Rebecca Swirsky: Writer

London-based short story writer and critic

The City Always Wins: a poetic, intimate debut set in Cairo during the Arab Spring

This review was first published in New Statesman

Literature can have the emotional edge, telling the truth in a way pure reporting cannot. Despite Egypt’s revolution having been well televised, Omar Robert Hamilton’s novel offers us a psychologically acute perspective on the uprising as it unfolded, positioning the reader alongside political dissidents – kids, barely – who, for a short while, made the impossible seem possible.

The author and political commentator (and Hamilton’s mother) Ahdaf Soueif wrote a diary of the revolt’s first 18 days entitled Cairo: My City, Our Revolution. Hamilton’s novel, written in a poetic, stream-of-consciousness style, divided by sub-headings like news bulletins, also reads with a diary’s intimacy.

Beginning on 9 October 2011, the novel is divided into three parts: “Tomorrow”, “Today” and “Yesterday”. Events are told through the actions of 20-something Khalil and Mariam, who meet while ducking into a stairwell, checking each other’s bodies for Tahrir Square bullets. American-born Khalil, a former law student, translator, journalist, fixer, copy editor, graphic novelist, English teacher, NGO worker and volunteer, believes “Cairo is jazz: all contrapuntal influences jostling for attention, occasionally brilliant solos standing high above the steady rhythm of the street.” Mariam, an activist with the bravado required to confront officers used to inspiring fear, is the chain-smoking daughter of two doctors who used to run the best cancer unit in the country.

Khalil and Mariam, alongside Rania, Rosa, Malik and Hafez, form part of Chaos Cairo, a collective of podcasters, video-makers and photographers. They are joined by a host of other volunteers. The Chaos office, a crumbling apartment paid for by crowdfunding, is a hub where, initially, information is relayed to domestic and foreign media with lightning speed, offering an intoxicating sense of empowerment.

A hacktivist-savvy generation, the young are taking back the streets with bloodied bodies and busy laptops alike. The whole world – including Khalil’s ex-girlfriend in America – is watching: “They can’t keep up with us, an army of Samsungs, Twitters, HTCs, emails, Facebook events, private groups, iPhones, phone calls, text messages all adjusting one another’s movements millions of times each second.”

The question of how to bear witness belongs to all massacres, and cataloguing injustice is a central theme of the book, weaving from the streets of Tahrir to Gaza to Michael Brown’s prone body in Ferguson, Missouri. Ultimately, the need to wage a media war leaches poison into Khalil and Mariam’s psychic bloodstream, as potent as any gas. While the lines of communication to Athens and America dry up as the world’s attention shifts, the tremors, lack of sleep, and teeth grinding from visiting field clinics, pharmacies, doctors, donors and morgues remain. For Mariam, the odour of the morgue drips off her hair like “cigarette smoke in the shower”.

Khalil and Mariam’s belief that they “could have done more” before the Muslim Brotherhood opened their negotiations with the army is devastating. Their thoughts and observations come in an onslaught, and line by line Hamilton has the power of a crack poet. His prose is sometimes a little too burdened by poetry, too didactic or fractured in tone, but the anger and pain throbbing from these pages is palpable.

The Brotherhood having been ousted, a fever for Abdel el-Sisi, then minister of defence, as a potential presidential candidate grips Cairo’s streets. Torture and death seem close, while coffee and cigarettes and courage last only so long. Khalil and Mariam’s voices blur into one another, their tone taking the form of a lament. Khalil believes that: “It was lost from the start, lost from the moment we didn’t take Maspero, lost with the Molotov held back from the second army truck, lost when the square emptied after Mubarak fell.” Reading George Orwell and Eric Hobsbawm, he wonders: “Are we all doomed to the certainties of the historical materialist? Or is that a deflection of responsibility?”

Egypt’s future currently looks bleak. President el-Sisi’s human rights record is proving worse than that of Mubarak. Egypt has seen 19 new prisons since the 2011 revolution, 16 since el-Sisi took office, with Egypt’s activists dubbed “generation jail”.

Hamilton’s connection with the Egyptian prison system is personal. Activism is in his blood; he comes from a family of dissidents. The book is dedicated to his incarcerated cousin Alaa Abd El Fattah – a blogger and lauded activist, who is mentioned by characters throughout the book.

