“The truths in narration are all relative truths.” -Tom Robbins
Picture this: a map (slightly yellowed, showing age) lies flat on a surface, like a patient ready for surgery (or should that be, “etherised upon a table”). Within its margins lie the pale creams of sandy valleys, giving way to increasingly deeper shades of orange-brown the closer one gets towards the edges, as the land rises into the surrounding hills. Cutting across the landscape from the South-East is a vivid green gash, the Tigris valley, a brilliant flare of vegetal life bursting into the frame. Then, movement. Two pairs of hands invade the land. They move over the map, drawing lines with pencil and ruler, declaring borders and delineations, only to erase them and start again. Amidst this Escher-like display of surreal geopolitical demarcation, the soundtrack plays a gentle drum roll, upping the sense of anticipation, of climax, as coloured pencils are sharpened like metaphorical swords, ready to swoop back and carve up the land anew. With each erasure, the piece of rubber frantically, frenziedly scuffs the paper, removing not just lead, but paper too, tearing the page, each little rip dividing the land even further. Truly, the pen is mightier than the sword. The work is called Discussion Between Gentlemen, and anybody with even the most passing familiarity with the history of the Middle East doesn’t need any introduction as two who exactly these two gentlemen are.
“I explore the randomness of how historical events occur,” says Bady Dalloul. “The exercise of drawing a border becomes an exercise of drawing itself: their actions are random, yet these pens draw destinies that cement fates for generations.” It has been thus for thousands of years, as empires expand and contract the world over, and each reining power carves up the land around them, changing the lives of people forever. “It’s extraordinary how, with time, what seem to be completely random acts become the purposeful historical realities we study in school,” he says. “We imbue with some kind of purpose to them. I am fascinated by this process of ‘writing’ history – and how we, the people affected by it, are always witnesses, yet never actors in it.”
Bady Dalloul was born in Paris in 1986. His parents, the artists Ziad Dalloul and Laila Muraywid had moved there, two years earlier, and it was in Paris that their young family grew. As a child, the younger Dalloul and his brother Jad would spend summers at their grandparents’ house in Damascus, and it was here that the geopolitical realities of the region would seep into the edges of their childhood, ever-present even if not yet fully understood. In fact, his documentary-like, meticulous research-style works (comprised of notebooks, video and other found objects) began, he says, as a game. Which is apt, given his fascination with the games that powers and governments play, most often with countries and people as their unwitting pawns. “My brother and I would get bored during those long summer holidays in Damascus,” he says. “To entertain ourselves, we imagined that we were the kings of our own fictional countries. Jad was the ruler of Jadland, and I commanded Badland. The more we wrote and the more we drew, the more these countries became real.”
This game, unconsciously, had become a way for the two boys to process the daily life around them, a sense of restoring order in an otherwise disordered world. “We weren’t necessarily acutely aware of the political events of the time, but we were certainly aware of their impact on us,” he reflects. “There were weekends we weren’t allowed to go to certain places at certain times, or we had to postpone activities due to what was happening with the Lebanese civil war. Spending most of the year in Paris, there were all sorts of things going on in Damascus we were not normally privy to, so many practical things we never had to think about at all were suddenly affected. We were also acutely aware of the difference in the standard of living between the two cities and it amazed us, because, as the kings of these - utopian countries, we had readymade solutions for all these issues we saw around us.”
Badland would eventually become a project comprising seven notebooks (1999–2004), raising the question: is a fictional country any less real than the artificial borders and delineations imposed upon the Middle East by Imperial powers? Point: are the rules created by a young Bady and his brother Jad any less arbitrary than those created by a certain Mark Sykes and Francois-Georges Picot? Or Clemenceau and Lloyd George? Oslo, Balfour, Algiers, Camp David? “Knowing that the same situation has occurred in another place relieves me. It makes me feel that we are less alone, that the events that have happened in the Middle East are because of a human pattern. When I name a work Discussion Between Gentlemen and not ‘The Mr Sykes and Mr Picot Agreement’, it’s my way of saying I’m not pointing a finger at a particular person or a particular people, I am simply establishing a pattern that could just be understood by everyone, without the cultural background that sometimes complicates it.”
