The people's paint

Historian uses Arabic graffiti as source material

Photo by Michelle Woodward

By Frank Provoost

Graffiti became symbol of the Arab Spring but the walls of the Middle East will also raise a few smiles, according to Tsolin Nalbantian.

A picture of a machine gun has been sprayed across an Egyptian wall, its barrel pointing to a video camera painted onto the concrete a little way off; the camera’s lens is pointed at the Kalashnikov. The Arabic text underneath the gun reads “Their weapons”; the one under the camera reads: “Our weapons”.
This is just one of the many images of the Arab Spring that have been captured in paint. Other instant icons representing last year’s agitation in the Middle East are a tank taking a stand against a cyclist and a game of chess with an army of pawns overthrowing their own king.
Although the social media were major vehicles for the uprising, tags and pieces also had much impact. However, graffiti has been an important factor for much longer, says Tsolin Nalbantian. This American historian was awarded her doctorate at Columbia University for her work on Armenian minority groups in Lebanon and has been working at the Leiden University Institute for Area Studies (LIAS) since last August. Although her research primarily focuses on the media in the middle of the last century, she is also putting together a collection of graffiti to “build a bridge to the past”.
Seated at her computer, she clicks on her mouse to start a virtual tour from Tahir Square in Egypt to the very centre of Beirut. “Look, it’s just there: the walls you pass carry messages. It’s in your face.” In her opinion, it is important source material that has been ignored by historians until now. Of course, she has the advantage that many of her relatives live in the Middle East and she regularly flies back and forth. “Politics are everywhere over there. Everyone talks politics all day long and graffiti is an extension of that. And it is more accessible than the traditional media that arouse suspicion because they are influenced by the state or powerful corporations, and don’t often write what the people want to hear. That’s why tags appeared everywhere during the Egyptian uprising, with things like: “Turn off the T.V.” and “Go outside!”
But Arabic graffiti, Nalbantian says with emphasis, was around long before the Spring –not the other way round. She displays a few examples on her screen: two men kissing above the slogan: “So what?”, “love bombs” as they as known: bombs with hearts in the middle. “The artists come from all sorts groups of the population, ranging from activists and art students to hip-hop crews.”
But there is plenty of humour, too, as illustrated by Ashekman, a pair of rapper twins from Beirut who print their work on T-shirts and sell them via their webshop. “They use witty slogans like ‘Don’t trust the system: aliens exist!’ They have a shirt with the entire Arabic alphabet, but the first letter – pronounced elf – has been replaced with the American cuddly character from the T.V. series ALF.
The first time graffiti made her laugh out loud was when she saw a portrait of the Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum. “She is the greatest voice of my grandparents’ generation, but the text in the balloon read ‘Bouss el Wawa’- a raunchy number by Haifa Wehbe, the Lebanese Britney Spears. Translated literally, it means ‘Look at my ow-ow’, as a small child would say if it hurt itself. The song is not very reverential and it has a stupid video clip, but it’s immensely popular. I thought it was neat that someone had depicted a traditional, classical singer as if she belonged to MTV, and that’s when I decided to use graffiti in my research.”
Eventually, the joke had a political sequel: “There had not been a president in Lebanon for a long time and the situation was causing unrest, and then I saw ‘Haifa for president’ scrawled on a wall.” She adds, laughing: “Maybe that would have been a good solution.”

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