ADHAM FARAMAWY & SOPHIA AL MARIAIN CONVERSATION
AF: I first saw Sophia’s work on a laptop when Kuwaiti musician and artist Fatima Al Qadiri showed me the music video, they’d worked on together for the song How Can I Resist You? I went crazy for it and it’s still one of my favourite songs.
Sophia and Fatima were widely credited with coining the term ‘Gulf Futurism’, which described cultural phenomena expressed through architecture, urban planning, commercial images and pop culture in the post-oil Persian Gulf, and along with curator and writer Omar Kholeif, curator and artist Amal Khalaf and the rest of the GCC group, were some of the first Arab artists who I felt spoke to my experience as an Egyptian.
Sophia’s also the person I call when I get my heart broken, so there’s that.
AF: Ok, so, you do a lot of stuff. You write for television and movies, you’re an author, a public speaker, you’ve made music videos, art videos and sculpture. How has it been possible for you to work across such a variety of media? And how did you find your way to making art?
SAM: Well first of all, back up. I'm so blessed to be counted as a person you call when you get your heartbroken. This period of the pandemic has really tested the truth of a lot of relationships and I'm grateful to have you as a friend and comrade in hugs and lonely hearts. But I know I can be a little hard to catch sometimes and that is because as you say my work is …all over the place. This Capricorn rising just won’t let me rest!
AF: ... This triggers the triple Aries in me by the way! Haha
SAM: In answer to your question, I think I have always needed a place to escape to. And from a very young age I began practicing fantasy and I guess that was a kind of world building which felt like art. I think it’s a pretty common reaction to stressful surroundings. Being stuck inside most of the time, drawings and storytelling and music and film and daydreaming were the pillars of life. So I think that’s really my art origins story. Then I became friends with a lot of artists in Egypt and although I wasn’t in any art program (I’d gone to study journalism which is what I thought I wanted to be and maybe still do), I ended up learning by osmosis the conversations, the structures, the world.
AF: I recently went back to read your blog the Sci-Fi Wahabi from 2008 and I read you describe the character as a kind of alter-ego, this figure in a 3abbaya wandering a post-apocalyptic landscape littered with broken jawals (burner phones). Did you see the blog as being related to Afro Futurism through Sun Ra or Octavia Butler?
SAM: Well I had always considered science fiction my real Homeland. And that is something I connected with Kodwo Eshun about when I took a course with him at Goldsmiths back in 2007. At the time, I was attempting to pursue a career as a documentary film editor and a friend had emailed me a link to this course and it was one of those periods in life where I was so open and in need of some radical change that I just took the first opportunity.
I got a loan and went to London. Anyway, so it was through Kodwo that I learned about the film The Last Angel of History. And the liberty it took with science fiction alongside documentary and drawing out a mytho-poetic thesis on Black music really ignited my historical/fantastical/cultural observation sweet spot. I was thinking a lot about the way that ‘modernity’ in the Gulf felt like a kind of simultaneous trap and escape.
In my view, it had led to the extreme isolation of individuals from each other and that leading in turn to a sort of cultural desertification and silencing of something that felt quite apocalyptic to me. Especially as my family are Bedouin and their way of life was destroyed when oil was discovered. They don’t have the label of Indigenous but they/we are.
I was lucky enough to be able to see the way things were before (through the living memory of my grandmothers) or going out into the desert, into the wilderness as they call it ‘al barr’ (the outside), versus what it was like when most of the year we were stuck in the city and had to deal with cramped, impoverished conditions and the imposition of social mores of being sedentary. I had witnessed the advent of mobile phone use and this very brief window where it was unheard of to have a phone in particular unheard of for young women to have a phone. To it being ubiquitous. It's crazy to think how when I was finishing high school, to have a mobile phone was a huge taboo. I was hugely inspired by the cruising culture of using Bluetooth to meet strangers.
In the gulf, all hook-ups are clandestine so it really did feel adjacent to the history of gay public cruising. As a teenager, I would leave my Bluetooth on and receive missives from people I wouldn't know where it was coming from in the mall or wherever. And that was really thrilling because it felt like another invisible world alongside the one we were physically in. So I suspect that while yes Afrofuturist works were and are inspiring to me, I think this was more a sort of reading of the runes that were already there rather than a creating of futures.
