In Conversation with Adham Hafez

Adham is choreographer, performer, theorist, composer. Born in Cairo, Egypt, living in Berlin, Germany and New York, NY, USA. Locked down in New York, NY, USA.

‘Violence becomes normal so quickly, but most certainly slow violence. We are used to responding to the spectacle of violence rather than violence itself, when it’s non-physical and not directed physically at your body.’

Do you know Adham Hafez? I finally met him in person in Tunis during the first edition of Cartage Choreographic Days in 2018 where I saw his extraordinary work: Extraterritorial Ministry of Arab Culture. This was where his genious stroke me first and I had my first leap into his world of fiction and reality, art and activism, entertainment and, I dare say, witchraft knitted together wisely and viciously. His work engages with histories of colonialism and environmental catastrophe and aggressively activates questions on complacency, institutionalized racism and cultural hegemony, the traces of which are visible in our correspondence.
We’ve been having a lot of conversations with him during 2019 when we tried to bring this work to Turkey in the months leading up to May 2020. That didn’t happen. But here, something else happened.
Look at his picture in a Gotham-like landscape, a self-portrait describing his current state better than anything, as he says. Below is a written testimony of our companionship in a dark time, politically, socially and personally.
I salute his courage for being where he is, the way he is and sharing all this.
This is what we have for now.

This correspondence took place between Fatih Gençkal and Adham Hafez from April 27 to September 18, 2020 through email and WhatsApp.

From: Fatih Genckal
To: Adham Hafez

Sent: Monday, 27 April 2020 00.54

Dear Adham,
I want to start an interview experiment. I will ask you one question everyday and you will have 24 hours to respond to it. Then I will ask the next question based on your answers or my curiosities. You can also ask me questions in your answers and interview me in a way. It will be like a conversation.
If you answer quickly, I can ask the next question right away, so we don’t have to wait 24 hours. It can turn into texting each other too. Or not.
Please feel free to write as you are speaking.  Follow the spark the question starts in you.
So here is the first question:
What do you see happening with you and around you since the beginning of home confinement?

Adham Hafez 27 Apr 2020 03:37
I have been monitoring my health a lot and panicking. You know I have some chronic problems, and for some reason I get sicker each time I return to America. I don’t know if that’s the weather, or food allergies that are hidden here (I am tracking some since 4 years when all this started) or something environmental or so. But, I get sick each time I return. This time there is a pandemic, no doctors, no clinics, no way of getting medical help, assistance or testing if anything happens. Which makes me afraid, and makes me monitor my well being all the time. I am feeling a lock down today, a lock down within the lock down, I am alone, the city around me is dark and miserable. All around me I either see people in panic, or people being selfish and not caring for other people’s fears or health. Is there a virus, or not, I am not busy with this conversation as much as I am busy with how so many people have shown horrible facets of themselves, and how many regimes of power are getting uglier by the second, and capitalism is just slapping us and punching us on a daily basis.

Fatih Genckal 27 Apr 2020 14:14
You describe a very eerie image. Would you say the lack of medical help is a universal concern in the US or does it have to do with your immigration status? And please talk more about this other aspect of how people have shown horrible facets of themselves. Do you relate it to the behavior of power and capitalist structures that you mention? If so, how?

Adham Hafez 29 Apr 2020 21:07
The problem with medical care here is a general US problem. It’s been there for as long as I remember having lived here. I always was shocked, and dehumanized by it. Each time I got sick, I dreaded that I won’t get better simply because how health here is dealt with as if it is something exclusive, denied to the masses! Only a select elite who could afford their insurance, very expensive insurance and medicine, would get treated. Others no. And those who get treated are also stuck in a loop of abusive capitalist attacks.

Add to this being a non American, living here not as an immigrant, but as a ‘resident alien’, a term that means you perform the same responsibilities (from paying tax to buying an insurance), but you get nothing much in return. You don’t have the right for support, for instance like now during the pandemic, you can’t get any of the federal or national or state or city support. Because you are an alien. To be suddenly on the outside of everything.

