Dubai is the lottery winner that taste forgot. Thin-skinned and swaggering, the nation state leaf-blows money into half-formed ideas and eye-watering constructions that are intended to improve its standing in the world. With oil (and the trade it brings) depleting, Dubai is desperate in its attempt to reinvent itself as a tourist destination. And lots has been written about the UAE’s human rights and freedom of speech records, from coverage of the indentured slavery that takes place on the construction sites to the forced disappearance of anyone who voices an opinion that might tarnish the country’s image. It was against this background that something called Tse Tse Fly Middle East was conceived.
Working as an artist in Dubai had become almost impossible for me. Just weeks after arriving in the UAE in 2011 I’d been warned about what was permissible in terms of artistic content (very little) and this notion of continual self-editing – along with the spectre of governmental repercussions for perceived sedition – seeped across all elements of the arts in the UAE. Censorship is a part of everyday life in the UAE and it is forbidden to do anything (let alone make a piece of artwork) that can be construed as a threat to the country’s conservative morals and values. Certain websites are blocked, Skype is illegal. Western publications are edited with black marker pens. Watching ‘The Simpsons Movie’ on local television involves guesswork as all references to Homer’s pet pig are removed. ‘Masterchef’ has the word ‘pork’ bleeped out. Talking with friends about cop series ‘The Wire’, I think they’re joking when they mention Omar’s sexuality as his more intimate scenes are edited out. Films shown at the local cinemas take on a surreal aspect as anything potentially offensive is culled. ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ ends up around an hour long. Criticism of any kind is forbidden. Although it’s not reported locally, those who voice a wish for change are imprisoned. A woman who goes to the police to report that fact that she’s been raped is arrested for beautifying the sin – having sex outside marriage. Artists who cannot afford to leave the country are weary. Some artists that can afford to leave do just that. Others oblige and turn a blind eye.
Soon I’d decided to stop showing my work in the UAE unless under a pseudonym or in collaboration, turning instead to curating in the hope that I could at least attempt to make a difference. That came to an end when I resigned over the treatment of staff at the arts centre where I was working. Worried that my passport might be withheld if I told the management my real reasons for leaving, I made up a tall tale about having to dash back to the UK.
Frustrated by the nation’s art-washing, casual censorship and dreary, honking commercialism, I came up with the idea for a monthly night where myself and my friends could get together and at least just…be. So, Tse Tse Fly Middle East was born: a regular club night dedicated to noise and sonic experimentation. Alcohol is permitted in Dubai, by the way. It’s heavily taxed and only sold in hotel bars and a few licensed stores. Social and creative intentions aside, there was fun to be had here. Tse Tse Fly Middle East would be an anti-club. If I couldn’t voice my frustrations in plain prose at least toying with local perceptions would employ some appropriate dissonance. I marketed the nights in nightlife listings alongside the clamour of Dubai’s own shiny techno and urban club events while conducting local press interviews in which I told panicky expat hacks that we were the antidote. I found what I thought was the most down-at-heel venue in Dubai: a poky hotel basement nightclub called Casa Latina. Beloved of prostitutes, it featured a large portrait of Che Guevara on one wall. Originally we were going to play sound art over the club’s shaky sound system till the early hours but thought this might be too boring. So I added a curated video section and invited a couple of friends (and friends of friends) to perform whatever noises they wanted, as long as it was experimental.
The first Tse Tse Fly MIddle East night took place in September 2015. Within a couple of months we’d accumulated a collective of performers and artists, and had been asked to curate events elsewhere in the UAE and in the UK. By January 2016 I was producing a monthly two-hour Tse Tse Fly Middle East radio programme for the Resonance EXTRA and Frequency Asia stations. In April 2016 we took part in the Other Worlds Festival in Blackpool and performed a live event on the Al Noor Island in Sharjah, UAE. In November 2016 we released an album on the UK label Must Die Records and Andy Weatherall played one of the tracks on his NTS radio show, commenting that at last something good had come out of Dubai. Thanks in part to Casa Latina’s temperamental sound system our nights had gained a reputation for being loud, chaotic and untrammelled by the squeaky clean lines that the rest of the local art scene followed. We were getting away with it. However, darker forces were at work.
All events in Dubai – even free-entry events like ours – had to be approved by the government. Also, all participants in any events in Dubai, from DJs to actors, had to register their details with the government’s leisure department each time they performed – submitting copies of their passports and contact details. This came at a cost; a licence fee has to be paid for each event, there is a processing cost per participant and something called a ‘knowledge fee’, an ambiguous amount the government added in to complete the process. From the start the bemused but pragmatic Casa Latina management had covered the fees for our events in their space. However, in January 2017 they pulled our events, citing an increase in government costs.
In June 2017 my wife and I moved back to London. My wife’s dad had died and we were deep in the process of the reevaluation that follows the death of a loved one. Under this stark new light the UAE seemed increasingly absurd. The hypocrisy of preaching tolerance while people are treated according to their skin-colour, women are seen as a necessary inconvenience, homosexuality is illegal – the list goes on. Having considered leaving the Tse Tse Fly MIddle East project behind in the UAE it made more sense to use its success as a way of communicating the injustices that prevail not just in the Gulf but affect the surrounding regions. However, in the almost even years I’d been away the Western world had changed dramatically. Brexit, Donald Trump, food banks, homelessness, cuts to health services, platforming of right-wing figures. Intolerance, attacks on free speech, attacks on privacy, marginalising of dissent, press bias, casual racism.
One thing I’d learnt while living in the UAE is that, contrary to the beliefs inculcated growing up in the UK, there are large parts of the world where the British are viewed with distrust and disbelief. Colonialism has long, deep rooted tentacles and many of the arcane laws and attitudes still enforced further east are vestiges imported via colonisation. The cataclysmic consequences of the partition of India and the UK’s culpability in the annexation of Palestine echo as loudly as ever. Living overseas has taught me to view the UK with a gimlet eye, and the existing cynicism that informs people’s opinions of the UK in other parts of the world is only compounded by the rise of twenty-first century neo-conservatism and right wing dogma.
So Tse Tse Fly Middle East is now a registered non-profit organisation that has a remit to explore how live arts events can be used to highlight contemporary social and political injustices, specifically on issues of human rights and freedom of speech. The project also acts as a warning. As much as self-appointed Western arbiters can tut and shake our heads at the actions of the Gulf state rulers – and the wider regions’ despots and fanatics – we must turn our view inwards and examine what is happening in our part of the world right now. My hope is that Tse Tse Fly Middle East will become one of many collectives, noise-makers and dissident groups that shout down the wrong-doers and fight hard for the rights we all deserve.