- The Future was Desert Part I, (production stills) video 5 minutes 17 seconds, Sophia Al Maria, 2016
AF: Wahhabism is an ultra-right wing form of Islamic fundamentalism. I’ve rarely seen someone deal with or reference this ideology with the tongue in cheek humour and lightness of touch that you have. This is a lot to ask when so many of our generation have dealt with alienation from the Arab diaspora by doubling down and adopting radical views but, has having mixed heritage helped give you the distance to explore?
SAM: The opposite. I think people of mixed heritage often double down on the conservatism in a similar way to people who convert to a religion out of insecurity. In particular people who convert to Islam tend to misinterpret certain complex symbols and take them at face value. Some versions of that misinterpretation being no music or no images or whether a man is required to shave his balls, the point is – I grew up in an extremely conservative and religious context. One that might externally be interpreted as ‘wahabi’.
The West loves that word. And along with the various battles and traumas that came with that, I also experienced the tenderness and trouble and humour in the hypocrisy of it all. And I’ve always felt more kinship with people who grew up in oppressively religious contexts of any kind and escaped than I ever have with people who grew up city kids and found their ‘din’ (religion), after a bout in rehab.
The other thing that I understand and feel has been a set up all along is the way that, especially those who have been raised Muslim but who have grown up here, are almost prodded to see Islam as somehow diametrically opposed to ‘the west’. And I think in some ways, it’s true.
There are things in Islamic jurisprudence that are explicitly anti-capitalist, that protect women in custody and divorce courts and in theory at least are anti-racist. But the practice is often hard to see – take the concept of ‘riba’ or usury or interest on a loan. That is forbidden in Islamic banks. Imagine if the US had Islamic banks, no one in my generational cohort would be struggling right now with the crippling debt of unfair student loans.
I'm not sure I will ever identify as anything in relation to what I view as my interior life ... There are no facts really. Because I'm changing all the time.
Sophia Al Maria
AF: I’ve thought a lot about your conversations with artist Abdullah Al Mutairi, who is an artist I respect and enjoy a great deal. One of these is published in Sad Sack, and touches on gender segregation in Bedu culture, ‘effeminacy’, and “centering identity on who you have sex with” being “pretty western”.
But the three of us at different points have discussed the relationship between Persian poet Rumi and his ‘friend’ the spiritual instructor Shams, and Arab love poetry more generally (particularly the erotic poetry of Abu Nawas), and the idea that the figure of ‘the homosexual’ is a European invention born out of specific cultural and economic conditions in 17th century Britain. As this conversation is for Queercircle and it’s a word I’ve wrestled with, let’s talk about the word 'queer;' how do you deal with it and what does it mean to you?
SAM: Depends. Queer is a great verb. I think I am resistant to using it as shorthand for myself. But it’s a wonderful word and I’m not sure there’s ever been a better one in English. I think because I was categorised as queer publicly before I identified myself even privately as such, it does feel like a label I didn’t choose. My reaction in both of those times was, ‘wait who did I even come out to?’ And I think my relationship to the word is different because my education and geo-location in my formative years with the freedom to act on my desires were in Qatar and Egypt at the turn of the millennium. It wasn't a word that I heard used much.
There wasn’t a queer studies programme at my uni for example. Although there was a lot of queer staff who I tended to gravitate towards and who gave me books or extra-curricular references.
I know these conversations and battles are being had in very precarious circumstances with front line consequences so I do wonder if perhaps my reticence to identify underneath that particular moniker is not helpful. I'm still figuring out my own position on that. I like the way that Legacy Russell uses the word ‘glitch’, because that is more in line with the way that I experience my gender and sexuality.