Fatih Gençkal 30 Apr 2020 01:23
Reading your words makes me think about your work. I think you have a fascinating way of creating situations that radically deconstruct the facets of power structures and institutions as well as theatrical and choreographic conventions. This comes out through a keen eye and deep research, I believe. Do you think we are in the middle of something that will cause major shifts in the ways we live and see the world?

Continued on WhatsApp:
[15:30, 04.05.2020] Fatih Gençkal: Hey dear. I haven’t heard from you in a few days. All is good?

[21:57, 07.05.2020] Adham Hafez: Hey dear Fatih, I’ve been very, very depressed. It’s so horrible here. I dunno what to do and how to be well anymore

[23:33, 07.05.2020] Fatih Gençkal: Oh dear, I’m so sorry to hear that. Did something happen? Are u physically ok?

[23:38, 07.05.2020] Adham Hafez: I have to evacuate my apartment in ten days. And there are many structural problems, something leaking from the heater that makes the air unbreathable sometimes. Dunno where I’ll go yet. And I can’t just afford a random rental now, all jobs are on hire freeze.

Adham Hafez 14 May 2020 23:03
I do feel that I’ve been reminded so much by a lot of the work I created and HaRaKa Platform has made. Five years ago we created a performance on how borders will only get worse, and that we will need to provide body fluids analysis before we are admitted to a visa. Now, Europe is discussing that Arab citizens would have to submit a spit sample before getting a Schengen visa, to look for active Covid19 RNA! Last year in November we created a film that looks at the normalization of disintegration in a world suffering rapid biodiversity loss and rising disaster capitalism. The actors all were wearing masks and gloves during all shoots, making it almost look like something shot today in this ‘new normal’. We would have screened this in Turkey if we had managed to come to your festival! It’s a work that continues to grow, and is an experiment between storytelling and cinema, where the scenes filmed are almost used as a visual tarot card reading, and we do live storytelling to the recorded cinematic score. The movie is almost shot in silence, focusing on choreography and costume and scenes.

So, in a way, since last year we felt this shift happen in the Summer of 2019. A new industrial city is being constructed by the Red Sea, a sea that has lost most of its biodiversity over 150 years because of the Suez Canal and now because of global warming. And all of this became normal. Violence becomes normal so quickly, but most certainly slow violence. We are used to responding to the spectacle of violence rather than violence itself, when it’s non-physical and not directed physically at your body. So we are more shocked and reactive to the virus now than we will be to the oppressive measures of cameras everywhere, sanitization gates that compromise the health and well being of living bodies, obligatory face covers that are soon gonna be a booming fashion/ textile industry most probably not sticking to any clinical design specifications that actually would protect us, and austerity measures and economic strife being justified by the virus. We will be made to accept a lot because of the virus. And we will either continue to not understand it, or figure radical solutions. That’s if we don’t stop first and question western medicine, and if we don’t trouble the relation of political power to science.

Fatih Gençkal 16 May 2020 14:40
What you are pointing out echoes the disaster capitalism theory. The pandemic indeed seems to be the perfect disaster for it. Unfortunately, this makes a lot of sense to me and that is why it also leaves me a little bit hopeless. I feel like we live in a web that is so thoroughly designed that no matter what happens, no matter what we do and how much we uncover these webs of power dynamics, it is always going to get over us and get stronger. I am afraid that nothing short of a global catastrophe can stop it. There are many initiatives, movements, etc, working against this but what is their influence do you think? I feel that the system is always quicker to absorb the potential threats. What can we do?

Adham Hafez 17 May 2020 00:31
I have absolutely nothing wise to say to this. I would have said things like ’this is the time to organize and mobilize’ or ’this is the time for grassroots initiatives’. But I am afraid I am unable to speak like this anymore! I don’t know if this works. People are selfish, and people are only interested in their own lives. I go to the pharmacy and people aren’t wearing masks, because they don’t care. If they were told that the mask protects THEM and not others, they would wear it. But the lack of responsibility and lack of interest in saving and helping others, leaves me staggering. How can I organize with these others? How can I organize with -for instance- my neighbors who insist on having loud house concerts until after midnight, slam the doors, and throw parties over my head up on the roof, and no matter how much I complained to them they would not listen? They don’t care! How can I organize with my colleagues at the university here who are not aware of their class and race privileges? I think now is the time for some silence, deep thinking, a lot of emotional expression, and eventually being outspoken.

