© Heba Malaeb
The Fetishization of Everyday Things
i. In the search for meaning, what do we lose? What do we suppress, erase, subjugate?
ii. How much longer must we keep dancing this dance?
Tell Me What I’m Supposed to Need and I’ll Devote to Her My Life
A fetish is a means to an end. Usually the end is an escape from some unnameable unease, a discomfort that needs a remedy ambiguous enough to pass undetected as such.
It’s only convenient that we are so good at using objects for this.
The Authenticity Trap:
brands, bruises, bifurcations
When I was ten years old, my brother left for America to pursue a university degree. The first time he came home to Beirut for winter break, he brought back with him an Americanized English accent, bags and bags of Hershey’s kisses in flavors I had never heard of, and other assorted gifts of candy and food that were greatly appreciated by the entire household (except the freeze-dried ice-cream from NASA, a present meant especially for me, as I had serious plans to become an astronaut).
But what I remember the most about his first return was the toothpaste he had brought along. It was a tube of Crest, metallic red, cinnamon flavored, and it had no Arabic writing on it. This last characteristic was a revelation for me, as I had lived my whole life taking for granted the stylized letters that crawled from right to left across the surfaces of all kinds of branded goods, a broken mirror to the original language of whatever product it was that needed translating into my cultural context.
For the duration of my brother’s stay I cherished that tube of toothpaste, as for years afterwards I cherished every single bottle of shampoo, Coca-Cola can, packet of gum I found that had no Arabic translation on it. In the supermarket with my mother, I would gently prod the bottles, rotating to check their backs for the absence of Arabic. I coveted the untouchedness of the untranslated bottles, and so rare a species were they that the discovery of one brought me a pleasure that felt disproportionate for reasons I could not name, and thus shameful. Yes, I coveted the Pure, True, American product. That something spoke only one language proved its authenticity, its self-sufficiency. The Arabic on foreign products was embarrassing; it proved we were all only faking, only pretending to have ownership over the things that populated our lives. None of it was real and none of it was ours.
Nevermind that globalization, colonization’s prettier cousin, had already woven these names into my mother tongue — Palmolive (“pal-mo-LEEV”, after the French); Kleenex (“klee-NEX”). It didn’t matter that I had a whole lexicon of imported brands that I absolutely relied on for daily functioning — Colgate, Pantene, Nestlé, Johnson & Johnson (“JONN-son”) — because while the Arabic logos affixed to all these goods caused an unnameable anxiety in me, the rare English-only item thrilled me, gave me comfort and the reassurance that I was the true, intended audience of the product, and not just the child of some inferior second market that someone had to translate for.
Around the same time as my encounter with the cinnamon Crest, the rural public school where my aunt taught chemistry received a shipment of boxes, sent to the children of the school by young girls from America. My aunt brought one of these boxes to our house, and the mystique it carried with it just by virtue of having come from the U.S. was a thrill in itself.
The box contained basic items: pens; hair ties; a bar of soap; toothpaste. And, most special of all, a letter from the girl who had packed the box; I remember reading her address — something-something-“Cherokee Rd” — and thinking about how that felt worlds and worlds away. What a real and beautiful life she was living, I thought, on a road with a name like that. Our roads had names, but I didn’t know them. We don’t need street names in Beirut; you give directions based on landmarks. And the paper the letter was written on smelled nice. The whole box did.
The pen in the box was a cheap PaperMate click pen; nothing special; I could buy one identical down the street. But the pen from the box was Real, while the others could never be. It had made the journey directly from its Place of Origin. It had been selected by a Real American Girl, and had found its way, somehow, to me.
I didn’t think about why there were soap and toothpaste in the box, or that the boxes were donations. I didn’t stop and think that the place where the pen had been made was probably closer to home than it was to Cherokee Rd. I didn’t care, and how could I, when the Juicy Fruit from the American girl’s charity box tasted so, so very sweet?
The fetish is gone now. Now, I see: why a stick of gum could today have these associations of so much pain for me; that I can look back at my strange and piteous relationship to these objects, and understand it from a place of immense calm and sadness. That I can recognize the symptoms of having been made to believe that the life on display inside the TV was “authentic”; that my life, for some reason, wasn’t.
the conscious creation of sentimental, social, or emotional value
It was shaping up to be a desolate winter, and I had had my heart broken at around the same time the snow announced the season. One grey day, while walking to the train, I was overcome with the anxious despair of suddenly remembering my devastation, and so without missing a beat I strode with a great sense of purpose into the hardware store on the corner and bought a mug. I bought the mug with the firm intention: in this moment, I feel so much pain, but someday I will look at this mug and this pain will have long passed.
