Art and Honesty: When Slick Makes You Sick

Workout videos always amuse me. This afternoon I was trawling through YouTube to find a good pregnancy yoga video, my 4 1/2 daughter beside me. First we found one of your classic vids, an unusually slick production for the UK, complete with a wood fire in the background, random Zen-like objects on the shelves and French windows onto a tranquil patio (though we could still see the cameraman in the glass of the woodburner).

Warmed up by now, I keep searching and find an American prenatal pilates workout, which exceeded all my expectations (not to mention my fitness levels). The glowingly tanned instructor sashayed onto the screen like a starlet, the tracking shots zoomed in dizzyingly from all over (even the ceiling), and she kept talking about buns. Where I’m from buns are something you eat. Can’t you just call them buttocks and get it over with?

The music was energetic enough to send me into early labour, in fact I had to turn it off after a couple of minutes thinking I was having a kind of cultural heart attack (and I’m half American).

Still looking for decent exercise vids, we then found another British yoga clip that brought things back down to a manageable level of reality. The instructor wore an old tracksuit, the handheld camera jiggled about, there was a terrible glaring light in the background, and after every line the instructor pursed her lips in an apologetic sort of grimace. Ah, that’s more like it! A healthy dose of British realism.

While chuckling to myself over this transatlantic comparison during my familiar pregnancy-induced insomnia, I realised that this isn’t a million miles away from where Muslims are – in the global, cultural digisphere – from the kind of slick PR values currently steering the zeitgeist. For years we’ve heard people saying things like, ‘When are Muslims going to start making decent magazines, TV stations, films? Where are the Spielbergs of the Muslim world? Why can’t we get it together and make things just as well as what’s made in the West?’ And of course there’s the political gripe, which comes just as often (with a self-gratified sneer) from the Islamophobia corner, ‘Where are the Martin Luther Kings, the Gandhis, the Mandelas of the Islamic world? Where are those voices that make the whole world stop and listen?’

The answer to the former question is one that is changing rapidly right now. Navid Akhtar, a regular documentary maker for the BBC, is currently looking for ‘founder members’ to subscribe to (i.e crowdfund) a wonderful digital TV platform called Alchemiya, clearly a cut above the rest in terms of production values, and with the ethos of presenting the most beautiful and fascinating content from the Muslim World today – as often as not emerging from among Western Muslims. People like Canadian-born film-maker Adam Shamash, whose recent video for Californian hip-hop artist and poet Baraka Blue’s song Love and Light was filmed in Fez and London, are upping the stakes with great passion and verve. (If you’re careful you might see me in that clip too…)

In the vanguard of any movement you’ll always find artists. Speaking plain truth and down-to-earth wisdom is the quiet but constant Peter Sanders, whose photography career started with the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix (he took the last shots of Jimi onstage before his death) and now meanders over the Islamic world capturing faces of saints and schoolkids, worlds inaccessible to the average blogger or newsreader.

Another Muslim Peter is that of the ever-dynamic Gould variety, whose Sydney-based design company pulls a lot of punches and whose Facebook page has over 100,000 followers. His Creative Ummah project, which is likewise looking for support at the moment on LaunchGood (another interesting Muslim enterprise), would create an online learning platform for everything from art to zoology (well, maybe the zoology is going a bit far), highlighting all the talent currently out there in the Muslim World.

And Yusuf
is back in the saddle with a new album, this time collaborating with an old friend from the Sufi 70s, Richard Thompson, and co-produced by Rick Rubin. One of few Muslim artists who have known serious limelight, Yusuf masterfully injects listenable, well-turned-out tunes with arresting philosophical thoughts.

You get the idea. I’d love to highlight all the Muslims currently putting immense efforts into raising the standards across the board, bringing beauty back into art and design (check out Lateefa Spiker, Iona Fournier-Tombs, Soraya Syed, and my very own dad for inspiring, bar-raising work) but there isn’t the space here and they might unfriend me for writing something embarrassing about them by accident. The point is that as the generations of Western Muslims move into second and even third, the production quality we expect is filtering down into the work we produce. No more cheap books printed in Lahore with text slipping off the page and spines that come undone after one reading.

