REVIEWS: Hirst, Abdessemed, QMC & Hajj exhibitions

Just a couple of weeks left to catch some amazing exhibitions around town.

Here’s my quick review. There are 4 exhibitions currently on, that will wrap up in the first week of January.

If you had time for just one, make it Damian Hirst; if you can accommodate two, make it Hirst and Qatar My Country… if you stop pretending to be busy, attend all 4.

Damian Hirst

If you ignored the smell and gore of some of the exhibits, this one is such a feast for the eyes. I took my 12-year-old along with me. And this image here shows both her and my favourite exhibits.

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The kaleidoscope of  butterfly wings are brilliant. One display looks like the stained glass works you usually see in Churches. There were others of pastel hues. If for a moment you could set aside the fact that thousands of butterflies were captured and dismembered for the sake of art, then you can take in the sheer brilliance of the arrangement.

My favourite is the St Bartholomew sculpture.  Every muscle and sinew so fabulously crafted, and you could almost envision the skin flutter. I’ve seen images of Michelangelo’s painting of St B, but somehow this sculpture was more haunting. Sunken eyes, a flawless fig leaf attempting to put a shine on an otherwise cruel image… To have this in the same room as the other art, where butterfly wings are removed from its body to create art. Brilliant!

There were at least four rooms that I had to rush my daughter out of; it was way too much to take.

Then the baby skull with pink diamonds… what perversity. Yet, when you read the inscription, and learn that he was inspired by how Mexicans tried to beautiful death and dull the pain, you kind of get it.

Some stuff was gimmicky, but it’s a fun experience, despite the fact that you are not allowed to forget your mortality even for a moment. The animals are a like a train wreck from which you can’t take your eyes off, even if it nauseates you.

Hirst’s exhibition was well-curated, and you don’t need a guide. The notes on the wall serve well.

You may even come away with a DIY idea. As I write, shoe boxes are being assembled for a wall like this at home:

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Qatar My Country

I have a personal interest in this project. It’s a hint of what I worked on for nearly a year, but I can’t really share more at this point.

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This exhibition of a private collection of photos is the story of one man, and his life in a country that grew along with him. There you see him, a worker like many others, in a country that was struggling to move out of poverty after second world war.

And then he and the home he adopted both grow and develop and reach dizzying heights of success. Through photographs that journey is recorded.

You see a young Sheikh Hamad (former Emir), you see the leaders of a nascent Gulf Co-operation Council, you see Souq Waqif in its organic state.

Adel Abdessemed

I should probably go for a second visit, as I skipped some of the more gory exhibits, as my daughter was with me.

Here are the first impressions.

As you enter Mathaf, there is repetitive sound, which you take a few moments to place. A balloon bursting or a car backfiring, maybe a gunshot? Then you see on the TV screen a rose being stepped on with a loud pop. As you buy your tickets, and take in the exhibits in the lobby, this sound stays with you.

It will be the last thing you hear too as you leave, but the image you carry out with you is different. The flower is replaced with a skull.

Above are the two exhibits that I liked most. But the last two shots are from a narrow room that is both disturbing and brilliantly done. The expressions on the faces of the people are so real, you are tempted to reach out and touch them. To ease a frown, to wipe away the agony.

This experience would have been better with a guide, so I strongly advice you to book a Mathaf voice. I am sure I missed many of the interpretations.

This image below, only days after the visit appears on my favourite list. O is writing a ‘script’ as part of a winter workshop, and this work is what inspired her.

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The Journey of Hajj

This is the worst curated exhibition I’ve ever seen at the Museum of Islamic Art. I am sure it’s of great interest to those familiar with Islam and the Hajj. But I was so disappointed, because of both the way it was organised, and by the lack of information to guide the ‘foreigners’.

O and I were quite lost. There were so many exhibits, so many screens, in such a cramped space that one just could not take it all in at leisure or with comprehension. The screens were jammed between glass cabinets containing displays, and the reflection of one disturbed the view of the other.

Fortunately, there are at least some brilliant photographs at the entrance, especially ones by Juliette Sawyer.

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Photography was not allowed for this exhibition, so no relevant images.

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BOOK REVIEW: Zealot by Reza Aslan

A book on Jesus of Nazreth should be reviewed on Christmas day. I am cheesy that way.

