A Year of Arts and Letters: 2018 in Review

Saturday, January 12, 2019

@IbnIbnBattuta's Best Nine of 2018 on Instagram
2018 was an exciting year here at Ibn Ibn Battuta, starting with two more viral Arabic-language videos—the first by my friends at Allaqta ("Americans in Algeria Speaking Arabic") and the second on El Djazairia One television ("People and Stories: 'Foreigners Who Love Algeria' Edition"). I also shared reflections on a weighty trip to the Sahrawi refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria, while delaying many other travel updates until the new year. (Coming soon!) I had great fun compiling a treatise on photography in the modern era, lists of my favorite photography inspirations on Instagram, a rundown of the best Algerian gifts, and (for the fourth consecutive year!) a new Algeria wall calendar.

Far more importantly, I announced the real-world milestone that defined my year: my wedding to the bold and brilliant Nina!

Then there was also the addition of Chorba to our happy little family. And I published photos in a new hotel in Algiers, a photo in a major museum exposition in Vienna, and a translation of a speech by leading Algerian author Kamel Daoud.

But if you read the blog regularly, you already knew all that! Perhaps more interesting is what's happening behind the scenes...

Influences

Throughout these life events and many more I didn't write about, I also continued to hone my philosophy of life. (Yes, I've got a Google Doc for that, and no, I won't share it with you!) But I will tell you one key rule that I settled on this year: Just like it takes money to make money, it helps to consume others' creative outputs if you want to produce your own. Besides feeding my curiosity and desire to learn, bombarding my brain with startling new ideas, with beauty, and with other diverse influences inspires my own creative work.

In practical terms, that meant that, over the past year, whenever I wasn't producing something myself, I tried to make sure I was reading, listening to, observing, or otherwise devouring and pondering others' works on screen, on the page, in galleries, in conversation, or wherever else I could find them.

In a deeply unsettled year in the history of mankind, current events proved a constant distraction, but I did my best to tune out the noise and focus on what mattered—while always sharing the best of the best along the way on Sfarjal. As I did so, I relied more heavily than not on several particular sources of inspiration, the most important of which I've tried to catalog here:

Podcasts became a much more important part of my inspiration regimen in 2018, partly because they freed my eyes and hands to do manual labor while liberating my mind to follow wherever the conversations wandered. My favorites were undoubtedly:
  • Tyler Cowen's unfailingly insightful Conversations with Tyler,
  • Inspirational interviews with entrepreneurs on NPR's How I Built This,
  • New York Magazine's 2038, which challenges brilliant practitioners from varied fields to fimagine the world 20 years in the future, and
  • Slow Burn, which in its first season brought a fresh retelling of the Watergate scandal—insightful and timely for close observers of American politics today.
Music remained a cherished source of new creative influence for me. I spent more time this year exploring music from across the Francophone world, the Nigerian pop scene, Moroccan trap, Sahel Sounds, and random tracks sent by dear friends. I continued to catalog my all-time favorites on a Spotify playlist: Ibn Ibn Battuta's favorites.

Books, I'm ashamed to say, have slipped down my list of influences in recent years, but this year I tried to rekindle the habit. My favorite fiction was Naomi Alderman's gender-bender The Power, a sort of inverse Handmaid's Tale that thrillingly—and very plausibly—exposed humanity's darkest secrets. Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation and Omar El Akkad's American War were also striking.

On the nonfiction side, nothing I've read in years has resonated with me so deeply as Suzy Hansen's Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World. This book is relevant for any global thinker, but holds particularly earth-shaking resonance for a particular subset, namely, my fellow Americans abroad in this post-Cold War, post-9/11 era, especially in the Middle East and North Africa. (It was a 2018 Pulitzer finalist for a reason!) Uncritical blockheads back home tell us that America is the greatest nation on earth, and that this "fact" must never be questioned. But it's a foolish assertion that demands to be questioned, and critical thinkers will find this book an insightful guide in plumbing those murky depths.

Television (of the online variety) has basically replaced movies in my media diet, in part because cinemas are so few and so lousy here in Algiers. Le Bureau des L├ęgendes ("The Bureau" in the English-speaking world), Fauda, Godless, and two masterfully done German shows—Babylon Berlin and Dark—proved highly entertaining. But two modern classics—Black Mirror and The Americans—gave me much more to think about, and Hannah Gadsby's stand-up special Nanette was so poignant and necessary that it just about qualifies as required viewing for humanity.

Articles, particularly of the long-form variety, again formed the backbone of my information diet in 2018. Many focused on new technologies and archaic ideas on the rise, and their combined challenge to established political and economic orders. Among many insightful pieces—the best of which I share all year long at Sfarjal—here are a few that stuck with me:
Social media sucks: Of many long overdue ideas, this one finally penetrated the global zeitgeist in 2018 (rightfully coaxed by Zeynep Tufekci, profiled below). But a few Facebook pages still made something positive of the medium, however broken it may be. My favorites were Gin & Tacos, The Globalist, and Existential Wednesday.

Images of both beauty and significance are hard to come by. And in seeking them, you'd be hard pressed to find better than the artists I highlighted in my June listings of favorite Instagram accounts. But among countless contenders that crossed my field of vision in 2018, to me the year's best photograph was Mustafa Hassouna's shot of a sling-wielding Gazan protester.

Thinkers are fascinating to follow over the long-term in order to absorb and grapple with their thinking while also observing its evolution in response to new stimuli. These are the thinkers I found most thought-provoking in the past year:
  • Tyler Cowen: Ask me "Who is the smartest person alive today?" and I will almost certainly point to Tyler. Just try to find me someone better read, more inquisitive, more current on the most important trends and ideas of the day, and more willing to share them freely. That's why I've followed Tyler closely for over a decade and counting. This year I plunged back into his blog, Marginal Revolution, as well as his podcast, Conversations with Tyler. His new book, Stubborn Attachments, is on my reading list for 2019.
  • Suzy Hansen: See above under "Books".
  • Zeynep Tufekci: This Turkish-born, US-based scholar has been blowing the whistle on social media's destabilizing effects on democracy for years, and finally gained some traction this year. She is an unsung hero and an underappreciated resource for insights on new media in this brave new world. (For an intro, try this article or this TED talk.)
  • Peter Shoemaker: My friend Peter, a writer and futurist by trade, dispenses free wisdom and thought-provoking resources on everything from AI to art and more through his Lodestone email updates. As we rush headlong into a new era in human history, Peter marvels and urges restraint in equal measure.
Ideas are a big part of what I seek from all these sources, and some of the ones I spent the most time pondering in 2018 were:
If you enjoyed this post, consider following Sfarjal to get my recommendations all year long, and follow Ibn Ibn Battuta via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or e-mail. Thank you for reading, and safe travels in 2019.

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