MY MIDDLE EAST CRISIS
My Middle East Crisis: Anatomy of a Meltdown: An Interesting Experience in Perception, Censorship, Arts/Culture, and Wigging Out in a Strange Land
It’s been six days since I’ve been back and I still can’t get Art Dubai out of my head. I haven’t slept well. I still have the eye infection I got from the dust storms during my last days there. I still feel kinda mindfucked. So kindly allow me to talk myself through this. Stop me if you have heard this before.
I went to Art Dubai with my mind and heart open. It felt like - and still feels like an absolute privilege. I’ve never been invited to an international art fair before, much less commissioned to come and perform in one. Half a year ago, a lovely lady named Savita came to my tour. She watched my Imelda Tour at the CCP Complex as recommended by a common friend in HongKong. She told me she loved it at the end of the tour. To push things forward, the lovely lady turned out to be one of the directors of Art Dubai and she managed to put me on the performance programme of Art Dubai 2012. Soon enough, I had a ticket to Dubai in my hands.
Journey began on March 18, 2012. The first thing you’ll notice about Dubai is their airline. Top notch. Quality all around. From the food, the multi-cultural staff, the little cold towels that they give you – EVEN in Economy class. Emirates: ‘Nuff Said.
Arriving in Dubai was even more strombotic. The airport as well as the city itself was all glitz and glamour – and wonderfully so at times. From the ambitious hotels, the unapologetic malls, to the surprisingly fantastic quality of the sand on the beach, Dubai looks like everything you’ve seen it advertised to be. But it’s still a city trying to grow into itself. Many things were a little too far apart, many things were a little too dusty, many things were just a little too “hot”.
But Art Dubai was amazing. Set in the Madinat Jumeirah, right next to the legendary 7 star hotel, The Burj Al Arab, it is one of the most majestic settings you could find for any art fair. Fine, things were a little twee here and there but admittedly so. The place is seven years old. But nevertheless, as a resort, mall, and convention center, it at least made the attempt of having a personality. Not like the nondescript convention centers that I’ve seen at other art fairs.
They were doing things right for this art fair. The staff were young, learned, snappy and savvy, the graphics were crisp and contemporary, the selected countries on exhibition were a good mix between East and West. Their Cartier installation was stunning to say the least, and the winners of the Abraaj Prize pushed the envelope as well as any other artist of their caliber in the world. I even told the Khaleej Times that I was thrilled by the variety of work and discourse.
I was surprised to see such work at Art Dubai. When it comes to the Middle East. Let’s not deny. We all have preconceived notions, most especially about Middle East tastes and sensibilities. No overt sexual content, no Arab Spring and expect lots of paintings of horses. I’m glad that my notions were shaken apart.
Here are two other interesting works that I saw around Dubai in the Al Quoz district on Alserkal Avenue during Art Week. Edgy. Impressive. I especially liked the environment installed inside Gallery Isabel Van Den Eynde: I PUT IT THERE YOU NAME IT by Ramin & Rokni Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian of Iran.
Another one that really got me, "Blink" by Qwaswra Hafez and Raneem Farsi from Saudi Arabia at Ayyam Art Projects. Korans in the shape of the World Trade Center. Whoa.
I spent the first two days trying to find works within the exhibition to act as an inspiration for my narrative. I found a set of great photos in front of which I could perform my “1972 Martial Law” narrative, Jim Allen Abel’s “Board of Generals” (above) at D Gallerie Jakarta, paintings of “James Dean” (@bymaliha) and “Bruce Lee” by Chan Yu of Connoiseur Contemporary Gallery of HongKong where I could perform Imelda’s New York party days and journey to Tripoli.
Jogja Contemporary's Valentine Willie was also kind enough to let me hang a photo installation of the CCP Complex for the end of Act One's "The Dreams of the New Society".
I also scattered framed photos by Stagen Si of Eric Quebral's CCP Complex architecture installation at Silverlen's Gallery around the venue to push the narrative along.
All went well for the first two performances. I couldn’t complain. I was enthusiastic by the reception of both the galleries and the guests.
