Translating Dignity

Translating Dignity


October 2016

This piece describes the work of translation as an introduction to a course on Dignity and Indignation, a Freshman Core Colloquium at NYU AD. I thank Mohit Mandel ( for selecting and editing excerpts of student responses.

At a moment when the trope of the “network” or “moving map” is replacing the old paradigm of the map as regards the contact between world cultures,  the work of “translation” has most recently become the paradigm par excellence for historical, ethical, political, and cultural, production: making texts present in and to other locations and, in so doing, rendering the text present to itself by offering new perspectives on its meaning.

A translation of the word and concept dignity in the opening sentence of the Universal Declaration Human Rights (UDHR) opens up the document, allowing it to be read beyond its original context and relevance, thus making its transmission available to different perspectives. Translation brings attention to the instability of the original text by continuing the work that the original drafters of the UDHR began in the post-war period: the search for a concept and word flexible enough to underwrite the legal concept of universal human rights and translated from English into world languages.

The “Translating Dignity” exercise served as a participatory introduction to the NYUAD course Dignity and Indignity during its first week. In the Gramscian spirit of Nick Bromell,  my aim was “to show how much political theory is packed into … the words and actions of ordinary men and women.” Before students encountered the concept in philosophical and historical texts, I asked each student to translate the word “dignity” into his or her native language, and in one paragraph to describe the first or the most memorable encounter with either the word or the notion. They were to share their responses on our course site. The writing and their subsequent discussion were designed to generate meanings, theories, practical, political, ethical implications of the term from personal and primary encounters with the word.

Students submitted translations in 18 languages including Spanish (Spain), Latvian, Russian, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Hindi, Kannada, German, Danish, Malayalam, Bari (South Sudan), Spanish (Jamaica), Romanian, Pashto, Arabic, Vietnamese, and English. The course site documents the richness of the responses. The raw and unprocessed stories are packed with the many of the topics we will discuss in the term.

Dignity (English)
Dignidad (Spanish)
Værdighed (Danish)
cieņa (Latvian)
достоинство (Russian)
존엄성 (Korean)
danh dự (Vietnamese)
كَرامة (Arabic)
Rang (German)
کرامت (Pashto)
尊厳 (Japanese)
demnitate (Romanian)
D’ekesi (Bari)
尊嚴 (Chinese)

The word was evoked various contexts, from individual and family, to national, religious, and global; stories from intimate and private to world historical such as the Muhammad drawings in Denmark, Latvian independence from Soviet Union, Sudanese civil war were recounted.  The translations evoked the different meanings of dignity, as in social rank or honor, inherent sacred worth, market-value, or autonomy. During our second meeting student pairs discussed each other’s posts before presenting the work of their partner to the group.

Here I will present one example of the way in which the discussion of a particular post prefigured, organically, for the class what NYUAD’s Core Curriculum refers to as a “global challenge.”

A student from Latvia presented the viewpoint of a student from Denmark, whose first encounter with the word dignity was when when Muslim Danes expressed their indignation at the notorious Muhammad drawings. The Danish student’s point of view was that he could see how the drawings would be offensive, and that the artist should not have created them. Before we moved on, another student, visibly distressed, asked to discuss the topic further: the artist’s right to artistic expression went so far as to include the right to insult Muhammad, the “man.” His tone was irreverent, and emphatic, and I perceived that he was making others in class uncomfortable. He was reenacting the Muhammad drawings episode, on this first week of Freshman classes in Abu Dhabi. In a series of back-and-forth exchanges, the student from Denmark offered that, while the artist had the “right” to express himself, he should not have done so out of respect for the Muslim community in Denmark.

I intervened by offering that the distinction between right and dignity evoked in the Universal/Cairo/Arab Declarations of human rights is a main topic of the course, and one we will address as we acquire the conceptual tools and historical perspectives. The translation and its discussion showed in a most organic and efficient way the crisis of constitutional rights or the liberal state as a legal framework for contemporary societies. I explained that one of the books assigned in the course is Hobbes’s Leviathan, a work of political philosophy that elaborates the notion of rights and civil liberties as they first appear in seventeenth-century Europe, forming the legal framework of the modern state. It is from Hobbes that we get the positive law formulation “if it is not illegal, you are free to do it.” This framework could contain political communities, I offered, in the aftermath of religious wars in Europe, because traditionally the emerging market economies provided the basis for a common sense. In contemporary multicultural societies, rights and law are proving insufficient means of insuring political communities, and cannot be a basis of a shared culture. The global challenge is to imagine and enact a new common sense or collective.

