Saturday, February 06, 2010

(St.) Patti Smith, Jaffa, and Felafel

In heart I am a Moslem
In heart I am an American
In heart I am Moslem
In heart I'm an American artist, and I have no guilt.
-Patti Smith, "Babelogue," Easter (1978)

Last Sunday's laudatory review in the New York Times of Patti Smith's new book, Just Kids, got me into a Patti mood.

This inevitably led me to the Patti Smith documentary, Dream of Life, which I had missed when it screened on PBS recently.

The film is beautiful, providing a rich and complex account of Patti. I seem to have given myself the full-time job of looking for "Arab traces" wherever I can find them in US pop culture, and so my account of the film focuses on those. The film of course is much, much more, but I want to argue that Patti's interest in the Middle East is an integral part of her life and therefore is important to the film as well.

Here's the first thing I spotted, a ginbri (a.k. hajhouj), the distinctive instrument played by the Gnawa of Morocco. Why and how it got into Patti's NY City apartment, I don't know, but there it was. About thirteen and a half minutes into the film.

Then there is this: Patti picks up a small antique Persian urn that's in her flat, and struggles for a moment to open it up--she says she hasn't tried to for some time. Inside, it turns out, are some of her ex-boyfriend Robert Mapplethorpe's remains.

Mapplethorke's folks have most of the remains, but Patti has a bit. She remarks that, if she likes, she can schlep Robert around with her, in the urn.


(I found the photo of the urn on the website for Dreams of Life. It's part of a slide show of some items that were in the exhibit, "Objects of Life"--photos, videos, paintings and personal belongings connected to the making of the film, which was made over a period of 11 years.)

At around an hour and twelve minutes into the film, we hear Patti in concert--chanting from the Declaration of Independence, and then indicting George W. Bush for a series of crimes, including the invasion of Iraq. Onscreen we see Patti writing, typing, sitting, at the Lincoln Memorial. It's really remarkable: watch it.

At about one hour and 28 minutes into the film, we see footage of a demonstration against the Iraq war that Patti participated in. Eventually we see her addressing the crowd--chanting with the backing of members of her band, against war, for peace. I'm not sure which of the many mobilizations against the Iraq war this was, but it appears to be one that was organized by ANSWER, and to have taken place in DC. Note the guy in the kufiya on stage with her.

We invented the zero
And we mean nothing to you
Our children run through the streets
And you sent your flames
Your shooting stars
Shock and awe
Shock and awe
Like some, some
Imagined warrior production
-Patti Smith, "City of Baghdad," Trampin' (2004)

Patti was quite active in speaking out against the Iraq war between 2003 and 2005, and she appearing with Ralph Nader and Howard Zinn (RIP) at several anti-war events. And she is, or at least was, a supporter of the Green Party.

For five long years
I wasn't a man
dreaming chained
with the lights on
in another world
a netherworld

Patti Smith, "Without Chains"

In 2006 Patti put out a song, "Without Chains," about the case of Murat Kurnaz, a German-born Turk, who was arrested in Pakistan after 9/11, detained at Guantanamo for five years, and released in 2006. He now lives in Germany. Kurnaz reports having been waterboarded whileh he was held at the US military base at Kandahar, as well as having endured torture at Guantanamo. You can read what Patti has to say about the song, about Murat Kurnaz, and about John Walker Lindh, here. The song is not available on any recording, only here.

The last ten minutes or so of Dream of Life are really remarkable because they are all shot in East Jerusalem, chiefly the Old City. There are some scenes of the Wailing Wall, but otherwise it's almost entirely Arab Jerusalem. I don't know what the occasion was that brought Patti to Jerusalem, so I suppose it was just a visit, with no concert appearances. The film gives no explanation. (The film screened, incidentally, at the Jerusalem Film Festival in 2008--and the festival director claims it was one of that year's highlights.)

Here's Patti, walking in the old covered suq (market) in East Jerusalem. Despite the Israeli military occupation, despite the continued efforts of the Israeli state and Jewish settlers to confiscate and occupy Palestinian properties, the suq, and Arab Jerusalem, continues to exist. If not exactly always to thrive. Jerusalem's Old City is one of my favorite places in the world.

Here's Patti, eating some felafel, in a typical East Jerusalem eatery. I've probably eaten at this place myself.

