Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Fleeing The Desert: Creeks, Pirates and Hermaphrodites

This body of work is informed -- or dare I say, inspired! -- by two stories. One is geology, the other piracy, and they are brought together to propose an exercise in advanced worldbuilding.

Dubai Creek:

Biogeographers tend to examine the relationship between a living organism and the environmental conditions in which said organism lives and operates. In opposition to the 'hard' disciplines of paleontology and archeology (ew) -- which is the clinicalization and deadinization of organisms by transforming them into objects: fossils, carcasses, lab experiments -- biogeography is an in situ design that explores the interactions between organisms and their surrounding biotic environment, like climate and vegetation. Biogeographers, thus, are considered fieldworkers. Another difference between the two is how they 'arrive' at information: lab workers, expect their studies to give them similar results over and over again, meanwhile, field workers, expect diverging and unpredictable results from the field.

Biogeography, in scholarship, is generally reserved for the study of pre-human and non-human living beings, and preoccupied with evolutionary questions. It spends most of its time exploring the global distribution and organization of organisms: how did -- and how do -- things come to be the way they are?

Human geography, then, articulates a similar relationship. It swaps organisms for humans and explores their ‘field-working’: how do they physically and affectively occupy their surrounding environments? Today, the discipline's studies are very sophisticated, like, why and where does love, affinity, companionship find itself in a given terrain? Field sites range from the nuclear family in the suburb, to queer pockets in dense urban cities (Westphalian, usually), and ideological community formations such as Copenhagen’s Christiania. Others address the sensorial and mental field: how does a pharmacy, immigrant family, or rumor of a neighborhood serial killer factor into one’s spatial understanding.

These geographers also ask how and why do humans shape the field in the way that they do (the pragmatic answer is shelter and sustenance). Is war and colonization an expression for landscape architecture? The field, too, is questioned as a concept in itself: isn’t it a human invention anyway? Where does this boundary of clinical lab and chaotic environment lie? By and for whom? Nature, they tell us, exists, because it is a fantasy supported by industries like syntax, media and pedagogy, that work to sustain its wide-reaching consensus. They confer that nature is an instrument and so is our relation with it, as well as our presence inside of it. The fact that it even exists should be a great mystery to us.

I desire to explore these practices and manners in Dubai, or the phenomenon of Dubai, an interest of mine, one verging on neurological obsession, and its Creek, which has been dredged up to make Dubai Island. Dubai Creek, in its earlier state, is considered a geographic anomaly. This is ‘scientifically’ agreed on because the Creek is an inlet of water that circulates inside a landmass with no evident water reservoir that replenishes it. This understanding renders the Creek as an existential vacuum. How come?

The Pleistocene (or, more casually known as the most recent ice age) is suspected to have caused the Creek’s unique geological formation. Ice Ages usually mean that water bodies congeal and freeze to form ice sheets, ie the Polar regions, and in this process absorb global waters, leading to the evacuation (or more ‘scientifically’, mass evaporation) of waterways and the generation of drylands. Global warming then is a reversal of this process. For the Arabian Peninsula, this glacial event caused the narrowing of the Red Sea, the creation of the Empty Quarter -- the world's greatest salt plain, or Sabkha -- and drying of the area’s many waterways, which are imagined to be part of the divine moodboard of the Garden of Eden’s ecological fiction.

Dubai Creek, as a maritime inlet, therefore, is a remnant of this environmental history, revealing the hollowing of the Peninsula into a dry, arid region. This climatic change motivates Dubai’s contemporary vivacity. (Disclaimer: when I say climatic change I am not referring to contemporary propaganda of the Green movement a la Al Gore, but climate change in relation to the geologic time-scale, specifically the most recent glacial event, that dates back 110,000 to 11,000 years ago.)

I say this because the presence of water, ie the Creek, indicates prosperity, or at least the biogeographer, that I aspire to be, rationalizes it as so. Water-space generates human and organism movement and encourages them to stay and settle in specific places, over others -- akin to what you see today as waterfront real-estate development: marinas, harbors, ports, beaches.