The writing and their subsequent discussion were designed to generate meanings, theories, practical, political, ethical implications of the term from personal and primary encounters with the word.

Student Comments: First Encounters with the Idea of “Dignity”

The first time I had contact with this word was during a math class when I was 12. Near the end of the class, the teacher suddenly stomped and, raising his voice, said: “Estoy verdaderamente indignado,” I am truly indignant.

I am not quite sure when I met the word værdighed for the first time. I do, however, think that it may have been in connection to the Muhammed drawings, and the reactions that came from many Danish Muslims in that regard. “You are violating our dignity,” I think they said.

I remember feeling the sense of this term since very early childhood in my country, when Latvia had recently re-established its independence from the Soviet Union.

The first time I encountered this concept (and this is often how the word is used) is when I heard about assisted suicide. When I used to live in Korea, there was an old, terminally-ill woman who sued the Korean government for not respecting her
존엄성 to decide for herself when she wanted to die.

I first encountered the word dignity when I was taught that our bodies should be treated with dignity, when I was having a lesson on chastity in a Catholic school.

For me, dignity is a feeling associated with belonging: feeling that you have a place to call home. My most vivid memory related to this is the story my grandmother told me about about how she came to the United States.

The first time I truly reflected on the concept of dignidad was during Religious Education class in the ninth grade.

I remember reading a news article praising a deaf guy who refused to receive an extended deadline for his class assignment. … I  understand danh dự (in Vietnamese) as the rights or worthiness that a person deserves.

What is it to be “dignified”? All I knew was that it was an honor to be called a “dignitary.”

The first time I felt the sense of dignity is when I heard my father and grandmother arguing about the position of a person in the family tree.

During one of my Islamic classes in ninth grade, our Islamic teacher told us that “One’s dignity 
lies within their decency and chastity.”

My first experience with the concept of dignity was when I was out with my family, and we observed a young man causing a fit in public for some unknown reason. As we observed, we realized that he had cut to the front of the line for a service
and demanded that he be served before any of the other people who were standing in line.

The first time I deeply thought about the concept of dignity was when I studied the Islamic law, fiqh (الفقه).

I remember encountering this word when I was learning Japanese history on warfare.

I came across this word for the first time when my parents taught me about the importance of the values that qualify the right of a person to be accepted and well-treated by society.

It was after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between the Government of Sudan and the Sudan People Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) in 2005.

I first encountered this word when I learned about the frequent pickpockets’ and scammers’ methods in Europe.

I first heard the word digno, which is the adjective for dignidad, at the age of six while watching the movie Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

The first time I encountered the concept of dignity (or at least the first time that I can recall) was through Catholicism. More specifically, I encountered this concept through Jesus Christ and his story.

I encountered the word 존엄성 when I was in middle school. In our Korean history class, we learned that the kings of Joseon dynasty possessed 존엄성, which was a justification for them to rule over the country.

Mahnaz Yousefzadeh is Clinical Assistant Professor of Liberal Studies at NYU in New York.

A longer version of this piece will appear later this fall in Electra Street 03.


Translation Studies and World Literature


Interview with Charles Siebert (II)


The Open Door

There’s a Metaphor in There Somewhere

There’s a Metaphor in There Somewhere

There’s a Metaphor
in There Somewhere

MAY 2016

Dear Friend,

It should come as no surprise that I really, really, really like books. As soon as you saw this letter from me, you probably thought “I bet this is going to be about books”. Good guess.

We returned to the Platonic idea of each man having a specific nature in my Ethics class today, and I think my specific nature is more of the bleached-paper-and-PVA-glue type. I like books. I’ve bought too many books since coming to London, an undisclosed amount which should keep me up at night thinking of all the sterling pounds I’ve spent, but really doesn’t. Because I have the miracle/curse of having one class a day, I’ve spent a lot of time exploring the city on my own. What I’ve discovered thus far is that the specific nature of London , or at least of my London, resides in its bookshops. I’ve probably been to every bookshop within a 30-minute walk from my flat in Russell Square. I’ve been to Skoobs—two minutes away and therefore a very tempting distraction when I can’t be bothered to write an essay—many times. The last time I was there I walked out with three books: one on Miles Davis, one on Jay-Z, and one about music in the twentieth century. All for 15 pounds (78.80 AED). Isn’t that insane?

