Hi Rahel! Tell me a little bit about your background. Where do you come from? Where have you lived etc.
I was born in Kozhikode, and moved to Dubai when I was two. I’ve been based mostly out of here ever since, save for five years in NYC. Essentially I guess I’m from that grey area I like to think of as the #gcccccc—people who are from Dubai, but at the same time will never really be from here.
Being an anthropologist sounds very serious and very interesting as well. I don’t think I have met another anthropologist in my life. But what does an anthropologist really do?
It’s a good question! ‘Career academic’ might be one answer, or ‘creepily embedded with militaries to act as a non-native informant’ might be another, more cynical one in the case of what is called applied anthropology. I actually wouldn’t really call myself an anthropologist at all—it’s just what I studied in college. At base though, I’d say anthropologists, especially sociocultural, are primary interested in the study of people, and on a more intimate scale than something more societal like sociology. This is what attracted me to it, I think. I’m fascinated by the minutiae of everyday life—the assemblage of small gestures, affectations, accents, postures, aesthetic and ideological worldviews that each person carries about themselves in different configurations. Whether you call it ‘participant observation’ as anthropology might, or gathering materials for fictional characters, or just being able to capture a feature interview subject, it’s definitely something that bleeds over into the world of writing.
Why did you chose to meet me here from all the places in Dubai?
I actually grew up around there, just behind the fire station, but hadn’t gone back in a really long time. A few days before, I had realised that Dubai now has google street view, so I’d spent some time virtually traipsing around the area and wanted to do the same in person. The intersection of Diyafa and Al Mankhool/Satwa Road is an especially interesting crosshaired biopsy of three or four very different sides to the city.
How would you describe Dubai’s urban reality? How would you describe Dubai as an anthropologist?
Dubai is one of the most intriguing places to be in the world right now I think, the kind of city that we don’t collectively have the right language or vocabulary for just yet. At the risk of sounding like a real estate-y paean to capitalist hypertrophy, it truly does feel like the city of the future. Not in the way it looks—your standard retro sci fi visions of weird buildings rising up from the desert—but in its demographics as this postwestern, post-nation state centre of the new new world. People from everywhere (and actually everywhere, not selective cover photo diversity) and the bristling, clashy, whirry synthesis of cultures that’s the result.
You were strongly involved with the State magazine. Actually you were one of the founders. How did that happen?
It’s almost kind of a blur at this point. Our publisher, Rami Farook, had been doing a series of THE STATE exhibitions at his (now closed) Barsha gallery, Traffic, which became a publication when my coeditor, Ahmad Makia, and I came on board. We had almost a carte blanche—the kind of opportunity that it feels like can only happen in the Gulf. It has had several iterations over the years, but generally we now commission essays and mixtapes for online as well as producing occasional themed book objects in print, as well as auxiliary projects for art fairs, biennales and triennales.
I see you brought some of the State’s publications. Your idea of a book or a magazine is truly unconventional. Like this one, was made by a fashion designer, right?
Yup! Our basic reasoning is that with the advent of the internet, the book is no longer the best, or perhaps most efficent, content delivery mechanism. So what else can the book do? For print we try to work with visual folk who haven’t necessarily made books before, and see how they hack the bookform. So this one was designed by fashion designer Leila Redja, while in the past we’ve worked with artist friends like UBIK and Lantian Xie (who’s more recently joined us as an editor-at-large).
Currently working for an art gallery, how do you see the art scene in Dubai?
I would probably need a few thousand words for this haha. I have a LOT of thoughts about the art scene here. Working at Green Art has been a fantastic experience so far—it’s really interesting to see both the nitty gritty and explicitly commercial side of a scene that I’ve otherwise been around but not directly working in for the last few years. Things are changing, and definitely for the better, though I think there’s still a long way to go. I’m most excited by local artists like the aforementioned Lantian, Raja’a Khalid, Vikram Divecha and Farah al Qassimi, as well as seeing homegrown institutions like Art Dubai and Al Serkal Avenue develop.
I realise above all you are a passionate writer. Is the internet and its innumerable images the beginning of the end of writing? Is writing only treasured when in print?
Not at all. The internet’s just one of the most recent developments in a long line of new technologies, from the inventions of paper, moveable type and the printing press onwards. If anything, it’s the bound codex bookform that has a definable beginning (and arguably, end). People were writing on walls and tablets long before that, and in some ways we’ve come full circle with this. This said, I’m especially fascinated by the way that techy language creeps into everyday use. Not just the contraction and dropping of hyphens (electronic mail > e-mail > email ie) but things like using hexcodes to describe colours (“I need to get a tan I’m so pasty #ffffff”) or saying something like an image being ‘screenburned’ vs ‘seared’ into your mind.
Could you recommend some good reads for the summer holidays? From books, to magazines, to blogs?
I really love Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August: An Indian Story for the kind of weather we’re about to be hit with—perfectly captures that dusty, baked earth sweat sweat pouring languour of summers here, the kind you can’t escape even with 24/7 AC. Absolutely anything from Junot Diaz. And of course THE STATE and The New Inquiry, though I might be biased!