Mia Habib Productions

Article on M.I.A by Deise Faria Nunes

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Missing in Action:

A journey in between fragments of heritage and a chaotic contemporaneity

In the beginning

I remember well a conversation I had with a newly graduated Mia Habib in the spring of 2004, in a casual meeting at a rehearsal space in Oslo. She told me she was working on a solo piece that would be named Missing in Action. I did not understand the title, and she went on to tell me that the phrase had a double signified. First, the three words form an acronym of her given name – M.I.A. Second, it is a war jargon meaning that a soldier or officer disappeared during a military operation and may or may not be dead.

A palpable status of uncertainty and the way the undefinable can be navigated by an overwhelmed body, were the strongest memories the performance, that premiered in 2005, left in me.

At that point I was very curious about the artist, who I happened to meet through a common dancer friend while she was attending her studies in choreography. Because of my own uncertainty as to what I was in terms of ethnicity – and maybe more important, what I was becoming in terms of culture, it blew my mind to dialogue with her about these subjects, and about the paradoxes of her own background.

The experience of following part of the creation of Missing in Action, was relevant for how I carried out my own artistic and theoretical work in the years that followed. At that point I didn’t know what auto-ethnographic research was. I had no idea that it can depart, as the thinker bell hooks puts it, from the urge to talk back to power, reclaiming the narrative of your own history as an analytical tool to understand socio-political structures.

Being sort of a privileged spectator of that performance surely sowed in me a seed of curiosity – what if the material I am so frenetically looking for is within myself? – A kind of curiosity that is indeed essential for approaches that, departing from the self yet guided away from the traps of the ego, can bring reflections of collective relevance to the surface. I would like to approach M.I.A. in those complementary perspectives: the person and the world.

Missing in Action is, in my memory, a bodily-affective mix of that auto-ethnographic curiosity, anger, fearlessness and a great amount of resistance to pain, expressed every time the room resonated the sound of the body in contact with the wooden floor. But beyond all of this, it became a political statement worth to be repeated, over and over again, until it becomes history. Because now, 14 years later, Missing in Action is painfully relevant.

A M.I.A., a person who has gone missing in action, is an undefined absence, an absence that is neither death nor abandonment. Whatever the status, the body is not there, and that empty place opens to a fragmentation of the existence into glimpses of hope and pieces of shared experience in the body-minds of those who were left in uncertainty, the M.I.A.’s loved ones. The carriers of their archive, their heritage.

In Missing in Action, the performer seems to be picking up those fragments of heritage while stating a refusal of the spoken language as a signifier for her voice. Trembling. Falling. Getting back up and falling again, the noise produced each time by the landing body sharp as shards of a glass. In this dance, those fragments coexist within a body overwhelmed by conflicting heritage. In this context, the fragments are means of reenacting history.

But, as I initially remarked, heritage and the self are not the only important dimensions of this work.

A testimonial of the future

A little more than one year before my casual meeting with Habib in 2004, I was in the streets, side by side with thousands of others in several cities worldwide, protesting the then imminent invasion of Iraq by the US and Great Britain in the wake of the attacks on September 11, 2001 (9-11). An invasion based on a doubtful premise, later admitted by British prime minister Tony Blair, that Iraq was in possession of arms of mass destruction. Little did we know of the consequences that so-called “war on terror” would have for innocent people in several countries.

The construction of Muslims as a common enemy of peace and prosperity in the West, at that time already a current matter in international politics, was intensified to unbearable heights.

Missing in Action takes that narrative and subverts it, posing a disturbing question: what kind of bodies are placed in the position of common enemy of the Western powers? In the performance, this question becomes increasingly pressing by means of music: what we believe to be a universal language disclosing violent barriers imposed on certain ethnic, religious and socio-cultural groups.

The context of the upcoming performance of Missing in Action in Oslo in October 2019 may in some ways be seen as a nightmare scenario unfolded by the events in the US and Afghanistan in 2001 and in Iraq in 2003. In this sense, the performance has not only remained relevant, it has also gained the dimension of a testimonial on the entire decade that was yet to come by the times of its premiere.

The anti-Muslim hate narrative, drawn from the fear mongering belief that Islam is going to take over Europe – the Eurabia conspiracy – was fueled by discourses created to justify and support the war on terror. Those discourses rest on imputations of conflicting values to certain cultures, religions and countries. Thus, the “terrorist” has, in opposition to the Western individual, a savage behavior, lower culture, education and ethics. The common enemy is uncivilized and evil. Even their humanity is questioned. That being expressed, one aspect is not to be forgotten: the enemy is a person of color.

Those discursive aspects of the war on terror gained terrain in the Nordics in the time since M.I.A. first was performed. This can for instance be seen in the violent rhetoric of Danish and Swedish far right politicians. In Norway, there are several examples: the racist blog-turned-website Document has been active since 2003. The history of the organization Human Rights Service (HRS), founded in – what a coincidence – 2001, is also worth a look. HRS started with a pretext of raising awareness against female genital mutilation in Muslim communities, later to become the organization led by Norway’s most Islamophobic person. The competition has become hard on that point, but those were the words of founder Hege Storhaug as she introduced herself to Steve Bannon, in the occasion of his visit to Oslo in May 2019.[1]

Not even the aftermath of terrorist attacks of July 22, 2011 in Oslo and Utøya were enough to stop the increasing aggressiveness of the far right, actually, the opposite is true. Systematic threats on survivors, left-side politicians and people of color, the reverberation of the mass murder’s ideology in other countries, such as New Zealand, and a new mass shooting attempt at a mosque in Oslo in August 2019 are some of the issues we face almost 18 years after 9-11.

In Norway, Islamophobic rhetoric post-July 22 gave in 2017 birth to another media outlet: Resett. Financially supported by some of the richest people in the country[2], Resett has published a number of the ugliest attacks on identifiable individuals among the so-called “alternative media”. One of those people is Mia Habib. In the fall of 2018, when it was made public that she had been granted a four-year support by the Arts Council Norway, Resett hosted a mudflow of racist and anti-artistic remarks in their comments section. Much of it was directed to her surname, that the attackers connected to Arab ethnicity, even though Habib is of Jewish and Norwegian descent. Habib has filed a police report against Resett, that is supposed to answer for the crime of racism in the following months.

Seen from multiple perspectives: culture, heritage, the individual, the body and the politics of belonging, Missing in Action is a performance whose inner layers become more visible and understandable as time passes.

May this work continue to unfold its journey and our history through the eyes of a maturing artist, until we can collectively envision the end of this sorrowful chapter in our history.

 

Deise Faria Nunes
Oslo/Kristiansand, September 2019.

 

[1] Klassekampen. “Steve Bannons norske venner”. https://www.klassekampen.no/article/20190513/ARTICLE/190519988. Published on May 13, 2019. Downloaded on September 4, 2019.

[2] Journalisten. “Dette er eierne av Resett”. https://journalisten.no/monica-staff-alternative-medier-helge-luras/dette-er-eierne-av-resett/325991. Published on July 18, 2018. Accessed on September 28, 2019.

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