Photograph by Gaby Flores

I can find my way to these bookstores well enough that if I were to be reincarnated into a pigeon I’d probably find myself flying to these same places every day. The funny thing is, though, that stepping inside them is different. See, the thing is that these bookstores are huge—or yuuuuuuuuuuuuge, as the next Republican nominee for President of the United States likes to say. Two floors seems to be the minimum, even in secondhand shops, with some shops having shelves that literally touch the ceiling. How the hell am I supposed to reach up there? These bookshops seem bereft of ladders, which makes me think that the sellers are saving all the best books for themselves at the top. I mean, there’s also the fact that the average height of a British citizen is a good 10 cm taller than my current height, which isn’t too bad but maybe 10 cm makes all the difference. You know how hopeless I am at estimating things, so it’s not like I would know. Part of the reason why I keep coming back to certain bookstores is to think of new ways to reach these hidden books. I’m not even sure if I want them, but just the simple fact of them being out of my reach makes me want them more. I mean, I could be missing out on the book that defines my life. My whole life! I suppose I could ask for help from these aforementioned 10 cm taller individuals, but I’d rather be left to my own bearings. My pilgrimages are very personal events, you know.

These bookshops, these quiet areas where I constantly lose myself, become markers through which I can find myself in a busy throng of people.

But in all honesty, I get lost every time I go in. Doesn’t matter where it is—Skoobs in the Brunswick, Foyles on Tottenham Court Road,Waterstones on Picadilly/Tottenham Road/Gower Street, London Review Bookshopon Bury Place, Libreria Bookshop in Brick Lane—I know how to get there, but I get lost the second I step inside. I don’t even know what I do, or how I decide what books to pick up … does anyone? I don’t know. I kind of just walk around, maybe sit down and have some coffee (a lot of these bookshops have cafes in them, which reeks of capitalism but I’m too deep in it to care). Sometimes I get a flat white, but sometimes I get a latte because it’s often 10 pence cheaper, which doesn’t seem like a lot but really does once you’re a budgeting college student like I am. Sure, I could take the tube to Chinatown instead of walking for 20 minutes, or I could use the 2 pounds and 40 pence to buy a Pelican book on the origins of plastic. I mean, it’s not even a contest.

My London bookshops have become part of my routine and I go to a different one each day. So that means that each day, you can find me pacing up and down the aisles, picking stuff up and putting them down again, and being a quiet nuisance who doesn’t even spend any money but will sometimes cave in and buy 5 new books in one go. Throw me into the city again, however, and that’s different. I don’t even need Google Maps at this point, I’m so well-acquainted with the area (area being an ambiguous term, by which I mean whichever Bookshop Area I am currently in) that I’ll even take the side streets home just for kicks. Isn’t it funny? These bookshops, these quiet areas where I constantly lose myself, become markers through which I can find myself in a busy throng of people. I guess that’s kind of ironic, considering that as I was leaving class I overheard these two girls finding directions for this, like, really good Korean place? that costs around 6 pounds? and is, like, really popular? and also super near?

FYI, the Korean joint she’s talking about is two minutes away from campus. Honey, you’ve been here for a little over a month. Get it together. I’ve eaten there at least four times in the past two weeks. It’s also a straight walk to the London Review Bookshop and the adjacent London Review Cake Shop, also known as the place where all time recedes into a vacuum.

But see, that’s what I’m talking about. I saw a play yesterday near Trafalgar Square and decided to walk back home instead of taking the tube, because it’s only a twenty-minute walk from Trafalgar to Russell Square. But in a bookshop, in my London bookshops, I get lost all the time. Not to say that getting lost is a bad thing, of course. When you walk around in a new city, getting lost is half the fun of it. Getting lost in a bookshop, however, is marginally better, in part because books can’t physically speak and are therefore quieter than the hordes of tourists in Piccadilly. Also, books don’t push you around when you’re trying to cross the street at a busy intersection.

I just came back from one, actually. I saw Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar’s The Time Regulation Instituteagain, this time on the tippitytoppiest shelf, making out with the ceiling, out of my reach. Most importantly, out of my credit card’s reach. Just as well, I suppose, because I’m still making my way through the other book I bought a couple of days ago. I tell myself I’ll be back eventually…maybe tomorrow. Okay, definitely tomorrow. And, as I stood there staring at The Time Regulation Institute—should’ve I took those growth pills as a kid — I thought of all my London experiences, which made me think of you, which made me write this letter. I hope you’re well.