Zealot

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazreth is both the first book of Reza Aslan’s that I purchased and the first audiobook I’ve ever listened to.

Zealot helped me make up mind about two things:

First, I am not a ‘purely’ audiobook person. I loved listening to this one, but will soon have to get an ebook or hard copy, to be able to flip pages and re-read sections and commit to memory phrases and names…

Second, religion is scary. It’s not for me.

Reza Aslan in his book No god, but God* says religion is not faith, religion is the story of faith. (That’s something I get completely and see it in the lives of the most faithful, be it of mono- or poly-theistic religious dispensation. They always put their faith over rituals.)

So, Zealot is the story of people who sought a different story to guide their faith. It’s a fascinating narration of Roman rule, power of the clergy and Jesus of Nazareth. Even more fascinating is the building of myths and stories to empower faith, after crucifixion of their prophet. The roles played by Jesus’s brother James and both the apostles who knew him personally and those who didn’t, and the debatable claims about Jesus’s life by Paul. As per Aslan, Paul is amongst the first to envision Christianity as a religion.

This book has been controversial in that it says Jesus was a passionate and zealous Jew, and not the man of peace that Christianity now makes him out to be. There have also been disagreements with the author on his reading of the New Testament.

Since I am neither well-versed in the Testaments nor have read in great detail the counter-arguments, I consumed the book with the simple familiarity of a Hindu-born irreligious person who schooled in a Catholic convent.

Zealot speaks of Jesus the revolutionary from Nazareth, before he became Christ. The life of a man when he was still in control of it vs. the history of a man as his followers sought to write it.

Zealot is a reminder that everything that is to happen has already happened, and stories of violence, cruelty, abject poverty, vulgar wealth, goodness and humanity are cyclical. But with every cycle new martyrs, new heroes and new villains are created. Some cycles are more powerful than the rest, they give birth to set-in-stone narratives… religion.

Listening to Zealot, for me there was an echo of another book that addresses the duality of Jesus: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman. That book again distinguishes between the human and the divine, and is well-worth a read too.

I learnt a valuable lesson as a writer, listening to this audiobook; it underscored the importance of metre in all types of writing, not just poetry and lyrics. Aslan reads the book, or to put it more accurately, recounts a story. You realise then that why some writing is so compelling, while others barely manage to ride on the merit of its content.

*My current read.

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BOOK REVIEW: India After Gandhi

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This book has been on my shelf for a couple of years now. But it was only after buying this author’s latest work, that I started reading this. But for the fear of ending up with carpal tunnel syndrome or a sprained wrist, I would not have put the book down. Close to a 800 pages, appendices not included.

There are many reasons why you must read this book, and if you are an Indian, not a single reason why you shouldn’t. Well, unless you already know everything by instinct, and don’t care for facts and recorded history.

India After Gandhi is about the process of nation building; about what it took to make a cohesive country out of innumerable heterogeneous factions. What stays back with you is the realisation that the job is not done. Despite a bloody partition, this was a job well-begun, and hence turns on its head the popular saying, because it’s nowhere close to being half-done.

The heterogeneousness meant that going forward demanded a certain degree of unravelling, to go back and redo things, to hold back plans, to not go ahead as planned but to wait and watch…

So a constitution was conceived, and had to be implemented over a period of time. Statesmen with opposing and diverse views put aside personal agenda and worked on a national one. The flaws of the decisions then were born of good intent, and not for the sake of political mileage.

With this book, I recognise how critical Nehru’s vision and inclusivity was to create the idea of India. But for his paternal blind-spot, he would truly rank amongst the stalwarts of his period.

But, for me the hero of this book, and the initial period it covers, is Dr B R Ambedkar. Unfortunately, he has more or less been relegated to the role of a pioneering Dalit leader now, and in a far less emphatic way as the father of the constitution. This is because politics trumps statesmanship, and politics needs a Dalit icon.

The book quotes him warning against popular protests as a recourse over constitutional means. He also warns against the dankest of hero-worship, ‘of placing individual leaders on a pedestal so high that they are always immune from criticism.’

As Guha observes, popular protests are now encouraged by the ‘rise of identity politics’ (caste or religion) and Parliamentary debates have degenerated into slanging matches.

