Sunday, May 31, 2009

Muslim Voices, Arts & Ideas

There is a fascinating festival going on right now in New York called Muslim Voices, Arts & Ideas that aims to use culture (books, film, visual arts) to break through the stereotypes that we (Americans and Muslims) have about each other. As part of this festival, the New York Public Library (NYPL) hosted a panel discussion entitled New Eyes on the Arab World: Breaking Down Barriers of Fear and Prejudice with Muslim and American writers and translators this past Saturday evening.

One of the most interesting things I learned was that there are a large number of young Arab writers who are interested in getting published in the West. It wasn’t completely clear as to why this is (do they want to reach a larger audience, is there more money to be made by selling in the West, do they want to de-exoticise the Arab world, or perhaps all three), but Paul Theroux, one of the panelists and a well-known Arabic-English translator, was encouraged by this wave and half-jokingly suggested that these young authors should be in touch with him as he is always looking for new books to work on!

Raja Alem, the only female writer on the panel, also seemed encouraged by these younger writers even if many of them may be able to sell more books than she, especially if they write books in the “chick lit” style of the Girls of Riyadh. She seemed particularly excited by the the web, in all its permutations, and sees the internet as a real opportunity for young Arab writers to be free from geographical borders and allows their work to be accessed immediately anywhere and by anybody.

Of course I always think of questions once the event is already over, but it occurred to me afterwards that no one really addressed the numerous books by Iranian authors that have already reached a wide audience in the West. I’m thinking of: Reading Lolita in Tehran, Persepolis, Lipstick Jihad, etc. Have their works helped to “break down barriers” and introduce a more nuanced Iran to Western audiences? What about hyphenated authors (i.e. Syrian-Americans, French-Algerians, etc…)? How do their experiences of living in multiple cultures influence their work and bridge the gap between the Arab world and the West?

The festival ends June 14. Go check it out!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Have you heard of Irena Sendler?

I know I'm a little behind the curve here but did any of you see the film, The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler on the Hallmark Channel? I Tivoed it when it aired but, faced with the prospect of seeing another melodramatic Holocaust movie (complete with clich├ęd Nazi brutality and weeping Jewish victims), I let it fall down in my queue.

Well, I came across it last week and ended up watching it. For all its shortcomings (curiously enthusiastic Catholic families eagerly welcoming Jewish children into their homes and their families, minimal addressing of Polish anti-Semitism, etc...), the story itself made compelling TV. Irena Sendler, a Catholic social worker in Warsaw, became so incensed at the treatment of Jews inside the Warsaw ghetto that she conspired with a small group of trusted colleagues to smuggle children out of the ghetto. In the end, she managed to save over 2,500 Jewish children (the famous Oskar Schindler, for example, saved 1,100).

Yet the most fascinating part of the story is what was not explored on screen. In typical made-for-TV fashion, the movie ends when Sendler is reunited with her lover and we are left to assume that they lived happily ever after in post-war Poland. However, while perusing Hallmark Channel’s website after the movie, I realized how wrong that was. In reality, she lived in obscurity following the war, was labeled a fascist by the Communist regime and—even after 1989--chose not to discuss her role in saving these children because of lingering anti-Semitism in Poland. Instead, it fell to a group of high school students in Kansas to uncover her story and bring it to light.

Addressing the psychological aftershocks of total war is a far messier business than the typical good vs. evil narrative so often marketed to the Hallmark audience. But if the directors chose to expand the arc of the movie to encompass the postwar life of their heroine, it would have provided an additional, richer, dimension to the story and placed Sendler’s extraordinary actions into even greater relief. That would have been a movie I would have watched right away.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Being Jewish in France Part I

Tonight I'm checking out a new movie, Being Jewish in France at the Walter Reade Cinemas. I'm really hoping that it proves to be more nuanced than the typical "France was, is, and always will be an anti-Semitic country" movie. But considering that Neil Genzlinger's review in The New York Times suggests that the director's [Yves Jeuland] "aim is to draw a through-line from the Dreyfus affair at the turn of the last recent anti-Semitism," I have a sneaking suspicion that Jeuland decided to eschew complexity in favor of a more "traditional" story line.