Surprisingly enough (or not), I’ve still got a list of books I want to buy. Tanpinar’s is one, along with Han Kang’s Human Acts and Dickens’ Bleak House. I will only allow myself to buy one, though, so I’m giving myself a month to decide. I know I could go to a secondhand bookshop and save myself some cash while I’m at it, but I only go to the secondhand bookshops if I don’t have anything in mind in the first place, because most their charm comes from the search (case in point: Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera for 3 pounds, aka 10 AED – are you f***ing kidding me?). See, I already have a system devised for myself. It’s that bad. Furthermore, it seems counterintuitive to keep going back to bookshops while simultaneously banning yourself from buying anything, as if Alcoholics Anonymous were to have their weekly meetings in a wine cellar. I know that I could avoid going into a bookshop. I know how to avoid them, and I guess there are other things in this city worth exploring, but I can only go to the British Museum so many times before the stench of colonialism and oppression sears my scarf; at least in a bookshop, I can just forego any Kipling novel. Keep in mind that this city is expensive. Really, really, really expensive. You can go into a bookstore for free—and leave for free too, if you can manage to avoid buying anything. I can only visit a bookshop so many times though, before I end up convincing myself that yes I do need the biography on Basquiat, especially since I’ve glanced over it in the last five bookstores I’ve been to.

London has a reputation for being a literary city, but it isn’t really that evident when you first get there. I mean, I guess you can’t really expect people to be wearing “I LUV JANE AU$TEN” sweatshirts or whatever, but I like to imagine that Londoners know they’re walking around in a literary powerhouse. I suppose in reality, though, most people don’t care that much. That’s why I was delighted to overhear a conversation between two booksellers about who should have won the Man Booker prize last year. I’m still making my way through A Brief History of Seven Killingsmyself, so I refrained from jumping into the conversation. However, as I’ve just finished it, I think it’s high time that I go pay them a visit and give them a piece of my mind (that being that Marlon James did, in fact, deserve to win the prize). Then again, I haven’t read most of the other novels that were shortlisted, so I can’t make a sound judgment as of yet. Maybe they’ll have a copy or two of Francis Plug laying around.

I’m hopeless.

Interview with Charles Siebert (I)
Interview with Charles Siebert (II)


Shakespeare at the Olympics

Translation Studies and World Literature

Translation Studies and World Literature

Interview with Frederick Ahl


Frederick M. Ahl is a professor of classics and comparative literature at Cornell University. He recently visited NYU Abu Dhabi to visit classes and deliver a talk entitled “Lost in Translation,” Electra Street sat down afterwards with Professor Ahl to talk further about the difficulties that arise during the process of translation and to explore some of the problems that beset the teaching of literature in universities today.

ES: How did you first get involved in translation studies?

FA: I think, first of all, if you’re brought up in a culture with more than one language spoken, you end up being involved in the process of translation, because you’re inhabiting parallel universes.

My parallel universes, when I was very young, came from being in a family in which my mother was not a native speaker of English and my father was, and from living in a country whose language neither my mother nor my father spoke. So I went to school speaking and learning to speak a third language [Welsh].

ES: Was it ever confusing?

FA: Well, for example, when I was talking to my father, he would call an equine a “horse.” But my mother called it a capall, and in school it was called a ceffyl. And I remember being in school one day. My teacher said to me, “It’s not a capall. It’s a ceffyl.” And I said, “But my mother said it’s a capall, and my father said it’s a horse.” But the teacher insisted, and I was just very, very confused about what the animal was at that moment.

So, really, the process of translation was one that I was engaged in at a very early age, but the experience for me was not continued once we left the alien language environment and moved to England and were all speaking English.

When I’d tried to speak [Welsh] to my parents, they just looked at me very blankly. And I don’t remember at all the process of learning. Nowadays, you could use a computer analogy: we were on one computer program, and we were also on another computer program.

So what we are doing in the humanities through translation is often teaching doctrine in the same way that the church teaches doctrine.

ES: How have you learned to deal with this duality, and what does this duality mean for reading and teaching texts in translation? Do you have any advice to offer to those who are undertaking the challenge of designing frameworks to teach this kind of material?

FA: Maybe one out of every thousand teachers is going to give you access to what is actually happening in a Greek text like Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, because the way we approach that kind of text is as much an item of belief as a life after death is for an orthodox Christian. So what we are doing in the humanities through translation is often teaching doctrine in the same way that the church teaches doctrine. You end up being programmed by a system that you’re not conscious of being programmed by. It’s scary: very Orwellian in a way.

ES: So what should one do with this awareness?

FA: If you’re wise, you pretend you haven’t noticed it. Then you can have a career.

ES: And if you aren’t wise?

