Being (in) Public: Republic of Body (Pt. 2)


by Rosana Elkhatib This is part two of an essay about spatial and bodily agency in Amman. Here I recount the circumstances of Republic of Body, my own curatorial project which took place in Amman last November. By directly interfacing with a bureaucracy in flux, I tested how art can interject in the continued enforcement of politically neutral public space. Read part one here.

The Republic has declared its autonomy! The Republic has avowed Walk the streets… In your skin -Republic of Body, a Public Intervention - Amman, Jordan

As many government buildings tend to be, the Greater Amman Municipality (GAM) headquarters was a bureaucratic labyrinth. Long halls stretched endlessly, branching into small offices packed with curious faces wondering how a person like me (a young “contemporary” woman?) found herself lost in them. After some casual sexual harassment by men who I can only imagine were government employees, I reached the office of the Deputy City Manager. There, I was greeted and offered some coffee and tea, to which I replied:

“Tea please.”

“So Ammo, [1] why is a young girl [2] like you going through all this trouble? Are you planning a musical show?”

Yeah sure, whatever, can I get my fucking permit now? It’s November already, this is my second visit back to Amman for a performance originally scheduled for July.

“It’s a piece that challenges the idea that women and non-masculine bodies cannot stake equal claim to public spaces in Jordan and welcomes them as equal agents.”

“...Ok, so it’s a show for women’s rights?”

I think I lost track of the exact number of cups of tea I gulped down as I sat explaining Republic of Body. I smiled, nodded, feigned innocence when asked if this “show” is offensive or sensitive in any way, and insisted it’s merely about addressing sexual harassmentThanks to a growing interest by the international community and NGOs, I figured this was my best bet at getting a permit to perform on the street of Amman. There was no way I was going to tell them what this really was about: A choreographed performance of bodies—who are indeed subjected to harassment on the street, but don't otherwise warrant the state's recognition or protection—would march down al-Sharia Street in Jabal al-Weibdeh.

Route of the procession along Rainbow Street.

As part ritual procession and part gay pride parade, the curated event was meant to instantiate a public and symbolic space for feminist and queer Arab artists to assume a public visibility they are otherwise denied. By employing strategies the Jordanian state used to legitimize their own sovereignty, the performance would riff on a modern history of royal motorcades to produce an appearance of marginalized figures that could be both validating and celebratory. Republic of Body constitutes a declaration of (in)dependence of precarious bodies whose visibility in public space is regulated. Through state authorization and with state protection, they would physically navigate and own the street for the duration of the performance. The main measure of the success of this performance would be its legal realization, which unsurprisingly, proved to be challenging.

Anyway, back to my own equally public engagement. Walking down the hall of the second floor of GAM it was hard to fathom how non-masculine and queer bodies could occupy the streets of Amman when it’s hard to cross the GAM halls without feeling completely out of place. The performance was scheduled in mid-July, but as the date approached, there was no progress on the part of the municipality. Nobody knew who I was, they did not understand what I wanted, and no one seemed to know who I needed to ask to obtain the permit. In return, they did not bother to explain anything to me nor direct me towards the right departments; in other words, they felt zero obligation to engage in what David Graeber calls "interpretive labor" [3]; structural violence within bureaucratic systems allows for arbitrary decision-making by those in power and increases the levels of ignorance and opaqueness across the entire system.

To illustrate further: I was first sent to al-Abdali district manager, who, after telling me he had no idea what I was going on about, found me unthreatening enough to sign a form, provided I go to a manager at GAM headquarters in the congested downtown to submit it. There, I was told to leave the proposal with the assistant, who would deliver it to his manager, resulted in many more trips to the municipality and multiple calls about the status of my permit over the course of the summer. Toward the end of July I asked a friend with connections at GAM to help expedite the process, but efforts on her part and mine amounted to nothing.

July came and passed, and I kissed my chances at any kind of performance in Amman goodbye. I went back to New York and waited until I was ready to re-enter this bureaucratic cycle. I decided to go back in mid-October. As a true Ammani would, I used my family and friends’ connections, and got in touch with someone working in the Public Libraries Department, a part of the Ministry of Culture (which I assumed was where I needed to go to, although no one ever directed me there?) My connection bro seemed to know what he was doing, and I figured he was my best bet at this point. He personally took me to the director of Cultural Programs, al-Abdali district office and to GAM headquarters. He went as far as taking me to drink Amman’s “best coffee” at Mcdonald’s in which I had to endure his slightly inappropriate comments, constantly reminding myself that he is the unwitting answer to my gay parade prayers.

