Since 2002, when the first targeted drone strike against Al Qaeda was ordered in Afghanistan, US armed drones have resulted in thousands of deaths (of both suspected terrorists and civilians) in Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. As drones are remotely controlled by operators far from the killing fields, and thus operate more invisibly, it is argued they produce less accountability from the US in its “shadow war”. By being a subject of US political debate, the function of drones and the ethics of drone strikes have come to take on a life of their own in art and literature. However, drone art and literature from the Middle East remains woefully underrepresented.
The work of American and European artists and writers who have captured the effects and questioned the ethics of drone warfare in their work such as George Brant’s play about a female drone pilot entitled Grounded and Omer Fast’s video installation What the Drone Saw, have certainly been the subject of media attention. In Under the Shadow of the Drone, James Bridle draws scale outlines of drones in cities like Istanbul and Londonto make covert warfare, a ubiquitous but clandestine network, more visible to everyone. He sees drone warfare, and more broadly the vast military technological network surrounding us, as creating a borderless conflict. Bridle’s other projects to heighten drone visibility include Dronestagram, an Instagram account where he posts satellite images of drone strike locations as they occur. Artist-geographer Trevor Paglen is renowned for his blurry and abstract photographs of drones and clandestine bases. His Drone Vision, a silent video that provides a “drone’s eye view” from these unmanned systems, is acquired from an unsecured satellite data-link.The work of writers and artists from areas directly affected by drone strikes has featured less prominently in the media, although cultural productions from Afghanistan and Pakistan have received some attention. Similar to the concept of Bridle and Paglen’s work which provides a “drones-eye-view”, the project led by Pakistani and international artists entitled #NotABugSplat shows a portrait of a Pakistani girl on a 60×90′ poster laid on the ground which is visible from way up above. A photo of the installation, taken by a drone camera, was posted on Twitter where it went viral. As in the work of Bridle and Paglen, this view from above making viewers see through the eyes of the drone operator rather than the victim, conveys an urgent sense of accountability for what is being done presumably on our behalf and in our name.
Other productions from Afghanistan and Pakistan point to the significance of art and literature from regions directly affected because they speak to the actual lived experience of drone warfare. For Pashtun women in Afghanistan who sing the folk poetry called “landay”, drones are not only a character or a symbol (they also are that) but a tragedy that is very much real. One mournful verse in “I Am the Beggar of the World”, a collection of landays collected and translated by Elizabeth Griswold reads: “May God destroy your tank and your drone/you who’ve destroyed my village, my home.” Another dirge speaks of the grief of losing a son to a drone strike: “My Nabi was shot down by a drone/ May God destroy your sons, America, you murdered my own.”
In as much as they’ve cut through skies over villages, drones have pervaded the imagination of a wide variety of Afghan and Pakistani artists, from songwriters, to painters and even weavers. Pashto singer Sitara Younis sings: “My gaze is as fatal as a drone attack.” Mahawish Chishty paints lively, colorful drones with traditional folk designs so that they emerge more insect than machine. Mixed-media artist Abdullah M.I. Syed’s installationFlying Rug of Drones uses blades shaped like drones hung together from the ceiling to evoke a tapestry of Orientalist imageries from the magical, the fantastical and the violent. Along with tanks and helicopters, Afghan weavers have incorporated the drone into theirtraditional rugs.
Perhaps least covered in the media are representations of drones from the Arab world, particularly Yemen and Gaza. Being under “the shadow of the drone” emerges as a real threat in Yemen for artists like Murady Subay, who led a street-art campaign called “12 hours” in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital. The art is not intent on imagining the drone as an object or one with a particular vision but rather on depicting the effects on the lived experiences of their targets. For example, the most notable work in the campaign was by Subay himself, whose mural shows a drone hovering over a child that writes on a crumbling wall, “Why did you kill my family?” in English and Arabic. Hadeel al-Muwaffaq piece in Subay’s street-art campaign features the black-and-white yin and yang symbol with a black drone on a white background on one side and a white dove on a black background on the other side.
In 2013, the UK-based organization Reprieve organized a drone poetry contest with a top-prize of $600. The winning poem “Unrhymed Drone” by Ayman Shahari describes life circumscribed by the threat of drones on one side and the force of tyrants on the other: “Below us: A furnace for tyrants / Above us, drones? / The friendly drones, the enemy / Which makes death fall / Overhead / As though we are fields / And death our downpour.” Another artist collective aiming to present the effects of drones on Sanaa’s walls is Yemen Inside Out. Organized by Rooj Alwazir, the collective has plastered the city walls with black-and-white portraits of Yemenis to provide a humanizing counter-narrative to the one that portrays Yemen as a site of terror. It also conveys the perspective of the people below and of the everyday Yeminis at the end of the “drone vision”.
While Gaza is not perceived as a target of drone strikes but rather of drone surveillance, it has been reported that strikes in the strip have involved drones and resulted in a number of deaths. Gaza-born artist Laila Shawa’s London exhibition entitled The Other Side of Paradise featured colorful miniature paintings, kitschy pop art and bejeweled mannequins. It also featured two paintings depicting drones above Gaza. Gaza Sky depicts drones through colorful, comic-like illustrations, with the sound effect “Wham!” visualized. Birds of Paradise shows both birds and drones hovering over a peaceful landscape of lakes and trees with a traditionally clothed person staring above with hands up in the air. Artist Basma Alsharif’s Deep II is a sound piece integrating crowded streets, traffic, flying birds and drones in the sky.