Indian nationhood and its fledgling democracy was summarily dismissed by many during the period, and highly lauded by a few. Its secularism has been attacked, challenged and ridiculed. “Like Indian democracy, Indian secularism is also a story that combines success with failure,” the author writes.

In India today, as the right wing gets louder and more mainstream, and socialist principles that founded the nation are being framed as a failure, I fear that the intent of ‘India’ of 1947 might be lost in all the noise that online media generates; that the right might hijack a national narrative.

Information that has neither been corroborated or researched can become a sacred truth if it has ‘viral’ value and enough shares.

In such circumstances, books such as these need to find a large audience. To argue and disagree with, even, but based on facts.

There is now a constant harking back to the golden era of a ‘Hindu’ civilisation. What the Indian constitution in effect did was remove much of the regressive factors of that ‘golden’ era. It attempted to ensure equality at several levels, it was feminist in its outlook… It gave precedence to evolution of a civil society over religious dogma. It placed trust in the judiciary and the executive. It’s failing or naivety was that it didn’t foresee the corruptibility of man.

Let me end this review with a few lines from the book:

“Those older anticipations of India’s demise was greatly exaggerated. For the constitution forged by the nation’s founding fathers allowed cultural heterogeneity to flourish within the ambit of a single (and democratic) nation-state. However, these celebrations of India’s imminent rise to power are premature as well. [...] It was mistaken, then, to see India as swiftly going down the tube; it is mistaken, now, to see it as soon taking its place among the elect of the earth.”

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If Popular Science can, so can I.

If you have something interesting to tell me, do email me at umm.of.on@gmail.com. Because I really do love a good discussion and chat. I don’t always enjoy trolls, even if some are cute.

Also, comments on blog posts are not really needed, because it’s just my personal opinion and also… this is why.

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I will never think of Qatar as my home

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This is my 15th year in Qatar. R & I came here as newly-weds in 1999. This is where we set up our first home. This is where my children were conceived, and where they are now growing up (12 and 4 years old).

This is NOT where they were born. Because this is NOT my home.

Because, this is NOT the place I can bring those who are most important to me, R, and the girls. I cannot bring my parents or parents-in-law here. Not without jumping through hoops, and standing outside the room of the ‘captain’ or using ‘wasta’. No… I can’t simply go through due process of applying for a visa and getting it.

They do NOT even accept our application, rejecting it before even casting an eye on form. “Over 65, no visa,” is the brusque response.

My Asian parents and parents-in-law are not welcome here, unless we grovel. And grovel, we will not. Because this is NOT my home…

After all this time, I am happy enough to consider this place as a temporary economic refugee, a place where I enjoy my work, a place as good or bad as most others to rear my family.

GETTING WORSE

My mother has been here twice, once in 2003, at the age of 62, and again in 2006. It was easier then. My parents-in-law aged 76 and 67 have never been here. My mother-in-law retired as a teacher when she was 60, and was able to travel only after that for any length of time. But by then, she was too old to get a visit visa to Qatar.

It breaks my heart that they may never visit their only son and stay at his housee… because you see, this is NOT our home.

If it were, bringing our parents to be with us would be just a matter of booking a ticket. Not of bureaucratic and racist insults.

We don’t have ‘wasta’, we don’t have powerful sponsors who can call a number and get the visa stamped. And even if we did, neither R nor I are the kinds to circumvent legal procedures (call it ego, if you may).

Everyday there is a reminder that we are merely legal residents of the country. We are here, as the majority of other Asians, as workers. Our lives and well-being is not the country’s concern. Which is why Qatar is NOT my home.

Everyday I worry that I am doing wrong by my daughters, allowing them to believe that this is their home… how do I tell them that is just a place we live in, which is why their grandparents are not welcome here.

WHY?

A common reason given is that older folks from poorer countries (Asia) might place a burden on the health system. There is a simple solution, if this argument has any merit… charge us a hefty health insurance fee, we would gladly pay that to be able to host our parents.

What other reason could you possible have for such prejudiced treatment of the majority of your residents?

That’s why Qatar will always remain a place I am fond of, that I’ve lived in… never the place I ever called home.

