Sunday, September 7, 2008
A Theoretical Pulp Fiction and Serialized Videographic Adventure in the Arabian Gulf
“Nothing is true, therefore everything is permitted.” - Hassan I. Sabbah
“Everything Is becoming science fiction. From the margins of an invisible literature has sprung the intact reality of the twentieth century.” – J.G. Ballard
“Nothing is true, therefore everything is permitted.” - Hassan I. Sabbah
“Everything Is becoming science fiction. From the margins of an invisible literature has sprung the intact reality of the twentieth century.” – J.G. Ballard
“Is this science fiction? Yes. But up until now all environmental mutations derived from an irreversible tendency towards a formal abstraction of elements and functions, their homogenization into a single process, as well as to the displacement of gestural behaviors: of bodies, of efforts, in electric or electronic commands, to the miniaturization in time and space. These are processes where the stage becomes that of the infinitesimal memory and the screen.” - Jean Baudrillard
So is this science fiction? Yes.
But this is also a romance in miniature and a catastrophe at large. The things you’ll see and read are both strange and beautiful: a cavalcade of technology, theory and history presented in approach to a poetic and ironic analysis (as prescribed by J. B.) of the contemporary Arabian Gulf: a region acting as uncanny preview of long-imagined futures/nows where love is mediated by mobile and death conquered by camera.
Built on the retreating sands of reality and increasingly submerged in the unreal, the Gulf has become a place where individuals are forced to fracture their lives into multi-dimensional zones of illusion and reality. Squeezed by the intense hyper-pressurized conditions of life in the Gulf, by puberty young girls have stepped into their black abayas already diamond-cut: multifaceted and many-faced. Worn veterans of poly-existence, they effortlessly navigate the complicated culturally specific binary code of public and private, truth and lies, me and you.
Of course this has always/already been told in abstract prophecies by the champions of inner space (J.G. Ballard, P.K. Dick, H.I. Sabbah, F.M. 2030). But now it is a multi-staged/thousand-plateaued plot being constantly related via invisible webs of communication in simple images by real beings with ‘effective motivations’ and endless resources. Optimistic futurism has faded into an apocalyptic narrative informed in equal parts by Islam and post-modernity. We can read this narrative in the vast and undulating mass of media which blankets the Gulf, painted in broad strokes by the thin brushes of personal media recorded on mobile phones and laptop computers.
As of November 2007 3.3 Billion people had mobile phone technology. That’s over half the world’s population. It is by far the most widespread and common communication technology in the world. Most of those mobile-phone owners/sharers in the case of many in 3rd world countries have Bluetooth capability. What this means is that half the world has access to anyone’s handset and files within a 1 to 100 meter range from their person. These are called Wireless Personal Area Networks or PAN. This web of Personal Area Networks is used to wirelessly and seamlessly connect individuals. It is a ‘haptic’ space in the same way that Deleuze and Guattari termed cyberspace. It is a network only apparent from a distance, like a mirage in a hot and shifting desert. “One never sees from a distance in space of this kind, nor does one see it from a distance. No panoramic view is possible, for the space is always folding, dividing, expanding, and contracting.”
Needless to say this has created an influx and boom in file sharing particularly in places where users are less likely to have a computer than a mobile to watch or listen or create media with. But on top of the technical and economic ramifications of this rather sudden blast of connectivity is the massive personal production of media for these PANs. In a region like the Arabian Gulf we can see a fascinating (and utterly weird) crop of video files that are being shared across national borders, across sexual boundaries and across age groups.
And despite the cultural signifiers inevitably present in these videos such as dress or music or facial features, they somehow manage to be culturally universal. To watch them is to understand.
The big shift that has happened is less to do with content of the media than with the collapse of two platforms of visual consumption: the socially-shared/mandated/public broadcast of television and the secret/pirated/specialized/private world of black-market, dubiously sourced video. These new artifacts in .AVI and .MPEG present a movable feast, flickering on the tiny handheld screens of absolutely everyone. It is a thoroughly cross-generational, non-gender-specific obsession.
This emergent mobile media is becoming increasingly intrusive. It probes the most private and illicit (orgies, cross dressing, drugs) along with the mind-numbingly dull (computer tutorials, baby pictures, blurry street shots) aspects of Gulfi life. This trajectory towards inner space via culturally modified technology runs directly in line with J.G. Ballard’s prediction of narrative fiction dying at the hands of everyday vignettes related to audiences on cassette and videotape. Of course at the time of Ballard’s essay “Which Way to Inner Space?” Centel had yet to put their early mobile prototype on the market, let alone add a camera or Bluetooth capability. However Ballard, great lyricist of the mundane manages to envisage a science fictive subject matter far ahead of its existence. Ballard’s imagined inner-space science fiction could as easily be captured on a grainy .MOV file as it is expressed here in his words, “the gleam on refrigerator cabinets, the contours of a wife’s or husband’s thighs passing the newsreel images on a colour tv set, the conjunction of musculature and chromium artifact within an automobile interior, the unique postures of passengers on an airport escalator” Such is the stuff of new and interesting science fiction for Ballard and it exists in abundance around the Arabian Gulf where image and video proliferate indefinitely via the boundless viral web of mobile phone culture or as the handsets are called in Arabic: jawal. These files know neither sex nor death though they often provide the subject matter along with the more humdrum. “It is for this reason that they obsess us in this period of recession of sexuality and death: through images we dream of the immortality of protozoa, infinitely multiplying through contiguity in an asexual chain of progression.” This spontaneously unfolding progression of images Baudrillard speaks of has in fact taken up the service of plot in the Grand Guignol and apocalyptic farce that the Gulf is enacting now. Each file is a mini act, chapter and verse unto itself. A small notch in a greater story being acted on countless LCD theaters in the palms of an enthralled and participating audience.
