001.01 AHMAD HOSNI

INTERVIEW WITH AHMAD HOSNI BY URSULA BIEMANN

I had the privilege of getting a glimpse of Ahmad Hosni’s work in process. Go Down, Moses, his photographic narrative and precious collection of texts, is everything but an Orientalist fantasy. The book, which sets out to generate critical dialogue about a landscape and its iconographies, faced many obstacles and confrontations during its making. I was intrigued by Hosni’s relaxed, curatorial mode of assembling and developing this complex project, letting it slowly take on a life of its own.

Ursula: You are currently working on quite an ambitious book project about tourism. I’m curious: How was this project initiated? Were you approached to put together this publication or has an interest in tourism been a part of your photographic research for some time?

Ahmad: It was my initiative. I have been interested in tourism since 2006. Previously, I did a short photo-series called eco-ethno, an exploration of the notion of eco-tourism and self-perception of ethnicity. Go Down, Moses came as an extension of that project: tackling tourism and the social formation in a rural and semi-rural setting. I wanted to do something more extensive and, most importantly, in book format.

By the end of 2006, I had the chance to find financial and institutional support that came through in 2007. The Delegation of the European Union in Egypt had started a major development project in South Sinai in association with the local government. Part of this was a grant-giving operation. They placed an open call for development projects in the region. It turned out that most of their development priorities had to do with tourism. It seemed like a perfect fit, so I pitched the idea of the photo-book. Although it was sort of out of kilter with the rest of the projects they were funding (‘proper’ development projects), it was accepted.  My next goal was to find an institutional umbrella. Contemporary Image Collective was generous enough to go in as a sponsor.

Ursula: Your book is not exactly an Orientalist fantasy, as it takes a fairly stark look at Sinai. From what I understand – as is often the case when you work with the industries – your publisher has different expectations and goals for the project than you did. How did you deal with this discrepancy?

Ahmad: You are right. However, I believe this to be a different situation as the project was not an assignment for which I was hired. Instead, it started as an idea with a detailed proposal which two institutions believed ­in, agreed to sponsor, and signed a contract accordingly. It was not an annual report or corporate communications material that I had signed on to produce.

Still, there was discrepancy of expectations. When the funders viewed the final draft they were upset and refused to release the printing costs. I was faced with questions like, “Why don’t you go to a wedding? They (Bedouins) have beautiful customs to photograph”, or “Why do you take pictures of interiors? Bedouins like to spend their time outdoors, in the beautiful landscape.” It reminded me of Ike, the main character in William Faulkner’s novel Go Down, Moses (which this book is named after) who goes on a sort of mosaic mission trying to restore a utopia that never existed. He fails.

I think this discrepancy is really a discrepancy of idioms: we approached the project from an art or academic background, whereas it was funded under the rubric of development. From what I’ve seen, other projects sponsored under the same rubric opt for a folkloric representation of an ethnic/social group. But that would assume a sort of visuality that feeds on an iconography specific to the field of development, another that’s specific to the field of art, and so forth. Perhaps there is some truth to that claim, but I’d rather leave that for visual researchers. It would be an interesting topic to explore.

On another note, there was some pressure to bracket off any political references. There was a specific protests against Waleed Hazbun’s essay Inventing the Frontier of Wilderness, as well as some passages in Cynthia Cruz’s Cyanide and Responsible to the Blonde. The book is neither explicitly political nor is it uncritical. I don’t believe that any serious study of Sinai can exist without touching upon its political and territorial history. I strongly believe that Go Down, Moses can foster  critical dialogue about the region. That’s what I promised to do.

Ursula: Let’s turn to the project now. What was the concept for this art project, if I may call it that, and how did you go about it? From the dummy you showed me, it looks like the kind of book that has evolved from a dialogue with others. Given that ArtTerritories is first and foremost addressed to the artists’ community, I would like to expand a little on your approach to putting together an art project; setting up a collaborative process for developing ideas and letting them take form in this context. How did your group project work and what benefits and experiences did you gain from it?

Ahmad: Laconically put, the concept is to think tourism as a paradigm, a normative framework for social and economic practices. I wanted to work within that paradigm, explore it at at an everyday level. This called for situated knowledge to inform the nexus of the work, hence the two year long production period.

Ursula: By ‘situated knowledge’ you mean the kind of knowledge produced on location. So you made many trips to Sinai?

Ahmad: I started out with ‘tourism as a paradigm’, a blanket concept that needed to be unpacked. I wanted this ‘unpacking’ to be the result of an experience of ‘being there’, assuming a role – or being assigned a role – as part of the dynamics of tourism. This ground-up approach came to re-inform the presuppositions I originally started with and pointed to what should come next. Being produced on location is one aspect of it, being in the landscape and becoming part of the landscape that one describes. But it doesn’t have to be literal: one can be part of a figurative landscape. In a way, that was the position Cynthia Cruz took in her essay Cyanide. Neither Cynthia nor her narrator (who happens to be Cynthia – or so we can assume) have been to Sinai. She knows nothing about Sinai, but it sounds like ‘cyanide’. She probes the word in the dictionary, on Wikipedia, flips through the pictures in National Geographic, asks her father-in-law and lists whatever comes within her purview. For the narrator, Sinai is a figuration of a place with no pre-definable geography; an ideational domain where ‘cyanide’ is one component of the rebus. Interestingly, the narrator doesn’t mention any maps, doesn’t ever come across one.

