Duality - Approaching Abjection I

The Arts Film Religion


What is it that we actually see in cinema? Something that is withdrawn or cut from the visible: “It is of absolute importance that the flowers cinema displays (as in one of Visconti’s sequences) be Mallarmean flowers, that they be absent from every bouquet."1 For Badiou the idea is grounded not in seeing the flowers, but rather, in having seen them. Eisenstein said that there’s no such a thing as cinema, only cinematography: cuts, edits, frames. In this sense cinema is both impure and invisible: “Cinematography is first and foremost, montage."2 The shift towards entertainment in the film industry somewhat turned the invisibility into the hyper-reality of the always visible, piercing through the realities of mass-media.


But in turn other forms of cinematic experience replaced the dying cinema culture in the West and enthroned video as the default medium of 21st century art, breaking through into the mainstream of the gallery, mainly in the format of the video installation. Although the format is now well established, it has been tardy to come by in Middle Eastern art. Some salient examples would be Mounir Fatmi’s Save Manhattan(2007) that creates illusions of old New York City skyline before 9/11 with objects such as books about the Arab world published since 9/11, VHS tapes and loudspeakers, or, Raeda Saadeh’s Vacuum(2007), in which you watch the artist vacuuming – endlessly – sand in the deserted hills of Palestine.


Video-art however is one of the most difficult among contemporary art forms. This is derived from the temptation to realize all types of ideas and experiment with all concepts that comes along with the new media, while at the same time the heterogeneity of concepts lives in tension with the uniformity of the medium.3 Nevertheless video has been one of the main gramophones recording the vicissitudes of Arab history, especially since the Arab revolutions, and being one of the world’s toughest regions, we read in War and Other (Impossible) Possibilities, a book by Lebanese art historian Gregory Buchakjan: “Useless violence makes history. Useless violence makes art history." Recently an unprecedented number of short-films and documentaries have appeared not just documenting, but also constructing, destructing and deconstructing both old and new realities. 


Dalia Mosaad’s short-film Duality explores the dilemma of gay Muslim men in the Arab world stranded in a disjunctive between sex and religion. Mosaad’s work is not unique in this sense, for two films have appeared in the post-Arab Spring era openly dealing with homosexuality: A short-film by US-based Yemeni filmmaker Ibi Ibrahim, Sounds for Oud, dealing with the struggle of a married man who has a homosexual partner, and, Lebanese director Samer Daboul’s full-length feature Out Loud, a film dealing with bonds of friendship and prejudice against homosexuality in post-Civil War  Lebanon. I wrote about “Sounds of Oud” for Yemen Times in November 2011 and about “Out Loud” here at The Mantle in May 2012.


“Duality” stands out, nevertheless, because it is not a narrative film but rather the portrayal of a condition, sense in which more – or perhaps less – than a short film, it is both a visual essay and an installation: In less than two minutes, “Duality” offers a two-planes visual meditation – one would imagine each plane running in parallel screens in a gallery suspended on a thin corridor of running water – on an everyday scene, in which a homosexual Muslim is confronted with two equally selfless, paralyzing and ecstatic experiences: Sexual intercourse and prayer.


Although the scenes are merely suggestions – and here Mosaad picks up the invisibility theme expounded by Badiou – there is a great degree of emotional violence in the work, which has been a recurrent tent of modern artistic sensibility, the aesthetics of shock. The experience is so strong that no interpretation is possible and one should either let himself be consumed by it or reject it altogether with repulsion. More than shock, Mosaad plays with aesthetics of annihilation.


She tells us in a short interview: “I chose to focus on one moment particularly; the climax of the inner battle between him and himself. I see it as a very critical moment, it could lead up to him self-destroying his identity or him annihilating his religion, or choosing to live a split dual life of both extremes, etc. And that’s the whole point of this short piece, it raises an open question.”


The 26-year-old Cairene, studying film in Los Angeles, is interested not only in LGBT-issues but in gender fluidity. The characters in her short films are often androgynous, homosexual or playing an opposite gender’s role. The question of gender identity is explosive in her native Egypt nowadays and in the larger Middle East. Homosexuality is not only tabooed by society but also forbidden by religion, in a part of the world that combines wild eroticism with firm repression.


Egyptian writer Yahia Lababidi tells us: “Much of the new morality is fanned by a kind of Islamic panic, quite foreign to the laid-back Egyptian character. It is the difference between a quiet confidence and a loud insecurity […] With female flesh under wraps, and no promise of release in the near future, sensuality spills into unexpected spaces. In Cairo, the human need for physical contact manifests in intense same-sex intimacy."4 Here, however, Lababidi is not specifically referring to homosexuality; what provides some insight into Mosaad’s visual essay.


In 2005, the New York Times’ style magazine published an interesting feature, Straight, With an Asterick that questioned how for example it is acceptable in America’s night life – and even chic – for heterosexual women to have a gay fling but completely unacceptable for men. The feature is a look into the life of a few New York males who find themselves having flings with other men without questioning their sexual identity.


The topic has been the subject of different studies by psychoanalysts and psychiatrists and findings have been revealing: Many of the men found themselves looking for the kind of same-sex bondage and intimacy that is frowned upon in a society shaped by monotheism and patriarchy; paradoxically enough the only way to obtain that bondage was through anonymous sex. In other cases, they spoke about narcissism and the cult of the phallus as an object, independent of any human relationships.




To be continued...


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[1] Alain Badiou. Handbook of Inaesthetics (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 2005): 78.  



[2] Sergei Eisenstein. “The Cinematographic Principle and the Ideogram” in Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings (New York: OUP, 1992): 127.



[3] Agnes Heller. Aesthetics and Modernity: Essays by Agnes Heller, ed. John Rundell (Landam, MD: Lexington Books, 2010) 58-59.



[4] Yahia Lababidi. Trial by Ink: From Nietzsche to Belly Dancing (Champaign, IL: Common Ground, 2010): 107 & 112. 




Egypt, Homosexuality, Dalia Mosaad