What follows below was born in expectation of Mohamed Abdelkarim’s presence in the exhibition at the Villa Romana, The Tellers, and consists of not necessarily an interview with Abdelkarim about his work, his process, or his approach but rather a series of dialogues, digressions, conversations, ping-ponged thoughts and reflections about consistent or frequent aspects discoverable in many of Abdelkarim’s collected works, especially those viewable right now, done in a non-linear and not forcibly structured format so as to engender a vaster and broader set of ideas discussed, imagined, possiblized, and dreamed in a way that would feel organic to Abdelkarim’s collection of work in general. Carried out over the course of a series of months between Abdelkarim and writer Connor Maley, the following exchanges might best be considered, then, rather than explanations, explorations.
Connor Maley: Part or some or lots of but not all but certainly a significant degree of the renegade’s power or strength or maybe not those nouns at all but at least their energy lies in their name itself, renege, negation, the refusal of a proposition presented without request and usually via force, the rejection of a putative ‘given’, the refusal and dissension and general nonacceptance of a contract they’d never signed or at which they were never asked to look, the subtle maneuvering of the word ‘no’ in a world of violent and explosive theatrics dependent on the word ‘yes’ repeated by many over and over again. The renegade has been hurled into a restaurant or a space, is presented with a menu or a list of conditions by which worth and life will be valued or determined or permitted, and simply, at some point and in some way, negates and refuses, and in doing so explores the denial of the acceptance, the ‘yes’. What remains unclear, perhaps appropriately unclear, is whether the renegade is in quest of something to which they can or could reply with ‘yes’ in the affirmative or if the dissemination of the negation is sufficient enough, at the time, awash and aflood in a world of ‘yes’, to continue as such, an engaged reneging in continuation.
Mohamed Abdelkarim: Renegades are bodies, humans, animals, creatures, and other forms of existence, and matters that might not exist yet. To renegade is an act, to perform other matters in a time of crisis, an action that can take multiple forms as a ghoul or a zombie or an alien [a creature from outer space], or a creature from the seabed, or a most wanted person by the Intelligence Agencies, or someone accused of sabotage.
To renegade is to decide not to be a victim anymore, “because you were” to avoid alienation. To wipe off an identity, a “socially constructed identity”, and to gain a new one.
Unfortunately, the renegades used to get defeated—they didn’t resist—, since resistance is for heroes, and renegades are not seeking heroism. But that doesn’t mean that they do not fight! They fight their own battles, not inherited battles.
CM: There’s always, of course, persecution and prejudicial misreadings of the renegade and of the renegading or the renegations, as though they were alone and suspect rather than victim and traumatized, as though they had acted alone rather than in unison with the waves of dismantlization that attempted to dismantle them or those like them, had made themselves alone, had alone fostered the preservatory act of negation amidst crumbling and dissolution and rupture, but the renegade is never isolated and never inexplicable but quite rather the renegade, should we be able to locate them wherever and whenever they may be, had been conditioned and created by the negation done by another much more powerful than them, a hierarchical potency and agency of potential ablation that has negated, denied, and reneged previously, offering in that aftermath and in that wake something to accept, something indigestible and unacceptable, and in there is situated the profound difference in having denied oneself or having been denied/negated and having denied or negated masses of others, and yet the stories about them frequently contain filters that discredit them, that further seek to erase them in a highly controlled narrative.
MA: We heard a lot about those renegades in hearsays and stories as antagonists: we have been told that they are threatening us—threatening the human race’s sustainability.
I have to admit that the figure of the renegade carries contradictory components and gestures; that is why it is pretty hard but still possible to pick them out from the historical narratives, imagine them, and speculate about them.
These contradictories make the research for the renegades go through a critical process of taking a distance from a dominant narrative on certain characters accused of being betrayers, traitors, terrorists, vandals, apostates, and pirates.
