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Where are the Arabs?

009_02 / 30 July 2015

8pm TV News – sometime in the 1980s


Woman shouting at news camera:

'Where Are the Arabs? 

Where are they?! 

Can't they see what is happening to us?'


A question repeatedly posed by Palestinians which also echoes in a popular song from1980s 'Where are the Millions?' written by the Libyan poet Ali al Kilani, and sung by Lebanese singer Julia Butros in which the chorus repeats:


Where are the millions, Where are the Arabs?

Where is the Arab fury?

Where is the Arab blood?

Where is the Arab honor?

Where are the Millions?



It was a time when Palestine took centre-stage in everyday life and politics across the Arab world, a position it held solid until recently when the 'Arab Spring' shifted media attention to the rest of the region. 


In 2009, when the performance work Where are the Arabs? (2009) was presented in Amman, Jordan, it had been 62 years since the Palestinian Nakbah of May 1948, as well as the declaration of the State of Israel. The event itself, as well as all other ensuing events related to Palestine's Occupation are present in everyday consciousness across the Arab world and beyond, and bring mixed feelings of guilt, frustration and indignity to many.


The work points at a particular moment in history around the 1960s in which it appears that there was hope for the Arab nations to unify and counter the effects of colonialism and its culmination in the occupation and colonization of Palestine. To some degree, Palestine is eminent in the popular interpretation of the affects of past colonization, as well as current political manifests in the Arab world of the present.


This optimistic period of the 1960s is also largely connected to the charismatic and eloquent Gamal Abdel Nasser  then president of Egypt  who is very much identified with the Arab unity project. This instance in the region's history quickly ended with the Arab defeat in the Six Day War of 1967 against the Israeli army. The Arab unity project bears distant memories of hope and euphoria that only returned with the recent Tunisian and other Arab uprisings of 20102011. 


Based on the idea that people in the region have a tendency to dwell on a glorious past, the intervention Where are the Arabs? was an investigation into the audience's relationship with their recent political history, and the collective Arab identity, while pointing to Palestine as a focal point for understanding the region's identity politics.  


Indirectly referencing Nasser, the performance is a compilation of parts of his speeches from 19591963 that were presented in different Arab countries for various social, economic and political occasions in which Nasser would insert a paragraph or two on the importance of Arab unity. Nevertheless, the work does not reveal to the audience that the speech is taken from Nasser's and maintains contemporaneity without historical contextualization.


The question is; how do people react to a speech from their recent history? Do they recognize it? Do they find it funny, ridiculous, absurd? Or does it resonate?


Simultaneously, the project is an interrogation of the public sphere as a space in which political life presumably exists and evolves. 


Not surprisingly, nothing akin to 'speakers corner' exists in Jordan, so critical debate or discussion around local or regional politics is avoided by people in the streets and public places, as it is also known that Jordan's intelligence system is very vigilant and intolerant. Additionally, at that time Jordanian law banned congregations in public space and any gatherings that symbolized a protest or a meeting needed permission from the municipality or state security.[1] The same applies to cultural performances.


The one permit requested for the performance was from the Royal Film Commission to document/film the speech was granted, reluctantly, albeit in good faith (and a perhaps some sense of humour). Simultaneously, an announcement on flyers, posters and emails had been circulated, a gesture that caused some discomfort for both the Commission and state security who present themselves throughout the three-day intervention in various ways.


19 May 2009 in Makan – Amman (about one hour before the intervention)


Me: Ok now I am getting nervous! What was I thinking!? Why am I doing this?

Ola why didn't you stop me! This is crazy.


Ola: Don't ask me but yes, you are crazy.


Me: But let's agree on one thing, if the police or the mukhabarat (intelligence) take me away, or try and stop me, first get photos, then come and get me out of the police station.


Ola (smiles): Ok!


Me: Now I need to decide what to wear. I have the dress I am wearing (a salmon long-sleeved cotton dress) Or shall I wear these dark pants with a white or grey shirt?


Diala: Dress![2]


Ola: No, pants and shirt.


Ghalib nods in agreement.


Will people in the street stop and listen? How long will they stop for? 

If I did this in the middle of the vegetable market, would someone throw tomatoes at me? 

If I performed the same speech on TV in restaurants, would the people stop eating? Will they think it's a real speech on the air? 


I choose to focus the performance in places with high human traffic and place the TV intervention in cafes, bars and restaurants in places that range from hip , younger crowds to popular, old downtown locations.





The Arabic language uses repetition for emphasis and this usually comes in counts of three. For example: I swear, I swear, I swear I do not have a single penny in my pocket.


The content of the speech is a 25-minute address that repeats the same notions; the need to unite for power against the enemies.



We are gathered here to celebrate the anniversary of unity and the birth of United Arab Republic. What we celebrate today is not merely the birth of unity, nor the birth of a great nation solely; but the birth of willpower. Unity was simply the expression with which this willpower chose to express itself.


The reality, my brothers, is that unity was simply a popular demand that gained its freedom and rid itself from all traces of foreign control. It continued to pave its path, and declared this to its rulers; the proof of this is that freedom was only achieved after a long struggle that set out from the very beginning to the very end to acquiring freedom. This was willpower. The willpower, your willpower my brothers, was the result of freedom, as there is no willpower without freedom.  


We have come a long way, my brothers, to own our freedom, and from thereon to gain our own willpower. The region was filled with great hopes and dreams, but dreams are not achieved unless the path ahead was paved by the motivation to work, and there is no motivation without freedom.'



Day 1: Mango Market




Day 2: Vegetable Market




Day 3: Near Habiba Sweets


 Read Samah Hijawi's essay 'Performativity and Public Space' here.




[1] This law changed after the uprisings of 2011, now a 48-hour notice is only needed for protests or other public gatherings.


[2] Part of me wants to wear the dress, it's one of my favorites, but I chicken out and stick to the bland look. In retrospect, I should have worn the dress.

About the author

Samah Hijawi

Samah Hijawi is a multi media artist, writer and curator living and working between Jordan and Belgium. Since 2005 she has collectively managed Makan Art Space in Jordan with Ola El Khalidi and Diala Khasawnih, and co-curates the on-going platform The River has Two Banks with Toleen Touq and Shuruq Harb. Her artistic projects have been presented in Darat Al Funun; the Khalid Shoman Foundation, Jordan, MoMA, USA, Beirut Art Center, Lebanon and Haus Der Kulturen Der Welt, Germany among others.