After a couple of Mcdonald’s coffees and an elaborate walk-through of connection bro’s Russian sexual conquests, I finally landed in the office of the Deputy City Manager. After around four visits and many calls, I was finally told that during a meeting with the City Manager Republic of Body was finally approved for a permit. Indeed, the Deputy City Manager insisted that the performance be respectful because his “neck [was] on the line.” He granted us a verbal permit and provided us with police that would help in redirecting traffic for the duration of the performance.

On November, 11th of 2016 at 6:30 pm the Republic of Body assembled and processed down a popular street in Amman for an hour. The police were present, this time as protection for the bodies they consistently disavow in daily life. Crowds gathered around the bodies, entertained, curious, a little confused and some angry. For the first time, the street was taken over, not by an institution or the state, but by those marginalized by them, who could now articulate their constant state of precarity and assert their legitimacy through public visibility.

Republic of Body: a procession of marginalized bodies on al-Sharia Street in Jabal Al-Weibdeh. In collaboration with Mohammad al-Tayyeb, Shireen al-Talhouni, Fadi Zumot, and Dima Hourani.

The idea of occupying public space in a non-normative way might be dismissed by a censoring state (and its agents) or your own good sense under such a punitive political regime. However, public performances can refuse to be complicit to these norms and push the limits within and through systems of control. And these gestures, subversions by and through the bureaucratic process, demonstrate possibilities to manipulate existing legislation or exploit existing frames of power. As Noura al-Khasawneh, co-director of Spring Sessions, explained to me in an interview, these are methods by which the city can become a laboratory for artistic and spatial investigations. Constantly confronted with bureaucracy herself as someone who often experiments with public spaces, she elucidated how ambiguity within the system can become an opportunity to yield newer and more creative stagings of art to critique existing public laws. The navigation of state law and municipal permitting become performances in their own right rather than processes that anticipate a “final art form.”

There is a distinction between critical art practice and protest, one that's clearer in the frame of the law than in practice. Republic of Body walked the line between the two. Embedded in its logic is a political critique that, had it taken a more overtly dissenting tack, would have been considered an act of protest. Republic’s procession challenged the state’s lack of recognition and protection to marginalized bodies by performing the critique in ways that were not subject to the same curtailments of outright demonstration.

The strategy of engaging systems of control and working through them toward more critical ends is itself an implicitly political act, one that exercises the democracy theoretically afforded by this Arab state. Art, a field generally regarded as less pernicious than activism by Jordanian authorities, has found its public vocation within a tide of state-approved private development. It is the assembly—and collisions—of bodies, intervening objects, speeches and ideas that allow public spaces to operate as such. Amidst the ongoing transformations of Amman via art and urban renewal, it's important to test and see the impact of the bodied subject in the city's shared spaces. In more conscious and contentious occupations, we can demonstrate her place—my place, our place—in forming a public despite an obstinate (although manipulable) municipal authority and art-initiated and capitalist-driven urban regeneration that does not actually cater to a diverse city of bodies.

In Republic, the actual absorption of state and institutional forms, symbols, and processes were essential to the project’s critique and public assembly—a critique of the very power that it secures so assiduously from public expression. These encounters with the state not only made the curated performance possible, but proved to be public occupations in their own right. It is here, in site, in engagements with men would otherwise call you girl, amid architectures enforced by a conservative regime, that more nuanced messages can be circulated and more diverse publics can come into being.


[1] Ammo is a term of endearment between an uncle and a niece/nephew. In this case, as this was my first time meeting the manager, the use of the term was either subconsciously infantilizing due to my youthful look (ask my friends!) or purposefully diminishing because I am a woman; I will never get to find out.

[2] Again, the word girl or bint in Arabic denotes age and, oddly enough, the status of a woman’s hymen. A bint is unmarried, a virgin, whereas a woman is not.

[3] Interpretive labor, according to David Graeber is the effort put into deciphering people’s motives and perceptions. He explains how those wielding authority endowed by bureaucracy are not obliged to perform interpretive labor because they have the implicit and actual threat of violence at their disposal. See David Graeber, "Dead Zones of the Imagination: An Essay on Structural Stupidity" in The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2016), 57-66.