Written by William Dobson
In the second half of our two part interview with Lebanese artist, writer, pink warrior and TED fellow, Zena El Khalil, she tells us more about her work, what it means to be a women in the Middle East and her struggles to promote free speech in the Arab world.
SUGAR STREET REVIEW: Is looking at gender roles the most important part of your work?
ZENA EL KHALIL: Looking at gender roles is extremely important to my work. I am often questioning the role of uber masculinity in the world today. Let’s face it, wars are not conducted by women. However women do raise violent men. So, I’m not saying one is better than the other. It’s important to investigate the space in between… and I try to do that with my work; exploring the connections between violence, gender and religion and their place in our bubble gum culture today. I use humor and irony to make a point, because again, that’s just who I am! I believe in the power of the smile! Laughing builds bridges, while the blame game only pulls people further apart. I remember an interview I did with CNN during the 2006 invasion. The anchorman kept asking me: “who do you blame?” He was very persistent with getting me to shout out a name or a country (and he then probably expected and maybe even hoped that I would break down into tears or shove my finger into the air and start screaming out nonsense in Arabic). He wanted a sensational moment… and so I gave it to him…, but my way. I told him, “This is not a time for blaming. This is a time for cease-fire. Everyone is suffering. Violence begets violence. Period.”
SSR: Following on from the last question, you very much embody the ‘modern’ Arab woman. To what extent is your outlook a progression of more traditional values and to what extent is it a rebellion against them?
ZEK: My values were taught to me by my parents, by Africa, by Europe, by the US, by Lebanon, by friends… but mostly, by the books I read (everyone from Kundera, Garcia-Marquez and Neil Gaiman) and the music I listened to (Fela Kuti, Iron Maiden and Nina Simone). I looked up to people who challenged the status quo and who fought for those who couldn’t. My heroes were Gandhi and Frida Kahlo. I was always interested in politics, I always believed I could change the world. I am not sure I knew how, meaning I did not have a plan nor agenda. I was more interested in being in a position to change things, and I knew that when the time came, I would know what to do. The actual race to get there was always very interesting. I ran for school / class president several times and won. I won because I had fabulous campaigns, and not real life changing solutions. I won because I could draw and was interested in theater; I had creative posters and humorous speeches. In fact, I even once rode a horse into school with banners hanging off him that read “Vote for Zena!” John Wayne as a Woman in Africa! I never allowed myself to be put into a situation of imposition, and perhaps that is why I was so eccentric as a child. I was not really an extravert; I was more of a shy bookworm. But when the time came to put up a fight, I would already be at the finish line, pulling alongside me all the other bookworms, having wittily avoided the fight altogether. Make love, not war! Does this set the grounds for the constitution of a “modern” Arab woman?
SSR: You say that you don’t cook. Is this, as you claim, purely down to a lack of patience or is there perhaps some subconscious rebellion against the traditional gender role of the Arab woman in this?
ZEK: I don’t cook because I really don’t know how to cook. I am a vegetarian of 12 years and my diet consists of mostly salads and veggies. I don’t consider making a salad to be cooking! My husband, on the other hand, is the best Italian lover, film director and cook… so I leave the magic to him. I love setting tables and creating funky ambiances for when we have dinner parties. I love mixing up cocktails and pairing wines. So, I think it’s not much of a subconscious rebellion, but rather an issue of interest. I would much rather learn how to master the perfect dirty martini than make kousa mehshi. That’s just me!
SSR: You describe yourself as spiritual and there is a suggestion that you believe in some sort of idea of a god. Do you see yourself as a Muslim in any way and, if so, how does this marry with your less traditional outlook?
ZEK: I don’t believe in religion. I do believe in energy. I do believe that we all come from the same place. And that we are all made from the same substance. And that no people or religion or culture is better than the other. The idea of a “chosen people” does not exist in my mind. We are all chosen. We are all family. We are all connected. We are one without being numerical. We are love. We are each other’s love. We have to take care of each other because we are a big family. And on a side note, that is actually quite important, we also have to take care of our fellow animals because they are part of the family too. Dogs, elephants, spiders, bears, whales, ants and unicorns. One love.