My problem is that there’s something I quite like about the rubbishy productions we’re growing out of. Sure, the book-lover in me balks at poorly designed covers and pages so thin you can read the whole book just by holding it up to the light, but there’s something kind of honest about it nonetheless.

There is a tipping point at which content begins to be eclipsed by form. For many Muslims, this is exactly what we’re reacting against in the western sphere, an artistic and political stage in which looks mean everything, in which a US president can speak movingly about freedom and justice and the fight against terror while STILL not closing Guantanamo Bay, killing untold numbers of Pakistani and Syrian civilians using drones, or continuing to use cluster bombs even though they are known to kill children who think they’re toys.

We expect politics to be devious, but there has to be honesty in art or all is lost. I would much rather watch an Iranian film with poor film quality on YouTube for its awesome cinematography, brilliant script and effortlessly realistic acting than a Hollywood blockbuster in HD replete with clever jokes, jaw-dropping CGI effects and score sung by some chart-topping megababe. I suppose it’s the frustrated traveller in me that is riveted by ruins, prefers crummy worker’s restaurants with good eats over five-star places, and seeks out people selling food from trays on their head in the street to find out about the meaning of life.

The answer to the second question is not so dissimilar, either. Full marks if you’ve heard of Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer and former judge awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for her tireless campaigns for women’s rights. Or Samira Saleh al-Nuaimi, an Iraqi lawyer and political activist who criticised ISIS aka Da’esh, on a Facebook page and was tortured and executed for it. (It did appear in a few newspapers, with some photo credits even spelling her name wrong). Meanwhile there are people like the affable Sudanese London-based Sheikh Babikir, who never ceases to preach peace and love and hugging trees, as well as thousands of other ‘good’ teachers with the same message; surely Abdallah Bin Bayyah’s plea for a ‘war on war for a peace upon peace’ is a quote worthy of Gandhi. But love and compassion doesn’t hit the news quite like a beheading.

The voices do exist: they just don’t have full make-up, excellent English and a retinue that keeps the red carpet rolling. ‘Neither did Gandhi or Martin Luther King’, you say. That’s true; but things have changed immeasurably since then. To make your voice heard now in the galaxy of user-generated content online, you have to drown everyone else out. You need a YouTube channel, a manager, a lawyer, a dozen advisers to keep your career on track, a personal trainer, some sort of bizarre diet involving immortality mushrooms, lots of famous friends who will invite you to their shows so you can be photographed there, and the expectation that you are worth it, dammit.

So while I applaud those people who are creating higher quality art and design, more functional websites, better translations, more beautiful gifts, and films to knock your socks off, I’d like to spare some time for the jumble sale rejects, the people with good hearts and great words whose suits aren’t snappy and whose colour schemes suck. May we never get so cool that we forget the dust and decay of the real world. In the great, metaphorical landscape of the internet, I’d rather be in downtown Zanzibar in a pair of flipflops eating a mango than shopping for Prada in a Dubai mall any day.

Man in Stone Town, Zanzibar, not eating a mango.

Man in Stone Town, Zanzibar, not eating a mango.

16 thoughts on “Art and Honesty: When Slick Makes You Sick

  1. Thank you for writing this.Ever since I can remember I’ve had a lot of love for the arts. Movies, books, songs, and anything that can move the soul. I’ve been struggling to move myself forward with this love and been wondering how to keep one motivated for the right reasons. But alas the only right reason we need to do what we do is Allah. Even if it’s through ‘rubbishy’ productions and the likes. Jazakallah Khair, keep up the good work. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Thankyou Ridzwan, you’re right, when the intention is good there’s soul to anything. A lot of artists (including myself) have a real problem with self-promotion precisely because we don’t want to turn into media-hungry wannabes, but if what you’re doing is what you believe in, surely raising the quality elevates the meaning of your work? it’s all about balance I suppose, keeping it real while aiming for better. All the best, wassalaam

  2. “…Iโ€™d like to spare some time for the jumble sale rejects, the people with good hearts and great words whose suits aren’t snappy and whose colour schemes suck.”

    You’re in danger of confusing rubbish for authenticity, although admittedly not quite, it’s like Neil Postman said the truth seldom comes unadorned, it’s part and parcel of design.