Since the pre-Islamic Jahilliya, the Gulf has been home to prolific chroniclers and great poets: “The mediator-storytellers, through whom truth is summoned to unwind itself to the audience.” But unlike many of the great narrative traditions, our bards skipped the formality of the written word and jumped directly from relating aural tradition in poetry to living AV possibilities through their top-of-the-line and standard issue jawal. In Dammam, Doha and Dubai the phone-cameras are always capturing and the Bluetooth always on. The collectively sung and recorded epic is told unsentimentally by a million faces on a million screens, each outfitted with the tool to tell (the jawal) but stripped of the ability manipulate fate or change the conclusion.
The last event that went unrecorded by the jawal was the moment of collapse. The cameras weren’t rolling when the colossal gravitational force of the Gulf’s ancient cultural/spiritual/technological platforms bored a hole in reality. The volatile forces of a regressive Islam, foolhardy futurism and sudden wealth jettisoned the oil-states through this fresh temporal portal into a prophetic unreality at the edge of our end.
Although cyber-levels rise around the globe as our understood reality melts away, the Gulf, being a flat desert plateau at the edge of a vast simulacra-sea will be the first to be completely immersed. But the boundaries between the real and unreal already exist seamlessly there, ungraspable but mediated through various types of screen (tinted window, niqab, LCD) and hidden by the shadows of privacy, propriety and law. Outside of the abstracting hothouse of the Gulf these same boundaries are cast under bright analytical lights and resultantly cannot attain such unchecked fluidity.
Secret subversion of rigid public rules and stilted conversation has resulted in the very separate flourishing of private worlds and the blossoming of rich interior lives which would not be nurtured in any other situation. Freed of the regulatory bounds which prevent real-life sex and death from occurring, the images born from these infinitely creative intimate inner spaces circulate as privately public. Without the proliferation of a device (the jawal) which made clandestine communication possible, these secret worlds would remain largely unexplored despite their rich theoretical resources for the mapping of our trajectory out of reality.
This is why the Arabian Gulf is unique in the world as a floodlit, pressurized stage of the imaginary and birthplace of the very hole which caused its still recent conception. It is an infuriating abiogenesis which haunts all discussion around the Gulf, fueling what Jean Baudrillard called an “obscene rage” to unveil truth. “The more one nears truth, the more it retreats towards the omega point, and the greater becomes the rage to get at it. But this rage, this fury, only bears witness to the eternity of seduction and to the impossibility of mastering it.” Just as Orientalists were seduced and subsequently obsessed by what lay beyond the veil/garden-wall/Mecca, now we court speculation over what lays beyond reality: an imaginary visualized easily on the brittle science fictive pulp of today’s ‘Ole Araby.
The pulpy stock on which the story of the Gulf is printed is a mottled mesh of disappearing boundaries between the human and inhuman and the limits of life and death which has “turned our world into a world beyond.” And as Baudrillard terms it, the pages become “the site of total superstition.” Perfect for a the maudlin end-times farce of the Arabian dream: “a resplendent bazaar of repacked times and spaces (history and geography) to be encountered and consumed with an Edenic simultaneity…the infusion and diffusion of hyper reality into everyday life” . The exploration of inner space and the conception of a Gulf third space ala Edward W. Soja’s Los Angeles.
J.G. Ballard once said, “the cataclysmic tale is the most powerful and mysterious of all categories of science fiction” and as “there has clearly been no limit to our need to devise new means of destroying the world we inhabit”, The Gaze of Sci-fi Wahabi will also be a sensationalized telling of the Arabian Gulf at dusk on it’s thousand and first night, the eve of Armageddon, the end of time.
Our latter-day Scheherazade, Sci-fi Wahabi, is suffering from amnesia, exhausted by her quantum leap through time, terrified of the dawn and readying for That Which Is Coming . But being a fearless myth-correspondent, she relays images and video to us from the edge of time: right now.
The nocturnal poetics hidden in these grainy videos hate to be exposed and shrink from examination but for the sake of our story they will be probed into opening up.