Pirate Crews:

The Lower Gulf is a region that includes the Qatar Peninsula, the littoral Emirates of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah, Lingah, Musandam and Hormuz: a choked cluster of port towns adjacent, yet separated, by the Strait, to the Gulf of Oman, the Muscat Governorate, the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. This region carries an environmental spiritedness and situation that is not relatable to what is considered codes and progressions of the 'human civilization'. Or at least this is what I think.

What I mean by the ‘human civilization’ is, the ecological imprint, and lineage, of farming and irrigation technologies, domestication of animals, alliances with central and dominant rulers, human efforts at sedentarization, fossilization and monumentalization of architecture, harmonious and neighborly social interactions and forms of cohabitation that come into effect with the spreading of religious doctrines. Rather, the Lower Gulf is deviant, anarchic, and especially, flamboyant.

Up until the early 1900s, the Lower Gulf was a vibrant and aggressive terrain. It was made up of coastal Arab rulers, Omani Imams and Sultans, the Al Said Dynasty, who continue to rule over Oman, Wahabi governors, today’s elite ruling class of the Islamic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and Persian coastal authorities, purveyors of Musandam, Hormuz, and the islands of Abu Musa, Tunb Kabeer, Tunb Sagheer (an ongoing ownership dispute between UAE and Iran). These groups claimed for legitimacy and presence in the area. Most, if not all, their political activities were conducted on the waterways of what we geographically understand today as the Gulf region.

In this historiography, the Lower Gulf’s water terrain is best described as a technological zone where a variety of groups compete for personal and social aims. How? Through the combat skills of pirates: pillaging, racketeering, and plundering of vessels. In fact, I contend that it is through these activities that the Lower Gulf was socialized into an identifiable environment.

Prominent in the history of the Gulf is the ‘pirate coast’, a title it earned from the British imperial navy, because of local communities abilities to disrupt global maritime activities that facilitate the placeless transactions of capital. Pirates referred to a people with mastery and acclimatization to a terrain who directly opposed and threatened the dominant transactions of powerful and imperial groups. What set these groups apart from ruling authority is site-specificity, and their know-how of place, spatial understanding, and environmental embeddedness.

Historical figures such as the Rugragee's crew, or gang, and Sohail Atish created independent and unaffiliated maritime zones, to centralized powers, in the Lower Gulf during the 19th-20th centuries. These communities found their entire meaning in engineering attacks on vessels carrying goods to other places. Zafrah, as an example, an area close to Qatar's Khor Al Udayd -- note, another Creek -- became Atish’s temporary autonomous zone. After his repeated attacks on imperial vessels, no governing body -- really, the British Raj office -- was able to put him on trial for his plundering activities, since he was untethered to any ‘official’ jurisdiction. Eventually, many neighboring powers collaborated to patrol the areas Atish conducted his business in, yet none were able to curtail his activities, because they did not share the same environment.

Till today, the Gulf is shared by a variety of groups who are constantly and fluidly exchanging alliances: GCC vs. Qatar, as of late, and competing narratives of Arabian vs. Persian Gulf. What is consolidated today as the Gulf is a fragmented distribution of its hydro-power. These activities of pirateering, trickstering, profiteering, court-jesting, as well as haziness in affiliation and jurisdiction, I contend, is Gulf culture. In the local patois, Wasta suprastructures. Specially since these practices extend and inform the Gulf’s present, with people like the liberal technocrat, images and dreams of the tax-free haven, the building of its coasts as deregulated freezones, offshores, ports, and literary narratives that imagine it as a faceless and opulent non-place.

(Note: Some of the information in this section is adapted from Victoria Hightower's research Irregularities, Disturbances, and Piratical Undertakings: Mobility and Maritime Violence in the Lower Arab Gulf Emirates in the 19th Century)


(Is it not troubling to you when people ask you to casually speak about and summarize what you do. What impatient and cosmetic ears. How do you expect me to compress all the labor, thought, nuance, reflection, experience, and literature that has worked to do the work that I do.)