PS: I have a vested interest in the development of the country, as long as I, mine and those I care for live here (so, forever really)… But home, it will never be. Happy National Day!

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The blind deal on open-mindedness

Once upon a time, it used to be a description many people aspired to. Once upon a place, it was a phrase that was quite straightforward.
Open-minded.
Here in Qatar, it takes on a whole new meaning.
On last count, there were some 150 odd nationalities living here. Which means people of different faiths, tongues, race and ethnicities living bumper to bumper in a country that quite clearly says it’s an Islamic state.
If you are at this point thinking, ‘poor expats’ or ‘ but no, Qatar is not like Saudi’, or ‘but they are quite open-minded here’ or ‘they are becoming more open-minded’… bingo! I am talking about YOU.
I’ve grown to despise this phrase ‘open-minded’.
Because, in the context of Qatar (and maybe the region), it’s a close- and narrow-mined expectation.
When someone says I wish they were ‘open-minded’ here, it invariably is from a position of extreme privilege.
The urgent plea for open-mindedness is always from those blind to their own privileges.
And the plea is always on these lines…

  • I wish they were open-minded enough to see my point of view.
  • I wish they were open-minded enough to be influenced by my worldview (from my country).
  • I wish they were open-minded enough to let me lead my life the way I’ve always done (in my country).
  • I wish they were open-minded enough to not expect me to understand their culture and contexts.

This plea for ‘open-mindedness’ fits in quite nicely with the stereotype we are exposed to everyday about how Islam and open-mindedness are mutually exclusive. What we forget is that all religions are fundamentally opposed to open-mindedness. Their survival is dependent on you believing that that particular faith and none other is your path to salvation; on you believing that you are blessed enough to belong to this and not another faith.

So, this plea for open-mindedness reeks of the purest form of ‘I am right, you are not’ reasoning.

There are two parts to the conversation here.
One from Qataris, Arabs and some Asians, who diffidently say “You should respect our culture.”
I use ‘diffidently’ and ‘should’ in the same sentence, because for some strange reason, they seem to seek your respect of, and not your open-mindedness to their culture.

The other part of this conversation is the demand not request. “You should be open-minded.”
Asking you to disavow your close-minded belief system, to allow them to live their life exactly how they’ve always done.

Though this post has been a long time coming, discussions over the past several weeks have finally gotten under my skin enough to write this.

  • Wish they were open-minded enough to allow more Christmas celebrations.
  • Wish they were open-minded enough to allow more Halloween publicity.
  • Wish they were open-minded enough to allow alcohol everywhere (why don’t we set up public taps?).
  • Wish they were open-minded enough to be just like us, from **insert ‘open-minded’** country.

If this plea is heeded to, then we will have one homogenous, dead boring, world. Let’s toast to that.

Edited to remove repetitions and typos.

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Being a migrant or an expat; Being you or me; The things I didn’t Tweet, Instagram or FB about…

All work and some play
He had turned on the sprinklers  to water the patch of lawn by the Markhiya roundabout, and then realized he was on the wrong side of the controls.
So with a hop and a skip and a hop he tried dodging the water spray, to stay dry and cross over to the road. Sprinkler 1: Dodged. Sprinkler 2: Dodged. Sprinkler 3: Dodged… just 3 more to go… Sprinkler 4: Dodged. Sprinkler 5: Gotchya!
He throws his head back, tucks his hat into his pocket, and decides to just do a jig around all six sprinklers and get wet.
I am sure his laugh was loud, it sure seemed that way.

****
The danger in degrees
Over the last few weeks have been talking and writing a lot about low-income expatriates, who are more vulnerable than the rest of us, though all of us are governed by the same unfair legal framework.
One of the things I was involved in was media training for activists from the Arab and Asian regions, on how to remove negative perceptions of low-income expatriates, in their communications. It was organised by DTP. Preparing for this drained me emotionally.
The stereotyping of these particular group of expatriates, has marginalized them to such a degree, they are invisible. They are not people. Not Ram Bahadur or Dusayanth or Rahim. They are faceless, without identity (literally in many cases*), and clubbed as one to be pitied and kept at a distance.
The most widespread perception is of course poor=crime-prone=immoral, so let’s keep them out.
What upset me most in these interactions is not just the abject abuse of human rights, it’s the denial. Denial by other expatriates. Denial by the officials. Denial by some media.
It’s the escape into degrees… “not as bad as”, “only some”, “not everyone”, “it’s changing a little”, “better than before”.
When you speak in degrees about abuse, you are automatically condoning it.
A friend, unrelated to this issue said “when you generalise, you exonerate”. In this case, by focussing on exceptions and degrees, you exonerate.