Like a switch ***** and as I get older, I think that resistance to identifying comes from a desire to protect the safe anarchic ur-space of change. That’s where creation and recreation and rebirth happens when no one is watching. And I think that comes from constant code switching and identification document swapping, and costume changes in cars, moving from being ‘covered’ in a 3abaya, to wearing a bathing suit for the swim team on the daily in Doha. I think that that formative experience of having to not ‘role play’ but actually play two discrete roles, not out of choice but necessity, is what ‘queered’ me forever.
I'm not sure I will ever identify as anything in relation to what I view as my interior life. I have a difficult time even writing an artist bio because I have nothing to say. There are no facts really. Because I'm changing all the time.
- Limerant Object II, (production stills) video, 3 Minutes Sophia Al Maria 2019
AF: In your book Sad Sack, which was the culmination of your year as Whitechapel Gallery writer in residence, where you spent a year writing and hosting events and performing alongside artist Victoria Sin, there’s a chapter called Cry of the Chicken Nugget, in which you describe your difficult relationship with the Arabic language.
Many children of Arab migrants grow up with this complex relationship to ideas of the ‘mother culture’ that’s played out in our varying abilities and proximities to Arabic language. You know, how Arab can you be if you don’t speak Arabic fluently? Which can become even more complex if you’re not able to perform gender in the ways you’re expected to. As someone whose career has been so closely related to notions of cultural heritage, where do you sit with this tension?
SAM: The most common question I get asked is ‘do you speak Arabic?’ hands down. It’s up there with ‘where are you from?’ being such a loaded question. Of course either of those in a certain context or in the mouth of a certain person can be cute and nice chats. But generally, I feel really protective of the space to tell people it’s none of their business. Because especially around the Arabic language, it’s sensitive AF.
There’s this common saying I can’t stand, “An Arab is a person whose mother tongue is Arabic”, which just completely erases the experience of vast numbers of people who have Arab fathers for example (far more common than having a non-Arabic speaking father and an Arabic speaking mother) or who are part of the diaspora who have lived their whole lives under the rules and mores of Arab culture. In my fam people say ‘Arab’ just to mean ‘peoples’ or ‘folk’.
My dad told me the other day about how some cousin went to New York City and was looking around Times Square in awe at the sheer numbers of humans. And he said, “Mashaa’ Allah! So many Arabs!” And in that way, ya I am an Arab. Everybody is. Also I'm very conflicted about identifying culturally these days because it feels irrelevant and even suspect when it’s for the colonist’s gaze. You know?
This was really loaded for me wearing abaya in Qatar when I worked there. Because a lot of Arabs would think ‘oh you’re just wearing that because you benefit from the exoticism’ and I wouldn’t even know where to begin with that microaggression.
Anyway, I have been living away from that context for close to 10 years. Arabic is one of those languages that tends to wither unless you are exercising it regularly. I have had the waxing and waning of that language in my mouth since I was a child. Arabic is a language that can be studied for your whole life.
Also I think that my definition of Arab would have less to do with the language and more to do with the expectations culturally that one is held to. Because although I have a fraught relationship to the language through my own particularly arranged neural pathways that make it really hard for me to think in a hierarchically structured or grammatical way, I have had the full experience of being and living and ‘being read’ as an Arab by other Arabs and an ‘other’ by everyone else.
It’s things like being expected to wear hijab in London if a relative is visiting or the expectation of marrying a cousin ... all of these things are part of an experience that I have come from and was formed by even if it feels like the distant past to me now.
It was a big deal to me even to have a photograph taken showing my hair a few years ago and I know that my visibility at least in the Gulf has been important to some of the youngers. Anyway, that was my path to get to where I am now. I don’t know if I’ll ever feel completely safe being publicly visible exactly but I’m grateful to no longer feel so scared.
Thank you صافي XX
SOPHIA AL MARIA
Sophia Al Maria is a Qatari-American artist, writer, and filmmaker. Her work has been exhibited at the Gwangju Biennale, Tate Britain in London, and the New Museum and the Whitney in New York. Her writing has been published in Harper's Magazine and Bidoun as well as multiple books including The Girl That Fell to Earth and Sad Sack. Sophia wrote the television series Little Birds based on the collection of poetry by Anais Nin, which broadcast on Sky Atlantic.
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