After the Wildly Improbable: Why Are We Here Now?

Aleppo. A Portrait of Absence By Mohammad Al Attar

After the Wildly Improbable
Curated by Adania Shibli
part of the series Why Are We Here Now?
3 Weekends with Adania Shibli, Mohammad Al Attar, Rabih Mroué
Performances, Lectures, Films, Concert
September 15, 2017, 6 – 11pm
September 16, 2017, 2 – 11pm

What would a railway say, if it were to speak, about our journey through the century to the here and now? In the late 19th century the Ottoman Empire, with the aid of the German Empire and its banks, embarked on two large-scale projects that would remain unfinished in the aftermath of the First World War: A railway network designed to connect Berlin with Baghdad, and the Hijaz Railway, linking Damascus with Mecca with lines extending to Jerusalem and Alexandria.

What can the railway network disclose about the break up of the Ottoman Empire and its aftermath? Can the railways, as witnesses present at the same time in different places over a period of more than a hundred years, assist in relating to history and exploring events from within the region? How can all this help us to imagine connections that no longer exist? And where are the traces of such connections to be found today?

Starting from these questions, the Palestinian author and cultural scientist Adania Shibli has conceived the first weekend After the Wildly Improbable within the scope of the three-part performance and discourse series Why Are We Here Now?

Shibli investigates the themes with an unusual change of perspective: In performances, presentations, films, and talks, visual artists, writers, sociologists, anthropologist, and thinkers act as mediators who will assist the railway in speaking from its own perspective of no more than twenty-five centimeters above the ground. “Wildly improbable, not to say fantastic,” the words used around 1900 by the British consul in Damascus to describe the planned Hijaz railway, lend this collective essay its title.

Launching Why Are We Here Now? Adania Shibli spans a wide temporal and geographical horizon in six sessions, thus connecting all three weekends. Like Mohammad Al Attar and Rabih Mroué, Shibli investigates transformations occurring over the past century in the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean. They deliberately avoid grand narratives like progress, civilization, or Orientalism.

The project begins with Trains in the Past, Tracks in the Present, a session that examines the Ottoman Railway Network as an expression of modernity, capitalism, and imperiality in the past which continues to resonate to this day: in films, ditties, wedding songs, or literary texts. The writers Priya Basil and Sinan Antoon, as well as the sociologist Salim Tamari, for instance, uncover remnants of this immaterial evidence.
In Postwar Landscapes railways have a different significance, acting as gathering points and sites of connectivity on the one hand, and facilitating dispersal and division on the other. These contradictory movements are treated in this session as the unintended evidence of various histories: during the Lebanese Civil War of the 1970s, in the formerly divided Germany, and recently, in the summer of 2015, of people walking along the railway tracks to escape wars and seeking refuge in Europe. Postwar Landscapes tells of these stories in films, texts, and lectures, including a newly produced film by the indigenous art group Karrabing Film Collective.

Unsmooth, Broken Flow of Travels is the title of a series of talks and lecture performances uncovering new details about the accumulation of capital and its intrinsic links to colonialism, nationalism, and global imperialism. For example, in her lecture Zeynep Çelik, focuses on museology and archeology, examining the link between archeological objects and the construction of railways.

The movement and circulation of ideas, artworks, and books are the main topics in Between the Lines. The Ottoman Railway Network has effected paradigm shifts in the literary imagination and shaped artistic practices over the past century. A lecture performance by the Berlin-based publishing and art collective Fehras Publishing Practices will present the transformation of a railway station in Damascus, built in 1907, and turned into a library in recent years.

In Animate Tracks the railway now speaks from its own perspective—divulging secrets from below and above the ground along its tracks. The artist Adel Abidin traces the myth of treasure hunters searching for hidden gold along the Hijaz Railway, the geo botanist and artist Gülnur Ekşi talks about the disappearance of common plant species as well as the development of hybrids through genetic crossbreeding. The Sonic Interpretations of Sair Sinan Kestelli, a sound artist from Istanbul, conclude the weekend.

Adania Shibli is a writer and cultural scientist. Her research focuses on the history of vision in Arabic culture, as well as political and social realities. Her novels, plays, short stories, and narrative essays have been published in various anthologies, art books, literary and cultural magazines. A selection of her books include Minor Detail (2016), A Journey of Ideas Across: In Dialog with Edward Said (2014), Keep Your Eye on the Wall: Palestinian Landscapes (2013), Dispositions (2012) and Touch (2010). Shibli was awarded the Young Writer’s Award by the A.M. Qattan Foundation in 2002 and 2004. She is a regular contributor to various journals, newspapers, and magazines, and intermittently since 2013 has been a visiting professor at the Department of Philosophy and Cultural Studies at Birzeit University, Palestine.

Why Are We Here Now? continues between September 21 and 23 with a performance by the Syrian playwright Mohammad Al Attar. In Aleppo. A Portrait of Absence Al Attar searches for possibilities to reconstruct the city of Aleppo through tales and testimonies of the inhabitants which assist them in maintaining connections to their beloved places. Finally, the Lebanese artist Rabih Mroué approaches the complexity of history, exploring new artistic formats in a series of “non-academic lectures” entitled How Close Could We Get to the Light and Survive? (6 - 7 October).

Why Are We Here Now? is part of 100 Years of Now which is supported by the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media in accordance with a ruling of the German Bundestag. Haus der Kulturen der Welt is supported by the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media as well as by the Federal Foreign Office.

Adania Shibli:
After the Wildly Improbable
Sept 15 & 16, 2017

Mohammad Al Attar:
Aleppo. A Portrait of Absence
Sept 21 – 23, 2017

Rabih Mroué:
How Close Could We Get to the Light and Survive?
October 6 & 7, 2017

Tickets: 4 to 14 euros

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