and of Egypt’s failed push for democracy. In the wake of the region’s upheavals, al-Qassemi’s status as a political celebrity and an Emirati royal meant he had credibility with both liberalizing and traditional forces in the Middle East. He was also able to say things about his country that few others could—he wrote in favor of certain long-term residents being able to obtain citizenship, a dangerous proposal in a monarchy where roughly 10 percent of the population are UAE nationals.

After 2011, the exhilaration of the Arab Spring morphed into something disorienting and dark: Egypt’s democrats were crushed, demoralized, co-opted or exiled, and across the region protests often presaged crackdowns, terrorism, and civil war. The UAE itself developed a sharply nationalist streak as it plunged  into various regional quagmires, joining a large-scale military operation in Yemen, participating in the anti-Qatar boycott, weeding out subversives and reducing an already limited space for political expression.

Careers have risen and fallen on the Middle East’s sudden reversals, and al-Qassemi has smartly pivoted. Over the past few years, the focus of his life has been art, not politics, with their interplay never far from view. In 2016, al-Qassemi mounted an exhibition in Tehran’s Museum of Contemporary Art, just as the Yemen conflict mutated into an Arab-Iranian proxy war. “Even if people can’t travel, art needs to travel,” he has said more than once.

After touring the Safa houses, al-Qassemi took the wheel of his burgundy Land Rover and, with markedly greater care than is typically exhibited on the Emirates’ dangerously ego-sodden roadways, drove one of his full-time lead curators and me to a dinner he had convened for a visiting German television crew. At a restaurant next to the Financial Centre with an impressively (if, perhaps, incoherently) cosmopolitan menu, I was seated between a British art critic—who was working on a novel that partly took place in this very restaurant, he explained—and a Lebanese startup founder, and not far down the table from a Palestinian human rights lawyer. Here, your shrimp could be tandoori- or szechuan-style, or stuffed into tortelloni. If you asked for them on a pizza, would they dare refuse? One diner suggested that the restaurant, with its stone Buddhas alongside art-deco-style lounges, was a microcosm of Dubai, a city with an unmatched ability to feel like everywhere and nowhere all at once.

“Ever since the Arab Spring I’ve been more interested in modern art,” al-Qassemi told me as plates of Goan fish curry and quattro formaggi pizza were cleared and warm cookie sundaes arrived. He now wants to “buy modern as much as possible,” partly to claim a place for Arabs in the pantheon of twentieth-century art. “I feel like the modern art movement is an important statement to people who say that there’s no art or art history in the Arab world,” he said. “It’s basically a giant ‘fuck you’ to all the chauvinists who come and say everything here is new, that everything here is a product of the last few years.”

Arab modernism also presents a model of openness and creative possibility—as well as a warning. In the 1950s and 1960s, a newfound sense of political and cultural potential pulsated through Arab societies, unleashing energies that were abused and squandered over the coming decades. “The identities of pan-Arabism, the identity of nationalism, of patriotism; the identity of being Lebanese and being Syrian and being Iraqi, being Nasserist, being Baathist” led to “art techniques that were largely in rejection of colonial forces,” al-Qassemi explained, with artists “going into deeper roots, rather than the training that they got from European and Western teachers.” It was an era in which the art reflected and advanced transformative new ideas. “The Arab world was more diverse then,” al-Qassemi also acknowledged. “Because we had Jews.”

During the Egyptian uprising, al-Qassemi had witnessed the rapid opening of possible destinies that hadn’t seemed to exist before. “The euphoria I felt—I could not describe it,” al-Qassemi recalled, likening the Tahrir Square activists he met in Cairo to characters from a novel made real. “I’ve never felt alive in that way in my life or since. At one point I felt like I could fly if I wanted to.”

Al-Qassemi’s Twitter account, once looked to as a definitive running digest of a new Middle East’s hopes and dreams, has been silent since mid-2017. It was tempting to look at his career as an art intellectual as a retreat, or a reaction to the dismaying experience of getting burned by one’s most hopeful delusions. Al-Qassemi assured me those were delusions worth suffering, maybe even delusions that one had no choice but to suffer. “I would rather not lose my sense of naiveté. I’d rather keep it. I would rather trust that what I see is real.” To react to a Tahrir Square–like moment with cool analytic skepticism would be “like going and saying the Northern Lights aren’t real, they don’t exist, that they’re just a reflection of lights. I would rather believe what I see.”

Earlier that night, al-Qassemi had boasted that he “curated dinners like I curated art.” He had gathered a group of far-flung relative strangers around a single long, black table separated from the rest of the restaurant by a heavy curtain, under the service of a headwaiter who knew al-Qassemi by name. At one point, al-Qassemi had me switch places with the Lebanese startup founder, in hopes he would strike up a conversation with the German TV crew’s translator, a young Pakistani who had grown up in Dubai but sat mutely throughout the dinner, casting stiff and baffled stares at a table of English-fluent people he barely knew. Al-Qassemi spoke to the pair in Arabic. “I just made up a lie and said he hates the UAE,” he confided, in reference to his Lebanese friend. “Now they’re gonna talk about it. I do that.”

There was a time when it felt like al-Qassemi was everyone’s curator, as if the Middle East’s wondrous upheavals were being filtered through him, 140 characters at a time. The early Arab Spring feels tragically distant from the present, but al-Qassemi hasn’t despaired. If anything, his actual goal is to prove that positivity is still worth the emotional and psychic investment, a proposition he was busy testing in reality, in ways grandiose and mundane: at the other end of the table, the translator and the startup founder were getting on famously.