But things started to unravel for me at 6pm on a Friday, March 23. I started the third performance of “Livin’ La Vida Imelda”. Same time. Same Place. Lobby Area. Near the entrance of the Arena at the Madinat Jumeirah.
Biggest crowd of the past three days (@ramie2003). I was already comfortable with the spaces, the pacing, and was already adept at using the new iPad element to the performance. The crowd was multi-cultural with a considerable Philippine contingent. They were responsive. Best performance experience I had at Art Dubai. Great crowd. Different ages, persuasions, and pretty much the epitome of what I imagined Dubai’s population to be like: chic, cosmopolitan, and well, with a heavy Philippine contingent.
But somehow, somewhere in the middle of the second act, was when I noticed things were a little off. Right around after the act where I’m talking about the 1976 IMF – World Bank Meeting in Manila, I notice a tall Arab man in long robe called a dishadash watching my performance. He had a really odd, intent stare. I thought; “OK. That is an odd stare but this is Dubai, they must be guests and patrons of Art Dubai.” But then suddenly, "The Tall One" starts filming me on his cellphone. This is not permitted in any of my other performances - But I let it pass, I’m too occupied by my tour to even bother and “Maybe he wants to upload it to youtube” I thought. Then I notice more men in robes joining the tour. By the time I do my act next to Connoisseur Contemporary HK when Imelda Meets Moammar Khaddafy, I notice that these men were no longer just milling but joined our group for certain.
“The Tall One” is still filming me on his cellphone.
But then suddenly, after I finish performing “The Manila Film Center 1982” spiel and lead my group to a booth in the upstairs foyer where there’s an iPad on the wall, “The Large One” stops me in my tracks. He asks me to follow him away from the group. I can see the concern in the eyes of the people I’m leaving. I’m taken back down the escalator into the basement entrance, he shoos away a person who was standing nearby and takes me INTO the parking lot itself.
I can’t give you his words verbatim but I do remember these issues being brought forward. “Are you only talking about Philippines and not another country?", “Are you talking about Arabic Country”, “Why are you talking about governments of another country?” He was not being mean, but was admonishing, and seemingly more concerned with my safety and what others around me might hear. In the end, I was advised to stick to issues that only pertained to the Philippines. “Fine” I said.
I returned to the group jarred, annoyed but nevertheless, capable of maintaining the cocky persona necessary to complete the tour without causing concern. I mean, I’m the leader here. Don’t let anyone see fear in your eyes. “The Tall One” was still there. Still filming me on his cellphone. But even before I could start, we were now told that our entire group had to move away from the booth with the iPad, The group with me were now very concerned. “The Large One” directed us away from the foyer and back downstairs to the foot of the escalator. “For Your Own Security” was a term I heard used more than once at this point. What does that mean? “For Your Own Protection” is a term I hear in mafia movies and usually without a happy consequence.
“The Tall One” was still filming me on his cellphone. (above - on the right)
But somehow, I managed to finish the performance. A little tense, a few technical glitches, and not exactly within the terms that I wanted, but I was happy and took a bow with flourish punctuated by a meaningful glare at the “Tall One” – who was not filming me anymore at this point.
And this is the part that I now wonder where it all went wrong for me. Did this all happen to me because of that glare? Would I have gone through what I went through if I didn’t glare?
After the tour was done, the group slowly drifted away. Last to go were groups of fellow Filipinos who chatted me up, shook my hand, and made “Kodakan” (took photos) with me. Before leaving, one of them told me in a hushed tone, “Carlos, please don’t let them censor you – this is our story.”
Then suddenly “The Tall One” approaches me. “May I have a photo too?” I oblige nervously. Is this a fanboy photo? Or is it a subtle way of getting a mugshot for their files? Until now, I still don’t know. I only know he still has my photo – and the video of my performance.
But just as I was walking away from him and towards my friend Marian – we were supposed to have dinner together - “The Large One” approaches me once again. “Come With Me”, he said. “This won’t take long.” I’m taken with my bag of “Livin’ La Vida Imelda” books and props into a security room right across the men’s room of the Arena Hall next to D Gallerie Jakarta.
