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19 - 25 April 2001
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photo: Randa Shaath
Laughing in silenceIn the theatre of the absurd, he is on stage with the audience
Profile by Pascale Ghazaleh
"It has to be dark for the bed-bugs to come out," someone says, stretching out on the narrow cot. "But if they sense a human presence, they'll emerge -- we'll see them soon enough."
From the large, shady terrace, Madinet Habu is clearly visible. "Whose idea was it to stay on the West Bank anyway?" someone else asks on a plaintive note. Mine, of course.
The telephone had rung for a while, and the kind voice that answered eventually bore bad tidings: no rooms. The voice was willing to recommend other possibilities, though, all within walking distance of the music, and of Golo's home in Qurna.
The hotel, we decided -- upon reflection (and the bed-bugs' failure to respond to temptation) -- was rustic. We were feeling charitably inclined, having attained that exalted state induced by precisely 15 minutes of sleep. And we were here on a mission: to get away from it all, in search of enlightenment, music, and Golo.
The ride from the airport could have taken care of the first. The driver -- an excellent man -- was a creative practitioner of his craft, and thought nothing of swerving pensively into the left lane, where he would linger for a while as large trucks whizzed towards us. A young water buffalo stumbled up the canal bank and, at the turn of the road, a woman in black appeared, her shawl stretched taut to shade her face from the hazy grey sun. Her profile was etched sharply against the frame it formed, bronze against black. She looked at us, and was gone.
Golo was born far from here, in Basque country, and spent his early childhood in Spain and France -- more Spain than France, although the border does not seem to have meant much. The streets, and the life with which they teemed, were what mattered anyway; his father's work took the family here and there, between the Spanish border and Bordeaux, and if this peripatetic childhood left marks or fond memories, he says almost nothing about them. He arrived in Paris aged 20; conveniently, the year was 1968, and the city was a great crossroads, which it was possible to use as a point of departure for other places, other sights. There, he discovered "life -- everything at once." Like what, precisely? Sudden tears stand in the eyes of this quiet man; or is that just a glint of light on the round glasses? He shakes his head: "I won't talk about it. Not like this. Not now."
Nor later, as it turns out. He will say, in passing, that it was a time of drifting, a time of encounters. Later, though, there is lunch at a long table -- a convivial repast, a meal for laughter and forgetting. Golo is seated at my right. He is so very quiet he almost disappears -- but when he is remembered, it is as a dense, solid silence; not a silence of reproach, but a porous, thirsty silence. He will emerge, briefly, to speak of Sheikh Ahmed El-Barrein, the Sufi cantor we heard the previous night; he will remark on the way the man held his tambourine "as though it were part of his body, an extension of himself."
At every moment, during our first conversation, his silence will remind me that this is not a natural situation, and he is not a man comfortable with telling a stranger his life story. He lets the silences last, then, at the last minute, offers words: not particularly numerous or telling, but enough to reassure -- to hold the silence at bay for the space of another brief phrase. Perhaps, though, it is merely the silence of someone unhappy with speech.
Golo: "that genius of caricature." That is what he is -- although perhaps caricature is not quite the right word for it. France's venerable tradition of bandes dessinées cannot be summed up as comic strips; perhaps graphic novels would be a better description. If so, what he has been producing recently could be short stories, captured in a single frame. He draws, every week, the cartoon that accompanies the Cairo Times editorial. He provided the splendidly louche illustrations for the comic-book version of Albert Cossery's Mendiants et Orgueuilleux -- one of the 12 books he has produced so far. These also include a travelogue from a trip to Taiwan, half in French and half in Chinese, with double-page contributions from three Taiwanese artists.
'Those who didn't know me thought I was an Egyptian pretending to be a foreigner in order to speak of banal things that an Egyptian would not speak of spontaneously. I was trying to do very Egyptian things, things from the street. It's true that an Egyptian would never do that kind of thing'
Having visited Golo's world, one cannot help recognising it in subsequent glimpses, however fleeting. Those whose memory still serves them may remember his work in Sabah Al-Kheir, published when he first came to Cairo. Georges Bahgory brought him in, showed him around, wrote an article introducing his work. He spent two year-long sojourns here in the 1970s, and found "old things still present, things that people took for granted but that were in the process of disappearing" in this global mother of a city. Umm Al-Dunia, but also Sandouq Al-Dunia: the magic box on the itinerant's back. Press your face up against the peephole, and see enchantment.
He walks in the street, and falls in love, over and over. The coups de coeur -- blows of the heart -- are translated into clear strokes and bright colours: simplified, but not reduced. There is his drawing, for Sabah Al-Kheir, of Islamists assassinating the ghost of Umm Kulthoum ("the soul of popular Egypt"). A caricature, yes, but only as "grotesque" or "absurd" as the extreme condensation of the characteristics it distills.
He watches the city as it mutates. He has seen this before, in Paris. He is here, now, and finds himself attending another spectacle. The tourists vroom by in their air-conditioned sardine cans: what they see is also caricature. Golo takes that and twists it. What he shows is caricature as exasperation with what one really loves -- truly, deeply, maddeningly. The music festival is the same. There is the Swede in skull-cap and white galabiya, nodding sagely to the bewitchment of the nayy, unconcerned by the sheikh's words; there is the well-known maker of false antiquities whose copies are so perfect some have been stopped by customs on the way out as the Pharaonic thing (yet something new -- a shiny coin, a sign of sorts -- is imbedded in a hidden corner of the fragment of bas-relief). Now he is clapping ecstatically, now perfectly still -- almost offended with the alarm of having been caught off guard. "Different people were enjoying the music for different reasons. The Qurnawis were having a great time," says Golo, and shrugs. "And there were the Martians, too."