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December 2018


The Gatekeepers·

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Toward the end of the Obama presidency, the work of James Baldwin began to enjoy a renaissance that was both much overdue and comfortless. Baldwin stands as one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century, and any celebration of his work is more than welcome. But it was less a reveling than a panic. The eight years of the first black president were giving way to some of the most blatant and vitriolic displays of racism in decades, while the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and others too numerous to list sparked a movement in defense of black lives. In Baldwin, people found a voice from the past so relevant that he seemed prophetic.

More than any other writer, Baldwin has become the model for black public-intellectual work. The role of the public intellectual is to proffer new ideas, encourage deep thinking, challenge norms, and model forms of debate that enrich our discourse. For black intellectuals, that work has revolved around the persistence of white supremacy. Black abolitionists, ministers, and poets theorized freedom and exposed the hypocrisy of American democracy throughout the period of slavery. After emancipation, black colleges began training generations of scholars, writers, and artists who broadened black intellectual life. They helped build movements toward racial justice during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, whether through pathbreaking journalism, research, or activism.

Bloom, acrylic, ink, wood, and fabric on canvas, by David Shrobe © The artist. Courtesy Jenkins Johnson Gallery, San Francisco
The Vanishing·

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On a Friday afternoon in the fall of 2017, a few months after the liberation of Mosul from the Islamic State, a group of neighbors gathered at Mar Mattai, a monastery founded in the fourth century. They unloaded baskets of food, and arranged themselves around a long table in a courtyard. A woman named Niser spread out a tablecloth and put down a plate of dolmas. “It’s a way of celebrating that we still exist,” she told me. More people were arriving—children, grandparents, cousins, aunts, and distant relations—members of one of the oldest Christian communities in the world who had not seen one another for three years.

Overlooking the village of Mergey from the old section of the Mar Mattai Monastery, Mount Maqlub, Iraq. All photographs from Iraq (October 2017) and Jerusalem (March 2018) by Nicole Tung (Detail)
Investigating Hate·

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Around three in the morning on a cold December Sunday, brothers José and Romel Sucuzhañay began to walk home from a bar in Bushwick, Brooklyn. It was a cloudy night, only a few degrees above freezing, and the houses and stores lining their route wore impassive, nighttime guises—shades drawn, metal grates locked down. Romel had only recently arrived from Ecuador. José, a thirty-­one-year-old father of two, ran a successful real estate agency in the neighborhood. The two had spent the evening eating and drinking at a quinceañera at St. Brigid Church, and afterward, they stopped at a local bar called Christopher’s Palace. They were feeling the alcohol as they headed back to José’s apartment. When they realized that José had left his coat behind in the bar, Romel took off his jacket and draped it around his younger brother’s shoulders. They continued to walk up Bushwick Avenue, swaying a bit, arms around each other for warmth and ballast.

As they approached the corner of Kossuth Place and Bushwick Avenue, a red SUV stopped at the traffic light. “Check out those faggots!” the driver yelled out the window. José may have said something in reply. Very rapidly, a man jumped out of the passenger side door and smashed José on the head with a bottle, dropping him to the ground. He then turned to attack Romel. As Romel fled from the man down Kossuth, the driver exited the car, grabbed an aluminum baseball bat out of the vehicle, and began to beat José until someone emerged from the back seat and called him off. The driver was walking away when he saw some movement from José, a twitch of his hand or his leg sliding across the pavement—trying to rise, perhaps—and he strode back, straddled him, and raised the bat high in the air. He brought it down on José’s head, again and again, as if he were chopping wood.

Illustration by Shonagh Rae (Detail)
Preservation Acts·

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After eighteen-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, Bergis Jules found himself worrying not only over the horrors of the present, but also over how little of the present was likely to be preserved for the future. The best reporting on the aftermath in Ferguson was being produced by activists on Twitter, a notoriously ephemeral medium. Jules, then an archivist at the University of California, Riverside, had the impulse to start saving tweets, but wasn’t sure how. “That whole weekend, watching things unfold, I thought, ‘This is a really amazing historical moment; we should think about capturing it,’ but I was just talking to myself,” he says. The following week, attending a Society of American Archivists conference in Washington, D.C., he voiced his fears en route to drinks at the hotel bar. He caught the ear of Ed Summers, a developer who just so happened to be the author of a Twitter archiving tool—and who promptly programmed it to va­cuum up #Ferguson tweets. Within two weeks, he had amassed more than 13 million.

Three weeks after the shooting, Summers blogged about the archive, which he and Jules were considering making public. Shortly thereafter, they received an inquiry from a data-mining company. When they pulled up the firm’s website, they read that its clients included the Department of Defense and, ominously, “the intelligence community.” What did the company want with the data? And what were the ethical implications of handing it over—perhaps indirectly to law enforcement—when the protesters’ tweets would otherwise evade collection? Using Twitter’s Application Programming Interface (API), the code that developers use to call up Twitter data, anyone can sift through tweets that were posted in the past week, but older posts disappear from the API’s search function, even if they still exist out on the web. The data-mining company was too late to nab a swath of the #Ferguson tweets. (Twitter has since unveiled a “premium” API that allows access to older data, for a substantial fee.) Newly mindful of the risks, Jules and Summers waited almost a year to publish their cache.

Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

Estimated number of times in the Fall of 1990 that George Bush told a joke about his dog asking for a wine list with her Alpo:


French researchers reported that 52 percent of young women exposed to Francis Cabrel’s ballad “Je l’aime à mourir” gave their phone numbers to an average-looking young man who hit on them, whereas only 28 percent of those exposed to Vincent Delerm’s “L’heure du thé” did so.

Migrant children were teargassed; carbon dioxide levels have reached three to five million year high; missionary killed by remote tribe

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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