Ursula: The book is the result of intense but somewhat undirected exposure to desert experience with its chance encounters, local stories and tourist ethnographies, tinted by a literary reading of an eclectic range of writers, some of whom are discussed in the book.

How did you go about synthesizing all this material?

Ahmad: I wouldn’t call it ‘desert’ experience… Maybe ‘[land]scape’ experience is a better way of putting it. But let me answer your question. As you might expect, the synthesizing was the most challenging part of the project. I had over 20 articles, journals of diaries and notes.

First, you need to absorb as much as you can. Then you try, heuristically, to see if anything makes sense at all. Sometime it doesn’t. Yet through this process of aggregation and accumulation of ideas, the body of work begins to develop its own selfhood and make demands. And you respond to that.  Eventually, you get to the critical point where you are faced with a question that can’t readily be answered. It itches you. It has a grip on you. The desire to find an answer and the process of formulating it is where concepts and frameworks emerge.

I came face to face with this situation in the course of reading William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses. I was bemused by the title – “What did this book have to do with the Biblical story of Moses for it to deserve that title?”  I wondered. The book did not seem to have much to do with it: it is a novel about the American South, about race relations, disenfranchisement, the wilderness, the land, deliverance, many things. And it’s a difficult novel.

The next step was to investigate the semiotics in both narratives, Faulkner’s as well as the Biblical one. This is the beauty of mythology. It is not about authenticity, it’s not about verisimilitude, about being truth-like; it just makes more sense the more it is uttered…, the more it is appropriated, the more it is pirouetted, re-appropriated. Faulkner knew that long before Barthes. And I thought, “If Faulkner used it, then I probably can too”. So I was thinking, “If only I can borrow the title – borrow Faulkner’s scheme of things – to make sense of my [land]scape experience and bring the story back to where it belongs, it would be my way to pay a tribute to Faulkner, to the spirit of his work.”

Ursula: I’d like to return to the collaborative process for a moment, because it’s so important in my own curatorial practice which tries to be both flexible and conversational. Did you have a clear idea of whom you’d like to include from the onset or did the project grow organically?

Ahmad: Not really. Why should I set myself limits? I had my preferences, though, for what sort of text might do and what wouldn’t. I didn’t want standard journalism since it’s too factual, nor any art writing. I wish I had had someone to write on the sociality of development.

I started alone, taking a grassroots approach: rambling around, taking the roles of tourist, sometimes anthropologist, sometimes tour guide, allowing the photography to dictate what came next. Later, I started approaching writers to reflect on issues that I came across during my fieldwork. Sometimes writers would join in the fieldwork. In other cases they went on their own. The dialogue that ensued from these various field trips came to inform my work in situ and ultimately shaped the direction of the project.

Yet it was important to keep a critical distance both between the photographs and the text and among the texts themselves. Hence, it was crucial to keep a distance between the authors,  allowing space for the contributors’ own projections. Actually, not all writers were involved at the same time and they didn’t work in sync with each other. Sometimes they were not informed in detail about the other texts. I didn’t want them to be influenced by the photographs either, so I was a bit reticent about showing or discussing the photographs at that stage. I didn’t want the collaborators to conform to one approach or style. The text should have its own position, narrative and addressee. What matters is not that the authors are in harmony but that the narrators are, for want of a better phrase, in dissonant complementarity.

Ursula: Do you differentiate here between the role of an author and that of a narrator?

Ahmad: These are two different things: the author is an agency, a real person, while the narrator is a textual function. They can, but don’t necessarily have to, coincide. The authors had to disregard the photographic component of the work. With the narrators, this relationship is more complicated; although the narrators are physically dissociated from the world-model of the photographs, they still function at a rhetorical level. The narrator is projected somewhere between the text and the photo-narrative. But for that to happen there had to be room for the narrators. Hence in my case, the experiential context had to be bracketed off. Diaries, recordings, interviews and dialogues from the field were all left out of the final work. I don’t think it could have worked had I included any of that material. Those voices from the phenomenal encounters may have held the book in thrall to the author and prevent the reader from negotiating the projections that make up the narrator. Of course, this didn’t turn out to be the case with all the pieces and some did not make it to the final book draft. Not sure if this should be considered defying the notion of group project…

Ursula: I don’t think so. It doesn’t sound like a cohesive group project but, rather, a loose constellation of cultural producers. Not every utterance ends up being relevant for the project and deserving of publication. You are the one who held the vision of what this project would become. Go on.