Now this is where it all gets cinematic for me. Why am I being taken into custody? Who are these people taking me into custody? Were they police? I could have sworn I heard them introduce themselves as police. Someone in the group told me later on that he also heard them introduce themselves as the police. But either way, Why the fuck am I being taken away?
I hurriedly texted my liason, Ghada, about what’s happening to me. She first tries to assure me that I’m OK. I give her the details of the situation and my location. She soon realizes that I just might not be as OK as she thought and goes to where I was being kept.
Ghada was never allowed in the room with me. I could only see Ghada through a half open door. Each time that our eyes would meet, I would try to telepathically communicate with her that I would like some help "Please get me out of this". To say I was really worried at this point would be an understatement – and by the look of her face – it seems she was on the same page as I. My life has now had seemingly become a bad episode on the National Geographic channel – or a cheap Lifetime Network movie at the least.
Of course, I sat there trying to look as brave as I could. “The Large One” speaks to me, “How are you? “ he asks. I tell him the truth, “I’m confused. Why am I here? “. He answers, “You’ll be OK. Everything is fine” and asks me if I would like something to drink. I say no twice before eventually accepting two disposable cups of water. The one with the top you peel off? You know, the one you get on airplanes stuck inside the cup of your inflight meal? But I digress.
But also, at this point of the story, I’d just like to clarify among those who are raised in the western pop culture cinematic sensibility, isn’t “Sssh. Everything will be OK. You’ll be fine.” the last thing that is whispered in your ear before you are shot behind the head in the woods? Nice try, “Large One”, but Not. Comforting. At. All.
Soon enough I see through the half open door the faces of Ben, the founder of Art Dubai, and Art Dubai director, Antonia. They called the big guns. "Fuck. I’m really in trouble now, ain’t I?" They both look worried.
Not. Comforting. Once. Again.
Finally, Three random “Men In Robes” arrive along with who I gather to be the Alpha Arab in the set, “The Man with the Baseball Cap”. All four of them enter the room.
The door closes.
Now time goes by oddly at this point. I personally estimate to have been inside that room for an hour. Some say I was only there for forty five minutes, but at that moment it felt like forever. The interrogation/questioning begins. Another glass of water. Now it seems that “Baseball Cap” speaks Filipino. He knows that I lived in New York. He asks me what country I’m from. What countries I have lived in. He asks me how it is living in Malate. He knows where I’ve lived and where I currently live! The man did a background check? Obviously. He then asks for my hotel address. I said the Media Rotana. I lied and said I wasn’t sure which Rotana it was. Of course, I knew it was the one on Tecom.
Why does he need to know where my hotel is located though? Are you going to send people there?
Next the “Men in Robes” take their places beside me on the other side of the desk as the “Man in The Baseball Cap” sits across me. This time, the issues brought forward are more specific. “What are your views on Islam and Arabic Country”, “Why did you use the words, Mohammed, Koran, Moammar Khadafy.” I answer as truthfully as I can. Each word that I utter accompanies a drop of sweat from my brow. Each word dropping from my lips might possibly be the one that would send me to a prison and into the demography of Filipinos kept in jails throughout the Middle East.
Oh my god. Please don’t ask me about religion. Do not ask me to talk about Islam. I have no idea what would be the right or wrong answer here. Ask me to talk about anything but your religion. Talking out of line about Islam is the stuff that beheadings and fatwahs are made of. So with my heart in my throat, I recount the imagined 1976 conversation between Imelda and Khaddafy from my performance - word for word.
In Imelda's voice I say: "Islam is all about peace, and if you are funding a war in my country that is not only pitting Filipino against Filipino, but you are also pitting Muslim against Muslim. How are you following Mohammed?" All the time flipping through a book with pictures of Andal Ampatuan Sr., Nur Misuari, Moammar Khaddafy and Imelda, the signing of the Tripoli agreement, and photos of dismembered bodies splayed across a Maguindanao landscape.
Silence, conversations among themselves ensue and I am left alone with “Man with the Baseball Cap” at this point.
