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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October 2018

Checkpoint Nation

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Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a three-hour drive to reach home, in the mountains in New Mexico, and she hated driving in the dark.

Sandoval took her place in the long line of people waiting to have their passports checked by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). When it was her turn, she handed her American passport to a customs officer and smiled amicably, waiting for him to wave her through. But the officer said she had been randomly selected for additional screening. Sandoval was led to a secondary inspection area nearby, where two more officers patted her down. Another walked toward her with a drug-sniffing dog, which grew agitated as it came closer, barking and then circling her legs. Because the dog had “alerted,” the officer said, Sandoval would now have to undergo another inspection.

Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk
The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images

Chance that a country to which the U.S. sells arms is cited by Amnesty International for torturing its citizens:

1 in 2

A newly discovered lemur (Avahi cleesei) was named after the comedian John Cleese.

Kavanaugh is confirmed; Earth’s governments are given 12 years to get climate change under control; Bansky trolls Sotheby’s

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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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