A day in Marrakech for TEDx, the local franchise of the TED conference, run by Vanessa Branson at her lovely Riad al-Fenn. It’s not a format that I’m familiar with, and the rapid-fire, pump-action delivery of ideas is invigorating, dazzling and kaleidoscopic. Writing in the first break, I’m digesting with my coffee contributions by the eloquent Moroccan cineaste Faouzi Bensaidi on the nature and the task of film-makers in a new world; and of the Palestinian (or as he might prefer, ‘from-Palestine’) artist Steve Sabella who is, I discover, a Chevening scholar: last night at dinner he recounted the very funny story of his interview in Jerusalem with my sadly missed old colleague and friend Ken Churchill, then Director of the British Council in East Jerusalem.
Steve Sabella is intriguing, refusing to be defined by his origins but constantly playing with them – his relationship with those origins and, perhaps above all, with the deductions and assumptions that people make about him from their partial and filtered knowledge of those origins. A Christian from Jerusalem, he declines to wear labels, is of Palestine without being Palestinian, of Jerusalem without reference to East or West. His art is a fractured photography of exile and reintegration, a beguiling exploration of an identity he obstinately refuses to acknowledge except on his own terms. His ability to play light-heartedly but in deadly earnest with others’ perceptions of himself is both delightful and tragic – he calls one instance of it, the Israeli inability to see him as Palestinian because he doesn’t conform to stereotype, as ‘the Dead See,’ a wonderfully expressive phrase.