I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Guarding Memory

There has been a recent wave of media coverage of a fund-raising campaign by the Auschwitz museum to raise over 120 million Euros, or $200 million, to put towards to the upkeep and refurbishing of the barracks and other buildings at the Auschwitz concentration camp that have fallen into disrepair due to age and exposure. The money raised would to be used towards laying down new floorboards in the barracks, replacing rusted hardware, among other improvements, including dismantling the infamous sign, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” temporarily replacing it with a replica while the original is being refurbished. Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, the director of the international Auschwitz center, asserts that all these changes, will be done in such a way as to exactly match the materials and building practices of the 1940s. The goal, Bartoszewski assures us, is not to ‘Disnify’ Auschwitz, but rather to maintain the site and its authenticity.

Yet it is exactly this authenticity that risks being lost in the name of preservation. The camp is visited by hundreds of thousands of visitors a year who seek, above all, a genuine experience and the hope that being in exact spot where so much suffering occurred will allow them deeper insight into an event and a place is often impervious to true understanding. Will that understanding truly come from an ersatz camp, made up of refurbished barracks and polished signs?

Auschwitz has been preserved to play a specific role in our contemporary world: that of ‘lieu de memoire,’ a tangible yet fragile connection to a brutal era that every day recedes further into the rearview mirror of history. Indeed, more than almost any other symbol of that era, this camp has become synonymous with the Holocaust and its brutalities. In reading these articles, it is clear that for the advocates of this fund-raising campaign, there is a direct line between the physical presence of these buildings, and the feelings of horror and sadness that they provoke, and the ability of subsequent generations to absorb and pass on the story of the Shoah.

Indeed, as Piotr M.A. Cywinski, member of the Auschwitz museum administration insists, “allowing the camps to return to nature …is not a responsible alternative for remembrance," “That's being completely irresponsible. Allowing the same to happen to Auschwitz would simply be finishing what the Nazis started - "realizing the SS's dreams. That's why we are trying to keep the memory.” (Click here to read the full article)

The museum leadership is right to be concerned about the education of future generations. But they are mistaken if they truly believe that is only through the physical presence of the buildings that their children will absorb the lessons of the Holocaust. In an era when hundreds of novels, biographies, memoirs, and other works of scholarship are published yearly throughout the Western world, not to mention the numerous Holocaust movies to appear from Hollywood directors, it is clear that subsequent generations have in fact taken this history to heart and continue to seek out ways to represent it in all its complexity. This multimedia approach does not override or negate the importance of the site nor of its preservation. However, they must be taken into account by those for whom the loss of the buildings spell the end of Holocaust remembrance.

There are many reasons why the camp must be sustained as a site of remembrance and bereavement. But the real fund-raising emphasis should be on raising money to support programs within Poland and throughout the world that support not only Holocaust education, but also education about the roots of other forms of contemporary hatreds: racism, bigotry, and xenophobia. For it is most essential that this generation understand that the hatred that led to the Holocaust did not die in Auschwitz nor does it only concern Jews. It unfortunately lives on in many forms and against a multitude of groups. One day, the buildings that comprised Auschwitz the camp may very well crumble and disintegrate and return, as Mr. Cywinski says, back to nature. But if the Auschwitz museum and others like it champion education for future generations, the knowledge of the camp and the inhumanity that it represents will be impetus enough for them guard and pass on the memory.

And this helps how?

Ah...those Europeans are at it again. For anyone who thinks that classical singing is boring or staid, has obviously not seen opera in Europe. From dead animals strewn about the stage to graphic rape scenes, European opera houses have ripped the proverbial envelope wide open in an effort to prove their relevance. Perhaps in the case of the most recent production of Samson and Delilah at the Flander's Opera in Antwerp, the directors, Omri Nitzan and Amir Nizar Zuabi--Israeli and Palestinian respectively, couldn't find any dead animals, but given what they came up with, it might have been the smarter course.

In an area that is experiencing ongoing waves of violence between and against its Jewish and Muslim citizens in part because of the conflict in the Middle East, why these directors, who had to have known what they were doing, chose to play into that anger and hate through the controversial interpretation of this opera is beyond me. From "Israeli soldiers dancing orgiastically with their phallic rifles" to Samson reimagined as a suicide bomber, the directors' ham-fisted approach would be laughable if it what was at stake wasn't so soberingly serious. As Michael Kimmelman so vividly describes, this interpretation did very little to advance any sort of productive discussion.

Perhaps the opera lovers among us, myself included, should be thrilled that people believe that this art form truly can have such a transformative effect on people's outlook and politics. But in this instance, I think that we would all be better off to leave the passion to the performers and the political discussions to cooler heads.