The Bidoun Library Project

A Treasure Chest of Oriental Pulp Fiction

The Middle East has long been a source of fascination for artists and writers, especially in the West. The Bidoun Organisation has created a travelling exhibition that brings together some 1,000 posters, cartoons, catalogues and curiosities that show how distorted the clichés of the Orient were, even post-1945. Amira El Ahl reports from Cairo

Covers of <i>The Sheikh</i> series (photo: Amira El Ahl)
Imperial political propaganda tool: Covers of <i>The Sheikh</i> series in the exhibition at the Townhouse Gallery

​​ Trashy novels are generally instantly recognizable by the garish picture on the cover. This usually depicts a gorgeous, scantily-clad maiden being rescued, or kissed, or clasped to the manly bosom of the posturing hero. Clearly, The Secret Son of the Sheikh is a cheap thriller of the same genre as thousands of other such romances.

However, when the reader is then confronted with The Secret Bride of the Sheikh, The Virgin Bride of the Sheikh, The Lover of the Sheikh and many other variations on the same theme, it all starts to come across as slightly bizarre. Suddenly the book before us no longer looks like an ordinary, cheap romance but an imperial political propaganda tool, one that blatantly affirms and reinforces the cliché of the backward 'Oriental' man.

The Sheikh series is on display as part of the Bidoun Library Project, a collection of around 1,000 printed works that either originated in the Middle East or take the region as their subject. The collection is almost entirely from the 20th century, with a particular focus on the period after the Second World War: a time of redefinition, both of the relationship between West and Middle East and in the assessment of recent historical upheavals.

Contemporary culture from the Middle East

The project was initiated by the people behind the quarterly art and culture magazine Bidoun. The Bidoun Organisation promotes contemporary Middle Eastern art and cultural productions. Alongside their magazine the editors also organize exhibitions, travelling libraries, video programmes, and much else besides. The Bidoun Library in Cairo is their latest project.

photo: courtesy Bidoun Magazine
Making books and magazines about art and culture with a Middle Eastern focus available to an Arab public: The Bidoun Library in the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo

​​ This library is a multifaceted, mobile collection of books, magazines and music videos that was up until recently on display in the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo. The Bidoun Library was first presented to the world in Abu Dhabi in the autumn of 2009. The idea was to make books and magazines about art and culture with a Middle Eastern focus available to an Arab public – publications it is otherwise very difficult, if not impossible, to obtain in this part of the world.

In addition, the initiators also wanted to establish an archive to preserve publications from the region that were no longer being printed, or which existed only in private collections and were thus inaccessible to the public.

It was clear from the outset that the Bidoun Library was to be a constantly changing project, a collection that was always assuming a different shape. The exhibition in Cairo cannot therefore be compared with the one in Abu Dhabi, or with those that followed in Dubai, Beirut and New York.

Rarities and curiosities

Since 2009 the Bidoun Library has shown various quite different things. The initiators' projects have included documenting the art boom in the Middle East since the start of the new millennium; collecting works published by Dar El Fata El Arabi, a primarily Egyptian publishing house financed by the PLO which produced children's books in the 1970s; and exhibiting avant-garde art magazines from the Arab world, such as Fonoon Al Arabeyya, which was published by Iraqi exiles in London in the 1980s.

photo: Amira El Ahl
Pulp fictions and propaganda: Karl Marx, Fidel Castro and Adolf Hitler on display in Cairo

​​ For the Bidoun Library, the exhibition in New York was a turning point. Because it was now addressing a Western audience, the curators decided to play with the paradox of the Middle East, which as a construct exists far more strongly in the Western imagination than it does in Cairo, Beirut or Damascus.

The curators sat down in front of their computers and searched for material on the Middle East. They used different internet search engines and put in terms such as 'Arabs', 'Iran', 'oil' and '1970'. The results threw up a mixture of books on the veil, violence in Islam, the oil crisis, terrorist novels, and the legendary, 'orientalized' Michael Jackson music video 'Remember the Time'. The search terms provided the curators with information that was the most widespread, but not the most reliable.

Open interpretation

soruce: Pinnacle Books
Caricature of a mad mullah: Steve Leiniger's <i>Official Iranian Jokebook</i> is among the exhibits of the Bidoun Library

​​ The search did not follow a particular pattern, and the objects on display are not intended to convey a particular message, explains Bidoun editor Negar Azimi. "We put these books together in a completely neutral way, based on pragmatic criteria. It's only when they're all brought together that something new and autonomous emerges, but it's down to the observer to make his or her own interpretation."

Many of the objects on display in New York can now also be seen in Cairo. Nonetheless, this exhibition too is special, and unique in its composition. It conveys the humanitarian idea that was the catalyst for the collection, as well as the discourse that took place with the public in New York.

On display in the Townhouse Gallery were Arab comics, art books, the official company magazine of the Saudi oil giant Aramco, countless books about the veil, and even a copy of Hitler's Mein Kampf in Arabic. The curators intend that visitors should browse and explore the collection for themselves.

Creating cultural spaces

Cover of <i>Les Pendus de Bagdad</i> by Gerard de Villiers (source: Plon publishers)
Violence and female sexuality: A common topos in Oriental Pulp Fiction

​​ Around fifty books sponsored by art book publishers in Switzerland and Germany will remain in the Townhouse library as part of the permanent collection there, thus fulfilling part of the original concept of the Bidoun Library. It's a small gesture, but an important contribution nonetheless in a city where it is almost impossible to access such books in a public library.

The Bidoun collection will soon be travelling on, to London this time. The curators hope that it will continue to travel around the world. Other locations where they hope to put it on display include Palestine, Liverpool and Bahrain.

A magazine as an objet d'art

There was so much to see, read, and discover in this exhibition that one feels one simply doesn't have time to take it all in. So it's just as well that the autumn edition of the Bidoun magazine is devoted to this special library, functioning as a kind of catalogue of the exhibition.

It provides the visitor with the opportunity not only of browsing the collection at his or her leisure, but also to take home with them a one-off work of art. Each of the 5,000 printed copies of the magazine features a unique photo on the cover, released by the Egyptian collector Amgad Naguib from his collection for one US dollar apiece. Thus a magazine devoted to the book as objet d'art itself becomes a unique object.

Amira El Ahl

© Qantara.de 2010

Translated from the German by Charlotte Collins

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de

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