January 12, 2011 - Bidoun - 23: Squares
January 12, 2011

23: Squares

23: Squares

Amr Khaled has great big expressive eyebrows. When he speaks, they take on a life of their own, moving up and down and sideways like a caterpillar on acid. Whether pondering the state of women in the Islamic world or the fate of the Palestinians, he is relentlessly, even frustratingly, optimistic. As the Egyptian equivalent of Dr. Phil, Oprah, and Rick Warren all rolled together, he is an army of one dreaming of the Islamic Renaissance to come, a pious poster boy, hero, and self-help coach to millions.
—Negar Azimi, “Mujahidude

The latest Bidoun takes on the paper pushers and the pilgrims, the experts and the engineers, the advocates and the doctorates—those who squeeze from the bottom of the tube. Or, as we’ve delicately termed them, SQUARES. You might object to the name. (We kind of hate it, actually.) In fact, we thought about calling the issue “visionaries,” but we wanted to avoid the obvious pitfall when talking to people who do awesome things to change the world—falling for their pitches. We wanted to know their stories, sure, but we also wanted to understand the drudgework. To go learn how the sausages of change are made — whether in Damascene college dormitories and South Korean internet cafés; on homemade desktop computers and handheld devices and beat-up laptops speckled with Post-it notes; in marathon Skype meetings and cable news green rooms and conferences in 2.5 star hotels, at tables stacked with flags, name tags, and millions of gallons of Evian.

That month also witnessed the quiet shuttering of a most unusual mosque, the Masjid al-Farah. Perhaps the only mosque in the world kitted out with Dan Flavin light installations, the space, a vast converted firehouse on Mercer Street, pushed the metaphysical tendencies of the early Dia Foundation to their logical limit: the Masjid al-Farah was a permanent installation in the heart of lower Manhattan, an avant-garde Sufi lodge for the ages.
—Alexander Keefe, “Whirling in the West

The twenty-odd people featured in SQUARES may not have highly developed senses of irony, though most of them have a good sense of humor. There is Salman Khan—Bill Gates’s favorite teacher—a hedge fund manager turned education innovator whose secret dream is to create an apocalypse-proof bunker for human knowledge. There is Naif Al-Mutawa, a Kuwaiti businessman and father of five who fights for truth, justice, and the Islamic way via his superheroic comic creations, The 99. There is Alex Mamytov, an activist trying to make Kyrgyzstan safe(r) for transsexuals, and Nazanin Afshin-Jam, a beauty queen who uses her celebrity to fight the Iranian government over the (disturbingly topical) issue of child executions. There is Amr Khaled, Egypt’s leading TV imam, and Sheikha Fariha Al-Jerahi, co-founder of Dia Foundation and head of the Sufi lodge in Lower Manhattan where the idea of the “Ground Zero mosque” was hatched.

Islam has come to mean a lot of things. But if you ask anybody their Islamic top-ten list, fun or tolerance or humanism are not going to make the list. So I was like, how do I bring that into the conversation? Every time something terrible happens, the leadership says, “This isn’t Islam.” But nobody says, “This is Islam.”
—Naif Al-Mutawa, social entrepreneur and creator of The 99, quoted in “Best Dad Ever” by Michael C. Vazquez

All these, plus a birdwatcher, a video game designer, the world’s youngest professor, a lunar architect, world musicians, the UN’s deep space ambassador, Steve Jobs, and Esperanto. Double plus: Ming Wong’s wigs, Hrair Sarkissian’s ghosts, and the wit and wisdom of Armen Eloyan.

Donald Duck… I cannot say Donald Duck is my hero.
Armen Eloyan, painter, quoted in “Anarmeniacs” by Negar Azimi

Bidoun 23: Squares is available for purchase at fine stores and at www.bidoun.org.

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