Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Beauty of Garbage!

For the past few months, the eyes of TV viewers in Egypt and the Arab World have been glued to the dubbed-into-Arabic Turkish soap opera 'Noor.' The series, premised on the legendary love story between Noor and Mohannad (the drama's central couple), has taken the Arab World by storm. "I sell more than 500 photos of the stars of 'Noor' each day," a street vendor in Damascus told the Agence France-Presse. In Beirut, it was reported that 'Noor' attracted more viewers than the Olympic Games. In the same vein, sales of t-shirts bearing pictures of Noor and Mohannad are skyrocketing from Morocco to Bahrain, and Turkey is expecting more than 100,000 Saudi tourists this year (up from 40,000 last year).

Symptoms of Noor-mania are also pervasive in Egypt. In the North Coast posh resort of Marina, beachgoers wearing t-shirts of Noor's lovebirds demonstrated against the local preacher who had condemned the 'banal' series, asking youth to spend their free time doing something valuable.

Quite surprisingly, Egyptian viewers were not deterred by the Syrian dialect of the voice-overs, the full-of-clich├ęs dialogue and the rickety plot, which are enclosed by the excessive melodrama of old Egyptian movies and the fatal flaws of contemporary commercial ones. It could be fairly argued that there is nothing fascinating about the series, except, of course, for the striking looks of the actors and the breath-taking natural scenery ―quite the same winning recipe that induces many Egyptian producers to shoot their low-budget movies in Sharm El-Sheikh and make certain they include a cheesy love story, fancy cars and many sexy women in bikinis.

There is a blatant, albeit often overlooked, distinction between 'aesthetic judgments,' which refer to appreciation of the crude beauty found in the natural world and in the harmony and symmetry of the human body, and 'artistic judgments' which judge art works, taking into consideration, among others, technical competence, creativity and intellectual content. Hence, despite the sensory-level aesthetic appreciation of 'Noor', there is -- artistically speaking -- hardly anything beautiful about it.

To grasp the difference between the two notions in an Egyptian context, there is probably no better example than the wave of "New Realism" that renewed Egyptian cinema in the 1980s. The movies directed by the likes of Atef Al-Tayyeb, Mohamed Khan, and Khairy Bishara aspired to present a fair portrait of real Egyptian life, highlighting mounting social tensions, economic hardships, political repression and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism that surfaced following the introduction of the open-door policy in the mid-1970s.

Ambitious, innovative and politically-oriented, these filmmakers deserted the romance fairytales that dominated Egyptian cinema in the 1950s and 1960s in favor of real contemporary issues and flesh-and-blood characters. The penchant for realism was behind their bold decision to abandon the studios and shoot in the streets, capturing, in the background of their tales, street violence, crime, and police corruption-- in short, how life looks like in the poverty-stricken areas of Cairo.

The protagonists of "New Realism" came frequently under attack; their movies were accused of 'tarnishing the image of Egypt' and were depicted as 'ugly,' obviously by critics who used the aesthetic lenses to appraise a work of art. Indeed, in Atef Al-Tayeb's films, it was not uncommon to see piles of garbage or the pouring of raw sewage into the streets of Cairo's shantytowns, but the creative plot, superb acting, and outstanding directing which all emanated from reality and endeavored to serve a noble cause made them nonetheless masterpieces deeply ingrained in the memory of Egyptian cinema.

"Trash Army," the magnum opus of the German artist HA Schult, is another case in point. It is an art installation made up of fifty life-sized trash people, sculpted of trash that was gathered from a dumb in Cologne. Schult wanted to portray massive human consumption in modern times and warn of its dire consequences. As he pointed out, “we live in a trash time. We produce trash, and we become trash.”

The installation is situated in the National Geographic Museum, Washington D.C., and has travelled for over a decade now to some of the world's most eminent landmarks, such as the Pyramids of Giza, the Red Square in Moscow and China's Great Wall to raise awareness of the huge volume of trash produced by humans and the disastrous ecological imbalance it creates.

Because 'beauty is in the eyes of the beholder,' the audience that went wild about 'Noor' will most probably find Al-Tayeb and Schult's artworks extremely ugly and repulsive. So is 'Noor', they would find out, if they just discarded the superficial image and dug deep beneath.

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on September 11, 2008.