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© 2011 by Susan Silas
           

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MIDDLE EAST RELATIONS

(This talk was delivered from a Soapbox on Sunday, May 13th, 2012 in connection with Adam Simon's exhibition Pictures and Gestures at Studio 10 in Bushwick, New York.)

I want to talk to you about forging a new relationship with the Middle East. Those of you who know me personally already know that I was born in New York City to Jewish parents who left Hungary in 1949 after the Second World War was over. That's just to give you a small nugget of background information and context.

I was sitting in my kitchen in Brooklyn a little less than a year ago reading an article in The New York Review of Books. The raid on Osama Bin Laden's lair in Abbattobad had just taken place and the article was about the state of affairs in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In an aside, the author of the article quotes an Orthodox Jewish scholar who assures him that there is nothing unusual about the trove of pornography that was found among Bin Laden's affects. Most Taliban lairs are similarly equipped, in fact, Middle Eastern porn is everywhere—you can prove this to yourself quite easily—just go to your computer and type in "Middle Eastern porn."

After a moments pause I got up, wandered over to my computer and did just that. A plethora of sites appeared. I clicked on one.

A naked and fleshy, what was once referred to as zaftig, dark skinned woman, who looked Egyptian to me, was glancing toward the camera. Her head looked over her shoulder and her body was twisted partially toward the camera. Her behind, which was closest to the camera took up most of the frame. A hirsute, dark complected man was barely visible beneath her. Both parties had pubic hair. Neither was exceptionally good-looking. It reminded me of amateur porn from the late '60's, something sent to Hustler magazine from a suburban split-level.

I went back to the kitchen without giving them another thought.

The next night, looking over the visitors to my website on Stat Counter, I noticed an anomalous entry. A direct hit to the page on my website called "sex over 50." That page contains the following description: "love in the ruins; sex over 50" is a personal diary of sex and sexuality, of the resilience and the decay of the body. Because of the nature of these images and because I have a teenaged daughter still living at home, I have decided not to post this body of work online. This body of work is ongoing and images will be added to the portfolio over time.

There is one relatively discreet image of two naked bodies.

The hit to my website had come from the United Arab Emirates. I had never had a single visitor from anywhere in the Middle East. The next night I noticed two more visitors—one from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and one from Jordan, both coming directly to that page. I googled "sex over 50." Neither my website, my name, nor the image appeared. Yet it was clear to me, even though I didn't entirely understand what had happened, that my short visit to one Middle Eastern porn site, or maybe just googling Middle Eastern porn, had precipitated the visits to this particular page on my website. I understand that they (whoever they are) get my IP address in the same way that I get the IP addresses of the visitors to my site. Exactly how I got from googling Middle Eastern porn to a reciprocal relationship with this one specific page on my website is slightly more mysterious to me. After all, is someone checking on every hit to pornographic websites in the Middle East to see if the visitors have porn on their websites?

Since then, not one day has passed without Middle Eastern visitors. My fan club comes from India, Pakistan, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, UAE, Doha, Jordan, Uzbekistan, Thailand, Laos—the last two nights random sampling contains 2 hits from Saudi Arabia, 6 different IP addresses in The Islamic Republic of Iran, one from Korea and stray from Cape Town, South Africa. And I am expanding my reach. I have started to get hits from Eastern Europe and Russia. There is even the occasional visitor from Tel Aviv.

Sometimes my visitor looks at this one page and departs. Most, plainly unable to read the English disclaimer that no further images are available, hit the page 5 to 10 times before giving up. My favorite and most exceptional visitor from Teheran, presumably an English speaker, hit the page and went on to look at my entire website.

It occurs to me that the Orthodox Jewish scholar who helped me to establish this peculiar relationship to the Arab speaking world and beyond, might not even consider me to be a real Jew. After all, before I became a vegetarian, I ate "the other white meat." And then of course, there are my visitors. Do they have any idea that they are gazing upon the flesh of a Jewess? Would knowing that make it even more titillating for them? Is it titillating at all, since the posted image is, strictly speaking, not even pornography? And why are so many men (and I do imagine they are all men) interested in images of older people having sex or do they just come to the site because they can read the word sex in English? And where are they finding it?

What I do know is that I googled Middle Eastern porn and I opened up a conduit to one page on my website and that relationship goes on unabated after nearly an entire year. I know it didn't bring Osama. Despite his love of pornography, the occasion of the piece of writing that started all of this was his death and the aside about the extraordinary cache of pornography in his possession when the US military raided his suburban compound in Pakistan.

The Catholic writer Mary Gordon has claimed that the most significant political crisis in the world today is the backlash against the changes wrought by the women's movement all over the world. She sees this in the Evangelical movements in the U.S. and in the Fundamentalist Islamic movements all over the Middle East and in Africa. And now, entirely by accident, I have become an emissary of hope. It was not planned. Like many of the most important events in life, it was just a happy accident. But, it is exactly the kind of cultural exchange everyone hoped the internet could make possible.

Thank you very much.