20 Years Ago This Month, 9/11 at Souk Ukaz

15 September, 2021
Night con­cert at Amman’s Citadel (pho­to Dan Stubbs/NME).

Hadani Ditmars

The com­mem­o­ra­tion of the 20th anniver­sary of 9/11 unfolds in tele­vi­su­al real time and yet with a strange sense of sus­pend­ed ani­ma­tion, as if we’re on a slow motion mer­ry go round that we can’t get off.

It’s not just that feel­ing of déjà vu all over again as the TV screen blares scenes from Tal­iban 2.1 meets Atwood’s Repub­lic of Gilead; nor is it that famil­iar sense of la nausée as Bush plays elder states­man rather than archi­tect of the “war on ter­ror” (or the “war of ter­ror” as Borat so apt­ly called it)  that killed thou­sands more Iraqis and Afghans than the ter­ror­ists who attacked the tow­ers of the World Trade Cen­ter. From his tele­vi­su­al pul­pit, sur­round­ed by past pres­i­dents like Clin­ton and Oba­ma whose admin­is­tra­tions bombed and starved Iraqis, when then weren’t killing Afghans and Yeme­nis with drones, or fund­ing the occu­pa­tion of Pales­tine, Bush decried both home­grown and more exot­ic strains of extrem­ism as being “chil­dren of the same foul spir­it.” Con­sid­er­ing the long stand­ing sup­port of the CIA and oth­er West­ern intel­li­gence agen­cies for al-Qae­da and the Tal­iban — whose jihadist text­books were paid for by the US and pub­lished in the Bible Belt — his uniron­ic truth was pos­si­bly an understatement.

But it’s also that sink­ing feel­ing that you’ve been telling the same sto­ry for 30 years and no one is lis­ten­ing. Over the past three decades of report­ing from the region, when ques­tioned about the future of Afghanistan and Iraq, I would always reply, “To cre­ate a sta­ble democ­ra­cy you need to fund edu­ca­tion and health­care and sup­port women and chil­dren. It’s not rock­et sci­ence.” But actu­al­ly, with hind­sight, per­haps it was.

Rock­ets are big busi­ness, espe­cial­ly backed by pseu­do fem­i­nist cheer­lead­ers work­ing for the Pen­ta­gon. While Afghan and Iraqi and Pales­tin­ian civil­ians were occu­pied, impris­oned, and killed in the name of Pax Amer­i­cana, arms deal­ers raked in billions.

And now it’s all come full cir­cle in a ter­ri­fy­ing way.

But once there was a time when earnest cul­tur­al fes­ti­vals tried to bring dis­parate groups togeth­er to cel­e­brate life and even dance, not to fetishize death and weapons. In ret­ro­spect, my atten­dance at Amman’s Souk Ukaz — lit­er­al­ly a cul­tur­al bazaar that coin­cid­ed with 9/11 — may have been akin to Don Quixote tilt­ing at wind­mills, but in many ways, it was also the best pos­si­ble place to have wit­nessed events dur­ing that fate­ful week in ear­ly Sep­tem­ber 2001.

Instead of an inter­na­tion­al arms mar­ket, imag­ine if you will, a Mid­dle East­ern cul­tur­al mar­ket­place, per­haps hear­ken­ing back to the Silk Road, or even the first half of the 20th cen­tu­ry; a place where poets and musi­cians, artists, film­mak­ers, and deal­mak­ers come togeth­er to exchange ideas and sell their wares. Souk Ukaz  was the brain­child of a Jor­dan­ian woman named Iman al-Hin­dawi, who  want­ed to re-cre­ate a mar­ket tra­di­tion she said stretched back to pre-Islam­ic times; one that would bring togeth­er not only artists from the Mid­dle East and Africa, but also con­nect them with cul­tur­al insti­tu­tions from the West.  About one-third of the par­tic­i­pants were Amer­i­cans, many of them from New York.

Real­i­ty, of course, plagued the fes­ti­val, which began on Sep­tem­ber 9.

The first day — com­plete with a dra­mat­ic per­for­mance by whirling dervish­es, an appear­ance by the rav­ish­ing Queen Rania of Jor­dan, and an intel­li­gent dis­course on Islam­ic art by Princess Waj­dan Ali —was marred by bad news from the occu­pied ter­ri­to­ries. Pales­tin­ian poet Mah­moud Dar­wish was trapped in Ramal­lah, under Israeli siege. He was sched­uled to attend the open­ing of Alger­ian artist Rachid Koraichi’s stun­ning exhib­it of cal­lig­ra­phy-inspired sculp­tures and etch­ings. The exhib­it was described by cura­tor Salah Has­san as speak­ing “direct­ly to issues of mem­o­ry, dias­po­ra, exile and oth­er aspects of the Arab experience.”

Then, the next day, Sep­tem­ber 10, news came that eight peo­ple had been killed just south of Bagh­dad, in an Amer­i­can bomb­ing raid. Still the fes­ti­val went on, with earnest work­shops on cul­tur­al fund­ing and col­le­gial dis­cus­sions about East/West film co-pro­duc­tions. But beyond offi­cial politesse, sub­tle but pow­er­ful lines were being drawn. A British/Jordanian musi­cal exchange went dis­as­trous­ly wrong, with each group re-enforc­ing their worst cul­tur­al stereo­types. A Lebanese-Chris­t­ian filmmaker’s views rubbed edg­i­ly against those of a Pales­tin­ian cul­tur­al activist. Mean­while, it turned out that the main spon­sors of the “glob­al­iza­tion and Ara­bic culture”-themed fes­ti­val were Tex­a­co and Ford.