Ahmad: On the other hand, I wanted to explore the very architectonics of the book-as-medium. I was intrigued by the idea of the long photo-essay –composing a long photo-series while avoiding breaking it up into mini-series, chapters or typologies – and the notion of dialogic narrativity using text and photography. Perhaps I was consumed by the idea of the novel with its own life-world and was looking for ways to fiddle with all of that.

Ursula: From what I understand, though, you not only explore the architecture of the book but also that of tourism – not primarily in the sense of the buildings catering to tourism, but in terms of the overall organization, logistics, mentality, regulations and discourses that constitute ‘tourism’.

Ahmad: I won’t frame it that way. I don’t want to reduce it to what ‘caters to tourism: I think this might imply a discontinuity between the machinery of tourism and local culture, a view to which I don’t subscribe. We do not need to regard tourism as a top-down scheme that mainly affects regulations, logistics etc. I’d say it is the entwinement of economic exigencies and social relations that forge people’s relation to the [land]scape.

Ursula: Well put. Tourism is, of course, a very spatial, transforming sort of practice. How has it affected Sinai and what exactly do you want to show?

Ahmad: That might take books to answer. Tourism created a practice that set in motion an areal differentiation. It made a ‘South’ without coordinates, topography or GIS. It did what Moses once did: create a landscape that put Sinai on the map. It added a layer to the palimpsest that is Sinai. It invites the reader to read the landscape, trace it and recompose it like a crossword.

Ursula: Just so I’m clear on this: are you saying, there is a special type of tourist that would go to the “South” and by doing so, creates “a South” which is, so to speak, uncharted? You refer to a South not only defined in geophysical terms but also as sort of symbolic otherness?

Ahmad: What makes the South of Sinai different from the Northern part is that in the South one is either a tourist or one works in tourism – or at least that’s what’s expected from you. Tourism has grown to be the predominant mode of production here, to the point that it overlaid the historical context and created a new regional context: the South.

Ursula: Sinai, apart from being a tourist desert destination, clearly has a mythological dimension. For one, it has served as a backdrop to Biblical action. From doing work on the Sahara, I’m aware that a landscape is never just a backdrop for a plot, it’s an iconographic index of the mind, a cultural product where ideas and ideologies manifest themselves. How, do you think, does your book insert itself somewhere in this process, entering, and simultaneously giving substance to, a discursive field?

Ahmad: Absolutely. Sinai doesn’t just have a mythological dimension; it is a progeny of mythology. Sinai is a figure in a narrative event. The word ‘Sinai’ itself is not a product of any local social setting but the product of text. It is an utterance that emerged at a certain point in the (Biblical) narrative and then faded away – interestingly,  ‘Sinai’ is not mentioned often in the Old Testament but there is transposition of ‘Sinai’ and ‘wilderness’ that lingers on through later texts in the Old Testament. This image of a landscape created an imaginative geography that precipitated a palimpsest that is Sinai. Your words remind me of the writings of geographer Denis Cosgrove which influenced my work on Go Down, Moses a great deal. I think many of the ideologies associated with landscape in the context of Sinai can be examined through the concept of ‘wilderness’. I find many parallels between the iconography of ‘wilderness’ in the American and Sinai contexts. The ideologies and processes of colonization of the American West were enmeshed in a proliferation of significations of the Biblical mythology and, by implication, affixed it a certain relation to the [land]scape. That is why I chose an American title. The book uses the American context as a reference point to articulating  a certain reality in Sinai.

Ursula: You mentioned the tourists, anthropologists, tour guides, novelists, imagemakers, etc., and perhaps there are also nomads, journalists, NGO workers and officials who cruise around Sinai. What kinds of insights did you gain through the intersection of these different kinds of mobilities?

Ahmad: Sinai is in the process of transitioning from a nomadic or semi-nomadic to settled society. In a nomadic society the road is your abode; social relations are primarily established along the travel path through the valleys. Yet there were still nodes of social conglomeration. There were nomads who travelled down that path, but there were also monks. Additionally, after 1967, there were the tourists. Tourism developed in a grassroots manner, building on existing spatial social arrangements and practices. That was unique to the South of Sinai. Ironically though, with the increase of tourist developments, some of the nodes were fixed as termini in this space. I think that there is less mobility now, or at least, that the trajectories are more determined and fixed. One trajectory can be charted along the coastline; the other in the hinterlands with the asphalt road acting as the borderline. They both represent a diverging spatial and social formation. I think the theme of journey is at the heart of all this; and it was the modus operandi of the project which served the narrative design of the book. Since Moses, we have all been travelling subjects – colonizers – who forge relations to the [land]scape.

Published July 20, 2010.

See a preview of Go Down, Moses – a book on south Sinai:
http://thewhiteboard.info/page/go-down-moses
http://issuu.com/ahmadhosni/docs/godownmoses-preview