FA: No one wants to notice. Because entire scholarly careers have been built by using that little cataclysm as an assumption. We’ve gotten ourselves into this whole binary way of thinking.

ES: How do you think that the problems identified by translation studies affect the teaching of “world literature”?

FA: I think “world literature” is problematic because you have at some point or another to be able to use translations. But you also have to be able to use translations knowing that they actually are going to get you to the author.

Personally, when teaching comparative literature at Cornell, I have refused teach texts that I have not read in the original, because I just don’t consider I can speak with authority about them.

It’s almost as if we try to spread everything very wide when we don’t have anything very deep. But, on the other hand, if you take people like classicists, who believe in depth, then you don’t get width at all. And you get a very sort of naïve reading.

Either way, in America the liberal arts education is—well, it’s dying.

ES: Can you teach world literature without having breadth?

FA: No. So you’re caught between a rock and a hard place.

But we need to ask, “To what extent is this high literature and poetry even part of our culture anymore? Are we in a sense trying to keep alive something that’s trying to die?” You can compare it in many ways to classical music, because it takes a huge effort to keep classical music alive. You need to have an orchestra, and unless you have people in very high places with very large billfolds, it’s going to die. But where classical music has the advantage over great works of literature is that they don’t have to be translated.

So should we just let “literature” die?  Or should we let it survive in the handful of a few people until we pass into an age when someone has a really active will to revive it?  Right now the people who run universities don’t care about literature. You do have students who love literature.  I find this all the time at Cornell.  Students come to classes and say, “Professor, I actually like poetry.” But they want courses on authors, not on the theory of literature. They say, “We want to learn literature, but it’s not what you want to teach us.  You want to teach us about Derrida; you want to teach about Bakthin. And we want to read Shakespeare.” At the same time, though, you also get others who are the merchandisers of the modern culture, who want to learn a system, which they then apply like a cookie cutter to everything they read.

Either way, in America the liberal arts education is—well, it’s dying.

[A longer version of this article will appear in print in ELECTRA STREET 03.]



Interview with Charles Siebert (I)


Interview with Charles Siebert (II)


The Open Door

Images of a City: Qasr Al Hosn Festival II

Images of a City: Qasr Al Hosn Festival II

Qasr al Hosn is in tension with itself. The professor sitting next to me put it this way: “I love the indigenous postmodernism of it all.” The student behind us, a junior from Canada, noted that many of the purported Emiratis doing handicrafts at the Qasr al Hosn Festival are in fact Omani or Saudi Bedouins who take part in the festival to earn a neat wad of cash that can see them through for a couple of months.

Every February, the Qasr al Hosn Festival showcases Emirati cultural traditions and heritage in a ten-day spectacle that lures out almost as many suburb dwellers as do the National Day celebrations on December 2. Many professors at NYU Abu Dhabi schedule outings to the festival with their classes: Some classes go because the festival touches on issues central to their course, others because the professor simply wants her students to leave the Saadiyat bubble behind and see the host culture first-hand. This particular tour was not part of a class trip, though, but rather an open-to-all event sponsored by NYUAD’s Office of Student Life for students who either had not seen the festival yet or who wanted to visit it again.

The festival grounds take up an entire city block many times the size of its New York City equivalent, but it lies empty and unused 355 days of the year. When the festival is not blocking Abu Dhabi’s main traffic arteries, it takes twenty to twenty-five minutes to reach Qasr al Hosn from NYU Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island campus. Abu Dhabi is no stranger to Thursday night traffic congestion, but since this particular Thursday is the busiest day of the festival, we sit in anxiety-inducing traffic for seventy minutes before finally reaching the festival.

As our driver tries to dislodge us from the chasm he got us stuck in, we use the extra time on our hands to observe the endless flow of pedestrians on the sidewalk circling the festival grounds. People from what seems like every country in the world saunter around Qasr al Hosn. Everyone wears attire that complies with Sharia’s prescribed modesty, of course – the festival is run according to Sharia principles, and men and women pay the ten dirhams it costs to enter the festival grounds in separate booths – but the diversity of this crowd rivals any public space I have seen.

To those critics who insist that the UAE does not have any culture of its own, the fort and the festival it houses each year provides strong counterevidence. As I try to hear my own thoughts over the sound of a nearby razafat dance (known to most people as ‘that Emirati men’s dance with sticks’), it seems clear that the UAE does have culture, and that its citizens are proud of that culture. If only my native Denmark made so concerted an effort to showcase our culture every year and have a festival that unifies the country, as this one does. Qasr al Hosn Festival’s unifying effect is not just figurative: a man I know commutes from Fujairah to Abu Dhabi and back – a two-and-a-half-hour drive each way – to take part in the festival.