Khalil reads the spray-painted words on a Cairo wall: “If you don’t let us dream, we won’t let you sleep.” This graffiti is an imaginative act, showing defiance of spirit, much like the book as a whole. Most essentially, this novel bears witness, recording injustice and aiming, as all good literature attempts, to tell the truth.

“The Common People” by Rebecca Swirsky appeared in the collection “Best British Short Stories 2015” (Salt)

The City Always Wins
Omar Robert Hamilton
Faber & Faber, 320pp, £14.99

Lee Lozano Hauser & Wirth, London

This review was first published in Frieze

The diminutive scale of the 27 paintings in ‘Lee Lozano c. 1962’ at Hauser & Wirth London may echo that of Indian miniatures, yet jewel-toned Radhas and Krishnas these are not. Lozano’s earthen palette presents phalli, garish mouths, rotting teeth, bulbous breasts and candle-wax faces. Their depiction is cartoonish, muscular, barely contained.

One jutting phallus extends beyond the canvas, nosing to the furthest tip of its rudimentary, homemade frame (all works Untitled, c.1962). Body parts are prone to slippage; breasts stand in for bulging eyes, a phallus for a nose. Eyes are mostly missing, blank, black, covered up or sombre smudges without definition. Elsewhere, Lozano’s thickly applied oil paint presents aeroplanes flying into or swallowed by orifices, traffic lights simultaneously flashing Stop and Go, and cardboard boxes being ruptured by their contents. A preoccupation with the permeability of bodies produces a kinetic, darkly sexy atmosphere of danger.

Lee Lozano, No title, ca. 1962, oil on wood, 8 x 7 cm. Courtesy: The Estate of Lee Lozano and Hauser & Wirth, Zürich, London and Los Angeles

Lee Lozano, Untitled, c.1962, oil on wood, 8 x 7 cm. Courtesy: The Estate of Lee Lozano and Hauser & Wirth, Zurich, London and Los Angeles


Representing Lozano’s first major body of work, yet only now debuting as a group, these paintings may surprise. No official exhibition history exists for the series, although some works may have been included in a show called ‘Contemporary Erotica’ held at the Van Bovenkamp Gallery in New York in 1964.

By the following year, Lozano had changed tack, beginning her series of huge ‘Tool Paintings’ (1963–64), which were exhibited in 1964 at Manhattan’s Green Gallery alongside work by artists including Donald Judd and Dan Flavin. Today a cult figure, Lozano is lauded for her later, immaculately minimalist ‘Wave Series’ (1967–70) and, most of all, for her conceptual ‘life-related actions’. (According to critic Roberta Smith in a 1999 New York Times article, the artist disliked the term ‘performance’.) These latter works included Decide to Boycott Women – in which she ignored women, from 1971 until her death in 1999, as a way to expose gender relations – as well as Dropout Piece (begun c.1970), which initiated Lozano’s permanent exit from the art world.

Lozano had a relationship with feminism that was, like much else in her life, complicated: she once told Rolf Ricke, her Cologne gallerist, that she believed creative energy was male energy. Phallic forms certainly visually dominate the paintings here, yet their force is often undercut by the presence of an aperture, orifice or cavity. A mid-19th-century Bowie hunting knife surging up from inside a pizza box, rupturing the flimsy material from within, is balanced by the force of a black space between the top and bottom of the box. Later, a pillar-box-red penis wilts between two clamp-like shapes, its flaccid form defenceless against their anthropomorphic gurning.

Lee Lozano, No title, ca. 1962, oil on board, 7 x 8 cm. Courtesy: The Estate of Lee Lozano and Hauser and Wirth, Zurich, London and Los Angeles

Lee Lozano, Untitled, c.1962, oil on board, 7 x 8 cm. Courtesy: The Estate of Lee Lozano and Hauser and Wirth, Zurich, London and Los Angeles


Hypersensitive to shapes, Lozano wrote in a 1968 notebook: ‘It’s not just surface roundness that turns me on, it’s the feeling of density, mass, weight.’ In ‘c.1962’, this spatial awareness can nonetheless contribute to an odd rhythmic grace. In another work, two grinning, eyeless, waxen heads enact a dance against a lapis sky. A cucumber proboscis-phallus from one head penetrates the mouth of its partner who arches pliantly towards it. Such patterns of complex gestures, dense space and sexually charged body parts are repeated throughout the series.

Included in the show is a 1963 image of Lozano shot by photographer and filmmaker Hollis Frampton, which shows the artist leaning on her desk in her New York studio. Her lips seem resigned, yet her stare is defiant. In this moment, she is a woman – an artist – in control.