Fatih Gençkal 17 May 2020 17:31
Is this time making you reconsider your position as an artist or human being, in any way? About why and how you make work? I know these are big questions but I am curious about your thought process.

Adham Hafez 18 May 2020 05:38
It is making me think of how to make use of my time and knowledge. It is making me remember that I know so much, and that I have learned so much that I never use. I need to do more with my knowledge for sure!

Fatih Gençkal 19 May 2020 13:56
Are you saying this in terms of artistic production?

Adham Hafez 19 May 2020 22:23
Both this and other things too. For example I studied Political Science, and specifically environmental politics. I wonder what I can do with my training, education and knowledge now that we need to think through new environmental paradigms. I studied pharmacy, and I wonder if there is something there I need to be doing, talking more to people. Sometimes I think I should just start cooking online and sharing my recipes and ideas with others and help them eat healthy. I just want to provide some services.

Fatih Gençkal 20 May 2020 16:28
I also notice a similar tendency for myself and some creative people around me for a while. Many people I know are looking out for other contributions they can make than art. There is also a growing tendency for artistic practices to flirt with other fields like gastronomy, ecology etc. I am wondering if this is the way it should be or does this have to do with the diminishing credibility of art as an institution on its own. Like it can have a meaning for society only by making a contribution in a more visible, concrete way. The coining of socially-engaged art, for instance. It seems that this feeling intensified with the futility we have found ourselves in during the pandemic. Personally, I can’t make a hierarchy of fields, vocations or occupations but there seems to be something going on here. What do you think? Is the scope of art expanding or is art losing its value? Or is something else happening?

Adham Hafez 20 May 2020 19:49
I am disillusioned with so much bad art. So much art ‘about’ things, about politics but not political, about the environment but doesn’t take a single action to protect it. I feel that art generally speaking within the bigger contemporary circles has been soiled already by all this sense of obligation of needing to be meaningful, and basically only almost doing so to access certain circles of influence, funds, and economic trends. I don’t want to see this again. I feel like fighting with artists who go around parading their work as if it’s Messianic while it’s just a free pass to yet another exclusive donors party at the Rotunda of the Guggenheim.

I am not devaluing art either. I can only survive through it. All the films, TV, songs, poetry, and design that I have to consume these weeks in order to stay sane and happy. But, the vulgarity of pretending that art is saving lives now. Maybe precisely that’s what I mean: let’s stop with the socially engaged art, unless if it really is, and just do entertainment. Good, fun, engaging, fucking amazing entertainment!! And if we want to create political, social, environmental art, then let’s really, really, really do it.

Fatih Gençkal 23 May 2020 00:04
I totally agree. In this sense, I am curious about your process. How do you know the next thing you want to work on? How much do you know in the beginning what you really want to do and what you want it to look like? Then how do you start and carry out the process? Finally, in the light of our conversation, do you think this is going to change for you?

Adham Hafez 28 May 2020 22:32
I always start from a gut feeling, and when we realize that it is shared by all company members, then we work. So suddenly we all are angry about one thing, it’s mostly anger, fear, quite some intense emotions that drive the process’ first moment. Then it’s research, months and months of collective research, and then this is when things get interesting and the project takes a life of its own, and starts to shape itself and tell us what to do. It’s really a magical moment when this happens. Will this change? I don’t know.. I don’t even know what the next (new) work will be like. We are trying to think already to shift towards a visual object and a digital presence, as well as publish more. But, how do you network during a lockdown? How do you meet producers, curators, digital platform organizers, publishers, all while you’re locked down? How do you enter a network of support and influence that could help you carry through an artistic process? It’s an unfair situation, because those who have access already to such networks, will be the only voices heard, and those who hadn’t managed to make those in-person relations, will still be voiceless or left on the edges of the process of disseminating and producing art. I think we will invest in a lot of publishing, even if it is self publishing, and then the question is how to get an audience, keep them interested, reach out to them.

