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Art's Powerful Message for the Merchants of Death

The video installation by the Palestinian graphic artist Sharif Waked, sums up the sentiments of many Muslims who are repulsed by the "death industry" propagated by cowardly terrorists.
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This spring the UAE is hosting arguably the most prestigious art event in the Middle East. The 9th Sharjah Art Biennial features scores of artists from around the world as well as theatrical performances and a celebration of Jerusalem as the Unesco Arab Capital of Culture. But what does that have to do with what is usually a socio-political column? Quite a lot, in fact.

Over the past few weeks that prophet of doom Ayman al Zawahiri, his schizophrenic personality still intact, has returned like a sequel to a B-rated horror flick to urge Arabs to fight against the West: apparently there's not enough suicide going on for his liking (I have always thought how paradoxical it is that a doctor who has taken an oath to save human lives should choose instead to spread death and destruction).

On the other hand, even before 9/11 there were many instances of people with morals in the Arab media prepared to fight this death-cult mentality. For example, Abdul Rahman al Rashed has written countless articles as a columnist in the pan-Arab daily Asharq Al Awsat, and in 2006, in his capacity as general manager of the Dubai-based Al Arabiya news channel, he launched a programme called The Death Industry to tackle global terrorism. The show was so effective that its presenter, Rima Salha, received numerous death threats from insecure terrorists and their sympathisers.

Another unexpected medium to fight terror has recently emerged in the form of art. As I walked into the Sharjah Biennial I prepared myself for the usual abstract expressions: the twisted pipes were there, the cotton and aluminium balls, the Postmodern drawings. However, I hadn't prepared myself for what I saw next.

Tucked away in one of the chambers of what used to be known as Sarah Hausmann House (after the American Christian missionary who helped to deliver my four elder siblings and a not so small number of other babies in Sharjah and the neighbouring emirates) was an intriguing installation.

Amid the narrow corridors of the 100-year-old building, now called Serkal House, visitors encounter a dark curtain meant to keep the lights out of a room that overlooks the central courtyard. A video is playing. It is of a bearded man sitting behind a table with a green flag hanging behind him featuring a white circle. The name of Allah can just about be read behind his head. On either sides of the white circle are two vertical automatic weapons. The man, dressed in black and green military apparel and wearing a matching beanie, appears to be in his late thirties and is reading religiously from a book. A machine gun is laid bare on the table separating us, the viewers, from the man. He is reading with passion, with sincerity, he clearly believes in the words he is uttering, it is a moment of life and death.

Suicide, militant, freedom fighter and terrorist all came to mind. However, upon closer inspection I realised that things aren't always what they seem. He wasn't reading a suicide note. In fact this "terrorist" wasn't a terrorist at all; on the contrary, he was reading stories from One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, in which Scheherazade saves her life and averts certain execution for her tribe by narrating one gripping tale after another to King Shahrayar. The caption outside the exhibit read that through an unending process of reading and narration the "living martyr" delays that horrifying moment. In short, this man simply didn't want to die.

To Be Continued, the latest video installation by the Palestinian graphic artist Sharif Waked, sums up the sentiments of many Muslims who are repulsed by the "death industry" propagated by cowardly terrorists who dress up desperate men (and now women and even children) in battle gear and send them to meet their maker, promising them that they will be vindicated in the afterlife. The last words of this man weren't words of death, but pleas for life and continuity.

Today, Arab writers and artists alike have started to do what politicians and religious leaders have failed to do for the past few years: expose the prophets of death and express Muslims' disgust with their brainwashing attempts. On the one hand, despair, poverty and blaming others for Arab shortcomings are easy recruiting tools for hate mongers who, like King Shahrayar, can't wait to get their hands on their next victim. But on the other hand are the "living martyrs", many of whom love their cause no less than suicidal militants but realise that they can do it much less justice dead than they can living.

This article first appeared in The National newspaper on April 26th 2009

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