CM: The ghoul, the zombie, the ghoul and the ghoulish, all have in them something of the renegade, of having been negated and now given to refusal, to negation, and there must be a reason why now in the scheme of pop culture the most frightening thing in a zombied existence is what the non-zombied decide to do rather than the zombied, but and because the renegade is of course still living, still mortal, still made of thin layers of skin, still is propelled by a nervous system, still dependent on organs and organic mechanisms, still had or has or has had mothers, fathers, families, lovers, boyfriends, girlfriends, partners, husbands, wives, exes, friends, strangers who recognized them but knew nothing of them, and the renegade, in doing what they do, is not free of sadness, not capable of negating, perhaps, an intrinsic sadness, and thus the renegade is situated in a particularly thorny limbic space between the frontiers of various and variously perilous worlds, including the world of their own body and gender. Questions persist, basic ones, about what or how or what composition of what mathematical conglomerations comprise the renegade, what they wear in the morning, their heart rate is, their stress levels, do they have panic attacks, if they dream, and if so if they’re mostly mired in nightmares, if they garden, if they keep flowers, if they remember to call the ones they love, if they hold hands or if sometimes they hold their own hands, or if they count regrets, if they hold everything and if it gets heavy. These are only some of the manifold questions concerning renegades.
MA: Although I have been working, thinking, and contemplating the historical phenomenon of the renegades, I have to admit that none of these endeavors get me any closer to how they love and hold hands, but what I am sure about is: they do feel and have fear. They do not think about tomorrow more than thinking about how we will survive today. They do not fear nightmares unless they are not going to die. They do gardening if there is a safe land. They do fishing if it’s far from the naval fleet.
CM: These renegades seem to be existing between narratives of hero and enemy but also not exactly anti-hero, more outcast or discarded than any of the previously mentioned ‘controlled variable’ narratives or narrators that we expect, neither reliable nor unreliable narrator. Society, while still obsessing over hero narratives, has developed certain tolerances and passions for antiheroes and unreliable narrators who nevertheless still slide somehow into heroic narratives or at least merge enough qualities to appeal, while the renegade, the outcast, and the ghoul still seem to be cast as perpetually threatening. There must be, then, some sort of discomfort in societally confronting what the renegade does in refusing to be a victim and refusing to accept inherited battles, in refusing in general, so much so that we still don’t accept the renegade’s struggle as valid or valuable, ‘we’ here meaning the dominant narrative of the dominant media culture. What, if this is true, are the risks of refusing to understand or take into consideration the actions, the means, and the lives of the renegades?
MA: I guess “we” as you mentioned [the dominant media culture and adding to that as a dominant culture/literary production] have produced a theory and literature questioning the responsibility of the human being towards all the surrounding spheres from the political to the ecological. The accumulation of this production illustrates what is known as [bearing the responsibility] and doesn’t as well as didn’t give space to [the right to escape], the right to collapse the temple, the right to not be responsible.
To not be attached to certain positions is an essential element for me to recognize the renegade. The renegade is not an activist that is attached to specific values and ethics rather than a body moving, and their maneuvers depend on the kind of crisis it faces.
CM: Seeing and being seen are frequent aspects in the work as well as in the work of a renegade, gazing and imagining the possible from the unrealized and the unseen, visualizing and imagining, lying and truth-telling assuming the truth can be adequately told, inferring and understanding, uncovering and revealing are all acts of the performer and the text as well as the renegade or the ghoul, and between all of their interactions with the event in question for each scenario and the explication or unveiling of the event, performance of the event, document of the event, re-telling of the event, reactions occur. What kind of reactions occur throughout this process and how do they manifest? Does the renegade in any capacity wish to be seen or be gazed upon, or are they instead those who are seeing? In the event of ‘floating on a surface of words’, is drowning in its meaning necessary, partially necessary, needed, or not? Or what, explicitly, would drowning in that meaning entail, a fullness of understanding or something worse? The penetrating blare of the gaze can often be understood, as well, in the negative sense, especially the luxurious depletion and eradication of the Western gaze which is a gaze that obsesses with defining in totalitarian terms all that it sees by its own terms and standards, something which I would imagine the renegade eludes and escapes, or at least seeks to. How would you envision the renegade’s approach to seeing and being seen? Is this ‘desire to get lost’ the same as the desire to not be seen? Or does it differentiate? When the renegade runs, for example, do they want others to follow? Do they want to be seen or is invisibility the ideal?
MA: Actions and acts like [telling as a researcher, telling as a character, moving between different times and eras, telling a story within a story], all these are acts that I borrow from the history of theater, and utilize them as a device where different sounds and positions merge in a united narrative. These acts float in different positions and depict a drama component not only among the characters but also between me [the performer] and the audience, in the sense of who is the antagonist and who is the protagonist. These performance/drama components seek what I call [the productions of questions].