Fatih Gençkal 29 May 2020 18:53
We were just discussing with a friend here this idea of global privileges concerning the voices that are being heard. She says that the pandemic actually intensifies the already existing privileges and mostly Eurocentric voices to dominate the discussion and dissemination. And change -if any- to be expected will be elitist/white/conformist. I don’t necessarily agree but I also see a field dominated by existing networks and actors with very few new voices. I am and we, at A Corner in the World, are particularly interested in helping these voices be heard. Alternatives do exist but what needs to be done here? Strengthen them? Create new networks of production and dissemination? What are your strategies in remedying the situation you describe?
Oh, another hot topic: how is the US dealing with its resurrecting racism discussion these days?

Adham Hafez 29 May 2020 21:26
I honestly agree with her. And to answer your questions, I think the answer is money and power, to be very vulgar, the way everything around us is. Voices are heard when they are backed up by a strong economy and institutions that are powerful or aligned with power. It’s quite sad, and vulgar as I said earlier, but we know it’s true. So until there are well funded, high visibility platforms, with strong institutional partners that are willing to back up these voices, these voices will remain something on the side, rather than people shaping the game. And it’s not that I am giving up on the underground and the clandestine, quite the opposite, I believe so much in its content and dynamics that it should from time to time be allowed to radiate into and through the surface. Alternatively, media, be it social media or print, is something that can also support these voices.

As for America now, it’s heartbreaking. On top of a virus killing people, there are white supremacists killing people. But, it’s not a coincidence, because it’s part of one system of institutionalized racism and class dynamics that want to (need to) keep people who are not white, and who are not full citizens, and who are not wealthy, to remain in precarious conditions as servants of the regime and of the ruling class. They will be deprived of affordable healthcare and affordable higher education, because they have to stay in that place, in this bad theatre play, playing those pre-assigned roles. People are angry. Random people are randomly attacking one another here. I see it daily.

Fatih Gençkal 31 May 2020 16:34
Your answers to both questions are interrelated somehow. The structures that shape the lives of masses. On an interesting note, the rightist, conservative and even fascist segments of society as well as the government here have been quite vocal in condemning the racism in the US while at the same time extreme discrimination and racism against Armenians, Syrians, Kurds, LGBT and other ‘minorities’ are abundant. The Hrant Dink Foundation, for instance, recently made a public declaration saying that they are receiving death threats. It’s also fascinating how the national institutions and structures are also designed to discourage solidarity on principles on a global level.

Today is the last day of the official quarantine here. From tomorrow on, there will be no restrictions, just some rules, I guess. Restaurants, cafes etc will start back but not theaters, bars and restaurants where alcohol is served. The private theaters who have almost nothing else but the ticket sales as revenue are on the brink of bankruptcy as well as those who run a music/bar etc space. Creators and disseminators of culture. It feels like a big hand-over of cultural capital is going to happen which will probably result in the knock-out of small and independent businesses and further monopolization of resources. Still, people will probably survive and come back at some point, as they always do. But still there is a crisis every 5-10 years that have similar consequences and are weakening the independent institutions. They always have to resurrect something which makes it hard to build continuity. Each generation has to start from square one and make the huge effort before they are knocked down by another crisis and leave. This is a story that can be traced back to at least the 1980 coup as far as I can see. It’s really frustrating. Do you see similar patterns in Egypt or elsewhere?

Fatih Gençkal 8 Jun 2020 15:46
Dear, I realize that things have gotten more and more tense since I wrote to you. How are you coping? I hope you are safe and healthy. Let me know.

Adham Hafez 8 Jun 2020 21:16
Hello dear friend,
It’s insane. At least the curfew is now lifted. I felt very ill. I don’t know if this is my body reacting to the politics, or what’s going on, but I don’t feel well at all. I tried to go get some tests done and so on, but it’s been difficult. I feel I am hijacked in this story. I want to move somewhere else, at least for now. But we can’t really move. I hope there is wisdom in this period..
How are you? I heard about the new higher education and university regulation laws in Turkey. What is this?

Fatih Gençkal 11 Jun 2020 14:15
I can’t really imagine what you are going through. My months-long coming and going stomach problems concluded in my diagnosis of ulcers right before the pandemic outbreak. I was feeling helpless as it kept coming back every few months and making me miserable. Once I saw the lesions in the endoscopy results blocking passage of digested food to my intestines, I felt relieved. I sort of accepted the reaction of my body in the form of stomach lesions. The idea of balance. Nothing bad, nothing good. It just is. The body, nature looks for balance, and finds it in the end. What happens in the meantime is what we experience as the problem. I try to respect this idea of an ongoing process of balance and be kind to myself. I hope you can keep yourself healthy and have the necessary space to rest in this difficult process.

