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Posted September 5, 2005
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Muslim Voyagers Exploring A Distant Land (the West)

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Shadi Chadirrian's self-portrait has the flesh blacked out the way Wetern photos were censored in Iran.

Shadi Ghadirian



BARCELONA - For well over 1,000 years, from the Moorish conquest of Spain to the postwar addiction to Mideast oil, Europe has been engaged with the Muslim world. Yet remarkably, over much of this period, Europe has paid little heed to how it was viewed in the eyes of Muslims.

Now, "West by East," a groundbreaking exhibition in Barcelona, tries to make amends. It records a complex love-hate relationship characterized by cyclical attraction and repulsion, proximity and confrontation. And it reaches a surprising conclusion: "Easterners have paid a lot less attention to Europeans than we have to them."

The show, which runs at the Center for Contemporary Culture in Barcelona through Sept. 25 before traveling to Valencia, was born of the perceived "clash of civilizations" that followed 9/11. Yet its premise is that today's crisis over Islamic fundamentalism is just one chapter in a very old story.

"Islam and Europe appear to constitute two separate entities that are antagonistic, irreconcilable, radically different," its catalog said. "Now that millions of inhabitants of Muslim origin live in Europe, the story we wish to recount is another."

True, so vast a subject can hardly be covered in a single exhibition built around historical texts, objects and images. But as Jordi Balló, the center's director of exhibitions, put it: "We've so often seen shows about the West's fascination with the East. We ourselves did one called 'Fantasies of the Harem.' This is an attempt to see things from the other side."

By definition, it had to be organized by a Muslim. So the center ceded full control of the exhibition to Abdelwahab Meddeb, a Paris-based Tunisian poet, writer, university professor and, most recently, author of "The Malady of Islam" (Basic Books), a look at Islamic fundamentalism. He in turn recruited nine artists and five writers from the Muslim world to contribute a contemporary view to "West by East."

For the purpose of this show, the West is principally Europe, with the United States a relative newcomer, while the East is the Islamic world. Even here, though, the lines are blurred because Mr. Meddeb and the guest artists straddle this divide.

"In everything I do or write, I try to say what I feel, that I am deeply Western and Eastern, that I am the son of a double genealogy," Mr. Meddeb said, referring to his life in Paris. "I was raised in this spirit. And with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, I try to demonstrate the East and West are reconcilable."

To explore this premise, the show engages in what he calls "archaeological soundings," starting with maps and writings of a 12th-century Arab geographer, Al-Idrisi. He was in the service of the Sicilian King Roger II, who drove the Muslims from the island but retained Muslim scholars in his court. How far Al-Idrisi traveled is unclear, but he wrote with admiration of Rome's 1,200 churches, 1,000 baths and "the palace of a prince called pope."

Even earlier, Sicily was an important crossroads. On display from Palermo is a page from a Greek-Arabic version of the Gospel according to St. Luke, as well as an 11th-century tombstone inscribed in Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Arabic. To illustrate the crusades, Mr. Meddeb chose Usama Ibn al-Munqidh, a Syrian noble who fought the Christian invaders but who, in his autobiography, described the Westerner as "an enemy one can be friends with."

The physical - and religious - proximity of Christianity and Islam influenced sacred imagery, notably in the way some Muslim artists borrowed from Christian tradition to paint scenes from the life of the prophet (although in some cases the face of Muhammad was later obliterated to conform with prevailing iconophobia). By the 16th century, Ottoman rulers themselves were eager to be painted in the Western style.

But only in the 19th century did the Western way of life begin to transform the Muslim Orient, not only through technology, architecture and fashion, but also through philosophy and political meddling. The response was ambivalent: some Muslim leaders adopted the new ways, with photographs in this show recording their "grand tours" of Europe, but so-called Occidentalists also began resisting European domination.

Then, in 1928, with the creation of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the stage was set for the continuing struggle between the modern and the traditional in much of the Islamic world. And since then, this show's catalog contends, "the history of the Islamic countries has been marked by a dividing line that separates Occidentophilic and Occidentophobic tendencies."

Still, while a war of images is often fought in today's media, art can serve as an interlocutor. Marjane Satrapi, the Iranian author of "Persepolis," an acclaimed comic-book autobiography, painted a cheerful mural titled "The Magnificent Occident" for this show. In the catalog she noted: "Given that whenever you speak of us, it is to evoke 'The Thousand and One Nights' or terrorism, it will be interesting to see if we have ideas as fixed as yours."

Khosrow Hassanzadeh, another Iranian artist, gave his answer by looking at himself in a Western mirror: he presented a self-portrait and portraits of members of his family, each identified by name, nationality, age and profession, under the heading "Terrorist," as they might be described on a "Wanted" poster.

Shadi Ghadirian, also from Iran, offered a satirical view of how she saw the West by photographing herself in Western dress, then blacking out all evidence of flesh. Thanks to Iranian censors, she explained in the show's texts, that is how she grew up seeing Western women in imported magazines. The Moroccan video artist Bouchra Khalili turned the tables by dressing in traditional costume in Paris, summoning Western men to a casting and removing her costume in public.

The Paris-based Algerian photographer Touhami Ennadre, who happened to be in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, has focused his work in the United States on African-Americans, whom he generically calls "The Other." For "September 11," one photograph on display here, Mr. Ennadre said in the show that he had intentionally excised details of the terrorist attack to focus on "the universal essence of the drama."

Accompanying the show on television monitors, interviews with five Muslim writers provide a kind of running commentary. All are asked to respond to the same questions about their perceptions of the West, among them, what they like (rationality and efficiency were applauded) and what they dislike (the poverty of human relations was lamented).

The most original answer, though, came from Sorour Kasmai, an Iranian writer. To the question of why the West is democratic and the East often despotic, she responded: "I think democracy exists in the West because the West has had the novel. And despotism reigns in the East because the East has had poetry. The novel develops the democratic imagination because it offers various paths, various destinies, while poetry is despotic."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, TheArts, of Saturday, September 3, 2005., the scholarly journal of democracy and human rights
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