I’ll invoke Ballard once more to elucidate Sci-fi Wahabi’s intentions in transmitting the seven videos attached with this project from the inner reaches of inner space:
“Each one of these fantasies represents an arraignment of the finite, an attempt to dismantle the formal structure of time and space which the universe wraps around us at the moment we first achieve consciousness. It is the inflexibility of this huge reductive machine we call reality that provokes infant and madman alike, using his imagination to describe the infinite alternatives to reality which nature itself has proved incapable of inventing.”
Everything Sci-fi Wahabi relates to us in these videos is part of a larger global satire and all of a local farce. It is a musical, a tragedy, a family saga told in .AVI and MPEG. It is a project culled from amateur Bluetooth biometrics, a leap of faith and stupidity over the vast gorge of cultural theory and speculative fictions.
It has a cast of millions and a budget of billions and is the serialized tales (in words and video) of what brought the Gulf to the cusp of history, through a shimmering warp in time and why the region IS the perfect stage and ideal host to the topsy-turvy variety show before Baudrillard’s high-kicking grand finale: exodus from reality.
But first let me introduce our host:
A Fictional Account of the Arabian Gulf’s Exodus from Reality
“Do they not ponder over the Qur’an in order to understand its deep meaning, or is it that their minds are locked up from within?” – Qur’an 47: 24
The first thing, well, the only thing people ever notice about Sci-Fi Wahabi at first meeting is her eyes. They are wide and clear, the poetically inclined might call her sloe-eyed, the less flowery would deem them ‘bulgy’. These “kohl-rimmed”, “volume-speaking” eyes as hackneyed Orientalist adages would dub them, voice “her plurality without suppressing her singularity” So of course it’s no surprise that these glittering orbs are her defining trait because she is after all little more than eyes-without-a-face, a one-way consuming portal of spectatorship, a kafir, a fraud.
You see, SFW is in some ways me. She is my gaze. She is a lens through which you can see this project. She holds a steadying stance for us to take up on the insecure theoretical foundations of this projected survey of the Arabian Gulf’s public inner spaces. SFW is an attempt at the leveling of a dogmatic, genderless gaze through which to view the Gulf’s uncharted expanses and bizarre output after its crash landing in the future.
I have named her in order to redepart from my person, nation and race all of which are undergoing a reversal of values brought on by the jawal.
I have also masked her in science fiction in order to create a pure screen of identity in order to ‘rearrive’ at the place of critical engagement unrecognized and uninhibited. The third person is a useful tool.
A tool to protect the paranoid. A tool to exploit while “…cameras, microphones and reporters are stationed on every block, providing live feeds to the Net. The delirium of advanced technology has been entirely woven into the texture of everyday life. This is what a fully networked, ‘post human’ existence might be like.”
And SFW is ridiculous, ironical and her mask looks a little bit like Michael Jackson (the ultimate in post-human projects). But The Gaze of Sci-Fi Wahabi needs an individual to bridge the yawning heterology between cultures, technologies and time. It needs a figure to absorb the networks and translate. It needs a native informant.
The naming of SFW is an act I consider a declaration of solidarity with those threshold figures (ala Joseph Campbell’s mythos) who exist at the passage from time to eternity, the plane of metaphor and myth. The threshold figure cannot lose herself ‘together with the world’ in a movement from one plane to another. Our story opens with SFW alone in the post-apocalyptic present tense. Although she herself is stuck (without exit) in the abandoned physical/fictional world of the early 21st century Arabian Gulf, for us she is a portal. SFW is “of two worlds at once: temporal in the human appeal of their (her) pictured denotations, while by connotation opening to eternity.” Just as Sun Ra (a mythical threshold figure in his own right) suggested transporting all black people on earth to his paradisiacal planet of resonant sound bubbles and champagne flute flowers via teleportation and music, SFW’s people were vaulted onto an alternate plane of existence via their fetishized, mobilized, omnipresent jawals. The difference is that SFW missed her own escape while Ra’s spaceship escaped earth’s demise.
Although Joseph Campbell’s arguments are tainted by the cheapening presence of ‘new age’ philosophy, SFW’s lineage is cheap and therefore perfectly compatible with such ‘low-brow’ reference. Her pedigree is more pulp than Pulitzer, more gutter than glamour, and she is certainly more comfortable with the afro-futurism of spangle-hatted new gods in Sun Ra’s Space is the Place than with the cerebral sci-fi parlor games of Tarkovsky’s sleek Solaris.
Trinh T. Minh-Ha describes the challenge/role of the threshold figure/bi-cultural spectator as being a duty which consists of “modifying frontiers to produce a situated, shifting and contingent difference in which the only constant is the emphasis on the irresistible to-and-fro movement across (sexual and political) boundaries: margins and centers.” And we might infer: the real and unreal.
