In 2003, while the US was bombing Iraq, yet again, my
employer sent me to Washington DC to attend a work related conference. The irony of sending an Iraqi to the capital city of the US at that particular time escaped my boss. My state of distress was well disguised under the polished veneer of a professional. Smile. Shake hands. Exchange business cards. Give polished presentations. In the evenings I aimlessly wandered the streets like a wraith searching for physical embodiment to pour my despair into. It was a Jekyll and Hyde state. Peppy mornings followed by languid remains of a day. On one of these phantom walks, a sharp pain pierced through my left knee. This was unusual. I am an avid placer of one foot in front of the other in perpetual pursuit of motion. Ache was a new sensation for a most favored of activities. My feet screamed of treason and proceeded to disobey orders. My back side pleaded for a merciful sitting position. “You guys are not team players” I rolled my eyes exasperated by uncooperative body parts. I walked into the art gallery to my right hoping to find a chair to sit. That is the story of how my physical representation was placed in the Freer Gallery in Washington D.C. As soon as I walked in, the bodily
insurrection stopped. “Hey what is going on?” I looked quizzically at my left knee. The knee shrugged its shoulders to indicate ignorance “Don’t look at me. I have no idea what is going on”. My feet stopped complaining and resumed their obeying. Inside, I saw the Peacock Room by James Whistler. A dining room where everything from the ceiling, walls, carpets and fixtures was designed by the artist. A fusion of the east and west. A melding of harmony and discord. Beautiful in an ugly way. Delightful in a – “I am going to assault you and peck your eyes out so that you will see how delightful I am” way. It is one thing to look at a painting and a different thing to be enveloped inside a work of art. Something inside my DNA changed. “If I could create something, anything, so striking I will die a happy woman” the thought popped into my mind as I walked away. I cried myself to sleep later that night and when I woke up I heard the voice of a fictional character called Nelly whispering in my ear commanding me to write her story.
For my fictional character, I created a fictional country of
origin. Do you know how immigrants and children of immigrants say that they take the best out of each culture? Well ha! I decided to take the worse traits out of the three cultures that have influenced me the most (Arab, European, North American) and mash them all together into a single unique country like no other in the world. I threw in a few charming characteristics, just to keep it real. I made Nelly the true embodiment of this strange country and placed her fierce self, smack in the middle of modern day Washington D.C.
I proceeded to place everything parallel to its extreme
opposite. High-brow side by side low-brow. Shakespeare next to folkloric stories. Fine art mingling with kitsch. Doom and gloom in reaction to optimism. High hysteria followed by eerie silence. The idea of graffiti applied to hacking. Innocuous vandalism. Brilliant stupidity. Jarring. The predictable things happen when you place two extremes so closely together: insanity, explosion and destruction. But also something else. Something unexpected. Something I would have never guessed.
I wrote Graffiti Hack with the stupid, unreasonable and
crazy belief that a combination of strung words on a page can somehow make the world a better place. It’s totally obscene. But, there you have it. Beats doing nothing I suppose.
When it came time for Nelly to “accidentally” wander into the
Freer Gallery mid-way through the novel, my left knee began to hurt again. I was sitting on a chair in my living room, yelling at my left knee: “I get it, I get it! Nelly is supposed to go to the Peacock Room”. My left knee only hurt worse. “Ok! Ok! look, I am writing it” I yelled into the air. The pain got
worse. “I am giving Nelly left knee pain as well. Are you happy now?” It got sharper. “Stop hurting, I get the message. This is scripted”. And I never wrote faster in my life.