That these early paintings should be viewed as resolved pieces in their own right, rather than stepping-stones to later minimalist or conceptual works, is clear. Dorothy Spears, in a 2011 New York Times article, noted that Dorothy Lichtenstein recognized Lozano’s psychosexual, political potency, commenting, ‘Lee was punk before punk.’ With this show, the timeline has changed. Lozano was ahead of herself – or we have caught up.

Main image: Lee Lozano, Untitled, c.1962, oil on canvas on wood, 6 x 16 cm. Courtesy: The Estate of Lee Lozano and Hauser and Wirth, Zurich, London and Los Angeles

Mohsin Hamid reviewed: why the word “Muslim” is persistently omitted from Exit West

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid is preoccupied with time and an anxiety about the future.

Mohsin Hamid’s fourth novel opens as it means to go on. The twentysomething Saeed invites Nadia, a fellow student at his evening class (in “corporate identity and product branding”), for coffee. Discovering that she doesn’t pray, he lowers his voice to question why she wears a flowing black robe. Nadia’s reply is simple. “So men don’t fuck with me.” Her response sets the tone for their ensuing relationship and presents in micro Exit West’s premise: that people are hybrid beings with contradictory identities subject to flux. Along with globalisation’s brutal consequences and the corresponding hyperbolic nationalism, this is prime territory for the celebrated transnational author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

Giving neither year nor country, Exit West opens on the cusp of two changes: the pair’s burgeoning relationship and the onset of a bloody, internecine war. The timorous Saeed, with a good education and a job at an advertising agency, lives amicably with his parents; Nadia’s family severed all ties when she took independent lodgings and employment at an insurance company. But their happiness – aided by joints and psychedelic mushrooms – is short-lived.

Militants begin taking over sections of the city; curfews and food rationing follow. Nadia buries money and gold in her potted lemon tree. The civil disintegration is terrifyingly swift. A neighbour’s blood seeps through Saeed’s ceiling, his throat slit because he had the wrong surname. Elsewhere, teenagers play football with a human head.

With visas impossible for the non-rich, rumours abound of extraordinary escape routes. Undetected by circling surveillance drones, ordinary doors are metamorphosing into “special doors”, offering immediate exit to other countries. Disbelieving yet desperate, Nadia and Saeed pay money to a door agent, taking their chances on a dentist’s door that previously led to a supply cabinet. They walk through, Nadia experiencing a “kind of extinguishing” and a “gasping struggle” to arrive in Greece on Mykonos. Soon, the island is swelling with migrants and the doors’ presence becomes official, springing open (and shutting) from Sydney to Tokyo, San Diego to Dubai. Using these portals, the couple undertake a perilous journey between Mykonos, London and Marin, a new city near San Francisco.

As the planet experiences a seismic shift, huge numbers flee cracking plains, tidal surges, bulging cities and war zones. The native backlash is dire. In London, a “Britain for Britain” campaign barely pulls back from a massacre of migrants. Against this fraught geopolitical backdrop, the co-ordinates of Nadia and Saeed’s relationship shift as they do. Living in the diaspora affects – and suits – them differently.

For Nadia, the flipside of globalisation is self-reinvention, including attraction to women. Saeed, nostalgic and praying three times a day, is increasingly drawn to people from his country of birth: “It seemed to Nadia that the further they moved from the city of their birth, through space and through time, the more he sought to strengthen his connection to it, tying ropes to the air of an era that for her was unambiguously gone.” Despite this, even as their ardour cools, they honour a loyalty to each other.

At the novel’s kernel lies a preoccupation with time and an anxiety about the future, perhaps best illustrated when technology is aligned with naturalism. A flock of helicopters “filled the sky like birds startled from a gunshot, or by the blow of an axe at the base of their tree”. When a drone crashes, its immobile, “iridescent body the size of a hummingbird”, Nadia and Saeed offer it that most human of farewells: a burial.

Hamid’s prose has the ability to glide deftly, meshing erudition with empathy. Yet as the novel progresses, sentences run to a page long and a past tense compounds the omniscient narrator’s ruminative, sermon-like cadence. The author’s last book, Discontent and Its Civilisations, was a work of non-fiction, collecting his foreign correspondent despatches on life, art and politics from London, Lahore and New York. Exit West reads very much as a natural extension of that book, yet fiction invariably suffers by becoming a siphon to polemic.