Talking about “to be seen”, I would like to elaborate more regarding [to tell = to be seen = to make it visible].
Fundamentally renegades have never been seen as bodies but seen in contexts. I believe it is pretty hard especially for renegades as historical materials to be seen out of context and anthropological lenses. From my position [on the stage] when I tell stories about renegades, I dive into the question of how I can prevent falling into the anthropological narrative about [renegades] since at the end of the day they are bodies that felt pain. So I narrow down the relation between me and the audience [I am telling through renegades, not about the renegades] here on the stage. Renegades are paradigms—paradigms I attempt to make visible, make them seen.
The notion of floating is a delicate act. I borrow it from the [water/sea] lexicon that I use to reflect on the hidden/heated truth that is untold or de-told via abstracted poetry. In a world intrigued by conflicts, the fullness of understanding has no point. The imperative of [the othering] makes the meaning relative; geography, language, gender, and skin create our canon of knowledge. That is why I float intentionally, and I have no desire to dive into the meanings; I have no desire to seek the fullness of understanding.
CM: “history is less important than the present it’s destroyed’ is a quote I recently read from a novel and in terms of the notions of the renegade’s interest in the present as opposed to the future, there feels as though there could be some sort of connectivity in those ideas, even though the renegade or the renegading mind has more connection with the past, perhaps burdened by it, but the interest in the present, its ruinous state, remains central, no? Fostering survival as the primary element of interest and focus within the false dichotomization of past and present, the renegade, summoning their frailty, as you write in ‘Count? How Many Renegades I Still Have?’, even survival as a corpse that is collected and narrated, allows the human creature here the possibility to keep transforming and keep telling stories to those listening to them, and so how do you compose their bodies and is it their bodies, as the place where their circumstances were written, that lift their stories out from below? How could we conceive the renegade’s, the traitor’s, the terrorist’s, or the vandal’s relationship, then, to the past? Is the past primarily a burden, a lesson, a graveyard to uncover, a maze of the unexplored and untouched which can be opened via the act of disconnecting the threads of dominant narratives? What, amidst all this, is the renegade seeking?
MA: Actually, I don’t differentiate between past, present, and future. I relate with the past [let’s call it history] as a paradigm that can understand the present. I think of the future; we speculate what resonates with the present. But I would agree that the renegades revive the present as the moment they experience; I don’t mean here the present as a general subject; I mean their present—the renegade’s present.
What is primary and essential is this false dichotomization that you mentioned, as an approach that can be traced through the act of telling-narrating about and on bodies/corpses. I would like to elaborate more on the relationship between corpses and narratives when my interest has begun to think about those bodies of renegades that experienced pain, got hurt, and even the body that sensually had felt joy and felt lust. The critical process is when you think about how you tell narratives is something that remains over all these bodies/corpses. I assume that the agonist position against the dominant narrative relies on how you talk about the sensorial experience as a micro-narrative.
CM: Notions of physical beauty versus notions of ugliness, at least as those two ideations are considered and consolidated by hegemonic society, are explored in ‘Oh I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to scratch your face’, as well as in general terms of what or who the monster, the ghoul, or the renegade might be or how they might look. There’s the long tradition of ‘freak shows’ portraying ‘ghouls’ as societally dangerous but laughable if contained and detained in the proper ways. Outside of the circus, the monster-show, the tamed containment of that ‘unbeauty’, that so-called lack of beauty becomes dangerous to society in its refusal or inability to play by the rules and standards of beauty, physicality, presentableness. What is it that is so disturbing to society about this ‘lack’ of beauty, which of course is not properly a lack of beauty or a lack of anything but rather a nonconformity, natural or chosen, towards accepted standards and manifestations of what we know as beauty? Why should this enrage? Horror films, crime narratives, and countless other genres frequently use extremely ableist expressions of ugliness, disfigurement, or ‘physical savagery’ to indicate something maleficent, something nefarious, something otherized and thus dangerous to human sustainability, as you mention, and to the so-called ‘peacefulness’ of standardized society.
MA: In ‘Oh, I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to scratch your face” the project contemplates the dominant currencies of beauty and ugliness through many references. The main reference is the Arabian Nights which portrays the handsome prince and the ugly Ghoul. Although the Arabian Nights are non-Western literature, you can easily touch the white discourse similar to the Hollywood production in which the protagonist is pretty from society’s perspective, clean, and a man!, with all that this word means to society.