I now text Ghada: “Please go to my room, get my computer and throw it in a river.”
That’s how freaked out I was. I thought there was no way out.
I mean, my reaction may seem out of control, but Dubai is an Arabic country – one of seven in the United Arab Emirates. And frankly, I’ve never known much about the Middle East except for what I have read and have seen on the news, literature, and media. And those perceptions come with preconceived notions and stereotypes. Mysterious, exotic, abundant, but also intolerant, extremist, and aggressive are many of the stereotypes we have of the Arab world. And please forgive me, but I brought the latter notions with me into that room with the closed door.
And having said that, all these issues started running through my head. What is illegal in this country? What could I have done or said that would be illegal? Was it the flamboyance of my handkerchief when I channeled Imelda? Was that illegal? Is pretending to be a woman illegal? Was it all that talk about Moammar Khaddafy a referral to the Arab Spring? Was that illegal? Was the mere mention of the name of the Koran by a non-Muslim illegal? Was holding an imaginary Koran illegal? Was speaking the name of God in falsetto also considered an illegal act too? What were the limits here? I didn’t know. Perhaps I should have, but right there and then – I. Didn’t. Know.
And these were the issues that really drove to the heart of me. Perhaps everything that I am all about is illegal here? I've worked and have done protest actions with the Reproductive Health and LBGT movement in the Philippines. I am an open bisexual. I am queer - as queer as a fucking three dollar bill. I have collaborated with and donated to radical women’s rights organizations, HIV/AIDS organizations. I won Mr. Gay Pride 2010. I have correspondence on my laptop with leftists, atheists, freethinkers, radical activists in the United States, the Philippines, among many other countries. Could that be illegal? I talk of marijuana and other stimulants illegal in most places except Amsterdam in many of my personal writings. I have a court case currently pending for “blasphemy” and “offending religions” in the Philippines. And just like any red-blooded male in the world. I have porn. Not fucked up underaged stuff with animal shitplay kinda porn. But porn – which I know – as a fact – is illegal in Dubai. PERIOD. I'm perhaps exactly the kind of person they do not want around here.
Oh My God. It is I who am illegal in Dubai.
“It’s rude to use a cellphone while I’m talking to you.” Says, “The Man With the Baseball Cap.” Interrupting me. I stop and smile weakly - visions of police heading to my hotel room running in my head.
OMG. “Get me the Fuck Out of this Country”.
And then just as it started, it ended.
Before I knew it, “The Man with the Baseball Hat” sternly advises me that I should tone things down and “perhaps” take out religion and politics from my performance and I am out the door into a hug from Antonia and a pat on the back by Ben.
Soon after, Ghada and Marian walk with me out of the Exhibition Hall into the Art Dubai closing party across the bridge on a place called “Fort Island”. I had a lovely albeit glazed evening with Koken, Marian, Ben and Antonia as a funky DJ played. Free white wine flowed. I experienced fear and luxury within minutes. Antonia and Ben profusely apologized and we had a deep conversation about issues in the Middle East, Dubai, arts and culture. Antonia and Ben are good people and even they were as rattled as I was. They were not part of the fear that I felt earlier. My mind was still fucked but I was nearing a zone where I could be comfortable. I didn’t feel so alone anymore. I didn't feel so illegal.
So as a concession and result of our discussion about toning things down, editing stuff out, or even performing in a closed room, I told them that I decided to cancel the show. If I didn’t do the spiel in its entirety, it wasn’t being true to its form. And how safe was I to perform? I mean, if the security doesn’t understand me. How much more some random person who would also take my words out of context as they were passing by? I finally tell Antonia and Ben before leaving that the ball was in their court. Frame what happened to me. But just don’t deny it. We can’t say that I cancelled my tour because I was sick. That was the only thing I could ask.
But things always look different in the morning light of the desert.
The next morning found me in a vortex.