We first meet our narrator trudging (rhythmlessly) along receding sand banks, circling empty skyscraping follies and tracking barren roads of the post-Gulf imaginary, she exists as pure-gaze wrapped in Muslim gauze. From her lonely perch at the edge of our perception/existence she sifts (Sisyphus-style) through an interminable pile of jawals, checking each cracked and flickering LCD screen for clues to where everybody went. She thinks she must be a kafir (infidel) to have her dunya (“inner reality” as described by Sheik As-Sufi) engulf her as the rest of the Gulf moved to the akhira (the next world). She listens to MP3s of Sheik As-Sufi as he barks that “We are continually passing out of this world and into the next.” That “this world is a constant diminishment and the next a drawing-near .” She feels impoverished having filled her inner reality with invention and thought rather than the beautiful landscape of akhira.
When the end of cultures occurred and left her trapped here at the apex, her leisure time engulfed her like an empty terrain and her quest was rendered futile by the sheer number of miniature screens left to scrutinize.
You see, SFW has been left ahead. She knows she missed a metaphysical leap that is beyond her, a rapture-like occurrence that left her stuck between the past and the future, the real or unreal.
Without hyper-drive to jump the light or sound or history barrier into the after-space the Gulf disappeared into, SFW spends a lonely forever.
The strangest thing is that there was no prelude to the disappearance. When it happened she was sitting alone, outside on her roof reading this from The Islamic Book of the Dead:
“The question and the answer are the vibrating stir or secret at the heart of the human creature. It is this primal question that re-echoes in the human heart causing the tremendous restlessness on which all culture, human creativity and inner quest are based. From this initial encounter the human self journeys a sevenfold journey –from before endless time to post-endless-time. The next stage is in the world of arwah (plural of soul) – from there we pass to the realm of the womb. Then comes the middle of the journey – life on earth, solid, actual, time-bound, a locus for action and intention, a meaning projected into an image. Then comes death which brings the next phase, the Barzakh, the interspace between the two great realms. “
After finishing her book, SFW descended the dust-covered stairwell into the ladies living room to find the mothers and maids and daughters and babies all disappeared. The TV was left on ‘Iqra’ and the floor was littered with Nokias, Samsungs and Sony-Erikksons all of them running out of battery and letting out plaintive ‘bleep’s before dying with down-tone ‘blu-urk’s.
SFW counted the times she blinked, standing in the middle of the empty room. Had she lost touch with reality? She had certainly lost touch with her people. The vanished women were her only connection with the world outside of the static mode of her books. While they interacted constantly with one another at the mosque, on the phone and over the internet, SFW had retreated to the roof to read al-Ghazali. She took up exile at comfortable distance: pathetic, dramatic and overly critical from her perch on the roof of her familial home. But as the last phone died and the television screen eventually zapped to white noise she realized the fact that she was left ahead in an elsewhere.
The elsewhere SFW found herself in was a non-pure elsewhere: the Barzakh (limbo-like place). A threshold figure in a no-escape-elsewhere, an elsewhere-within-here that entered in at the same time as it broke the circle of omnispectatorship she had been privy to but not a part of. SFW had been a non-owning member of an all-owning society. This was why she was alone in a room/reality full of dead mobile phones without a marked exit or a trace of her loved ones. Reeling from the implications of the dimensional trap she found herself in, SFW stalked back up to her roof and held a vigil for what seems like years though she had no way of telling how or where time was passing. The sun never seemed to set and the moon never really rose and she was never hungry or tired at all. It was on a windless day just like the countless others that she left the abandoned abode and her library of books to save herself from the fatal blows of boredom and to find a jawal that wasn’t dead.
Had all this happened because their intellects were confined to the study of shapes of things and their imaginative forms? Was it because her consideration was not extended like her people, past the spirit but to the realities of things? Could it be possible that she did not understand the parallelism between the visible world and the invisible?
In the unknown time since she had been left ahead, thought had eroded her body, her lips had cracked and the corners of her mouth had laddered like nylon and flaked away. Her hands had scaled and then shed before her fingertips ceased to feel anything under their modesty-gloves. She had become weightless (albeit lifeless), wrapped in the black of her abaya (cloak) and shala (headcovering) edge of the latter tufted down under her chin and pulled over the bridge of what had once been her nose. All that remained were two large, brown eyes, permanently rimmed in kohl, specs of black clumped to the spider-leg lashes. She brought nothing with her but a thin gold necklace, engraved with Aya’t al-Korsi (The Verse of the Throne) and a hand-powered phone charger. Thus equipped, she clamored over the locked gates of her empty home and headed in the direction of the ghost-city and towards her the place where the sea met the land in the long, paved border of the korniche.
SFW’s gaze was remarkably steady as she approached the waterfront from under the blue-green shadows of the city’s great towers. Her abaya had been snagged to shreds as her coast-bound trajectory had been held up and sometimes halted by the sun-bleached carcasses of abandoned jawals that lay melting along the route. They glinted as they welded to the ground in the heat along with the gold tooth-fillings and diamond cufflinks of their vanished owners. The dust of the city road glittered with the priceless detritus of those who had ascended. But SFW paid no attention to the casings of the macabre jewels. Had she been a greedier creature, one of those who Al-Ghazali revered as “wading through the waves to gain red brimstone, diving into the depths and drawing out red corundum, shining pearls and green chrysolite, traveling along the coasts to gather grey ambergris and fresh blooming aloe-wood” she would have never made it to the coast. Instead she only collected what was left of the glimmering information she could retrieve from off the dead screens and batteries of the jawals, leaving the handsets to crack and warp in the road giving off a plasticine musk that held no value to her at all.