I’m doing ok. Things are almost back to normal, crazy crowds in the streets, business as usual. Not following much news really. I don’t know about the university regulations but there is a plan to expand the powers of the night watchman, loyal to the president. Also 3 opposition MPs were arrested recently for terrorism allegations. News on many nature-destroying projects approved during the lockdown, more Kurdish municipalities confiscated.

Do you have more to say on what’s going on there? It looks like some major shifts can happen concerning the public visibility and legitimacy of figures and institutions related to racism such as confederate flags, statues etc. And more discussions in various segments of society from where I see it.

Adham Hafez 14 Jun 2020 22:32
Fatih, I am sorry for silence.
I was badly assaulted physically and I am now trying to deal physically and emotionally with the attack
thank you

Fatih Gençkal 15 Jun 2020 16:43
Oh my god! I read your facebook post as well. I couldn’t reach you on WhatsApp. Are you taking legal action? Would you think of making a public statement that we can help circulate? Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help at this point. Stay safe and healthy. I will keep trying to get in touch. Wishing you all the best.

Adham Hafez 22 Jun 2020 20:47
Thank you so much for this email. Sorry that I interrupted our conversations. I was really enjoying them. And yes, I will do a public statement and take legal action once I speak with a lawyer (still looking)
thank you, thank you

Fatih Gençkal 27 Jun 2020 13:25
Hello dear, How have you been? I hope you are feeling better physically and mentally. How is life there? Here, things are pretty much back to normal. With distancing and other measures, most places are open. Today and tomorrow, there is partial curfew because of the university entrance exams.

I came across this today: and thought immediately of you. I also surfed on some news websites -which I haven’t done in a while- and felt so small. It’s interesting how different news agencies produce different news and different views on the same topic. I thought: well, this is what they are producing. It’s essentially a production but it is actually shaping our worldview in a major way. What do I choose to take from here? What is your personal reportage from New York my dear? 🙂

Adham Hafez 10 Jul 2020 01:30
My goodness, what to say..
Trump decided to revoke our visas or have us deported in the next 4 weeks. I have no idea where I will go or what I will do if this happens actually. All of this is a punishment to universities that have embraced an online education model to protect people. It’s so heartbreaking, and downright unnecessary, let alone xenophobic.

So, I went from being stuck in New York unable to go to my residencies, tours, or visit friends, to being on the brink of having nowhere at all. I don’t know how I can continue taking this pressure any further. Three weeks ago I was physically assaulted, and now this. Such injustice. And at the same time, people are panicking about water in Egypt because of the damn dam deal!!
I should write a rock song and call it the Damn Dam Deal! It would be a hit.

I hope you are well, and healthy and safe. Let’s continue our discussions again. Eckhard from London wrote me saying you spoke of my work. Thank you. I’ve known him for more than ten years now, but we never worked together.

much love and till soon
wish me luck

Adham Hafez 14 Jul 2020 04:01
Dear Fatih,
How have you been?
I heard that Turkey is reopening Sofia as a mosque now? Such confusing times..
I hope you’re doing well.
Cheers from New York!

Fatih Gençkal 15 Jul 2020 10:48
Oh my dear, I don’t know what to say really. Ay ay Aya Sofia could be another hit song! Sometimes I feel that governments are just there to distract us with bullshit from the real issues of life. Really. I don’t think there is anything worth discussing here. The economy is terrible, the country is in deep shit in all aspects and the government (or rather the man!) takes the necessary action: turn Hagia Sofia into a mosque! Oh, actually, the decision was taken by the high court, not the government: they nullified the 1934 decree which turned it into a museum because it was in violation of the building’s use declared by Mehmet The Conqueror Foundation!

I am ashamed that this issue has already taken two lines of this conversation. Sometimes I feel that there is an end approaching and other times I feel that we will keep hitting new lows for a long time.

I heard last night that the Trump administration took that decision back. Is that so?