In a novel rife with ideas, the unsaid rings loudly: the word “Muslim” is persistently omitted from Exit West’s pages. Such absences require acts of co-creation between author and reader. And the presence of instant doorways reminds us, urgently, that the only thing that divides us is opportunity, not geography. To borrow a phrase from one of Hamid’s essays, “each individual human being is, after all, a minority of one”.


Homo Faber: A Rainbow Caravan

Installation view at Aichi Triennale 2016; OHMAKI Shinji, “Echoes Infinity: Moment and eternity”, 2016. Photo: Tetsuo Ito



Homo Faber: A rainbow caravan was the title of Japan’s third Aichi Triennale. The festival has grown since its inception in 2010, and is now spread across the cities of Nagoya, Okazaki and Toyohashi. Lasting seventy-four days from summer to autumn, this year’s edition was overseen by the photographer Chihiro Minato and featured 130 artists from thirty-eight countries. Its diverse mixture of contemporary art, performance, music, film and opera marks the Aichi Triennale out as a strong presence on Japan’s cultural map, as well as the international art festival circuit, but this year literalism sometimes obscured its artistic merits.

Many artists took the festival’s theme – travel – at face value. Birds featured on canvases, in video, in sound installations, cut by laser from a 7-metre-tall vase and, most memorably, as live specimens fluttering in a flat furnished solely with complex, geometric bird stands: this installation by the Brazilian artist Laura Lima, “Flight” (2008–2016), invited a reverse-dynamic in which visitors became clumsy, gravity-burdened guests in the bird’s terrain.

In other works the theme was further from the surface: Mitamura Midori’s installation “Art & Breakfast” consisted of miscellaneous domestic items such as lamps, balloons, mirrors, figures, small tables, string, dolls, birds and toy aeroplanes, and tapped into a Japanese practice of gathering small talismanic objects – or omamori – to make oneself feel safe. Also at the Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art was Ohmaki Shinji’s “Echos-Infinity” (2016) – a work that exists only in memory and on digital record now that the Triennale is over. It consisted of traditional Japanese painting powder stencilled on to 450 square metres of floor felt; its installation took fifteen people one month. Featuring peaches that are famous in the prefecture as a delicacy, and cranes encircling lime-green flowers with orange centres, the work had a lulling symmetry that echoed that of a Buddhist sand mandala. Initially, the work was protected from destructive smudging by visitors’ feet, but, as the Triennale progressed, people were allowed to walk over it with shoes in hand, blurring this carpet of jewel colours in which birds and flowers bloomed or touched beaks.

Overlapping with Aichi by a few weeks was the Okayama Art Summit, Japan’s newest international art show. It was launched under the directorship of the British conceptual artist Liam Gillick, and its inaugural edition presented thirty artists. The festival was significantly smaller than Aichi, but more cerebral in its curatorship. The theme was “Development” (or “Kaihatsu” in Japanese). As inspiration, Gillick gave participating artists a review by Fredric Jameson of David Wittenberg’s book Time Travel: The popular philosophy of narrative.

Among the artists resisting the idea of progress was Tatsuki Masaru, whose photographs of Japanese deer-hunting and fishing practices offered uneasy glimpses of lesser-known worlds. Masaru has an anthropologist’s interest in the relationship between humans, nature and animals. In “Is the Blood Still Red?” (2011), a deer’s death is carefully captured in close-up. The deer head takes up half of the print’s space; the rest is black. The scrutiny is shocking: hair filaments captured in precise detail, white ear tufts flecking to rust-red, vermilion drops beading a glossy, lifeless eye.

Ahmet Ögüt’s installation of bronze abstract-figurative sculptures “While Others Attack/Diğerleri Saldırırken” (2016), meanwhile, presented police dogs attacking protesters. Clothing covering the arms and legs of three bronzed figures is eerily taut, torn off by unseen forces. One figure, in a still of perpetual horror, is seen bending sharply to shake off the dog at his hip. Ögüt, who was born in Turkey and whose artistic themes include war, religion and social and rural customs, based his bronze installation series on photography archives from historical protests, including those in Cape Town, as well as Civil Rights Movement marches in Alabama. Ögüt’s use of bronze is significant: generally used for public monuments or aristocratic busts, it has official connotations; here, it is used to record violence carried out by the state.