Here at last she stood on the korniche. It had once been a manicured stretch of marble pavement and date palms where the youth of the city and the suburbs came to cruise the well-lit street of downtown and trawl the wireless circuits of the city’s PANs. The cyber-traffic lived out in real-traffic on the korniche had formed an invisible landmass of information and communication upon which the looming skyscrapers and looming change had been built. . The city itself had begun to sink as history and memory receded into the shark-infested waters as loose and fast as quicksand. The flowerbeds along the boardwalk buckled and left the roots of parched and dying plants exposed to SFW’s tread. The marble tiles lurched and crumbled as she approached. The spectacular 21st century Gulf society had thawed too quickly while other ‘frozen societies’ of Debord’s east “slowed down their historical activity to the limit and maintain a constant equilibrium with their internal oppositions.” The extremity of the Arabian Gulf had only been visible to the external observer until now, having returned from historical time on her roof, with her book, SFW really saw the absurdity and impossibility of the already resolved situation.
Shaky, SFW picked up a crusty Nokia N95 from the curb and ground the little gears of her manual charger as she looked out to the manmade islands stretching four kilometers off the coast. Africa, Australia, Asia and the Americas were all reduced to gravel pits, facsimiles of the globe and the sky barely above sea level, their engineers had collapsed the entire world into a miniature and a joke. As the cloyingly familiar Nokia tune chimed on, SFW glanced down at the liquid crystal display as it wound itself up to full brightness on a blank screen. Then, in her first bout of existential vertigo, her abaya and shala blew away. Without even a single bar of network on the screen, she understood that the jawal was the portal. She turned to the memory-siphoning sea and understood that the World Archipelago was a Bermuda triangle. She ran the phone over her chest and belly and understood that she was naked and floodlit on the stage of history, the catastrophe behind her, free of any Last Judgment.
“It’s after the end of the world, don’t you know that yet?”
How a Tiny Object Broke Down Barriers of Language and Space
“This is the Fire and this is the Garden. Beyond this realm is the Furthest limit. That is the point after which form does not exist, all awareness is absorbed. To cross it is to be annihilated forever. At this border is the last of what may be spoken about. Beyond it is silence. The great sukun. Everything perishes except the Face of Allah.” – The Islamic Book of the Dead
First we have to understand that the jawal is an ecstatic object always on the brink of dying, “a dead object in spectacular contemplation” . It exists, “beyond and above exchange and use, above and beyond equivalence” and has (in the Gulf) become the exclusive portal through which to connect to and escape from other people. The jawal also serves as an intimately public stage where anonymity is often confused with familiarity, where the mirror is mistaken for the screen.
An example: jealous lovers drag their broken hearts over the veiled or pixilated subjects of raunchy videos, convincing themselves that the unrecognizable but symbolically potent body on the screen is their own paramour. Tears are shed and wiped away with plastic, longing caresses are issued over a jelly-keypad, kisses are replaced with a lip-smacking sound: communication is flattened as we experience and enact familiar emotions and exchanges in the still unfamiliar and flat dimension of the P.A.N.
As the seemingly omnipotent Baudrillard foresaw on the subject, “Today the scene and the mirror have given way to a screen and a network. There is no longer any transcendence or depth, but only the immanent surface of operations unfolding, the smooth and functional surface of communication.”
At some point on this ‘functional surface of communication’ it ceases to matter whether or not the drunk man or exposed woman on the screen is real. Their flesh has disintegrated into futile bodies, largely disused and abandoned for their Bluetooth avatars. Like the empty and never-to-be-used buildings of SFW’s city, the physical body has been left unused and condemned. Again Baudrillard illustrates, “This is our problem, insofar as this electronic encephalization, this miniaturization of circuits and of energy, this transistorization of the environment condemned to futility, to obsolescence and almost to obscenity, all that which once constituted the stage of our lives. We know that the simple presence of television transforms our habitat into a kind of archaic closed-off cell, into a vestige of human relations whose survival is highly questionable.”
This ‘vestige of human relations’ and the vestige of ourselves which exist exclusively on the screen is as ecstatic as the object (jawal) which facilitates its existence. This tiny object effortlessly gave life to a spontaneous collective inner space and it can just as easily kill that connection when its battery dies.
In many ways the jawal is a replacement of television in the Gulf which in turn had been the much villianized replacement of human interaction around the world. It serves both as portal and as prison. It has become executioner of our physical, commiting a sort of infanticide as entire relationships are increasingly lived on screen, numbing our fingers and limbs into obscelecence while allowing our disjointed minds to roam and gaze in the pastures of other users within Bluetooth range.
