Transformation is fundamental and arguably inevitable. People of the diaspora know it all too well, both in motion and emotion. The horizontal transgressions across natural and manmade borders create multiple cognitive shifts that can only be organized as layered experiences accessible all at once. This inability to translate causes a rippling perspective effect, which can only be interpreted through symbols of familiar and invented languages and the sounds of mythical places and creatures.
From the oasis to the desert, our Eutopia of terraced mountains, ancient architecture, jewelry, textile, frankincense and myrrh has become a dystopia of explosions, famine, disease, and suffering. Our land was looted of our most precious artifacts, which bear witness to this cruelty that we have endured. They are imprisoned in museums and collections far away, and we must pay our colonizers and looters for the visas and entrance tickets to access the sites on which they are held captive. Like us, they are nomads, not by choice but rather by consequence. We have been robbed of our archive and our narrative is fragmented. Our creations and gifts have been exchanged for the “rocket’s red glare” and “bombs bursting in air,” 1 while our cities are backdrops of military training games and our oil builds “the golden doors” from which we are banned.
And yet, there is a cosmic juncture: As children we were told of النجم الأحمر (roman: al-najm al-ahmar / The Red Star), which was gifted to Belquis, our ruler, the Queen of سباء (roman: Saba’a/Sheba). We inherited then I must have been there النجم الأحمر as a site for our dreams and our future. If I dream of it then I must have been there already; it is a sign that I exist not only here in the present, but also there in the future. النجم الأحمر negates placelessness and alienation, as generations into the future are built into this myth. This thread ties together Sabeans and their descendants, for when we gaze at the stars, we are connected by النجم الأحمر. It was visible then as it is visible now.
In 1997, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) sent the Sojourner Pathfinder to “explore” Mars. Three Yemenis––Adam Ismail, Mustafa Khalil, and Abdullah al-Umari––filed a lawsuit against NASA for invading the land that they inherited 3,000 years ago.2 Suddenly, Mars became a point of reference and a rupture in the dystopic existence in which we reflect ourselves. Under the current circumstances of ongoing trauma, Yemeni citizens and their diaspora can no longer imagine an existence on a horizontal axis. Therefore, we must reorient how we think of home by positioning ourselves on multiple vertical axes––from the physical to the metaphysical, earthly to cosmic, and linear to non-linear. Our gaze is drawn to various sites of meaning, microscopically, from magnified documents to dancing pixels, and macroscopically, from intricate webs of global databanks to galactic skies. The double existence of the literal and the poetic are not competing; from their (con)fusion emerge acute cosmic temporalities.
The video Conflict Is More Profitable Than Peace (2019-ongoing) translates a photographed binder into time-based media documenting the ongoing war in Yemen. It attempts to unravel the intricate web of facts and players that have generated the complicated state of affairs from which one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time has emerged. By naming both victims and culprits, the research presents a less abstracting image of “who” while still pursuing the question of “why?” Rather than being redacted, the research is highlighted, manifesting in an evidentiary map that draws attention to those who hide behind black ink and testifying to the mounting evidence of war crimes. My adopted country, the United States of America, depends on the destruction of my native country, Yemen, and others like it, in order to sustain itself. The closest term to describe this feeling must be a relative of cannibalism.
In Conflict is More Profitable Than Peace, articles, data, laws, lists, and timelines are interwoven with the photographic series UNDER THREAD (2019), in which a progression of unrolling occurs both literally— as thread is wound around a human form— and figuratively. In these auto-portraits, I am both subject and photographer, passive and active participant, victim and culprit. The symbolism of thread is significant, as it is drawn from religious and mythical histories. In Islam, the Prophet Mohamed seeks shelter in a cave while fleeing from his enemies. Upon his entering, a spider weaves an intricate web across the entrance. When his enemies catch up to him, they are mesmerized by the web, and they conclude that had the Prophet entered the cave, the web would have been broken. They continue on, and the Prophet is saved. For this reason, we must never kill spiders, as they are considered بركة (roman: baraka / blessing). However, in order to leave the cave to migrate onward, the Prophet must break the very thing that protected him.
