The naked truth about the power of protest today


By Ronda Kaysen

The naked woman in the Washington Square Park fountain turned at least a few heads yesterday. “Stop the War” was painted in red across her backside, down her legs and over her breasts. She had also scrawled something in Arabic that this reporter could not decipher.

Curious tourists craned their necks to get a better look. A few people lounging on the fountain steps applauded lamely. The nude woman, a 47-year-old Syrian artist named Hala Faisal, pumped her fist toward her supporters. She circled the inside of the fountain several times until a police officer approached and asked her to put her clothes back on, which she did without ceremony. She was then led away to a waiting police car and hurried off to the Sixth Precinct.

“What was that all about?” asked a young man waiting in line for a hot dog.

The public disrobing — Faisal’s first foray into civil disobedience since she became a U.S. citizen three months ago — was intended to protest the U.S. war in Iraq and the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

The event lasted less than 10 minutes and attracted the attention of those happening by the park on this hazy Tuesday at noon. Faisal’s one-woman protest begs the question: can a single individual have any influence whatsoever on global politics?

The March-on-Washington format has proven an ineffective strategy against the current administration. Ten million demonstrators marching simultaneously across the globe in 2003 — the largest protest in world history — did nothing to deter the Bush administration from invading Iraq. A week of sustained protests in New York City against the Republican National Convention last summer clearly did not oust George W. Bush from the White House. A friend of mine in Montana had no idea anything had happened here at all. Political organizations have begun to abandon their banners and bullhorns in favor of the Moveon.org Internet model instead.

“I’m suspicious of the march-and-rally syndrome,” Reverend Billy, a political performance artist famous for his Starbucks exorcisms, told me back in November in the days following the 2004 election. “It doesn’t matter how many of us are marching in the streets, that doesn’t change the government, it doesn’t change our lives.”

Onlookers had varying responses to Faisal’s display of skin — some finding it narcissistic and others cheering her on — but all agreed that it was intended to cause a stir. “We need something to wake us up. It’s scary where we’re heading,” said David Kloppenburg, a tourist visiting from Florida.

But within moments of Faisal’s arrest, Washington Square Park had resumed its leisurely pace, with tourists snapping pictures of themselves beneath the arch. “It’s kind of hard to shock people anymore,” shrugged Gregory Keller, a Grove St. resident out walking his dogs.

Despite the brevity and apparent futility of her display, Faisal, whose uncle spent 20 years in prison for speaking out against Syrian president Hafez al-Assad, might be onto something.

Cindy Sheehan, the distraught mother of an American soldier who died in Iraq last year, has been feverishly pacing outside Bush’s Crawford, Tex., ranch all week, waiting for her opportunity to tell the president to end the war. Unknown until this week, Sheehan has found herself a darling of the restless — and bored — Crawford press corps, becoming the subject of a national news story, emboldened by the political blog machine. Sheehan, striking out at a moment when Bush’s approval rating is slumping and support for the war is flagging, has positioned herself as a force to be reckoned with and might signify the beginning of a new antiwar contingent — the grieving mothers and widows of American soldiers.

History is riddled with individual acts of civil disobedience that embody a larger moment in history — Rosa Parks refusing to move to the back of the bus, Quang Duc, the Buddhist monk who in 1963 famously lit himself on fire in Saigon, an image that came to symbolize the Vietnam War.

“Yesterday it was one woman sitting in front of the president’s ranch, today it is one woman taking off her clothes in Washington Square Park, and tomorrow it will be somebody else,” said Daniel Perez, Faisal’s pro-bono lawyer. “Ultimately, it is going to force the Bush administration to cut its losses and get the hell out.”

Individual protest has the added draw of the personal narrative; a human-interest story trumps a small group of anonymous protestors milling about City Hall. Faisal’s one-woman demonstration attracted a dozen reporters, trailing her with their cameras and microphones. “How did all these reporters know this was happening?” asked a confused Orthodox Jewish woman.

Faisal hadn’t intended to go at this alone. She asked other friends to join her, she told me, but no one else was willing to get naked in the name of peace. No one was willing to join her protest clothed, either.

A slight woman with large, almond shaped eyes and a wide smile, Faisal is not new to political turmoil. Her father worked in the Syrian government before Assad came to power in a1971 coup, and she learned quickly to never talk politics on the phone and to beware of the risks of political dissent. In addition to her uncle who spent two decades in Syrian prison for his political opinions, her father was threatened with prison as well. Her mother, a Kurd from Damascus, and her father, a Syrian from Homs, raised her in a secular, progressive home, exposing her to art and music. She speaks five languages, Arabic, Russian, French, German and English.

By the time she was 23, Faisal was a successful actress in Syria, but worried her success might draw unwanted attention from the Assad regime. She left her native country to study art in Russia and France, leaving behind a young son. “If I am in prison, I can’t do anything,” she told me last week, sipping a cup of hot chocolate at French Roast on Sixth Ave.

Faisal has a charisma about her, a certain unexpected boldness. Nicole Kidman was seated at the table beside us while we spoke, and when she rose to leave, Faisal stood up as well. “I am having an opening on Saturday,” she told Kidman, handing the actress a flier for the opening of her art exhibit at the Village Quill Gallery on Franklin St. “Perhaps you would like to come.”

Kidman hesitated, seemingly baffled, and then smiled and took the invitation.

Faisal’s art, symbolic images of nude women, is similar in spirit to her Tuesday noontime protest — raw, exposed and startling. Until this week, she had never been arrested and had never engaged in a political demonstration of any kind.

She has lived in the United States on and off since 1998. What she notices most about Americans is how little they talk about politics. “America is the most powerful country in the world,” she said last week. “Imagine if the people don’t control the politics, then what will happen?”

When I first read about Sheehan, the bereaved mother camped out at Bush’s ranch, I assumed other angry mothers and wives and sisters of American soldiers would join her, that her bravery would launch a movement of its own. But so far, no one has taken up her cause. Like Faisal, alone and naked in the fountain, Sheehan will likely spend August camped out in the Crawford dust alone with only news-hungry reporters to keep her company. And if the current government will not listen to 10 million protesters, why on earth would it listen to one?

In the end, Faisal spent an hour at the precinct and was given a court summons for exposure, a violation akin to a traffic ticket. She had little words for why none of her friends would join her. “Everybody has their own comfort levels in life,” she said speaking to me from her home — she lives in a single-room-occupancy in the West Village — a few hours later. She seemed rattled by the experience. “I was feeling very shocked when they took my hands and put it in the metal things,” she said of the handcuffs. The police officer seated beside her in the patrol car, however, confided that he too opposed the war.