008.01 DIALA KHASAWNIH
INTERVIEW WITH DIALA KHASAWNIH BY SHURUQ HARB
Diala Khasawnih is a member of the artist collective that runs Makan art space in Amman. I came to know Diala through her writing and artworks, which often deal with taboos around gender and sexuality with poignant humor and lightness. In my interview with her we discussed her ongoing project ‘Diana’.
Shuruq: Your practice generally focuses on issues around gender, questioning societal expectations. For Meeting Points 3, a biannual regional art festival, artist Hanan Khalil and yourself collaboratively produced ‘Diana’ , a recreation of a DYNA truck which was then placed on a terrace overlooking Amman city. There is a real effort on your part to bring this subculture into the mainstream public. Viewers can sit in the truck and vicariously travel into this culture through a video of interviews and journeys that you compiled, and walk away with a souvenir DYNA postcard that you designed. As I understood, ‘Diana’ remains an ongoing project with different manifestations.
Could you first describe the DYNA truck culture and why it interested you?
Diala: The project started with my fascination and curiosity with DYNA trucks, which are used in Jordan for the transportation of a variety of goods like agricultural produce, sheep, furniture and even groups of people sometimes. Commonly they are referred to as ‘Diana’ which is a play on the actual brand name of the Toyota truck ‘DYNA’. They are usually parked in different locations in Amman, where one can request their services to move furniture or other heavy-duty goods.
Hanan Khalil, an artist and a good friend of mine, shared this curiosity. Together we presented the project at the Meeting Points 3 event. Our collaboration proposed to investigate the decoration process of the DYNA trucks from a gendered perspective in light of the fact that it is an industry operated exclusively by men. Initially we were surprised and intrigued by the time and effort a truck driver would invest into decorating his truck and the use of velvet shaped hearts, glittering fabrics and rich tussles as decorative materials. We were particularly interested in the decoration of the driver’s cabin which seemed to represent a personal chamber. This basic act of embellishing a vehicle, a practical piece of equipment that is publicly visible, is not common in Jordan. Jordan is a more or less monotonous landscape.
Our research led us to realize that the DYNA truck business in Amman is run by different families. So the car park positioned on the 6th Circle neighborhood belongs to one family, and the one near the intersection of Mecca St. and Gardens St. belongs to another. To our surprise we found that there is a whole industry behind the DYNA decorations which involved painters, upholsters, carpenters, ironsmiths, and merchants who sell these different accessories. It is an industry that sets new fashion trends every year. So for example the DYNAs that had hand painted landscapes and colorful brush strokes were at that time considered passé; a contemporary DYNA design incorporated reflective neon color stickers and geometric shapes.
Shuruq: As I understand, your art project recreated one of these truck designs and presented it in an art context. So in a way you are essentially bringing forward a readymade.
Diala: We saw DYNA or ‘Diana’ as it is commonly referred to, as a vernacular, local, public, mobile art piece and we wanted to introduce it as such. The actual truck that we recreated and exhibited for Meeting Points enabled people to experience the truck for themselves while also becoming more familiar with the particular cultural context around it.
Shuruq: What is it about the original DYNA truck designs that you found so intriguing?
Diala: There is a creative and collaborative process behind the designs, which aims to create an experience, shift a reality, and we wanted to highlight this aspect. In the beginning I assumed that these men—drivers—were unaware of the artistic value of their vehicles. I was mistaken. They knew that a Toyota truck could be transformed into a unique object.
Shuruq: What is a unique design according to the drivers?
Diala: Each driver cares to give his own truck something personal, a special touch that makes his own DYNA truck stand out. There are decorative accessories for every part of the truck: the box in the back, the back door, the cabin interior, the top, the lights, the stickers. So each driver tries to add a distinctive decoration while being in tune with what is perceived as ‘contemporary fashion’.
The interior of the cabin is dealt with as if it is a room with a desk and windows. Usually there are curtains that end with golden tussles. Sparkly beads hang down from the rear-view-mirror, and small custom made or found cloths cover the back seat adorned with stuffed velvet cushions used for the comfort of the driver and his company. The steering wheel is decorated with colorful fabric or leather like material, and there are pictures of women stuck to the sides. The ceiling itself is often shrouded in fabric and decorated with trinkets and sparkles with little luck charms dangling from it.
All in all, the designs are an expression of a dream.
Shuruq: What kind of fantasies do you suspect behind these designs?
Diala: In my mind, the drivers take the liberty to represent their desires in this chamber. It is a room they can call their own private quarters, where they can visualize or materialize their fantasies. It is a space that insinuates sexy adventures and romantic escapades, a bachelor’s dungeon of love. This is underlined by the continuous music playing and the suggestive pictures This is all the more desirable because we live in a society where individuals have very little privacy, families often share rooms and hardly anyone lives on their own.
The box itself often has a central image on the back, a dreamlike landscape like a lake or a house in the snow, or the image of a blonde woman or a large pair of kohl adorned eyes. I imagine that those images speak of the drivers’ dreams or those of the artist who painted them; a destination they would like to visit, a woman they would like to love or maybe they are sharing something with us, who knows?