A more sophisticated way to phrase one objection many critics raise about the UAE is that the UAE’s culture today is not the culture of the pre-oil Trucial States. True, but why should it be? Such an objection reminds me of a passage in Kwame Anthony Appiah’s book Cosmopolitanism (2013) that takes on these cultural purists, viewing cultural contamination not as a juggernaut that erases cultures but as an inevitable fact of human society which we should try to harness and make the most of: “We do not need, have never needed, a settled community, a homogeneous system of values, in order to have a home. Cultural purity is an oxymoron. The odds are that, culturally speaking, you already live a cosmopolitan life, enriched by literature, art, and film that come from many places, and that contains influences from many more” (113).


Other scholars have made the case against cultural contamination just as forcefully as Appiah makes the argument for it. They suggest that cultural mixing erodes the bedrock of a country’s practices, customs, and most importantly its language. In the UAE, those scholars have found a prime example of a country whose age-old language, Khaleej Arabic, is dying even as you read these English lines, and perhaps because you read these English lines. The push in Emirati schools towards strengthening its Arabic language program reflects the old culture’s efforts to ward off the new, invading culture, argue those who are skeptical about globalization. We Danes feel the thrust of that argument: Danish teenagers are losing touch with their mother tongues just as fast as their Emirati peers are. Absent a festival that can compare to the UAE’s Qasr al Hosn Festival, the cultural practices that make Denmark unique and set it apart from, say, Sweden or Norway, are dying out. We must not ignore the warnings of the globalization skeptics, but as I stand in this line, waiting for my legeimat, I find the thought that there is something wrong with this degree of conversation across cultures a hard one to accept.

These thoughts lead me back to the words my professor said a couple of hours earlier: “I love the indigenous postmodernism of it all.” I glossed over his words when I first heard them, dismissing them as too grandiose and intangible for me to process on a weekend night. Upon reflection, though, I realize that his words were not just a sarcastic comment. The reason we come here, the reason the Qasr al Hosn Festival engages us, has to do with the nature of the festival and its stance towards modernity. Qasr al Hosn features dhow builders and basket weavers, blacksmiths and subsistence fishermen, but it sets those anachronisms against the visually dominating Abu Dhabi skyline so that every visitor, no matter how entranced he is by the dexterity of the seventy-something-year-old fletcher, need only look up and see the towering Burj Mohamed bin Rashid attached to the World Trade Center Mall and Souk to be reminded that the UAE is neither stuck reminiscing about the past nor busy demolishing its history in the name of progress. The Qasr al Hosn Festival showcases nothing short of the spirit of the Emirates: a syncretic historical-postmodern state of mind that sees no issue in hosting a heritage festival in the heart of a bustling metropolis.

*Both photos: John Carges, used by permission

Images of a City: Qasr Al Hosn Festival I

Images of a City: Qasr Al Hosn Festival I

[soliloquy id=”4474″]A bedouin coffee party. An old man playing a rababa, its body sparkling and inlaid with mother-of-pearl and blue stones. A tourist kneeling in the middle of the bedouin coffee party, pointing at the beautiful rababa inlaid with mother-of-pearl and blue stones, his face very close to the singing old man, smiling for a little too long while his partner takes a picture with her phone.

A window washer hangs from the taller World Trade Center tower, perched over the scene watching the swarms of visitors as the sun begins to set. Why is he still up there?

A fisherman casts a wide net into a body of water in which there are no fish. The salty smell of fish in a fishless, man-made sea.

The crowd ebbs and flows: hundreds of abayas, thousands of kanduras, a sea of rubber flip flops and wriggling toes with chipped polish.

Three teachers get henna in the traditional Emirati style. Their hands look like lumpy spiders. A preteen boy with three cameras around his neck bumps into one of them, smearing her henna on her sleeve. Another teacher pours water from a Masafi bottle as she tries to scrape it off, but all she does is rub it into the denim as the muddy water drips onto the sand and between her toes. The smell of the dye lingers as they depart for the saluki park.

Helvetica signs that say HERITAGE.  Bad typesetting spells dwindledtothepointhweremanyspeciesarenowendangered. The seas are over-exploited. The sign implies that should probably not eat hammour if you want to be sustainable.