Maintenant, je m’enflamme de moi-meme

-- Jean-Paul Richter via Henry Miller’s Plexus

I have participated in various ‘thinking’ platforms, and their support of me, in form mostly, has worked to accelerate my disbelief in them, but also my own disquiet; something I hope to reveal -- actually, no, show -- to you here. Most of my work has been published, or facilitated, by the contemporary arts apparatus and the spaces it creates that are there to show -- and only to show -- loyalty to the Pavilion of Global Intellectual Thought. So, this blog, I guess, is an attempt at sobering up from all that.

I believed that capitalist logics and their regulation, organization and distribution of discourse shouldn’t be accounted for -- that heavily, at least -- in my own individual process of making, as the work, hopefully, is profound enough and able to speak autonomously and champion all the limitations that these vertical platforms impose. Some friends opted for over accelerating their production and association with these spaces, and legitimize this practice as a form of political autonomy. But WHERE does your theoretical principle emerge is a necessary, if not the only worthy, articulation.

When anxieties are expressed about interacting and engaging with these corporatized and homogenous structures, you are quickly silenced, and told of the benefits of implementing these ‘career moves’: sacrifices you make so that you are elevated to an eventual, utopic place where you become prestigious, fabolous, revered, and respected for your work. But there is no pinnacle, no Burj Khalifa, you are usually looking for these things in yourself most of the time, while others thieve from you, and make money, professions, industries to provide you with the illusion that you are those things. Always keep in mind, you are a blip and ordinary, and you don’t know anything. I am not sure who at the ‘height’ of their career, or with millions in their bank, or with great images of themselves, feels like they are on top of the world.

Many peers and practitioners interested in producing thought and intellect (and these are productions, cultivations, not latent gifts or talents bestowed on a specific group of people) are more than happy to surrender their thought to the Pavilion’s convention. Like myself. But there are some important ideas to express here regarding associations with legitimized spaces: ideas and people that are popular can only be treated with suspicion, not role modelled, envied, or idealized. Second, the fact that the Pavilion is visible to you already problematizes your implication with it or in it. You are seen, or more accurately, you are being watched. It is also disappointing that most of the content you do watch is not interesting, rather it is all too personal: explorations of selves, surgeries of vanities, and documentative attempts at healing personal traumas. People and their own individuality become the ‘work’, measured by how good they are at being business and socially savvy; shake-handy.

This space, I guess, is an attempt for lucidity, of what it is I want, or think, or believe: ability to confuse, disturb, disrupt, and extend out of my own subjectivity and personhood -- dramas really. To produce hazy affiliations...or none of them at all. Can I not be a person? Secondly, I know that knowledge does not appear through expected and formalized routes, or in the officiated logistical space, which means that perspective depends on the disregard to convention you chose to share your work and thought.

The blog is not an emancipatory space, neither in form nor as an imagination -- a bit dated, I’d say even -- it is an expression for thought without securing institutional status.

(Disclaimer: I make money by working as head of Sharjah Art Foundation’s Publications department, a Gulf-based non profit arts organization. Very troubling for my premise. This is me pretending to GET OUT.)


During my upbringing, pahlawan was a word used for someone who is acrobatic, not in the muscular sense, but in public presence: a ‘bent’ movement across time and space; someone who mutates. In Afghanistan, as an example, bodybuilders are called Pahalwans. In Malaysia and Indonesia, Pahlawan is a hero.

A powder box, meanwhile, in metaphor, is considered a place where people, girls usually, stash their secrets. It is also a weapon and repository in which secrets sustain or emerge.

The name of this blog, then, is informed by these terminologies, and places them together in lieu of cultures such as Bobby Marchan’s Powder Box Revue and the Jewel Box Revue (especially, the figure of Storme DeLarverie). These revues were cross-dressing shows of the 'hermaphroditic variety', and they experimented with sentiments I would like to explore here, not so much through bodily exhibitionism, but as concepts for expressing the extraterrestrial and irregular.

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