Shuruq: I somehow wrongly assumed because men dominate the public domain, that they have less of a need for more private space.
Diala: Men occupy the public space more comfortably, but I think the government owns the public space. I believe there is an understanding, at least in Amman, that people are only using the public space for practical reasons (move from one place to the other-go to work, shop etc.), adhering to the rules and keeping a low profile. There are some shy exceptions of course, even “generous” official attempts at making certain public spaces more welcoming, but at any point and more so for men, an official can stop a civilian and demand an ID and an answer as to what their business being on the street was. As for privacy, there is very little of it. Very often if one is sitting alone in a room with the door closed, a minute later a family member or friend will barge in to ask, “What is wrong?” Hardly does anyone of any gender or age get a space to call his or her own. And I think that the truck drivers make this little cabin a private space where they can exercise autonomy and independence.
The public and private realms are highly gendered, and so the DYNA trucks play a gendered role. Of course our art project is gendered too, since the drivers are all male and Hanan and I are women.
Shuruq: Did this matter?
Diala: I think so. There was an exciting “adventure into man’s land” feel to it and I would guess they were engaging with us on the exotic and erotic levels.
Shuruq: Do you think that you were also engaging with them in terms of the exotic and erotic?
Diala: I always did fantasize about truck drivers; sure, this was a potentially sexy situation. The unfortunate thing here is the fact that someone like me i.e. a Jordanian female, has been trained so well to sterilize situations when communicating with the other gender/another class, the chemistry is so suppressed, the hormones so subdued, the antennas all off, that one forgets to feel the desire, the tension. Tragic really.
Shuruq: Do we see some of these dynamics played out in the video?
Diala: The video is a trip with one of the drivers, a conversation, a tour of his favorite hangout spots and daily routes. I think very few women (aside from the driver’s fancied encounters) get to ride in this cabin. Being in there is like stepping into a popular cafe downtown, a familiar yet exotic place that is strictly off limits to women.
Shuruq: I had a similar experience while collecting the 250 Mohammad signatures for A Book of Signatures. The process of signature collection also became a way of breaking social barriers, allowing me to navigate spaces I usually don’t go to as a woman. I must admit, in the beginning I was nervous about having to call men at random to ask for their signatures, but the project ended up helping me break some of my own barriers. Would you say this project ultimately demystified ‘man’s world’ for you?
Diala: Interesting that you would ask this. I agree. Many of those barriers are just based on lack of experience. This reminds me of my experience working on the First Bra Boutique. Collecting the stories, the bras and the paraphernalia for this piece was all very easy as I was mostly dealing with women and shopping. When it was time to work on the installation, I requested the service of an electrician and a carpenter (both men of course!). I was suddenly nervous. Until that moment I had been “in the closet” while working on my bra project. These guys were amused, curious, and respectful, at ease making jokes while getting the installation work done. It was I who was suffering from discomfort and sweating, that is until I too managed to relax.
I faced many of my own stereotypes about class, gender and culture while working on ‘Diana’, which is partly why it is fun to do work that allows you to take a trip to unfamiliar terrains. It took me to spaces that are exclusively male dominated and introduced me to new professions and realities. Secretly, I imagined that I would stumble upon an amazing and wildly transgendered behind-the-scenes in the DYNA industry, however, it turned out to be just another workshop where a man in a white undershirts and a large mustache is delicately adding flowers to a landscape with a thin paint brush. I was also surprised to find that Abu Yusuf, one of the lead truck drivers, choose to decorate his cabin with a stuffed teddy bear holding a red bear saying ‘i love you’.
It is also worth noting that DYNA truck drivers are always getting fines for using impermissible forms of decoration (possibly dangerous, like a mirror hanging out beyond vehicle limits). But I see it as another example of how the police, a state tool, control the public space and limit individual self expression. Somehow, the DYNA truck drivers are still getting away with it so far. My sister on the other hand, was not so lucky. She was stopped by the police because of a sticker she had on her car. They argued that sticker use was illegal (sure when the sticker is demanding that the US troops leave). So you can think of the DYNA truck phenomena as a local form of graffiti or street art, exerting some form of public resistance.
Diala Khaswnih, The First Bra Boutique, mixed media installation. Details for Stop Playing and Queen Bee, Makan, 2008.
Shuruq: I like the way you describe these men’s sexuality, it is rather soft and feminine, which is quite refreshing, as it is different from stereotypical descriptions of truck drivers, and more generally Arab male sexuality. You refer to ‘Diana’ as an ongoing project, what are other manifestations that you are currently working on?
Diala: In the future I want to organize the Princess DYNA Beauty Pageant, where the DYNA trucks enter the contest as a team made up of the driver, designer and craftspeople. I also started collecting the sayings found on the backside of the truck. They are often hand written and range in content from the dramatically wise to flat out hilarious!
Shuruq: You know our exchange has made me quite obsessed with cars as well. I find myself quite taken by old beetle cars!
Diala: A beetle is amazing! It is more than just a machine; it is an era, a movement, a statement! Cars are interesting!
Published June 6, 2011.