At PS1, Wael Shawky’s Pope Speaks Arabic

THE DAILY PIC: Marionettes stage the Crusades as seen through Arab eyes.


THE DAILY PIC (#1530): This is a still from The Horror Show Files, part I of Cabaret Crusades, Wael Shawky’s amazing video trilogy about the West’s medieval attacks on Islam. All three parts are now on view at PS1 art space in New York, but I still think the first one, which I originally caught at the Documenta festival in Germany in 2012, is the best.

The video uses 19th-century Italian marionettes to tell the story of the First Crusade, but seen from the viewpoint of the war’s Muslim protagonists and with all dialogue in Arabic. (Inspiration came from the collection of medieval texts in The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, published by Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf in 1984). Hearing Arabic words coming from the mouth of the Christian Pope Urban II, who preached and launched the war, is deeply peculiar – but of course reflects the way his words and ideas must have been imagined and digested by the culture he was attacking.

It is almost a cliché to note that puppets are always a bit uncanny; they are doubly so when they enact slaughter and warfare. (Nothing’s deader than a murdered marionette.) That helps make Shawky’s piece all the more unsettling – precisely what we need right now, when our views of Christian and Muslim are far too settled.

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