****
If you had seen that look…
A group of us friends collected food relief for some expatriates in bad situation. During the course of this exercise, one person who did not believe in the cause said she has seen ‘labour camps’ (euphemism for the slum-like dwellings of low-income workers), and they were well-run.
I wish she had been with us when we went to this camp. To see that sudden glimmer of hope that we could do more than just give food, that we could get them their backpay, get them another job, somehow magically make their situation better.
If only she had seen that glimmer of hope meeting a watery end, when we said we could do no more than temporarily help out with food.
If she had seen that, maybe she would stop talking about degrees of abuse. Maybe all of us would.

****

The Rajni effectImage
Some of you might recognise this picture, many may not. But he is a Tamil film ‘superstar’. One of the biggest stars in India and the Tamil speaking world. And the poster was pasted on the cupboard, right next to a temporary altar for Hindu gods and goddesses, in one of the rooms.
It tickled me no end to find another fan in this corner of Qatar.

****

Your story is worthy of my time
For about six weeks of Oct-Nov I was using taxis to get me around town (my car, a victim of an errant lamppost was in the garage). And it reminded me of the first few years in Qatar, when I was completely dependent on the orange taxis to take me to places that my feet couldn’t.
I was not always in a chatty mood these six weeks, which I know is my loss. I would bury myself in a book, or catch up on phone calls and office mails.
The days that I wore my chatty avatar, I was blessed with many tales — lovely in the trust that they placed in my ears and hearts, and not so in their content.
Noushad* has lived here for 12 years. He was working with a sub-agent of Vodafone, and then moved to a more lucrative position, only to be laid off. Neatly dressed, well-spoken, and driving a ‘limousine’, he persisted in getting my attention off the book. He wanted me to know that his taxi driving days were only temporary, he had seen better days and hoped to again. He gave me pause. Yes, his story could be mine. He just wanted that acknowledgement, and not made to feel that his story was not worth my time.

****
I am not ‘that’ Indian woman
Then I met John, who refused to believe I was Indian, because Indian women were never friendly or interested in his story. Reality check. I tried explaining to him that maybe those other were just shy because they didn’t know anything about where he came from (Nairobi) and it wasn’t out of any malice.
He indulged me with a nod, and spoke of the business he ran, and how the promise of Qatar was too good to say no to.
So he flew east, and came here two years ago. He has done the calculation. He barely survives here. He has to go back. He has to sort out issues with his employer here, but also has to manage expectations back home. After all, he was supposed to come back a rich man.

****
To see what he has seen
L gets my green tea in the morning and cafe latte in the evening. We chat. And looking out of the cafeteria, I asked him what he thought of all these glass buildings. “Nice,” he smiled.
How’s your home town, I asked him. He did the Indian nod (though he is not one), smiled, and dreamily spoke of (in Hindi) the great Himalayas his little house looked out to, of the bitter cold, the lovely summers, the greenery. All that he wanted to say, his stilted English couldn’t express.
“But, I am happy here. My family are happy I am here.”

****
Migrant or Expatriate?
Have been having this discussion with some friends. Why do we make this distinction, except to distinguish ourselves from ‘the other’. To my mind it’s one and the same, just the income levels differ. I am a migrant. I am an expatriate.
A dear friend disagreed. Because I respect her thoughts and her ideas, I dug deeper into it. Not because I wanted to have the last word, but to question myself, and now to put down in black and white why I don’t make this distinction, here’s my explanation.
No one wanders into Qatar without the promise or contract of a job. It’s not like people come in boats and land illegally. We migrate here for work. And all of us are citizens of another country, holding passports from another nation. Hence, we are expatriates. Whatever our income might be.
What are your thoughts on this?

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“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” — Voltaire
The other places I write in…
http://www.scribd.com/vanish_forever

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