If I love my mug, I don’t love it for its mug-ness. When I chose the mug to be a symbol of my pain and a reference point for my progress, the mug ceased to be a mug; as I sip out of it, even now, years after my selection of it, the mug can never perform its simple task without the perversion of my projections distorting it; I love the mug because it outlasted my suffering.
When MoMA put on its Machine Art exhibition in 1934, it elevated several ordinary objects, like a ladle, a sink faucet, saucepans and mixing bowls, to the level of art. The exhibition was meant to expand the definition of art to include everyday design, and MoMA was making the argument that these items were just as worthy of appreciation as “real art”.
MoMA was teaching its public how to love in new ways.
Some of us who haven’t been properly taught how to love might hold on too tightly to these prefabricated definitions, and reserve our love for only that which has been sanctioned by the likes of MoMA; by Apple, or Nike, or Tiffany & Co.
Design institutions and name brands bear this responsibility: whatever is named Good and Valid by the cultural hegemon instantly becomes so, and further, instantly becomes at risk of being deemed the most valid thing, the most good thing, by the public.
Exotic / Erotic:
translating the foreign everyday into The Magic Thing That Will Save Us All
My friend Komal tells me about drinking a mix of turmeric, hot milk, and honey as a child, an elixir her mother made whenever Komal got sick. Today, the words “golden latte” have come into recent popularity, to denote the same drink, sold at a $5 price tag in select cafés as a mystical magical healthy morning drink to grab to-go, safely housed inside its paper cup and polystyrene lid.
On Instagram, I see a video ad for a hair removal process called “sugaring”, which claims to be cleaner and less painful than waxing: in the video, a wad of sticky, sugar-based goo is pulled across a hairy arm and then quickly yanked back, ridding the arm of its hairs; and I think back to the moment in my life when my mother, aunts, and friends all made the transition from sukkar to waxing, which was ushered into our lives as a superior way of epilation, since it came from the West (nevermind that our lineage is a lineage of hair thick and black, all over).
A company by the name of Tushy has introduced a toilet attachment that functions as a bidet, spraying water to wash you clean at the turn of a dial. Starting at $69, Tushy comes in a variety of material and color finishes. In India, the handheld sprays found in toilets are often met with horror and derision by visiting Western tourists.
But I challenge myself to think whether I would be assuaged if these products were to become self-aware and confessional; to announce their origins. In the Middle East, sugaring used to be the only way to remove large amounts of hair from the body quickly and hygienically. I remember my first encounter with it, how warm the homemade caramel was, capturing the light of the bathroom as if emitting a glow from within. I wonder if anybody learning of sugaring from the Instagram ad would ever think to taste the concoction. If I write eloquently enough about my initial hesitancy to eat something whose main purpose was to, before the blob of sweet sugar melted in my mouth, violently remove my armpit hair from my body because girls have to, will I have reclaimed the history of the item, and thus regained ownership over it? Or am I waiting for an acknowledgement, an apology?
Some things I am trying to wrap my head around, and
some things that make perfect sense to me, in
no particular order:
That the spoils of war are called “spoils”:
It’s ruined at birth.
Look again: the reframing of an object to become someone else’s. The either spokenness or silentness of its stolenness. I don’t want to touch it. Leaning away from it I eye its seams and screws. Leaning away from it I eye its thread count. Leaning away from it I eye its handmadeness. Leaning away from it my heart beats differently, someone has pried you from a grave, someone has swished you through blood, someone has shaken the droplets off and shined your surface.
What is left to draw faith from? What is left to have faith in?
If there were a material that could be fashioned into something that bloomed in opposition to the violence that keeps our world running, what would that material be, and how do we need to manipulate it to make it work?
How do we keep from accidentally getting too busy worshipping it to actually put it to use?
The path away from the fire leads only to more flame.
I don’t blame anyone for whatever stories they have to make or believe in order to maintain a balanced or bearable existence. I’m sure some of the best stories were conceived with similar intentions.
(And I’m sure some of the worst ones were, too.)