SSR: You are a multi-disciplinary artist. Do you look to make the same statements through different mediums, or do you use specific mediums to portray specific ideas or themes?
ZEK: Every story chooses it’s medium. I feel very lucky to be flexible with my mediums. I love taking pictures as much as I love sewing things together. I do have a particular attraction to plastic and the color pink. I use the color pink a lot. It’s fluffy and sweet and superficial, and like cotton candy, too much of it can leave a bad pain in your stomach. Consumerism and war, they are one and the same. The plastic I use in my paintings are made from oil. The same oil mankind is at war for. My work is a by-product of political and economic turmoil. I try to expose the superficiality of war, creating an alternate reality, and my weapons of choice are love and humor.
SSR: I love your piece (if it can be called that) ‘Wahad Areese, Please!’ Performance art is usually associated with a certain anger and pain, born out of the anarchy and political unrest of the 1960s. There’s something clearly tongue-in-cheek about this work though, masking an important message behind it. Is there any pain or anger driving you as well, hidden behind the humour?
ZEK: This piece started in 2003. It was a time when mothers from our community in Beirut would come up to me and ask me to marry their son. They did not know much about me, except that I came from a good family. At first, I rejected their visits, feeling like I didn’t want to be marketed off as a piece of meat. What about all my education? What about my dream of pursuing a Masters in Fine Arts in the great New York City? What about all the travelling I wanted to do and books I wanted to write? After a few visits, I became intrigued by these mothers and started asking them if they were happily married? If they pursued their dreams? And if they really wanted a troublemaker like me in their family anyways… I decided to then take matters into my own hand. Instead of people coming to check me out, I would go out and look for a husband myself (I mean, if it was really so important that I be married). So, I bought a huge wedding dress, spray painted it pink, and enrolled in the first Beirut Marathon. I figured it would be a great platform to look for a man… so many to choose from! As I walked the 10KM Fun Run, I started asking women about their thoughts, dreams and fears of marriage. I asked men too. What kind of women they wanted to marry? Why was it so important to marry? Of course, the common answer from men was usually sex related and from women, it was about security. I did the performance again on a yearly basis, collecting stories and having great conversations. I did receive a few proposals too. However, after the 2006 invasion of Lebanon and the death of my best friend Maya, I decided that the most important thing in the world was love, and that we didn’t have enough of it. So since then I run to spread love, peace, and a few smiles and laughs along the way. People still ask me why I wear the dress, and they joke that I’ve been looking for a husband for 10 years… but I use the opportunity to give them a hug and tell them that I love them. It’s the best feeling… giving a hug to a total stranger.
SSR: You’ve been a big champion of freedom of speech through the internet. Indeed, your blog shot to international fame in 2006 and you participated in a panel discussion at the Nobel Peace Centre with, among others, Jimmy Wales. To what extent has this campaigning been successful? To what extent has the internet liberated Arabs, with particular reference to the Arab Spring?
ZEK: I was indeed one of the first largely followed Arab bloggers. I can’t say much about the Arab Spring because this is only the beginning of a long journey; but it’s a beautiful start and I hope things will get better along the way. I try my best at all times. I try to be an ambassador for peace. But it’s very hard. There are many things you cannot talk about in public. Lebanon is in a state of war with Israel and it’s considered treason to speak with people in Israel. There are some great peace activists on the other side of the border, but we still can’t communicate freely. The internet has helped a lot, but you never know who’s monitoring you. A lot of people from Israel wrote to me in 2006, but I did not reply to a single one of them in fear of being monitored. We have only seen what the internet can do on a superficial level. The real change has to come from within. And I’m not talking about governments. I’m talking about humanity. We have to become people again, and not countries or religions. Just flesh and blood. Just beating hearts and throbbing brains and synaptic nerves and livers and toenails and fungus and bacteria. We have to be liberated from within before we can even begin to address the world around us. And the best way to do this is to remember that we are all just flesh and blood, and beating hearts and livers and warts and gall bladders and appendixes. Wait, some of us don’t have appendixes. Ok, scratch that last organ. We don’t really need it anyways.
Photographs by Gigi Roccati