Old shipbuilders with a rusty awl, their dhow perpetually under construction.Palm fronds on the ground and chanting that sounds like it’s emanating from the earth, but is actually blasting from a speaker muffled with a burlap sack.

Fun fact: qasr has the same root as castle. “Wait, you studied abroad in Spain, right? Is alcázar…whoa! That’s so cool.”

A British man expertly explains the burqa to his wife, referring to it as a “face mask.”  A man with a belt made of bullets, holding a gold-plated gun, stands in front of a police station. The line of his rifle barrel points to a sand pit full of children in orange vests, digging.

A poster explains the growth cycle of date palm fruit. Can you eat them when they’re green? No, you cannot. But when they’re just slightly unripe you might be able to make juice out of them.

A sand bag with a fax number on it. An LED billboard across the street, advertising the QASR AL HOSN FESTIVAL. A festival celebrating a fort that you are never allowed to enter.

A man with an iPad, eyes wide. “Would you mind taking a quick survey about your experience tonight?”

My experience?

A wedding celebration.

An antique gramophone.

A prayer rug on the sand.

A tree with fat beanpods, hanging.

A man swinging an axe at a date palm.

A minaret perfectly aligned between two glassy buildings.

A small boy holds a large falcon.

A smile with missing teeth.

A toddler in a tiny kandura is placed on a pony against his will. La, ‘ami, la!

An anchor stuck in a gleaming fishing basket.

A fur-lined abaya.

A woman in a burqa atop a camel.

A man sitting on a pile of crates, wearing a tartan skirt and taking a swig from a clay jug.

Wheelchair hubcaps painted with the UAE flag, black slowly fading to red, to green, to white as the owner wheels up a ramp onto a boat.

Children with gold tangled in their hair.


You can go to the Emirati Salad stand to learn about the edible plants of the region. The first bush looks familiar. “I think I’ve eaten that one! Do you pickle it?” He asks where, eyebrow raised. “…Georgia?” Well – it is a desert plant, he explains. He doesn’t think you ate it in Georgia. He chuckles and gives you a bite of a succulent-type thing that tastes like a sour cucumber.

A family of five eats legaimat on the ground, leaning against a dune in the corner behind the houbara enclosure. Cardamom fog lingers in the air, and you can hear the syrupy rosewater dripping back into the paper bowl, or at least you think you can.

Spotlights shooting from the turret of the fortress, hazy in the night sky and stretching upwards to converge in a many-pointed star. The effect is such that, when you first notice them, you think the rays are coming down from between the clouds, illuminating the tower with heavenly light.

Photo by John Carges, used by permission

Photo by John Carges, used by permission




An Article about a Play about a Play

An Article about a Play about a Play

Hamlet_UR Hamlet Photo

In case you missed Theatre Mitu’s production of Hamlet/Ur-Hamlet that premiered at NYUAD’s Arts Center on 16 April, here is—not a review, but more of a reflective program guide to a theater experience unlike many others.


  1. Show up to the Arts Center 30 minutes prior to the show. Not fifteen, because by then the line gets ridiculously long and if you haven’t gotten your ticket by then – tough luck.
  2. While lining up, go through the pamphlet and notice the 6-page bibliography. Silently question (or out loud, depending on whether or not you want to make small-talk with the stranger in front of you) whether or not you’ll be able to understand the play without knowing any of the works cited. Find the N-Sync song within the bibliography, and laugh because maybe you’ll be okay. Silently/out loud curse yourself for not being as worldly and intellectual as the bibliography clearly expects you to be. Maybe if you took that one theatre class with that one professor from that one Ivy League school, you would’ve been more prepared. Stupid class registration.
  3. Continue lining up. Realize that you don’t know what to expect.
  4. Make a lame joke about how this play-slash-theatre piece will “exceed your expectations,” partly because you don’t really have any.
  5. Hamlet is the one where the guy’s wife goes “UNSEX ME HERE,” right?
  6. Listen to director Ruben Polendo’s opening remarks, and then be ushered into the theatre in groups. Realize you’re not going to a conventional play. You’re not going to be sitting down for the next hour and fifteen minutes.
  7. Walk around the set pieces at your leisure, trying not to bump into people while also appreciating each individual piece while also keeping in mind that you can’t stay in one exhibit for too long because at one point rock music will play from a plastic box in the middle of the set to signal the staged performance.
  8. Hear the rock music and gather to the centre of the theater. If you’re early, watch as people slowly trickle into the front. Feel a sense of collectivity as your pulse quickens to the beat.
  9. Watch as Aysan Celik and company dominate the glass stage. They’re elevated above the rest of us, they’re caged and yet clearly in charge. Everyone is in awe.
  10. Repeat steps 7 – 9 two more times.
  11. A female voice, almost like a robot, says “the installation is now closed”. There is no curtain call. You clap anyway.The performance ends.