I checked out of the hotel with my clothes in a garbage bag - totally zoned out on the fact that I had to check out that day - my flight was at 3am the following day. I thought I had another night. I left my luggage at the Madinat Jumeirah in a storage room. I found myself on an emotional edge. I had a glaze-eyed lunch with my friends Jet and Bret at the Jumeirah Hotel Beachcomber and somehow as I was looking at that huge hotel looming before me and was munching on a vast tropical buffet as a Filipino cover band sang Little Richard covers, I didn’t feel right about what had happened to me at all the night before. At all.
The interference, the other two censorship cases, the intimidation I felt, and well, intimidation in general reeled through my head. Something was ticking and unresolved inside me. “Come let’s discuss” Antonia texted. I was more than willing to see things her way.
But when I arrived at the Madinat Jumeirah at a little before four thirty, I saw this white card at the VIP Desk. “Due to ill health and unforeseen circumstances, the ACAP Live Review at 1230 and the Carlos Celdran performance at 1630 have been cancelled. Thank you”
I read it twice. I’m sorry, but does this note read that I was “sick”? This is exactly what I requested not to be said. One of the ladies behind the counter asked how I was feeling. OK. Confirmed. It does sound like I’m sick.
And then - my deepest apologies to all who witnessed me. I wigged out. I really. Wigged. Out.
I suddenly felt that Art Dubai was trying to hide the intimidation and fear that I felt in that room. I felt that my experience was diminished. I felt that Antonia and Ben were actually never on my side. I felt alone. But Of course I was not. I had made friends with the people of Art Dubai. These are good people. I was hanging out with new friends Jet and Bret, and I had Ghada, Natasha, Marian, Koken and a lot of other people behind me. But somehow red flashed before my eyes and I felt desperate.
“Why do you need to lie? I’m not sick!” I texted Antonia. I posted the damn picture on facebook.
She ran to me to console, Ben soon followed. But the freaky feeling and screaming that I felt inside the night before had to come out. They insisted it was all a misunderstanding, that it was all three musicians of the event that were sick and not me. I was not the “ill health” but the “unforeseen circumstance”. It was just all semantics. Things were OK.
I’m sorry but the note reads that I was sick. "No more negotiations."
I couldn’t see it their way at all. All I saw was that my experience was being hidden, I felt that I could not trust them and I that had no one on my side. It was at this point I became admittedly unreasonable. I mean, after the last two censorships at Art Dubai 2012, the removal of Moroccan artist Zakaria Ramhani's work, entitled “You Were My Only Love" (above) which portrayed the infamous image of the beaten Egyptian woman who's bra was exposed as she was dragged by police forces and Palestinian artist Shadi Al Zaqzouq's work “After Washing" (below), a painting of a woman rebel holding underwear with the word, "Leave" written on it, what part of this doesn’t make me think this was a coverup? Was I supposed to be quiet about this? After going through that FEAR, I now have to keep quiet and just leave the country without closure? We will discuss? Do we have time to discuss? WHAT will we discuss? What do I have to GAIN by being quiet? What lessons can I learn from being QUIET?
And I responded to this by doing a last minute performance. I wrapped my mouth with tape and packed my bags intently and angrily in public as Antonia and Ben quietly pleaded for me to calm down and pack my bags in the organizers office downstairs. It was the most frenetic, panicky performance I have ever done. I refused to go downstairs again.
“Get Me the Fuck Out Of Here”
Impromptu Performance, March 24, 2012 4:45PM
Materials: Suitcase, personal belongings, scotchtape, me.
It’s not one of my best works. Granted. Not thought out and more melodramatic than my usual works. But if ever I have to say, it was the most cathartic experiences of my life. It was a performance I felt truly and absolutely defined exactly what I was feeling at the time. I decided not to be silent. I decided to react. It personally felt much more sincere than the ten year old schtick that got me this gig to begin with and felt like a closure to the repressed panic I felt the night before. And Thank You Antonia and Ben for letting me work through it.
And word went out.
After being lavished with a luxury suite at the Mina A Salam (Thank you very much Art Dubai organizers for that room – it really wasn’t necessary – but thank you), and it was the Sunday March 25, 3am Emirates flight directly to Manila for me.
