This post was originally written by Nicholas Schmidle in the New Yorker.
Bahia Shehab, a forty-two-year-old street artist, arrived in London on a recent afternoon with a suitcase full of smuggled goods. “The idea of borders is stupid,” she said. Shehab was born in Lebanon, lives in Egypt, and has fifty-six cousins, who represent twelve nationalities. News channels were discussing the possibility of food and medicine shortages in the event of a hard Brexit. The spray paint and the ripe mangoes in her luggage passed unnoticed.
That evening, Shehab attended a dinner party thrown in her honor by Clare Cumberlidge, a contemporary-art curator. Shehab was in the middle of several art projects around England, including a ninety-foot mural that she would be working on the next morning in Lincoln, a university town in the East Midlands that had a sizable pro-Brexit constituency. The mural featured a quotation from the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish: “We will not repent our dreams no matter how often they break.”
“That’s the message these students should be getting,” Cumberlidge told her dinner guests. “That you should be dreaming, despite all the obstacles.”
Shehab and her work came to wide attention during the Arab Spring; while her friends were marching in the streets, she protested by tagging the walls of Cairo with stencilled variations of لا, the Arabic word for “no,” and denunciations of military rule and dictatorship. A particularly potent piece, inspired by news footage of a veiled woman getting stripped to her underwear and kicked by police, featured a turquoise bra below the لا, and, farther down, a bootprint etched with the words “Long live a peaceful revolution.” Shehab gave a ted talk that has been viewed more than a million times.
Shehab stood up at the dinner table and announced that she was heading out after the meal to tag a wall in central London. Did anyone wish to join her? She’d brought special لا stencils, along with site-specific messages in Arabic and English: “No to Borders,” “No to Brexit,” and “No to Boris.” Cumberlidge passed. Only two people, Barbara Schwepcke, a publisher and a co-host of the dinner, and Charlotte Whiting, an archeologist, volunteered.
Suddenly, it began to rain. Shehab winced: rain was bad for wet paint. “It’s just fleeting,” Sukhy Johal, the director of a cultural center in Lincoln, said, consulting a weather app on his phone.
Shehab, who was dressed in a silk blouse with a ruffled neck, excused herself and returned minutes later wearing paint-spattered pants, a pink hoodie, and sneakers—and bearing mangoes for dessert. She said that she wasn’t about to let a trip to London get in the way of peak mango season. “We call them ‘jewels,’ ” she said, halving and peeling the fruit for the other guests.
When the rain let up, Shehab grabbed her shopping bag of spray cans. “Let’s do it,” she said to her accomplices. They drove to Clerkenwell, a trendy neighborhood in central London, and pulled up to a construction site bordered by a high wall more than thirty feet long. “It’s all ours,” Shehab said.
Neither Whiting nor Schwepcke, who had changed out of a batik dress and into a brown fleece, had any graffiti experience. Shehab took a leather portfolio filled with stencils from the trunk and handed out gloves and masks. “Ladies, are you ready?” she asked. She showed them how to press the first stencil—“No to Borders,” in Arabic—against the wall, while she, bare-handed and without a mask, popped the top off a paint can, shook it, and started spraying.
A few stencils later, Shehab, her fingers now black, put down the can, and waited for a double-decker bus to pass. She ran across the street (“Don’t get run over!” Schwepcke yelled) to assess the work. The stencils’ alignment was a bit off, and some of the paint was dripping. Shehab shrugged. “This is street art,” she said. “It’s the anti-perfect.” She was more concerned about running out of paint. “It’s too early for you,” she scolded one empty can, its ball bearing rattling around inside it.
Rubberneckers slowed down to gawk. “I’m not worried about the police, I’m worried about the people,” Shehab said. Once, in Cairo, she got chased away by street thugs.
Clerkenwell was friendlier. A young couple, sidestepping puddles and stencils, walked up. The woman turned to Shehab.
“What made you choose Arabic?” she asked.
“They’re not getting it in English,” Shehab said, smiling. “Maybe they’ll get it in Arabic.”
She added, “I’m from Egypt.”
“I’m from Egypt!” the man said. He was half German, half Egyptian.
“That’s why we love London,” the woman said.
After they exchanged “Ma’assalama”s, Shehab looked pleased. “I fucking love the street,” she said. “You can’t have a conversation like that in a gallery.”
They soon reached the end of the wall. Shehab had run out of space before she ran out of paint. Now they just had to add the English translations, above. “We spray those at the end,” Shehab said. “And then we run.” ♦
Published in the print edition of the September 16, 2019, issue, with the headline “The Anti-Perfect.”