A Story of a Forgotten Tail

By Nadim Karam

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…I began by thinking about the projects that I have realized globally, and the aim behind them. What have I been searching for through these projects? How was freedom, if at all, involved in the making of these projects? Shouldn’t we creative people be pioneers in the continual redefinition of the expression of freedom? Obviously, the world is connected. Virtually and digitally speaking, boundaries between peoples are vanishing. Practically and physically the boundaries are evident. However, there is now a chasm between the ability to talk to the world and the ability to get there.

I remain convinced that there is no absolute freedom. There are invisible governing networks that apply differently to different encounters and places on earth, creating fragmented, negotiated freedoms. There could be absolute freedom if one was isolated in a room to create, without any interference whatsoever. But the moment one leaves the room and intermingles with the surroundings, freedom becomes a matter for negotiation between oneself and the other – it becomes relative.

These reflections took me back to a story I have been developing for several years. A story that I have kept in the drawer for a long time, made of a series of sketches that spread over several sketch books.

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The story begins with light, that omnipresent global hope, freely moving in the universe. It has been proven, scientifically, that light appears sometimes as a wave and at other times as a particle.

In my story, a light particle moving towards planet earth became fainter and fainter as it approached. In a last effort, the light particle joined with a complementary light wave, and formed a creature with a shape resembling a head and a tail. It was called Dede.

Getting closer to the earth, it discovered the human race, and became fascinated by the range and colours of their artificial creations. Dede decided that he wanted to enter the human world.

It took much discussion and a lot of resistance from the Board of Stars, who considered humans puny, tiny little things; irrelevant in the vastness of the universe of light. But Dede insisted. He wanted to explore the world of things that human had created, from tastes like chocolate and ice-cream, bright colours and funky cars to tantalizing textures, smells and sounds. At last, it was agreed to allow him to descend amongst the human beings, and he acquired a body mainly made of cotton. He landed on earth, but discovered that he had unwittingly retained an element from his previous being: HIS TAIL.

From the moment he landed on planet earth, whoever he met made fun of his tail. This disturbed him enormously – but what could he do? There was no way to remove it. Cutting it off might cost him the life that he had fought for. He was born with it and it was part of him.

It became his specificity. A few days later he was advised by a sympathetic acquaintance to put a ribbon around it. He did so, and was amazed at the difference it made. Everybody began referring to him as the cute creature with the pink ribbon. His tail became part of the way he expressed himself. It partly defined his identity and initiated the negotiation for his freedom.

Each one of us has a tail – a specificity with which we are born. My tail is being Lebanese in a British context and Maronite Catholic in a Middle Eastern Islamic context. Because of my nationality, I have a hard time getting visas to any place on this planet. But also for this same reason, I am part of this conference and I am now addressing all of you. Because of my religion, I was kidnapped and shot at twice during the civil war (the same happened to people of the other religions), but also because of it I can reach the highest administrative ranks in Lebanon (I am not interested in them).

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Defining one’s identity, then claiming that this is freedom, is ignorant and arrogant. It is also a pitfall that many would like to see us fall into, so that we stay safely and securely inside the framework of our ethnic particularity.

Now, at the beginning, Dede was happy moving around the earth. He met lots of people and began making friends. All went well until one day, jumping through a field, he got arrested. He looked around; there was no fence. Yet he was not allowed to continue further. When he naively asked why, he was told that he was reaching a different territory and had to show papers otherwise he was not welcome in the other land. He never carried papers and had to turn around and go back. He was dissatisfied with this misadventure, yet comforted to know that he could still stay somewhere. He realised for the first time that he now had his own territory, as opposed to other territories. He sat down, sad and thoughtful.

  It was the first of many such incidents, and little by little, he learned to resolve some of them through discussion, talking more about himself, learning more about the other, and finding that there were far more possibilities than were initially apparent. He was negotiating his freedom.

The notion of territory, like the one of being, is filled with its own specificity. It functions on different levels of culture, landscape, memories, etc. Freedom is extremely difficult to reach. It is probably unattainable yet it can be negotiated at every moment in our life. It is a continuous struggle between the being (identity) and the social territory with its boundaries.

Paradoxically, the only way to attain an understanding of this freedom is to carry the spirit of the rebel, to incessantly question and to accept to doubt ourselves. There can be no real creativity without emancipation from the things around us; routines, customs, family, country; everything that moulds our time and restrains us. Having attained this we can go back to the world and negotiate to provoke a change.

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I have found that in the process towards an urban creative project, it is important to be flexible. Urban interactivity is a part of the process: I take up the pen and sketch the first line. Then several hands (citizens, meetings, discussions) come to join my hand, pressuring it to move in one direction or another. At first I am annoyed, then I begin moving the pen again, sometimes in their direction, sometimes in mine (understanding the needs of the place). As we approach the end, the hands retreat to let me complete the sketch.

During the Lebanese civil war, there were days when the rate of shelling and bombs falling on my neighbourhood sometimes reached ten shells per minute, all day long. It was an effective way to shatter any hopes and any dreams we might have had. Living in a tiny corridor, where could we find freedom? I wanted to turn all the bombs into dreams, and drop dream bombs on the city. When they landed, they would create a reverberation effect and permeate the city’s networks, giving the citizens, focused on the daily act of living, the chance to dream. Can a city dream?

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It was much later that I created what I call the Archaic Procession, a succession of over a thousand different creatures. They have meaning essentially as a continuous entity, like a visual passage of time. The procession is ‘archaic’ because it reaches back to the origin of things, to communication through an archetypal language. Traversing at will the domains of time and space, reality and virtuality, the true medium of the archaic procession is our consciousness. It has no nationality, religion or race, and doesn’t understand boundaries. Whenever it leaves a place, it takes with it a souvenir – a way of doing, being or thinking – and wherever it lands, it exchanges it for another.

…But we are forgetting about Dede, and his story.

He learned several things during this period, some that could protect him in an unpleasant encounter, others that helped him build up friendships.

For example, the Velvet Bird emerged from Dede’s head whenever there was someone dangerous in proximity. The bird pecks the aggressor, who is then hypnotised for a short moment in time, giving Dede the chance to escape.

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The Cotton Mound is another defense mechanism. When threatened, he has only to open his hands, and soft cotton wool comes out and piles up on the floor, behind which Dede hides or escapes.

Then there is the Magic Box, a very special box which is divided into nine compartments. Inside each compartment is placed a delicacy made of Dede’s very particular, fragrant excrement. He keeps them in the box to offer to friends on special occasions.

I know that each one of us has his or her own way to reach their freedom and find their own creative process. The most important thing is never to stop… and to keep up the challenge. We should learn to reach our freedom, and, taking a leaf from Samuel Beckett’s book, we should learn to fail better.


This is adapted from the opening address given by Nadim Karam at the conference ‘A Free State’, for decibel and Arts Council England, March 2004. Thanks to Kaya Karam, Gaylene Gould and the Arts Council of England.

Nadim Karam is an artist and architect. He studied architecture in Beirut and Tokyo, and now lives between Beirut and London, when he is not travelling the world creating urban art projects with local communities. He is principal of Atelier Hapsitus and is a visiting professor in the Department of Architecture and Design, the American University of Beirut. In 2000, Booth Clibborn Editions, London, published his book Voyage.