The last Aichi Trienniale, in 2013, dealt with the effects of the Great East Japan Earthquake (March 11, 2011). Awakening – Where Are We Standing? – Earth, Memories and Resurrection took on a serious subject, but the artists’ output wasn’t all gloom. The architectural historian Fujimori Terunobu’s “Flying Mud Boat” (2010) was made from mud plaster and old sheaves of paper, suspended on tension cables. A comfortable space containing a stove and accessed by a ladder, “Flying Mud Boat” humorously combined the nostalgic with the never before seen.

From the last festival’s focal point of devastation, it felt right that this year the Triennale turned outwards. Its artists – many visiting Japan for the first time – hailed from a much larger number of countries. The aim was for visitors to experience the world through their collected art works. Conversely, encapsulating in miniature the theme of travel, a “Mobile Triennale” toured three cities and a town, delivering and presenting works to Ichinoyima, Anjo, Obu and Shitara. The hope was for cross-pollination to take place, as the art of the Aichi festival took root and helped to unearth provincial culture.

Rebecca Swirsky  is a writer and critic whose work has appeared in Salt’s Best British Short Stories 2015 and Ambit Magazine.


Ragged Lives Rephrased: How Serious Sweet upends our assumptions about love – and politics.

One of six UK-authored titles on this year’s Man Booker longlist, A L Kennedy’s eighth novel is a treatise on both the politics of love and the politics of politics. Its presence on the list is perhaps no surprise: although it was published in May, before anyone knew the outcome of the EU referendum, Serious Sweet – with shades of Nineteen Eighty-Four – is a satire on Whitehall. Timely, too, in a more literal sense, is the novel’s structural conceit of containing the narrative within a single day (flashbacks aside), which links its literary DNA with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and James Joyce’s Ulysses.

The action focuses on two central characters, Jon Sigurdsson and Meg Williams, who stumble haplessly across the capital towards each other, teetering between civ­ilities and catastrophe. (“In case of apocalypse, take tea,” Jon quips.) A generous reliance on inner monologue – a device that Kennedy employed more frugally in her award-winning 2007 novel, Day – dilutes the plot’s tension in favour of a glutinous psychological interiority.

Jon, a scholarship boy made good, is a 59-year-old, divorced civil servant with moral capital but bankrupt emotional reserves, whose favourite place to visit is Monkey World in Dorset. Meg, a newly sober, actually bankrupt former accountant, is 45 years old and working at a home for damaged animals. Both individuals are navigating perils. Meg is undergoing treatment for precancerous growths, an experience made doubly harrowing by her refusal of anaesthetic. Jon, having stayed too long in Whitehall, providing services that he no longer believes in, is spilling secrets: he is a whistleblower. A self-confessed reality-rephraser-turned-reality-leaker, he wonders, “What is a political party? A conspiracy theory with membership cards.” Later, he decides, “Politics is just an organised and expensive way of being furious.”

They enter each other’s orbit when Jon advertises his services as a writer who, for a small fee and under the pseudonym “Mr August”, will write letters of gentle comfort to female readers. Of his readership, it is Meg who understands that her letter writer needs the immaculate kindness that he posts out. The damage suffered by both characters allows them to see each other clearly – the refrain “to see and see and see” weaves throughout the book – but also intermittently impairs emotional clarity.

They are agonised by intimacy. The closer they become, the harder away they tug. If Jon is a man who can paper over the cracks (adroitly observing of his role as a civil servant, “If you feel that you can’t quite like some part of reality, I’ll step in and rephrase it for you”), Meg “had an interest in damages, you might say; damages and gaps. They could both be educational.” Words on the page – ­written, erased, reassembled – pull them closer. Meg muses: “I can have faith in words. I like words. I like them more and fucking more.”

Amid this angst are snapshots of altruistic London life as collected by Meg: a man plucks a spinning balloon from mid-air; two women help a distressed fellow passenger at Canada Water Tube station; a father spontaneously introduces a babe in arms to everyone at a café as “Nina”. “Every time I see something good, or kind, or silly, or worth collecting, I remember it,” Meg tells Jon. These observations, lucid and laser sharp, can read like compressed versions of Kennedy’s short stories, such as those in her 2014 collection, All the Rage.