And then came Sep­tem­ber 11th, exact­ly the half-way point of this cul­tur­al marketplace.

News of events in Amer­i­ca reached us as we were emerg­ing from a work­shop on “Arab images in West­ern media.” Mere min­utes lat­er, inflam­ma­to­ry images of ulu­lat­ing Pales­tin­ian women in East Jerusalem cel­e­brat­ing the attack were being broad­cast around the world on CNN.

Amer­i­can par­tic­i­pants left abrupt­ly en masse and spent the next four days trapped in air­ports. The rest of us — includ­ing a Pales­tin­ian folk-danc­ing troupe from Ramal­lah which could not get back home because of the Israeli siege —car­ried on in a rather stunned state.

The evening of Sep­tem­ber 11th, we duti­ful­ly took a bus to Amman’s Citadel, the Roman ruins where King David dis­patched Bathsheba’s hus­band to cer­tain death in bat­tle, itself one of the high­est points in the city. Under­neath a star­lit sky, we lis­tened to sooth­ing Sufi music from Syr­ia. Lat­er, a group from Egypt called “Les Tam­bours de Nubie” played music that com­bined tra­di­tion­al Nubian melodies and African rhythms, with clas­si­cal cel­lo. Their clos­ing num­ber was a unique ver­sion of Beethoven’s “Song of Joy.” East and West had nev­er seemed so close yet so far.

The mood on the Jor­dan­ian street was increas­ing­ly grim. Every­one was wor­ried about the death of tourism, the only real indus­try in a coun­try that had not been blessed with oil when the French and British were carv­ing up the Mid­dle East. A taxi dri­ver, think­ing I was Amer­i­can, offered his sin­cere con­do­lences. When I told him I was Cana­di­an, he inquired dis­creet­ly about visas and unem­ploy­ment rates.

Thurs­day night, as the enor­mi­ty of what had hap­pened and the increas­ing cer­tain­ty of war began to sink in, we were all bussed out to a beau­ti­ful spot in the coun­try, where a Lebanese jazz band and a Niger­ian group enter­tained us. As the Niger­ian band sang a song that began “We are all broth­ers and sis­ters…” a bunch of us rather bewil­dered atten­dees —includ­ing Sene­galese, British, Pales­tin­ian and one lone Amer­i­can (the only one who had stayed out of sol­i­dar­i­ty, a sweet natured teacher from Kansas) — slow­ly began to dance. As we moved and swayed togeth­er, any polit­i­cal or nation­al “line-draw­ing” that had begun, melt­ed into a sense of unity.

The next day, Sep­tem­ber 14, the fes­ti­val con­tin­ued with a rather Felli­ni-esque fash­ion show at the Dead Sea Moevn­pick resort. Half a dozen design­ers from around the Arab world — Jor­dan­ian, Iraqi, Lebanese, Moroc­can, Pales­tin­ian — show­cased their work that mixed tra­di­tion­al arti­sanal designs with West­ern style cou­ture. The evening was a fan­ta­sia of design pos­si­bil­i­ties that seemed to speak to the aes­thet­ic div­i­dends of peace­ful co-existence.

The fes­ti­val closed with a per­for­mance by Vien­na-based Pales­tin­ian singer/songwriter Mar­wan Aba­do, minus his Aus­tri­an band mem­bers, who had been spooked by the thought of trav­el to the Mid­dle East and can­celled at the last minute. Like an Ara­bic Leonard Cohen, Aba­do sang songs that tran­scend­ed the polit­i­cal with their humor and human­i­ty. In “Poem to the Moon” he sang of being freed from a “prison” that could be real or psychological.

I asked him after­wards about his feel­ings as an artist caught between East and West vis à vis the cur­rent “sit­u­a­tion.” Aba­do respond­ed that the most “sur­re­al” expe­ri­ence of his per­form­ing life was rep­re­sent­ing Aus­tria at a musi­cal fes­ti­val in Moroc­co. “When peo­ple ask me where I’m from,” he con­tin­ued, “I say, ‘from Ottakring’ (a neigh­bor­hood in Vien­na). Then I say I am Pales­tin­ian. Then a musi­cian. But in the end, I can only say, ‘I am a human being.’”

The war on ter­ror spawned by that fate­ful week would kill thou­sands of inno­cents in Afghanistan and Iraq, increase racial pro­fil­ing and “extra­or­di­nary ren­di­tion” of Cana­di­an cit­i­zens like Maher Arar, who was infa­mous­ly deport­ed to a Syr­i­an prison by Amer­i­can authorities.

But for that one extra­or­di­nary week in Sep­tem­ber 2001, I was shel­tered in a tiny oasis of peace, where cul­ture trumped ter­ror, and artists dreamed of hap­pi­er futures. This is what I choose to remem­ber today.


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