The Secret Life of an Arab Artist: Ali Jabri

At a dinner party among close friends in Jordan in November 2002, one of the guests was missing. Ali Jabri, then 60, was an artist with a temperament, and we'd gotten used to his no-shows. But still, it seemed odd that he wasn't there to be, as ever, the life of the party. The next day passed and then the next as I focused on reporting about the impending invasion of Iraq, and then one of our friends called to say Ali was dead, murdered in his apartment. The main suspect was his Egyptian lover, a man none of us knew, who disappeared back across the border.

My wife and I and our Arab friends mourned the death of a passionate esthete who brought great wit and discernment to the arid confines of Amman society. But one of Ali's circle, Amal Ghandour, did more. She began to pore over the journals that Ali had sometimes let a few of us glimpse. Their illustrations were extraordinary: pages upon pages of sketches, pastels, clippings, collages. And woven through the images was densely written script full of perceptive, sometimes poisonous aphorisms chronicling the life and sentiments of this tall, blond, blue-eyed Arab who moved among so many cultures.

Ali was a scion of the ancient and decaying aristocracy in Aleppo, Syria, who sometimes styled himself, improbably and ironically, "the last descendant of Saladin." His elementary education in the early 1950s was at Victoria College in Alexandria, Egypt, the alma mater of Jordan's King Hussein, among others. In the 1960s, Ali tuned in, turned on and dropped out in California, then, in the early 1970s, plunged into the art-and-drug-and-sex scene of England. (He called that green and pleasant land his "juicy citadel of chlorophyll.") But many of his most revelatory writings and paintings come from his experiences among Arab homosexuals in his native Middle East where, until recently, people did not ask or tell, and many gays, like Ali, learned to hide in plain sight.

As one of Ali's friends told Ghandour, his was a life of "parallel universes." He found in these contrasting worlds ecstasy and inspiration, but also injury, frustration and fear. And it's sadly ironic that Ghandour's amicable but unflinching work of nonfiction, "About This Man Called Ali: The Purple Life of an Arab Artist" (Eland: London), should be coming out in Britain just now, only weeks after Amnesty International denounced the murder of dozens of homosexuals in what the Bush administration used to refer to as liberated Iraq.

"Over the last few weeks at least 25 boys and men are reported to have been killed in Baghdad because they were, or were perceived to be, gay," Amnesty wrote on April 9. "The killings are said to have been carried out by armed Shia militiamen as well as by members of the tribes and families of the victims. Certain religious leaders, especially in the Sadr City neighborhood, are also reported in recent weeks to have urged their followers to take action to eradicate homosexuality in Iraqi society."

Had Ali lived long enough to see it, he might well have clipped that report and worked it into his journals along with the usual caustic commentary. A romantic of Arabia often disappointed by the realities of Arab society, he could have written on that page, as he did elsewhere, about the frustration and disappointments of an "Arab milieu that's finally destructive; desultory; chloroforming; amnesiac."

Of course there is nothing new about homosexuality in the Middle East, even if, every so often, fundamentalists act horrified to discover it. And Ali tended to see himself as tied to a long tradition of notable gay sensibilities. He loved the exquisite work of C. P. Cavafy, the Greek poet of luxurious Levantine Alexandria a hundred years ago. There was also part of him seduced by the idea of Britain's T. E. Lawrence, who became a desert warrior in World War I, not least, to honor the memory of a presumed lover. "I liked a particular Arab very much, and I thought that freedom for the race would be an acceptable present," wrote Lawrence, the empathetic Orientalist. And Ali had several long-term relationships. But he also sought out anonymous encounters, which he sketched with finesse and wrote about in rugged detail.

Some of his most vivid descriptions are of his assignations in the vast Cairene cemetery-become-slum called the City of the Dead in the 1970s, where he came across Egyptian soldiers "hungrily waiting for it … on a darkened plain by a tin statue of a defunct poet staring into oblivion … more money changed hands … and here I sit in the night café watching the same sharp excavational mind go by in all sorts of luscious shapes. Hustle!" As Ghandour puts it, "every word and drawing from that time evokes the humanity that lives and sings and steals and prays and plays and makes love in the deep fissures of that ruptured society."

There is this sense of discovery, disappointment and decay as the abiding themes of Ali's life. In the 1980s and 1990s, when I first got to know him in Amman, he had built a reputation as a difficult man who painted accessible works. (Queen Noor commissioned several large canvases for the palace.) He also had become a kind of gadfly conservationist, fighting an all but futile battle to protect such ancient sites as Petra and the Aqaba waterfront from bureaucratic despoliation. "History to Ali was always very personal," writes Ghandour. "A record of things past, unearthed artifacts of bygone lives, offered tangible proof that names like his, families like his, people who have a feeble claim on the present, once defined it."

Indeed, there are moments when a reader may feel he's stumbled into an Arab "Grey Gardens," watching fading nobility decline into lives of utter futility. For most of Ali's later years, he remained financially and to some extent emotionally dependent on his aunt, Saadiyeh. Her husband, Wasfi Tall, had been Jordan's prime minister in 1970 during the bloody crackdown on Palestinian militias known as Black September. Eventually the Palestinians murdered Tall or, as Jordanians at the time were wont to say, martyred him. So by descent, by marriage and by widowhood, Saadiyeh was part of little Jordan's highest society. But Ali found himself alternately embraced as a dear companion and attacked as a sycophant until, as Ghandour says, Saadiyeh succumbed in the early 1990s "to the serenities of Alzheimer's." When she died, she left Ali nothing.

As for Ali's own death in 2002, none of his old friends really know what happened. Probably it was a crime of passion, perhaps a fight over money. There has never been an arrest or trial. But that seems, oddly, a very small lacuna in the fascinating narrative of Ali's life. And what our good friend Amal Ghandour has given us in the telling of it is an account of love, loss, art and history in the Arab world as we've never really seen it before.