Guantanamo Voices


Walking the Streets With Aerosole Arabic
January 31, 2009, 2:26 am
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One corner of Coventry Road, the heart of Birmingham England’s Muslim neighborhood, has been covered in a coat of fresh paint. Cars slow to stare and people come to take photos. “FREE GAZA!” reads the blazing text, as spray painted fire engulfs silhouettes of homes, a Palestinian flag waves from a bloodied fist and one man throws his shoe at the whole mess.

Birmingham Gaza Mural

Birmingham Gaza Mural

This is the work of Aerosol Arabic, an artist born and raised in Birmingham who’s well known around town for his graffiti. But while his most recent work his most prominent, surprisingly the Muslim artist has only recently gotten political.

Ali & Shoe Thrower

Ali & Shoe Thrower

One day after Birmingham’s big pro-Palestine protest took over the downtown streets, Aerosol Arabic (whose real name is Ali) meets up with Chris Arendt and I in front of his Free Gaza mural. We converse two or three sentences at a time — his cell phone is ringing constantly. Everyone has seen the mural. It’s a bold and instantly iconic addition to the neighborhood and every Muslim in Birmingham, it seems, has something to say about it. “My two year old daughter has started saying ‘fee gatha! fee gatha!'” laughs Ali. Across the street, a man with a tiny handheld camera is filming the mural and talking to himself. Ali crosses over to him and it turns out the man has decided to make a homemade documentary about the mural. It will join the other one Ali’s friends made that’s already up on YouTube. That’s two impromptu documentaries about a piece of street art that’s only existed for week.
We pile into Ali’s car and suddenly Chris and I are on a personal graffiti tour of Birmingham. He grew up tagging these streets, but his work has changed a lot since he came of age with a spray can in hand. “I was far from politically aware or religious, I was just doing graffiti like any kid… it meaningless stuff really, just writing your name,” he says. “That’s what graffiti was all about at the beginning, it wasn’t about communicating any message, it was just writin’ your name in big letters.”
Down on Stratford Road, Birmingham’s other major amalgam of halal restaurants and sari stores, Ali pulls into a parking lot and gestures toward a white wall tagged with the giant phrase he painted a year ago, “Feed the Poor.”
“Ten years ago when I started to become more inspired by my faith as a Muslim, that’s when I started to incorporate spiritual concepts into my graffiti. So it was mostly concepts, words like knowledge, patience, beauty, brotherhood, community things like these that people of all faiths can appreciate really.”
Just down the road is another of his new works – a blood-red “Palestine.” The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan got Ali thinking politically, but it’s the recent crisis in Gaza that pushed him to politicize his art. He’s still fitting into the new role. “I find it kind of scary to get up and deliver a political message. Banksy can get away with it but, you know, as a Muslim…”
He offers to take Chris and I out for daal and it turns out to be an opportunity for him to start filming a documentary of his own. He pulls out his camera in the tiny kebab shop and converses with Chris on camera about life in Guantanamo. “What did you miss most when you were there?” Ali asks. “Everything,” says Chris, pausing to add “girls” to the beginning of a very long list. When Chris pulls out the little zine he made about his experiences as a guard, Ali looks at it black and brown cover for roughly one second before saying, “You ever thought of spraying this?”
And that’s how we wind up in Moazzam Begg’s front yard in the middle of the night, Ali pulling spray cans out of his car trunk and tagging the cover of Chris’s zine right there in the street. Just one more thing to explain to the authorities.ali-with-can1