Jawals are fetishised in households and handbag, ‘blinged’ out with jewels and tassels by both men and women. It approaches deity like status when used to regulate prayer times and decorated with elaborate Quranic script. They are beautiful material artifacts with total power over the lives of their hosts. The jawal has planned a massive interlocking conspiracy from its miniaturized scale, indoctrinating everyone into its new form and language, escorting us onto its inviting network and locking the exit behind us.
Back in 2003, before Bluetooth was as widely used for multimedia transmission and before mobiles had monitors that could support thousands of colors, Suzy Small mused on the changes in language occurring due to the abbreviated lingo of text: “This has been the first new form of mass communication for many years that has used a predominantly textual form, and it has affected the way people who use the medium relate to written language, and how they produce it.” The mobile phone video has lead to a similar abbreviated exchange but in visual non-sequiters, effectively collapsing interaction into bursts and nuggets of information in which the rationale for the outburst is inferred rather than explained. “Here, there is almost never any question of challenging rational communication with its normalized filmic odes and prevailing objectivist, deterministic-scientific discourse; only a relentless unfolding of pros and cons, and of ‘facts’ delivered with a sense of urgency, which present themselves as liberal but imperative; neutral and value-free; objective or universal.”
In other words, txt was a new language, jawal videos are a vernacular and the next stage leads easily and inevitably to a new state of living: the place where everyone in the Gulf disappeared to, the akhira.
How Obscenity, Sexuality and Violence Infiltrate the Private Worlds of the Unwilling
“With regard to the strongest musk let me point out that in the visible world it means a thing which man carries and from which rises up a fragrant smell that makes it so much known and apparent that even if he wants to hide it, it does not become hidden but spreads.” – Al-Ghazali
From the discussion of the jawal as obscene object (obscene commodity Mr. Marx) it is an easy jump to old-school Islamic denouncement of cross-gender Bluetooth and PAN use interaction as obscene. The link between Marx’s disgust and Mother’s disapproval is that “It is no longer the obscenity of the hidden, the repressed, the obscure, but that of the visible, the all-too-visible, the more-visible-than-visible; it is the obscenity of that which no longer contains a secret and is entirely soluble in information and communication.”
Gulfi mothers warn their daughters against exposing themselves to criticism and nothing is more intrusive or explosive than a full-facial photo sent to a man met via Bluetooth in the mall or an illicit txt session in which you divulge your family name. A wide bright smile on a veiled woman is visible even through her niqab and it spreads like an open invitation like the ‘strongest musk’ Al-Ghazali speaks of. It breeds infamy and taints honor. As in Rajaa El Sanea’s bestselling novel Girls of Riyadh, a rule-weary narrator explains: “At weddings you barely walk, you barely talk, you barely smile, you barely dance, be mature, be wise . . . measure carefully.” So the intrinsically personal and intimate relationship had with the jawal is already a liability to the dignity and draw of eligible (and taken) women.
But not only is the object of the jawal a liability, the environment has morphed around it and the stakes are therefore much higher. Now spectacle and illusion, which had once been confined to the stage have “become immediately transparent, visible, and exposed in the raw and inexorable light of information and communication” as the stage has folded out on itself and made every screen a theater and every unsuspecting actor a star. According to our Baudrillard, this is where obscenity begins: the orgiastic state of saturation and transparency and the dissolvement of public and private boundaries. The theater is destroyed, the play no longer false:
“The public stage, the public place have been replaced by a gigantic circulation, ventilation, and ephemeral connecting space. The private space undergoes the same fate. Its disappearance parallels the diminishing of the public space. Both have ceased to be either spectacle or secret. The distinction between an interior and an exterior, which was just what characterized the domestic stage of objects and that of a symbolic space of the object has been blurred in a double obscenity. The most intimate operation of your life becomes the potential grazing ground of the media. The entire universe also unfolds unnecessarily on your home screen. This is a microscopic pornography, pornographic because it is forced, exaggerated, just like the close-up of sexual acts in a porno film All this destroys the stage, once preserved through a minimal distance and which was based on a secret ritual known only to its actors.”
In other words private universes of individuals and families and tribes are now exposed and exiled onto the network of jawals in the bleeping, Bluetoothed bastard child of reality television. The ties that once bound (i.e. family, love) and provided protection are now the outlets for public disgrace as brothers expose sisters and lovers exact revenge by informing parents of chat-indiscretions. Although everyone is more tightly (if invisibly) connected, there is also a new patina of alienation and mistrust glazing on all relationships, forcing physical contact to turn to the very web of otherness which is causing the problem.
As a result the Gulf is miserable, unemployed, oppressed and fat. This may sound like a broad generalization but anything or one going through shock (as discussed the region has just spun out of a wormhole in time) is bound to experience some kind of existential depression. The most nourishing light for these disgruntled and disenfranchised corpses is to consume and create spectacle. But the spectacle they provide in their lurid affairs and taboo exposures are of ‘cold obscenity’ in which the shock of the body or indiscretion are only “desperate attempts to emphasize the existence of something.”