This fascination with fictional countries and alternate fates has come to be the leitmotif of Dalloul’s oeuvre, as evident, for example, in the 2015 work Scrapbook. Filled with notes, photographs and origami, it was inspired by the life of a real girl called Sadako. A victim of the radiation effects of the bomb in Hiroshima, she believed that if she folded 1000 origami shapes, she would be granted the wish to continue her life. Tragically, she died before she managed to achieve this – but Dalloul, on a trip to Japan, found a notebook and imagined it could be hers, using it as the basis for this work, interweaving the story of Sadako’s life with those of Syria and the wider Middle East. “Growing up between Paris and Damascus, I never felt like a foreigner in either country, but it was when I travelled to Japan that I felt as if I was seeing the world for the first time,” he says. “I felt like Douanier Rousseau going to paint the tropical plants in the Paris greenhouse; I felt like a child rediscovering their A,B,Cs. I saw a city and a country truly as an outsider and I saw everything so clearly. How a country like Japan – and its cities, like Hiroshima, which had been near obliterated, had reached their status as an economic world power, and on the contrary, how the Syria of my parents had fallen into the situation which we all witness today.” Scrapbook mixes fact with fiction, established fact with alternate, fictional outcomes, using English to represent historical narrative as it is widely accepted, and French as it has been experienced by the artist. The two languages interweave, winding around smatters of Arabic and Japanese, like two melodies playing together: two languages, two realities.
Parallel and alternate histories are explored further in Dalloul’s 2016 project, a series of 22 books dedicated to Tonkeru, a fictional Pacific state that bears uncanny similarities to the Middle East. With its parallel colonial history, at once real and not real, it provides a glimpse into an alternate reality, a longing for how things that might have been. Crucially, in creating a fictitious state, without a specific cultural context, Dalloul is able to examine political and social actions in a way that shows their universality. That is not to say he works in a vacuum – the audience’s attention is an integral part of the work, and the reason so many of his projects involve video. “I must say, I love books,” he says, “but with video, you’re agreeing to give a set duration of your time; just as one peruses through the pages of a book, the video can be an entry point into a work, a gentle rhythm that allows you to fully absorb the presented information. In my work, books and video are extremely complementary – but the latter imposes temporality.”
Dalloul’s works cleverly use and invert existing items such as playing cards or games, such as in The Great Game (2017), in which, mounted as Poker hands, the great architects of the Middle East’s history go from being the players to the played (they make another appearance in Ordinator (2019), which investigates the famous Persian Book of Kings, or Shahnameh). Then there’s the country-hopping Kalila wa Dimna (2016), an ancient tale that originated in India in the fourth century AD, winding its way through Afghanistan, Syria, Egypt, Turkey and even Japan in the 1950s, a testament to the power of a story. He has also worked with the Syrian/Lebanese community in Lagos, where, on a residency, he transposed their personal stories onto local Nigerian dress, a physical embodiment of the mingling of personal and national histories.
In other works, such as A Country Without a Door or Windows (2016), tiny drawings framed in matchboxes force the viewer to come close, to be confronted by ball-point drawings of violence and social upheaval. “We have been overwhelmed by the images coming out of Syria,” says Dalloul. “At first, these tiny pictures were inspired by my boyhood interest in collecting stamps, and depicted normal, quotidian scenes. But as the violence grew in Syria, so too it grew in these pictures. It felt like there was no limit to the horrors we were witnessing, they were everywhere, and there was nowhere to escape. By drawing them like this, it was a way of taking control of them, digest them and arranging them in a way that forces others to see, digest and understand them too.”
There is so much to digest, so much to understand and so much to learn from history. But history, popularly, belongs to the winners. Or should that be the authors? After all, Herodotus, the father of history, is also known as the father of lies – misinformation and random occurrences become hard fact and take on meaningful narratives respectively. “This is why I like working with existent forms: I do not change them, I work on them” says Dalloul. “I’m not remaking existing history or remaking it into a different reality, I’m just making it more visible.”