What are your hopes and intentions for the upcoming season then? We spoke to Eckhard about a possible collaboration, I mentioned our cancelled plans for past May and thought of reviving something for May 2021.

Salute from July 15, our new holiday: Democracy and National Unity Day (i.e. attempted-coup)! I think I will go to the beach today.

Addendum news flash: The parliament is quite busy in Turkey these days. I just heard the latest news (which was actually not on mainstream news at all): the government prepared a draft law about the food, farming and forests -without consulting the related NGO, union etc parties. It is an omnibus bill including many issues as they always like to make. They propose to establish a Food Science Council. Any news, speeches, declarations etc about food that is not approved by them will be subject to fines up to 50K Turkish liras, around 7300 dollars. It also has some regulations concerning the changing definition of forests and potentially building related facilities in forest and farming areas. Here is a link in Turkish.
Just wanted to chronicle this in this conversation.

Fatih Gençkal 7 Aug 2020 12:14
Dear, I haven’t heard from you here. I know you are struggling over there, but I wanted to write anyway. It is a dark time for us all. I am aching for Beirut, I feel the pain in my head somehow but it starts around my heart to go inside my stomach, to travel to the top of my head. I feel a wave. I cannot begin to approach the feelings of people there. I spoke to almost all my friends there and they are saying the city never suffered something like this. I intended to write that the economy here is terrible but then I said to myself, what does that mean, really? What are we talking about here? Everything is fleeting, like things crumbling down. I am singing It’s the end of the world as we know it. And that never quite happens. My aunt used to mutter Selamun kavlen in this kind of situation. I am looking into some work starting in September and I really don’t have much interest. What is your situation now? Let me know when you can, dear. Keep well.

Adham Hafez 1 Sept 2020 06:41
Hello dear friend,
I am sorry for this long silence.
I have been exhausted by all of this. And also I am busy working on an emergency edition of our publication, and basically, it’s focusing on the current situation in the Arab world, getting so much worse so quickly, that we don’t even have the luxury of dealing with a deadly pandemic anymore. We are busy with rape, imprisonment, demolishing of monuments, erasure of contemporary history, laws blocking us from surviving, from working, from dancing. All my focus is on this emergency edition of Cairography now, which we are publishing together with SARMA in Brussels, and it’s co-edited by Ismail Fayed and Myriam Van Imschoot. I cannot wait to share it with you.

I hope you find some inspiration soon, or at least some companionship through this. I keep reading how hard the situation in Turkey is getting, and I feel sorry there is little I can do!

Wishing you all the best, till very soon

Fatih Gençkal 12 Sept 2020 22:54
Adham dear, I know the feeling of constantly complaining and saying the same things. It’s like a curse and somehow we find ways of living with it. I am currently in some sort of a meditation retreat. Among all this. Around me is a valley of olive trees and constant wind. Like nature is showing me how it is vastly present and will always be with its magnificent, I dare say, nonchalance. Throughout the summer, I’ve found myself in a sense of retreat anyway.

I am looking forward to hearing more about Cairography’s new edition. I’ve been publishing the conversations I’ve had with friends around the world here. Something that started out as an exercise of connection has led me here so far. I have intentions of publishing them as a book, too. This has been my main occupation for the last few months.

The second wave of Covid-19 is on the rise here. The government banned all cultural events -indoors and outdoors- along with some other measures. Oh, did I mention that the beautiful Khora museum with some of the oldest and finest of Byzantine mosaics and frescoes was also converted into a mosque? 

And finally, today is the 40th anniversary of the 1980 coup, which built the grand regime that we still live in here. I don’t know how I manage to write to you specifically on these weird days! Somehow I have a feeling that we may do something weird together soon.

Till then, with my best….

Adham Hafez 18 Sept 2020 02:47
My dear, you do write me the weirdest news on the weirdest days!

So horrible what you said about Khoura, I had no idea!! Sofia and then this now? What the heck is going on? Why?

The 1980 wave is still flooding over our days…

I am so sorry to read this. But I am happy the olive trees are taking care of you.

I wish you well my friend, and indeed let’s do something weird together soon indeed. That’s a beautiful invitation!

Hugs to you, and stay well!

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