Therefore, the project complicates these notions of ugliness and beauty and speculates how the other’s gaze could be used as a tool to threaten the system and the dominant structure.
Although the accepted beauty standards are relative from one society to another, the media reshape a shared understanding of what beauty should be. I am not talking only about the facial features and skin colors more than gender, sexual appearance, working lifestyle, and even the meaning of success and failure. And what is more critical for me in my umbrella research was how the global system tries to reshape how resistance should be aesthetically acceptable. The refusal of the guerilla is interpreted as an ugly “violent” act in juxtaposition within the approach of a discourse of excessive pacifism frequently touted by many countries. Paradoxically, American media, for example, aestheticized the Marines in their invasion of Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq as the beauty of the brave.
CM: History as an agent of marginalization, procedural and gradual marginalization that is pushed by agents of power to marginalize the threats and discordant objects from its propulsion towards this ‘meeting’ or rendezvous with modernity seems to be recurring in many of the works but notably so in ‘A Gift to those who Contemplate the Marvels of Renegades” and the ideas of ‘history from below’ and ‘fiction’ and ‘almost fiction’ abound in richness. How could we or should we, at all, define these three things? As images of stratified layers of versions of history that consummate to compose something close to nowness, they create a fascinating image. Being over the line and being under the line suggest representations of two different visions of the world or reality, if such a word can be used, as if to suggest a history from below and a history from above. With notions of queerness, mercenaryism, forced migrations, and diaspora and all of these various locomotions that you reference, are these two different ways of being, and where do the renegades referenced herein situate themselves, or can they allusively and elusively slip between layers and strata, and is that, perhaps, part of their hiding?
MA: History, in its dominant forms [written, archival and artifacts, etc.,] and all that is recognized institutionally, is forcibly defined as the truth and the present reality. In the meantime, there is an oral narrative camouflaged and defined as fiction.
In my project, I define fiction as not an imagined narrative but as a reality camouflaged in a fictional narrative, when the reality is gradually diving into a fictional narrative as safe territory.
Renegades slip between different narratives and histories. Jan Janszoon van Haarlem is one of the characters that played an important role in my previous project. Jan Janszoon in his early life was a privateer “Private Navy Warrior’ and he used to sail under the Dutch flag, and then he joined the moors. Joining the moors is a line in Janszoonian bio-history, moving from an official navy military to join the Barbary corsair on the African shores, and changing his name to Murat Reis the Younger in honor of the Albanian privateer Murat Reis the Elder. I assume that Janzsoon moved and was locomoted from a privileged identity to acquire a different identity which was much less privileged than his first identity.
CM: Conceptualizations of conceptions of locomotion come up frequently. Is locomotion a threatening phenomenon? Obviously, both the renegade and modernity have versions of locomotion while history and the present oscillate in their interpretations of locomotive mechanisms. How does all this get reconciled, or is a reconciliation possible or even desirable? What do you think are the sociopsychological politics of locomotion?
MA: Locomotion or simply the act of [to locomote] is an anti-stability act. I assume that modernity-established forms of living depend on non-locomotive bodies. However, modernity is attached to locomotive mechanisms but with different desires of locomoting bodies. If you contemplate the genealogy and the use of the words [refuge, immigrant], you will notice that those two words started to be widely used in the 1800s. What I mean is locomotion, and the act of locomoting from one place to another, from one body to another, from one appearance to another is narrowing down. Now, in a strictly illustrated world with geographical, gender, and even desire-based boundaries and standards, I believe locomotion becomes a form of resistance, in its simple acts of moving physically or psychically.
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Connor Maley is a Baltimore-born and Florence-based writer and translator who writes about psychic and physical displacement, trauma, identity, time, history, family, and systems and structures of oppression and deprivation, and an ontology of suffering and recovery. After graduating in 2007 with a BA from Mount Saint Mary’s University in Iberian Literature, Philosophy and Theology and in 2011 with an MFA from California College of the Arts in Creative Writing, he has been continuously publishing, showing, and performing his works or has participated in a number of journals/residencies/festivals throughout the recent years: Deliceiras 18 in Porto (PT), AltoFest (IT) Atelier REAL artist/writer residence in Lisbon (PT), among others.