Before I went to this Theater Mitu production of Hamlet/Ur-Hamlet , I had to admit something to myself: I am sick of Hamlet. God forbid, though, that a literature major should say that. What many others saw as Shakespeare’s masterpiece, I saw as a play about an arrogant (but, I will admit, really witty) teenager who messes everything up because he feels like he can – as if seeing a ghostly apparition is the same as getting supernatural powers.

None of that mattered, though, because Theater Mitu’s production has very little to do with being a faithful representation of the Bard’s play. When you walked into the theater space, you were greeted by a scrolling synopsis of the play, where certain words change on screen in a way that completely alters the meaning of the text (ie. Horatio as Hamlet’s friend/lover/buddy/soldier). If we take the opening piece as a sort of introduction to the rest of the installations, it becomes very clear from the onset that whatever the audience believes Hamlet to be won’t necessarily be seen for the next hour and fifteen minutes. I suppose that’s the problem that Theater Mitu’s production wanted to tackle: when everyone thinks they know what Hamlet is, who’s to say what the right interpretation is?

This epistemic dilemma is at the heart of the production. As the audience waited in line to enter the installation, Ruben Polendo encouraged everyone to take their time with the exhibit and experience the pieces in whichever order they please. This wasn’t a play to see with your group of 20 friends, where your opinions become heavily influenced by what your current crush thinks. You’re encouraged to be on your own and revel in your isolation. In a way, I suppose, the isolation makes you like Hamlet: with all the deception surrounding him, only Hamlet can say what it’s like to be Hamlet.

I guess that makes Hamlet (the character) like us. No one can really know what it’s like to be you except you yourself: the experiences you go through, the choices you make on what influences you is all a matter of subjectivity. Aysan Celik plays a minor role in the individual set pieces – standing in a corner with her back to the audience while an old reel of Hamlet plays on her naked back – but onstage, as Hamlet, she mixes with the flurry of it all. As soon as the rock music stops, the actors perform alongside videos looping on the monitors attached to the cage. All the while, audience members shift around the cage, hoping for a better look. It’s very chaotic, but also very funny. At one point Celik/Hamlet performs a piece where she stands trial while mimicking the gestures of a 60’s singer (think Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons) on the screen. The famous “to be or not to be” speech gets re-imagined as a playground rhyme-slash-tap dance piece.


Hamlet/Ur-Hamlet was a lot to take in. If I were to sum up the piece, it would be about Hamlet’s struggle to find himself – or herself, for that matter. The video pieces that cut into the onstage performance, coupled with the diversity of the installation pieces suggest aspects of our experiences: what influences us, as well as what we choose to influence. Although each installation piece seemed utterly detached from everything else, each piece draws from Shakespeare’s play. Everything is influenced by Hamlet, but onstage Hamlet is influenced by everything. The beauty of Theater Mitu’s piece stems from the very fact that it does not resemble the original play, and you could easily get away with a marginal knowledge of the original text. As I was walking around, I noticed people of all ages experiencing the show. I’d bet that only a handful of people could recite the whole play by heart, and that some people in the audience have never read Hamlet at all.

At the end of the day, though, the “true meaning” of Hamlet doesn’t matter. We may argue about the merits of deconstructive theater and how much a play should resemble the original text, but with Hamlet/Ur-Hamlet, everyone’s a winner. When I saw the show, I tended to focus on ideas of psychology and the self, but that’s not to say that that’s the only thing I noticed. In fact, I could’ve written this article about the portrayal of sexual relationships, the idea of love in general, the role of gender…the list goes on. What I think of Hamlet may not be what you think of Hamlet, but it doesn’t matter.

Oftentimes when we approach a canonical piece of literature – especially with Shakespeare – we get obsessed with finding out what the “correct” interpretation is, what the “true meaning” of the text is, and what Shakespeare meant the play to be. While we should take into consideration all these things, the beauty of studying these literary texts also comes from the idea that we inject our own meaning into it. Different readers will approach Hamlet in a different way, and that’s what Hamlet/Ur-Hamlet strives to achieve. It’s not a theater performance meant to represent Hamlet in the years to come, but rather an invitation for the audience to re-experience what it’s like to construct meaning for themselves.

[Photos courtesy of Theater Mitu]