He compels himself to express thoughts like this in drawings, deprives himself of language and instead invents his own hieroglyphs as he goes along, captures insanity, frolics in the mundane absurdity of this life. At first, he remembers, "what was funny was that those who didn't know me thought I was an Egyptian pretending to be a foreigner in order to speak of banal things that an Egyptian would not speak of spontaneously. I was trying to do very Egyptian things, things from the street. It's true that an Egyptian would never do that kind of thing. When one lives it for oneself one doesn't draw it."
"He looks at Egyptians with a foreigner's eye," someone says; but that is how he looks at everyone, as if the human race itself were an amusement park, and he a child on the merry-go-round, a vendor of balloons, a man operating the roller-coaster, a purveyor of comic illusions...
There is a madness, the mad-as-a-hatter sort, that Golo seems to empathise with: craziness, yes, but teetering always on the verge of hilarity. He can be derisive, but he is not cruel. That is the difference, he believes, between humour here and elsewhere. "The press is mean," Golo says -- and this from a man who worked at a magazine called Mean and Stupid (Bête et Méchant).
So he will put a mobile phone in a pharaoh's swaddled hand -- this is a comment on despotic authority, perhaps, a wry observation on the universalistic aspirations of modern technology, or pure silliness, in the very best sense. He lives here, after all, because he wants to; he lives like other people, and is pleased with the way they are, lunacy included. He takes things from the good side, and appreciates Egyptians' capacity to transform daily tribulations into funny stories -- the gift of the nokta, the ability to laugh because it hurts.
When he came here, the first time, in 1973, he had few ideas of what he would find, and these were reductionist at best. He discovered Cairo as a real city. The popular quarters he remembers as more livable than they are today, now that cars, pollution and noise have invaded every alleyway. Then, he says, the street was part of people's houses -- the most important part. Strangers entering a neighbourhood would stand under a lamppost, clearly visible, and call out their greetings from afar before advancing further and stating their business.
"I draw with my feet," says Golo; that is what he likes. He walks and walks, then, intoxicated by all he sees, goes home and draws what he has stored up: people, gestures, situations. He is not interested in "stupid realism," but in "a madness one has felt somewhere." He takes many details from raw reality; while the result "looks real, it is made up of counterfeit," if only because the juxtaposition of entirely unrelated elements, however true to life each may be, necessarily subverts each individual context to create an entirely new order -- an order where it is perfectly plausible for a pharaoh to tote a mobile phone. And why should it not be? In this life (on the other side of the barricade), signboards declare "Enjoy your drink in the Valley of the Kings," command visitors to "smile, you are in Luxor," or to "look at the glory of the ancient," inform potential customers that Hatshepsut Restaurant is open for business. But this same place is permeated, even peopled, by a great, almost palpable calm, which will be described as "the presence of silence, not the absence of noise." It is inhabited, one knows, by Mer Seger, the goddess of silence worshiped by the workers of Deir Al-Madina. One can hear this silence everywhere on the West Bank; it may recede into the background at times, but it is there.
So the world itself is the magic box; outside is inside. For his exhibition titled Sandouq Al-Dunia, Golo drew a 3.5m scene of street life unfolding from morning to night: an experiment with the encounter of drawing and object. For the following show, he went further, making the frame an integral part of each scene. Now, in Qurna, he is accumulating material, building and setting aside personal memories of the Marsam hotel, Sheikh Ali Abdel-Rassoul, the people he has met and the things he has imagined. He will interpret the trope of the narrator's dream as a voyage to the other world, "a world remarkably like this one: polluted, policed, monstrous, stupid, invaded by tourists..." The gods of Ancient Egypt are as present here as they are everywhere in the south: he worships them every day, but in his own way. "I don't let them do as they please -- besides, they can't afford to anymore."
In a sense, then, he is recording history as it happens, although history was never really the point: when he enrolled at university he was interested in the subject only insofar as it would tell him "how it happened that we arrived here." After 1968, the academic framework was no longer interesting. It appeared stifling, ridiculous. He seems to have lived off bits of jobs: painting buildings ("it's all the same, isn't it?"), teaching French to Chinese immigrants, fifteen days of this, a week of that... Then he began drawing professionally, publishing in magazines like Charlie Mensuel and l'Echo des Savanes. It may have been during this time that Guy Nadaud became Golo, appropriating "the name of the monkey from Senegalese folk tales."
So now we know how he got his name. Other details -- the reason for his decision to "come back" (to Egypt), eight years ago, for instance -- are revealed obliquely. Now, when he returns to Paris, he sees things he would not have seen before, that are invisible to a full-time resident, things "that rip my eyes out." He could not live there anymore, he explains; he left too long ago, and something is broken. "When I left, I was already sick of it. It's not the life I knew. The Paris I loved has disappeared, for the most part. I no longer find the things I loved."
What he loves, it seems, is the spontaneity of childhood -- the instinctive enjoyment he tries to recapture by drawing "as freely as possible." Working for a newspaper, though, is a special kind of challenge: there are deadlines to be met, lines to be drawn that must say something, something more than what is already said by the words nearby. These lines must be drawn fast. There is no time to await inspiration; and the fickle muse does not attend upon the vagaries of current events. Then, too, there is the problem of silence: how to convey what is not said, how to transgress, just a little, without disruption? "That is what is interesting," he explains. "To see how far you can go without causing problems." This is a work of space to be filled, a work between the lines, inside the margins. The drawings, though, must expand in the imagination, settle there like silt, remain after the event itself has gone, leaving an aftertaste like coffee: strong, unmistakable, pure. An impression.
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