A famous 2006 rape victim known as the ‘Qatif Girl’ is a prime example of this mixture of aggression, obscene spectacle and technological (via jawal) incision into law and mores in Saudi Arabia. The female victim of the rape told Emirates based Al-Arabiya News Channel “I knew him when I was ten, but I only knew him through telephone, his voice was all I knew about him. He then threatened to tell my family about it if I didn’t give him a picture of myself.” This and several other jawal related rape cases in the Gulf have sprung up in recent years and have been used to justify arguments hinging on the immoral use of the technology to engage in affairs or even harmless flirtation. The Qatif girl and several other women who have been victim to an epidemic of rapes were videotaped by assailants. In another case that surfaced in the months following Qatif, a jawal video of five Bengali men raping a Saudi woman was released. These files were then circulated as currency between users craving darker spectacle and higher stakes. The individuals who collect these rape videos “no longer partake of the drama of alienation but are in the ecstasy of communication. And this ecstasy is obscene. Obscene is that which eliminates the gaze, the image and every representation.” The obscenity committed by the consumers of these videos has nothing to do with sex (or in the case of rape, power) and everything to do with the “pornography of circuits and networks of functions and objects in their availability and regulation.” When the authorities eventually catch wind they either turn away or use the incident to stage a morality play in the collapsed theater of public spectacle, facebook groups pop up like “The national campaign for the struggle against Bengalis” , hate crime and more rapes ensue, all available on the PAN. Her exposure, her fall from grace is always linked by the judge to the obscenity of her object. Which is why the victim of the Qatif rape case received a sentence of ninety lashes and six months in prison.
And although the rape cases sited invariably involve female bodies betrayed by their image on screen, the next chapter will explore the deception of gender in jawal culture and the transgressions across the “line in the sand drawn across an indifferently figured body…a body subject to rape.“
How Expression and Oppression of Gender Creates Threshold Figures on the Cusp of Reality
“The line in the sand, as the sign of the figural deconstruction of its literal meaning, promises divisibility as well as infinite granules of pathless randomness and essential aberration which can never be simply appropriated to the sure movement of a path whether or not it leads ‘nowhere’. The desert commits itself to the abolition of path.” – Avital Ronnel
Contrary to general belief, the niqab (face veil) was not born of the Prophet Mohamed’s jealous mandate to conceal and thereby trap the beauty of his wives. Covering the face had been in practice long before the angel Gibril snuck up on Mohamed in his mountain cave, squeezing his chest and commanding him to “Read”. The niqab or berga’a (as known by Bedouin) is a protective mask, but not from the lustful male gaze, from corrosive desert wind. Both men and women cover their faces in the desert and the Prophet instructed that men should cover their heads just as women do and rim their eyes with kohl just as the ladies do. Under a niqab it is impossible to distinguish a man’s black-rimmed eyes from a woman’s. The veil is the perfect disguise. And cross-dressing has comprised part of a long history of the transgender role in the hyper sex-segregated Gulf. With the identity-obliterating landscape of the veil, gender becomes little more than the ‘line-in-the-sand’ amidst rippling dunes of cloth. The cross-dresser or drag queen is not a spectacle or marginalized character but another threshold figure between two worlds/genders which exist without a connecting bridge.
So it seems quite natural that video of farkhs (boys in the Greek student-teacher tradition) and other ambiguously sexed individuals would become ubiquitous on the circuits of Bluetooth. Highly sexualized but in a surprisingly accepting manner, “obliterating the boundaries between self and world by crushing the self besieged by the presence-absence of the world and it obliterates the boundaries between true and false by driving all lived truth below the real presence of fraud ensured by the organization of appearance. One who passively accepts his alien daily fate is thus pushed toward a madness that reacts in an illusory way to this fate by resorting to magical techniques. The acceptance and consumption of commodities are at the heart of this pseudo-response to a communication without response. The need to imitate which is felt by the consumer is precisely the infantile need conditioned by all the aspects of his fundamental dispossession.”
Dispossession and imitation are both key in the narrative of transArabia because they are motives for self-analysis and fantasy which give direct rise to the refreshing creativity apparent in the videos (prank or sincere) of Gulfis in drag. J.G. Ballard discussed the writer of fantasy as having to impart the fantastic dream world of the page as external equivalents of his own inner world. The creators of these jawal videos, monologues, dances and dares made in the image of self-fashioned gender-fantasies are “symbols taking their impetus from the most formative and confused periods of our lives they are often time sculptures of terrifying ambiguity.”
Ballard’s oft-revisited metaphor of sound and time sculpture seems particularly appropriate in these most staged and accidentally narrative of jawal videos.
In the gulf every man and every woman is on the margin of existence, at the brink where SFW left us, but it is the personas like farkhs who manage to straddle and transcend that boundary by difference and to create media which is truly transgressive and interesting.