Thus, a spider brings together a cartography of time by unraveling the compilation of found documents in Conflict is More Profitable Than Peace and weaving the digitized footage and soundscape in the film مهجر // Mahjar (2020). Once drawn in, the viewer’s gaze is met with barriers, particularly linguistic. In UNDER THREAD, the spider is absent yet is indexed by the unraveling of the thread in the photographs as the information in the documents are revealed. In the case of مهجر // Mahjar, the spider is present and carries us through the film as a narrator. She not only travels through time, but also in it and around it, interlacing a constellation of myths, histories, memories, dreams, and realities that address complex discourses. These discourses include criminality, Yemeni futurity, and feminist theory, which are proposed as tools to unpack practices of refusal, rupture and radical imagination. This is the point of departure for the migration from the terrestrial world to the Martian plane. By activating a futurist narrative anchored in interjections of real accounts of war, migration, diaspora, mythology and science, مهجر // Mahjar presents an alternative space that addresses painful political histories while simultaneously inventing different horizons for existence. Reality becomes a phenomena of layered images that are constantly shifting, giving room to reveal the things that aren’t seen––the most layered scenes ring the most emotionally true.
Conflict Is More Profitable Than Peace orients the viewer to the complex nature of Yemen’s dystopian reality, while مهجر // Mahjar, disorients by making space for necessary radical change; the two works are positioned as counterpunctual satellites. The installation of مهجر // Mahjar in النجم الأحمر // The Red Star Installation extends into a physical site; there is a material translation from two-dimensional to three-dimensional space. Its configuration draws attention to the vertical axes, from underwater to the skies. The film loops through day and night, pushing the viewer to reorient themselves in a continually “warping space” measured by the movement of the sun.3
The space of مهجر // Mahjar, is further activated by other forms of light and shapes, which create a distorted constellation of imagery intended to suspend the viewer in a portal of potentiality. The gallery walls are adorned with characters drawn from ancient to contemporary sources, including Sabean (the language of Belquis), Arabic, and Hebrew. These characters present a new lexicon that doesn’t translate directly but rather exists on the borders of words––as sounds that are starting to say words––and are void of colonial baggage and foreign interpretation. Of the three, this invented language is the most trustworthy, most consistent, and yet least attainable. The characters become a material that functions to reclaim language, by rejecting it.
Through visual and audiophonic storytelling, مهجر // Mahjar simulates inhalations of stress and exhalations of relief. The film explores new limits of existential realities through sound, which punctures the space in which collective voices and warped anthems are eclipsed by radio transmissions and “astral television thundering”.4 For example, rather than a mosque’s muezzin being the keeper of time, a chorus of musicians and dancers marks the movements between varying temporalities. An oud player seams together the looping film; Yemeni flower men dance Bara’a, a warrior dance; and women dance to the voice of Ofra Haza, renowned Israeli-Yemeni singer. Our proximity to النجم الأحمر // The Red Star is confirmed by the film’s underlying bass notes––recorded sounds of Mars that permeate the installation.
Together, the works in the exhibition blur the lines between the nostalgic past, the dystopian realities of the present, and the absurd possibilities of a radically imagined future. While specific in nature, each engages a global dialogue, highlighting patterns of trauma, erasure, and reconstructed identities experienced by numerous nations and diasporic communities across the globe. The linguistic layering of spoken, written, subtitled, dubbed, printed, redacted, and highlighted words in مهجر // Mahjar, UNDER THREAD, and Conflict Is More Profitable Than Peace addresses the multiple ways in which language (dis)functions, begging the questions: What is missing from language? And whom is it failing?
- Francis Scott Key, The Star Spangled Banner (1814)
- "3 Yemenis Sue NASA for Trespassing on Mars," CNN, July 24, 1997, http://edition.cnn.com?TECH/9707/24/yemen.mars/
- Sun Ra (Herman Poole Blount and Charles Plymell), Profetika: Book 1 (New York: Kicks Books, 2014)
- Etel Adnan, The Arab Apocalypse (Sausalito, CA: Post-Apollo Press, 1980)