And back in the warm light of home, the issues flooded back to me. Time had passed. I was a little sheepish about my behavior and more analytical of the issues. Was my tour “censored” or was my tour just “interrupted”? Was my fear justified? Is there a difference between interrogated or questioned? Is there a difference between censoring and self-censoring? How did they get my background information? Why didn’t the organizers foresee something like this happening?
Taking me aside, questioning me, making me finish my tour away from my originally planned route crowded is rude, but is it illegal? Filming my performance and knowing my personal information was a traumatic violation of my privacy, but since I now KNOW that I wasn’t guilty of a crime, was I ever under threat at all? Can I be forgiven for not seeing it that way at that time because I didn’t I know the rules of the game nor the outcome? And even though they DID introduce themselves as police (I have another witness to attest) they turned out only to be local Jumeirah security forces after all. I learned after that the forces around me were only minor ones. And that note. That note. Until the evening before I left, people were still asking me if I was feeling OK but if Antonia and Ben claim it was a misunderstanding, I'll take their word for it.
But then again, perhaps it was my ADHD addled brain, perhaps it was my ego, perhaps it was my low threshold for stress, that last tab of acid I took in college, my family's bipolar inclinations or even Mercury in Retrograde - but I'm sorry. Whatever the reason may have been, I just couldn’t help but snap back in Art Dubai and it was that little white note which triggered me. That white note was the catalyst that brought me to the floor, into a fetal position, wailing, and rocking back and forth. I guess that was the moment when I didn't feel safe to be me in Dubai anymore.
So in the end, Art Dubai has two cases of real censorship; one case of censorship weirdness lite (that’s me), a record number of 22,000 visitors and highest sales of their six year history. The numbers speak for themselves. Congratulations and more power next year, Art Dubai. Mazeltov.
And let me make it clear to everyone. Do not judge all Dubai, Art Dubai and The Middle East by my experience. This surreal sandstorm of misunderstanding, miscommunication, and mishandling happened to me and only me. Yes, it really screwed my perception and experience of Dubai and Art Dubai and I’m still processing my experience. But the big picture still holds true, Art Dubai and Dubai itself are leading the path to progressive thought in the UAE and for that I commend them and fully support them. I really do. Although it may seem like one step forward, two steps back every year, the journey has started and I hope they never give it up.
I come back from Dubai with my mind a little more fucked and my heart a little more hardened and it’s not entirely a bad thing. I learned lessons in Art Dubai, I was front row witness to what Arab Spring can do a country. After all, if I felt intimidated, unheard, frustrated, angry, and desperate all at once. How much more the average person who’s really caught up in a daily situation of oppression, rebellion, and censorship in the Middle East?
But if anything that I know, my fear in that room at that moment was real. It’s as real as the anger felt by people who feel they have been wronged. It’s as real as the frustration every artist and actor experiences when their painting is taken off a wall or whose voice is silenced by a bullet or truncheon. It's as real as the uncertainty many Filipinos experience when caught up in a legal system far from home. It’s as real as the confusion felt by every person rendered helpless and alone by the Arab Spring.
The intentions of organizers or Art Dubai are pure. It will not be denied. A world with Art Dubai is better than a world without Art Dubai. Frankly, I am grateful and humbled by the experience. I am grateful for their response as well:
“Art Dubai is a cultural event. Our performance programme is about taking an innovative approach to engaging audiences, as part of Art Dubai’s extensive community-oriented, not-for-profit programme of events. Of course, given the great Filipino community in the UAE, we were so happy to have the opportunity to engage -- just as we reach out to all communities in the UAE. The arts scene in the UAE is opening up year-on-year, and providing great opportunities for artists and young people to engage in debate and art and design production. This is a very isolated incident and naturally, as hosts and curators, we regret any upset to the artist. In general, the fair and our programmes aim to build links between communities, and lead to a greater understanding of the role of art and performance in society."
Thank you for acknowledging this isolated incident and thank you for the regret. I’m happy that you are not diminishing my experience and for that, I do not diminish your intentions.
So at the end of it all, I am ready to move on. I'm back home - rattled, vertigous, but unscathed and ultimately - educated.
And that is far more than I expected from any fancy art fair.
And for that Art Dubai. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.