She probably knows that felafel is originally a Palestinian-Arab dish, and that Israel's efforts to turn it into an Israeli national dish are both an act of cultural expropriation and an effort to erase felafel's Arab character. (Felafel in Israel, especially when it's made by Palestinian citizens of Israel or by Mizrahi Jews, is quite delicious.)

Here Patti is checking out a scarf sold in a shop in the suq. Note that it's right next to a red-and-white and a black-and-white kufiya. These look like the made-in-China kufiyas that make up most of the kufiyas sold in Palestine today.

Patti doing a typically tourist thing: riding a donkey. Not sure who is with her--her son and guitarist Jackson Smith?

Here Patti is just outside the wall of the Old City, on its south side, I think near the Dung Gate. Note the soldiers of the occupation.

Another shot at the same location.

This is my favorite scene of Patti in Jerusalem: Patti outside the office of The Arab Cultural Center for Jaffa and The League for the Arabs of Jaffa. I don't know where this office is located in the Old City, but I'm pretty sure that Patti isn't just standing in front of the door because it has a pretty painted design. Jaffa was the cultural and economic capital of Arab Palestine during the British mandate, and it was ethnically cleansed in 1947-48. I just can't imagine that Patti is posed here for no reason.

I can't imagine it because Patti's song, "Peaceable Kingdom" (on Trampin', 2004) was reportedly inspired by and dedicated to Rachel Corrie, who was killed in March 2003 trying to defend a Palestinian family in the Gaza Strip, whose home was threatened with demolition. Run over by a Caterpillar bulldozer driven by an Israeli soldier. Patti made a videotape of her performance of an acoustic version of the song and sent it to be played at an event held in Rachel's memory at New York City's Riverside Church, called "Rachel's Words," on March 22, 2006.

And I also can't imagine that the film's Jaffa reference is just random because Patti also recorded a song in memory of the Lebanese who lost their lives when Israel decimated the village of Qana in 2006. You can download the solo version here, and there is also a version with her band.

Limp little bodies
Caked in mud
Small, small hands
Found in the road

Patti Smith, "Qana"

Patti performed at the Byblos Music Festival in Lebanon in July 2008; read about it here.

The last scene of the movie, Dream of Life, is in Jerusalem. It shows Patti, with her back to the camera, in the Old City, looking west. Sorry, it was hard for me to get a good photo of the scene. Also sorry that I can't remember what was being spoken during this last seen. Go see the movie for yourself. You'll be glad you did.

As I watched the movie, Adventureland, I thought to myself, when will someone make a movie about a very cool but maybe slightly nerdy girl who harbors artistic ambitions and whose hero(ine) is Patti Smith? But since most of our directors are men, all we seem to get are movies like Adventureland. The film's protagonist, James, the nerdy guy who wants to become a writer, is "cool" because his hero is Lou Reed. I love and admire Lou Reed as much as the next person. (And Lou Reed has performed for the benefit of Palestinian children--for the Hoping Foundation.) But isn't it about time to start promoting the notion that some women artists might be models of cool as well? Patti really deserves waaaay more respect and honor than she gets.

(And by the way, why is it that in Adventureland, it is only James' intellectual interests that are revealed? He wants to go to Columbia to study journalism, to be a writer. The girl he falls for, Em, also goes to college, to NYU. But the film never thinks it important enough to tell us what her major is. Or whether she has any intellectual or artistic ambitions. Instead, she is just a pretty face and a hot body, with a cool, tough attitude. I'm tired of all these guy movies. I really want Katherine Bigelow to win an Oscar for best director.)

This is not to say that Patti isn't, in some ways, pretty male identified. Her three best-known romantic partners just ooze street cred: Robert Mapplethorpe, Sam Shephard, and Fred "Sonic" Smith (of The MC5). Her cultural heroes are William Blake and Arthur Rimbaud. She knew and hung around with the likes of William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan. I don't know what well-known women she admires/d or has hung out with.

Nevertheless, she is a saint.

(A really good account of Patti Smith, that demonstrates convincingly that she is the most awesome female rock artist ever, is to be found in Simon Reynolds and Joy Press' book, The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion and Rock 'n' Roll [Harvard, 1996]. Despite the book's deployment of Jungian archetypes as an analytical framework, it is quite incisive. Especially on Patti.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Patrici from Buenos Aires, Argentina.