The inverted public role of the transgendered individual in the Gulf is a more solid and ‘inscribed’ role than often-even gender ‘norms’ are concerned. It is not uncommon for men and women to have numerous same-sex relationships before any contact with the opposite sex ever occurs. The individual’s connection to the mirror image and subsequent tinting and warping of that mirror is simply suppressing the pole of sameness which magnetizes all interaction on the erotically charged planes of the segregated region. The separation of sexes causes an only partial consideration of the pseudo/haptic world this media circulates within. “Vision as knowledge is the ideology operating around a notion of interiority (secret) which postulates the existence of a central, unshakable certitude.” A pole if you will. “The inner confirmation (with its inner ear, inner eye, inner revelation, inner pursuit and external materialization, external action, external result) validates itself through concepts of originality, substantiality, essentiality, as well as through its opposites: common sense, mass communication’s clarity, visibly measurable outcome, immediate gratification. Things appear to mean something by themselves: it’s a Vision of the Artist. It’s a Political work.” There is a new autonomy of the image instead of enslavement by the unperceived, the veiled, the lie.
And yet even though jawal culture has largely broken down the binary barriers of truth and lies and gender that pushed the Gulf towards widespread and normalized homosexual activity in the first place, it has also given rise to the cementing and fleshing of the image of the trans-threshold figure, giving him/her more cultural resonance and autonomy and than he/she held previously. Now the beautiful man smoking a cigarette on the cell phone screen has attained a sort of ‘transparency, sexual liberation, participation, free expression…and it is unbearable.’ Suddenly, Baudrillard’s speculative discussion of the future of obscenity grafts itself onto the young bodies of the farkhs. “If all this were true we would really be living in obscenity, in the naked truth, in the insane pretension of all things to express their truth. Fortunately the destiny of things protects us for at their culmination, as they are about to verify their existence, they always undo themselves and thereby plunge back into the secret.” And the brief stars of these videos express their truths only for a minute or two before disappearing into obscurity, veiled again, shutting the hotel room door and deleting itself from the hard drive.
The farkhs who once held the power to shock and now absorbed their own electricity, reconciling themselves with their own essence and existence, “They have mocked and surpassed their own definition.” Through their creative, self-reflexive questioning, irony, and playful tone, these videos probe another reality before their creators and subjects cease to have meaning through their external becoming-image. This is the tragedy of the farkh in any culture; they are inevitably labeled as obscenity, a naturalized prejudice. Or as Baudrillard visits it, “an indifference, distance, skepticism and unconditional apathy. Through the world’s becoming-image, it anaesthetizes the surge of adrenalin which induces total disillusionment…And this represents an absolute advance in the consciousness – or the cynical unconscious – of our age.’
No longer needing approval from the dominant ideology or the coercive power of Islamic moralizing, jawal videos have by way of obscuring and anonymizing the subjects in many ways put an end to the need for subversion in the tightly knit web of Gulf society. The omnispectatorship of all videos is a given, a reduction, a preoccupation of everyone. Just as obscenity has become transparent, fetishization has “become minimal and molecular; it is no longer the fetishism of a form, but of a mere formula – subliminal, subhuman. The boundaries of the human and the inhuman are indeed blurring, yet they are doing so in a movement not towards the superhuman but towards the subhuman, towards a disappearance of the very symbolic characteristics of the species. “
Like SFW, Michael Jackson (who spent a few years residing in Bahrain) and the countless other Gulfis creating systems of personal meaning via video in order to self-identify is “unfeasible to imagine because we are in a constant state of flux, a seamless ocean of meaning, a state traditionally considered pathological and diagnosed schizoid: a “smooth space,” which is in Deleuze and Guattari’s principle, “infinite, open, and unlimited in every direction; having neither top nor bottom nor centre”. The self/maker/contributor/spectator that is both creating and residing in this environment has moved beyond the familiar and gone on to the post. Transcended to the akhira, SFW is on the cusp of. It is not difficult to realize that the ‘self’ native to this environment cannot be the human self we are familiar with. This ‘post-human’ is in a constant state of de/reconstruction and the threshold figures apparent in the veiled man or gutra (the checkered red thing) sporting woman are the gestating post-human.
“While such conception of a post human to come may appear fantastic, the undeniable fact is that the postmodern condition is constantly expanding its reach, erasing boundaries, transforming nations, and dissolving temporal horizons. “Here as elsewhere, in our ordinary everyday life we are passing from the extensive time of history to the intensive time of an instantaneity without history made possible by the technologies of the hour”
Technologies that have transported the gulf out of this world and onto the next, creative/destructive inanimate objects, portals, black holes, Bermuda triangles. Such is the pull and draw of the object, the jawal, the new outlets it offers us through displacement of the mind from the body. The jawal utilizes, “strategies of displacement to defy the world of compartmentalization and the systems of dependence it engenders, while filling the shifting space of creation with a passion named wonder.” A wonder all but lost on a generation of gamers and jawal users steeped in Nintendo-lore and viral video.