Indeed, this is an author with a proven ability to see – truly see – and whose prose can fire like gunshots across the page. Some lines are to be treasured: “The parakeets were lively already and sleeking about, flaring to a halt and alighting, an alien green that never was here before, bouncing and head cocking in dull trees.” Echoing the fineness at the heart of the book, Meg says she locates “fissures in the world’s hardness, where I can find what’s right, sweet, harmless”. Kennedy delights in seeing the world in a grain of sand, but her best, most tickling gifts lie in upending our assumptions. Lights at Harrods are “white pimples”, letters are “napalm and velvet” and, memorably, the handshake of a minister is “like being handed a warm shit in a sock”.

Aiming for high scores is not without risk. Phrases such as “Jon feeling his own sweat creeping down the back of his neck like the feet of shamed insects” tread a fine line between superb and plain overcooked. Yet Kennedy’s problems lie mostly in sustaining any kind of tautness through the course of a long book – especially when the work is largely a two-hander with an emphasis on interiority. Sometimes things turn sodden. “You find yourself disgusting, because you always do,” Meg thinks, and Jon pronounces: “I am the spineless son of a spineless man.” Voices become diluted. Jon’s voice, specifically, transitions from florid to plain to poetic in the space of a single day.

United in love, undone by their frailties, Jon and Meg make poor page-fellows. Previous works have testified to Kennedy’s faith in love, but with these two characters oscillating between sadness, pessimism and nausea, even Meg gets irritated: “She really does understand being scared – it’s not like he’s so fucking special.”

Ian Rankin once said of London, “It’s a different city if you’ve got money in your pocket.” Kennedy admirably presents this case, lobbing Molotovs at political rottenness and hollow elitism. Yet it is reasonable to expect rewards in return for readers’ time. Bloated novels are a puzzling trend. Had Serious Sweet undergone judicious whittling, its benefits would have been ­seriously sweeter.

This review first appeared in the New Statesman

Jerusalem Season of Culture

Photo by Noam Chojnowski


It’s 3 a.m. in Jerusalem’s Hinnom Valley. In a modest building that is normally a music centre for Arabic and British children, I’m standing in a circle, holding hands with women I’ve never met, participating in a Sufi ceremony. Our circle contains two further concentric circles of men. At the centre, instead of a traditional Sufi sheikh, stands an imam. In unison, heads and bodies dip to the mantra of “Allah”. It’s a beguiling sound. The space, too, is beautiful. Muslin strips hang from the ceiling like opaque light shafts. Designed by Tal Erez, the artist who represented Israel at the 2012 Venice Biennale, the strips are inscribed with devotional language from the three Abrahamic faiths in Arabic, Hebrew and Western languages.

Four hours earlier, Dervishes and Dervisha had whirled, hands on hearts, aiming to build a connection to Allah. In an atmosphere as potent as perfume, sinuous music spun from Sufi instruments including the oud, drums, kamancheh, ney and daf. Like Kabbalah in Judaism, Sufism is Islam’s mystical element, though some Muslims consider it heretical. However, the imam chanting the mantras (whose name cannot be printed for safety reasons) came from Islam’s third holiest site, Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque. Equally astonishing was the presence of the other religious leaders: five imams from Nablus (a city in the West Bank), Copts, sheikhs, nuns, monks and Christian clerics and rabbis from varied denominations and genders, ranging from an Orthodox rabbi, dean of a West Bank yeshiva, to a female rabbi, Rabba Tamar Appelbaum – whose dream the evening, and week, stemmed from. Yet that evening, despite their differences, everyone present held hands and chanted “Allah”.

How, one wonders, does a multi-faith initiative occur in one of the world’s most hotly contested cities? Amen – A House of Prayer for All Believers was the result of eight months of meetings between religious leaders; for one week, all could say “Amen” together. Participating faiths took turns to lead the day’s prayers. The emphasis one evening was on absolution and forgiveness. When Coptic monks sang from John’s Gospel, the discovery was made, on the night, that the Coptic praying style bore striking similarities to Hebrew davening. This made sense given the presence of Hebrews in Ancient Egypt, presenting a fascinating example of dissemination, in which elements of cultures and religions become normalized into other cultures and religions until origins are forgotten or erased. The week was rounded off with worshippers invited to Muslim prayers on Friday, a Jewish Shabbat service on Saturday, and a Catholic Mass on Sunday. The hope is that seeds of unity and acceptance will germinate. None of the religious figures was alone; all have congregations behind them, all have been open about their involvement.