    • Nah, good hearts and great words are never rubbish! I’ll have to look up Mr Postman, I don’t know him…but like I mentioned in the comment above, if you have the highest intentions it’s all the more worthwhile making the packaging honour the contents.

  3. This is where I believe Muslims have an opportunity to really make a contribution – bring back meaning to the form. Productions have gotten so “slick” with technology – anyone can make a movie replete with slow-mo, time-lapse, etc. with their iPhone 6, but for what purpose?

    Sadly it’s Muslims ourselves that I think have forgotten the meaning the most sometimes. How many Emirates vacation in Stone Town riding around in bicycles versus London with their imported cars? (I don’t mean to pick on Emirates, some of the best people in the world I know are, but they seem to provide the greatest contrasting examples). There’s no quick solution either – Peter Sanders work is so emotive BECAUSE he’s so quiet and beautifully spiritual. That takes a lifetime – may God grant us the patient endurance needed to see the fruition of our work!

    Btw, thanks for mentioning LaunchGood! We’re doing our best to support these incredible Muslims across the globe ๐Ÿ™‚

    • You’re more than welcome Abdur-Rahman, I still have a LaunchGood campaign sitting on ice which inshallah I’ll be able to revive soon! It’s such a great outlet and I think your approach is just right, emphasising content but in a beautiful, simple format that actually works. Keeps it soulful. And yes we’re still a nascent community and the best things in life tend to come slooooowly =D. Thankyou for the comment! Wassalaam

  4. I don’t have much to add to the intelligent exchange of ideas going on here, but just wanted to make sure that I express to you how much I appreciate your writing (and thinking). Brilliant piece.

    • Your presence is in its an intelligent input Norah! I am blown away by your work on the Amal women’s project (people, if you haven’t seen it please do check out…an incredible charity project with so much benefit to the most needy women of Marrakesh, and it’s sustainable, AND it involves cake. Nothing not to like!) Also gutted I missed you this summer. Much love and inshaAllah we meet again soon on this plane xxxxx

  5. this is a great piece. It echoed something a Teacher was speaking of, just last night, in a class we had on Islam, Imaan, Ihssan; he was explaining the Hadith about how at the end of times, you will find the naked barefoot herdsman building tall structures – and how structures is not just physical structures but denotes anything where the focus is on the form and not the content – and he actually mentioned the slick production – how Arab TV is even slicker than western tv…and how this is a sign. He also of course mentioned how the Hadith could also refer to all kinds of focus on building (building image, building a profile, building an organization, building a product, building the self) at the expense of nurturing one’s spirit and dhikr.

  6. SK, what a perfect illustration! I love your teacher’s exegesis of that hadith, I had heard it before but never applied is to the whole world of image-building, but it makes complete sense. It’s all a kind of futile swaddling of our naked selves when Allah sees through all our pretenses. And how hard it is to stick with the inner life when there is so much glamour in the outer, but I suppose that is how it’s always been. Thanks again for taking the time to contribute. Blessings and salaams

  7. Salaam ๐Ÿ™‚

    Loved, loved, loved the article!

    “[Creative Ummah] would create an online learning platform for everything from art to zoology (well, maybe the zoology is going a bit far).”

    Why not? I’m a post-secondary student studying biology and I can see the intersectionality between science, art and Islam so, so, clearly. Images created by florescence microscopy (like this one: are breathtaking. Even the images of the most deadly viruses blow me away. Subhan alKhaliq.

    I can imagine a florescence image of a cell with overlaid calligraphy saying ‘Al-Khaliq”

    interdisciplinary-ness! ๐Ÿ™‚

    “Iโ€™d like to spare some time for the jumble sale rejects, the people with good hearts and great words whose suits arenโ€™t snappy and whose colour schemes suck. May we never get so cool that we forget the dust and decay of the real world. ”

    Ameen ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Yes you know you’re right, I hadn’t thought of that in terms of an online course but it makes prefect sense really! There’ a lot of overlap between permaculture and Islam too…check out Rhamis Kent’s work (he actually gives a talk on Islam and earth care…here’s one of his articles: or what’s they’re doing on the Zaytuna farm in Yemen with Geoff Lawton. Subhanallah for interdisciplinariness!

      Thanks for taking the time to comment =D ma’a salama

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