Amen was one strand of Jerusalem’s progressive Mekudeshet festival (“holy” in Hebrew), presented by the Jerusalem Season of Culture (JSOC) between September 4 and 26. Many of its events were free. Those attending Rustling in Jerusalem’s sliver of forest could roam until daybreak, experiencing an uncanny night-time audio experience, while Jerusalem Confessions, an evening of risqué immersive theatre, made the audience the drama’s focus. Seven Ways to Dissolve Boundaries offered seven four-hour journeys on which participants met, along the way, those deemed to be “boundary dissolvers”. These included Yiscah Smith, a father of six and ultra-Orthodox believer who underwent gender-realignment surgery from male to female; Chaya Gilboa, also previously ultra-Orthodox, now a leading voice for pluralism and women’s rights; and Sarah Weil, a lesbian who became an LGBT activist after sixteen-year-old Shira Banki was fatally stabbed by an ultra-Orthodox man at Jerusalem’s Gay Pride festival. Using the city’s light rail tram (controversial, for connecting North Jerusalem’s Pisgat Ze’ev settlement to the city centre), our group met with East Jerusalem’s volunteer cultural co-ordinator, Mahmoud Muna. At the Educational Bookshop, Mahmoud’s bookstore in the American Colony Hotel, where books include The Unmaking of Israel by Gershom Gorenberg, tiny biscuits were dipped into Arabic coffee as Mahmoud confronted his mostly Israeli or Jewish audience: “Israeli soldiers may be your friends or loved ones, but to us they are a symbol of the occupation, and a legitimate target”.

JSOC’s clear-eyed gaze, energized by an enduring love for its city (which in 2013 had 499,400 Jewish residents, 281,100 Muslim residents, 14,700 Christian residents, 200 Druze and 9,000 residents not classified by religion) is striking, given recent cultural crackdowns. In December 2015, the novel Borderlife, a love story focusing on an Israeli and a Palestinian, was banned from schools. In January this year, the Education Ministry’s cultural blacklist of the “politically undesirable” was exposed. In February, the Justice Ministry approved the Culture Minister Miri Regev’s “Cultural Loyalty Bill”. Condemned as McCarthyite by its critics, the Bill aims to halt funding for cultural activities that “contravene the principles of the state”.

JSOC’s Executive Director, Naomi Bloch Fortis, remains hopeful. “The official point of view has many shades. But yes, Miri is creating harm to our consciousness. People are getting scared, cowed. Jerusalem faces issues before any other places in Israel. With this festival we are focusing on what pulls us together rather than what separates us.” JSOC’s Artistic Director, Itay Mautner, added, “In Israel we rarely go out of our comfort zone. Culture has been held for so long in one party’s hand – rich, white, secular men who looked down on other cultures. Jerusalem is made up of so many different people who speak different languages. The potential is that there are all these parallel realities going on simultaneously. I’m not saying that’s realized – but it’s there”.

It is indeed a city of warring narratives. I left Israel as flyers were being handed out in Zion Square, the site of recent right-wing rallies, denouncing JSOC’s activities as the work of Christian missionaries – initiatives that include bringing trees and herbs temporarily into the square (the trees worked: karaoke, canoodling, dancing and eyebrow-plucking ensued). The group responsible for the flyers, Lehava, a small right-wing faction, is noisily opposed to Jewish assimilation.

In an essay published in 1966, the Jewish theologian, philosopher and rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “We are heirs to a long history of mutual contempt among religions and religious denominations, of religious coercion, strife and persecutions”. Amen’s positioning within a culture festival, both for the religious and the arts world, is deliberate and new; had the project been positioned within purely theological or political contexts, it would have had less breathing space.

Rabba Tamar told me: “Religion at its best and culture at its best speak to the same point about what reality should be. Being here is the result of regular meetings, learning about each other’s ways of praying. Not one religious leader said ‘no’. At the end, eight of us went into the desert and rehearsed under the stars, each in his corner praying until 2 a.m. Here, we don’t lose our identities, but stand strong in them together”. I’d been reminded of Fr Rafic’s words, spoken earlier that evening: “Forgiveness is a special power. Only a strong person can forgive”. I’d also thought of the thirteenth-century Islamic philosopher Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there”. Outside, in the cool summer air, observing a Mizrachi (Oriental) rabbi serenade a couple of delighted-looking Coptic monks on an oud, Rabba Tamar nodded. “We must go forward. We can’t go back.”

This article was first published in the TLS on 28th September


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